In praise of books, but specially old books

A couple of Fridays ago I was mindlessly leafing through the small collection of science books I have in my office, trying to get pumped up for work (something rather challenging in the mornings, as we all know), when I stumbled upon my very first scientific acquisition: a small, green cloth bound, delightful little book: “Analytic Geometry and Calculus”, by F. S. Woods and F. H. Bailey, Professors Emeritii from the MIT; printed in the 1940s.

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A throng of memories overcame me. This beautifully printed book belonged to my late grandfather, Manuel Buen Abad Meneses, the Fifth of that name; who we endearingly called simply “Abuelo”, a word a thousand times warmer and sweeter to the ear than its English equivalent, “Grandfather”. Grandfather, to foreigners like myself, gives the impression of something bigger, more majestic and gigantic, like another father, but older and far more terrifying. Abuelo, on the other hand, means candies, walks through downtown, museums, and archaeological sites, barbecues in the backyard, endless chatting, anecdotes and history; sweet wines and Christmas’ turkey, songs, and presents. Abuelo has both the comfort of home and the excitement of adventure. We never knew what el Abuelo was going to say during dinner or breakfast, or where he was going to take us to in the afternoon; but we did know it was going to be delicious.

I opened the book and there, in the title page, was his name, written in the austere calligraphy of engineers. My father writes in a similar way (with slightly uglier letters—it’s true, dad), but I, since my elementary school days, decided to write in script. Because I have engineer blood in my veins though, the result of my artistic experiments in the realm of writing only produced a mixed breed, letters with strange curves, impossible shapes and baroque forms. I’m proud of my writing style, but I admit it is as ugly as a kick in the nuggets.

I remember the day el Abuelo gave me this book. We were visiting my grandparents in their house; I was probably in my last year of middle school, or in my first one of high school, and I was chilling on the couch (the old one, not the new) when he approached me. “I want you to have this. This is a book on Calculus” he told me. “I learnt from it”.

Now imagine, if you can, the pimpled face of an extremely nerdy teenager, who attended the Mathematics Olympiad club and was fascinated with science, being presented with the book his grandfather—who was admired thoroughly and without reserve by said teenager—studied to learn Calculus, that mysterious area of math filled to the brim with sensual curvy “S”, and small “dx”‘s dancing in its paragraphs.

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“Calculus is very important”, my Abuelo said. “You can do everything with it. From simple stuff like calculating areas and volumes, to much more advanced applications in science and engineering. I once won a very beautiful dinner set thanks to it”, he said, with a smile.

“How?”, I asked, relishing the prospect of one of his anecdotes. If my Abuelo ever had a vice, it was that of pride. He was proud of his stories, and of his grandchildren—all of us, and he enjoyed putting them together in his storytelling. It gave him immense pleasure.

“Well, once I attended one of the meetings of the Golf Club’s Committee. Some people were trying to maximize profit in one of the Club’s activities, but weren’t unable to figure out how. And then, I stood up and said ‘Why, if it’s just a Calculus problem’ and went straight to them and showed them how with some derivatives we could solve the problem by optimizing the outcome. The Committee was fascinated and as a reward they gave me the spectacular dinner set.”

Of course, I was bewitched. That something so abstract in appearance as Mathematics could translate into something as tangible as the crockery on which you ate your dinners was a hair shorter than magic. I took the book almost with a shudder and that very day I started to study it.

My Abuelo’s house was full with books. That was probably the first thing you’d noticed had you entered his home any day. Books, books everywhere, on all subjects, of all types, from all years. Books on science, on history, on politics, novels of all kinds, books on the folk tales and legends of Mexico, books of countries and museums, books to learn languages; gilded leather bound books, and of course masterpieces of literature (there were at least three or four versions of Don Quijote). Even the gorgeous paintings in the living room were about books: Dante and Virgil in Hell observing a condemned man; or Abraham and Isaac climbing Mount Moriah, Isaac with the heap of firewood on his shoulders, asking a question to his father, while the latter holds a half concealed sacrificial knife…

My grandmother Leticia, which we call Ticha, had her own books too. A trained pianist and a professional opera singer, she collected dozens and dozens of books on music and art (subjects on which she educated my Abuelo; in her own words, she “civilized” him since they married), from biographies of the greatest musicians to histories of art and books on theory of music. Poetry books. Religious books (my Ticha is a devout catholic, and has a very impressive preparation in the subject). Everything.

I mean, my grandfather had a book on the story of the measurement of the meter. That is, a couple of french engineers going from here to there in Europe. Measuring. To get the meter. Written as a sort of thriller.

You can hardly go nerdier than that.

It was Paradise.

The old books at my grandfather’s house were the ones that fascinated me the more. He once showed us, after breakfast, a 19th century book that was an anthology on the poems of Byron to different women, illustrated with engravings. I don’t know where it is, now, but I’ll ask for it next time I go to my Ticha’s.

There was also a book that I used to spy in my Abuelo’s office: “The Franco-German War of 1870-72“, written by none other than von Moltke himself. A beauty on a subject I’m most interested…


I started this post with the idea in my mind of talking generally about books and ended up talking of my Abuelo.

Don’t blame me. I’m slightly too sentimental of a man, and I miss him.

And, come to think about it, he was a book too. Better yet, an old book. My Ticha used to call him “The Encyclopedia of Useless Things“, for his habit of seasoning his conversations with useless yet interesting details about anything and everything.

My Abuelo was an old book. But unlike books, that can stay unused, gathering dust in a corner of the house, my Abuelo was alive, in the fullest sense of the word. He was a Professor of Energy, like the madmen of yesteryear used to say, like Ruben Dario said in his poem. He was Manalive, from Gilbert’s novel. He was a book of stories, made flesh.

I want to live like him, and die like him. Live with a story in my lips and die with an Ave Maria in them too. If I can be a tenth of the man he was, I would still be a good man.

I want to live and die a damn good story.

El Abuelo and my dad.

El Abuelo and my dad.

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Rebellion — an introduction

I don't have imagination

I am nerd. A complete, absolute, full über-nerd. I love learning about everything. I read everything, listen to everything, think about everything. This doesn’t mean I’m smart (hint: I’m most definitely not) but only your typical nerd. It also means I waste a lot of time digging up hidden curiosities in the internet (iconic photographs, WWI poetry, news from Run-II in the LHC, Islamic theology, Westerosi history, obscure blogs on metaphysics…), looking at lists, feeding the insane infatuation I have with some my favorite actresses, learning how to use Mathematica like a pro, or writing useless posts like this one.

Look at her. LOOK. AT. HER.

Look at her. LOOK. AT. HER.

In other words, I’m the full package. Videogames, TV-series? Check. Tolkien, Lewis, Star Wars, Harry Potter, ASOIAF? Check. Indie, hipster movies? Ugh, sadly check. Cynicism, sarcasm, caustic comments? Check. Nerdy comics? Check. Classical music, or perhaps Southern Gothic country music? Check. Science, Math, Philology, Art, History, Philosophy, Religion? Check, check, check, check, and so much check.

I like to always have a book in my hands. I was re-reading for the third time a book on apologetics, “Orthodoxy”, from the massive Chesterton, before re-reading the vampire-history-epistolary novel-travelogue “The Historian” and then a history of the Fall of Constantinople, immediately followed by the popular science book “Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics, by Nobel Prize physicist Martinus Veltman.

I’m saying all of this to put into context the fact that, two weeks ago, I just finished reading another book. On science. For fun. But not science divulgation. Hardcore science. With equations and plots and shit. As you can see, I’m not very well of my head*.

Have you looked at her yet? I SAID LOOK AT HER.

Have you looked at her yet? I SAID LOOK AT HER.

It was the classic “Thermodynamics”, by the great Enrico Fermi. Ahh, nothing sweeter than going back to the basics, to those years of old when you were just starting to learn fundamental physics and were fascinated by the simple yet astonishing truths that pretty little theories such as Classical Thermodynamics explain.

Although a basic book, I learned many interesting things. For example, some of you may know that glaciers (those massive ice conglomerations on top of mountains or at the poles) actually move. Well, it turns out that a combination of the fact that the density of ice is smaller than that of water (something unusual in most substances, but that’s why ice floats!) and the famous Clapeyron’s equation are behind this. Really cool stuff; if one day I write something other than philosophical musings or bad poetry in this blog of mine (like, I don’t know, PHYSICS, MY ACTUAL JOB?) I’d love to talk about this.

In his little book Fermi makes a wonderful job explaining the eternally famous Three Laws of Thermodynamics (the same ones some nutcases try to disprove from time to time). The First Law on energy conservation”. The Second Law, about entropy. The Third Law, about the absolute zero. Some pedantic guys say there’s a Zeroth Law but that’s just wanting to put a fancy name to a definition, in my humble opinion.

Anyway, perhaps the most famous of these is the First, which in layman’s terms states that:

The total energy in an isolated system is conserved.

There. Everyone has heard about this law, in one version or another, maybe in its form “Energy isn’t created or destroyed, it only gets transformed”. You see this every day: the Sun’s energy, which is light, gets transformed into heat; plants also transform light into their “food” (chemical energy) which animals eat and then transform into kinetic motion, heat and famous deeds like going to war or making babies, etc. etc.

But by far, the one that more captivates people’s minds is the Second Law which, in its most common formulation, states that:

The total entropy in an isolated system either increases or stays the same.

It is the subject of this post to deepen a little bit about this law and, in subsequent posts, to discuss what philosophical conclusions (if any) we can extract out of it. In particular, in a series of three posts, of which this is the first instance, I’ll discuss that shiny little word that crowns the present text and that modern culture, in its tireless effort to make everything boring, pitiful, and generally shitty, has misused so often it’s just not funny anymore.

So brace yourselves, another of Manuel’s famous rants is coming.


I’d like to start with the (not very intuitive) thermodynamic definition of entropy, in its PG-13 version:

Entropy is a property of a system of which only changes matter.
The change in the entropy of a system is the amount of heat per unit temperature that the system absorbs:

change in entropy = heat absorbed divided by temperature, or mathematically,

ΔS = Q/T,

where ‘Δ (read delta) means change, ‘S’ means entropy (because its inventor, Rudolf Clausius, decided to honor the engineer Sadi Carnot, whose books Clausius had been studying for over 15 years), ‘Q’ means heat (maybe because it has the same “sound” as ‘c’, as in “caloris”, which is latin for heat, and people alread used ‘c’ for constants), ‘T’ means temperature and ‘/’ means divided. The temperature is actually the absolute temperature and is measured in Kelvins; absolute temperatures are called like that because they’re always positive. Thus, 27 Celsius, which in the primitive usage of the americans are 80 Fahrenheit, is equivalent to 300 Kelvins. Here’s a nice interactive webpage to make temperature conversions. Reaumur and Rankine are other weirdo temperature units that some pedantic bastards wanted to use. No one really cares about them.

Clausius, a.k.a. "Lincoln is pissed".

Clausius, a.k.a. “Lincoln is pissed”.

In summary: never mind (for now) what entropy actually measures, what matters are the changes in it, and these changes are related to how much heat an object with a certain temperature absorbs. Those of you my two readers that already know some thermodynamics will of course understand my reluctance at writing the precise mathematical definitions (differentials, reversibility, integrals and such); I don’t want to complicate things, and it’s not the purpose of this post to give a lecture.

Carnot, in his good-boy-from-the-Ecole-Polythechnique uniform.

Carnot, in his good-boy-from-the-Ecole-Polythechnique uniform.

Now, I want to make the distinction between heat and temperature. Heat is the amount of energy that “flows” from one object to another, in a disordered way. That is, not by pushing, pulling, punching or biting (energy transfer by these mechanisms is called work), all of which involve energy being added or extracted in an orderly fashion, via applied forces. For example, when you rub yourself against another body, energy in the form of heat gets transferred via friction, by contact with it/him/her. Temperature, on the other hand, is a measure of the average energy that an object already has. Something that has a lot of energy in it is called hot (it has a large temperature), something that doesn’t posses as much energy is called cold (low temperature). Then, temperature is owned by an object, whereas heat is not: heat is only given or taken, surrendered or absorbed.

With this in mind, let us think of an experiment to confirm the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Imagine I have two systems (for example, two gases), A and B, with temperatures TA and TB, TA being colder than TB: TA<TB (‘<‘ means “smaller than”, while ‘>’ means “greater than” §). A and B are isolated systems, that is, they don’t exchange energy with their environment or with each other, in any way. This can be approximately achieved by enclosing each system with very thick, solid, insulating walls. Wood is really good at this, and some types of plastic too. If you have ever touched a pan on a stove you know metals don’t work. The configuration is labeled “before” in the following picture:

Doodles_01

Two isolated systems, A and B, one colder than the other, enter into contact to give a new system C, with a temperature between the previous two.

Now, imagine my two systems, which in the picture are represented by boxes, sharing an insulating wall that is movable. If I now retrieve the shared wall I’m allowing the two systems to be in contact. Then, the hotter system, B, is going to spontaneously give up some energy to the colder system A in the form of heat Q, and A is going to absorb that same heat.

At the end of the process I’m gonna end up with a system C, composed of the systems A and B put together, at a temperature TC that is in between TA and TC: TA<TC<TB. This is labeled “after” in the picture.

If I use the formula for the change of entropy we discussed above, I can now write:

ΔSA ≈ Q/TA,
ΔSB ≈ – Q/TB;

where I’m calling SA and SB the entropy of the systems A and B respectively. A few words of caution. Notice that there is a negative sign ‘-‘ in the heat for the equation of the entropy SB. The reason is that I called Q the heat absorbed by A; but B does not absorb heat, it gives it up (to A), which is the opposite (negative) of absorbing. Therefore the change in the entropy of B is negative (the entropy decreased) but that of A is positive (its entropy increased).

Then, the total change of entropy is given by:

ΔSC = ΔSA + ΔSB ≈ Q/TA – Q/TB,

where I’m calling ΔSC the total change in the entropy of by two-system configuration. Notice that, because TA<TB then 1/TA > 1/TB (try it by putting some numbers!) and therefore Q/TA – Q/TB > 0 !!! The total entropy has increased! The Second Law holds!

Those of you who are have read until here without setting your computer on fire and that have been paying attention would have noticed that I used the “squiggly” equality sign ‘≈’ in the equations above. This is because I have been somewhat sloppy. Indeed, the temperatures of A and B do not remain constant when I lift the shared wall and allow the systems to be in contact: they change! The temperature of A, TA, increases until it reaches TC, while the temperature TB decreases to TC. In this way, both A and B now form a whole new system C with a new temperature TC.

But my imprecision doesn’t matter, because the conclusion stays the same. Even though TA and TB are changing, TA is always smaller than TB during the whole process, until the very end when they are both equal to TC; and thus Q/TA is always bigger than Q/TB during the whole process, thus keeping ΔSC > 0, that is, the total entropy still increases.

Of course, if I had started with my systems A and B at the same temperature then, after removing the wall, nothing would have happened and I would have TA = TB = TC. Therefore, from the above equation, ΔSC = 0. This is precisely what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says: in an isolated system (C, which is A and B together) the entropy either increases or stays the same.

Awesome! Physics! So sexy!

But… what does this have to do with anything? Where’s the philosophy, where’s the rebellion? Where, O Manuel, are those outrageously wonderful statements from your “brilliant” mind, that appear to be the result of too much free time in your hands and a more than liberal consumption of plants of dubious legal status?

For that, my dear people, we need the help of another historical character, one most famous (among scientists): Ludwig Boltzmann.

I can’t stop praising the genius of this guy. Really, he was brilliant. Just look at him. A bearded nerd, so handsome.

I wish I could grow a beard like that :(

I wish I could grow a beard like that.

Many things carry the name of this austrian physicist. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution for the velocities of particles in a gas, which comes from the Maxwell-Boltzmann version of Statistical Mechanics; the Boltzmann equation for the dynamics of thermodynamic fluids, the Boltzmann Energy Equipartition Theorem, the Stefan-Boltzmann law for black bodies… here’s a more complete list in case you’re curious. As you can see, I love the guy.

But right now I’m concerned with his Boltzmann equation for the entropy of a system:

S = k Log W,

where S is the entropy of the system under consideration, k is just a constant number called… the Boltzmann constant, Log is something called the Logarithmic function and W is called the number of microstates of a system. I’ll explain this in a second.

This equation is so important and is of such great relevance that careers are built around it, money is gained, fame is obtained, and hot mexican guys write blog posts about it. It is also written on Boltzmann’s tomb.

You can see the equation for the entropy engraved at the top of Boltzmann's grave.

You can see the equation for the entropy engraved at the top of Boltzmann’s grave.

The story of Boltzmann’s death is a sad one. He was a staunch supporter of the atomic theory: that everything we see is made of atoms. We now know he was right, but in his time there was little evidence (although in my opinion compelling) of the existence of atoms and thus many, many people mocked him; among them various famous positivist philosophers, like Ernst Mach.

He apparently suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and used to fall in periods of depression, some say enhanced in frequency and strength by the continuous ridicule of which his colleagues made him subject.

One day it was too much. He hang himself in Trieste, Italy, on September 5, 1906.

As usual, philosophers ruining lives.

But let us honor Boltzmann’s memory by discussing his work. As I said above, he discovered a formula for the entropy of a system. In order to understand it, I want to explain what a logarithm (Log) is, and what a microstate is.

First, Log is simply the number of times you have to multiply a special number called ‘e’ and equal to e = 2.718… to get another one. Never mind what’s so special about it; it’s sort of like the less famous cousin of π = 3.14159…. Thus, for example, Log of 7.389… is 2, because e × e =7.389…. Log of 20.085… is 3 because e × e × e = 20.085…, and so on. You can also calculate the Log of numbers that are not the result of an integer number of e multiplications. For example, the Log of 10 is between 2 and 3, because Log 20.085 = 3, while Log 7.389 = 2. If you go to Wolfram Alpha (something you should do often) and type Log 10 you’ll get something close to 2.3 . What you should take home with you is that, the larger the number, the larger its Log. Easy.

Now, what is a microstate? It is the configuration of all the parts that make up a system, that is, all the information about the components that make it. For example, if my system is made of a single particle I need to say where it is, if it’s moving or not, how fast and in what direction, what’s its mass, if it has any electric charge, etc. If I have two particles I need to give the same information for the two of them and, in addition, if there are any interactions between them.

As we all know and Boltzmann believed, everything is made of small particles called atoms (which in turn are made up of more stuff, but we don’t care about that now); if we could count all the atoms of a system, say of my little finger, and give all the information about them, then we would have described one possible microstate of the system.

But actually, that is being too meticulous. Most systems do not care if their parts are in this or that microstate: they look exactly the same. In the case of my little finger, if I move it to the right, to the left, in circles or just leave it on the table, the atoms that compose it have different positions, velocities and orientations (and let’s not forget the electrons within those atoms are always moving!), and yet my little finger still looks the same. This is called a macrostate. A single macrostate can be reproduced by many microstates, whose number we call W. Allow me to illustrate with another experiment.

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Two macrostate configurations of a system. The one with more possible microstates is the one with higher entropy. Click to enlarge.

In the picture to the left I start with a very simple system, composed of 8 cells divided into two regions, left and right, and with 4 identical red balls and 4 identical blue balls.

In the top figure, I have one particular microstate: the red and blue balls are arranged in one specific way. This microstate in particular is giving rise to the macrostate in which the left side of the system has only red balls while the right side has blue balls.

By changing the position of my balls (stop giggling, you filthy teenager) I can arrive at different microstates. But because all the red balls look the same and so do all the blue ones, there’s actually only one microstate that gives me the system with all the red balls to the left and all the blue ones to the right, and it is the one pictured. We say that the shown macrostate of my system has only one possible microstate. Notice how neat this macrostate looks, very well arranged. Ordered.

Now, in the lower figure I’ve rearranged the balls, 2 blue and 2 red in each side. I can rearrange the balls again, within each side, to give a different microstate, but I would still get the same macrostate: namely, the one with 2 red and 2 blue balls to the left, and 2 red and 2 blue ones to the right.

If I exchange identical red balls I still get the same microstate, because the configuration is exactly the same. If I exchange a red ball on the left with a blue ball on the right I do get a different microstate, but also a different macrostate: one with more blue balls on one side than in the other.

If you count them, there are 6 possible configurations that I can have in each side that still gives me the same macrostate (for your convenience listed in the picture). Therefore, because I have two sides, I end up with 6 × 6 = 36 different microstates that give the very same macrostate: 2 blue and 2 red balls on each side. Notice how messy this macrostate is, with the balls all mixed up. It is disordered.

In summary, we have W = 1 microstates for the well-ordered macrostate with red balls to the left and blue balls to the right, whereas we have W = 36 microstates for the disordered macrostate with equal numbers of red and blue balls in each side.

Usually, real life systems posses more than 100,000’000,000’000,000’000,000 particles (that’s a 1 with twenty-three 0s) and so the number of microstates that a given macrostate can have is obscenely huge, but still the same idea I just explained applies.

And, according to Boltzmann’s equation for the entropy and what we learned from logarithms, the larger the number of microstates W a system has, the larger its entropy is. But, as we have seen, the larger W is then the messier, more disordered a system is.

Therefore, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy always increases (or stays the same), can be translated into our new language as:

A system tends to go to the macrostate with a larger number of microstates.
or
A system tends towards disorder.

If you want me to make this clearer, I’ll ask you to go to the kitchen, take an egg, and let it roll towards the edge of the table. Something like this might happen:

Entropy is such a pain in the ass.

Entropy is such a pain in the ass when it comes to cleaning.

Now, please wait until the egg, spontaneously, rearranges itself to its previous, unbroken state. Just a warning: it might take a while.

What just happened can be explained in the language of macrostates and microstates. There are many microstates in which an egg is unbroken: you could put it here or there, you can shake it up, the yolk inside might be in this orientation or that, whatever. All these microstates give the same macrostate: an unbroken egg. But there are many, many more microstates for a broken egg: the egg white could splash all of your kitchen while the yolk end up close to the fridge, the shell can be broken in two, five or a thousand different pieces, and each could have almost any shape… and every single one of these microstates yield the same macrostate: a broken egg. Therefore a broken egg, having a larger number of microstates W, has a larger entropy S and thus is messier. And because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that systems tend to increase their entropy and not to decrease it, we can conclude that unbroken eggs tend to break, and not the other way around.

In other words, we can rewrite the Second Law of Thermodynamics as follows:

EVERYTHING GOES TO SHIT.

This is the terrible truth. Nature tends to thwart all of our attempts at order and organization. She tends to destroy.

Of course, I know I’m being somewhat careless with my examples and thought experiments. Those of you with some wits about yourselves might argue that this law applies only to isolated systems, and you will be right. The Earth of course, is not an isolated system (there’s the Sun out there, giving up heat to us), and thus we can expect entropy to have its weird moments and actually decrease. This is true, and that’s the reason why we can do anything at all! That’s why we can take disordered, scattered materials on the Earth’s surface and make order out of them by building houses and computers, brewing and drinking beer, writing poetry, and making great movies. We can diminish entropy. We can fight.

But only locally. Only temporarily. Because, as we saw in the experiment of the boxes of gas, you’re allowed to have a part of your system to decrease its entropy as long as another part increases its own, and by a larger amount. Entropy ends up winning. And it takes everything with it ¶.

Allow me then to conclude. What I want you to get out of this freakishly long post is, among other things, that Paolo Coelho is an idiot, and that he would love nothing more than you buying his feel-good, pat-in-the-shoulder nonsensical books. He famously wrote “When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make it happen” ‡. Bullshit. The Universe wants to screw you over. Everything works against you, in an unending sequence of senseless waste. Disorder and Death rule the world. And nothing can escape from Them.

But the intention of this blog entry was to be more an excuse to talk about science and to present a tiny aspect of how messed up the Universe can be than anything else. As its title say, this post is simply an introduction, a motivation for what is to come, something bigger and monstrous that I want to discuss.

For there is something worse than an Universe with an ever-increasing entropy. Something that can chill you to the bone and make you go mad, madder than anything else. For Disorder has a Father, a cruel ghost whose empty sockets and sewn mouth see nothing and say nothing. There’s something worse than a corpse. And its name is the Absurd.

And this is what I want to talk about next time.


* While this is undoubtly true, I still find funny that the average person’s bookshelf contains novels, biographies or even monographies about art but hardly a book of science, even though its pursue is one of the most defining characteristics of humanity. My undergrad adviser, the mythical Fefo, used to tell me how his artists/writers friends invariably congratulated him on his possession of some obscure book about art or literature but, when he asked them if they had read any book on science, they would look away. People should read science. Period. Also, this is a very long annotation/asterisk. I should stop.

§ Am I being too anal? I am being too anal, am I not? I’m sure I am.

At this point, a very interesting question can be asked: what’s the entropy of the whole Universe? Is it increasing? People have been tempted to answer affirmatively, saying that a (finite) Universe ought to be isolated (well, because the Universe is everything there is!) and thus the Second Law should apply. The answer is much more complicated than that. Scientists have called into question the application of elementary thermodynamics to the whole Universe, doubting a meaningful definition of entropy for the Universe even exists. Also, for scales as big as those of the Universe gravity becomes crucial and no one actually knows what the “entropy of gravity” is, or if there’s anything like that at all. There’s currently a lot of exciting theories that discuss these issues, and black holes seem to play a very important role. For some babies-level review on this, look here. Incidentally, the increase of entropy seems to give a direction to time. This is called the Arrow of Time. You can find some new discussions and radical ideas about it and its relation to Quantum Mechanics in a non-technical article here. There’s much more information about this interesting topic everywhere in the internet, look for it! In any case, I’m not aware of any indication whatsoever of things looking any better for us, at least in our local patch of the Universe. Stuff does seem to become more and more disordered: objects give up heat and are rendered unusable for work, stars run out of gas, people, in spite of our best efforts, grow old and die; etc.

Here. Read and laugh.

Passerby

He had one leg.

My head had been full of poetry, art, and lofty ideals the whole morning, and I was in that state of fake joy that irremediably comes after a good lunch, a good book and a good morning, the one that vanishes quickly at the first blow from the real world, which usually comes after a couple of days of daydreaming. I was relishing the prospect of an afternoon of leisure, when I was finally gonna write what I had wanted to write for some time now; my manifesto, as I secretly (and rather pedantically) called it.

But not this time. This time all that joie de vivre was going to vanish in record time.

For, you see, he had one leg.

__________________________________________

Trinity Sunday, complete with that funny joke during the homily that I had heard before, exactly one year ago: “I remember our professor in the seminary,” Father was saying, “‘Once you’re priests, you’re gonna have to say a sermon during the Feast of the Trinity’ he told us, young novices. ‘If you preach for more than five minutes you should stop. Chances are you’re already preaching heresy'”. Everyone laughs.

Going back to the Tridentine Mass after months away from it was magnificent. Nothing like incense, gregorian chant, mantillas framing beautiful faces and lots of wimpy, loudly crying children from large families to make you love life again. Oh, and throwing away all that crap you’ve been carrying around for weeks, too. Truly invigorating.

After the Sacrifice and in a whim, I walked a different path than usual and stumbled upon the annual greek festival at the Orthodox church around the corner. So it truly has been a year now, I told myself. I wonder if they’ll recognize me. Of course I went in. Who can say no to greek delicacies? Thankfully it seemed that none remembered me and so I decided to treat myself and have my fill of that tasty food of unpronounceable names. Stay clear of the ouzo, I thought, wisely.

It is strange, how repeating experiences can be so different. Like a half-baked déjà vu. The locale was the same, the food was the same, and those in charge of it too, but something felt out of place. The day was gray instead of bright, the musicians weren’t there yet and the church itself was closed, so no kissing of icons this time. I was missing people. Different times, different company. Different everything.

To avoid brooding (something on which I’ve become somewhat of an expert) I went inside and asked for an espresso. Greek style. I ended up chatting with the ladies pouring the coffee, delicious thick accents tickling my ears that forced me to lean forward and struggle with the throng of words rushing out of those mediterranean mouths. We talked about friends, and Crete, and moms and their particular styles of upbringing. “I grew up in a farm”, one of them said. “Mom used to call me ‘donkey’ whenever I was doing something bad, and slap me in the hand”. “Latino moms do the same” I said, laughing as I remembered “el cinto”, and we high-fived.

“It’s been five years since I left Greece”, and a sad smile told me of countless stories of home, filled with the smell of the sea.

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I sat by Copley Square, with birds and trees and concrete for company and tourists walking from here to there, taking selfies, speaking all kinds of languages and laughing in one. And opened my quarterly and read a story of loss and love and death, and how someone can be Home. A real tearjerker, but an honest one. Dammit.

Next an essay about poets and how to think like one. Apparently you must first observe the world. Don’t worry about getting it right. Just see. So I did, but a male pigeon was trying to seduce a damsel bird, puffing up and chasing her unsuccessfully all over the park, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Typical pigeon, I told myself, and again I had to think of something else. Sometimes observing is a little too much to ask.

 It started to rain.

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It struck me in a particularly powerful way, I don’t know why. I had seen cripples before, obviously, but something was different this time. Moments before I had been walking my way through the moving maze of bodies and faces that come in and out of Park Street Station, looking at this or that pretty girl as I happily hummed a tune I can’t remember now; and all of a sudden, just downstairs by the metro Red Line, he was there.

On a wheelchair, with a microphone attached to it and close to his mouth, a guitar in his hands, a bucket of sorts near his foot, which rested clumsily on a tambourine. Sporting a baseball cap, a grey old t-shirt, and with only one leg. He probably wasn’t even fifty.

“My mom, your grandma, always gives money to musicians.”, I remembered dad telling me once, long ago. “She says they’re her colleagues.” So I unplugged myself from my earphones, I followed grandma’s example, nodded at a barely muttered “thank you” and I leaned against a brick pillar, to listen. As if I had earned the right to.

He started to play. A simple, nice rock ballad, accompanied by a voice that at times went off-key but that was true and honest and brave.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn…

Maybe he was a veteran? Had he “served his time in hell”? Had he seen war up close, what man can do to man? Did he lose part of him there? Did he believe what he fought for? And is this how his country repays him? Nobody hires a cripple.

And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn.

Maybe he had an accident, Perhaps, a blue collar worker, he lost his leg in an accident. Perhaps he had an accident.

A beautiful blonde woman came to him and put some money in the bucket and a smile on her face. She didn’t stay.

Nobody wants to blow,
Nobody wants to be left out, uh-huh.

Or maybe he caught a sickness. Maybe he caught a terrible sickness, and they chopped his leg off. Better crippled than dead, isn’t it?

You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there
But, sure, you can’t stay ‘cause you been somewhere else.

I was staring. I could spy his gaze, directed at me every couple of verses or so. But I couldn’t help staring. He was focused in his singing. Was he annoyed? By some random guy looking at him fascinated by him, watching him pull notes from his guitar and words from his strained voice? Was he angry? Hardened by day after day, maybe year after year of passersby pretending not to see him, not to hear him, hurrying away from his presence, like people fleeing a leper.

You can’t cry ‘cause you’ll look broke down;
But you’re cryin’ anyway ‘cause you’re all broke down.

Or was he embarrassed? By the little money I gave him? By his not-so-great musical abilities? And if that was the case, why was I blushing? Why was I reddening, suddenly looking at the floor or at the ceiling, away from him and from that pair of healthy, fancily dressed legs that hold me in my place, that were just starting to shake as if, ashamed, wanted to leave me?

It’s a family affair,
It’s a family affair.
It’s a family affair,
It’s a family affair.

The last verse he sang it in a powerful voice, with a terrible cry, a cry that refused your pity, if you were insolent enough to offer it: he was no beggar, but an artist. His eyes shut, his lips so close to the microphone they kissed it. He cleaned it afterwards with his hand.

A gust of wind indicated that my train had arrived. I walked towards it—for, you see, I have two legs—and entered the car.

I turned around a couple of times; lost to my sight because of the crowd, I couldn’t hear if he had started to sing again or not.

I wish I had thanked him.

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso OSA298

Otherness and Longing

A lot of stuff has been going on with me lately. So instead of doing the usual (writing about it here or somewhere else) I’ll devote this post to an entirely different thing. Maybe later, when everything has settled down, I’ll put it down in writing.

And so, instead of boring y’all with my thoughts (or making you laugh, depending on how much you care about the idiotic rants coming from a young adult’s brain) I’d like to write a little bit about some ideas I’ve “discovered” last year. And by discovered I mean they’re new to me, but old to the world. The story of such finding is worthy of a post of its own, for it is tied with one of the happiest moments of my life, and another discovery, that of a beautiful soul. But allow me to postpone such a story for happier times and instead focus on the ideas themselves.

Many of them have actually been discussed already in the blog of my (unilateral) buddy Marc Barnes, which you should totally, absolutely, what-the-heck-are-you-waiting-for check right now. He’s an inspiration and a really clever guy, and his insightful posts remind everyone of another really awesome writer whom you should know (seriously, stop reading this and go and get yourself some of his books), only younger, slimmer and on twitter. Total man-crush here.

Marc Barnes

Marc. Gotta love that smile.

So, without further ado, let me start.

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Unless you live in a cave in the wild (with, somehow, internet access and enough free time to check ridiculous blogs such as this one) you’ve probably heard of museums and some of their artistic treasures. It is safe to assume you’ve also heard about bigotry and past or present crimes committed against this or that group of people. And you also might have someone in your life you care about. Someone you like, someone whose company you enjoy, maybe someone you love.

All of these seemingly unrelated things have something in common that is their raison d’être, and what ultimately lies at the bottom of the reactions they awake in the person who experiences them. They possess what some people (philosophers and other vermin (I’m joking)) like to call Otherness, that is, the quality of being different or alien to what an observer thinks of as the Self.

Indeed, human experience, as wonderful as it is, is cripplingly restricted by the characteristic of being absolutely personal, subjective. We experience the world and those who inhabit it as outside of ourselves. Our senses are but small windows to that Universe that surrounds us, an Universe that is unknowable in the strictest sense of the word. For, as your average skeptic friend can tell you, we can never be objectively sure that we’re not the only ones in this Universe. That everything we see, smell, touch, hear or taste is an illusion, a creation of our minds. Countless trees (or the illusion of trees, maybe?) have been slaughtered and gone into pages and pages describing the madness-inducing consequences of this ideology, which by the way is the only kind of skepticism thorough and fully committed to its spirit and thus the only one worth a damn.

I will not discuss this particular philosophy (or un-philosophy, for by its etymology philosophy is the love of wisdom, whereas this repulsive idea is nothing but a complete agnosticism on the objective existence of any wisdom or knowledge whatsoever); for that I’ll refer the reader to the first chapters of Chesterton’s magnificent book Orthodoxy. Spoiler alert: those that truly believe in this skepticism are no different than that insane fellow that believes himself the center of a world-wide conspiracy. He sees in the most innocent of his neighbors’ gestures yet another proof of his madness, be it cutting the grass of their front yard or saying “hello” with that diabolical, plot-making smile of theirs. I will rather use this extremist ideology to further press my point: all experience is subjective (which, I stress once again, doesn’t make it unreal or illusory).

But of course, we’re all aware of that. What I mean by this is that I expect that not a single one of my two bored readers will claim that he or she has been able to live another’s life. And I’m not talking about reincarnation, but about being able, here and now, to fully and completely live life as the person right next to him or her. Therefore, I claim, everything that surrounds us is fully Another, something or someone that is completely not-Ourselves.

And yet, most of us live our lives without the thought of it ever crossing our minds. We wake up, drink our coffee, take our morning trip to the potty (or the other way around, depending on your daily routine), go about our businesses and return home without worrying about the philosophical implications that the distinction between the Self and the Other means. And we’re not to blame, because most of the time the effects of such a distinction are barely felt. The laptop I’m writing this post on, the photons that are coming into my eyes and exciting my vision cells, the air I’m breathing, the bartender that sold me that tasty pint of trappist beer a couple of hours ago are all Others, and I didn’t bat an eye. None truly does.

Until they do.

Because in everyone’s life there comes a moment when the presence of Another, of something or someone utterly not-Us makes itself so clear, so painfully obvious that we cannot ignore the fact anymore. We’re trapped in It, puzzled by It, we want to know what It means. The Other makes itself present, and its weight is crushing, overwhelming, abrasive. It demands our most absolute attention. And it can produce in us one of two feelings, or maybe a strange mixture of both: Fear or Longing.

Indeed, we can define the Self in a broader way than that of the individual, as sociologists do. That’s how nations come into being. People distinguish between Us and Them, and borders are drawn, treaties are created, trading takes place, wars are declared. What do some american and european conservatives (or almost any nationalist group), with their immigrant-hating rhetoric; and terrorists groups such as ISIS have in common? A fear, recognized or not, of the Other. A sense of urgency before the threat, imagined or otherwise, that a group of people different from their own represents to their oh-so-wonderful societies. The nationalist considers anything that differs from their idea of a citizen (a member of their nation) as an inferior, in the best of cases, or as an enemy in the worst, deserving of being fought or expelled from their land. The ISIS terrorist wants to get rid of anything dissimilar to their own distorted idea of a perfect society. They regard everyone not pertaining to their homogeneous, monstrous ummah as enemies and therefore subject to death. Even muslims that do not subscribe to ISIS’ definition of Self are persecuted and killed on the spot, needless to say christians and yazidis that refuse to integrate to their blood-thirsty nation, within the boundaries they define on said integration. Fear of the Other is also behin all persecutions that we have ever engaged in: from slavery to xenophobia, from racism to the hating of homosexuals. Fear, then, is one of the reactions we can have when the overwhelming presence of the Other makes itself evident. But, thankfully, I am not concerned with such disgusting feelings in this post. Fear is of no interest to me today. Today, I care about something else.

The experience that the museum visitor has when admiring a powerful painting or an exquisite sculpture, or when someone is enraptured by the passion of a piece of music or dance performance; in other words that overwhelming captivation by the Beautiful, is nothing else but the recognition that there’s something outside of the Self, something Other than Us that deserves our fascination.

degas5

Those of you who have a favorite book, like an old friend that you like to visit from time to time, that either makes you laugh or cry or think or all of them at once; those, I said, will understand what I mean. We read and re-read this book, and each time we discover something new, something we missed, or a different way to think about this character or that event. We recreate a scene in our heads, and we enjoy exploring it again and again, never getting enough of it. When we’re passionate about a painting, we can spend hours studying it, analyzing this stroke of the brush, that combination of colors and forms, trying to absorb it, to embrace it all, to understand, without ever being able to fully achieve that goal. We can repeat the same dancing routine many times and we can discover new things about ourselves and the dance itself in each repetition, and yet we’ll never be able to fully finish it, to completely explore every single possibility, every angle of our hands, head or feet, every possible sensation. No one can honestly said he has gotten all there is to get from one of Shakespeare’s plays or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. People spend their entire lives studying them and they’re no closer to finding an ultimate answer to all the questions that can be asked about them than when they started. The same can be said of the scientist that truly loves her trade. Truth is her only purpose, and yet she never gets enough of it. Every new discovery only exacerbates her thirst for more of that same Truth. We are never satisfied. We want more of it, we yearn for these Others, we long for Them. In a new sense of the word, we want to be Them, to experience existence the way They do, for maybe then we’re gonna find an end to our burning desire to understand Them.

Of course, there are distortions of this feeling of Longing, depraved ways in which we can act when confronted with such powerful emotions. For example obsession, that disordered feeling in which he who longs desperately tries to own the object of his longing, performing unhealthy, creepy actions that might hint to a mental problem (I once met a guy that used to hoard his girlfriend’s trash, like potato chips’ bags and such). Or the social phenomenon known as cultural appropriation, that can reach extremes that, even though originally well-intended, can be rather insulting. But I am not interested in discussing such perversions. What I’m concerned with in this post is that powerful, all-consuming need of understanding the object of the longing, of getting more of it, of re-discovering its qualities.

Never is this more evident than in the ridiculous, powerful and always maddening adventure of being in love. Then it is painfully clear what this longing for the Other is. Bewitched by our beloved’s eyes, we stare at her for minutes without end; breath is taken away at the strange, fascinating touch of her hand; we gaze upon her lips or that beautiful curve of her body or that lock of hair, and study them over and over and over again, absorbing it all, feeling it all and yet not getting any closer to fully embracing her all. We try to memorize each particularity of her skin, of her smell or of the sounds her steps make and yet, every single time, that pretty mole we thought we knew presents itself under a different light, that perfume so well-known to us has an altogether new fragrance and those steps surprise us again with their musicality. We never get tired of her. We want to listen to her interests, her fears, her aspirations, her ideas, her feelings. We try to read her mind, to understand. We never get tired of exploring our beloved.

This romantic longing reaches its more intense form of expression in the act of making love. All that kissing and touching, that burning need to continually embrace and remain embraced by the other, they are but the physical embodiment of that hunger to be one, the only way in which a complete encompassing of the meaning of the beloved’s existence could possibly happen. The striking similarity between the facial expressions of pain and of pleasure, as well as the sounds involved (sighs, moans, groans) can, in a very literal sense, be understood under the premise that the body itself knows such a perfect union to be impossible. In other words, through the most intense pleasure our bodies become aware of the painful reality: complete union, absolute satisfaction of such a longing for the Other, is impossible.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini. The only way the Master could have represented the powerful, mystical rapture of the Divine was through something as powerful as humanely possible: orgasm.

“Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”, by Bernini. The only way the Master could represent the powerful, painful, mystical rapture by the Divine that St. Teresa experienced was through something as powerful as humanely possible: pleasure; more concretely, sexual pleasure. By the way, this is inside a church.

And that’s what’s ultimately crazy and horrible and absurd about this world. That all the longing and desire appear to be completely pointless. For we and our loved ones are utterly different, Others to each other. We can never, ever understand them, feel them, know them, experience life as they do, be them. Our most desperate, powerful and heart-wrenching desires are doomed to pass unsatisfied while we live. And, to some of us, that idea is simply unbearable. The fact that, despite all of your efforts and all of your attempts you will never be closer to solving the mystery that the existence of a loved one represents, that you will never get to truly know her, is a horrible one, enough to put us in an asylum.

And so, people have come to develop different reactions before such an absurdity. The easiest, cleanest one is suicide. Killing Oneself is apparently the only way in which we can close our eyes to the reality of the Other and our hearts to the pain of Longing. But that is hardly a solution. It’s a cowardly way to react, a betrayal to Life, a slight to the whole Universe, an insult to the tiniest of flowers. Again, Chesterton is the true master in the matter; I refer to his previously mentioned book.

Another way to react (perhaps the most common) is shunning oneself from the external world. To avoid acknowledging the existence of the Other or, at least, its importance. If we can live a life without any meaningful relationships (to art, Beauty, Truth and other people), then we are safe… aren’t we?

Maybe. But then life becomes miserable if we cannot stop thinking about the conundrum Otherness imposes on us. And one good day (or bad day) Option #1 becomes very, very alluring.

The third way is the most difficult one. It’s the one that turns the question over.

Indeed, this world seems absurd, with all its unsatisfying experiences, all that Longing, that fire that keeps burning inside of us without consuming.

But maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe we’re meant to burn with Longing while in this world, and do something with this fire. Maybe this thirst, this horrible craving points towards Something else, or Someone else, Another that fully can satisfy us. We long for Truth, for Good, for Beauty. We long for Perfection. We seek it in art, in science, in a beloved. The mere existence of such an intense desire would be paradoxical and utterly absurd if that were the whole story.

But it isn’t. And in the meantime, that fire has a purpose. As Blessed Mother Teresa put it:

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

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That was a rather long post. So, if you’re still awake and because y’all are beautiful people, I leave you with the picture of one of my favorite artists. Have a wonderful night.

Naomie Harris, a.k.a. Moneypenny. Please, try not to kiss the screen.

Naomie Harris, a.k.a. Moneypenny. Please, try not to kiss the screen.

A Prayer in Darkness

A PRAYER IN DARKNESS
by G. K. Chesterton

This much, O heaven—if I should brood or rave,
Pity me not; but let the world be fed,
Yea, in my madness if I strike me dead,
Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.

If I dare snarl between this sun and sod,
Whimper and clamour, give me grace to own,
In sun and rain and fruit in season shown,
The shining silence of the scorn of God.

Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
If I must travail in a night of wrath,
Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.

Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary:
And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Softly she didn’t tread:
like an army marched upon a land
that was already dead.

AEDH WISHES FOR THE CLOTHS OF HEAVEN
by W. B. Yeats (1899)

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The Temptation of Saint Joseph

The Prayer of Our Lady, the Song of Songs, nights that seemed like days, sighs of nameless pain.

THE TEMPTATION OF ST. JOSEPH
OR
THE UNSUNG MAGNIFICAT:
AN HYMN OF PAIN
by Manuel Buen Abad (2015)

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
He looks on His servant in his lowliness;
henceforth all ages shall forget my name.
For He has blessed me with the Joy of my days;
He has cursed me with the Pain of my nights.

In His Love He has crushed my pride,
bent my back with a burden like no other.
In His Cruelty He has brought to my life
smiles and laughs, sighs and desire.

He put forth His arm in strength
and humbled my proud heart.
Though young and beautiful, tall and well-built;
though honest and kind, pious and bright
He judged me unworthy, culprit, deserving of His trial.

He has worked marvels with the skill of His hands
and shaped, with a Lover’s care,
the most sublime creature on this Earth.

She’s fierce as thunder, free as the wind,
Her presence an all-consuming fire.
How beautiful She is, O, how beautiful!
Her eyes are doves forever flying;
their beaks pierce my heart and it bleeds.

She looks forth like the dawn,
fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
terrible as an army with banners;
I look at Her and I tremble.

The fragrance of Her perfume
is more pleasing than any spice.
She’s a garden locked up,
a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain;
the fruit is ripe and the water fresh
and yet She remains unclaimed
but by Him, my Tormentor.

She fills our home with light
and joy pours like wine from Her mouth;
though I drink from it like a thirsty traveler
from Her Promised Land I am shunned.

And though I can read in Her gaze
the same eager desire that burns in mine;
and though Her breath goes away as I stare at Her face
I’m still empty handed and so I shall remain.

And in bed the sight of Her brown skin drives me insane,
the intoxicating scent of Her hair,
upon Her breasts I lay my head
and endless nights I spend awake,
my soul troubled, my flesh torn apart.

He, my Lord, my Master, my King,
He has released Hell upon my soul
and chose to kill me slowly, every day,
every night.

And I prayed, O I prayed
to Him the God of Israel,
Him, who remembers our father Abraham
and His people and His promise to them;
I prayed for an end to this life
but His silence was all I could hear.

And so it is my curse to love without reward,
my blessing to reach without attain,
to burn without consume;
to humbly witness Beauty here on Earth,
blindly witness Beauty here on Earth.

But I shall live on. I shall endure, I shall believe
that He hasn’t abandoned me,
that He hasn’t forsaken me.

I shall live on, I shall endure.
For Her, my love, my soul and hope,
my Sister, my Mother and my Lover.
And for Him in the cradle, for Him the Mystery;
He the Child, the Stranger, the Humble.

His Son, Her Son and now my Son,
my King, my Lord, my Hope,
He whom I love and whom I fear.
He once spoke from a burning bush,
now He shivers in the cold of night;
now He knows no words.

And when day comes, as it always comes
after the darkest of nights,
I get up and praise Him,
and kiss Her
and kiss Him,
His Mercies to the World,
His Beauty and His Word,
His finest signs of Love.

Belly of the Cavern

This song, a wonderful piece created by my most recent musical discovery, Typhoon, has become the hymn of my last year. It was a year filled with dreams and their subsequent shattering, with joy and with pain, hope and the most absolute of despairs. I’ve been lost out in the mountains, with nothing to nurture me but my own fears and misery; the shadow of an insurmountable loneliness creeping down upon me. I’ve been in search of something that might as well be a lie, made up chimeras that people whisper to themselves in order to feel comforted about their present and hopeful about their future. That search has brought me to the brink of insanity. And, although I think I might have found what I’d been looking for, it might all be a mirage, a cruel illusion, everything just precious stones I’d be forced to eat instead of the true nourishment my soul has been longing for. I’ll never know until I embrace its madness, even though the risk of harm is high. I just hope I will indeed settle by the water before everything is over, and I can at last enjoy the peace and healing I desire.

But, as others would wisely claim, no amount of suffering matters in the end, because heartache pales in comparison to Love.

BELLY OF THE CAVERN
by Typhoon

I was lost out in the mountains
and I had run out of provisions.
I had one drop left in my deer-skin
and I had come to my last decision:

Should I lie down
or should I be laid down?

I had set out in the first place
from what I gathered from rumored hearsay.
I heard of treasures in a high cave
on the northern slopes of the coast range.

So I climbed up
but I didn’t know how to climb down.

So I wandered through the foliage;
I came across my own tracks and I became discouraged
until at long last I found a cavern;
I crawled inside and I lit my lantern.

And it was all there,
just like they told me it would be there.

I was lost out in the mountains;
I had no water, nothing to eat.
So I drank the soil from a golden chalice;
I gritted precious stones between my teeth.

And I regretted my lonesome palace,
I should have never listened to others tales.
All I had left was a priceless ballast
to hold me down from the howling gales.

In my mouth there burned a fire,
I was dying of a long long draught.
But then a voice whistled across the mouth of my cavern
and it said to me, it said that without a doubt:

“You will settle by the water before this is over.”

All my life I’ve spent wasting time, wasting my time
just to forget again but I don’t mind, I don’t mind:
I’ll take my medicine and I’ll be fine, I will be fine.
I’ll be fine.

Screwing up

Among the different kinds and species of individuals with which this good Earth is filled to the brim, the rational-minded one is perhaps the most curious of them all. Proudly dwelling atop their ivory tower (built upon “cold reason” and sheer intellect and decorated with the latest of fashions of the World of Ideas), the brightest among the bright delight themselves in instructing the commoners on the ways of life and in pontificating about every subject at hand. The basis for such annoying and pedantic behavior can be found in the premise that a mind entirely devoted to pursuing logic until its ultimate consequences possesses clairvoyance in its highest degree. This premise, if truth be told, is most of the time acceptable, if not absolutely correct. I find it close to a miracle that a thing such as logic exists at all and that it has the far reaching consequences that we observe. But I digress, for that discussion is for another time.

In any case, our arrogant people (from now on we shall call them by their scientific name (for nothing would make them happier), Homo sapiens intolerabilis) tend to polarize public opinion into two bitter enemies which, facing each other on the plains of the Realm of Arguing, are prone to fight with singular enthusiasm to the slightest of provocations, much in the like of Don Quixote’s sheep, in that memorable episode before he puked all over his (and Sancho’s) beard.

On the one hand we have the followers, which support the use of reason in every situation in life and look up to the intolerabilis as guides and mentors; and on the other their bitter enemies, the sentimentalists, those that hold feelings as superior in virtue, opposing the doctrine of Sola Ratio. The later believe that indulging in the passions that sprout from the experiences of daily life is the only true way to live fully; the first declare that the only passion worth pursuing is that of the love of logic and syllogisms. Someone might argue that there’s a third party in this game and that it is composed of those who don’t care to choose between the two lifestyles and those who work with a lukewarm mixture of both, and that someone would be right. But as it is often the case with non-radicals, the impact of this third group on the destinies of nations and on the philosophy that characterizes a given age is minimal, even if its numbers are significantly larger than those of the other two. Thus we’re not concerned with said group: its effects can be safely assumed to be negligible. Uncommitted people seldom need to think about commitment to this or that school of thought. Background noise is just that: noise.

The battles, then, between said opposing factions (which could be re-branded as Objectivity and Subjectivity) are always heated and often bloody. Families are torn apart, friendships come undone, relationships sink and nations fall. Hatred is not uncommon, even though the intolerabilis and their followers ought to avoid falling prey to such baseness. Both armies suffer considerable casualties, sometimes due to friendly fire. And this is precisely why I started my post declaring that I find the logic-driven individuals to be the most interesting of all: because invariably, and regardless of their degree of commitment to the Most Noble Cause of Reason, they screw up.

Screw up.

Indeed, it is a well known fact (or at least a reasonable extrapolation from particular, well documented cases) that whenever reason is the sole guide in decision making processes the outcomes tend, on average, to maximize profits for those involved in said processes. The degree of success is of course dependent on a plethora of variables (even individuals that always consciously follow reason can make mistakes, for example due to misinformation or ignorance). Anyway, that is why it’s not surprising that sentimentalists fail. Hell, they even value failure, as part of the human experience. Pain and Pleasure, Joy and Grief are for them parts of a whole, pieces of that gigantic puzzle that we call Life. The sentimentalists draw their breath, their existence itself from a paradox: that even when they fail, they succeed. Even when evil is born as a consequence of their actions, they rise triumphant, for they’re actually living according to their guidelines. But the intolerabilis and their minions, those neat and tidy Champions of Reason, end up sunk to their knees in the earthly mud of emotionally-addressed dilemmas. Voluntarily.

It is as if our nature were but a cruel joke: though capable of aspiring to pristine ideals such as Reason it is doomed to bring those aspirations to a bitter end. There always comes the day when the mind that until then had lived a purely rational life finds itself unwillingly willing to fail; when it chooses irrationality over rationality. Happiness, for the intolerabilis, is but a mirage: it appears to be almost there, only to unexpectedly vanish into nothing but heat, sweat and and infinite, barren land.

The existence of such an apparently useless, doomed aspiration -the Need for Truth, is a particular case of a very interesting metaphysical subject I have not the energy to deal with (Argument from Desire, anyone?). This is not the point of my monologue. What I intend is to Confess.

Far from me the pretension of being a member of the select race of the intolerabilis: I don’t posses neither the strength nor the genius to be a such a hero, leader and teacher. I’ve always been a follower, someone that has consciously tried to align his life according to the premise that logic alone must guide him. I’ve always been proud of that vein that drains warm blood from my heart and pours it cold into my brain. I’ve always wanted to be a mathematical entity, a perfect machine, an efficient device, a problem-solver.

But my day came. I’ve found myself for the first time at a crossroads where the road I’ve chosen is not the intelligent one. I’ve plunged myself into madness, the madness that an irrational decision means, one with very plausible and painful consequences. I’ve chosen to screw up.

All that is left is to stubbornly go on forward, to live the adventure of stupidity, the joy of passion, the pain of fire.

All that is left is to keep screwing up, and to do it with a smile.

A strange little ache (It must be the coffee)

A STRANGE LITTLE ACHE (IT MUST BE THE COFFEE)
by Manuel Buen Abad (2014)

“What is this?”, I say to myself, “this strange little ache just above my stomach?” “It must be the coffee”, I answer, “you had plenty last night. And quite some funny coffee if you know what I mean. Very… energizing. Plus you haven’t had breakfast, and we all know that’s the most important meal of the day. As my dad (your dad, our dad?) used to say: ‘Break your fast like a king, have your lunch like a bourgeois and eat your dinner like a beggar’. You should never, ever skip breakfast.”

“I’m no stupid”, I reply, “It can’t be the coffee. I only had six cups, black, no sugar (pretty much like every day…), and you and I know it has never bother us so much as now. Maybe if I could get my hands on some milk…”

“Hold that thought, my dear”, a third me intervenes, wearing a wig and a cane, “It must be the coffee. You see, at your age (o, your youth has come and past, my dear) one mustn’t drink that much of strong beverages. So forget about that milk. And coffee, though a wonderful and miraculous drink, capable of doing marvelous things for your health, must be drunk in moderation, like everything else. And don’t even think for a second that you can fool us. We have seen what you add to that coffee. Funny coffee, indeed. Your mother would be so disappointed…”

“Stop that!” I say, a little louder than intended, “and let me remind you that you’re the same age as myself. I’m still in my prime, let me tell you, and whosoever claims otherwise shall lose his head. I stand by my previous affirmation: it can’t be the coffee.”

“Easy now, boy”, yet another one speaks, one with a hat and cowboy boots, “let us not lose our heads, nor our tempers. I remind you that if our dear fellows here lose their heads yours rolls with theirs too. Not a very good deal, is it?” I quickly shake my head. “Good boy. Now, don’t be a fool and reason. It must be the coffee. What else if not? There was nothing special last night. Nor any other night of any other day. There was nothing then and nothing now. But yesterday you had coffee, you sneaky boy. It must be the coffee. So logic says.”

And when I’m about to draw my gun and shoot at me below the town’s tower (though it’s not noon yet and I haven’t had breakfast), I hear a voice from inside the tavern. A sweet, beautiful voice (not delicate though, never delicate) dancing with a guitar, that sings about clowns and skies and smiles.

And then I feel it, a strange little ache just above my stomach. Like an empty spot where something ought to be, although I never had it to begin with. And I’m afraid to enter the tavern, for if I see that voice, her eyes will make me weep.

And thus, like remembering, I say to myselves, with a strange little smile and a nod of the head “You know, my dear me? I think you were right: it must be the coffee”.