Archive for the Books Category

Living in the Now

Posted in Books, Life After 50 on February 21, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

If there is one thing that middle-aged men and women can agree on, it’s that their memories of childhood are powerful. For me, just a whiff of orange blossoms can bring back waves of emotions long buried under a lifetime of clutter.

But if your experiences growing up were painful, some of those memories can haunt you and hurt you decades after they should have faded away. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now deals with this subject very effectively. But not all of us have read the book, and even after reading, we forget. A bitter memory creeps in. We slip, we fall, and damn it, it hurts all over again.

And twice in as many days, I have met people who are, from time to time, literally prisoners of their memories. Did you think, as I did growing up, that life would get easier and easier? Did you think that middle age would be free of problems and that the sweet golden glow of retirement would begin to loom bigger and brighter? It’s not working out that way for me.

I am in no way any kind of expert here. I’m looking at my eleventh month of unemployment and had almost convinced myself that I was an expert in pain. But I have a couple of friends who have been dealt more than their fair share of trouble. When you see friends in pain, you want to help, you want to do or say something that somehow would make it hurt less, but often that isn’t what they need. Often all they need is someone to listen to them and perhaps provide a shoulder to lean on.

Nonetheless, I think Tolle’s advice is useful. No matter what kind of hurts and difficulties we are dealing with right now, they can be lessened if we remember that the past and the future are illusions. When we feel longing for that idealized past or that shining future, we are imagining constructions to which we are comparing the present. But the present is real, and it is alive. We are alive right now, and we need to focus on that.

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Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”

Posted in Books on February 16, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

Here’s an animated version of The War Prayer, published posthumously in November of 1916.

Man, when you hear that prayer spoken, it has an ageless, timeless resonance that is just beautiful.

Coincidentally, I am reading a book called “Mark Twain’s Wound.” It’s an assembly of essays in response to a book written about 10 years after Twain’s death called “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” by Van Wyke Brooks.

At first, the very idea of being critical of Twain’s life and his output irritated me. The structure of the Wound book is to present Van Wyke Brooks’ idea, and then counter it in essay form from writings of the era. Brooks thesis was that Twain was damaged goods; that because his father was weak and died early in Twain’s life, Twain hid behind his mother’s skirts and then transferred that relationship onto his wife. Brooks grants nearly no quarter for Twain and complains that he didn’t use his talents for greater and greater achievements. Brooks was eastern establishment, and had no use for the West and what it meant to men of the era.

Brooks is not without insight, but does rely too heavily on Freud. I just don’t think all the psycho-mumbo-jumbo bears up under the weight of day-to-day Western experience. I read about what his life was like in Virginia City, and it was not a place for psychologically nuanced analysis!

So the best of the book is the criticism of Brooks from his contemporaries, who seem to understand the man much better:

— we’re fallible
— we all have our strengths and weaknesses
— we all live with our own contradictions
— life can make you cynical and sarcastic
— you never really escape your youth
— etc.

And more than anything else, Twain wrote to Americans about America. He didn’t write to be a part of a literary establishment (although he did revel in the adulation).

It’s an interesting topic. The more I learn about Twain, the more I respect him.