How I Remember What I Read: Creating a Personal Database of All Things Interesting

I have trouble sometimes remembering what I read. This failing applies to nonfiction, fiction, books, and articles alike. It frustrates me endlessly. I like reading. Part of the reason I like reading is that in spite of the fact that you might be enjoying yourself, reading feels like a productive activity and one that has some educational value. I enjoy the thought that I’m learning, becoming wiser. But, what then, when you don’t remember what you read? Suddenly, what felt like productivity seems like waste.
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I comfort myself with the possibility that perhaps, even through my inability to recall particular details and facts, maybe the meaning and the meat of what I’ve read is still there somewhere waiting to be tapped into or is influencing me in small, subtle ways. But, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just all, gone.

And so, motivated by the fear that I’m not necessarily retaining what I read, I’ve been looking for a system and for tools to help.
I’ve tried a few things, from meticulously jotting down into notebooks excerpts and quotations to using applications like OneNote or Evernote, perhaps combined with bookmarking tools like Pocket. But all were lacking in one way or another. Now, after significant trial and error, I feel like I’ve got something that works. It’s not perfect (and I’m making little adjustments and improvements as I go) – but, it’s pretty good.

 

Why have a system?


What was wrong – what was missing – with the paper and pencil or Evernote solutions that I’d tried previously? Well, to get to that, I’ll illustrate exactly what I want in an ideal system:

I want to be able to recordI want to be able to keep in one place all the interesting things I findwhether it’s a couple of key sentences in an article on fitness, a paragraph or two from a brilliant essay in an online magazine, or a sentence here and there (as well as my own comments) from a book I’ve read.

I want to be able to organize. I’d like to have some sort of folder/categorizing/tagging system. That way I can keep my notes together and organized by subject or area of interest. And I’d like to have the ability to keep this pretty detailed.

And I’d like to be able to search. A year from now, I want to be able to search, by tag, within my notes, within original text, for phrases like “Memory” or “Montaigne” or “The Civil War” and see everything I’ve ever found interesting about or including that language. I want to be rid of the moments when I think maybe I read something kind of about something in a particular book, only to never locate it.

I want to use this to find things as I recall them or to find things after I’ve forgotten them. A quick skim through such a catalogue may help me rediscover thoughts or interests I had a few months ago but had since abandoned. I want to keep a careful, curated breadcrumb trail of all my interests.

In short, I need a system that allows me to record, organize, and search.

For me, what has ended up working has been the research tool Zotero.


Why Zotero, and how do I use it?


In terms of the basics of what Zotero is, I’ll let them speak for themselves. The below was pulled from their About page,

Zotero is a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.

To get a sense of what the landscape of the tool looks like while in usage, below is a screenshot of my working version of Zotero. As you can see, it looks very different from your traditional bookmarking and note-taking tools. This, for me is perhaps one of its biggest advantages. It’s designed to be a research tool, and thus the focus is on organizing and sorting your information rather than on writing or on developing ‘read-later’ lists. With this in mind, it’s incredibly powerful. Should you so desire, you could sort, tag, categorize, and annotate all your favorite quotes from all your favorite books and then search within, sort, and rearrange these quotes according to different themes or topics. You can do so quickly and without disrupting the underlying data. Every document you add is saved as an item, which you can then add notes to and tags to and store within folders.

 

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Figure 1

To provide a bit more detail, here is how I use it:

1) While reading online, if I come across something I want to store and remember, I save it with the Zotero bookmarklet and it automatically saves a copy of whatever I was viewing. In addition, any text is auto-indexed and made searchable. When saving the material, Zotero also automatically adds in any available metadata (things like Author, Website Name, Article Title, Date Published). When I next go into Zotero, a new entry will have automatically have been added and the metadata populated.

 

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Figure 2, Zotero Bookmarklet; source: zotero.org

2) With my items now in Zotero, I can sort and arrange them within a folder structure of my choosing. Zotero also allows for the same item to be stored within multiple folders – for those cases where mutual exclusivity just isn’t possible and I can’t decide if something should fall under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Psychology.’

3) For each item in Zotero (remember, an item is a document – a book, magazine article, etc.), anything that I find myself wanting to highlight or remember, I add as a note. Notes are attached to specific items, and you create notes as you need them. For some articles, I have one to two notes. For a book, I may have over 100. To keep things organized, I’ll assign each note a number so that each note/highlight stays in sequential order, just like how it appears in the text. (If numbers aren’t used, Zotero by default sorts alphabetically.)

As an example, see Figure 3 below. The middle pane currently shows all the notes (lines prefaced by a yellow sticky note) that are attached to the item Life’s Stories, the name of an article that appeared in The Atlantic. The rightmost pane shows the details of the particular note that is currently highlighted. As I read an article, if there are particular excerpts that I find interesting or want to remember, I will copy it over as a note. By making something a note, I give myself a higher chance of finding it again in the future. It also now appears in my reading pane. Another way of thinking of it is your notes are all the quotes you would want to write down.

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Figure 3

4) On a note level as well as an item level, I assign tags according to topic or theme so as it make it easier for me to locate the note or item later. Tags work across folder structures and allow for an even more specific level of detail. Many tags can be assigned to a single note or item.

As an example, I’ll refer again to the note that appears above in Figure 3. The text of the note reads:

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

I assigned to this note the tags ‘trauma,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘personal narratives.‘ Although these words themselves don’t appear in the excerpt, they do describe concepts the excerpt touches on. In addition, these tags are topics I have some interest in and could imagine myself wanting to search for in the future. By adding these tags, I increase my chances of finding this note when I’m looking for it. There is certainly an art and some subjectivity in determining what words to use for tags and how many tags to assign to a note. I always try to imagine the different angles from which I might want to discover the text again in the future and then design my tags to fit that.

5) Once I have a few items in my Zotero database, I can perform advanced searches, utilizing any or all of the features mentioned above – full text searching through the original document, within particular folders, through the notes I’ve added, or through tags.


A note on physical books and other non-digitized material,

Zotero can automatically locate book metadata (author, predefined tags, publisher, call number, etc.) given an ISBN number. But, the rest of the process is of course rather manual. Typically my method now is that as I read, I highlight and add notes in the margins of the physical book. Then, every few chapters or so, I go back in and type up each highlight as a note attached to the book entry in Zotero. Each note is assigned tags that I think are relevant. I have to admit that this is a time consuming process and for books that you’re reading purely for entertainment value with less care for what you remember/get out of it, this type of process probably doesn’t make sense. However, for books where you are reading as much (or even more) for information as for entertainment, where you want to remember what you read, I find the act of going back and typing up the sentences and paragraphs that were most salient to me incredibly valuable in helping to cement, digest, and thus retain what I’ve read. And then, once done, you have the important parts of the book digitized, categorized, and more accessible to you in the future.

 


The Result?


In the end, I have a carefully organized, easily searchable, personal database of anything and everything that I’ve ever read and found interesting. I can look up a topic or keyword and find documents I had forgotten about. Through my tagging system, I can make connections between different things I’ve read, where it may not have been evident before that it was possible for connections to be made. Through a cursory skim, I am inspired over and over again. And I actually have a chance at finding that particular quote that was in that one book about that one thing, should my memory fail me.

Zotero is free and open source, so I encourage you to give it a try and see if it works for you. https://www.zotero.org/ (In case it wasn’t obvious, this isn’t sponsored by Zotero/I have no affiliation with them. I just like their software.)

*And if you’re really into data, you can export your Zotero data in a variety of formats to have a different sort of personal database to play with.

 

 

 

The Memories That Hide in Bookshelves: On the Books We Share in Relationships

When a relationship ends, what do you have? Memories? Photos? If you’re me, books. I’m big on books and knowing what the other is reading, what they like to read. And sometimes, perhaps early on, or a few weeks, a few months in to seeing someone, there may be a book, recommended sincerely, which I will accept and endeavor to read.

So I have, hidden in plain sight amongst my shelves, books that hold within them much more than their stories. When I read a book that has been recommended to me, I read it in the context of, in the full knowledge of, the fact that it was chosen for me by someone else. Just as I will fondly remember the seaside every time I think about the book Mrs. Dalloway as it was read against the backdrop of the ocean, I will forever associate certain books with certain individuals as they were read in the context of, against the backdrop of – them. And if we’re dating, or thinking about dating, the experience of reading that book is all the more vivid, and important, because of that person. And when the relationship ends, the book is still there, on my shelf.Thus, intertwined with the stories are memories, associations, pains, and hopes. And a glance at the spine of a book can quickly bring that all back.

The types of feelings vary, some are lighter than others. Skimming through the titles and testing the feelings, I sway from rushes of nostalgia – to the grateful, ‘Good Riddance!’

How does your bookshelf look? These are five titles that for me bring all the memories back:

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and The Guy I Wish I Could’ve Liked More


This was a good recommendation from a good guy. First, on the book itself – Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French Elle magazine suffers a stroke and when he wakes up from a coma, he finds himself “locked-in.” That is, though his mind is fully functioning, his only way of communicating at all with the outside world is through blinking with his left eye. As one can imagine, this is catastrophic and Bauby struggles to come to terms with this new reality. However, with the help of a nurse, he learns to communicate, to spell out letters and then words through this blinking (differing numbers of blinks per letter). Through this method, Bauby himself was able to write this book. It’s moving and heart-wrenching and kind of amazing. How does one cope with a tragedy like this? How does one learn to hope?

The guy was probably as good as the book – kind, intelligent, considerate – and I feel a small pang of guilt and regret whenever I think of this book. And while I bought the book while I was still talking to him, I read it after we’d stopped. In the back of my mind then, while I was reading and enjoying the book, were thoughts like What a great book – why didn’t you give him more of a chance? He was the perfect gentleman and very considerate. A mutual friends today still guilts me today for ending it. But, you can’t pick who you like. And now the book serves as a bittersweet reminder of the fact.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby


Lord of the Flies
 and Being Scared Off


Full disclosure: I have never read this book. Somehow, it was never assigned to me in school and I never picked it up later in life. And even now that I own a copy, I’m not sure I’ll bring myself to read it. But who knows, maybe one day, I will.

As to how I came to obtain the book. I met this really nice person while I was living in Copenhagen. First date, since I was new to the city, was on one of those double-decker city sight seeing buses. It was fun, different, thoughtful. He was very friendly and talkative. And while I wasn’t overwhelmingly attracted to him, I was drawn to his “niceness” and based on that, agreed to see him again. Between Date One and Date Two, there were a lot of text messages, a call even. It was all nice and sweet and nothing to complain about, except that I could feel that invisible pressure that comes when you know things are a bit one sided. And then there was Date Two. About five minutes in, I was feeling uncomfortable. He was too interested, too forward, in a way that was miles ahead of what I could match. I had secretly resolved that I probably wouldn’t agree to see him again, when, maybe ten minutes into the date, he pulled out – a present. My heart dropped. It was nicely wrapped. It was an old, worn copy of Lord of the Flies. Inside the front cover were a letter and two photographs. It turns out that this was his copy of his favorite book. He’d read it while traveling and the photographs were of the places he’d been to while reading it. My heart sank as far down as it could possibly go.

I made it through the rest of the dinner. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him then that I wasn’t interested, and a part of me was debating whether I should give him a chance. The next day I called him and told him I didn’t think it would work. He said I could keep the book.

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding


This Side of Innocence
 and Discovering Another Person


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell isn’t, at least today, very well known. I had to order a used copy online and I think it’s out of print. First published in 1946, it was a bestseller. I liked it. There’s an unhappy marriage, secret passions and infidelity, the breaking up of a marriage, followed by a new marriage that is always tainted by the betrayal. There’s this general sense of woundedness and hurt and the elusiveness of happiness, especially in love. A passage I highlighted that captures this sense well is, “Happiness. Not even the founders of America had declared it as an inalienable right of man. Only the ‘pursuit of it.’ There was wisdom, there was understanding, there was sad cynicism. One only pursued it. It was rarely, if ever, attained, and then only briefly, like the sun shining for a moment through a rack of dark clouds.” Along with this view on happiness, there’s also this underlying empathy throughout the book and a recognition that pain exists in all.

I read this book, his favorite, and he agreed to read my favorite book. We didn’t know each other well. He lived somewhere else (we’d met at his going away party), but that process of reading each other’s favorites was really kind of special. I believe your favorite books are your favorites because they seem very true to you. How things happen and in particular how things end as well as any social, political, or philosophical undercurrents all ring true to you and describe to you either how you think the world is, or how the world ought to be. And that’s the way it felt when I read this book. This, I thought, is how he sees the world, and what a privilege for me to know.

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This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Losing Yourself


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great book. It’s a really popular book, an international bestseller even. It’s just not really my kind of book. I’ve never been one for thrillers. And yet I read this book and the other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is a whopping 1,780 pages of book that, to be frank, I didn’t really enjoy. I read them because an ex boyfriend really wanted me to read them with him, and so I did. And unlike the previous example, where the reading was a process of discovery and learning about the other person, this – wasn’t. We were just reading the book at the same time and comparing how far along we’d gotten.

Now that it’s a few years later and I can look at that relationship with clearer eyes, these three books serve as a strange symbol for what not to do and how things can go wrong. Simple things, like, don’t rearrange your life for someone else, recognize when you’re just giving, giving, giving into nothing, and don’t, don’t read 1,780 pages (“recreationally” at least) that you don’t enjoy, for anyone. Or you should probably at least stop after Book One.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Hannah Arendt, Appearances, and the Meaning to be Found at the Surface

We have a complicated relationship, I think, with beauty. We hunt for it, within magazines, museums, in our travels. We document and collect beauty, in our photographs and belongings, and we attempt to create beauty, in our own art, in our homes, and of course out of ourselves, in the application of makeup, the tanning of the skin, the toning of the muscles. But yet, sometimes, we disparage beauty. Beauty must compete for its worth with usefulness, with pragmatism, and with things that have a cause, a reason for being beyond the appearance. In persons, we recognize that physical beauty is only skin deep. The real essence of the person must be something much deeper.

The beauty of things, the appearance of things can seem trivial compared to this essence of the thing or being. And of course, it is. But, as with anything else, we can also consider it differently.

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The Life of the Mind invites us to consider the significance and the gravity of Appearances.

She reminds us first of the relationship between being and appearing. Implicit in the “I exist” is the “I appear.” And a necessary follower to the “I appear” is “I appear to others.”

 

The world men are born into contains many things, natural and artificial, living and dead, transient and sempiternal, all of which have in common that they appear and hence are meant to be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, to be perceived by sentient creatures endowed with the appropriate sense organs.

Nothing could appear, the word “appearance” would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist— living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to— in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise— what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception.

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide…Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator. In other words, nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet.

 

In addition to this world of appearances is also the world of what is unseen. Traditionally, the unseen – whether material – the brain, the heart, the organs or immaterial, as in the self or the mind, is given more weight than appearance. She quotes Kant as exemplifying this tradition in thought when he said that appearances “must themselves have grounds which are not appearances.” Arendt believes that this belief that a cause should be of a higher rank than the effect is one of the oldest and most stubborn of fallacies.

 

What Meaning Can we Find in Appearances?

Arendt asks the provoking and astounding question,

“Could it not be that appearances are not there for the sake of the life process but, on the contrary, that the life process is there for the sake of appearances? Since we live in an appearing world, is it not much more plausible that the relevant and the meaningful in this world of ours should be located precisely on the surface?”

I love this line of inquiry, not because it is necessarily wholly true but because perhaps there is some truth in the answer and most importantly because it challenges so much we take for granted so very powerfully.

I am reminded of sentences I came across recently here, “Beauty comes beforprimrose-2082038_1920e reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way.”

Beauty or the appearance announces meaning. Perhaps it is the meaning, announcing itself, provoking further inquiry.

In order to answer this question, that of if meaning can be found at the surface, Arendt references the work of the biologist and zoologist Adolf Portmann. In his work, Portmann distinguishes between the Authentic Appearance and the Inauthentic Appearance. The Authentic Appearances “come to light of their own accord” and Inauthentic Appearances “such as the roots of a plant or the inner organs of an animal” are “visible only through interference.” Leaning on some of Portmann’s work, Arendt provides two arguments:

 

First argument: There are significant and meaningful differences between how the external and the internal appear that reveal a beauty and distinction unique to the external

Portmann observed the fact that external appearances are “infinitely varied and highly differentiated.” From the external we can generally differentiate from one individual to another. External features are arranged in pleasing ways, according to symmetry. Think of the human face, of butterfly wings. The internal or the inauthentic by contrast, such as bodily organs, are not pleasing to the eye, are not generally symmetrical (in higher level organisms), and cannot be used to easily distinguish between individuals.

Portmann searched for the cause of these peculiarities, which he failed to find, and attributed the characteristics to mysterious “unknown powers of creation” (point of clarification – Portmann was not a creationist and in fact was an ardent fan of Darwin, whose work informed his writing). Arendt however is interested in the expression itself and less so the cause. The uniqueness of the external as opposed to the internal is perhaps itself evidence of the importance of the external. If the insides of us were what appeared to others, she writes, we would all look alike.

 

Second argument: Beings have the innate urge to self-display beyond the functional

Portmann writes of a natural “urge to self-display” that transcends the functional – that transcends what is deemed necessary for sexual attraction and adaptation.  Arendt elaborates,

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be. It is indeed as though everything that is alive— in addition to the fact that its surface is made for appearance, fit to be seen and meant to appear to others— has an urge to appear, to fit itself into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its “inner self” but itself as an individual.

And what is being expressed? Yes, words and sounds, but even more so, even more often, it is the physical, the us, the body, the self in acts of appearing and being seen.

 

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Arendt concludes that the belief that our “inner life” is more relevant to what we “are” than what appears on the outside, is an illusion. Note that Arendt does not explicitly state that the outer life is more relevant and the inner life less relevant. Rather, I’ve come to think that the argument can be understood as a defense for an equal exploration of both cause and effect, of inner and outer. What is expressed, what appears, can be as important the cause of the expression or appearance. And in searching for the cause of the appearance, we cannot discount the importance and the meaning of the appearance itself.

Furthermore, for me, it lends additional possibilities as well as mystery to our conceptions of appearances as well as our conceptions of beauty and form, whether of ourselves or of our world, a mountain, a butterfly, a stone.

 

The Forgotten Ballad to Unrequited Love: The Original Little Mermaid

“Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.”

Or so the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” begins.

I had always known that the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” was vastly different from the original. I had heard that the original was sad, heartbreaking, horrible. I had assumed it was some sort of twisted tale from the dark ages, unfit in its darkness for the children of today.

But oh, I was so surprised then, when I eventually did find my way to the original story. Yes, it’s sad – or has its sad elements. But it’s also so very beautiful.

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Now, the 1989 Disney adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” is great. It’s enchanting and funny and lovely– but the thing is, it seems very much to be its own story, and a different story from the story Hans Christian Andersen told. And we can’t forget that before the 1989 film, in fact before Disney was a company, before Walt Disney the man was even born, before his parents in fact were born, the story of “The Little Mermaid” had enchanted thousands of people (millions perhaps?) in its own right. First published in 1837, it has stood the test of time. Or at least, it seems to have, until we realize that “The Little Mermaid” story most of us know isn’t at all the one of Hans Christian Andersen.

Shall we start with how the real story ends? In Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, the little mermaid doesn’t get to marry her Prince. In fact, she dies, completely heartbroken. Sad and tragic? Yes. Beautiful? Just wait.

 

[The Real Story]

She doesn’t get the Prince. And yes, it is sad, but it has to be so. Because, as I’d like to explain, “The Little Mermaid” is a ballad for unrequited love, for the persistent, brave, foolhardy love that continues quietly even as it is unappreciated, unrecognized, and unseen.

And in this story and for the sake of her love, the little mermaid gives up so much. In addition to losing her voice and to forsaking her family and home, she endures great pain. Her transformation of tail to legs comes with tortuous agony, as if a sharp sword slashed through her. And although she is graceful and beautiful and lovely, each step she takes on human legs feels as if she is treading of a bed of knives that pierce her skin as she walks.

Bertall_ill_La_Petite_SirèneCoupled with the physical pain is the emotional. The Prince, foolish man, longs for the girl that saved him, for the voice and the song of the girl that saved him. Of course, we all know the Prince’s dream girl is in fact the little mermaid, but she cannot tell him. And so she suffers, as the Prince continues to see her only as an innocent child. His heart, he tells her, is saved for the girl that saved him. It is this girl and not the little mermaid that he desperately wants to find, to marry. But still the little mermaid hopes. The Prince spends time with her and cares for her and even speaks of the possibility of marrying her. Her hope must grow so large.

In the end, the Prince marries another, a girl he thinks is the girl that saved him, but of course, isn’t. And the little mermaid is given the opportunity to win back her life with her family, to return to life as a mermaid, if she can kill the Prince as he sleeps. But, she loves him, and so she can’t.

Instead as part of the bargain she made with the sea witch, she dies, turning into sea foam.

 

But here, Andersen is able to deliver the ultimate judgment. Instead of simply perishing as sea foam as other mermaids do (we are told earlier that, unlike humans, mermaids do not have afterlives), the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air. In exchange for her goodness, for her suffering, and her loyalty, she is given the chance to win immortality, to win an immortal soul.

 

“You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart… Your suffering and your loyalty have raised you up into the realm of airy spirits, and now in the course of three hundred years you may earn by your good deeds a soul that will never die.”

 

So you see? It’s sad, but it’s so much more complicated than that. She loves with an intensity and a passion that is unreturned and unappreciated, but that has worth in its own right, for what it is. And this love is ultimately recognized. In the story, recognition comes from the spiritual realm. But for those of us who are less spiritual, this redemption comes also a metaphor for simple truth. Goodness, although not recognized, is still goodness and evil, though it may go unnoticed, is still evil. Andersen gave the little mermaid spiritual redemption but he also gave her ultimate recognition for what she is and for what she has done.

And although fantastical, perhaps it’s closer to truth than the Disney version. In real life, much of love is unreturned. Real life and real love can be difficult, heartbreaking even. I am reminded of David Whyte’s description of heartbreak in his book Consolations,

 

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self.

 

And so, instead of only celebrating the successful kind of love that ends in marriage, perhaps we should also honor the more difficult types of love too. Perhaps we should honor the nobleness, the purity of the unrequited love in each other.

Leonard Cohen once said, we usually don’t deserve the love we expect. And I would add, neither do we receive the type of love we deserve. Instead, we love others with the type of love we deserve, hoping for something in return.

 

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For further reading (and viewing): Enjoy the full text of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. For film adaptations more true to the original text, see if you can find copies of Rusalochka (Russian), Anderusen Dōwa Ningyo Hime (Japanese), and The Little Mermaid by The Reader’s Digest.  More on David Whyte’s Consolations.

“Gastronomy is the Art of Using Food to Create Happiness”

“Gastronomy is the art of using food to create happiness,” writes Theodore Zeldin.

Zeldin, both a philosopher and a historian has dedicated much of his life to discovering what it means to be human and what it means to be happy. One of his books, An Intimate History of Humanity, is a treasure. Each chapter explores a different theme, emotion, or element of the human life. Examples of chapter titles include, “How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations” and “Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity.”

Underlying all his writing, regardless of the subject, is the common thread of pleasure and happiness – and it is no different in his exploration of our relationship with food.

Eating is one of the most basic ways by which we experience pleasure. Zeldin posits that our approach to eating and receiving pleasure from eating mirrors our broader approaches to pursuing other types of pleasure in life.

 

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According Zeldin, there are Three Ways of Eating and each corresponds to a different way of searching for happiness.

Zeldin’s Three Ways of Eating:

1) Eating until one is full

“The first and most traditional way, putting faith in old recipes and well-tried methods. The aim is to be contented, to be comforted, to feel cozy, to purr. This is the cautious approach to pleasure, with the motto ‘Protect yourself from foreign bodies.’”

This is a search for contentment, for satiation, in a way that is safe and without risk or danger (and excitement).

2) Eating as amusement

A second way of eating is, “treating food as an amusement, a form of permissiveness, a caress of the senses,” “creating conviviality around delicious odours.”

This variety of a search for happiness is for temporary relief from ordinary hardship, in the one who “yearns for distractions and surprises, who seeks a different kind of happiness in frivolity in being jokey, cynical, ironical, refusing to be made permanently miserable by the big problems, like starvation and stupidity.”

3) Food as a means of exercising creativity

“When peace and quiet, or wit and detachment, began to pall, a different yearning was born, to make a personal, original contribution to life. The search for a third kind of happiness – which moderns call creativity – demanded a way of eating which corresponded…

Creative cooks found qualities in food that nobody suspected were there, uniting ingredients that never used to mix. Creative diners are constantly engaged in losing their fear of strange foods, and of foreign bodies.”

With this third way of eating, cooking and eating become forms of art. Cooking is another medium for expression and our food, the canvas and materials through which we can create.

“Every time a recipe is not strictly followed, every time a risk is taken with changed ingredients or proportions, the resulting food is a creative work, good or bad, into which humans have put a little of themselves.”

 

His point with these three ways of eating, he is careful to note, is not to categorize us into “three different kinds of people, each of them stuck with their habits.” No, rather, it’s to suggest that there may be more to the way we cook and eat than may appear at surface level.

Zeldin likely hopes for more of the third way of eating. I direct you to this final paragraph from the text, which (with an idealism that appears in most of Zeldin’s work) expresses well his belief that there is much more to learn from how we eat and also his hope for further “exploration on the whole of nature” and “ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding.”

Hunger is still being satisfied without full awareness of what it is one is hungry for. Some delicious foods have no nutritional value, others are disagreeable until a taste for them is acquired, others still do not stop one feeling hungry but stimulate one to eat yet more, to prolong the pleasure of eating, like a lover seeking to prolong an embrace. Trying to make sense of such behavior can clarify a lot more than one’s taste in food – for example, how far one is interested by new sorts of pleasure, or innovation and creativity in general, whether one is willing to risk disappointment or failure, whether one wants to be brave and free more than to be applauded, whether one likes to discuss one’s pleasures, whether one enjoys giving pleasure to others. Gastronomy is a branch of knowledge in its infancy, focusing not just on self-indulgence but on exploration, not just on self-exploration but on the exploration of the whole of nature. It can look forward to ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding, even though it has its dark side, for it has done little to deal with the obscenities of famine and cruelty, and it will perhaps only receive proper recognition when it does. Nevertheless, forks and spoons have probably done more to reconcile people who cannot agree than guns and bombs ever did.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Self-Discovery and Learning

A Life of Self-Discovery: Guidance from Ralph Waldo Emerson on Learning About Ourselves

 

One could argue that the heart of Emerson’s true education occurred outside of the classroom. Although he attended Harvard University, he was an unexceptional student who graduated without distinction. He felt at odds with his peers and kept mostly to himself. He however read extensively and throughout his life was exposed to and influenced by the ideas of those such as Thomas Carlyle, Montaigne, Goethe, and Swedenborg. His true education, he conducted himself.

6908d0d4a2fbd7296fa4efab5fd1c241d4f37c33Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed in the strength of the individual and in the greatness of the individual human spirit. He believed that there is genius, beauty, and wisdom within each of us, if we listen to and find it. By nurturing oneself, listening to oneself, and by learning from one’s experiences and emotions, one can discover one’s own truth and self. And this process of discovery is both the journey and the end goal of life.

Emerson was thus on a lifelong journey to discover himself and his writings are his chronicles of that journey.

 

Learning as an Individual Task

Ultimately and above all else, he champions the importance of determining one’s truth by oneself. Learning is not done by imitation or by conforming to what others do or to what society might expect us to do. Each of us is different and therefore what is right and true for each of us will be different. The below is taken from his seminal essay, Self-Reliance.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

Thus, we must each do our own work on ourselves, in our own way.

He warns against the temptations and dangers of conformity,

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

 

There are no Shortcuts

And he argues that in order to know something, you have to go through the process of obtaining the knowledge yourself. There are no shortcuts to really knowing,

Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, – must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good or verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself. Ferguson discovered many things in astronomy which had long been known. The better for him.

 

Learning from Real, Raw Experience

Really knowing thus comes from the process of the mind ‘go[ing] over the whole ground.’ And this process of ‘knowing’ can take many forms. Ever the intellectual, Emerson nevertheless extols the knowledge that can only be gleaned from real, raw life,

Who knows himself before he has been thrilled with indignation at an outrage, or has shared the throb of thousands in a national exultation or alarm? No man can antedate his experience, or guess what faculty or feeling a new object shall unlock, any more than he can today the face of a person whom he shall see tomorrow for the first time.

And to some degree, he chases these feelings, even those of a darker shade,

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth.

The world is our classroom and just as “the child amidst his baubles, is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force” so “in the game of life: love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God interact.

 

It All Comes Back to Ourselves

And for Emerson, all his efforts towards learning are always somehow in the end, directed back towards himself, for to Emerson, oneself is the beautiful mystery. He writes,

We go to Europe, or we pursue persons, or we read books, in the instinctive faith that these will…reveal us to ourselves.

 

Well, what was the good of that?

A brief reflection on Public Displays of Anger.

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Once, while at Heathrow getting breakfast, I witnessed a little scene. It wasn’t anything big or unusual, but it was indeed a scene.

“And how is everything?”

The waiter walks up to a table where mother and daughter are sipping on the icy remains of smoothies. The daughter looks about ten years old, dressed in her travel clothes, comfortable – grey sweatpants and a grey and pink long sleeved shirt. Straight hair and a bit of a sullen expression, she’s hunched over her smoothie glass, noisily sucking up air and chunks of ice. The mother perks up at the waiter’s approach, and you can tell she’s been waiting, dying, for someone to ask.

“Well, I’m not too happy with your seat discrimination policy,” she announces loudly. I close the cover on my iPad. She has my attention.

The waiter starts, clearly not expecting this. “I’m sorry?”

“Your colleague,” she demands, “Let me speak with your colleague.” And her finger hooks in the air at the young hostess in the front of the cafe.

Soon the hostess has been summoned, and it begins.

“Right,” she starts. Just so you are here with me, you have to imagine her with this strong English accent – think Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearancesand so this, “Right” comes out full force posh and authoritarian.

“So how come we’re seated here at a regular table and you just seated the two who just came in at a plush table?” The ‘plush’ table she refers to is one of many along the edge of the cafe, with high backed leather armchairs. The mother and daughter are seated at a table in the middle of the cafe that has normal wooden chairs. “We’ve just finished one 9 hour flight and then we have a 10 hour flight to go. Tired, got my daughter with me, and then we have to deal with this crap of, oh, you can only sit here.”

The hostess is red in the face now – she’s only a young girl. “I don’t understand,” she says, shaking her head.

“I said I wanted to sit there,” the lady says, “and you said, no, one of these tables only.”

I write this off as a complete misunderstanding. I am convinced that somehow the mother misunderstood. From how I was seated and from watching other customers, the hostess gives a choice and the customer chooses. I don’t see why this case would be any different – and there were also other kids in the restaurant, so I don’t think that was a factor.

What is interesting to me beyond the details of this specific case however is the customer/server dynamic and how this lady responded to what she saw as an injustice.

The incident ended with the hostess offering to move the two to a different table and with the mother brushing the suggestion off. “No, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

It was quite a stressful exchange with no obvious material benefit resulting…so, why escalate it? Why did the mother feel compelled to say something? What benefits? What end was she trying to achieve?

She felt like she was treated unjustly, discriminated against. She spoke loudly, perhaps for others to recognize this. She was shaming those that had ill-treated her. When we call out the deficiencies of those who serve us, whether it’s the air stewardess who knocks our elbow with the cart or the waiter who makes us wait too long before taking our order – are we seeking to punish? Punishment being their discomfort? Perhaps we imagine that there could be some negative consequences for the employee. Sometimes, there could be compensation for us, a free dessert, a gift voucher – is that what we’re targeting?

There is also a psychological, emotional element. Of being human and needing to release frustrations, to prove to ourselves that we don’t let people step over us, that we know how we should be treated and know how to stand up for ourselves.

And then there is the customer/server element. Are we crueler to those who serve us than to everyone else? My instinct tells me yes. We are more prone to get angry at someone in a serving capacity than someone not in a serving capacity. We might expect more from those serving and less from everyone else. But also, there is little danger or risk from verbally abusing someone while they’re working. They, by the terms of their employment, do not have the ability to respond fully and defend themselves. Chances are, they won’t swear back at you. They certainly won’t physically assault you.

I just found myself, as the hostess, red in the face walked back to the front of the cafe with the mother and daughter still sitting at their ‘non-plush’ table, wondering, well what was the good of that?