Dailys, Inner Life

Do Wasteful Thoughts Keep You Suspended in Mid-Air

Copyright Dennis Mitton

I’ve started reading Sean Carroll‘s so-far-fantastic-book The Big Picture. It’s tagged as an exploration of the origins of life, the origins of meaning, and the origins of the universe. What could be more fun?? My Kindle lists it at 840 pages but so far each one is worth reading so I expect it will jog all kinds of thoughts and questions that I will translate into posts.

The book opens with Wile E. Coyote defying gravity after running headlong over a steep cliff. Thinking about this, I started to write one thing, and then, mid-paragraph, I thought that, no, this isn’t right, I always advise just the opposite. So I return to one of my favorite topics – things are often more complex than they seem – and offer up the following:

My first thought, with Wile E. suspended above the hard sand below, was of my Mother. I’ve written much about my Father but my Mom is worthy of a few stories in her own right. What made me think of her here is how she stops in the middle of everything to assess the minutia of relationships. Everything is parsed and scrutinized. Motivations, real meanings of words, why someone used that particular word, is all sieved and funneled as she re-evaluates her entire history with that person. And that’s just before breakfast. I’m exaggerating a bit but it’s entirely exhausting to me. I am of that happy and dopey ilk who doesn’t notice these things. I know that when they are mad, they say things they don’t always mean. I know that there are times when people play word-games and mind-games. In general, I’m just so interested in what I’m doing that I’m not that bothered by what you are doing. Some say it’s a flaw. I say it keeps me out of a lot of hot water. I finally did an end-around with my Mom during one of her ‘now, don’t tell your sister this…’ phone calls: I told her that I don’t want to know anything that I can’t tell someone to their face at the Christmas party. She was quiet and finally said Okay. And then didn’t talk to me for six months. We’ve got on fine ever since. I’m seriously out of the family gossip loop and I can’t say how many days or weeks of good living I’ve recovered.

How does this relate to the cartoon? My first thought when I read Carroll was how debilitating it can be to stop and assess every meaningless thing around you. But no more had I thought that than I tripped over the word ‘meaningless’. These things are obviously meaningful to my Mother. They are not to me. But I am a great fan of thoughtful living. Of moving through life intentionally. Of decoding your beliefs and culture and feelings.

So the takeaway is to choose what to think about. If it’s how your son-in-law wears his shirt around your house then that’s your decision. It’s okay. It’s not what I want to focus on. That’s okay, too. Just remember that when you are suspended in mid-air, you are going to fall and hit hard ground. Maybe what we think about can make the landing a little less bruising.


Literature, Relationships

Book Review, My Struggle,Knausgaard, Part 1

Copyright Dennis Mitton

I have started reading the six volume autofictional tome My Struggle written by Norwegian Karl Knausgaard. Many lit types laud the work as a modern classic. Just as many consider the book to be very expensive toilet paper. I’m posting as I read, dividing the work into roughly hundred page chunks for easy digestion. I am reading the English language version titled My Struggle, Book 1, translated by Dan Bartlett and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

book-1We’ve already fought. That’s the sign of a good book. If the reviews can be believed, it’s to be expected. For everyone who loves My Struggle, there is someone else burning it. People pay big money for press like that.

I discovered Knausgaard via a review in the NYT of Book 4. I was intrigued enough to check out Amazon reviews and then traipsed headway to Barnes and Noble to buy Book 1. No Nook download this time. I wanted to hold the book and have something I could talk to and scribble in. Something to save as a record. Once home and ensconced firmly on the bed reading, Mal wanted to know what the fuss was. I gave her the elevator pitch and, when I set the book down, she picked it up, read a couple of paragraphs, and got that glow in her eyes. It’s the same glow that makes the kids clean their room without complaint.

“I know you. I know how you get wrapped up in a book and an author and everything he talks about.” She put that edge on her words – I know you – to let me know that this was not a two-way conversation. “But I…what?” Oops. I forget easy. Time to listen, not talk. “I know you. If you think that you’re going to start living like this, acting like this, if you think that you’re going to start being some pained art recluse…” I tried to interject. “Well, I’m telling you right now that you might as well put that damned book away. I’d put it down before it just gets you in trouble.” My special look was met by her special and more ominous look. “But hon. I’ve read about eight pages.” “Well, as far as I can tell, that’s about eight pages too many.” Conversation over and she’s looking for matches.

She’s heading for the fireplace or the toilet. But isn’t My Struggle a work of genius?

What is Knausgaard’s struggle?

Three themes stand out in the first hundred pages. The first, which is never explicitly mentioned but permeates the writing like a Norwegian hoarfrost, is his relationship with his father. His father is at home as much as any other parent but never connects. He seems surprised to have a son. He is pleasant and mannered but distant and uninvolved. He surprises the young Karl one night and shows up at Parent’s Night at school only to have a bad experience with a teacher. He leaves shouting, announcing loudly that he will never return. Karl’s mother mostly just stops by for the weekend. She is at the university, studying for her Masters, far enough away to make spontaneous stops inconvenient. She evokes the same response from her husband as Karl does from his father. There is nothing overtly ominous or remarkable but a general disconnect and coldness filters that through their lives. They live together from habit with neither animosity nor passion. Knausgaard writes about his father in the same cold, indifferent tone that his father uses to speak to him. Does this uninterested tone hide a hurt and confusion? The lyrics from Pearl Jam’s Jeremy sound true here; ”Daddy didn’t give attention to the fact that Mommy didn’t care.” I want to see where this goes. Mothers can be crazy but it takes a father to really screw someone up.

Karl Ove Knausgaard with ever-present cigarette.

Knausgaard is unabashed in his desire to be a great writer. Not just a writer who writes great lines, but a celebrated novelist who is revered and recognized. He is entitled to it. He is a great mind. He sees things. His angst over not measuring up is a central theme in the early pages of My Struggle. He has sold a few articles and stories over five years as a professional writer but not enough to load his bank or his ego. He blames his family. He requires a large and quiet expanse for careful thoughts, for selecting just the right word, for crafting an exceptional sentence. Instead, he has diaper duty through the daytime hours with breakfast and lunch to serve and clean. He must shop. Comb hair. Cart the children to school. All wastes of time for a genius of his caliber.

Like any honest story about growing up, Knausgaard admits to a portion of teenage confusion and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. I’m interested to see if this carries through or if it’s just a slice of his teenage life. His ‘rock band’ disintegrates within moments of striking their first power chords at their first live show. The mall manager, running toward them with a scrunched face and hands over his ears, thrusts their pay at them and tells them to pack up. He hides beer in the woods and smokes. He loves the feeling of laughing hilarity that rolls over him when he drinks at parties. Until the hilarity gives way to vomiting and passing out. He learns about love. Maybe not love but certainly the glories of naked breasts. But in just a few pages he moves from kissing to sex to boredom.


This is the milieu of My Struggle. Burdened with familial chores and feelings of foisted mediocrity, Knausgaard finally loses his taste for writing and searches for something – anything – to force him to put pen to paper. Something to get back to making letters into words and words into sentences. He decides to write the story of his life so far. He will write plainly and honestly. He will name names. Who cares? No one will ever read these scribbles. He will cut open his heart and ego and expose what is good and what is not. And each day he will call his agent and read what he wrote just to prove that he is still writing. He never imagined that this would be his best work. Friends and family were just as surprised with his honest telling of it and of his popularity – it is reported that many have refused to see him since My Struggle was published.

A hundred pages in and what can be said? He is any kid. He is my kid. He is me. But he writes my story in a way that makes me want to read more. (Is that it? Is Knausgaard’s struggle my struggle?) So far there is no epiphany. No secrets revealed. Just the everyday life of a normal, angst ridden, rock star wannabe teenager in love with bare breasts.

At this point I couldn’t agree more with the reviewer on the back cover:

I can’t stop. I want to stop. I can’t stop, just one more page, then I will cook dinner, just one more page…

Knausgaard on Wiki here.
The Shame of Writing About Myself, Knausgaard in The Guardian

If you enjoy Choosing The Good Life then please hit the follow button to receive notice of new posts. you can go to the About/Contact page and drop me a line or learn a little bit about me. If you find something useful here please pass it on and invite others to join. We are building a community for people interested in living well and living long.

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Literature, Philosophy, Relationships

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Copyright Dennis Mitton

ilyichThere are few things that I love more than a morose, philosophical, and depressing Russian novella. This one is written by the great Count Leo Tolstoy, who, after spending his youth vacillating between whores and responsibility, found religion. (Found true religion more accurately. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing the approved state faith for his own version of Jesus.) The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his change in faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real effort or intent, rises to a mid-level court position, learns to despise his once beloved wife, and largely ignores his once adorable children. He is secretly doubled over with angst, worrying that he doesn’t live up to the sophistication and urbanity of his neighbors and colleagues. So he spends his time crowing about his achievements, of which there are few, and his taste, which is poor. In modern parlance, he’s a reality television star, a Kardashian: all puffery and pretense with little substance.

From Fight Club. Is the IKEA catalog the hipster bible?

After agonizing over the color and cut of his new curtains, Ilyich falls while hanging them. This irony drones quietly through the entire story. Ilyich has made it. He’s a somebody. He has a new home to show off and each corner and niche reveals something more of what a fine man he is. He is proud of his new curtains: surely their design and color speak of the richness of his soul? And then – a trip. The step-stool topples. He falls to the ground in a thud and sets death in motion. Over the following days, he feels an ache in his side and tastes metal in his mouth. He agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who fail to ever accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is in a downward spiral toward pain and death. Increasingly beset with anger and an urgency that death was never meant for him – not now! – he despises everyone around him. Doctors, friends, and family are all liars who feign concern while plotting their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he is sure, ilyich_1because he reminds them of death, of wasting, of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, an old friend who sees the world clearly, a theme woven through all of Tolstoy’s writing.

He is in agony during his last three days. Not from pain only but from nagging emotional ache from thinking that he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. A wisp of nothingness blown in any direction by any breeze. He has lived a false life pursuing and showcasing artifice and selfishness in the same way as the people he now despises. In the hour before he dies he sees it: the good life is an authentic life. The peasant life. A life of concern and compassion. A life of dirt and dust and open eyes. His heart turns and he is filled with love and pity for his family and friends. He will die content and release family and friends from the burden of his care.

Tolstoy and Gandhi wrote to each other and discussed ‘true religion.’

Tolstoy breaks the rules of writing and only nudges the reader toward these revelations. He avoids pamphleteering by leaving questions unanswered. Is this part of his genius? To let each reader discern their own meaning? Can we live ‘authentically’ as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and ill? And what of the noble peasant so deeply woven into Russian writing? If it’s so wonderful to be a peasant then why does every peasant wish to escape the burdens of his place? Is the very thought of authenticity an artifice of luxury and wealth? Tolstoy provides no firm answers and leaves the questions open for readers seeking something more than fashionable drapes.

What does it mean for us here at Choosing The Good Life? Tolstoy’s protagonist came to see on his deathbed what we already know: the good life includes living intentionally, engaging relationships, and an examination of your driving beliefs. Are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? I’ll let you read the book and work these things out for yourself.

Tolstoy Communities, like this one, rose up across Europe and America.They espoused communism and peace and rejected profit and ownership.

Regarding Tolstoy’s writing: if you aren’t at home in the classics you might struggle with the prose. There’s nothing difficult here, it’s just not modern. And Tolstoy takes time to develop the story. There are lots of confusing names for Westerners but this is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. It deserves a place on the thinker’s bookshelf and can be profitably read and re-read.

Four stars.

Go here to see the book on Amazon.
Go here to see the book on Goodreads.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich on Shmoop here.

Thirteen years later, Tolstoy expands on Ilyich in his novel Resurrection. See it here on Amazon.

Troyat’s excellent and readable biography of Tolstoy here.
Fight Club on Amazon. Palahniuk’s modern look at consumerism and authenticity.
Brief overview of Tolstoy Communities here.
Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi here on Brain Pickings.

If you enjoy Choosing The Good Life then please hit the follow button to receive notice of new posts. you can go to the About/Contact page and drop me a line or learn a little bit about me. If you find something useful here please pass it on and invite others to join. We are building a community for people interested in living well and living long.

Thanks and Cheers!