Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

on enthusiasm

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about"--Charles Kingsley

Friday night winds its way into Saturday morning, yet my waking moments, fueled by Diet Coke caffeine from dinner, interrupt my sleep. I've dined at a hibachi grill, watched an interesting television program, and re-posted my eBay sale of the silly CD, after its third auction proved not to be the charm its prior two sales had been(I learned from this failure to mark down my auction minimum from its steady ascent; we'll see if it sells this time). Maybe in a moment I'll put on the headphones for my Radio Shack shortwave radio, and see if I can lose myself in the sounding roar of Radio New Zealand, the Taiwanese national radio or Radio Netherlands. Although each of these stations is probably more or less available via internet, I've become fond of the whirr and buzz of a shortwave station. These instantaneous streamed connections seem less "real" to me than transmittals through the airwaves. In high school, I used to listen to my father's tube-type Halliburton short wave. He had bought it used when he was not long after high school. The tubes still work (thought the tuning dial is largely useless), but sometimes they make those little tube pops and hisses.

This weekend I've set myself the task to move mountains and cudgel Grendel's wayward relatives in their lair. I also seem to have agreed, somewhere in the marital fine print, to drive 40 miles to watch a spousal co-worker tap dance to show tunes. I have a long to-do list, as well as a burning desire to have fun, relaxation and good exercise. I will work like a madman, write poems on line and off, interact on LJ, hike, enjoy time with my wife, and generally find myself entirely alive. I hope I even make it to the ninety percent off book sale.

I notice that my capability for work increases with age, largely because my productivity improves. I no longer feel any pride, though, when I am called upon to work all night on a project, as I might have when I was younger. Now I am inclined to see such late night hours as a failure of planning rather than a virtue of determination.

I notice that I'm enthusiastic about a number of projects, both work-related and hobby-related. I'm a huge believer in enthusiasm. I think that sometimes talent is over-rated, and enthusiasm under-rated. If one's individual aptitudes were credit scored, in the way that the mortgage lender assesses a home buyer, I'm convinced that my score might deny me any but the most prosaic life. In some ways, I feel that I wasted whatever potential that I had, and did not develop new skills to compensate for that potential. I don't mean that in some "woe is me" kind of way. I have a life with which I'm quite happy. But I recognize that the things I do in life are things I get excited about doing, not necessarily the things I am remarkably talented at doing.

That fellow Amos Bronson Alcott always said such aphoristic things.
One thing he said impresses me: "We mount to heaven on the ruins of our cherished schemes, finding our failures were successes". Mr. Alcott had a good idea about failure. An educational reformer whose schools often failed, his family moved 20 times in the first 30 years of his marriage. What was his radical notion that caused so many schools to fail? His subversive idea that schools should feature the arts and music, physical education and nature, and eschew corporal punishment. Later in his life, Mr. Alcott got the recognition his ideas deserved, as his connection with the transcendentalist movement became known. His, and his wife's, own emphasis on their daughters' intellectual and aesthetic needs perhaps played a hand in the fact that his daughter Louisa May wrote many fine novels (most prominent of which is arguably "Little Women") and his daughter May found her way as an artist. Mr. Alcott was a very untalented man in very many ways. By many accounts, he was an impractical theorist, a poor bread-winner, an indifferent writer, an inveterate talker and utopian, and an imperfect family man, given to flights of fancy more than practical schemes. But in some ways, his failures came for the right reasons. One of his schools failed, for example, because he admitted an African-American child to the classroom, and the anglo parents withdrew their children from school. Arguably, only at the end of his life did he reach his perfect niche, when his daughter's earnings from writing supported the family, and he launched a "summer school of philosophy" to expound on his many and varied ideas. But among many flaws and errors in his life, his many virtues included that he painstakingly advocated equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery, freedom of thought and faith, and the importance of education. One cannot forget, either, that during most of his life, most people thought his work unimportant. In those days, there was no telephone, no telegraph, no radio, no television, and imperfect educational systems and literacy. The society was deeply stratified and extremely flawed. That was not some golden age for meeting kindred spirits, and reaching new revelations.

I think sometimes it's tempting to feel about historical people the way that I feel when I read a Jane Austen novel. Sometimes even the middle class people, with whose "poverty" I am to commiserate (and hope for a saving marriage) have so much more leisure than I have ever had in my adult life that it reminds me of one of my mother's favorite sayings--"they were so poor, that even the live-in maid was poor". Those folks in the novels who had an income without working intrigue me, and perhaps even incite my envy. I find it easy to imagine that those who did interesting things began with more advantages or lived in a more fertile soil than I did.

But Amos Bronson Alcott actually had no education beyond age 13. His father farmed flax, so Alcott started with no funds for his schemes. He educated himself while working as a peddler and a handyman. He read a lot of German, English, and Greek philosophy, while he worked in jobs one might charitably describe as drudgery. I find his story very appealing, because his life drew tremendous fuel from sheer enthusiasm, though he lacked many advantages and talents given to others. Alcott himself said that "enthusiasm is essential to the successful attainment of any human endeavor; without which incentive, one is unsure of his equality to the humblest undertakings even".

I perceive sometimes that people value themselves (or, more accurately, devalue themselves) according to various extremely material measures of success. My own theory, subjected to only the research of my own mind, is that in our culture, economic success and a sort of celebrity-ization infects the way things appear.

This is true even here in LJ. I read brilliant journals by people whose words I cherish, but those self-same people denigrate themselves because the great wide world has not seen fit to publish them in corporate mass-run books, exhibit them in galleries designed solely to provide commodities and interior design for the rich, or pay them sums of money to generate corporate profits for record companies. Please do not believe that gurdonark, a commercial litigation attorney who pays firm attention to the bottom line, eschews the desire to make a living, and by many (though remotely far from all) measures a quite workable living. Nothing is wrong with people in the arts or in any moral pursuit wanting to be recognized or paid handsomely for their efforts.

I posit instead that the lesson history teaches me is that so many people who came to do work I find meaningful did not achieve during their lives any of the respect or renumeration that their hard work arguably deserved. Moreover, of those who did get recognition, so many examples exist of people who changed the world, but considered themselves utter failures. I think of Mohandas Gandhi, who helped illustrate alternatives to violence in resisting oppression, but who came to view himself as a failure because he was unable to prevent the violent partition of India and Pakistan. On a less positive note, I think of one of my favorite musical pioneers, Harry Partch, who, despite a solid string of grants and perquisites from people who wished to assist him stretching over decades, continually believed that his genius went un-noticed. I come to conclude that recognition--or one's sense that one is being recognized, is not a true measure of the value of one's work.

I think that it's easy to mistrust one's own enthusiasm, and trust the messages that the world tolls out like bells. Can you hear those words ringing out, like the "nine tailors" bell peal that killed the man in the murder mystery? The first toll--it can't be important if it does not pay; the second toll--if you could write, a New York agent would have found you a publisher; the third toll--it's not important unless it's in the newspaper; the fourth toll--if you do it yourself, without some critical imprimatur, it can't matter; the fifth toll--it's not what you do, it's only who you know; the sixth toll--your importance derives solely from what others think of you; the seventh toll--unless you get a formal grant or award, your work does not matter; the eighth toll--you lack the degrees from the institutions we respect; and the ninth toll--who told you that you could achieve x? No wonder the landscape is littered with people shell-shocked by carillon. I see the desperation and the false bravado of being one's own best reader and promoter take its toll. But enthusiasm requires no false bravado, but just the courage to recognize that one with integrity does what one must do, in order to fulfill one's goals. Money or recognition or accolades are nice, but they do not suffice, nor are they necessary.

This week I've felt an experience which I call a "communion of saints", though I mean this in the most non-religious sense. A woman interested in my chess poetry approached me by IM to compliment some I put on the web years ago (she promptly agred to sumit to my Mail Poetry Call, which gratified me). An eBay auction ran the price of my chess poem book up in a competitive bid, as comic ad copy sold it again. I sold two of my CDs, and the first buyer just put appreciative feedback on eBay about the electric football fields music contained thereon. None of these will make me more than "break even" money, nor grant me any great fame, but I am gratified for my enthusiasm in some small way being rewarded.

I read on LJ people truly gifted at writing, some of whom are "published" writers, but most of whom run on the fuel of enthusiasm alone. I wish that I could give one gift to those here and elsewhere in my life who ply their gifts with enthusiasm. To the ambient music artists, who re-invent a genre while selling only hundreds or a few thousands of CDs a release; to the LJ'ers who write small miracles to audiences of dozens; to the artists who fight unsuccessfully for grants from people ill-equipped to understand their work; to the kid whose family has humble material means, who strings together choir scholarships and Pell grants and work/study to get that education from the local Hometown U; to the people who put on plays without budgets; help the deaf without funding; attend Democratic Party meetings in the most conservative county in north Texas. To each of them I'd give the gift of peace with their enthusiasm. I'd give them the assurance that what they do matters. I'd give them just one drop of cool water on a fevered brow (that being the limit of my meager canteen), that in their enthusiasm, I find all my hope. I find myself enthusiastic, though it makes me launch long comments on LJ, and post wordy posts, and write poems, too many poems, in ecstatic succession. I'll continue down this course, hopefully until I die.
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