Saturday, April 28

Carla Bruni

I have recently been enjoying the music of Carla Bruni, an Italian songwriter and singer (and former model). She has released two albums so far, which are quite different from one another. Her debut album Quelqu'un m'a dit ('Someone told me') is composed of soft French chansons, simple and pure. 'On me dit que nos vies ne valent pas grand chose, elles passent en un instant comme fanent les roses,' are the first words sung on the album. Someone told me that our lives aren't worth a thing, they pass by in an instant, like roses wilting. Curiously, Bruni's music seems to suit every occasion, type of weather, and state of mind.

All tracks on the second album, No promises, are adapted by Bruni from English poems by authors such as W. B. Yeats and Emily Dickinson. My favorite is Promises Like Pie-Crust, originally written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Bruni makes it seem as if the author truly meant this poem to be sung. After hearing the song, feeling the rhythm of the words whilst reading it is marvellous.

Promise me no promises,
So will I not promise you:
Keep we both our liberties,
Never false and never true:
Let us hold the die uncast,
Free to come as free to go:
For I cannot know your past,
And of mine what can you know?

You, so warm, may once have been
Warmer towards another one:
I, so cold, may once have seen
Sunlight, once have felt the sun:
Who shall show us if it was
Thus indeed in time of old?
Fades the image from the glass,
And the fortune is not told.

If you promised, you might grieve
For lost liberty again:
If I promised, I believe
I should fret to break the chain.
Let us be the friends we were,
Nothing more but nothing less:
Many thrive on frugal fare
Who would perish of excess.

Thursday, April 19

The art of inaction

It is harder than it seems; doing nothing at all. Even when 'doing' excludes thinking and observing. If you really want to do it the Buddhist way, you should eliminate the first one and completely bend your mind to the second. That's really not much action at all, but very difficult to sustain. I'm not necessarily talking about not thinking though. It doesn't have to be silent in your head.

In the company of others I often actually feel the need to do something just to look occupied, as if it's socially unacceptable to dream away. Travelling by train daily, I read every newspaper I can find, or at least listen to some music. Many people start playing with their cellphone once they get bored, sending text messages or browsing through the settings. For some reason it's always very obvious that they're bored.

But why would inaction imply weariness? You're not boring yourself, are you? That can't be right. Just let your thoughts off the chain! I feel it's actually very productive to do nothing at all - not all of the time of course, but in moderation it's quite valuable. Just to relax and think about what's going on, what happens next. Perhaps developing a few ideas. Or just enjoying the sunshine. I wouldn't be able to come up with much ideas to write about on this blog if I were focussing on other stuff all the time. Even music, because listening to lyrics can be quite distracting. For me personally it's a challenge too. But if doing nothing is done right, it's very satisfying. Who knows where you might end up?

Thursday, April 12

The Earth from above

These pictures made by the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand are truly inspiring. You can find more of his work here and here, along with detailed descriptions. Some of Arthus-Bertrand's work can also be downloaded in poster size at the French website Le Développement Durable.

Sunday, April 8

It's in the little things

A guy in Brittain, whom I've never met, is behind is computer right now playing songs for me on his guitar, even singing occasionally.

Need I say more? It's just one of those things.

Thursday, April 5

The greener grass

Every now and then, it seems as if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. There's you on one side, and pretty much all of them on the other side - and they all seem to have what you desire. Lots of friends. A place in the city. A fuller, more interesting, better life in general. There's no logic to this thought, of course.

First of all, when you think back, you'll probably realize you were just fine with your life a couple of days ago. It's a phase, it came and it'll go away again. Why you feel you're missing out in the first place is a matter for debate (tough luck, chemical imbalance) but we all have our bad days. Nothing to do about that. We know it.

Secondly, deep inside we also know we won't really be happier people when we would be living like others. Because that's the whole point - it's not just the desire for greener grass, it's having a lawn as nice as other people seem to have. We all have our personal goals and dreams, and most of the time the fact that we haven't accomplished them doesn't bother us. We place them in our future, "that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured," as Ambrose Bierce put it. We tell ourselves those days'll come, sometime. The Greener Grass Syndrome comes with a very different set of desires; they are based on comparison with people that are quite like us and have a life we feel we are supposed to live - right at this very moment. The desires, therefore, are not our own. Most of the time I'm an independent thinker, doing my own thing. And then suddenly, conflicting with all my principles, I feel I really just want to be like everybody else. Which is nonsense - I know that. "Jealousy," Erica Jong wrote in her first novel, "is all the fun you think they had."

The grass isn't greener. Not for us, anyway. Did your parents used to tell you how little orphans in Africa would do anything for a bite of that broccoli (spinach, sprouts, goulash) you would refuse to eat? Mine did, and of course they were quite right. People in Third World countries would risk everything for a life like ours. The chance to dream about a better future, like we do. And they do risk everything, putting their lifes in the hands of people smugglers, setting out in their rickety little boats. It's not just the green broccoli. Whatever happens to us, to them we are and will always remain the greener grass. I know this, I deliberately think about it and tell myself I'm just being silly. But to be honest, it doesn't feel that way at all.

I 've been imagining seeing greener grass on all the other lawns. Not being able to resist ruminating about it constantly, all this logic has passed my mind. You see, it really feels like I will surely come to a reasonable conclusion if I think about it a little longer. That all of a sudden, I'll be capable of sane reasoning again. But that's just another delusion, because all the logic in the world is not going to change how I feel. In these sort of situations it never does. It's a matter of waiting until I come to my senses again.

Sunday, April 1

I can't get no

A reasonably intelligent animal - such as a dog - can be taught tricks, because it can learn and remember the connection between a situation, its appropriate action, and the reward that is given when it undertakes this action. You can get your pup to recognize the word 'sit' and know what is expected. Most of the time it'll actually sit down because it has learned the reward for this behaviour is a dog cookie. Dog cookies make dogs happy.

The same thing works for us - reasonably intelligent - humans. We want to be happy, and this urge drives us to undertake certain actions of which we have learned they are usually rewarded with satisfaction. Why did our anchestors hunt and why do we spend our money in supermarkets? Because we need food to survive, of course. But we don't actually set out to buy dinner supplies because 'we die if we don't', do we? We can go without food for weeks. But hunger is a state of dissatisfaction, and we don't like being dissatisfied. Satisfaction is the ultimate reward for anything we do. If you take care of your needs and wishes, your brain releases some pleasant neurotransmitters, and you think "hey, I should do this more often." Of course you and your brain are the same. No matter what the initial reward is (money, appreciation, cookies) and how you got it, in the end you're rewarding yourself. But if you are able to do that, then why don't you do it all the time? Why doesn't your brain keep pumping itself full of dopamine?

"Dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. Dopamine is released by naturally rewarding experiences such as food, sex, use of certain drugs and neutral stimuli that become associated with them." -

In nature, things work the way they do for a reason. Mechanisms without a function disappear. We experience a difference between satisfaction and dissatisfaction because it motivates us. Nature rewards actions that contribute to our survival and procreation. In the course of evolution, animals that did not experience the fact that there is a better and a worse state of being - and that they were able to influence this with their own actions - would have been utterly unsuccessful. We do not descend from any of them. We are never fully satisfied because it is not in our genes, because it is essential for our survival to know what it is like to be unhappy.

Imagine a time thousands of years ago, where a small and primitive tribe of Homo Sapiens lives in the woods. They hunt for deer and search for shelter every night because they know they feel uncomfortable if they are hungry and cold. Mothers take care of their babies. And on one starry evening a most remarkable child is born, a child that is always perfectly satisfied. He grows up with a peaceful smile on his face, never really doing anything in particular. If his parents would have ever heard of Buddha they'd notice the resemblance. The boy is taken good care of by fellow tribe members. He eats when they feed him. He drinks when they put a cup of water to his lips. When they're moving to a new place they take him by the hand, because he'll just stand still if they don't. He doesn't care if he's left behind. He wouldn't mind his father getting angry with him for not obeying. The boy reaches an age at which he is expected to support himself. He is expected to leave the tribe. Considering the nature of the boy, the tribe ends up leaving him - well supplied with everything he'll need to survive.

The boy just stands there, until he falls to the ground. He lies on the damp grass, the sun warming his tired body. He enjoys himself , but not because of the sensation of warmth or grass tickling his feet. He always enjoys himself. Hours become days. He keeps lying there. His throat dries to sandpaper, his stomach rumbles in dismay. His internal organs start to shut down. The boy feels satisfied. Then he dies.

What a wonderful life, lived in complete vain.