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by Richard Nilsen
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In the past, I’ve attempted an autobiography. Not for anyone public to read — there is no thought to ever having it published. Nor is there any thought here of burdening you with any of it. But in the process of writing it, I have found out several things that might be of interest, not so much about me, as about memory and writing.
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The idea first came up about 25 years ago when I realized that me and my two brothers had gone different ways in our lives, and that, over the years as I went off to college and left home, and then as my younger brother did the same, and baby brother did, too, what we knew of each other had shrunk. Each had an interesting life of his own and I knew precious little of those lives. And so, I proposed that we each write a short overview of our lives and careers for the two other brothers to read.
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It seemed like a natural idea. But I did not take into account that I was a writer by birth and that my two brothers were not. They had other talents — considerable talents in visual arts and woodworking — but they were not really writers, while I, cursed as I am with the word-bug, couldn’t stop: The short memoir I began grew quickly to 250 pages and I had barely finished writing about getting out of college. It was clear that if I continued in the same vein, my short bit would soon pass 500 pages before I even got to my second official wife (the unofficial wife took up better than a third of what I had written). Was there that much interesting to relate? To me, maybe, but to anyone else? Even to a brother?
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My first surprise in the doing was the way memory functions. Each time I dredged up some recollection, it showed me three others, like entering a room and finding three other doors to open. And each door I opened led to another room with three more doors, and so on. The amount of a material that remained, somehow crammed into my neurons, left me dumbfounded. I did not know I knew so much.
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The whole exercise was Proustian. I have no doubt that for anyone else who tries, the results would be similar: There is so much buried in the skullbone, waiting only to be dug up and resurrected.
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The second big surprise was in the difficulty in arranging this material. We may think it would all work out chronologically — when I was two, I did this; when I was four, I did the other, etc. But the information spilled out thematically more than sequentially. And so, I found myself pulling the string on one aspect of my life more completely before going back to start over with another string.
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In the rewriting (I apologize, but for anyone who makes his living by word, writing is rewriting), I found I needed to jump years and jump subjects, weaving them back and forth, just to keep any forward momentum in the paragraphs. It turns out that there is no simple timeline. A life is a jumbled mess.
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To relate the amatory line, you must segue from one relationship to another, explaining the mishaps and outrages which led from one to the next. The career line, however does not parallel the amatory, and requires its own passages. There is another line on what you thought politically, another for whatever travels you have taken, another for the books that you read and have influenced you most deeply. None of these line up easily, and to jump from one to the other muddies the cause-and-effect in any singular narrative.
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Then, too, there is the question of what you are willing to say about certain unsavory episodes, or if you are willing to name names. If such a memoir were to be commercially published, there would be the question of potential libel. But even if only meant for private eyes, there are peoples’ feelings to consider. You want to be diplomatic, but sometimes doing so misrepresents the truth.
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Oh, there’s that word — a true bugaboo. What counts as truth? In the series of memoirs written by Australian critic Clive James, he tells us outright with his title: Unreliable Memoirs. Andre Gregory’s recent book is titled This Is Not My Memoir.
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If “names are changed to protect the innocent,” can such a book be trusted as being truthful?
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Truth in autobiography is subject to memory, and memory is subject both to failed synapses — increasing with age — and also to the tendency in human utterance to create coherence, even if none is to be found. We make stories of our memories, and when we tell the memories over too many times, the story becomes the memory rather than vice versa.
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How many times have I related some episode, only to have a brother remind me, “No, that’s not how it happened.” He has his recollection and it contradicts mine, even though in my memory, my version is as clear as a rung bell. (Occasionally a third version is proffered, and no one will agree, which makes a thoughtful person question if there is any way to pin these things down.)
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And so, any memoir is a version of a many-sided truth. You may remember an argument with your ex-wife one way, while she may remember something wholly different. Perhaps both are right. Perhaps you are even remembering different arguments. Keeping a life straight becomes more confused the more you find yourself recollecting. Pile on pile of memory: Did this happen first, or did that happen first? Did that fight cause the breakup? Or was that one a year earlier? I am 73 now. Things that happened 50 or 60 years ago lose their sequential clarity.
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In part, I also wrote what I wrote because my parents and grandparents didn’t. When I was a boy, I never thought about my family having a life previous to my arrival. When I was older, I had other preoccupations. And when I finally got old enough to ask, my grandparents were gone. I tried doing an “oral history” with my parents, but they had little to say. Perhaps it was the fact they lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and would rather have forgotten the past, but getting anything out of them was squeezing rocks.
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And later, when I had specific questions about family history they might have been able to answer, they were gone, too.
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And so, I wanted to get down on paper what I could, in case that moment might ever arrive, after I’m gone, when my son or my twin granddaughters might wish they had been able to ask me those questions.
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To this end, I also tried to get my wife to relate her stories of life and childhood. I would sit her down, and like George Burns saying to Gracie Allen, “So, tell us about your brother, Gracie,” and she’d be off to the races. Carole was like that: She had a million stories, some of them as Southern Baroque as anything Faulkner wrote. I typed as fast as she spoke, and I got much down, but I’m afraid Carole did not live long enough to finish the project. Still, I have many bits preserved for her granddaughters, for whenever they might be ready for them.
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She grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1940s and her family kept animals — a cow, some hogs and chickens. When she was 8 or 9, it was her job to feed the chickens. She told me this story:
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“They were mine to feed and to water,” she said.
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“One evening when Papa E [her grandfather] had come home from a trip to Florida, he brought a big wet burlap sack filled with oysters. We built a hickory fire in the back yard and buried the oysters in the coals to roast. Then we opened the oysters while we were standing around the fire and ate them with Texas Pete sauce. They were so, so wonderful. And it was the first time I had seen the beautiful lining inside oyster shells.
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“After the oyster roast, I collected all the shells and kept them. For me, they were very precious China dishes.
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“We kept our chicken feed in an oil drum across the street in the warehouse with the cow. I would lean over, hanging my ribs on the oil drum and scoop up chicken scratch and carry a bucket full across the street back to the chicken lot, which happened to be directly under my bedroom window. My favorite view of the river was from my bed. I could sit in my bed, look out my window and see the flood waters almost up to the house, when we had heavy rains.
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“One day, I had an idea about feeding the chickens. I could give each chicken its own little dish — my own little oyster plates — and fill each with chicken feed. When I got the oyster shells, I arranged them in a huge pattern that spelled out the letters of my name. My plan was to fill them up with chicken feed then run as fast as I could to my bedroom window and looking out the window, see my name spelled out in chickens.
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“I lost respect for chickens on that day: They insisted on eating 15 at a time, at one shell. I lost respect for them in two ways. First for their obvious lack of intelligence and second for their lack of refinement.”
 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 
 

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by Richard Nilsen
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My house is filled with books, and so many that I will never live long enough to read them all. It is a personal version of a universal problem: So much has been written over the past 4500 years that no one can ingest more than a wee fraction of the total. That’s four and a half millennia of culture. So, what counts, these days, as being cultured, or well-read? 
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No work of literature or art exists in a vacuum. Even the newest book has a past. Culture is an accumulation: Each new work builds on the past, and requires a shared understanding of that past with its audience. Just as you have to learn vocabulary in order to read, so you need some handle on the past to fully understand what is written now. But, there is too much for any one person to absorb, and no way for any author to assume his readers will recognize and vibrate to what is there, subliminally, in the works. That past is there even in best-sellers by Diana Gabaldon or Dean Koontz. 
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There used to be an agreed upon canon of literature that any well-educated person was assumed to be familiar with. But, as the world shrank through communication advances and progress in transportation, the canon looked increasingly provincial. It was almost wholly white, male, and European. What of Asia and Africa? Why were there not more women included? Perhaps, too, that white European bias was the root evil of colonialism. 
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I can’t answer all these questions, but it is important to raise them as we begin to lose the common cultural inheritance that the canon used to provide. Acres of writers over the past centuries have quoted or riffed upon the words of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It was assumed that anyone with a decent education (even a decent high-school education) would understand the references. When Abraham Lincoln wrote “Fourscore and seven years ago…” his listeners would have tacitly resonated to the biblical “three score and ten” years allotted to a human life. He could have just said, “Eighty-seven years ago,” but he didn’t. The force of the Bible gave his words a tidal power that made his rhetoric memorable. 
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We just had a three-part Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway. Papa’s novels drip with the power of allusion. The Sun Also Rises comes from Ecclesiastes 1:5. For Whom The Bell Tolls rings from John Donne. A Farewell to Arms has Vergil’s Aeneid buried in it. 
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T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is a midden of such buried cultural memes. Some are explicated in the notes at the end of the poem (should poetry require footnotes?), but most are just there to be felt or be vaguely familiar. The poet expected his readers to share his erudition and quietly appreciate the roots that sprouted the verse. Eliot, in his notes, tells us that line 23 (“And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”) is a gloss on Ecclesiastes 12:5 (“the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden”), which seems a bit of a stretch, but he doesn’t feel it necessary to point out that the opening line of the poem (“April is the cruelest month”) is an ironic reversal of Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with its shoures soute…”). He thought that too obvious to mention. What in today’s world can be considered too obvious to mention? 
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Eliot’s poetry, itself, is now the cause of allusion (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas…” Ask Woody Allen). 
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There are at least two problems with such allusions. The first is epitomized by Ezra Pound, who so completely built his Cantos on fragments from obscure writers and historical figures that no one without the same erudition as himself could have any clear idea what he was talking about. If the main point of your reference is the reference, the main point is also pointless. And Pound’s reading was so idiosyncratic and esoteric that no reasonable human should be expected to share it. 
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The second problem is best displayed in the work of John Milton. There is no doubt of Milton’s greatness as a poet: He is the second-most quoted author after Shakespeare. Bartlett’s is stuffed with him. But Milton was so casually familiar with the Bible and Classical writers that you often now need a gloss to know what he means when he writes of his muse that intends to ”soar Above th’ Aonian mount” which his educated readers would have known was Mount Helicon, where the Greek muses lived by the Hippocrene spring, a spring created by the hoof-stamp of Pegasus, the winged horse that symbolized poetic inspiration because he could fly to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Any self-respecting gentleman of the time, with any degree of education, could read Ovid in Latin and would be familiar with all the gods, godlets and nymphs and fauns mentioned in The Metamorphoses, a foundational work of Western literature and thus slide past them knowingly while reading Paradise Lost. Few of our contemporaries read Ovid and hence the need for footnotes. Now you can go through 12 years of public school and four years of university and never getting any closer to Ovid than a NASCAR fan to the ballet. 
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When novelist William Styron wrote about his battle with depression, he named the book Darkness Visible, referencing Milton. Milton also shows up in Philip Pullman’s science-fiction classic, His Dark Materials. There was a Playstation video game named Pandemonium. For someone so seldom read, Milton gets around. 
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We should expect that cultural reference comes and goes, it blossoms and then fades with time. Once, Milton was one everyone’s tongue, now he is for doctoral candidates. Once the Bible was lingua franca, now, it seems, those who know the book at all only know the parts they like and ignore the rest.  (“Who’s the greatest contortionist in the Bible?” “Balaam, because the Bible says he tied his ass to a tree and walked away.”) The best-known of Shakespeare is still recognizable, but I venture few would remember to context to “Put out the light, then, put out the light” or “All that glisters is not gold.” “To be or not to be” is too familiar, but even those who can quote the first six words of the soliloquy probably don’t know the rest of it contemplates suicide, or where it comes in the Hamlet story — or why. 
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It has always been the habit of the educated — the initiates in the cultural legacy — to lament the loss of that inheritance, and condemn the ignorance of the younger generations. I have been guilty of that myself, because I have spent so much time imbibing my cultural past and fear the loss of meaning that evaporates with the loss of memory of past culture. I, who know Gilgamesh and Beowulf, who reads the Iliad annually, who have ingested my Ovid and Livy, my Melville and Faulkner, weep for those bereft of such treasures. But I need to recognize the evanescence of such knowledge. One set of cultural touchstones is inevitably replaced by a new set, piece by piece, like the original wood of the Argo. 
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I doubt we can do without a cultural gravity pulling us toward a center, but it needn’t be the one that worked in the past. Just watch a Quentin Tarantino film and see how the cinematic past enriches the Pulp Fiction present, how he uses the styles of Hong Kong in Kill Bill, or the tropes of Western movies in The Hateful Eight. Inglourious Basterds is built, not on a knowledge of history so much as on the digested habits of World War II movies — and in much the same way as Paradise Lost is rooted in Ovid and Vergil. Just as Milton expected his readers to be familiar with Ovid, so Tarantino expects his audience to be familiar with Johnnie To and William Wyler. 
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I have recognized that my own cultural memory is mine and must let the younger generation have theirs. But I nevertheless worry that mine subsumes four millennia of accumulation building on itself, while what I see in the coming cultural horizon barely extends back a hundred years. My granddaughters do stunningly well at school — now at university — but neither knows any Bible stories. This is not picking on them: No one who is secular in their generation does. How much of their cultural patrimony is blank? Nor does their generation soak up Sophocles, Dante, Hawthorne or Yeats. They have their touchstones, but I cannot but worry that their inner lives are undernourished for it, l’eau sans gaz
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But is my inner life starving because I cannot read Latin? French? Russian? Chinese? I think of all the books I haven’t read. The list seems nearly infinite. My own bookshelves shame me. I own the books that populate them, but I haven’t gotten around to reading everything waiting there, inviting me in. There isn’t time. 
 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 

 
 
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by Richard Nilsen
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I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere.
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Well, maybe not everywhere, but a whole hell of a lot of places. I’ve been to every state except Hawaii, and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador. I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner and the continent twice by train. I’ve set foot in 14 countries as far north as the Yukon and south as the Cape of Good Hope.
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Not as impressive as it might sound at first. Lots of us have camped through Europe or vacationed in Cancun. Compared with real world travelers, I’m only a middling cosmopolitan. Compared with Michael Palin, I’m a shut-in. But I’ve seen more of the world than most of my fellow Americans.
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And perhaps I have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; I have seen the menhirs of Brittany.
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“I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere.” The song sung by Hank Snow lists dozens of towns — “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa Oklahoma Tampa …” It goes on for four verses. “Boston Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston …” “Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville …” “ Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg …”
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Wait — Gravelbourg? Maybe I haven’t been everywhere. Or maybe I have: I’ve driven through southern Saskatchewan, and so maybe I passed through Gravelbourg without knowing it. It’s a sneeze on the prairie, not much more.
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The song names 91 locations and I’ve been to most of them.
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(The song was originally about Australia, written by Aussie country singer Geoff Mack in 1959 and named “Mooloolaba, Murwillumbah, Ulladulla, Wallumbilla and Kumbarilla, among other peculiarly Australian place names. The song was then adapted by Rolf Harris with British toponyms, before being rewritten for North America and Hank Snow. Later localized versions have appeared for Finland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Catalonia. A version also made it to The Simpsons, listing “Springfield, Shelbyville, Ogdenville, Cap City, Ogdenburg, Shelbytown, Spring City Cap Field, West Springfield, Paris, Rome and Shelbyville Adjacent.” As a trope, the song is infinitely adaptable.)
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So, maybe not Gravelbourg.
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When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.
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And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times.
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I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to.
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But I meant to say, before being distracted by Hank Snow and Mooloolaba, that travel has meant as much to me as my college degree, as much as the books I have amassed and read. Travel gave me a sense of the world. An awareness of other lands, other peoples, other cultures and foods. But also a physical, palpable sense. The air feels different in South Africa, where the humidity soaks the air thick drifting in from the Indian Ocean. The light strikes the land differently in Norway, when the sun hangs low in the sky. The sun hits the skin like a hammer in an Arizona summer.
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And escaping the confines of birthplace can give a sense of this being a round-ball planet we inhabit. And it is round. I remember driving across the empty plains of western Nebraska and feeling as if I was coasting across the top of a great dome. Below the crest I rode I could see the tips of grain elevators downhill before me and behind in the rear-view mirror. The closer I got, the more of the elevator I could see until I shared the top of the dome with it, and then watched it recede down the backside of the dome until it was drowned by the horizon.
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This wasn’t an optical illusion, but the factual case that I was on the top of a dome — the globe of the earth. A gnat on a basketball. Most of the time, you live a life on a flat earth, the center of a circular horizon. But when the horizon opens out, as it does on the prairie, you can see far enough to intuit the way the land drops away from you in all directions. As I drive, I am king of the hill.
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Two other times I became intensely aware of the curvature of the earth. The most dramatic was in South Carolina, at dawn standing on the beach. The sun broke the horizon over the Atlantic and when it is that low, you can actually see it moving as it rises. But then, suddenly, it stopped moving in the sky, the way it did for Joshua, and instead, the whole earth cranked up, like a giant ferris wheel and lurched toward the steady sun. I nearly lost my balance as the planet beneath my feet dropped to the east. I knew in a Galilean flash that “Eppur si muove,” “Still, it moves.”
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Another time, I was standing on top of Roden Crater, the extinct volcano in Northern Arizona that was shaped into an art installation by James Turrell. It was evening and the sun was going down. Turrell turned me to the east and said, “Night is said to fall, but it doesn’t. It rises.” And he pointed out the shadow of the round earth against the sky, cast by the lowered sun against the air and the sharp line between light and dark there, that rose slowly upwards from the horizon, until it was gobbled up in the general darkness of night. I was awestruck. I have sought this effect many times since, and occasionally found it, but it is hard to see it where the lights of the town and city glare out the dusk.
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In 1982, my wife and I were both schoolteachers and had the summers to travel. We got in her Chevy Citation and put 10,000 miles on the odometer in two months and a bit, making a great circumnavigation of the Lower Forty-Eight. That many miles give you a seat-of-the-pants appreciation of a distance more than a third of the way around the planet. I have a body-feel sense of just how large (really, how small) the Earth is. In subsequent summers, we drove enough over the several years to finish the distance around the equator.
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Many years later, I had to drive from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend. Believe me, that was hauling miles. In one day, I put more than 900 miles under my wheels, which means that in a month of such days, I would have counted another trip around the world, pace Nelly Bly.
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I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere.
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Been to Chartres four times; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun;  stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”); to all the major Civil War battle sites; and across the Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass.
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I have hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids).
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Given a long enough life, we have all filled those years with meaning. Travel is one of my greatest fountains of meaning. I add it to the list.
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But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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Right from the beginning, let me present my bona fides by stipulating that I am an idiot. Oh, I know a lot of stuff, but the ratio of what I know to what I don’t know approaches the infinite. It can hardly be otherwise.
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Just for starters, higher mathematics is, for me, impenetrable. I made it through high school algebra, but the calculus might as well be the Greek. Or rather the language of bonobos: I actually studied Greek in college (not that I recall much of it — still more than I can parse out derivatives or integrals). I’m much stronger in the humanities than in STEM subjects. Which is not to say they don’t interest me. They do. But my grasp of quantum physics ends with Otto Theimer’s book, A Gentleman’s Guide to Modern Physics, and that came out in 1973. I have a lot of catching up to do.
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But then, I doubt most physicists could tell the difference between Bruckner and Mahler in under three bars. Or explain the use of the caesura in Middle English verse. These are different universes. There is just too much to know. If you understand spooky action at a distance, you don’t necessarily know how to replace the struts on a 1997 Honda. Or the succession of dynasties in ancient Egypt. Or how to speak Cambodian or read the odd script in which it’s written. Or even how to make a good omelet.
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A million brilliant minds in a million years could not completely absorb the knowledge, just of things that are known, without even considering all that is still unknown and even unknowable. But there is one unknowable thing that everyone knows. The self.
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I know my self. I have lived with me my whole life, and while I know my self intimately, I also know I can never know anyone else’s self. I can understand; I can empathize; but I cannot know.
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And what is this self? I fall back on the wisdom of Potter Stewart. I cannot define or explain my self, but I am at every moment of my life aware of it, functioning like a motor, or sitting like the operating system in my laptop.
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That self is the axis mundi. It is the center of the universe and all else extends from it. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way; I am well aware of my own insignificance. But that perceptually, I am at the center of anything I know and the world spreads outward from my self. If you recall the images of Einstein’s gravity, with a kind of trampoline graph paper and a ball dropped into it, weighing down the center — that is the self in the world.
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I can know that I am only one such center among 7 billion such centers, but neither can I escape my own punctus there in the fabric of time and space.
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This March, The Spirit of the Senses has four salons about this very subject. Each of the speakers is smarter and more educated than me, and I wish I could be there for these lectures. They will understand the philosophical and neuro-biological complexities of the issue. But there is something I know that they don’t: What it is to be me.
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Too often, we speak of selfhood in terms of roles: I am a father, a brother, a writer, a geezer, a widower. But these are masks or personae. I have never thought of them as having anything to do with me self. No matter what role I play at any given moment, it is mere surface; underneath is the permanent bubbling self: my perpetual awareness.
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When I hear someone is suffering an “identity crisis,” I confess, I am confused. I have never experienced something like this. I am me. Who else could I be? There is something rock solid and permanent about that inner thing that remains constant from my first awareness until now. Me.
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Philosophers from Aristotle to Aaron Sloman have set their cogitative faculties in a cogibundity of cogitation over the issue of what, exactly, is the self, and for 2,500 years, no single answer has been satisfactory.
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Descartes famously postulated Cogito ergo sum. And broke the mind apart from the body. We’ve been trying to reassemble them ever since. In the 19th century, the Romantic writers gave a different formulation: Ego sentio ergo sum — “I feel, therefore I am.” Aristotle, Descartes and Sloman are all very much smarter than I am, so I have no good answer. But I still experience a self.
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I have known people with shattered selves, so I don’t mean to sound smug about this. A shattered self can leave one in a state of depersonalization, where the victim can look into their closet and not know whose clothes those are, or even look in a mirror and not recognize who they see. There is a discontinuity in the awareness. But for most humans, the self is left unquestioned, and probably unquestionable.
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At the Temple of Delphi there is a famous inscription: “Know thyself.” But I believe you can never know your self, you rather, experience your self.
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It is the gears under the hood, the tape that records, the eye that sees without judgement. On top of that self, we layer our world views, our belief systems, our judgements and opinions. But the self sits almost like the dragon in its cave. It just is. “I am that I am.” Ego sum ergo sum.
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I see this clearly looking at the series of pictures of myself from when I was an infant to now, when I am an old man. In between come the student, the husband, the ex-, the career, the exhaustion, the grayed hairs, the grandfather. Which is me? Instead, what I see are frames from a continuous movie and the only reality that counts is the movement, the constant flux from one being into another, no boundaries, no scene changes, no new chapter headings, but one continuous wipe, from beginning to an end now approaching close enough almost to touch.
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That flow, that constant metamorphosis, is me. Not the infant, not the student, not the husband or the old man with a short future, but the wipe, the smear, the river.
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It is perpetual churn. There is no end to labor; we keep working, moving, changing until we are no longer aware of the changes that will take over when we die.
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Even when asleep and dreaming, it is this same self that experiences the dreams. If I take hashish, it is this self that enjoys the heightened color and depressed time. When I am awake and sober, it is the same self that acts and reflects. It is the foundation on which all else is constructed.
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Many have tried to name it or its parts: Ego, Id, etc. And it is all there, I suppose. But they remain names, like “carburetor” or “spark plug.” An easy way to discuss in words what is not verbal. But my interest is in the unity, not the bits. If it is all integrated, it becomes a single self. As Popeye had it, “I am what I am and that’s all what I am.”
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I suppose I have been lucky never to doubt my self. I don’t mean that I never doubt myself, i.e., my actions or thoughts. I do that all the time. I have held many doubtful opinions. Every professional critic has; it comes with the territory. But that underlying river of selfness has never wavered. It has given me a confidence in life. Even the confidence to be wrong without taking it personally. The dragon lours in his cave with a sleepy eye watching it all pass in front of him.
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Or maybe not. I am an idiot. I know nothing. Nothing but that I am.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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It hit me in third grade, which is pretty much the average age that it hits most young boys: the dinosaur obsession. I read every book my grade-school library had on the subject, learned the names of all the dinosaurs, and constantly drew them with crayon or pencil. I owned All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews and could recite chapter and verse. 
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That year, my grandmother gave me for my birthday a giant maroon volume called The World We Live In, by the editors of Life magazine. It had lots of pictures of dinosaurs and set me up for years. I still have it; in fact I can turn my head at my desk and see it now. It was for me what her bible was for her. It was sacred. 
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And I would make an expedition, whenever my parents would take me, or my school would schedule a class trip, to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where I knew that Roy Chapman Andrews worked. Their dinosaur displays were my Bettelheim enchantment. 
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In turn, each year, I developed some new interest. Often some new chapter in The World We Live In. I learned all about whales one year, about astronomy another. Like many of my ilk, I would specialize and squeeze everything out of the subject and then move on. I wanted to devour the world. 
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But third grade was dinosaurs. But these were very different beasts from those that fascinate third graders today. Mine were giant cold-blooded, scaly-skinned reptiles that dragged their vast tails along the ground and no one had an answer to the mystery of why they died out. 
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Today, of course, those third graders know that warm-blooded pre-birds wore plumes of feathers like some prehistoric Quetzalcoatl. They held their tails up proudly like so many cats. And it was a giant meteorite that killed them off. Times change, and prehistoric beasts change with them. It has forced even the august American Museum of Natural History to tear up its iconic dino-exhibits and recreate them to account for the updated paleontology. Such re-writes have not been unusual for history — or science. 
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That branch of science we call paleontology hit its first stride in England beginning in the early 1800s, when the first dinosaur fossils were recognized and begun to be classified. In 1822, in Cuckfield, West Sussex, a doctor from Lewes named Gideon Mantell — or his wife, Mary Ann (stories vary) — discovered a fossil tooth of a prehistoric beast they named “Iguanodon,” based on supposed similarities between the fossil tooth and the teeth of iguanas. It set off a fad for bone-hunting, and soon more fossils were excavated, and in 1834, a pile of bones were dug from a quarry in Maidstone, about 30 miles east of London. Mantell acquired the pile and attempted to reconstruct his iguanodon from the bits. His initial drawing looked something rather like a giant squirrel. 
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In the bones was a horn, which Mantell assumed was like a rhinoceros horn or that of his iguana. And so he drew it on the nose. 
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 In 1842, the anatomist Richard Owen coined the word “dinosaur” for the recent finds. He attempted a more accurate reconstruction of the iguanodon and came up with a reptilian rhino, horn still on nose. 
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This was the version of iguanodon that served as model for the giant reproduction in concrete made for the Crystal Palace in London (still there to be seen today). And while the statues were being made, in 1853, Owen and a group of scientists, businessmen and journalists ate a well-publicized New Year’s Eve dinner inside the unfinished 30-foot-long iguanodon. They ate mutton cutlets with tomato, partridge stew, curried rabbit, and filets of sole. Owen sat at the head of the table, in the hood of the hollow iguanodon’s skull. 
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The dinner kicked off a veritable Victorian dino-craze. and various scientists and amateurs went around the geology with pick and hammer trying to unearth new fossils. 
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Actually, it had already been going on for a few eager bone hunters. In 1824, bits of a Megalosaurus was found; in 1833, a Hylacosaurus; in 1836, the first dinosaur footprints. But after that, it was an explosion: in 1856, the Trachodon; in ensuing years, the Hadrosaur, Compsognathus, Archaeopteryx, Bronto- and Stegosauruses; and, by the end of the century, Triceratops and Diplodocus. These were all names I could reel off in the third grade. Jackpot came in 1902 with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. 
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The year after the dinner in the belly of the beast, Samuel Beckles found giant three-toed footprint fossils in the Isle of Wight. He later discovered the hind limb of an iguanodon and the foot matched the prints, and so it was decided that the iguanodon was not a four-legged rhino-reptile, but stood like a kangaroo, on its hind legs. This completely revamped thinking about the beast, and for the next hundred years, iguanodon rather mimicked Godzilla. 
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Then, in 1878, a whole herd of iguanodon fossils were discovered in a coal mine in Bernissart, Belgium. These confirmed that Iggy’s back legs were longer than his front, and so confirmed (so they thought) the upright posture. More importantly, the horn no longer fit the nose, but turned out to be the thumbs of the dinosaur, held firmly in the perpetual position of the hitchhiker. In 1895, the British Museum of Natural History acquired an iguanodon skeleton and assembled the pieces into its kangaroo pose that held up for a century. 
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This was, of course, the version I grew up with. Upright, tail-dragging like a Piper Cub, and with his spikes giving us the “Thumbs-up” gesture. But in the 1990s, closer study of the fossil skeletons, reexamined with newer methods and anatomical knowledge, changed things once again. The iguanodon was set back on four legs once more, although allowing him to rotate upwards on his back legs occasionally to reach food. And it turns out the the vertebrae and their attending tendons were stiff, and the iguanodon tail did not drag, but, more like the cat wagging its tail to announce its mood, held out stiffly backwards and in the air. 
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You have to wonder what the future holds out for the iguanodon. The future constantly reinvents the past. It is the heart of science to do so. The sun used to revolve around the earth; then it didn’t. Atoms were the smallest particles of matter until protons, neutrons and electrons were found and then until quarks were posited, and now we wonder about string theory. Maybe no particles at all, just vibrations. 
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When I was a boy in my astronomy phase, there was a viable argument between Fred Hoyle’s “Steady State” theory of the expanding cosmos, and the newer “Big Bang” theory. The expanding universe found by Edwin Hubble shouldered out any idea we could have had of the static cosmos that had held sway for millennia. New discoveries and reformulated conceptions have pushed science ahead, sometimes by inches, sometimes by light years. 
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The continents were rock solid until they started floating around the world like barges. Plagues were caused by “bad air,” until bacteria and viruses were discovered. Phlogiston was the substance of fires before the role of oxygen was understood. 
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Sometimes the changes circle back on themselves, like the once-again four-legged iguanodon. In the ancient and Medieval worlds, moods were controlled by the four humors. Psychology gave up on such things and went Freudian, and now, neuroscientists have rediscovered brain chemistry — really the humors updated and modernized. 
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The people who created these theories and ideas were not stupid. We should not hold ourselves superior to them. They were working with the data available and were often quite ingenious. The math behind the Ptolemaic system is absolutely brilliant, and as complex as anything on a blackboard at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 
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“Despite the fact that later evidence proved these theories wrong, I don’t think we should say the scientists involved made mistakes,” wrote Peter Vickers, professor of the philosophy of science at England’s Durham University. “They followed the evidence and that is precisely what a good scientist should do.”
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It’s a constant plod, one foot in front of the other. Mantell knew this when he first tried to understand the iguanodon in the 1820s. 
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He wrote: “Imperfect as are the materials at present, they will be found to possess sufficient interest to incite further and more successful investigation that may supply the deficiencies which exist in our knowledge.”
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This is one of the glories of science — the willingness to be wrong when a more complete idea is proved. The entire world progresses because of this humility. We must leave it to the flat-earth people and anti-vaxers to be so damn certain they are right. Every step in the history of science is provisional. That is why we can best cast our lot with those who practice it. 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 

 

 

 

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by Richard Niilsen

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It’s January, the start of a new year and a chance for a new beginning. And good lord, we need a new beginning.

The starting gun has fired once more, the curtain has risen, the first pitch has been thrown, a new jury has been impaneled. The old year, the stooped old man with
white beard, gives way to the squalling babe with ambassador’s ribbon blazoned with the new year. It is 2021, and many misdated checks will have to be voided and rewritten.
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Each time we start a new cycle, it gives us a little push, a sense of having come up for air, like a pearl diver, so we can plunge back down into another year. This current turning of the calendar holds a greater sense of hope, of relief, than most, after a year that most of us would rather never have happened at all. Will the new one be better? Perhaps 2021 won’t truly begin until Jan. 20.
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New Year’s Day is a celebration we mark with many traditions: eating black-eyed peas or oyster stew or sauerkraut. Or banging pots and pans outdoors at midnight. Or making resolutions. In the Ozarks, you always make sure the saltshaker is full, so you will prosper. In North Carolina, you cook collard greens if you want to keep yourself in greenbacks all year. Among Pennsylvania Dutch, it is important to eat pork with your sauerkraut on New Year’s Day; pork symbolizes looking forward on the logic that “chickens scratch backward but pigs root forward.”
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While we’re celebrating with football or recuperating from the night before the day after, we should recognize that New Year’s Day is only one of many new beginnings we have each year, and that it is the beginning that is important, not merely the date. The date, in fact, is purely traditional. The earth circles the sun and a circle has no beginning. The new year, like any fiscal calendar year, could start at any time we choose. We could just as well begin the new year on April Fools Day, perhaps more fitting than January. The Chaldean New Year, called Kha b’Nissan, did occur on April 1.
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In fact, around the world, the new year kicks off all through the year.
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The ancient Babylonians began the year with the first new moon after the spring equinox. The equinox marks the start for the Iranian calendar. After all, spring kind of
makes sense: The world is coming back to life after the winter. The Punjabi new year is celebrated on April 14 and in Nepal, on the 1st of Baisakh (April 12-15). The Kutchi people from the Indian state of Gujarat begin the year on June 22. The Coptic new year usually occurs on Sept. 11 or 12. In France, after the Revolution and the institution of the new calendar (beginning with the Year One in 1793) they celebrated New Year’s Day with the vernal equinox in late September. The Inuit, Aleut and Yupik peoples celebrate Quviasukvik as their New Year’s day each year on our Christmas Eve. There are dozens, maybe scores of New Year’s Days around the world in different cultures and at different eras.
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Our calendar is essentially the Roman calendar, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and later by European secular authorities.
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The Roman calendar originally had only 10 months in it and ran from March through December. The intervening time was no-man’s land. That calendar was said to have been created by the legendary Romulus, one of the founders of Rome. The rest of the year wasn’t given much thought.
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“A year should be the same time it takes a child to gestate,” Romulus is said to have reasoned. Romulus was no obstetrician. Which is why the poet Ovid, in his book Fasti, about the Roman year, says that the soldier Romulus “was better with swords that he was with stars.”
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If you have ever wondered why October is the 10th month and November the 11th, although their names proclaim them to be the eighth and ninth, it is because Romulus — or his equivalent — began the year in March. The months of January and February were later inserted into the unmeasured time, and Rome finally had 12 months. But the year still began with March. A few unsuccessful reforms in Republican Rome attempted to make January the first month of the year — it would make sense since January was named for the god Janus with two faces, one looking at the old year and one looking into the new. January was also the month that came directly after the official “end” of the year in December.
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But it wasn’t until Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 B.C. that the Jan. 1 day stuck. The calendar had gotten out of whack and no longer matched up with the changing seasons as it should have. Caesar tried to fix that. The problem is that the solar year is roughly 365.24 days, and even a calendar that runs 365 days will eventually slide off point.
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Caesar instituted leap years to account for the difference and otherwise rectified the unruly calendar. Unfortunately, his reforms got off to a bumpy start when his plan was immediately misinterpreted and they started counting leap years every three years. The disparity wasn’t rectified until the institution of the Gregorian calendar in the late Middle Ages. And not everyone signed on at the same time. The Holy Roman Empire was first, in 1544, and with it, adopted Jan. 1 as the beginning of the year.
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Scotland signed on in 1600, fully a century and a half before England agreed.  Japan accepted Jan. 1 in 1873; China in 1912, Turkey in 1926 and Thailand didn’t join the rest of the world on New Year’s Day until 1941.
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It is a rare day that serves only one holiday function. Double duty is the rule. Jan. 1 is New Year’s Day, for instance, but is also notable for 16 other functions, from Kissing Day to Polar Bear Swim Day, to say nothing of being the Feast of St. Basil.
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We here at the Department of Questionable Holidays always look forward to January, and the start of another year of calendric oddments. You can look for the truly important days elsewhere; here we remind you that January is Oatmeal Month.
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We think of the slide-chute run from Halloween to New Year’s as the “holiday season,” and now that we’ve gotten through it, we might be a bit sad at the long stretch ahead with nothing.
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When it comes to holidays, December is nirvana. If you played your cards right — and are suitably ecumenical — you could have stay home from work starting Dec. 17-23 for Saturnalia, and continued with Dec. 24 for Christmas Eve, Dec. 25 for Christmas, and then coasted home to New Year’s on both Hanukkah (Dec. 11-17) or Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1). And don’t forget the holiday for the rest of us, Festivus (Dec. 23). So much for the canard about taking religion out of the holidays. There are lots of religions, and they all have holidays. Which is perhaps why December is Spiritual Literacy Month and Dec. 1-7 is Tolerance Week.
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But, of course, December is also National Tie Month. How could it not be? And it’s the life’s odder edges that provide some of the best holidays. Like National Dice Day (Dec. 4), National Pawnbrokers Day (Dec. 6), Gingerbread House Day (Dec. 12), Underdog Day (Dec. 16 — also Beethoven’s birthday), Humbug Day (Dec. 21) and National Whiner’s Day (Dec. 26, when you complain about the tie you got the day before).
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But then comes January, and if you look deep enough, you can find a whole new set of celebrations. The holiday season doesn’t need to end. January is also National Hot Tea Month and Coffee Gourmet International Month. And don’t forget National Cheesy Sock Month. Yes, that’s real.
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There are weeks to celebrate, too. Jan. 2-9 is “Someday We’ll Laugh About This” week; Jan. 11-18 is Dancing Cuckoos Week, honoring Laurel and Hardy, whose theme was The Dancing Cuckoos; Jan. 24-30 is National Idiom Week; and also Snowcare for Troops Awareness Week.
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And special days: Jan. 1 is International Child-Centered Divorce Day. Jan. 2 is Greta Thunberg’s birthday. Jan. 4 is Dimpled Chad Day and Trivia Day, which may be redundant. Jan. 6 is Armenian Christmas Day. It is also the birthdays of both Joan of Arc and Tom Mix. Now, there’s a pair. Jan. 11 is National Clean Off Your Desk Day. Jan. 12 is National Hot Tea Day. Jan. 14 is Benedict Arnold’s birthday and also National Logic Day, followed on Jan. 15 by International Fetish Day, although I’m not sure if that celebrates international fetishes, or fetishes internationally. The same day is also National Bagel Day. The biggest bagel in the world was completed on Jan. 16, 1943, when the Pentagon opened up. Jan. 16 is coincidentally National Nothing Day and National Quinoa Day, so — same thing. Jan. 18 is Pooh Day, celebrating Winnie the.
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National Popcorn Day follows on Jan. 19. Jan. 20 is Azerbaijan Martyrs Day — you don’t want to forget that. Jan. 23 is National Pie Day. The 24th is Belly Laugh Day and also National Compliment Day. The month begins to wind down with Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day on Jan. 25, which is also St. Dwynwen’s Day, which I’m sure you already knew. St. Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of friendship and love.
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Jan. 29 is set aside for me, personally, as Curmudgeons Day. And then the month rounds out on the 30th with Inane Answering Message Day and National Croissant Day.
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All this comes from Chase’s Calendar of Events, a book that journalists rely on for all those “On This Date” featurettes in the Living section of your favorite newspaper. Or what would have been, if there were still newspapers. If you need to know when “Talk Like a Pirate Day” falls in 2021, you head to Chase’s. (Only $98 at Amazon). (Incidentally, it falls on Sept. 21 this year.)
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Every month has its important anniversaries and notable birth dates. I like to keep track of them. Among the anniversaries celebrated this Jan. 1: The Euro was introduced in 1999; the first baby boomer was born 75 years ago — Kathleen Casey Wilkens in Philadelphia. On Jan. 2 we celebrate President Benjamin Harrison’s amnesty for polygamists in 1893. On Jan. 11 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General declared cigarettes hazardous. Jan. 12 is the 55th anniversary of the premiere of TV’s Batman. On Jan. 24, 1935, the first canned beer was sold; and on Jan. 25, 1945, fluoridation began in the U.S., in Grand Rapids, Mich.
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We could go on for months. February, for instance, is National Bird-Feeding Month; National Cherry Month; National Condom Month; National Goat Yoga Month; National Mend a Broken Heart Month; Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month; and, of course, Spunky Old Broads Month.
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But I’ve abused your patience way too long. Every month, like every dog, has its days. So, bake a cake or take a day off and tell your friends, neighbors and relations to sit back and rest for National Z-Day on Jan. 1, a day set aside for first-of-the-year recognition for anybody or anything usually left to the end because of a name beginning with the alphabet’s final letter.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

by Richard Nilsen

The other day on TV, I saw someone who had the perfect solution to the zombie problem. Why no one had thought of this before, I don’t know. It is so obvious. 
 
If your community is plagued by brain-eating zombies, all you need to do to survive is to dress up like a zombie yourself, dress up in some rags, put on the whitish, ghostly makeup, with some ketchup drooling from the corner of your mouth. Zombies don’t attack other zombies. I don’t know why, but they don’t. So, act like one, and be let alone. Of course, you will also need to avoid the living human population, who have a dismaying tendency to blow the heads off zombies with shotguns. But other than that, home free. 
 
The established conventions of zombiehood have changed over the years, as have the zombies themselves. But rules are what make monsters. Ask any 12-year-old boy; they will be able to recite you chapter and verse, the way a Supreme Court clerk can quote the Constitution. Silver bullets, wooden stakes, wolfsbane, mirrors, the whole concatenation of parameters that define the world inhabited by the undead, the re-dead and the soon-to-be-dead. 
 
I know this because when I was 12 years old, I had a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland, a fan magazine about horror films put out by noted monsterologist Forrest J Ackerman. It was still early days of television, and local independent TV stations, with no network to support them, had to scramble to fill air time. They found old cartoons, old Westerns — and horror films. I must have seen Frankenstein, Dracula and all their permutations, from Son of … to Abbott and Costello, maybe, a hundred times. 
 
 
And I knew then, all the rules — the defining conventions of each genre. The Frankenstein monster couldn’t talk; Dracula was terrified of crosses; the Wolfman turned hairy with the full moon. If a vampire or a werewolf bit you, you turned into one; if Frankenstein’s monster bit you: nothing. You got a tetanus shot.
When they first made their debut in celluloid, zombies were Haitian and they were essentially sleepwalkers. They were derived from popular understandings of voodoo, where a bogon, or sorcerer, could raise the dead to act as slaves. In 1929, author William Seabrook published The Magic Island, and described a sensationalized version of vodou and zombies. In 1932, Hollywood produced White Zombie, in which Bela Lugosi is the evil sorcerer who puts the heroine under his spell when she visits Haiti. Lugosi’s character, “Murder” Legendre, uses zombie labor to operate his sugar plantation. 
Plantations worked by enslaved Africans gave rise to zombie mythology in Haiti and the Caribbean, but many of the Hollywood versions feature non-African zombies, although one of the best, I Walked with a Zombie, sets the zombie back into its proper African-Caribbean context. Still, its main victim remains a White woman. 
But zombies were a minor subshoot of the monster movie, giving pride of place to Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman (and perhaps the Mummy). Only a few zombie films in the ’30s and ’40s (the heyday of the classic monster) were made, and they never really cracked the nut of cultural ubiquity. That didn’t happen until George Romero reinvented them in 1968 in Night of the Living Dead and rewrote the rules for the genre. Now, they were ghoulish undead that shuffled along in rags and killed and ate the living. A bite could turn you into one of them. Tetanus shots didn’t help.
The prototype for Romero’s shambling zombies can be found in the “Wandering Sickness” in Things to Come, a 1936 movie made from the H.G. Wells novel. Zombies are now allowed to be fast-moving, which makes them harder to avoid. And zombies en masse are in practice unkillable, as shown by the never-ending 10-year run of The Walking Dead on the AMC network. 
 
With Night and its many sequels and rip-offs, the zombie became the primary movie boogie-man. The rules have been tweaked by subsequent writers and directors, so that now the popular conception is of a reanimated corpse who eats brains. Why brains? I don’t know. Nothing wrong with liver and a nice chianti. 
 
This changing of the rules is common, as creators need to find ways to freshen up the cliches, only to make new cliches. Eventually, each monster genre ends up in parody. Young Frankenstein, Teen Wolf, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
With Hammer Films in the 1960s, monsters were given a new garish color makeover, with lots of bodice ripping and jiggles to entice the young testosterone-soaked adolescent males. And the classics have never really left. Wikipedia lists 236 werewolf films made since the silent era; 119 of them just since 2000. I couldn’t fully count the number of vampire films, including the astonishing number of naked lesbian vampires that came out of Italy. 
A few of my favorites (I can’t help but list some of these titles): Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966); Dracula’s Dog, aka Zoltan … Hound of Dracula (1977); Uncle Was a Vampire (Italian, 1959); The Vampire and the Ballerina (Italian, 1960); Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell (1992); A Polish Vampire in Burbank (1985); Mom’s Got a Date With a Vampire (2000); and My Babysitter’s a Vampire (2010). 
Vampires have gone through four major transmogrifications. Originally, in folklore, they were ghouls, ugly monsters. But after Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the vampire became a seductive man with hypnotic charms over beautiful women. Or, in a kind of reverse ploy, sex starved women in heavy makeup craving the blood of handsome men — or in the lesbian vampire films, pneumatic young women. 
(The subgenre of lesbian vampires is extensive. Wikipedia lists more than 50 such films, beginning with 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and continuing through Vampyros Lesbos (1971); The Hunger (1983), a classy film with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve; and Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), a genuine turkey that starred late night TV’s James Corden. While many monster films have been adopted by the LGBTQ world as metaphors of queerness, the lesbian vampire is more transparently so.)
 
The canonic vampire persisted in the Hammer Films pictures with Christopher Lee. Sunlight could kill them; they couldn’t be seen in mirrors (or photographs); wolfsbane or garlic was a prophylactic; they slept in coffins; they could be killed with a wooden stake through the heart, or more garishly, with the wooden stake and a quick beheading. 
Then, of course, it all changed with Ann Rice. She took the side of the vampires — “these elegant, tragic, sensitive people,” she called them. Oh, they suffered, cursed as they are with immortality. Rice’s vampires are “loquacious philosophers who spend much of eternity debating the nature of good and evil,” according to Susan Ferraro of The New York Times. “Rice turns vampire conventions inside out.”
 
She also transports them from England and Germany to New Orleans, which adds its own patina of the gothic. Goodbye Transylvania, hello red blood and Rice. 
None of which prepares us for the latest incarnation of teenage moony-eyed vampires by Stephenie Meyer. They have no trouble with daylight, indeed they sparkle. But it is so hard being a vegetarian vampire. 
 
There are also werewolves in the Twilight books (and films), but it is hard to tell the difference between the paired vampires and werewolves of Twilight and the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story
 
From the very beginning, horror movies have been aimed primarily at the young and prepubescent. Which is the age where the fascination with regalia and insistence in genre rule consistency become hardened like old cheese left out to dry. It is the motivating impulse of cosplay, Comic-Con and arguments over whether the Batman outfit should have nipples or not. 
If you want to start a fight, just complain about the Marvel Universe versus the DC Universe. Each is a self-contained cosmos with its own physics and set of back stories. And woe to him who mixes up Marvel’s Sub-Mariner with DC’s Aquaman. Or cannot tell the difference among Green Arrow, Green Lantern and Green Hornet. 
In the CBS sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, the minutiae of competing comic book universes is often a plot point. Which makes it fun how often fans like to point out inconsistencies in the Sheldon Cooper Universe between BBT and Young Sheldon. Can’t these writers keep their stories straight? 
 
When young men are trying to figure out the rules of life, it must be comforting to find these worlds where coherence and consistency is part of the deal. One of the reasons that superheroes have overtaken monsters in the movie world must surely be that the DC and Marvel universes are so absolutely clear, even hide-bound, about their rules. The monsters have their laws of physics, but the rules tend to morph over time. Adolescence craves something more permanent to depend upon. 
Young women have their say in all this, too. But the monsters they fantasize about tend to be more like Beauty and the Beast: Can the rough monster be tamed by love? Their guiding genius is not Bram Stoker but rather, Jean Cocteau. Their corollary is not the Marvel Universe, but the land of Romance Novels. In each one, a monster is tamed by love. Underneath is a prince of a guy. 
 
In the case of either gender, there is comfort in the consistency of the conventions, of the rules. 
 
There is a great literature around the psychology of attraction we have for monsters. I leave that to the experts. Is it the metaphor for the Id? The recognition of the threat the outside world presents? A parable of the societal outsider? The Aristotelian projection of terror and pity? Probably all these things at various times. But I am suggesting that one of the pulls of the genre is its suggestion of stability, that the monster itself will abide by the rules, and that, after the stake through the heart or the silver bullet, things will always go back to normal — until the sequel.
 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I grew up in an era of vast cultural change. We went from Eisenhower warning us about Pentagon power to Allen Ginsberg levitating it. If you are a certain age, perhaps you remember. Certainly, in the Sixties, we wanted to correct all the social evils that beset our society, and the world. We were up against racism, sexism, ageism, different-ism — to say nothing about the Military-Industrial Complex. 

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And with the belief that societal ills could be corrected, if only our elders would listen to us, came the belief that it could be fixed by simply re-training the misguided. Surely, it was just that they didn’t know better. Their minds and personalities had been formed in unfortunate circumstances.  

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And one of the bedrocks of our belief at the time was that “it’s all cultural.” I can’t remember how many times I heard that phrase. No one was destined to be a certain way; it was all how you were brought up. If you were born to a racist family, you learned prejudice; if you were raised by a macho father, you became a patriarch. Blank slate. Genetics be damned. 

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Such beliefs were in part a reaction to a horrific century in which genetic inheritance had been the excuse for so much death, destruction, and genocide. We rebelled against the notion that your DNA was in any fashion your destiny. We relished personal freedom and free will was essential to that. An entire generation of parents with this belief tried to get their boys to play with dolls and their little girls to play with trucks. But, of course, the boys turned their dolls into hand grenades, and the girls held the trucks in their arms and rocked them back and forth. 

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Well, I was part of an inadvertent biological experiment that took place over a period of nearly 50 years. It was not part of a CIA covert program, but set in motion by my own indefensible immaturity and selfishness. 

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In the late 1960s, I got married and we had a child. It was not a good marriage; we were both too young. Before our son, Lars, was even a year old, I left. I went on to my own life, my ex-wife went on to hers, as a single mother. I am, of course, mortified and shamed now, but then, it all just seemed the way a bohemian poet-to-be expressed his freedom and unwillingness to be tied down. No excuses, though, I was a beast. 

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For the next 45 years, I had no contact with either mother or son. None. Period. Then, one day at the office, I got a phone call from Texas. “Are you the Richard Nilsen who had a son named Lars?” “Yes.” “Hello, I’m Lars.”

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He called because he needed some medical background information, which all worked out fine. But we decided we should meet and so, my second wife and I drove to Austin to meet him. It was a revelation.

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It should be said here, that we have been in touch ever since, and have re-formed a meaningful relationship. But on first seeing my son Lars, I almost laughed. It was like looking into a time-machine mirror: I was seeing myself 40 years ago looking back at me now.

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He was tall, like me; had long hair, like I had four decades earlier; he had the same scraggly beard; wore the same kind of thick black-frame eyeglasses I used to sport; wore the same kind of flannel shirt that was once my uniform. 

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Some of that was expected. While the belief that our personalities were merely learned still hung in the air, everyone knew we inherited certain physical traits from our ancestors. That Lars was tall was hardly surprising. But what was more striking was his choice of thatch and habiliment. 

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As the visit went on, more things uncovered themselves. At the time, Lars worked in a used bookstore, in charge of the Classics section. He said his favorite book was Homer’s Iliad. Bingo: That has been my fave for ages.  Lars now makes his living programming and writing about movies; I have a page to myself on Rotten Tomatoes. Lars often talks on stage to audiences while introducing films, and he interviews filmmakers; I often talked to audiences, also, as some Spirit of the Senses members may recall, and for a while I introduced films to the series. And, of course, interviewing people was part of my job as a journalist. Music is also essential to Lars, and I don’t think I could live without my Mahler and Bach. Our tastes, however are very different. Very different. On a recent radio interview, Lars made the case that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an art film. But the point is that he has chosen, as I did a half century earlier, a life of art and culture.

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When we got to his house, it was filled to the brim with books and CDs and movies. Anyone who has visited me knows wherever I have lived, the walls are lined with bookcases, filled with thousands of books and DVDs. 

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Then it turned out he was living with a young woman with the same name as my first wife and from the same North Carolina county as the wife I finally wound up with. This could be mere coincidence, and probably was. But, it was getting a bit spooky. 

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Then came the clincher. 

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On his desk, piled like my own, higher and deeper with papers and books, there was a world globe. He had disassembled it and put it back together with Antarctica at the top — a world turned upside down. I did a double-take: On my desk at home, back in Arizona, I had long had a globe I had turned upside down, in order to break habit of seeing the world only one customary way. I venture to guess very few people have done the same. But there it was.

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The two of us had had not contact whatsoever for four decades plus, and yet, so much of our behavior was eerily similar. And I had to come to the conclusion that some of this had to be genetic. Did Lars inherit from me, without any consciousness of it, a love of Homer, movies, music, flannel, an easy, laconic manner, and — a need to turn his globe on its head? 

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Where else could it have come from? I don’t want to imply that Lars is just a mini-me. We are very different in many other ways. Even physically, his nose and the thickness of his hair come from his mother, not from me. He revels in pop culture in a way I have never been able to enjoy.

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His knowledge of movies tends toward the lesbian vampire movies and drive-in exploitation films — indeed, he is writing a book on such films. He doesn’t have the high-low art bifurcation that I grew up with. That doesn’t mean he can’t cite chapter and verse on Fellini or Angelopoulos, but that he can also teach his old man an appreciation for Johnnie To and the Hong Kong gangster genre. 

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Still, my reacquaintance with my son Lars has persuaded me that it is not merely noses or hair colors that may be transmitted through DNA, but that certain personality traits, even preferences, may be coded in those double helixes. 

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A series of so-called “twin studies” have compared identical twins separated at birth to see how closely they matched. The results have been equivocal, but some information is hard to dismiss.

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A 1979 study by the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research found one pair, separated at birth and reunited at 39. “The twins were found to have married women named Linda, divorced, and married the second time to women named Betty. One named his son James Allan, the other named his son James Alan, and both named their pet dogs Toy.” 

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Other anecdotal evidence includes twin sisters meeting for the first time as adults, both wearing identical dresses. Such evidence may seem too tidy. And some skepticism is always called for. After all, the very first twin study was conducted by Greek stoic philosopher Posidonius in the 1st Century, who attributed similarities to the twins’ shared astrology. Conclusions may be jumped to through faulty theory. 

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But there is still that upside-down globe. 

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The Minnesota Center’s co-director, Kelly Klump makes the case that “What they show is that we we enter the world not as random beings or blank slates.”

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When I was reviewing movies for The Arizona Republic, I had assumed it was just acculturation that led me to recognize myself in Bergman films rather more deeply than in Fellini films. I loved Fellini greatly, but I felt completely at home with Bergman. I grew up around Scandinavians and knew their reticence, dourness and love of bad coffee. My entire chromosomal grab bag is Norwegian; I may be the whitest man you’ve ever met — But since facing my time-shift Doppelgänger in Lars, I now think there may be a purely genetic component in my taste for Scandinavian cinema over Mediterranean.

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Any faith in the “blank slate” has truly evaporated for me. Clearly in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, it is both. But the strength of genes has been drilled home to me for once and all by that time-shift mirror I call my son. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

by Richard Nilsen

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The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn.

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I have existed on this planet for seven decades and if there’s anything I have had to discover for myself — despite so many others knowing it before me and telling me over and over — it is that the more I learn, the less I know and its corollary, the more I know, the less I learn. 

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1940 LaSalle

 

And I say that as someone who has always been prideful of how much I knew — or thought I knew. By the time I was four, I could ID any car on the road, including Kaisers and LaSalles. My uncle would parade me around as a curiosity, like Mozart before Maria Theresa. By third grade, I could name any dinosaur known to science. By 13, I could name everything my parents did wrong and by college I could tell the president how many kids he killed today and further, I instructed the dean on changes to the curriculum. God, I was a prat. 

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In my 20s, my girlfriend took bets from coworkers that when I came to pick her up after her shift, I could answer any question. “Who was the first secretary general of the U.N.?” “Trygve Lie.” And she would collect her winnings and we’d go home. What a racket. 

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At any rate, my ambition in life was to know everything. I can’t say I came even close. 

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It is distressing how much we have to discover for ourselves. Libraries are filled with books overflowing with wisdom, but even if you were to read everyone of them, what you gather is only book-learning. Your parents and grandparents tried to tell you what they had learned, to try to save you from the pain, frustration and humiliation that is everyone’s birthright. But being told is the equivalent of book-learning — it cannot really teach you to swim or ride a bicycle; you have to learn by doing. And these two truths of knowing and learning have come hard and slow to me. Hard to acknowledge because I have spent so much of my life being smart and knowing stuff (ask anyone who has had to listen to me), and slow because I have spent so much of my life being dumb as a pumpkin. 

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The Firesign Theatre produced an LP in 1974 titled Everything You Know is Wrong. (Weird Al Yankovic put out a song in 1996 with the same title, and more recently, in 2004, British band Chumbawamba released their song with the selfsame name.) How right they all are. 

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Everyone knows that Socrates once claimed to be the wisest man of all, because, he said, he knew nothing. Except, of course, he never said that. In the Apology, Plato has him saying that Socrates queried a wise man  but came away disappointed. “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” (Benjamin Jowett translation). Close, maybe, but no cigar.

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Life is full of things we all know but that ain’t so. Napoleon was not short. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did not start the Chicago Fire. Einstein did not flunk math and John Kennedy never said he was a German pastry. Anti-war protesters never spat on returning Vietnam War vets. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children (that doesn’t make it OK, although my wife used to say eating cake is good for you because “sugar is a preservative.”) The Great Wall of China is not visible from the moon. All that right-brain, left-brain stuff is mostly hooey. And water does not circle the drain the other way in Australia. Everything you know is wrong.

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Some is wrong because the common knowledge is just a story someone made up; some because we used to think so, but science has progressed and now we know better; and some is wrong because we misunderstood something. But most is wrong because things are just more complicated than that.

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I grew up with an image of the atom being like a tiny solar system, with electrons spinning in orbit around the nucleus. Turns out that is a bad analogy. Maybe like a cloud of possible electrons, but can’t quite put your finger on them. It is only understood mathematically, the quantum physicists tell us. Too complicated to make a simple picture. 

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We tend to fit our facts into a coherent whole that we take as our “Umwelt,” that picture of reality we manufacture from experience. But these things can become ossified. When we learn more, we discover we know less — we were mistaken, or only half right, or maybe just confused.

And now that I am old, I am confronted by the fact that learning only lets me know how much more there is I don’t know. As I say, my knowledge grows arithmetically but my ignorance grows exponentially. 

 

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I like to take the example of the common tomato. When I was two or three, a tomato was just something we ate in a salad or on a burger; I gave it no more thought. But when a little older I learned to classify. A tomato was a vegetable. The world was divided into animal, mineral and vegetable and the tomato fit the third category. 

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A little later I learned — was told, by some pedant — that a tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit. I scratched my head, but then went about repeating this Cliff Clavinism. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

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Well, it isn’t animal and it isn’t mineral, so a tomato must be vegetable. Simply put, a fruit is a vegetable, isn’t it? This turned into a lesson in philology. The word “vegetable” has multiple meanings. Our definitions must be examined. I learned the difficulty of matching language and reality. This came as an uncomfortable truth to me as a writer, whose faith in words was, at one time, unshakeable. Now, I say, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, “I know nothing.” 

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Of the things of this world, those that are vegetable can be divided into the edible and the inedible. The botanist can divide comestible plants into those with seeds and those without. One we call fruits and the other, vegetables. The cook divides the same into those sweet and those savory. There is no single “right” way to think of them. The knowledge changes as we learn more. It doesn’t matter how many facts I warehouse in the noggin, they are likely to be superseded or just plain wrong.

 

 

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Alfred Wegener

But those facts can be mulish, which explains my corollary: What you know prevents learning. That Umwelt is hard to nudge. If your sense has been for millennia that the sun revolves around the Earth, then you cannot accept what Copernicus tells us. If you know that continents are fixed and permanent, then Alfred Wegener comes across as an unmoored screwball. If you are used to bleeding ill patients, then Joseph Lister is a crackpot. 

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Isaac Newton’s physics ruled the world until Albert Einstein gave us Relativity, but even Einstein could not fully accept probabilistic quantum physics, saying God “does not play dice.” 

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If we still think of all history in sequential steps, then progress makes sense. But experience proves that we don’t keep heading for a Utopia. Rather we lose just as much as we gain. Art historians used to think that they could predict where art would go next by analogizing what had gone before. Arnold Schoenberg knew that the line of musical harmony went from diatonic to chromatic to atonal. It had to: History teaches. He almost made it work, but no one still writes dodecaphonic music anymore; what was produced in academia through the 1960s was barely even music; no one wanted to listen. Karl Marx assumed history had a rightful completion in true Communism. Francis Fukuyama gave us a different “end of history.” 

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We are a stubborn people; we know what we know until we don’t. The only way to see what is in front of us is to forget what we already know about it. I call this “volitional ignorance” — trying to forget what I know — or believe I know — in order to see with fresh eyes, with baby eyes. Of course, I’m not in favor of actual ignorance: Let Shiva dance over its body. (According to Hindu mythology, Apasmara — Ignorance — must be subdued, not killed.) But you can attempt to forget temporarily what seems fixed and certain in order to see what doesn’t fit into the accepted schema — the odd bits that contradict your assumptions.

 

 

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Mary MacLane

That’s how Einstein saw the holes in Newtonian physics. It’s how Mary MacLane broke the impenetrable “fourth wall” by speaking directly to her audience (in title cards) in her 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love to Me (now lost). It’s how Bobby Lee came to divide his army against all accepted principles of war and beat the pants off the Union forces. 

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It’s the only decent way to overcome the sad premise that: “What you know prevents learning.” .And so my two assertions are mirror images. The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Why are there four seasons? In some places there are hardly any seasons at all, in others you can pretty well count only two: either the wet season and the dry season, or, as in Arizona, a long season of unbearable heat and a brief season of relief.
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But the traditional four seasons, you say, are governed by solstices and equinoxes, which divide up the year into quadrants. Yes, summer officially begins near the end of June, but for most of the U.S., it has already been summer-hot since May. Dec. 21 may be the start of winter, but for most of us, it feels more like the midpoint. Solstice and equinox may tell us where the sun is re the ecliptic, but it hardly tells us anything with the accuracy of our skin, which is either goosebumped with chill or sweaty with heat.
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What is more, where I live now, in the mountains of North Carolina, there are seasons that don’t have official names, but are as clear as can be. Early spring is “mud season,” as the frozen soil thaws into a goo that can suck your shoes right off your feet as you walk. The is midwinter spring, Indian Summer, and that brief moment when “Nature’s green is gold, its hardest hue to hold.” And there is what we are going through right now, “late summer.” It is still hot during the day — it’s been in the 80s for weeks now — but you can look out the window and see that the trees know it is only a matter of weeks before it is time to let go.
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The leaves have become leathery; there are insect holes in them; some are infected with galls. The dogwood leaves have become frilled around the edges. The effusive growth of full summer has become defensive. The green has grayed out ever so slightly and the cuticle of leaf surfaces has become a bit more stiff and inflexible, almost plasticized, like the parched skin on the back of an old woman’s hand.
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The brambles have occupied as much of the field and forest floor as they have conquered, the vines and kudzu have reached their zenith. The season is as full as it will ever be, a cup filled to the brim and just over.
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The appearance is not so changed that you pay much attention to it. It is still summer, after all. But if you do pay attention, it is obvious: The earth has circled its parent sun once again. Life is getting ready to begin hibernating for the coming months.
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What I find interesting is that the change is subtle and slow moving, and most of us never really notice it. But the older I get, the more obvious these things become. As time moves more quickly with age, the changes that took years to happen when I was a child now come and go with the rapidity of a hummingbird wing. Months go by the way weeks used to and weeks become mere hours.
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Which makes the world into a kind of time-lapse experience. And that speeded perception makes the seasons dynamic — daily changes can be noticed — rather than the static thing they were when I was young: Summer’s school vacation lasted forever. Summer was a thing, not an action.
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But beyond the sped-up time, age has conferred a lifetime of experience. I don’t mean wisdom: That is a word I hate; it implies a superiority that I don’t believe in. But the piling up of experience means that many things register with earned familiarity, even unconsciously. You recognize the way the trees look and know, without saying it, what that look means. There is much that seven decades has buried in your psyche that can be understood without having to say out loud.
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“Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes” see more than they speak. They have seen it all before. It has become the gesso layer of life, the one on which everything is painted.
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And it is one of life’s truths, and its regrets, that this layering of experience cannot be conferred. We have to watch our children learn the same slow lessons we learned. We cannot save them from the pain, the heartbreak, the wrong turns, the dogmatisms that we endured in ourselves. Yes, we can tell them, and they might even believe us, but it will be as mere book-learning, not as felt under the skin, in the blood.
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That lifetime of accreted experience will end when we end, a full bucket tipped over and emptied. I watch now my twin granddaughters and see them with the love and forbearance that I now understand my grandparents saw me. Every generation must relearn the lessons, just as they slowly come to see the seasons turn from day to day, even occasionally, from hour to hour.
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Those years teach us not just the seasons, but how to read the eyes of our friends, to recognize the look of illness, the body language that contradicts words, the worn spots on the trouser knees, the sound that changes ever so slightly when we start the car. These are knowledges of piled years. It is what I see when I look at the late summer leaves.
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There are a few yellow and red leaves fallen from the maple tree in the front yard. My beard is gray.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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