Annie Dillard poking fun

On the infection of guitars in church…

On the heels of yesterday’s post about Annie Dillard’s new book, I want to invite you to click over to her official website for a treat of the purple-coat variety.  When half of the internet adverts I see are for social media managers and SEO, it is absolutely refreshing to read someone who says No Thank You. And means it. And please respect her wishes that you avoid Wikipedia. “Unreliable,” she says.

For more fun, read this essay titled Church. It is classic Dillard but I point it out for this fantastic line:

It all seems a pity at first, for I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars.



Is it true? How we spend our days is how we spend our lives?

My favorite Dillard book. Thin but dense.

Yesterday I posted one of my favorite quips of good advice: “Whatever you do today is what you do.” I can’t remember the source but a reader sent me a similar quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend out lives.”

Following the Annie Dillard rabbit hole – it’s a Saturday and I’ve got a few minutes to wander leisurely – I found this wonderful essay written by William Deresiewicz titled Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard? The essay is putatively a review of Dillard’s new book of essays The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, but it is more of a review of Dillard’s work over the last forty years. The essay captures Dillard’s genius and makes me want to go back and read every word she has written. I immediately dashed off a tweet to Deresiewicz and thanked him for the best ten minutes I’ve had in a very long time.

Not everyone will enjoy Dillard. She is sublime when writing about nature. Materialists will bristle, though, as under every gorgeously described husk of a dead dragonfly she is searching for hints of god. Theists of a traditional sort will feel the same irritation. The god she seeks is not found in medieval scripts.  Whatever your view, I cannot for a moment imagine someone reading Ms. Dillard and not coming away enriched.

The Annie Dillard page on Amazon
Annie Dillard homepage where she tells the truth


What do you stand for?

Faith and football? Huh?

I guess this is how you get the girl in Arkansas?

Last night, after the kids were down and the dishes put away, I plopped down onto the couch with my wife and watched fifteen minutes of the Bachelor opening. For those lucky souls who don’t know what this is, it’s another reality show where lots of high-drama people are tossed into a pot and stirred until said drama ensues. It’s predictable, silly, and mindless and no doubt contributed to the rise of The Donald.  

During the season opener, most of the lovelorn wannabes are given a couple of minutes to tell their story as they stroll through the streets of their town. One woman was from small-town Arkansas (what else is there in Arkansas?) and talked about her boutique and about how dreamy the bachelor is and then said something interesting: she capped her introduction by saying that life, for her based on her small town Arkansanian roots, revolves around ‘the three F’s of faith, family, and football.

It sounds like a cliché but I wonder how many of us could funnel what’s important to us down so succinctly. And just how powerful it is to be able to lay it down with a slap on the table: this is what I stand for!

What do you stand for?

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New Year’s Resolutions? Design the life that you want.

28 books from Tolstoy Therapy

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Copyright Dennis Mitton

recommendI’ve read the blog Tolstoy Therapy for some time now and never come away without new thoughts about one of the Great Themes. What is the good life? How do fiction and art and creativity fit into my science-heavy life?  The author of Tolstoy Therapy explores each of these themes – and many more – and points the reader to books that explore these questions.

She weaves an interesting story throughout her posts about how as she turned to books to help understand the particulars of her thoughts and outlook. After starting her blog, recommending and reviewing books to help see things in a certain light, she discovered that bibliotherapy is a useful and respected counseling tool. I noticed that her posts stopped for a time. When she began posting again, something had happened. She had moved to the Alps and wrote with a stronger voice. She conveys a sense that she is crafting her life now rather than simply dealing with what is dealt to her. If you have ever enjoyed any of my book reviews, you will find much to like and learn from at Tolstoy Therapy.

My vote for the greatest novel of all time.

In a recent post – here – she summarizes much of her reading and thinking in a piece titled  ‘The 28 books that stopped my worrying, sent me travelling, and shaped who I am today‘. It’s a fun and important read. She touches on many of my favorites: Meditations by the Stoic Marcus Aurelius tops both of our lists. Of course, Tolstoy’s great War and Peace and Anna Karenina (my vote for the greatest novel of all time) are on the list. She lists several titles I can’t wait to sink myself into. I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Sachs for some time and she lists Gratitude as a reminder that ‘life is an enormous privilege and adventure‘. She recommends When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi to help ‘decide how I want to be spending the time I have‘.  I haven’t heard of de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin but her admonition to read it ‘to love‘ is all I need to put it on my list.

Surely you want to wallow in some introspection during the new year? Surely you want to spend some time peering at the world through a different lens for a time? Certainly you have an urge to spend hours with the Great Count Leo Tolstoy and his infamous Anna?

I recommend Tolstoy Therapy as a great place to start a new reading journey or to think anew about some of your old favorites.



Cam Newton and the transforming power of gloriously blowing it

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton

Cam Newton doing the dub.

I’m going to invoke the cardinal rule of blogging today and write about whatever the hell I feel like. And I feel like writing about Cam Newton and blowing it.

If you follow American professional football, or at least watched the Super Bowl, you know who Cam is. If not then I’ll fill you in. He is the young – 26 years old – quarterback of the Carolina Panthers who is brash, arrogant, and so full of himself that I have spent the last several months making a weekly prayer vigil to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Carolina to lose. I don’t care who wins. I just want Cam and Carolina to lose. I know that this is petty and childish and I admit that it’s unfair to judge a human being by the ten minutes of television interviews I’ve seen. I guess I’m just a shallow SOB. As much as he irritates me, I have to say that he has been spectacular this year. He throws like he is drilling the ball through concrete. He runs faster and stronger than most team’s running backs. He’s six-foot-five and weighs 250 pounds and can carry linebackers like luggage under his arms. I cannot imagine standing between him and goal line when my job is to stop him. Everything came together for Cam and the Panthers this year and they lost only one game prior to the Super Bowl. They utterly embarrassed my Seattle Seahawks. Twice. And with every first down Cam does ‘the dub’. A little dance to celebrate just how damned good he is. Fans love it. People do it where I work. I hate it.

On Sunday last Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers had their pants pulled down in front of a couple billion people. It wasn’t an embarrassing loss but Denver crushed them in every category. More than once Cam’s confident smile melted until he looked lost and unsure of what he was doing. After the game, Newton sought out winning quarterback Peyton Manning and shook his hand and smiled a smile that beamed through all the glitter and ticker tape. But off the field and in front of reporters and TV cameras he sulked and refused to talk. When he did talk he mumbled. He stared into space and then pulled his hoodie tight over his head. Finally, he walked off the set.

Cam Newton behind his hoodie.

This week, social media is castigating him from all corners. A few fans are defending him but not many and not well.
But I think Cam will look back one day and see this as the time when he began to find real greatness. He’s not going away – he’s far, far too good for that – and probably has a few more Super Bowls to win.

This entire episode reminds me of a three-minute conversation I had with a boss once. A decision needed to be made about who would manage a nasty and hazardous project. I wondered aloud if Joe was right? “Nope. He’s never screwed up.” I asked if that wasn’t kind of a good reason to hire him? Don’t you want someone who doesn’t screw up? “Nope. A person who has never blown it has played it safe. I need to know how he would act if this thing goes belly up. I need to know if he can handle a problem or if he’ll fold and make it worse.” I’ve never forgotten the conversation. It was such a different view than I was expecting.

Cam Newton doesn’t know it yet but these words are true. Losing and blowing it and screwing up in glorious fashion is essential in making you better or best. You won’t believe it and certainly won’t see it until you’re on the other side. I’ve seen it. At least twice. It is heart breaking. You doubt everything you were once sure of. Some people never recover and I don’t blame them. They get a nice desk job and put in their time. Nothing wrong with that. But if you can recover and resolve to be better then you find a new calm that isn’t so easily shaken when things start going bad. You learn that screwing up isn’t the end of the world. You learn that you can do well even in the middle of seeming disaster.

Maybe Newton needed to be knocked down. He’s not even thirty and he’s already had an envious career. Maybe he needed some humility. Maybe he needed to learn that you have to earn your rewards before you celebrate them. I don’t know. What I do know is that Cam will come back stronger and more sure of himself and more unshakable in the face of collapse. Losing the Super Bowl just might be the one hurdle he needed to become one of the best players in the game.

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Tolstoy, Mother Earth News, and Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton


Sometimes I think I should apologize to my friends and readers. Conventional blogging wisdom tells authors to select a topic, write about it widely and deeply, and provide usable and shareable content for readers. Besides the brute fact that I hate the very concept of content there are just too many things that fascinate me to limit my writing to one topic.  I tried running multiple sites one time and it was just too time consuming. And to tell the truth the topic that I’m most interested is a big ho-hum to most readers. That being said I saw this article in the NYT about life in one of the last Tolstoyan communes. Now I love me some Tolstoy. I’ve read most of his major writing at least once, took up Russian – Здравствуйте! – to read his books in the original (and have never done so), and whenever asked am happy to offer my opinion that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. It’s a little embarrassing but I even started dressing like the Great Man in his peasant smock once. Now that will get you some stares. So how did I miss the communes?

It’s well known among students of Tolstoy that he basically invented his own religion based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He rejected mystery, miracles, and the spiritual and considered Jesus to be a wise but very human teacher. He corresponded frequently with Gandhi about non-violence and pacifism and ate a vegetarian diet. He identified with the poor, setting up schools and eschewing a life of wealth and ease. He tried to forgo sex and was enormously exercised periods of ‘animal lust’ as Troyat outlines in his biography of the writer. In other words, he actually lived the way he talked. It’s unheard of today, even in religious circles, and certainly one reason for his appeal in a time of great tumult. In this respect I’ve always though his last novel, Resurrection , was biographical and that Rasputin was in every way like a modern TV evangelist more interested in girls and graft than god.

The Great Man Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy and supporters working on famine relief.

Wiki says that there were Tolstoyan communes throughout the world and all adhered to principles of non-violence, non-resistance, and vegetarianism. Commune members lived simply and did not participate in government which they consider artificially propped up by threat of violent and hence corrupt. In similar philosophical straits as were British and American Shakers, Tostoyan Communities had a short history. Most attempted to be self-sustaining and we’re able to support themselves. Fellow citizens were often suspicious of non-violent neighbors who failed to understand that the best way to get along with enemies is to just kill them. Governments made life difficult on them. Finally, it’s hard to keep growing when you fail to propagate membership from within. Abstinence wasn’t a requirement but was highly regarded.

Tolstoyan tracts and booklets about the good life.

Tolstoy had mixed feelings about the groups formed after his name. He was happy to see people joining together to champion non-violence and simplicity be argued strongly he should never be propped up as a model and that every man should seek out his own answers within himself.

So maybe I can have a religion? As long as I don’t have to believe in divinity or miracles and can sit around writing great books – well – that sounds pretty nice to me.

See the NYT article here.

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Fitness50 – Should you quit caring to live longer? In a way yes. Let me explain…

[This is an installment in a series I’m writing on living long and living well.  I expect to take about fifty years to write it. Go here to read the introduction. At this point I have no plans for scheduled installments and I’m not following any couch to marathon plan. I write about fitness and food but am also deeply interested in more nuanced things that make life good. If you would like to know when I publish plase enter your email address in the follow button at the top right of any page. Thanks and please contribute!]

Copyright 2015 Dennis Mitton

awayAs much as I’m interested in the main components of health and longevity like diet and exercise I’m just as interested in nuances that are impossible to measure. For example, I think that not caring about other people is healthy. I’ll explain with a story:

I used to work periodically with two guys. One was religious, conservative, outspoken, and unfortunately thin-skinned as a green onion. The other was the guy who sits in the back of the room to figure out what everyone’s buttons are. And he pushes them.  And the more red-faced you get the more the joy would rise in this little ass. I lasted about three days with these yahoos until I split them up. It was embarrassing to me that we were all fifty year old men and they needed this kind of babysitting.

I was one of the few people who got along with The Poker as I called him. I watched other people get irritated or angry at him and there was no question that he went out of his way to rub you the wrong way. But he was also very smart and had travelled all over the world, mostly looking for wives. One day we were eating lunch together and he asked me why I didn’t get irritated with him when he tried to make me mad.

“Oh man. That’s easy,” I said. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you say.”

He had a little of that deer in the headlights look. I don’t think anyone had ever said that to him before.

“It’s like this,” I explained. “My sun doesn’t rise and fall with you. I got along fine before we met and when this job is over we probably won’t see each other again. And I’m pretty happy with who I am. I don’t intend to reassess my personhood because of something you say. So, like I say, I don’t give one rat’s booty about what you think or what you say about me.”

I was a little surprised. “I can really respect that,” he said.

And after that we got along great and I don’t ever remember him pestering me again.

Yes - DO this kind of caring.
Yes – DO this kind of caring.

So I don’t mean that you shouldn’t care about the welfare of other people. In fact one of the most consistent traits of older and happy people is how important their relationships are and how much they tend to them. And many people find deep meaning in charitable works and in helping those who cannot pay them back.

But there is a tendency in many of us to measure ourselves by the words and opinions of others. If this happens to me as it does from time to time I clam up, get crabby with the people I care most about, avoid everyone else, and start thinking about how good it would feel to drown inside a cannoli.

There is lots of advice about how to deal with these feelings but none of it is easy or comes upon us overnight. The best advice is the first rule of stoicism: if you have no control over it don’t worry about it. It is an empty waste of time. This is a good mantra for most of life’s downsides but hard to swallow. And while most advice comes from the negative – don’t think about it, avoid these people, remember them for the stupiod shits that they are – but I like to build on the positive. Learn to hold views a little less tightly. Laugh at yourself.  Think hard about what you really believe. Develop healthy views of other people that allow them to be themselves. Let them have their views. And if they tell the truth – okay – what’s so bad about agreeing with them? Learning to live comfortably within your own skin is probabaly the one single thing you can do for your greatest happiness.

If you have to go this looks pretty good.
If you have to go this looks pretty good.

I think there is a healthy distancethat comes naturally with age – aka the Red Hat Society. After we’ve given up on our hair, then the belly, and when we’re sad that our last pair of stone washed jeans has as fatal tear, we start to realize that so much of what we thought was meaningful just isn’t. It’s not always a bad place to be.