Category Archives: convivial

Metaphors Made Flesh

Wednesday evening Convivium discussions often start hares that occupy me for hours or days. And of course each hare draws one to any number of interesting rabbit holes, and so it goes. Last night, the Question was, essentially, How’s It Going?. There was much talk of disappointments and rampant commodifications, so perhaps there’s an underlying Question: Can It Be Fixed?. The answer is (generally, and often resoundingly) No. And yet we keep wanting the answer to be Yes, <== granting us efficacy in the world, having our efforts and energies mean something, and not to have been somehow in vain… and so evoking rueful reflection on naïvetes of the past…

Or perhaps (I thought to myself) it’s a matter of thinking about which windmills we’ve chosen to tilt against. That Quixotic image keeps coming up, ever since Cervantes 1604, and wants looking into as a prevailing recurrent trope. It begins in a Tale of

…attacking imaginary enemies…
…striving for visionary ideals…

It didn’t take too long (just 40 years) for the windmill-tilting trope to find its way into English as a fully-fledged metaphor. A bit of googlement discovered the first occurrence, in John Cleveland “The Character of London Diurnall” (1644), in which we find

The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne heads; quell Monsters of their owne Creation; make Plots, and then discover them; as who fitter to unkennel the Fox, than the Tarryer, that is part of him.

The Windmills now stand for

…to waste time fighting enemies or trying to resolve issues that are imaginary, unimportant, or impossible to overcome…

…the pursuit of “an unrealistic, impractical or impossible goal”…

…an exercise in futility…

See also Lehua Parker’s take

rediscovering Montaigne

After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:

  1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
  2. Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
  3. Q. How to live? A. Be born
  4. Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  5. Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
  6. Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
  7. Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
  8. Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
  9. Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
  10. Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
  11. Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
  12. Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
  13. Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
  14. Q. How to live? A. See the world
  15. Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
  16. Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
  17. Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing: Je ne regrette rien
  18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control (Daughter and disciple; The editing wars Montaigne remixed and embabooned)
  19. Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
  20. Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer

And those 20 questions are potential fodder for many Convivium Questions.

The iPad Notebook of my highlightings of passages in the Kindle version captures the excitement of this reading, though any number of other stretches of the text could have been included—it’s that provocative a text.

And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:

Wikipedia on The Essays

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile (Sept 7, 2009 and I recall reading it at the time)

Cotton/Hazlitt 1685/1877 translation of the Essays

from the Preface:
He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.

Audible reading of Essays

LibriVox reading of Essays

Essays in the Frame translation (1957)

Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).

Facing the Music

I spent quite a bit of the last fortnight wrangling the Question “how about we explore the roles music has played in our lives?” which is for me something between a sheer impossibility and a marvelous opportunity. is the summary collection of pointers that I arrived at, many of them YouTube videos, but a week later I’d probably put up a whole different set. I continue to struggle with how to curate my collections: vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, video, bibliographic, playlists (mostly Spotify), material from the various iterations of Cross-Cultural Studies in Music, and of course instruments.

and somehow it’s 2022

Has it really been a month since the last blog post? Of course lots of stuff in that time, books arriving and being wolfed down and at least partially digested, various end-of-year summings-up, and the plunge into 2022. Staying home, minimizing f2f encounters, watching It All Go Down.

Preparations for the weekly Convivium have supplanted blogging to some degree, and

tell the tale of my wandering attentions pretty well.

By way of paying attention to the world outside the many comforts of home, I’ve been following Heather Cox Richardson and Umair Haque, both sort of paywalled (or anyhow I’m not sure if hyperlinks to their posts on Substack and Medium are readily accessible), and both painting not-rosy pictures of what’s just around the corner.

…and I’ve revisited Joan Didion and Jorge Luis Borges profitably, and lately discovered Unflattening (Nick Sousanis) and The Secret To Superhuman Strength (Alison Bechdel), among (many) others.

Reacquaintance with Borges reminded me yet again of the charms of his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, and The Library of Babel (see Jonathan Basile’s obsession: The Library of Babel and about The Library of Babel) … and if the Work itself is unknown to you, there’s a pdf available). Among the additional resources I’m now navigating, The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel (William Goldbloom Bloch) and The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges (Edwin Williamson)

…and then consult The Aleph (pdf), when you’re ready for the next thing… Hell of a ride. I’ve just ordered The Total Library : Non-Fiction, 1922-1986, so The Future Is Assured for the rest of January. And of course other things will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

I resolve to start building my very own Lifebox, inspired by Rudy Rucker’s The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, And How to Be Happy. Well, I’ve been building it all along, but the project longs to have its own dedicated (hyper)space.

Convivial: Ex-spire one week, In-spire the next

Lately I’ve been putting my contributions to the weekly Zoom Convivium (4 to 6 of us, an hour or so on Wednesday nights of freeform discussion of a Question posed by one of the participants). Two recent examples:

Death and Dying


These suites of pages and links are overkill, useful and fun for me to do, but pretty definitely in the tl;dr and Informing Others Against Their Will territory.

Twenty-odd Years

Wende posed a Convivial Question for this week:

We are 20 years into a brave new century.
Remember when 2000 rolled over and we all thought there weren’t gonna be enough digits to keep the internet from crashing? So much history has rolled by, over and around us . . .affecting each of us in a myriad of ways.

What has the impact of these years been on you and your inner life?
How might you be a different person from the one who saw in that new century with all the zeros?

So I went to my shelf of journals and found the volume that includes 2000 and read through that year and into 2001, and so I have data to help me note some ways in which I am

  • a different person

    photographer again
    last of a sibling set

  • no longer

    avid Appalachian Trail hiker (we finished the 11-year odyssey of day hikes in 2003)
    GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Evangelist
    in the role of Librarian and Professor
    engaged with liberal arts colleges
    working on Global Studies/Stewardship
    entangled with digital library initiatives

  • recognizably the same

    omnivorous quester
    cyberspace participant
    hypertext author
    æsthete [in a good way…]
    watcher from the sidelines
    Mocker [Ringo’s answer when asked if he was a Mod or a Rocker]

Yes, folks, for 20 years it’s been ODTAA (One Damned Thing After Another). Some things I discovered in the journal entries: few of the films I watched 20 years ago are memorable (most left no trace); I noted lots of boring meetings; lots of travel; lots of (less boring) task-focused meetings; lots of consultations, many leading to Web documents; a wide variety of courses and workshops taught; schemes to change the World around me hatched; weekends on the Appalachian Trail, lots of driving north and south from Lexington VA to trailheads. It was a very full and satisfying life, and so is its 2021 successor.

See some examples of my Web-based record keeping, ca. 2000: ‘Protest Music’ for Brooks Hickman, Hollows and other place names: a toponymic excursion (examples of GIS work), on Information Fluency, Teaching and Learning Resouce Group, Tracking Scientific Information, Technology and American Frontiers course, A History of the Web at W&L (2000).

Lost and Gained

The tendency to think of what we have lost in 9+ months of COVID is pretty pronounced. I awoke in the wee hours with the Question: what have we gained in those months of altered realities? And then: what might we do with those gains when the external world opens again, and we have once again choices about what to do and how to operate in the wider world?

There’s an obvious answer to [what have we gained?] and that’s time and space for contemplation, for looking at each and every thing to ask what really matters and how we can productively engage, how best to use the time we have?

Speaking for myself, these months have prompted me to make sense of my own collections, and that’s morphed into the notion of building Finding Aids—primarily to guide myself in the vastnesses of things accumulated, but also to improve accessibility to whatever posterity there might be for those collections. The Blurb books (which I began 5 years ago with Bluenose Physignomy) were a start in that effort, though I didn’t apply the archivist’s notion of Finding Aids exactly, and preferred the image of Narration—which in general seems a superior mode of presentation when the binding thread can be found and spun out coherently. And, looking back at least 20 years, the whole enterprise of hypertext and gatheration has been the armature for building and distribution.

I fancy that I’m looking at things with closer attention, and certainly that’s true with the current engagement with the photography library, which I’ve barely begun and don’t really have a coherent plan for, beyond adding material from more books. There is a dawning sense that I might make a separate page for each of the photographers I revere, in which to gather thoughts and pointers outward to explicate that reverence.

Idle thought: Am I revisiting and reconceptualizing the Boy Scout notion of Reverent? What a surprise… what then for Obedient and Brave and Clean? Can these be redrawn into worthy ambitions?

The gallery of photographic inspiration (scans of especially redolent photographs, not for interwebs distribution for reasons of copyright) is turning out to be a productive contemplative device for exploring my own æsthetic, and for focusing my examination of the work of photographers by whom I think I’ve been influenced. I’m pleasantly surprised by their variety, even within the constraints of monochrome, and indeed it’s been worthwhile to discover how deeply steeped I am in the B&W world.

Digression: That thought provoked imagining a monochrome digital camera, with controls for refining the electronic viewfinder image…

So I have a rich sense of ongoing discovery in materials I’ve been accumulating for years, indeed for my whole life. The exploration has always been there, but it seems now that I’m more aware of it as personal raison d’etre, even without the captive audiences of students, or the library ‘patrons’ (whom I preferred to see as clients) who brought me questions. I feel myself to be a student, working toward general understanding of unlimited somethings in the world around me. Some of the tools are technologies of information—the camera, the computer, the sound makers, the books. Some tools are essentially mental—the processors of sensory inputs, the builders of texts, and link-makers in assemblages. Just what it is I’m building I can’t see clearly, and perhaps the absence of a specific goal is an advantage, even an operational necessity. It, whatever it is, won’t ever be completed, and completion of any part isn’t the point of the doing.


This week’s Convivium Question came to me in this form:

? Where do YOUR ideas of how people ought to be come from ?

I think the foundations are laid well before adolescence, though surely influences and examples in teenage and after-years are significant as refinements and augmentations, and some people may experience basic changes at inflection points in later life–Road to Damascus conversion, or the discovery of Ayn Rand (ew…) … But the foundations are laid in ways that may be behind the conscious memories, and still be recoverable by thinking about, by examining evidence (for me that’s bookshelves and family photographs), some of which may be so well-buried as to remain inaccessible.

For some people it’s a matter of “learn from the teachers by negative example” as Mao said (“I’m NEVER going to be like her/him…”); for some it’s something that grows out of admiration, out of positive example. The child of mercurial parents, of a household suffused by anger, develops different expectations and coping mechanisms than the child whose early life is calm and nurturing. Imagine how somebody whose basic experience is being bullied would respond –say Donald Trump, or Prince Charles– or consider Queen Elizabeth, who learned DUTY from a very early age (this in the context of watching The Crown and The Windsors). And if Michael Apted’s ‘7 Up’ series isn’t in your repertoire, it SHOULD be: 7-63 Up.

And consider this from today’s Guardian:

Biographers have told how he was raised by his father to be a “killer” and regard losing as a sign of unforgivable weakness. The family attended a church whose pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, wrote the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking with advice to “stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding.”

I assume that we build our own personalities on notions of ‘how people ought to be’, though perhaps not very consciously. And I do wonder if ‘ought to be’ is different from ‘expect to be’, and how. We might read the Question as seeking the origins of a personal set of desirable virtues: “How people ought to be” is really asking how one ought to be oneself, since (however much we might deplore it) mostly others aren’t going to be how I think they ought. But the point of the Question is to recognize the models and inspirations of one’s own life, to acknowledge from whom one has learned to be.

I look forward to how you may unpack your own experiences. Here are some of mine:

How the Mind works when left to Its Own Devices

I awoke thinking about Material and Immaterial Touchstones, and about Touchstones as property, as fungible, as shareable.

Becoming slightly more lucid, after first sips of coffee, I wondered why would it occur to my semi-waking mind to even consider Touchstones as legal entities, as assignable property? Aren’t they imagine-ary? Creations/creatures of the mind?

And by then fully awake, I realized that Touchstones are ways that the mind notes and labels Significance, such that one can make a mental map of things that matter, tantamount to personal wampeters

Reminder from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963):
a wampeter is the pivot of a karass,
“a central element around which a karass
is formed, which can be practically anything:
a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea,
a book, a melody, the Holy Grail”

And just to remind anyone not with the Program already,

a karass is “a network or group of people
linked in a cosmically significant manner,
even when superficial linkages are
not evident”

A quick Google search for ‘karass’ gets 225,000 results, of which the third is my own 2004 explication, which is a subpart of something I wrote 16 years ago to the bloody DAY, and still find a clear and relevant summary, despite a few rotten hyperlinks! YCMTSU, folks.

Touchstones, Paragons, Epitomes, Archetypes: the Talismanic and Paradigmatic

warmed rock 2

‘Touchstone’ has come up a few times in our Convivial conversations, in the context of things/ideas [material/immaterial] of great personal significance. The term’s literal meaning refers to assaying and purity-testing of ore samples (“gold and silver was rubbed, or touched against black quartz — the touchstone — to determine the purity of the metals. This was done by looking at the color of the streaks left on the stone.” []), and by extension “a basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated” []). By still further extension, “A touchstone can be a short passage from recognized masters’ works used in assaying the relative merit of poetry and literature. This sense was coined by Matthew Arnold in his essay “The Study of Poetry”, where he gives Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio as an example of a touchstone.” [Wikipedia]). Thoreau takes it still further, and into territory we’ve traversed:

Dreams are the touchstones of our characters. We are scarcely less afflicted when we remember some unworthiness in our conduct in a dream, than if it had been actual, and the intensity of our grief, which is our atonement, measures inversely the degree by which this is separated from an actual unworthiness. For in dreams we but act a part which must have been learned and rehearsed in our waking hours, and no doubt could discover some waking consent thereto. If this meanness has not its foundation in us, why are we grieved at it? (from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)

The Question du jour arose while reading about books in two Guardian pieces, one by Philip Pullman and the other by Neil Gaiman. (I’ve snagged both texts, just in case they disappear from Guardian accessibility), and here’s what I wrote as a note-to-self:

There are books which seize us, to which we may return again and again to relive the pleasures and insights they provided, and often enough to discover previously unnoticed depths and messages. How many times have I read Tolkien, or Jan De Hartog’s Spiral Road, or Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (still awaiting the unpublished third volume of the trilogy) or Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, or Delderfield, or Eric Ambler, or Manning Coles… and how many authors have I read pretty much everything by and kept in expectation of reading again (Pratchett, Gaiman, William Gibson, etc. …)

And here’s the Question as spawned:


What are your TOUCHSTONE books? [and/or images, films, music… whatever]

  • by which you’ve been especially influenced
  • which mark turning points in life/understanding
  • to which you’ve returned repeatedly
  • which you would press on others

And more generally, what’s a TOUCHSTONE to and/or for you? (book or otherwise, point being to explore the meaning/significance of ‘Touchstone’ in your life).


Here’s a nice elaboration of the term, placing it directly in Convivium territory:

The word touchstone has several meanings. In times past, a touchstone was a dark stone, such as basalt or jasper that was used to test the quality of gold or silver. From that came the more common meaning, that of a reference point from which to evaluate the quality or excellence of something.

A touchstone can be a personal symbol or emblem that represents your dream and that helps you to stay on track and stay true to your vision. Throughout the centuries, indigenous people on every continent have used ‘medicine bags’ in a similar way. … The term ‘medicine’ in this context refers to anything related to the spirit world, Medicine bags provide guidance, healing and protection for their owners. The bags or pouches can be leather, are often decorated with beads, and contain items such as quartz crystals, feathers, plants, or shells. The items in a medicine bag represent the wearer and are often gathered as part of a vision quest.

Your own touchstone or ‘medicine’ should be something meaningful to you, something that has special significance or resonates with you. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of finding a small item, perhaps a rock, leaf, flower or shell that seemed to be just waiting for you to pick it up and carry it home. Then when you get it there you have no idea what to do with it. Such a finding might become your touchstone.

(from Future Pull)

Speaking for myself, I recognize a pretty broad array of literal and metaphorical Touchstones—the literal ones in actual rocks collected for their personalities and beauty, and the metaphorical ones being some sort of epitome, some sort of representation of an ideal or crystallization of value or memory. This reading might be easiest to convey in photographs that seem to operate as personal Touchstones, as epitomes of what I most value in the medium, to which I’ve returned again and again. Some are completed thoughts, as in Paul Caponigro’s “there’s a horse in that one” (his comment when I told him that the image had changed my life)

while others relate more to the puzzles and uncertainties, as in Imogen Cunningham’s Leaf Pattern

or Minor White’s abstract Moenkopi rocks
These are Touchstones for me because they stick firmly in the mind and embody some insight that I gained when I first saw them, some undertanding of photographic design. But transitivity isn’t necessarily a part of this: one person’s Touchstone is another’s enigma, or ho-hum. A Touchstone is intensely personal, something that comes alive in the mind of a person and might be shared with others, or not.

I also have a wide-and-deep array of musical Touchstones, some going back to my youth and others discovered only yesterday. The earliest seems to be the first Allegro from Bach’s Concerto for 3 harpsichords, strings and continuo (BWV 1064), which I remember hearing while lying under the piano, via a 78RPM record. And then just yesterday I heard Pat Conte’s Half Shaved for the first time, and it immediately joined the Canon.

And needless to say there’s been a long succession of touchstone films, The Big Lebowski prominent among them.

And so it goes. Whaddya got?