King Arthur and the Clichés

If you haven't seen the new King Arthur film yet, catch it before it leaves the cinemas. It's an example of Umberto Eco's saying that a mediocre film contains clichés, while a great film contains nothing but clichés. In fact, it's pretty much set in Clichéa - there's even a place called The Darklands (where it's too dark). Here are some of the many tropes it exploits gleefully:

  • The Chosen One

  • The Dark Lord

  • The Superweapon (well of course)

  • Terrible Engines of War

  • A king assassinated by his brother (Hamlet, anyone?)

  • The Band of Loveable Rogues

  • The Whore with a Heart of Gold

  • The Dark Tower

  • The Hot Sorceress

Add to this mix a completely unnecessary appearance by a Chinese kung fu master (who goes by the name Kung Fu George!), a bunch of Vikings who do almost nothing to advance the plot but have very cool beards, and David Beckham. Interestingly, the Warrior Woman trope was conspicuous by its absence. Ot sure why, since it's practically compulsory these days, and was very prominent in Anthony Fuqua's version.

Speaking of versions, my wife (who as a Turk is not so well up on the Arthurian mythos) asked me how close it was to the original, to which I replied "Not at all," then realised that it's a meaningless question because there's no such thing as an "original" for the Arthur stories. I mean what would you take? The fragmentary references in Welsh and Breton poems? Geoffrey of Monmouth's fake history? Malory's Morte d'Arthur? Arthur is always being reinvented, and this is one of my favourite inventions to date, though not quite up to Boorman's wonderful Excalibur.

Instant Instagram Happiness

The other day I ran into my esteemed colleague Muzaffer Tunca, who as well as being an excellent teacher is a very talented sculptor and photographer. I mentioned how much I liked his latest photograph and how watching his work on Instagram brightened up my mornings. I used to read Twitter first thing in the morning, but I found (particularly after the US election) that it was putting me in a bad mood before I'd even had breakfast. (For the same reason, I don't normally watch TV news or read newspapers in the morning.) I still wanted some digital trivia, though, so I switched to Instagram , and my mood noticeably improved. Quite a few of my friends take excellent photos of flowers, landscapes etc., and I've subscribed to @hyperpuppy, which as the name suggests, delivers photos of cute puppies. As I mentioned in class, the benefits of cute puppies have been scientifically proven ;-)

(no subject)

A typical domestic scene: I'm grading papers; Nalan is watching a Turkish soap/melodrama.

Nalan: What would you do if some people kidnapped me and asked for $100,000?
Me: I'd go and kill them.
Nalan: OK. Can you get pizza too?
Me: Sure, I'll kill them and pick up some pizza.

An Unexpected Parcel

Oh, the happiness of getting a parcel! I ordered some books from Amazon back in November and made the mistake of sending them to my mother's house and sending her a mail asking her to forward them to me. Unfortunately, my mother tends not to read mail much these days. Eventually my brother found the package and sent it on to me. I wasn't expecting it to arrive for a while, but he sent it via DHL, bless him, so I had a nice surprise today. And while I'm feeling grateful, thank you to the DHL courier who realised I probably wouldn't be home at this hour so googled me to find out my office.

I am now the happy owner of a couple of books that I expect will improve my life beyond the simple pleasure of having them turn up: Tim Ferriss's Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World Class Performers, and The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, which I only ordered because it was on offer and I needed to make up the order price for free postage. It looks good, though - hygge is a Scandinavian concept defined variously as "the art of creating intimacy", "the absence of annoyance", "cosiness of the soul" and "cocoa by candlight" (to quote the book's introduction). In a way the books are at opposite ends of the happiness spectrum: Ferriss's book (like Ferriss himself) is all about achievement, while hygge seems to be about appreciating the little things in life. So I'm going to take The Little Book of Hygge home with me to read curled up on the sofa or snuggled up in bed (maybe with some cocoa) and keep Tools of Titans in my office to inspire me to do great things in between lessons ;-)

After-thought: The author of The Little Book of Hygge is a happiness researcher called Meik Wiking. Now my Danish isn't up to much but it looks like I have a book about the art of cosiness written by someone called Mike Viking. How the Danes have changed ...

Some Thoughts on Gratitude

[Again from my class blog, hence the reference at the beginning.]

As I mentioned in class, I thought I might start a gratitude journal this week, given that gratitude is the topic for one of the readings. This is where you write down things you're grateful for. Sometimes its a list; sometimes its a whole letter to a person you actually feel gratitude towards (rather than a general "I am grateful that I still have all my own teeth" kind of gratitude). I didn't do this, for various reasons ...

  • I was tired and busy.

  • I wasn't in a particularly grateful mood (I know the whole point of the exercise is to induce gratitude, but I think you have to feel at least a little before you start).

  • Writing things down seemed cheesy.

  • I still have some issues with the whole concept.

It's the last one that I want to write about. First of all, I think gratitude is, on the whole, a pretty good thing. Aside from its endorsement by most religions, numerous scientific studies indicate that feelings of gratitude promote happiness (and possibly vice versa). I've argued elsewhere that "happiness is a condition engendered by the realisation of a valued state"; in other words, you are happy when you become aware that something you value has happened, is happening, or is about to happen. You can therefore be happy either by making things you value happen, or by appreciating them when they happen. Gratitude is an expression of appreciation, and thus relates to happiness. However, what we call gratitude covers two distinct things. One is the more everyday use: somebody does something for us, and we feel gratitude as a personal response (and hopefully express it too.) There is also a less person-directed feeling of good fortune when something we value happens, or we notice that it is there all the time. If I may be so narcissistic as to quote myself at length ...

Some years back I went to a workshop by the Turkish musician and yogi Seda Bağcan, who stopped dead in front of me and asked “Do you consider yourself fortunate?” (Actually the Turkish translated literally as “Do you feel lucky?” but that sounds too Dirty Harry.) I was stumped and responded “I don't know.” Some parts of my life were good; other parts weren't going so well … the usual story. Seda's question remained wiggling in my brain like the wiggly thing in The Wrath of Khan until I came across a Sufi injunction to imagine all the good things God has given you in your right hand and the bad things in the left—the pile in the right hand is going to be much bigger. Suddenly I got what Seda was on about and went on to construct my own little mental exercise, which consists of iterating "I am fortunate because x." Possible values for x include:

• I have a good Internet connection

• I have enough to eat

• It's sunny

• My kidneys work

• I can see

• I have an interesting job

• My house has drinkable water.

As you can see, there's no system here; the aim is to knock out the mind's tendency to seek problems by bombarding it with random nice things.

This is clearly related to gratitude but should not be confused with it because there is no person to whom this feeling is directed towards. Of course if you are religiously minded, you can address this to God, and this works well for some people. However, it can lead into difficulties. The first is theological: if you feel grateful to God when something good happens, do you also feel resentful toward God when something bad happens? This, we are told, is a sin, but I'll leave it to theologians to work out the details. The other problem applies to less religious people as well. Whatever your religious beliefs, if you feel gratitude for something, semantics pushes you to attribute an agent to that event, whether this be an actual person, God, the universe, karma or whatever. Now the point of gratitude is that you're supposed to feel it when you don't think you have fully deserved the favour that is bestowed upon you; you may thank the shop assistant who gives you your change and purchase, but you don't feel grateful to them. If you keep writing in your gratitude journal that you feel grateful for, say, having two legs, does that mean you only deserve one leg?

At the other end of the scale, though, gratitude could have the opposite effect. Acts of gratitude serve to redress the imbalance caused by getting something you have no right to demand. To come back to our shopping example, if the shop assistant really likes you and gives you some free items that are supposed to be only for VIP customers, you would feel grateful, and would express your thanks profusely to balance out the giving and receiving of good feelings. By having this feeling and expressing it, the potential injustice of getting something you don't deserve is prevented. Now if you apply that to something which has no direct agent, like owning a Ferrari (rather than getting one as a present), would it lessen the perception that you don't deserve it? (If you think you do deserve a Ferrari, of course that's a different case.) It's like part of you is saying "OK, I own this Ferrari because I've got a shitload of money, most of which was inherited from my robber-baron parents, so of course I don't deserve it, but I feel really grateful for it, so that makes it OK."

Note that these are real questions, not rhetorical questions - I am really not sure about this. In the meantime, I think I'll stick to feeling fortunate, and reserve gratitude for actual people in my life.


Happiness Journal 4: Messing Around with Meditation

[From my ENG 102 blog. This coincided with our week of studying mysticism and religion]

1. Tara Brach's introductory guided meditation

I thought for my next mini project I'd try out some different meditations, given that we're looking at mysticism at the moment. For the first day I went back to basics with Tara Brach's Ten Minute Basic Guided Meditation I'd been thinking about doing some meditation in class so I wanted a short simple meditation. As it happened I decided I probably wouldn't do meditation in class (that's another story) but it was a nice, easy meditation for me to do in my tired state - just focusing on and relaxing different parts of the body, then paying attention to the breathing. I should do this more.

2. Tara Brach's "Smile" meditation

I wanted to try Tara Brach's "Smile" meditation because some guests on the Tim Ferriss show recommended it (one even said it was the only meditation she did), and also because of Ketut in Eat Pray Love saying "Smile with your liver." It is indeed a nice meditation but I didn't get too much out of it because I was so tired that I kept falling asleep.

3. Calm app

Calm is an app designed to help you meditate (or sleep, if you prefer). There are guided meditaitons, some free, some payable (hey, this is an app, what do you expect?) and relaxing soundtracks (mainly natural sounds like rain or birdsong). I downloaded it about a year ago, but had only used it for the soundtracks, which I like to put on when I'm doing what I call "napitation" (i.e., starts as meditation but is intended to turn into a nap - great for the space before a 1.40 class). This time I tried the first of the "7 days of Calm" series of guided meditations. It was very like Tara Brach's basic mindfulness meditation I mentioned earlier - relaxing different parts of the body then focusing on the breath. Nothing fancy, but would make a good first practice for someone new to meditation.

4. Headspace

Like Calm, Headspace is a hip meditation app recommended by lifestyle gurus such as Tim Ferriss, so I thought it was worth a try. It's a bit like a jazzed up version of Calm. Instead of the natural backgrounds, you get a lot of cartoon figures, points, levels and the usual gamification stuff. The guided meditations are read by a guy called Andy who speaks generic Estuary English - something I found a bit off-putting at first but got used to after a while. Better than all those West Coast women who sound like they've taken too much Prozac, anyway.

The actual meditation I tried was OK - the usual body/breathing mindfulness stuff. I have to confess that again I kept drifting off to sleep, and I missed the last two minutes because my office-mate came in. Conclusion: do not try out meditations after work in the office.

Other conclusion: Headspace is probably a good app for type-A personalities who are allergic to any hint of mysticism, spirituality, or hippie New Age woo, and who love data tracking, levels and other kinds of Silicon Valley hype, but it's not really my cup of tea. If I'm going to go to the opposite extreme from traditional meditation, I'd rather have it more science fictiony, and rather than Andy, I'll take that sexy android from Dark Matter.

Happiness Journal 3: 5 Days, 5 Senses

[From my ENG 102 blog.]

1. Touch

Since we're moving from Epicurus to mystical poets soon, I thought a good bridge between pleasure and spirituality would be sensory awareness. This is an area I've done a little work on in the distant past and thought it might be fun to experiment with again. so I decided this week to spend one day on each of the senses, starting with touch. Since what we call "touch" is actually at least six different senses (at least according to the psychology textbook I read as a teenager), I thought I'd concentrate on feelings of weight and pressure today.

As an exercise, it was interesting though not mind-blowing. For example, going up the hill to work, I concentrate on sensations of pressure in my feet, and how the way I walked affected them, then on my way from my office to the sports centre I combined that with paying attention to the feeling of the weight of my bag on my shoulder, and how shifting the weight affected the sensations in my feet. Then I was at the gym with plenty of weights to consider the weight of ;-)

Although I intended to look just at pressure/weight, I found that naturally I was more aware of other touch sensations, such as heat and cold (shower after training) and pain (I hurt my shoulder a week ago doing an exercise called "pirate ships" and it's still giving me some grief). Interestingly, pain is less disturbing when you really pay attention to it as a feedback device - I was having to exercise carefully to avoid tearing muscles, so was paying a lot of attention to the type of pain I was feeling. (Anyone who's done sports will know that there's a type of pain that says "OK, this is having an effect," a type that says "OK, but don't overdo this," and a type that says "NOOOOOO stopstopstopstop!!!").

So what has all this got to with happiness? Not entirely sure at the moment, but mindfulness - paying attention to thoughts, sensations and actions in the here and now - is generally reckoned to be an effective meditation, and this is a kind of mini-mindfulness. It's certainly a great way to switch off annoying thoughts. Seriously - try being pissed of about something and paying careful attention to the sensations in your feet at the same time.

2. Taste

I embarked on my second sense, taste, expecting culinary delights, but actually just discovered two things:

  1. Tastes hang around in the mouth for a while after you've finished. Apart from being a reason to floss, it's interesting because you don't notice this. You're like "OK, meal finished, move on," so you only notice an aftertaste if it's particularly bitter.

  2. Related to this, I found that even though I was supposed to be focusing on taste, I often didn't notice the taste of meals much while I was eating them even though I'd been thinking about it beforehand. This is worryingly close to the "I dunno - a salad?" dialogue in Eat, Pray, Love, especially as I normally think of myself as someone who appreciates food.

3. Smell

My day of focusing on smell was largely a non-event. It started wonderfully, with going out of the door and delighting in the fresh smell or the rainy air, but after that I just forgot to smell things most of the time. Smell has been called a "neglected sense", and I was managing to neglect it even though I'd resolved to pay attention to it! (Ironically, while writing this, I am acutely aware of the smell of Brussels sprouts cooking close by.)

4. Sight

For my sight day, I repeated an exercise I'd first done in the 1980s, which is to focus on one colour (blue back then, green today). The idea is that we tend to ignore variations in colour, so even when we notice a colour, we tend to think "green" (or whatever) and ignore the actual hue, shade and intensity of the colour. So in in this exercise, every time you see green, you ask yourself exactly what kind of green it is: dark, light, intense, dull, closer to blue or to yellow and so on. You also ask yourself whether it reminds you of any other greens you've seen and how it makes you feel. In today's case, the answer to the last question was either "nothing" or "calm", which ties in with research that green has a calming effect (which is why walls in hospitals are so often painted green). The main thing about this exercise is that it opens your eyes to everything you're not normally seeing. Artists will be familiar with this idea - I remember from an art class when I was about 13, my teacher saying "You're problem is that you're not drawing what you see; you're drawing what you think is there." (He was talking about perspective rather than colour, but the idea is the same.) As the saying goes, "No one is so blind as he who will not see." (I just got curious about where that saying comes - it's from the prophet Jeremiah, apparently.)

5. Hearing

For hearing I tried to pay more attention to background sounds. Again, this is something I've done in the past. Things I noticed:

  1. My wife may have a point when she complains that I'm a noisy eater! We tend to filter out sounds we make ourselves until we pay attention to them. I don't know how much sound my eating generates on an objective scale - maybe she just finds it loud because she's paying attention to it.

  2. There's something very calming about paying attention to very faint background sounds like the wind or distant traffic. It's almost like you feel your consciousness expanding into the area around you. One meditator described this feeling as "putting out my antennae."

  3. There are a lot of birds in Bilkent.


Happiness Journal 2: Pleasure

Continuing my ENG 101 blog ...

Wednesday, 22 February 2017, 9:45 AM

Since we're moving on to Epicurus, I thought I'd continue my "happy moments" blogging but focus on pleasure.

  • Waking up early and being able to lie in a warm, cosy bed for a while before I had to get up.

  • Taste of bread and butter at breakfast. I enjoyed the rest of the breakfast too, but for some reason I really appreciated the bread (maybe because I don't eat a lot of bread these days).

Continuing with feelings of pleasure ...
Friday, 24 February 2017, 11:53 AM

I rediscovered Treasure by the Cocteau Twins - I used to love this album back in the 1980s, lost my tape of it, then stumbled upon it on Spotify. I love the sensuous textures of the music; The Cocteau Twins are almost physically pleasant to listen to, as opposed to music I enjoy more intellectually (e.g., Bach) or because of the energy of the feelings, regardless of whether those feelings are pleasant (e.g., heavy metal).

Continuing to focus on pleasure ...
Friday, 24 February 2017, 8:45 PM

Qigong (Chinese breathing exercise) was very pleasant today. It nearly always feels good - you get high on oxygen - but there some extra factors this time.

Bearing in mind my earlier experience with the Cocteau Twins, I paid attention to the texture of the music that I normally play in the background. It's a loop of hang drum music - very repetitive but a lovely feel. The qigong series I'm working on at the moment is wuxing ziran, "the play of the five animals", and there's one animal I particularly enjoy, the dragon, because it involves running in a tight circle with one arm held out, like a kind of crazy sema. This reminded me of the play-theorist Roger Caillois' idea of ilinx, the pleasure we get from disorientation, like whirling, roller coasters or bungee jumping.

Sunday, 26 February 2017, 2:52 PM

Last night we baked fish in an oven bag (very good idea BTW) and threw in a few potatoes. Although the fish was very tasty, I found I got even more pleasure from the potatoes. I suppose some of this may be like my enjoyment of bread earlier - I'm not eating a lot of carbohydrate these days so I really enjoy it when I do. This ties in with the practices of both Epicurus (who would sometimes go hungry so as to appreciate the pleasure of eating more) and Seneca (who while being ridiculously rich, would sometimes spend a month eating like a beggar). Another factor might be childhood memories. We often used to go to my grandparents at the weekends, and my grandmother would cook a traditional Sunday lunch of roast beef or chicken, which always had potatoes roasted in the oven in the fat of whatever beast was in there with it. (Apologies to vegetarians reading this.)

A most pleasant day
Monday, 27 February 2017, 9:32 AM

Lots of pleasant moments yesterday, starting with an excellent breakfast (no breakfast beats a Turkish breakfast). This time I was particularly impressed by the taste of the olives (from Hatay). Then off to my taijiquan (t'ai chi) class, which was very enjoyable. Again we concentrated on wuxing ziran ("play of the five animals" - see previous post). I worked up a good sweat, which was pleasant in an odd kind of way. I don't sweat much normally, even at the gym, but breathing exercises do it for some reason (especially the crane exercise, which appropriately corresponds to the element fire in Chinese metaphysics).

Back home for lunch and a nap (which is always pleasant) then a few hours indulging in my new favourite pastime: reading a book in bed. I noticed that although I read a lot on the computer , I never fully relax when I'm doing it. Maybe it's the physical conditions of reading at a desk on a computer, or maybe it's the fact that I associate the computer so much with work, so even when I'm reading purely for pleasure there's always a feeling I should be doing something else, the urge to check my mail etc. Reading a physical book in a place where I never work (bed) sets up a barrier between reading for work and reading for pleasure. (Ironically, the book I'm getting so much pleasure from at the moment, Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, is something I originally picked up for work.)

In the evening, one of my favourite foods, mince and eggs (kıymalı yumurta), followed by Survivor.