An attempt at flânerie in San Francisco: Part I, The Idea

I started the day restless and angsty: I made the mistake of going online first thing in the morning. My house in San Francisco now has wifi, so I did the standard online circuit of email, Facebook, newspaper sites and blogs before even getting out of bed.

For a variety of reasons, this left me feeling like shit. Facebook made me feel like a low-grade stalker, the news was about the death of Ted Kennedy and election fraud in Afghanistan, and email added to the list of things I have to do.

After eating breakfast I was even more frustrated. I have about 50 pages left in the book I’m reading, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, but I couldn’t decide whether I felt like reading them or if I felt like trying to relax by doing something lighter. Meta-stress about being stressed out was setting in when I had an idea. I would embark on a bit of a project: I wanted to go on a stroll in San Francisco. Like really go on a stroll. Walk through San Francisco, the city of multiculturalism, natural beauty, and tourism; a past of earthquakes, jazz, the beats, and the hippies; and now home to a new generation of hipsters, yuppies, immigrants and going green. I would engage in 21st century flânerie.

I first became interested in flânerie on my plane flight to Paris for my time abroad. On the plane, I read a book my aunt had given me, Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris. The book was mostly a historical and personal account, but White’s allusions to the philosophical concept of flânerie really stuck with me.

Flâner (the verb form of flânerie) can be loosely translated from French to “to stroll.” Edmund White’s book didn’t go into depth about the philosophy of flânerie, but he would occasionally provide teasers into this concept such as, “Why must we always imagine the flâneur as sad?”

Over the course of my time in Paris, I would learn more about flânerie. To begin with, I lived a few blocks from some of the most well-known passages in Paris. Built in the 1830’s, the passages (translated into “arcades”) are covered walkways lined with shops. They are at the heart of the idea of flânerie, a notion first developed by the poet Baudelaire and reexamined by many including the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. The idea is more or less to lose oneself in walking in a city.

So my idea is to try to do some Baudelairian flânerie in San Francisco sometime in the next week. But I want to really do it right, so there’s a lot of theory on flânerie I want to read up on.

We’ll see how this project turns out. This idea sprung out of a desire to not feel stressed out and conflicted, so hopefully I won’t end up feeling out of place on my walk. But even if I do, I think this will still say something about me, flânerie and maybe even our time.

I think San Francisco will provide an excellent backdrop for my experiment. For Benjamin in his analysis of Baudelaire, the social and historical context of flânerie in 19th century Paris is key. I’m thinking of doing the walk in Chinatown or the Mission.

Anyway, stay tuned, and here is a picture I took of one of the passages near where I lived in Paris:

My Ukulele, Happiness, God and Ethics

Those of you who know me well know I spend a lot of time thinking. A lot of this time thinking is spent thinking about how to make myself happy.

Recently, I have found that I am a lot happier than I used to be.

What happened? Why am I more happy now?

To begin with, it is obviously important to acknowledge that I haven’t hit any sort of permanent plateau–I will definitely have very hard times again.

But nevertheless, I feel a different strength, a more complete wholeness than I’ve ever felt before. And this did not come easily. I’ve spent a lot of time writing, a lot of time being introspective. And ultimately, what this introspection led me to was reaffirmation of my commitment to faith in life. I realized [again] that despite all the troubles and trials of life, there is an undeniable force in the world: a force that gives us the ability to laugh, a force that allows us to have a consciousness–a force that makes us human.

So that’s all fine and great. I came up with this theoretical idea that there was good in the world, that you could be rewarded by believing in this good. But this was not enough for me. Writing alone in a room does not bring about happiness, no matter how much faith you have. (Emily Dickinson, anyone?)

My theory is that after all this thinking and philosophizing, it is very easy to forget how easy happiness can be. To put it simply, it is very important to actually do things that make you happy, to surround yourself with “positive” things. Enter ukulele (yes, it is acoustic/electric):

I spend at least an hour a day playing the uke. More broadly, I try to live more spontaneously (the uke was an impulse buy), surround myself with good people and do simple things that will make me happy.

Another thing has changed as well: I’ve changed my conception of right and wrong. I used to police my thoughts a lot, thinking certain thoughts where “bad” or “stupid.” But ultimately, I came to the idea that there is no such thing as a “bad” thought, just a “bad” action. We are free to think what we want to think.

At the same time, this does not mean that I think “right” and “wrong” do not exist. A few friends of mine at Plantation this summer challenged me on this, arguing there was no such thing as right and wrong, that everything just is. I am troubled by this. Negative and positivity exist intrinsically in many cases. Not believing this leads to a general apathy. I find no meaning in life if there is no belief in changing the world. (Don’t give me any nirvana crap, but also I don’t mean to oversimplify the gray area in ethics).

So anyway, what I have is this: a philosophy of ideas and spirituality along with actually going out and acting on this philosophy: thinking it and doing it.

And what is happiness? I used to think happiness was really complicated and had different levels–that you could be profoundly happy in some Puritan, stoic sense or you could be happy in some epicurean (everyday) manner. But ultimately, I guess what I’ve found is that these two things are intertwined.

In other words, I don’t like the dichotomy between the “head” and “heart” you hear so much about. We are one soul.

Road Trip Post 1: Iron Man, Metaphysics and 400 miles

As promised, I will be blogging my thoughts on the roadtrip with Will and Ken and later my thoughts on my stay in Minneapolis.

Leaving Middlebury was definitely sad; I had my last meal in Proctor and it was especially stirring to saying goodbye to Thom who I won’t see until I go to France next spring.

But our trip starting magnificently with a Verve/Jay-Z mashup blaring as we drove out of the bubble. We were graced with a rainbow (left) as we crossed Lake Champlain and made good time to Will’s family friends’ house in Saranac Lake.

Then we decided to go see the new movie, Iron Man. Wow. What a movie. If I had known anything about the movie before I had walked into the theater I probably wouldn’t have gone in.

What really interested me about the movie was it addressed ideas of Americanism. In the first half of the movie, this weapons engineer is held captive by muslim terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan. To simplify the plot, he builds a superhero suit by engineering this new energy source and kicks some “islamofascist” ass.

This was very interesting to me because the Iron Man dominated the terrorists in very primordial ways: the terrorists’ AK47 bullets bounced right off the Iron Man’s suit. He beat them up with his fists. Because of his intellectual prowess and ingenuity, he was able to be more manly and primordial then the terrorists.

It was as if the film-makers were saying that through our technology and braininess we can be more manly than the animalistic terrorists. This is interesting in the context of Mark Steyn (a speaker college Republicans brought in this year)’s affirmation that what our culture lacks manliness.

In many ways, I see a social phenomenon of a Napoleonic complex going on with my wonderful neoconservative fellow citizens. From “Bring it on” to “Dead or Alive” to Mark Steyn’s comments, these men are afraid of losing their manliness to terrorists. They think they can defeat terrorists by out-manning them and starting wars. Admittedly, it sounds farfetched and reactionary of me to say this, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how our cultural landscape influences our politics.

Anyway, Iron Man was terrible on every level and Will rightly compared it to Snakes on a Plane.

We slept well and the next day we went on a quick hike and had a great view of the Saranac Lake area:

We then had a pleasant six hour drive to Toronto, where we just got some Pho at a Vietnamese place, enjoyed the drinking age by having some wine with dinner and had a pretty intense metaphysical talk.

Good times. Tomorrow: on to Detroit!