What’s a Totoro?

The acclaimed Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of two young sisters who encounter friendly forest spirits in postwar rural Japan.  The film has won numerous awards, and the Totoro has been ranked among the most popular animated characters.

There are many reasons for the film’s success, including the carefully crafted animation, the endearing portrayal of the two sisters, the lush watercolor backgrounds, and the pastoral simplicity of the setting.  After watching the movie recently, I asked myself, what is a Totoro?  And what was Miyazaki’s purpose in creating this movie?

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What’s a Totoro?

In Search of Autumnal Tints

Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” contains colorful descriptions of New England’s fall foliage, including sugar maple and northern red oak, as well as more humble plants like bearded grass and pokeweed.  Of special interest to me was Thoreau’s commentary on the red maple (Acer rubrum):  he’d noticed that as early as the 25th of September a small red maple on the edge of a meadow had already turned a “far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer” and that the tree was all the “more conspicuous” in contrast with the rest of the forest, which was still green:

Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun!

— Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints

In recent weeks I’d spotted solitary maple leaves dotting the trail, splashes of scarlet among the prevailing greens and browns of the forest floor.  This Sunday would be the 25th of September — and based on Thoreau’s essay it seemed precisely the right time to go scouting for the season’s first red maples to have fully changed their color.  My friend Steve Aaron was looking for a mountain to climb, so I invited him to join me and  Odie the Labradoodle for an attempt on Fir Mountain, one of several pathless peaks that rise above the headwaters of the Esopus Creek.

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In Search of Autumnal Tints

Askeisis in the Catskills

This is a revised version of an earlier post in which I described an adventure in the Catskills undertaken in part as an experiment in “askeisis,” the ancient Greek concept of physical and spiritual training.  The revised version was published Saturday in Stoicism Today, a blog sponsored by University of Exeter on the topic of ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy applied to modern living.

To read the post, click here:

stoicism today

Askeisis in the Catskills

Shifting into Neutral

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to “strive to still the mind,” which reminds me of a point made by 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

It is in your power, whenever you choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

One day, while waiting for the subway, I decided to give it a try.   Instead of fretting at the wait, I put away my phone and stood still.  Anxiety faded, and the surroundings came into focus, as I slowly let out my breath.

A visual image had helped me make the transition: I imagined moving a gear shift into neutral.  Then I wondered, could I shift into neutral while running?

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Shifting into Neutral

There’s Grit, and Then There’s True Grit

(An updated version of this blog post was published in The New Rambler)

In her recent book, Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth argues that the secret to success — whether for parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people — is not talent, but a combination of passion and perseverance she calls “grit.”

The dictionary definition of “grit” is “mental toughness or courage.” The term calls to mind gritting or clenching the teeth when facing up to an unpleasant task, or it makes us think of small particles of sand or stone that irritate skin, get in the eyes, clog machinery — the idea being that an individual with grit perseveres in the face of these frictions.

The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, Kelly, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007

Packaged for a self-help audience, the book is filled with stories about how grit contributed to the achievements of celebrities and other successful individuals, and it makes for fun and informative reading.  However, many of us understand the point already, if for no other reason than we’ve seen the movie, True Grit (either the 1969 version starring John Wayne or the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges) or read the 1968 novel by Charles Portis on which the films were based.

While Duckworth does a nice job, her thesis falls short in that it fails to consider grit in the context of alternative mental strategies or consider the drawbacks and risks of grit.  Interestingly, a more balanced assessment comes through in a close reading of True Grit.

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There’s Grit, and Then There’s True Grit

Getting to Know Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century Transcendentalist and author of Walden, came under attack in the New Yorker last fall for his individualistic philosophy and seemingly anti-social attitude.  This isn’t a new issue.  His contemporaries regarded him as crusty and contrary and called him a hard man to like.  The naturalist John Burroughs wrote that he lacked sympathy and compassion.

Is it OK to admire Thoreau’s writing, if he was really such an unfriendly person?

It was with this question in mind that I recently read Men of Concord, a book published in 1936 that contained selected entries from Thoreau’s journal over the period 1838-1860, with a special focus on interactions with his neighbors in the Massachusetts town of Concord.  The idea came from N. C. Wyeth (1881-1945), a popular illustrator during the early 20th century and a great admirer of Thoreau’s work, who conceived of the book as a way to help the public appreciate Thoreau as a great American philosopher.  He contributed twelve original oil panels, which were reproduced as color plates in the book and which are on display today at a museum exhibition in Concord.

men of concord

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Getting to Know Thoreau

Will the Real Cynic Please Stand Up?

In a New Yorker article last fall, Kathryn Schultz attacked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, calling Walden’s author “pond scum” and dismissing as unrealistic any political vision built upon his “rugged individualism.”  Based on her reaction to Thoreau, she’d likely recoil in horror from Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy in ancient Greece.  Known as “The Dog,” Diogenes lived in a tub, begged for food, and went barefoot, haranguing rich and poor alike for their pointless conformity, irrational behavior, and moral bankruptcy.  Compared to Diogenes, Thoreau was pampered and tame.

You might be familiar with the image of a white-haired man carrying a lamp in  daylight, searching for an honest man.  That was Diogenes.

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Statue of Diogenes in Sinop, Turkey.  Source:  Wikipedia

Brilliant philosopher, shameless exhibitionist, ragamuffin — take your pick, but before we concede to people like Schultz and dismiss the man, we have to ask the question, why is Diogenes still remembered some twenty-four hundred years after his death?

I recently came across a book by Professor Luis Navia of New York Institute of Technology, Diogenes the Critic:  The War Against the World, which sheds some interesting light on this question.

diogenes book

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Will the Real Cynic Please Stand Up?