Coming of Age

Algren house Miller.jpg
The small Dunes cottage where Beauvoir summered in Miller Beach, Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan   –  via Wikimedia

How do you keep life from becoming a parody of itself? It is more difficult in a culture that treats aging as a disease. –  Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age

When I hear the term “coming of age,” my first thought is of a young person’s transition from being a child to being an adult and the many novels and films about that period of adolescence. But that is not what is meant by the book title The Coming of Age which is “a study spanning a thousand years and a variety of different nations and cultures to provide a clear and alarming picture of ‘society’s secret shame’ — the separation and distance from our communities that the old must suffer and endure” by Simone de Beauvoir. It was written by Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April 1986) who was a French existentialist philosopher, writer, social theorist, and feminist activist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, and even though she was not considered one at the time of her death, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory. She asks what do the words elderly, old, and aged really mean? How are they used by society, and how in turn do they define the generation that we are – or once were – taught to respect and love, but instead often reprimand and avoid? As I have crossed into the “senior citizen” category, I pay more attention to how we as a society treat this generation. I noted things earlier as I was caring for my mother and my older sister. I often wondered who was helping some of their fellow seniors who had no family or friends at all or that were nearby or anyone willing to help with things like bills, healthcare, shopping, and all of the everyday life that many of us take for granted. I ended up helping some people in my mom’s facility with forms. Not only are insurance, Social Security, IRS and other forms complicated, many require you to go online and these were people who still only used a wired landline. No smartphone, no computer and no knowledge about how to use those things if they had access to them. Simone de Beauvoir suggests that the way we treat the elderly is a reflection of our society’s values and priorities. It’s not a pleasant reflection.

“Old age is a problem on which all of the failures of society converge. And that is why it is so carefully hidden.”  –  Simone de Beauvoir

“I don’t know, for example, how I will be when I am ninety years old,” said de Beauvoir, when she was 66 in the documentary film, Promenade au pays de la vieillesse (A Walk through the Land of Old Age). Simone did not make it to 90, but she certainly lived long enough to experience aging in the world of the 1980s. As a feminist, de Beauvoir does not ignore the particular problems that women experience as they age, many of which do not affect men in the same ways and to the same degree. I haven’t read her book. I have only read about it, but I certainly agree with her general argument. Aging is often seen as a disease to be fought with surgery and medications and less often treated with care and concern.

In the Words of Voltaire

“I may not agree with what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire, pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, born November 21, 1694, in Paris, France. His nom de plume is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, and the first letters of the phrase le jeune, which means “the young.”


During his lifetime, Voltaire wrote nearly 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. I don’t recommend that you follow his writing habits.  He was said to have enjoyed nearly 40 cups of coffee every day, all while in bed, dictating his writing to secretaries.

But I would recommend reading him if you never have before.


Quotations are not like reading Voltaire in context, but they might pique your interest in his writing. I’ve been seeing a lot of his quotes online lately as they seem to be relevant to current situation. The one above is a good example of that.

Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. His fame is based on his wit, his criticism of Christianity (especially the Roman Catholic Church) and his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

He wrote plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, and scientific expositions., and he was one of the first authors to become renowned and commercially successful internationally.

quoteThe account of the end of his life, according to Wikipedia, is unconfirmed. What we do know is that in February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The five-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” You might think that “adoring God” would be an odd thing for him to write, but he did not have a quarrel with God but with organized religions.

He recovered, and in March he saw a performance of his play and was treated by the audience as a returning hero, but became ill again and died on 30 May 1778.

The accounts of his death are varied and we can’t precisely know what occurred. Some of his enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites from a Catholic priest. Others said he wouldn’t repent and so died in agony of body and soul. His adherents told of his defiance to his last breath. A story has developed in modern times that is likely to be true but fits with his views and wit. When a priest urged him to renounce Satan, he replied, “This is no time to make new enemies.”

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” is one of his famous quotes and he meant that though he believed in God if someone proved God didn’t exist, people would have to invent God. Christopher Hitchens  disagrees: “Thus, though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with.”

A few others:
“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”
“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”
“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”
“If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”


Then again, Voltaire also said “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night” because he recognized that a belief in God could lead people to morality. His belief seems to have fluctuated. After a natural disaster that killed many people, Voltaire wrote “God’s only excuse is that He doesn’t exist.”

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.

In 1791, the National Assembly of France, regarding Voltaire as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris and enshrined in the Panthéon. An estimated million people attended the procession and an elaborate ceremony.

Voltaire’s tomb in the Paris Panthéon

Speaking of Solitude

I don’t know what we will call this time one day – the Time of the Virus, The Coronavirus Pandemic, COVID-19 2020? It is a time of sheltering at home, being locked down, a time if not being alone, it is a time of solitude. Streets and stores and schools are empty.

The dictionary says that solitude is the state or situation of being alone, but the word has always seemed to mean something more than just being alone. I can’t define it, so I look to what others have said about it.

solitude tree swing

“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”
― Albert Einstein

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
— Gabriel , the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude

“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
― Honoré de Balzac

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”
― Patricia Highsmith

“Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve.”
― Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

“being alone never felt right. sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.”
― Charles Bukowski

“I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”
― Audrey Hepburn

“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”
― Aldous Huxley

Solitude stands in the doorway
And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette
By her long cool stare and her silence
I suddenly remember each time we’ve met
— Suzanne Vega, “Solitude Standing”

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company,  even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”
― Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”― Albert Camus

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”
― Aristotle

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.”
― May Sarton

How do you define solitude?

Take a Tech Holiday

bullet through a cell phone

I considered taking a tech holiday this holiday weekend. You have heard of this, I’m sure – turn off or leave behind the phone and laptop; go where there is no wifi or service, or just ignore all that at home for a day, weekend or week.

I have tried in the past. Twice on vacations I had no phone or wifi on a regular basis – and I survived. But when I did go somewhere that had free wifi, I was quick to log in and check messages, email etc.  So, I cheated.

I generally write these posts during the week and schedule them for the weekend when possible, so it may appear that I am online when I am not. But this weekend I will be mostly at home and hoping to spend a lot of time out in the garden. My only tech out there is that I always listen to podcasts while I am working.

I queued up three posts during the past week: Friday, one on Memorial Day becoming a weekend thing, this one and a follow up reminder for the original Memorial Day on May 30.  So, nothing for tomorrow, Sunday. Let that be my tech holiday.

Here are some thoughts on technology to ponder, with a few comments of mine – and for you comment on, if you are so inclined.

“Even when you take a holiday from technology, technology doesn’t take a break from you. ” – Douglas Coupland
This would be a good essay writing prompt for my students. What does he mean?

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”  –  Steven Spielberg
I will admit to “bridging” my walks, sitting in waiting rooms, riding on a train, sitting on the toilet, drinking coffee at a cafe with my phone. It’s hard to be totally bored if I have my phone. Is that a bad thing?

“Technology is, of course, a double edged sword. Fire can cook our food but also burn us.” – Jason Silva
This has always been true, from knives and swords to breaking the atom.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” – Steve Jobs
Nice words from a man who was obsessed with technology and not particularly nice to people, no matter what kind of “Zen” vibes he tried to give off.

“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it, so it’s part of everyday life.” – Bill Gates
That may be a goal of technologists, but it is also sneaky. Is this what Coupland’s quote means? Is our unconsciousness about picking up the phone 100 times a day or that the phone is pinging cell towers and telling my location even when I’m not using it?

“Every time there’s a new tool, whether it’s Internet or cell phones or anything else, all these things can be used for good or evil. Technology is neutral; it depends on how it’s used.” – Rick Smolan
Sounds like the same idea as the Silva quote, but then there’s the “neutral” part. Some tech is not neutral. A weapon is not neutral. A computer virus is not neutral. Technologies and the use of technology is sometimes designed for evil. I know that a smart bomb won’t do anything without a person using it with intent, but that tech is not neutral.

Don’t Quote Me On That


“I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel”
– Roger Branigin. Or Mark Twain. Or Charles Brownson. Or Irving Leibowitz. Or William I. Greener Jr. Or H. L. Mencken. Or maybe Benjamin Franklin

I love quotations. When I was teaching full-time, I had a rotating series of printed quotations a dnposters decorating my classroom. In this digital age, I am frequently posting quotes that I find interesting on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or LinkedIn.

While searching for the author of a line that was quoted without attribution, I stumbled on the website Quote Investigator.

As a longtime teacher and reader and writer of research papers and dissertations, I am very aware of citing your sources. In the Internet Age, a lot of that kind of citing has fallen away – more out of laziness than deliberate plagiarism.

As a fan of Albert Einstein, I know that a good number of wise quotes attributed to him never came from his mouth or pen. Abraham Lincoln is another famous name that is often attached to wise words incorrectly.

The Quote Investigator website has an entry about the quote that starts this article. Well, one version of the quote. You can choose from:
1. Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel
2. I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.
3. Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.

Some version of that idea has been credited to three big quotation sources: Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and H. L. Mencken.

Quote Investigator’s research knocks all three out of the running and lands on someone who came long after their deaths. They found the earliest citation for that second version of the quote was in The Indianapolis News in 1962 in a speech by Roger Branigin.

But Branigin doesn’t carry the same weight of authority as putting Twain, Franklin or Mencken’s name with the line.

There are lots of lines “quoted” and attributed to Anonymous and Author Unknown. Someone said or wrote these words, but has been lost to history. Or wasn’t famous enough to matter. Or had their name dropped off by a lazy person who followed.

I do know that Ambrose Bierce, in his The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary, defined quotation as “the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”

And not everyone is a fan of those of us who like to repeat quotations.

“[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.” – A.A. Milne, If I May

“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Many Inventions

“A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.” –  Dorothy Sayers

I like the irony of quoting from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson where he says “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

But then, I am more on the side of the oft-quoted Winston Churchill who said “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations,” even though it could be interpreted as being a bit of a dig.

I am not quite sure what  Julio Cortázar means when he says “In quoting others, we cite ourselves” (Around the Day in Eighty Worlds). I suppose we do see ourselves in quotes we choose – as in “I wish I had said that.” Marlene Dietrich feels the same way. “I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.”

Cleopatra’s Nose

When I taught in a secondary school, I always had a rotating series of quotations on my classroom walls. Many were quite serious: “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” – Herman Hesse
Some were humorous: “Every place is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
Some quotes were somewhere in between: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
I even quoted myself: “Bladder control is a sign of maturity” and “When the mothership lands, know who your true friends are.”

Students would sometimes ask about a quote, and I would use them in lessons. On some rare and happy occasions, a student would connect a quote to something we were doing in class.

One quote that students usually thought was “stupid” was:

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

It is a quote from Blaise Pascal who can be described as both a mathematician and a mystic. He was born in Clermont, France in 1623. I told students that Blaise was homeschooled because his father, a mathematician, believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. My students found this to be sound thinking.

They were in lesser agreement on that approach when they learned that his home life was less fun and games and more geometric problems which he was told to work out using lengths of sticks in his backyard.

The method seemed to work. At 12, he showed his father that he had discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father invited him to join in his discussions with other mathematicians. He published an article on the geometric properties of cones at 16, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

TaylorBut what about Cleopatra’s nose? I always assumed that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but there are very few images or descriptions of her.

In my mind, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra (1963). That nose looks, like the rest of Liz, quite beautiful.

But it seems that power rather than beauty was the real appeal of Cleopatra.

“The Lover’s Coin” a bronze showing Cleopatra (left) and Marc Antony.

She is described as being quite thin and quite small (about four feet tall). Julius Caesar was accused of pedophilia when she at around age 18 visited him in Rome. She was also depicted as having quite a big nose. But Cleo was  proud of her large nose because it demonstrated her pure Macedonia blood (she was not Egyptian) as a descendant of Alexander the Great.

Pascal had a good-sized nose himself, so maybe he identified with Cleo. But what did that odd quote mean?

I college, I was assigned to read some of Pascal’s writings in a philosophy course. The idea that stuck with me was that if you change one thing, you change everything. If you decide to go to a different college, or marry a different person, everything after changes. But even if you change something that seems less significant – whether to skip work today, the route you take driving, your nose or Cleopatra’s nose – other things will change. Every choice changes the consequences.

That kind of thinking moves easily into discussions of fate, destiny, free will and religion. Pascal’s family was not religious and he was not raised with religious teachings. By chance (if you believe in that concept), he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal.

The newly converted Pascal had no problem with these new beliefs and science. He continued working on scientific experiments. He showed that a vacuum could exist in nature. He invented the mathematics of probability.

He had his religious beliefs, but he wasn’t a blindly devoted believer.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.”

But then, in 1654, he experienced a “night of fire.” He had a divine vision. It changed his life and he decided to forget the world and everything except for God.

He left Paris the following year and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus.

He started to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity. He never completed the book. The notes he had made were posthumously published as Pensées (Thoughts).

What I recall most clearly from that book is his “wager.”

“God is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Let us weigh the gain and the lose in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two changes. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, lose nothing. Wager then without any hesitation that He is”

If God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him. But if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him.It is logical to believe.

In his writing, the “heart” is what experiences God, and not reason. The famous quote of his on that:

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…
We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

These are far larger questions than my quotations on the wall ever answered. Then again, they were meant to provoke questions more than provide answers. Pascal said that “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”