Brain food

Growing up, I heard the term “brain food” bandied about as if to say certain foods would improve cognitive function and make me smarter. Somewhere along the way, popcorn was believed to be a brain food. Whether or not popcorn is biochemically beneficial for thinking ability isn’t really the subject of my post today (though I would argue that dousing it in butter and salt then setting mindlessly in front of a movie isn’t exactly intellectual stimulation). In fact, what we call brain food is really just what we need to perform up to par rather than excel. For the past ten days off from this blog I’ve been engaging in real brain food- writing a daily letter to my wife back home, journaling, and reading lots of books.

Daily writing has proven to be good exercise not just for my penmanship, but my imagination. One hopes love letters never get stale, but there’s still the motivation to try and keep each letter unique and interesting; it becomes an exercise in creativity to constantly come up with a new idea or angle on “I love you” to write home. Some days I resort to using the letter as a journal about the day’s events. I’ve also finally begun writing my thoughts and observations about Afghanistan in my actual, physical journal. But other days, the Groundhog Days, a little more creativity is required. Some of my proudest ideas and missives home have come from defying convention of the letter home and penning my own poem to her about our life and courtship, or deciding to poorly illustrate a story using stick figures and overt comedy. These breaks from the typical letter are remarkably refreshing as the author because they remind me that the only limitations being imposed are that of the paper’s dimensions and my own imagination. The sky isn’t the limit when you’re writing- you can sail right past atmospheric limitations. What goes down on the paper is a new world to be crafted with no rules but those set by its creator.

Which brings me in an unexpected fashion to discussing one of the books I’m reading, actually. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, basis of the Coen brothers’ 2007 film of the same name, is like nothing I’ve ever read before. In some ways I’m glad I saw the movie first because the book is so unlike any other leisure reading that I could imagine having trouble constructing its tone in my mind. Having Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in my head for Sheriff Bell’s narration doesn’t hurt, either. But another startling realization for me is that whether by McCarthy’s artistic choice or a product of poor e-book transcribing there are no quotation marks signifying any of the dialog. Conversations still happen, but there are no defining queues establishing its rhythm. There’s very little in the way of punctuation at all, actually. The language is steeped in ruralization or capturing the dialect of the region and time, much like reading Mark Twain. And there are run-on sentences galore as McCarthy describes the actions of Llewelyn Moss, using “and” four or five times to stretch small actions into one longer process. I haven’t noticed this in the passages describing Anton Chigurh and I can only assume McCarthy does this as if writing in deference to the character. It’s fascinating and effective at making me pay much closer attention the words used in deducing the action, rather than “coasting” through with punctuation as my guide.

I accidentally left my kindle [left lowercase a la the logo] back in the tent tonight, and I can’t recall an exhaustive list of everything I’ve read from memory. Among them was The 4-Hour Body (interesting, scientifically based, and fun to read), Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (just scratched the surface so far, since philosophy truly requires study to absorb), Rich Dad, Poor Dad (which has me thinking about saving and investing in a whole new light), and finally what I think might be the most interesting book of them all, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea.

Fea does something really interesting in this book: he actually looks for the answer to the question and even questions the question itself, rather than cherry-picking examples of text to support his own predetermined conclusion. The result is one that Daniel Walker Howe was quite right in describing as “a scrupulous presentation of evidence that may surprise people on both sides of this hot topic.” Fea truly comes across as having no agenda at all, but simply presenting the evidence of both arguments and, as such, much more honestly than so many other voices in the debate. It’s a breath of fresh air with no agenda other than the pursuit of truth. The narrative is clear and easy reading, with the establishment of the time and cultural climate done well.

Some of what stood out in my mind is that the United States were not formed as a Christian nation as a de jure standard, but as a de facto existence owing to the overwhelmingly Christian population. Christ and Christianity are mentioned precisely nowhere in any of our government’s founding documents; they plentifully abound culturally at the time in personal correspondence and around our framing documents. Most interesting is the example of the American Civil War, where both sides firmly believed they were on the side of angels while the other was atheistic and hell-bound. The Confederate states even had God directly written into their constitution. Looking at it from a historical point of view, one can even see parallels to today’s “Bible belt” South and New England liberal elitist stereotypes. What iss very clear is that the question and the answer are much more complicated than the simple black/white answers sought or used for political posturing.

Both the North and the South interpreted the Bible and their view of history in order to fir their preconceptions. This is probably not so different than what people have always done, or what happens today. The truth is, we’re discussing real people who lived back then and had stories to tell, circumstances to live through, and events that shaped their lives. How accurate would it be for somebody else to tell your story after you’re dead and gone, simply pegging you as one thing with no further dimension to who you are? This is what Fea avoids, because the reality of America’s founding and religion is too nuanced to simply declare “the documents prove we’re secular” or “the culture proves we’re Christian” and let myopia take over. Just like the people who wove history, there’s more to it.

One of my favorite podcasts is Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, and one of the things he says is that you can predictably see a trend in historians’ accounting of an event over time. First there will be an overwhelming trend to portray the event or time period in a certain light, and this can be either positive or negative. But as time passes, it becomes more fashionable for the historians to become contrarian to the previously established history and begin to portray the event in a completely different light which, relative to my last sentence, would now be either negative or positive, respectively. Eventually, as enough time passes, cooler heads (perhaps further removed from the circumstances) begin to discern the truth that lies somewhere in the middle as they empathize with both sides while taking neither.

It’s a great book that I highly recommend for both the pious and the secular reader. At only 246 pages (excluding notes and references), it’s a quick read and full of fact, rather than opinion.

3 thoughts on “Brain food

  1. When you said writing letters reminded you that the only limitations are the paper’s dimensions and your own imagination, it made me think of a book I’m reading. Have you ever heard of Abbott’s book “Flatland”? It’s kind of a mathematical, science fiction story about life in a 2-dimensional world that was written in the late 1800s. It’s a quick read but it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I think you’d find it interesting.

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