Book recommendation: “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar, “Dieser Mensch war ich” by Christiane zu Salm

I read Dieser Mensch war ich (this person was me) many years after Memoirs of Hadrian,  but I wish to review them together, as they share common themes, and have woken similar emotions in me during reading.


Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a first-person novel about the life of emperor Hadrian, examining various events of his long life with the wisdom of his last moments. I felt that Hadrian showed an uncommon serenity towards the end of his life. Christiane zu Salm collected one- or two-page summaries of hospice patients in her care (she is Sterbebeglieiterin – assisting people approaching death), who agreed to be published in her book. These people are much closer to us than Hadrian: they were mechanics, shopkeepers, teachers, unemployed, with children, with complicated families, married, alone, sad, ready, desperate; it is easier to relate to their words and their feelings, because we share common experiences. Still, I see that the approach of the end of their lives made them all (Hadrian included) think of the same questions, and made them all simply human. I appreciated the somber, elegant lyrism of Hadrian’s long monologue, but I didn’t feel that zu Salm’s patients were less interesting or important because they used ordinary words. Presentation in this case is not relevant to me, and I hope I’m not alone thinking that.

I wish to end with the thought that these are stories of people’s lives. Death is of course very present in both books, but as a future event, as the end, rather than a fact in itself. I felt that their message was to appreciate every moment of life, and they made me think about what makes my life meaningful right now.


Shopping strategies: focused and scanning

I noticed I have two main strategies while grocery shopping, that strongly depend on how much time I have and how much optimisation I need to achieve. When I’m in full focused mode, I set up a kind of filter and I only pay attention to what I have to buy. On the opposite extreme, when I’m in scanning mode I am looking at everything with interest.

OK, this is barely new information to anyone. What I want to share is the surprise I felt when I thought: when I’m commuting, am I more focused or more scanning? And when I’m in a queue? When I’m home? I realised that I tend to travel around in a very focused manner. I wait at the bus stop with only my destination in mind. I check the phone to see if the bus is late. Only few times I have managed to look around in a more scanning-like way, and I discovered a woman on the balcony, reading among her flowers; the different greens of the trees above me; a crow walking across the street; the nice evening light.

Source: my Flickr

This way of looking around didn’t take long, and filled the few minutes of waiting time in a very enriching way. I want to practice it more often, especially when I feel that the focused mode can be switched off for a while.

Teaching: building bridges

I have been thinking about the differences between good and ok teachers, and I came to the conclusion that two things are important: showing passion for the topic, and being able to build bridges between known and unknown, for the students to cross. I would like to explain more about this latter point in this post.

Ponte em Paranaguá Raí Nagaoka on Flickr

When I explain something, I need to be aware of what the other person knows, because otherwise I would build a bridge between two unknown topics, that are not connected to anything else. That bridge will therefore be unuseful and will likely deteriorate before any other bridge will be built nearby. A big chunk of information I learned from school stayed, sadly, like cathedrals in the desert, away from my everyday life, precious in theory, but disconnected and quickly forgotten.

It happens that other people find a bridge by themselves, and are enlightened and proud of that new connection. I have learned to avoid judgment on how far-fetched is that connection for me – for example when I introduce a classical composer to some friends, and they connect it to medieval movies they have seen. I could correct them, because the composer has no relation whatsoever with the time and location of those movies; but the main effect is that the bridge is lost. That long bridge is a connection, nevertheless; when a new composer will be presented to these people, they will already know one of that time: so one new bridge could be added to the network, or as an intermediate point on the existing bridge. Condemning bridges is usually a bad move, rarely something positive. Of course if a bridge is misleadingly connecting two things, I point it out; but I try to offer an alternate connection.

That’s why I take extra care in asking other people what they know already, so that I can present the new topic to them, by walking with them on bridges they find meaningful.


Telling your story – content vs. presentation

When you explain something or tell a story, two things are needed to make it interesting for others: the contents and the presentation. (That is quite obvious.) What is not obvious to me is the tipping point – when presentation becomes the main interest of the story, and the content alone would be mildly uninteresting:

I found this video very well done, all the presentation tricks are there: great music! stunning camera angles! dinosaurs! adventure! space! charismatic wildlife! suspense! Then, rewatching it, I started to see more and more little mistakes in the text and the image manipulation, and I saw beyond the tricks, and there was only that shabby old car. I still smiled, because I appreciated the effort in making such a great presentation.

This other video is a similar feast of presentation, over a generally niche and behind-the-scenes topic – system administration on SUSE Linux servers. I couldn’t imagine how to make a cool video out of it – but there it is (and the text is a gem, for IT-savvies!):

On a different set of topics, a great example of successful presentation skills is spoken word. In this case, content is chosen by the speakers among issues of their lives and their surroundings, mostly on social and racial inequalities. This video from Guante introduced me to spoken word, and it became viral last year:

That’s a bold, clear, resounding, thought-provoking performance. It’s about acting, rhetorics in the good sense – not in the one that filters and bends content according to presentation requirements. But how much of the virality has been generated by the topic, and how much by the great presentation skills? I don’t know, it’s hard to evaluate, but the important thing is that this content gained a lot of attention. In this case, I see that a strong presentation is functional to the content, and the intention of the speaker.

What worries me is when significant content suffers from a mediocre presentation, and fails to gain the attention that it should deserve. I can’t accept that the presentation is a necessary tool for any content to be considered at all. Does it deserve to be ignored because it is not able to advertise itself?

With that in mind, I just finished reading a collection of life summaries by people on their deathbed: Dieser Mensch war ich. They were not filtered to pick up the cool ones, the ones with a message for others – no, they were all there: the sad ones, the ones of people who think they made mistakes, the ones of people who felt guilty and miserable. The language was plain, simple, unpolished, confused sometimes. The presentation was barely visible, I felt it was almost pure content. How many of these stories would not be discussed outside of this book, just because they look uninteresting, because they have no hooks to the usual presentation tropes? And on the contrary, how many plain stories make it to the news, overdecorated with presentation?

I have subscribed to a storytelling course, but with these doubts I can’t make use of it. I would feel desperate if I understand that people listen to me just because I am able to sell my story, not because my story has a value in itself.

Rock bottom

Today I read Chris Nicholas’ post about reaching rock bottom and rebuilding from that foundation. I read it a few times to check what could match with my story. I found much similarity, but not on the “rock bottom sensation” that he experienced – and not yet any intention to start rebuilding.

I feel more like I fell off my horse. There is no proper desperation in that. I saw the fall coming as I progressively lost balance and slipped on the side of the horse, grabbed his mane, at last let the reins loose, felt the speed of the running horse from an increasingly uncomfortable position. I knew I just had to stay in the saddle like everyone else, but I just couldn’t anymore, at least not like that.

I fell off a galloping horse once and I can’t exactly describe how it happened. One moment I was hanging precariously on his side, the next I was on the grass, the horse a couple strides away – as if I had skipped ten seconds of a video. That same scene happens now. I am simply and suddenly on the ground, not hurt, at least not suffering. I had a very first thought: “Back on that horse, immediately! No one would notice.” but next I felt surprise, and an immense exhaustion. My rock bottom is a soft meadow. The horse has come back to me, slightly surprised and genuinely curious. He even stands reasonably still as I try to get back in the saddle. What blocks me are two feelings: the present lack of force in my muscles, even if the movements are routine, and the dreadful perspective of coming back to the unending race.

my rock bottom is a soft meadow