On Taking Goethe’s Advice

Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908

Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.

Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo  who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  It was Serlo who said:

Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]

Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
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Confident Vision: Barack Obama & The Green Bear

References to “that vision thing”, now common in political discourse, tend to irritate me. First used during the 1988 campaign by Republican presidential candidate  George Bush, the phrase itself is dismissive, reducing a powerful force in human life and history to little more than a marketing ploy. “Without a vision the people perish”, says Proverbs, but the vision of peace and justice held up by Biblical prophets and Wisdom literature has very little to do with the shallow, ephemeral “vision thing” offered by dissembling  politicians and politically opportunistic spinmeisters who seem to enjoy working  both sides of the national street.

Vision, of course, refers not only to the content of what we see, but to the way in which we see it.   Our envisioning of reality tends to be idiosyncratic and malleable, shaped by our sensitivities and preferences as well as our convictions about how the world is, or ought to be.

Imagine, for example, four friends who just have shared a day on the beach. Back at their rented cottage, feet propped on weathered railings and drinks in hand, they watch drifting sand swirl off dunes as the wind stiffens and a neighbor wanders over.   Reaching for a beer as he settles onto the top step, he asks, “Well, how was it?  Have a good day?” Continue reading

The Death of Freecell


I’ve never been much of a game player.  When I was younger, I did enjoy Scrabble and Monopoly.  I played Mancala in Africa and dominos in south Texas, and in the late 90’s I flirted briefly with the sailing version of Trivial Pursuit.  But I don’t make pilgrimage to Louisiana for the “gaming” found in casinos, and I don’t do video games.  There’s no Guitar Hero or Grand Theft Auto tucked into my bookshelf, and you won’t find Mahjong, chess or checkers.  The cribbage board is stored away in a box because my Dad and I used to play and it has sentimental value, but everything else – the decks of cards,  the assorted boards, the mismatched dice – simply have disappeared. 

The advent of cyber-gaming passed me by as well.  I have friends who spend hours on the computer playing games with people around the world, and they seem to enjoy it.  I’ve tried to become interested, but  it’s never happened.  I’d rather take a walk, go to a gallery or read a book.

The only exception has been Freecell.  When my first computer arrived in 1999, I discovered the folks at the factory had added a few games for my amusement.  I looked them over but didn’t play until one of my friends said, “You really ought to give Freecell a try”.  She’d become a fan when she purchased a computer with Windows95, the first operating system to include the game.  She seemed so enthusiastic I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I set out to learn.

I played one game, and then two.  Then, I played a few more.  It wasn’t long before I’d play two or three games every night before bed.  One day I realized I’d played a hundred games, and then a thousand.   By the time I traded in my old Win98 clunker for a spiffy new duocore, I’d logged 6,754 games.  That’s not much in the shadowy world of Freecell addiction, but for a dedicated non-gamer, it’s enough.

As much a puzzle as a game, Freecell has a lot to recommend it.  The game can be as mindless or challenging as you want to make it, and it fits easily into those few minutes before bed or with a cup of coffee in the morning. Not only that, it has one of the highest win rates of any solitaire, which contributes to the fun and the addictive quality of the game.  

There are claims on the internet that almost every Freecell deal can be won.  When Dave Ring started The Internet Freecell Project, he attempted to solve all the deals using human beings.  The project was finished in October 1995, and only one game defied every human player’s attempt to be successful: game  #11,982, which has been shown to be unsolvable by several software solvers.

When I stopped playing Freecell on the Windows98 computer, my winning percentage was 71%,.  Now, on my lovely new computer with the zippy cards, sound effects and neat new graphics, I have a winning percentage of 75%.  But that increased winning percentage can be misleading.   Since my new computer arrived on January 16, I’ve played precisely four games of Freecell.

I played those four games during my first week with my new “infernal persnickity timesucker”.  Then, Freecell was set aside as I learned a new operating system, installed new software programs and peripherals and generally got accustomed to a radically new world.  Moving from Windows98 with dialup to Vista with broadband left me a bit breathless, amazed at the possibilities.  I watched YouTube for the first time, and found the time required to list an Ebay auction reduced from thirty minutes to ten.  While drinking one cup of coffee I could process a batch of photos, google my way into a topic and out again, answer my emails and tidy up my desktop, downloading a few files in the process.  There would have been great chunks of extra time for Freecell, except for this: I had decided to write.

I’d been doing a little light blogging on the WeatherUnderground website since October, 2007, and enjoyed it tremendously.  But I had a friend who kept whispering, “You need to do more.  Get on a real blog site.  Spread your wings.  Push the limits.  Expand your audience….’   After looking at assorted sites and  experimenting a bit,  I made a commitment.   I was going to write, and I was going to do it by maintaining two blogs.  At WeatherUnderground, I would continue with my more-or-less weekly posting, and on WordPress, I would try to update at least every three days.  It seemed a wonderful plan.  I had ideas galore, and energy to spare.

Now, two months and about twenty-five blogs down the road, I can’t help but think of my favorite quotation from Woody Allen: The longest journey begins with a single step.  The best journeys begin with a moment of temporary insanity.  In some ways, the writing has been the least of the craziness.  As I learn the vocabulary of “real” blogging (trackbacks? pingbacks? authority? tags? domain mapping?), struggle with html, keep a wary eye on the CSS project still waiting in the wings and keep adding to the list of drafts to be outlined and researched, I wouldn’t change a thing, and yet everything has changed.

Freecell was only the first casualty.   Television viewing was next.   I haven’t been to Ebay since January, and I’ve seen 2 a.m. so many times I think I’m back in college.  My mother rolls her eyes; my cat sits and gives me the evil eye.  No matter which one is around, when I head toward the computer, they sigh.   Neither is especially happy with my new enthusiasm. 

Nevertheless, for good or for ill, I keep writing, reading and learning.  Slowly, I’m developing a new routine.  The technical tasks are becoming easier, the site soon will look the way I see it in my mind, and the delight of sharing my vision and words with others is increasing exponentially.  Writing, I’m beginning to understand, can be something you do, or it can define who you are.  When I first saw one of my blogs republished on another site, with my name attached and the description, “writer and blogger” included,  I was amazed.  And yet, with every word, every paragraph, every entry, I’m filling up that description with a new and vibrant reality.  It may be a crazy journey, but it’s one of the best I’ve taken.

As for freecell, I suspect I’m not going to increase my winning percentage by much no matter how many games I play.  I believe I’ll let it rest, and just keep writing.  That way, I’ll be sure to stay ahead of the game.





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© Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008