What I Learned This Week 23-29.01.2017

I thought it might be fun to have a regular entry based on the things I learn each week. A kind of personal record of things that I find interesting that I never knew before.It has been an ambition of mine to try and learn something new each day, sometimes I succeed sometimes not but over the course of one week I will definitely learn new things and either I will choose one or a small selection and post it here.

This weeks choice came about through reading a book on classical mythology. I learned that our word myth actually comes from the Greek word mythos which I suppose is no real surprise especially as very often when we use the term myth or mythology it is preceded by the word Greek.

What interested me was the plethora of meanings the word mythos covers including but not limited to fiction, saying, tale, word, story and perhaps most interesting of all, fact. It seems ironic to me that a word we equate with fiction also meant fact. I am curious as to how one word can have two meanings which are directly opposed to each other. Imagine the confusion it must have caused in the amphitheatres of the ancient Greek states.

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There is a mythos about a Greek tragedian called Aeschylus who died around 456 or 455 BC from being hit by a tortoise which in turn had been dropped by an eagle who had mistaken Aeschylus’ bald head for a rock on which to crack open the tortoise shell in order to consume it. A strange story and a somewhat ironic end to a tragedian, but the main question for me is whether this mythos is 100% mythos or just plain old mythos.

An Endless Inspiration

I spend a lot of my life looking for inspiration, things of interest or general mental escape from the day to day. Perhaps this is not the right attitude to have but I feel when I find this escapism however short it is a small window into the beauty of life, whether it is the visual in the form of art of auditory in the form of music or other things like literature or inspiring true stories or just the immense and dazzling kaleidoscope of nature.

It is easy to let things get you down, but we are surrounded by boundless beauty which we should focus on and not on the ugliness which unfortunately is also present. I sometimes wonder if negativity is just the easier option, sadly that could be true. One of the purposes of me starting this blog is to seek out and search for beauty, inspirational, funny and generally positive things that I come across in the course of my life. It is essentially a release for me but if in some way, no matter how small it also gives some joy to others then it will feel even more worthwhile.

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from Smithsonian Magazine

Years ago I read “Cosmos” and “The Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan. You may or may not have read them yourself. Whenever I begin to question what I can only describe as ‘everything’ I think back to the words Sagan wrote in “The Pale Blue Dot” as I find they put ‘everything’ in perspective for me and I once more feel inspired and at ease with it all. In 2017 we find ourselves facing even more uncertain times than at almost any other time during the course of my life. I can not help but feel the world would be a better place if we had more Carl Sagans in it and sadly the one we did have is no longer with us.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video in which the great man himself speaks, which for me are some of the most inspiring prose ever put to paper.

About The Weekend

As I have mentioned before I live and work in the Czech Republic. One of the biggest challenges of living here is the Czech language, which after four years I am still very far from competency. Many Czech words look completely alien to me and very unpronounceable however some words are the same or almost the same as they are in English, either letter for letter or just adapted to fit with Czech pronunciation.

One such word is víkend which as you probably guessed means weekend. I started to wonder why this word appears to come from English and why there wasn’t a Czech word for weekend. Like so many questions I have with this most challenging of languages I ask my students to see what they know. No one I asked could tell me a Czech alternative to víkend (weekend). However a couple of them point out that historically of course there was no weekend most people would have worked on Saturday with only Sunday off for religious reasons. This is nicely illustrated in the Czech word for Sunday, Neděle which I believe literally means ‘to do nothing’.

So was the concept of weekend an Anglo centric idea? I have to say I do not know but it certainly appears that way. Many other languages also seem to adopt the English word. Even French which does have its own phrase fin de semaine seems at times to prefer le weekend.

I can only deduce that Czechs only started taking weekends sometime after the establishment of the first republic and after the phrase had been coined in English speaking countries.

It is funny the things we sometimes ponder, absolutely useless information but I am glad I know a little bit more than I did before I asked the question.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”

I don’t profess to know much about art and probably what I do know you could put on the back of a postage stamp. In any case though, should it matter? Isn’t artistic taste subjective? As Henry David Thoreau said in the quotation above. I do know what I like however and one of my favourite artists is Paul Gauguin. I do not think I possess the words to describe exactly how I feel when I see his paintings but there is something about the colours and technique he uses that I find inspirational and uplifting.

As someone said, a picture is worth a thousand words, so let Gauguin speak for himself. Here are some of my personal favourites:

So vibrant and colourful it really warms my soul to look at such beauty. A wonderful variety of different subjects demonstrating a rare versatility. I hope like me, you will find an escape in Gauguin’s perception of reality.

I’ll end this little piece with a portrait of the man himself:

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“Frankly I Had Enjoyed The War.”

The other day I was doing a bit of tidying up at home and came across a book I read last year. The book in question was “Happy Odyssey” by Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart . I am not sure whether or not Carton de Wiart can be considered inspiring but certainly he is interesting. The title of this post is a direct quotation from the man himself with regards to his service in the First World War. I doubt very much his view was shared by many others who took part in this horrendous conflict, this is even more surprising given how many times Carton de Wiart was wounded.

I will not recount here the story of this interesting man’s life for that you can read his autobiography or if you can not be troubled by that you can look at his Wikipedia entry, which surely must rate among the top most interesting entries for any human being:

“He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them.” (Wikipedia)

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 The book itself is a good read and very fast paced, there is not much to challenge the reader and at times Carton de Wiart glosses over or even fails to mention some points that perhaps he should have done. For example, he was a recipient of the Victoria Cross yet at no stage during his book does he mention this or describe how he got it. Instead this was left up to Winston Churchill to mention during the foreword. It is not on the same literary level as other memoirs about the period for example “Goodbye To All That” by Robert Graves and at no point does it have any anti war element. If all you want is a bit of escapism and some Boy’s Own style swashbuckling adventure combined with the very non-pc views of a man from a bygone era then you could do worse than pick up a copy of this book.

A Few Words On Wasps

I ply my trade as an English teacher in rural Czech Republic. From time to time my students point things out to me that I had never considered before and more often than not it interests and/or amuses me. This week I was doing an exercise with one student when we came across the word wasps. My student struggled with the pronunciation so of course I demonstrated how I would say it then, she started laughing. I asked her why she found it so funny and she said that the sound was amusing. I didn’t think too much of it until after the lesson I said to myself wasps, wasps, wasps and the more I said it the more ridiculous it did indeed sound to me. I found this quite interesting as if I am honest I never really gave this word or the sound it makes much though before now, but try it yourself, repeat wasps, wasps, wasps, wasps, wasps and you will begin to doubt whether you say it correctly and find the pronunciation humourous, if like me you are easily amused.

When I was looking around for a photo of wasps for this post I came across the following picture:

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This is a photograph of Vespula germanica or what is termed a social wasp. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as depending on your point of view of course this seemed a contradiction in terms. I personally dislike wasps and have no compunction about dispatching them from this life, to me these creatures are extremely anti-social, as they strive to ruin my summers and early autumns by interrupting my outdoor coffees or evening barbecues. Still next time I see them I will say their name over and over a few times in order give myself a smile and take the sting out of any encounter.

When life Gets You Down

We all have off days, or times when we feel down and depressed. We have our own ways of coping with these dark times in our lives. For me I turn to poetry to pull me out of my funk. One particular favourite of mine is the superbly inspirational “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley a poem borne out of the author’s battle with tuberculosis which after several years he sadly lost.

The poem recurred in the popular consciousness after the Clint Eastwood film depicting the events of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa and the dramatized relationship between  President Nelson Mandela and Springbok (SA rugby team) captain Francois Pienaar. The poem inspired Nelson Mandela during his captivity on Robben Island and from my point of view it is easy to see why. The poem has a unique ability to lift ones spirits however far they may have fallen.

So next time things are not going well for you and you feel disheartened read this poem and let yourself be lifted up and inspired:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.