Journey as Destination

NOTE: This post was originally written in April of 2012.

I am writing this blog post aboard a train, on my way to New York City for the Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair. The unique blend of anxiety and excitement that characterized the final days of preparation for the trip has subsided, and I finally have a few hours to relax.

As often happens when I travel by plane or train, I find myself musing on things philosophical. Something about gazing out a window as countryside hurtles past lends itself to reflection. (I’ll warn you now, this post will be one mostly dealing with thoughts on life in general, but worry not — I will tie it into books towards the end.)

The dialectic part of my brain can’t help but juxtapose the lazy idyllic landscapes with the quick steel of the train as it rumbles through. That dichotomy unearths the usual inquiries I tend to draw forth at times like these, most of which are comparisons of points on continua: leisure and work;  personal fulfillment and social responsibility; beauty and efficiency; love and friendship.

In life we continuously balance considerations such as these with one another, sometimes effectively, other times poorly, and I think our management of those balances determines how good we feel, and how effective we are in accomplishing our goals.

The problem is, most of us don’t view the relationships between these considerations the way we view other cyclical processes. Breathing in and breathing out are easy to think of as a single process. But thinking of work and leisure like this seems less instinctive. We have a tendency to elect one as the other’s superior, to favor it any time the two conflict.

It’s easy to tell when one is favoring breathing in or out too much – it’s uncomfortable, and not sustainable for very long. Other signs of imbalance are more subtle – we become irritable or agitated, less patient with minor inconveniences. What’s worse, we often ignore this feedback, or don’t link it to its cause, and continue behaving the same way. Sometimes this can make us pretty miserable people to be around (I can say this, I’ve been that guy – in fact, I was that guy when I was preparing for this trip).

Am I saying we need to avoid work? No. What I am suggesting is that, as a culture, we rearrange our way of looking at things. And here is where the title of this post comes in. Too often in life we conceive of things in a way that marginalizes some aspect of life. If we are headed to the store, the drive there becomes a nuisance. Our daily commute to work becomes a necessary chore. Our job is a necessary evil to sustain our lifestyle.

What this does is set parts of our life against one another. It makes us resent all the journeys for not being the destinations. That strikes me as a difficult way to live, and also as pretty boring, and definitely quite constricting. After all, if I make my life all about destinations, that means I need to know exactly where I’m going all the time.

If, instead, we embrace journeys as something to be valued, it changes the game. There need to be moments in life when we stop, look out the window of the train, and just think for a while.

Which brings me to books, and why I believe they are so important. Books give us that opportunity. They remove us from the incessant bustle of everything else; they demand quiet attention, and at the same time encourage us to relax. They are the window of the train, but better, because every book looks out on something different, brings you a different world, one you weren’t specifically looking for, one that has the potential to surprise and excite you, reinvigorate you, take you down a new path, or make you believe that something incredible is possible. They don’t just pick you up in Rochester and plop you down in New York City, they let you see everything in between.

It turns out a lot goes on between page one and ‘The End’. Don’t miss it.

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:39 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Ebb and Flow

It’s interesting to see the way the world ebbs and flows with time. Different cultures have their own ways of representing this phenomenon, but the idea of a sort of circular pattern, a breathing in and out, a pulse, even, is quite universal. Right now we are seeing an ebb on many fronts. Economically, things are receding (hence the term recession). Environmentally, the quality of our world is changing in frightening ways.

Any student of history, though, realizes that this is part of a greater cycle. What is important to study is the duration of these cycles, and what affects it. It is also important to acknowledge that, while the ebb phase of the cycle can be painful, it is inextricably bound up with the flow. They are, essentially, one process. We must accept the bad times as readily as the good times, because each is part and parcel of the other.

Eastern philosophy explains this with its concept of yin and yang, which unfortunately are viewed by most people to represent good and evil — in reality, it is more accurate to depict them as heads and tails on the same coin. They work with each other, not against each other. Like the wind-up and swing of a baseball bat, they are separate parts of the same action.

It is difficult to keep this perspective at the forefront of our minds as people lose jobs, homes, and retirement funds. Sadly, even holding onto the proper perspective does not shield us from the effects of what is a particularly drastic ebb. But we must have faith in the process.

My first blog

This is my first foray into the world of blogging. I decided to start this blog as a way to organize my thoughts, share who I am and what I do, and provide myself with something to do when I need a quick break from work or life in general.

Before I dive into all that, though, I suppose it would be helpful if I introduced myself. My name is Jonathan Smalter. I’m 27, and I live and work in Webster, New York, which is just outside of Rochester on Lake Ontario (about midway between Buffalo and the Thousand Islands). I grew up here, went to college here (Nazareth College of Rochester, majored in philosophy), and I currently run my own business here. It’s called Yesterday’s Muse Books. We sell used and new books, both online and in a new storefront that just opened up in December of last year. I know what you’re thinking — how is he making that work, given the current economy? Well, that will probably be a blog entry unto itself. For now, I will just give a rough outline of what led up to it.

Way back when I was 17 (I can’t believe how long ago that was now…), I got a job at a local bookstore. I had been working at the Chinese food department of our local grocery store, washing dishes. A step up, I would say — books don’t leave one smelling like grease and soy sauce. Well, I ended up loving it. Seeing all the interesting titles come in, seeing people excited to buy them, learning what sold and what didn’t, and why… it was all fascinating to me. I had always loved books, something for which I owe my grandmother great thanks. Stay tuned for a separate blog tribute to her, as well — she was an amazing woman, and unfortunately passed away in 2007.

Fast forward a few years — I’m attending college at Nazareth. Originally I studied communications, with an intent to pursue a career as an editor, or perhaps a journalist. The draw of the complex ideas of philosophy, though, pulled me in, largely due to the efforts of a particularly skilled professor. Again, a blog for another time. In any event, the more I studied philosophy, the more I discovered about myself, and the more I realized that occupying a rung on someone else’s ladder wasn’t for me. I needed to build one of my own. Luckily, my years at the bookstore had already prepared me to do what I believe I was made to do. What was better, my degree in philosophy shaped my view of life in such a way that I knew exactly how I wanted to do it — I didn’t want to just sell books, I wanted to share ideas, and inspire new ones. At the risk of sounding repetitive… a blog for another time.

So, I started selling books online, literally out of my closet. I bought books at garage sales, estate sales, ongoing library sales… anywhere I could find them cheap. I bought a few supplies. I kept everything in the closet of my apartment, a pretty crummy one that I shared with three friends who also attended Nazareth. I was so wrapped up with the work, though, that I barely noticed. Since then, I have slowly grown my inventory, slowly improved the quality of books I sell, and slowly honed the way I sold them. In December of 2008, after almost 7 years of selling online, I opened a store in my hometown, right on Main Street in the heart of the village.

The front entrance of our store, decorated for Christmas.

The front entrance of our store, decorated for Christmas.

It’s been a crazy ride so far, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Along the way there have been ups and downs to say the least, and you’ll likely be able to read about most of them. I can’t find the quotation at the moment, but I vaguely remember reading somewhere that a man can’t truly write his autobiography until he is dead… probably Mark Twain or someone with a similar flair for the absurdity of life. Writing this, though, I have to say that while there is truth to that, I have also realized that writing about one’s life can play a great role in how it is lived, and how much it is appreciated.

I hope this hasn’t been too long-winded for the blog format. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time. All the best until next time.

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