Delight Springs

Friday, July 31, 2015

Raising hell

Two great justice-seekers, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1837) and Primo Levi (1919), were born on this date. Labor crusader Jones has become a progressive icon, Auschwitz survivor Levi a reminder that our greatest foe is our own tendency "to believe and act without asking questions." WA

“The first thing is to raise hell,” said Jones, "that’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless."

Levi spoke for the powerless, and depicted a startling vision of aurora so different from mine. “Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.” Those of us fortunate enough to face each new day in freedom, graced with the gift of hope in the rays of a morning star, should be raising more hell.

I recently finished Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, a novel in the spirit of Primo Levi. It makes a subtler point: before raising hell, you have to see the injustice in front of you. "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever," is a repeated refrain.

Also recently finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's Bully Pulpit. TR was often a hell-raiser and usually a justice-seeker, if also a swaggering imperialist and "bully"; but as I read it the great heroes of this story were the "muckraking," eye-opening journalists who shined light into dark corners. Ida Tarbell was a Mother Jones for her time. We need more like her now.

7:30/5:54, 68/91

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Birthday of Casey Stengel (1890), who said "there comes a time in every man's life and I've had plenty of 'em," and C. Northcote Parkinson (1909), whose eponymous law decrees the expansion of work "to fill the time available for its completion."

Don't I know it. I'd like to repeal that one, or amend it with a provision that the quality of work expands indefinitely to match extended time. That would not be necessary, if real deadlines were imposed. But those only work if they're accurately anticipated and scrupulously enforced. Douglas Adams (1952-2001) said it best, before his own final deadline arrived (as they do) unannounced : "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." He must have said that before he died, Casey might have observed. Or Yogi.

Image result for deadline cartoon new yorker

I was extolling the virtue of patience yesterday, of taking small steady steps towards the largest destinations and goals in our lives. But reflecting on deadlines, especially the big one at the end, challenges that mindset. Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), when asked about his least favorite virtue, named (of course) "Faith. Closely followed, in view of the overall shortage of time, by patience.”

Seneca said "Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point." We'd better make time for that.

6:15/5:54, 77/91. Seneca... Deadlines

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Another nice evening at the ballyard, with Older Daughter this time. Rooting for the home team is rough these days, but we're patient fans. At least we got tee-shirts and a souvenir cup featuring former Cy Young winner Barry Zito, patiently working his way back to the bigs. And we got to see an old Dodger, Jim "Junior" Gilliam, warmly remembered by an older one, Vin Scully, and honored by his hometown. (Scully, who's been doing Dodgers games an incredible sixty-six years starting back when they were still in Brooklyn, was the younger man then. The veteran ballplayer from Nashville, he recalls, patiently welcomed the rookie broadcaster with kindness.)

It's the birthday of Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French aristocrat who found America's middle class possessed of sufficient "practical intelligence" to offset their vulgarity and ignorance and allow them to govern the new nation. WA

We tend to identify the middle class in terms of relative wealth and income, but if vulgarity and ignorance are the key markers there's never been a larger middle class competing for political office in America than is represented by the current crop of presidential candidates. The vulgar and ignorant billionaire who makes the other "jackasses" (Lindsey Graham's word) look good is, by this criterion, the most middle of them all. What would de Tocqueville say now? I imagine he'd be impatient with this bunch.

It's also the birthday of the patient centenarian poet laureate who said "it is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self," Stanley Kunitz. There's a statement for our Hume group to ponder, given the skeptic's dual commitment to dailiness and to metaphysical selflessness.

Dailiness, the everyday repetition of routine, the return to work, the renewal of purpose: my daily walk is a model and metaphor of that. Deep recesses? I might not choose those words to describe the experience derived from dailiness, and the word "self" might even be negotiable; but I know that without the scaffolding provided by repetition and routine, there would be no structural support for reflections on selfhood or anything else. That's why I try to plug patiently away, day after day.

7 am/5:53, 75/93
Live the questions now... the limits of satire... how not to take a nature walk

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hume the pragmatist

Looking forward to the David Hume course my cophilosophers and I are about to embark on. We're so eager to get going, in fact, that we've already sort of begun. One of us has ventured the view that Hume was not a pragmatist.

He was a skeptical but not a radical empiricist in the sense intended by William James, one who notices not only the objects of phenomenal experience but also their conjunctive relations, as mirrored in the grammar of speech ("and," "with," etc.) but only partially articulated thereby. James thought Hume's version left our experience chopped into bits, when in reality it flows in and through the interstices of nominative thought.

If Hume were right, James suggests, it's as if that bird I've been watching flit about, here near my thinking porch, were visible only in the moments of arrested movement and I had to be skeptical about how he arrived at each successive stop. In fact, his flits and flights and hops and skips are continuous with his perchings. It's part and parcel of his experience. The attentive birdwatcher sees this, where the intellectualist is tricked into missing it.

But not being a radical empiricist is one thing, not being a pragmatist another. Depends as always on how we define our terms, of course; but that famous Humean call to common life - "Be a philosopher, but be still a man" - is to me the epitome of a pragmatic sensibility. Acknowledging the impracticality, imprudence, and un-sociability of using reflective reason to cover one's un-salubrious retreat from what the world calls "real life," Hume knew when to remove his philosopher's cap, drop the skeptical routine, and join his peers in a game over a pint.

His was the extrovert's version of Thoreau's definition of philosophy, as the ability to solve some of the problems of life not just theoretically but practically. I'll be surprised if we students of Hume don't end up agreeing that the most pressing practical problem, from both Hume's and James's points of view,  is how to live happily and well. They're both that kind of pragmatist.

6:45/5:52, 77/91. Hume-Thoreau connection.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Full of life

Great time at the ballpark last night with my young friend from New Orleans who, attending only his second professional baseball game ever, was delighted to find that my home team was playing his. The Zephyrs from NOLA beat Nashville 9-7, and he tolerated my complaints about our relatively mild humidity. Down on the bayou the air's thick as water, he says. We have no idea. Like William Carlos Williams' crowd at the ballgame, the spectatorial spirit of uselessness delighted us too. David Hume ("be a philosopher but... be still a man") would have approved.

And to our Humean friend who could or would not join us, whose blanket hostility to spectator sports I find so confounding, a note from the late Renaissance scholar and baseball commissioner:
“The gods have fled, I know. My sense is the gods have always been essentially absent. I do not believe human beings have played games or sports from the beginning merely to summon or to please or to appease the gods. If anthropologists and historians believe that, it is because they believe whatever they have been able to recover about what humankind told the gods humankind was doing. I believe we have played games, and watched games, to imitate the gods, to become godlike in our worship of each other and, through those moments of transmutation, to know for an instant what the gods know.”
A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games
In other words, joining the crowd at the ballgame doesn't make you a sellout or a bad atheist. It just means you're doing your part to naturalize paradise, to bring heaven out of the clouds and down to earth, to the delightfully distracted space that Giamatti elsewhere called the "green fields of the mind"-where it always belonged in the first place.

It's the birthday of a woman to whom I feel a real debt of gratitude, Elizabeth Hardwick (1916). She co-founded the New York Review of Books, dedicated to spotlighting "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and, above all, the interesting." I like the NYRB, but what I most thank Ms. Hardwick for is her earlier (1961) edition of The Selected Letters of William James. I first came across it as an undergraduate, rediscovered it in grad school, was charmed by the irrepressible humanity of its subject, and began a lifelong fascination with the philosopher who was capable even as a very young man of writing letters like this one to a despondent friend:
To Thomas W. Ward.
BERLIN, Jan. —, 1868.

...It made me feel quite sad to hear you talk about the inward deadness and listlessness into which you had again fallen in New York. Bate not a jot of heart nor hope, but steer right onward. Take for granted that you've got a temperament from which you must make up your mind to expect twenty times as much anguish as other people need to get along with. Regard it as something as external to you as possible, like the curl of your hair. Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the Kosmos.
That was the tip of an iceberg I'm so happy I ran into. Thank you, Elizabeth Hardwick.

[The real me, idolatry of the Whole, my tedious book...]
6:50/5:51, 75/97

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The autodidact

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” That was the great autodidact philosopher longshoreman Eric Hoffer, born on this date in 1902. He also wrote:
In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
He was no fan of our youth-besotted culture:
If a society is to preserve stability and a degree of continuity, it must learn how to keep its adolescents from imposing their tastes, values, and fantasies on everyday life.”
He knew the value of kindness:
“Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”
And of work:
“The greatest weariness comes from work not done."
To work.

6:15/5:49, 70/93

Friday, July 24, 2015

The sound of human nature

The Almanac features a Gary Snyder poem this morning, describing the peaceful dawn sounds of animal nature returning to life-
distant dogs bark, a pair of
cawing crows; the twang
of a pygmy nuthatch high in a pine—
from behind the cypress windrow
the mare moves up, grazing.
 And then, the less peaceful drone of human nature returning to the office-
a soft continuous roar
comes out of the far valley
of the six-lane highway—thousands
and thousands of cars
driving men to work.
I can relate. From my dawn porch I too hear the occasional bark, caw, twang, and chirp. And, I hear that continuous roar of internal combustion, on I-40 a couple of miles away. "Soft"? Not the word I'd choose. Some days the sound is less invasive, that may have something to do with topography and the state of the atmosphere but probably more with the hearer's state of mind and the poet's prompt. Usually I tune out the roar. This morning I can't. Thanks, Gary. Thanks, Henry Ford.

But it's all nature, it's all right here with us whether we're attending or not. We'd better attend. It may be tolerable or ignorable, but it's not sustainable.

6:15/5:49, 70/87

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The speed of thought

Ford sold its first Model A on this date in 1903, a topless red two-seater that soared to the dizzying speed of 28 mph. (WA) It's been life in the fast lane for humanity ever since, but as Rebecca Solnit says, faster's not always better. "The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary." Less necessary, maybe, but no less rewarding.

Moving from Point A to Point B with rapidity is one thing, internal movement another. What is the optimal speed across a landscape, if you want to go far within? All motion is relative to its frame of reference, of course. Just remember that we're standing on a planet that's revolving at 900 mph, give or take. That should be dizzying, but we never notice.

Likewise, internal motion's optimal locomotive frame is the one that falls away from notice. There was a time when the passenger train, indeed, was a great engine for thought - occasional catastrophic train-wrecks excepted. Running on smooth and sturdy rails, creating its own interior space, I would gladly trade my Corolla for a daily commute on a commercial steam locomotive.

That's not a present option, nor (at forty miles out) is the bicycle. But since re-committing to a daily fitness ride earlier this summer, I've found two wheels increasingly conducive to the flow of ideas. When I want to file one for future reference I pull from my pocket the voice recorder that doubles as a phone (etc.) and spit it out. One hand on the rudder's not optimal, though, so it keeps those memos short.

Walking to work would be best, if only the workplace were always within range. That's why summer's such a good season for me, when I walk to work every single day like Henry. And bike. If he'd come along just a little later, I'll bet he would've too. Bear on a bicycle, why not?

One reason, perhaps. Solnit again: "I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness."

6:15/5:48, 74/84.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Whole-hearted empiricism

Birthday of Edward Hopper (1882), who said "all I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight..." (WA)

In these early hours of day, that's a worthy ambition. I'd do it myself, if I had any aptitude for painting. Words don't capture the light, but once in a while they reflect it in unexpected ways. So I carry on.

Perseverance, putting down one word and then another and then another, and then circling back with pencil and eraser and delete key - that's a simple mirror of the steady routine involved in perambulating and in pedaling, one foot in front of the other, legs up and down, wheels round and round. Take breaks and breathers as required but don't quit. Do it again tomorrow. Keep a'goin.'

William James criticized David Hume for a "half-hearted" empiricism...

(Is this relevant? I never know, unless and until my subconscious informs me later, so I'd better just go ahead and put it down. Words work that way, like tracks or traces in the mist to pick up later. Or not.)

James thought Hume didn't get at the roots of our experience, didn't persist to notice the everyday "powers" that produce our confident common-sense expectation of the dawn and all that follows, billiard balls knocking predictably into pockets, people generally behaving with kind sentiment and fellow-feeling, moments transitioning to moments like a flowing stream, particles of experience coalescing into practical knowledge and life wisdom. He noticed these phenomena but did not fully credit their value, and so became a skeptic and not a radical empiricist. He didn't, James thought, go the distance.

A whole-hearted empiricist is all in, noticing connections others miss (like "and" and "or" and "but" as particles not just of speech but of experienceable reality, said James) and boldly risking error in pursuit of happiness and truth. "Our [intellectual] errors are not such serious things." The verdict on that isn't all in. But with a whole heart you persevere.

 Hume's friend Franklin said our sun is rising, not yet setting. Thoreau said it's but a morning star. If Hume was too skeptical and old-worldly, maybe the American "radicals" weren't skeptical enough. But the great thing about sunrise is its implicit promise: if you persevere, light will be cast.

6:45/5:48, 73/87

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

An old-fashioned view

Hemingway, noteworthy here if only for the splendid title of his first novel, was born on this date in 1899. The Sun Also Rises would be a decent name for a blog. But I wouldn't want to emulate his bullfighting sexist lifestyle, or the manner in which he ended it. I'm not crazy about his writing style either.

It's also the birthday of a later and (to my taste) more admirable American writer, John Gardner (1933). Sunlight Dialogues could name this blog too. I recall reading his novel Mickelsson's Ghosts early in grad school because it was rumored (probably falsely) to be modeled on one of my new teachers, an eccentric distinguished philosopher. Most philosophers don't believe in ghosts, but this one (the fictional character and his alleged template) did. And does, so far as I know. I believe in human spirits too; but mine are alive in the natural world.

Gardner's Art of Fiction made me want to write a novel myself. Still do. He wrote, possibly with Hemingway in mind:
To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write [...] so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write [...] so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.
Fiction does not spring into the world fully grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original, if not profound.
Gardner's On Moral Fiction took a hard line against art for art's sake:
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue--by reason and by banging the table--for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does...
 It confronts despair and emboldens the reader to get up and face the sun another day. In fairness, lots of ultimately-suicidal writers (like Papa Hemingway) did that too, before despair got the better of them. We all have to take life one day at a time.

Gardner was not a fan of Faulkner, as he made clear in an interview with Paris Review, but his stance towards the moral function of art reminds me of Faulkner's nobel speech:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
In other words, humankind: don't quit.

6:50/5:47, 79/90

Monday, July 20, 2015

The pace is quickening

The Eagle landed on this date 46 years ago. Apollo 11, 1969. Neil Armstrong's giant leap. It seemed unreal to a 12-year old midwestern American boy watching those fuzzy, surreal images on the old living room console.

That's "unreal" in the "outasight" sense, hyper-real in fact, full of promise for the wondrous world of tomorrow we were sure was soon to follow. "We came in peace for all mankind," but mostly we came for fear of a Soviet lunar eclipse.

A generation later, that boy would encounter college students who doubted the reality of the achievement. "Nah, that didn't happen." But it did, kids. Uncle Walter was no faker.

They probably can't understand why some of us, of that earlier generation, get so excited now by a drone flyby of Pluto. We'd surprise our own younger selves,  having then thought we'd go more boldly into the final frontier than this, by now. It's taken the better part of that boy's lifetime to reach those new horizons. Just getting there is hugely gratifying, and (as the Times details) could easily have not happened.

The span of a human lifetime is, we must remind ourselves, barely a blip on the cosmic ocean. Carl Sagan left lots of good reminders, like this one from Pale Blue Dot:
"Two billion years ago, our ancestors were microbes; a half-billion years ago, fish, a hundred million years ago, something like mice; ten million years ago, arboreal apes; and a million years ago, proto-humans puzzling out the taming of fire. Our evolutionary lineage is marked by mastery of change. In our time, the pace is quickening."
Taking a wider view, the disappointed man who was that impatient boy can better appreciate just how far we've come and how much further we still can go, "in our time." For real.

6:30 am/5:47, 81/95

Friday, July 17, 2015

The delusion of crowds

Disneyland opened its gates for the first time sixty years ago today, and it's the birthday of Georges Lemaitre (1894), the Belgian astronomer credited with proposing the Big Bang (but Fred Hoyle came up with the name, by which he intended derision for the universe-from-nothing theory). Also, today's Google doodle reminds, it's the birthday of crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, who said "the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them."

So, let's talk about reality and delusion. Thoreau said he went to Walden because he wanted to live deep, get to the bottom of things ("rocks in place"), understand real life. Metaphysical philosophers are always asking "What's real?" Most sensible people recognize that appearances can mislead. Seems like reality would be high on most people's lists.

Well, it's not. Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? Not Georges Lemaitre. Our collective mind is not so expansive. It's a small world, after all. We prefer fantasy, most of us, to reality, delusion to hard truth. A young earth, a magical creation, a magical kingdom, the House of Mouse, Main Street USA. I've known more chronological adults smitten with Mickey and all he represents than I can count.

And, I confess, I've known what it's like to be eight years old and excited beyond reason to be "going to Disneyland!" I don't recall a lot of specifics from that first trip to Anaheim with my parents back in the real Mad Men era, but I do recall the anticipation and the unbearable thrill of actually approaching the theme park for the first time. I don't remember how much it mattered to me then, that the whole production was a big phony. I do remember thinking that the hall of presidents was more creepy than real, and that I had been happier thinking about being in Disneyland than I was actually being there. That first visit did not measure up, for me, to the hype and expectation.

But when our kids began pestering to visit Orlando, we did our parental duty and took them. Shelled out big bucks for an overpriced meal with Snow White and Goofy, stood in looong sweaty pushy lines waiting for un-magical rides and performances, felt claustrophobic in a sea of humanity that seemed enchanted with itself and contented with a barely-virtual experience of branded mass consumerism and faux nostalgia for Neverland. But those were my impressions, the kids seemed to have a good enough time. They didn't overthink it. Their generation is possibly inured to hype, beyond unreasonable expectation.

A World of Tomorrow that makes a brighter smarter future feel real, that celebrates the magic of reality, that really expands our universe of imagination: that's a theme that hasn't really been done yet. If they build it, I will come.

6 am/5:45, 74/94

Postscript, 7.20.2015 - It's important for Dads to try and see the Disney world through the kids' eyes too:

The Disney view of happiness-a perfect street, animals, a castle, rides-foolish but attuned to our time

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Work and play

Podcast. It's the anniverary of the day in 1945 when the first atom bomb was successfully detonated. Enrico Fermi took bets on whether it would blow up the entire planet, or just New Mexico. Guess he lost.

On a brighter note, I love the Almanac's poem today by Edward Hirsch. He's remembering being 16, learning to work and play and enjoy life... "each night was a Walt Whitman of holidays, the clarity of a whistle at 5 P.M., the freedom of walking out into the open air." Almost makes a drudge summer job like hoisting garbage (or peddling overpriced baked goods to rude pushy people, Older Daughter?) appealing, for the contrast.

If work is whatever you have to do, and play is what you do because you enjoy doing it, it's shocking how many of us end up in work we don't enjoy and never expected to. Seems like that first summer job would wake everyone to the urgency of finding meaningful work. Why don't we teach courses in that?

I do, sorta. Take your time here if you can afford to, I tell students, it's so important to find work you want to do. Your happiness really depends on it, unless you're Sisyphus and can content yourself with whatever rock you're assigned.

These days, by the time freshmen enter my classroom they've already been advised to hurry up and leave, already. Get out "in four," get a job, get our graduation rate up, get us off the hook. Good luck.

I'm so glad I took an extra year, as an undergrad, to find my vocation. Tuition back then was so much lower, like everything else, but how do you put a price on "the freedom of walking out into the open air"? As Henry said, the cost of things is best measured in the exchange rate of "what I call life."

It's only mid-July and here I am, already thinking about how much fun it will be subverting the advising system at work in the Fall (well, in August). Mustn't rush the summer.

6:15/5:44, 70/92

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

More day to dawn

Podcast. It's the birthday of Iris Murdoch, the most successful philosopher/novelist ever. "She was interested in the way that a writer could use fiction to express bigger ideas." I wish more philosophers used philosophy to express bigger ideas.

Also the birthday of Jacques Derrida, who said "there is nothing outside the text" and said deconstruction is "the experience of the impossible." A text, as deconstructive postmodernists deploy the term, can be any form of symbolic (mis)representation or partial communication, any bearer of conventional understandings that sustain social life. So if there's nothing outside that, then all talk of reality as an experiential check on verbal excess is just talk.

Today is the anniversary of Emerson's divinity school commencement address in 1838. He knew there's plenty outside the text, and that both philosophy and literature are about something large, real, and exterior to themselves. WA

"More day to dawn" was Emerson's friend Thoreau's way of wrapping up Walden on a note of hope for our capacity to engage the large extra-textual world on a daily basis. Our sun is a morning star, we're still a young species, there's still time for us to wake up and live. We are as little children, freshly arrived on this planet, ready for adventure and discovery and new horizons every day.

How about that mission to Pluto!

"More day to dawn" is also, btw, my new name for the podcast formerly known as "Up@dawn".

5:50/5:43, 72/89.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sauntering with children

5:50/5:41, 75/97. Podcast
It was Thoreau's birthday yesterday, and the Almanac spotlights Wordsworth today. The two great trans-Atlantic nature-loving Walking Poets. One found "intimations of immortality in [his] recollections of early childhood," the other inspired a great series of children's books by D.B. Johnson that I fondly recall from our girls' early childhood.

The Times yesterday featured a trio of children's books that celebrate what Henry called the art of sauntering and "the simple pleasures of a stroll." It's an art not far removed from the carefree spirit of childhood, that in later life evokes in sentimentalists and poets a sense of eternal youth.

But did Thoreau or Wordsworth ever walk with children? (Children other than themselves, I mean. Someone calculated that Wordsworth has to have averaged about seven miles a day from the age of five.) That's an art unto itself. A chapter of Philosophy Walks will indulge my own recollections of walking with children, and talking with them, and rediscovering the world through fresh eyes. It's an experience I recommend, and am forever trying to recapture. It's hard to get back. Is that what Henry meant when he said he "long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail"?
Brainpickings: Thoreau on the art of walking & the spiritual rewards of sauntering on defining your own success

Saturday, July 11, 2015

E.B. White

6:20/5:40, 74/93. Podcast (Soundcloud/Opinion)
Birthday of ever-quotable Elwyn Brooks (E.B., "Andy") White, who said:

I rise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy it. This makes it hard to plan the day.

All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.

Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.

Never hurry, never worry.

Be obscure clearly.

Semicolons only prove that the author has been to college.

A writer's style reveals something of his spirit, his capacities, his bias. It is the Self escaping into the open.

I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.

And he told George Plimpton, in Paris Review,
I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.
Advice, and rays, accepted.
Here is New York

Friday, July 10, 2015

Whitman and Proust

6:30/5:39, 72/95. Podcast
Birthday of Calvin and Proust. Two more disparate human types would be hard to yoke. One championing our Total Depravity, claiming infants enter the world already damned; the other luxuriating in the sensual subjective experience of memory and longing. I have no use at all for the TULIP-planter. But Proust, despite our popular image of him tucked away writing in his cork-lined chamber, was actually a peripatetic. There are passages in Memory of Things Past that illustrate the accuracy of a quote the brainpicker featured yesterday:
Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.
Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight...
Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. How walking helps us think.
That was in the New Yorker last September, as was an insightful Adam Gopnik essay/review [correction: earlier & in the podcast I confused Gopnik with Remnick... can't tell your New Yorker players without a scorecard] of the more recent and self-appointed French philosopher of walking I've been ridiculing, Frederic Gros. It didn't change my mind about Professor Gros being an unfortunate and misleading spokesman for my favorite non-spectatorial pastime. Gopnik draws the correct contrast between walking as an escape into solitude, away from a robust sense of self, versus walking as connection, walking as much toward an identity as away. Walt Whitman is the paradigmatic exemplar of the latter. I'm wondering if Gros's sensibility, in this regard, is more Proustian. Or is Proust's more Whitmanesque? And how do they all relate to the first French philosopher of walking, Michel de Montaigne, who said "my thoughts sleep if I sit still"?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Oliver Sacks

7:15/5:39, 78/93. Podcast
Overslept. Sun's trying to steal the march on me today. I was mocking the French "philosopher of walking" yesterday for not walking daily, suggesting that he'd do better with a dog; but when I sleep in, this time of year, walking the dog becomes borderline-abusive. Inhumane. Unethical. So I'd better get on with it, soon as I note the birthday of storyteller/neurologist/Awakener Oliver Sacks in London, 1933.

He has his detractors but I'm a fan. First noticed him, I think, in 1993 when he participated in a strange symposium with Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Toulmin, Rupert Sheldrake, and Freeman Dyson called A Glorious Accident. So elegant, diffident, measured, but above all humane. And maybe just a little self-aggrandizing. He's been depicted by Robin Williams in Awakenings, and fictionalized by Richard Powers in The Echo Maker. The way he's addressed his probably-terminal prognosis is admirable. After quoting David Hume's anticipated "speedy dissolution" in "My Own Life" last February, he writes:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Spoken like a Humean.
A Leg to Stand On

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


5:35/5:39, 72/91. Podcast.
Alfred Binet, who gave us IQ, was born on this day in 1857. We've been missing the point of brainpower ever since. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, who gave us five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), was born in 1926. And southern writer Shirley Ann Grau in 1929, who was denied an academic career, married a philosopher, and said "I see people first. I do stories first." WA

Stories, ours and hers and his. "An enlargement of the experience of being alive," David McCullough calls history, and in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari places that experience in its wide bio-cosmic context.
About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology. About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.
It's a compelling, sweeping story, reminiscent of Carl Sagan's in Cosmos (and Neil Tyson's), "let me tell you a story..."

And that's Harari's thesis, that storytelling propelled our species' advance. Our craniums expanded so we could narrate our experience in subtle, complex, delightful, meaningful ways. Or they expanded because we tried. But cranial size is not the true measure of our intelligence. Practical wisdom, the ability not only to spin a story but also to apply its lessons in fruitful ways, and to do what needs to be done, is. In telling our stories, speaking for earth, we do enlarge our experience. That's good, because experience moves us forward.

"We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far." And the story continues.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Move on

6:30/5:38, 75/90. Podcast.
Robert Heinlein's and David McCullough's birthday in 1907 and 1933, respectively. Heinlein said the therapeutic value of science fiction lies in "its primary postulate that the world does change.” McCullough said history's "an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” WA

My department is still trying to decide how best to weigh in, with the Deciders at our school, on the question of finally changing the name of the execrable building on our campus that commemorates confederate hero and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. Why is it even a question?!

I've said before, philosophers are hard as cats to herd. Some of us just don't go in for collective action, even when it's a simple matter of adding your name to a letter. Trouble is, on matters of "heritage" in the South, change doesn't happen without it. But the world does change, as Mr. Heinlein observed. Eventually even university administrators must "grok" to that. History unfolds. People who teach or "awaken" young minds for a living need to go on record as understanding and supporting that.

So I've decided that, whatever the university decides, from now on I'll be announcing to my students in that building that so far as we're concerned it's named for a different Forrest. One whose character and kindliness merit the honor of commemoration. The one whose Mama told him life is like a box of chocolates, and stupid is as stupid does. We don't have to float around on a breeze, accidental-like. We can embrace change, enlarge our experience, repudiate the worst of our heritage.

That's all I got to say about that.

Image result for forrest gump quotes

Monday, July 6, 2015

Toe the line

5:45/5:38, 69/88. Podcast
The independence theme is still very much in the air, along with the sulfurous residue of too many backyard pyrotechnicians who never outgrew their fascination with things that go boom. The Almanac today reports on several models of independence. Sam Clemens in 1861, striking out for the territories of Bonanza-era Nevada with his brother Orion to report for the Virginia City Terretorial Enterprise and become Mark Twain. Lennon and McCartney in 1957, partnering for the first time; Pasteur in 1885 taking a chance on an untested vaccine; the birth of the present Dalai Lama in 1935; the persecution of Jan Hus in 1415, and Thomas More in 1535.

We want independence, most all of us, from whatever holds us captive: external control, internal timidity, general lassitude. That's not necessarily the same as wanting complete freedom. We just don't want anyone else holding the key to our liberation, and we want to know that the key hangs on a familiar hook we can find at will, when we want it. Like Otis in his Mayberry cell.

What holds me captive? No one thing, I'm sure. But one thing for sure. "For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward." Thoreau wrote that in Walden, and I can relate. I am captivated by the urge to "report," to "improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick" by translating experience into language, writing and broad(pod)-casting  it, mulling it over. 

I like being a reporter, I don't want to be sprung from the job. The low circulation of my "journal" is immaterial, the act of translation is indeed its own reward. It helps me in my vocation as a teacher and scholar (though I always just about choke on that word, when I think of some of the pedants and scholars I've known).

"Teacher" is a respectable vocation, but that word sometimes hangs me up too (as it did Socrates). Younger Daughter's just home from New York, with a terrific little gift souvenir: a fridge magnet with the inscription "I'm not a teacher, I'm an Awakener." Right! Mostly I'm working to awaken myself, dawn after dawn, and keep myself awake. Again, like Henry. Just trying to toe the line between the eternal sleep of past and future.

Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day

"Independence is, in fact, what he lacks - independence from whatever holds him captive..."

What do we want independence from & for? The burden of others' control, & the glorious pursuit.
Postscript. And what a glorious July 4 farewell from The Grateful Dead:

Friday, July 3, 2015

What a poet is

A poet is "a person who can feel...& make some partial tracks" with words.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The long road

Walking meditators get a little vapid sometimes, from a western secular point of view, but on the long road of life they arrive at home with every footfall.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

It gets better

6:30/5:33, 73/81. Podcast.
William Strunk's birthday. "Omit needless words!" Reminds me of James Watson's pithy "avoid boring people." (And boorish ones, which might let him out.) Good advice for bloggers and podcasters everywhere.

Yesterday's happy arrival of Sandwalk Adventures, so deceptively comic, delivered a serious message: the long-term legacy of our species is inseparable from our immediate legacy, our children. Our students. Our successors. How we've raised, taught, connected with them has everything to do with the meaning of our lives and the fate of life itself. It plugs directly into two of my favorite William James quotes, the one about our really vital question being life's denouement, the other about life being a chain "no stronger than its weakest link."

And that imagery naturally evokes John Dewey's continuous human community, and our responsibilities thereto.

Steven Pinker has made a strong case for progress, with his Better Angels. I haven't picked it up yet, but I think that's also Michael Shermer's theme in The Moral Arc. We are getting better, headlines and hourly news flashes notwithstanding, in spite of ourselves.

But then there's the depressing case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose disingenuous statement of indifference to his own legacy and disconnection from the rest of humanity betrays an unhealthy (if lightly camouflaged) self-preoccupation. Depressing to me, anyway, because Rousseau's reveries - broken into ten walks - remain the best template I've yet found for my own Philosophy Walks project. Summarizing his project, he promises
a faithful register of my solitary walks, and the reveries which accompany them; when I find my mind entirely free, and suffer my ideas to follow their bent, without resistance or control. These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day when I am entirely myself, and for myself without diversion, or obstacle; and when I can truly say, I am what nature designed me...
My walks, though, aim to be different: to foster concern for all the legacies of life, forge connections of interest and care that transcend both walk and walker. I am myself, but unlike Rousseau and Ayn Rand I try not to be "for myself without diversion."
Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.