Delight Springs

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


6 am/5:33, 70/88. Podcast.
Anniversary of the legendary 1860 Oxford evolution debate, when Darwin's bulldog bit the bishop.
'Huxley - young, cool, quiet, sarcastic, scientific in fact and in treatment... gave his Lordship such a smashing... "I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for a grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with... success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he had no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."'
Everyone who knows of Huxley knows of this storied exchange, and of his response when he first encountered Darwin's theory of natural selection: "how extremely stupid not to have thought of that." Most also know that he coined the term "agnostic." Less known is his devotion to David Hume, and the book he wrote about le bon David. Of Hume's strange encounter with Rousseau he says simply that it reflected "lunatic malignity on Rousseau's side and thorough generosity and patience on Hume's."

Lunatic malignity. Nicely stated! I'm embarrassed, on behalf of walkers and dog-lovers everywhere, that such a lunatic issued from our ranks. But as Huxley told Wilberforce, there is no shame in honestly owning our actual lineage and embracing our humanity. Every family tree, when shaken, reveals its share of frauds and fools. The point is to evolve. Generosity and patience are possibilities of our nature, too.
Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Never walk alone

6:45/5:32, 72/84. Podcast.
What a mild mellow weekend that was, and a quiet one. Younger Daughter's visiting friends in the Big Apple, Older Daughter in St. Louis, and we're getting a foretaste of the empty nest to come.

I take Sundays off, or rather work hard to hone my hammock skills, so I'm late to note the birthdays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robert Louis Stevenson.

[And then the !!@#$%^!! cable & wifi went down again... AT&T is making Comcast look better every day. Hear the rest of this morning's post here.]


Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Delta phenomenon

6 am/5:32, 72/81. Podcast.

Birthday of Helen Keller and Edward Gibbon, who both testified to the power of will to communicate through symbolic representation. "Delta," the Helen Keller phenomenon, Walker Percy called it: the startled, triangulated awareness that words can mean something, can direct action, can be made to alter hearts and minds. "The Delta phenomenon lies at the heart of every event that has ever occurred in which a sentence is uttered or understood, a name is given or received, a painting painted and viewed. What Helen had discovered, had broken through to, was the Delta phenomenon." Cause for optimism.

Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire showed that Delta could reveal the buried past, "the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind." And (though Gibbon was no optimist) the occasional triumph.

It's been a triumphant couple of days just past, in American history. The Supremes, in spite of themselves, voted (barely) to do the right thing for the health and happiness of the nation in upholding challenged provisions of the Affordable Care Act and the right of all to marry.

And then the president went to Charleston to deliver a remarkable sermonizing eulogy for the latest high-profile victims of American hatred and violence (we mustn't forget the unsung uncelebrated daily victims). As sermons go, so far as this heathen is competent to judge, it was extraordinary.

But, "the lord works in mysterious ways" - ?!!? The line worked in context, bringing grieving congregants to their feet. It suited the occasion and fit the mood, it was part of the "healing balm" the president meant to administer with his words.

But what an outrageous thought: the allegedly all-powerful and all-knowing creator and sustainer of the cosmos could find no better way to advance the cause of social justice in our time, no better way to lower a stupid old symbol of seditious racism, than through the barrel of yet another gun in the hands of yet another hateful punk, mowing down still more innocent good god-fearing men and women?

Come on, Mr. President. You're so good with words, such a marvelous delta communicator; you don't really mean to communicate the thought that there's ever anything divine in cold-blooded murder. Sapere Aude. You can do better. We can.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Accept the warming rays

5:45/5:33, 78/90. Podcast.
Harry Potter's birthday, sorta.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in Britain on this day in 1997. Joanne Rowling was an unemployed, single mother waiting for a delayed train, when an idea suddenly came to her. “I did not have a functioning pen with me,” she said. “I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me ... I began to write that very evening.”
She just "sat and thought." Sounds so simple. Rowling's original Thinking Place was a train station, and then a coffee shop. This is what I was trying to say: it's not about the place, spatio-temporally speaking, it's about the "aura and mental associations" the place conjures for you. Those can travel. The actual thinking place is between the ears.

We don't keep it between our ears, we externalize and symbolize, investing mere objects with more power than they deserve. Flags and buildings, for instance.

My old Mills Bookstore colleague Michael Sims tweeted the other day, "I was born in rural eastern Tennessee, but to me the Dixie flag has always been a symbol of three things: treason, slavery, and losers." He's right, but all this flag fuss in response to the Charleston massacre, I fear, is diverting our attention and allowing us to imagine we're actually addressing the root causes of racism.  Taking down flags is not taking down ignorance and hatred.

And yet, symbols and names are important. The ROTC building on our campus, named for the notorious confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, is again, finally, being "revisited".
University officials said it dedicated the ROTC building as Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall in 1958 because of Forrest's military record with the Confederate Army and his Middle Tennessee ties. The Confederate cavalry leader was known for his tactical battlefield skills and for leading a successful 1862 raid that captured more than 1,000 Union troops and freed local residents in Murfreesboro. He also reportedly served as the first grand wizard for the Ku Klux Klan after the war...Phil Oliver, a 12-year philosophy professor at MTSU, said it's past time to rename the building for someone who isn't a "symbol of racism. "I'm embarrassed every time I teach there," Oliver said.
And pass by. Or even just think of it. A new name won't change everything but it will symbolize new sensitivity and better intentions. If (as the wall in my old Forrest Hall classroom proclaims) we're ruthlessly enforcing high standards of humanity, that name's got to go.

One more thing before I have to go: last night I read an old interview with E.B. White, the subject of one of Michael Sims' many delightful books. He said writing is a form of therapy. (So is reading.) And he said,
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.
"Accept the warming rays" - that's what Rowling was doing at the station and in the coffee shop. It's what I try to do out here on my porch, in my Thinking Place, and wherever else I can manage to find them.

How's that for a symbol?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Two Erics & no wifi

5:30/5:31, 72/97. Podcast.
11 am. A belated post, the new AT&T cable & wifi system went down last night just in time for me to miss Vandy's 4-2 loss to Virginia in the College World Series. Coulda gone and sat on the gridiron and watched it on the big board at Dudley Field, but that woulda felt anomalous and weird. I don't like to mix my sports, and I'm still at war with football anyway.

The latest cable guy - they never send the same one again -just left. Says he's fixed it this time.

Felt an odd disorientation as I rolled out of bed this morning, remembering that my keyboard would not be responsive before the service call. Almost decided to bag it and not write. Why? Have I become so accustomed to tap-tap-tapping my morning missives that I couldn't imagine going old-school and writing things down in a notebook? Not quite, but that seems to be the trend-line. Digital dependency is a real problem.

Well, I went ahead and fired off a dawn podcast (shifting my dependency to the 3G technology of my phone) about the two Erics, then went rambling and riding with a fretful concern about Internet addiction. Also pondered Thinking Places. More on that later.

About those Erics: light candles today for Eric Blair and Eric Carlisle. You may not have known George Orwell was called Eric, and unless you've raised small children you may not have known Eric C. at all.

Eric Arthur Blair, born in 1903, was of course the author of Animal Farm and 1984. (Hey, S: I know there's an Orwell walking tour in London, but did he walk there, or write about it?) Most everything he wrote addressed the historical confrontation between democracy ("democratic socialism") and totalitarian despotism. That's what inspired the late Christopher Hitchens to name him his favorite author.

The other thing any writer should appreciate about Mr. Blair is his fastidious advocacy of clear and muscular writing.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself. "Politics and the English Language," via Maria 
The other Eric wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which it pleases me to recall reading endlessly to Older Daughter in our formative years, back before the millennium. It was in steady rotation with Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Gorilla, the Berenstain Bears, and Little Critter. We both learned a lot from Mr. Carle about gluttony and moderation and I forget what else. Mostly I just remember the delight of shared and growing bibliomania, and the innocent laughter of childhood (her first and my second). Thanks, Eric.

So, digital dependency and what makes a Thinking Place a place to think? Later.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Changing everything

5:50/5:33, 72/94. Podcast.
The Almanac today shares "Sweetness," a poem by Stephen Dunn  that says "often a sweetness has come and changed nothing in the world... just long enough to make sense of what it means to be alive..." But it reconciled the poem's subject to grief and loss, and it helped the poet write that poem. That's change, isn't it? Change at least of the stoical variety, an inner adjustment to outer circumstance? A change in attitude and temper is change I can believe in, whether it changes events in the world or not. I'm betting it does.

Continuing the epiphenomenal theme, it's the birthday of Ambrose Bierce. His caustic and clever Devil's Dictionary (1906) defines philosophy as "the most ancient occupation of the human mind" and "a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing." He was a philosopher and a cynic, with no use for this hour of the day.
DAWN, n. The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.
Bierce was a misanthrope, but an entertaining one.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.
The word "epiphenomenon" is missing from Bierce's dictionary, but its flavor is there.
EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other—which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog.
And he offers
PERIPATETIC, adj. Walking about. Relating to the philosophy of Aristotle, who, while expounding it, moved from place to place in order to avoid his pupil's objections. A needless precaution—they knew no more of the matter than he.
Ha ha.

Bierce is wrong, though. Even when rambling alone, the peripatetic philosopher cannot avoid confronting objections. Especially then. The point of all that motion is precisely to summon and deal with them. That changes everything.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hegel's walking dead

5:40/5:30, 76/95. Podcast.
Today's WA poem, about the natural and finite spirit that soaks the ground and nurtures future history, might be construed as Hegelian. Hegel, so far as anyone can tell, was all about spirit (geist) and history.
...I like to think
that when I’m gone the chemicals
and yes the spirit that was me
might be searched out by subtle roots
and raised with sap through capillaries
into an upright, fragrant trunk,
and aromatic twigs and bark,
through needles bright as hoarfrost to
the sunlight for a century
or more...
But Hegel famously supposedly said that even the one reader who understood him didn't really understand him. I don't admire willful obscurity in a philosopher, and I especially disdain philosophers who take pride in their deliberate opacity. That's why, when we get to Hegel in my classes, I always make a point of mentioning William James's "Hegelisms" and his nitrous oxide experiments. Is Hegel clearer, under the influence? So it seemed to James, fleetingly. But ultimately James concludes that Hegel badly overstates the possibility of rational reconciliation in life and in history. Some negations are permanent, some losses are ireemediable, and the failure of philosophers like Hegel to say so, honestly, directly, and clearly, really rankles.

So Hegel deserves a degree of scorn for his gratuitous density; on the other hand (and notice, looking at the other hand is a stage in the Hegelian dialectic if we've understood him at all), he deserves credit for getting us to think about the long-term impact on history of our finite lives. That doesn't quite reconcile a pragmatic stoic and empiricist like James (or me) to Hegelian perfectionism, but it wins him a point or two.

But back to yesterday's question, part two: did Hegel walk? We've already determined that his dialectical successor Marx did. It would be the height of irony for any dialectician, let alone the progenitive dialectician-in-chief, ideologically committed to forward movement in life and history, to just sit and think.

Well, someone did go walking with Hegel in Marseilles, someone else with Hegel and Kant in Berlin. But maybe the best way to picture Hegel's vision of history as a progressive realization of spirit is in terms of another prominent search result: "the walking dead." Seriously. Think about it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer flows

6 am/5:32, 73/94. Podcast.
Nice long Dads Day solstice, treated by the family to lunch at M.L. Rose, a beautiful hand-crafted tribute from Younger Daughter, and just a bit more general deference than usual. A holiday filled with light, love, and kindness, officially launching summertime. A good day.

Went for a morning bikeride on the literal other side of the tracks, past Al Gore's place. Later joined Older Daughter in her continuing  binge-watch of 30 Rock, and there he was-the Goracle himself. Season Two, I think. Pitching for the planet, as always.

The difficult thing about summer is, it's the season when serious thinking is generally thought to go on holiday. The season for beach reading. But also the season when I always promise myself I'll get serious and write that book. So for me it's a cross-purposes sort of season, presenting the challenge of doing serious work in a playful season, writing easily and breezily of difficult things. It's a dialectical season. (Hey S: were Hegel and Marx peripatetic at all?)

The trick, I think, is to get so caught up in the flow of the work that it, well, flows (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense of the word.) Summertime, so languid and lazy, can also be a time of transcendent achievement. Can't it? That's my goal this summer: be like Darwin, so absorbed in his sandwalks and the ideas they churned up that he had to count stones to stay in touch with normal time.

So, how to make time flow: a question to walk with. And another, posed by Nigel Warburton @philosophybites: "Is it a coincidence that many great philosophers loved walking?" It is not. But why not? Flow's got something to do with it. Maybe everything.

And flow has something to do with good writing too. Oliver Sacks, via Maria, is onto this.
“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”
It's a lot easier to flow, I think, when you're not standing silent and still. Or when I'm not, anyway. The seated meditation seems to work for some, but not me.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Riding the carousel

5:30/5:29, 73/90. Podcast.
Non-peripatetics are mystified by the seeming futility of a daily walker's circuitous ramblings. "You don't go anywhere, it looks so boring, you always end right  back where you started..." etc. That's how it may appear on the surface, from the outside. But they forget, we're all on a rocky carousel of a planet and always have been, going round and round. "Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving and revolving..."

When we do remember that, we marvel that vertigo isn't our constant condition. We have to stand and move, to stay upright and hold our momentum, to keep facing forward. The alternative, it seems, is to be permanently floored by the sheer centrifugal nature of our existence. How else can we hope to keep up. 

Once more around the sun then, please, and another spin on the carousel each day, until the ride is over.
Thinking again about my Peripatetics Abroad course, delayed but not forgotten. A visit to Darwin's Down House and Sandwalk will be a highlight. How exactly did he convert those little walks, those modest revolutions around a country estate, into the biggest revolutionary idea of all time? 
Emma had ivy planted, and bluebells, anemones, cowslips, and primroses. They made a path covered with sand from the woods. They called their path the Sandwalk, and it became Charles's walking and thinking path... Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith
The Sandwalk was Darwin's 'thinking path', a quarter-mile walk that formed the basis of his daily perambulations around the estate. He made regular circuits five times round it at noon, for example. His children skipped alongside from time to time, teasing their father by adding stones to the pile he would kick away to count each lap, but mostly Darwin walked alone, 'using a walking-stick heavily shod with iron which he struck loudly against the ground', as Darwin's son Francis recalled.
Mostly he walked alone. That's always true, ultimately. But we know he was a close observer of canines. Surely they sometimes accompanied him? (There's a specific research topic for you, S.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Wall

5:45/5:29, 75/91. Podcast.
Today is Juneteenth, "Freedom Day" or "Emancipation Day," commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It's for everyone. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on this date. It's the birthday of Blaise Pascal, "torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one," whose famous wager is less than scientific. And courageous "blaspheming" novelist Salman Rushdie is 68 today. WA

Had yet another delightful night at the ballpark, with another friend & colleague from school. The home team absorbed another tight loss, this time to Omaha, despite the cool retro '40's-era Nashville Vols uniforms they sported. But that was more than offset by convivial conversation and cheap "Throwback Thursday" beer.

Before the game we strolled the Wall of History at the nearby Bicentennial Mall, created in 1996 to celebrate Tennessee's two-hundred years of statehood. The Wall is a 1,400 foot long series of words cast in granite, bounded by a series of imposing monoliths to mark each decade. But the most surprising thing about the Wall, this being Tennessee after all, is its honest acknowledgement of pre-history. The land we now occupy was here, it admits, long before our state, our schools, our churches...

and our continuing denial of scientifically established truth.

(Thanks to Matt, apparently a science-denier himself, who posted these and other images of the Wall. All the inscriptions are here.)
Inherit the Wind (1960)-What Happened to Reason? (YouT)... Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin and philosophy... Darwin@dawn... evolution... Dennett...Matthew Chapman... Scopes Trial... Loyal Rue]

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Start me up

6 am/5:29, 73/91. Podcast.
Paul McCartney is 73 today, Napoleon lost at Waterloo on this date in 1815. WA And the Rolling Stones played a few blocks away from our ballgame in downtown Nashville last night, keeping Younger Daughter at her babysitting gig into the wee hours. Her employers, like most everyone in the audience, are far younger than the band they came hear.

Before the show Mick Jagger visited the Parthenon for "a bit of culture." Same Parthenon Robert Altman put on screen in "Nashville," that seemed so surreal the other night at the Belcourt.

Every time Ike Davis batted for the Sounds last night they played "Start Me Up." Was that to honor the Stones, or just an acknowledgement that Ike's old? Barry Zito started again for the home team last night, it could be his song too.

Starting is the hardest part of any project and of many days, isn't it? Except maybe for persevering and finishing. But no, it's relatively easy to keep on doing whatever you're doing if you've formed supportive or enabling habits. But those same habits can make it hard to envision crossing the finish line. Older we get, the more we have to talk ourselves into embracing new habits, tasks, and goals. So maybe Mick and the boys really won't stop 'til they drop, and I won't stop rolling out of bed as soon as I hear the songbirds each morning.

No time to say more this morning, we're on a tight schedule to fetch Granny again. But here's another picture that should be worth a few words.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Out of control

6 am/5:31, 73/95. Podcast. Remember the summer you read Proust...
New films I want to see: Ex Machina, Tomorrowland, Love & Mercy. New film the family selected for our rare night out together last night: Jurassic World. The less said, the better. I laughed out loud when I wasn't supposed to, behind those silly plastic 3-D spectacles.

And what a spectacle it is. Didn't take many notes but got the message, as early conveyed by one of the many ill-starred humans who thought they could manage their genetically-modified hybrid amusement park assets before the big crash-and-burn : "the key to happiness is to realize you're never in control."

Never? Once again, I'd prescribe a shot of Stoic Pragmatism. Someone should have told Executive Producer Spielberg that while he couldn't control the taste or sensibility of his mass commercial audience, he didn't have to add his name to a project that could only mar his legacy as a sometimes-serious film maker. Does he really need the money? Will someone in control in Hollywood please divert a small fraction of your blockbuster budget to the creators and writers of scripts for grownups?

But never mind, I've already given this too much time and consideration.

Last night was fun, as family outings go, and it did provide at least one invaluable moment of insight (which is one more than most nights out at the movies these days): as we exited the theater and crossed the curb where I've dropped off and retrieved our girls countless times during their pre-license years, I realized I won't be doing that anymore. They're both driving now. They've seized temporary control of their own mobility, taken charge of their own direction. I know I should be happy about that.

I'm looking forward to this evening's more pedestrian entertainment outing, as a colleague and I head out to the ballpark to see the Sounds host Memphis. No escaped raptors, no anomalous containment breaches, no gratuitous destruction and mayhem anticipated. But I have no control over that.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Second wind a stride at a time

5:30 am/5:29, 75/95. Podcast.
It's Bloomsday, celebrating James Joyce's Ulysses. WA reports that the first Bloomsday celebrants got sidetracked at a Pub, and didn't fulfill their intention to replicate Leopold Bloom's 1904 Dublin transit. Fitting, even if too stereotypically Irish. What better tribute to a writer of fiction than to enact his characters' lives in the factual world. Or intend to.

Ulysses is notoriously wordy and dense and difficult, and full of playful and delightful treasures of language and sensibility. Not a few of them were probably composed in or very near a Pub.
“If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend.’ Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law. But always meeting ourselves.”  
“Alone, what did Bloom feel?
The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or RĂ©aumur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.”    
“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
“I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short time of space.”    
“Read your own obituary notice; they say you live longer. Gives you second wind. New lease of life.”    
Second wind, energy, renewal, fresh life... that's what I get each day when I climb down from my porch and hit the streets and trails of our own Dublin by the Cumberland here. I wake and warm to my work, like the Brainpicker and like my muse James.
And everybody knows what it is to "warm up" to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as "second wind"... A third and a fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical... For many years I have mused on the phenomenon of second wind...
 So today's walking question is simply how to channel and transfer some of that energy more efficiently onto page and screen. How to "hold to the now" long enough to store its energy in the form of language.

Monday, June 15, 2015

All this will be gone

6 am/5:29/8:06/72/95. Podcast.
It's the birthday of Erik Erikson (1902), the psychologist who coined the term "identity crisis," and of Japanese haiku master Kobayashi Issa (1763), who wrote more than 20,000 tiny poems celebrating everyday life. So does today's featured WA poem by Annie Lighthart: "I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds," she writes. "All this... will be gone."

All this, all the little things of everyday life, are music to the ears of those who train themselves to hear. "The Second Music," the poet calls it. That's what I'm always listening for out here on my back porch at around dawn, with the birds and the early light. Trying to catch the tune and add my little verse, trusting the repetitiveness of that small activity to add up to something meaningful and conquer the little crises of identity we mortals pass through.

The last and best stage of developmental insight, I'd add to Erik Erikson's list, is that really learning who you are is not the product of a sudden crisis but is the gradual, dawning, ccumulating realization that we are each in the song of life but are not its sole authors, and that we should sing along while we have the opportunity. That's real "ego integrity," or as an older tradition puts it, wisdom.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Common life is the cure

5:30/5:31/8:03. 71/91. Podcast.
Birthday of W.B. Yeats. His odd "metaphysical marriage" to Maud Gonne made him an even more melancholy metaphysician, to borrow a Jamesian phrase I long ago appropriated for my own purposes and regularly recall, reminding myself to lighten up about philosophy and, well, everything.

Mentioning a Yeats-like friend who was too earnestly and sensitively dependent on others for his own happiness,  William James wrote in the "Sick Soul" chapter of Varieties of Religious Experience,
And so with most of us: a little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a
little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and descent of the pain-
threshold, will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.
James says "the music can commence again - and again and again - at intervals," though he's much too quick in this context to attribute "the falling dead of the delight" to a naturalistic frame of mind. The problem for mild and occasional melancholics (as opposed to those who suffer deep and lasting depression) really isn't metaphysical, as he usually acknowledges, it's temperamental and habitual. And that (coupled with a robust sense of personal will) means it may be subject to personal therapeutics. We can make ourselves happier.

There's an illuminating recognition of this phenomenon, or sensibility, in Darrin McMahon's discussion of David Hume. The happy skeptic's reputed dispositional cheer and bonhomie were at least partly practiced, until he taught himself the "utility of distraction" that allows a happy person to step away from distress.
Hume was at times given to melancholy and doubt, plagued by his inability to arrive at certain truth. But on such occasions, he turned, as he tells us in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature, to a powerful antidote:
"I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."
 "Common life" is the cure, not supernaturalism. I usually think of James's version of empiricism as a "radical" improvement on Hume's, but in this respect I say the Scot wins the hand.

A question to take walking: does this approach make happiness a trick, a sham, an illusion? James said "the lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with"... does the happiness of common life borrow against something else? And, does my old secular reading of Yeats stand up?
I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
WB Yeats reads 'The Lake Isle   of  Inisfree'

Friday, June 12, 2015

Good at heart

5:40/5:31/8:03, 70/89. Podcast.
Birthday of Anne Frank, who as a young girl awaiting her horrible fate could write “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." WA

Absurd, yet fundamentally good at heart could also describe the strange but very recognizable world we saw up on the big screen at yesterday's late matinee in Hillsboro Village. Nashville definitely didn't flatter us; but as Older Daughter said as we left the Belcourt's screening of the Altman classic last night, the film depicted an earlier era that she couldn't identify with. It's an era I lived through, in my formative Midwestern years, but don't really identify with either.

Most of the recognizably-located scenes were filmed in the summer of '74, years before I became a Nashvillian, back when I was a newly-licensed driver in my Dodge Dart with the "Impeach Nixon" sticker on the bumper. More than four decades later, it's become a historical curiosity even for me. The big finale at the Parthenon, a landmark we locals take for granted as benign and comfortably reassuring, still has the power to shock with whatever it's trying to say about America, violence, and freedom or its absence. Most critics seemed to agree that the movie was saying something important and powerful. Ebert thought it was saying we're all in this together. Free or not.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The pleasure of getting started

6:20/5:31/8:02, 68/90. Podcast.
Birthday of Sophie's Choice author William Styron, an excessive drinker whose attempted sobriety at age 60 propelled him into temporary madness and the memoir Darkness Visible. He said “I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late. The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best advantage, with a hangover.” He said he didn't enjoy writing.“I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day.” WA

I love getting started each day, earlier than this, without a hangover. (But I have to say, the Tailgate Saison last night was great. So was the Good People Bearded Lady from Birmingham.) And I love thinking of myself as a self-starter. If I didn't, maybe I wouldn't feel bad when I slept too late and before you know it I'd have slipped into that bad habit again.

 I want to say Styron should have tried early-rising too, but that presumes free will. Is my pleasure in the dawn a choice of will, or a determined necessity? Schopenhauer said we can do what we will but cannot will what we will, and seems to have found consolation in the embrace of futility.

As an admirer of William James I'm a bit conflicted about this. I believe in free will, am charmed by the bootstrapping operation whereby depressive types make a show of pulling themselves off the mat and doing what needs to be done ("my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will and act on it" etc.), but also believe in letting people find consolation where they find it. Typically they find it in some un-evidenced religious doctrine, less typically in a philosophical judgment or perspective like determinism. If you're a pluralist, you can't be a reductionist.

But would anyone ever push or bootstrap towards a difficult goal without some sense of willful initiative? Are ambitious, accomplished determinists and fatalists disingenuous in denial of that? (Looking at you, Sam Harris.)

I'm now willing myself to strap on the Skechers and get out of here for an hour. Or so it seems.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Why bad people can be happy

and good people can be miserable. But can miserable people be good and happy?

5:30 am/5:31/8:02, 67/91. Podcast.
Biologist E.O. Wilson, who last year published The Meaning of Human Existence, is 86 today. It's also the birthday of Saul Bellow, whose character Herzog wrote letters to dead philosophers, and who fathered a child at age 84. That must mean something.

Bellow's Dad didn't support his literary aspirations. “It’s just writing, then erasing. What kind of profession is that?” So he also taught, not for the money but for a "humanity bath" and a regular opportunity to talk about books. "After all, that’s what life used to be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America." WA

A new happiness book came out yesterday, Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well. My friend Talisse wrote in the foreword that "the direct and often playful tone of this text should not be mistaken for simplemindedness or naivete." Happy to hear that, as one who also tries to perpetrate a direct and playful tone in my writing.
...happiness is neither mysterious nor particularly difficult to achieve. It does not require a love of truth or an overriding desire to avoid ignorance and illusion; nor it it reserved only for those who engage in lofty intellectual pursuits, such as philosophy. To be happy, they say, is to engage in those activities that one finds to be particularly enjoyable, whatever they may be. Of course, the pursuit of this enjoyment must be guided by prudence. Living well, then, is pursuing enjoyment prudently and within the bounds of morality.
Or as he tweeted last night, even more succinctly,
11 hours ago
A neat little book about why bad people can be happy. Foreword by a bad happy guy... Great beach reading.  
Oh... Almost forgot. The book also proves that good people can be miserable. A great gift!
 Rob doesn't mean that misery is a gift, he's just trying to sell some books here. He's also giving voice, as he often does, to the spirit of J.S. Mill.

Time to go "engage in an activity I find to be particularly enjoyable" myself, within bounds of prudence of course. It's the walk of life, and it doesn't make me a bad person at all. I'll think some more about goodness and happiness, but not so much about misery.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Happily-harmonizing geniuses

5:20 am/5:31/8:01, 65/88. Podcast. Cole Porter's birthday, Charles Dickens' deathday (WA). They were geniuses who probably created a great deal more happiness for others than they experienced for themselves. When Porter lost a leg he said he'd become half a man. As a peripatetic I hope I'd not feel that way, if  it ever came to that.

They're both in my personal happiness gallery, whether they were personally happy themselves or not. In any event they were both really good, "living in accordance with [their] good genius" (see below). Who could ask for anything more...? Oh wait, that's Ira Gershwin's line. Porter was the top, the Coliseum, the Louvre museum etc. And Dickens was also, of course, one of the most happily-quotable humans of all time. He taught Scrooge there's "nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” So how can he not have been happy?

My desk copy of Frederic Lenoir's Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide arrived. Using it for the first time- I always try to use new texts and approach from a different angle, can't step in the same river twice etc. - in the Happiness class this Fall. The dust jacket is colorfully ornate, and includes several questions I can walk with. (But Dickens already answered the first one.)
  • Is happiness contagious?
  • Can happiness and suffering coexist?
  • Does our happiness depend on our luck?
  • Is there a connection between individual and collective happiness?
  • Is there a difference between pleasure and happiness?
Yes to all, but that only begins to respond to them. The luck question hints at etymology, as happiness is rooted in happenstance, a matter of incident and accident. But I favor the view Branch Rickey shared with Jackie Robinson, that luck is the residue of design.

Lenoir's approach is largely historical, which is why I've selected his book. I'll probably also recommend that students look as well at the far more compendious Happiness: A History by Darrin McMahon, and to public domain etexts to fill in gaps from the slighter book. There's not quite enough Hume or Mill in Lenoir to my taste, for instance, or Russell or James. But he's good with Schopenhauer (surprised?) and Montaigne and the east (Buddha, Chuang Tzu, Ma Anandamayi).

But whatever they look at, they'll have to realize that you don't get happiness from a book. I mean, you can get knowledge about what others have thought and done in its pursuit from books, but you don't get it for yourself there. We use texts as catalysts, not core content. Or con-tent'. We seek instigation and provocation, not final edification.

Lenoir ends where many students begin, with a definition.
Philosophical knowledge, understood as a spiritual exercise, enables us to liberate the joy buried in our hearts. Like the sun that never stops shining above the clouds, love, joy, and peace are always there in our depths. The Greek word eudaimon (happy) makes this clear: eu (in accordance) daimon (genius, divinity); to be happy, for the Greeks, meant above all living in accordance with our good genius or with the element of the divine within us. I would say: vibrating in harmony with our deepest being.
"Harmony" is a spiritual but not necessarily religious state, just where we'll want to end our class too. Or I will, anyway, anticipating Spring's happy return of Atheism & Philosophy.

Monday, June 8, 2015


6 am/5:31, 69/86. The Almanac notes two notable events on this date in 1867: the launch of Mark Twain's unprecedented transatlantic pleasure cruise (which eventuated in Innocents Abroad) and the birth of Spinozist architect Frank Lloyd Wright. "I believe in [a god] but I spell it 'n-a-t-u-r-e'... Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

 It's also the birthday of Francis Crick, who thought he and his partner Watson co-discovered "the secret of life." DNA was a secret, or at least mystery. It's not the whole story, nor is it a god. But the double helix explains a lot.

 But back to Twain, and a reminder to get busy soon knocking out that Study Abroad syllabus: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.”

 And, before I go abroad on my morning walk, a reminder to myself to see Tomorrowland, a new Disney film about the retro future that most critics are complaining is too heavy-handedly insistent with its message. ("Be optimistic, damnit!")

Older Daughter and I shared a ride into the lovely and desolate rural countryside south of here on our way to "Decoration" at the cemetery yesterday, listening to some of them in a spirited podcast discussion of Tomorrowland. I taught a course a few years ago called "The Future of Life," the topic's always been a personal obsession. "Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow," don't forget to find happiness in the present too... and notice how we tend to misrepresent the past in ways that mirror our mistakes about the future. More on this after I've seen the show.

 Cards beat the Dodgers last night. That's a propos of nothing, really. I just mention it because it makes me happy. 38-19, not a bad W-L ratio.

Temp and humidity are rapidly rising, time to take my questions out for a walk: how optimistic can or should a happy person be about the future? And how do we go about striking a salutory balance between present satisfaction and future expectation?

The podcast:

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The glory of life

6 am, 65/88, 5:29. Maxine Kumin's birthday. She survived an early insult from one of my literary heroes, Wallace Stegner, and went on to write good poems including one about the Red Sox and domesticity. Rural life was one of her themes. "Now I had lived so long in the country that I was skittish walking in the rush-hour crowds of pedestrians and crossing streets where impatient taxi drivers honked and gestured."

Maira Kalman is not skittish in a crowd.

"The ability to walk from one point to the next point, that is half the battle won. Go out and walk. That is the glory of life." 
The point is to move. Then, enjoy whatever comes next. Like breakfast. (Thanks for driving us to the IHOP, Younger Daughter!)

Friday, June 5, 2015

A world of ideas

5 am, 64 F. on the way to 86. I'm up, spontaneously and without the assistance of any but the avian alarm clock. Sun's not due 'til 5:32.

Happy birthday Bill Moyers. There haven't been many political operatives (or Southern Baptists) who transitioned effectively into the "world of ideas" and made  themselves at home there. He's TV's "lonely humanist," said Carlin Romano.

Yesterday morning's question here was about "relevance." I thought about that during my walk, and reported later in my day blog that philosophy walks (and thus, Philosophy Walks-the hypothetical book for which I've enlisted SC's actual research assistance) can be about pretty much anything. Spontaneity and freedom are among the elite intellectual virtues, on my view.

But that approach makes for a too-cumbersome project, so we'll be working to trim our sails and pull PW closer to shore. "What do we think about, when we think about walking?" is a good question. A more manageable one is, "What walking thoughts are worth recording and preserving as relevant to an identifiable philosophical concern, conversation, or tradition?"

Mr. Moyers sets a good example for this project, professing humility for his own modest spot on the sidelines of the great and sprawling world of ideas.

 PW can only begin to pierce its surface. But like Moyers, PW can embrace curiosity and the intrinsic value of the activity of questioning. Moving through landscapes is (or can be) a gentle interrogation, of the sort Moyers mastered. He argued unsuccessfully with his publisher that he ought to be listed not as his books' author but as their accompanist ("with," not "by"). He was, as he saw it, just along for the walk and for the sheer pleasure of asking questions and turning over possible replies.

So, this morning's question to take out for a stroll: might the Q-&-A format (similar to Sarah Bakewell's in How to Live) be well suited to PW? Something like twenty walks, twenty questions, twenty attempts at an answer? A larger question is whether the question alone, independent of any particular answer, suffices. Is curiosity its own reward?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A new habit*

6:30 am, 59 degreees Fahrenheit on the way to 84. Sun rose at 5:30 today. (And for the record: I awoke at 4:55 but didn't summon the will to roll out and hit the floor, after last night's late and ultimately-lamented# rec league doubleheader in East Cheatham county.)

*Starting today, a daily dateline to pull me more insistently to the keyboard. Noting the time and temp first thing each morning with the  Living Earth app is an old habit of mine, but posting it here is new.

I've also been in the habit lately of consulting Writer's Almanac first thing. That's a bit of a distraction, but a worthy one. I'll continue it here, by noting a historic/literary birthday and occasionally musing on its subject and/or the poem of the day. So, today the self-appointed sexpert Dr. Ruth is even older, and it's the 19th amendment's 95th anniversary. "You've come a long way, baby." (Did Don Draper write that one too?) In today's poem Charles Bukowski says he knows what Walt Whitman wanted when he sang the body electric, "to be completely alive every moment  in spite of the inevitable."

The bad early-morning habits I'm giving up, starting today, are Twitter and Zite. It's not that I find them a total waste of time, I often find relevant provocation there. Just enough wheat amidst the chaff to make breaking up hard to do. But they'll keep. Anyway, it's not a break-up. Not even a trial separation. Just a re-prioritizing.

Now then. I've spent half an hour clearing my throat here. The deck is clear, the caffeine is working, I'm ready to write something. "Even if it's wrong," as my old pal DH of WCU likes to say.

What shall I write?

Something about the peripatetic life, for sure. SC, my volunteer RA, has been sending me stuff to write about. Time to jump on it.

But first, for that infernal "record" I feel compelled to keep: what was #lamentable about last night's doubleheader with the "Mystics" near Joelton? Not Younger Daughter's performance, she sparkled per usual with several ringing line drives, an inside-the-park homer, and a solid pitching performance except for those walks that knotted the score in Game #2. It was the other coach's decision to file a protest with the ump at a pivotal moment when our team had loaded the bases and threatened to take the lead, in the last inning. It worked, the evening ended abruptly and outrageously in a tie. As I say, lamentable.

Also for the record: finally visited the new Tailgate Brewery and Taproom (around the corner from McKay's used book & record emporium, in the converted VFW barn), anniversary gift-card and empty growlers in tow. Marvelous! The quality of life in my neighborhood is exponentially improved by Tailgate's presence. Who'd have guessed that Peanut Butter Milk Stout and Grapefruit IPA, so ill-named, could be so good?

Okay, enough digressive wool-gathering. Another new habit, soon to commence: regular and relevant working posts to my day blog. "Relevant"? What isn't?

That's a rhetorical question but it deserves a reply. Time to walk and think about how best to answer it.
Today's post marks the debut of the podcast version of this site, which if successful may find classroom application in the Fall as one more platform for diligent students to access, and slackers to ignore. Meanwhile, I'll have fun with it. jpo

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Wake up, it's June

The big late-May family Occasions behind us now, it's time to occupy June. Break bad habits, stop sleeping in, meet the dawn again, and write that book. Habit's the keyword, as always. Can't hear James's reminder too often, it's
the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance,... It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow... It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again.
...we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. 
But I've not deliberated my latest unproductive habits, rather I've simply eased into them as the path of least resistance. June's the wake-up call.

If I forget again, the brainpicker will (I've developed the habit of trusting) offer yet another timely prompt. "We are what we repeatedly do," indeed. Wake, write, walk, read... repeat...