Delight Springs

Monday, March 28, 2016

Buck O'Neil

Sick on Easter, the holiday pagans like me celebrate as symbolic of spring and the return of life (whether Eostre existed or not). No fair.

But I wasn't too sick to continue my preparation for this week's conference with two wonderful books.

First, I finally gave overdue attention to Older Daughter's 2010 Christmas gift: We Are the Ship: the Story of Negro League Baseball, with its terrific dedication:
And, the best book about baseball that's really about life that I've read in a long time: The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America makes clear just why old Buck was such an inspiration to so many. My conference presentation started out being about Satchel Paige, on the strength of Buck's testimony that he was deeper than people knew. But it's going to end up more about Buck, who was not only deep with self-knowledge but wide with compassion. He was a humanist, a kind and caring man who seems to have had a Midas touch for the best in people.

When Buck was inexplicably snubbed by Cooperstown, not long before his death at nearly 95, he went there anyway to lead the posthumous induction of seventeen of his old friends. And then he got everybody in the place to hold hands and sing a little refrain about love.

Why wasn't he bitter and resentful over his exclusion, the way most of us would have been? Why didn't he snub Cooperstown? Think about this, son. What is my life all about? He'd led the examined life. He knew.

6:45/6:40, 47/60/39

Friday, March 25, 2016

Joe Garagiola

With the latest report of the NFL's negligence in addressing its brain injury problem, I turn happily to my sport. The 21st Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference is just a week away. It used to happen across the hall, a few steps from my office door. This year it's going to take a little longer to get there, at its new venue 600 miles away in Kansas. But I wouldn't miss it, my surest sign of Spring. I'm especially looking forward to revisiting the Negro Leagues Museum.

In my presentation I'm going to talk about the under-appreciated sagacity of the game's greatest wits, mostly Satchel Paige (who, like Yogi, didn't say everything he said) and Buck O'Neil (who did).

That's a lot of Kansas City, for an old St. Louisan like me, so I'm adding Yogi and his pal Joe Garagiola to the program. He just died at age 90, following his friend who also checked out at 90 in September. I'd love to believe they'll both go on cracking wise on a heavenly Hill somewhere.

It was Joe, to whom Yogi instructed: "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

It was Joe who stoked the legend of Yogi. "Not only was I not the best catcher in the major leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street."

Unlike Yogi, Joe played for lots of teams ("I went through baseball as a player to be named later") including, naturally, the Cubs. "One thing you learned as a Cubs fan: when you bought you ticket, you could bank on seeing the bottom of the ninth."

His debut in the Cardinals broadcast booth with Buck and Caray was a couple of years before my time, but I caught him later on countless Games of the Week, and on the Today show. He came across as a regular guy, genuine, self-effacing, and deceptively simple, an ideal complement for Vin Scully's florid style. “Scully will describe the azure blue skies and the fluffy clouds and Old Glory blowing in center field, and he makes you feel like, ‘Let’s have a parade,’ ” he said. “He can put words together, and I’d come in and say, ‘All I know is the wind is blowing, and if the pitcher doesn’t have a good fastball or can’t spot it, he’ll be backing up third all day.’ ”

He received the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. He might have echoed Yogi's pithiest Socratic truth - "In baseball you don't know nothin'" - but he knew plenty.

7:00/6:44, 45/60/39

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Now, at last

This morning I'm revisiting an old post from 2010 when my “Future of Life” class considered the Clock of the Long Now, so named by musician Brian Eno. He said: "If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future, we have to reach a frame of mind where it comes to seem unacceptable – gauche, uncivilised – to act in disregard of our descendants." 

Some who resist the kind of long-term thinking that professes deep regard for our distant descendants are put off by what they see as a disingenuous stance of selflessness. 

And some just agree with Philip Kitcher, who said in his 2013 Terry Lectures at Yale that became Life After Faith that it becomes increasingly difficult to muster and maintain intimate interest in the lives of people we'll never know. Never mind people in ten millennia, those coming just a couple generations down the pike are already hard for him to think and care about. "So, as I look forward sufficiently far, regret [at dying and missing the future] declines into indifference."

As noted here a few weeks ago, this is an attitude Samuel Scheffler finds unsustainable and in fact unsustained, when we reflect on the world without us and realize that its indefinite continuation as the natural "collective afterlife" long after we're gone is something most of us can't help caring about.

So, I suggest, we should work on putting our indifference to the distant future behind us. Most of us do want, as Eno said, to contribute to a tenable future. We must keep reminding ourselves that our present was the distant future for our remote ancestors, who fortunately for us did not all regard us indifferently. This is not a call for selflessness, it's an acknowledgement that meaningful selfhood in the present entails a vital relatedness to the selves who came before and those who will come after us. 
We’ve got to extend our empathy far forward and gain a new appreciation for the “beautiful continuum of life.” He and his Long Now Foundation compadres (Eno came up with their name) think the best trigger for that transformation may be a new artistry and iconography of time. Stick a clock in a mountain and try to keep it ticking, they say. The trying is the beauty part, and the caring.

Danny Hillis is the earnest computer scientist behind the whole endeavor. Challenged by the late Jonas Salk to acknowledge the ego-driven angle of his passion, he confesses:
OK, Jonas, OK, people of the future, here is a part of me that I want to preserve, and maybe the clock is my way of explaining it to you: I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.
I have hope for the future.
He wrote that a decade ago, and it would be easy enough to surrender to hopelessness now. But if we did, what would our descendants think of us? (Or… what descendants?) It’s important, as Woody Allen has (with perverse unintended irony) said, to be reasonably well thought-of after we’ve “thinned out.”

Ego does have its uses.

But there are practical problems to face, with this improbable clock.

5:30/6:45, 64/67/41

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Collecting happiness

Today's poem makes the familiar point that our happiness is greatest when we're least attentive to it. Recounting an ordinary domestic scene on the porch in Spring, surrounded by family, sipping coffee, sniffing lilacs, lightly regarding the news, Linda Pastan "didn't even guess that I was happy."
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
Perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.
In Happiness class people often wonder if noticing happiness won't somehow jinx or ruin it. To the contrary, I agree with the poet. If someone could only stop the camera and just ask, noticing might actually amplify that fleeting feeling of well-being.

So, I'm going to start collecting happiness poems. Here's what I've got so far.
7:00/6:47, 56/70

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The worm at the core

Once again, the pre-dawn horizon rewards the early riser. What a gorgeous golden moon, hovering just above the neighbors' rooftop, just greeted the dog and me this a.m.

I've come across a book with immediate relevance for all my current classes, especially Atheism & Bioethics: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life leads with the same epigrammatic William James quote that suggested my own title, way back when, with its "worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight" that "turns us into melancholy metaphysicians." The worm comes from fear, source of so many of our obsessions and compulsions. "The knowledge that we are mortal underlies both the noblest and the most unsavory of human pursuits." If we know this, say the authors, growth and progress can be ours.

Philip Kitcher raises the role of fear in the early and forever-inescapable human ethical project, in today's second chapter of Life After Faith. I of course thought instantly of Brooks' and Reiner's timeless 2,000 Year-Old ManCarl: What was the means of transportation then? Mel: Mostly fearCarl: Fear transported you? Mel: Fear, yes. You would see... an animal would growl, you'd go two miles in a minute. Fear would be the main propulsion. 

Not fear per se, but clear-eyed acknowledgement of our fear of dying followed by serious reflection on its place in life, may transport us. Maybe.

Today in CoPhi it's Leibniz and his bĂȘte noire Voltaire. James is Voltaire's ally against the Panglossian courtier Leibniz, whom he labelled "superficiality incarnate." One of the hazards of metaphysics is a diluted sense of reality, leading to the appearance at least of dishonesty. Who could ever believe this the best of possible worlds, except someone whose grasp of possibility had been badly stunted by too much thinking?

You know who doesn't think too much? My dog. I was listening to Older Daughter's radio show last night, which developed an animal theme. I texted the suggestion that she close the show with Walt Whitman's paean to animal nature, and she did. "THINK I could turn and live with animals..."

Jacques Barzun's Stroll With William James, I'm reminded, opens with an anecdote about James calling absent-mindedness a matter of being "present-minded somewhere else." Exactly right! What I've been trying to say about immediacy really boils down to the thought that it can be useful to a person - though possibly not to a dog - to cultivate that kind of presence, occasionally.

On most occasions, it's still probably best to be present where you live. So, Happy birthday Billy Collins, poet-extraordinaire of ordinary life who, like Updike, also "gives the mundane its beautiful due." That may be the best way, most days, to dispatch the worm at the core.

5:30/6:48, 35/69

Monday, March 21, 2016


I'm struck again by the aptness of John Lachs's Intermediate Man dedication: "For my family... three generations of immediacy." All the more striking, then, are his initial explications of the concept of immediacy as self-reliance in the extreme pre-Friday Crusoe fashion, "in direct and immediate touch with the conditions of his existence," knowing "all that was needed for life" (sans Internet, notice - see previous post on Michael Lynch's "Internet of Us"), depending on no one, at home in his island solitude.

What's striking is that Lachs, with that 1981 dedication, foreshadows a kind of immediacy that looks far beyond the moment to see in a glance the sweep of generational time, and then immediately pulls back from that expansive vision to a more explicitly insular idea.

This recessive adjustment leads him to forswear interest in the remote future, with remoteness understood trans-generationally. Mediation and "psychic distance" result, he says, from the varieties of ways in which the institutions and practices of modern life cut us off from our own direct experience. The few generations it takes to span a century are already too many for our direct attention and interest.

"The greatest immediacy is gained by full physical presence which opens all our senses," followed by the fading presence of visual and auditory stimuli. There's not much more to the future, in these terms, than an even less robust ideational shadow. Barely a presence at all.

William James may be understood to have meant something similar when he said the fons et origo, the fount and origin of life, is perceptual. But a point of origin is only a start.

Emerson extolled self-reliance, wondering why any of us ever settles for less than an "original relation to universe."

Carl Sagan said we're "wanderers" in space and time, irresistibly curious about the remotest reaches of the cosmos, bound to go there imaginatively now and dream of really going, one of these generations.

Teddy Roosevelt said "all for each and each for all."

An original relation to the universe can be inclusive, expansive, and motile. Its present can grow, its moment can last, its island can include countless generations of immediacy.

7:00/6:50, 35/57

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Internet of Us

Vandy's Berry Lecturer Michael Lynch delivered an important message last night about "Google-knowing" and its mediated threat to deep understanding. The more we rely on digital connection to plug our knowledge gaps, the weaker our perceptual acuity. The more we depend on external data storage, the thinner our empirical relation to the world of facts in context, or genuine knowledge. Here's his lively and peripatetic recent introduction to The Internet of Us-Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data:
Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, says Lynch "thinks we are frighteningly close" to losing our ability to know,
as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google, therefore I am not.
We heard a report in the Atheism class Thursday that seems to me to support this alarming forecast. It was a good and thoughtful report, informed by Google, but ultimately resigned to a world in which competing facts-&-values and alternative local cultures (even cultures as superficially similar as Nashville and St. Louis!) will never be reconciled. The reporters were skeptical about reason's relevance in settling differences, confirming Lynch's "three sources of skepticism about reason: the suspicion that all reasoning is rationalization, the idea that science is just another faith, and the notion that objectivity is an illusion."

Our reporters illustrated their skepticism with a distressing sitcom clip in which a creationist dismisses science's greatest virtue, self-correction, as "lying, sometimes." He concludes, without serious challenge from a room full of supposed Darwinists , that evolution is simply an article of faith and not fact. Lynch's prediction that, imbued with mere Google knowledge, we soon "won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values," is already manifest.

"No matter the bigness of the data, the vastness of the Web, the freeness of speech, nothing could be less well settled in the twenty-first century than whether people know what they know from faith or from facts, or whether anything, in the end, can really be said to be fully proved."

Truthiness is apparently the closest we'll come to knowing, in this strange new world of Drumpf. It's sadder than it is funny, at this point. Remember how we thought, five years ago, that the comic truth of this White House tour de force would finally settle the facts and prove the Donald a liar?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Mundane, beautiful, connected

John Updike had a lovely reply to the question Why write?
To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me [...] a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.
He "gave the mundane its beautiful due.”

George Plimpton, also born on this date, did too.

He was urbane and sophisticated, but like a lot of us he never gave up his little boy enthusiasm for the games of childhood. I met him in Cooperstown, just a couple of years before his death. He talked about how, from the earliest age, he'd been fascinated by the way a masterfully-thrown ball creates a connection between otherwise-discrete points in space. (Hence, Sidd Finch. The baseball conference, btw, is on April Fool's Day again this year.)

Close observation of what it's like to create new connections in space and time, to do that, to experience the doing of it, propelled his various amateur stints as a pretend-professional athlete. Hemingway admired his "dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty” performances (Out of My League, Paper Lion).

And then there's Paris Review, which didn't bother asking why to write but how. The distilled answer: when the words come, catch them. Connect.

7:00/6:54, 40/69

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Erin Go Bragh

Cheers, St. Pat, and happy birthday to my little sister.  I didn't know that Patrick's design of the Celtic cross "incorporates the Irish sun god into the Christian symbol." (WA) Or that the pubs in Ireland used to be closed on this "fairly somber" holiday, before Americans (mostly) turned it into an occasion of "boisteroius excess."

Not much boisterous excess in today's CoPhi subject, John Locke. But Bishop Berkeley (speaking of Ireland) was an excessive youth, apparently, if you can believe the story that in his student days he hung himself just to see what it felt like to lose consciousness. He'd already taken esse ist percipi to heart. Not much common sense there, the Scot Thomas Reid would have said.

In Atheism we turn to Philip Kitcher's Life After Faith, his published Terry Lectures delivered eighty years after his hero John Dewey's own Terry Lectures that became A Common Faith. Making the case for "soft atheism," he (like Alain de Botton, with a pragmatic twist) "sympathizes with the idea that secularists can learn from religious practices and recommends sometimes making common cause with religious movements for social justice."
I’m a humanist first and an atheist second. Because I’m more sympathetic to religion than the prominent new atheists, I label my position “soft atheism.” But perhaps I’m a more insidious foe than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance...
I think religion at its best — the religion that prompts my admiration and sympathy — detaches itself from dubious metaphysics and from speculations about a “transcendent” to which our concepts are surely inadequate. It focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values... The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears. 
In Bioethics we take up Eula Biss's On Immunity, a smart and conscientious young mother's attempt to separate wheat from chaff in the vaccination "debate". Of course one must "enact and embody one's beliefs," but what if one's beliefs imperil the public health and safety?

And I'll prompt the class to begin thinking of questions for the birthday girl, who'll be visiting us soon to talk about her experiences as an E.R. social worker.

5:30/6:56, 44/71

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Moon Man

“Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace."

Robert Goddard should know.  The New York Times ridiculed his rocket vision, which began for him with  H.G. Wells’ 1898 War of the Worlds. He launched the first liquid-fueled rocket 90 years ago today. "Goddard died of cancer in 1945, 12 years before the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite. After the successful launch of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969, the Times printed a retraction of their ridicule of Goddard and his vision." WA

It's too bad Goddard didn't get to enjoy that retraction, but he did get to enjoy a vision that brought the next century into his present. How to balance present enjoyment with due regard for the future, I've been asking? Begin by not squelching, ridiculing, or ignoring dreams and visions. Chris Stevens: "Be open to your dreams, people. Embrace that distant shore. Because our mortal journey is over all too soon."

Visionaries live with possibility. Why do most of us not? Why are we so reluctant to entertain an unfamiliar vision, so afraid that we might become objects of ridicule? We ought to teach our children to dream, and not fear to commit an error of vision. "Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things," but timidity diminishes us and shrinks our world.  We make ourselves small by denying possibility, and then the joke's on us. "A certain lightness of heart seems healthier," and more likely to shoot the moon.

6:00/6:57, 63/71/44

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Saving the world

Our first day back in class after Spring Break, the Ides of March. These breaks always feel paradoxically both long and short. Like life, right? But it wouldn't be a holiday if it didn't end.

Older Daughter's just began. Took her to the airport this time yesterday, she's spending her Spring Break working the South by Southwest fest in Austin and documenting it in Snapchat snatches. Wish we were there for real.

But we're happy to be here, with Pascal and Spinoza in CoPhi, stem cells in Bioethics, and Alain de Botton on our need for beautiful art, architecture, and secular ritual. He says writing books is futile, if you want to change the world. But how can any reader believe that? Of course sharing ideas makes a difference, in the lives of reflective people, and in the long run in every life. We have to believe that.

"Lifelong learners" believe it, and believe in the long run. I'm doing a distillation of the Happiness course in May for our College of Liberal Arts Lifelong Learning program. John Dewey said it pithily and best: "I believe that education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." It's never too late to learn, it's always too soon to stop. That's why we write, to learn, teach, and live.

Of course life, like writing, requires nurture and cultivation. Earth Week's coming, to remind us that if we want to save the world we can't just write about it. Bill McKibben knows that. In the long run though, my guess is, his books will be acknowledged as having made as big a difference as anything.

5:30/6:58, 50/84
5:30/7:00/6:52, 60/70/52

Friday, March 11, 2016

Holidays and the future

"The attitude of seeking fulfillment in the future and viewing each present act as means to later joys," John Lachs wrote in Intermediate Man,  "tends to destroy the natural satisfaction that attends the exercise of each of our parts." It's an attitude, he was saying, that deprives us of immediacy and its intrinsic rewards, and encourages us to fret about things far beyond our control. He was already anticipating his own later stance as a pragmatic stoic, who's learned the futility of ceaseless effort directed at outcomes we'll never know or enjoy.

 "Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends."

There's the rub, for me. Of course we owe it to ourselves to enjoy our lives and not let them slip away in dark clouds of distress over all the possibilities for future failure that cross our minds. We owe it to our children to show them how to do that. But we also owe it to ourselves and them to dream a little dream of a flourishing future for all our descendants.

I think we're ennobled when we keep one eye on the future, and diminished when we don't. I think the challenge of living is to enjoy our lives while not forgetting that they are indeed part of a process, while not allowing ourselves to transcend the mentality that views life as a chain we bear considerable responsibility for sustaining and extending.

It may sound a bit grim, that focus on perpetual responsibility for the future. It isn't, if we allow our speculations and dreams about distant ends and the possible futures we'll never know at first hand to expand our catalog of positive possibility.

And it isn't, if we give ourselves permission to take regular breaks from the feeling of burdensome responsibility and relax for a little while into pure immediacy. William James called those breaks moral holidays, and (contrary to Lachs's understanding) he was all for them. "I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays," not because the world's fate is in better hands than ours but precisely because it isn't.

The visionaries of the Long Now Foundation dream of a day, possibly a day in the year 12,016, when tourists on holiday will journey to a destination that houses an ancient clock. There they will  marvel at the foresight and mentality of people who taught themselves, ten thousand years in the past, to transcend a life of pure and exclusive immediacy.

Lachs also favors moral holidays, of course, and cares deeply about the future - especially the immediate future of his students. I would simply encourage him to extend the purview of that care, and enjoy the view from 12,016 - now, while it's still one of our possibilities.

5:50/6:04, 57/66

Thursday, March 10, 2016


"It is necessary to write," wrote Vita Sackville-West, "if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?" I've long taken inspiration from that thought, which itself threatens constantly to flit away. It almost got away yesterday, when writing so absorbed my attention that I forgot to check the Almanac. Sometimes there are too many butterflies to track.

Tracking butterflies is another way of thinking about immediacy, though "tracking" may imply more deliberation and conscious intention than is desired. Less spontaneity and receptivity. The best experiences of immediacy seem just to happen, unsought, unsolicited, unexpected but very welcome. They flow. Or flit on the wind. No one, no thing, no visible chain of interference or interpretation interposes between you and the object(s) of your experience, when your net is working.

Writing is a highly directed and intentional activity, but it is possible occasionally to fall into a rhythm of words that seems to flit and flow without excess effort or angst. When that happens, writing is itself another fly for the net. 

I don't mean that genre of  involuted, tortured, self-conscious, overly self-involved post-modern hand-wringing that some indulgent writers perpetrate. I don't mean writing about writing at all, necessarily. I do mean writing that recognizes its own intrinsic value, undertaken both for its own sake and for the sake of noticing and attending to the world beyond pencil and keyboard.

All Things Shining, which I purchased at Powell's in Portland the other day, includes an interesting discussion of blogging as a species of writing that can feel direct and immediate and attentive, but become something else. Something derivative and dull. I'm pondering that. It was in the butterfly spirit that I began posting my dawn reflections, to capture more moments. How many butterflies get away, for every one snared? How many must you snare, to gain immediacy and claim attentive success? If one day in a hundred that would have slipped by gets caught, isn't that good enough?

5:45/6:06, 66/74

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


In Spring, when I was a young man, my fancy turned always to the crack of the bat and the thrill of the grass. Still does, and did yesterday with Spring Training beaming on the radio from places like Fort Myers FL and Surprise AZ, and sunshine beaming brightly in my own backyard in the middle of Spring Break.

Baseball on the radio has always transported me, first when I was a kid listening to Harry Caray, Jack Buck and the Cardinals on KMOX 1120 AM, and ever since.

Image result for harry caray jack buck

It's always made me feel like a kid again, with nothing in the moment more urgent than the next pitch, hit, out, batter, inning. If my team didn't win it was a shame, but there was always hope for tomorrow's next game, and eventually for next year. Sometimes "we" won, sometimes lost, sometimes it rained, but the unfiltered immediacy of the sounds and conjured images crackling through those "50,000 red-hot watts" was hot indeed. It was almost better than being there.

(Being there with Older Daughter last year in St. Pete, Tampa, Clearwater, Dunedin, Bradenton (et al) was very nice, though.)

Yearning to recapture the vital immediacy of that childlike devotion, I keep tuning in every Spring just like I did yesterday. It's so much easier now that all the teams' radio broadcasts are available on the MLB phone app. So are most of the telecasts, but I'm not interested in crowding the game into a small screen. In my imagination it's so much better, so much bigger than life.

And now I'm in the mood to prepare my presentation for this year's annual Baseball in Literature and Culture conference...

6:00/6:07, 62/76

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Buckets & quarts

Back from Ecotopia, bicycling Mecca, mythic Portlandia, genial host for this year's American Philosophy (SAAP) conference. It was wonderful being there, as I'll relate anon.

A year ago at this time it was great being in Florida with Older Daughter for Spring Training.

It was wonderful being here and in lovely La Vergne TN yesterday for Younger Daughter's first softball "scrimmage" of the season (I really resent the creep of football lingo into our game, Coach, please call it an exhibition) and her first dinger over the centerfield fence, against an outstanding new pitcher. A moment we've been waiting for all winter!

But therein lies a philosophical knot I need to tug. Being in the moment, and being happy to be there, is what my mentor John Lachs calls immediacy. Waiting for a moment, anticipating it, wishing and longing for it, may pull us away from countless potential moments of immediacy nearer to hand. It may also warm a cold winter's night, though, and bring a different kind of immediacy - the immediacy of expectation and hope.

This question of how to balance a quest for personal immediacy with a sense of responsibility to the future has teased me for a long time. I don't think it's detracted from my enjoyment of the present, but rather has linked many presents and brought the future close. It's been one of the streams I fish in, a tributary of the great Transcendentalist river Thoreau and Emerson paddled.

Isn't the future an inscrutable abstraction? Well, futurity may be. But living and breathing future humans are concrete possibilities, dependent largely on us until doomsday dooms us all. My mentor Lachs has always understood that, acting with tireless solicitude for the students he saw as tangible emissaries of the future, visiting us here in what will become (barring that rumored imminent doomsday) their past.

Balancing immediacy and futurity would then seem to be a matter of sensing where we are, in the present, with regard to past and future. John McPhee's Bill Bradley had that sense on the basketball court for Princeton, as chronicled by John McPhee (it's his birthday) in his first book A Sense of Where You Are (1965) and revisited by Dreyfus and Kelly in All Things Shining (2011), one of my bargain snags at Portland's magnificent City of Books, Powell's. It's a special quality of attention to what's going on right now, that sets up smart choices going forward. Shoot, pass, or dribble? Doing the right thing next depends on how well we attend to what's happening now. Immediacy with a shot-clock: great metaphor! And what great inspiration for writers and scholars, to grasp the ultimate payoff of so many separate moments strung together:
McPhee has published more than 25 books, even though he rarely writes more than 500 words a day. He once tried tying himself to a chair to force himself to write more, but it didn't work. He said, "People say to me, 'Oh, you're so prolific.' God, it doesn't feel like it — nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart." WA
6:00/6:08, 53/76
6:00/6:10, 54/69

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Telling it slant

Dr. Seuss said “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” John Irving said “If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.”  And Emily Dickinson said "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." I think they all mean the same thing: own your own point of view, be yourself, don't let the crazy whacked out world deny your vision.

Emerson, then. I'm off to the philosophy conference to consider him, and Dewey, and others who've advanced American philosophy with their distinctive end-of-the-scope perspectives. We had a good Emerson report in CoPhi yesterday from Cortney, who gave us an apt quote: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." She didn't mention "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." I know I like quotations. He did too, just didn't want to admit it. They're usually at the wrong end of the subjective POV telescope. But as Robert Richardson notes, he said "first we read..."

She must have been puzzled when I misunderstood her to say that he was buried in Sleepy Hollow NY (not Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord MA). Younger Daughter and I have been watching that preposterously entertaining show about the former, and it tickled me to imagine RWE rising from his eternal sleep and dabbling in the dark arts. Our conference session is on Emerson the naturalist (and Dewey the Hegelian), so I was primed to hear "Sleepy Hollow" slant.

What a crazy-sane "wrong end of the telescope" moment it was the other day when our current favorite Major Tom went floating on the ISS in his ape suit. Welcome back, Scott Kelly. Thanks for all the sunrises.

Image result for scott kelly sunrise

5:45/6:17, 33/50

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


If we treated every day as everybody's birthday, I'm not sure when I'd have discovered poet Richard Wilbur's resolve to "jell things into an experience that will be a poem.” What a smart way to think of writing, jelling... a good reminder that experience isn't plug-and-play, isn't self-revealing, but must be opened and sorted and interpreted by the writer. That's the point of doing it, or a point.

Concision might be another. I have to be terse in class today, since it's a reporting day and we have many reports to hear. I hope they'll be terse too.

In CoPhi the spotlight's on Montaigne and Descartes. I never mention one without the other, the doubtful essayist and the indubitable rationalist. They're two ends of the see-saw. A rounded view of life requires both attitudes, but if sides must be taken I'll take Montaigne's. He just had a birthday on Sunday, he's widely credited (or by students cursed) as "creator of the personal essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general. Writers up to the present time have imitated his informal, conversational style. He said, 'The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness: such a state, like the region above the moon, is always clear and serene.'" If Descartes is the seated meditating thinker, Montaigne is the perambulating puncturer of pretension. On the highest throne, he said, or in the loftiest philosopher's armchair, you're still on your ass.

In Atheism we're up to Alain de Botton's "Pessimism" and  "Perspective" chapters. The former annoys me, especially when it takes comfort in the trials of Job. The latter eventually inspires, when it encourages our gaze to the heavens as a source of secular spirit. But it would have been good of him to acknowledge, after claiming that most astrophysicists have a tin ear when it comes to questions of the spirit, to mention Sagan's and Tyson's "Cosmos."

In Bioethics, Michael Sandel's "Mastery and Gift" chapter wonders if it's better to change our nature to fit the world or vice versa. Actually he doesn't wonder about that, his position is conservative. But we can wonder.

Also, I'm happy to report my selection of texts for next Fall's returning Environmental Ethics course: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein, and Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery. In a word, they - like me - are optimistic melioristic. Pessimism is an unaffordable luxury, these days.

Finally, in the spirit of meliorism on this Super Tuesday, I'm encouraging everyone to vote - after they check out cousin John Oliver's perspective. Let's #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain, America!

5:20/6:18, 45/64/31