Delight Springs

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Roger Angell

Roger Angell has died. 101. What a terrific age, if you can keep your wits, health, and gratitide. He evidently did, and wrote earlier in his last decade of the challenges and (mostly) delights of growing quite old in a youth-besotted society. He's always been my dependable ally, whenever I felt the need to justify my baseball obsession. He makes it cool to care about "the haphazardous flight of a distant ball." Just to care.

“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look - I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring - caring deeply and passionately, really caring - which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté - the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball - seems a small price to pay for such a gift.” Five Seasons

What, after all, is the great world we must care about but a haphazardous ball adrift in the night? 
==

Friday, May 20, 2022

The morrow

 Today's poem from Wendell Berry raises a perennial theme: how best to live today, so as best to discharge our obligation to tomorrow. I've interpreted his view before.* Present satisfaction and continued existence are not rivals. Hope for the future must center on ourselves, in our own time.

I. from Sabbaths 2014
Wendell Berry

The long cold drives inward
into shelter, into the body, into
limits of strength and time.

Out of darkness day comes.
The earth now white, the trees bear
bright new foliage of snow.

beautiful, yes. “Beautiful, but hell!”
Junior Wright said, wading
in knee-deep snow to feed

the snowbound cattle. We were young
then and really didn’t mind.
This morning, half a century

later, under the beautiful trees,
beautiful truly, repaying much,
I dig out the paths again,

renewing again the pattern of home
life grown old in this place
and many times renewed. Continuing
my difficult study, I remind myself
again: “Take no thought for the morrow.” WA

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Absorbed by what is given

 It's glorious May in mid-TN, the season when I'm least apologetic for indulging WJ's advice to bring life "down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception." It is indeed intensely interesting, to slow down, look around, smell the roses, ride the bike, dip in the drink. Emerson had his bare common, James his Chocorua, I my redneck pool.

The occasion and the experience, then, are nothing. It all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents absorbed by what is given. "Crossing a bare common," says Emerson, "in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear."

Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities. But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys.

Not me, not now, not in May. 




Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Wasted attribution

Bertrand Russell did not say "the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time," says the Quote Investigator. I suspected not.

In addition to John Lennon and Bertrand Russell, the saying has been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Soren Kierkegaard, Laurence J. Peter, and others. The attribution to Russell was a mistake that was caused by the misreading of an entry in a quotation book compiled by Peter.
Peter (in his management/self-help bestseller The Peter Principle) was apparently offering his personal gloss on Russell's actual statement in Conquest of Happiness that "The thing that I should wish to obtain from money would be leisure with security," when he (Peter) added parenthetically (The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time). Peter should have added Russell's actual next sentence: "But what the typical modern man desires to get with it is more money, with a view to ostentation, splendour, and the outshining of those who have hitherto been his equals."

In other words, Russell was saying, we imprudently undervalue our time and overvalue money, as a mark of success in what we mistakenly conceive as the great competition of life. "The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness... success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it."

One other very important ingredient is time (which in our terms, after all, is simply experience) enjoyed for its own sake. Time experienced happily is not wasted. You can quote me on that. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Back

Back from the dismal land of COVID. Finally felt more or less normal in yesterday's mild loveliness, a few days after quarantine lifted. I got my positive diagnosis at the Vandy walk-in clinic on the very day I was scheduled for my fourth jab. Guess it was just my turn. Did I catch the vile virus at the Lyceum party? Could be. It was still a good party.

Yesterday was a fine day for a long leisurely drive on the Natchez Trace Parkway. My brother-in-law needed a ride home to Hohenwald from Centennial Hospital, where his persistent heart issues landed him again last weekend. Hope the sunny stress-free 50 mph drive we shared with just a few random bikers and almost no other vehicles was as restorative of his spirits as it was mine. Gotta have heart, brother.

Sure wish that was my regular commute instead of I-24.

But that's the little road trip I'm doing later this morning, just halfway to the 'boro--to the pool superstore for that black bucket of chemicals we need to open our redneck pool for the season. We've added a little deck this year. Life is good.

 



Thursday, April 28, 2022

Lyceum afterword

What a pleasantly diverting afternoon and evening, before during and after our first live Lyceum since 2019. Best last day of a semester in quite some time.

I was our speaker's designated driver from the hotel out on Thompson Lane in to campus, and left Nashville with enough of a cushion to enjoy a pleasant half-hour at Stones River next door before picking him up. The "Slaughter Pen Loop" was incongruently placid on this gorgeous Spring day in middle Tennessee.

 

  

Richard was waiting and ready at the appointed time, and we had a nice conversation in transit to the venue. We got him set up in the College of Education auditorium with the YouTube film clips he'd show at the top of his talk to illustrate Hollywood's past depictions of the "comedy of remarriage" (It Happened One Night 1935, Mr. and Mrs. Smith 2005), wandered across the quad to the library Starbucks (my treat), headed back and settled in with good friends at each elbow, and got underway.

 

Richard's message, drawing on Aristotle and on Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happinessboiled down:
1. Psychosexual intimacy (an erotic friendship of virtue) is really important.

2. Such intimacy requires trust, openness to surprise, and the suspension of self-seeking (greed, covetousness, the "what's in it for me?" attitude the Greeks called pleonexia).

3. Contemporary life and ideology promote pleonexia.

It was a strong, humanistic plea for the recovery of a kind of virtuous friendship and selflessness that our time has increasingly little patience or feeling for. Truly an "applied" form of philosophical reflection of the sort we sorely need. Thanks for that, Richard.

And then on to the after-party (with a stop at a "Kim's Convenience" kind of shop en route, to procure "something better than Bud") at our chair's home near campus. Not Indian this time, but the catered fried chicken, cornbread, and cobbler were great. The conversation flowed, and survived a hickup when two colleagues became heated about a hiring ship that's already sailed. "Arguments are better than feelings!" said one, the message of our speaker clearly having been lost on him.

And you know what was way better than that argument? Getting to have a catch with our hosts' miniature pup. 

 

We need to do this again next year, and the next and so on. Get your boosters, everyone.


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Lyceum

 Looking forward to this afternoon's return of our Lyceum speaker series, live on campus again for the first time since 2019 when Robert Talisse spoke of "Overdoing Democracy: The Problem of Political Polarization."

Today's speaker Richard Eldridge reviewed Talisse's eponymous book in the LA Review:

This suggestion that we might thus discover our likeness to others with different political identities resembles Hegel’s account in the Phenomenology of Spirit of the breaking of the hard heart in recognition of likeness. We might, as Talisse puts it, discover that “it matters to ourselves and to others how our lives go.” Unfortunately, however, Hegel’s account of this breaking relies on practices of confession and forgiveness that are rooted in a religious conception of our ultimate likeness to one another as created beings. Absent this, reconciliation in recognition of mutual reasonableness seems likely to founder, and such practices and conceptions have been colonized by individual, competitive self-interest, even more in the United States today than in early 19th-century Prussia, as we have come to take “how our lives go” to be largely a matter of “getting what we want” in competition with others — never mind “reasonableness” and “fairness,” claims to which strike many as having essentially partisan content.

So... only a Hegelian can save us now? That's not encouraging. Our present reality is not quite rational enough to transcend its own contradictions. Maybe things would clarify under the influence of nitrous oxide

...That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure onsense!

Thought deeper than speech——!
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL! Oh my
God, oh God, oh God!

The most coherent and articulate sentence which came was this:—

There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference...

Or not. 

Counting on Professor Eldridge to be a lot more coherent and articulate this afternoon. 

 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Closing Day

 It's Closing Day for the Spring '22 semester at our school. One last time to open the show with a glance at the Writers Almanac, Mr. Keillor says it's soon to be Closing Day for that too. Today I'll mention the great E.B. (Charlotte's Web) White, source of one of my favorite statements of all time: 

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world or to enjoy it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Some quote.

"Closing Day" lacks the luster and promise of Opening Day, but it's still a milestone. In CoPhi we've surveyed western philosophers from Socrates to Singer with Nigel (Philosophy Bites) Warburton (with the occasional namedrop of pivotal pre-Socratics like Protagoras and Democritus). We've considered How the World Thinks with Julian Baggini and pondered Why Grow Up? with Susan Neiman; we've deplored the infantilism of Fantasyland with Kurt Andersen; and  we've encountered William James's Sick Souls and Healthy Minds with John Kaag.

In A&P we've discussed atheism, pragmatism, naturalism, secularism, humanism, and many other 'isms. Richard Rorty's Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, in retrospect, was also a pretty good introduction to major themes in humanism and secularism.

Finally even mentioned agnosticism the other day, tepid though it still strikes me.

In Bioethics we focused on the ethics of pandemic. Michael Lewis's Premonition and Leana Wen's Lifelines shed much light on recent history, and emphatically underscored the need for greater attention and commitment to public health.

We've thought and talked a lot. The universe of a professor is indeed crowded with words.

My parting words: set some goals, keep asking questions, draw no premature conclusions, and get some walking in. 

Especially keep asking questions, keep moving forward, and drop me a line sometime.



Thursday, April 21, 2022

Early to rise

LISTEN. I'm going to miss Writer's Almanac, and items like this about young John Muir, if it really goes away in May. 
One evening the boy was up late reading, and his father forbade him from staying up late, but decided that, as a compromise, he could get up as early as he wanted in the morning. Muir began getting up at 1 a.m. and going to the cellar to work on inventions by the light of a tallow candle. He invented a self-setting sawmill, thermometers, barometers, complex door-locks, an automatic horse-feeding machine, clocks, a firelighter, and many more tools. For motivation in the dark winter mornings, he invented an elaborate clock that also told the day of the week and the month, and was connected to a bed that set him on his feet at an appointed hour.

 HDT, that other patron saint of morning, spurned reliance on alarm clocks: "Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly-acquired force and aspirations from within..." 

But inventive young Muir had at least a matching Genius for the dawn. I'd happily occupy a bed that set me on my feet at the appointed hour too. As he pointed out, “The world's big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” 

The world is big, and the night is more than long enough. Best get an early start on your days. 

Also: Muir was another philosopher of Experience. Like Wordsworth he appreciated the continuum that links interior/subjective life with nature at large. “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in... The sun shines not on us but in us.”

Well, on the best days it does both.

One Two more, these are addictive:

"It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

“John Muir, Earth — planet, Universe" [Muir's home address, as inscribed on the inside front cover of his first field journal]”



Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A poet's nature

 The English poet who felt the lakes and mountains much as Walt Whitman felt the American crowd and, as WJ put it, discerned "a limitless significance in natural things," turned 250 in 2020. In recognition of his poetic and human achievement BBC 4 produced In Wordsworth's Footsteps. I just listened to it, waiting for the sun, and look forward to discussing it next week with our Lyceum guest Richard Eldridge. Seems to me he was fundamentally a philosopher of Experience in the Jamesian radical empiricist mode, who understood that the distinctively interior/subjective imprint of the small but significant episodes of our lives is (should be) the heart of philosophy. 

As Wordsworth walked, filled with his strange inner joy, responsive thus to the secret life of nature round about him, his rural neighbors, tightly and narrowly intent upon their own affairs, their crops and lambs and fences, must have thought him a very insignificant and foolish personage. It surely never occurred to any one of them to wonder what was going on inside of him or what it might be worth. And yet that inner life of his carried the burden of a significance that has fed the souls of others, and fills them to this day with inner joy. On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings 

Another literary walker, Robert Louis Stevenson, put it more pithily. "To miss the joy is to miss all." If we're not attending to those distinctively personal inner springs and their natural exterior sources, we're missing it.  

 


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Lucky and grateful

We're wrapping the semester this week. Lucky us.

The last section of Andrew Copson's Little Book of Humanism: Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning, and joy includes the Dawkins line I included in my recent eulogy and that should be in every eulogy, humanist or not: we are "the lucky ones"...

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

The "anaesthetic of familiarity" is the sedative we must wake from, Dawkins observes. "Isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born?" 

Margaret Renkl expressed the same attitude in her Times essay yesterday, Sadness and Loss Are Everywhere. Books Can Help.

"We've all had near misses that shook us to the core: when a hydroplaning car skidded to a stop in the nick of time; when a toddler, unwatched for half a second, teetered at the top of a flight of steps but was caught just before stepping over the edge; when the scan showed a shadow that had to be a tumor but turned out to be nothing at all."

"And every near miss is almost always followed by a golden time, too brief, when the futile frustrations and pointless irritations of daily life fall away, when all that's left behind is gratitude. We are here. Our beloveds are here. How remarkable it is to be together. How full of grace the fallen world can be."

Gratitude is the best antidote for sadness and loss, and our most reliable source of resilience. We're lucky to have evolved a capacity for it, but it's hard to hold. The stoic emperor was right, and so is Ms. Renkl, we really have to be reminded every day. We should be especially grateful for the authors, living and gone, who remind us.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Ministry for the future

Kim Stanley Robinson hasn't stopped thinking of what humanity might yet make of itself. We're going to read his Ministry for the Future in Environmental Ethics this Fall, alongside Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken, and the Sunrise Movement. 

"Its setting is not a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, but a future that is almost upon us - and in which we might just overcome the extraordinary challenges we face." (g'r)

Yes, it's a work of fiction, of the imagination; but that's the source of possibility and the power of maybe. Maybe life will be worth living, climatically speaking, in the decades to come. Dreaming it is a necessary condition of its reality.

The burning source of all our power gets a cameo chapter and speaks bluntly.
“I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive. Inside I am hot beyond all telling, and yet my outside is even hotter. At my touch you burn, though I spin outside the sky. As I breathe my big slow breaths, you freeze and burn, freeze and burn. Someday I will eat you. For now, I feed you. Beware my regard. Never look at me.”

We don't need to worship Sol, but we do need to respect her. Now. KSR says this possible future had best begin no later than January 2025. The window is shrinking fast.


Saturday, April 16, 2022

What man has made of man

LISTEN. Our Lyceum speaker series at MTSU, on pandemic hold since 2019, resumes a week from Wednesday with a distinguished guest whose interest in the intersection of philosophy and literature I share. 

Richard Eldridge has written in particular of Wordsworth as philosopher. This morning's poem* illustrates the point. Since I've been drafted to ferry Richard from his hotel to the event and back, I look forward to discussing it with him.

I think, btw, we can promise a larger and more proximal audience than Vandy managed to muster when he spoke to them remotely last year.

* Lines Written in Early Spring
by William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man? WA

Old Wordsworth at some point probably surrendered to his lament, and stopped thinking of what humanity might yet make of itself. I'm not there yet. When you're tired of thinking about tomorrow, you're tired of life.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Only experience

An important new Atlantic essay by Jonathan Haidt says social media’s turned us (who, me?) into partisan performers who don’t even try to connect across political and other divides with those who don't already share our biases. Most of us, anyway, from "dedicated conservatives" to "progressive activists" and all points in between. 

So what do we do about it? He suggests getting involved with organizations like those composing Bridge Alliance, "committed to revitalizing America through civic engagement, governance and policymaking, and campaign and election processes."

Good. But it amused me when I went to their website to sign up and they instantly suggested I share my pro-civic intentions on social media. Another performance. 

On further reflection, I recognize the importance of not giving up on social media as potential bridges rather than insulating walls and bubbles and echo-chambers. So I'm not deleting my Twitter account today (Elon Musk's attempted buyout notwithstanding) or my Instagram, or even my Facebook (which I really don't use, don't take it personally when I ignore your "friend" request). I'm not going to stop using social media, but Haidt's inspired me to do it more mindfully. 

Before each tweet I'll now ask myself: Am I just performing for my choir? Or am I trying to connect, to understand and bridge differences, to articulate my own positions constructively, to share my own actual experience and invite those with a different experience to reciprocate? Leana Wen is right, in the epilog we close today in Bioethics, "there's a need both for loud voices that push at the boundaries and for those who strive for inclusivity and building bridges."

Most of all: I hereby resolve never to argue with a stranger on the internet.



More on the indispensable check of experience today in that delightful Little Book of Humanism.

“We must constantly check the results of our reasoning process against the facts, and see if they fit. If they don’t fit, we must respect the facts, and conclude that our reasoning was mistaken." J.B.S. Haldane

"There is no immemorial tradition, no revelation, no authority, no privileged knowledge (first principles, intuitions, axioms) which is beyond question . . . There is only experience to be interpreted in the light of further experience, the sole source of all standards of reason and value, for ever open to question. This radical assumption is itself, of course, open to question, and stands only in so far as it is upheld by experience." Harold Blackham 

"It might be said that ‘distrust thy father and mother’ is the first commandment with promise. It should be a part of education to explain to children as soon as they are old enough to understand, when it is reasonable, and when it is not, to accept what they are told on authority." John Bagnell Bury

“Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked–as I am surprisingly often–why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?" Richard Dawkins

Somewhere over the rainbow...




Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Experience and Rationality

I'm offering a course this summer in our Master of Liberal Arts program called Rationality, and another next spring called Experience. This observation of Simon Blackburn's nicely conjoins their complementary themes. One without the other is empty. And blind.*

"Sights, sounds, glimpses, smells and touches all provide reasons for beliefs. If John comes in and gets a good doggy whiff, he acquires a reason for believing that Rover is in the house. If Mary looks in the fridge and sees the butter, she acquires a reason for believing that there is butter in the fridge. If John tries and tries but cannot clear the bar, he learns that he cannot jump six feet. In other words, it is the whole person's interaction with the whole surround that gives birth to reasons." 

Blackburn is quoted again, a little further on in tomorrow's recommended reading:

"Humanism is the belief that humanity need not be ashamed of itself, and [Bacon and Locke, Hume and Voltaire, Newton and Darwin] are its great examples. They show us that we need not regard knowledge as impious, or ignorance as desirable, and we need not see blind faith as anything other than blind."*

Simon Blackburn, in The Little Book of Humanism: Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning and joy by Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

“Love is wise; hatred is foolish"

 In A&P we're picking up our last required text, Andrew Copson's Secularism: A Very Short Introduction. I'm also recommending his and Alice Roberts's Little Book of Humanism: Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning, and joy. His podcast What I Believe is good too.

I love that the LBH begins with that Kurt Vonnegut statement of welcome I'm always quoting:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.”

Kurt also said  “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

That's because, as Eustace Haydon said, "The humanist has a feeling of perfect at-homeness in the universe... as an earth-child." I'd drop the perfect but embrace the sentiment and the experience of continuity with all life. 

Contrary to the anti-evolutionary crusaders of his and our time still, that was Darwin's view as well. 

“As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”

Just imagine what a peaceably cosmopolitan world it could be, if more of us echoed Terence (and Appiah): I am human, nothing human is alien to me. And Russell.

“Love is wise; hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don't like. We can only live together in that way. But if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”





Monday, April 11, 2022

Comrades

I sometimes wake before I'm ready to rise, in the pre-dawn. When that happened this morning I listened to Garrison Keillor's recounting of an instructive night in the ER, concluding with a fanciful nod to Whitman and demos.

It would be nice to think so highly again of random comrades. Present politics, alas, doesn't cooperate so companionably.

But yes, do keep getting older. By most accounts it does get better, on the U-curve upswing.


 
"My decline, decrepitude, and death are not a tragedy, not even a small one. The impoverished children playing in a park and finding used hypodermics and thereby contracting HIV: that is a tragedy. You read it in the paper and the heart breaks. The desperate Mexican and Guatemalan migrants who paid a smuggler thousands of dollars and he drove 25 of them jammed in a Ford SUV over the border and onto the California desert where he ran a stop sign and crashed into a Peterbilt truck and 13 bodies lay scattered on the highway, dead, Yesenia Melendrez Cardona, dead in the arms of her mother crying out in Spanish, brushing the blood from her daughter's beautiful face, Yesenia, 23, the same age as my daughter, this is tragedy. Let's be clear about these things. I was born in this country to a mail clerk and a housewife, two soft-spoken Christians, a mother who loved comedians, and Mr. Buehler pulled me off the power saw and sent me to Speech and after college, having no particular job skills, I got a job in radio by virtue of being willing to get up in the dark on winter mornings and be cheerful on the air. I visited Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry and came home and suggested starting a live music show on Saturday nights and the boss Bill Kling said, "Go ahead." My story in 100 words. And now, on a sunny Saturday morning, I walk out in Central Park and sense widespread amiability afoot, people walking their dogs and small children happy to be out of a tiny apartment, old folks at rest on benches, joggers, strollers, amblers, and I think I could pull 20 of them together and rehearse them in "New York, New York, it's a heck of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery's down, the people ride in a hole in the ground." I'd say, "I'm making a video for my class in cognitive empathy in urban communities," and thus, knowing it's not a joke, they'd link arms in a dance line and do it and really get into it and feel the companionship and love of comrades that Whitman wrote about, except by a reservoir, not a river." — Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80: Why You Should Keep On Getting Older by Garrison Keillor

Like old Walt, Keillor here (as WJ put it) "[feels] the human crowd as rapturously as Wordsworth felt the mountains, felt it as an overpoweringly significant presence, simply to absorb one's mind in which should be business sufficient and worthy to fill the days of a serious man." Or a happy old man.
==
Postscript. Post to the Host--
Dear Mr. K.,

Re: “It’s going to be all right.”

I seriously doubt it.

Richard Hall

There are times I doubt it, too, and I think it comes from reading too much. If I get outside and walk around and observe humanity, I believe we’ll survive. “All right” doesn’t mean everything will be as we wish it to be, but I do feel we live in a sea of civility.

GK

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Clotted with clods

 Bertrand Russell said "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind."

This splendid credo often reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's equally heroic encyclical: 'This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.' Alistair Cooke

That's marvelous. Be a force of Nature, not a feverish selfish little clod. We're clotted with clods, lately, with self-absorbed ruminators who can't or won't look beyond their own short horizon of personal woe. 

Cooke's profile of Russell, like other longer bios, betrays plenty of ignoble egoism on the great man's part, plenty of misspent passion and self-indulgence and insensitivity to others. But at his best he knew we're all at our best when we cease ruminating about ourselves, our own disappointments and uncertainties, our personal anxieties etc. etc. 

The happiest are those who turn their attention outward, to others and to a diversified and growing tableau of what Russell calls "impersonal interests" and that I'd call pleasures, enthusiasms, and delights... the sweetest music of life is not a tortured soliloquy. That's for clods.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Postscript

Back home, I've added a postscript to my parting words for Grammy Dot. As I ad-libbed at the service, paraphrasing WJ again, whatever universe a professor believes in is sure to include too many words. I added some to my formal remarks but also crossed out more. It's important to get the right ones.

Postscript. For the record, and to whom it may concern: when my time comes, no time soon I hope, I'd like a Humanist service. Not that I'll be in any position to insist, but matter really is sacred and eternal enough for me. Just as it was for old Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was much in the spirit of stepsister Tracy's poem that cousin Frank read at the service. Walt: 
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.


 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Bright memories

 St. Charles, Missouri. The funeral yesterday afternoon, at the venue we last visited over thirteen years ago to say goodbye to my dad, was dignified and comforting. The rain stopped just before the service began, the sun broke through, and it was a bright day after all. Grammy Dot was by explicit choice, the presiding methodist minister related, a "bright" light for us all.  

The minister tells me he was a philosophy student years ago of my old classmates and friends Mark, David, and Del at Truman State University. Small world after all.

Dot was a bright ever-smiling presence, even in the dark shadow of her terminal diagnosis. She did indeed, as her obit points out, "go out swinging."

That baseball metaphor came to her naturally, her cousin Bob Scheffing was a ballplayer, a Cubs manager, a Mets general manager, and by all accounts a good guy who'd be appalled (according to Uncle Don) at the way money and player equity have changed the game. We do all have our limitations. But we also share a common fate, as Mr. Twain said. None of us will get out of here alive.

Like Yogi, btw, Twain didn't say everything he's said to have said. But he did evidently say, channeling Epicurus, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Delivering my eulogy was personally consoling and therapeutic, the livestream (should have) closed some of the gap between Missouri and California, the other eulogists were great. 

And what a shock, as the service was ending, to be approached by my old 2d-grade teacher… and her companion who asked if I remembered a 2d grade classmate named Gary. “I’m his mother.” What a memory that moment now will be. Gary was my good friend who died, shockingly, unprecedentedly in the innocent universe of a 7-year old, of brain cancer. 

We who've lived into our seventh decades and beyond, and who are stocked with affirming memories of precious others, are truly the lucky ones. 
Postscript. For the record, and to whom it may concern: when my time comes, no time soon I hope, I'd like a Humanist service. Not that I'll be in any position to insist, but matter really is sacred and eternal enough for me. Just as it was for old Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was much in the spirit of stepsister Tracy's poem that cousin Frank read at the service. Walt: 
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Just being alive

We talked in class yesterday about the U-curve, that curious phenomenon Susan Neiman mentions whereby people past the halfway mark of life (which varies from culture to culture and country to country) get happier and happier as time goes by. Students are surprised to hear it, but those of us of a certain age know it's generally true. 

But why? On further reflection, and in light of Garrison Keillor's little vignette in my in-box this morning, I think it's because age brings perspective and greater appreciation for just being alive. He says he was at one of those sub-standard generic motel breakfast bars and struck up a conversation with a stranger.

At that dreadful breakfast, I met a man who came up as I was pouring myself a cup of coffee so I poured him one. He was a soybean farmer who also raised sheep and we talked about that for a minute. Parenting is brief, he said, the lambs are weaned at two months and the rams have no parenting responsibility whatsoever, it’s just hit and run, and by thirteen months, the ewes are ready for breeding. He said that soybean farming is looking somewhat hopeful although a couple years ago he lost his whole crop to a hailstorm and almost had to sell the farm.

“So what is the fun in farming?” I said.

“Being outdoors on a beautiful day,” he said. “Knowing other people are shut up in offices and you’re on a tractor and it’s 75 and sunny and you can smell the vegetation and hear the sheep talking.”

“In other words, just being alive,” I said.

“That’s exactly right.”

It is, isn't it? Most of us are too busy, most of the time prior to the bend in the U, to just soak up the sun and inhale the peat and listen to the sheep. We'd be happier earlier, if we did that more often.

Those are my thoughts, as I prepare to pack for the funeral.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

The value of philosophy

That was a crowded, exceptional, enlightening day. 

Picked up the first of our two visiting faculty candidates at the airport, in from Portland ME, and proceeded to crawl the first half of the way to campus in what I honestly assured him was an atypically-congested commute on I-24. Honestly atypical, I mean, in that direction at that hour. I don't know how drivers coming into the city and out again tolerate that volume of traffic, morning after morning and night after night. 

But the slower pace gave us plenty of time for quality conversation en route, which later continued in the office after he commenced his series of interviews with my colleagues, and then at lunch at the Boulevard. (Still recommend the Reuben, btw.) 

Mid-pm we and a small gathering of engaged students ambled over to Peck Hall to hear his take on "the value of philosophy," which he rightly said is demonstrated by the superior richness and probity of conversation it engenders in most devotees. 

Then to a pleasant dinner at Primrose Place, which demonstrated to him (he remarked on our drive to his hotel) that our crew seems compatible and  "cohesive"... a judgment it sometimes takes an outsider to observe. 

And then the less pleasant drive back to Nashville in pouring pooling gusting sheets of rain. When I finally pulled in under the carport I recalled something else he said during his "value" talk, that we all have an intrinsic and inchoate regard for the value of home, of place. Just as Wendell Berry says, as we'll explore next Fall in Environmental Ethics.

The whole exercise will be repeated next week with candidate #2. Sadly, for the sorrowful reason indicated below, I'll have to miss it. So I hope someone will ask about Bertrand Russell's take on the value of philosophy.

The philosophic mind, said Lord Russell, 

will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole...Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man's true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Thinking of oneself as a citizen of the universe, a true cosmopolitan, is (I've once again witnessed first-hand) one of the genuine consolations of philosophy -- particularly in times of personal loss and grief at the passing of a beloved fellow citizen. That value is priceless.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Grammy Dot

She was just fun. 

That's the one word you'd choose to describe her, if allotted just one, especially if you'd been around when she was playing with her granddaughters. Step-granddaughters, to be technical about it, but that's a distinction she never drew with our girls. And it definitely never occurred to them to think of her as anyone but their beloved, goofy, endlessly giving Grammy Dot.

She became my stepmom when she married my dad soon after I moved to Nashville to start grad school. I'd been away in school all during their courtship, which began not long after my parents divorced. Dad flew in to Nashville to give me the news of their impending nuptials, concerned about how I'd take it. 

She wasn't a stranger, she was the pleasant lady at the top of the street my parents had moved us to when I was just starting High School. My sisters and her daughters were friends. But I didn't really know her.

I got to know her and love her quickly enough, and over the ensuing years cultivated our common ground--baseball (her cousin was a former ballplayer, manager of the Cubs, general manager of the Mets), Mozart (I loved the piano concerti, she played them exquisitely), history (especially as related by Ken Burns), authentic St. Louis gooey butter cake, Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion (but not his politics, or mine--we knew where to draw the boundaries). 

And my dad, of course. They were a wonderful fit for each other, they both loved long (really long) driving tours of the country. They always made a point of passing through Nashville, whatever their destination. Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota for the umpteenth time, the Pacific Northwest, Michigan's upper peninsula, wherever, all roads led to Tennessee. Especially after the grandkids arrived.

I'm so grateful for the visits Dot and I shared in recent years, after dad's passing, when I'd stop en route to my annual Kansas conference. She always had chocolate pie and coffee waiting. A nice ritual, a nicer memory.

Another enduring memory: Grammy Dot and the girls at the dining room table, playing cards or dominoes or some silly board game, none of them taking prisoners, locked in mock mortal combat, laughing, trash-talking, having the time of their lives.

I sent Older Daughter a postcard yesterday, with a quote from Jack London. It said simply: "I will use my time." 

Well, that she did. She answered a different call, not so wild, but what fine use she made of her time and ours. Thankfully for us, her time was more than double old Jack's. Wish it could go on and on. The lovely memory of her will go on and on with us. Thanks for the memories, Dot. You're unforgettable. You've shown us all how to go out swingin'.

 
Postscript. I've been honored with a request to share this at the funeral. Here's the preamble.

Good afternoon. I'm honored to have been asked to share a few words I've found consoling to write. 

This is a solemn occasion but, as you know, it was never easy to stay solemn around Dot for long--one of her many positive legacies. She well understood the wisdom often attributed (probably misattributed) to Dr. Seuss, don't cry becasue she's left, smile because she was here. Anyway, she's still here [❤]. But it's okay to cry. And smile. And celebrate this good life.

The feeling I find most appropriate to the occasion is deep gratitude, for all our improbable lives and today of course especially for hers. The merely-possible persons who might have been born in our place, it has been observed, outnumber the stars. We got to actually be here. With her. We are the lucky ones.

I teach (and study, and try to learn) philosophy. In my discipline we debate and discuss perennial questions like what more there may be to life and the universe than matter. Molecules in motion. Atoms and the void. Anything else? We’ve not settled that one yet. But I think the philosopher nailed it, who said:

"To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after...That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities." Pragmatism, Lecture III

What good fortune to have known the beloved incarnation some of us called Grammy Dot.

Poet Jacqueline Berger, reflecting in her poem Why I’m Here on decades of family holiday gatherings, says it always felt like it would go on forever, that it could not be otherwise. But of course, days like this remind us, that feeling is wrong. This brief time we have together here is a gift. A treasure. 

Here, then, a few treasured memories of one of nature's better-realized possibilities...
==

Post-postscript, April 6. The funeral was dignified and comforting, delivering these remarks was personally consoling and therapeutic, the livestream closed the gap between Missouri and California, the other eulogists were great. And the methodist minister was a philosophy student years ago with my old classmates and friends Mark, David, and Del. Small world after all.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Achieving our country

Another long day ahead, a day when class goes well past the dinner bell and I get to meet again with the evening MALA students. But it won't be as long a day as the new Supreme Court justice-in-waiting has had to endure.

I wasn't planning to tune in to Day Two of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing, there are too many demagogues and transparently-racist vulgarians posturing and preening and trying to bring her down. Too many Ted Cruzes and Lindsey Grahams and Josh Hawleys and Tom Cottons and Marsha Blackburns. I finally turned on the captions and turned off the sound, so I'd know when it was safe to listen again.

There were just enough Cory Bookers yesterday

Don't ever let anyone steal your joy, your righteous pride in the perseverance of those who've overcome long odds to succeed in a society still not the promised land but, thanks to the patient labors and talents of people like Judge Jackson, is inching a bit closer.

There was a nice moment, too, when the Judge spoke of her early disillusionment as a freshman at Harvard, and the moment when a sympathetic stranger's words of encouragement meant everything. Such a contrast to the pygmy Senators who defile their office by trying (and this time failing, I am confident) to smear and defeat a great jurist and block another milestone on the road to (as we'll discuss in our "Good Citizen" class this evening) achieving our country
“But you cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.”
Richard Rorty would be pleased, when Judge Jackson succeeds we're all a long stride closer to becoming a land that actually lives up to the language of its creed. Liberty and justice for all. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Alistair Cooke

He died in 2004, at age 95. He made more sense of America than anyone, a de Tocqueville for our time. My time, anyway. I've lost my original copy of his America, counting on Jeff Bezos to replace it shortly. His Letters are magnificent. He was a master of language but not its prisoner. He understood that words are our great bridge to one another (across the pond and across time) and to the natural universe. (He was wrong about the Big Bang, though.) A great gentleman, an unreplaceable voice, a vector of stories and (thus) experience. And thus, of philosophy. It's very nice to visit with him again.


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Streams of experience

"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains." 

That's Henry the natural man and transcendentalist, whose passion for the perpetual dawn is a great inspiration but whose detection of eternity eludes me. I do love to contemplate deep time and all it may yet deliver, but I really can't see through it to something sure to endure. 

It amused me to open Ed's email yesterday, just after posting "Don't ask me what time is," with a link to a short essay on the subject. James and his hero Bergson both thought hard about the perception of time in our experience, about the role of our distinctively-personal and subjective takes on experience in shaping that perception of kronos and kairos

The present may be specious but, in the moment, it's what we've got. We must attend to it, and to the next, and the next. Not ad infinitum, just again and again until all attention's spent. 

In other words, life as we know it is a flowing stream destined either to dry up or eventually merge with a larger sea. How adeptly and attentively we manage to dip our oars as we're carried along, we may presume, affects the quality of the day, a lifetime, maybe an epoch. 

Time lends itself to such metaphors, which convey a sense of the importance of taking experience seriously. That's been the hallmark of philosophers in the classic American tradition, but also of the best and wisest observers of the passing scene generally. 

That must be why, since I returned from the Chicago philosophy meeting, I've been so taken again with Alistair Cooke. I never really paid him much attention as the Masterpiece Theater host, but his Letters from America 1936-2004 back to Britain are wonderful dips into the streams of our experience. 

That's the rich sense of experience as attentive and not-unsympathetic encounter with an extravagant and exotic world in need of explication, elaboration, elucidation, appreciation, celebration, and constructive critique. Philosophers ought to start with that "thick" notion, not the thin deracinated conceptual shadow they too frequently find so dispensable.  

Monday, March 21, 2022

Getting up early

The great thing about getting up early, for me, is that it offers the unforced leisure to think unbidden, surprising, often-delightful thoughts and to revisit small but pleasing memories. It gives me time to read my favorite Times essayist, to rehearse my morning mantras from Marc to Henry, to snag the fleeting butterfly of the moment, and reflect on GK's daily poem. Here's today's:
Getting Up Early
by Anne Porter

Just as the night was fading
Into the dusk of morning
When the air was cool as water
When the town was quiet
And I could hear the sea

I caught sight of the moon
No higher than the roof-tops
Our neighbor the moon

An hour before the sunrise
She glowed with her own sunrise
Gold in the grey of morning

World without town or forest
Without wars or sorrows
She paused between two trees

And it was as if in secret
Not wanting to be seen
She chose to visit us
So early in the morning.
The small but pleasing memory that jogged this morning took me back to 1979, back when I used to check in each morning with Garry Trudeau

Oh, wow, indeed. Aren't words fun? They're really good at pinning, though not quite replicating, experiences and memories. They're time travelers, they're our time machines. But don't ask me what time is.


Friday, March 18, 2022

Good citizens

 What a long day that was, adding the 3-hour Master of Liberal Arts class (6-9 pm) to my usual wall-to-wall Tuesday/Thursday routine. Barely had time to bike from Bioethics to the other side of campus and scarf a Hershey bar before commencing my contribution (reprised from September) to the "Educating a good citizen" tag-team course.  

My block, "Pragmatism and the reconstruction of American democracy," looked last night at John Dewey. Next week, Richard Rorty. And of course, inevitably, lots of William James.

So what is a good Deweyan citizen? It's anyone committed to democracy, education, learning as "life itself" (not mere career prep), and willing to listen respectfully to all fellow citizens who attest the same commitment. 

My two go-to Dewey doctrines pretty much catch it. One, the ardent ambition to extend our "heritage of values" to the next generation in the expectation that they will follow suit and pay it forward ("The things in civilization we prize most..."). 

And two, that wonderful statement in The School and Society about the best and wisest parent. Same goes for the best and wisest citizen, for whom every citizen deserves equal access to public resources and opportuntity. So simply said, so sadly forgotten.

 
"Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy."


Thursday, March 17, 2022

An ardently humane correspondent

 It makes the greatest sense to me, to look to WJ's letters for insight into both his personal temperament and his core philosophical commitments. Those were inseparable for him, comfortably so. Or more comfortably than for most philosophers, as he indicates in The Present Dilemma:

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises.

 We don't really write letters anymore, not like people did in James's day. If we did we'd still come nowhere near, most of us, the mark of playful delightful combined with wit and intelligence his most casual correspondence typically met. As his son said in the preface to the first abridged volume of his letters, "he could not write a page that was not free, animated, and characteristic." 

That went for missives to friends, family, and relative strangers alike. But you get the impression that no one remained a stranger to him long, or felt estranged. Even those who knew him only through his letters thought they knew him intimately, "it was plain to everyone who knew him or read him that his genius was ardently adventurous and humane."

He was already a literary charmer at age nineteen, writing to his family from school "a resume of [my] future history for the next few years... Thus: one year study chemistry, then spend one term at home, then one year with Wyman, then a medical education, then five or six years with [naturalist explorer] Agassiz, then probably death, death, death with inflation and plethora of knowledge. This you had better seriously consider. This is a glorious day and I think I must close and take a walk. So farewell, farewell until a quarter to nine Sunday evening soon! Your bold, your beautiful, Your Blossom!!"

A bit florid, sure, but he's a teenager for heaven's sake. He doesn't yet know he's a philosopher and a blossoming peripatetic.

I think I too must close now and take a quick walk with the dogs before heading to school. Time is ever shorter and I can't quite joke around anymore about death, death, death.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Tigers and children

LISTEN. We started our new read in Bioethics, Leana Wen's Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health, and the author's account of her mother's strict parenting in the traditional Chinese style inevitably reminded me of the "Tiger Mother" furore stirred up a few years ago by Yale professor Amy Chua.

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

That sounds like a defensible difference of parenting philosophy, until you learn that Chua (lately caught up, btw, in a campus scandal called Dinner-Party gate") at various times calls her children "garbage," threatens to destroy their favorite possessions if they aren't "perfect" piano virtuosos right now, denies them playtime with friends, tells them their only admissible activities are those in which they can win a gold medal, and on and on. 

I confess I've occasionally regretted my failure to stick with the piano lessons my parents encouraged, beyond the first couple of recitals. (I can still play Danse Macabre, or at least my fingers still "remember" the sequence of notes.)

But I've never regretted not being shamed, belittled, and humiliated by the people I loved and trusted most in the world. I've never regretted the time they allowed me to play baseball with the kids next door, rather than practice my scales for another hour. I've never regretted being treated like a free human being, respected as a Kantian end rather than saddled as a means to someone else's vicarious aspiration. I've never regretted being allowed to fail at something without being labeled a failure. 

For better or worse--no, for better I'm sure--we raised our girls under the Emersonian admonition to domineering parents everywhere: "You're trying to make another you. One of you is enough." Parental discipline is one thing, disrespect is something else. Persistent parental disrespect is abuse. Tigers can be more supportive in children's lives.

But I have to add, I'm glad Leana Wen became such a tiger for public health.