Archive for June, 2009

Chimney Rock

June 30, 2009

chimney rock

Chimney Rock. A private citizen bought this mountain and its hydraulically-carved granite chimney for $5,000 a century ago. In 2007 the state of North Carolina paid $24 million for it. I say its priceless.

A previous visitor snapped and posted some nice shots.

hickory nut falls

It was a great day for a picnic. There’s a protective wall at the edge now. Our ancestors were bolder than us, I think.

opera box chimney rock nc

Carolina sunrise

June 28, 2009

lake_lure sunrise

Lake Lure, N.C.


June 27, 2009

Just saw cousin A., our favorite libertarian, off to the airport. She promises a stellar junior year at N.C. State, and then will write the book on happiness. Can’t wait for it, she knows her subject well. Happy travels, A. Speaking of which…

I’m heeding the advice of William James (“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking holidays”) and Jimmy Buffett (“Go out and have some fun, take a holiday,  you need a holiday”) for a few days. Actually I try to do that every day, for at least the length of a long walk. This one will be longer. But I’ll be back on the grid soon enough. Happy Independence Day!

Something always escapes

June 26, 2009

That’s probably enough said in this forum about Updike and Williams, ‘least for now. If you’ve not read the former, get started and maybe you can catch up in a month of Sundays or so. (In fact, start with A Month of Sundays or The Centaur if you’re looking for something to take to the beach or the mountains.) There’s plenty to read about Teddy Ballgame too, beyond Updike’s little New Yorker gem. Best bio is Leigh Montville’s, including a very smart parallel  account of “Hub Fans” alongside a more conventional sportswriter’s account of Williams’ last game by Ed Linn. I still wouldn’t call him, or any athlete (save maybe Jackie Robinson) “heroic”. But Williams came  as close to personifying Platonic perfection with respect to willed mastery of  a single difficult skill as, well, as a person can. Updike’s genius was intellectual and creative and and versatile and  various, hence more impressive to me. Heroic even, especially at the end when Updike very deliberately witnessed, transmuted, and shared his very own final days. (Williams’ end was distrurbingly, perversely unheroic. “Refrigerated,” as Montville has it.) But I prefer to draw illuminating and not invidious comparisons, so let it be.

On to my next obsessive working concern: William James’s A Pluralistic Universe. Howard Callaway has given us a new reading of that 1909 pragmatic classic.  My “crowds” post foreshadowed this theme, and how our various inner lives can converge to create shared meanings and rituals and public displays. When they do not converge, we sometimes find one another opaque and incredible. Consider Callaway’s opening epigraph:

“As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use.”  -James, “Will to Believe” (1896) This isn’t quite what a wag meant by: “Disregard all facts in conflict with your favorite theories.” But it may be too close for pragmatic comfort.

Another epigraph, drawn from A Pluralistic Universe itself, notes that “something always escapes” from every theory, every system, every account of things. Something , somewhere, somehow will always evade our best efforts to impose ultimate order and tidy, predictable, rational unity. Pluralists are happy about this. An open universe invites and promises adventure, for those who go to meet it.

Ask Carl Fredricksen.

carl fredrickson

Appreciating the crowd

June 25, 2009

The crowd at the ball game is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness which delights them…

-William Carlos Williams

John Updike dedicated Due Considerations, his last collection of essays and criticism, to the New Yorker editors “who kept me in the game into the late innings.” He was 28 when “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” appeared in its pages in 1960, already one of their seasoned veterans; his last short fiction piece The Full Glass appeared there just last May. Like  his baseball hero Ted Williams he became fused in his fans’ imagination with the team he represented so ably for so many years. Unlike Williams  he didn’t have to keep coming back from injury and interruption; his literary productivity was unstinting. And unlike Williams, he always expressed appreciation for  his audience.

If Williams was the “concentrated essence” of his game, Updike was Williams’  literary counterpart. But a writer’s essence is  manifestly a reaching out to perceptive readers. Gods may not answer letters, as Updike famously wrote of Williams’ aloof detachment on the the field, but an old New Yorker artist  named Saul Steinberg answered young John Updike’s teenage fan letter & request for a particular drawing.

Is either activity (swatting baseballs, discharging syllables) ultimately important? I don’t know. But the conditions of success  for ballplayer and writer alike were fundamentally the same: both were driven by an urgent desire and  need to connect (with the  ball, the word, and each with his own knowledge and experience and potential). Believing in the purity of  their passion propelled them across decades of incomparable attainment.

But Updike was driven as well, from the start, by a desire to make solid contact with the reader. Williams sometimes gave the impression that he’d have been happy to smack baseballs in an empty yard, without the crowd.  The fans’ appreciative cheers seemed to him more a storm to get out of than a glow to bask in.

The belief may not always create the fact, but it may sustain for some at least a perception (or illusion, if you wish) that the game matters. Do we need more, in the game of life? Updike sometimes said so, craving “supernature… beyond the claims of matter and private appetite.” But in the same breath he also admitted that  “subjective sensations, desires, and may we even say, illusions compose the substance of our daily existence.”

ted_cap_lgBut that we all entertain subjective illusions is an objective fact about us, and when our subjectivities converge we have the inter-subjectivity that can bring a crowd to its feet to cheer the flight of a ball. The real inner lives of other people, like our own, are the makers of  worlds.  Writers of fiction know that implicitly, sometimes it takes ballplayers longer to learn it.

Ted didn’t want to doff his cap while in uniform, but time at last brought him the wisdom to appreciate the crowd.

“The crowd and Ted always shared what was important, a belief that this boys’ game terrifically mattered.”

Mattering is something we do together, on this crowded sphere.

Absurd again

June 24, 2009


Like Adam, we (mostly I) inflated ours yesterday too.  S. “thought we were over the kiddie pool.” No way. Pumping it up was good for my health, as I’m sure my annual physical exam this morning will confirm. “What doesn’t kill me” etc. (Nietzsche said that. He died at 56, insane with syphilis.)

Speaking of health, I’m thinking that’s a course I need to offer. Perfect complement to happiness.  I’ve done biomedical ethics, but this would be broader: What do we mean by “health”? To what extent is it entangled with happiness? How much physical robustness  should we be prepared to sacrifice for emotional stability? Is quantity or quality of life more important? What are the minimal conditions of health-and-happiness? What is my/our obligation regarding the h-&-h of other people?

“Keep your health. It’s better than all the truths in the firmament.” Thus spake William James, who over-exerted himself hiking in the Adirondacks and died at 68. But I think he was speaking of mental health too, the whole package. Sometimes there are trade-offs.

Meanwhile, a little back-yard pool time has to be healthy.

everybody’s right

June 23, 2009


by John Updike

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop’s wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball’s
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It’s easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody’s right,
beginning with baseball.

“Baseball” by John Updike, from Endpoint and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Recited by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, 6.22.09

(Keillor reflects on Updike’s passing…)

Damned Yankee in Columbia

June 22, 2009

Winterton CurtisWinterton Curtis, the Scopes expert who pulled dollars from my ear and provided my first solid roof, recalled a much more southern Columbia, Missouri than mine, in these notes published in the Columbia Missourian in 1957. (I matriculated in 1975, he arrived in 1901.)

This reprint, one of the treasures from Dad’s memory chest, is full of small surprises and delights. WCC’s old New England mother drew the line well north of Mason-Dixon. “No. I cannot give my consent to Winnie’s going to such a place as Missouri.” It was, evidently, the most parochial of places then. It is slightly less so now, though midwestern parochialism is no walk in the park either. The difference is mainly one of surface veneer. Some midwesterners try harder to seem more sophisticated, but seemin’ ain’t bein’. My Missouri relatives might not put the question as bluntly as one of my Tennessee kin yesterday, “Did he believe we come from monkeys?” But they very well might be thinking it, all the same.

But college towns have a way of growing more cosmopolitan over time, in spite of themselves, as waves of outworlders wash in and stay and raise new natives.  And then as now, even the brightest young academics must consider themselves fortunate to find an offer of gainful employment anyplace at all.

So Winnie came anyway, lured by the prospect of an annual salary of $1,000. He quickly met coy, southern President Jesse (the President Jesse, whose domed “Hall” dominates the center of campus), built one of the first homes on what has become the loveliest tree-street in town, Westmount Ave., became a world-class evolutionist who went to Dayton in 1925, and eventually got a Hall of his own. curtis hall

Before meeting President Jesse on that first trip into town in 1901 he “was thrilled to meet Professor Frank Thilly,” translator of History of Philosophy, which I had devoured at Williams College and read again and again.”

Wow. I soaked that book up as an undergrad too, I can still picture its antique spine on my college shelf. Maybe he did pull dollars from my ear – and replace them with speculative ideas.

The house at 210 Westmount was my first “brick and mortal” abode. I coulda done a lot worse. These notes conclude: 210 Westmount

It is a thing to make life worthwhile to have lived so long in a home that one planned and built in part with his own hands on a street freshly cut from a cornfield, to have planted the trees and watched their growth until they arch the street, and above all to have lived in a university community.

I think the best life in America is to be had in university and college towns such as Columbia.

There’s my contribution to the annual fund, Alumni Association. Hail to thee, alma mater.

Happy Father’s day

June 21, 2009

It’s not our first father’s day apart, but it’s the first since Dad’s death.

Years ago I gave him a copy of In Love With Life, by my mentor John Lachs. He only got around to reading it with a purpose last summer, knowing his days were few. He made and dated several marginal notations, some very lengthy, others eloquently terse:

Lachs: “The lesson is clear. Love life so long as there is something worth loving… But at some point, wanting more life runs into the chill reality that the kind of life we can get is no longer worth the cost. This does not mean that we surrender our love of life. As in a broken love affair, we give up the loved one, not the love. With anguish or with quiet resignation, we face the fact that the days of love are gone.” Dad: “Well expressed!”


JL: “All it takes to overcome tiredness with life is to open open our eyes. The world is throbbing with energy and promise, and if we can view it as kin to us, as our home, as in some sense ours, its movement will forever hold our gaze. The fascination abides even if we are too weak to do much more than see what happens next. We need simply to immerse ourselves in the energy of life all around us, as fish do swimming in the throbbing sea.” JCO: “great!!”

We sat out on his patio, in the gorgeous May sunshine of his last Spring. My mother had passed the month before, at about the time he’d received his terminal diagnosis of leukemia.We spoke of things personal, interpersonal, religious, political, philosophical. AndDad May 28 2008 - VID00007_1 01m 00s then I shared with Dad a letter William James wrote to his father long ago:

We have been so long accustomed to the hypothesis of your being take away from us, especially during the past [few] months, that the thought that this may be your last illness conveys no very sudden shock. You are old enough, you’ve given your message to the world in many ways and will not be forgotten… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodbye now how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note. It is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary good night. Good night, my sacred old Father! If I don’t see you again–Farewell! a blessed farewell!

And then I told him not to go until he was ready. He nodded, and replied: “Don’t be surprised.”

Over a year later, and nine months since his departure, we’re still trying not to be.

A proper road trip

June 20, 2009

Back in Missouri, to fetch the girls home from their summer visit with “Grammy.”

This is how I do a road trip when traveling solo:

Instead of slinking out the back door of town (in our case, up Briley Parkway) I head straight for city center. That’s because it feels more like a transit from one real place to another, more like connecting the dots, if you set the trip meter from a landmark location like the Parthenon, or Borders, or Krispy Kreme. Those places all dot Nashville’s West End corridor, so that’s where I went. Besides, I wanted donuts as a traveling companion. (Also wanted the new Truman road book, but they were out.) Noted the crafts fair being set up in Centennial Park, maybe we’ll catch some of it when we get home.

Next, select a more leisured route than usual. After all, the whole “Are we there yetaudubon park2?” crew is not along for this ride. And I’m willing to spend more time behind the wheel if I know there’s a pleasant stop or two on the itinerary, so an hour into the journey, just into Kentucky, I veer off I-24 and up US 41. A few miles and I’m onto the Pennyrile Parkway, a lovely stretch of Kentucky bluegrass that eventually delivers me back onto 41, and lo, to the entrance of John James Audubon State Park. It’s noon, the donuts have worn off, I’m thinking about a picnic lunch. So I turn into the park, and discover that it is another wonderful legacy of the WPA. Hiking trails abound, and there’s a museum dedicated to the park’s namesake. With free wifi.

To make too long a story shorter, I’m reluctantly back on the road in a couple of hours (prodded by a cell phone call from Younger Daughter).  I drive uneventfully across Illinois, ready for a stretch just as Forest Park again presents its lovely verdant face. Was here on Monday, back again on Friday: probably more trips to this park in a week than I made in a month of Sundays, all those years living half an hour away. That’s one thing I’ll change for sure, if I ever get my time machine.

forest park overviewSo I had a nice stroll up Art Hill and around Post-Dispatch Lake, where currently resides a colorful mini-arch welcoming next month’s All-Star Game visitors.

And then finally to Grammy’s. A full day of driving-and-stopping, and I’m not at all frazzled by the journey. That’s the way to do it.

Not a bad little road trip. I’d do it again today, in reverse, if only my passengers would learn to enjoy the ride. Maybe next year.