Archive for May, 2010

Memorial Day

May 31, 2010

It is right that we set aside a day to pause and reflect on the terrible cost of war, in soldiers’ lives, and feel deep gratitude for the willingness of idealistic young men and women to sacrifice themselves for a perceived greater good.

But it is not enough to remember them alone. Civilian casualties in war are inevitable and appalling. The entire human cost of armed aggression around the globe needs a day of remembrance too, and we need to insist on an accounting.

The only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. -Justice Potter Stewart

We need to be less stone-blind to the realities of war, less stoical in our acceptance of the “inevitable.” In some ways it’s hard, but in others it’s way too easy to “suck it up and keep on fighting”– as Nancy Sherman says in the new installment of the Times philosophy blog. We undertake “detachment from certain objects so they cannot affect” us, we hold the brutality and de-humanization of war at arms’ length, we idealize noble ends and whitewash despicable means… and we continue the fight.

The U.S. has been carrying on the present fight for nearly a decade now. Why is this not widely rejected as outrageous and intolerable? Could it be that we’re simply not paying attention, most of us? That we’re lacking Justice Stewart’s “informed and critical public opinion?” Do we need to bring back a draft, to re-focus our attention and hone our critical opinion?

But we do love a parade. Happy Memorial Day. Peace.


May 30, 2010

Shadowbrook, Joelton TN

Years of legal matrimony, that is. Cal Ripken‘s “iron man” streak commenced on this day in 1982, so we broke his record this year… to put it in terms I can relate to.

We’re still sharing a perch, still retrieving  grubs for the nestlings (though they’ll be spreading their wings soon enough), still straightening one another’s ruffled feathers– when we’re not busy ruffling them in the first place. It’s not always easy being a spectator bird but it beats the alternative.

Let’s play that song again.

polar bears

May 29, 2010

More biking yesterday, with Younger Daughter at Fort Negley and Centennial Park, this time while we both waited for Older Daughter to finish her Biology exam and join us for summer break. Now that school’s out for us all, the play can really begin!

And, how gratifying it was  at the final parent-teacher conference of the year to hear that our girl so perfectly embodies the profile of success at her school: inquisitve, humble, hard-working, excited to learn. Don’t ever lose that spirit, sweetie, it’s also the profile of the life-long learner.

Neglected to mention one last local landmark of note on Thursday’s tour de ‘ville: the Polar Bears:

Made in 1930 by the G. Mattei Plaster Relief Ornamental Company to promote the Polar Bear Frozen Custard Shops, the 600-pound, five-and-a-half foot bears were inexplicably purchased by Zema Hill in the 1940s, who placed them in front of a residence at 1408 Edgehill where they remained for more than 50 years. Following a city-wide competition to design a new home for them, the bears were cleaned up and installed at the corner of Edgehill and 12th Avenue South, already marked by a historic marker in honor of DeFord Bailey, the first African-American member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Soon after arriving in Nashville thirty summers ago (!) I made the first of countless drive-bys on my way to Greer Stadium. (I’d never seen minor league baseball before.) The bears were still in their original location, and quickly became kitschy old friends. Usually don’t go that way anymore. It was great seeing them again.

And that plaque reminds me of the time I saw Sports Illustrated writer/NPR commentator (and Baltimore native) Frank Deford try to ingratiate himself with the local audience by claiming a tenuous nominal connection. Someone had to explain: down here that name is pronounced DEE-ford.

This is its own place.


May 28, 2010

The optimal condition for humans is a state of suspension in time, or out of it, when we feel no need to draw a line between work and play. “Flow,” some have called it. If you regularly experience this condition while doing your job and earning your paycheck, consider yourself one of the masters of the universe. There aren’t that many of you, proportionately at least.

But some play is clearly not work in any sense. Nobody paid me to play yesterday morning, but (as some of my in-laws might say) I wouldn’t take anything for it.

This has been one of those weeks, near the end of the middle/high school academic year, when routine goes by the boards. Yesterday was typical of this time: drive Younger Daughter to the bus, come home, a short while later drive Older Daughter all the way to school for another final exam, then hang out and bring them both home when they’re released later in the morning.

So, again, I had a couple of hours at my disposal. What to do? Find a quiet corner in one of the nearby Vanderbilt libraries  to “work”? Or surrender to the May mood and play? No contest.

Last time I faced this situation (last Friday) I enjoyed a ramble downtown. This time I’d brought my bike.

I pointed it in the other direction, away from downtown and south toward Belmont Blvd.  Soon I’m  pedaling past Belmont University’s Fidelity Hall, where I was once employed for about 24 hours, a decade ago– ’til the provost got wind of my Unitarian sympathies.

Then, near my earliest Nashville abode on Oakland (a block off of Belmont). It was cheap, shared with another Grad student, and had a pronounced lean in the direction of the bathroom. Great place to spend the early ’80s.

On beyond Wildwood, a later abode, and then into the domain of David Lipscomb University. Lived across the street from its main entrance in a converted-garage apartment just before moving away to teach at East Tennessee State back in ’92, when my friend J. moved in behind me. In all the years since I’ve never driven, walked, or biked past there and seen J. on his stoop.  But I did yesterday. First time for everything.

Then, around the baseball field at DLU. A game was about to commence, but I reluctantly pedaled on.

Stopped at the little jewelry/engraving shop on Granny White, looking for an anniversary gift. Engraving is free, but it takes a week. So now I know what I’ll be giving for next year’s anniversary.

One door down is Rhino’s Bookstore. (BTW: I got to know the bookseller’s daughter back when she and Older Daughter were kindergarten classmates and I was a classroom volunteer, in the early ’00s, but Mom didn’t seem to recall. Time, thief of memory!) I pop in, quickly find the sale table, get excited about David Gelernter’s book about the 1939 New York World’s Fair— it replicates a time and a mindset when the sky really was no limit, for those who believed earnestly in the future– but then discover that it wasn’t supposed to be on that table. At $2 it was a steal, at $10 I’ll have to think about it.

Back on the bike, but soon am off again to gaze closely at the monument to the Battle of Nashville. It was re-located to this spot after a 1974 tornado destroyed its base and then highway construction destroyed its setting. It was the first monument dedicated to both north and south, and appropriately celebrates unity as brokered by the “spirit of youth.”

Pedaling through the now-upscale “12 South” neighborhood, I’m soon within a stone’s throw of yet another old residence from Grad School days. It was a rough neighborhood then, but I didn’t worry because I lived with a pair of Dobermans. They really were very sweet doggies, “Annie”– for Annie Hall—  and “Sophie”– for Sophie’s Choice. Two of my best pals ever, and still two of the best films ever, for my money.

A right at Edgehill and I’m soon at Fort Negley (and Greer Stadium, where I hope we’ll take in our first Sounds game of the season before long). Fort Negley was an important Civil War stronghold for the occupying Union army. For most of my time in Nashville it’s just been that big  neglected mysterious hill behind the ballpark, but not long ago it was rehabilitated and now is a lovely historical park with a bike-able trail rimming its perimeter. The view from the top is terrific.

Now it was time to get  back to school and into the hook-up line. Rats! I really wanted to stop in for a visit with my friends the Scientologists, whose “Celebrity Center” now occupies the old school-building at 8th and Chestnut. Maybe next time.

That’s what I call playing.

wanna play?

May 27, 2010

My iPod clock radio has delivered quality content (only slightly dated) the last couple of mornings, which I see as connected in interesting ways  still to be fleshed out.

First it was Bill McKibben on Speaking of Faith, on the rapidly-closing window of opportunity to save the Earth (or the Earth as we know it and can live on it) now allegedly, barely before us; then, on an earlier installment of the same show, Stuart Brown on the importance of play. (Did you know there’s something called the National Institute for Play? There certainly oughta be!)

Near the end of his interview McKibben resisted the invitation to despair about climate change and the future, instead applauding the youthful energy and enthusiasm of his young (16 to 25) cohorts in and inviting us instead to peg our hopes on the renewal of life they embody.

Stuart Brown connected the dots between play, spirit, character, empathy, trust, irony, problem-solving, pleasure, joy, and much else. He did a more compressed version of the same performance at TED (below).

Now it’s my job to connect the dots between childhood credulity and openness to possibility, youthful passion, and adult responsibility. The whole undertaking fills me with a (playful) sense of mission, and a gambler’s confidence that maybe the planetary jig is not entirely up quite yet.

Sophie’s planet

May 26, 2010

Sophie’s World is Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder’s wonderful surprise 1991 bestseller about a young girl’s discovery of philosophy’s power to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. As William James said, it

sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject.  It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. Some Problems of Philosophy

A colleague regularly uses Sophie in his Intro courses.

All who care about the fate of the Earth should be very glad that Gaarder does, too. He spoke recently (reports Andrew Revkin) at the 2010 PEN World Voices literary festival:

We must realize that the Principle of Reciprocity also has a vertical dimension: you shall do to the next generation what you wished the previous generation had done to you.

How long can we speak of our “rights” without at the same time focusing on our responsibilities? Perhaps we need a new universal declaration? The time is ripe for a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations.

Based on the Principle of Reciprocity, we should only permit ourselves to use non-renewable resources to the extent that we at the same time pave the way for our descendants to be able to manage without the same resources.


May 25, 2010

I got hooked on The West Wing, having scrupulously ignored it for the seven years of its network TV run, when I tuned in to the final episode a few years ago. (It was in May of 2006, says Wikipedia. Four more years?!)

Sunday night I did it again, with Lost. Turns out the show’s creators have an affinity for the late novelist Walker Percy (says my former student), about whom I recently posted.  (Teahouse)

I don’t share Percy’s religion, but I love his books– even the one that slams Carl Sagan (Lost in the Cosmos). As I commented at Will’s site,

Learning of the Percy connection makes me want to watch the whole thing from the beginning… even though I find Percy’s religious worldview constricted even in comparison to his own broader Existential concerns. But so what, there’s just not that much intelligence on display on TV. We shouldn’t take any of it for granted!

One viewer over at salon didn’t care for the show’s “spiritual” dimension, but the Twitter traffic (#lost) has been immense.  USA Today’s reviewer liked it a lot, pointing out a message I can get behind:

“Ultimately, for individuals, saving the world only delays the inevitable. We all die.”

We do, as individuals. And ultimately we do as a species, a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos. Nobody ever really gets off the island.

But while we’re here we can expect to find the most meaning, the most life satisfaction, when we come to realize that we need one another. We don’t need to go it alone, and we shouldn’t want to.

There was a very smart Lost discussion at “On Point” Monday.

Is all this hoopla another indication of the appetite among ordinary folk for more Big Question-type conversation in the culture than TV normally engenders? I don’t know. Could be.

I do know it was nearly inevitable that I would eventually have to watch a show featuring characters with names like Locke, Hume, Bentham etc.

Looks like I’ll be revising my Netflix queue.

Why do you find it so hard to believe? Why do you find it so easy?! The perennial debate. My view: you can’t be lost, on the island, if the island is home-sweet-home. Look at that dot: that’s here, that’s home.


May 24, 2010

It’s always surprising to a walker (or at least to this one), to walk in a familiar spot where something significant has changed. More typically, a place is a neutral and objectively static canvas for the projection of changes within.

But, the other day there was that skyscraper alongside the Shelby Street Bridge.

And Saturday, on a much smaller architectural scale (but larger in human terms) it was Parmer Park, where we used to hang out back when Older Daughter was learning to ride a two-wheeler.

The old arch from Parmer Elementary School (1928-1982, lost to fire in 1985) was there, last time we visited, but not the commemorative bench honoring all those dedicated teachers of yesteryear. Nice touch.

I always wondered who Parmer was. Thanks to facebook I know now that he was a businessman, philanthropist, and community benefactor who purchased the nearby Belle Meade mansion in 1916 and lived there with his wife until his death in 1932.

The bio says he had no children of his own, but the bench plaque clearly suggests otherwise.

The Parmer Elementary School in Belle Meade was constructed on land given by Parmer to the Davidson County Schools in 1925. This land is on Leake Avenue in Nashville, and the brick school building, which opened in 1928, was in use until the year 1982. All that remains of the school after a 1985 fire is a brick archway.

No, much more remains. The building is gone, the hopeful and forward-facing spirit of education endures.


May 23, 2010

We were out late last night, S & I, with James Taylor and Carole King.

I was going to pull the blog-plug on myself this morning and begin taking Sundays off, but their fantastic reunion performance– first one in the Bridgestone Arena (they call it now) since the flood– is too much on my mind this morning. I’d gag, not to mention it.

We never miss JT when he comes to town, and we both used to wear out our Tapestry LPs, on our respective monaural phonograph players. What a show. What a treat.

And, btw, reports of downtown Nashville’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The old town was hoppin’, with locals and tourists alike. Too bad about Opryland, but it was great to see the Ryman back in business across the street with its original  Grand Ole’ Opry franchise. Tootsie’s and the other joints on lower Broad were spilling into the streets too.

JT commented, after Carole sang about getting up every morning with a smile on your face and before he did “Shower the People,” that those two numbers are “hymns for the agnostic.” Pass the plate, brother.

They did a triple encore, closing finally (just like last week in Hollywood) with the wonderful and, from the vantage of years, elegiac “Close Your Eyes.” You can sing this song, when I’m gone… But they’re definitely not gone yet.

council of Dads

May 22, 2010

The girls’ school-year is winding down. Yesterday Older Daughter had only to go in for a late math exam at around noon, and Younger Daughter had an early band recital before dismissal.

That gave me, their driver, a couple of hours to spend as wisely as I could, so naturally I hoofed it downtown. Wanted to check out the flood‘s aftermath, which of course was distressing.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Hall was ringed by crates and large tubes presumably connected to dehumidifiers, there were piles of trash and debris in all the places that had been so abruptly overtaken by the Cumberland River. Normalcy is returning, but slowly.

Then, to my favorite downtown locale: the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge, with its spectacular skyline views and now in the shadow of Nashville’s newest skyscraper, the rising Pinnacle building (video). This day, there was also a strange vintage hot rod competition happening under the bridge on the east bank. A tricked-out ’49 GMC pickup peeled around a temporary track, as an obnoxious announcer filled the air with commentary that I suppose would have made sense if I were a little more in touch with my inner NASCAR fanatic.

But the really serendipitous angle on this amble was the radio segment I tuned in to, while making my bridge transit. It was an interview with author Bruce Feiler, who responded to a cancer diagnosis appropriately by thinking about his twin girls and what he could do for them after he’s gone. He hit upon the inspired idea of convening a “council of Dads,” from among his own circle of friends and associates: men who agreed they’d attempt to fill bits of the paternal role for his girls, to help them become young women.

So should we all. We’re all terminal, after all, and long-term thinking begins at home.

Happy birthday, Mom.