Archive for June, 2010


June 30, 2010

Finished McEwan’s Solar. First book I’ve read “cover to cover” in digital format (on the iPod) and while I agree with the critics who say it’s no Atonement or Saturday, I enjoyed both the e-reading experience and McEwan’s “narrative” (as I’m learning to call stories, for project-related purposes soon to be revealed).

It’s breezy, funny, and thought-provoking all at once, and with the negative example set by an uninspiring, self-serving, “over the hill at 53” protagonist (ouch!), it affirms the necessity of long-term thinking and a social conscience.

I picture Michael Beard as something like Burton Richter with a British accent and a duplicitous nature.


June 29, 2010

This was a disquieting minor development. I discovered it after my walk yesterday, so it had to have happened some time between then and the evening before.

Some would say I was happily fated by Dames Fortune and Design not to be there, when the small but dangerous limbs (they’re pointier and heavier than they look, I promise) descended onto my hammock pillow.

I just say I was darned lucky, and am very grateful… but neither to Providence nor to my guiding stars. It was just Dumb Luck (which we all need plenty of) and statistical probability. “The brilliant randomness of everyday life,” as Nick Rescher put it.

Main thing is, I got back up on that horse and rode again. No injuries to report, no fatalism to declare. Just roll the dice again, please. Summer is a time of deceptive calm, but I’ll take it. Risk-aversion is for immortals.

squiffy narrative

June 28, 2010

Ian McEwan’s unappealing but misunderstood narcissist/Nobel scientist/energy pioneer Michael Beard responds in Solar to someone’s stated “interest in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated”:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.

He means the kind of people who also go on about “hegemonic” power structures and the social construction of reality to benefit a narrow (white male) elite, as well as the kind of people who prefer to de-construct reality and the very concept of same, who consider no textual narratives reliable enough to merit consistent action and belief, who prefer a stance of ironic detachment from the “so-called facts” etc. Postmodernist feminist relativist subjectivists. Neo-pragmatists.

Some of my best friends are those kinds of people, but I  have to side with Prof. Beard on this one.

The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop [pumping excess amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere], or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Beard’s troubled personal reality, though, is that he has no grandchildren and does not care deeply enough about anyone else’s. He gives a nice (and oddly controversial) speech about sustaining civilization and ending poverty, but he lives for his own day-to-day gratification.

Fortunately for the rest of us, his self-gratification entails seeking professional success, and that drives him to seek the literal power of light. That means spinning and enacting a narrative about himself that impels work which, if successful, will help sustain civilization and end poverty.

Whatever works, we pragmatists say. Telling a good story and doing good work go together. Self-knowledge of the Socratic kind, though, might be more elusive.

summer snapshot

June 26, 2010

Here’s a mental picture of summer, from yesterday, I want to recall when old December’s darkness falls:

It’s early afternoon of another scorching June day, Younger Daughter and I are lounging on floats at the uncrowded Westside pool, she’s giving me detailed instructions on precisely when and how I should deploy the torpedo “bombs” that she will then repeatedly dive in her personal submarine (“which is really just my body”) to recover and disarm, Ira Flatow is speaking from the little Sony I’ve perched at  poolside about artificial lungs and climate change and how warm beverages mirror warm hearts. The clouds drift and gather and separate, the trees across the way at Warner Park loom, the sung whangs down, a train roars past. And it feels like we have all the time in the world to just keep doing nothing. Everything.

Now, consider the misanthropic mind of Ian McEwan’s anti-hero in Solar. He’s a guy with not enough invested in the future. His is the wrong kind of long-term thinking.

A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism. The earth could do without [him]. And if it shrugged off all the other humans, the biosphere would soldier on, and in a mere ten million years, teem with strange new forms, perhaps none of them clever in an apish way. Then who would regret that no one remembered Shakespeare, Bach, Einstein…?

Ask the guy on the float.

positive addiction

June 25, 2010

“Look at us,” said the woman in the long and winding Apple queue waiting for her chance to purchase the latest iPhone yesterday, her voice dripping with self-contemptuous loathing. “We’re like monkeys. Pathetic.”

Do monkeys obsess constantly about the newest and shiniest version of the banana? Do they stand and wait for it in oppressive heat? But bananas don’t come with so many bells and whistles. Monkeys don’t get it, they’re not sophisticated enough to appreciate what they’re missing.

Maybe sheep offer the better analogy. In any case, there’s a lot of herd behavior on display with each new digital debut, and a lot of basic biology. We’re trying to upgrade our lives with the acquisition of these devices.

I didn’t join the queue or add my name to the order-list, for the phone or the reader or the iPad. Yet.

But I’m very familiar with the feeling of compulsion these gadgets engender. I’m wondering if it shades into full-fledged addiction, and then whether such addictions are always depleting. I think not.

Case in point: finishing my little dollop of daily dawn rumination yesterday morning at about this time I pushed “publish,” but nothing happened. Ironic, because yesterday’s post was about not needing what we’ve come to enjoy, not staking our happiness and sense of well-being on things beyond our control. It was about being a good Stoic.

A good Stoic knows that a reliable Internet connection was never his guaranteed possession in the first place. A good Stoic says: oh, well. Que sera sera. What’s next?

So, Mr. Stoic (I said to myself). How about it? And I made motions in the direction of the next thing, towards which I also feel a strong compulsion/addiction: the morning walk. Just won’t publish this morning, nothing I can do about that. I could have jumped in the car and driven to the nearest public hot-spot, of course, but the walking compulsion was too urgent  to allow such an  improvisation.

But I did allow myself one last stab at posting, before heading down the hill to gather the dogs and head out for our ramble. Surprise: it worked. Ahhh, relief. It really felt like the arrival of a fix, and now I could turn full and undistracted attention to the walking drug.

Is all of this unhealthy? No, I don’t think so. Some of us have addictive personalities, some of our addictions can be channeled to constructive ends, some of them can provide backup support when the network goes down… or when it rains… or when something else interferes with our best-laid plans. If we can plausibly represent ourselves to ourselves as masters of our own channeling, those compulsions can work for and not against us. Or, at least, they can work for our perception of our own good. Whether we perceive rightly is always open to challenge, and the examined life takes nothing for granted.

A life free of compulsion might very well be free of interest and anticipation, too. That would be really intolerable. I’m positive of that.

more dust

June 24, 2010

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pitch my “dusty” digital devices out the window in mimicry of the stoical Thoreau, who was perturbed by what he considered his own over-attentiveness to mere things, ornaments, baubles, distractions. They diverted his focus from more rewarding endeavors, they stole his time, they scattered his force. They would not improve him or raise the quality of his life.

Were we really to apply this standard to the material surplus of our lives in an honest and consistent manner, most of us would find that we could easily do without most of the “stuff” we pile up and haul around and surround ourselves with. We would have to consider the Bhutanese experiment, and begin paying as much attention to Gross National Happiness as we do to Gross Domestic Product. We would not be the same kind of Americans our grandparents were.

My little 16-GB iPod now holds at least 200 books and book excerpts (eBooks and audio books),  from Kindle and Stanza and Project Gutenberg and Audible and Overdrive, most of them “free” but for the expenditure of time and attention– the “dusting” that disgusted old Henry. It has Twitter, the BBC,  the New York Times and The New Yorker and Time Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, et al.

It has a dictionary and thesaurus and several philosophy reference sources. It has Dragon dictation software to convert my speech to editable, emailable, printable, publishable text. It has an app that does the same to finger-writing.

It has Google Earth, and GPS, and NPR, and TED…

It has apps that tell me where I can get the best Happy Hour deal in town.

It has stuff I’ve forgotten, stuff too cool to ignore at the app store but too much for my poor finite brain to track, day by day.

Oh yeah: it has the Beatles, the Stones, John Prine, and all my other favorite music too.

In brief, it’s a lot cooler than Thoreau’s three pieces of limestone. He would admit that, I’m sure. But it’s still just a thing, and it still monopolizes too much of my attention. I won’t throw it out, but I need to moderate my regard for it.

Most of all, I need to be prepared to let it go. Things crash, things get lost, things in our consumer paradise especially get surpassed and superceded. Things get dusty.

Stoics don’t have to live lives of voluntary poverty, but they do choose to lodge their sense of life’s worth in something more stable and less exterior than things.

A lesson from Seneca (who, btw, is on my iPod):

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself. The wise man is self-sufficient… if he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left.

The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.

He can do without iPods and iPads and iPhones and Kindles and beach vacations (oily or not). So can she. But they don’t have to. They can learn to tolerate a little dust.


June 23, 2010

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust… I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground. Thoreau

And that’s one reason why I didn’t buy a price-busted Kindle yesterday. The iPod’s getting a little dusty too.


June 22, 2010

We’re under a “dangerous heat/air quality” advisory here again today, the high will be 98 and it’ll feel like 110– not a desert dry heat but a wet, sticky, drippy, “muggy” (as we always said in the midwest) sauna sort of day. Incessant and unrelenting, the atmospheric equivalent of a vuvuzella. (There’s an app now, you know, and a very popular one too. Fortunately the iPhone speaker is inaudible.)

Speaking of South Africa, the high in Cape Town today will be in the mid-60s. It’s winter in the southern hemisphere, and it’s loud. Amazing how people can get so worked up over a game that so typically ends in a 0-0 or 1-1 draw.

The primitive”We’re #1″ tribal nationalism sometimes on display in these matches is obnoxious, though of course you don’t have to go to FIFA to find that– it’s right next door under the big orange “T” flag, and behind the blue “Titans” decal. (We’ll leave the Redbirds out of this discussion.)

If you’re going to glom yourself onto an arbitrary association to die for, I suppose it’s marginally more evolved that it be for a nation than for a team whose school you don’t even attend or a corporation you don’t work for.

Truth is, I like the world’s version of futbol a lot more than I like ours. And the Pythons’ version. (Are you there, Mary? Ready to begin our collaborative essay on baseball vs. football? Have you listened to George Carlin yet?)

Also: the over-the-top dramatic pretending-to-be-injured histrionics are just silly.


I do love the color and spirit of it all, the pre-game handshakes and post-gamejersey exchanges, and in general just the deep passionate intensity. The key is to transfer that depth of caring to things that do matter. If we could give just a fraction of that kind of focus to the health and well-being of our children, education, the environment, the future… now there’s a summer dream/fantasy for you.

I do love summer. Especially this time of day.


June 21, 2010

It was a fine Dad’s day, though sobering. Spending a portion of it with my recently-widowed mother-in-law brought home the reality that, since her husband’s passing a few months ago, I’ve now inherited the role of family patriarch.

But it was far more a day for reveling in the privilege and pleasures of paternity. It began with Younger Daughter feigning irritation at being awakened by my beeping cell phone, which announced her smiley-faced “Happy father’s day daddy” text message. Later, Older Daughter re-routed the Dad Taxi from its declared destination (Church) to Parmer Park instead for some quality time with the driver (and Harry Potter– she’s decided to re-read the corpus).

Through some flukey or perverse coincidence, or maybe it was perfectly timed to the day, I found myself thinking yesterday morning about Judith Rich Harris’s Nurture Assumption thesis that parental influence is mostly a fiction.

Variable genetic factors establish different talents and predispositions among kids, she says, which do indeed play out differently in light of variable experiences and environmental interactions. But the greatest environmental influences are their peers, not their parents. She takes the Steve Pinker Blank Slate line too, coming down hard against nurture and for biological nature as the determinative elements in our personal and species development.

The good news in all of this, she says, is that we’re going to isolate the genetic markers for childhood depression and eliminate that scourge in the coming decades. I suppose losing the pretense (if that’s what it is) of paternal relevance would be a small price to pay for that great stride forward for the race.

But wait. It being Father’s Day, I also spent a lot of time thinking about my own Dad [JCO… ]and the difference he made, still makes, for me and (transitively) for his grandchildren and for the future.

He influenced and encouraged and supported me as a toddler, as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult. He’s not been with us for going on two years, and his influence on me now is still constant. I think of him almost daily, and am always asking myself what Dad would say, think, do.

If that’s not meaningful influence, what is?

(BTW: If you’re looking for an entertaining Dad-book– though I suppose it’s a day late to be doing that– check out Michael Lewis’s hilarious Home Game. The recently-noted Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon is very funny, too. More seriously, look at Bruce Feiler‘s Council of Dads.)


June 19, 2010

Several years ago I started carrying moleskine notebooks in my hip pocket. They’re the perfect size to pack and load, just like an iPod. (I’m running out of hip pockets.) Portable and transportable, sturdy and solid, moleskines do look “like the kind of thing that holds interesting, and possibly important, jottings.” They have a cult following.

Soon thereafter I started misplacing them them, quite consistently, and beginning new ones before finding and filling the old. I’m not one of those meticulous journal-keepers like Thoreau or Michael Palin or my step-Mom, with a shelf of precisely-dated and ordered entries mirroring the years.

It’s more interesting this way. Eventually the old notebooks always resurface, from whatever corner or closet or drawer they’ve been submerged in, and the cycle repeats.  It’s been repeating for a while now.

Yesterday I filled the last page of a notebook and went rummaging for another. I dug up one whose first entry is from 2000, and then skips to 2005, then to 2007. If I don’t lose it over the next six months– a big if– it’ll span the decade. Cool.

One of the entries records the day five years ago when Younger Daughter astonished herself and me by falling in with the ducks, literally, at Centennial Park. Another notches the happier, mostly-drier day we brought her puppy home. There are many “kids say the darndest things” entries (R.I.P., Mr. Linkletter) like “Mom, do people have to get married? I don’t want to get stuck with some boy!

Somewhere, probably in the hot and cluttered Little House attic, there are older notebooks to embarrass Older Daughter, too. Stay tuned.