Archive for December, 2010


December 31, 2010

Here I sit at my Dad’s old dining room table, gazing out onto the patio where we sat and spoke of final things in 2008… when it was clear to us all that his leukemia was finally non-negotiable. It’s one of my best memories of him, that afternoon in the glorious May sunshine when all pretenses were dropped and we admitted to one another that neither of us could possibly know if there was another side where we’d meet again “up yonder.” Total honesty in the face of inexorably real human finitude was tonic, parting was such sweet sorrow.

So here we all sit, at another year’s end. What to say? I like what Pico Iyer says in his introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010. The “spiritual,” which he reminds us was spurned as a term (not as experience) by “our most soaring celebrant of spirit, Emerson,” is

in our daily lives, or it is nowhere; it is in our breathing in and out, and in the space where we leap and don’t know what we’ll find

Spirituality– or happiness or daylight– exists precisely where we didn’t think to look for it.

Well, I guess I’ll continue looking. In 2011.

Happy New Year.

postcard from MO

December 30, 2010

I don’t know if it’s really one of the best places, but it used to be home. Now it’s a long slow slog through Kentucky and Illinois (where yesterday there was rain in the air and  snow still  on the ground) away. But step-Mom made it worth the trip last night with her gift of local hero Twain’s century-postponed  autobiography, which– Keillor’s slam notwithstanding– I’m more than happy to have.  It’s a hefty thing, though, literally hard to hold. The many pics and manuscript reproductions would be hard to Kindle-ize, though, no?

Would Twain have blogged? Yes indeed, judging by his remarks on how best to approach self-portraiture:

Start at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

That may be a recipe for ADD, but it suits this medium perfectly. For better or worse.


December 28, 2010

So, applying the ‘What?!’ philosophy to the year ahead…

‘What?!’ – Of course a professional academic can write readable prose and entertaining literary fiction on subjects of shared human concern.

‘What?!’ – Sure, he can write for a general (non-specialized, non-academic) adult audience, and for children, without sacrificing scholarly integrity.

I’ve been told otherwise, mostly by peers who describe writing as merely a chore  instrumental to tenure and promotion. Last year was successful on both fronts. This year, be it resolved, I’ll begin to find out what’s really possible.  (Emphasis on begin.)

What I’m really resolving, I think, is to regard myself mainly as a writer who also teaches… not just a teacher who is required to “publish or perish.” I’m resolving to write from inner compulsion, desire, and delight: not from external necessity. In that light, I’ll take my inspiration from the likes of the great E.B. White, that “most companionable of writers,” who wrote:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter.

I miss my Smith-Corona, just as I miss my old turntable. But what I’ve been missing most is the unlimbered feeling of freedom to pound out the words that most directly express what I find personally stirring and absorbing.  Not that I haven’t done that, but I haven’t done it with a full feeling of vocation. It’s been a sidelight. It needs to be the main event.


December 27, 2010

It’s the time of year  for retrospection.

I’m looking in the other direction, as always, resolving to be more resolute in 2011. But one entry in the Times Magazine‘s annual look back at the “The Lives They Lived” caught my eye as potentially useful in that regard.

The ethicist Philippa Foot died this year. Her great light-bulb moment came when she recognized the value of naive insouciance towards orthodoxy. Call it her Sally Brown moment.

Returning to Oxford as a graduate student in 1945, after working in London during the war (and living in an intermittently bombed-out apartment with Iris Murdoch), Foot became troubled by a central assumption of 20th-century moral philosophy: that facts and values are logically independent. According to this view, you can’t derive an “ought” conclusion from a series of “is” premises. Nature is composed of objective facts that we can verify through science; values are mere attitudes in our heads that we project onto the world as we like. When we engage in moral disagreement with, say, an unrepentant murderer, reasoned argument breaks down. We feel it is wrong to kill innocent people; he simply does not. There is no accounting for taste.

In the wake of the news of the concentration camps, Foot was haunted by the notion that there was no way to rationally overcome a moral standoff with a Nazi. She wanted to argue that moral evaluation (“It is wrong to kill innocent people”) is not fundamentally different from factual evaluation (“It is incorrect that the earth is flat”). A cynic should no more be able to deny the moral implications of a relevant body of evidence than a flat-earther can deny the factual implications of astronomical data. It was Anscombe, a devoted Catholic, who liberated Foot, a lifelong atheist, to dare to think in this outmoded fashion. Foot had been speaking of the conventional contrast of “ought” and “is,” and Anscombe feigned confusion. “She said: ‘Of what? What?’ ” Foot recalled. “And I thought, My God, so one doesn’t have to accept that distinction! One can say, ‘What?’!”

What, indeed. I think that’s going to be my new philosophy.

P.S. On this date a very good man was born, in 1928. Happy birthday JCO.


December 25, 2010

Dawn reflections had to wait for the morning’s festivities to spend themselves.

Older Daughter got her camera, Younger Daughter her keyboard, Mom her rice cooker, and I my Moleskines– the wonderful gift of contemplative possibility– and gift certificates soon to materialize as my first Kindle. A wonderful book, too, from Older Daughter, on the history of the Negro Leagues.

Best gift of all, of course, was being together with family and friends. A close second, for me: a long snowy walk on that rarest of occasions: a white Christmas in middle Tennessee.

irrational exuberance

December 24, 2010

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go—across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination… Kay Redfield Jamison

Generosity continues to speak to me, this morning in connection with those nuns whose own exuberance for living the cloistered life is so contrary to my own sensibility, and so sad to me. But just listen to them, they’re beside themselves with the ecstatic joy of a meaningfulness they had not found in the secular world. Sister Beatrice says

this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this — this defining relationship that would give value to everything.”


“I met the person for me. I’ve been known by him forever. And I’ve known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I’m called to.”

“We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven,” says another Sister. I find that creepy and depressing, myself. But we’re not talking about me.

Ex uberare—”the pouring forth of fruit.” If we’re going to be Jamesian pragmatists about this we’ll just have to overlook some of the absurdity and focus on the fruit, the good works, the charity, the high-spirited mobilizing of personal and institutional energies for good.

And for bad, Hitch will remind us: church edicts proscribing contraception in Africa, priestly perversion and child rape… it all goes onto the scale.

Wisdom, James said, is knowing what to overlook. My challenge, again, as an aspirant “atheist with a soul”, is where to draw the line beyond which tolerable absurdity becomes the kind that should no longer be overlooked?

Julia Sweeney pointed out in Letting Go of God that the line between trinitarian virgin birth and Joe Smith-style weirdness is specious, just a shade this side of Scientology. And Deepak Chopra’s New Age quantum weirdness is right in there with them.

But, on this holiday eve, it would be much more in the spirit to overlook all that for now and instead accentuate the positive. Take it away, Eric

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

OK, that last couplet isn’t entirely positive. But I’m told there’s healing in prayer.

just a thinker

December 23, 2010

“No limos, no bimbos…just a thinker”-Woody Allen’s Professor Levy:

It is only we, with our capacity to love, who give meaning to the indifferent universe… And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, & even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more. Crimes & Misdemeanors

Professor Levy, no Sisyphus, took his own life: a cautionary tale for all would-be “thinkers” and philosophy-documentarians. [The real Levy]

But what a terrific film.


wise words

December 22, 2010

Two perspectives on talk:

Everyone could be redeemed, given the right combination of behavioral adjustment , medical intervention, and talk. And of these three, the foremost was talk. Generosity

I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. Native American Wisdom

I say: they’re both right.

Words conceal and reveal, convey insight and duplicity, charm and harm, rules and misrule. They’re the tools in our bag and the albatross on our back. They often run away with me, so I try to walk away from them at least once a day.

And every day, of course, inevitably, they walk me back again. We have a love-hate relationship, which I love to talk about.

force for good?

December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

My independent study student has been wrestling with what I’ve come to think of (at Rebecca Goldstein’s instigation in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction) as the “atheist with a soul” challenge. I wrestle with it too.

The challenge, put succinctly, is to decide whether non-believers ought to concede the rational right of believers to believe. Goldstein draws heavily on William James’s famous essay “Will to Believe,” in which James rejects the standard of W.K. Clifford that it’s always wrong to believe anything on “insufficient evidence.” (That has to be scare-quoted, because the question of what constitutes sufficiency is itself a point of serious contention here.)

James may go too far in his defense of “belief,” and I’m personally very sympathetic in my own habits of belief-formation to the Clifford line. It’s finally a question, though, of how humbly ecumenical and “friendly” an atheist should be towards theists.

James said this debate is not mostly about God. Most of what humans have said and thought about God may even be “absurd” without tarnishing the religious impulse. It’s about life.
It’s about individuals coming to terms with their existence, and finding ways of living constructive, engaged lives.
With the semester at last concluded, I finally got around to watching the Hitchens-Blair debate in Toronto last month. Of course Hitch wiped the floor, forensically speaking, with his Right Honourable opponent.  But…
Blair’s humility and solicitude on behalf of those whose lives have been enriched by their peculiar personal religiosity still rings true to me. Or rather, not “true” but somehow “right.”
Yes, much harm has been done historically, hysterically, in the name of religion. Much harm has been done, period. I wish everyone found, in our shared natural and humanistic legacy, the sufficient ground for good that I and my fellow humanists find.
But when we come across good people doing good work and crediting faith with supplying their fuel, let’s look pragmatically to the fruits – not the roots. And let’s keep encouraging them to consider the inspiration under our feet,  in the stars, in the natural universe.
That said, though, I have to say too: Damn! Hitch is magnificent.

lurching along

December 20, 2010

There: grades finally all submitted, to the best of my modest abilities, just as the late winter dawn splashes the sky a pleasing mix of orange and magenta.

The attempt to fend off breathless student queries and complaints over the long weekend with an advance request to wait ’til all were posted was, as expected, futile. I’ll begin answering them later. In the meantime: relax, kids. If I’ve made a mistake with your grade I’ll change it. If I haven’t, you’ll find that you can live with it. “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things…”

It would be nice to hear occasionally, for a change, from those who are pleasantly surprised by their grades. There should be many, I really am a very charitable (though fallible) evaluator.

We started our semester later this year, I don’t recall going this deep into December before turning the page and beginning to wait ’til next year. Guess I have to start thinking about doing my part for the holiday economy. Ho ho ho.

Kids are also out, of course, so I’ll be running the taxi. Younger Daughter’s already asked for a trip to the dog park.

May be riding shotgun in the Driver’s Ed training vehicle too. Older Daughter wanted to know the church parking lot’s speed limit. Too fast, is all I know. She also asked if my car– she imagines it’ll be hers soon– “lurches.” We’ll find out.