Archive for July, 2012

Summer spirit

July 30, 2012

Lovely cool morning, birds in full voice, air crisp and sweet, 60s heading for the high 90s again. Up early enough to cheat the heat, if not quite yet to re-establish a reliable routine for the schoolyear soon to begin. What ever happened to Labor Day, academic calendar-makers?! But that’s not what I want to think about today.

Awoke to the fine (and free!) Librivox version of John Muir’s My First Summer in the SierraHe goes on too much, to my taste, about God’s glorious creation: Heseems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.” (More MuirBut fine dawns like this one do awaken the spirit, even in a heathen like me. And a glow of enthusiasm is exactly what I need. My landlord Dr. Curtis might be an inspiration here. Again, he was called to Dayton to testify on science’s and John Scopes’s behalf.

The defense believed he would make a good witness because he tended to emphasize the spiritual rather than the material influences of science.

Well, now that I’m up I must turn attention to the assignment I’ve put off long enough: rank a batch of new baseball poems. Don’t know much about poetry, but I know what I like: the spirit of summer, what William Carlos Williams called a delightful “spirit of uselessness.” That’s what I’m looking for, what I’ll be trying to hang onto: a particular species of spirit, not separate from but actually implicit in the material of existence.

And that’s what August is about to try to steal!

Winterton Curtis redux

July 28, 2012

I’ve had a lifelong obsession with an old zoologist at my alma mater, Winterton C. Curtis (1875-1966), who happens to have been my first real landlord: my parents rented rooms in his home soon after my birth, while my Dad was finishing his veterinary degree at Mizzou.

I remember him visiting our family in the years just prior to his death. He pulled dollars from my ear.

Later I’d learn of his historical importance, as one of the expert witnesses not allowed to testify at the infamous 1925 trial of John Scopes in Dayton TN.

Well, during our recent visit to Columbia, MO, Older Daughter and I rode by the place with my old roomie RD (still a Columbia resident).

And that’s what got me hunting for the little offprint of the memoir Dr. Curtis published in the Columbia Missourian in 1957, that belonged to my Dad. Found it yesterday. And, found it again this morning online: “A Damned-Yankee Professor in Little Dixie.” (The house is pictured on p.37.)

And check out the last page, where he talks about how the former university president “admitted publicly” that faculty positions were rotated among “the various Protestant denominations…” What a different world it was, not so long ago.

I’m just intrigued by the single degree of separation between myself and someone who was born in 1875, who began his university teaching career at my old school in 1901, who was in Tennessee literally alongside H.L. Mencken  in 1925, and who used to entertain a little boy who would one day move to Tennessee to philosophize about things like the Scopes Trial.
Somewhere in a box I have my dad’s personal correspondence with Dr. C.  I’ll look for it today.
I’ve also discovered that the Missouri State Historical Society has the Curtis archives, which I’m now eager to inspect and find a way to work into my James fiction project.
I love picking up pieces of the past and aiming them at the future. Stay tuned.

A philosophical outlaw

July 27, 2012

Did a little background research for my James fiction project yesterday, before it gets stuck back in the summer fantasy drawer. How’d I miss this in ’08?

If truth happens as pragmatically as WJ claimed, reasoned Richard Liebman-Smith, maybe he just coulda ridden with a more interesting posse of Jameses than we think. Some already regard him as a philosophical outlaw anyway.

Well, my novel account will be less preposterously premised. But I’ll have a hard time coming up with a more pleasing cover.

Slow and steady

July 26, 2012

Thanks to my friend Dean for reminding me of a quote I can use in Philosophy Walks:

A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Mark Twain is commonly credited with this, though it has “never been verified.” Like Yogi Berra, he probably never said half the things he said.

But no matter, the point for my purposes is: philosophy must lace its shoes with care, while careless popular opinion, dogmatic religion, and sloppy ideology race ahead. Falsehood moves faster, but philosophy wins in the long run. It gets the benefit of a good walk.

Don’t know if this one’s been verified, but Nietzsche (whose own view of truth is complicated) may have said:

“If I feel well, I will walk, sometimes for hours. I scribble as I walk and often do my best work, have my finest thoughts, while walking “


July 25, 2012

Back on my perch after  another summer road-trip, this one to the sweltering American breadbasket. I was going to lay low ’til August but sometimes, as they say in Mayberry, things have just got to be brung out.

I spent some time with Irv Yolem’s Schopenhauer Cure yesterday, and then with Carlin Romano’s mention in America the Philosophical of the vitriolic philosophy blogger Brian Leiter. I think I’ll find it helpful to myself this morning to think a bit about the uses and abuses of misanthropy.

Old Arthur hated his species,  probably due in large part to a bad formative start with his hard-hearted Mama. She never missed an opportunity to tell him what a drag he was, as a youth, on her freedom. He more than fulfilled her vision of him, long after she was gone. He isolated himself from both his fellow “bipeds” and his own bipedal nature, thinking himself superior.

And who knows, that very attitude may have fueled the imagination and will to write the books that almost give pessimism a good name. What we can’t know, except through the fictive  speculations of people like Yolem, is whether Schopenhauer’s misanthropy seemed to himself to make his own life worth living, in his own mind. We do know he said it did not make him “happy.”

Leiter is merely emblematic of the cheap culture of snide  and sneering rudeness so prevalent and apparently popular on the Internet. I don’t know if it makes him or his readers happy to be that way. It doesn’t me. I tend to avoid his posts and their comments, as I try to avoid mood-dampening & heart-shrinking contaminants generally.

So what I just want to bring out about all this is a small piece of hard-earned self-knowledge: I find that I am a happier and a better person when I actively resist the misanthropic impulse, and do not surrender to it as Schopenhauer and Leiter apparently did.

I also picked up the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion yesterday. I like him. He may be naively humane, but at least he’s no misanthrope.

My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this. I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics… We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect, and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect, and resentment?

I know I do. Anger, in my experience as apparently in the DL’s, is not a usefully generative fuel. But I’m a pragmatic meliorist, and pluralist. I presume to speak only for myself here.

Mystic, dreamer, tramp, loaferer

July 14, 2012

And still it drizzles, here at Seattle on the Cumberland. I miss the pool.

No sooner had I filed my “loafing” post yesterday than Rick Bragg popped up on the radio talking about the Alabama version he calls “loafering” – not to be confused with Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, presumably. He elaborated in the pages of Southern Living recently.

Bragg usefully distinguishes loafering, which occurs when you’re idly in motion, from stationary “piddling.” He says he can do both, though he actually tends more frequently to put in 18-hour work days – “because I’m an idiot.”

Well, it all reminds me of James on Whitman:

Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human value in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build up. You may be a prophet, at this rate; but you cannot be a worldly success.

Walt Whitman, for instance, is accounted by many of us a contemporary prophet. He abolishes the usual human distinctions, brings all conventionalisms into solution, and loves and celebrates hardly any human attributes save those elementary ones common to all members of the race. For this he becomes a sort of ideal tramp, a rider on omnibus-tops and ferry-boats, and, considered either practically or academically, a worthless, unproductive being…

But he sure could write. Cue the poet, on Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and then hopping the omnibus. The philosopher concludes:

Truly a futile way of passing the time, some of you may say, and not altogether creditable to a grown-up man. And yet, from the deepest point of view, who knows the more of truth, and who knows the less,—Whitman on his omnibus-top, full of the inner joy with which the spectacle inspires him, or you, full of the disdain which the futility of his occupation excites?

Right. Life’s still too short to be busy, and getting shorter every minute. Hail the ferry, board the bus. Go fish.

“I loaf and invite my soul”

July 13, 2012

Enjoying Andrew delBanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Every prospective student should read it. (Hint hint, Older Daughter.)

It’s chock-full of deep pedagogical wisdom from the likes of James, Dewey, Emerson, and Whitman, who said “I loaf and invite my soul”: now there’s a walker’s credo. And a biker’s, hiker’s, floater’s…

“Loafing.” That’s a more straightforwardly descriptive term for the   haughtily buttoned-down “contemplation” of the overly-cerebral and stationary style of thought. You can keep your Thinker, thoughtful walkers are Loafers – in the very best sense of the term. And they’re collaborators too, btw, not just solitary meditators. A collegium is a society or a community actively educating itself through mutuality of purpose and exchange. And that’s why my Intro courses are now called CoPhilosophy. “The pluralistic form takes a stronger hold on reality,” more creative and more fun. More true, too.

Delbanco also writes:

The most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter. [Or baloney if you prefer.] It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.

And the most important reward of a liberal education: quality time, for a lifetime, with your most intimate personal acquaintance.

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

Like Delbanco, I wouldn’t dream of denying that plenty of interesting people skip college. But as he points out, people who say college is not for everyone tend to have in mind other people’s kids.

What they probably don’t have in mind is an older ideal of college, one that teaches you how to loaf and enjoy it, and learn from it. That’s in danger these days. I’m glad Delbanco’s reminding us of how much we stand to lose if we don’t recapture it from the “outcomes”-oriented academic bureaucrats and anti-intellectual dopes who tend to hold higher education’s purse-strings in this country.

“We are all cyborgs now”

July 12, 2012

Really? Being a cyborg, in Sherry Turkle’s sense, apparently just means always being connected (or within easy reach of a connection) to social networks. Newsweek wonders if that’s going to make us crazy. “New research,” once again construed with alarm, is presented to alarm us about our devices, the time we spend with them, and the time they take from more traditional pursuits. It’s an old story by now.

So, no. Some of us are crazy, many are much too obsessed with technology and social media, but we can’t blame it all on the Android or the Apple, on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or whatever. We’re still running our own programs, if we ever were.

That’s what I thought about on yesterday’s walk in the cool interregnum before the marvelous arrival of yet another rainfall. (And it’s raining right now, again.) Smart phone in hand, occasionally receiving my dictation and occasionally speaking back to me, we (the dogs & I) strolled pleasantly through the neighborhood, following our whimsy and our intermitent trains of thought. They were more zen about it than I, of course, letting the “thoughts” come and go without much troubling themselves to make larger  sense of anything.

But if they were to trouble themselves, I think the pooches would agree: the  simple prescription for sanity in this brave new inter-digitized age is to move away from the big screens, and pocket the small ones often enough to smell the flowers and follow the breeze. Turn it off at the dinner table. Seek out real “facetime” with real people.  As Mr. Bradbury kept reminding us, and himself: You’re alive! Be your natural self, and you’ll be  human (or canine) enough. The Internet can’t make you crazy unless you’re already crazy enough to let it.

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

July 11, 2012

Our neighbors of many years, the ob-gyn and the colo-rectal surgeon and family, packed up and moved yesterday to St. Louis.  Gonna miss ’em, especially the kids who used to call me “Daddy” and my wife “Mommy” because they thought those were our names. Real Mommy and Daddy weren’t so amused as we, I think.

People move cross-country all the time in our society, of course, often without registering a ripple with the neighbors they knew only vaguely. I’m glad our departed friends weren’t that kind of neighbor. They were the kind who’d wander over to chat casually when they saw us out in the yard or dining al fresco. The kind who gave you their Titans tickets, back before you declared a personal Jihad against football. The kind you could ask to come help you transport a dying and immobilized 90-pound dog.

I’m remembering the day we moved in, back in the ’90s, and the neighbors on the other side had hung a farewell banner on the fence for our predecessors. They were only moving a few blocks away, not hundreds of miles. But distance is beside the point. It’s an important event, when the people in your neighborhood come and go. More important than we’ve come to admit, in an age and an economy that increasingly discounts the value of rootedness in place and the correlative value of the people we’re privileged to share space with.

And it’s an important moment when people who called you “Daddy” depart. Which reminds me: time to take Older Daughter college-shopping. Next stop: Wash U, in St. Loo. Good excuse to visit the old neighbors.


Listening to Proust

July 10, 2012

I’m listening this morning to the lovely overdue pitter-pat of a drenching rain on the tin roof of my Little House porch.

It really doesn’t hurt to listen. I like listening, for instance, to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. It’s a perpetual fount of inspiration, positive and negative. Today’s a good example, with positive Proust and negative Calvin. Make a wish, boys.

MP: I wish I could return to the innocence of childhood, and my little madeleine cookie.

JC: I wish I might be among the arbitrarily-“elect.” To hell with the rest.

Proust’s cookie conjures the epiphanic power of memory, and reminds us of the magic of childhood.

Calvin’s poison TULIP, on the other hand desecrates childhood with its claim of “total depravity” etc. He wouldn’t know what to do with a madeleine, or a happy memory. If there were a hell, it would surely be reserved for party-spoilers like JC.