Archive for December, 2012

I still really like it too

December 22, 2012

I’m finally in the mood, thanks in part to my new favorite Christmas song. Still love the John Prine holiday album, though.

Younger Daughter helped get me in the mood, too. I was still a little sour about the season on Thursday, while she and I sat amidst the med techs (she was getting her eight pinky stitches out) and their uncomfortable conversation concerning the friendly Cajun orderly’s intolerant Catholic mom, Mormons, etc. Told ’em to blank stares, when asked directly (“What are you?”), that I’m even worse: a secular humanist/naturalist. Didn’t bother mentioning my old dalliance with the UUs, which was only ever good for getting me unhired by “ecumenical” Baptist provosts. [Funny: when I googled “Belmont” and “Unitarian” this popped up. Are they still so intolerant over at BU?]

But the holiday season was fully on us yesterday, when she finally finished her last exam and agreed to help me with my last-minute shopping.

Wait, almost forgot… our Daddy-Daughter Day began (as so many have) with a trip to Krispy Kreme. What remains, besides the sweet memory:


So, a couple of quick hot bolts of sugary fried dough later, to school. I hung out at the Vandy library again while she tested. Had it pretty much all to myself up there on the 7th floor, in the sunny southeast corner carrel with Proust.

Then about 10 a.m., Fall ’12 semester finally finished (!), we were off at YD’s request to Friedman’s to buy her uncle his gazillionth Christmas pocket knife (I’m so glad he doesn’t collect guns, or read his brother-in-law’s blog) and passed a significant personal milestone: she got to use her shiny new Debit card for the first time. Mr. Friedman called for a drum-roll.

Outside, the man with the meat smoker was nice enough to give her a sample. She’d have loved a half-rack, and we will come back for it, promise. Someday. But (fortunately) I really didn’t have enough cash on hand, on the spot.

Then, screwing my courage to the sticking place, I let her lead me into that frightening jungle aka the Green Hills Mall. Her advice on matters of taste and preference in jewelry and scarves and such was, as always, quick and golden.

Time for lunch. Narrowed our choices to Go-go Sushi or Fido’s, and the dog won. “Mother Teresa,” a cute terrier, spotted for us.

Then, yet another hair appointment. Not for me, obviously. So, leaving YD at the salon I headed across the way to wait at Peabody’s lovely and historic old Education Library. Charming old building, one of the original Carnegie libraries, and they’d conveniently spread out all the day’s papers in front of a comfy couch for me like some overachieving Jeeves.

Home, to wrap packages and walk the dogs and etc.

Rounding out our Daddy-Daughter Day we ordered in pizza and fired up another screening of her holiday favorite, The Simpsons Movie, while Mom and Older Daughter were away (solstice party & basketball game, respectively). Stayed awake for that, eventually passing out whilst listening to a very nice audio rendition of Swann’s Way.

It’s a wonderful life.

This morning Mom and Daughter(s?) will be baking and filling the house with the smells and sounds of a more traditional Christmas. Hoping they’ll finish in time to join me for a matinee at the Belcourt, I wanna celebrate the world’s survival to 12.22.12 with Chasing Ice. I hear it’s “beautiful and ominous,” like the season itself.

It’s sentimental, I know. But Merry Christmas! All the best.

Postscript. I’m pulling the digital plug, for the holidays. As Barney would say: it’s thera-pettic. Back in January, god willin‘… Happy New Year!

“How Proust can change your life”

December 21, 2012

That was Alain de Botton’s breakout book, back in ’97, followed by the British docudrama with Ralph Fiennes I enjoyed last night.

(Happy Mayapocalyse, btw. We’re fortunate indeed, to have lives to change.)

So, how can he change my life? By reminding me to do what William James and others had already encouraged: pay attention, day in and day out, to the personal perceptual details of life.

Great advice, especially if we then turn our attention to acting in healthy ways that reflect what we’ve attended to. Great, if we’re then encouraged to write À la Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Greater still, if it propels us to act in ways that address not only our own perceptions and compulsions but also the interest and well-being of our fellow humans.

If I decide to spend more time with Monsieur Proust, these will be my working questions: was he ultimately concerned to turn his attention to humanity and its destiny, to what life might make of itself in the great unfolding of time still to come? Or was he mainly preoccupied with time past and lost? Is he an enduring voice and a reliable guide in the salutary search to transcend narrow egoism? Or was he just another self-indulgent parlor aesthete, albeit the one who wrote those magnificent books?

Whatever the answer, I’m pleased with the way the story ended last night, Proust declaring that books and words will carry us only so far. “Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it. It does not constitute it.” Don’t throw away your books, but also don’t join them on the shelf.

Another of his lines I like, although I still prefer *Goober’s way of putting it:

One cannot change, become a different person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feeling of the person one has ceased to be. [*”If a man’s hisself, how can he change?”]

But the out-of-context, probably out-of-character (for MP) quote I like the most is:

May you always see a blue sky overhead, my young friend; and then, even when the time comes, as it has come for me now, when the woods are black, when night is fast falling, you will be able to console yourself, as I do, by looking up at the sky.

I suppose he meant a figurative blue sky, since you can’t see much of the real sky from a cork-lined sarcophagus. I prefer the sky that lights our walks, myself.

Proust and James, in or out

December 20, 2012

William James’s sister Alice described his  temperament as the “delightful” mirror of his New Hampshire summer retreat in Chocorua, dubbed Stonewall, with its “14 doors all opening out.” He used to spill out of one or the other of those doors to cross the street and climb the mountain or circle the lake. He was (at his best) the epitome of nature-loving, expansive vigor and vitality, curious, questioning and questing, and engaged with the world.


When I think of Marcel Proust, on the other hand, the image that springs immediately to mind (right after the cookie bar) is his infamous cramped cork-lined bedroom and its suggestion of an insulated, involuted mind, a closed-off character.


I strolled into the stacks of Vandy library yesterday and picked up the Cambridge Companion to Proust. Its editor says he’s gotten a bum rap over that sealed chamber, that he was just trying to cut out some of the construction noise next door.

Well, we’ll see.

We’ll also see if I can take seriously the project of offering my own modest summary of Proust.

On holiday with Mister Cookie Bar

December 19, 2012

Spent a very nice hour at Fido’s with an old friend yesterday. We worked together twenty years ago, used to take work-break meetings over espresso and what we called (following our shared tragic hero Barney Fife) a “Mr. Cookie Bar” – to keep up our “sugar blood.” Those were good! And even better in recollection.

No Mr. Cookie Bars yesterday, but the coffee was pretty good. So too the conversation. Barney’s pal from the fillin’ station joined us to philosophize about time and change, as he often did at our meetings back then. He was always good for our morale.

In the aftermath of Newtown, I think many of us need to take a few of those kinds of meetings. The subject didn’t come up in our conversation, I suspect we both decided independently that we needed a break from thinking the unthinkable. Just a break. A mental health moment, before getting back out there. A momentary moral holiday.

“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays,” James wrote, meaning those marvelous respites from care and concern and struggle, typically coincident with the aggressively pursued leisure we call “vacation” (and the English call “holiday”). A moral holiday, then, is a vacating, an emptying, a withdrawal from the daily grind and the daily hand wringing, when we tell ourselves that it is truly morally acceptable just to relax, not only our bodies but especially our consciences, with regard to the world’s (and our own) panoply of worrisome and regrettable facts; to accept ourselves and the world for awhile, despite our flaws and its corruptions and depredations; and so, to renew ourselves for return to the fray. Springs

proust_in_hellI’ve been asked to consider reviewing a draft manuscript about William James, whom I know just a bit about,  and his connection to Marcel Proust, about whom I know next to nothing. But I do know that he loved his Mr. Cookie Bars too. He called them something else, something frenchy, but that’s exactly what they were: a wonderful sweet little comestible with the power to transport a person through time and away from trouble, for just a bit.

Couldn’t get too many of ’em ourselves, up there in the atrium just off the 2d Story Cafe, could we Mr. Jimmy?

I know too that Shelby Foote, of recent “teahouse” mention, used to set aside six weeks or so just to treat himself to a re-reading of Proust’s magnificent ouvre.

I don’t have six weeks, but I have a couple. This might be just the project I need, at just this time.  I’ll consider it.

Our sick culture of violence

December 18, 2012

People are saying it’s different this time, that the slaughter of innocents in Newtown will not so quickly recede into the collective American unconscious as most every other gun-assisted atrocity always has. This time “something snapped,” this time we’ll take “meaningful action” to address and begin to cure our sick culture of violence. Even a few Republicans with high NRA scores are saying so.

It’s important to realize that it is a cultural problem, exacerbated but not created by our disgusting bloated arsenal of killing machines. The latest young murderer  had ready access to them of course, his mother apparently was laying in supplies for the apocalypse. The pitiable self-parodying irony of her fate, in the light of that, requires no further comment.

But the shooter also apparently had a “head full of video games” to match his house full of guns. The truth of the stupid familiar slogan (“people kill people”) is unavoidable: these dreadful weapons, perversely described by an expert enthusiast on npr as “cool,” obviously don’t collect or discharge themselves. Someone must intend that, and intentions don’t grow up in a vacuum.

I was giving Younger Daughter a hard time yesterday over her penchant for violent entertainment, from “Hawaii Five-O” (etc. et al) to zombies to “mature” video games. And don’t get me started again about football. She’s a gentle and peaceable soul, as I suppose are most of us. 999 out of 1,000, at least.

But, isn’t all this “fun” and “entertaining” violence really unhealthy, for the culture at large if not for each individual consumer? Doesn’t it create a perfect little petrie dish for the nurture and development of nut-jobs who can stroll down one Wal-mart aisle for their games and another for their guns, even if Mom hasn’t done them the convenience of stocking up at home already? It’s a big country, 1 in 1,000 adds up.

So has anything actually snapped, in this country, this time? I heard the Hawaii Five-O theme in the next room again last night. People all over town were glued to the Titans on TV, either dispersing or gathering their aggressions. Young and not so young people all over the land were again spending their leisure in virtual violent conflict. As we say: it’s a free country.

I never used to understand Kris Kristofferson’s lyric about freedom’s meaning “nothing left to lose,”  we saw again in Connecticut what a terrible price we all continue to pay for a too-glib interpretation of what freedom means. If something really has snapped, we’ll at last act to honor the freedom of little boys and girls to grow up and live their lives.

“We will have to change”

December 17, 2012

The President’s remarks at the Newtown vigil last night were moving, and promising.

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

…the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

I look forward to the specific changes in gun control policy the President will propose and fight for. Minimally, we must “register all firearms, license all owners, require background checks, ban semi-automatic weapons” (Bob Herbert).

And I look forward as well to a change in rhetoric and tone. I look forward to the day when an ecumenical “interfaith” memorial vigil like last night’s will automatically include, alongside the Priests and Imams and Rabbis and Revs, a humanist philosopher – or a president eager to proclaim his own humanist sensibility. “You know,” the President said,

all the world’s religions, so many of them represented here today, start with a simple question.

Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?

We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

Good words, right up until the last. But I wanted to hear, unambiguously and unambivalently, that the only plans worth pondering aloud on horrible occasions like these are the ones we still haven’t made, to regulate our own behavior. The inscrutable hypothetical death-dealing “heavenly plans” of an evidently-dark lord of superstition do not console. They do not begin to redeem the obscene, gratuitous loss of those twenty “beautiful little kids” and six courageous educators. They do not deserve breath or mention.

Do we have the courage to stop this?” And does our president have the courage to lead on this, against the entrenched and mobilized gun-and-religion lobby? Those are the right “simple questions.”


December 15, 2012

Still grading. I’d probably be done if I hadn’t caught news of the Newtown massacre yesterday and then allowed myself to get sucked into the Twitter cycle of stupidity and recrimination. But I did find a bit of sanity there, in the words of people like Bill McKibben and Philip Bump and Adam Gopnik.

Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.

Apparently the moron Huckabee said those twenty “beautiful little kids” whose lives were extinguished yesterday were part of the price we must pay for separating church from state. It would probably be best to ignore such idiocy, not dignify it with even the barest acknowledgement.

Trouble is, when verbal public ignorance is left unchallenged it gets repeated and absorbed by the general unblinking fox-watching public. And it turns up in the papers I grade.

So I’m just going to say this to Mike and his pals, and then I’ll try going back to ignoring them:

It’s true (though not in the way you intend), if a deity of the sort you want us to worship in our schools were present there, and were really responsive to the prayers of the faithful, Newtown and all the other heartbreaking mass killings made in the U.S.A. would not have happened. Such a benevolent omni-propertied force would not have allowed it, in the name of human free will or anything else.

But they did happen, and absent the “meaningful action” we always just talk about, in the aftermath of these sickeningly frequent atrocities, they will again. And this depressing cycle will repeat, until we or our lucky descendants finally demand a plan  that reflects the sense and values of parents and others who love and teach and nurture our children and not those of a demented murderous unfathomable unthinkable “god.” Signing a petition is the very least we must do.


Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

Waiting and hiding

December 13, 2012

Spent much of yesterday in the outpatient surgery waiting room, watching video monitor updates of Younger Daughter’s status. She broke her pinky playing basketball a week ago, and was  in for the unappealing surgical procedure of having screws inserted, three of them, into the bone.

Sounds medieval, Older Daughter observed. Or cybernetic.

We were there from 9:30 to 4:00. That’s no way to get out of school, but to look on the bright side: it gave me a grading break.

I did get out  a bit yesterday, to fetch Mom’s peppermint mocha at mid-morning and then a couple of Reubens from the deli for lunch. It was still crisp but sunny at noon, so I decided to hoof the half dozen blocks up to West End and noticed all kinds of people and places (an oddly-named BBQ place I’d not seen before on Church St., for instance, and an architecturally-distinctive apartment building on 18th) I would have missed behind the wheel.

One of my resolutions this year: never burn hydrocarbons to accomplish any non-emergency errand that can be performed pedestrianly. (That should be a word, I’m ignoring the red squiggle-line.)

At Jason’s I ran into my two favorite Reasonable Atheists and 3QD contributors, Aikin & Talisse. Didn’t see them brandishing any provocative reading matter but I’ll bet they were carrying.

So, both girls are at home this morning, Younger Daughter resting fitfully on another round of painkillers, Older Daughter allegedly planning to study for finals. Speaking of which, I have one more exam to administer today and then it’s back into the hidey-hole.

A word to would-be wise students: please heed my previous instructions and postpone all grade queries ’til Monday. 

Sitting in that waiting room yesterday, I was pleased to come across a very wise bit of teaching advice from a younger colleague in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I’ve been inching towards for some time, and am finally going to embrace on January 17: ditch the syllabus on the first day of class. Do something interesting and fun, and begin really getting to know your student collaborators from the get-go. Talk about due dates and such later. Ask ’em all “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” and write down what they say. Other smart tips abound in the article too (though nothing about how to make yourself love grading).

I’ve come up with another innovation as well: floaters. We’ll have a different representative of each of our four discussion groups floating from group to group at ten minute intervals during each class, helping me knit the separate strands of our larger conversation into a tighter weave. “Connecting the dots,” I call it.

Isn’t it a good sign, that I’m already thinking about the new semester? Maybe. Or maybe just another indication that I really don’t like grading.  I shouldn’t complain, it’s way better than a broken digit.

philOK, I’m back into the hole now, like that other Phil in PA. There will be about five more weeks of winter (break), after Monday.

“Today is tomorrow! It happened!” Phil Connors

Reconnecting with the world

December 12, 2012

And you know what else is cool, besides the Internet?

jesus and mo Internet