Archive for May, 2013

“We must cultivate our gardens”

May 31, 2013

My wife has many talents I do not share, including the proverbial master gardener’s “green thumb.” I’ve never tried to compete, have in fact evaded and tried to escape the whole earth-scratching, seed-planting, weed-yanking, endless-summer-watering routine. I’ve pretty much ceded that turf to her, with an Emersonian shrug. My version of transcendental domesticity also craves mobility and freedom, leaving the nurture of non-sentient life to better hands.

I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body. . . . But these stoopings and scrapings and figurings in a few square yards of garden are dispiriting, driveling, and I seem to have eaten lotus, to be robbed of all energy, and I have a sort of catalepsy, or unwillingness to move, and have grown peevish and poor-spirited.

And yet, for reasons still mysterious to me, this spring I decided I’d try and tend a tiny plot of earth. Don’t know why. But it was with real pleasure and anticipation that I stooped to the work of preparing the ground near my back porch and the old shed to host a pair of petunia plants, one white, one purple. “To garden well,” as Michael Pollan says, “is to be happy amid the babble of the objective world, untroubled by its refusal to be reduced by our ideas of it, its indomitable rankness.”

I’m trying.

Wish I’d taken a picture, before the ravenous rabbits arrived to devour my work.


Daunted but not defeated, I’ve gone to a hanging basket of impatiens. So far, so good.


But if my garden fails to grow I’ll be philosophical about it and just walk away.

Then I’ll walk back in an hour, to the pool.

And then to that hammock.

Where I’ll write a book this summer.

Nice work if you can get it.

Of a feather

May 30, 2013

specbirdsThe truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted  hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark… It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below… one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you fly into something you can’t handle.

Those near-closing lines from the great Wallace Stegner’s Spectator Bird were inscribed on a small scroll for attendees at a wedding to take home and ponder, twenty years ago this afternoon. Good words. To my fellow bird: happy anniversary.

Adding voices

May 29, 2013

Late to the starting gate today. We were out celebrating our anniversary, and taxiing the girls back from the multiplex (“Ironman” thumbs down, “Gatsby” just ok). And it’s summertime, the living is supposed to be easy. Spent much of yesterday putting up the pool, with “Porgy & Bess” for company. Today I’ll blow up the floats and soon we’ll all be adrift, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.

lunchboxStill thinking about milestones, endings and beginnings. One of the more nutritive things I packed into Older Daughter’s graduation lunchbox, along with many other words of unsolicited advice from many voices (and with a bag of goldfish and a Hershey bar, just because a lunchbox ought to have something at least barely edible in it) was Ann Patchett’s little book of commencement wisdom, What Now? It’s based on her Sarah Lawrence  speech a few years back.

Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.

If you’re trying to find out what’s coming next, turn off everything you own that has an OFF switch and listen.

…our future is open, we may well do more than anyone expected of us, at every point in our development we are still striving to grow.

Sarah Lawrence is Ann’s alma mater, so part of her rumination is on the value of coming home.

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours–long hallways and unforeseen stairwells–eventually puts you in the place you are now.

Back to those voices: my favorite part of What Now? is Patchett’s “secret,” no secret to us pragmatic pluralists (and isn’t that a nice image of the walker’s dilemma, on the cover? More on that later):

The secret is to keep adding voices, adding ideas, and moving things around as you put together your life. If you’re lucky, putting together your life is a annpatchett_whatnowprocess that will last through every single day you’re alive.

And sometimes putting together your life just involves putting together your pool.


Butterfly in the sky

May 28, 2013

It’s the first unofficial day of summer, with no one to drop at school or (as yesterday) the airport, so I didn’t bother scheduling the harp to prompt my pre-dawn rising. Got up anyway, thanks to long habit and loud birds. Feels virtuous.

backpack2We’re till in the afterglow of Older Daughter’s official launch from High School on Sunday afternoon. Big party tent’s still up and so is my sentimental mood.  The commemorative slideshow Mom labored long and lovingly to assemble, with its time-lapse of 13 annual “first days,” has me strolling memory lane. Oh the places we went, back before graduating pre-school. Those were some happy walks.

And then there were all those flights of armchair adventure. One of our first songs not from the Pooh songbook was the Reading Rainbow theme: “I can go anywhere…”

Gave OlderStorytime with Emma Daughter a Seuss lunchbox filled with non-comestible stuff to chew on, including some advice to the aspiring writer. Best advice ever, of course, is “Read read read…”

But as the genial host always said, you don’t have to take my word for it. Reading’s still fundamental, we’re still born ceaselessly into the past. Follow the green light, Colbert, and read the book.

Crucial complementary advice, if you really want to free your imagination and go places: take a reading/writing break. Take a hike.


May 27, 2013

Most of a walker’s milestones are unremarkable and unremarked. Yesterday Older Daughter took a short walk across a tented stage and passed a big one: High School. She graduated with distinction, accomplishment, praise, and promise. Congrats, lucky class of ’13!

And now, in a few fleeting summer weeks, she gets to head out and do it again. Four more years, if her path is straight and clear, to her next short walk milestone and a college degree. Oh the places she’ll go!

And there’s Younger Daughter, stepping up to take her place in the procession right behind. If the stars align we’ll be celebrating a pair of graduations in 2017. May we all remember, between now and then, to savor the journey.

Walk and enjoy*

May 25, 2013

“Regular walking can strengthen your heart and improve your general health. Walk and enjoy yourself as you enhance the quality of your life.”

My dogs and I – the two pictured here, and two others (one gone, one sadly going) – have been walking past this fading but affirming sign several times a week for over a decade. Best health-and-happiness advice I’ve ever received, dispensed for free by the good congregants of the adjoining Baptist church on whose tax-free property we’ve been traipsing all these years. Our transitory  souls, the dogs’ and mine, thank them very much for generously sharing their space with us – and for not proselytizing.

“Walking continues to be a great pleasure. It also continues to be a form of self-medication. It stops me from getting depressed. It keeps me more or less healthy, more or less sane. It helps me to write.” (Geoff Nicholson)

Except for that last sentence my dogs would say the same. The sign is right.


*Originally posted 5.14.09

Share this:

Wag more

May 24, 2013

When you talk dogs and philosophy you really have to begin with Diogenes of Sinope, don’t you?

DiogenesSolvitur ambulando* (“it is solved by walking”) is often attributed to him. Don’t know why canes is typically omitted from the phrase, since the philosopher whose full nominal designation (“D. the Cynic”) practically means dog, knew the  ultimate solution almost always involves a second or third set of appendages. Preferably a quadra-set, and canine.

(Actually my Latin teacher, Ms. Google-Translate, prefers *solvendum est per ambulationem canes. Write that on the board a hundred times! Tense is tricky. But cynics do not cavil over convention.)

Unless they’ve been “trained”, dogs and Cynic philosophers do what it occurs to them to do when it occurs to them to do it, without regard for local custom or popular propriety or (especially) the presence of commanding authority. Diogenes told Alexander to step out of his sunlight. We’re told Alex was impressed. The dog was not. But why does that make either Diogenes or his dog a “cynic”?

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

AngelPupMy dogs are actually much sweeter and more compliant than that. They’re waggers, not barkers. They don’t even hassle fundamentalists or Platonists. (Squirrels & chipmunks are another story.) One’s an “Angel,” not a “Cynic,” thanks to Younger Daughter’s inspiration at the puppy pound. But wouldn’t Cynic and Diogenes be perfect names for a pair of pups? Their eventual successors perhaps, should I live so long.

But not so fast, they’d say if they could. These two are still fabulous walking companions and they’re infinitely patient. I won’t keep them waiting another moment.


Pedagogue dogs

May 23, 2013

That dog gazing uncomprehendingly (yet agreeably) at that treadmill reminds me, as most everything does, of something William James said:

We stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.

This is James in speculative mode, towards “whatever [we] may consider the divine.” I prefer to keep the divinity (and cats) out of it myself, but I think the point still sticks: our experience merely brushes up against realities, most of the time, if and when it encounters them at all. So a little more good-natured humility, curiosity, and patient anticipation is in order. And unconditional loyalty. That’s what our dogs can teach us.

Books have been written on this theme, of course. Inside of a Dog and What’s a Dog For? are both on my list. And Rousseau’s Dog.

Schopenhauer was inexplicably partial to poodles. When they misbehaved he berated them: “Bad human!” Meanest insult he could imagine.

So, there’ll be a chapter in PW on walking the dogs. Rousseau did it, Schopenhauer did it, I do it daily.

Anhedonic treadmills

May 22, 2013

“I can stay on my feet a whole day, and I do not weary of walking… My walk is quick and firm.” Montaigne in Motion

I’ll bet Montaigne would have enjoyed Susan Orleans’ treadmill, on those days when weather (meteorological or internal-psychological) trapped him in his tower. Slight but perpetual motion is what we need. Bodies in motion are so much healthier than at rest.

But if you’d just as soon tread in place, at your elevated “work station,” as pad the actual ground and sniff the open air, then you’re not really a Walker. Don’t tread on me. Motion of limb is only one component of this activity. Geographic exploration, changing panoramic vistas, space to roam both physically and mentally, shifting proprietary territoriality, little epiphanies of insight, new discoveries in familiar places, chance encounters, etc. etc., are missing from this picture. And yet…

The skies were threatening here yesterday morning, so I ducked into the Vandy Rec Cernter, climbed onto the platform, set my speed for 4.2 mph, and enjoyed myself. A Platonic cave-wall of muted shadowy images provided the visual backdrop: ESPN on one channel, Montel (I think) on another, amateur cell-phone video of the Oklahoma tragedy on a loop on CNN on a third. It was diverting for awhile. For thirty minutes. And then the skies cleared.

So I climbed down, went home, and walked the dogs. So much more diverting, rewarding, real. I think the dogs would agree.

Einstein always walked

May 21, 2013

Que sais-je?” And what do I know about Einstein? He said “there is one thing we do know…”

And,”everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

And, I know he was a walker.


“Yes, I saw Einstein often walking on Mercer Street… sweater hanging down, sandals… We heard that his stepdaughter wanted to give him a car, but he preferred walking.”

“He was very friendly. It seems as though it was almost every day… He always walked.”

And did you know that Einstein loved to smoke? So if he visited our campus, having no car, he’d have nowhere to indulge. We’re too good for him. (Maybe we need to rethink that policy, President McPhee?)

As he walked between his house and his office at Princeton, one could often see him followed by a trail of smoke. Nearly as part of his image as his wild hair and baggy clothes was Einstein clutching his trusty briar pipe. In 1950, Einstein is noted as saying, “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” Although he favored pipes, Einstein was not one to turn down a cigar or even a cigarette.

One more thing I know about Einstein: he loved to ride.

So he’ll be in Philosophy Walks’ sequel, Philosophy Rides.