Archive for June, 2013

Walk in the sunshine

June 29, 2013

Aristotle “in a nutshell,” from astute non-academic Tom Butler-Bowdon:

Happiness comes from expressing what we have rationally decided is good for us over the longer term. Happiness is not pleasure, but a by-product of a meaningful life.

Butler-Bowdon’s 50 Philosophy Classics is an impressively wide-ranging, alphabetically-ordered compendium of nutshell clarity. Surprisingly impressive, perhaps, to those academics who’ve been miseducated to suspect and discount the work of non-credentialed generalists.

I don’t think I’m one of those, but I was suspicious that the latest volume in a drab-seeming series of 50s (spiritual, self-help, success, prosperity, psychology, no “shades of grey”) might be a bit lite. It’s not. It strikes just the  right balance between accurate explication, insightful contextual analysis, and breezy illustrative anecdote.

I hadn’t known, for instance, of A.J. Ayer’s encounter with Mike Tyson at a New York party. Ayer interceded when Tyson “assaulted” his date, and replied cooly to the thug’s “Do you know who I am? I am the heavyweight champion of the world.” -“And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic…” My esteem for Ayer just tripled.

But the Butler-Bowdon quote I found most moving and helpful (and relevant to my present project) yesterday was not in 50 Classics but in his twitter stream:

“I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man. I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.”

That was Nelson Mandela, whose meaningful life will continue to be a source of human happiness.

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Sympathetic peripatetics

June 28, 2013

Peripatetic“: terrific word, fabulous idea. One day early in the Fall semester I’m going to fulfill a lifelong ambition and conduct class peripatetically.

From the time of Aristotle until 86 BC there was a continuous succession of philosophers in charge of the school in the Lyceum. The common name for the school, Peripatetic, was derived either from the peripatos in the Lyceum grounds or from Aristotle’s habit of lecturing while walking [but, you call this walking?]... The Lyceum’s fame-and the fame of other schools in Athens-attracted increasing numbers of philosophers and students from all over the Mediterranean world…

The utter destruction of Athens in AD 267 probably ended this renaissance of scholarly activity. The work of Peripatetic philosophers continued elsewhere, but it is unclear whether they returned to the Lyceum. Nothing certain is known about the Lyceum during the remainder of the third through early sixth centuries AD. Any remaining philosophical activity would certainly have ended in AD 529, when the emperor Justinian closed all the philosophical schools in Athens. 

We don’t seem to know much for sure about the ancient peripatetics.

According to the tradition, Andronicus of Rhodes was the eleventh successor of Aristotle as head of the Peripatos, the school that Aristotle founded in Athens (Ammonius, In De Int. 5.28-29). We have good reasons to doubt this tradition. 

Well, we almost always have good reasons to doubt every tradition. Aristotle’s Lyceum and its walking philosophers ended in Athens but “continued to exist in the form of a philosophical sect,” and more importantly continues to exist as an idea, a state of mind, and a style of living. Walk this way…

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A good way to think

June 27, 2013

I’ve always assumed Socrates must have been a walker. I mean, not just a guy who walked, from necessity and utility (how else was he going to carry himself down to the Agora for work each day, after all?); but an active appreciator and celebrant of the pleasures and benefits of reflective motility.

But until I picked up The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes, I hadn’t really considered it. He was not alone, pounding the Athenian pavements.

Men of all degrees walked through the winding streets, brushing shoulders with one another. Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customized little hobnail boots… All life was here. Socrates, himself a great walker (we hear in one of the Platonic dialogues, the Phaedrus, that contemporaries thought walking ‘a good way to think’), would have traveled through an Athenian landscape of surprising parity…

Socrates was a great walker. He talks about travelling 25-mile distances without a second thought. Walking and thinking seem to have been a true pleasure to him… 

So he wouldn’t have been “permanently pissed,” Pythons. But his mood would have been cheery, his tone  buff and vital. He would have plied his trade with confidence too. Humble and confident, not cocksure and arrogant. Curious and inquiring. Peripatetic. Aristotelian. But Plato, they say…

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Small steps & solid foundations

June 26, 2013

5:40 a.m. Annoyed that I can’t get a wifi connection out back on my writing porch this morning, but I’m not going to take the time right now to go and investigate the cable and router etc.  Mobile Blogger app’s not available either, thanks to an unfortunate pool incident I’d rather not go into.

I do have my notebook and Notepad, though, so here we go. Web publishing doesn’t have to be instantaneous and Right Now, the specious present will wait. My wireless high-wire act must go on.

[5 hours later, service restored, specious present reclaimed]

I’ve been thinking about how in my own mind the connection between walking and spacefaring is intuitive and obvious, but may be opaque to others. Woke this morning with a thought that may begin to clarify, prompted I guess by my subconscious processing of a video moment I registered the other day.

Cool how frequently that happens, by the way. John McPhee has written of the crucial importance of always having a working draft in process and in mind, so that little light bulb revelations like the one I’m about to describe get a chance to glow.

But first, let me snatch one more digressive reflection: three Super Earth exoplanets reportedly have just been discovered only 22 light years away.  Hey ho, let’s go! Meanwhile, back on the only home we’ve ever known…

This morning’s waking hunch: on Monday I referenced a new report on the humanities (lately written of, in the Times, by David Brooks and Verlyn Klinkenborg)  and growing worries that they’re being allowed to wither in the shadow of economic distress and public demand for educational cash-value.. The report’s website includes a trailer, in which some young schoolkids are being made (presumably by a teacher) to watch Neil Armstrong’s “one small step/giant leap.” One says “it doesn’t look like much of a leap to me.”

Paucity of imagination is the inevitable result of starving the disciplines and the activites (like walking, and spacefaring) that feed it. See the connection? My intuition’s becoming more intuitive to me, at least.

While orienting at Rhodes last weekend we heard from history prof Tim Huebner, whose work on the Civil War includes overseeing the Shelby Foote archive. Tim told us, kids and parents alike, that it’s a mistake to think of humanities courses as something to get “out of the way.” Do you get the foundation of your house out of the way, in order to build it? Or is it always there, always supporting everything you do? Right.

And speaking of Shelby Foote, who lived just a couple of stone’s throws down the East Parkway from his papers’ permanent abode in the beautiful Barret library at Rhodes: I love what he told Paris Review about work and life, in 1999… and of course I love that “superb edifice” he and his pal Percy built to last on the bluff at Brinkwood. In their published correspondence, not long before Walker’s death but already more than a decade since Shelby’s, he wrote: “My god, my god. Fifty years… (!)”

The importance for life and the human search, of a firm foundation, cannot be overstated.

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High on the wire, high on life

June 25, 2013

There was some discussion around our alfresco dining table last night, some mild dispute, as to the nature and praiseworthiness of Mr. Walenda’s canyon stunt. Wife and Younger Daughter expressed admiration for the skill and fortitude involved in his high-wire act. Doing it without a net made it even more impressive, they said. Made it more lucrative for him, I said. TV wasn’t going to pay big bucks to watch somebody dive into a net, were they?

The whole spectacle was garish and tasteless, like most sponsored television entertainment. The fact that some people will risk gambling away the gift of life in exchange for fame or notoriety or money is not surprising. But it isn’t especially elevating, either.

It’s not just the money, though. In Let the Great World Spin, one of Colum McCann’s New Yorkers reacts to Phillipe Petit’s 1974 World Trade Center tower walk with a feeling similar to mine, similarly inarticulate. There’s just something cheap and low and hard to verbalize, about such an enterprise, even if you’ve not pre-arranged a vast audience and a big paycheck.

On the other hand, as Henry says:

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.

I do try to capture something of  that spirit, with every saunter. The great adventure, the great balancing act, involves carefully toeing the line of the present moment while also fearlessly stepping out into the undiscovered country of tomorrow, and tomorrow. “Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”

The abyss immediately at our feet is nothing, compared to the vast and sprawling expanse that nobody’s paying us to cross. We all have to find intrinsic motivation for that journey, and the courage to live. We can’t just be in it for the money. Or the adrenaline. Or Daddy’s approval. Or anything merely personal and ego-driven. What life may become, beyond the distractions and amusements of the moment, is our great and vital question. None of us has a net.

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Memphis in the meantime

June 24, 2013

Back after a long weekend in Memphis, slowly orienting to the idea of releasing Older Daughter to her destiny as a newly minted Rhodes scholar.

It was an immersive orientation, as we and she were introduced to representatives of just about every corner of the college. My old classmate from Vandy was there to speak up for the humanities, and he did such a good job that she signed on for a boatload of Fall courses in the disciplines (English, philosophy, history etc.) widely and exaggeratedly rumored  to be in deep trouble all across the land. Looks to me like they’re doing fine there.

Walking in Memphis this time was a bit disappointing. We stayed out in Germantown, where I’d read that the mayor’s new push for a more bikeable and walkable community had really taken hold. But the beefy Hyatt concierge was not only unfamiliar with the new Greenway, he didn’t really even grasp the concept. “You can see how much I exercise, hahaha.” Went out for a stroll anyway. Sidewalk kept ending on me.

Turns out the Wolf River Greenway is a work-in-progress. Maybe it’ll be finished some time in the next four years, before Older Daughter finishes her formal education. I’ll keep looking.

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Walking home

June 19, 2013

Buddhists are typically great walkers and walking meditators, walking both to get somewhere, pilgrim-style, and for the sheer sake of journeying along a worthy path. Their big prize, of course, their “goal,” is Enlightenment and its sub-genres compassion, empathy, kindness, and shared happiness through mutual relief from suffering. One could do worse than follow or practice Buddhism.

That scroll message from the Dalai Lama, about life’s meaning emerging from our contributions to other people’s happiness, is not so different from other admirable statements of what meaning means. William James’s concise summary is still my favorite:

The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place. “What Makes a Life Significant

But, back to Buddhist walkers…

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit quotes a scholar saying that a Buddhist practitioners are walkers insofar as they do not think of themselves as residing permanently in any one locale but are transient of the spirit, unmoored, unsituated, and thus abiding in “emptiness.”

Well, I get that. But I’d put it more positively. In my own experience, anywhere I can walk is home. And since I can walk anywhere, home is everywhere. I’m not homeless, my abode is not empty, it’s full and getting fuller with every new lap, hike, and orbit.

Walkers are cosmopolitans, as Carl Sagan liked to say, citizens of the cosmos. We’re right at home here. We belong.

And did you hear? Next month we’re getting our pale portrait updated!

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Flag’s still here

June 18, 2013

Older Daughter came home from Bonnaroo with tales of music and interactive aromatic adventure, and with just the right Fathers Day souvenir:

I don’t think she walked around the festival grounds enough, by my peripatetic standards; but from what I hear she definitely contributed to others’ happiness. Maybe survival, even. And how cool is it that her weekend highlight was the indefatigable Friday night performance of a Beatle, older than her envious old man! 
That contributes to my happiness in indescribably meaningful ways.

NOTE. Today’s post commences a new chapter of my dawn blog, reconstituted here on Blogger as Up@dawn 2.0. The old WordPress archives going back to April 2009 remain intact, linked at the original site (scroll down & right) and in the top right margin here. Only the host has changed, motive and intent (wakefulness, punctuality, clarity, energy, insight) remain the same.

May dawn’s early light continue to cast its reflective spell!

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Mystically festive

June 14, 2013

Most festival goers are just there for the party, I know, and some for the Experience, while a few are seeking something spirited and meaningful and liberating.

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness… Charles Bukowski

Older Daughter says she’s “just trying to accept that I’ve got three more days of this.” I think that’s the sunburn and travel fatigue talking, but she’s usually not one for Greek-style party mysticism. Jennifer Hecht has interesting thoughts on all this.

We first-world moderns are not like everybody else. Historically the average person expected to be a little miserable most of the time, and ecstatic on festival days. We now expect to be happy all the time, but never riotously so.

I usually expect to be happy while walking around looking at stuff and thinking about things (or not thinking about them). It definitely looks to me like there’s plenty to walk around and gawk at, at the ‘roo-fest. I should go. Can any of my music friends still get me backstage to see Paul, I wonder? He should remember a thing or two about mystery  tours and manic ecstasy, even if he’s on the wrong side of 64.

They found it

June 13, 2013

Just got a text from Older Daughter: there yet? “Nope. On our way.”

She and her pals are on the road to Bonnaroo. Wasn’t thinking about there, exactly, when I packed her Seuss box in anticipation of wondrous journeys. “O the places you’ll go,” o the humanity. 100,000 people in a field near Manchester, TN as the mercury heads back toward the mid 90s.  Rustic conditions, minimal amenities, security not entirely reassuring, loud and crowded and HOT. Sound like fun?

How’s a dad supposed to feel, especially after getting a message like this a few moments ago?

“We can’t find Bonnaroo, but we’re in Manchester. Can you look on the website for an address?”

Well, I feel concerned, amused, mildly perturbed. Mom and I have been pushing survival guides and FAQ pages and explicit travel instructions at her for days and weeks.

But, she’s more prepared than she lets on, I know. From the time she was a little girl she’s always delighted in proclaiming “got your goat!” She insisted to Mom that she wouldn’t need earplugs to sleep, then on the sly asked me to pick her some up.  So mom was right after all? “No. This is a just in case. If she’s right, I’ll tell her after…”

Breaking news:

“We found it.”

Good. Guess I can stop worrying now, right?