Archive for July, 2014

Postcard from Carolina

July 23, 2014

“Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.” Roger Ebert

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Environmental ethics

July 15, 2014

I’ve been postponing a final decision on which of innumerable possible texts would most salubriously complement the two I’d already selected for my impending Fall course on environmental ethics and sustainability.

I’d already picked Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey because it looks back at the recent history of environmental activism and forward to the more locally-and-globally sustainable patterns of living such activism was always supposed to enable.

And I’d picked Ed Wilson’s The Creation because we can’t reasonably hope to sustain life in a climate of polarized hostility over matters extraneous to our shared interest in survival. Environmental sustainability must transcend ideology and religion (and irreligion).

So yesterday I finally settled on Robin Attfield’s freshly-revised and updated text. There’s plenty here about sustainability and our responsibility to the future of life. There’s defense of “biocentric consequentialism.” There’s an attempt to “foster the kind of campaigning” on behalf of the environment that moves us beyond the academic ivory tower and into the streets with McKibben and friends. There’s a generous and helpful bibliography, including the web. There’s “music for environmental ethicists.” And there’s the transatlantic perspective provided by Attfield’s residence at Cardiff University.

But if I’m being entirely honest, one compelling reason for my selection of this text is the walkers on the cover.  That’s the picture of sustainability.

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Life itself

July 14, 2014

Saw and loved Life Itself Saturday night, introducing Older Daughter to someone she needs to know as she prepares to head up to Illinois and commence her own film studies.

I used to watch Siskel and Ebert every Sunday night on PBS in St. Louis in the late ’70s, right before Monty Python. They had as much influence on my education as anyone, and Ebert continues to educate me. He was a philosopher of happiness, and a humanist. (Siskel was good too, a philosophy major we learn.)

“A machine for generating empathy” was Roger’s idea of what a movie could be. Hard not to empathize with him, not to marvel at the astounding and tenacious love of life that had him clinging to it with thumbs up long after most of us would have folded. Letting us see him struggle, very publicly, with a devastating cancer. And finally, acknowledging death’s inevitability and accepting its necessity. Gently letting go.

What a beautiful spirit he achieved, this exceptionally talented man who in rotund self-indulgent health had been (like many of us) “nice, but not that nice.” The film and the memoir it’s based on make clear that he didn’t do it alone.

Another inspiring life. Can’t collect too many of them.

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John Seigenthaler, 1927-2014

July 12, 2014

Nashville, journalism, and friends of justice & freedom & integrity & decency & literacy everywhere lost a great man yesterday. So glad I took the time two months ago to write to him, after watching the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge get rechristened in his name.

…I find myself moved to add my thanks for all you’ve done for so long, for individuals, for your community and nation, for the cause of human freedom and dignity, and for social progress and hope. 

And, thanks again for visiting my ethics & computer ethics classes at Vanderbilt in ’06. The door to my MTSU classes is always open to you… Be well.

He’ll not be passing through that door again in the flesh, but his tireless energy in service to our species will continue to inspire me every time I do.

Worth another look:

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A bridge to freedom

Local icon and national (as well as personal) hero John Seigenthaler got a fitting and perfectly-symbolic tribute this week: Nashville’s Shelby Street pedestrian bridge was renamed and dedicated to honor the man who’s done so much for so long for human and civil rights, and for freedom. The First Amendment Center which he founded is a beacon of advocacy and hope, and now it has new company as a civic monument to its founder.

The mayor’s right, he’s always been a man to extend a saving hand and a man to say Yes. That’s what he said when I invited him to speak to my Vanderbilt ethics and computer ethics classes several years ago. I’ll never cross that bridge again without grateful appreciation.



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July 11, 2014

Finished a small summer project, to get through all of @tombutlerbowdon’s Tom Butler-Bowdon‘s “literature of possibility.” Lots of chaff mixed with so much golden wheat, oddly arranged according to the alphabet rather than chronology or theme. In the spirituality book, for instance, Ram Dass is sandwiched between Chuang Tzu and Epictetus. Not that Richie Alpert didn’t have his moments. And I really don’t think Rick Warren and James Redfield belong in the same galaxy, let alone the same book, as William James and Somerset Maugham and Mohandas Ghandi.

But that’s TB-B’s genius, his ability to glean light from the least expected corners. He’s a great digester/condenser of volumes both slight and sturdy. I learned a lot from these selections and “nutshell” synopses. I’d never have picked up his success, “self-help, or prosperity “classics” at all, but for the quality and insight of his philosophy, the last which was my first. [Walk in the sunshine]

So, arriving at psychology classic #50, I collect my reward from Robert Thayer’s Origin of Everyday Moods: “Exercise, the data shows, is the best mood regulator. A brisk walk of 5-15 minutes when we are feeling tired paradoxically restores our spirits and can energize us for up to two hours.” Right! And 60 minutes will set you up for the day. Park the Prius and hit the pavement. [Walk your path]

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Why though, in light of this crucial observation, does he keep repeating the refrain that “moods are more important than daily activities” when in fact they’re inseparable?

Anyhow, read TB-B’s classics. Chaff’s worth sorting, there’s plenty of nourishment here.

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Take me out to the ballgame

July 10, 2014

Spent all day at softball camp (prelude to today’s start of the big tourney)  with Younger Daughter and about 150 other very talented young women. Many of them were so grimly determined to impress the college coaches who ran the thing that they seemed to have left no room for the fun you’re supposed to have when you’re young and strong and playing a game you’re great at. Working too hard at play.

But I was having fun, in a time-warped reverie of mental transport back to my own youthful sports camp days: summer 1970, Chandler Oklahoma. Two weeks of undiluted baseball, while the world of Nixon and Kent State and Vietnam fell away.

My face must’ve been registering my delight in the memory, someone commented on my persistent grin. Those girls yesterday “raking” (as they say on ESPN) line drives and long flies and zipping laser throws around the infield, and really just the total ambience of the scene, evoked for me the immersive essence of a ballplaying aesthetic that meant everything when I was thirteen years old.

Plus, that season had a radio soundtrack that played involuntarily but pleasurably in my head yesterday and must have shown, here in the present. Way better than a French cookie, Marcel. “Mama Told Me (not to come),” “Ball of Confusion,” “Ride Captain Ride,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Hitchin’ a Ride,” “Teach Your Children,” “In the Summertime,” “The Long and Winding Road”…

I began to understand intellectually what my reverie was partly about, years later, when I picked up John Dewey’s Art as Experience and read of “the tense grace of the ballplayer” and other “ordinary” sources of art in everyday life. Understanding is only partial, given (for instance) the co-constitutively evocative role of ancient pop music in creating the emotional content of my trip in time. But what’s so special about such experiences is, you needn’t think about them, to have and enjoy them. And when you do think about them, post facto, it’s the feeling (not the fact) that gets you.

Time has inflated and improved the experience, no doubt. But accurate or not – did I really no-hit my young peers one charmed afternoon back in the day or do I just like to think so? – it’s still a wonderful gift to have such an idyllic place in mind to go to, etched and stored remotely for random  recollection. There may be much to say for mindful presence, as the Buddhists and others point out, but there’s as much to be said for traveling up and down the corridors of one’s own time.

Oh to be young and strong and competent, oh to wack the daylights out of a speeding spheroid, oh to stroll the green fields of the mind. If the kids aren’t having as much fun as I think they should now, later they will. But why wait? Be here now and again.

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Don’t believe everything

July 8, 2014

My step-mom was amused, during our recent visit, by one of the bumper sticker messages adorning my Chromebook. (I was inspired by students and Older Daughter to transfer some of that obsessive messaging impulse to a medium less likely to provoke road rage or impair the safety of drivers who can’t resist reading the fine print.)

 The message: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Most people find that message amusing, for different reasons. Disturbingly many haven’t and won’t give it enough thought to be amused.

I like it because it italicizes everything, thus implying – like a good Jamesian pragmatist – that it might be okay to believe some things without compelling supportive evidence. Things that are “good” for life, that make a person healthy and happy and helpful and kind, ought at least to be entertained as candidates for our believing assent. That doesn’t make them “true” in a traditional correspondence sense, but it might make them good enough. I’d prefer not to call them “true” just because they’re useful, but I’d also prefer not to dismiss them out of hand as irrelevant to the larger purposes of philosophy and the total human enterprise.

I also like it because it’s a necessary counterweight to the walker’s impulse to blur the distinction between thought, belief, impulse, whim, etc. That impulse is perhaps best understood as free-form spontaneity, which is one of a good walk’s great gifts. But it’s a gift with entangling strings, strings that must be separated and sorted by the analyzing critical intellect. Speaking just for myself, perhaps, deliberate and careful critical analysis is not usually conducive to happy wallking. I believe I need to think some more about that.

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July 7, 2014

They do really suck. “The professional fireworks display is an exercise in pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris.” And primitivism, and environmental assault. The display we saw in Missouri the other night wasn’t even visually interesting, at least from our distant vantage in my step-Mom’s church parking lot. But that didn’t stop droves of gawkers from clogging the streets and adding their own fossil fumes to the toxic mix, to get there and see it. 

Then I saw this. Kinda chilling to realize how cheap and easy it’s become for even private citizens to put a potentially-snoopy eye in the sky above us. But, “visually interesting” for sure. 

Pretty lights can hypnotize. The most impressive, of course, are on offer every night just over the horizon. They don’t cost a thing, and they don’t poison our little bubble of biosphere. You do have to move away from the city lights to really see ’em, though.

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Free to move

July 1, 2014

I’ve been wondering how to justify adding a daytrip to the Wordsworths’ Dove Cottage in the Lake District, during our Study Abroad course in Britain. What’s the hook, philosophically?

It’s freedom and liberty, especially mental freedom and the liberty to roam. It’s the impact Wordsworth and the romantic poets had on young J.S. Mill, as reported in his Autobiography and recounted by Arthur Herman. They awakened him to the “actual experience of life,” to the importance of motility to his sanity and creativity and philosophical acuity.

The point of actually living, rambling, and poetizing, for the romantics, was “to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier.” Mill had been missing that, and so had been missing the experience of liberty and life.With it, he went on to inspire William James to invoke him in “On a Certain Blindness” and then dedicate Pragmatism to his memory. Pretty good hook, and a good bridge between American and English philosophy. An English root, for sure.

Do I mix my metaphors? Very well. Walkers are always churning out metaphors, because everything flows into everything else when you’re self-propulsive and free.Wordsworth was the prince of walking poets. He inspired Mill and James to get out of their studies and away from their books. He inspired them to write their books.

Me too.

Must be lots of other great Brit Lit walks of comparable philosophical significance, besides the Wordsworths’ Lakes District, we’ve not yet thought to include. July’s the time to think of them.

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