Archive for March, 2016

Buck O’Neil

March 28, 2016

Sick on Easter, the holiday pagans like me celebrate as symbolic of spring and the return of life (whether Eostre existed or not). No fair.

But I wasn’t too sick to continue my preparation for this week’s conference with two wonderful books.

First, I finally gave overdue attention to Older Daughter’s 2010 Christmas gift: We Are the Ship: the Story of Negro League Baseball, with its terrific dedication:

And, the best book about baseball that’s really about life that I’ve read in a long time: The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America makes clear just why old Buck was such an inspiration to so many. My conference presentation started out being about Satchel Paige, on the strength of Buck’s testimony that he was deeper than people knew. But it’s going to end up more about Buck, who was not only deep with self-knowledge but wide with compassion. He was a humanist, a kind and caring man who seems to have had a Midas touch for the best in people.

When Buck was inexplicably snubbed by Cooperstown, not long before his death at nearly 95, he went there anyway to lead the posthumous induction of seventeen of his old friends. And then he got everybody in the place to hold hands and sing a little refrain about love.

Why wasn’t he bitter and resentful over his exclusion, the way most of us would have been? Why didn’t he snub Cooperstown? Think about this, son. What is my life all about? He’d led the examined life. He knew.

6:45/6:40, 47/60/39

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Joe Garagiola

March 25, 2016

With the latest report of the NFL’s negligence in addressing its brain injury problem, I turn happily to my sport. The 21st Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference is just a week away. It used to happen across the hall, a few steps from my office door. This year it’s going to take a little longer to get there, at its new venue 600 miles away in Kansas. But I wouldn’t miss it, my surest sign of Spring. I’m especially looking forward to revisiting the Negro Leagues Museum.

In my presentation I’m going to talk about the under-appreciated sagacity of the game’s greatest wits, mostly Satchel Paige (who, like Yogi, didn’t say everything he said) and Buck O’Neil (who did).

That’s a lot of Kansas City, for an old St. Louisan like me, so I’m adding Yogi and his pal Joe Garagiola to the program. He just died at age 90, following his friend who also checked out at 90 in September. I’d love to believe they’ll both go on cracking wise on a heavenly Hill somewhere.

It was Joe, to whom Yogi instructed: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

It was Joe who stoked the legend of Yogi. “Not only was I not the best catcher in the major leagues, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street.”

Unlike Yogi, Joe played for lots of teams (“I went through baseball as a player to be named later”) including, naturally, the Cubs. “One thing you learned as a Cubs fan: when you bought you ticket, you could bank on seeing the bottom of the ninth.”

His debut in the Cardinals broadcast booth with Buck and Caray was a couple of years before my time, but I caught him later on countless Games of the Week, and on the Today show. He came across as a regular guy, genuine, self-effacing, and deceptively simple, an ideal complement for Vin Scully’s florid style. “Scully will describe the azure blue skies and the fluffy clouds and Old Glory blowing in center field, and he makes you feel like, ‘Let’s have a parade,’ ” he said. “He can put words together, and I’d come in and say, ‘All I know is the wind is blowing, and if the pitcher doesn’t have a good fastball or can’t spot it, he’ll be backing up third all day.’ ”

He received the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. He might have echoed Yogi’s pithiest Socratic truth – “In baseball you don’t know nothin'” – but he knew plenty.

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Now, at last

March 24, 2016

This morning I’m revisiting an old post from 2010 when my “Future of Life” class considered the Clock of the Long Now, so named by musician Brian Eno. He said: “If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future, we have to reach a frame of mind where it comes to seem unacceptable – gauche, uncivilised – to act in disregard of our descendants.” 

Some who resist the kind of long-term thinking that professes deep regard for our distant descendants are put off by what they see as a disingenuous stance of selflessness. 
And some just agree with Philip Kitcher, who said in his 2013 Terry Lectures at Yale that became Life After Faith that it becomes increasingly difficult to muster and maintain intimate interest in the lives of people we’ll never know. Never mind people in ten millennia, those coming just a couple generations down the pike are already hard for him to think and care about. “So, as I look forward sufficiently far, regret [at dying and missing the future] declines into indifference.”
As noted here a few weeks ago, this is an attitude Samuel Scheffler finds unsustainable and in fact unsustained, when we reflect on the world without us and realize that its indefinite continuation as the natural “collective afterlife” long after we’re gone is something most of us can’t help caring about.
So, I suggest, we should work on putting our indifference to the distant future behind us. Most of us do want, as Eno said, to contribute to a tenable future. We must keep reminding ourselves that our present was the distant future for our remote ancestors, who fortunately for us did not all regard us indifferently. This is not a call for selflessness, it’s an acknowledgement that meaningful selfhood in the present entails a vital relatedness to the selves who came before and those who will come after us. 
We’ve got to extend our empathy far forward and gain a new appreciation for the “beautiful continuum of life.” He and his Long Now Foundation compadres (Eno came up with their name) think the best trigger for that transformation may be a new artistry and iconography of time. Stick a clock in a mountain and try to keep it ticking, they say. The trying is the beauty part, and the caring.

Danny Hillis is the earnest computer scientist behind the whole endeavor. Challenged by the late Jonas Salk to acknowledge the ego-driven angle of his passion, he confesses:

OK, Jonas, OK, people of the future, here is a part of me that I want to preserve, and maybe the clock is my way of explaining it to you: I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

I have hope for the future.

He wrote that a decade ago, and it would be easy enough to surrender to hopelessness now. But if we did, what would our descendants think of us? (Or… what descendants?) It’s important, as Woody Allen has (with perverse unintended irony) said, to be reasonably well thought-of after we’ve “thinned out.”

Ego does have its uses.

But there are practical problems to face, with this improbable clock.

5:30/6:45, 64/67/41

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Collecting happiness

March 23, 2016

Today’s poem makes the familiar point that our happiness is greatest when we’re least attentive to it. Recounting an ordinary domestic scene on the porch in Spring, surrounded by family, sipping coffee, sniffing lilacs, lightly regarding the news, Linda Pastan “didn’t even guess that I was happy.”

If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
Perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

In Happiness class people often wonder if noticing happiness won’t somehow jinx or ruin it. To the contrary, I agree with the poet. If someone could only stop the camera and just ask, noticing might actually amplify that fleeting feeling of well-being.

So, I’m going to start collecting happiness poems. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

7:00/6:47, 56/70

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The worm at the core

March 22, 2016

Once again, the pre-dawn horizon rewards the early riser. What a gorgeous golden moon, hovering just above the neighbors’ rooftop, just greeted the dog and me this a.m.

I’ve come across a book with immediate relevance for all my current classes, especially Atheism & Bioethics: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life leads with the same epigrammatic William James quote that suggested my own title, way back when, with its “worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight” that “turns us into melancholy metaphysicians.” The worm comes from fear, source of so many of our obsessions and compulsions. “The knowledge that we are mortal underlies both the noblest and the most unsavory of human pursuits.” If we know this, say the authors, growth and progress can be ours.

Philip Kitcher raises the role of fear in the early and forever-inescapable human ethical project, in today’s second chapter of Life After Faith. I of course thought instantly of Brooks’ and Reiner’s timeless 2,000 Year-Old ManCarl: What was the means of transportation then? Mel: Mostly fearCarl: Fear transported you? Mel: Fear, yes. You would see… an animal would growl, you’d go two miles in a minute. Fear would be the main propulsion. 

Not fear per se, but clear-eyed acknowledgement of our fear of dying followed by serious reflection on its place in life, may transport us. Maybe.

Today in CoPhi it’s Leibniz and his bête noire Voltaire. James is Voltaire’s ally against the Panglossian courtier Leibniz, whom he labelled “superficiality incarnate.” One of the hazards of metaphysics is a diluted sense of reality, leading to the appearance at least of dishonesty. Who could ever believe this the best of possible worlds, except someone whose grasp of possibility had been badly stunted by too much thinking?

You know who doesn’t think too much? My dog. I was listening to Older Daughter’s radio show last night, which developed an animal theme. I texted the suggestion that she close the show with Walt Whitman’s paean to animal nature, and she did. “THINK I could turn and live with animals…”

Jacques Barzun’s Stroll With William James, I’m reminded, opens with an anecdote about James calling absent-mindedness a matter of being “present-minded somewhere else.” Exactly right! What I’ve been trying to say about immediacy really boils down to the thought that it can be useful to a person – though possibly not to a dog – to cultivate that kind of presence, occasionally.

On most occasions, it’s still probably best to be present where you live. So, Happy birthday Billy Collins, poet-extraordinaire of ordinary life who, like Updike, also “gives the mundane its beautiful due.” That may be the best way, most days, to dispatch the worm at the core.

5:30/6:48, 35/69

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March 21, 2016

I’m struck again by the aptness of John Lachs’s Intermediate Man dedication: “For my family… three generations of immediacy.” All the more striking, then, are his initial explications of the concept of immediacy as self-reliance in the extreme pre-Friday Crusoe fashion, “in direct and immediate touch with the conditions of his existence,” knowing “all that was needed for life” (sans Internet, notice – see previous post on Michael Lynch’s “Internet of Us”), depending on no one, at home in his island solitude.

What’s striking is that Lachs, with that 1981 dedication, foreshadows a kind of immediacy that looks far beyond the moment to see in a glance the sweep of generational time, and then immediately pulls back from that expansive vision to a more explicitly insular idea.

This recessive adjustment leads him to forswear interest in the remote future, with remoteness understood trans-generationally. Mediation and “psychic distance” result, he says, from the varieties of ways in which the institutions and practices of modern life cut us off from our own direct experience. The few generations it takes to span a century are already too many for our direct attention and interest.

“The greatest immediacy is gained by full physical presence which opens all our senses,” followed by the fading presence of visual and auditory stimuli. There’s not much more to the future, in these terms, than an even less robust ideational shadow. Barely a presence at all.

William James may be understood to have meant something similar when he said the fons et origo, the fount and origin of life, is perceptual. But a point of origin is only a start.

Emerson extolled self-reliance, wondering why any of us ever settles for less than an “original relation to universe.”

Carl Sagan said we’re “wanderers” in space and time, irresistibly curious about the remotest reaches of the cosmos, bound to go there imaginatively now and dream of really going, one of these generations.

Teddy Roosevelt said “all for each and each for all.”

An original relation to the universe can be inclusive, expansive, and motile. Its present can grow, its moment can last, its island can include countless generations of immediacy.

7:00/6:50, 35/57

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The Internet of Us

March 19, 2016

Vandy’s Berry Lecturer Michael Lynch delivered an important message last night about “Google-knowing” and its mediated threat to deep understanding. The more we rely on digital connection to plug our knowledge gaps, the weaker our perceptual acuity. The more we depend on external data storage, the thinner our empirical relation to the world of facts in context, or genuine knowledge. Here’s his lively and peripatetic recent introduction to The Internet of Us-Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data:

Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, says Lynch “thinks we are frighteningly close” to losing our ability to know,

as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google, therefore I am not.

We heard a report in the Atheism class Thursday that seems to me to support this alarming forecast. It was a good and thoughtful report, informed by Google, but ultimately resigned to a world in which competing facts-&-values and alternative local cultures (even cultures as superficially similar as Nashville and St. Louis!) will never be reconciled. The reporters were skeptical about reason’s relevance in settling differences, confirming Lynch’s “three sources of skepticism about reason: the suspicion that all reasoning is rationalization, the idea that science is just another faith, and the notion that objectivity is an illusion.”

Our reporters illustrated their skepticism with a distressing sitcom clip in which a creationist dismisses science’s greatest virtue, self-correction, as “lying, sometimes.” He concludes, without serious challenge from a room full of supposed Darwinists , that evolution is simply an article of faith and not fact. Lynch’s prediction that, imbued with mere Google knowledge, we soon “won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values,” is already manifest.

“No matter the bigness of the data, the vastness of the Web, the freeness of speech, nothing could be less well settled in the twenty-first century than whether people know what they know from faith or from facts, or whether anything, in the end, can really be said to be fully proved.”

Truthiness is apparently the closest we’ll come to knowing, in this strange new world of Drumpf. It’s sadder than it is funny, at this point. Remember how we thought, five years ago, that the comic truth of this White House tour de force would finally settle the facts and prove the Donald a liar?

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Mundane, beautiful, connected

March 18, 2016

John Updike had a lovely reply to the question Why write?

To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me […] a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.

He “gave the mundane its beautiful due.”

George Plimpton, also born on this date, did too.

He was urbane and sophisticated, but like a lot of us he never gave up his little boy enthusiasm for the games of childhood. I met him in Cooperstown, just a couple of years before his death. He talked about how, from the earliest age, he’d been fascinated by the way a masterfully-thrown ball creates a connection between otherwise-discrete points in space. (Hence, Sidd Finch. The baseball conference, btw, is on April Fool’s Day again this year.)

Close observation of what it’s like to create new connections in space and time, to do that, to experience the doing of it, propelled his various amateur stints as a pretend-professional athlete. Hemingway admired his “dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty” performances (Out of My League, Paper Lion).

And then there’s Paris Review, which didn’t bother asking why to write but how. The distilled answer: when the words come, catch them. Connect.

7:00/6:54, 40/69

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Erin Go Bragh

March 17, 2016

Cheers, St. Pat, and happy birthday to my little sister.  I didn’t know that Patrick’s design of the Celtic cross “incorporates the Irish sun god into the Christian symbol.” (WA) Or that the pubs in Ireland used to be closed on this “fairly somber” holiday, before Americans (mostly) turned it into an occasion of “boisteroius excess.”

Not much boisterous excess in today’s CoPhi subject, John Locke. But Bishop Berkeley (speaking of Ireland) was an excessive youth, apparently, if you can believe the story that in his student days he hung himself just to see what it felt like to lose consciousness. He’d already taken esse ist percipi to heart. Not much common sense there, the Scot Thomas Reid would have said.

In Atheism we turn to Philip Kitcher’s Life After Faith, his published Terry Lectures delivered eighty years after his hero John Dewey’s own Terry Lectures that became A Common Faith. Making the case for “soft atheism,” he (like Alain de Botton, with a pragmatic twist) “sympathizes with the idea that secularists can learn from religious practices and recommends sometimes making common cause with religious movements for social justice.”

I’m a humanist first and an atheist second. Because I’m more sympathetic to religion than the prominent new atheists, I label my position “soft atheism.” But perhaps I’m a more insidious foe than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance…

I think religion at its best — the religion that prompts my admiration and sympathy — detaches itself from dubious metaphysics and from speculations about a “transcendent” to which our concepts are surely inadequate. It focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values… The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears. 

In Bioethics we take up Eula Biss’s On Immunity, a smart and conscientious young mother’s attempt to separate wheat from chaff in the vaccination “debate”. Of course one must “enact and embody one’s beliefs,” but what if one’s beliefs imperil the public health and safety?

And I’ll prompt the class to begin thinking of questions for the birthday girl, who’ll be visiting us soon to talk about her experiences as an E.R. social worker.

5:30/6:56, 44/71

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Moon Man

March 16, 2016

“Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.”

Robert Goddard should know.  The New York Times ridiculed his rocket vision, which began for him with  H.G. Wells’ 1898 War of the Worlds. He launched the first liquid-fueled rocket 90 years ago today. “Goddard died of cancer in 1945, 12 years before the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite. After the successful launch of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969, the Times printed a retraction of their ridicule of Goddard and his vision.” WA
It’s too bad Goddard didn’t get to enjoy that retraction, but he did get to enjoy a vision that brought the next century into his present. How to balance present enjoyment with due regard for the future, I’ve been asking? Begin by not squelching, ridiculing, or ignoring dreams and visions. Chris Stevens: “Be open to your dreams, people. Embrace that distant shore. Because our mortal journey is over all too soon.”

Visionaries live with possibility. Why do most of us not? Why are we so reluctant to entertain an unfamiliar vision, so afraid that we might become objects of ridicule? We ought to teach our children to dream, and not fear to commit an error of vision. “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” but timidity diminishes us and shrinks our world.  We make ourselves small by denying possibility, and then the joke’s on us. “A certain lightness of heart seems healthier,” and more likely to shoot the moon.

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