Archive for the ‘autobiography’ Category

Irrepressible desire

February 16, 2013

The family treated me to my annual Valentine’s/birthday dinner at Boscos last night, and I predictably ordered and enjoyed my customary pair of craft beers (Poor Richard’s Ale and a London Porter this time) chasing (as nearly always) the goat cheese tamale.

boscos-loyalty-cardsmBut where’s my “special birthday gift,” Boscos? It says right here on my “Beer Police” card that I’m entitled, and you did give me a mug last year. “Nobody’s ever asked about that,” said our server. “The manager would know,” said the greeter. No big deal, said I. But I left feeling like crotchety old Spencer Tracy in the film that had such an impact on me back when I was about ten, irritated at the ice cream stand attendant because she didn’t have his favorite Pistachio. Why can’t the world be as predictable as me?!

Well… that’s not a good POV for a pragmatist. We’re supposed to be firm yet flexible, non-ideological, committed to constant and constructive change.

And that’s just what I need to reflect on this morning, to begin preparing to participate in the American philosophy conference in less than three weeks. I’m supposed to have something to say about “old and new dawnings,” and about how old honest Abe was or was not a good pragmatist when confronting his own unpredictable battles.

So, the family took me home and presented me with a much better gift than Boscos ever did or would: the companion book (purchased at Parnassus, no less) to the acclaimed Spielberg biopic that should soon be reaping big Hollywood rewards. The back cover image represents Lincoln the nurturing Dad, rocking and reading to his little boy. The accompanying quote perfectly conveys Lincoln’s instinctive melioristic pragmatism:

I have an irrepressible desire to live till I can be assured that the world is a little better for my having lived in it.”

That’s an attitude worth celebrating, and emulating. Happy Presidents’ Day.

In country

February 9, 2013

Younger Daughter and I drove deep into the country yesterday, before her parent-teacher conference, on an errand for Mom to fetch Granny up to Nashville for the weekend.

Younger Daughter’s become quite the country music fan. She’s pals with a schoolmate whose grampa is apparently a backstage legend, and recently made her first pilgrimage to Ryman Auditorium, the genre’s “Mother Church.”

She’s also been lobbying for a move to the country, and trolling the real estate listings for a place where she can keep horses including “Apple Butter,” the little mare Granny’s been boarding for her out in Lewis County. She wants to begin living the life of a Large Animal Veterinarian as soon as possible.

That’s your dream, Mom says, not mine.

My position: I’ll be happy to live in any walkable place that’ll have me, and that doesn’t lengthen my already too lengthy daily commute to and from the ‘boro.

Dad was a farm boy and a vet, he’d be proud of his granddaughter’s aspiration. He’d also tell her dogs and cats are easier on the lower back. But we all have to do our own thing, find our life’s meaning and mission on our own.

So there we were yesterday, enjoying our country drive across middle Tennessee’s lovely (even in winter) rolling hills and scenic vistas, cranking up the car stereo. A little Prine…

Blow up your T.V. throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try an find Jesus on your own

And a little TomT…

Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

(And check out this fine interpretation, by another upstanding guy who’s got it goin’ on his own.)

And then, just as I’m about to confess that maybe a move to the country wouldn’t be so bad, we round a corner in Hohenwald and are greeted with this friendly church-sponsored message:

Even Satan was not an atheist.”

So maybe the country won’t have me, after all. Ah, the idiocy of rural life. But it’s ok to visit.

We made it back, Granny in tow, just in time for the parent-teacher’s conference. Dr. McCoy (with her little picture of Dr. “Bones” above her desk still) reconfirmed the solid progress of Younger Daughter’s academic/existential pilgrimage. She’s further down the road to her dreams (though we really should blow up the TV to help her get there, even she admitted to her teacher and us).

Can’t wait to visit.

“Common sense, dancing”

January 11, 2013

It’s my wife’s birthday, hence the first day of the short annual interregnum when I get to be the younger half. But the younger’s not the better, I’d better add.

She shares her nativity with my philosophical muse.

It’s the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James (books by this author), born in New York City (1842). He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the most prominent thinkers of his era. He was a man who started out studying medicine, went on to become one of the founders of modern psychology, and finished his life as a prominent philosopher.

He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. The book was called The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but it was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.

One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind that he called “a stream of consciousness.” Before him, the common view was that a person’s thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote: “Consciousness […] does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows.”

James’s ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness in their work, through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.

He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into one’s head. He encouraged audiences to take the practice up as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis of her writing style.

William James wrote: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” WA

Nice blurb, Mr. Keillor.  WJ clearly has influenced generations of world-historical intellectuals. Every educated person ought to have heard of him, wouldn’t you think?

Every college freshman, in fact. College freshmen in Greece and Germany and France have generally heard of their seminal philosophers, their Platos and Hegels and Descartes et al.

But next week I’ll confirm again that this isn’t so, as yesterday I once again confirmed that America’s greatest philosopher is generally unknown in Carlin Romano’s so-called “America the Philosophical.”

Younger Daughter and I paid yet another call on her physical therapist at Vandy, who’s helping rehab her busted pinky. The PT is well-practiced in the art of small talk, a vocational asset I’m sure, but when the subject turned to my work it was clear that she’d never heard of WJ. To her credit, she had apparently heard of his little brother. “Didn’t he write novels?”

Well, I tried to boil down the gist of WJ’s importance in quick summary style. Suddenly our voluble therapist was without words. “That’s interesting.” Turning back to Younger Daughter for rescue: “What kind of cell phone do you have?”

It’s a cultural literacy deficit we have in America, at least as troubling as the budget deficit.

As for Mr. Keillor, our modern Mark Twain, our “national treasure” who’s been bringing the weekly news from Lake Wobegon for decades: my stepsister’s new boyfriend, with whom we visited during the holidays in Missouri, is from Anoka, Minnesota, the real Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forget and the decades could not improve.” Are Anokans proud of their fictional alter ego?

“Never heard of it. Or him.”

If he were from Hannibal I guess he’d not have heard of Twain either. Sis has found herself a real American, a common man. Like the therapist, he’s nice and polite as can be. They both deserve their fanfare too. God bless the U.S.A.

And thank goodness for a sense of humor. May I have this dance?

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:

donuts

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!

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

Why the Internet is cool

December 11, 2012

I heard, out of the blue, from a curious descendant of one of my literary heroes yesterday.

Walker Percy‘s grandson (living in Houston) had seen an old post about my visit to a “teahouse” gazebo his grandfather and young Shelby Foote (the great Civil War historian) constructed in the late ’30’s, near the University of the South at Sewanee, TN. Theirs was an inspiring friendship, nearly lifelong, and an impressive correspondence.

The grandson doesn’t know where the teahouse is, though he has a picture of it;  nor (he says) did anyone at Walker’s widow’s recent funeral know its whereabouts, either.

In 1996 my wife looked for an autumn weekend rental near Monteagle and Sewanee for us to share with her parents. In the process, and quite inadvertently (never having read Percy herself) she booked us into the property on Brinkwood Lane overlooking Lost Cove, formerly owned by Walker’s own grandpa.

You can’t imagine how thrilled I was, back then, to stand for this photo… nor how thrilled I am now to provide a missing link to the heirs of a writer I admire so greatly.

PercyFooteSewaneeTeahouse

See, that’s what I’m always going on about: the “continuous human community” in which we all are links. It means a lot.

“Somewhere simple”-the lure of the Little House

December 10, 2012

Grading pile’s about to replenish, as exam week begins. There’s just time to take a breath and exhale a quick word of appreciation for my old Vandy friend David Wood’s New York Times Stone essay on writer’s huts and the specific locales where thinking and writing can occur.

little house3

The Lure of the Writer’s Cabin” materialized whilst I was gliding out on the back porch of my own shoddy little Shangri-la yesterday (another eerily-warm December day), a place I’ve waxed about before [search “Little House”].

My new neighbor, the one I find I like a lot more since the Romney signs fell, was gazing at it across the fence with curious envy just yesterday morning. He wondered if it had cable. No, but it does pick up Fox sports nicely during baseball season. And wi-fi. And it’s where I ignite my recreational (and thermal) hydrocarbons to indulge my fireplace delusion.

My old firewood man stopped by again last night, startling Younger Daughter, banging on the back door we never open and greeting me with his cheery “Hello, Perfesser!” He was hoping I’d already spent my last rick. Told him I think I’m good ’til February.

Anyway, I appreciate David’s clear-eyed recognition that being in the hut/cabin/Little House is a cultural construction saturated in allusion, association, and reference. It’s not some mythic Thoreauvian retreat into purest nature.

One does not have to be a Thoreau or a Rousseau for one of these modest spaces to supply what is needed to write. Identification with nature is not required (if indeed it were possible); a certain harmony with nature is already broken by putting pen to paper. And would one really seek harmony with nature if one were privy to the ruthless struggles being played out under every rock? The roof of the cabin, the door, the window are all designed to keep nature at bay. The flat surface of the desk, the laptop screen, the artificial light all bear witness to the necessity to subordinate nature’s spontaneous irregularity, to fashion a little Versailles.

The greatest lure of my Little House is that it feels so much more remote and private than it actually is. When I’m there, I can pretend that the little stand of trees in back is the edge of a great dark Wood. I can shuffle from porch to hammock to roll-top to recliner and sit and think. Or just sit. Sometimes even write a bit. And grade.

But it’s not too far away from what we call civilization, up in the Big House. I was halfway through David’s lovely essay when I heard Older Daughter’s familiar insistent “Da-aa-ad!” She’d come for the car-keys, she and Younger Daughter were going malling – without a parental escort. (Now there’s a milestone!) Did I need anything? Not much, really. Just “a table, a chair, somewhere simple, free of distraction.”

And maybe some eggnog, please. “Conjuring other worlds, brave new possibilities” is thirsty work.

And guess what? The girls delivered. Did Emerson ever do that for Henry?

I’ll be happy to drive

December 7, 2012

I’m about to burrow into my grading hidey-hole for a few days, but first want to notch a small milestone on the stick of time.

After yesterday morning’s post I recalled that Older Daughter’s learning permit to drive was set to expire. None of the regional testing facilities had shown any available openings for her to take her driver’s test for the past two weeks, and she’d resigned herself to a lapse of ineligibility. But I thought I’d look again, on the off-chance that someone might have canceled. And sure enough, there was one open slot yesterday morning. We took it, she passed… and she promptly asked me to drive her to a celebratory Indian lunch at Woodlands, then back to school. Driving’s not the liberating thing for her and many of her peers that it was for me.

I recall precisely what I was doing on no more than a handful of the days of my life. The day I turned 16 is one of them: I was down at the DMV in St. Charles MO, applying for my mobility. My freedom.

Older Daughter asserts her freedom not to drive. Well, she’s free to choose. So is her driver. With freedom comes responsibility. Sometimes it’s a chore. Sometimes, if you want to be somewhere, you’ve just got to “carry” (as we say in Tennessee) yourself.  Sometimes you’ve got to carry yourself where you don’t want to be. And eventually, if you’re lucky to live so long, you’ll have to hand over the keys. It was a sad day when Dad knew he’d driven his last mile. The markers dot every stage of a long journey, they’re not all happy.

Older Daughter agrees with Daniel Gilbert (quoted by Tom Vanderbilt in Traffic): “You can’t adapt to commuting, because it’s entirely unpredictable. Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.” Well, I commute. It’s usually not hellish, for me, though I would almost always rather be biking. (Nashville’s making that much easier, by the way, with new rent-a-bike kiosks popping up all over town.) And I still want my Supertrain.

I do feel sorry for those driving in the opposite lanes, to work in the city. I’m also aware, much more than I was at 16, that driving is a serious and fraught undertaking. Vanderbilt again: “Human attention, in the best of circumstances, is a fluid but fragile entity. Beyond a certain threshold, the more that is asked of it, the less well it performs.”

But anyway, Older Daughter’s performance yesterday was excellent. She’s a good and careful driver, her tester didn’t deduct any points. She turned the morning’s unanticipated opportunity into an achievement, a milestone meriting unreserved celebration.

Little girl’s growing up. Before we know it we’ll be receding in her rearview. Meanwhile, I’ll be happy to drive.

A questionnaire

December 3, 2012

Just a couple days left, as time winds down on the Fall 2012 regular semester. More final report presentations are on tap today in CoPhi and EEA. Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering my responses to a student’s questionnaire [scroll down]. Thanks again for asking, Arielle, and for converting my thoughts into such a nicely air-brushed portrait.  It was indeed an honor, as always, to spend another semester trying to encourage representatives of the next generation to save us from ourselves. Some excerpts, with just a few addenda:

3.  What do you like best about working at MTSU?  What do you like least? I like the students, their friendliness and creativity. I like my colleagues. I dislike the bureaucratic entanglements of academic administration, the timidity and caution encouraged (despite tenured academic freedom) by our having to be funded by anti-intellectuals in the state legislature (representing anti-intellectuals in the general population, of course). Let me quickly add: there are plenty of things not to like about some aspects of the intellectual/academic professional life (narrowness, smugness, condescending attitudes towards “ordinary” people on the parts of some academics)… but the practice of questioning assumptions and challenging unexamined traditional inheritances is not among them. We need more of that, but those who hold our purse-strings tend not to be very thoughtfully reflective or self-critical. They may not be the “worst” (or they just may be)– that’s a hard list to crack, in America– but they’re trouble enough.

Another least-liked thing it might be purgative to note: too many meetings!

dilbert meetings

Our weekly staff meetings, for instance, do not observably accomplish any more work, resolve any more conflicts, or achieve any greater consensus, than when convened monthly or even biennially. My friend the department chair in Alabama was elected on a platform of No Meetings. That’s extreme. But life is short.

OK, just one more: I don’t like the petty way some petty chieftains wield their authority to dispense and withhold  essential resources (like office space).

4.  What do you hope students will remember about your course when the semester is over?  What do you hope they will remember five years from now? I sincerely hope they’ll remember that Philosophy class helped them establish a life-long habit of thinking for themselves, discussing ideas, listening to other points of view, occasionally even changing their minds about something important because of that habit. I hope they’ll remember Einstein’s statement: “The important thing is to never stop asking questions.” A propos that, a nice Einstein anecdote:

ONE DAY during his tenure as a professor, Albert Einstein was visited by a student. “The questions on this year’s exam are the same as last year’s!” the young man exclaimed.

“Yes,” Einstein answered, “but this year all the answers are different.”

I hope they’ll remember The Philosophers Song, too. There’s a first for almost everything.

5.  Do you have a philosophy on teaching?  Do you have a philosophy on life?  Explain. My teaching philosophy, which I don’t always live up to, is to follow William James’s advice: prepare by thoroughly immersing in the subject, then when you get in the classroom “trust your spontaneity.” My life philosophy is: “memento mori,” remember you must die… but also remember (as Richard Dawkins says) that you’re one of the lucky ones who got to live. Try to make a contribution to the “continuous human community.” I also like what Kurt Vonnegut said in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, when he offered these words of welcome to newborns: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Basically, my teaching philosophy is self-indulgent: I’m here to learn, too, and I don’t learn as much if I’m doing all the talking. Next semester, though, I’m planning this improvement: I’m going to acquire a loud gong, and appoint a student in each class to ring it loudly at ten minute intervals to keep us (me) moving along. The discussion group format is great, but I have a tendency to linger over compelling conversations. Group #4 tends to get shorted.

I’d also add this observation of Samuel Butler’s to my life philosophy: “All animals except man know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” Or as George Santayana put it, “There’s no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

9.  What do you like best about MTSU (the university in general)? See #3. Also, I like the relative diversity on our campus, and the fact that it’s a fairly enlightened & progressive enclave surrounded by a conservative community. I like college towns in general, in that respect, and (in my experience) midwestern & southern college towns in particular. Columbia MO and M’boro TN are “smaller” (so to speak) than the institutions they host.

I also like the way our campus is sprucing up with that shiny new Student Center, the new Science Building, more bike-accessible roads, etc.

10.  What advice would you give us to make our years at MTSU the best to improve ourselves and reach our personal and academic goals? Give yourself permission to think. Experiment with ideas and attitudes you didn’t bring with you to campus. Really talk to your profs (go to office hours even when you don’t have an issue or problem to resolve), engage with your peers, get involved with student organizations, remember that if you put more of yourself into it now you’ll look back on your time in college with fondness for the freedom it gave you to discover who you are and can be. To paraphrase Thoreau: don’t just be good,  be good for something.

That’s really a terrific question. I wish I’d asked it back when I was an undergrad. I wish I’d spent a little more time hanging with the profs who were not quite so gregarious. Office hours are one of the great untapped springs students still neglect. Come see me, you can sit in my comfy chair and we’ll settle the universe’s hash together.

It occurs to me that I need to draft one more addendum to question #5, as we continue in EEA to dream of “Ecotopia,” touching on my life philosophy with respect to our terrestrial home.

ECO- from the Greek oikos (household or home) -TOPIA from the Greek topos (place)

Carl Sagan said it best: we live out our lives, all of us, on “a pale blue dot… a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” This astonishing fact must, if anything can, “underscore our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Thanks for the memory

November 21, 2012

Life itself is gratifying, of course. But it’s nice at Thanksgiving to have enumerable specific objects of gratitude. Sunshine, laughter, pie and ice cream, Willie Mays and the like do make life worth living.

And this morning I’m specifically grateful for an unexpected find, last night. Rummaging through my library cabinet, I rediscovered a lost and forgotten binder full of my favorite role model secular evolutionist. Through the years I’ve frequently spoken of my first landlord, the kindly and avuncular octogenerian who pulled dollars from my young ears, not long before his death in the ’60s. It’s a mild obsession.

He was, I eventually learned, an eminent figure whose expert testimony had been solicited but then disallowed by the Scopes “Monkey Trial” judge in Dayton, TN in 1925. Dr. Winterton Curtis made a curiously strong impression on me in my earliest days and years. I’ve never quite understood why. Surely it’s a coincidence that I would grow up and  develop a fascination with the evolutionary view of life as part of its deepest meaning?

Well, my new-found binder includes a note from my late father. It betrays an almost mystical suspicion that something more than money was exchanged in those encounters with Dr. C.

“We lived with Dr. Curtis for three years, until my graduation from Veterinary School [at the University of Missouri-Columbia] in 1960. I have no clue if an elderly stranger can affect a small child, but I swear, Phil possesses many of the intellectual attributes of this grand old man. Phil, do you remember him ‘pulling money out of your ears’ and presenting you with it?”

I sure do, Dad. And I’m deeply grateful for the memory.