Archive for the ‘children’ Category

Listening to Proust

July 10, 2012

I’m listening this morning to the lovely overdue pitter-pat of a drenching rain on the tin roof of my Little House porch.

It really doesn’t hurt to listen. I like listening, for instance, to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. It’s a perpetual fount of inspiration, positive and negative. Today’s a good example, with positive Proust and negative Calvin. Make a wish, boys.

MP: I wish I could return to the innocence of childhood, and my little madeleine cookie.

JC: I wish I might be among the arbitrarily-“elect.” To hell with the rest.

Proust’s cookie conjures the epiphanic power of memory, and reminds us of the magic of childhood.

Calvin’s poison TULIP, on the other hand desecrates childhood with its claim of “total depravity” etc. He wouldn’t know what to do with a madeleine, or a happy memory. If there were a hell, it would surely be reserved for party-spoilers like JC.

A conversation for all ages

June 1, 2012

It’s a gloomy cool morning but that’s more than offset by the compensating brilliance of the occasion here: it’s  Younger Daughter’s birthday. She treated me to breakfast at IHOP yesterday, now it’s my turn to flip the flapjacks for her and her sleepover party pals. Oh, to be so young and free again.

“Age clarifies,” begins John Lachs in his just-published Stoic PragmatismClarity is a wonderful gift, but so is youthful indeterminacy. So many still-untested hypotheses, so many experiments yet to try, so much fun on the horizon.

The spirit of youth is indefatigable “can do” energy and enthusiasm. Age is more realistic, having tried and succeeded and failed at so much more. The two, age and youth, have things to tell one another. Too bad each tends to think it already knows it all. “I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors,” snarled young Henry Thoreau. Kids  these days, they rejoined. We rejoin. Why don’t you pick up your room?! (And then, as Ron Padgett reminds, then save the world.)

I certainly don’t dispute the practical wisdom of stoic pragmatists who know, with Lachs, that “there’s nothing infinite about us.” But I still envy the young their intrepdity, from which I daily draw practically-infinite encouragement and inspiration. They remind me of my own misplaced sense of sky-high possibility.

Henry’s whole statement on this matter, so delightfully and so youthfully over the top:

What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new… Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

Yes, it’s way over the top. I began hearing valuable, earnest advice from my mentor John Lachs before I was thirty and I’m still hearing it. Some of it has finally registered. I’ll pass it along to my Intro students in the Fall. If they read carefully, they’ll hear much more than a cautionary  warning not to repeat the hubris of Ozymandias.

True enough, from dust we arose and to dust we’ll return. But within those natural boundaries there’s plenty of room to roam, and so many ways to find our personal, familial, communal, and social delights, to be good (or “good enough,” as Lachs likes to say) and to be happy. How to do it, and how to allow others the respectful autonomy to do it too, is a conversation for all ages.

Raisin’ freethinkers

February 3, 2012

The free-spirited free-for-all in A&P left no time yesterday for Louise Antony’s statement of regret:

If I have any regrets at all, they are ones that have emerged since I became a parent. I am sorry that I was not able to provide my children with the kind of structured moral community that churches and synagogues can offer.

Antony’s children were hounded to attend demonstrations and political meetings instead: “Yes, you have to come; this is ‘church’ for us”… Antony wasn’t “born Catholic” and her kids weren’t “born atheist,” but that’s how they were raised.

Is the idea of atheist temples still so far-fetched, in this light? Or short of that, of Unitarian Universalist services? A child’s raisin (as my country in-law put it) is important. But we shouldn’t be raising clones of ourselves, the whole point of parenting (I thought) was to try and improve the stock over time, to strengthen the next links in life’s chain.

Emerson said “Stop trying to make another you, one is enough!” Kahlil Gibran said your children are not your children. We’re all born free, then too quickly bound by the wrong kinds of chains – chains of smothering influence and indoctrination.

My Dad also wanted me to benefit from the influence of a structured moral community, so he sent me to commune with the Southern Baptists ’til I decided, at around age 14, that it wasn’t making me a better person. He said he wanted me to get a “values-education,” and I got an education alright – in sanctified intolerance, exclusion, and self-centered “salvation.” Maybe Dad was secretly trying to raise a philosopher.

My counter-proposal is: raise a free-thinker and forget about it. If you don’t end up with a philosopher, at least you’ll still have someone interesting to talk to, someone really competent to assess the credibility of speculative ideas and ideologies.

My kids are learning lately about Presbyterianism and Science of Mind, respectively, but I’m really not worried about either of them catching a mind virus. They both know how to “think critically and act responsibly,” their raisin’s rooted in strong home-grown values, they’ve not been taught (as my Dad was) to think of themselves as fallen “lowly worms” in need of grace and redemption.

And they’ve not been taught to recite that horrific, terrifying bedtime prayer of my own childhood:  “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Talk about instilling the fear of god! Or more precisely: the fear of god’s people.

Dale McGowan (whose Foundation Beyond Belief provides a place for humanists to express their charitable secular impulse) has a better idea.

“What if there’s no Hell?”

May 18, 2011

Went for my annual check-up yesterday. No bad news, and in this season of life that’s good. Even better were the results of the “Partners for Health” questionnaire they made me fill out, with its implication that my exercise habit– the mere fact that I have a “weekly” habit of  exercise at all– places me in the upper tier of Americans. Large numbers of us apparently never exercise, and never intend to. The fact that I do it as much for soul as for body makes the health benefit a bonus. I don’t even call it exercise, I just call it walking and breathing. Living.

By “soul,” of course, I mean nothing metaphysically distinct from body and nothing eligible for either eternal life or torment. That also places me in a statistically shrunken category, apparently, in the U.S.A.

Last month’s “Hell” feature in Time greeted me in the doctor’s exam room. “What if there’s no Hell?” What a question. What if there’s no Easter Bunny?

Adults who take such questions seriously began, typically, as children who were encouraged to fear for their souls. (“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” etc.) Some of them then eventually show up in my classes, insisting on many of their peers’ impending eternal doom (and mine, obviously). So sad, to have been “nurtured” by trusted adults to build one’s life on baseless fear and self-loathing. More than sad, it’s abusive. It’s wrong. It has me thinking again of Dale McGowan’s Raising Freethinkers and the “meming of life“…


August 6, 2010

It’s raining buckets of welcome relief, this morning, from the oven-baking we’ve been enduring. 72 degrees and breezy. Lovely.

Storms in the early afternoon yesterday pulled our plugs for several hours. Thanks to the disciplined practice of my recent digital holiday, I was happy to go gridless again for a while.

But the girls were less sanguine.  They were pleased with the “emergency” that licensed their refrigerator raid– it’d be tragic for the ice cream to melt, etc.– but their real distress at prolonged disconnection was palpable. Younger Daughter got mad. “Why don’t they fix it?!”

To her credit, she hit upon a smart solution: head to the arts & crafts store with her recent birthday gift certificate and find something there to make or do. What she eventually found was a dry erase board, which she then spent the balance of her power outage deeply engaged with, in an elaborate role-playing game whose rules only she understood.

A genuine wireless device, runs and runs on a single imaginative charge.

NES eventually did get us plugged back in, of course. For a brief while, though, we were  reminded that humans aren’t yet entirely dependent on external energy sources.


July 13, 2010

My wife and the other neighborhood lawn-&-gardeners have been begging for rain, this morning their prayers are being answered with a flood-watch. I’m watching. The pitter-pat on my patio roof is just a little too percussive and distracting, though the 72 degrees is very nice. I’m sure we have nothing to worry about, the ground will be much thirstier than it was in May.

A photo for the album: late yesterday afternoon, Older Daughter requested a little BP (that’s batting practice, not oily excess) so the three of us grabbed our bats and ball-bucket and headed over to the playing field at Hillwood. Younger Daughter stationed herself in left, I took the mound, and before I knew which way the wind was blowing found myself staring gratefully at the sky. Knocked to the turf by a line drive that might have put my lights out, but I held on. Older Daughter wanted to know immediately where my phone was, in case the next frozen rope should require an ambulance.

Ha ha.

It’s a funny scene, the morning after, to recall. The total scene, though, the three of us there playing a little summer game in the sun just for fun, is to me– as the commercials say– priceless. And not pointless, not at all. How did Mr. Giamatti put it? Oh, yeah: some grow out of sports, some never grew into them:

These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion. I am not that grown-up. I need to think something lasts forever. It might as well be a game, in a green field, in the sun.

So we went home and watched Big Papi win the home-run derby, and hunted online for Wrigley Field tickets, and looked forward to tonight’s MLB All-Star game. Vandy’s David Price will start for the AL. Priceless.

cool medium

July 10, 2010

Another summer snapshot for the scrapbook, a scene to pull out (and repeat) when it’s cold and wintry: it’s 100 in the shade but we’re cool at home in our library, me with Wisdom, Younger Daughter (sprawled on the new blue “butterfly chair” she swapped her birthday Target card for the other day) with The View from Saturday,  Older Daughter (flopped across the recliner, still in jammies) with Harry Potter (yet again).

Fortunately, I can say in retrospect, the pool was still closed because of a faulty pump or spigot or whatever. On this day, this is the cooler place to be.

Only Mom is missing from the picture. Maybe tomorrow… if she doesn’t insist on taking us bowling (or something) just to get out of the house. Sometimes the house is home sweet home and where you want to be more than anywhere.

Sad, though, and ironic, that this has to be an exclusively-summer scene. There seems never to be time for slow and painless learning-for-pleasure during the school year.

Studies show, says David Brooks, that merely living in the presence of good old-fashioned bound printed matter feeds the soul and swells the test scores. We can confirm the first part of that right now. Safe and snug in the cool of home, surrounded by smart walls that come alive when you pluck those wonderfully portable and efficient information retrieval devices down from their shelves, we feel pretty smart too, in a humbling Socratic way. Close proximity to some of the best that’s been thought and written works like a wonder drug, by osmosis. As Montaigne scrawled on his own library ceiling, nothing’s certain but uncertainty and  nothing human is really foreign. That’s good to know.

I like my e-books, but they’re not really companionable in this way. You can’t display them on the wall, or  sit and commune with a gathering of them as at a reunion, or just admire them from across the room. You can’t mark them up and scrawl in the margins in the same undistracting way.

The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Joseph Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import.

And where better to encounter the literary world than in your own cool library on a hot day. Turn the page.

dangerous ideas

July 3, 2010

What is Your Dangerous Idea? was’s World Question Center query for 2006.

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

Good question, and wonderfully put to rising 6th graders: the book‘s on Younger Daughter’s suggested summer reading list. I’m pretty sure no one suggested we read anything that challenging or potentially subversive when I was a rising 6th grader. We may make philosophers of the next generation yet.

summer snapshot

June 26, 2010

Here’s a mental picture of summer, from yesterday, I want to recall when old December’s darkness falls:

It’s early afternoon of another scorching June day, Younger Daughter and I are lounging on floats at the uncrowded Westside pool, she’s giving me detailed instructions on precisely when and how I should deploy the torpedo “bombs” that she will then repeatedly dive in her personal submarine (“which is really just my body”) to recover and disarm, Ira Flatow is speaking from the little Sony I’ve perched at  poolside about artificial lungs and climate change and how warm beverages mirror warm hearts. The clouds drift and gather and separate, the trees across the way at Warner Park loom, the sung whangs down, a train roars past. And it feels like we have all the time in the world to just keep doing nothing. Everything.

Now, consider the misanthropic mind of Ian McEwan’s anti-hero in Solar. He’s a guy with not enough invested in the future. His is the wrong kind of long-term thinking.

A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism. The earth could do without [him]. And if it shrugged off all the other humans, the biosphere would soldier on, and in a mere ten million years, teem with strange new forms, perhaps none of them clever in an apish way. Then who would regret that no one remembered Shakespeare, Bach, Einstein…?

Ask the guy on the float.


June 21, 2010

It was a fine Dad’s day, though sobering. Spending a portion of it with my recently-widowed mother-in-law brought home the reality that, since her husband’s passing a few months ago, I’ve now inherited the role of family patriarch.

But it was far more a day for reveling in the privilege and pleasures of paternity. It began with Younger Daughter feigning irritation at being awakened by my beeping cell phone, which announced her smiley-faced “Happy father’s day daddy” text message. Later, Older Daughter re-routed the Dad Taxi from its declared destination (Church) to Parmer Park instead for some quality time with the driver (and Harry Potter– she’s decided to re-read the corpus).

Through some flukey or perverse coincidence, or maybe it was perfectly timed to the day, I found myself thinking yesterday morning about Judith Rich Harris’s Nurture Assumption thesis that parental influence is mostly a fiction.

Variable genetic factors establish different talents and predispositions among kids, she says, which do indeed play out differently in light of variable experiences and environmental interactions. But the greatest environmental influences are their peers, not their parents. She takes the Steve Pinker Blank Slate line too, coming down hard against nurture and for biological nature as the determinative elements in our personal and species development.

The good news in all of this, she says, is that we’re going to isolate the genetic markers for childhood depression and eliminate that scourge in the coming decades. I suppose losing the pretense (if that’s what it is) of paternal relevance would be a small price to pay for that great stride forward for the race.

But wait. It being Father’s Day, I also spent a lot of time thinking about my own Dad [JCO… ]and the difference he made, still makes, for me and (transitively) for his grandchildren and for the future.

He influenced and encouraged and supported me as a toddler, as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult. He’s not been with us for going on two years, and his influence on me now is still constant. I think of him almost daily, and am always asking myself what Dad would say, think, do.

If that’s not meaningful influence, what is?

(BTW: If you’re looking for an entertaining Dad-book– though I suppose it’s a day late to be doing that– check out Michael Lewis’s hilarious Home Game. The recently-noted Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon is very funny, too. More seriously, look at Bruce Feiler‘s Council of Dads.)