Archive for the ‘friends’ Category

Life, always alternately “precarious and stable”

June 24, 2011

Can’t believe Older Daughter and I went this deep into summer without getting out to the pool for a swim. Practically had the place to ourselves yesterday. She commented that it had been so long since she’d been in the water that she’d sort of forgotten what to do. Just enjoy, I replied. Embrace the first cold shock, the swelling sensation of being enveloped by a different medium, the displacing gradual feeling of being at home away from terra firma, the pleasantly-cooling evaporative exchange when you step back onto concrete, the returning swelter,  the delightful renewal of all those sensations when you repeat the process a few minutes later. So we did. And we indulged the kind of meandering, impromptu conversation that it takes the slower  pace of June to invite. What would you say, she asked at one point, if I started to dress all in black and behaved darkly? Not an everyday query, and it might have rung alarm bells in another context. Lolling at the pool it actually made some sense. I’d just say it was a phase you were going through. I think that was the right answer.

Home, then, and word came the old-fashioned way– by phone– from an old friend who called to say that he would  indeed enjoy a night out at the old ballpark. Something we always used to in summer but hadn’t in far too long. Another context in which conversation ranges delightfully and spontaneously free, but we had lots of specific ordinary living to catch up on this time. The innings whizzed by, and so did scary foul balls: we were seated just behind the visitors’ dugout. (Sounds lost to the Omaha StormChasers, btw.) Talk of family and mutual friends, and then the shocking revelation that since our last meeting my friend had suffered major health scares including a procedure not unlike that of Congresswoman Giffords. A benign-sounding bicycle accident was implicated, and he spent months in its aftermath dealing with bizarre symptoms that eventually led to an MRI and immediate surgery.

He’s fine now, and I look forward to many more nights out at the ballpark with my friend. But what a sobering reminder, even on $2 beer night, of what John Dewey called the uneasy alliance of “precarious and stable” elements in our lives. All our lives, all the time.

That’s what I’ll be thinking about later this morning, on my bike.

Good dogs

December 20, 2009

I was recently astonished to learn that a colleague’s old dog of many years, “Phoenix,” died in June. So did ours.

We’ve worked together for many years but had never discussed our respective canine companions, and so had not discovered the improbable coincidence of their sharing a relatively rare name. Their shared fate was not so rare, but its timing was still an improbable shock.

I think we both can appreciate Verlyn Klinkenborg‘s tribute to his own old friend, “Darcy,” and his recognition that good lives and good deaths are not exclusively human attainments. Letting loved ones go, whatever their pedigree, is hard. But it’s not finally about us.

“It comes down, in the end, to the pleasure she shows, the interest she takes in the world around her — and not to anything her humans feel. She has not had the life she might once have expected — a far better one instead. My job is to make sure she gets the death she deserves — in her human’s arms.

And so she has. She died quietly last Friday while I sat on the floor beside her at the vet’s. The world is a poorer place without her.”

My sister is grieving for her “Pedro,” mysteriously afflicted just the other day. I’m very sorry for your loss, D.

Soon– if not already– the sadness will merge with the happy memories: another gift of love unbounded by pedigree.

peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.


Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.

our place

July 8, 2009

predawn skyWhat a gorgeous shade of orange-pink-magenta-something the pre-dawn sky is flashing this morning. I should study the color palette, there might be a word for it. Probably not.

We watched the DVD version of the old IMAX film “Cosmic Voyage” the other night. I was thoroughly entranced by all those transforming shifts up and down scales of magnitude, by the power of ten. It reminded me of the great opening sequence in Contact, and of the Carl Sagan/Pale Blue Dot poster (“You are here”) in my office.

But Older Daughter wondered what the point was, being more drawn to the living room window and its comparatively-pale alternative programming: someone in the neighborhood was intermittently discharging the unspent balance of their rainy July 4 arsenal. (But really, how can anything compete with the Big Bang for impressive pyrotechnics?)

The  point, I said, was to try and get a better sense of perspective about our place in the larger scheme of things. That’s what  philosophy is all about for me. I don’t think she gets the point of it either. I’ve always disputed Plato’s insistence that philosophy is not for the very young. But my own brood might side with him. Geez, what if they turned into Republicans?!

I wonder: how many philosophers’ kids become philosophers, or even consider themselves philosophical? It doesn’t seem to work with us the way it does with Preachers. My best childhood friend was a Preachers’ Kid, last I heard of him he’d taken his Johnson Bible College degree and was doing God’s work, putting us humans in our lowly, fallen, degraded place. Praying for unmerited salvation.

I, on the other hand, find saving grace in the contemplation of all those magnificent factors of ten. So near. So far.

An inscription

June 2, 2009

For B.’s copy of Jimmy:

You’re no parrothead, not ( at this stage of life) a pirate, nor even an abuser of frozen concoctions. But you still take the weather with you everywhere you go, insert breathing spaces in the purposefulness of the earnest, and know the transcendent secular value of a cheeseburger  and a cold draft beer. You demonstrate the compatibility of joie de vivre and family values… and what a handsome family! Stewart’s Ferry was fun, this is better.

Thanks for the visit, drive safely. Enjoy the close domesticity of summer. Teach your children well. Keep your health and happiness. Au revoir, we’ll catch the Sounds next time.

Spectator birds

May 30, 2009

This is a special day. It’s our anniversary, and also that of our friends who are driving a great distance today and will arrive for an eagerly-awaited visit later this afternoon. We were there in Virginia for their wedding, on the 5th anniversary of ours, all those years ago. More years have elapsed since we last got together, shortly after the birth of their youngest.

Collectively we and they have been hitched – not always a state of holy engagement, let’s be honest – for 27 years now. There were three of us and just the two of them, on the day of their espousal; now we are four, and so are they. More generational and experiential shingles, as memory deepens (but loses a bit of suppleness, alas) and as hairline recedes. (Speaking strictly for myself here, of course.)

parasailing3 It is a happy anniversary, I do have vivid and pleasing memories of events during the first week of June, in that first summer of the Clinton presidency. One stands out, or soars over: flying high over Captiva Island and the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of a very long tether secured firmly (I hope!) to a speeding boat. It was a great thrill, of the type that I habitually, reflexively resist in my constant, mostly-successful quest to avoid  significant personal injury. That day, though, it seemed like the right thing to do. Marriage was a serious proposition, fraught with risk, but also intoxicating in its promise of life-transforming possibility. We were looking, or I was, for symbolic punctuation of the high-wire act that brings two kindred, but also stubbornly-distinctive spirits together and impels them to exchange sacred vows of mutual trust and commitment before friends and family (it was the last time Mom and Dad, then already long apart, were together in public).  Philippe Petit being unavailable, parasailing seemed the perfect symbol of our connubial future. Controlled, but potentially dangerous. And thrilling to anticipate.

I remember soaring above the island and thinking about birds: not in fly-away mode, but as co-occupants of a perch, and a life. I thought about Wallace Stegner’s “spectator bird” – from whom weStegner truest vision

drew the wedding memento scroll-quotation we gave our guests on that happy day.

It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom birdsyou can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

It has been something. I wouldn’t want to have celebrated our kids’ 23 birthdays without S. on the perch beside me. Career ups and downs would’ve been alternately less joyous and more painful alone. I’d not have a Ph.D on the wall, or a wall to hang it on, without my rafter-mate. I don’t know how I could have withstood the loss of both my Mom and Dad in the span of five months without her steady comfort.

Mine is a solitary nature, I fly solo in many ways. Too many. Summus quod summus, I suppose. Or as Bob McDill wrote and Don Williams sang,  I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be. But I’m very grateful for the best of what we’ve been, and for the perch and the life we’ve shared. Happy anniversary.parasailing4