Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Move on

July 7, 2015

6:30/5:38, 75/90. Podcast.
Robert Heinlein’s and David McCullough’s birthday in 1907 and 1933, respectively. Heinlein said the therapeutic value of science fiction lies in “its primary postulate that the world does change.” McCullough said history’s “an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” WA

My department is still trying to decide how best to weigh in, with the Deciders at our school, on the question of finally changing the name of the execrable building on our campus that commemorates confederate hero and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. Why is it even a question?!

I’ve said before, philosophers are hard as cats to herd. Some of us just don’t go in for collective action, even when it’s a simple matter of adding your name to a letter. Trouble is, on matters of “heritage” in the South, change doesn’t happen without it. But the world does change, as Mr. Heinlein observed. Eventually even university administrators must “grok” to that. History unfolds. People who teach or “awaken” young minds for a living need to go on record as understanding and supporting that.

So I’ve decided that, whatever the university decides, from now on I’ll be announcing to my students in that building that so far as we’re concerned it’s named for a different Forrest. One whose character and kindliness merit the honor of commemoration. The one whose Mama told him life is like a box of chocolates, and stupid is as stupid does. We don’t have to float around on a breeze, accidental-like. We can embrace change, enlarge our experience, repudiate the worst of our heritage.

That’s all I got to say about that.

Image result for forrest gump quotes

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Toe the line

July 6, 2015

5:45/5:38, 69/88. Podcast
The independence theme is still very much in the air, along with the sulfurous residue of too many backyard pyrotechnicians who never outgrew their fascination with things that go boom. The Almanac today reports on several models of independence. Sam Clemens in 1861, striking out for the territories of Bonanza-era Nevada with his brother Orion to report for the Virginia City Terretorial Enterprise and become Mark Twain. Lennon and McCartney in 1957, partnering for the first time; Pasteur in 1885 taking a chance on an untested vaccine; the birth of the present Dalai Lama in 1935; the persecution of Jan Hus in 1415, and Thomas More in 1535.

We want independence, most all of us, from whatever holds us captive: external control, internal timidity, general lassitude. That’s not necessarily the same as wanting complete freedom. We just don’t want anyone else holding the key to our liberation, and we want to know that the key hangs on a familiar hook we can find at will, when we want it. Like Otis in his Mayberry cell.

What holds me captive? No one thing, I’m sure. But one thing for sure. “For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward.” Thoreau wrote that in Walden, and I can relate. I am captivated by the urge to “report,” to “improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick” by translating experience into language, writing and broad(pod)-casting  it, mulling it over. 
I like being a reporter, I don’t want to be sprung from the job. The low circulation of my “journal” is immaterial, the act of translation is indeed its own reward. It helps me in my vocation as a teacher and scholar (though I always just about choke on that word, when I think of some of the pedants and scholars I’ve known).
“Teacher” is a respectable vocation, but that word sometimes hangs me up too (as it did Socrates). Younger Daughter’s just home from New York, with a terrific little gift souvenir: a fridge magnet with the inscription “I’m not a teacher, I’m an Awakener.” Right! Mostly I’m working to awaken myself, dawn after dawn, and keep myself awake. Again, like Henry. Just trying to toe the line between the eternal sleep of past and future.

Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.

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Independence Day

July 4, 2015
“Independence is, in fact, what he lacks – independence from whatever holds him captive…”  
What do we want independence from & for? The burden of others’ control, & the glorious pursuit.

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What a poet is

July 3, 2015
A poet is “a person who can feel…& make some partial tracks” with words.

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The long road

July 2, 2015
Walking meditators get a little vapid sometimes, from a western secular point of view, but on the long road of life they arrive at home with every footfall.

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It gets better

July 1, 2015

6:30/5:33, 73/81. Podcast.
William Strunk’s birthday. “Omit needless words!” Reminds me of James Watson’s pithy “avoid boring people.” (And boorish ones, which might let him out.) Good advice for bloggers and podcasters everywhere.

Yesterday’s happy arrival of Sandwalk Adventures, so deceptively comic, delivered a serious message: the long-term legacy of our species is inseparable from our immediate legacy, our children. Our students. Our successors. How we’ve raised, taught, connected with them has everything to do with the meaning of our lives and the fate of life itself. It plugs directly into two of my favorite William James quotes, the one about our really vital question being life’s denouement, the other about life being a chain “no stronger than its weakest link.”

And that imagery naturally evokes John Dewey’s continuous human community, and our responsibilities thereto.

Steven Pinker has made a strong case for progress, with his Better Angels. I haven’t picked it up yet, but I think that’s also Michael Shermer’s theme in The Moral Arc. We are getting better, headlines and hourly news flashes notwithstanding, in spite of ourselves.

But then there’s the depressing case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose disingenuous statement of indifference to his own legacy and disconnection from the rest of humanity betrays an unhealthy (if lightly camouflaged) self-preoccupation. Depressing to me, anyway, because Rousseau’s reveries – broken into ten walks – remain the best template I’ve yet found for my own Philosophy Walks project. Summarizing his project, he promises

a faithful register of my solitary walks, and the reveries which accompany them; when I find my mind entirely free, and suffer my ideas to follow their bent, without resistance or control. These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day when I am entirely myself, and for myself without diversion, or obstacle; and when I can truly say, I am what nature designed me…

My walks, though, aim to be different: to foster concern for all the legacies of life, forge connections of interest and care that transcend both walk and walker. I am myself, but unlike Rousseau and Ayn Rand I try not to be “for myself without diversion.”
Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.

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June 30, 2015

6 am/5:33, 70/88.
Anniversary of the legendary 1860 Oxford evolution debate, when Darwin’s bulldog bit the bishop.

‘Huxley – young, cool, quiet, sarcastic, scientific in fact and in treatment… gave his Lordship such a smashing… “I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for a grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with… success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he had no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.”‘

Everyone who knows of Huxley knows of this storied exchange, and of his response when he first encountered Darwin’s theory of natural selection: “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” Most also know that he coined the term “agnostic.” Less known is his devotion to David Hume, and the book he wrote about le bon David. Of Hume’s strange encounter with Rousseau he says simply that it reflected “lunatic malignity on Rousseau’s side and thorough generosity and patience on Hume’s.”

Lunatic malignity. Nicely stated! I’m embarrassed, on behalf of walkers and dog-lovers everywhere, that such a lunatic issued from our ranks. But as Huxley told Wilberforce, there is no shame in honestly owning our actual lineage and embracing our humanity. Every family tree, when shaken, reveals its share of frauds and fools. The point is to evolve. Generosity and patience are possibilities of our nature, too.

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Never walk alone

June 29, 2015

6:45/5:32, 72/84. Podcast.
What a mild mellow weekend that was, and a quiet one. Younger Daughter’s visiting friends in the Big Apple, Older Daughter in St. Louis, and we’re getting a foretaste of the empty nest to come.

I take Sundays off, or rather work hard to hone my hammock skills, so I’m late to note the birthdays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robert Louis Stevenson.

[And then the !!@#$%^!! cable & wifi went down again… AT&T is making Comcast look better every day. Hear the rest of this morning’s post here.]


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The Delta phenomenon

June 27, 2015

6 am/5:32, 72/81. Podcast.

Birthday of Helen Keller and Edward Gibbon, who both testified to the power of will to communicate through symbolic representation. “Delta,” the Helen Keller phenomenon, Walker Percy called it: the startled, triangulated awareness that words can mean something, can direct action, can be made to alter hearts and minds. “The Delta phenomenon lies at the heart of every event that has ever occurred in which a sentence is uttered or understood, a name is given or received, a painting painted and viewed. What Helen had discovered, had broken through to, was the Delta phenomenon.”

Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire showed that Delta could reveal the buried past, “the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.” And the occasional triumphs.

It’s been a triumphant couple of days just past, in American history. The Supremes, in spite of themselves, voted (barely) to do the right thing for the health and happiness of the nation in upholding challenged provisions of the Affordable Care Act and the right of all to marry.

And then the president went to Charleston to deliver a remarkable sermonizing eulogy for the latest high-profile victims of American hatred and violence (we mustn’t forget the unsung uncelebrated daily victims). As sermons go, so far as this heathen is competent to judge, it was extraordinary.

But, “the lord works in mysterious ways” – ?!!? The line worked in context, bringing grieving congregants to their feet. It suited the occasion and fit the mood, it was part of the “healing balm” the president meant to administer with his words.

But what an outrageous thought: the allegedly all-powerful and all-knowing creator and sustainer of the cosmos could find no better way to advance the cause of social justice in our time, no better way to lower a stupid old symbol of seditious racism, than through the barrel of yet another gun in the hands of yet another hateful punk, mowing down still more innocent good god-fearing men and women?

Come on, Mr. President. You’re so good with words, such a marvelous delta communicator; you don’t really mean to communicate the thought that there’s ever anything divine in cold-blooded murder. Sapere Aude. You can do better. We can.

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Accept the warming rays

June 26, 2015

5:45/5:33, 78/90. Podcast.
Harry Potter’s birthday, sorta.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in Britain on this day in 1997. Joanne Rowling was an unemployed, single mother waiting for a delayed train, when an idea suddenly came to her. “I did not have a functioning pen with me,” she said. “I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me … I began to write that very evening.”

She just “sat and thought.” Sounds so simple. Rowling’s original Thinking Place was a train station, and then a coffee shop. This is what I was trying to say: it’s not about the place, spatio-temporally speaking, it’s about the “aura and mental associations” the place conjures for you. Those can travel. The actual thinking place is between the ears.

We don’t keep it between our ears, we externalize and symbolize, investing mere objects with more power than they deserve. Flags and buildings, for instance.

My old Mills Bookstore colleague Michael Sims tweeted the other day, “I was born in rural eastern Tennessee, but to me the Dixie flag has always been a symbol of three things: treason, slavery, and losers.” He’s right, but all this flag fuss in response to the Charleston massacre, I fear, is diverting our attention and allowing us to imagine we’re actually addressing the root causes of racism.  Taking down flags is not taking down ignorance and hatred.

And yet, symbols and names are important. The ROTC building on our campus, named for the notorious confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, is again, finally, being “revisited“.

University officials said it dedicated the ROTC building as Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall in 1958 because of Forrest’s military record with the Confederate Army and his Middle Tennessee ties. The Confederate cavalry leader was known for his tactical battlefield skills and for leading a successful 1862 raid that captured more than 1,000 Union troops and freed local residents in Murfreesboro. He also reportedly served as the first grand wizard for the Ku Klux Klan after the war…Phil Oliver, a 12-year philosophy professor at MTSU, said it’s past time to rename the building for someone who isn’t a “symbol of racism. “I’m embarrassed every time I teach there,” Oliver said.

And pass by. Or even just think of it. A new name won’t change everything but it will symbolize new sensitivity and better intentions. If (as the wall in my old Forrest Hall classroom proclaims) we’re ruthlessly enforcing high standards of humanity, that name’s got to go.
One more thing before I have to go: last night I read an old interview with E.B. White, the subject of one of Michael Sims’ many delightful books. He said writing is a form of therapy. (So is reading.) And he said,

I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

“Accept the warming rays” – that’s what Rowling was doing at the station and in the coffee shop. It’s what I try to do out here on my porch, in my Thinking Place, and wherever else I can manage to find them.

How’s that for a symbol?

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