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Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
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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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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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.
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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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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.
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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5:30/5:31, 72/97. Podcast.
11 am. A belated post, the new AT&T cable & wifi system went down last night just in time for me to miss Vandy’s 4-2 loss to Virginia in the College World Series. Coulda gone and sat on the gridiron and watched it on the big board at Dudley Field, but that woulda felt anomalous and weird. I don’t like to mix my sports, and I’m still at war with football anyway.
The latest cable guy – they never send the same one again -just left. Says he’s fixed it this time.
Felt an odd disorientation as I rolled out of bed this morning, remembering that my keyboard would not be responsive before the service call. Almost decided to bag it and not write. Why? Have I become so accustomed to tap-tap-tapping my morning missives that I couldn’t imagine going old-school and writing things down in a notebook? Not quite, but that seems to be the trend-line. Digital dependency is a real problem.
Well, I went ahead and fired off a dawn podcast (shifting my dependency to the 3G technology of my phone) about the two Erics, then went rambling and riding with a fretful concern about Internet addiction. Also pondered Thinking Places. More on that later.
About those Erics: light candles today for Eric Blair and Eric Carlisle. You may not have known George Orwell was called Eric, and unless you’ve raised small children you may not have known Eric C. at all.
Eric Arthur Blair, born in 1903, was of course the author of Animal Farm and 1984. (Hey, S: did he walk, or write about it?) Most everything he wrote addressed the historical confrontation between democracy (“democratic socialism”) and totalitarian despotism. That’s what inspired the late Christopher Hitchens to name him his favorite author.
The other thing any writer should appreciate about Mr. Blair is his fastidious advocacy of clear and muscular writing.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself. “Politics and the English Language,” via Maria
The other Eric wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which it pleases me to recall reading endlessly to Older Daughter in our formative years, back before the millennium. It was in steady rotation with Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Gorilla, the Berenstain Bears, and Little Critter. We both learned a lot from Mr. Carle about gluttony and moderation and I forget what else. Mostly I just remember the delight of shared and growing bibliomania, and the innocent laughter of childhood (her first and my second). Thanks, Eric.
So, digital dependency and what makes a Thinking Place a place to think? Later.
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5:50/5:33, 72/94. The Almanac today shares “Sweetness,” a poem by Stephen Dunn that says “often a sweetness has come and changed nothing in the world… just long enough to make sense of what it means to be alive…” But it reconciled the poem’s subject to grief and loss, and it helped the poet write that poem. That’s change, isn’t it? Change at least of the stoical variety, an inner adjustment to outer circumstance? A change in attitude and temper is change I can believe in, whether it changes events in the world or not. I’m betting it does.
Continuing the epiphenomenal theme, it’s the birthday of Ambrose Bierce. His caustic and clever Devil’s Dictionary (1906) defines philosophy as “the most ancient occupation of the human mind” and “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” He was a philosopher and a cynic, with no use for this hour of the day.
DAWN, n. The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.
Bierce was a misanthrope, but an entertaining one.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.
The word “epiphenomenon” is missing from Bierce’s dictionary, but its flavor is there.
EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other—which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog.
And he offers
PERIPATETIC, adj. Walking about. Relating to the philosophy of Aristotle, who, while expounding it, moved from place to place in order to avoid his pupil’s objections. A needless precaution—they knew no more of the matter than he.
Bierce is wrong, though. Even when rambling alone, the peripatetic philosopher cannot avoid confronting objections. Especially then. The point of all that motion is precisely to summon and deal with them. That changes everything.
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