Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I got email this afternoon from an old friend's sister, telling me he was dead. The message began with "Please forgive this crude and cruel method of notifying you." He died "probably" on Saturday. I liked the bluntness and self-awareness of the message. The sister, whom I never met, contacted me through a series of group emails my friend used to send out, usually concerning problems in American education or politics. My last email to him concerned the sorry state of education and politics in North Carolina these days. He didn't respond. He was a forwarder. 

He died alone. He had been ill for quite some time, seriously so since about the time his wife died. That must have been about ten years ago, maybe more. He came to visit me in the apartment I lived in back then, shortly after he had had serious surgery, was no longer employed, and had time on his hands. He, his wife, and I used to go to movies together every Friday afternoon in Pensacola, and we'd get together on Sunday evenings to eat pizza and tabbouleh while watching movies we rented on VHS. That long ago.

He used to work for General Electric, I think, and then changed careers to teach English where I taught English back then. He taught on a different campus. We met because he took a film class I taught--twice, because he liked it. The second time he brought a friend, who for a short time was my friend too, who then stopped being friends with either one of us, for reasons known to neither of us. This friend of a friend who briefly was my friend too liked to complain about people using the expression "bad weather." The point was that there's no such thing as bad weather because weather has no moral quality to it. It exists apart from our ethics. It is indifferent to our needs and wants. We call it bad when it's inconvenient for us. But storms are simply the way nature works. Nature needs storms, plants need the rain, we need the plants. I appreciated the stoicism of the complaint. It's one of those things I have taken to heart and made part of my life philosophy.

It had been years since Don's name sprang to mind whenever conversation turned to the subject of people I considered my friends. But he used to be my friend, somebody I saw at least twice a week, usually three times a week. And he sent me articles by Robert Reich and other moderate lefties every couple of months since I last saw him. When we saw movies on Friday afternoons, we always went someplace for pie or a sandwich afterwards. To discuss. To analyze. To critique. If we all hated the movie, he inevitably asked what might have been done to make the movie a better one. A different cast? a change of ending? more sex? less exposition? He was big on discussing things, and he was a very good discusser, pragmatic, reasonable, affable, except now and then when we were drinking and his face went red, and then he went to some pretty dark places.

Now he's dead. "Crude and cruel" are the only methods of expressing such an inconvenient fact honestly, from a human perspective. But nothing is really "crude" and "cruel" in nature. A thing like that is just what it is. But sometimes it's good to think about what might have been done to make it better.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Well, There You Are

I've been down lately, "lately" being measurable in decades, but more pointedly and more recently in months. It's a continuous state with me, neither alarming nor unnoticed in my experience of it. Actual circumstances influence it, along with internal chemistry those circumstances trigger, I suppose. Mood shifts, surges, wanes, and halts like weather patterns. My ways of cajoling myself into "pulling through" seem piss-poor to most people, I guess, but they do the job well enough.

One is that I remember (and try to heed) the admonition of a college history professor I had, a retired military man who used to invite a few of us students, dorm residents, to his home, his wife feeding us butters, jams, and bread made from scratch (before that practice became fashionable) and him showing off myriad antiques he had personally restored. (I learned more from this man's offhand opinions and quirks of character than I learned from his subject content--aromatic mimeographed pages of dates and battles in blurry purple print. To this day, I believe "characters" make the best teachers. A lot about me is explained within these parentheses.) The professor's admonition was 
"Never complain about anything. Eighty percent of the people you complain to do not care, and the other twenty percent think you're getting exactly what you deserve."
The other things I take into mind ("take comfort in" would not be the correct words) are that 
  • Most things in life can't be helped.
  • I do what I can do.
  • I accept "good enough" in lieu of "perfect."
  • I do not worry or hope too much about what is (1) out of my control and (2) not presently occurring. 
  • What will matter to me most, in future memories, are the things that now seem insignificant, not the shit that causes panic, ecstasy, or other excitements.
  • Only one thing will ever happen to me in life that I won't get through somehow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I respect but seldom follow, wrote, "What does not benefit the hive is no benefit to the bee" (6.54, A.S.L. Farquharson translation). The message here is not that the individual bee has no integrity or value, but rather that the individual's integrity or value derives from the well-being (albeit not always the approval or respect) of the larger society. 

As many Greek and Roman philosophers noted (as well as the book of Job in the Hebrew bible), human beings are less equipped for survival in nature than most beasts--lacking the strength of the tiger, the camouflage of chameleons, the hard shell of tortoises, the speed of gazelles, or the eyesight of eagles. Humankind has survived through reason, technology, and the establishment of civilizations. Without the benefits of manmade order and society, an individual human being is further down the food chain than most (if not all) animals his size. Cooperation, compassion, and the pursuit of science (knowledge) have ensured human survival up till now.

The earliest human cultures regarded virtues as the qualities that enable people to get things done, for the good of self and others, not as the avoidance of certain disreputable actions, as so many moderns interpret "virtue." Ask people today if they're good and virtuous, and they may tell you they are because they do not steal, do not cheat, and do not murder, but ask them what positive good they personally bring to anybody else, and many of them will be stumped for an answer.

What's interesting to me is that those who have most benefited society--Socrates, Galileo, Alan Turing, just three examples that spring immediately to mind--have often been victims of their respective societies. Societies have been known to view their greatest benefactors as their biggest threats. I'm not sure why that should be the case, except to say that it's not an easy thing to see who most benefits the human hive except in looking backwards, at history--another feature of human civilization that's helped ensure its survival.

Those who seek to annihilate social order (rather than to revise or revolutionize it) are ultimately self-destructive, like the guy (Burgess Meredith) in the Twilight Zone episode who wished that he could be alone in the world so he could read the great books in peace. When his wish is granted and he is the last man alive on earth, he almost immediately steps on his reading glasses by accident and shatters them. Many hands give, one hand takes--but the ideal pattern of society is circular--individual diversity benefits society, which in turn protects and improves its diverse individuals, who are the builders of culture and technology.

As Marcus Aurelius points out repeatedly, the benefits of connectivity are not limited to human beings. We humans are connected to each other for survival, but we are also connected to the non-human world around us--the one mirroring and interacting with the other. The bees are vanishing from our world now, at a time when humans are becoming more alienated, more drastically individualistic, and less diligent in seeking the common good.  The disappearance of bees, as a recent Salon article suggests, may ultimately cripple agriculture, one of the first things humans developed to ensure their survival in a natural world indifferent to human survivability. We must "cultivate our garden," most definitely, but we must add value to the hive as well.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Short-Term Hopes

Horace's sweet ode to Leuconoe (Odes 1.11) contains the poet's best-known phrase, carpe diem or "seize the day." The poem begins, in David Ferry's translation from the Latin, "Don't be too eager to ask / What the gods have in mind for us, / What will become of you, / What will become of me ...." 

The warning echoes the Greek poets' cautious disregard for the future--the whole notion of "future" was one that the ancients seemed dead set on ignoring. Nothing can be known for certain until it is finished, they believed, with deliberate and agnostic lack of foresight. "Call no man lucky till he's dead," in the last lines of Sophocles' Oedipus

Horace's lines also anticipate Jesus's teaching, "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6.34, King James Version). Jesus's admonition is based on the conviction that "heaven and earth" were about to "pass away" ... and very soon: "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done" (Mark 13.29-33). 

Horace admits this scenario as a possibility (happily not a certainty, though):
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. (lines 12-17; lines 4-6 in the succinct Latin)
Horace's and the Greeks' main concern was not "the evil thereof," but the real possibility of wasting one's life in dreamy contemplation (and hopeful preparation for) a future that could not be reliably predicted or, even if predicted as in Oedipus's case, could not be understood.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," sang John Lennon by way of Mary Worth cartoonist Allen Saunders. For Horace, looking to the future is both hubristic and a waste of present resources, all of which have extremely short shelf-lives: "It is better not to know"--Ut melius quicquid erit pati (line 3)--literally, "Better to endure whatever will be."

If the boundaries of the Tyrrhenian Sea aren't certain, what can be? "Be mindful. / Take good care of your household. / The time we have is short." Or Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi / spem longam reseces"--literally,  "Be wise, strain the wine, and keep your hopes short term." Or as the wise Turk informs Candide at the end of Voltaire's comic masterpiece: "I have but twenty acres. ... I cultivate them with my children. Work keeps us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need" (Roger Pearson translation). From which, Candide concludes, with ancient wisdom, in reply to Pangloss's philosophically grandiose and overly optimistic take on how cause-and-effect works, "That is well put ... but we must cultivate our garden."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Interesting People

When I was younger, interesting people seemed more interesting. Today interesting people look like they ordered their interestingness from the same catalog. I enjoy going to bars and cafes where interesting people hang out, but increasingly the people I see in these places look like they might have copied and pasted their most interesting qualities from the same or similar sources. Interestingness--or some tendentious strain of it--has gone viral. I still prefer interesting people to uninteresting people. I just now have the impression that, thirty or forty years ago, the interesting part of interesting people was homemade--stretching in all kinds of incompatible directions, in no way predictable, frankly a little creepy at times--and thus ... more interesting to me.

I had this conversation last night with Barbara and Shane. It seems likely my age (I'm sixty), in collusion with my extreme introversion, has something to do with this changing and perhaps now jaded perception. When everything was new to me at age twenty or even thirty, the personality and lifestyle quirks that fascinated me appeared to come out of nowhere. Now these quirks come with labels as noticeable as Ralph Lauren polo ponies and golden arches. If they can't literally be bought someplace, it is possible now to live a perfectly banausic life, with all the mundane pragmatism and other bourgeois values in place, and still be "interesting." With the proliferation of web sites and blogs, I'm kind of surprised in the lack of variety ... in opinion, in tastes, in matters of interest.

I still get whiffs of interestingness when I travel, especially abroad, but I can't be sure that what I'm taking for interesting is simply a local variety of "interesting" ... in quotes. But I think perhaps we Americans have been entertained (mega-entertained) and malled almost to death, so that we have lost the ability to form eccentric peccadilloes and oddities of character that arrive chiefly from sometimes--even if too rarely--having to amuse ourselves, alone, unplugged, trend-free, and secluded from commercial and otherwise branded influences. Perhaps the emphasis on comfort, security, and competitive emulation in this culture robs us of the audacity, contrariness, and huge balls it takes to be the individualistic, outlandish, and smugly incorrigible freaks we were meant to be.


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