Monday, January 26, 2015

Walk, and write about it

It's always nice to have your personal predilections validated by science. But I'll keep on walking and writing whatever the peer-reviewed research says. My own private study is confirmation enough for me.
To combat afternoon slumps in enthusiasm and focus, take a walk during the lunch hour.
A new study finds that even gentle lunchtime strolls can perceptibly — and immediately — buoy people’s moods and ability to handle stress at work.
It is not news, of course, that walking is healthy and that people who walk or otherwise exercise regularly tend to be more calm, alert and happy than people who are inactive.
But many past studies of the effects of walking and other exercise on mood have focused on somewhat long-term, gradual outcomes, looking at how weeks or months of exercise change people emotionally.
Fewer studies have examined more-abrupt, day-to-day and even hour-by-hour changes in people’s moods, depending on whether they exercise, and even fewer have focused on these effects while people are at work, even though most of us spend a majority of our waking hours in an office.
So, for the new study, which was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports this month, researchers at the University of Birmingham and other universities began by recruiting sedentary office workers at the university...
 The responses, as it turned out, were substantially different when people had walked. On the afternoons after a lunchtime stroll, walkers said they felt considerably more enthusiastic, less tense, and generally more relaxed and able to cope than on afternoons when they hadn’t walked and even compared with their own moods from a morning before a walk... "The Benefits of a Lunch Hour Walk," nyt
The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.
Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real... "Writing Your Way to Happiness"
Experience suggests the same.

Friday, January 9, 2015


Good words from Ken Paulson.
So what happens when the rallies end?
We've seen a heartening response to the brutal assassination of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper. Around the globe, people outraged by the brutal attack have gathered under the "Je Suis Charlie" banner. The same "We are Charlie" sentiment has been echoed by millions across social media.
But what happens when the town square is empty and "Charlie" is no longer trending? What happens when cartoonists sit back down at their drawing boards?
In the United States, we're blessed with the First Amendment, a constitutional guarantee of a free press. But the amendment only protects us against government censorship or punishment for what we write. It offers absolutely no protection against bullets.
In this country, we often talk about free speech in the context of controversial art or movies, or when debating the merits of incendiary tweets, or the spectacle of Kim Kardashian's backside on a magazine cover.
But consider the exercise of free speech by the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. In 2011, the newsroom was firebombed. Threats against the paper's editorial director Stephane Charbonnier led to police protection. Despite the daily threat of violence, the newspaper continued to publish provocative cartoons and content. Freedom prevailed over fear.
So often we confuse the right to express ourselves with the courage to do so.
It took courage in the 1830s for crusading abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy to continue publishing the Alton (Ill.) Observer. Time and again, pro-slavery mobs destroyed his printing presses, but he kept printing. On Nov. 7, 1837, a mob marched on a warehouse where a press was hidden, determined to set fire to the building. Lovejoy was shot to death as he rushed to protect his press.
It took courage for African-American Ida B. Wells to editorialize against lynchings in the 1890s and for Alice Paul to demonstrate for women's equality a century ago, despite being sentenced to prison for seven months in 1917. It took courage for artists like Pete Seeger to sing songs challenging authority after being blacklisted and for Lenny Bruce to perform after repeated arrests.
It took courage for Salman Rushdie to write "The Satanic Verses" and face a death sentence from Iran, and for Dutch Artist Theo van Gogh to make a film challenging the treatment of women in Islam, a movie that led to his murder.
And it took courage for American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff to report at great personal risk on events in Syria. Both were beheaded by Islamic extremists last year. Many other journalists also died in pursuit of the truth. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that worldwide at least 60 journalists were killed in 2014, with almost half of them murdered.
Free speech can lead to threats. And imprisonment. And death.
We owe a debt to those who stand up for what they believe, reporting, writing and expressing themselves, regardless of personal consequence.
I'll admit I love the idea of the free world, standing as one, declaring "We are Charlie." I only hope we're that brave.
Ken Paulson is the president of the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center in Nashville and the dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. Nashville Tennessean 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

George Eliot

Yesterday I came across two independent salutes to Brit Lit's George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). Guess I need to read Middlemarch. I'll put it on the nightstand, right under War and Peace and The Phenomenology of Spirit.*
...the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. 
That's how Middlemarch ends, marvelously. I was alerted to it by her greatest fan, Rebecca Mead, who also shines a light on Eliot's philosophical smarts. For instance:
“Love does not say 'I ought to love'—it loves. Pity does not say, 'It is right to be pitiful'
—it pities. Justice does not say,'I am bound to be just'—it feels justly.” She goes on 
to say that dependency upon a rule or theory only  when moral emotion is weak. "We think experience, both in literature and in life, has shown that the minds which are pre-eminently didactic—which insist on a lesson and despise everything that will not convey a moral, are deficient in sympathetic emotion,” she writes. My Life in Middlemarch
Score that for Hume, against Kant, and against all hyper-intellectualism in philosophical ethics.

The other salute came from Robert Coles in his intro to volume 7 of William James's Correspondence,  noting Eliot's (and Tolstoy's) superior psychological acuity to that of most professional psychologists. Probably true still, certainly so in their time.

*Existential Comics - The Return Counter
I can give you the regular version, or for an extra $2.50 you can get the original Russian.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Jury duty

I dutifully reported for jury duty this morning. The jury coordinator eventually reported that there would be just one criminal trial jury seated this day, so "cross your fingers."

Older Daughter finds the whole situation tweetably amusing.
My dad is texting the family about what a miserable time he is having actually adulting. Sorry Dad, you had to grow up today.
I wasn't miserable, just unsettled. Off my routine. No dog-walk this morning.

But isn't it interesting, how she (like many of her peers, I'll bet) equates misery with adulthood? Classic Peter Pan syndrome. It's true, I'm rarely miserable. I mostly enjoy life at work and at home during breaks from school, when "adulting" includes picking up after the kids and running their taxi.

Anyway, back in the jury room...

After about 45 minutes' wait I was relieved to miss the cut, but was detained along with 24 other potential reserve jurors. May have to go back to the courthouse in an hour. Fingers still crossed. Still not miserable. Just trying to stay young at heart.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy 2015

William James once resolved that his first act of free will would be to believe in, and act on, his own free will. That's a good way to start a new year. John Horgan thinks so too.
At this time of year, I like to hearten others making New Year’s resolutions by defending free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will? his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, Dennett lays out a sensible, down to earth view of free will. He notes, first, that free will is “not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.” Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.
Dennett calls free will “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs,” which humanity acquired recently as a consequence of language and culture. Free will is a variable rather than binary property, which can wax and wane in both individuals and societies; the more choices we can perceive and act upon, the more free will we have. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an “objective phenomenon” and dependent on our belief in and perception of it, “like language, music, money and other products of society.” (continues

Thursday, December 25, 2014

My xmas list

Older Daughter, the film major, came up with an inspired Christmas present request this year: she asks each family member for their favorite movie, on DVD, along with an explanation. It's a challenging assignment. I've narrowed my candidate list to five (Groundhog Day just missed the cut):
5. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967). "Yes," wrote Roger Ebert, "there are serious faults... but they are overcome by the virtues of this delightfully old-fashioned film." I saw it when I was ten, at a matinee, with my mother. I think we both cried, tears of sadness and of joy. It opened my young eyes to the stupidity of racism, warned me of the hypocrisy of untested liberalism, and perhaps saddled me with the unsustainably romantic notion that love conquers all - "as long as there's the two of us" etc. etc. I love the hilarious scene at the ice-cream stand, though the cool kid's disrespectful "stupid old man"  now has an unwelcome resonance for me that it lacked back when I couldn't imagine ever possibly being one. Tracy and Hepburn are magnificent, and the theme's romantic message remains sound (or at least unshakable): "you've got to give a little, take a little, let your poor heart break a little... that's the glory of love."
4. Sophie's Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982). Great novel by William Styron, great early performance by Meryl Streep. Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.
The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"
And the answer: "Where was man?” 
3. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979). I don't know much about cinematography but I know what I like, and I really like the old-timey look of this picture, and the Gershwin soundtrack, and I love the List scene:
"Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face..."
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Arthur C. Clarke's story famously infuriated premier attendees including Rock Hudson ("Can anybody tell me what the hell this is about?!") and mystified me too, near the end. But this was the year before Neil Armstrong's "one small step," and I really thought there'd be Martians (from Earth) by now. This movie captured and amplified my generation's dreams of cosmic exploration. The recently-released Interstellar has been called this generation's 2001, but that's silly. Oh, the echoes are there alright. But in 1968 the idea of space as our beckoning "final frontier" had real credibility. Or so we thought. “Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward a future.” More groping, please. Open the pod bay door, Hal.
1. Life of Brian (Monty Python, 1979). It's not the most profound picture ever, nor possibly the funniest, but I saw it in Columbia MO with some of my fellow philosophy major pals. We were the right audience. It taught us the importance of philosophizing with a proper portion of serious nonsense. We're all individuals, we're all different. Except for those who are not. Blessed are the cheesemakers (but don't take that literally, silly fundamentalists). Above all, "always look on the bright side." Darned good life wisdom, if you ask me.

If life seems jolly rotten

There's something you've forgotten

And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing

When you're feeling in the dumps
Don't be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle
- that's the thing.
And...always look on the bright
side of life...

According to The New Yorker, it is the most requested song at British funerals, edging out “My Way.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Richard Ford-"I'm here"

Heading out shortly to see Richard Ford at the Parnassus-co-sponsored event at the Nashville public library downtown. Here he was recently in Washington.

He just drove down from a similar event in St. Louis. Tomorrow night he'll be at Square Books in Oxford MS. Authors complain about author tours, but I'm excited about this one. I last saw Ford at the old Davis-Kidd in Nashville in June '96, when he inscribed a congratulatory response to my announcement that I'd heeded the wisdom of The Sportswriter: "In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five..."


UPDATE, 8:30 pm-

This grace note followed my admission that shortly after meeting him in '96 I'd gone and got myself right back into academia, where I've been ever since. Nice man.

Feels like closing a circuit. Or, as he says this new book is all about, "bearing witness." One of the attendees last night asked if Ford thought happiness is "relevant." Yes, but... there are satisfactions in a long and constructive life that exceed mere happiness. I think that's also what his books are about.

But beware this and every other explanation. "Explaining is where we all get into trouble." Don't I know it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Know Thy Self - Really

"Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.
Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible..." Quassim Cassam in The Stone

Professor Cassam is right, too many epistemologists have effectively renounced the classic historical quarry of their discipline, self-knowledge. But it's false to insinuate that the majority of us, on the front lines of large public teaching institutions like mine, have stopped posing the Big Questions. Far from it. William James long ago skewered the "gray-plaster temperament of our bald-headed young PhDs, boring one another at conferences with their talk of Erkenntnistheorie" etc. etc. Most of my peers, and I, don't bother with those conferences. We know ourselves better than that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Good people

Author and bookseller Ann Patchett has a nice Almanac quote on her birthday, in reply to critics who call her Pollyanna:  "I think there are plenty of people dealing with the darker side of human nature, and if I am going to write about people who are kind and generous and loving and thoughtful, so what? In my life I have met astonishingly good people."  Good for her. The jerks get too much attention.

Ann's first published novel came after several rejections, a bad case of writer's block, and a stint waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's in Nashville. "Everybody believed that they were special, that they weren't really a waiter, that they were the one who was getting out. ... I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just like everybody else, a girl with a dream and a plate of hot fajitas. You get out not so much because you're special but because you've got enough steel in your soul to crawl up."

Her biblio-perseverance reminds me of my reaction at the multiplex the other night, watching Matthew McConaughey in "Interstellar" trying literally to reach his daughter through the bookcase. I've been trying to do that my entire adult life. Nice metaphor. Great medium. Good people.


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