Tuesday, May 29, 2007


"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

19th century communications technology had already outpaced the human capacity to generate content worth communicating when Thoreau wrote that. Imagine what he'd make of the blogosphere.

Every year about this time, coincident with the end of the school year and the beginning of summer travel, I feel an irresistible urge to unplug from the grid. (It has something, too, to do with the incomparable allure of gorgeous May mornings when there are no school bells to beat, no urgent emails to open, no kids to rouse from bed and compel to eat soggy oatmeal.)

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Atlanta (the Chattanooga aquarium is better, btw). I resolutely left the laptop behind, and steered entirely clear of the hotel's "Business Center" computers. That's not exactly a retreat into the Walden woods but I still find it restorative of something vital and personal, and preservative of what I like to think of as my sanity.

And so, I'm happy to report that my primitive, unwired Little House office is working out quite nicely for me so far. I'm not going to boost my signal just yet.

My unsolicited advice to all who daily spend their freshest hour(s) immobilized behind a small screen: unplug. Check the email when you have absolutely nothing better to do. Don't be in such haste to publish your every thought to an inattentive world. (When David Brooks writes something stupid http://select.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/opinion/29brooks.html about Al Gore, for instance, someone else will be sure to call him on it. To wit: http://buchanan.blogs.nytimes.com/
(and also see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-g-brant/al-gore-urges-us-to-think_b_49371.html)

In other words: notch the hours on your stick instead of your keyboard, at least now and then.

The days will be growing longer for just a few more weeks, and I don't want to miss them. I'll be back, but -- for now -- I'll catch you later.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Little Houses (postscript)

It would be a serious omission to speak of Little Houses (as I did in the previous post) but not to mention Thoreau's cabin at Walden. So, consider it duly mentioned.

Thoreau's only regret, Michael Pollan noted in A Place of My Own, was not putting a taller roof on it: "you want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim... Our sentences want room to unfold."

And that's all the hook I need for this pic:

This was pre-new roof, of course. But for just a few minutes at least, my thoughts did have plenty of room to unfold, to follow the "centrifugal impulse... reaching out into the surrounding landscape." The trick is to do that with the roof on.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"A Place of My Own"

Michael Pollan's place may be better or more thoughtfully crafted to its purpose than mine, deliberately designed as a writer's retreat into the landscape of the imagination (and in his case, of Connecticut). It seems not to waste a single corner or to miss any vista. He conceived it himself (prodded by an architect's vision) and participated materially in its creation.

My Little House, on the other hand, was already on the ground -- in the back yard -- when we moved here a dozen years ago. My only contribution has been a new roof, a couple of new windows, an Earth Stove salvaged from the tear-down next door, and a cheap air conditioner.

The realtor passed along what turned out to be a tall tale about its antiquarian inception as slave quarters, but the truth is more prosaic: the daughter of its builder showed up unannounced one morning and corrected the record. It's older than Pollan's but by mere years, not epochally. No matter, though. It's still (to paraphrase CS&N) a very very very fine little house.

And anyway, Pollan and I share the very same wish for a slightly altered perspective that a small detached structure can afford. "Not just a room, it was a building of my own I wanted, an outpost of solitude pitched somewhere in the landscape rather than in the house."

I've done significant work in my "outpost," and idled on its porches and in the hammock strung nearby. Our kids and their friends and I have played there, too. Mostly I've gazed at it across the yard and pined for the leisure just to hang out there, to inhabit its rustic space and let its primitive pace pull me back to a more measured rhythm of living. Maybe it's silly to wax romantic about a shack, but I do. And Pollan does, about the "hut" he says is built for dreaming.

He details the construction, purpose, and meaning of his elegant little house in A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (Random House, '97). It inspired me to ruminate on and in my own ramshackle retreat, and now to be there more often in body as well as spirit. The anchor of my working life for many years has been an old roll-top desk that comes equipped with its own probably-tall tale about a 19th century pedigree and a former life in a Missouri fire-house. Whatever. I'm moving it one more time, a couple hundred feet, to take up residence in my home not far away from home.

One problem, at this point: it's out of wireless Internet range. Will that be a hidden blessing? I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Precarious and stable

Our lives are both "precarious and stable," John Dewey often observed. We strive for stability, and too readily take it for granted -- until the unforeseen and the unthinkable happen.

Public events like 9/11 can disrupt our stability, and shake the complacency out of us for a brief while. For a time we think we understand the precarious nature of existence. And then, invariably and until the next shock, we forget. It's probably a good thing that we do. There must be an evolutionary advantage in the capacity to overlook all the impending possibilities of chaos and get on with humdrum daily living.

But, disruptive and disorienting as a public calamity can be, personal tragedy may be even more searing. We nearly lost a little girl we love this week, one of our younger daughter's closest friends. It was her custom, on returning from school each afternoon, to hop out of the car and grab the mail. This time she impulsively detoured from the mailbox, scrambling under the idling car to retrieve a ball. She never imagined -- as the driver, her babysitter, never imagined -- the nightmare to follow. The babysitter thought C. had already run up the hill to the house, not seeing her duck under the car.

It's painful to picture what happened next. I'll simply say that C. survived what could so easily have been her last impulsive act on earth. She is at home this morning, bruised and battered but expected to recover completely. Her condition is stable, and rapidly improving. But I hope she never forgets that every moment of life is precarious. And precious.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Swing the bat!

My daughter the Diamondback had been slumping, taking a lot of called strikes and beginning to doubt herself.

Slumps happen in baseball, of course, and are largely responsible for making ballplayers among the most weirdly superstitious people on the planet: Wade Boggs, for instance, fearing to jinx his hitting streak, once ate nothing but chicken for several weeks on end. And speaking of the Red Sox, the biggest superstition of all is (or was) The Curse of the Bambino.

So what did my daughter do to break out of her slump? Nothing weird -- she just started swinging the bat, piqued perhaps by Dad's challenge to get the ball out of the infield (or at least put it in play). The other night she cracked a pair of solid hits and scored three of her team's six runs, on the way to a 6-3 victory and the game ball.

The life lesson here is clear enough to her, I hope: be aggressive, take some risks, and if you have to strike out occasionally at least make sure you go down swinging. You'll almost certainly be more productive, and you'll definitely have more fun. I have to keep re-learning that too.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Ben Franklin

I've been enjoying Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin. (Einstein is on deck). I didn't know that David Hume had acknowledged Franklin as America's first world-class philosopher, but old Ben -- or Poor Richard -- was a first-rate aphorist for sure. Some of my favorites:

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.

Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.

Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Wish not so much to live long as to live well.

Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.

Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.

And of course:
Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Brainwashing children

Stephen Law (The War for Children's Minds, Routledge 2006) cites Oxford physiology researcher Kathleen Taylor on brainwashing: "One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation."

Law thinks religious teachers and those who try to instill "faith"-based values in children are distinctively guilty of brainwashing them, of attempting to "inject beliefs into the child's mind directly, without engaging the child's rational, critical faculties." But what about parents and other teachers generally?

Teachers, parents, and authorities of all stripes who deliberately bypass children's "rational, critical faculties" aren't teaching, they're indoctrinating. Emerson reprimanded such people: "You're trying to create another you. One is enough!"

Saturday, May 5, 2007


It's Spring Commencement day at ESU, and I get to participate as our department's representative. It's regarded as a necessary but unwelcome chore by many of my colleagues, and -- considering how many bad Commencement speeches have been inflicted, through the ages, on captive audiences -- with good reason. But I recall the elation of that day, the pride of goals achieved, the satisfaction of accomplishment, and the pleasure of public recognition by one's mentors, friends, and family. As chores go, it's one of the better ones. If I ever get to deliver a Commencement address myself, I'll try to be as succinct as John Dewey in delivering this simple message:

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

If we've done our job as educators, and if they've done theirs, our students will commence "real" life with humble curiosity about themselves and the world, and with confidence in their abilities to feed it. But they'll never think they know enough. They'll cultivate a noble, Socratic ignorance. They'll reject what Dewey called the "conceit of learning," the shallow and pretentious display of facts for their own sake, the repitition of cant and convention, the resistance to new thoughts and fresh perceptions.

In other words, grads: don't stop learning. Have a great life.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Mormons

"It’s great to hear people who believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive," fawned the Times reviewer of the new PBS documentary on Mormonism. Sorry, but if it's not crazy to affirm young Joseph Smith's hallucinations (he was just 21) as revealed truth then what is?

After last night's first installment (the conclusion airs tonight) I came away shaking my head in renewed astonishment, that so many sober and serious-sounding people could believe something so preposterous. If people will believe that, what won't they believe? It does not bode well for the democratic prospect. I remembered Mark Twain's sarcasm in Roughing It:

"Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything, but for me when a man tells me that he has seen the engravings which are upon the plates and not only that, but an angel was there at the time and saw them see him and probably took his receipt for it, I am very far on the road to conviction no matter whether I have ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel or his nationality either."

(The angel's name was Moroni, by the way.)

Then I remembered Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God," which begins by recounting a visit from a pair of eager young Mormon missionaries whose tale was so absurd that she started rethinking her own "mainstream" (Roman Catholic) credulities -- and realized that Virgin Births, trans-substantiation, redemptive crucifixion et al aren't so different, the stories have just been around longer.

My instinct in religion is to be tolerant even when I can't be open to the alleged revelation, but I'm coming around to the Dawkins-Harris hardline that we need to stop giving a free pass to incredible superstition and calling it, respectfully, religion when what it is is nonsense. (On this topic, watch for a future post on E.O. Wilson's recent overtures to Southern Baptists.)

For a refreshing perspective on the "latter-day Saints" take a look at www.postMormon.org. Unless you've already drunk the Kool-Aid yourself, you'll feel better about your species.

Addendum. Just watched part II, which on the whole took a more critically-independent stance and (for instance) acknowledged that Mormon "niceness" can mask a kind of spiritual violence. The spectacle of very young children being indoctrinated into the faith, singing about wanting to become missionaries and so forth, emphatically makes Dawkins' point that this is a form of child abuse. They are not "Mormon children" -- they are children of Mormon parents whose birthright to think for themselves has been unconscionably violated.

But, for the record: I too have found Mormons (and other religionists) to be good neighbors.

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