Tuesday, June 30, 2009


"Where do you want to go today?" Microsoft asked us.
Now that I no longer confuse freedom with speed, convenience, and mobility, my answer would be: "Away. Just away. Someplace where I can think."

-Walter Kirn, "The Autumn of the Multitaskers"

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Faithful friend and walking companion

We pounded thousands of miles together, old girl, in the years since you and "Grace" showed up at our door. You cheated death and earned your name many times. Now you've earned your rest. We'll never forget.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mr. Jefferson

What a remarkable author- illustrated blog post from Maira Kalman reflecting on her visit to Monticello, the pursuit of happiness, and the meaning of America.

My last gift to Dad, a huge admirer of Mr. J., was the poignant book about his last years, Twilight at Monticello. Time does indeed waste too fast.

Happy Independence Week!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Good news!

Planners reject May Town Center

Council has final vote, but project's chances are slim

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thumbs Up!

"Makers of worlds" indeed! The new digital 3-D technology is stunning (and didn't give me a headache), the story is preposterous but still fetching, the situation defies all telling but doesn't stand in the way, the characters are humanly recognizable and appealing, the emotional depth is surprisingly real, Ed Asner's voice work is a delight, the historical references are authentic, the affection for canines is heart-tugging... I give "Up" as many stars as you got, and agree with David Denby: "instant classic." Go see it. (Older Daughter in the theater next door was taken with "Transformers" too, and I think she's welcome to it.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bells Bend

The Bell's Bend to Beaman Park area, a lovely pristine part of Nashville close to downtown (as the crow flies, but far in spirit and atmosphere) is under threat of major development. May Town Center is envisioned as yet another commercial and corporate agglomeration, hard by Bell's Bend Park and the Cumberland River.

The debate between those who want to preserve this area, and those whose idea of progress entails high-density, high traffic urban commercial expansion (they don't like to call it "sprawl") without end, has now been complicated by a new study that contemplates a more recreationally-oriented 3d Way future. It might include B&Bs, conference and retreat centers, outdoor performing arts venues, and an amphitheater.

Maybe that'd be ok, better at least than May Town. All I know for sure at this point is that I spent a terrific afternoon last fall discovering delightful river vistas at Bell's Bend, and have enjoyed outstanding day hikes at Beaman. I can be there in less than 30 unstressful minutes of pleasant rural driving through middle Tennessee's finest rolling wooded hills. Ready access to such experiences, so near urban amenities but not literally next door to them, make this a special place to live. It won't be easy to improve the quality of life we now enjoy in this "recreational corridor" as it presently exists, but it will be all too easy to ruin it. Please be careful, Mayor Dean and council.



John Updike's poem "Baseball" evokes a moment in my life that could come back to me tinged with mild humiliation, or at least blushing humility, but thankfully it just makes me smile. Recalling the skill and difficulty involved in the deceptively simple-seeming act of snagging a fly ball, Updike wrote:

...circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

It was an early summer Sunday, the Nashville Sounds were hosting an afternoon game at Hershel Greer Stadium, and I had just settled into my seat to watch batting and infield practice before the game's scheduled 2 pm start. (We don't do that very often anymore, to my regret. I was still a single guy on my own recognizance back then.) A Sounds staffer approached with an offer any sensible person of my general athletic competence would have declined. I accepted. So that's why, a few minutes before 2, I found myself in center field as another Sounds staffer pointed an up-ended pitching machine in my vicinity and proceeded to launch a succession of black-dotted baseballs into the high sky above me. A city block? Might as well have been a city away. I did manage to catch one of them, but all of my attempts were successful from the team's point of view: they elicited loud crowd reactions. Howls of derisive laughter. General merriment. And in spite of it all, I had a blast doing it. As Updike says later in the poem, it is our birthright as Americans to fail spectacularly.

I had not quite disgraced the player whose glove I borrowed for the contest: the one and only "Skeeter" Barnes, a very good career minor leaguer who had many cups of coffee in The Show with Cincinnati, St. Louis, Montreal, and Detroit. You could look it up.

But you'll have to take my word for what Skeeter said to me as I returned his glove to him and hustled back to my hiding place in the grandstand. "It's not as easy as it looks, is it?" No, sir. It's not.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Happy talk

Here's my radio interview on WMOT, as broadcast live yesterday morning. It was fun. (And it was weirdly self-displacing, hearing myself as others might have heard me while walking the dogs Sunday morning.)

mp3 PlayerMTSU "On The Record" 2009

Saturday, June 20, 2009


A quick inventory of the partial contents of an envelope Dad left for me last year. I just opened it.
  1. Many b-&-w family photos, including one from 1925 featuring four generations (brother Glenn, mother, grandpa, great-grandpa, b. 1845)...
  2. Our first family photo, from 1957.
  3. Class photo of me from 1966, another from1970 inscribed to Uncle Glenn and Aunt Lucy.
  4. Winterton Curtis monograph from 1957, "A Damned-Yankee Professor in Little Dixie"
  5. Commencement program from Dad's graduation from Vet School, 1960. (btw: I took a walk this morning and saw the new clinic just opened by the two young men who bought his practice last year.)
  6. An aerial photo of (old) Busch Stadium, with exploding fireworks above, 9.8.98 (the night Mark McGwire hit his 62d home run).
  7. The letter I wrote to our older daughter on the day of her birth, reporting a forgotten but (if I say so myself) prescient personal conversation with Bill McKibben about the environment and our obligations to future generations
  8. A copy of Vanderbilt Magazine from 1999, in which I reviewed John Lachs's In Love With Life.
  9. A newspaper clipping from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dated 9.18.74, featuring a letter to the editor written by yours truly defending "President Ford's courageous, though untimely, attempt to put Richard Nixon behind us."
  10. Another clipping, dated 12.25.89, called An expression of love: a father's letter. It begins: "To our sons: We are fathers, and we find it hard to say 'I love you.'" It concludes: "We reach out, and this time we say, 'I love you...' Love, Dad"

Thanks, Dad. I love you.


Friday, June 19, 2009


All these years I've been complaining about the desolate drive through southern Illinois to St. Louis, when we could instead have been following the footsteps of John James Audubon (and friend D., the Carolina Kantian) to this lovely state park south of Evansville, Indiana, hiking and picnicing and birding, instead of grousing about the tacky Interstate rest areas and their tacky patrons. It's another wonderful bequest of FDR's New Deal, a project of the Works Progress Administration and civilian conservation corps, dedicated in 1939.

Stopping here adds less than half an hour of driving time to the trip. The Pennyrile Parkway and US 41 may not be Blue Highways, in William Least-Heat Moon's sense of the term, but they worked for me today. Live and learn.

OK, I-64 here I come - tanned, rested, and ready.

Happiness on the radio

EDITORIAL CONTACT: Gina Logue, 615-898-5081; WMOT-FM, 615-898-2800

New Class on the Nature of Happiness is Topic of Latest “MTSU on the Record”

(MURFREESBORO) Everyone seeks the elusive quality of happiness, yet different people define it in different ways. What is the key? Money? Success? Beauty? Sex? Fame? Solitude? Family? Freedom? Great minds through the ages have pondered this matter and arrived at widely varying conclusions.
Dr. Phil Oliver, professor of philosophy, will teach a class titled “The Philosophy of Happiness” at MTSU beginning this fall. He’ll talk about it on “MTSU on the Record” with host Gina Logue at 7 a.m. this Sunday, June 21, on WMOT-FM (89.5 and wmot.org).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Aristotle in Tennessee

Nashville may be the "Athens of the south" but I don't recall ever seeing Aristotle in the pages of the Tennessean before. He was right, before James extended the observation by pointing out that habit is the "enormous flywheel of society" that makes things go and keeps 'em going in the right direction. Way to go, Tennessean editor. More philosophy, please.

Theistic evolution

Dad's calling himself a "theistic evolutionist" was comparatively quite enlightened, none of his peers seemed to know what it meant or that it was an improvement on the old-time fundamentalist Know Nothing religion. He said he got the idea from a Baptist minister who probably didn't cotton to it himself, but Dad ran with it as an acceptable reconciliation of the handed-down faith of his fathers and the medical science he learned in vet school. His sense of loyalty to forebears and gratitude specifically to his good-hearted pious midwestern mother took atheism and agnosticism off the table for him, though he was still a free-thinker by the standards of that time and place.

I remember him plucking Ken Miller's book Finding Darwin's God from my shelf once and musing that he didn't understand why there was any controversy at all on this topic, among the devout: of course religion and science are compatible, of course a God should be expected to work His will through the laws and processes of a rationally ordered nature. "Intelligent Design" does not have to descend to anti-intellectualist Young Earth Creationist nonsense, though as a matter of fact it has tended to do just that in the debates of recent years, in the hands of rigid partisan pious zealots.

There's plenty of intolerant fire coming fron the other camp too, among evolutionists who insist that science moots religion entirely, and do not welcome any alliance with the likes of Miller. P.Z. Myers is one of those.

I understand where they're all coming from. There really should be room in a corner of the tent for at least those theists who aspire to scientific respectability even if their synthesizing project is doomed to fail. You don't have to agree with them, endorse their faith, or even respect it, P.Z. But you should respect them. A fundamental respect for the humanity of our fellow human beings should not depend on their falling in lock-step with our respective worldviews. I learned that from my Dad.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Winterton Curtis and the Scopes 7

Description: Back row, left to right: Horatio Hackett Newman, Maynard Mayo Metcalf, Fay-Cooper Cole, Jacob Goodale Lipman; Front row, left to right: Winterton Conway Curtis, Wilbur A. Nelson, William Marion Goldsmith. The Defense Mansion was a Victorian house where the defense team and witnesses stayed during the trial. July 1925

Winterton Curtis: recollections of the Scopes Trial, written in 1956...

Persistent URL: http://photography.si.edu/SearchImage.aspx?id=5305

Repository: Smithsonian Institution Archives


A highlight of our visit to St. Louis and Forest Park was the Missouri History Museum and its continuing exhibit on Charles Lindbergh, the humble young Minnesotan who piloted his tiny craft "Spirit of St. Louis" across the Atlantic in 1927 and hit the ground in Paris already a hero. (Jimmy Stewart immortalized him thirty years later for Hollywood.) The exhibit was thoroughly engaging, even though it made only minor mention of Lindbergh's anti-Semitism and isolationism during the second world war, the inspiration for Philip Roth's chilling Plot Against America. But what I was surprised to learn there is that Lucky Lindy became an anti-technologist and said, late in life, that if he had to choose between birds and airplanes he'd pick birds. Lucky for us, we don't have to make that choice yet. And lucky for us, that we didn't follow Philip Roth's fictional script and elect Lindy to the presidency.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fast or slow?

No hammock here, on this Missouri deck. But the weather's fine, the birds are tweeting real tweets, the same sun rises and sets. June is still good. I'm glad I don't have anywhere to drive today. High-speed rail between here and home, and between home and school, would sure be nice. (Do I contradict myself, Walt? Very well, we contain multitudes.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Recovered time

I finally set up email filters to sort my incoming email into folders, including a really big one that catches all the traffic from school. It being summer, days passed as I forgot to look at my school mail. I was pleasantly stumped as to why I seemed to have a lot more time on my hands. Then I remembered. Then I made myself “forget” again. It's really not healthy to be online all the time, even though Steven Johnson thinks Twitter is the greatest thing since, what, Facebook? "What your friends had for breakfast is more interesting than it sounds." (Ironically, he says this in Time.) No, it's really not. I agree that there's something positive in the phenomenon of trying to find new ways to connect and communicate, but there comes a time when it's healthier to push away from the keyboard and maybe even pull the plug. That time comes daily, repeatedly, and coincidentally with the draining of my coffee mug. Time to walk the doggies. Later it'll be time to hit the hammock. Soon it'll be time to hit the road. Somewhere in there I'll find the time to get some work done, I promise.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I set up a Facebook account several weeks ago with no conscious intent to use it any time soon, but just because, oh, I don't know, just because it would be nice to keep in touch with distant friends. But many of my closest friends in the actual world have not done the same, so I'm getting solicitations to befriend casual acquaintances, former students, and even strangers (some of whom might turn out to be "friends I haven't met yet," you never know). I have a very warm regard for many of these folks, but I'm not sure I need another layer of virtual experience in my life. That is, I'm willing to trade some fraction of time and attention for the opportunity to re-establish lost connections with old friends, and the idea of "making new friends while keeping the old" is another childhood verse worth heeding. But, as my friend was saying just the other day, face-to-face, I'm not sure I want to make that commitment at this time. I feel as though I'm already networked pretty thin.

So, to all who've extended the tentative hand of Facebook friendship: thanks, I'll get back to you on that. (Maybe read some Aristotle & Epicurus & Emerson on the topic.) But I do appreciate the overture.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


From today's Sidelines, the student newspaper at Middle Tennessee State University:

[President] McPhee said that the Physics Department was also under consideration for elimination, but after drafting a report to show how the department planned to grow, it was taken off of the list. He said the Philosophy Department has the same opportunity to present a plausible plan.

"If the department doesn't develop a concrete plan on how they intend to not only reduce costs but increase growth then it is my opinion that we ought not have that department at MTSU," McPhee said.

Diane Miller, vice provost for Academic Affairs and interim provost, said if a decision to eliminate or merge the department is made, a plan to phase out the major over a three- to four-year period will allow students currently enrolled in the major to complete their degree program.

McPhee said he thinks that the Philosophy Department is already preparing a plan for how to decrease spending and increase enrollment.

Ron Bombardi, Philosophy Department chair, was unavailable for comment.

McPhee said that the elimination of the department does not mean that the major would not still be available, however, the merging of the department could still be an option if the elimination were to occur.

"Should a decision be made to eliminate the Department of Philosophy, the interim provost, in consultation with the appropriate deans, academic personnel and Faculty Senate representatives, will explore the various options for merging the department with the most appropriate and compatible existing academic department at the University," the report said.

McPhee said that the possible departments that the Philosophy Department could be merged with would not be looked into unless the elimination is emanated.

"Not available for comment?"

Well, I'm available. I've already commented on the fishy quality of these developments, now I'll add simply that an emanation (neo-Platonically speaking) is supposed to elevate those it reaches, and raise their status. This has not been an uplifting process.

Simon says

British science popularizer Simon Singh has discovered just how risky it can be to question the evidentiary basis of the alternative health practice known as Chiropractic. The offending piece he wrote for The Guardian has been removed from public view, pending the outcome of a libel trial brought by the British Chiropractic Association; but it has been reproduced elsewhere by a sympathetic supporter. A full, unfettered airing of Singh's views on "alt med" can be found in his book Trick or Treatment.

My own domestic situation has frequently landed me in hot water on this very issue through the years, too, though no formal litigation so far. My view is that chiropractic is successfully therapeutic for some, though the verdict is still out on exactly why... because the science is still inconclusive. No one should be sued for saying that. Good luck, Simon

"The days are gods"

The Turkish Nobelist Orhan Pamuk said: "For me, a good day is a day like any other, when I have written one page well. Except for the hours I spend writing, life seems to me to be flawed, deficient, and senseless."

I understand where he's coming from, and am also most contented on those days when I have scribbled a few good lines. But that's an excessively bookish attitude. Even a bad writing day can still include a trip to the park, a good walk or bikeride, a ballgame, a fun outing with family and friends, splashy fun at the pool... Try to get out of the book-lined study a little more, Orhan, and let nature and her progeny be your study for at least a portion of each day. I don't know if that's the best way to win the Nobel, but there are bigger prizes at stake than mere recognition by one's peers.

So I side with Emerson over Pamuk on this one: the days are Gods, summer days especially.

Pamuk also said literature should focus on our fears: "the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears…" But I think literature, philosophy, and ordinary good sense should go beyond fear and explore the fearless state of mind that habituates itself, as Whitman said, to the daily dazzle of existence - the good, godly days - and learns to love life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The 5th Inning

Heard Ethelbert Miller talking to Bob Edwards about his memoir The 5th Inning , the title a metaphor for approaching the end of life. A baseball game is considered "complete" and can go in the books after five innings. If a decade of living roughly corresponds to an inning, then, those of us in our 50s can only hope for a 7th inning stretch, a dramatic and satisfying 9th, and (hope against hope) extra innings ( "That's what one hopes for when the game seems to be ending.") I miss Ernie Banks ("let's play two!)... but take heart from Norman Corwin.

Miller's cool website pays homage to the generations before him.

The book features this epigraph, from an 8th century Chinese poet: "The months and the years, a running river. Then there's the day you wake up old."

Then there's the day you wake up younger than the day before. It can happen.

Monday, June 8, 2009

There goes Roy Hobbs

"Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game."

"Isn't there something over and above earthly things— some more glorious meaning to one's life and activities?"

"In baseball?"


He racked his brain... (Bernard Malamud, The Natural)

As did Ted Williams, as did John Updike, as also (without bat in hand) do I. Racking our brains, tracking ever-elusive, "ever-not-quite" (William James liked to say) transcendence on Earth. It's oh-so-close, sometimes, glimmering and twinkling at us before it darts back into the dark. But while we're here in the visible world we've got to keep on tracking. And drink a toast before we go.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Who's watching the watchers?

I am, at the zoo. The free-range bipedal animals there are at least as captivating to observe as the captive ones.

I escorted the kids and two of their friends to the zoo yesterday, without additional adult assistance. Nothing remarkable happened, but since I'll not likely be doing that again it seems worth remarking. I didn't have to do it, but let the record show that I did it anyway.

Ethically speaking I'm ambivalent about the practice of confining wild animals for human gawking convenience, which seems anachronistic and wrong on its face... but arguably useful in provoking human sympathies that might in the long run be in the animals' and the planet's best interests. In the digital age, though, a holographic zoo might serve the same educational function. I'm not sure a holo-zoo would trigger the same family feeling of connectedness with the entire animal kingdom that the real thing evokes for at least some zoo-goers, but it's a possibility worth exploring. In the meantime I'll just have to bite the speciesist bullet and hope the zookeepers are respectful of their tenants when nobody's watching.

But putting all that aside, a trip to the zoo is awfully appealing when you find yourself in search of something to entice four young ladies outdoors on a gorgeous early June afternoon. The Dad hat doesn't always coincide with the Ethicist's, I confess. But it was a good walkabout, on a very pleasant sunny afternoon, and (again) a great opportunity to observe the human animal on parade. You can observe a lot by watching, especially this time of year.

The whole zoo experience seems to have been Disney-fied, somehow, since my last visit several years ago as a kindergarten chaperone. Or maybe we've all been Disney-fied, in our orderly spectator way of taking in thematic entertainment, queing for over-priced comestibles, shuffling purposively from sight to sight etc. It's sure a far cry from Thoreau's tonic wildness. But okay, I admit it: I'm glad we saw the tiger cubs before they head home to Florida in a couple of weeks.

tiger cubs

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Iowa 2, Nashville 1

But what a perfect night to sit out under a full moon and watch premier but unspoiled athletes plying their craft. "Faith Night" was unobtrusive. (In an alternate universe they have Reason Night at the old ballpark, maybe? But then the home team wouldn't have a prayer. I remember hearing Harry Caray actually say "The good Lord wanted the Cubbies to win!" Guess He got booted out of St. Louis too.)

The concessions were under control this time. The girls didn't complain about the bathrooms.

And the post-game fireworks were actually worth staying for.

Good job, Sounds. We'll be back.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Man

Speaking of Ted Williams and his peers...

Growing up in St. Louis, I always heard people contend that Stan Musial was better than Williams. I don't know about that, but I love Curt Flood's Musial anecdote. As a young ballplayer, Flood solicited the veteran's advice. How do you hit a curveball? "You wait for a strike, then you knock the shit out of it."

Who was the best? Neither Williams nor Musial, according to the The Man:

"There was never a day when I was as good as Joe DiMaggio at his best. Joe was the best, the very best I ever saw." (Baseball Almanac)

Curt Flood was the great centerfielder of my St. Louis childhood. The best I ever saw, though, was Willie Mays.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


There are lots of serious books on my summer reading list. For instance, I just received an assignment to review a new edition of William James's 1909 A Pluralistic Universe, so I'll be diving back into that again shortly. But this is June, and what would June be without a few frivolous bibliographic excursions?

Here's one: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach. It's a hoot, giving the subject all the levity it so richly deserves. Let's face it, whatever else you can say about human sexuality you have to admit that it gives rise to some intrinsically funny situations. For instance, when our author drafts her compliant spouse "Ed" to engage in intimacies recorded by ultrasound imaging, under the watchful direction of Dr. Deng. ("Now please make some sort of movement," says Dr. Deng. And then, in case its not clear, in case Ed might be contemplating flapping an elbow or saluting the flag, he adds, "in and out.")

Sex tends to get treated either too seriously or too goofily in our culture, sacralized and mystified (by the likes of D.H. Lawrence and many imitators... and by W.J. Clinton) or, alternately, played for laughs (see Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.) Roach's book splits the difference, coming at it scientifically. But I defy anyone to read this without laughing loud and often. Try to put it behind you when you're finished, though, if you want to take sex seriously ever again. How you think about things really does alter your experience of them, and (as they know at TED) ideas really can be sexy. Eh, Woody?


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Nothing to be frightened of"

"I don't believe in God, but I miss Him."

Julian Barnes' brother Jonathan, a philosopher, thought his brother's opening line in Nothing to be Frightened Of "soppy"; but it expresses the natural ambivalence that many atheists feel about the human condition. Are we up to the challenge of living in a Godless universe?

When their mother died and Julian relayed the undertaker's question about viewing the body Jonathan said "Good God, no. I agree with Plato on that one." What did Plato say? "That he didn't believe in seeing dead bodies."

“Thank goodness you’re here—I can’t accomplish anything unless I have a deadline.”  by David Sipress

New Yorker

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hyperparenting is over?

I hope so, we do worry too much about the kids and rely too much on "experts." (Ann Hulbert, btw, writes a very good column on these issues for Slate, and wrote a very good book that we used in "Philosophy of Childhood" called Raising America.) But Lisa Belkin's conclusion is still sobering.

...we have replaced the experts who told us what a good parent worries about with experts who tell us that a good parent doesn’t worry so much. We may even see parents stop aiming to prove how perfect they are and start trying to prove how nonchalant they are. But worry is worry. The search to keep from messing up goes on.

For a few more years, anyway. The power of a parent to screw a kid up is daunting, the capacity of a kid to resist the best nurture is discouraging. But what would you be if you didn't try? You've got to try. (Not talking cheeseburgers here, Lyle.) "Parenting" is still a verb.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Philosophy majors

According to this morning's newspaper account,

The Department of Philosophy must present a viable plan for significantly increasing its number of majors. It must be approved by the interim provost and president by Sept. 30. If it is not, various options for merging the Philosophy Department with the most appropriate and compatible existing academic department at the university will be considered. The major may be phased out over a three- or four-year period.

Also noted in the article,

The dean is quick to point out that the Philosophy Department has an acceptable number of majors based on Tennessee Board of Regents standards. "That is an average of 10 majors over a five-year period," he said.

Thank you, Dean. The majors issue is a red herring, in the original report because the task force that produced it passed false information along to the President... or because someone wants it there for ulterior reasons.

Almost no philosophy department in the country has a surfeit of majors compared to larger, standard-vocation-oriented programs. This is America, after all. Of course we want more majors, and goodness knows the country (and its pool of collegiate administrators!) can use more thoughtful people. But pretty clearly, that's not what our university's present budget-slashing initiative is about.

More twittering

from Arlo and Janis


You can learn a lot from watching birds too, not just squirrels.

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