Playing Catch

My neighborhood in Independence, Missouri, is multigenerational.  Young families live next door to someone’s grandparents, and the mix seems to please all.  Diagonally to the northeast of my house lives a family from which all three of their daughters were my students.  One of them lives at home and has a daughter of her own just beginning elementary school.  The neighborhood is unique in one other way.  The single road connecting us all is just an oddly-shaped square, a geometrical impossibility, I know, with just one outlet to the main road.  That means few vehicles are on our quiet street unless they belong here.  Few accidents of orientation, in this day of GPS, steer lost cars into our little oasis.  So, children play safely in the street, just as I did on the streets of my childhood in New Jersey.  There’s something comforting about that.  In a time of rampant discontinuities among the generations, it’s nice to observe a peaceful continuity.

But there’s something missing today from the street play I participated in.  And something dominant today that was nearly nonexistent back in the ’40s and ’50s.  My father, besides being a wonderful minister, citizen, and father, was a damned good athlete.  He saw participating in physical sports a way of making social and personal contact with people to whom he might, at some future time, be called upon to minister.  He was a minister not in a denominational sense, but in a human sense.  If someone was in need and you could help, you pitched in.  You didn’t look at the color of their skin first, nor the inflection of speech.  You didn’t ask about their faith, or lack of it, nor their political affiliation.  To minister was to take everyone as equally in need and equally worthy of whatever you could do.  But people have pride, and that’s not a sin, just a form of defense that makes you human.  You don’t have to break down people’s defenses; you just have to engage them in such a way that they willingly move out from behind them to you.  Participating in sports was one of several ways in which he could build up the trust that often led to his being able to minister effectively to them.

But sports don’t always have to be organized, with uniforms, rules, and scorecards.  For many of us in those days, one of the core sports-based activities was playing catch.  At a bare minimum, it required two people and one ball.  It could be a baseball, or a ball that size.  It could be a football.  The ’60s activity of hacky-sack is just another form of playing catch.  When the Frisbee became popular, it would substitute for a ball, or the dull soft thud of a sack.  The most important fact to know about playing catch is that it is a cooperative activity.  The somewhat diffuse goal of all participants is to keep the activity going, and to keep everyone in the game.  Okay, that’s two goals, but they are interconnected.  Perhaps symbiotic.  It was also a game of adaptation.  Each participant tuned his or her level of play so as to make everyone able to participate, despite varying skill levels.  It’s contrary to the expectations of the game to throw the ball too hard for someone, or beyond his or her reach, or to humiliate those of lesser skills.  You keep the ball moving, and the way you do that is you throw catchable balls.  You can challenge those of greater skill.  That’s what gives the game some savor.

I loved playing catch with my father, but by the time I became a good partner, the demands from the community and his church for his time made those moments rare, but oh so treasured.  He had a little bit of a curveball he tried out on me upon occasion, and I experimented sometimes with a knuckleball for his amusement, but it was more knucklehead than Hoyt Wilhelm flutter.  The beauty of playing catch is that the players stand close enough to talk and communicate while they throw and catch.  It’s what you see in spring training in the Bigs, and along the sidelines and in the outfield before a game, and while B.P. is going on.  Kids playing catch.  It used to be the quintessential informal sports activity of childhood.

In my neighborhood, I don’t see it any more.  There are still ball-related sport activities, but they’ve changed.  I should have seen it coming when I was a father and tried to recruit my son into playing catch.  He abhorred it, though he would throw the Frisbee upon occasion.  His interest became skateboarding, an interest I never cultivated.  Perhaps as a good father I should have.  But skateboarding is an exhibitionist activity, and showing how bizarre an arc you can make a Frisbee achieve is one too.  There’s no thought about cooperation or mutual participation; it’s just about showing off.  And that seems to be the goal of the kids where I live.  Dunk over someone, posture, preen, laugh, and maybe even taunt them for their incompetence.  The transition is not just between sports as participation and sports as spectacle, it seems also to set up a model of interaction at this informally primal level that translates into far too many fields of human contact.

Feel free to fill in the blanks yourselves.  I just miss playing catch with my dad, or my son, or grandchildren.  I’ve got an old Mizuno first-baseman’s mitt and a Royals baseball, a Billy Butler homerun during B.P. when he just broke in with us and my pal Gloria and I were giving away copies of the late Dan Quisenberry’s book of sweet poems about the game to the first 500 patrons that Sunday.  I can still throw a decent spiral, too.  If you prefer football, I have three Michael Vick #7 balls from when he was with Atlanta and did federal time for dog-fighting.  I figured he was done in football and the balls would be valuable some day.  They are.  That day is here.  They are valuable for what they were always most valuable for: playing catch.

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Books

For someone with pretensions to an intellectual life, books are the raw ingredients of that life.  As a baker cannot create a full life of breads and pastries without flour, books stand in the same relation to a philosopher, or writer, or anyone who takes the process of thought seriously.  When I retired last year, and began this blog, I had between 2200 and 2500 books in my house.  Many had been with me since my teenaged years, and proved to be the truest and most dependable of friends.  Others were recent discoveries, such as the novels of Richard Russo and Rebecca Goldstein.  While retirement did not signal an end of my intellectual life, I hoped, there had been building in me for some time a recognition that these needed to find other homes.

So, I began to let friends, colleagues, students and former students know that they were free to come by and loot my shelves mercilessly.  I chose a day early last fall on a warm Sunday afternoon, made wine and snacks available, as well as bags and empty boxes, and threw open my doors.  Of course, not all books were up for grabs.  Before the day arrived, I went through the collection to identify the ones that I would need to be buried clutching.  Most were philosophy books that continually reward another reading, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, referred to in my most recent blogs, and the writings of the late Ronald Dworkin, perhaps our country’s greatest philosopher of the law and how it reflects on our daily moral lives.

But the process of triage quickly became troublesome.  Of course, I kept my father’s copies of Plato and Kant.  He read them while he was in divinity school at Temple U., in Philadelphia in the 1930s   His notes were still in the margins.  These were too close to my heart.  But what about all the Shaw?  G.B. Shaw had been my closest boyhood friend, and taught me to love language as a lover does: playfully, wondrously, knowing that words carry a burden far heavier than a font.  I had all his plays, the long and the short.  “Man and Superman” was the one I tucked away to read on the bus to 1963’s March on Washington, but hardly cracked with all the folk and hymn-singing.  They all went, as did some autographed copies, including a couple signed by the whimsical Kansas City cartoonist, Charlie Barsotti, who died this year while I was in California.  Ansel Adams’s great lessons on photography, The Negative and The Print were up for grabs, even though no one has ever made either of those artistic creations more movingly.  And so it went.  Shakespeare was grabbed, but Ogden Nash stayed hidden from the horde.  Books defy objective explanation.  In all instances, I made a case for why I was saving something but not something else, often on pragmatic grounds.  But no one could make sense of those arguments other than me, I am sure.

Today was the last day.  I boxed up half the ones remaining last week, and my dear friend and former student, Jessica, helped me haul them to the library that had agreed to accept them without restriction.  Philosophy journals mixed with cookbooks and travel guides to Asia.  A huge hardcover, slipcased, of the collected photographs of Alfred Eisenstadt, a photojournalist now largely forgotten, was wedged under a collection of the philosophy of science, perhaps a forlorn reminder that the digital age in photography has all but eclipsed the technology Eisie used with his Leica and Tri-X film.  That was my technology, too, but it is just a curiosity now, and maybe I am, as well.

As I approached the last two bookcases, knowing that tomorrow they would be taken from me by a former student who owns a used bookstore and needs to shelve her acquisitions, I began to slow down the pace of my boxing.  Something final was in the air.  Something I hadn’t recognized when I blithely sent Shaw to his doom, and Ansel as well.  I was beginning to shovel dirt upon the casket and I didn’t like the feeling at all.  Tears began to fill my eyes, just as they are doing now as I think about it.  Just like in a funeral, you like to think the deceased are going to a better place, but only well-indoctrinated children believe that completely.  The rest of us look knowingly into that deep hole and realize that’s where it all ends.  At the beginning of this giveaway, I was optimistic that these books would end up in the hands of new, fresh-faced, enthusiastic readers.  And my friends and students assured me this was so.  But we’ve reached the end of the road.  This final set of boxes contains the unadoptables.  The time is up and the pound is going to snuff them.  Maybe they won’t end up like Aristotle’s missing works in Alexandria, lost forever to the flames of fanaticism.  But the life they gave me is unlikely to nourish another from a warehouse, or a landfill, or a recycling bin.  It almost seems as if I am giving up a part of my life with this sacrifice, just as I did with retirement, and as I will when I bury my friend Bill this Saturday, one of the 3 great male friends I vaguely identified in my last blog on Sunday July 20.  He died the next day.

The advice at other funerals is also useful for ones concerning books.  Hold the ones that remain very closely, love them more intensely, squeeze from them every drop of meaning you can.  The shovel is at the ready, and who knows which one of us is next.

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Relationships III

             A Plunge into the Oceans of Most Men’s Minds would Scarcely Wet your Feet.

                     The National Lampoon: Deteriorata

For nearly all of my adult life, I have labored under a profound delusion. It is unlikely to be the only one, but it is the only one I was able to shatter this summer. For me, apparently, delusions are a seasonal thing. I demolish them in the summer, then eagerly acquire new ones in the winter. During spring and fall, Sisyphus and I pass each other on the hill going in opposite directions.

By the time I entered high school, it was clear to me and anyone around me that I was an introvert.  My father, with alarm in his voice, once used the term “loner.”  Because he was gregarious and social, that his oldest son was the opposite must have caused him some pain.  A part of being a loner involved rejecting the common expectations foisted upon me by society, as I interpreted it.  Among those were the generally misogynist glorifications of male physical activity perpetuated and celebrated by the Jock Culture, and finding meaning instead in books, music, and solitude.  With only minor modifications, that has continued to this day.

A part of the fallout of this view and orientation of life has been the absence of enduring male friendships and the prevalence of female ones.  While most of my female friends through the year have not been former lovers, some have.  I would listen; they would listen.  We would commiserate.  If they were single, they would eventually move on.  If they were married, their husbands would eventually insist that I move on.  I became something of an emotional transient in a world that seemed to laud stability.  Occasionally, I would reach desperately back into the past, hoping to find someone who was still there for me in something like the way she was in the past, but none was.  Accompanying this began the pattern I identified in the previous blogs.  Failed marriages and fraudulent friendships with women were the only kinds of emotional connections I could cobble up out of the ruins of an otherwise rewarding life.

This summer’s events made me realize something I would never have dreamed possible, and reinforced the feeling I have had for some time that I am something of a dim bulb concerning the obvious.  And this was it: I have been engaged, for several years, in at least three wonderful friendships with great men.  Men, for chrissake!  The delusion I mentioned in the first paragraph was that all my best friends were women.  Now I realize what a joke that was; most of the dissatisfying and exploitative friendships, or associations, have been with women.  This is not to blame the women involved; Aristotle understood it well.  The instability stemmed from the fact that I was looking for completeness when they were looking for someone useful for the time being.  It may have been the apotheosis of foolishness on my part to think that any of the women whose moments temporarily filled my life would ever be anything but transitory.

The three men I mentioned but will not name differ from all this past confusion and heartbreak by the very elements Aristotle saw as necessary ingredients for a complete relationship, the most prominent being commitment.  I feel we are each committed to the friendship, and each other, to a degree that defies question.  We are all very different, from varying age, socioeconomic situations, and cultural interests.  I have season tickets to all the high-brow musical activities of this city.  I have only been able to coerce one of them to attend one concert I attended.  Two have an interest in spectator sports that I lack.  All may have voted Republican at one time in their lives.  My dirty little secret is that I have as well, but this was back decades ago when Republican candidates actually appeared to be from Planet Earth.

I love these men.  Each of them is married and I love their wives too, in varying degrees.  And one has a young daughter for whom I would lay down my life, were it needed, without a qualm or question.  Two of the friendships have persisted for more than 30 years; one, less than 15.  What has created this willful blindness in me for so long that I was incapable of recognizing the beauty and importance of these men, and their friendships?  Maybe one day I’ll know, but until that time, I’ll prepare a return to LA to visit one of them, and force some green beans off on another.  There is a growing roundness to my life now that is not a reflection of my eating habits.

But there is one piece of unfinished Aristotelian business.  He thought that the complete friendship would incorporate elements of the other two, incomplete forms: usefulness and eroticism.  That is because ancient Greece accepted the notion that men could have an erotic relationship with one another as an expression of the most profound and meaningful friendship, while still being married and being a father to in every meaning of the word, raising, and supporting a family.  That’s not happening with us.  Aristotle believed that usefulness to one another would arise naturally as a part of the friendship itself.  It was not something a friend has to think about.  if you do, as the late Bernard Williams once said, you are having “one thought too many.”

My sensual life is still as arid as Barstow, and that makes my relational life still incomplete, despite the delight of friends in good times and bad.  These men were there for me, and I for them, but I was strangely oblivious to how significant it was for my life until I was able to strip away and understand how superficial and manipulative were the female associations I had spent far too much energy and emotion sustaining.  This was the great discovery of the summer, and it sustains my spirit more than I ever thought it would.  If, in my advanced years, I can find a woman to develop and sustain a creative sensual life with me, Aristotle would smile.  But don’t shower with him, that’s all. 

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Relationships II

Relationships are all about character. Period. That is a durable truth Aristotle left us 2400 years ago, and it was never more true or poignant than this summer, as I tried to think about the unthinkable: the possibility that my relational life had come to an end. As I look at the past, and experience the present, deficiencies in character, primarily my own, produce a glaring, garish raspberry to some of my pretensions.

Let’s begin with Aristotle, whose thinking on this matter will provide a conceptual framework for understanding the details.  Most translations describe the topic central to Books XIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics as “friendship,” but that word has been so diluted and bastardized by the Facebook mentality and rampant self-absorption of our current times, that I feel it is no stretch to say that he was writing about what we today would call relationships, and I’ll continue on that reasonable assumption.  There are three kinds of relationship, he felt, and if we’re lucky we’ve experienced them all at one time in our lives.

The most profound, and also most elusive, is what he terms “complete.”  Not perfect, mind you, or must I send you to the final blog about LA?  A complete relationship is based upon character, both yours and the one you love — not a term that ought to be excluded from discussions of this sort.  You are drawn to someone of an admirable character motivated primarily by that fact and you wish to further the activities of that character for two reasons.  One, because you recognize how wonderful that person is, and, two, because you yourself are of admirable character.  No one of good character would want to further the aims of someone who is a scoundrel; to do so would reveal that you are deficient in character.  Character feeds character, and in this sort of relationship, your aim is to increase the good that the other is creating, and serve that good.  Of course, if the other person does truly act out of a good character, he or she will also attempt to further your good.  But because we are autonomous, and of good character, we define our own good in our own way, and it is the role of love to uncover what is the lover’s good as he or she envisions it, and act to make it more wonderful through what you do.

A tall order, I know.  Aren’t there some relationships that aren’t so demanding?  Does Dirty Don’s have expired whipping cream on sale today?  He does, of course.  I bought some.  The other two are incomplete, but that does not mean unsatisfactory.  They can produce a measure of fulfillment within the limits of their aims, but they are also prone to failure in a way that complete relationships are not.  One is a relationship based on sensuality, pleasure, passion.  You know: sex.  Aristotle says this is what young people think love is, but he is not being critical of their mistake.  Not having developed much of a character by that time, it’s all they’ve got going for them.  I take it that his view is that they ought to go for it!  There’s nothing wrong with infatuation, attraction, and rutting away like crazed weasels, a quote I never cease to enjoy employing.

Of course, the goal of such relationships is to gain romantic and sexual pleasure for oneself, and as long as it’s happening this relationship works fine.  Of course, if both people are looking for the same thing — gratification — and both are getting it, they can carry on for quite a while, and in quite a few different locales.  But this is a fundamentally unstable relationship for at least two reasons.  One is that erotic drives and focus are unstable, and a wandering eye can lead to a relationship crash.  The other is that there may be an imbalance in what each partner perceives he or she is getting out of it.  And since this sort of relationship is founded on what you want to get for yourself, when you think you’re not getting what you deserve, you move on.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a relationship like this, so I’ll move on to the next type.  But since both of them exhibit crucial structural and motivational similarities, I felt it was necessary to talk a bit about that one.  One thing Aristotle doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with is what I might term a hybrid relationship, which is one in which the basic features of the relationship are, say, erotic, and most of the activities are sexual in nature, but one of the partners is looking for something other than mere sex.  Maybe for him or her, it started out as just the fun of boinking but eventually he or she began to desire a more complete relationship, while the partner just wants to get mindlessly naked as frequently as possible.  At this point in my life, it sounds like a wonderful quandary to have, but differential goals eventually destabilize this kind of hybrid as well as most kinds of hybrid relationships.

The kinds of relationships, or — I think a far more accurate word — “associations” I am currently engaged in, and ones which have dominated my last few decades of connection with women, Aristotle calls ones based on “utility.”  It is coldly correct and painfully accurate.  These are associations in which one or another of the partners identifies something useful in the other that they wish to take advantage of for their own benefit, and they use the polite framework of a relationship for the impolite purpose of getting what they want at as small a cost as they as forced to pay.  These are relations of what he calls coincidence and convenience, and they have been almost my entire social life for a long time.

I don’t believe in false modesty or false bragging, but I have a few qualities that a vanishingly small number of women find useful, and maybe even marginally pleasant.  “Culture”  might be the general term under which they can be collected.  I love to attend concerts and am generous when I have an extra seat, which is always.  I have excellent taste in wine, 350+ bottles in my house, and am generous with them as well.  Rather enjoyable and interesting art hangs on the walls of my house and I am pleased to share the experience.  I cook a decent meal and am generous with that as well.  I can hold a conversation of some hours duration if necessary, and never once have to resort to a phrase like “How ’bout them Chiefs!”  I am also a good listener to voices other than those in my head that keep telling me to flee before she brings out the Glock from her handbag.  I presume that a few women find it useful to avail themselves of experiences of this sort, and it also seems to have been true in the past.

However, as it was with the erotic relationship, these associations, in order to work, need to have a kind of parity of benefit.  If I am providing something useful to you, and you wish to have it provided in the future, you need to provide me with something useful to me.  Not just something you didn’t want anyway, but something that, on my own terms, I desire and feel will benefit me.  The women in my current associations seem to have the view that their mere presence in my life is far more than I deserve, and my ingratitude, when it infrequently surfaces, is puzzling to them.  Such naïve narcissism, if that’s what it is, might be somewhat charming were the person in question a bright elementary school prodigy, but in an adult, it is nothing better than calculating and callous.  They make some sort of bloodless computation that they can get what will benefit them in they way they want it, but never have to provide anything comparable in the bargain.  These people may sport the language of friendship and even affection or love, if the occasion seems to warrant it, but it is nothing more than a cynical mask for base self-interest.  Aristotle claims that the imbalance I have described and am experiencing is also inherently unstable, and yet, in my life, this genera of association seems sadly durable.

The first sentence of this blog mentioned the centrality of character in relationships, but I seem to have abandoned it after only a couple of paragraphs.  Let me try to reinstate it.  Most of the individual associations of the sort I have been recently describing are unstable and disappear, but the phenomenon remains in my life.  Thus, the fault would appear not to be in my stars but in myself.  Just as manipulating someone for personal gain is a despicable character flaw, so is permitting it to happen to yourself at least a lamentable one.  Here is where I must invite Kant to the party, or wake, whichever it turns out to be.  He would not have acknowledged any but the complete relationship as a legitimate sort of relationship, and since I have it from a very reliable source — the Internet — that he died a virgin, the sensual variety seems to have passed him by anyway.  By regarding people as a commodity or object to be used just for the purpose of self-aggrandizement was to dehumanize them.  All human associations should aspire toward the Aristotelian complete relationship in his mind, and if you let yourself be used you are dehumanizing yourself as well.  There’s not much character in self-debasement, and if character is key, my own willingness to settle for imbalanced treatment is a defect that interferes with anything like a life with healthy relationships to sustain it.

What am I left with?  Currently, it seems like I must accept the ugly, bitter taste these associations leave in my mouth, or walk away and have nothing at all.  Those sporadic times in which I am not even exploited are lonely, devastating months.  It has begun to feel that a horrible taste is preferable to none.  But is there a third option?  In part, that’s the subject I will pursue in the next blog.  If I can find a way to develop a relationship closer to the complete one described by Aristotle, I will rinse my mouth of the bitter ugly tastes I have become accustomed to, and spit them on the ground.

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Relationships I

Perhaps living alone, somewhat reluctantly at that, has led me to take a critical look at relationships of my past and present, trying to make sense of them while I can still make sense of anything.  This introduction is meant as fair warning; if you don’t want to witness me delving into those murky waters, read no farther.  This and the next two entries will look at three separate areas of my meaningful connection with other people, and the discoveries I have come across concerning them during this summer of rumination.  The three segments will concern, first, my three marriages, and those I will discuss in this blog after laying out an introduction sure to send most of you to the exits, if you aren’t there already.  Second, in the next blog, I will talk about non-marriage relationships with women, current and past.  In both blogs, I feel I have uncovered patterns to which I am susceptible that have led to the massive and incessant failures they represent over the space of a lifetime.  The final blog will reveal a lovely surprise I have uncovered in my life, and not a moment too soon after all the horrors of the first two episodes.  If your reading survives the first two, I hope you’ll find the third a refreshing note of optimism.  It feels that way to me.  One other thing worth mentioning is that I have recently begun to reread Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his greatest work in my opinion, and one I taught in the Rockhurst University Ethics class when I was an adjunct there from 1993-95.  My rereading began only after I came to the conclusions this blog lays out, so I did not look for explanations in Aristotle and try to shoehorn my life into his narrative.  Rather, after working things out that will come in the second and third blogs, I was reminded that Aristotle had vaguely the same kinds of things to say about relationships in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics.  My ideas had a bit of a Kantian shading to them, but it does seem to me that those two philosophers have more in common than Hackett Publishing Company.  The conclusions I arrived at are mine, but Aristotle helped me see how they fit into a broader explanatory pattern that is both satisfying and alarming.  Okay, fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis would have said.  At least I didn’t marry her.

I have married three times and divorced three times.  Or, at least, I think so.  My first wife was a legal secretary in LA at the time we needed to make it official so she could marry again.  However, later searches, both Internet and through private papers, fail to show that any divorce was ever filed for or obtained.  I may have been a bigamist until she died and left me a widower less than 5 years ago, while I was at the time married to someone else.

In looking for patterns concerning why these marriages were doomed from the start, as I now think they were, some elements seem to defy any kind of pattern.  Three different races: white, black, and Asian, in that order.  Different parts of the country, and of the world, represented.  Religions?  Bland undifferentiated Protestant, shit-kicking African-American, and Buddhist.

But one fact emerged in my thinking and remembrances that refuses to be explained away as something else: each of them was trying to escape something in their present life, and I represented a way out.  That’s it.  That’s the whole thing.  But there are some nuances lying beneath the surface that have a bit of explanatory power, I believe.

Each of them was escaping something different: an oafish early spouse, an abusive family member, a failure in both business and marriage.  I knew all these elements of their lives, and sympathized completely.  But I chose to think that what was important was who they were escaping to, and not what they were escaping from.  And that choice, concocted out of vanity, wishful thinking, and selective blindness, all on my part, led to a decision to marry that seems now something of a bridge too far.  In each case, it took a few years for the truth of this to bubble to the surface of our relationship, leaving an algae bloom that would no longer support life.  As an aside, I don’t want to see that last sentence appear on Facebook in a collection of horrible inadvertent metaphors.  What I mean is that I don’t, with the most recent exception, think there was deception on the part of my wives concerning their actual motivations and goals.  There was probably gratitude and relief when we began a life together, and that may have been a masquerade of love or commitment, or a benign glimpse into a future together.  But when they put the past securely behind them, they looked at the present and, sadly, it contained me.  I may have been an improvement, but I was not what they truly wanted, and at that point, it was over.

This is not a problem I know how to solve.  Maybe I won’t need to.  But there is a deep vein in me, coming, I am sure, from my father’s influence, that needs to try to improve people’s lives.  For those three women, marriage seemed to be the ultimate way to achieve that, and they were very cooperative.  This same scenario, only slightly altered, appears in the next blog, but with a somewhat more cynical, if not sinister, side.  Okay, so I’m just pimping the next episode; it may not be as sinister as all that.  It is only in the third blog that this pathetic and destructive pattern gets broken, and it is wonderful.  Please stay tuned.

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LA Observations III: The Illusion of Perfection

On the Thursday morning of my visit to Los Angeles, I made and drank my morning cup of coffee, and walked out on the beach to the water’s edge.  The ocean this morning had an impressionistic sheen to it, due, in part to the lovely, unbroken sets of small waves that rolled in, broke modestly, and were soon replaced by their equally comely twin sisters.  Most only measured from 3 to 4 feet, trough to crest at their height, but often the unbroken curl would extend more than 50 yards across.  Watching them, I remembered the stirring Henry Moore Sculpture Garden on the grounds of my hometown museum, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, and wondered whether Moore had ever attempted to replicate, in his own language, the grace of these gifts of nature.

As I walked north, toward the pier that separates Venice Beach from Marina del Rey, my eyes were drawn incessantly to the ocean and the aesthetic treat that world was giving me.  I also noticed that, as the minutes moved on, the waves began to increase in size, but not dissolve in form.  Before long, these breathtaking sets were 5 or 6 feet high, noisier in their breaking, and attracting surfers with waxed boards and glistening wetsuits to join them.  Within a few minutes, perhaps a dozen surfers, a sentinel line out past the break, sat on their boards, legs dangling on either side as shark bait, waiting.  For what?  One or two actually caught a wave, and I’m sure it gave a satisfying, though brief, experience.  The rest waited.  Eventually, as with everything in nature, change occurred.  The waves got smaller.  Within 45 minutes of my arrival, they were back to 3 feet in height, and the surfers had left the water, most having done nothing but sit 100 yards out and wait.  Apparently the Godot of surf is as punctual as that of Beckett.

It would be easy to blame Bruce Brown for this.  His idyllic movie, “The Endless Summer,” placed in our collective consciousness the idea of “the perfect wave.”  He, and his surfing friends, whose names I once knew like those of the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, found that perfect wave at Cape St. Francis, South Africa; rode it, filmed it, rhapsodized it, and gave it to all of us.  And maybe that’s where the trouble started.  The dozen or so surf squatters on Thursday morning were waiting, in all probability, for the perfect wave.  But in doing so, they ignored some otherwise beautiful, shapely, small-scale masterpieces, marred only by their lack of perfection.  I wondered if they were passing a joint back and forth, an activity not unknown in the surfing community, and were distracted by the comradeship and its effects.  But their boards were not within arm’s length and they hardly seemed to communicate at all.  In addition, perfection, American style at least, appears to be focused on individual effort.  Of course, there was that Miami Dolphins team of the ’70s, and I once heard what I felt was a perfect performance of the tone poem by Richard Strauss, “Ein Heldenleben,” performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan in the Kennedy Center in 1977.  But most attempts to grasp perfection are individual, not team attempts.

As an old body surfer I can tell you that surfing, whether on a board or not, is a matter of the moment.  You seize what nature gives you, experience it as intensely as possible, or you sit on your board, pissing and moaning about the shitty conditions.  Thus, an imperfect attempt to grasp the gist of the two earlier LA blogs and form a rough continuity.  The pursuit of perfection I have observed in others has almost always demanded of them that they jettison any attempt to live in the moment as a disutility.  Or, at least, they seemed to interpret that as the sacrifice required in order to participate seriously in the illusory pursuit of perfection.  But there are at least three illusions connected with that pursuit.

The first is the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy.  Most people who engage themselves in the pursuit seem to think that failing to reach the goal is utter, general, personal failure.  There is a continuum between total failure and the triumph of perfection, and within that continuum there is a wide range of satisfactions and fulfillments.

The second is the belief — and it is a belief based on the same kind of reasoning as religious belief is based — that perfection is attainable by finite beings.  While I tried to pin that on Bruce Brown earlier, that will hold for a shorter time than I could stay vertical on a board on the North Shore of Oahu.  As a philosopher, I could prod the grave of Plato and disturb his Forms, or the perfect certainty that beset Descartes, but this is a blog by a philosopher, not about philosophers.  The  western edge of the capital city of the Domain of Perfection was at my feet as I had these thoughts: Los Angeles.  In southern California, no one’s boobs are big enough, no one’s teeth are white or straight enough, no one’s abs are rippled enough, no one’s ass is shapely enough.  This is the epicenter of the destabilizing belief that we can become perfect, given enough money, focus, time, or fanaticism.

The third is the belief that pursuit of this metaphysical abstraction requires that we abandon the concrete elements of our lives that give it savor and immediacy.   It seems improbable that the headlong runners of the first LA blog, prisoners of their timing devices, their expensive shoes, and the cocoon in which they place themselves, would think to listen to the cadence of the surf just to their west, or appreciate the aroma of the ocean’s complex stew.  Nor would they ever interrupt their obsession to dig their toes into the wet sand, as I did with great joy each morning, feel the skin’s varied responses to the warm sun, the cool water, the refreshing breeze, all simultaneously.  Some of us were living life while others were pursuing a destructive ghost.

Finally, love is not perfect either, though we’re told it is.  While that slander did not originate in Hollywood, that’s its most effective agent.  I am not a disillusioned cynic about love, though I might have the creds to warrant that attitude.  I am a naive realist about love. I like the way Archibald MacLeish described  it when using the metaphor of a torn leaf reunited.  “Two imperfections that match.”  Note that he didn’t describe love as two imperfections that make a perfection.  Just two imperfections that meld and do the right things together to make them flourish.  The way I see it, love is just human life with an elevated heartbeat.  We bring our imperfections into this imperfect world and find a way to make ourselves hum without destroying the world that brings us love.  One could discover worse things in LA.

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LA Observations II: Still in the Moment

The beach, and thoughts from the beach, still remain.  For me, it is the one of the most rewarding places to experience just as an experience, with little else expected of it.  But maybe the runners of resolve don’t have that kind of attachment to it, and maybe that’s why they can see it as a kind of neutral ground upon which to be self-absorbed.  Perhaps I should cut them some slack, particularly if each of them has a place where outer goals and drives are submerged under the inner need just to revel.  Consider the slack cut.

A few months ago on Facebook, I posted the thought that there was a fine line between improvisation and dementia.  Maybe the same comparison could be made between being in the moment and being disoriented.  If being oriented means being focused on something identifiable, either inside or outside the self, and resisting the distractions that might deflect that orientation, then sometimes being in the moment reflects that.  But not always.  I might be in the moment but focused on a set of waves forming, rolling, breaking, dissolving at my feet.  I am both oriented and appreciating the experience just as an experience.

I bring these distinctions up because it occurred to me, as I walked on the last day I was there, that my teaching style is somewhat in the moment, but never disoriented.  The original question about improvisation and dementia came from the recognition that I improvise a lot during the process of teaching philosophy, and it’s a part of the process that makes teaching both fun and a challenge.  As I age, but continue to teach, will I or my students be alert to the transition, if it occurs?  And will it matter to either of us? I’d like to think it would matter to me, though I’m guessing that severe enough dementia would render me beyond thinking anything mattered.  That state doesn’t seem to have arrived yet.

Of course, I don’t wing entire semesters, pulling lectures and questions out of the aether and referring seldom, if at all, to the reading assignments.  Students charged with understanding Plato, or Descartes, or Machiavelli get my best attempt to open the door to those, and other texts.  But I never teach them the same way twice.  The content remains, the process changes.  I test, more or less on the content, remembering that philosophy is primarily a process-driven discipline.  That means I also test on the mechanics of the process as well as their ability to use that process.  But the teaching process is a different process, and it’s a part of what makes me feel a tingle of excitement at the start of each semester.  But if I couldn’t savor teaching by making it alive for me each time I did it, I’d be retired truly now.

I suppose I’ve found a way to combine a satisfying goal with a way of doing it that incorporates a satisfying process.  In that, I am truly fortunate.  But sometimes I just want to pause and watch the wild turkeys meander across my path in the woods rather than keep my eye on the stopwatch.  The beach is my ultimate place to do that.  But nothing is perfect, not even a beach.  My final entry from LA will also be a reflection from the beach, and the pervasive Cult of Perfection.

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