Burnt Ends

When I moved to Kansas City with my son, Jake, in the summer of 1978, one of the first restaurants I frequented regularly for lunch was Arthur Bryant’s, the legendary barbecue place just north of 18th Street on Brooklyn Avenue.  It was located an easy drive from my place of work, teaching meteorology for the National Weather Service at 12th and Hardesty, and it presented me with tastes and aromas that had been absent my previous life.  At that time, what people in the East thought of as barbecue was little more than meat grilled for a few minutes in the backyard drowned in some sweet, sticky, ketchup-based sauce.  I had grown up in New Jersey, and was moving to KC from Maryland, so my familiarity with genuine barbecue was scant.

Driving from work, which was east northeast of Bryant’s by a few miles, the simplest route was south on Hardesty to Truman Road, and east to Brooklyn.  At that intersection, I was about 2 blocks from the restaurant, and turning, left, onto Brooklyn, meant turning into the prevailing south wind in most months but those of winter.  For my first 2 years in Kansas City, I drove an orange 1976 Honda Civic with an indifferent air conditioning system that encouraged open windows and welcomed indiscriminately both the squalid and sublime of sounds and smells from the urban core.  The perfume downwind of Bryant’s made the open window a blessing and, combined with the anticipatory long line out the door, performed the role of a kind of appetizer for lunch.

At that time, Mr. Bryant was still alive and running the house with a strict efficiency, omnipresence, and eye on the bottom line that it sometimes seemed that he lived there and that his life consisted of nothing else.  Later, I discovered all that was true, and that he lived in a small apartment  above the restaurant, had never married, and had little family to speak of, other than a niece.  Other fine barbecue joints prospered at the time: Oscar’s on Blue Highway, close to my house, Otis Boyd’s place on Prospect, and, of course, the ubiquitous shops of Ollie Gates and his relentlessly cheerful minions with their high-pitched screams of “Hi, may I help you?” battering your eardrums immediately upon entering the establishment.  To my taste, then as well as now, Bryant’s was, and is, unsurpassed.  Currently, the city seems agog over Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s, a name that ought to breed suspicion up here  anyway), with three locations on the Kansas side of the state line.  I’ve stood in line twice for their middle-of-the-road, inoffensive pork, beef, and sides, and am unlikely to do it again, even if someone else is buying.  To me, it seems as if they trade on implied safety, being comfortably away from the feared grit of the inner city location of Bryant’s, and serving up a version of barbecue that is timid and reassuring for those timid souls who want to be reassured by this Perkins of Pork.  I recall that the bleached-out bullhorn of food TV, Guy Fieri, recommended it, which certainly reassures me that my judgment concerning it is correct.

There have always been several elements about Bryant’s that I loved immediately.  The sauce was a revelation the first time I tasted it and it remains a kind of benchmark of its type: spicy, not at all sweet, somewhat of a vinegar hint in the aroma, and an earthy, gritty texture that clung to the meat despite its lack of any kind of thickening agent.  The portions have always teetered on the dangerously gargantuan, and the fries, cooked in lard during the time I am mentioning, were nothing short of ethereal.  And there was Richard France.  Well over six feet tall, lean, never absent a seeming menacing countenance nor a cleaver gripped in his right hand, sporting a goatee that seldom reminded me of Hercule Poirot, Richard France patrolled the back of the house and the pit with quiet and unquestioned authority.  As a customer, I never considered addressing him as anything but “Sir?”  And it is with Richard France that the saga of burnt ends begins.

Nowadays, every casual restaurant in the city, and likely in many other cities, offers burnt ends on its menu.  So do barbecue restaurants, even in this city.  They should all be horsewhipped and then left in a copious manure pile to perish.  They do not serve burnt ends.  They do serve chunks of beef carved from the end or outside and possessing at least one blackened side.  One blackened side does not a burnt end make.  Herein begins the lesson, and I quote from the gospel of St. Arthur.  At Bryant’s, the most popular sandwich, and rightly so, was the beef brisket.  After 12-14 hours of smoking in a pit that opens about 10 feet from where the hungry customers line up, the briskets are taken out to a butcher’s block cutting table, cut into chunks that will fit into the slicing machines, and relocated to the feeding chute of one of the two machines to be cut into sandwich-sized portions.  Eventually, the meat gets sliced down to a little nub of blackness too small to be able to contribute to the  hefty handful of meat that was thrown between two slices of Wonder bread after being painted with sauce.  Those little nubs are burnt ends, and they are the carcinogenic caviar of barbecue.  A small stainless steel tray waited beneath the chute that sent the brisket to the blade and the nubs were discarded there, within reach of those of us who finally made it close enough to lean under the window and shout out our order.  Burnt ends were not on the menu that covered the north wall at the end of the line.  Cue Richard France.

The first time I saw someone retrieve a burnt end from that tray, I was aghast.  How could he not have, instead, been treated to a bloody stub for his troubles from the fast-moving cleaver of Richard France?  But not so.  All five of his white fingers returned intact, and clutching a rare and richly smoked morsel of beef, soon to send it down his gullet.  It took me several more visits before I risked my digits for the reward I would find is the greatest in barbecue.  Richard France looked at me as disdainfully as he did anyone in that line, but his cleaver was reserved for four-legged mammals, and the burnt end both crunched and melted in my mouth that day, as it did every day I found them available. And they were free!

After Mr. Bryant died in the early 1980s, the place experienced some instability, and Richard France moved on to start his own barbecue place.  For a while, he rented out Oscar’s old place close to my house, and I went there occasionally.  Apparently, he took Mr. Bryant’s sauce recipe with him, but Richard died just a couple of years after that, and a local food consortium bought out Mr. Bryant’s niece.  They tried to keep it up to the old standards, and do a pretty good job overall, but the burnt ends are gone.  I think they are now a menu item, but they’re not the same thing I dared life and especially limb to savor in years past.  Burnt ends, like true love and moderate Republicans, remain in the lexicon, but have disappeared as an element of reality.  Just another death rattle.


Easy to Love

When Cole Porter thought up those song lyrics he wasn’t thinking of me.  I am coming to the conclusion that I am very difficult to love, and perhaps that is one of the conditions that lies at the bottom of my failed marriages and other romances for which the coroner quickly adjudged D.O.A.  Maybe they were really D.O.I. — Dead On Instigation.

These thoughts are not new to me, but they resurfaced last night during one of those eleven-sided Facebook messages that make me wonder how I wasted my time in the past.  The message seems to have begun as some sort of ungainly welcome-to-the-new-semester by a well-meaning colleague.  My contribution to the string of groans was the announcement that this is likely to be my last at the campus where I was tenured and from which I retired to begin this blog in 2013, Blue River.  A few people essayed words of regret and tried to express feelings that I was irreplaceable.  Two or three even said that they loved me.  I recognized the words, and even the sentiment of love, since I have spoken those words and felt those sentiments, but I was not convinced that it was anything more than a superficial version of love they were expressing.  I know this sounds harsh and ungrateful, and maybe it really is.  I hope not, since these are people I have valued as colleagues for 15 years and whose faces I have greeted with pleasure on each teaching day.  So why am I appearing to reject their love?

Proclamations of love seem to have the role of patriotic or religious incantations in our world today.  Like the Declaration of Independence, or memorized creeds and catechisms, they seem easy to utter, hard to live up to.  Or they seem to make possible self-righteous posturing of both types.  Love covers your ass.  You’ve said the ultimate when you’ve said that you love someone.  You can’t be one-upped, and the person you claim to love can’t raise the linguistic stakes; he or she can only call.  But this seems counterfeit to me, a verbal sleight-of-hand meant to create the illusion of emotional depth.  As the great aphorist, S.J. Lec, said, mud gives the illusion of depth, and there is no muddier phrase than “I love you.”  He only said the first half of that, by the way.  If I am questioning the love of my colleagues, what necessary conditions do I feel their expressions lack?  Well, their expressions lack nothing, but if love is more than the saying of it, what substantive ingredients can be found in love that the words do not contain.  In this analysis, I will be guided by the thought of three people whose thinking I admire: my father, Harry G. Frankfurt, and myself.

My father, Rev. W. Gordon Lowden (1915-1975), remains my greatest influence and inspiration.  And he was the most loving man I have ever known, and I aspire, imperfectly, each day, to emulate his wonderful example.  For him, love had to contain the conscious attempt to better the life of the one you love in tangible and personal ways.  So that will be the starting point for my understanding of the shape and content of love.  One way in which he loved was truly exceptional; he loved the unlovable, or at least, the ones society refused,for either rational or irrational reasons, to love.  One story the family tells, though I have no way to authenticate it, is that the KKK burned a cross on the lawn of one of his churches early in his ministry, probably before he enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy for World War II.  It would not surprise me if it did occur.  South Jersey, as it is called, is mainly south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in the early 1940s pro-white racial violence was open and unapologetic.  He preached civil rights sermons even if half the congregation wanted to walk out, and attempted to integrate every church to which he was assigned.  There was never a skin color he saw that he didn’t consider beautiful.  At the same time, because he knew a little high school Spanish, he worked among the migrant laborers of the South Jersey truck farms run for the profit of large corporations like Hunt.  Most of the workers came up from Puerto Rico for the harvest, lived in forlorn dormitories, were paid little, found only distrust or hostility in the wider community during their time off, and were discarded at the end of the harvest.  His ministry to them had no ulterior motive.  He wasn’t try to convert them, but to show them a love absent most if not all their other contacts in the Anglo world.  And in his last years in Broward County, Florida, he spent time in jails and penitentiaries, showing that he believed in redemption and feeling that love was a necessary step toward that happening.    He gave his time, his tears, what little substance he had, and eventually, himself.  He might never have said to any of them that he felt love, but his giving and sacrifice could not be mistaken for anything but that, except by the terminally dim, cold, or cynical.

I recommend Harry Frankfurt’s book “The Reasons of Love,” and I have assigned it in a class I used to teach at Blue River.  In what I write today, I only want to focus on one element Frankfurt identifies as crucial to the experience of showing of love: volition.  It is the will we marshal out of our own inner forces to act in a way that gives meaning both to our own lives and to the larger word within which we act.  In other words, both he and my father would chime in with Tina Turner that love is something more than a “second-hand emotion.”  If love only motivates you to the easy, and easily-forgotten, words of love, you’d better be Shakespeare, or work for Hallmark.  Otherwise, they deserve skepticism.

Perhaps there’s little I can bring of myself to add to what these two men have given me, but love has to be more than generic.  My buzzwords from the life of love I have sometimes tried to live are focus, priority, commitment.  Socrates famously saw teaching as an act of love, and many teachers share that orientation.  I believe myself to be among them.  My way of understanding that was by setting a list of priorities to which I referred when uncertain about an academic decision I needed to make.  The priority was to serve the most vulnerable and perishable first, and then work my way down to clients of greater strength.  My rule was: students first, discipline (in other words, philosophy) second, colleagues third, institution fourth.  I know far too many colleagues who have that order precisely reversed, pimping themselves to the institution first, and letting the students get whatever droppings remain.  These same colleagues may even claim to “love” teaching, but they only love themselves.  Loving the powerless above the powerful takes an act of will for which few have a stomach.  This is not heroic, any more than any act of love is, but it does require a rational analysis of the structure of power and the will to serve those who need serving.

A romantic entanglement of a couple years ago was with a woman who disliked sex with me because she said I was too “crazy” in bed with her.  Even taking off my rubber Richard Nixon mask didn’t help.  For her, sex was a marginally distracting activity to which she would consent when she really wanted to be doing something else.  Usually, that something else was to have my company while she went shopping with her tip money for clothing that she would return to the store the next week.  It was if she said “Sure, I’ll fuck you if you take me to Dillard’s afterward.”  For me, sex is all about focus.  Nothing in the universe exists during that time but the bed and our bodies.  Philosopher Alan Goldman has an excellent essay on this general subject, “Plain Sex.”  The phone doesn’t exist.  The doorbell doesn’t exist.  Children don’t exist.  The house being engulfed in flames doesn’t exist.  Certainly Dillard’s doesn’t exist.  It’s just us, rutting away like crazed weasels (Thank you, Peter Shaffer!).  Anything less is just shaking hands.  But for many people, that attitude toward sex, and toward life, is just plain crazy.

All of these things enter into an act that could fully be described as an act of love.  You do have to be a little crazy to love, and I’m the only crazy person I know at Blue River, so their insipid protestations are hardly credible.  Some posture and feign craziness, but if you’re not crazy enough to love when it gets you stared at, and talked about, and the dean shakes his head in dismay at the very mention of your name, then you’re just a pretender.

You can see why I’m not easy to love.  I set too tough an example, and not many people have the will to keep up.  Most just give up and walk away, sometimes only figuratively.  They don’t vacate the room, but everything else has checked out.  I’ve had marriages like that.  So did my father.  I guess it runs in the family.


Why are you friends with her?

Thanksgiving this year, as in most years, required a visit to my stepdaughter, Kim, and her in-laws, in Norman, Oklahoma.  Everyone makes me feel welcome, and I always cook for a couple of meals and bring a lot of wine with me, even though most attendees are canned vegetables and Bud Light kinds of people.  No reason for complaint from me or any other quarter, but sometimes I like to be alone with my thoughts, and that is difficult with an overflow of dimly recognized family.  However, Thanksgiving dinner is served across the street from Kim’s house, at the home of the matriarch, Ruth, now in visibly failing health.

Once I felt the tryptophan-induced nap began to fight my consciousness for the upper hand, I excused myself from the festivities for some solitude at Kim’s. The turkey and its chemical components were overrated this year, or maybe I was preoccupied, even for a nap, but I got up and went into the living room to dial in some TV after a few impatient tosses and turns on the guest room bed.  What I found was Woody Allen’s acclaimed film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Several philosophers I know like to assign the watching of it to students in an Ethics course, or the section of a general philosophy course that deals with moral reasoning and judgment, but I am not at all enthusiastic about it in that way.  It seems to me to overemphasize guilt and its agonies as a part of the moral process, and I find that not integral to it at all.  Guilt and self-loathing are preventable elements that don’t necessarily accompany even difficult moral decisions.  Worse, they are like to predispose one to avoid tough moral situations or judgments for fear of the psychological consequences.  Maybe I should write more about this at some other time, but it arises from my rekindled relationship with Stoicism, about which I certainly will write next year.

One character in the script is Professor Levy, a philosopher, seen only through excepts of a filmed interview the Allen character intends to turn into a documentary film.  Eventually, Professor Levy kills himself, leaving Allen’s character in both existential and financial limbo.  Before his demise, Levy is recorded saying something to the effect that everything depends on love.  Without it, we cannot make life have meaning.  That’s a very rough précis, but his death follows not long after those words, and the message seems clear, at least as it might apply to the fictional Levy life.  This utterance of the primacy of love over other motivations in life struck very true, since it reinforced, in an odd way, conversation I had the previous day with Sufei, my wife.  Had I neglected to mention a recent marriage?  Sorry.  Maybe later.  It’s a long story, and a pleasant one.  How does next year work for you?

This year Thanksgiving also coincided with my birthday, and Kim and Scott, her husband, were warm and generous about it, and we even continued our own Black Friday tradition, bowls of pho at Mr. Pho in Oklahoma City, adjacent to the biggest Asian supermarket I have ever seen outside of Japan.  But Wednesday was a work day for each of them, so Sufei and I went out to buy a few ingredients for my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner, Adult Macaroni and Cheese, as well as magnums of Anchor Brewing’s legendary Christmas season ale.  While we sat in Kim’s kitchen, my cell phone pealed out the ringtone I have favored since I owned a BMW 528i, “Ride of the Valkyries,” by Richard Wagner.  Even though I now drive a Honda Accord, I cannot flush the teutonic impulses from every atom.  Luckily, it wasn’t Frau Brueghel on the other end, lest the stability of the equine population of Norman be endangered needlessly.

Instead, it was my sweet friend, Jessica, former student and all-around splendid person.  She began by singing birthday greetings to me a day early, and I was both surprised and truly touched.  My iPhone records that we talked for 7 minutes and I enjoyed it very much, as we inquired about each other’s plans for the week and promised to get together during the busy holiday ahead.  Sufei was sitting adjacent to me during the entire call and, apparently, paid attention to the gist of it she could glean from hearing only half of it.  After I put my phone away, Sufei asked something like the question that gives this blog its title, “Why are you friends with her?”

First of all, she did not ask it in an accusing tone of voice, or intending to convey suspicion or dread.  In the two years we have known each other, Sufei and I have made a good beginning solving the endless puzzle of human meaning conveyed through words.  She was genuinely curious concerning why Jessica and I were friends.  She reinforced my understanding of what she meant by adding another question.  What qualities or characteristics do I look for when I decide to consider someone a close friend?  It really was quite a good question, and she had reason to ask it.  She had met Jessica, and her husband, Jordan, a total of three times, the first of which was at our wedding in September.  I invited them to lunch in early November, and they stopped by a week after that for a brief visit.  Jessica is 28, I am 74.  We don’t seem to visit he same circles or share many activities in common.  She’s trying to create some long-term coherence in her life; I feel I have found a rewarding rhythm and gladly dance to it.  She was my student a couple of years ago, and the transition from student-teacher relationship to the parity of friends is not an easy one to make.  It quickly appeared as if we had very little in common.

The question intrigued me, and because it was a serious one from Sufei, it required my serious attention.  To reason about it, I decided to go to unquestioned instances of friendship in my life: the three men I talked about in a summer blog.  One is sadly deceased, and still mourned.  When I toted up the qualities and characteristics that were most important in my life, and compared them with those of my friends, I found something I knew was there all along: a meager inventory.  I love concerts and classical music; few of them would be caught dead at anything but a burlesque house, or Arrowhead Stadium, which is much the same thing.  Two of us met through my interest in wine, but Bill had quit drinking at the end of his life, and even before that his taste had eroded to whatever cabernet was cheap and available in large quantities.  Two had roots in rural America, one in wealth and social prominence.  None held philosophy in especially high regard.  The number of marriages I have been a party to equaled the number all three of them, combined, had undertaken.  Can friendships created by chaos theory really last?  Well, yes.  They can, and have.  Chris and I have been close for nearly 35 years, and Bill and I had reached 32 years when he died.  I am certain William and I will be inseparable until one of us dies, or kills the other over an ill-weeded zucchini patch.

What accounts for the longevity of these mismatches?  Even before I heard from Professor Levy, I knew the answer.  I knew it almost as soon as I understood the question.  Love.  I am attached to these guys through my heart, and the descriptive discrepancies are what we work around.  I am delighted when any of them steps into my world and shares my interests from time to time.  I am very pleased when they invite me to do the same.  Sometimes interests can open the door to the heart, but sometimes they merely remain descriptive rather than affective.  There are people who have been in my life with whom I shared much commonality, but we remained personally distant.  This has always been a troubling thing to me.  Why do people so well matched, male or female, in many areas of their lives, find it impossible to become friends?  Or am I such a difficult friend, requiring something of an emotional commitment before I’ll trust myself to be myself with them?  Perhaps my demands are in excess of what most people are willing to part with for my dedication.

So, do I love Jessica?  Of course I do!  Not in the sweaty, soil the sheets way, an activity I feel I must, for the record, state we have never even attempted.  But I feel we are attached to each other by bonds of what Aristotle would have described as virtue.  I find her to be a person of great character.  She is admirable in her generous, thoughtful, and courageous ways.  These are not just descriptions of some objective properties, like mass and shape, but habits of the heart, as Robert Bellah described a somewhat different phenomenon.  And, as habits of her heart, they can bypass of the trivia of the external self, and find a cozy spot in my heart whenever refuge is needed.  Same with the guys.  Same with a few others, unmentioned.

What is reputed to be a Chinese proverb suggests this: place a green bough in your heart and the singing bird will come.  It’s an aphorism I use frequently, probably did earlier in this series of blogs.  Apparently I have done what it bids, as well, since on November 26th of this year, I was visited by a singing bird.  Perhaps my green bough has a small capacity, but singing birds are encouraged to visit.  Free suet!


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.



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.


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. 


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.