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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LA Observations I: the Beach

For most of last week, I was visiting a very sick friend and his wife in Los Angeles.  I think it’s right to keep them in the background of these reports, though I cannot overstate how generous they have been to me in the 30+ years of our friendship, and how that has continued on this visit.  But, because they live in a condo on the beach in Marina del Rey, let’s start with the beach, because that was where I started each morning of my stay there.

You need to know this: when I was born, my parents lived in one of the great beach counties of the world, Cape May County, New Jersey.  I have been a beach boy since then.  In the Air Force, a lot of my enlistment was spent at Eglin AFB, Florida, just north of Fort Walton Beach.  Our duty day was from 3:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M., 7 days a week, and after it was over our little 6-man squadron rode the military bus to the beach, there to remain until sunset.  The beach there was like the world’s largest sugar bowl in color and texture, though the Gulf water was usually placid.  In advance of a storm or even a hurricane, a few Hawaiian guys and myself would venture out and body-surf in the rambunctious breakers while the sun bathers stood at water’s edge and shook their heads.  Then there was the nearly 4 year time in Redondo Beach, California, one block from the beach, plus 2 years on Wake Island, a place where no part of the island is more than 600 yards from the Pacific Ocean.  The last 35 years in Kansas City has sometimes seemed like a cruel nightmare that never ends, and never permits me to live the life my inner self agrees with.

The first thing I noticed on this LA beach was that I was just about the only person without shoes on.  And that was consistent with the next observation; most everyone else had an agenda, or a specific goal in mind being there.  They were intent on making forward progress at some prearranged pace and nothing would dissuade them.  In retrospect, there was only one other solitary person who seemed as aimless as me.  I should have proposed to her on the spot.  There were a few families, mostly speaking Latin-inflected languages, and they were also aimless, and I thought of them as my comrades in some way, and always paused to watch them play by the water.  Maybe they didn’t know that I was playing, too.  Mine are the inner games of an old person who still loves to splash and taste the saltiness, but there’s more to the game now.  Those lucky kids are forming the self that will never forget and never disavow the feelings and sounds they are unknowingly absorbing now.  They will be a part of who they are forever, just as they are with me.

The runners in the $200 shoes and the $100 earbuds and music systems are only coincidentally at the beach, at the edge of the world’s greatest ocean.  They could be at a track or on the street or on a treadmill.  Running 7 miles faster than the last time is the only meaningful experience worth noting.  Gloria (the wife of my stricken friend, and a very dear friend in her own right) and I had a brief talk about this before my first morning’s walk.  Her therapist thinks it would be useful for her to do things just for the experience of doing them, and nothing else.  He called them, “being in the moment.”  Of course, that is exactly what I wanted from a walk on the beach, but Gloria is something of a worrier.  Walking along the beach would just be a wet place to fret.  She could do that in the shower, and get clean as a bonus.  I realized at that moment, and continue to realize in the days since, that my life’s strengths or weaknesses, and I’m not sure which, are described by my willingness to enjoy the moment as it presents itself and ask for little more from it.  As I sit alone, eat alone, drink alone nearly every night, maybe that one aspect of my character has hidden antisocial, or at least antiromantic, aspects that send women running in the opposite direction.  It would be a crushing realization to discover that one of the things that most truly make you who you are and brings calm and balance in your life  also sends women shrieking and guffawing toward some lummox with a 6-pack of Bud Light and a KC Chiefs cap.

More from the beach later in the week.

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Rage Against The Machine

Before there was Rage Against The Machine, there was Dimitri Shostakovitch.  Unlike contemporary members of RATM, Shostakovitch was up against a real machine that killed you if you were critical of it, not permit you to live a lavish life of ingratitude.  Stalin ran this machine, and millions of unmarked graves testify to the consequences of even appearing to, or being mistaken for, raging against his machine.  These thoughts arose Sunday afternoon as I was snatched out of my humdrum life by a performance of his 5th symphony, the final notes of the 2013-14 season by the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern.

I suppose the question I am raising is whether that symphony by Shostakovitch represents a rage against the criticisms written against him by the Stalinist press, a capitulation to it, or neither.  And maybe the further question about whether raging against any machine makes a lot of sense.  During his lifetime, the stirring and heroic-sounding 5th symphony must have sounded like a capitulation, or at least a canny heeding of the criticisms raised in the middle 1930s about his use of excessive dissonance and unwillingness to demonstrate “socialist realism” in his works.  In this symphony, and also the 10th, I hear bitterness, despair, and deeply hidden mockery, but not open defiance.  Stalin’s machine would have preferred cheerleading of the glorious socialist ideals, and its glorious leader, but, failing that, would settle for morbid resignation, which was not likely to provide a ticket to the gulags, in most cases.  In his posthumously published autobiography, Shostakovitch sets the record clear about the symphony, and his decision to choose satire and subterfuge in certain of his compositions, while providing the requisite claptrap in others, such as the bombastic 7th symphony meant to celebrate the heroes of Leningrad, though written in advance of the famous 900-day siege of the city in World War II.  And even in that symphony, meant, in parts, to depict the brutality of Hitler, it is open to interpretation whether the actual brutality to which Shostakovitch refers is that of Stalin.  So maybe we should conclude that Shostakovitch chose to Snark Against The Machine.  Does that make him morally suspect?  Are the only options open rage or whimper?

The authority of Dylan Thomas seems to imply that, and clearly sides with rage.  In the case of old farts like me, rage, rage, against the dying of the light.  Well, I don’t know about the rest of you old farts, but I don’t like some young drunk telling me that I am required, for the good of my soul, to rage at evening’s end.  I know the light is fading, in a way that Thomas probably did not.  I’ve lived 73 years through growing light and growing darkness.  It makes as much sense to rage against the dying of the light as it does to rage against the tides,  or ad hominem fallacies (I threw a nice one in a few lines up to see if any of you was paying attention).  The machine of nature is something only immature romantics or contemporary Republicans seem inclined to rage against.  It’s a losing proposition, and if rage is intended to have any consequences beyond one’s own self-righteousness, an act of futile narcissism, like starting a blog at the end of one’s life, there ought to be some realistic wager that changes will proceed.

Personally, I am glad Shostakovitch didn’t rage against the machine.  Had he done so, he surely would have disappeared and left us devoid of the chilling 10th symphony, most of the preludes and fugues, and half the string quartets.  The expressive content of the 20th century would have never had those gaps filled by Sibelius or Copland.  And, like Mozart and Schubert before him, we would have wondered what startling, or moving, or redundant sounds might have issued from the last half of a life cut short; a premature exit into that good night, like that of Thomas himself.

But maybe the larger question concerns when rage is something that makes sense.  And if it doesn’t, should we indulge it anyway?  This is not the blog of a young man, so this will not be the answer of a young man, even the young man I was a half-century ago.  I think Shostakovitch gives us the answer — my answer — and Thomas does not.  And that answer is consistent with the Stoicism of the philosopher Epictetus I have come to admire in the past twenty years.  Rage against the processes of nature is foolish futility.  Learn about nature, accept its direction, come to grips with its verdict.  And you will come to love it, as you may be able to come to love the dying of the light.

However, you might ask, what about Stalin and his machine?  There was nothing natural about that, and I would agree with you.  Then why not rage?  Two reasons, one from Epictetus and the other from Shostakovitch.  The former cautions us that the activities of another person, while mutable, are not mutable by me (or you, reader, unless they are your activities).  All the rage against Stalin did not change what Stalin was intent upon doing.  All the Rage Against The Machine by RATM did nothing to derail whatever the machine is against which they directed their rage, though it did leave all the band members financially secure while the machine continued to widen the economic and political gap between those who are helpless and those who are not.  Affect what you can affect.  What is that, then?  What is inside you.  And that is the lesson of Shostakovitch; don’t rage against the machine, create against the machine.  Creation is not capitulation.  Capitulation is a term favored by those who also favor the fallacy known as False Dichotomy.  Creation is in a different category from wins and losses, except that it might be claimed that one who creates always wins.

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Corrupting the Youth Some More

Not long after posting yesterday’s entry, a few other thoughts occurred to me on this subject.  Partly these thoughts came about because of a thoughtful and sympathetic response by my friend and colleague, Theresa, and partly through the general process of rumination that besets my life.

One important difference between me and Socrates, other than the obvious one of philosophical competence and prominence, is what youth we actually have a chance to corrupt.  In ancient Athens, only the male youth of wealth and privilege would have time, or would be encouraged, to pursue philosophy as a student of some great man.  Actually, Aristotle remarks that there were a couple of women as students in Plato’s Academy, disguised as males, and the contemporary Plato scholar, Dave Reeve, has written a delightful short dialogue about them, called The Naked Old Women in the Palestra.  Good reading.  But they were the minuscule exception.  It would be a big deal if the upper class youth were corrupted, since they were something like the guardians of tradition for the future.  The youth of the tradespeople and slaves had no such role, and may have been deemed already corrupted by the nature of their social standing.  The upper class youth were important in Athens, and corrupting them was important.  Socrates alludes to this early in the dialogue Euthyphro, when he praises, at least in general terms, the indictment against him filed by Meletus.  There, probably sarcastically, he praises Meletus for looking out for “the young shoots” as he calls them, and desiring to protect them from whatever forces of corruption menaced them.

What are the young shoots like I menace in my community college classes?  They come from families much like I came from, and many from much more modest circumstances.  Middle-to-lower class, some being the first family members to attend college, they are much different from the youths Socrates lollygagged around with in the marketplace.  And, reflecting on today’s virulently top-down social and economic system, which also translates into a top-down political system, my students are powerless.  Or, at least that’s the way it seems.  In talking with them outside of class, few vote, or are inclined to do so.  Their aspirations reach no farther, for the most part, than owning a home with a boat on the lake for summer drunkenness.  How could they possibly be a threat to the powers vested in our political/economic system as it now operates?

The author (authors?) of Cyborgology, to which I referred yesterday, may have hit upon it.  Participation.  The current order needs the youth I fail to corrupt adequately to participate in in the sham economy and the sham democracy foisted upon them by our purchased officials and those who profit by the laws they cobble together.  And that leads to a point not derived from reading what other have read but thinking about a truly insane phenomenon in contemporary academic life: student debt.

The true crisis that mounting student debt represents is recent, but it has been serious since the Reagan era.  While it appears insane to burden citizens with a lifetime of debt for a marginal education, perhaps it does make sense to one segment of the population.  If universal higher education has become something mandatory for Americans who have an expectation of success, education has always had its dark side.  That’s what the critics of Socrates recognized.  Education can put funny ideas into a person’s head.  They may begin to question the expectations society has placed upon them if they are to become responsible citizens.  They may even begin to question whether there is a god, or that capitalism is the only viable economic system, or that cable TV is the biggest bargain on the face of the earth.  How can the cost-benefit ratio be skewed to the greatest benefit to the powers in place with the least cost in terms of risk of non-participation?  It’s simple.  Force people, through massive indebtedness, to remain anchored to the economic system for most of their productive lives.

The top-down social system of ancient Athens is not much different from contemporary America.  The leisure to go to plays and study philosophy was only available to the upper class in that time because of the powerless masses, enslaved in fact or metaphorically, keeping the system producing for the benefit of those at the top.  In our time, the lawmakers that continue to reject an increase in the minimum wage are merely guaranteeing the wage slavery of those too powerless to escape.  And those who try to escape to the community college where I teach then get thrown back into the same servitude they seek to escape by incurring unconscionable debt.  The system thrives for those at the top.

Let me return, finally, to my original question from yesterday: have I corrupted the youth in my time as a philosophy teacher?  The answer seems bleaker than ever.  What would corrupting them look like from this perspective, rather than the Socratic one?  Get off the grid?  It would take money.  Refuse to get an education?  That just trades one form of slavery for another.  The system is rigged at the bottom, so maybe accommodating yourself to the system is futile, which only leaves changing the system.  Marxian revolution?  Never say never.  But maybe some sort of grass-roots community like Annabel Park is working to form might be the first step.  Socrates approached the task one Athenian at a time.  He had no ultimate effect, and was executed for it.  Perhaps individualism, the bastion of philosophical thought, must tumble first.

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Corrupting the Youth

It is dawning on me that one of the least productive activities in retirement is second-guessing the past.  Are there things I didn’t do but should have?  Yes.  Are there things I did and wished I didn’t?  Yes.  Are there things I could have done better?  Yes.  Was I an ass too frequently?  Yes.  Was I noble too seldom?  Yes.  Yes to it all.  But it’s past; let it go.  I find that facile advice comes more easily when you perceive there is enough time to right the wrongs you committed and blot out regret with action.  

This subject came up yesterday in a discussion with my dearest friend, Chris.  He is five years younger than I, and of Western Kansas German farmer stock.  The picture of robust health and with as inquisitive a mind as I have ever encountered.  But on Tuesday, he had open-heart surgery to duct-tape a leaky valve.  When he and his wife got home, I greeted him even before his adoring dog, Jake.  As we talked all afternoon, he nodded off from time to time, and only with Chris would I not suspect it to be a subtle criticism of the conversation he was enduring.

We both like to travel, and prefer to do it independently.  His big regret was that he had never learned a foreign language so that he could interact with the people and their culture without an intermediary.  Chris is a great interactor, a word that spell check tells me does not exist.  It does now.  He is fast friends with a Chinese friend of our Lao-He, even though neither of them knows a word of each other’s language.  To see them together, but out of earshot, you never suspect it, since they very clearly are communicating.

My contribution to what might become our own private little regretfest was that, while there were omissions in my life that would forever remain incomplete, there are some moments in my life that were so extraordinary that savoring them had the effect of making the regrets dissolve from my consciousness.  I mentioned visiting The Great Wall, three times.  Most westerners have never been there once, and each time I go the effect on me is physical, emotional, intellectual, and very personal.  Regrets turn out to be pretty puny when compared with that.

So, you ask, when does he start giving us the steamy stuff about corrupting the youth?  Let me tell you, I wish I had something for you in that regard.  But I don’t, in the tawdry way you might leeringly imagine.  Come on: how could leeringly not be a word?  Maybe WordPress is a little too prim for my purposes.  But here’s what I do have.  It comes about through the minor tempest caused a few weeks ago by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with a softball-pitching devotee.  Tyson, who has given a rebirth to Carl Sagan’s great series, Cosmos, decided to offer some gratuitous slander in the direction of my discipline, philosophy.  His main gripe, in comparing philosophy to science, his turf, was that philosophers get so tied up in endless questioning and obsessing about language that they (we) just don’t ever accomplish anything.  For all our pedantic questioning, when do we ever come up with an answer?

The philosophy blogs I frequent quickly lit up with defensive posturing and incredulous whining  And that was just the tenured professors.  Actually, there were some excellent, well-reasoned defenses of the usefulness of philosophy, the best that I saw being from Massimo Pigliucci in the blog Scientia Salon, here on WordPress.  The author is learned in both the sciences and philosophy, which beats Tyson by one.  However, the response I most like, and the one that sticks in my craw, came from robinjames, a philosopher, in the section called Cyborgology, on the web site The Society Pages.    

Taking the example of Socrates in his trial, the thought is that the “job” of philosophy, or what philosophy is all about truly is corrupting the youth.  That’s what we should be doing, not all the “‘splainin'” (Tyson’s term) that science does so well.  The behavior of Socrates in his trial, behavior that sometimes seemed downright puzzling for someone trying to be acquitted, was precisely to be found guilty as charged.  That he was so beloved by many in Athens might obscure the fact that he was a philosopher, and corrupting the youth is what we do.  And when we become too beloved, or too chummy with the mainstream, or become an icon found on t-shirts and bags like Chairman Mao, we betray ourselves and the life we claim to revere.  Socrates saved himself by showing the unsavory, obnoxious side that is inevitable if you are a source of corruption.

The Socratic question is also a personal one, summoning the dull pain of regret once again, a regret the vistas of the Great Wall cannot blot out.  Before the hemlock finds its way to my glass, can I say I have corrupted the youth I touched?  The brightest of them are intent on giving their minds and bodies to the machine Socrates despised.  I have done nothing to dissuade them, it seems.  If I have not corrupted at least one, my life is but a vanity with a pension at the end.  

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