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.

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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!

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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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