Monday, March 31, 2014

Winkie

He was so wise that he did no better, more beautifully.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Chicken Little

Lying "with statistics" usually means jumping units and scale.  Statistics and graphs at least have the virtue of making this sort of manipulation easier to detect.  But unit and scale manipulation are also the basis for many lies - and unintended falsities - that are not statistical. 

"Nothing will come of that."  "What good is that?"  Either remark can be truthful and apt, but usually isn't.  The first is usually a manipulation of unit.  The second, of scale.

The moves in these two simple statements are among the most common in proverbs, folk tales and folk wisdom.  So not only can one lie "with proverbs" as well as "with statistics", but the nature of these lies is often the same.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

geodes

I haven't worked it out, but do play with the idea that some important virtues, especially the virtues of thought - reasonableness, completeness, carefulness, focus - are refinements or transformations of intellectual and nonintellectual vices that result not from an external creative intent - whether virtuous or amoral - but from the intramural interactions of the vices themselves.  That certain virtues develop from vices (not necessarily opposites or pairs), upon the application of energy and the passage of time, catalyzed by surroundings.

greener grass

Most folks can't afford a nervous breakdown.  Like a Corvette, they'd have one if they could.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

not original: sin

The human desire for good and beauty forms with them an ageless love triangle, ever fecund, bearing their own kind and that hinny, evil.

deacon jokes

Like violists, blonds, and rowboats with a priest, a rabbi and a minister, there's a subgenre of old baptist jokes about deacons. (In old baptist churches, the deacons were generally the good ol' boys of the church, reliable and good, but not too good to enjoy a good joke, nor too pious to enjoy getting to wait outside the vestibule, smoking, during much of the service, so that they could usher and tend to offering plates.)

So the deacons finish taking up collection and gather out front for a smoke as the sermon gets underway.

"What he say he's preachin' on, Mackey?" says one.

"Sin." says Deacon Mackey, pulling on the word as if mentholated.

"What's he gonna say?"

"Reckon he's agin' it."

They pause, look out at the parking lot, the lazy Sunday morning traffic, drag on their Winstons.

"He'll be steppin' on my toes a bit, then."

"Aw, I reckon he'll just bear down and spin on mine a while."

clang

We all have to struggle with a social perversion of the golden rule. It is not enough for society that we treat others as we would be treated: society would have us want to be treated as others would want to be treated. Resist.

I do not mean to concede to the golden rule. It is a crude awl, meant to punch some approximation of decency into hardened hearts.

For a decent, loving soul, the golden rule is too crude. To the good, I say this: Fear not to do unto others as must be done; and when nothing is necessary, do then unto others as ought to be done; and then, when - as is usual - there are many right options, do unto others as they would have you do unto them, not as you would have done unto you.

For we are not alike, one to another, in what we want, even when we are alike in necessities and rights.

And in doing unto others as they would have it, fear not to be yourself: serve, but as an equal serves and not as a servant.

In short, when you can, give others what they want, but do it in your style. Seek to live, insofar as possible, in a fertile succession of dancing pairs: be not a loner, or a crowdsman, or a cog. Only and exactly two humans may look one another in the eyes. Serve in this heart and in this style: it is communion.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

lens

Long labored hours of heavy work deceive
The heart to rate all gained as earned
and fairly due: so much as we receive,
That much we take as our true worth discerned.
Or higher: for when return is meager,
Expectation is not meager but bold
To think its own work stole, and strikes eager
To block all implications loss may hold.
But let others lose, and implication
Leaps to see their loss as fair consequence,
Made vivid by that same expectation:
Our gain seems earned; their loss but common sense.
Each man’s sweat beads into a selfish lens
Reflecting worth on self, and on others, sins.

Monday, March 24, 2014

salt of the earth

There must be a sizable moral constituency in a lasting democracy, whose assent, or support, cannot be had by others groups through offers of advantage, but only by reason and right.  The ordinary sources of this morality is schools, families, religion or a combination - except in the rarer sort of person who works out their morality relatively independently.  Those who simply will not take a bribe need not be in the majority, but they must be sufficiently numerous that they can be found in any community or agency, and again sufficiently numerous that they cannot be taken down by intimidation or isolation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

an anonymous one

To Dyad in Dallas: no, it is neither romantic nor archly witty of you to nickname your boyfriend Babo.

unstrunk

Tasteful placement of punctuation outside grammatic demand; composition that takes a breath against what matters most, marking it in the mind's resonant chambers: Søren and the King James translators teach these pleasures.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

makes the whole world kin

An aircraft disappears, and the breadcrumb search for it holds the world's attention.  The fascination is that of vicarious detective work, with the appeal of coiled emotional outrage.  It works like on the public mind like the Boston Marathon bombing, but with more global reach.  Man is the investigating animal.  That trait shows itself in no proportion to the functional importance of the subject (that would instead point to Syria) - but is in strict proportion to our receptivity to such events.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

high caliber

At a shooting range, everyone is polite.

constructive description

The language of transactional law - of contract - is quite similar to the language of Euclid's demonstrations and constructions, both in form and in purpose.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Calvin's G.R.O.S.S.

Google likes to predict what ads I want to see.  Lately, they've put ads for FarmersOnly.com into heavy rotation, a dating site "meant for down to earth folks only" where you can "find a farmer, rancher, cowboy, cowgirl or animal lover"  Just what did I do to provoke this?

rhetoric

The quick paths to intellectual and moral development are unsatisfactory.  Education - slow, serious education - is not wasted on the young.  For the young are more plastic and have more ahead of them: even if what they receive is only half as digested as it would have been by their later selves. 

Qohelet's acid wisdom

Oh, how the wise die like the fool.

Monday, March 17, 2014

At Midnight

His skin was as black and as matte as the felt of his fedora, and when his unblinking eyes shone in midnight's ink, they traced his swift path across the stage, smoothly, as two fragments of a comet, arcing their moment together in the starless sky.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The sylph, After Midnight

The just-dead dancer slips from her fresh coffin, a white skeleton already, but every inch a pavé of sequins and of fragments of pearl (mother of).  She makes the most of her suddenly bony physique, twirling, collapsing, picking herself up again, then en pointe on moonlit, glistening toe joints, her proud skull held high by invisible tendons and muscles of graveyard air, close with the scent of fresh-turned clay.  And as the strains of Ellington from a distant band shell fade from lively faintness to naught, she slips back, with the relieving sigh of hinges, from all earthly sight.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers.

The hot dog vendor knits his brow, and a perfect cross appears - as if he'd come from from an Ash Wednesday service.  He relaxes into a grin; it disappears.  He concentrates on making change, and the cross is back: rectilinear, even, deep-shadowed, perfect.  It is as if one has entertained, or been handed extra mustard packs by, angels - unawares.

Friday, March 14, 2014

puzzle

There are probably a few other verbs, or other words, that have the strange properties of to cleave or to sanction, but none come to mind.

endanged

The sweet-faced, soft-fleshed folks at the pastry shop where I get my morning coffee have been joined by a new cashier, whose chiseled, hard body shows through his fresh t-shirt uniform.  Will he resist the case of cookies and goo?  Will his corners soften?  Will he reduce sales as customers feel guilt and envy erode their appetite for an éclair?  Tune in tomorrow...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

death, taxes... and consequences

What cannot be avoided must be endured, necessarily.  What one chooses not to avoid must be endured, morally.

if I get a headache they'll give me asprin

Overspending to salve the pain of overearning is sad.

Monday, March 10, 2014

litmus, more abstractly

The notion is that virtue and vice encapsulate our collective experience of what works over time in a manner that may be taught without requiring experience itself to teach the lesson.  And that is a mercy: none of us is Methuselah, nor sufficiently wise to discern all that collective experience can teach.  Even allowing for bad cultural biases and imperfect transmission, there will be a net profit in this encapsulation.  Whether there is a net profit in a particular culture's encapsulation of its experiences in its teachings will go far to placing that culture as better or worse than others. 

I mean what works in the broad sense of what works for the individual, the group and in the cause of beauty, over time, and recognize that what works is a loose description.  (This is a paragraph, not a paper.)  If this is right, it also implies that some vices and virtues are constant across time and situation because many things never work and a few things always do.  And that many vices and virtues are stable in a given context - that is, correct, or even true - but not everlasting and not universal.

Put defensively, one can recognize that human vices and virtues are relative while neither discounting their value nor denying that some vices and virtues are invariable - including some that are not obvious or trivial.

Put observationally, even if experience is the real touchstone, there is value in abstracting from experience (which is diffuse, and subtle, and is expensive and ultimately impossible to encounter directly with any breadth): value in encapsulation.  Language is the great capsule, but not the only one.  We can recognize that language is not the thing itself - the truth itself - without devaluing language.  Religion is another capsule.  Children's stories, another.  Even attire.  It is too much to demand that these capsules be true.  It is enough if they convey truth and that they not be too inefficient, gaudy or noxious.  One can stand a little styrofoam, but a massive refrigerator box filled with packing peanuts and only a little tin of good sardines within is too much.

litmus

Roughly speaking, most ordinary human virtues and vices may be detected by their different reactions to repetition.  The ordinary vices become numbing upon repetition, but continue to drain the actor.  The ordinary virtues build over repetition, and grow easier.  Or, to be more precise than the thought deserves: Vices are vices partly by virtue of having a diminishing return but constant incremental cost.  Virtues and virtues partly by virtue of having constant (or improving return) over diminishing incremental cost.

The obvious objection is that this is true only of most garden variety vices and virtues, and those are known to nearly all, so what's the use?  The response is that noticing that, in this context, gets us right to the question of whether virtues and vices - good and evil - have their own existence, or only live, like characters, by enactment within a given proscenium.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Dodd-Frank

Is it wrong that every time I hear "Too Big To Fail" my first thought is: that would make a great porn title?

emerging

The shock is to spend a week reading him and realize that Hans Christian Andersen is not in league with Aesop or Lewis Carroll or with C.S. Lewis, but of the first rank, a rival - literally, in both senses - to his contemporary, Søren.

Friday, March 7, 2014

if pricks are to be kicked

"Christ cometh in through closed doors." Like Paul, there is no need of invitation or openness. The greater glory, if there is to be glory, comes of transcending our human rejection, not by our openness, out of which more would fall than enter in. 

a good rap

One beauty of meter is that it can displace thought from word.  A quick meter, iambic pentameter, say, can put the thought after the words that express the thought.  Tactics like this give Shakespeare much of his hand over the listener.

some Rizzle Kicks

"See, I’m not festive, but I quite like presents
Don’t wanna die, but I quite like heaven
Wanna good place, but I don’t like waiting
Wanna go crazy, but I’m not patient
Wanna be smart, but I don’t like learning
I wanna be rich, but it takes time earning
Wanna be fit, but I don’t like running
Then I see you and I wish I done something..."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

a personal case for St. John's College

For years I've talked to prospective students interested in St. John's College, which I attended in Annapolis.  This essay puts some thoughts on the value of a St. John's education in relation to my own experience.
- - -
 
If a friend of mine knows anything about St. John’s College, it’s that St. John’s is where students read the classics.  True enough, and that’s half of why I went.  The other half: conversations.  I enrolled wanting those conversations – profitable, serious, companionable conversations.  I wanted to read socially, not alone.  And at St. John’s, that happened.
If a friend knows anything about me, it’s that I love to read and talk.  Always have, still do.  
I grew up in a tight-knit Baptist church in South Carolina, the oldest in a family of nine children.  My grandparents had never been particularly religious.  My parents, as teenagers, had the usual questions: Who am I? How should I live?  And they found answers and guidance in the Bible and from the evangelists that, especially in the 70s, were part of the American South.  My mother rode circuit with tent revivalists for a while.  My father became a cameraman for a local Christian television that started up.  When my mother started working as a cashier at the grocery that my father shopped at, they began to talk.  They were seventeen, the same age I was when I went to St. John’s looking to answer similarly serious questions, but in a different way.
As my parents began to date, they started asking each other questions, and never stopped: How should a family be?  Are plants alive the same way we are?  What makes males and females different?  My parents are curious people, although not college educated.  They are thoughtful people, alive to ideas and observations. 
My mother waited tables and my father repaired copiers, and they each found interest and depth in these jobs.  My dad would bring home broken parts from a copier and explain to me his theory of what happened:  See what happened here – there was just enough heat coming off that fuser to make this little plastic gear soften and wear down faster.  A broken copier, believe it or not, is interesting and fun to fix: you just have to come at the right way.  My dad is interested in just about everything: he’d pull the van over on the way back from church because he saw a kind of tree he didn’t recognize.  We’d back up until he spotted it again and he would take a branch – then go home and figure out what kind of tree it was, and what was different about it.  My mother would bring home stories from the steakhouse she worked at of the family dramas that would play out between couples eating there.  And we would sit late at night and listen, not just to the gossipy, petty dramas that families play out at restaurants, but also the more serious questions: How does a basically decent couple come to hate and hurt one another?  Just what is the pleasure that people take from malice?  Why do people posture?
So, my parents’ questions tended to be about family, church, machines, nature.  They were deliberate parents and meant business about raising us well: their parenting was thought through.  They questioned and bucked cultural and child-raising conventions.  They taught us that every choice you make is your responsibility – that if you follow the crowd or act without reflection, you are as responsible for those actions as for the things you strike out alone to do.  I’m the only one of their children that attended St. John’s, but it is no surprise that parents like mine raised at least one kid who did.  St. John’s is a place where the curriculum, the program of education is similarly thought through and questioned: fundamentally, St. John’s takes full responsibility for the design of the education offered.  As in my family, things are not done at St. John’s just because that’s how others do it.  
Like most independent-thinking people, my parents held firmly to the convictions they did reach, because those convictions were their own.  At home, we read the Bible each morning over breakfast.  My father had a special love for the Proverbs, and a knack for drawing out many lessons from the same verse: one lesson for the small children, another for the older kids, and a third for him and mother – all in the few minutes it took to eat a bowl of oatmeal or grits.   The fact that a single, profound text contains many meanings for different people, a familiar idea at St. John’s, was something my father demonstrated to us at the breakfast table. 
At church, we heard ambitious, long-form, expository sermons.  I loved the Bible, loved my faith, and believed in Christ.  I was the most intellectually minded of the kids, and loved the focus our church had on reading to learn, and talking to teach.  But my parents’ convictions and my church’s strictness were, at the same time, confining, even stifling.  I wanted to read the Bible critically, not just devotionally.  I wanted to talk about the Scriptures with people who understood them differently than a Baptist did, or who did not believe at all.  Church was not the place for that.  Neither was home.

Public high school was worse.  Like my brothers and sisters, I had been homeschooled in the earlier years.  The shift to public school was unpleasant.  My interests did not fit in, my parents’ convictions (little television, no popular music) did not fit in.  I was a proud kid without a knack for friendship who had far too little patience or sympathy for others.  Teachers didn’t know what to do with me.  Classes bored me. 
Instead, I liked the library and debate team and my job at the local diner.  At the school library, I had worked my way through the philosophy shelf and found my teenage favorites: Hobbes and Dewey.   The school librarian mentioned St. John’s.  Hmm.  Working my job at Waffle House, a chain diner, I saw that life was more of a struggle for people who did not go to college somewhere.  Hmm.  On the debate team, I asked my coach where an older student I’d admired had ended up going to college.  University of Chicago,” she said, “he was thinking about St. John’s but his parents didn’t let him go.”  Hmm.  I went and found a St. John’s College catalog in the public library.
That catalog impressed me.  I was sixteen.  St. John’s presented itself in full paragraphs about lasting issues – paragraphs that had the sound of adulthood.  The catalog was addressed not to a customer, nor a child, nor the appetites, but to the developing adult.  It aimed to be neither populist nor elitist.  Instead, it spoke to that best part of an individual: to that part most shared with others. It treated the good of the individual and the good of society as having equal weight and being very needful.  It described liberal education as something deliberate, deserving of design and intention.  The catalog argued that, for the sake of the individual and the nation, education is something too important to leave to cultural accident or a young person’s passing interests.  And, near the last page, was this little sentence: “Occasionally, St. John’s accepts an applicant that is not a secondary school graduate.”  Wow!  I can quote the sentence now, because I stole that catalogue from the library and still have it.
Could it be?  St. John’s College would let me come there as a freshman and skip my senior year in high school?  I wrote a letter to the admissions office to ask about this and plenty else.  I had what seemed then to me to be serious questions.  Would St. John’s welcome a fundamentalist Christian?  Could I really come after my junior year in High School?  Would there be people to talk to who would tell me, really honestly tell me, why they didn’t believe the Bible was true?  John Christensen, then the director of admissions in Annapolis, sent me a letter in reply that left me trembling.  It was well put, hearty, and kind.  His reply took me for an adult, and dealt plainly with my questions.  Young people rarely get letters like that – I never had.  I wanted to write like that; wanted be at a place where people sounded like that.
So off I went.  I was barely seventeen and had applied nowhere else.  And at St. John’s I was happy: happy because I found friends and belonged to a community that loved me; happy because I was lost in my work for classes; happy reading and talking and thinking and coming up with projects to take on.  St. John’s is a great place to be young and learn.
I had growing up to do, some of it hard.  None of my family had been through college, and even though my family’s ways were in some ways comparable to St. John’s, still, my childhood had been sheltered and thoroughly religious.  St. John’s was neither.  I had to learn not to recoil from people who lived different.  I was no more awkward than many of my classmates, but I arrived more proud, aloof and bound up in rules of behavior than most. 
Shared experience, the desire to fit in and eventually friendships broke through my awkwardness to a great extent, but that took time.  From the start, though, the variety of backgrounds, personalities and interests was exciting.  From the start, most of us had a bottomless appetite for talking through ideas, for plunging in and learning to make a classroom conversation go.  We had the desire to be at St. John’s in common on the first day.  And, soon, we had more in common simply from living together in a small community where we read, went to class, ate our meals, had jobs, fell in love, played, tried to figure ourselves out.  Above all, we talked and talked.
Learning to have a good conversation, though, took time, and was as important as what we were talking about.  It began, frankly, with self-control and improving manners – learning not to hog the table, not to ignore what had been brought up by others, not to force a new topic of individual interest.  All of us, in one way or another, had to mature to improve in conversation.  For me, it was about learning humility.  For others, it was about becoming bolder, or increasing attention-span, or controlling temper, or developing patience.  It was in learning to have a conversation at St. John’s, more than from anything else, that I developed respect for others and learned not merely to yield the floor, but to lend my effort to following others’ interests – seeing where their insights and concerns would take us.  St. John’s taught me the worth and necessity of making a common effort with others.
By reading together, we learned how people come at books and make good use of them.  How to read well is an important subject.  Reading is an underdeveloped skill, generally, because reading is under-recognized as a skill.  People understand that the skill of driving is as important as the quality of the car being driven.  People understand that the quality of a friendship depends as much on the common effort of building the friendship as on the individual qualities each friend brings.  Reading well, similarly, is a skill or art.  And, similarly, reading well is as important to the worth gotten from books as are the books themselves.
Reading well is not about the act of eyeing printed words.  The skillfulness lies in the hard work of tackling a book, considering it, making something of it.  It requires fair-mindedness, focus and attention span.  It requires developing a mental library of references to other books already read, which takes time.  Reading well requires a sense of when to step back to draw connections or raise doubts, and when to press forward to see an author’s point on its own terms.  At St. John’s, as in few other places, we were able to develop our skills of reading, over time, broadly.  We could do so not alone in a library, but together in a community.  I remember thinking of it as almost the formation of a mature, lasting, profitable friendship with books.  Few things are so beautiful, or so useful, as that.
By reading the same books, together, with each other in a community, we could learn the different ways of approaching very dissimilar books, the range of approaches to an issue or description.  As with other important skills, even the problems of carrying out the work of reading are worth consideration.  Bigger errors and littler mistakes made in understanding a book or proposition or experiment could, by conversation, be made useful. 
Instead of simply jumping to someone who got it right, we would usually try to repair something that had gone wrong and figure out how it had.  One of the best ways to understand a proposition is not to abandon someone’s mishandling of it but to trace through the steps and figure out: What went wrong? 
That lesson has stuck with me and been profitable to me ever since: books and other subjects lend themselves to certain revealing mistakes.  Incorrect readings of a book are not random, so long as they arise from sincere effort.  Meaningful mistakes loop around great ideas in definite orbits whose paths, when traced, reveal some things about the central idea itself, or about an author’s treatment of an idea, that cannot be learned from staring at an idea dead on.
So, we learned to pay attention when one of us was honestly troubled by an idea, or tangled up in it.  We learned to be selective – to accept that books worth reading are too rich to discuss in full, all at once.  We learned that direct and simple observations are more useful, more beautiful, and usually more subtle.  The truth is rarely fancy, but often delicate.  We found that just working out what a book was saying, step by step, took serious effort, even without stacking on critical or historical layers. 
In interpreting what we read, we learned that the easiest explanation was the fastest to fall.  For some books, comparisons and metaphors helped understanding.  But with other books, the difficult idea, standing for itself, directly engaged, was better than any metaphor or explanation we could substitute for it.  And a few books had hidden meanings, found behind trap doors that led past a surface meaning erected to satisfy the censors, or to obscure a precious truth from the casual reader, or to hide a potentially dangerous truth from the foolish and clumsy.
We therefore had to prepare with care, reading and studying.  The most valuable habits to my current practice as an attorney that I learned at St. John’s were the habits of close reading, re-reading, long study, text annotation, and other preparation to discuss and defend a fair reading of a text.
But St. John’s is bigger than the reading, the conversations and the books.  I was lucky in the work-study job I was assigned: I worked in the mailroom and made the rounds.  So I got to know the staff at St. John’s.  The staff was the one important part of the college community not mentioned in the college catalog.  My mail rounds often took too long, because some conversation with somebody on the staff was just too good to let go.  There were great conversations in the offices with the secretaries, in the print shop, in the college’s excellent bookshop, or, early in the morning with the housekeepers and security officers.
I loved the people at St. John’s.  Some of the best conversations were about the operation and business of the college.  I relished this practicality – and still think about the necessary connection between a great idea or community, and the functions and structures that support it.  My law firm’s clients would tell you that a favorite theme of mine is finding the right marriage of means and ends: finding how best to get where my clients want to go.  The staff and administration at St. John’s gave me an education in this: they knew and I learned that a St. John’s education takes more than books, tables, and chairs.  Even as simple an education as that at St. John’s requires a serious, committed organization and staff to support it.  Even liberal arts require business sense, administration and a good deal of money. 
I missed out on athletics at St. John’s – a beautiful thing that I neglected, and in retrospect I regret it.  But I did plenty else.  King William’s Players is the theater group in Annapolis, and I was in the chorus of Antigone, played the Archbishop in Henry V (typecasting, but a great costume), and produced The Book of Job, a staged version of the one book in the Bible that is, essentially, a dialogue in poetry.  I was part of student government, called the Polity, arranged a traditional group trip to the Santa Fe campus, called Westward Wagons Ho!, and led the Political Forum, which arranged for political speakers and thinkers, domestic and international, to visit and talk to us.  And I helped out with other organizations that other students led.
I had a special love for the wisdom literature in the Bible, including Job, and several of the informal study groups I participated in were about them.  This turned out, at St. John’s, to be a way for me to make some acquaintance with Jewish culture and people, something I hadn’t had growing up in my part of South Carolina.  Talking to Jewish tutors about Job and Ecclesiastes, and learning about these books’ place in Jewish faith and culture was as rich as any element of my education at St. John’s.  I frankly felt envious of the obvious depth and complexity of Jewish cultural roots.  I felt that I had nothing comparable, although I did learn to value more highly the Baptist, southern and American roots that I do have.  I even learned a few Yiddish jokes.  (Here’s one that is, indirectly, about Job himself:  So a guy on a train is trying to sleep in the lower berth of a compartment.  But the guy in the upper berth keeps moaning “Oy, am I thirsty! … Oy, am I thirsty.”  So the guy in the lower berth sighs and goes and gets a drink of water and hands it up, to get some quiet.  The guy up there drinks the water and the fellow in the lower berth settles back in to get some sleep, in peace.  But just as he does, the guy in the upper berth starts back “Oy, was I thirsty! … Oy, was I thirsty.”  I love that joke.)
The faculty members (the “tutors”) at St. John’s are superb, and they have an unusually difficult job.  Their class load is fairly heavy, and tutors do not specialize.  They are called on to guide conversations and lead without lecturing.  That is frankly a hard way to teach.  It requires finesse, intense focus in listening, and, above all, a sort of personal charm that draws students to enter into the work and matter of the classroom conversation.  The charm, brilliance and fundamental seriousness of Socrates is called for – and the wonder is that the tutors at St. John’s mostly do manage to be Socratic to some degree. 
Young people are easily awed by impressive adults who care for them, and on the whole we were awed by the tutors.  The tutors maintain a certain formality in their interactions with students – a detachment that helps keep classroom conversations from devolving into free-for-alls or social conversations.  Students pick up on that, and one of the main things that strikes me in retrospect about the classroom conversations at St. John’s was their propriety.  This was a purposeful formality that St. John’s prizes because it enables greater intimacy with the ideas and allows a fuller freedom to discuss hard things and delicate topics plainly and honestly.  I remember asking, as we read W.E.B. DuBois, “How do we know that the races are equal?”  Not because I doubted the equality, but because the subject is vital, and needs to be thought through.  Simply to assume the thing is to be unable to defend the proposition from attack.  The conversations at St. John’s were of a character that permitted worthwhile but touchy questions to be asked safely.  The guardians and cultivators of that conversational liberty at St. John’s are the tutors.  Setting the conditions by which serious questions can be asked, and serious answers defended, is something I think about every time I write a lawyer’s brief for court.  Some of the means for creating those conditions in court I learned in the classrooms at St. John’s, watching how the best tutors went about their job.
The tutors’ other great role at St. John’s is to serve as a patient and responsive audience of student writing, and to try to develop us as writers.  Reading and responding to student papers is tedious work.  But because the tutors do it, students who apply themselves can learn to write well.  Little is more practical, useful and liberating than the ability to write well.  The opportunity at St. John’s to learn to write is my first answer to someone who worries that St. John’s is impractical.  The professional who writes well succeeds best, and not only in law.  The greatest strides in my own writing ability were made at St. John’s, and that was thanks to the tutors.  When a person combines an ability to write with other abilities that can be developed at St. John’s – of clear thought, of fearlessness in the face of unfamiliar and difficult material, and of persistent study – the result is someone powerfully and unusually ready to do just about anything.  I don’t know what could be more practical than that.
To be sure, the transition from St. John’s to an adult, working life is difficult.  It was for me and my St. John’s friends, and it is for graduates of other colleges, too.  I went back to South Carolina, found an apartment and a job, assisting at a consulting firm that provided automation and information technology advice to manufacturers.  The firm was floundering, and as better-qualified people left, I found I could take up the slack.  St. John’s is a fine preparation for technical careers because it allows students the realization that no textbook is required.  A person who studies the fundamentals can figure out almost anything with effort and time.  By the time the consulting firm went bankrupt, I was able to get a job at one of our clients – Dunlop, the golf and tennis ball manufacturer.
People respond well to St. John’s students in the workplace.  Partly this is because of the practical habits I mentioned before.  But it is also because people like to be around interesting people that are fair-minded, diligent and fun to work with.  St. John’s encourages those traits.
Outside work, I dove back into religious life at my church with fervor.  I had missed that life and my old church community while at St. John’s.  But after returning, it was not the same.  Nobody at St. John’s encouraged me to lose my faith – I knew more people that gained religious faith than lost their faith at St. John’s.  But my own faith had been eroded in the course of my reading, including at St. John’s.  My faith had particularly eroded as I continued to read the Bible itself.  It presented itself to me differently than it had when I was a child.  Particularly when I read the wisdom literature I loved so much, things had changed.  As I’ve seen in others, my own slipping belief led to a period of increased, almost frantic religious intensity – there is an attempt, by activity, to counteract what is gone spiritually.  But by the fourth year after St. John’s, my faith was quite gone.
There was another factor: I had always been attracted to other guys, not girls.  I had grown up believing this was a spiritual disease or affliction, and that I could control it, even see it as a trial to overcome and prove myself against.  It is possible with strength to repress something you sincerely believe to be evil and destructive, at least for a time.  But at St. John’s, I came to know gay and lesbian people, old and young, who lived good, happy, full lives.  Thinking of them, I was unable to maintain my belief that homosexuality was an awful disease.  By the time I returned home, the only reason I had for keeping that part of me shut down was that it was simply a requirement of religious practice and an act of Christian submission.
That held for a while, but it could not survive the erosion of my faith.  Finally, I prepared my parents and friends, then stood in front of the congregation that I grew up with and told them that I no longer believed that the Scriptures were inerrantly true and that I would, from that time forward, feel free to live as a gay man. 
It was painful – these people loved me and I had grown up in that church.  Until then I had felt more at home in those pews than anywhere else.  I was excommunicated.  Friends and relatives did not know what to do with me.  And it was especially hard for my parents – although the pain of it gradually passed for them and we have a stronger relationship now than ever.  But that took years and called on their full measure of decency and love, and on mine.
But right after that excommunication, I needed to get out.  It was a dramatic period, a departure crisis of the sort I remembered from great novels.  Within weeks and with scrambling and luck, I had moved to New York City and found good work in the information technology office of a large Manhattan law firm.  I began to get my bearings on the job, and my bearings as a gay young man who’d moved to the city.  It was the sort of transition a lot of people make, for one reason or another.  Essentially, the culture of young arrivals into big cities is a culture of departure and ambition.  Figuring out what of this new culture to adopt, and what to accommodate, and what to resist – that was the challenge.  The city and the new life and the ease and excitement of society were wonderful.  I began to drink (I never had); I began to swear (I never had).  Conversations were different, the settings were different.  I reconnected with a lesbian acquaintance from St. John’s.  She had been someone I knew and respected back in Annapolis; here in New York, we formed a friendship that helped me get my bearings in the first months in the city.  I began to date and, after a while, found my partner, now my husband.  He and I have been together since, going on nine years.
A few months after moving to New York, it was clear that I needed to move into something that would interest and occupy me better than my IT work could.  I needed something I could do over decades.  A profession I could grow old in.  Law appealed best – the work with words, texts, speaking and writing.  It was practical and intellectual.  It suited me.  And it seemed likely to pay well.
So I applied to law schools.   I doubt my applications would have been a success without the advice and help of Roberta Gable, then at the St. John’s Career Services Office.  The applications were accepted and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School.  I found that in academia, particularly in legal academia, St. John’s has a big reputation, quite out of proportion to St. John’s small size.  Professors love St. John’s, occasionally without having any good reason for it, they just hear it’s great.  Reputation works that way.  I probably benefited as much from St. John’s reputation as from St. John’s actual preparation of me for graduate work. 
Law school went well.  I was on the Harvard Law Review at the time Barack Obama was coming to prominence.  News organizations would come by to look at our (rather worn) editorial offices.  Friends and I stayed up late editing articles and learning to improve others’ writing (editing others’ work is something not much practiced while at St. John’s).  I made friends, especially on the Review, and graduated in what felt like a few months, not three years.  The last period that had sped by that quickly were my four years at St. John’s.
And now I practice law, mostly corporate bankruptcy, a field of law that had interested me starting half way through law school.  I love the work.  All good work is hard, and has its share of drudgery – just ask a St. John’s tutor reading a stack of papers!  But the counseling of clients, the giving of advice, is satisfying.  Researching the law and writing a clean, direct, winning brief is a hard thing I love doing well.  And I relish going to court and feel great respect for the institution of the courts.  That our society has an arena for disputes, before an empowered judge, equipped and limited by law, able to decide with finality but not violence – that both awes and satisfies me.  It is a privilege to be a part of that and to begin to belong to the community of lawyers who practice the same specialty in the same courts.  Like any specialization, it is a small world where your reputation is quickly formed and known.  I feel I have a place in a great human endeavor, the law, and that my corner of the law, bankruptcy, offers something practical and necessary both to the safety and to the encouragement of a risk-taking society.
My education at St. John’s does contribute to my efforts to do my work well: the practice of speaking, of convincing, of listening and of reading closely I had at St. John’s is valuable.  But St. John’s plays an even greater role, I think, in my enjoyment and appreciation for my work.  St. John’s forms the habits of enjoying ideas: of appreciating a good idea well implemented.  I think bankruptcy law implements a good idea.  I like to think about how it works, what it depends on, and the purposes it serves, intentionally and unintentionally. 
There is a joy to living in a reflective, thoughtful way – and St. John’s encourages that way of living.  Trying to live that way, in my own case, both honors my parents and is true to what St. John’s stands for.  You keep on reading, you keep building friendships through heartfelt, engaged conversations about ideas and life.  You get older; you try to get wiser.  You lend your effort to things that seem worthwhile.  You provide for family and old age.  You love; you work.  And, with good luck, these make for a happy and honorable life.
St. John’s, fifteen years on, seems to me to have broadened and deepened my appreciation for living quietly but intensely and well.  And, the four years I was there were a happy, good time.  That memory is valuable in itself.  The friendships I have from St. John’s that are still strong – and the practice I gained there in how to be a friend – are even more valuable.  And the program of study itself at St. John’s was, for me and most graduates, a confirmation into a life of reading, good conversations, and grappling with ideas.  That’s a lot, and I’m grateful for it.

how?

From my office I see down onto the curving ramps of the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge, put in motion by the vehicles that continually trace these curves, woven past the thick grid of avenues and streets, and before and behind the vertical grid of tall towers.  Moving curves of shining painted vehicles, amongst the stout, still, straight lines of streets and towers.  Seeing it every morning feels part gift, part sermon: deserve ye this?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Petrie Court

I like museums, good ones anyhow.  But how much museuming I can take at a time is a function of what's within.  I can spend a full day in the best large historical or scientific museums, and not just gain from it, but enjoy it.  Art museums I can spend a day in, but I fatigue: far better is a smaller, ninety minute visit to some corner.

One of the luxuries of being in New York City is that I can handle the encyclopedic art museums (the Met and MoMA) in just this way: buy a membership allowing me unlimited visits and drop in every month or so for a little while.

The MoMA has its joys, but it is the Met that provokes real feelings, thoughts, even works on me.  Probably not entirely, though mostly, to the good.

One sits in a museum cafe, in sight of Rodin's Burghers of Calais, looking out windows across Central Park at the Cleopatra Needle.  There is a burble of conversation within, a stream of joggers without.  One thinks of Tahrir Square, of Les Bourgeois de Cairo.  One thinks of how Rodin has made the hands and feet of his burghers relatively massive, there's a sense of movement and gesture dominating.  One sees the perfection of the bronze turtles bearing up the rounded, worn corners of of the Needles, the hieroglyphics rising up in ancient language to a point that is not stone - long broken away - but a sort of cheap modern prosthetic point, apparently of painted cement.  One sees that waiter pass, yet again, the dark Indian with the half turned smile and thrown back shoulders.  What does he know?  He looks as if he is the unrevealed king of the play, and knows it.  He owns.

And of course, in some sense, he does.  Look at where he is.  Glory surrounds him.  And I, sitting with my coffee and bread, feel the same way as I imagine he does, although I don't think my smile or shoulders betray it.  One sits with coffee, or another waits tables, and we - he and I - at least I - feel utterly rich.  A museum, a park, a gifted sculpture taken by a culture from its own ancient patrimony and given to the people of its modern patron, each offers itself.  And one partakes, one takes, one has.  There is no illusion here, no fantasy of material ownership.  Not at all.  What there is - being rightly placed here, as a visitor or employee, is quite real, and if one is taking it in - seeing and feeling and being - then one is taking all that is on offer, and that is such an all, that for a time one cannot imagine needing more of anything. 

Our species is great.  Mankind is unfathomably great.  We are each rich by inheritance.  You and I were born with silver spoons in our mouths.  Let us live worthy of our privileges.

beside

Night will be backdrop
To your body.
Sleep will make sculpture
Of your shape.
Frost will press windows
To see you.
All will protect you
Till you wake.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

bootstraps

A truly self-made man would not even be a Frankenstein.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

Has ever a movie had so many quotable lines as The Wizard of Oz?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

tails

A dress code is either a demand of respect, a wish for a certain tableaux, or a stage whisper that some of those formally invited are not welcome to attend.