Process

“We are always in media res, there are no absolute beginnings or finalities. We are always in the process of being shaped and shaping our history and our traditions. We are eminently fallible. We never escape from the precariousness and contingency of existence. We become fools of history if we believe that we can achieve total control by expert knowledge, or if we think we can collectively impose our wills and completely determine our destinies.”

Richard J. Bernstein, “John Dewey on Democracy” (Philosophical Profiles, Univ. of Penna. Press, 1986, pp. 266-7).

“Why, sir, a man [sic] grows better humoured as he grows older. He improves by experience. When young, he thinks himself of great consequence, and every thing of importance. As he advances in life, he learns to think of himself of no consequence, and little things of great importance; and so he becomes more patient, and better pleased. All good-humour and complaisance are acquired. Naturally a child seizes directly what it sees, and thinks of pleasing itself only. By degrees, it is taught to please others, and to prefer others; and that this will ultimately produce the great happiness….” Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Tuesday, 14th of September, 1773.

While I have great areas of disagreement with Johnson — and he would dismiss me as a “Leveller” who wants to do away with the great principle of subordination and social rank that keeps a society stable — I find him to be right about a great many things. For example, what he says about people growing “better humoured” as they grow older I find to be substantially true. He was 64 when he said this in a conversation in the castle on the Isle of Sky built by the MacLeod clan; seven years older than I am now. I look forward to improving additionally by experience, and thinking myself of even less consequence than I do now.

The kind of wisdom Johnson praises here strikes me as a variation on what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Contemporary U.S. society no longer values phronesis; instead, our society values techne, or technical skill; and nous, or abstract knowledge. In my experience, those who have the kinds of wisdom that can be categorized as techne or nous tend to think themselves of great consequence, and, like children, tend to think more of pleasing themselves, and they tend to be impatient, and they tend to consider it acceptable to seize directly what they see. The titans of Silicon Valley come to mind, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and the venture capitalists and the many CEOs of small inconsequential start-ups. The current president of the U.S. also comes to mind.

These are all ill-humored people who think themselves of great consequence and who wish to seize directly what they see without thinking about their effects on others; they have very little in the way of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, these are the people who now provide us with leadership. Equally unfortunately, these are the kind of people we now respect: selfish, immature, child-like idiot savants who think themselves of great consequence, and who, if they think of us lowly peons at all, think of us with contempt because we lack their narrow technical skill and abstract knowledge, and feel the only thing they owe to us is the privilege of exploiting us. I think I prefer the elite of Johnson’s day, the “men distinguished by their rank,” who at least paid lip service to the obligations of their rank, and at least pretended to protect those who were subordinate to them.

Lichens

Living in a cemetery gives me the opportunity to observe a nice diversity of lichens. I went out this evening to see some of this diversity; my camera served in stead of a hand lens.

This crustose lichen, covering an area about the size of a quarter, was growing on a marble gravestone. The magnification of the photo shows how the lichen has etched an indentation into the stone. To make an accurate identification of crustose lichens, I’d need both a microscope and far more knowledge than I currently have. But this may be in the genus Caloplaca: “The 25 to 30 species [of Caloplaca] reported from California … occur very widely on trees and mostly calcareous rocks. Caloplaca saxicola is common and one of the first crustose lichens collected by beginners” (Mason E. Hale Jr. and Mariette Cole, Lichens of California [Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1988], p. 190).

The foliose lichen above, about an inch across, and found on a piece of granite, may be in the genus Xanthoparmelia. According to Hale and Cole, “Xanthoparmelia is by far the dominant foliose lichen on granites, schists, shale, and other non-calcareous rocks throughout California…. Two species, X. cumberlandia and X. mexicana, are common and collected almost everywhere in the state.”

If I were to get serious about identifying lichens, I’d need to go out and get the K, C, and P reagents, an inexpensive USB microscope, and a few other things. Then I’d have to get serious about studying them: dissecting them, looking at them under the microscope, etc. Is it enough to just look at lichens without identifying them? or do I want to engage in more serious study of them? Heraclitus advised that “those who are lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into many things indeed” (DK35); but how deeply should one inquire into each of those many things? One only has so much time in this world; a serious in-depth study of one topic means less time to inquire into the many other things.

Things I’ve dreamed of doing but have never done

1. Go to Labrador and take the mail boat up and down the coast: I grew fascinated with Labrador in my teens when I read an old book I think once belonged to my father, or maybe his father: The Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. At 19, my first full time job was yardman in a lumberyard, and on coffee breaks I used to sit and talk with the dispatcher, Robin R., about where we wanted to travel; I always wanted to go to Labrador. I even went so far as to get a road map of Labrador, but there was no way I ever could have afforded to travel that far.

I still can’t afford to go to Labrador, but even if I could I’m not sure I want to go, not now. Now Labrador is far less remote: there’s a road to Goose Bay, and the coastal communities have much more contact with the outside world. I still want to go to the Labrador of 1980, but that’s impossible.

2. Live in Paris for six months: In my mid-twenties, I was still working at the lumberyard, now as a salesman. I was making more money by now, and arranged to spend one vacation in London and Paris. I took French classes to prepare for the trip, but when I got to Paris I realized how little of the language I knew. A friend of mine, William J., was living in Paris then. I dreamed of saving up my money and living there myself and studying French.

The unexpected ending to this story: When I went to Europe, I flew on Icelandair, and the flights stopped in Rekjavik. There was no jetway in those days, so you walked down those rolling stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal while they serviced the plane. I told a friend, Eddie J., how beautiful Iceland looked — and how beautiful the women were. At that time, Eddie worked seven days a week for six months each summer and fall painting houses, then spent the other six months of the year skiing in the Alps. The next winter instead of going skiing in the Alps, he went to Iceland, met an Icelandic woman, fell in love, married her, and as far as I know still lives there.

3. Publish a science fiction story: I met Mike F. in my first year of college. We were both science fiction fanatics, and we started a science fiction club. Mike was a good friend, but I felt competitive with him because he was a better writer than I; we talked about who would publish a science fiction story first, though I was pretty sure it would be him. A decade later, in an abortive attempt to get a master’s degree in writing, I learned that I am unable to write convincing fiction; I dropped out of that graduate program and went to work for a carpenter (working as a carpenter was then a dream of mine), and have never bothered to try to write fiction again.

The unexpected ending to this story: Mike and I both wound up working as clergy, and we both wound up doing a lot of online writing. In the 1980s, Michael became a rabbi and by the 1990s was known as the rabbi who wrote on America Online; I finally got ordained in 2003, and started this blog in 2005 (Michael always was more talented and driven than I). I now suspect that writing sermons and writing science fiction stories require a similar kind of imagination: both science fiction and sermons need to be firmly rooted in the here and now, and both need to be connected with infinite possibility.

So there are some things I’ve always dreamed of doing, but have never done; dreams that never quite let go of me, no matter how irrational or impossible.

My father’s birthday was the first day of spring. He died a month after his ninety-second birthday; he would have been ninety-four this year. Grief is a funny thing: it comes up and whacks you on the side of your head when you’re not paying attention. I wasn’t paying attention to when my father’s birthday was — I always forget people’s birthday’s (Carol can tell you how bad I am). On March 20, I awakened from a troubling dream: we had been in my parents’ old house, the one my father sold after my mother died and which got knocked down so some developer could build a McMansion; but in the dream the house was still there.

When I awakened, all that was left of the dream was confused images: of my parents, and my mother had not yet begun to sink into dementia; of some room in that house which I could not identify; of a fire which burned up all my clothes; of water pouring into the house. Two powerful, unconnected memories were bound up in this dream: the house fire that my parents and my younger sister lived through in 1993, and me showing up in time to see the Fire Department throwing soaked and charred personal items out of a hole chopped in the roof; and the time when I went to Star Island for a conference and they lost my luggage for a week, luggage which contained every piece of summer clothing I owned and my income was so low that it would have been a struggle to replace those clothes. I have no idea why these two memories came together; but my dreams rarely have any real meaning, so I tried to forget the dream. Then the next morning, on March 21, I awakened in the grips of another strange dream, about which I remember even less: back in my parents old house; I discovered a baby robin, nearly fully fledged but still unable to fly, in the bathroom, and I let it out; my sisters doing something or other; a gray spring day. This dream put me in a strange mood all day. I went to visit a friend who’s recovering from surgery. I weeded the garden, though it didn’t need it. I spent several hours working, answering email and preparing for Sunday.

Then a friend sent an email reminder: he’s the choir director at Burton High School in San Francisco, and his choir was having their annual concert and fundraising dinner. Carol and I decided to go. Since it was San Francisco, there was just about every racial and ethnic group you could imagine. There were about fifty choristers, and they looked affectionately and trustingly at their director as he led them in a short concert that encompassed everything from rap to pop to folk to Mozart. The choir was quite good: enunciation, intonation, dynamics were all quite good. The sopranos maybe struggled a little at one point, but they really opened up on the Mozart. There weren’t many basses and tenors — it’s hard for boys to join choirs — but they held up their parts amazingly well. And when we got home, and went for a walk in the light rain, the lingering effects of those dreams had entirely gone.

Why we need hermeneutics

By hermeneutics, I understand the ability to listen to the other in the belief that he [sic] could be right.

— from a 1996 interview with Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Welt als Speigelkabinett: Zum 350. Gerburtstag von Leibniz am 1. Juli 1996,” Nicholas Halmer, Das SalzburgerNachtradio (Osterreichischer Rundfunk); quoted in Jean Grodin, Hand-Georg Gadamer: A Biography (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), p. 250.

Gadamer lived through the Nazi nightmare in Germany, and was rector of the University of Liepzig in 1946 after the Soviets had taken charge of what later became East Germany. He had, therefore, directly experienced how ideologues can restrict public discourse. Yet he affirmed the importance of scholarly independence and, more importantly, openness in dialogue.

In the United States today, we are in a situation where liberals, conservatives, and the far right each hew to set of shared assumptions. If you question the assumptions of liberals, conservatives, or the far rightists, you cannot expect open and respectful dialogue; instead, you will be subjected to ad hominem attacks, and immense pressure will be brought to bear upon you to conform to one or the other sets of assumptions.

For example, if someone were to question the validity of the #MeToo movement: liberals would condemn that person as a Neanderthal sexist and demand acceptance of the essential goodness of the #MeToo movement; conservatives might affirm that person for standing up to “political correctness”; and the far rightists might latch on to that person for upholding “family values” and assume that person was also affirming the right of men to be sexual aggressors. None of these groups would listen to anything that was said beyond the initial questioning of the validity of the #MeToo movement. But I have heard liberal feminists question the #MeToo movement on the grounds that it is in effect a vigilante movement, and that while vigilante movements might be inevitable in situations like this where the rule of law does not adequately protect some individuals nevertheless we should always be extremely wary of vigilantes; furthermore, when we look at our past we find that one of the largest single groups of U.S. vigilantes was white lynch mobs carrying out summary justice against African Americans, and that’s probably not a tradition that we want to carry forward.

The current situation in the U.S. is one where everyone has been rubbed raw by the intolerance of the public sphere; everyone has become an ideologue, sure of their narrow beliefs, not tolerating any challenge to those beliefs. Everyone has their own truth. By contrast, Gadamer calls on us to develop the ability to listen openly to others, aware that I might not always be right and that I can get closer to truth by listening to others. These days in the hyperindividualistic U.S., everyone thinks they can have own truth. Gadamer challenges us to listen to think about the possibility that there may be truth that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own self; and that by entering into open dialogue with someone we disagree with, we might actually learn something.

Snow and ice

In the middle of the day yesterday, I looked out of the window here in Seattle and it was snowing steadily. The snow didn’t stick to the ground where we were, and it was soon over. This afternoon when we went for a walk, we saw frozen puddles by the side of the road, and frozen mud crunched under our feet when we stepped off the paving. We passed a pickup truck with a couple of inches of packed snow on its roof; it must have been driven into the city from some place nearby at a higher elevation, where there had been more snow, and the snow had stuck. And as it turns out, the same cold front swept down to San Mateo, where the National Weather Service reported “an active morning with passing showers and snow showers,” with the showers ending by this afternoon.

There is a long and honorable literary tradition in which events in the natural world are linked to human affairs, and I can’t help thinking about what Robert Frost said about fire and ice. If he had to choose between the world ending in fire or ice, Frost said, he’d bet on fire, based on what he knew of desire. But, he said:

…if [the world] had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Consumer capitalism provokes our unending desire for cheap consumer goods, and cheap consumer goods require the ever-increasing use of cheap energy, which in turn has led to the frightening rise in average global temperature: so the odds are pretty good that Frost is right, and the world will end in fire. But all the hatred that has broken out into in the United States in the past couple of years has made it clear that is we don’t die of fire and desire, we will freeze to death from icy hatred.

Dreams

For the past few weeks, I’ve awakened most mornings aware that during the previous night I had had vivid and intense dreams. I can think of several reasons why my dreams have become so vivid and intense: our new rental is in a much quieter and darker neighborhood and I’m probably sleeping more deeply; my sabbatical has led me to turn inwards in a way that I usually don’t have time for; in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice when days are getting increasingly shorter I usually sleep more, and dream more.

I don’t have any interest in remembering my dreams, and then analyzing them while I’m awake. Nor do I have any interest in dismissing dreams as mere effluvia produced as the brain consolidates its memories from the day. The first approach takes the subjective content of dreams and objectifies it; the second approach ignores the subjective reality of dreams and dreaming. Each of these approaches is a product of the hyper-rationalism which turns everything into an object, and then takes those objects and carefully places them into categories, even though these categories may be divorced from the subjective reality in which we live our lives.

Some three thousand years ago, the oracle at Delphi gave this advice: “Know thyself.” In some ways, we haven’t made any progress from this; we have more technology, and less hunger and famine and disease, and more liberty for more people; but I’m not convinced we know ourselves any better. Mind you, the simple fact that, compared to three thousand years ago, more people are well-fed and reasonably healthy and not enslaved means that more people have enough time in their lives to take the time to know themselves. But objectifying and analyzing pieces of your self does not lead to knowing yourself as a whole.

Hyper-rationalism has given me lots of knowledge, but hasn’t led me any closer to self knowledge. I awakened this morning knowing that I had vivid and intense dreams. Then I got up, and ate breakfast, and went shopping, and did some housecleaning, and stood for a moment just looking out the window. Now I’m writing this. Tonight I will likely dream more vivid dreams that I don’t remember. All this seems to be a better way to follow the advice of the oracle at Delphi.

Sabbatical report

I’ve spent much of the first two months of my five-month sabbatical moving from our old apartment to a new rental. Surprisingly, this has proved to be one of the best things I could have done with my sabbatical. Before we moved to Silicon Valley, we had moved five times in ten years, and each time we moved I was starting a new job or a new graduate program, and I didn’t really have time to unpack. But for this move, I actually had time to do things like go through old files and get rid of papers I no longer needed — in the past two weeks I’ve recycled (or shredded and composted) enough old, useless paperwork to fill a four-drawer file cabinet. I got rid of hundreds of books that I no longer need or want. And I’m getting rid of other belongings, too.

In our consumer society, it’s too easy to accumulate more belongings. You don’t need to spend lots of money purchasing new things at the store or online — we have accumulated many of our belongings at the thrift store or yard sales or through Craigslist, or even by trash-picking. (And with paper being so inexpensive, it is far too easy to accumulate files and paperwork.) All these things become a sort of spiritual dead weight; they can weigh you down slowly and stealthily so that you don’t even realize that you’re no longer able to move freely.

With all I’ve gotten rid of, I still have too many things. I’m working on getting rid of more stuff; it’s a kind of spiritual exercise at this point. I do have a couple of research projects that I’m working on during my sabbatical, that I’m not talking about right now, in case they don’t pan out; but even if those research projects don’t pan out, getting out from under the weight of too much stuff would constitute a successful sabbatical.

Compact camp cook box

I’ll be driving across the continent by myself during July, camping for about two and a half weeks of that time. The camp cook box we have is big because it’s designed for two or more people. I decided to make a more compact camp cook box for this trip.

I found an old wooden wine create we had in the basement, did extensive repairs, and sealed it with some leftover wood sealer. A standard plastic dishpan fit perfectly inside, and I attached two wood strips for the dishpan to slide on. I made a small cutting board, elevated on wood runners so there’s storage space under it.

The dishpan holds a 2-quart pan with a teapot nested inside, a 1-quart pan, a mug, a small wood box with a sponge and scrubbing pad, dish detergent, and matches in a waterproof case. Under the wood cutting board there’s a cloth tool roll with various kitchen utensils (measuring spoons, stirring spoons, vegetable peeler, can opener, etc.).

I didn’t buy anything except the dishpan; everything else was something we had lying around. I spent too much time hand planing the wood for the cutting board, then hand-rubbing it with chopping block oil. And I used no power tools, which also took more time. But who cares if it took too long? Who cares if the various parts and pieces don’t quite match? I had fun working on it. This kind of project is like process art: the final product is less important than the process of making it.