Annie Dillard Poking Fun

On the heels of yesterday’s post about Annie Dillard’s new book, I want to invite you to click over to her official website for a treat of the purple-coat variety.  When half of the internet adverts I see are for social media managers and SEO, it is absolutely refreshing to read someone who says No Thank You. And means it. And please respect her wishes that you avoid Wikipedia. “Unreliable,” she says.

For more fun, read this essay titled Church. It is classic Dillard but I point it out for this fantastic line:

It all seems a pity at first, for I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars.


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Is It True About How We Spend Our Days?


Annie Dillard on Living Life

Yesterday I posted one of my favorite quips of good advice:

Whatever you do today is what you do.”

I can’t remember the source but a reader sent me a similar quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend out lives.”

Following the Annie Dillard rabbit hole – it’s a Saturday and I’ve got a few minutes to wander leisurely – I found this wonderful essay written by William Deresiewicz titled Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard? The essay is putatively a review of Dillard’s new book of essays The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, but it is just as much a review of Dillard’s work over the last forty years. The essay captures Dillard’s genius and makes me want to go back and read every word she has written. I immediately dashed off a tweet to Deresiewicz and thanked him for the best ten minutes I’ve had in a very long time.

Not everyone enjoys Dillard – drat all fashion! She is sublime when writing about nature. Materialists will bristle, though, as under every gorgeously described husk of a dead dragonfly, she is searching for hints of god. Theists of a traditional sort will feel the same irritation. The god she seeks is not found in medieval scripts.  Whatever your view, I cannot for a moment imagine someone reading Ms. Dillard and not coming away enriched.

The Annie Dillard page on Amazon
Annie Dillard homepage where she tells the truth

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Who made Trump? You. And me. 

Regular readers know that I subscribe to the philosophy that history is rarely made by great men and women. Instead, history is more typically the culmination of decades or centuries of day-to-day decisions made in day-to-day scenarios by people living out their day-to-day lives. These decisions ebb and flow through culture until reaching a kind of criticality when they take on a life of their own. Then there is no use in fighting. It’s a done deal. Smart pols and those with few core values get on the train. They know that the train is running at breakneck speed and won’t even register a blip on the speedometer when it bumps your complaining rear off the track. So president Obama evolves mid-stream on same-sex marriage and senators flip back and forth and back again on the Middle East. It’s how things work.

Any Rand has said that a people deserve their government. In her acerbic way she reiterates this view of history. For two centuries, East Indians acquiesced to British rule. Uprisings were quelled with military precision. But each uprising added to a slow but growing movement for self-rule. The movement grew over decades until Gandhi spearheaded a cultural revolution. There is no question of Gandhi’s importance but he rode a century old wave that was already roiling. Gandhi was the right man for the time but if it wasn’t Gandhi then someone else would have filled those shoes.

To Trump. Amidst whatever cultural ills we propagated either willfully or tacitly in my grandparent’s generation, as a whole, the culture was polite and courteous. Certainly people had strong opinions and strong disagreements. No doubt some people called detractors fat pigs and horrible, stupid people.  It’s true that people got in fights and some were murdered. But a general level of courtesy was expected in public that we no longer enjoy. Blame the internet, blame cable TV, or blame the NEA for no longer requiring that children start the day by respecting Old Glory – blame whomever you want – but we have elevated bad language and bad manners to celebrity status. You might not have, and I might not have (or have I?) but how many people winced just hearing the word ‘pussy’ on television. Or seeing it here in internet print? How many vowed to never watch Trump again when he repeatedly calls out a female celebrity as a ‘fat pig’? When did this become acceptable? How many lines have we crossed when Trump announces repeatedly and with impunity that Miss X isn’t good looking enough for him to molest? Are you kidding. How sad.

Sorry. No cheers today.

Try this on for some mind bending

I was reminded of this bit of classic existential absurdity the other day listening to the Philosophize This! podcast.

thWe imagine that we are modern and progressive. Animals, yes, in an abstract evolutionary sense, but something special nonetheless. We read, use phones, we prepare lovely meals, and think hard about important things. We drive cars to work where we shuffle paper and make sure that the factory line keeps moving. We have morals. The reality, though, and we have late Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre to thank for reminding us of it, is that we are nothing more than animals of the barnyard kind. We sit to eat at a table of cobbled together tree parts.  Our meals are dead and rotting plants and animals. We grunt to each other and shrink from the dark and mysterious in fear. We have learned how to fashion rocks into metal. From a certain vantage – The Planet of the Apes? – we are no more than worms with arms and legs.

This is what existential absurdity is. That we imagine that we are something far different from what we really are. For Sartre and Camus, this opens the door to a kind of freedom. If what they say is true, then aren’t we able to forge any meaning we want? What forces us to engage in what we have had no choice in choosing?

Good stuff to try out at your next little get-together for a round of adult beverages!






Can old white guys talk about about lesbians or abortion?

I spent the weekend in Alexandria, VA, and came away wondering what the heck Peruvian chicken is and isn’t a restaurant named Pollo Chicken just Chicken Chicken? Funny but I’m getting the BBQ fired up this weekend to make some. Sounds delish.

We shared our motel with the Golden Crown Literary Society annual conference which looked like lots of fun. The society promotes lesbian lit of all forms. There was lots of laughing, lots of short haircuts, and lots of good looking vittles. I had a good laugh with one of the women. She was manning (a pun!) the pastry/coffee bar which was open only to conference attendees. I told her that I would gladly become a lesbian for a plate of pastry – like giving up my birthright for a bowl of stew. She was completely droll and nonplussed and shot back that I looked like any average white heterosexual old man…Not that there’s anything wrong with that!  We both had a good laugh over that. And no coffee! As an outsider, it seemed good to me that these women could be themselves here. I’m sure that many come from places where it’s difficult to admit to being a lesbian, or gay, or what-have-you. I did laugh, though, when one of our girls wondered aloud about why so many women were wearing suits?

Lesbian1It’s this being an outsider that has me thinking. A couple of weeks ago Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True published a question asking Should Men Shut Up About Abortion? The post was prompted by this letter to the editor. It’s a perennial question that comes up almost anytime anyone has something to say. Should I be allowed to  opinionate about lesbians? About Black Lives Matter? About abortion?

Yes and here’s why:

All of these questions have something of shared human experience embedded in them. I cannot speak to what it is to be a Christian in Iran but I can talk about what it is like to wonder about meaning. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be a lesbian in South Carolina but I know something (not much) about love and relationships. I’ve never had an abortion and don’t have a uterus but I have opinions about individual autonomy and women’s rights. I don’t want to tell anyone how they should feel but I have every right to join in to a conversation about how society deals with any issue.

Secondly is that as a member of this tribe – city, state, nation, human –  I can speak to the structural components of the question. Have we institutionalized prejudice into our churches and businesses? How does the abortion industry affect the country? Does free health care and college put a greater onus on working people to pay for programs? When we dial down our differences, we finally come to a point where no one can talk about anything. How many white, evolutionist, Washingtonians born to a Slovak mother, who was known to show up at high school looking like Alice Cooper do you know?  Is is fair for me to say that unless those labels fit you then you have nothing to say to me? No. In fact to silly and serves only to separate.

I also have a certain expertise which no longer means what it once did. We used to ask scientists about food issues. Now we go to Food Babe. Autism was largely a medical mystery until a party-gal actress straightened everyone out. There are certain academic areas where I am very comfortable saying that this is true. It’s not true because I say it but because the weight of evidence tilts in that direction. In areas where I am not an expert, I defer to experts. First. And check out the evidence. When I am excluded from a conversation it is usually because other opinions or other evidence isn’t welcome. This is epitomized by the Christian catchphrase of ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!’ Do you think this person wants a conversation?

In the same vein, we can see that open conversation helps to stem the tide of, well, stupidity. Go here to see a proposed paper on the feminist view of glaciers (paywall).  Jerry Coyne reports of a new paper published in the Dance Research Journal titled The Pilates Pelvis: Racial Implications of the Immobile Pelvis wherein the author attempts to prove that pilates – at least the ‘Single Leg Stretch’ and ‘Leg Circles’ – reveal a white, privileged, and racist bias. Should I be able to have an opinion about this? The author lectures at the University of New Mexico with the future goal of ‘deepening her work in the embodied cultural and racial issues in Pilates’. I pay for at least part of this, and happen to like pilates and yoga, so I get to have an opinion. Thanks very much for asking.

There is a caveat to all of this – I can’t speak to the feelings of these experiences. (Which is one reason I like to read fiction.) I don’t know how it feels to experience what you do – only you can know that. And you can’t know what it’s like to feel exactly like I do. The only way we can bridge this gap is if you let me in on the conversation.

So stand on your street corner or on your soapbox or in your pulpit or at your computer and speak your mind. Join in on a conversation but remember that conversations run in at least two directions. Invite other voices and opinions. Parse other views. Knowing what they are doesn’t mean accepting them. It means that you are wise to try to understand why others feel as they do. And if we no longer believe is expertise then maybe we should at least seek a little wisdom. We will all be better for it.



The consistency of morals

I’ve recently written a couple of short blurbs (here and here) about how our sense of right and wrong develops from nature. This is extraordinarily unsatisfying and offensive to many people. They want to know how we avoid moral pandemonium without a set of rules about right and wrong that come from on high. This is a different question than what I am asking but is closely related. So how do we know what to do? How do we set up a legal system? I am invariably asked how to hold rapists or Hitler responsible for their actions if there are no morals that are eternally enforceable?

These are good questions that wrap ideas about free will and morality and god into one so it can be hard to winnow out simple observations. But the idea that morals are unchanging is historically and theologically indefensible. We can use any religion but I’m most familiar with Christianity: what eternal truth can be championed as an unchanging expression of god’s character? Maybe that children are treasures? I think they are as do most parents but the Hebrew God doesn’t. There is the story of God telling his favorite, Abraham, to take his child’s life as a test of faith. And I’ve read the Bible story about Lot who, in order to save a group of visitors from harm, offered his daughters to a group of gang rapists. I read in the prophets where God instructs Israelite warriors to not even spare the enemy’s children, but to smash their heads upon stones. And while they’re at it – just for good measure – to ‘rip open their pregnant women’.

In each case there are theological explanations. And that is fine. But the idea of the sanctity of children as a universal moral stance isn’t supported. A similar conversation can be had about marriage. We see plural marriage, old men marrying young women, and men taking women as possessions throughout the scriptures. And when there are no men around, as in Noah’s time,  we read that his daughters drunked him up and had sex with him. Noah isn’t thrilled about the event but there is nothing to indicate that what the women did was morally wrong.

That fact is that morals are a moveable feast. We sense them as overarching and inviolate because they are those things in our culture. And culture moves slowly. It took a hundred years of US history – where all men are created equal – to remove chains from Africans. It took another hundred to finally call them equal. It took 150 years to recognize that women are smart enough to vote. We still struggle with allowing a human being to love anyone they want to.

Knowing that morals developed culturally due to genetic proclivities doesn’t lessen their importance. In a sense, it heightens their value as they give insights into how we are programmed to live successfully within groups. It does, however, remove the onus to follow beliefs handed down by fiat, only because we are told to do so. It elevates the importance of the human being and reduces the importance of religion. Which, of course, is what all the hubbub is about.


Have a little humility – life is mostly luck

The single most important thing you can do to ensure personal success is be born in a first world country. Almost everything else we do is just jockeying for position. Imagine being born in Albania or Madagascar in the 1950’s or ’60’s. Keeping your belly full without working yourself to death was a full-time job. In your spare time maybe you learned to read and maybe you didn’t.

I thought about this today while I read about a certain type of brain damage that exhibits in linguistic problems. Not in memory like with Alzheimer’s, but in word usage errors. In one form you lose an understanding of or an ability to use – no one knows for sure – connecting words. Your speech comes out like a telex: Food. Table. Sit. The person speaking doesn’t appear to know that he or she is speaking like this but they believe that they are chatting away like they always have. Do they wonder why people around them have scrunched faces and are not moving to the table for dinner? Apparently these folks can improve in speech over time. But for those who speak gibberish, it’s harder. These folks also think they are carrying on a conversation but their speech is a mixture of words both real and made up and in no order. It’s as if words are stored in file boxes and when we speak the brain selects words by box number. But someone has gone and mixed up the words and made new ones. When the speaker says , “Say, Jane, shall we chambre the wine? Jane hears “Bluster mid lamp lamp rain otit.” How to live with this I don’t know. From either side of the conversation.

I thought about how heart breaking it would be for my wife to have such an odd condition. Or my child. How hard it has to be to live with someone like this, with such confusion. How impossibly hard for the person with the condition to be trapped inside a world of people who seem to have lost understanding.

It makes be feel humble for what we have. We’ve worked for things, true, and we work hard on our family. But it can all fade. Today or maybe in the morning. When my Dad was dying he told me to do what ever I wanted to do today. Leave now! You might think you have tomorrow but it comes and goes almost too fast to see it.