Philosophy and Poetry

The poet in a philosophical mood

A Short Philosophical Love Note

Of what does missing consist?
(But first, know this, you are missed.)
It could be the lack of tender attack –
You see, I’ve missed getting kissed.

It might be like a disease
That only your treatment can ease.
The symptoms persist and although I resist
I wind up down on my knees.

It’s metaphysical tricks –
That’s strange, I know, but it sticks –
What else could explain the internal pain
When my heart my law contradicts.

It could be all in the mind,
If mental’s the way we’re designed.
But wishing you were does not make you here –
That’s truth of a different kind.

Who plumbs the depths of the soul?
And who knows the depth of the hole
Gouged when a lover heads for safe cover,
Exacting outrageous toll?


NOTES: When I headed off to college, my long-suffering father advised me to study “something practical.”  He suspected that I was likely to squander my opportunity at getting the education he never had the chance to acquire.

It might have been my hair, which had not been cut since the end of football season.  It might have been his knowledge that I was not the type of kid who listened to his elders.

So, of course, I went straight ahead and majored in philosophy with a minor in Greek and Latin.

And, also of course, the universe proved my father right.  Upon graduation I entered the job market and landed a coveted job as fry cook at a pancake house.

It was the only job I could get.

I had gravitated towards philosophy because I wanted to find answers to the big questions of life. I wanted to find Truth, Beauty and Love, and thought that philosophy was the route.

I didn’t find the answers I sought in philosophy. Instead, I grew weary of hairsplitting arguments and arcane debates about the meaning of language.

By my senior year, I was tired of the whole enterprise.

But I did find truth in a most unsuspected place. Not in the heavy and thick books of philosophical and impenetrable prose.  But in a dusty old Bible, the same Bible my father had been pointing me towards all my life.

Ironically, not only was my father right about studying something practical, he turned out to be right about where to find truth as well.

But off at college, I experienced my own personal John Newton/Saul of Tarsus moment.

Like the notorious English slave trader, I realized I had been blind about my own wretchedness.

Like the self-righteous Pharisee, I was knocked to the ground and scales fell from my eyes.

Like both of them, I was touched by grace and set on a new path with a completely fresh start.

After searching for truth in the ancient writings of Socrates and Plato, and seeking power in the seductive teachings of the East, I discovered that the truth I sought had been under my nose all the time.

But now that I had found truth, I still had to figure out what to do with my life. I was a decent short order cook, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t my calling.

I finally hit on the idea that I needed to do something that involved writing. And in those days in the afterglow of Watergate, this meant journalism.  So I went back to school to take just enough classes to land a newspaper job.

We all wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.

I was delighted when I landed my first freelance stringer assignment. I drove to City Hall, spent 3 hours at a city council meeting, drove back home and then spent another 4 or 5 hours writing up as many stories as I could. The next morning, I drove the finished copy to the office.

I was delighted that for this they’d pay me a whole 15 bucks! And if one of the stories was decent, I might get a treasured byline.

What I didn’t realize was that the newspaper business had already started its long, slow decline. By the early 1980s, afternoon dailies were already going out of business all across the U.S.

Newsrooms were shrinking and it was tough to get on with a major metropolitan paper. And this was all before the internet cut the legs out from under newspapers’ business model.

Impatient with the career prospects at the big papers, I took a job as the editor of a financial newsletter.

(Had I been a better investigative journalist, I would have discovered that this publication had nothing to do with reporting objective truth. Instead, it was the front-end lead generator for a rare coin and precious metals dealer. It was really a direct marketing enterprise.)

But things worked out, and that first direct marketing job eventually led me to doing fundraising for good causes, which has been my career for the past quarter century.

But for several years — before I found the love of my life and the mother of my children — my love life followed the same tragic-comic early trajectory as my circuitous career path.

Full of false starts and spectacular missteps.

After one of these disasters, many years ago, I wrote the poem posted today.

It’s about the only thing I have to show today for my philosophy major.

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Spring haiku

Sparrow in the woods
Photo courtesy of John Marquand

When the sparrow sings
deep in the woods all alone,
is it still lovely?


NOTES:  My old friend and schoolmate, John Marquand is a bird whisperer.  He rises early in his Colorado home and gets out when the light is good to stalk and take amazing photos of birds.

John shoots other beautiful photos as well, but he’s got a thing for birds.  They seem to pose for him.  He shares a lot of his photos on his Facebook page.  If he ever puts out a nature calendar, I’d buy one.

Motorcycle Maintenance haiku

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

There once was a time
motorcycle maintenance
meant something to me


NOTES:  Got the news today that Robert Pirsig has died.  When his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was published in 1974, it became an unlikely best seller, and an iconic work as the counterculture was fading away.

Like many a child of the 1960s, I read the book, and pondered its ponderous philosophy of “Quality.”  As the son of a mechanic, I resonated with his idea the “classical” personality, who pays close attention to his machine and makes sure it runs at peak efficiency.  I wanted to be like that.

But I realized I fell more into the category Pirsig calls the “romantic personality,” that was more focused on living in the moment at the expense of rational analysis.

To this day I’m not sure if “Motorcycle Maintenance” is a great work on the level of Plato, or a pop phenomenon.  But I sure thought a lot about it.

The primary reason I perked up my ears when I heard the news today is more poetic than philosophical.

You see, the very first date I went on with my wife was at the Blue Heron Café in Minneapolis, a hippy-dippy veggie establishment that was operated by Pirsig’s ex-wife, Nancy James.

Who needs online dating services?!  The first time I saw my future wife, she was glowing.  Honest to Pete.  She was bathed in a golden aura, sitting a darkened auditorium, listening to the chaplain of the U.S. Senate speak about living “the deeper life.”  We were both independently reading St. Augustine’s Confessions.  (Is that weird or what?)  We were both footloose and fancy free and unencumbered by any other relationships.

After I finally screwed up the courage to ask her out, among other things, we discovered that we had the same favorite restaurant in common — the aforementioned Blue Heron.

So, of course, we had to go there for dinner there on our first date.  Which we did.  I do not remember the main course, but I do remember drinking a bottomless glass of herbal iced tea.

Then on to the second part of the date, the initial screening of the German World War II movie, Das Boot.

In case you don’t remember this classic, starring Juergen Prochnow, 90% of it took place on a German submarine.  Close quarters, high tension, and lots of dripping water.  Lots of water.

I was quite sure that it being a sophisticated foreign film, there would be an intermission when I could go to the restroom and relieve myself of all the iced herbal tea.

Wrong.

No intermission.

When the movie was finally over, and the final sub was sunk, we both sprinted for the bathrooms.

Quite the romantic first date.

Somehow we survived this inauspicious beginning, and 35 years later are still together.

So, tonight, I raise a glass of herbal tea to you, Robert Pirsig.  Godspeed.

Hometown tradition haiku

Marshall High School had long marked the end of the school year by naming students to the esteemed positions of Honor Stations.
Marshall High School Honor Stations 1969. (Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana)

So blithely we scrapped
our outmoded traditions.
But what did we know?


NOTES: My high school had long observed a set of traditions at graduation time.  While probably only a few decades old, to us callow kids, those customs may just as well have  been prehistoric.

For as long as we could remember, our school had marked the end of the school year with a Baccalaureate service, a Commencement ceremony, and Honor’s Night. The first was inspirational, and still carried a whiff of religion.  Commencement was more perfunctory, and mainly served to get your tassel turned and your diploma into your eager, waiting hands.

But the real ceremony happened at Honor’s Night.  That was where academic achievement and athletic prowess were feted.  Scholarships were announced.  Awards and certificates of all types were handed out.  But while the awards were many, there was still a good measure of exclusivity. Not everyone got a trophy. It was the merit system on steroids.

The pinnacle of Honor’s Night was–as it had always been–the presentation of the Honor Stations.  Four couples from the senior class had been selected, each meant to represent one of the four cardinal virtues of our school.  They were to be arrayed on the stage of the auditorium beneath solemnly lit candelabras dressed in formal gowns and white dinner jackets.  They personified:

  • Most Industrious
  • Best Sport
  • Most Courteous
  • Best Citizen

(Historical note by way of full disclosure:  My brother Larry had been named Most Courteous in 1960, coasting to the honor on his winning smile and prodigious gift of gab.)

At the center of the stage sat Miss Fair Marshall, complete with a tiara.  We were not sure, but we suspected she represented all the good and pure and gracious qualities of Missouri womanhood.

I forget exactly how the Honor Stations were nominated and selected, but I seem to remember some sort of balloting by the student body.

THE DEMISE OF MISS FAIR MARSHALL

Miss Fair Marshall had a male escort, but he was merely unelected arm-candy.  The star of the evening and the center of attention was the fair maiden.

I should add one more fact, especially for those too young to remember.  The late 1960s were a time of upheaval and ferment.  Across the country, kids were growing their hair, listening to loud music and protesting the Vietnam War.

The times were a’changing, and although change might have come more slowly to our Missouri farm town than other places, we were not immune.

When I was a junior, the senior class of 1969 did a bold and daring thing.  (Many of my classmates and I admired our elders in the class of ’69.  We saw them as smart and sophisticated and worldly.)

The dramatic move they made was to vote to eliminate Miss Fair Marshall. It was a shocking move.

I’m not sure if there was ever a cogent explanation made why this was a good idea.  I suspect it had something to do with an unconscious awareness that having a “princess” without an equivalent prince was somehow unfair or sexist.  Or perhaps it was a rejection of the whole patriarchal-vestal-virgin vibe given off by the institution

I dunno.   But the hippies and the intellectual artsy kids rejoiced that year over the demise of Miss Fair Marshall.  And, I suspect that many would-be beauty queens wept.

THE NEXT YEAR, OUR CLASS HAD ITS TURN

I recall sitting the next year in our snoozy all-senior-class meeting called for the sole purpose of deciding whether we would bestow a clock or a plaque as our senior gift to the school.

At some point in the proceedings, I turned to my friend Clyde Smith and joked, “Wouldn’t if be funny if we abolished Honor Stations?”

He replied that that was a great idea, and that I should propose it.  I told him to do it.  He looked directly at me and said, “No, it’d be better if you did it.”

Thinking back, I do recall that there had been some earlier joking about how ridiculous the Honor Stations had become. The year before, the position of male Most Industrious had been filled by our older friend John Swisher.  Now John was one of the smartest, funniest and cleverest guys you’d ever want to meet.  But he was the first to admit that he was nowhere close to being the most industrious member of his class.

John had even made many a hilarious joke about his lackluster work ethic and the irony of him being named Most Industrious.

So, I had already concluded that the Honor Stations were hypocritical. And, with no more forethought than that, I popped out of my seat, walked to the front and made a motion to abolish Honor Stations.

I think I heard what you might call an audible silence.

I’m not sure exactly what happened next.  I thought I detected murmuring from the gaggle of popular girls.  Probably looking forward to wearing formal dresses up on the stage, I thought.

There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition.  But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom Nicholas stood up.  Tom was the most rock ‘n’ roll member of our senior class.  He had long hair before anyone else.  He played guitar in a real band, and he exuded rebel cool.

Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this.  It’s called ‘ego-trip.'”

That pretty much sealed the deal.  Honor Stations were ego trips.  The question was called, and the motion overwhelmingly carried.

The Class of 1970 had finished the work of our predecessors.  We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I was exhilarated and pretty darn proud of myself–for a short time.

A UNEXPECTED LESSON

Later that day, I was pulled aside by Mrs. Van Meter for a brief, one-way conversation.  Dorothy Van Meter taught English, and was pretty much universally regarded as one of the “cool teachers.”  She conducted discussion nights at her apartment for students and former students.  These were heady salons where heady subjects like philosophy, truth and beauty were seriously discussed.

Mrs. Van Meter had hung a small peace symbol over the door to her classroom, and on the day of the Vietnam War Moratorium, she came to school dressed in black.  So, she had credibility with the free-thinking, progressive students.  She was actually the last teacher I suspected would hector me for my blow against hidebound tradition.

She was also known to take an interest in the character formation of her students. She was known to prescribe books or disciplines she thought would round out a particular student’s soul.  I was a muscle-bound jock and she told me to pick up a book on yoga.  And when I was flirting with the moral perils of agnosticism she gave me her copy of Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  She even recommended weight-lifting for one of my classmates who was musical and brilliant, but soft and plump.

Her word to me on this day was matter of fact and brief.

“You know,” said Mrs. Van Meter, “some ideals are worth preserving whether they are fully lived out or not.”

That was it, and she wheeled around and left.

Her words took a while to sink in.  But that simple truth just might have been the most important thing I learned in high school.

Dorothy Van Meter was considered one of the
Mrs. Dorothy Van Meter (Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana)

There is a balm in poetry

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poetic champion
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

When I can’t take another newscast, another politician, another argument about Brexit, or another protest march, I’m so happy that we have poetry.

And when I seek solace in poetry, I’m so happy that poetry has Gerard Manley Hopkins.

He’s truly a treasure. Virtually unpublished during his own lifetime, he left behind a small but rich collection of stunning poems.

A complete original, he labored in obscurity, writing poetry in his spare time when not occupied with his vocation as a Roman Catholic priest.

He took his poetry — like his religion — seriously, developing his own philosophy of poetry.  And he innovated style and form, as well, creating his own form he called “sprung rhythm.”

Check out his poem, “Inversnaid.”  The poem is a description of a steam rushing down a hillside emptying into Loch Lomond in Scotland.

The description is wonderful, and well worth clicking away to read the whole poem.  But the last stanza is amazing. It’s four lines that form a prayer, seemingly beseeching God to preserve nature from the depredations of mankind:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

When I read that out loud, I forget about what’s blaring on television, and I smile a little smile, and I find myself drawn back to the heart and center.  Actually drawn back to God.

That’s what John Ciardi must have meant when he said, “Enrich language, and you cannot fail to enrich our experience. Whenever we have let great language into our heads, we have been richer for it.”