Michigan is Happening

So maybe it’s me, but 20 October seems pretty early to have your first snowfall. Driving a van full of students back from the mall, in the dark, in the snow-then hail-then snow is not ideal, I’ll tell you. Doing it in October is just that much more disheartening. Well, maybe that’s not it exactly. Because I am, obviously, excited about the snow. Snow. What’s not to love. But I’ve been warned so many times about the kind of winter that I’m likely to have here in northern Michigan than I’m leery of it starting so early.

The next morning, driving to church in Traverse City, I saw areas of nothing, areas of dusted shoulders and fence posts, and areas of true coatings of snow. It’s all gone now, we had temperatures in the mid-fifties this week. But we also had days with highs right about 40°. Seems a little bit like that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where they skip a season. Spring turned to summer, summer gave autumn a miss and went straight on to winter. Something like that.

Though, in Michigan’s defense, there have been some tremendous fall colors. It’s a genre of natural beauty that doesn’t typically hold much sway with me but I’m just as able as the next guy to acknowledge the magic of a tree lifting its unburning fire toward a chill, sere blue sky.

In any case, time marches forward and the seasons continue on their imperturbable rounds. Nothing else much to report on the life front. We’re up to five students (five!) in our house, so that’s been a development. Manageable and that’s pretty much all I have to say about it.

Another side to this job, the side that sort of compensates for what I expect could well be a disastrous winter, is the sunsets. Part of my job involves walking around campus in the evenings and that includes checking the beach on Lake Michigan. I often go after dinner. I often see spectacular sunsets. Case in point, earlier this week (though well after the snow experience in Traverse City):

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It did also start to sprinkle right as I went down the boardwalk and, just behind me taking that picture, was a lovely and pretty clear rainbow catching the last rays of the day. Just incredible.

Michigan nature, as I’ve said, isn’t quite my usual but it is very good nonetheless.

 

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A Love of Books

I have found another link in the chain of my past lives in the person of Richard de Bury (24 January 1287 – 14 April 1345). He seems to have been an exceptional man and I can only hope to approach his love of books as epitomized in his grand work, The Philobiblon. Writing and subsequently reading this work, which I’d like to discuss at some length, appears to be about the best possible use of anyone’s time in the fourteenth century.

I just need you to be prepared for what will follow. I will elaborate upon that volume and that is all that the rest of this post contains.

First, I would like to share with you the titles of the twenty chapters because each and every one is so wonderful and delightful.

  1. That the Treasure of Wisdom is chiefly contained in Books
  2. The degree of Affection that is properly due to Books
  3. What we are to think of the price in the buying of books
  4. The Complaint of Books against the Clergy already promoted
  5. The Complaint of Books against the Possessioners
  6. The Complaint of Books against the Mendicants
  7. The Complaint of Books against Wars
  8. Of the numerous Opportunities we have had of collecting a store of books
  9. How although we preferred the Works of the Ancients we have not condemned the Studies of the Moderns
  10. Of the Gradual Perfecting of Books
  11. Why we have preferred Books of Liberal Learning to Books of Law
  12. Why we have caused Books of Grammar to be so diligently prepared
  13. Why we have not wholly neglected the Fables of the Poets
  14. Who ought to be special Lovers of Books
  15. Of the advantages of the love of Books
  16. That it is meritorious to write new Books and to renew the old
  17. Of showing due Propriety in the Custody of Books
  18. Showeth that we have collected so great Store of Books for the common Benefit of Scholars and not only for our own Pleasure
  19. Of the Manner of lending all our Books to Students
  20. An Exhortation to Scholars to requite us by pious Prayers

This guy seriously loved books and, therefore, is a hero. Loving books was neither a common nor a generally acceptable pastime in medieval England.

I must confess, I have not read The Philobiblon in its entirety. However, I have perused a large number of quotations and have found them, one and all, to be exceedingly correct and meaningful and wow. I will not here present all of them but I do want to call a couple to your attention.

How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity.

The chapter goes on to relate how, in books, the whole of the world is opened to us, from digging minerals and jewels from the earth the the North Pole to the Milky Way. Through history and the lessons of those who came before; through  science and a growing understanding of the world around us; through diligent study of literature and scripture–a mind and a world are opened.

An argument oft repeated in his work is that the whole of wisdom is contained in books, and thus the title. You may know that philosophy comes from the Greek for love of wisdom and, accordingly, philobiblon is the love of books.

This second quotation, which I encountered via a picture of the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library as inscribed over an entrance, inspired my journey of getting to know the venerable Richard de Bury. It says,

Books alone are liberal and free, they give to all who ask, they emancipate all who serve them faithfully.

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Books cannot give you everything in life, I confess. But what they can give, they will provide without fail. The freedom of the mind is the freedom of the soul, and books are one of its favorite tools. A love of books has always served me well. In times of loneliness or companionship, melancholy or joy, faith or doubt; reading has seen me through. May we all be grateful for the gift of books without which life would be that much darker. Books are not perfect but they are, I think, perfecting. They continuously add to the global body of knowledge and they lift us as a society when we need lifting.

They give to all who ask.

The Difference between Chicago and a Space Colony

Most important update first, of course. This Airbnb has a cat, goes by California. Is super cute. We snuggled a great deal over the past couple days

I drove into Chicago on the early evening on October 8th and it was 87°F which, I’ll be honest with you, wasn’t great. Too hot in general, definitely too hot for the middle of October. Anyway.

I got an early start on Tuesday morning and, without much forethought, walked from where I was staying in Uptown to the Art Institute. Which is a long walk, FYI, especially when it’s hot. I worried about sunburns since I followed the shore directly south for approximately three hours. Luckily, I think I mostly escaped unscathed. Just felt kinda sticky and salty–not from the ocean breeze (would that it were so) but from sweat.

The Art Institute presented, of course, a large selection of Very Beautiful Things. I am no art critic but I do enjoy a good walk-through of art museums. Romantic landscapes, that’s the thing for me. Got to see several famous works in person, always cool. After the Institute, I walked along most of the Magnificent Mile because it seemed like the thing to do. There is some truly wonderful architecture in this city. Later, as I was staying in a very Vietnamese neighborhood, I had to go for Vietnamese for dinner.

On Wednesday, I got a much needed later start (though it wasn’t really that much later). Pastries for breakfast from the patisserie down the street, then onward to Navy Pier. Had a personal deep dish at Giordano’s, it was fine. Poked around Museum Campus and actually went through the planetarium because it was starting to rain. I went to Cheesie’s for dinner. They serve only different kinds of grilled cheese. Please go, it will be good.

I’m headed back to Michigan this morning. Back to fall, too. Trying to think of a big idea to take back from the trip and to share with you.

Overall, mostly positive Chicago experience. The fountain was drained and empty, my car was towed but only to a nearby park, the Art Institute store had a teensy postcard selection. But overall, plenty good. One little story for you as an applicable takeaway.

In the planetarium–which is more of a space science center, really, I didn’t even go into the original planetarium part. Very rainy outside. Extending my stay to avoid the rain. That’s the scene.

I found myself ushered into an open talk with one of the institution’s astronomers. A professional astronomer, how neat is that. She talked about some stuff, answered loads of questions. One question was along the lines of: should we colonize the moon or Mars? Her answer was terrific. I’ll summarize her main points because I liked them and they tie into things, you’ll see.

First, there’s feasibility. She suggested some starter stuff on the moon to prepare for a long-term and large-scale settlement on Mars. But her primary caution was not about the science, it was the ethics. Looking at the example of indigenous peoples and pristine environments here on Earth–and our abuses thereof– she insisted that any space colonization must first avoid the huge problems that we’ve created for ourselves here. She also said that systems of power, where the powerful get more powerful and the have-nots get even less needs to be righted in any theoretical space colony.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest what you’re doing with your life, justice is the cause of everyone. Even astronomers can forward the cause of justice. In my mind, I’m returning to that Mandela quote; let us live free and enhance the freedom of others.

Chicago has a history deeply marred by injustice and inequality. Space colonies don’t have to. You’ve heard it before but that’s just because it’s true: be the change.

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Ethical Quandary sans Quandary

Happy October, everyone. It’s no November but I guess it’s a decent month even so.

So this week is parent conferences, big thrills. The ones I’m involved with are tomorrow, we’ll see how that goes. But then it’s October Break! Because apparently that’s a thing here. A week off. I don’t feel like I’m really in need of a vacation and I suppose that’s a good thing, but I’m definitely not complaining. I have some plans but I’ll elaborate mostly after the fact next week. Should be nice.

And here’s an update on the princess, looking very regal with her arms crossed.

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Last week, I noted that I didn’t really have any musings for you and it looks like I’m making up for that by having some substantial space dedicated to it in this post. Prepare yourselves. Or don’t, you do you.

There’s a fabulous moment in the show Psych when the main character is naming the first books of the Bible. You know: Genesis, Exorcist, Leviathan, Doo… the Right Thing. It’s relevant, I promise.

When I studied abroad in Exeter, one of the classes I took was political philosophy. It remains the only philosophy class I’ve ever taken but it was super interesting. The format of the class was this: we examined one contemporary political philosopher (John Rawls) and responses to his major works. According to the professor (who was Scottish and had a lovely accent), the primary concern of political philosophy in the contemporary era was the question of justice. What is justice and how can it happen in the world.

To start with, we read a lot about how modern philosophers conceived of the creation of the state; its purposes and how those inform its operations. We talked about socialist critiques, libertarian theories, gender, multicultural lenses– all kinds of things.

One thing that I still remember pretty clearly was talking about this main libertarian guy. I won’t explain his who conception of the state and justice and all that, but basically it boiled down to a system that was very simple but absolutely impossible to bring into reality. And the professor asked us this: is his conception of justice wrong or just hard? It couldn’t happen in the world, problems with land ownership after colonialism and stuff like that. But the question still stands. Even if it’s impossible, it can still have merit.

So often and so easily, people and ideas are dismissed for being unrealistic. Certainly, there are good reasons for that sometimes. However, if ideas that weren’t readily applicable were never heard, there would only be the status quo forever. History is a varied fabric of the unthinkable coming to pass. Sometimes in terrible, unimagined darkness. Other times bringing fantastical, innovative light.

The sermon at church this past week was on ethics, how to think about them and how to live with them. In essence: it’s hard, but do good. It does not matter how many times we drive off the ethical road; the line it traces on the map does not change just because we are no longer following it. Some–many, even– ethical choices are hard. That’s why there’s a whole branch of academia devoted to thinking about it. The underlying motives, values, and beliefs don’t have to be.

It’s one thing to think ‘It’s hard to tell what the right thing is in this situation.’ It’s entirely different to think ‘I don’t care what the right thing is.’

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One element of the sermon’s description of ethics was thinking about how our actions benefit or harm those around us. Very utilitarian, though it was only one consideration among many. But I think we can agree that lust for personal power is generally unethical. Even when those people do good things. It’s like in The Good Place, it’s not enough to do good things, you should be doing them for good reasons. And apparently, we’ve abdicated our national social responsibility to hold people to that. Which is unfortunate.

I wanted to finish with some questions, as I am often wont to do here. Struggling to think of them, since I’m pretty medium at ethics. Do you think about ‘right’ when you make important decisions? When you make decisions that don’t seem that important? What’s the difference between nice and good? What role do you play in preserving harmful status quo by the operation of your ethics or lack thereof?

The world is a complicated place for ethical thinkers. As The Good Place amusingly depicts, constantly worrying about the morality of everyday choices will make you a nervous, incoherent wreck. I know I want to be more deliberate about thinking through the implications of my decisions–not just their consequences but their meaning, if that makes sense. But I’m also lazy and don’t want to go insane.

Hmm. Work in progress.