Center City skyline

I was in Washington today for a conference, and arrived back in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station just after 7pm. As I left the main doors of the station a wave of warm summer air hit me, and the still-lit city sparkled with life.

Spur of the moment, I decided to text a friend and we met up shortly after for a run past the Philadelphia Art Museum at Fairmount, and then along Kelly Drive behind Boathouse Row. Since neither of us had our wallets on us, we were grateful for Apple Pay that let us eat dinner at Whole Foods afterwards.

That’s it; just sharing some highlights of a day’s experiences. It was just one of those “perfect summer evenings” that sticks in your mind when you think of summertime in the city.

Crunchy, brittle, crackly words

Roy Williams writes with a clarity and spunk that I wished the entire ad industry could channel. The Wizard of Ads was something of a revelation to me when I read it a decade or so ago. (But writing that arrests the reader, that transports him, shouldn’t be limited to ads. Roy is worth reading if you want to be a great writer, because he has this talent for conveying the spirit of a thing.)

His Monday Morning Memo is usually good, and one of my all time favorites is this one:

We won’t take the time to talk about Robert Pirosh as a writer for The Waltons, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Bonanza, My Three Sons, Family Affair, Combat! and The Fugitive. Our interest is directed at the letter that started it all, a letter blindly sent by 24 year-old Robert Pirosh to every producer, director and studio executive in Hollywood:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024

I think this is a contender for inclusion in Letters of Note.

Reflecting, then acting

David Leonhardt writes on George Shultz and living intentionally:

When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called:

“My wife or the president,” Shultz recalled.

Shultz, who’s now 96, told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.

The psychologist Amos Tversky had his own version of this point. “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed,” Tversky said (as Michael Lewis describes in his latest book). “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

Likewise, Richard Thaler, the great behavioral economist and a Tversky protégé, self-deprecatingly describes himself as lazy. But Thaler is not lazy, no matter how much he may insist otherwise. He is instead wise enough to know that constant activity isn’t an enjoyable or productive way to live.

Two things I love about my role with the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network: (1) that my impact and performance are judged based on accomplishment rather than clocking in and out and (2) I have plenty of latitude to thoughtfully consider what we’re doing, and what we should do next.

Snooze buttons

I don’t think the problem with snooze buttons is the buttons, or that we’re pressing them. It’s that we’re not getting enough sleep.

This is related to the idea that, “Everyone wants more time, but few of us know how to spend it when we have it.” It speaks to how difficult it is to do things with intention or even clarity about why we’re doing something other than ritual or habit.

Rituals and habits are important when they’re repetitions of the right things. But even the right things can grow stale after a while, and in those times we need to reassess. When it comes to sleep, I think it’s fine to sacrifice sleep for limited periods of time if we’re sacrificing it for a good reason.

Watching another episode of some television show or binging on YouTube or beating the next game level? Those are bad reasons to wake up groggy and reluctantly, smashing the buttons on your alarm machine and cursing the world.

When you find yourself in that place, it’s time to reassess and make a change.

Seeing Roger Scruton

I saw Roger Scruton speak at Penn on Wednesday where he delivered the Collegium Institute‘s 4th Annual Elizabeth Anscombe Lecture on the topic of “Art and Morality: on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Ethics.”

Scruton has been a hero of mine for many years, since I discovered his book The Meaning of Conservatism and his humane and philosophical (rather than political) approach to answering who we are and what the uses of things are. Great introductions to his life on Sunday Hill Farm can be found on YouTube, along with his one-hour BBC special answering Why Beaty Matters. Collegium Institute filmed his talk at Penn’s Claudia Cohen Hall, and that’s available too.

Scattered/paraphrased notes from his talk:

  • Can aesthetics point to the transcendent without their creators having an animating belief in the sacred and the God that art has traditionally invoked for its vital power?
  • Can aesthetics do more without invoking God? Can it replace God-directed conclusions?
  • What are the consequences, morally or otherwise? Can we fill the God-shaped hole in our lives and our world with a new moral way of life?
  • If once there was a naive confidence among some in the literalism of religious belief, there is today naive confidence in reality’s nothingness.
  • Morality and religion are separate but complimentary things, and religious theology provides a foundation that shores up the moral life when it comes under question.
  • According to Kant, the judgement of beauty is an unavoidable consequence of our reasoning power.
  • But where does reasoning stop, and engagement with the transcend things of longing for harmony start?
  • Suppose you build a door in your home. You might say that the purpose of the door is to let people through from one part of the home to another. That’s a reason for building it. But there are infinitely many ways to fulfill the “letting through” function. The question “Why am I building the door this way?” is one that no rational being can avoid but which is so difficult to answer. We might talk about matching the moldings of the surrounding rooms, or fixing a particular type of knob, or selecting a cut of wood with particular grain. Why? We might say it “looks harmonious” or seems to “fit.” We immediately find ourselves in the realm of aesthetics, yet we’re also giving rational answers.
  • In thinking of such examples, we realize that almost all of our lives are filled with situations like this—where our reasoning marries itself with an indefinite but present sense of rightness about the way a thing should be.
  • In this, we don’t merely reason about the ends, but about the means themselves. Does an effort in its wholeness fulfill its duty to seem right?
  • The aesthetic part of our psyche is a way of training about endeavors and about things as ends in themselves. Aesthetics help train us in the “oughts” of life.
  • Kant was wrong to focus on natural beauty at exclusion of man-created art, because it’s in what we do that there are consequences: make the bed, make the place. “Look right and wrong”- getting things to fit together in such a way as we can be home with them.
  • But can “fitting in” or together be enough? Can aesthetics by themselves speak to the meaning (morality) of the world?
  • An artist is discovering and imposing order, which is why there’s such importance in what sort of things an artist brings forth and in the basic desires of the heart.
  • The thing about desire is that you don’t necessarily have to ascertain the moral qualities of the person or thing you desire. We often try to disentangle these naturally related things, or are simply unconscious to them. (We unfortunately sometimes find out about the moral qualities of a person too late.) An obviously erotic feeling can be transfigured into a moral relationship with another, and this is really one of the tasks of every relationship—to ensure harmony and whole feeling there.
  • Aesthetics (even when created by a good and godly person) cannot guarantee a moral outcome among the observer, listener, etc.—even when a feeling of the sublime, etc is experienced. In this way, aesthetics are like religious faith in providing a guide, a context for striving, without themselves being capable of replacing interior moral sense or a pedagogy for being human.
  • The moral questions are the most difficult, because it seems as if the God-shaped hole belongs there and does not resolve, because we’ve discovered that we’re determined (embodied) creatures, but also free.

A little creek

Earlier this week I caught the train out of Philadelphia. It was a beautiful early spring evening, so I walked the mile or so from the suburban train station to where I was heading. Along the way, this little creek was flowing under the pedestrian bridge I was crossing. I stopped to snap a Live Photo, which I’m sharing here as a GIF of the scene. It’s a picture of nature as much as the technology and industrialization that have implanted themselves as a part of the fabric of our communities. It’s the creek, though, that’s the testament to the fact that nothing changes as much as we might imagine.


Avoiding distraction

We wake up, and we check our phones where once we might have paused to take in a morning birdsong. We trundle down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen, where likely a radio or TV is turned on to the news or weather. We climb behind the wheel to work, and our cars beep and honk at us—beep!—fasten your seatbelt!—beep beep!—you’re too close to the trash cans as you’re backing out! Then we turn on the radio.

We pass the time each day necessarily attenuated in meetings, mail, and meeting workday demands. Yet the moments of respite in the days of our fathers or grandfathers—the 20 seconds in the elevator, twice per day, the trip to the restaurant to grab lunch, the stop at the bakery to pick up a pastry, even the time spent fueling our cars—all these moments once meant bits of fragmented quiet.

These demands take our halfhearted attention while refueling. The bakery likely has either a television on someplace, or worse, a store-wide sound system playing the latest from Lady Gaga. The elevator music lulls us in with its mundane melodies, and the lunchtime restaurant amplifies this sin against music, likely with a sort of amped-up, elevator-music-on-steroids jazziness.

Not all businesses or social areas are best served by piping noise for the sake of everyplace having its own soundtrack. This is a subtlely maddening aspect of the present, a sort of audio-sensory schizophrenia seemingly designed to never allow for a situation where we are left alone to tie together our own thoughts in public places.

Warren Buffett felt something of the need to recapture mental clarity after living in New York. It’s one of the reasons he decided to return to his hometown of Omaha. It’s explained that:

Much of Buffett’s success in managing Berkshire Hathaway’s investment portfolio can be attributed to his inactivity. Most investors cannot resist the temptation to constantly buy or sell stocks. While Buffett worked in New York, he remembers “people coming up to [him] all the time, whispering into [his] ear about some wonderful business…”

Alain de Botton explained the same idea: “Because of the internet, I now do far more work when not at work. My real thinking happens in bed and while shopping.” PBS addressed these themes a few years ago in Distracted By Everything.

What’s the key to a better life? Intentionally constructing your daily life and built environment to be as free as possible from outside distractions, and as regulated as possible from interior distractions.