Sonoma picnic

A few scenes from our picnic at Cline Cellars in Sonoma from Saturday afternoon. We were out of San Francisco for only a few hours, but they were warm, sunny, and reinvigorating hours after waking up in a city absolutely covered in dreary fog.

We drove back to San Francisco around 5pm.

‘News of the day’ is a figment

Neil Postman writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.

To take a simple example of what this means, consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

As I suggested earlier, it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

To give still another example, one of more complexity: The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist—could not exist—in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture.

This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.

I wonder if it’s safe to say that every medium is defined, at least to a large degree, by the information it either excludes or diminishes in importance.

For the past number of years I’ve thought that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from advertising in daily life; that it’s worth paying for services and subscriptions that eliminate the noise, anxiety, and false urgency of advertising. And I think this is still desirable and valuable, but it’s worth reconsidering this to say that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from information-in-excess in daily life.

That is, a deeply lived, engaging, and meaningful life is one where noise of all sorts is kept to the barest minimum. How to do this, practically speaking?

Entertainment, in its proper place

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I took this photo on Friday afternoon while walking through the little village of Lemont in Central Pennsylvania. I think it fits with these Benedict XVI observations:

“Entertainment, in its proper place, is certainly good and enjoyable. It is good to be able to laugh. But entertainment is not everything. It is only a small part of our lives, and when it tries to be the whole, it becomes a mask behind which despair lurks, or at least doubt over whether life is really good, or whether non-existence might perhaps be better than existence.”

Chesterton’s

I wrote that other day that Chesterton’s at the University of Mary embodies their Benedictine value of “moderation,” and want to write a bit more about that today and about my experience there. As much a community center as a pub, here’s how Chesterton’s describes itself:

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Chesterton’s is the community center and “campus pub” located at The Cloisters, the University of Mary’s upperclassmen apartment complex. It’s an incredible place to study and socialize, watch television, play pool and old-time video games, or just enjoy the view. Chesterton’s also hosts a weekly community night for all members. Chesterton’s features complimentary coffee and popcorn, snacks and soda, Wi-Fi, and printing. Members have 24/7 access to the main level of the community center.

Chesterton’s is proudly named for G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English writer, literary critic, poet, and Catholic apologist.  The design of Chesterton’s was inspired by The Eagle and the Childpub in Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the rest of The Inklings used to gather for good cheer and conversation. …

Three nights a week, Chesterton’s operates as our “campus pub,” offering concessions and beverages. Chesterton’s members who are of legal drinking age and who have completed the University of Mary alcohol training seminar are admitted to the community center to enjoy a limited food and beverage menu, as well as complimentary beer or wine.

The Tolkien-themed beer on tap, “Southfarthing Stout” and “Green Dragon Ale,” are locally brewed for Chesterton’s at Buffalo Commons in Mandan, ND.

The University of Mary is committed to educating students on the responsible and moral use of alcohol. Student members participate in thorough training which includes cultural, legal, and heath perspectives. No alcohol is for sale. Rather, as a benefit of membership, members are provided with up to two glasses of beer or two glasses of wine per evening without charge. Consumption is tracked by Mcard, and no one is allowed more than two glasses of beer or wine per night. No liquor is available, and those who bring alcohol of any kind into Chesterton’s have their membership revoked.

It was pointed out that the University of Mary is a “dry” campus, and so to some there might seem to be a contradiction in Mary playing host to a pub. But seen as a community center that happens to have a pub, and a pub that happens to be open only a few days a week, and a pub that when it happens to be open is only open for members, and as a public that’s occasionally open for members only providing two mugs of beer or glasses of wine… Well, suddenly you’ve got a physical environment for drinking in the context of others, and a whole milieu designed to foster moderation that points toward richer relationships and experiences suggesting that the natural human desire to pursue more can be satisfied with good beer and wine, but not only through more wine and beer.

Chesterton’s pub only ended up being open for one of my nights at University of Mary, but that experience was a refreshing one. Knowing, heading in, that I could only order two drinks did make me focus and savor every sip. I found myself tasting that Southfarthing Stout and that Green Dragon Ale.

I’m sure there are times when students or professors or whomever sort of rue that two drink limit (and I wonder whether the complimentary sodas, iced teas, etc. help offset that), but I imagine there are plenty of other times when someone wakes up the next day and is grateful not to be hungover after ending up just thoughtlessly ordering one after another. And that’s one aspect of the virtue of moderation that’s not spoken about often enough in a free market, personal-liberty-trumps-all-else culture—that something like moderation can be encouraged systemically “from above” through a pub/club like Chesterton’s that adds a bit of variety and distinctiveness to a culture that says it values pluralism but rarely seems to tolerate substantial difference.

What I’m trying to say is this: Chesterton’s was great, and I’d welcome that club/pub approach in other places.

Exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic

Jody Bottum writes on the space between “sober and dull” versus “drunk and interesting”:

Alcohol is the lubricant of social interaction: We rub against each other like rough-cut gears, the burred ratchets of unpolished clockwork, and without a little oil to ease our way, we’d grind one another down to raw metal.

Then, too, alcohol is a flavoring—something splashed on life to add a little zest. A dollop of wine deglazes the caramelized drippings and draws out the essences. A measure of beer enlivens a batter. A jigger of brandy warms a dessert. And why not? Liquor makes the banter seem wittier, the company more charming, the party more exciting.

For that matter, alcohol is an emotional regulator: a mood restorative, an attitude adjustor. A martini can pick you. A Manhattan can calm you down. A beer can steady your nerves. A shot of rye can drown your sorrows. The taste of absinthe lets us imagine the experience of decadent French poets. The swirl of bourbon, the slight viscosity as it clings to the glass, gives us clues to the thought of highflying American novelists. …

Drunks may imagine their friendships as rich and interesting, filled with drama. But to the nondrinking observer, the alcoholic’s human relationships look merely impoverished and unpleasant. The result is the opposite of unique and dramatic. Just predictably sloppy and expectedly dull: an amateur production of Hedda Gableron a rainy Wednesday evening in Sioux City, Iowa. Drinking may be fun, but drunkenness is a race between the boring and the disgusting, with death closing in fast on the frontrunners.

The dullness is what Leslie Jamison tries to address in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, her new book about her alcoholism, and it proves a long, tedious journey up from the bottom of a bottle. …

It was all supposed to make her interesting, she explains that she thought at the time. Dull people lead sober lives, lacking interesting flavors and moods. Even more to the point, she wanted to be an artist, and alcohol, she believed, fuels creativity and insight. …

In the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, Kirsten tries to explain her drinking by saying that, without alcohol, she “can’t get over how dirty everything looks.” The world seemed brighter and more interesting when she was drunk. For Leslie Jamison, however, it wasn’t an improvement of the world she sought. It was she herself that she saw as brighter and more interesting. …

Neither a mark of the demon rum nor a regular dosing with magical elixir for the artistic and the interesting, alcoholism in Jackson’s novel is revealed as the boring, predictable, and mean-spirited thing it is. …

Drinking is exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic. Drunkenness is merely dull—a dullness that rots the liver. Rots the brain. Rots the soul.

I haven’t read The Recovering, and I don’t plan to. Bottum’s review is enough for me. I’d suggest, however, that it’s not drinking itself that is exciting, exhilarating, ecstatic. It’s drinking in the context and company of great people. That’s why drinking in a proper sense is a positive lubricant, because it helps us drop some of our atomistic sensibility defensiveness and be a bit more human than we might otherwise be. The great thrill to good drinking is an experience of the other, isn’t it?

In Rome, windows that open

I stayed at the Hotel della Conciliazione in Rome for one night earlier this month, and after checking in and throwing open the windows and shutters looked out to take in the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of Borgo Pio, the little street below:

This is just two blocks from the Via della Conciliazione, which serves as a grand boulevard for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican City state. The sorts of sounds you hear will vary by the hour: the bells of St. Peter’s, the wafting chatter of locals and tourists over a meal on the street, a motorcycle drawing near, late-night bar patrons leaving for home, and early-morning street sweepers and recyclers. I’m sharing this for two reasons: first, because I thought the way the light illuminates the room was beautiful, and an example of construction that makes artificial lighting during the day optional rather than required, and second, because this hotel and so much of old Rome is a physical embodiment of my conviction that “windows that open” really matter for giving a neighborhood life.

A few years ago I shared some photos from an older building in Old City, Philadelphia whose large windows let in warm summer air:

At the apartment where I lived in Old City at the time we had a wide glass window that provided a great view of the street, but that was a sealed, single pane of glass. Only thin slats near the top opened to let in some of the sound of the street, but none of its noise or breeze on a warm evening.

I think a lot of this has to do with America’s liability culture, and the fear from owners and developers that buildings with great windows like the one above that draw neighbors closer together are also risks for anything from basic falls to darker things like suicide. But making decisions like that makes the exception the rule, and the rule of daily life in apartments like ours is that you can see the street, but you can’t feel the neighborhood. You can’t drink it in.

It’s the same now with the windows in my Philadelphia office. They provide beautiful, 11th story views of Logan Circle, the Ben Franklin Parkway, etc., but they’re sealed shut. Not even small slats let in any of the air or sounds of the street.

We’re so conscious today of the ways that we sacrifice an experience of everyday life when we maintain a disordered relationship with our phones. But we should be as conscious of the ways that architecture can enhance or diminish the way we experience the places we live and visit.

Philadelphia Marathon

I ran the Philadelphia Marathon this morning. I woke up just after 5am at my friend’s apartment at 21st and Walnut, and it was dark and raining heavily. I showered, put on my gear, and walked the twenty minutes from the apartment to Eakins Oval, where the race was set to begin at 7am. Thankfully, by the time I left the building the rain had stopped, and by 7am, the skies were beginning to clear at the first light of day.

It had been three years since I had last run a marathon, which was the Mount Nittany Marathon in State College. I registered for the Philadelphia Marathon in early September, didn’t actively train, and hadn’t run this far in weather as cold as this morning’s weather, which ranged from about 45-55 degrees.

Thanks to simple good fortune, along with the well managed marathon, I was able to finish setting a personal best time of 4:23:48. I suspect the cold weather helped to some degree, because I was able to run steadily until I slowed down to sporadic jogging/walking at Mile 21 and didn’t return to a steady running pace until Mile 24. It wasn’t until Mile 15 that I began to feel fatigued enough to begin thinking about how many miles there were still to go.

The cheering spectators were super helpful compared to my experiences in State College where there would be long stretches where I found myself running alone along the course. The uniformly and overwhelmingly encouraging spectators were an incredible psychological boost throughout the course. And the number of runners helped too: I was never anywhere near to being alone at any point along the course. The pace runners were helpful too; at the starting line I began near the 5 hour group, and was able to steadily improve to near the 4 hour group, before slipping toward the finish. At one point after Mile 24 when the 4:30 pace group nearly overtook me, I found whatever energy was left to run steadily again in the final stretch:

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It was very windy at times. The most scenic stretches along Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River at times had gusts so strong that the giant trees, especially near Laurel Hill Cemetery, seemed buffeted like the creaking wooden hulls of old sea ships bearing strong waves.

The course map and official description give a good sense of the scope of the experience:

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In Philadelphia, we redefine the experience of what a marathon should be. A beautiful course, an engaging atmosphere—it’s no wonder we’re consistently listed among the top ten courses in the country, recognized for our flat terrain, mellow weather and spirited fans.

Expect beautiful views through Fairmount Park and along the Schuylkill River and neighborhood crowds gathering on sidewalks in University City and Manayunk. Weave through the well-traveled streets of our historic district, passing sights familiar to Franklin, Washington and the rest of the gang, and end your race speeding towards the steps of the majestic Art Museum. …

This route takes runners down the iconic Ben Franklin Parkway passing Logan Circle, the Franklin Institute, Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul, and the Barnes Museum all in the first ¼ mile. With City Hall in their sight lines as they continue on the parkway, they will pass Love Park and head east on Arch Street.

On Arch Street, the runners will pass more landmarks such as the Pennsylvania Convention Center, mouthwatering Reading Terminal Market, Chinatown’s Friendship gate and the African American History Museum. Reaching the National Historic district, runners will pass Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin’s Grave, the National Constitution Center and the United States Mint in the first few miles.

After turning north on 4th Street for one block, the route continues east on Race Street, with the Ben Franklin Bridge looming overhead as they approach Columbus Boulevard and head through the Penn’s Landing area paying homage as they pass the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans Memorials. Passing Old Swedes Church on Columbus Blvd going to Washington Avenue for one block and heading north on Front Street before heading west along eclectic South Street and north on 6th Street passing Mother Bethel AME Church and passing the side of Independence Hall as they turn onto Chestnut Street to run through the heart of Center City.

The runners will proceed over the Schuylkill River via the Chestnut Street Bridge the runners will go through University City and up 34th Streets through parts of the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The route then goes past the Patti LaBelle Mural, uphill north passing America’s First Zoo and crosses over Girard Avenue into to the Centennial District of West Fairmount Park.

Once in the park the Runners will pass the Please Touch Museum (Memorial Hall) twice, see the Mann Music Center, and run past the Japanese House before turning down Black Road on to the Martin Luther King Drive heading back to the 14 mile mark in Art Museum area.

From this point they will pass in front of the famous Rocky Steps of the Art Museum, head out along the Kelly drive and into the trendy and upscale Manayunk neighborhood loading with Restaurants, bars and numerous shops along Main Street. Near the end of Main Street the runners will hit the turnaround and will head back on Main Street and along Kelly Drive before finishing on the north Side of Eakins Oval at the Art Museum.

This marathon route is sure to give the runners a potential Personal Record and Boston Qualifying times on this fast and relatively flat course throughout Philadelphia. It is truly the most Historic Marathon Course in the country and continues to excite the runners year after year.

These photos from the Philadelphia Marathon’s Twitter account capture the scenes before/after: the first was taken around 5:30am, when it was still actively raining and wet, the second just as daybreak came before the start of the race, and the last as runners crossed the finish line:

And here are photos that the marathon people took along the course and at the finish, which I was able to look up after the run:

And here’s a short video that was available after the race. I haven’t seen this sort of thing made available before, and it was neat to see this finishing moment from another perspective:

Worth it.

Everything but the stars

I’m settling down after a week on of travel and hotels, so today I’m just sharing this:

“Generations brought up in centrally heated and air-conditioned homes and schools, shot from place to place encapsulated in culturally sealed-off buses, who swim in heated, chlorinated pools devoid of current, swirl or tide, where even the build-up from one’s own pushing of the water is suctioned off by vacuums so as not to spoil the pure experience of sport-for-sport’s sake… poor little rich suburban children who have all these delights, and living in constant fluorescent glare, have never seen the stars, which St. Thomas, following Aristotle and all the ancients, says are the first begetters of that primary experience of reality formulated as the first of all principles in metaphysics, that something is.” —John Senior

When most of us speak about “wealth,” too few of us mean “abundance in a holistic sense.” We often just mean, “stuff”. Or “cash”. Or worse, “expensive debt-based stuff”. Wouldn’t it be better to give up so much of the material things that chain us to a specific day-in, day-out existence, and pursue a life that lets us enjoy the wealth of nature (for instance) on a more regular basis?

It turns out that “having it all” means giving up a lot.

Materialism and personal identity

Joshua Becker writes about his visit to Poland, where he spoke on minimalism and had some incredible encounters. After his talk, Darek, the organizer of the conference he was participating in, shared this during the question/answer session:

“Joshua, can I tell you more about why I invited you here today? When I was younger, I had an important mentor. He was a survivor of Auschwitz who would live almost his entire existence in an occupied Poland—first by the Germans and then by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

“This man once made an observation to me I have never forgotten. After a trip he had taken to Western Europe, he pulled me aside and said: ‘I have come to realize that materialism holds people captive in many the same ways Communism does. Communism, by force, seeks to destroy personal identity. Materialism does the same. But materialism destroys personal identity by choice.’

“And that is why I wanted you here today. To inspire us, both as individuals and as a society, to not use our newfound freedom to acquire further bondage.”

Minimalism is an important message. It frees up our most important resources to pursue things that matter. …

Freedom is a gift. But our freedom is only as valuable as what we choose to pursue with it.

In its own way, this encapsulates the great risk of liberty that we asked for from our Creator, specifically the risk that in our freedom, we can destroy our personal identity by own our choice—not in a materialistic sense, but in the transcendent sense.

That’s what Christians understand hell to be: the warped self, victim of its own passions and enslavements, and alone with ego as a corrosive force rather than the creator and the balm of love.

At least, that’s how I think of it.

Campfires among men

A few years ago I was in Ave Maria, Florida visiting Ben and Michael Novak.

One afternoon, I was out walking Hollow, their incredibly wolf-like shepherd/husky. We were walking Annunciation Circle around Ave Maria Oratory, and as we neared the “Bean” coffee shop I met a young student named Peter. Peter knew Hollow immediately, because he knew Michael and Ben. Peter was sitting outside with his books studying; I think he was a freshman or sophomore at the time.

I asked what he was reading, and he said in the most casual way something like: “Oh, well I’m working on translating this language of ‘the Word became flesh’ from the Latin. It’s super interesting, because the older language is far more literal.”

“Right, I said. What does that even mean to people now: ‘Word became flesh?'”

“The more literal understanding of scriptural language around this stuff is something closer to the idea of God ‘pitching his fire’ among men. In other words, a more literal act of God the divine joining the ‘camp’ of men, maybe like a traveling companion might join a camp for a night.”

I’m butchering this somewhat, because Peter’s language was much clearer in that moment than my memory of it is now. But whatever precise point he was making, the essence of it has stuck with me ever since. When I heard him relate these thoughts, it was like a strike of lightning to me—this image of the Creator pitching a tent among men, firing the light of the campfires with the sort of power that doesn’t flicker or fade.

It’s a much simpler way, and a more arresting one, I think, to understand the principle that “God became flesh” and that the logos and the Word became man. In joining our camp, divinity came to relate to us in a new way—not as the God upon the mountaintop or an abstracted and necessarily distant power, but ultimately as a brother and a son and a person. In this, there are a whole world of implications for how we related to one another.

I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of my life.