On ignorance, mostly

Now I am reading Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, a series of philosophical arguments, dilemmas, extensions and inquiries in small dense type. It requires more concentration than I’ve had to expend on a book in quite some time. So much so that I began to wonder if the reading would ever yield anything valuable enough to have been worth the effort—but I think it is worth the effort. Granted, I am not yet much more than a quarter of the way through its 543 pages (ok, 454 if you don’t include notes, appendices, index); but I’ve reached some discussion about happiness and what can be defined as “good,” and Parfit gets there by means of examining theories of happiness that are directly or indirectly self-defeating. Among other things.

Although Parfit does not mention ignorance, at this section of the book I found myself musing on it, specifically “ignorance is bliss” (a phrase which seems to refute the Socratic statement about the examined life while allowing Socrates his insistence on his own ignorance and, I suppose, his happiness). And having recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which confronts how much reality is valuable for happiness, under extenuating circumstances, the concept of ignorance as a not-necessarily-negative state of being intrigues me…I, who have tried all my life to avoid ignorance. Though this book is doing a fair job of making me feel pretty ignorant, I don’t feel bad about it.

Am I suggesting ignorance is good? No…but it may be value-neutral, or it may be relative, operating along a sort of continuum that cannot be categorized as “good” or “bad.” I return to my last post, on malclichés. It is possible, even likely, that an instructor who encounters one of these mis-hearings/mis-writings in a student essay will assume the student is ignorant. The student may indeed be ignorant of the conventions of spelling or the usual turns of overused phrases. Such mistakes, however, may indicate a lack of education, simple laziness or disinclination or haste, an over-reliance on AutoCorrect, or perhaps a disability in the areas of vision-hearing-neural processing: not necessarily ignorance.

Then what is ignorance? (This is why so many people get irritated with philosophy: you have to define everything!)

One thing ignorance is not is a lack of conventional education, even though that definition may be the easiest to assume. Again, it’s kind of a continuum, isn’t it? If I miss an allusion to a line in a Yeats poem, am I ignorant? And am I more, or less, ignorant than if I miss an allusion to a Shakespeare play or, perhaps, an allusion to the Kardashian sisters?

(That sentence makes me really want to write a poem that contains references to Yeats, Macbeth, and the Kardashians; but I probably ought to leave that to Billy Collins.)

Anyway, Parfit’s book is really more about what is rationality and what is morality and how individuals may or may not be rational or moral, both as individuals and as persons within communities and societies. Which inquiry and argument, by the way, would encompass Yeats, Shakespeare, and the Kardashians.

Perhaps after I finish reading it, I will be better educated on rationality and morality. I may be just as ignorant, but I’ll try not to be too judgmental about being so.

Here’s one from Philip Larkin, titled (appropriately) “Ignorance”:

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is right, or true, or real
But forced to qualify: Or so I feel
Or: Well, it does seem so,
Someone must know

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed
And willingness to change
Yes, it is strange

Even to wear such knowledge—for our flesh
surrounds us with its own decisions—
and yet spend all our lives on imprecisions,
that when we start to die
have no idea why.


Mondegreens and malclichés

According to Merriam-Webster, a mondegreen is:
a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung [“very close veins” is a mondegreen for “varicose veins”]

A similar slip of the ear resulting in a mishap of the pen (or, more likely, keyboard) has been called “malcliché.” My teaching experience leads me to ascribe the uptick in these peculiar forms of malapropism to AutoCorrect and to a more aurally-based society. We have moved from ancient oral communication to text and back again to what we hear/see rather than what we read. As our media becomes a place where diversity abounds, the conventional structures of English–idioms and phrasings in particular–fall apart a bit as we speak with different speeds, different accents, and under different cultural, regional, rhetorical, and other authorities.

I have been collecting a few from student papers and from conversations I overhear. Yes, I eavesdrop–I’m a writer!

I supply a few here for your amusement and puzzlement, and as inspiration. A few of these phrases are potentially rich in imagery that’s strangely appropriate, such as “burning your britches,” “poor self of steam,” “rake him into the coals,” and “beg to defer.” I have successfully used mondegreens as poem prompts. I do not recommend using them in English comp papers, however, as they result in coffee spills produced by professorial giggles and rampant use of the red pen admonishing “sp” and “clarify!”

armed to the feet
above bored
stuck to me like a leash
all intensive purposes
board to death
buy the same token
queen of the crop
caught me on guard
don’t count your eggs before they hatch
a fool and his money are soon apart
give it a swirl
dead wait
leaving like flies
go out on a tree
grin and bare it
taking his name in vein
one fell sweep
in the nickel of time
last ditch effect
pearls before swans
unnecessary evil
no holds bard
on a role
past the buck
the past of least resistance
sharp as attack
he got just his desserts
what goes around must come down
on tender hooks
preaching to the chair
no ifs, ands, or butts
free rain

OWS: Trust and the need to revel in difficulties

Why I support the Occupy movement

First, I need to explain who the Occupy supporters and protesters are. These people are my friends. I respect the values of my friends; my friends are well-educated, experienced, thoughtful, and often wise. If they support an action or a cause, I don’t necessarily jump on the ol’ bandwagon just because I like them; but I do take a good look at their claims. The description that follows is based upon my own experience and may not be statistically accurate.

There is no way to generalize my friends and colleagues who support the protests. They range in age from 18 to 86, and they are of both sexes and numerous “races,” a term to which I object on scientific grounds but which serves a purpose here. Sexual orientation among these friends varies, but the vast majority of them are heterosexual people involved in long-term committed relationships. Many attend religious services regularly. While I may be acquainted with a few more radical liberals than the average citizen is, I do not know any Communists involved with Occupy and most of the people I know who support the movement are moderate, middle-class or formerly-middle-class taxpayers. None of them are homeless. Although one or two are “underwater” with their mortgages, most of them are managing to pay their loans and make ends meet; they are all employed or under-employed (a term I shall define below).

The vast majority of my Occupier colleagues have college degrees, but not all of them are employed in white-collar jobs. Many, many, many of my friends and colleagues who support OWS are working part-time, or working at jobs for which they are over-qualified, or working free-lance on a less-than-regular basis; or they own and run small businesses such as consulting practices that don’t always generate income when the economy is stale. They are educators and artists and even young lawyers right out of grad school. These are the under-employed, and there are so many of us out there that the government statistics are bound to under-count us. They are recent college grads who have mountains of debt to pay off and who now realize the career for which they’ve trained has, at present, no place for them…so they pick up some retail work or start a part-time small business or try to earn a living however they can, often swinging two or more jobs just to pay the bills. They are not lazy lay-abouts who want a government handout for free.

The majority of these people support capitalism, yet they feel our nation’s government has not quite lived up to its role of protector and defender of the people. Most of these folks feel that a government “safety net” or a more equitable method of taxation is not the same as a socialist agenda and that a moderate level of social support is not incompatible with democracy. They are willing to pay taxes for the kinds of support they request, but they want fair taxation and fair wages and a chance to serve the world through diligent and profitable work. The lack of fairness is what irks them; they want to live in a nation that is “just.” The idea of justice is not only something that pertains to the judicial branch of government but to the idea of fairness across the board, in all endeavors, including economic endeavors.

I have friends and colleagues who are atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Wiccans, Muslims, and agnostics; but the majority of the people I know personally who are involved in OWS identify themselves as Christians. I think this is relevant on many levels: it messes with stereotypes of Christians as “right-wingers,” for one thing. Jesus’ teachings tend to focus on caring for the least among us— Jesus was not a supporter of oligarchy. He did remind us that we need to be grateful for whatever we have, to love the world that God gave us; the implicit and explicit reminder is that each human being is part of that world.

There’s a slogan with which we are all familiar: “In God we trust.” Some Americans have chosen to focus on the Big G-word of this slogan. Some citizens think it should not appear on the legal tender of a nation where there is separation of church and state. Others claim that God is what the country should be all about and that we need to rewrite or re-interpret our laws to reflect that idea.

Suppose, however, we were to focus on the T-word instead? Trust. My diagnosis—and I admit, I am basing it only on the people I know personally (and I know quite a few) among the loose collective movement that is OWS—is that people feel a loss of trust. Protesters often use the word “betrayed” when they are interviewed about why they are sleeping in Zuccotti park. For many years, Americans have been naively but wonderfully trusting:

–why didn’t you read the fine print, Grandma?

–because the banker was trustworthy on my last two mortgages; why would the bank want to take all my money now?

Does this country really want to move from “In God we trust” to “caveat emptor”? That would mark a huge change in the collective character of the US citizen. I hope that legislators and politicians will pay attention to the people of the Occupy movement and hear how vital trust is. We cannot move forward until there is trust on all sides of the discussion.

The press has made much of the OWS movement as being vague or aimless, and it is true that the anti-war protests of the 60s and 70s seemed to have more purpose. Still, “End the War” was not the only demand of those protesters, and some of the protests were both obscure and misdirected. The protests that made up the War on Poverty were composed of a cacophony of different and often dissenting voices, too. Certainly, there was little agreement on the specific ultimate aims of the Civil Rights movement or on how to attain those rights. In retrospect, it’s always easier to say what the purposes were.

I’m not out on the streets with a sign and a sleeping bag. I have classes to teach and I desperately need to keep my day job. But being silent doesn’t show support or argue for trust and fairness in a nation founded on rational goodness which, idealistic as that is, was one of the aims of Thomas Jefferson. My sense is that specific aims will be synthesized from all this discontent. People are brainstorming. This is what I tell my students to do when they have to write a paper: revel in difficulties for awhile. Figure out what your purpose is going to be.

Then go for it.

Here’s another take on OWS, with some quite reasonable analogies:

Lemony Snicket on OWS



I love this word and its related agricultural cohort, winnow.

Driving to work this morning, I ended up behind a gleaner moving from one soybean field to another situated slightly south on the same road. The link below, thanks to Flickr, takes you to a nice photo of a soybean gleaner at work.

Photo of a gleaner.

Glean: to gather grain or other produce left by reapers. Or, to gather information or material bit by bit.

Winnow: to remove (as chaff) by a current of air. Or, to get rid of, remove (as of something unwanted); to sift or separate. [Merriam-Webster].

Wonderful words for writers, useful as metaphorical or concrete actions, these terms have etymological roots going back to that ancient and particularly human business–agriculture. Lately, I’ve been working on revising some poems, and winnowing is part of that process.

I’ve also been helping my parents to “downsize” as they move from the house they’ve lived in for years into a much smaller apartment. Significant winnowing was involved in several aspects of the word: we got rid of, we sifted through, and we separated. We did a bit more vacuuming than allowing currents of air to sweep away the dust that lingered in the closets, however.

But we also gleaned. Or, shall I speak for myself here--I gleaned. Sorting through books and photo albums and drawers full of things we feel we should save for some reason offers a means of gathering information bit by bit. What for my parents was likely a review of life was, occasionally, revelatory for my siblings and me.

(Etymological aside: review and revelatory have different sources, the latter being much older).

My father’s sermon file and his school ribbons for elocution or winning debates and the books he just couldn’t bear to part with vs. the books he reluctantly let go–these are gleanings.

My mother’s elementary school report cards, her childhood drawings of Japanese ladies with parasols (I never knew she used to draw), faded photos of the high school trip to Washington D.C., the prom invitation, the letters we wrote from college–also gleanings.

From these gleanings I have reaped more than I expected.

So we reap and then we glean and then we winnow and, from that winnowing, we glean again and reap again. Sounds like what I do in my garden annually. Sounds like what the farmer does every year, too, though these days the reaping and gleaning, and much of the winnowing, are done in one go with a very large piece of farm equipment…such as the one which slowed me on my commute to work this morning and which led to this digression.

York (not New York)

I gave a reading Sunday in York, Pennsylvania, one of many small Keystone State cities that hasn’t quite overcome the series of economic and social body-slams it’s experienced in the last several decades. Reading, Pa, which I wrote about in September, made news as “poorest” city; York has to contend with a recent moniker of “murder capitol” of the state. I know a bit about the depressing state of small, dying cities–I live near Allentown, PA and grew up near Camden, NJ. Just to name two…

But back to York.

YorkArts hosts a reading series twice monthly on Sundays at 3 pm. The gallery has a small footprint but big heart, and there was a pleasant crowd of attentive listeners and open-mic participants who respected the time limits and chose good work to share. Many thanks to Jeff, who keeps the space going (and creates art in several forms) and to Barbara DeCesare, a poet and friend who is eight-ways-of-awesome, and this is an understatement. See her website: Barbara DeCesare.

I’m still mulling over my multiple responses to yesterday’s event: depressing town, gorgeous autumn day, connections with old friends and newer friends, thoughts about the poems I heard and the poems I read and the artwork I saw, the daydreaming I did on the long trip there (94 miles) and back, the music I listened to. The apple Carol gave me. The homeless-looking man dragging his cart along Philadelphia Street.

Places like York and Reading and Allentown need the arts desperately, though most of the citizens, business-people, and politicians don’t realize it.

YorkArts on Beaver Street manages to make of itself a beacon for the arts in York. The gallery shows are genuinely fine, and the place sponsors poetry readings. Send them money! Or support a similar organization wherever you’re located. Especially if you’re located in or near a small city that’s fallen on hard times.

That’s my stumping-for-the-arts for this month. Back to poetry, gardens, or philosophy soon.

Close of Day

(I cropped this photo, but it is otherwise straight from the camera–a little Canon OneShot that’s about 8 years old.)

I found myself thinking about the phrase “the close of day.” Te lucis ante terminum, goes a 7th-C. Latin hymn; but I am more inclined to recall Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” which says:

“When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me which follow’d…”

No, what brought happiness to our much-plaudited bard was not abstract fame and accolade (claims he) but another day, a day “when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn…”

…a day of anticipation for the visit of his dear friend and lover. A day of happy anticipation, followed by a night of joy. The close of the day closes this sweet and loving poem (written to a man, who “lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,/In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams”).

The Latin hymn invokes Jesus to watch over us as the day closes, and (to me) connotes death as a closing that may occur in the night, just as the bugle call “Taps” has come to signify a death as well as a close of the day’s activities. A childhood bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

That prayer frightened me a little when I was a child. Like so many people, I feared the night. Yet “close of the day” in Whitman’s poem is a gentle, loving, anticipatory thing, something we need not fear. When I see a sunset like the one above, my sense is more of awe than fear. The day is shutting down, perhaps, but there is no foreboding in the vivid sky, and the moon may be rising or setting and the stars begin to glimmer. Fear is something we name, something we develop in ourselves.

Perhaps we can also develop, in ourselves, a loving anticipation. For the close of day, in particular.


The recent freak snowstorm brought silence to my house in the form of power losses: no refrigerator humming, no dishwasher or washing machine, no furnace fan, no well-pump running, no electronic sounds. After working outside to clear fallen boughs and cut back broken shrubs, I felt physically tired each evening.

I find that physical exhaustion often inspires me to write because I am mentally alert but able to find physical stillness. I can pick  up a notebook and a pen and stay in a cozy chair–or under a pile of warm blankets–and jot down poems and ideas. I don’t get as “antsy” as I do when I have not exerted myself so much.

Today, the power came on again after almost three days. I had cut back the broken buddleia stems and cleaned the house. I had a few quiet hours for reading and concentration.

I was interrupted by picoides pubescens, the downy woodpecker. A pretty bird that hammers at our wood-sided house, especially when the weather’s been nasty. I find it difficult to get my thoughts onto paper when a one-ounce feathered creature is pounding away at the cornerboards, drilling 2-inch holes into the cedar and distracting the writer at her work.

Blame the bird for my lack of productiveness today? Well, maybe I needed to mull over my ideas a bit longer.