The Great Conflict

Portrait caricatureDenmark experienced one of the most difficult periods in its recent history in the spring of 1998.  This was time of the paralyzing general strike that was known as “The Great Conflict.” The normally placid Danes were driven to unprecedented extremes in their efforts to survive what was a protracted period of privation. I lived in Denmark during that time and kept a journal throughout the strike. I do not pretend that my account of the events of this period is comprehensive or objective. I simply recorded the influence of the strike on my life and the lives of those around me, in the tradition of such distinguished diarists as Samuely Pepys and Elizabeth Smith, with the intention of preserving a record of this period for posterity.

Day 1 (Monday, 27 April)

The hysteria over “The Great Conflict,” as it is being called, started the weekend before the strike itself. Paul was dressed earlier than usual Saturday morning. When I asked him where he was going, he said he had to stock up on milk and other basic foodstuffs before the big strike began on Monday. That was actually the first I’d heard of the strike. We don’t have a TV, so I’m sometimes behind on the news. There’d been talk of a general strike about a month ago, but then nothing happened, so I figured they’d come to some sort of agreement.

“They” are LO, which stands for Landsorginasationen and which translates into English as the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions, and Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, or the Confederation of Danish Employers. One out of every ten Danes is a member of LO. They are striking for, among other things, a sixth week of paid vacation. I don’t know why they didn’t strike last month when they were supposed to, but now it appears they are serious and people have been hoarding, or “hamstering” as the Danes call it, since the weekend. Milk is the main thing people have been buying, milk and dairy products generally. (I don’t know why they are going for dairy products particularly, except that this is Denmark where life without dairy products is inconceivable.) The papers said on Monday, however, that the dairy drivers were not affected by the strike and now everyone is stuck with 15 liters of milk in their refrigerators.

People are buying other stuff too. There is no more yeast anywhere in the entire country. Yeast! I can’t imagine why people are buying yeast unless they are afraid the strike will last so long they won’t be able to get bread. But then why aren’t they buying flour?

The strike hasn’t affected us much yet. We have enough milk to last a couple of weeks and lots of lunch meat and dinner stuff. The stores in our neighborhood did run out of toilet paper, so Paul bought paper towels instead. We aren’t out of toilet paper yet though, so I don’t know why he bought the paper towels unless it was because he was afraid even they might be gone by the time we needed toilet paper.

Day 2 (Tuesday, 28 April)

I forgot to mention that I got into an argument with someone at work over whether it was reasonable to demand six weeks of paid vacation. I hadn’t actually said it was unreasonable. I’d just said it was hard for an American to understand how a sixth week of vacation could be so important. This observation was met with such hostility from my Danish colleagues, however, that I felt I might as well have suggested the reinstatement of child labor.

Today was pretty uneventful, except that I noticed a sign on the front door of our apartment asking us to do something in particular with our trash since it wouldn’t be collected during “The Great Conflict.” I think we were supposed to sort it or something, but we do that already, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the sign. I’ll have to go back down later and take another look at it.

I got a letter from my union (Ph.D.s have a union in Denmark) informing me that although they were not directly involved in the strike, I shouldn’t do any scab work or cross any picket lines. They did say, however, that I could call the police if the entrance to my own workplace were blockaded.

Day 3 (Wednesday, 29 April)

Well, it seems the wave of “hamstering” is continuing. The paper went out and interviewed a bunch of theologians (yes, theologians, Denmark still has a state church) on why people were hamstering. When I heard that, I figured we’d get some long editorials about hamstering being an expression of sin and all that. Sin is actually a bit extreme, however, for the Danish Lutheran Church. They wouldn’t come right out and say it had anything to do with sin. They just said it wasn’t very nice, that people shouldn’t do it and that Kierkegaard wouldn’t like it.

I dragged Paul to our “Nationalism” class tonight, but our teacher never showed up. Some of the trains and buses are running on a reduced schedule because they are afraid the strike will eventually cause gas shortages, so I figured she might have been held up. I mentioned this to the unruly mob that was the other five people in the class, but they responded that she lived right downtown and that the bus schedule should not thus affect her. They left after fifteen minutes, but Paul and I stayed an extra five minutes just to make sure.

She never came, so we went to Illum, the department store, to look for a birthday present for me, and then tried to go over to McDonalds. McDonalds was open, but the door to the walkway between Illum and McDonald’s was locked. There was a sign on it that said “Locked because of The Great Conflict.” I didn’t quite understand that, but anyway, we just went outside and around the corner to get into McDonalds.

I got a letter from the university informing me that classes would continue as usual during The Great Conflict, but that they would be in touch in there were any new developments.

Paul said there was someone in the store on Monday with 36 liters of UHT milk in his cart. Some other guy apparently got irritated with him and suggested he should leave some milk for everyone else. That must be an example of the “hysterical frenzy” the newspapers have been saying the television news has whipped everyone into.

Day 4 (Thursday, 30 April)

The animal rights people are demanding dispensations for the people who drive the feed out to farm animals so none of them will go hungry. It looks like dispensations will also be handed out to lots of other groups such as zoo workers, ambulance drivers, employees in the pharmaceutical industry, truck drivers (how else will the drugs get to the pharmacies?) and lots of other groups that I can’t remember now.

Day 5 (Friday, 1 May)

We still have plenty of milk and Paul even found some toilet paper.  I heard on the radio today that some of the strikers were actually making more money striking than they would make if they were working because strike pay is not taxed. Someone from LO was being interviewed about this and was asked whether this might not encourage the union to draw out the negotiations unnecessarily. Oh no, of course not, was the reply of the union representative, although his wording was a little less straightforward.

Day 6 (Saturday, 2 May)

The strike apparently had no effect on the annual May Day festivities in Fælledparken (The Communal Park). The brewery truck drivers, the papers explained, were not involved in the strike.

There was an article in the paper today about church functionaries (i.e., organists and people who sing in the choir). “Church Functionaries have Wretched Working Conditions!” was the headline. It seems these people, who work only on Sundays and religious holidays, receive what Danes consider meager wages (though they are, of course, well above minimum wage in the US) and now it looks like they may lose their paid vacations. “No wonder,” read the article, “it is becoming so difficult to find organists and choral singers. Who would want to work under those conditions!”

Day 7 (Sunday, 3 May)

A guy wrote in to the paper that they had run out of coffee where he worked and that now everyone was having to drink tea. That’s rough for the Danes, who drink more coffee than everyone else in the world except the Dutch. Of course he didn’t say that he’d run out of coffee at home.

Day 8 (Monday, 4 May)

Not much happened yesterday except that we didn’t get our Sunday paper, which is a drag. I couldn’t get my regular bread from the bakery either. I got some kind of cornbread instead. It’s not cornbread like we make it in the U.S., but regular bread with cornmeal in it. It was quite good though.

We had to cancel our reading group meeting because Jette said Ole was saving gas for visits to patients (doctors still make house calls here). That was just as well because I had a lot of work to do.

Paul said the stores were nearly cleaned out except for milk. He said Netto had just gotten a shipment of milk, but that there was no one in the store to buy it. I haven’t been in a grocery store yet, so everything seems pretty normal to me.

I heard from my students today that the night buses were gone. We were discussing the field trip I’d planned for next week, when one of them pointed out that the buses might not be running by that time. That was when it came out that they’d already stopped the night buses. Everyone in class seemed to know this. The loss of the night buses must be cutting seriously into their drinking and carousing.

I don’t think the strike will go into next week. Of course I could be wrong. I passed a couple of strikers set up at Rådhuspladsen (The Court House Square) on my way to the German book import store. They were sitting in chairs in front of one of the shops with a big sign that said “6 Ugers Ferie!” (Six Weeks of Vacation!).

The mail came early today. It usually comes around 1:00, but today it was here before 10:00.  It was as if the normally lackadaisical postal workers (who were themselves out on strike last month) were trying to make amends for the behavior of LO.

Day 9 (Tuesday, 5 May)

I went to the post office today to pay some bills. (There is a bank that operates out of post offices here, as in many other European countries.) There was a sign there on the little machine that spits out the numbers you take to determine the order in which you will be served. I copied it verbatim. It read:

To Our Customers:

We would like to make our customers aware that as a result of the Great Conflict, we are unable to guarantee that the payment of bills will be recorded by the recipient according to the standard schedule

There may, among many other things, be a problem if all our computers, or the computers of the recipients, break down and we are unable to call anyone to repair them.

We hope our customers will excuse the inconveniences that may possibly result from the Great Conflict.


BG Bank

Day 10 (Wednesday, 6 May)

The government stepped in and forced a settlement. They said the strike was beginning to affect the economy (too horrible to contemplate).

We never did run out of toilet paper, so we still have all those paper towels Paul bought. It’s kind of nice, actually, to have paper towels. We don’t normally buy them. I hope I don’t become addicted to them.


I read in the paper some baker had calculated there was enough yeast now in Danish households to bake a loaf of bread that would reach from Copenhagen to the Black Sea and back again.

The “Housewife Hotline” in Glostrup has been besieged by callers who want to know whether it is possible to freeze yeast. Gerda Rieber, from the hotline, says you can freeze it, but that it should be thawed in the refrigerator and preferably in a cup because it will have a tendency to become runny.

We were finally able to get together with Ole and Jette a couple of days ago. We had hoarded so much half and half we thought we would bring them some along with our usual hostess gift. A “hamster gift” we decided to call it. I envision them becoming all the rage. Imagine handing your hosts a package of frozen yeast along with the traditional flowers or bottle of wine!

Paul said he heard on the radio this morning that Danish priests (who, remember, are state functionaries) are complaining about having to work on Sundays. It seems it cuts into their quality time with their families.

Dawkins’ Delusions

Cuisinart EM-100

Cuisinart EM-100

I’d put off reading any of the ”new atheists” until recently. What I knew of their criticisms of religion had not impressed me as particularly sophisticated or even as new, so there seemed no urgency to read them. I’m teaching philosophy of religion this term though and my students expressed a desire to look at the new atheists, so I reluctantly purchased a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and began reading it in preparation for class.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s hilarious! Not only has it caused me to laugh out loud, but it has brought home with particular force what an egalitarian industry publishing is. Anyone can publish a book, even a blithering idiot making claims that are demonstrably false and pontificating on things he knows nothing about and on works he has not read.

To be fair to Dawkins, I should point out that he’s clearly not a run-of-the-mill blithering idiot or he’d never have risen to his current position of prominence in science. He’d have been wise, however, to have restricted his public pronouncements to that field. His foray into the fields of religion and philosophy has made it clear that he’s closer to an idiot savant on the order of the infamously racist Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, than to a genuine intellectual such as Stephen Jay Gould.

The preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion includes Dawkins’ responses to some of the criticisms that were advanced against the book when it first appeared. In response to the charge that he always attacks “the worst of religion and ignored the best,” Dawkins writes

If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them (p. 15).

From where does Dawkins get his statistics concerning the proportion of religious believers who subscribe to “understated, decent, revisionist” views of religion? How does he know their numbers are negligible? Evidence suggests otherwise. That is, most people in the economically developed world appear to accept modern science, so if surveys concerning the proportion of the population in this part of the world who are religious are correct, then the numbers of the “decent” religious people are not negligible, in fact, these people are vastly in the majority.

Of course to give Dawkins credit, he does refer to believers “around the world,” and not just in the economically developed part. It’s possible that Dawkins intends his book to enlighten the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and other Muslim fundamentalist leaders, as well as to the few fundamentalists in the economically developed world who reject science. It does not appear to have been aimed, however, at such an audience and I’ve not heard anything about Dawkins’ underwriting the translation of the book into Farsi or Arabic.

Also, how come science gets to “develop,” but religion that has changed over time is referred to pejoratively as “revisionist.” Germ theory was not always part of natural science, but I wouldn’t call contemporary science “revisionist” because it now includes belief in the reality of microorganisms.

“I suspect,” writes Dawkins, “that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realize that non-belief is even an option” (p. 22).

Dawkins is either being disingenuous in the extreme or he is, in fact, feeble minded. Notice he says “our” educational system, so here he is clearly not talking about Iran or the Middle East. The whole reason that it is occasionally controversial to teach evolution in school in the U.S. is that religious extremists have become offended by the ubiquity of evolutionary theory in the science curriculum.

Far from education “letting people down” in failing to make clear to them that non-belief is an option, it more often lets people down in failing to make clear to them that belief is an option. It tends to caricature religious belief in precisely the way Dawkins’ conflation of religion with religious fundamentalism does, with the result that young people are literally indoctrinated with the view that religion itself, not one particular instantiation of it (i.e., fundamentalism), but religion itself is simply a particular form of superstition that is essentially in conflict with the modern world view. Dawkins would appear to be a victim of such indoctrination himself in that he repeatedly conflates religion with religious fundamentalism. He acknowledges occasionally that not all religious people hold the views he attributes to them, but he can’t seem to remember this consistently.

The reader of The God Delusion is faced with a dichotomy unflattering to the book’s author: either a rigorous systematic distinction between religion in general and religious fundamentalism in particular taxes Dawkins’ cognitive abilities beyond what they can bear, or his repeated conflation of these these two distinct phenomena is cynically calculated to raise a false alarm concerning the purported threat that religion in general presents to the advancement of civilization in the hope that this alarm will cause people to storm their local Barnes and Noble in an effort to secure, through the purchase of his book, ammunition they can use to defend themselves against the encroaching hoards of barbarian believers.

In the preface to the original hard cover edition Dawkins writes:

I suspect— well, I am sure— that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option (p. 23).

Really, he writes that, I’m not kidding. I cut and pasted that text from the ebook. Yes, Dawkins is seriously asserting that there are people “out there” who do not realize that it’s possible, even in principle, to reject the faith they were born into. Obviously, these are not church-going folks. If they were, they would surely notice the children who cease at some point (usually in late adolescence or early adulthood) to attend church with their parents, or overhear the laments of parents whose children have “left the faith” during the coffee and cookies that often follows services on Sundays.  These people who “just don’t realize that leaving is an option” must be a rare non-church-going species of fundamentalist. Even the Amish, after all, know that “leaving is an option.”

It’s admirable that Dawkins is so concerned about this infinitesimally small portion of humanity that he would write a whole book for their benefit. The view, however, that they represent a significant threat to Western civilization is hardly credible.

A charitable reading of Dawkins might incline one to think that what he meant was that it was not an emotional option, that it would wreak more havoc in their lives than they fear they could bear. (This, presumably, is why more Amish don’t leave the faith.) But if that were truly Dawkins concern, he’d have written a very different type of book because that problem has nothing to do with science or the failure of religious people to understand it.

Atheists, according to Dawkins, are under siege. “Unlike evangelical Christians,” he bemoans, “who wield even greater political power [than Jews], atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence” (p. 27). Oh yeah, atheists exert “zero influence.” That’s why we’re all taught the Bible in school, right? And why my university, like so many universities in the U.S., has such a huge religion department relative to, say, the biology department.

Wait, we’re not taught the Bible in school, that’s part of what fundamentalists are so up in arms about. We don’t teach creation, we teach evolution. We don’t have a religion department at Drexel. We don’t even lump religion in with philosophy, as is increasingly common at institutions that appear to be gradually phasing out religion all together. We don’t teach religion period, not even as an object of scholarly study, let alone in an attempt to indoctrinate impressionable young people with its purportedly questionable “truths.”

The Penguin English Dictionary,” observes Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a false belief or impression’” (p. 27). Is the belief that religion represents a serious threat to the advance of civilization not obviously false?  “The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word,” continues Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence” (28). Is there not “strong contradictory evidence” to the claim that atheists are under siege?

Is it possible that the survival of modern science really is threatened in Britain, in contrast to the clear cultural hegemony it enjoys in the U.S.? Maybe. Eating baked beans on toast has always seemed pretty backward to me. My guess, however, is that Dawkins suffers from the delusion that we in the U.S. are more backward than the folks on the other side of the Atlantic.

I’ll give Dawkins one thing. He’s right about how our educational system has failed us. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of Dawkins alarmist clap trap. It ought to be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of formal education that Dawkins is talking sheer nonsense. But then Dawkins is a scientist, not a philosopher or theologian. He simply doesn’t seem to understand Stephen Jay Gould’s lovely straightforward presentation of the nonoverlapping magisteria view of the relation between science and religion.

But then it’s hard to say whether Dawkins failure to understand, NOMA, as it is now called, is an expression of his cognitive limits or of his intellectual irresponsibility in that it appears he hasn’t actually read Gould’s paper. What makes me think this, you ask? Well, because Gould goes on at length in this paper about how creationism (Dawkins’ apparent primary concern) is “a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among the few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as an inerrant document, literally true in every jot and tittle” (emphasis added), and one could add here “has made no inroads whatever into the system of public education.”

Perhaps Dawkins thought it was unnecessary to read Gould, that anyone who would defend religion must not be worth reading. We all have our blind spots. I, for example, though I am devoutly religious, refuse to believe that prayer effects any change other than in the one who prays. It’s not because of some paranoid fear I have of inadvertently falling into superstition. It’s because the idea of a God whose mind could be changed by a particularly passionate entreaty, that is, of a God who is capricious and vain, is not at all edifying to me. I refuse to believe God is like that, quite independently of anything that might be presented to me as evidence for or against such a view.

Fortunately, my understanding of the relation between science and religion is a little more sophisticated than Dawkins’, so I can rest easily in my convictions, unperturbed by the phantom of their possible overthrow in the indeterminate future by some hitherto unknown type of empirical evidence. There is no such thing as empirical evidence either for or against the truth of religious convictions of the sort I hold. Fundamentalists may have to live with their heads in the sand but people with a proper understanding of the relation between the phenomenal and numinal realms do not.

That’s where our educational system has failed us. Too many people, even well educated people, have been taught that science conflicts with religion, not with a specific instantiation of religion, that is, not with fundamentalism, but with religion period. Education has failed us in a manner precisely opposite to the one in which Dawkins claims it has. The problem is not that the educational system has led people to the position where they feel that non belief is not an option. The problem is precisely that the pretentious misrepresentation of the explanatory powers of empirical science and the reduction to caricature of anything and everything that goes under the heading of “religion” has led people to the position where they feel that belief is not an option.

I have enormous respect for honest agnostics, despite William James’ point in his essay “The Will to Believe,” that agnosticism is formally indistinguishable from atheism in that it fails just as much as the latter to secure for itself the good that is promised by religion. Agnosticism is at least intellectually honest. The question whether there’s a God, or as James puts it, some kind of higher, or transcendent purpose to existence, cannot be formally answered. Even Dawkins acknowledges that it’s not actually possible to demonstrate that there’s no God (though he asserts, bizarrely, that God’s improbability can be demonstrated). But if God’s existence cannot be disproved, then disbelief stands on no firmer ground than belief, so why trumpet it as somehow superior?

The fact is that we’re all of us out over what Kierkegaard refers to as the 70,000 fathoms. I’m comfortable with my belief. I’m not offended by agnostics. I’m not even offended by atheists. I’m not offended by the fact that there are people who don’t believe in God. I would never try to argue to them that they ought to believe. That to me is a profoundly personal matter, something between each individual and the deity. What’s strange to me is that there are many people, people such as Dawkins, who are apparently so uncomfortable with their atheism that the mere existence of anyone who disagrees with them on this issue is offensive to them. It’s as if they perceive the very existence of religious belief as some kind of threat. What kind of threat, one wonders, might that be?

Religious belief, at this stage of human history anyway, certainly does not represent a threat to scientific progress. Dawkins blames religion for the 9/11. Experience has shown, however, that terrorism, of pretty much every stripe, is effectively eliminated with the elimination of social and economic inequities, just as is religious fundamentalism. So why isn’t Dawkins railing against social and economic inequities?  That would appear to be a far more effective way to free the world of the scourge of religious fundamentalism than simply railing against fundamentalism directly. Direct attacks on fundamentalism are analogous to temperance lectures to people whose lives are so miserable that drinking is the only thing that brings them any kind of joy.

“[A] universe with a creative superintendent,” asserts Dawkins, “would be a very different kind of universe from one without one” (p. 78). But what is the difference for people such as NIH director Francis Collins, and myself, who believe that the description of the universe that is provided by science is precisely a description of the nature of God’s material creation? Dawkins is right in that there’s a difference between those two universes. He’s wrong though in believing that difference to be material.

Suppose that one morning you found on your doorstep an apple. Suppose you love apples. Suppose as well that though you could not preclude the possibility that this apple had simply fallen from an overly-full grocery bag of some passerby, for some reason that you cannot explain, you were infused with the conviction, as soon as you laid eyes on the apple, that someone had placed it there for you. What a lovely thought! The whole experience changes your morning, even your day, in a positive way.

In a material sense, of course, it makes no difference whether the apple came there by chance, or by design. It is the same apple, after all, whatever the explanation for its presence. It is not at all the same experience, however, to believe that one has found an apple by chance and to believe one has found it by design.

Now suppose a well-meaning friend, points out the superfluity of your assumption that the apple had been placed there by someone. Suppose this person pointed out that nothing in the mere presence of the apple compelled such an assumption and that you should thus content yourself with a “natural explanation” of how it came to be there. Ought you to abandon your belief in your invisible benefactor? What would you gain by abandoning it? If your friend had been ridiculing you for your “foolishness,” then presumably that would cease. You would regain his respect. But at what cost? It’s none of his business what you chose to believe in such an instance. That he would make fun of you for believing something the truth of which he cannot disprove but which makes you happy paints a very unflattering picture of him. So you would regain the respect of someone whose respect many would rightly disdain, even while you would lose something that had made you happy. And why is the explanation you have supplied for the presence of the apple less “natural” than his? You didn’t assume the apple had spontaneously sprung into existence. The real difference between your view of how the apple came to be there and his is that yours is nicer, that it makes you feel better.

Or to take a more apposite example in my case: Say that for as long as you can remember, you’ve wanted one of those fancy, expensive home cappuccino makers. You know the ones I’m talking about. Not the little cheapie things that can be had for under a hundred dollars, but the really expensive ones that resemble the real thing that they use in fancy cafes and coffee houses. Say that you have always wanted one of these fancy cappuccino makers but because you had chosen the life of an academic and the modest salary that went along with it, you felt a fancy cappuccino maker was an extravagance you simply couldn’t allow yourself. Lawyers can afford such things you reasoned, but then they also needed them because they are generally very unhappy in their work. If you had gone to law school, you could have had a fancy cappuccino maker. You knew this, of course, but chose to go to graduate school in philosophy instead because you believed a career in philosophy would be more fulfilling than a career in law. You made your choice and so must content yourself with a fulfilling career and more modest coffee-making set up.

This seems to you a reasonable trade off, so you do not waste away large portions of your life lusting after a fancy home cappuccino maker. Still, you do think wistfully of such machines sometimes, particularly when you see them in the homes of your lawyer friends, or in one of those fancy kitchen stores that always have so many of them. You have accustomed yourself, over time, to this occasional quiet longing.

But then one Saturday, when you are on your way back to your apartment, after having done your morning shopping, you spy a large bag on the sidewalk in front of one of the houses on your block. People often put things out on the sidewalk that they no longer want, so you stop to see if there is anything there you might be able to use. As you approach the bag, your heart begins to beat more quickly. Peeping out of the edge of the bag is what looks for all the world like the top of one of those fancy, expensive cappuccino makers that you have always wanted. You peer disbelievingly into the bag and discover that not only does it indeed contain such a machine, but all of the accoutrements that generally go with them, a little stainless steel milk frothing jug, metal inserts in both the single and double espresso size (as well as one to hold those Illy pods that you would never buy because they are too expensive), and a coffee scoop with a flat end for tamping down the coffee. As you are peering into the bag, your neighbor emerges from the front door of her house with more bags of stuff to put out on the sidewalk.

“Are you giving this away?” you ask tentatively.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Does it work?” you ask.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Why are you giving it away?” you ask incredulously, convinced that any minute she will change her mind.

“Well,” she says nonchalantly, I’ve had it for four years and never used it. I figure that if you have something for four years and never use it, you should get rid of it.”

You nod and laugh, affecting a nonchalance to match your neighbor’s. As soon as she has disappeared into the house, though, you snatch up the bag that contains the machine and all the accoutrements and stagger under its weight the short distance to your door. You download the manual for the machine (a Cuisinart EM-100, which you discover retails for $325), set it up and give it a trial run. It works like a dream!

Your innermost wish for a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker has been fulfilled! One was deposited practically on your doorstep. Of course it came there in a perfectly natural, explicable way, but still, your heart overflows with gratitude toward God whom you believe has arranged the universe, in his wisdom and benevolence, in such a way that this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker should come into your possession now. God has favored you with the rare and coveted have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too status in that you have been allowed to pursue your life’s calling of being a philosophy professor and have a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker!

You do not need to attribute this turn of events to any supernatural agency in order to see “the hand of God” in it. It does not trouble you to think that your neighbor had very likely been considering putting that machine out on the street for quite some time. That the whole event came about very naturally. But still, it is deeply significant to you and fills you with a sense of awe and wonder. Why should that bother Richard Dawkins?

It is fair, of course, to point out that you might just as well be annoyed that God had not arranged for you to receive this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker earlier. But you do not think that way. Why, you do not know. You attribute this wonderfully positive psychological dynamic to God’s Grace, but of course you could be wrong, perhaps it’s genetic. Earlier it seemed to you that the sacrifice of a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker in order to pursue your life’s calling was really not so very much to ask, and you accepted it stoically. Now, you are overcome with gratitude toward God for so arranging things that your wish for such a machine has been fulfilled. Earlier you were happy, now you are happier still. What’s wrong with that? That seems to me to be a very enviable situation.

Experience may incline us to expect certain emotional reactions to various kinds of events, but reason does not require such reactions. Many religious people are effectively deists in that they accept what scientists call the “laws of nature” and do not believe that God arbitrarily suspends those laws in answer to particularly passionate entreaties. Such people accept that God must thus be responsible in some way for the things they don’t like just as much as for the things they like, but consider that perhaps there is some reason for those things that human reason simply cannot fathom, and look to God for emotional support when the bad things in life seem to overwhelm the good and thank God when the reverse seems to be the case.

To be able to find strength in God when times are bad and to thank him (her or it) when times are good is an enviable gift. Who wouldn’t want to be like that? Of course it is possible to rail against God for not ensuring that times are always good, but it isn’t necessary. The failure to condemn or to become angry is not a failure of logic. Objectively, everything simply is, nothing necessitates a particular emotional reaction. The dynamic of faith is just as rational as the dynamic of skepticism. In fact, it could be construed as even more rational. That is, happiness is something that it is generally acknowledged human beings almost universally pursue and the dynamic just described is clearly a particularly good way of achieving it in that it effectively ensures a generally positive emotional state. Maybe believers are wrong, but even Dawkins acknowledges that no one will ever be able to prove that. Even if they are wrong, however, it seems there is little, if any harm, in their beliefs and a great deal of good.

Why does religion so offend atheists such as Dawkins? No one is forcing them to sign up. Dawkins is not alone in his outrage. It’s pervasive among atheists. The invectives they hurl at believers always put me in mind of those hurled by a child at the participants in an invisible tea party to which he has not been invited.

“There isn’t really any TEA there, you know!” he yells.

But is the outrage over the fictitious nature of the tea, that anyone should pretend to drink something that isn’t really there, or is it at not having been invited to the party? Perhaps the problem with the atheist is the feeling of being left out. Perhaps they are angry that other people get to enjoy something from which they have been excluded, something they have been led to believe is “not an option” for them.

(For a really excellent piece on The God Delusion see Terry Eagleton’s “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” in the London Review of Books.)

On Teaching



I don’t remember ever forming the ambition to be a teacher. When I was very small, I used to play “teacher” with my dolls. I had a little slate that I would position for them as a blackboard and on which I would write my “lessons.” That was a child’s game though, not an ambition. I did it, I suppose, because school was a large part of the world of my experience, so when I was alone with my dolls I naturally imitated the few adults I’d had exposure to. That meant that if I wasn’t playing “mother,” I was playing “teacher.”

I was an art major when I first entered college. It had been drilled relentlessly into me that I would not be able to make a living as an artist, but that since I could draw, I would probably be able to make a living as a medical illustrator. So I enrolled at Ohio State, one of the few schools in the country that had a program in medical illustration. I did not fit well though into the community of art students, either at Ohio State, or at the Columbus College of Art and Design where I subsequently enrolled. I remained an art major, however, even after leaving both institutions, more out of a lack of imagination, I supposed, than out of positive commitment.

I studied, God knows what (I don’t remember now) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle before, finally, ending up at Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, still an art major. I took some art classes, but I also took a philosophy class. I don’t remember what prompted me to take that class; I think some philosophy class must have been required for my major. The subject, I still remember, was rationalism and empiricism. It sounds very unromantic, but I loved it. I changed my major soon after that first class and took almost nothing but philosophy from that point on.

I didn’t particularly like reading philosophy, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I loved talking about it. I loved talking about it so much that I actually tried to talk to my father about Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics the first summer after I transferred to Earlham.

“All that stuff about ‘a prior synthetic cognition’ may be very interesting to you,” my father observed somewhat patronizingly, “but you’re not going to find many young men interested in it.” I didn’t bother him after that with philosophy. I kept it to myself, or at least kept it to myself until I was back at Earlham again and could drop by the office of my professor and advisor Bob Horn.

“Bob is God,” is what students at Earlham used to say about him. He was kind and patient and brilliant. He didn’t talk too much, the way I fear I tend to do with my own students now, but just enough, just enough to get, or keep, the conversation going. He was tolerant and understanding. He wrote on one of my friend’s papers, “Eric, I understand you as if through a cloud.”

Nearly every afternoon of my senior year was spent in his office. I would head there as soon as my classes were done for the day and sit in the slanting afternoon light and talk and talk and talk about the ideas that were always swarming in my head like so many bees. And he would smile patiently and respond occasionally with his vastly superior knowledge and wisdom. I never felt though that he was talking down to me. I felt as if we were kindred spirits, as if we connected at a level that is rarely reached by two human beings.

Even when I decided, in my senior year, to go to graduate school, it had not been because I’d harbored any ambitions of becoming a teacher, but because I couldn’t conceive of any other life than the one I’d come to know, the life of philosophy, the life of talking about philosophy with some kindred spirit. I was afraid of teaching, in the beginning, afraid I would never be more than a kind of fraud, afraid I would never be able to approach the knowledge and wisdom of my own professors, particularly Bob. I cherished a little hope, like a tiny flame in the darkness, that somehow graduate school would transform me into a paragon of philosophical knowledge, but that day never came. The more I learned, the clearer it became to me how very much there was to know, and how little of it I had actually mastered.

They ease you into teaching in graduate school. You start out as a teaching assistant, which means you are really sort of a glorified student so you don’t feel you have to be so knowledgeable as the professors but can luxuriate in the experience of being ever so slightly more knowledgeable than the students. I did that for a few years before finally teaching my first course, so even if I still felt something of a fraud when students referred to me as “professor,” my impostor syndrome was not quite so pronounced as it would have been if I’d been thrown into teaching right after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree.

I like people. I’m an animal lover and people are animals, so I like people as well as other animals. I was raised not to dissemble, so I didn’t pretend to know things I didn’t know, and I learned gradually that in fact, over time, I’d acquired a great deal of knowledge and that even if I still fell pitifully short of the standards of my own undergraduate professors (particularly Bob), I was actually in a position to be of some real, concrete help to my students.

I taught in Denmark for several years before I came to Drexel. I never had a student for more than one course when I taught in Denmark, however, because my students there were nearly always Americans or other non-Danish nationals who were taking their semester abroad. I loved my students, but in a very detached way. I never got to know any of them, really, but that was okay with me. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I liked engaging with them intellectually, but it didn’t bother me that I would have them for only one course and after that would never see them again.

My situation when I came to Drexel was not so different. Drexel didn’t allow students to major in philosophy. The best they could do was a minor. I didn’t mind that; in fact, I rather like it. I loved teaching, but I also loved writing, and the fact that my exposure to the lives of my students was very limited suited me well. I got to go into the classroom and do what I loved–talk about philosophy–without having to spend any time helping my students navigate the practical difficulties of their lives. I had all the fun of teaching, or so I thought, with none of the inconvenience.

But then someone senior to myself got the idea that we should offer a major in philosophy. Drexel had had one before but had jettisoned it after several professors retired and were not replaced. Philosophy students do inordinately well on the GREs, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince the dean that a philosophy major would be good for the university. I was ambivalent about it myself, though. I knew that if we had a major I would suddenly “have students” in a way I had never “had students” before and that these “students” would cut into my research time.

I couldn’t bring myself to protest the reinstatement of the major, but neither could I champion it. I sat by quietly with a curiosity not unlike that of a disinterested person watching a train wreck. I didn’t think our students were sufficiently prepared for such a rigorous and intellectually challenging major and I feared that I was emotionally incapable of forming the kind of attachment to them that it seemed to me was necessary for a productive mentoring relationship.

I like large chunks of time all to myself, time when I don’t have to see, attend to, or worry about anyone else. I couldn’t picture myself hanging out with my students, couldn’t imagine welcoming them into my office and cheerfully allowing them to monopolize my time the way Bob had allowed me to monopolize his. I liked my students, but more as abstract beings than as concrete ones. I knew that in this respect I fell short of the standard that Bob had set for me, but I had accepted long ago that I would never be able to meet any of Bob’s standards, Bob, after all was “God.”

But then when we got the major back, everything changed. As if out of nowhere students began to appear who stood out from the students I’d had before. They weren’t interested in philosophy; they were possessed, possessed as I had been all those years ago when I’d practically lived in Bob’s office. Not only did I have them for more than one class; I had them in more than one class at a time! I teach only two courses per term, so I was surprised to find that I had a couple of students in both my classes and not just for one term, but for several terms in a row.

Something else happened with the reinstatement of the major: the size of my classes shrank. Where before I’d been teaching critical reasoning to twenty-five students, I suddenly found I was teaching epistemology to ten, and ten students who were a cut above, at least in terms of their commitment to the material, the ones I had become used to.

I suddenly found myself caring about my students very much. I couldn’t help but get to know them. They would talk to me not simply about the material they had read for class, but about their lives and long-term ambitions and I realized that by that point in my life, I’d actually lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom that could be helpful to them with respect to these more general concerns. They would come talk to me, as I had to Bob, and I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed talking to them, even about things that were not directly related to philosophy.

“Your students are not your friends,” a colleague once remarked when advising new faculty on the perils of socializing too much with students. He’s right, of course. There’s a certain responsibility in a pedagogical relationship. A teacher must never confide in a student, or look to a student for emotional support. It is perfectly appropriate for a student to do these things, however, with a teacher. A teacher stands in loco parentis. Most college students are young people who have not yet made their way in the world but who are going to college as part of their preparation for that. They are more than their student numbers. They are inexperienced adults who occasionally need support and guidance when contemplating life’s larger questions, or simply how to survive a term in which they are taking too many courses in order to minimize their student-loan debt.

A teacher cannot hold himself too emotionally aloof from his students and still be an effective teacher. The point of a liberal arts education is not merely to impart knowledge to students on a variety of subjects. It is not even to introduce them to the joys of the life of the mind. It is to help them to become happy and thriving adults, to help them in their pursuit of “the good life” in the classical sense. But that can be done only by teachers who are willing to engage with their students as human beings and who can draw on their own humanity, and not simply their intellects, in those relationships.

A teacher has to love his students in a manner that is perhaps unique to that relationship, and in that way teach them that it is natural for people to care about one another and that the world into which they are entering, though challenging, is a friendlier place than they may have thought.

Newsflash– “Piety” is a real Surname!

Portrait caricatureI’d like to clear up what may be a confusion in the minds of some of my readers. I got an email awhile ago, from someone who liked my blog on Kierkegaard, asking me if “Piety” was a pen name. That’s a natural question, I suppose, especially for a Kierkegaard scholar (I’m sure John Wisdom was always being asked if “Wisdom” was his real name). “I know that word,” people probably think, “and it’s not a name!” That, in any case, was the explanation offered by my friend David Leopold when the American Academy of Religion misspelled my name. That seems plausible. Either that, or they simply didn’t know how to spell “piety” (which, if it were true, would confirm the suspicions of the folks over at the Society of Biblical Literature).

No, “Piety” is my real name. There have been Pietys in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary war. In fact, my ancestor, Thomas Piety, served under Gen. Arthur St. Clair in the American Army when George Washington was president. Arthur St. Clair was an ancestor of Jeff St. Clair, editor of the wonderful online journal Counter Punch, for which I sometimes write, so a Piety is still serving under a St. Clair.

My father, Harold Piety, was briefly the religion editor at the East St. Louis Journal. According to my mother, he used to enjoy answering the phone: “Religion, Piety speaking.”

My middle name is Gaye. I changed my name when I married the legal scholar and humorist Brian J. Foley, to “Marilyn Gaye Piety Foley,” so “Piety” is still my real name, or at least part of it. I plan to keep using it too. I think it’s a good name for a Kierkegaard scholar.

(An earlier version of this post appeared on the blog Piety on Kierkegaard.)

Time Travel

Hobart Arena 1959

Hobart Arena 1959

The philosopher Richard Taylor asserts, in his book Metaphysics, that the idea of time travel is incoherent. The incoherence, he claims, “is exposed in saying that . . . at a later time—someone finds himself living at an earlier time. To imagine,” he continues, “‘returning’ to an earlier time is merely to imagine the recurrence of events of that time.

“More precisely, it is to imagine everything, except oneself just as it was then” (73).

I believe he’s wrong. I believe time travel is possible, not in the sense, however, of imagining the recurrence of past events just as they were, while remaining oneself unchanged. That, after all, is nothing but reminiscence, perhaps extraordinarily vivid, but reminiscence nonetheless. Time travel, real time travel, I believe, is the reverse of Taylor’s description. It is to have everything around one just as it is now, while returning oneself to the way one was at an earlier time. In this sense, it is to be not what one is, as the philosophers say, but what one was.

To the extent that most of us go through some kind of moral development as we mature, this may not seem like a desirable project. Moral development is not the only thing we undergo, however, we tend, as we become older, to lose something of the joy and optimism of youth. It ebbs away with the passage of the years, more or less quickly depending on the events of our lives. I lost much of my own joy and optimism, I think, with my parents divorce when I was seventeen. But there were other events, both before and after, that gradually eroded my innocent faith in the benevolence of fate.

One such event was when I gave up my dream of becoming a figure skater. I was forced to confront the fact that my family simply did not have the money to allow me to pursue that dream. I don’t remember ever dreaming of being in the Olympics or anything like that. I did dream, though, of becoming good, really good.

I always loved skating. My sisters and I used to pretend to skate on our driveway in the winter. The driveway was behind and slightly lower than the house and when it was covered with snow it looked a lot like a little pond. We would pack the snow down very hard and then slide around on it in shoes with slick soles pretending we were skating. Sometimes we would dress up. My mother used to take us to the Goodwill store and allow us to pick out cast-off party dresses, or “formals” as we called them, to dress up in. I had a black velvet one with a heavy rolled hem that made it puff out and flare beautifully when I turned. I would wear it and carry a little rabbit fur muff that must also have come from the Goodwill. I felt like a princess as I glided across the packed snow. We often “skated” in the evening when the light over the garage would illuminate the falling snow and if I looked up toward the night sky, it would seem as if the stars were actually falling softly on me or as if the sky were opening up and I were being carried away into it.

We would “skate” like this until our feet were so cold we had lost all feeling in them and then we would ascend the stairs at the edge of our “pond” that led into the kitchen where my father would be waiting with hot chocolate. My feet used to hurt excruciatingly as they warmed up again, but that never kept me from “skating” if there were sufficient snow.

I think I was ten or eleven years old the first time I went skating for real. I went with my Camp Fire Girl troupe. I don’t remember much about that first time except that I greatly admired the skates of one of the other girls. Most of us had to rent skates, but she had her own and they were not brown like the rental skates, but blue with fur at the top.

I must have liked skating though because I went back. My sisters and I began to go skating fairly regularly and soon we each had our own pair of beautiful white skates. None of us had had lessons, but we would wear little skating skirts and watch the other better skaters and imitate what they did.

My parents could not really afford to give us lessons, but I pestered them anyway until they finally gave in. My lessons were during the public skating sessions at the local rink on a little portion of the ice that had been sectioned off for that purpose by orange traffic cones. I had one fifteen-minute lesson each week with a second-rate instructor.  Eventually, my lessons went to half an hour, not because we could afford it but because, in my mother’s words, I had a talent for getting what I wanted, and I wanted to skate.

I was in a Barnes and Noble a few years ago when I ran across something that brought this all back to me. I wandered aimlessly through the magazine section. My eyes fell on a copy of something called International Figure Skating. I was curious to see what skating was like these days, so I picked it up and began to leaf thought it. There was a section at the beginning of photos from some gala or other. I flipped quickly past it, but then went back. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps there will be a photo of someone I used to skate with. Some of the people in the photos weren’t all that young. I’d assumed I’d have to pore carefully over the several pages of photos before I would find anyone, if I did find anyone, I’d known. But there, in the very first frame was Lee Anne Miller. And I wondered whether I’d actually registered the picture unconsciously and that that had been why I’d flipped back to look at the photos again. Or perhaps it had been the name I’d registered and that had called me back to the page.

There she was, staring out at me from the glossy pages of a magazine, the little girl I’d so envied. I recognized her. She seemed barely changed. The same delicate features, the same pale brown hair. I can still see that hair pulled into a small dancer’s bun, held in place with barrettes that matched the color of her leotards and little wrap-around dancer’s skirts. Pink leotard, pink barrettes; blue leotard, blue barrettes. She was like a doll, Lee Anne. Perfectly proportioned, tiny delicate features, dressed like a little ballerina. She looked like one of those dolls that dances in a jewelry box when one opens the lid, but prettier than that really. Lee Anne was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her every movement was like a dancer’s, slow and deliberate and graceful. I used to love to watch her skate. There was something swanlike about her.

I was not part of that crowd, the elite skaters, not the first year anyway. I came to skate in Troy, Ohio, in the huge cavernous old Hobart Arena, simply because it was the only rink that was open in the summer. I loved the place. Most skating rinks look like barns, or warehouses, from the outside, but there was something noble about Hobart Arena. It was built of brick and stone in the grand style of the late 1940s. It had been given to the town by the Hobart Electric Manufacturing Co. in 1950 and had clearly been intended to be a showpiece. It was not only the rink, however, that was beautiful. It was in the middle of a park and just behind it was the municipal swimming pool that had a snack bar the skaters used to frequent between skating sessions. There was something almost magical to me about that grand cathedral of winter sport situated in the middle of a verdant summer paradise.

A bunch of us came up from Dayton that first summer. We were out of our league and that was kind of humiliating, but there was also something incredibly exhilarating about being around all that talent and dedication. I was fascinated by the discipline of it and all the esoteric trappings like the harness that hung from the ceiling and that was fastened around the waist of the female when pair skaters practiced overhead lifts. I loved the almost meditative hush of the sessions devoted to school figures a hush broken only by the soft whir of the scribes, the large aluminum ice compasses, scratching circles on the ice for the skaters to follow, or the occasional muscular, ripping sound of the push of skaters working on backward eights.

We had stroking class for an hour every Thursday evening and that first summer, at least, I spent the entire session in abject fear of being mowed down by the hoards of more powerful skaters. The second year was better though. I switched teachers. I got a better teacher, Dick Rimmer’s wife, Lynn. They ran that place, Dick and Lynn Rimmer. Dick had been the official coach to the 1972 Olympic team (at least I think that is what it said on the brochure I showed to my parents in an effort to convince them that the program would be worth the expense). I was determined not to remain the worst skater there, so I spent almost a year convincing my parents to secure Lynn Rimmer for me as a teacher. I liked her, she was kind. She told me once, when I was working on a split jump, that I was a “smart skater.” That made me happy, though I was never really sure what she had meant.

I did better that second summer. Not only was I not mowed down, I actually kept up, sort of. I got better skates, passed my preliminary figure test and was accepted, finally, into the periphery of the elite group. But then I had to quit skating. I needed a scribe in order to be able to progress to the first figure test. But a scribe cost fifty dollars. That was a lot of money back then and my parents couldn’t afford it.

Few middle class families can afford the cost of training a serious competitive skater. Figure skating, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago, is one of the most expensive sports there is. Skating parents must either have so much money that almost any sum can be spent on their children’s hobbies, or they must be willing to sacrifice everything, even their children’s education, for art or in the hope that they will “win the lottery.”

My parents had neither so much money that they could afford the cost of training a competitive skater, nor the values that would have led them to sacrifice everything else to get the money. I didn’t really understand that. All I knew, or thought I knew, at the time was that what I loved most was not important to them.

I didn’t even follow skating after that. “Never look back!” It was not just my motto, but my entire personality. I began to dream though, when I was in graduate school and when I first began teaching, about taking up skating again. I had a bad time in graduate school and that dream, distant as it seemed, was one of the things that sustained me through that difficult period.

I bought the magazine with the picture of Lee Anne Miller and decided that I should begin taking skating lessons

I had intended to take freestyle lessons but my first teacher steered me gradually toward dance, divining, I suspect, that I would be a much better dancer than I would ever be a freestyle skater. Dance is probably better for most adult skaters anyway because there is less chance of serious injury and a much greater chance of gaining something approaching genuine mastery of the sport. There are quite a few adult skaters who are expert dancers. They have become my role models.

I’m never happier these days than when I am skating. Skating is the only thing I do now for no other reason than the joy of it. It will not make me wiser. It will not help my career. Indeed, for an adult to take up figure skating is viewed by many people, including my husband (who, to his credit, has taken it up himself in order to be able to spend more time with me), as somewhat bizarre. Skating is popularly believed to be an activity for children not for older people, people with brittle bones.

When I’m done skating my session, the “adult session,” and the ice has been freshly resurfaced, I will sometimes stay to watch the beginning of the next session when the competitive skaters, one by one, take to the ice like so many seagulls gathering gradually about an invisible school of fish. They glide easily onto the frozen surface. Flying past me, they swoop, they dip, they dive, each listening to his own inner compulsion. There’s no effort at coordination, and yet they’re a kind of visual symphony, as beautiful as a flock of birds, if not more beautiful, because after all, what birds do is natural to them, whereas what skaters do is natural only to the spirit, not to the body, so to see bodies do it with such effortless grace–well, there’s something miraculous in it.

I am filled sometimes, as I watch them, with a terrible aching melancholy at the realization that I will never be one of them. There’s a tiny window of time in everyone’s life through which he can reach to grasp that sort of dream and mine was closed and locked long ago. Sometimes I can’t bear the ache that accompanies the realization that what I once wanted more than anything, I will never have, that I will have lived and died without ever having realized that dream.

Most of the time though, I am not unhappy. Most of the time I count myself very lucky. Many competitive skaters give up skating entirely after they stop competing, or after they stop performing (if they are so fortunate as to have had a professional career). Some say they simply don’t enjoy skating when they can no longer perform at what was once their peak, others have had all desire to skate extinguished by too many years of too rigorous a training schedule. They accept the diminished vitality that comes with aging as a matter of course. They age, they grow old, they die.

But I am growing younger. I’m a better skater now than I was when I was a child and I have every reason to believe that my skills will continue to improve for many years to come. Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, the 1964 and ’68 Olympic pair skating champions, still perform and they are in their eighties. Richard Dwyer still performs and so is he.

I don’t know that I’ll ever don a little skating skirt again and my dreams, whatever they are, no longer include becoming a competitive skater. When I skate now, though, I feel like a time traveler. Something of the beauty of the slow and paradoxical summers I spent on the ice as a child comes back to me. I sense again the sweet strangeness of crossing the green expanse of park to get ice cream and then returning to the frosty unreality of the rink. When I skate now all the struggles, stresses and disappointments of the years fade away and I am once again the little girl gazing up at the stars falling from the sky.

The Circular Swing

Marie Schaefer (no caption)We think time moves along gradually, its changes so subtle they’re barely noticeable, until at some point one realizes the world one inhabits is no longer the world of one’s childhood, but only distantly related to that earlier world. Sometimes, for some people, this realization is itself gradual and subtle, but at other times, for other people, it comes with a start. Some people come to consciousness on the cusp of a new age and grow and take shape even as it does. Other people, are born at what it is clear only later was the waning of an earlier age. They thus straddle two worlds, these people, the world into which they were born and the one into which they grow up. They mature almost as artifacts of an earlier period. They learn the fashions and the vernacular of those who are only a few years younger than themselves, or perhaps even the same age but from a more progressive place. They’re always strangers in their own time, though, walking almost like ghosts through lives they feel on some level do not belong to them.

It’s probably partly temperament. Some people are simply uncomfortable with change. They’re the Parmenideans. Parmenides was the Presocratic philosopher who said that everything that changed was unreal, that only the eternal and unchanging was real. Then on the other side was Heraclitus, also a Presocratic. He’s the guy who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, that everything is constantly in a state of flux. All of humanity divides up that way, I think, into the Parmenideans and the Heracliteans. The latter can embrace a new age when the former can’t. The former live in a perpetual state of nostalgia.

I’m like that. I’m a Parmenidean. That’s why, I think, I’m so fascinated by the German television series Heimat. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. I watch it over and over again. I’m like Maria, the matriarch of the family that is the focus of the series. She was born around the turn of the last century. She was still young at the end of World War I, but she belonged to the world before the war. She kept everything together. She accepted change, as we all must, be she didn’t embrace it. Poul, her husband who left her and her two young children to go to America, was different. He was born around the same time, but was of a different temperament. He was one of the Heracliteans.

A person’s relationship to change is, again, not entirely a matter of temperament, it’s also timing. It’s possible to be born just as an age is coming to a close and in that way, to be old even when one is young. I’m like that, partly by temperament and partly by timing.  The temperament part I’ve always known about. It’s the timing part that has come to preoccupy me recently. I’ve become obsessed with the school I attended as a child, my fist school, Marie Schaefer Elementary School in O’Fallon, IL. There were several buildings that made up the school, the large central building, by far the oldest part of the school and then several smaller, newer satellite buildings of only one story. My kindergarten was in one of those buildings, and I believe my first grade class may have been as well. I don’t remember when I moved to the main building, but it’s that building which preoccupies me now. It was so great, so looming, so old. Everything in it was wood: the frames around the blackboards, the window frames, the desks. Everything was solid and utilitarian. The colors were somber greens or beiges, dark, worn. Each classroom had a cloakroom with thick wood moldings and countless hooks for our winter coats and hats and when it rained or snowed, that tiny, narrow room packed as it was with children’s wet overthings, would become as humid as a sauna.

The building itself was very warm. It was heated with old steam radiators. There were no protective covers on them. I remember this, because I burned myself on one once. That was one of the first injuries I remember. It was a strange experience. I’d never touched anything so hot. I didn’t do it deliberately, I only brushed against it, but felt immediately a sharp searing pain of an intensity hitherto unknown to me. I looked down at my arm and watched, with the sort of scientific curiosity children always have when they discover something new, the small patch of skin that had contacted the radiator contract and turn a dark reddish gray.

That great school building fascinated me even as a child because it seemed so old. It seemed to me from an earlier age, and yet it was my school building. The building down which halls I fled one day during a fire drill because I was too afraid to go down the fire-escape chute that was said to take the skin off the arms of children who did not remember to keep their arms held tightly to their sides. I hadn’t had to go down the chute. We’d been offered the choice of lining up and marching outside with the other children who didn’t want to brave the chute, but I’d been curious about it. At the last minute though, I chickened out and fled with a few similarly cowardly comrades down the halls that we feared were by that time engulfed in flames. They weren’t, of course, it was only a fire drill, not a fire. I didn’t understand that though, or at least I wasn’t entirely confident of it. I remember, in any case, being very frightened as our little group raced frantically through the hall to the great staircase in the center of the building that ran down toward the door.

Those are among my earliest memories, being burned on the radiator, and fleeing from what I feared was the burning building. I still remember the slant of the light through the many large windows as we ran down the hall. I can still hear the echo of our footsteps and the frightened cries of the other children.

I have a third memory of that school that is equally strong. It’s of the strange, bell-like swing on the playground. It was sort of like the hoop portion of an ante-bellum hoop skirt. There was a large central pole embedded in the asphalt and then a number of smaller, more slender poles that extended outward and downward from it. Three quarters of the way down was a great metal ring affixed to these slender poles. This was the first hoop. It served as a handrail. Below that was a second great circular wooden hoop that formed a bench on which we children sat. Beneath this bench was a third hoop of smaller circumference. Some children, I think they must have been older children, ones who understood how the swing worked and were not afraid of it, some children put their feet on this smaller hoop. Most of us though sat with our feet toward the outside of the contraption where there was no danger of their being crushed when the metal ring on the inside crashed against the central pole.

That’s how it worked, that swing. It swung back and forth from its axis on the central pole as a bell does when it is rung, so that the children sitting on the wooden benches around the circumference dipped first low and close to the pole and then soared high and away with such force that one had to cling to the little metal hand rail with all one’s might to keep from being tossed off.

It has to have been dangerous that swing. Even then it was clear that it would be easy for a child to be injured on it. One had to be in the second grade to be allowed on it. There were even monitors there at recess to make sure none of the very small children got on. I was so thrilled the day I entered the second grade, the day I was allowed on it. I don’t remember talking about it before hand. I must have though because it was an event, you see, to be allowed on that swing.

I’ve never seen another swing like it. I’ve always been nostalgic, but have become more so recently. Nostalgia comes naturally, I believe, to people when they hit middle age. So I began to think a lot about that school, about the old building that so fascinated me and about that swing. I tried to see if I could find any pictures of it online, but when I typed in the name of the school, what came up was unrecognizable to me. I emailed the principle, to see if the building had been torn down and if so whether there were any pictures of it and, in particular, pictures of the swing. She wrote back that the building had been torn down, many years ago, but that she had some photos she could send me. She had no photos of the swing though. She had never heard of the swing.

Never heard of the swing. That gave me a chill, a chill like the kind they say you get when someone walks on your grave. How could it be, I thought, that she had never heard of the swing. That swing was famous. It was impossible to think of the school without thinking of the swing. The swing had been right next to the old building, like a great bell ringing the children in to their classes. It did ring too, when the foot railing crashed against the central pole it made a ringing sound almost like that of a blacksmith pounding hot metal on an anvil.

Clang, clang, the swing would ring out loudly throughout recess. That’s how you could tell it was recess, because you could hear the anvil-like ringing of the swing.

Never heard of the swing? That was too strange to me. How was that possible? It was such a huge and heavy thing, so solidly implanted in the asphalt that it was hard to imagine anyone trying to remove it. Even if you could dismantle the swing itself, that central pole would have been almost impossible to extract from the ground. I’d envisioned it remaining there pretty much forever, that pole, just sticking straight up out of the ground, refusing to leave. And yet it must have been gone, because if it had still been there, someone would have remembered something about why it was there. There would have been a legend, like an urban legend–i.e., a schoolyard legend–about the dangerous swing that had had to be dismantled.

But she had never even heard of the swing. So it was gone, all gone. The imposing old school building and the amazing swing the riding of which was a rite of passage for the little children I grew up with.

I tried to find a photo of such a swing online. First I typed in “bell-like” swing, but all kinds of strange things came up that had nothing to do with playground equipment. Then I tried typing in “circular swing.” And there it was. There were two photos of the swing, not the very swing, but of ones like it. The first was from around the turn of the last century and the second looked to be from sometime in the 1930s or perhaps ‘40s. The swing in the first photo didn’t have a handrail. The one in the latter photo though was identical to the swing I remembered except that it seemed smaller. But perhaps I remember it as larger than it was since I was so small then myself.

That’s all, those two photos. I couldn’t find any information on the swing. I did hear, finally, though from a librarian at the O’Fallon historical society. She sent me some pictures of the buildings from my school that had been torn down. One was from 1901 and the other was from 1912. I can’t tell which was the building in which I had my classes because they looked very similar. They were next to each other, so perhaps I even thought they were one building.

I’ll bet the swing was as old as those buildings. Strange that something that was so important in my life has virtually vanished, is so obscure that even other people my age have never heard of anything like it. Ours must have been one of the last ones judging from the ages of the two photos I found. Perhaps it was the very last. Strange to grow up with something that had already all but disappeared into the annals of history. Strange to grow up thinking that such an antique was an ordinary amusement for a child of the period, when if it had ever been an ordinary amusement for children, it was for children of a much, much earlier period.

Bob Slate

Portrait caricature The financial crisis is changing the landscape in ways that I have yet to hear anyone talk about. Yes, Borders is gone, and God knows how many other mega chains have been hard hit. There are plenty of those left though. The real toll is on the small, independent merchants.

I took art classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education the year my husband was a visiting professor at Boston University’s law school and I was on sabbatical. I loved hanging out in Cambridge, not only because it’s an attractive little town with, as one would expect, several excellent bookstores, but also because of Bob Slate Stationers.

I’ve always loved office supply stores. I shop for office supplies like some women shop for clothes. I love to look at all the different fashions in legal pads and the more esoteric sorts of notepapers. I love files and pocket folders and binders, stamp pads and inks, the little rubber things you put on the end of your fingers to make it easier to turn pages. I love pencils, especially the red marking type that I use for highlighting text, so I can erase the highlighting later if I change my mind. I have a wonderful Faber-Castell pencil with a built in sharpener (not the expensive silver one, but a cheaper, more utilitarian green plastic one of the same design).

Fountain pens are my special passion though. I have a Montblanc, several Namikis and Pelikans, both new and vintage, a couple of Sailors and a no-name vintage pen that I got for $12 from an antique dealer and which had a real, honest to goodness 14K Bock nib. I have a rocker blotter and blotting paper. One would think that I already had every conceivable bit of paraphernalia related to writing, or to office work more generally. Yet I still love spending hours in office supply stores just to make sure that some new item hasn’t surfaced that I would want to add to my collection.

Bob Slate was a real, old-fashioned stationer. It had been a family owned and run business for more than 75 years. Not only did they have all kinds of beautiful laid paper and card stock, they had every type of pad paper in every color and ruling (as in “wide-ruled” and “narrow ruled”), including my favorite, that I could find nowhere else, a white, narrow-ruled legal pad sans the red vertical line that most legal pads have toward the edge of the left side. Bob Slate didn’t merely have Hemingway notebooks, they had every type of notebook and journal and a complete line of Rhodia paper products. They even had refill staples for my miniscule stapler that is about half the size of a Tot stapler and thus very handy to carry with me to class for those occasions when I give in-class essays. Best of all though, they had fountain pens and a staff who understood them. It was the only shop I had ever been in that stocked Pelikan nibs.

I remember thinking, after I discovered Bob Slate, how nice it must be to teach at Harvard, to be able to walk out of one’s office and over to Bob Slate in a matter of minutes! I’d never harbored any ambitions to teach at Harvard. Not that I’d turn down an appointment there, of course. It’s just that I’m a philosopher and jobs for us are so scarce that we tend to be happy to have any kind of teaching position at all. After I discovered Bob Slate though, I began to fantasize about getting a job at Harvard. I’d even take something in theology. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I’m a Kierkegaard scholar, after all. The thought of working in such close proximity to Bob Slate was intoxicating!

I made my usual trek to Bob Slate a couple of years ago when I happened to be in Cambridge. I didn’t go to the main store, but to the one on Church Street, one of the two smaller satellite stores, just for a change. After satisfying myself that there was nothing new I needed, I bought some tiny staples and several of my favorite legal pads. I was surprised, however, when the woman at the register stamped “No Returns” on my receipt.

“Why no returns?” I asked.

“We’re closing,” she explained.

“Closing?” I said still dangling my little paper bag of purchases in midair. “Is it only this store that’s closing?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” she said, “they’re all closing.”

So that’s it. Bob Slate is gone. And now, suddenly, the idea of teaching at Harvard seems less attractive. I still wouldn’t turn down a position there. I’m not a blithering idiot or anything. But the idea of teaching there no longer has the romantic associations it had for me when I could imagine myself doing my weekly shopping for office supplies at Bob Slate, treating myself occasionally to Rhodia’s luxuriant version of the Hemingway notebook, chatting with the person behind the pen counter about the relative merits of rigid versus flexible nibs.

I’m afraid I may be coming across as flippant. I’m not. I’m devastated. Bob Slate is gone and I fear it may have been the last shop of its kind in existence, or at least the last on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of such shops. They’ve been gradually disappearing for many years, those little stationer’s shops I remember from when I was a child. It was hugely important to me that they weren’t all gone yet, that there was a least one that looked as if it stood a good chance of surviving into the indeterminate future, surviving perhaps as long as I would. It was hugely important to me that there would be at least something left of the world of my childhood, something that could still have meaning for me as an adult.


This post appeared originally on the blog on my old website on April 16, 2011. I learned today, however, that Bob Slate was purchased by Laura Donohue, a longtime customer of store in the summer of 2011. The store has a new location. It’s now at 30 Brattle Street. Judging from the write-ups it received on its reopening, it appears to be doing well. Still, I figured a little PR wouldn’t hurt, so I decided to repost this piece.