Why Travel?

It has been nearly nine(!) months since my last entry on this blog. Part of the reason for my neglect is a series of distractions, not all of which I would be proud to disclose. But one of the distractions is worthy of mention: my wife and I are in the midst of planning to rent out our home for a year or so and to take off “around the world.”

To that end I will be adding to this web site a new blog that will be exclusively devoted to reporting on our plans and preparations for the trip and, once we are under way, what we encounter and experience on our travels. [Update: here's the link to Mike and Serafin's Travelogue.]

We’re not particularly wealthy: though we like to travel, we try to do it frugally — camping when we can, staying in inexpensive accommodations, avoiding expensive meals (usually). This trip is no exception. But it will have its costs, and we’ll need to dip into our retirement savings to make it happen. Which raises the question, is it really worth the expense? What’s travel good for, anyway?

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Reflections on Mediocrity

Last week we attended a fine performance of Two Pianos, Four Hands at Peterborough Players. It was sometimes very funny, especially the first act, which gave a picture of the two children struggling with their pianos, their piano teachers, and their parents. (Alas, I saw myself in some of it, as the parents pushed their sons to master their instruments.) And it was sometimes poignant, as the two young musicians — very talented, very competitive, very ambitious — discovered as 17-year-olds that they didn’t really have what it takes to achieve their dreams of becoming concert pianists. They emerged from adolescence as failures.

I didn’t only identify with the overbearing fathers. For I too have had to deal with the experience of falling short of the excellence I was once sure was in store for me. It’s a hazard of being relatively talented early in life and having to discover that one is relatively mediocre on the larger stage. It’s the Peter Principle, generalized beyond the business world.

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Review: Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone, co-written and directed by Debra Granik, starring Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, viewed at the Wilton Town Hall Theater on September 4, 2010.

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David and the Flower

A dozen years ago, towards the end of our son David’s battle with leukemia, we accompanied him in his wheelchair out into the hospital garden. We’d been there many times before, but this time was a little different. As we slowly worked our way around, we stopped longer than usual while he gazed at a flower. I have no recollection of what kind of flower had caught his attention (nor of other details of the visit that day), but I remember that he was unwilling to tear himself away from it.

Finally, after many minutes, he whispered, “It’s so beautiful!”

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The Novelty of Language

I’ve been experiencing the consequences of musa abscondita lately (sometimes described more prosaically as “writer’s block”), so here’s at least a summary of some topics I intended to write a little about. Maybe the Muse will return someday and I’ll be able to explore them a little more thoroughly.

First of all, in Adam’s Tongue (reviewed here) Derek Bickerton makes an astonishing claim about language and its radical novelty as a phenomenon appearing within the evolution of Earth’s biosphere. He insists it was as radical an innovation as the emergence of multicellular life forms in a world that for over three billion years had contained only single-cell organisms. How is this innovation to be understood? — especially when, in Bickerton’s view, symbolic representation, the essence of language, is the origin of all that makes the species homo sapiens unique and special: thinking, art, technology, religion, and so forth.

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Review: Saving God: Religion after Idolatry

Teaching high school students, I have occasionally been asked whether I believe in God, and I’ve developed an answer that gets me off the hook. I explain that there are plenty of ideas of God I can’t accept (and in relation to which I would unabashedly call myself an atheist), but there are other ideas of God that give me pause, ideas for which I keep an open mind if not necessarily full-fledged belief. Continue reading “Review: Saving God: Religion after Idolatry

What’s This Web Site About?

Up Down Way has no unifying topic (such as sites I look at regularly about the Linux operating system or alternative energy technology or the Boston Celtics). Rather, it is a sort of collage, mingling a variety of forms: part blog, part memoir, part journal, part essay collection, part photo gallery. If it’s unified by anything, it’s by the particular set of questions with which I confront the world and think about my own history and destiny.

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The Borromeo String Quartet Plays Beethoven

Last night we were treated to a spectacular chamber music concert at Monadnock Music in Peterborough, N.H.: as the highlight, the Borromeo String Quartet presented Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127 with a combination of precision and passion that took one’s breath away.

In a previous post, I suggested that great art has some sort of claim to “immortality,” somehow brings one into contact with “the eternal.” This late Beethoven string quartet, especially as realized by the Borromeo, surely rises to that standard of greatness. But my language was (and is) vague, begging a multitude of questions about the nature of man and his art. So I’ll try to be a little more precise and also to articulate some to the questions that I puzzle over in this matter.

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Review: Adam’s Tongue

I just completed reading a very engaging book on the evolution of the capacity for language in human beings, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, by linguist Derek Bickerton (published by Hill and Wang, 2009). I’ll attempt a brief summary of his thesis here, but I hope to follow up with more detailed comments in later posts. Bottom line: this is a highly informative, provocative, and entertaining book — I recommend it highly.

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Thoughts on Immortality

Abby Yandell died in an auto accident three weeks ago. She was 18 and had just graduated from High Mowing School. Continue reading “Thoughts on Immortality”