A Gentle Disregard of Difference

(Vera is on Amazon Prime, 10 seasons)


You’ll find in this excellent British detective series

 A plump 75 yr old eccentric woman: the Chief Detective.

(She drives a god-forsaken Jeep, is always snacking other people’s sandwiches and stares down tough guys even when they’re armed —  she never is.)

A young woman wearing a hijab.

(Vera first pursues her as a suspect and then helps her with immigration papers)

A dwarfed, wheel-chaired female detective

(she blends perfectly in the office)

A Black male teenager, white mom

A mixed-race female detective

A mixed-race woman island supervisor

A “half caste” 16 year old female murder victim

All the forensic examiners — highly skilled — are  Black

(there may be others I’ve missed)


The show does not advertise or accentuate these differences. There’s no overt message promoting acceptance of difference. Differences are presented poker-face. The tone is “so what,” matter of fact, “nothing’s happening here.”

Is England way ahead of USA in acceptance of difference?

Perhaps Vera’s scriptwriters recognize discrimination in British society but have devised a subversive agenda to expose it — pursued with enough subtlety that it flies under the radar.  Either way, there’s nothing “preachy” afoot in these generous inclusions.

We watch them subtly unfold — differences in color, body type, religion, family artfully, flawlessly play out.



A Memorable Friend


I first met Phil Temko in Berkeley.   He came down from Sonoma Mountain that Spring to the bustle of the Big University with Warren Olson. They were looking for a fourth philosopher for the growing department at Sonoma State.  My PhD. wouldn’t be done for three months.

Would I finish it? The title was as modest as my height: Gesture, Commitment, and Vision: Generative Roots of Human Being.  They took a big chance with me. I was green, in my mid-twenties. Very green. Warren and Phil seemed almost parental.

As I remember, Phil smoked a pipe and took notes while Warren questioned me.  I kept absolutely straight ahead to hide a barbering disaster.  At the last minute before heading to the interview I had the bright idea that I should not look like an unkempt hippie but a bit  professional.  I grabbed a hair trimmer to take a swipe at those messy locks back out of sight.  The mirror didn’t help.  I kept Phil and Warren face to face so they wouldn’t see the disaster.

A week later I learned that if I wanted it, I had the job. It was my first — and only — job interview, ever.  Over the years, Phil, and his wonderful wife Judy, became fast friends.

Warren was chair. Then he founded The Hutchens School and turned over the philosophy department to Phil, who was a college wrestler — not easily pushed around.  I don’t think he liked the bureaucratic paperwork. He’d rather be in the library or the gym.

Those were the late sixties and early seventies.  There were Anti-War demonstrations. Mario Savio led the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and decades later taught math at Sonoma and attended philosophy discussion groups.

The day after Patty Hearst was kidnapped there was a banner over the Sonoma Student Union: “Long Live the Symbionese Liberation Army.” This was Sonoma State.  On the light side, there was skinny-dipping in the pool behind the union.

Phil stayed cool, remaining “philosophical” about the threats that swept through every campus in the land.

He wasn’t philosophical in the late sixties about his 15-year old daughter Wendy’s insistence that she be allowed to hitchhike to the Sierra Nevada on her own. He said no. She locked herself in her room.

Once in a seminar, we considered a chapter on death.  Heidegger had written that we are “beings tending toward death.” Being flip, irreverent and too young to know better, I objected that too much was being made of death.  Phil had been in the military and seen death.  He replied sternly, “Speak for Yourself.”

Phil and I drove up from the North Bay to Oregon to professional meetings with another Phil, Philip Clayton. Clayton was a would-be racetrack driver. He was out to show off his swerving skills. Temko stayed cool. He did suggest that the car might not be up to the stress it was being put through.

Judy and Phil spend a spring – perhaps a year – in Italy, where I had the good fortune to visit them with my wife. He absorbed Italian café life in Sienna, a city ringed by a medieval wall. Cars and trucks were barred. This made strolling and crowd watching a pleasure.  They were fine hosts, well-adapted to the city and countryside and to an easy Italian, outgoing life.

Phil was politically engaged. He was, of course, against the Vietnam War, and also against our policies in Central America. In the mid-eighties he traveled to Nicaragua with an ecumenical group to protest the dictatorship there.

Phil made his way into Philosophy journals. If you check Wikipedia, you’ll discover that he published a number of papers on Plato and Ethics, one with his Stanford mentor, Julius Moravscik.

He was a good friend, a stalwart of the Sonoma community, in love with teaching, and especially with teaching and tutoring philosophy.  He was a notably good man who carried his stature lightly. To me and to all who knew him, he spread a warm glow of friendship we won’t forget.

Life is Breath


The opening to Ecclesiastes is “Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity” – in English.  Apparently the Hebrew is less moralistic. “All is breath, breath, all is breath.”  Or with poetic license:

“All is but a breeze, dust blown over the plains, a puff disappearing into air.”

“Vanity” suggests a verdict, a moral condemnation, resting on a hard notion of what is wrong with a world full of Pretension and Self-inflation. But what if the opening lines were not moralistic and accusatory?  What if they evoke the breathiness of things: all vanishes as would a frosty breath exhaled on a wintry day on Casco Bay?

The puff of air reminds us of the warmth of lungs, of life. Its vanishing into air reminds us that we cannot cling to the moments that are life — as if they could coagulate into diamonds and put on a shelf.

All is breath that vanishes in a puff. It can be a beautiful puff. That first puff, followed by another, like one note after another, with musical spacing and allowance for dying off. And always a new note, a new breath, so long as we live.

Life is the exhale and inhale of breath, breath dissolving and miraculously surging up.  It’s not the hard-edge verdicts of an obstetrician recording the first intake, and the medical examiner noting the end of breath.  The limits of life are a poor indication of the ongoing music of life.

I breath out into chill air, marvel at the puff and disappearance, and let the new breath come from nowhere, feeling joy all along at the passing of all things. The innocence of a breath into chill air is the innocence of a note played that dies out. It’s like the innocence of the lily or the bird, who come and go. Breath breaks into air and dissolves.

And we know this as we become little children who marvel at a bubble rising in the air. We marvel at the puff that disappears (to be replaced by another). Wisdom is a child’s marvel. No need to master a new lexicon, or scholastic system.  We need to stay with the elusiveness, the musicality, of ‘breath’ and ‘vapor,’ replacing Greek abstractions with the fluid poetry of the Hebrew. “All is breath.” Why replace this with lexical dead wood.

It’s fruitless to try to grasp and package breath before it vanishes — to rush to theology or metaphysics. It’s fortunate that that a burst (or whisper) of breath is not a hard rock to preserve on on the shelf.  Life is neither rock nor diamond but the elusive musicality of breath.


                    *See Martin Schuster’s “Being as Breath, Vapor as Joy: Using Martin Heidegger to Re-Read the Book of Ecclesiastes,” [Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 2008]. I veer off quickly with my own poetic take on being and breath.



Grief as Love

Emotions are complex, sometimes not at all easy to unravel.

We can have apparently contradictory emotions simultaneously: great respect for another in authority and a submerged, vile, competitive scorn.  One familiar emotion might embrace another in a surprising embrace.  We might think that grief and love are quite distinct: love is joyful, grief is sad.  But are these two always distinct? Could grief be an expression of love? Could grief embrace love?

We don’t grieve the loss of things we despise. We grieve only the loss of things we love. Think of grief as an expression of love, love of something or someone now lost.

Grief is not an unhappy love, in the sense of a love lost or unreciprocated.  It’s sadness at loss of someone or something still loved. What’s unhappy is the sense of loss.  What’s happy is the sense of love for someone or something that is worthy even in its absence.

We find it hard to see two apparently opposed feelings — love and grief — as inexorably entwined. To see a memorial service as a place for grief — even keening or wailing — seems to rule out seeing it as a place to celebrate a life.  Of course a memorial service ought to express both grief and celebration — sadness at a great loss and happiness at the love we have for he or she now passed.  Catholic services, at least in Ireland, used to begin with wild keening and then morph into wild drinking and dancing.


Harold Bloom

The NYTimes “notable deaths,” Dec 28, 2019

He submerged himself in literature — more grandly, and grandiosely, than anyone.

By Sam Anderson

Harold Bloom once described himself as a “monster of reading.” He claimed he could read — really read — a 400-page book in a single hour. His memory was superhuman; he carried in his head not just poems but whole libraries, word for word. At Yale, where he taught for many decades, he was known on campus for a kind of parlor trick: If you saw him crossing the quad, you could quote a line of John Milton, and he would take the baton, as he walked, and recite the lines that followed. He kept all of “Paradise Lost” — one of the longest poems in the English language, more than 10,000 lines — in his mind-vault, unabridged, alongside (supposedly) all of Shakespeare, all of William Blake, huge portions of Wallace Stevens and countless others. He was a one-man rejoinder to Plato’s complaint that writing would destroy human memory. In his final decade Bloom could still quote, off the cuff, Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” — the long, difficult poem that had electrified him as a child, some 80 years earlier. It can be hard to disentangle Bloom’s reality from his own self-mythology, but even his detractors — and he would accumulate a great many — had to acknowledge the raw power of that brain, a combination of bandwidth and storage capacity that was, by any measure, exceptional.

Literature, for Bloom, was not only the pinnacle of human culture; it was also a sort of Olympic sport, a feat of skill and strength to be mastered in private and then performed to a rapturous public. He was, indeed, a surprising popular success — an ivory-tower best seller. Bloom first broke out in 1973 with “The Anxiety of Influence,” a book that reimagined literary history as a sort of rolling Freudian psychodrama. Every writer, he wrote, is belated — hopelessly late to the party of literary greatness. The only solution is to go to war with your greatest predecessors. Shakespeare had to overpower Marlowe; Tennyson battled Keats; Pound wrestled Browning. To read literature properly is to trace these anxious skirmishes. As Bloom put it: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. … Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.”


Robert DeNiro on this and that


 You could think about a character like Frank — or a lot of people you’ve played — as fundamentally inhumane as written on the page. But you have a way of infusing all these vicious characters with something approaching soul. Are there keys to doing that?

The rule in acting is you never make a judgment about your character. The characters have their reasons, and you understand them. You’re trying to look at their point of view. I mean, in “The Irishman,” Frank has a problem with his daughter. He has problems that anybody can relate to. I never thought of him as being amoral or immoral. He lives in a world where the penalties are harsh if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. He says he’s going to do something, he does it. I don’t like to go to Trump, but he is a person who, to me, has no morals, no ethics, no sense of right and wrong, is a dirty player.

Could you find your way into the character of President Trump?

I wouldn’t want to play him. He’s such an awful person. There’s nothing redeemable about him, and I never say that about any character.

You found redemptive qualities in Travis Bickle, and you’re saying you couldn’t do the same if you were playing President Trump?

I can’t compare. There’s not one moment that Trump said: “I’m sorry. I realize I’ve done something that I shouldn’t have done.” He has not one speck of redeemability in him. He’s not owed one speck of redeemability.

People have argued that some of Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened others to make threats or enact violence. Those arguments are not a world away from ones that people made about Travis Bickle or “Joker.” Do you think those arguments hold water?

They might, but Trump has people who follow him who are crazy and want to do crazy things. What we’re doing in film, it’s like a dream. We know it’s not real. There are people who will take anything to be real and that we have no control over. The president is supposed to set an example of trying to do the right thing. Not be a nasty little bitch. Because that’s what he is. He’s a petulant little punk. There’s not one thing that I see in him or his family, not any redeeming qualities. They’re out on the take. It’s like a gangster family.

Truths in the Trenches: II


Truth is objectivity; truth is subjectivity. A deep personal investment in honest scientific research weds subjective truth and objective truth. Einstein’s embrace of Relativity coupled his embrace of objective truth with his witness to subjective truth, so tightly was his identity coiled around it. And some truths are perhaps neither one nor the other. I have a true taste for Camembert and Richter has a true touch for Schubert, but these truths are neither the outcome of reliable, verifiable reporting nor a responsible witness to a personal investment. And there’s the subtle point that an ear for BS is something other than an ear for the absence of objective truth. It’s closer to having an ear for the betrayal of the subjective truth that truth matters to me. We learn to sort the sham from the real, the true from the false, the deep from the shallow. We learn to sort the objective from the subjective and the instances of neither and both. To sort is to have a knack for attune-ment to the varied landscapes I pass through. Learning music is getting the gist of its spirit, the gist of true pitch, true expression, true regard for a composer and for one’s fellow performers.

Religious truth, or truths in religion

It’s best to think of religions on the street rather than seek them and their truths sequestered in heavenly raptures. Does the rubber hit the road when we look for religious truths? It’s best to steer away from the hopeless question “Which religion is true?”—and away from the presumption that Pilate’s question makes sense, and away from the illusion that if we only knew the answer, we could adjudicate other people’s lives in light of that answer. There is no such light or answer. What we can do is to steer for an insider’s knack. We need a knack for the truth, not of a bulk item, “religion,” but for the tactile truth of the singular lilt of a Haiku, of the feel of a prayer shawl, of the taste of communion bread and wine, of the ornate patterns of tile work in a cathedral in Byzantium.

Little is gained philosophically by a fixation on the spectacular clashes of one so-called religion with another. And to minimize the debilitating fallout from such clashes, we need to stay in the trenches, work harder for the tactile feel of ways of singing, praying, burying, wedding, blessing, forgiving, praising, meditating, walking, dressing, eating—and how these weave in and out of things holy and sacred, polluted and corrupt. Staying in trenches means learning aspects of Quaker quiet and of Orthodox iconography and of Staretz Silouan on Hell and Despair. It’s to have a feel for Buddha on the afflictions of age and wealth. It’s being able to smile with a hermit as he confides, with a twinkle, “My Lord told me a joke. And seeing him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I will ever read.”

If I’m worried about religious sensibilities or truths that seem strange or threatening to me, it wouldn’t help to ask, “What is truth?” It wouldn’t help to head off on a NEH-funded research program. I’d ask, at street level, from the trenches, “May I listen in?” “May I sit with you?” That might lessen the chasms between my sensibilities and yours, letting me get some small knack of your sense of true friends, true prayer, true blessing, true dance. That won’t close all the gaps between us; nothing can, and probably nothing should.

At the level of institutional conflict, it’s doubtful that having a more intimate sense of another’s religious truths will eliminate violence, though it might bring the level down a notch, for a moment. But we should no more expect theories of truth or immersion in another’s ways of life to bring contesting religions together, than we should expect theories of truth or immersion in other’s ways to bring warfare or hatred or greed to a quick end.

Let me close with two instances where I’ve had small but important glimmers of hope—places where rubber hits the road, and one knows one has hit something significant.

A recent graduate of Duke, Peter Dula now has a book, on Cavell and theology. A pacifist, he served a year in neighborhood shelters in Iraq with the war going full tilt. We’d learn more from his tactile sense of truths—truths of hope and faith under fire—than we would, I suspect, from reading a thousand essays on truth and pluralism. The truths he can witness to resonate with the cry of Starets Silouan: “Keep your mind in Hell, and Despair not!” His witness is Gandhi’s or Simone Weil’s.

Now I think of a woman wearing a Muslim scarf. She sits quietly in a summer class I lead at a local Catholic College. She’ll teach me something without uttering a word. I have no theory of truth or handbook for negotiating religious difference. I’ll be alert to an assigned Melville text in new ways. I’ll linger with the delight Ishmael and Queequeg take in each other in their room at the Spouter-Inn. One celebrates Ramadan, the other Christmas, one shyly covers his feet, the other shyly covers up other parts. One sleeps with a knife, the other doesn’t. One drapes his arm comfortably over his bedmate; the other is terrified. They become best of friends.

Queequeg invites Ishmael to join in his pagan ritual. Without batting an eye, Ishmael thinks: “I would do as I would have done to me—I would have Queequeg join me in prayer; I will join him in prayer.” He arrives at a tactile truth, not unlike that of our good Lutheran pastor, and all for the good. My scarfed student listens.

No doubt I’d have a sixth sense working as I get students thinking of this scene—a sixth sense, to monitor my scarfed student’s response, revealed, perhaps overtly, perhaps in a subtlety—in her face or eyes, in a stiffening or relaxing of her posture. At another point I might bring up Muslims opening their Mosque as shelter for persecuted Christians in thirteenth-century Spain—one Christian rabble fleeing another. The persecuted were saved, for a moment, hidden. There was nowhere to go. Muslims opened their doors.

To knit one’s brow and worry the question “What is truth?” is to try to think from a supra-celestial nowhere, surveying all time and eternity. It’s to try to think oneself into divinity. More ornately, to ask The Big Question is to beg a release from Dasein, a release from Heidegger’s “there-ness.” It’s to presume exemption from the only field from which sensible questions about truth can be safely launched.

“What is truth?” Overall, in general? This is a rootless, slightly inane question. It flutters weightlessly in gossip and chatter. Emerson anticipates wonderfully. “We are place,” he announces. That is, we are not gods, not disembodied consciousness, not exempt from placement, not detached from the street or the village or the trenches. Thoreau would agree—from a pond not far from the village of Concord.

If we are place, what is our place? Our place is the place that addresses us, and the place that addresses us (me) enjoins a regard for truth. It will have no truck with lies and falsehoods. The oak or the neighbor or the sunset have no use for dissimulation; they require my frank response. If I am the context, the place of my friend’s address, that friend can insist that I be true. We hope persons with religious sensibilities admire true human beings outside the circle of their practice, and if we are outsiders to each other, we might still ponder the true aims of prayer, confession, or prophecy. It is our place to be moved by gestures of true friendship or true solidarity, to acknowledge the true magnificence of granite walls, or of a truly ripe Camembert. It’s truly our place to respect the quiet of another’s prayer and listen to chants in languages we don’t understand.

The moral is that I know many of these truths of appreciation and comportment like the back of my hand. Might I be wrong? Of course! Might I be right, some, or most of the time? I’d better believe it.