Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Concluding Unscientific Blogpost (Poor Tom's Philosophy 3)

-- By Tom Phillips

(After fasting through the Winter Solstice, Poor Tom puts on his clothes and comes in from the cold.)

OK friends, I apologize.  As some of you realized, Poor Tom was just a naked disguise, and his impenetrable essays on Irony were no more than a post-election distraction for an old man -- an old man fearing for his grandchildren, trying to step back and love the world from an ironic distance, a literary perspective.

Still, it was a timely topic.

The primary definition of irony -- saying one thing and meaning another -- is Trumpspeak, the new lingua franca of our land.  A University means a scam.  I grabbed her by the private parts means I didn't do anything. "Make America Great Again" means make the rich richer.  "Lock her up" means drop the case.  A Wall means a fence, and then nothing.  NATO means NADA.

Everything he says means nothing -- he speaks in the moment only, and the meaning disappears like a post on Snapchat.   This is the ultimate in irony -- not the distance between one meaning and another, but the distance between meaning and non-meaning, being and nothingness.


(With little hope but firm resolve, Poor Tom puts on a scholar's robe, shakes his sleeves and begins to speak into the air)

Listen up, Mr. President-elect: 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Poor Tom 's Philosophy 2 -- The Irony of Irony

-- By Tom Phillips 

Poor Tom
Kierkegaard says irony is like a dwarf wearing a hat that makes him invisible.  But Poor Tom has discovered it's not so simple.   It's like a whole bunch of dwarfs -- and every time you look at one of them, they all put on their hats and become invisible.  The most you can perceive is distant laughter, as they chuckle among themselves at your vain pursuit. For irony takes many forms, none of them with any substance.

Thirty years ago, Tom took a shot at identifying the clumsiest of the dwarfs -- the slowest at putting on their hats.  At the time he was skulking along the dirt floor of Academe, disguised as an assistant professor of journalism.  So he set out to define at least the kinds of irony you find in newspapers.  He was able to identify three for his thesis, titled "Irony in Journalism: Teaching the Twisteroo."
  • The first type he called "surface irony" -- a clash of appearances, such as the bluenose senator caught in the bus stop restroom... 
  • The second was "dramatic irony" -- the reversal of intentions, as in the defendant who sneaked out of court, only to be found not guilty, then charged anew with jumping bail.  Or President Nixon bugging the oval office, creating evidence against himself. 
  • The third he dubbed "cosmic irony"-- bizarre or baffling coincidences, outcomes that seem wrong, but actually happen.  A twisteroo: which is more newsworthy, a car crash in which four people are killed, or one where no one is killed?  The standard answer is the fatal crash.  But what if a car carrying four teenagers plunges over a thousand-foot cliff, and they walk away unharmed?  (It happened..)
Today, Tom laughs at "three types of irony."  He knows now that there are as many "types" as there are types of human being -- a number equal to the population of the world.  Irony, we say offhandedly, takes place in the gaps between perception and reality.  But we have no access to unperceived reality.  Irony begins in the gap between perception and perception, person and person.

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine declared that the "age of irony" was over -- from now on we had to face things head-on, as if we could.  Today the age of irony is back, big-time.   How else to look at a president-elect who regards himself as the greatest man who ever lived -- and is perceived by much of the world as a narcissistic buffoon?  The gap between Trump's view of himself and say, Alec Baldwin's, is YUGE, a yawning entry into a gold mine of humor.  Garry Trudeau has been working it in "Doonesbury" ever since Trump's presidential ambitions surfaced in the 1980s.  But Trump, by his own account, has no clue what this cartoonist is up to.  "It's too bad he's allowed to write this garbage," says the man who will be defending our freedoms.      

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Poor Tom's Philosophy

-- By Tom Phillips

Poor Tom's a-cold.  Thus spoke Edgar, the hero of "King Lear," disguised as a naked beggar on the moor, adopted by the homeless King as "my philosopher."  Come in, Tom, and philosophize.

For 50 years, Poor Tom wandered on the moor, trying to understand an idea that others seemed to handle effortlessly.  They call it irony.  Somehow Tom felt irony was the key to his philosophy, but he couldn't quite grasp it.  What is it?

About 30 years ago, the earnest jester Kierkegaard offered a clue -- trying to picture irony, he wrote, is like trying to picture a dwarf wearing a hat that makes him invisible.

Thirty years later, Tom had something like a fever dream in which such a picture appeared, or at least the idea of a picture.  Irony is not something in itself, he dreamed, but the distance or disparity between things.  One can experience a gap without making it into a thing.  The dwarf is invisible because it doesn't exist, but it has outlines, therefore a shape, therefore an effect, because it is bordered by actual phenomena.  He leaped out of bed.  Eureka!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Sleaze Disease

--  by Tom Phillips

Last night dreamed I was late for a job -- a fiddling gig -- but was detained by a doctor who said he had to examine me.  Agitated, I submitted.  He wrapped a blood-pressure sleeve around my arm and squeezed.  He poked and gazed.  And then he sat me down for The Talk.

-- Young man, he said, I won't mince words;  you are suffering from a fatal disease.  It's named after the doctor who discovered it, Dr. Walter Sleaze.  The Sleaze Disease.  It's probably a good time to schedule that trip to Europe.

I tried to take it like a man.

-- How long do I have, doc?

-- Three or four years.  But it's hard to tell.  Sometimes it can go on for twenty years.

Even while asleep, it did not escape my attention that this life span was approximately that of any 75-year-old man.  But what the hell is the Sleaze Disease?

Monday, October 3, 2016

I Liked It Better When... #5

-- By Tom Phillips

An elegy for the baseball season:  I liked it better when it was about winning the pennant.

Fenway Park, Boston 
Up until 1969, when Major League Baseball began divisional play, there were just two leagues, and two champions at the end of the 162-game regular season.  The two pennant winners then met in the World Series, a best-of-seven playoff, to crown one or the other.  But both were legitimate champions, and flew their banners proudly at their home fields.

Today, big-league baseball has 30 teams in six divisions, but just one winner.  The regular season is no longer a race to the finish line, but more like the starting line. Teams spend all spring and summer jockeying for position in the October post-season, where ten teams compete for the final two slots in the World Series.  Six times in the last 20 years, the World Series winner didn't even win its division, but sneaked in as a wild card in the playoffs.  Any team that's healthy after the grueling regular season stands a chance.

It's been good for fans, and baseball as a business.  Fans stay engaged when their team stays in contention, and more playoff spots mean more games, bigger crowds and TV audiences.

It's not so good for players.  The season used to end early in October, but now it goes until Halloween, 20-odd playoff games added to an already punishing schedule.  World Series teams face a short winter, less time to rest and recuperate.  Not once in this century has a World Series winner been able to repeat.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I Liked It Better When ... #4

-- By Tom Phillips

West 13th Street
I liked it better when you could sit on people's stoops.  The latest "security" measure in New York is landlords installing chains and gates on the front stairs of apartment houses, to keep off people looking to sit a spell.

Stoop-sitting is not a right -- the landlord owns the stairs -- but it is a tradition in New York.   Anybody's stairs were public space, with a few unwritten rules; you moved aside politely when a resident was entering or leaving -- you didn't make too much noise or leave a mess.  Anyone in the building could ask you to leave, but they usually didn't.

The stoop has been a crucial vantage point -- to observe the life of the block, the street, to see the world go by, to take advantage of chance encounters.  I spotted my future wife going by, as I sat on a stoop in Chelsea.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

I Liked It Better When ... #3

-- By Tom Phillips

I liked it better when shifting gears was the driver's job.

The hardest part of learning to drive on my parents' 1958 Rambler was the co-ordination of clutch, brake, gas pedal and stick.  Hundreds of times over, the car shuddered and stalled in the empty parking lot where my father and I practiced.  Give it a little more gas, let the clutch out easy, he would say, and eventually I learned to feel the gears engaging deep in the transmission, starting to turn the driveshaft, the wheels, picking up speed.  We were on our way!

Driving a stick shift meant your sense of touch was extended out in four directions, to where the rubber met the road.  Meanwhile you scanned the landscape, anticipating the next shift -- power down to rev the engine, speed-shift up to accelerate.  Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, said:  "There is very little in civilized life that demands everything you've got intellectually, physically and emotionally.  Driving is living. It's aggressive, rather than passive living."

You didn't have to race in the 500 to appreciate that.  But you did need to shift for yourself.

Today, driving is passive living.  The automatic transmission and power steering made driving easy;   the GPS made it mindless.  Now, we're entering the age of the driverless vehicle.  You can still get a high-performance car, with four or five gears on the floor. They're probably better than ever, and they'll never disappear.  But hardly anyone knows how to drive one.

Friday, September 16, 2016

I Liked It Better When ... #2

By Tom Phillips

To say "I liked it better when .." is NOT to argue that life in general was better long ago.  Many things are better now.  But as the song says, "something's lost, and something gained, in living every day.."  This occasional feature is a catalog of things lost, or on the way out, that used to make life richer or more enjoyable.

Today's contribution is from Linda Given of Somerville, MA.  She writes: 

I liked it better when you didn’t know who would answer the phone, or have to choose one person to call when you wanted to leave a message for a group.  I often wound up chatting with a friend’s father, or sister back in high school days, and later with friend’s children or spouses or roommates - it was a nice, casual and occasional way to develop a relationship.  And a corollary notion: I liked it when my phone rang and I had no idea who was calling.  Saying hello before I heard the caller’s voice. There was anticipation - it could be anyone, someone I hadn’t heard from for years, or - it might be something completely mundane. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

I Liked It Better When ...

 -- By Tom Phillips

1949 Buick Roadmaster
Today the Road to Dotage embarks on a new path, a dead end.  It's entitled "I Liked It Better When..."  

WAIT!  Let me explain...

This is NOT a sentimental series about how life was better in the old days.  Many things are much better now, such as cars that last 10-15 years;  such as free, instant self-publishing, rather than begging some commercial publication for a few inches of space to share your thoughts.  Still, as the song says. "there's something lost, and something gained, in living every day .."  This occasional feature will be a catalog of things lost, or on the way out, that used to make life richer or more enjoyable.  For starters, here's mine:

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Place to Lie Down

-- By Tom Phillips

New York is a great place to make money, and art, friends, and trouble -- a place to write and talk, to compete in the marketplace of ideas.  For all these reasons, it's not a great place to die.  To die in New York -- this is my fantasy -- is to feel like a loser, a dropout, a runner falling by the wayside while others speed on.

Most of my working career was spent at the New York headquarters of CBS.  There, high-powered executives duked it out to become president of this or that division, and ultimately the whole company.  The game was to destroy your enemies and cultivate your allies, until the winner stood atop the mountain, the jewel they called the Tiffany Network.  There, of course, he became the target of vicious attacks until he too fell by the wayside.

Only two men ever survived at the top -- William Paley, the company founder, and the current kingpin, Sumner Redstone.  And the price of their survival was the delusion of immortality.  A biographer quoted Paley in his late eighties, in failing health, demanding of a friend: "Why do I have to die?"

Redstone goes further.  According the The New York Times, this 93-year-old bare-knuckle billionaire -- though he can barely stand up or speak -- plans to live forever.  This is the premise of his fight to keep control of the company.

I was never president of anything bigger than our co-op apartment building, and while that job failed to kill me, it did not grant the illusion of immortality.  Life will end -- I just don't want to feel like a failure when it does.  So I'm looking for a place where dying is part of life.  Lest my friends despair or my enemies exult -- I'm not expecting to die, or even move, any time  soon.  Still, at 75, one needs a destination.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ali and Me

--  By Tom Phillips

Muhammad Ali, 1942 - 2016
Muhammad Ali and I were born one day apart -- January 17 and 18, 1942 -- and I always felt a close kinship with him.

The difference, of course, is that he was the greatest, the champion of the world.  Not once but twice, he defied predictions by beating the supposedly invincible heavyweight king.  Both Sonny Liston and George Foreman had devastating knockout punches.  But both were slow of foot and hand.  Ali was a heavyweight who moved like a flyweight and boasted of his insect instincts:  "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

He was a vicious, slashing puncher  -- "I whup 'em so bad they call me cruel," he said --  who sacrificed his heavyweight title for peace.  "I ain't got nothing against them Viet Cong," was his protest when the US military tried to draft him during the Vietnam war.  And even in the ring, he showed that you can win a round without striking a blow.

I saw him in action twice, the first time training for his title defense against Zora Folley in 1967.   Sparring with Jimmy Ellis, a heavyweight contender, Ali dropped his hands to his sides, danced, ducked and dodged for a full three-minute round, flicking his head just enough to avoid a barrage of leather.  Ellis never touched him.  

He did the same against Ken Norton in 1976, at Yankee Stadium.  At age 34 he was fighting mostly flat-footed, but in the final, 15th round, he came out and danced for the full three minutes, jabbing and running, displaying his mastery of the ring.  The judges gave him a razor-close unanimous decision.  Norton thought he was robbed, left the ring cursing and crying.  But I agreed with the judges, and it was the fifteenth round that sealed the decision.

Some people thought of Ali as a great strategist, or gave the credit to his trainer Angelo Dundee.  But I always felt he was making it up as he went, looking to Allah for inspiration.

The rope-a-dope was his ultimate piece of defensive wizardry.  Dancing didn't work against heavyweight champ George Foreman in Zaire, in 1974.  Fighting in a cramped 19-foot ring, Foreman was advancing relentlessly, cutting off Ali's escape routes.  So he backed up against the ropes, laying out with his head out over the apron.  With Dundee screaming at him to get off the ropes, he covered up and let Foreman flail away, absorbing thunderous blows to the arms and ribs, taunting the champ:  "You disappoint me, George!"  Ali knocked out the exhausted Foreman in the eighth.  After the fight, he said "staying on the ropes is a beautiful place for a heavyweight.  When you make him shoot his best punches and he can't hurt you, you know you're going to win."

Of all Ali's spontaneous aphorisms, this is my favorite:  "On the ropes is a beautiful place for a heavyweight."  Boxing is a brutal sport, and probably should be banned.  But it never will be, because a boxing match is an incomparable piece of theater -- not an imitation of life, but life itself, with all its glory and disgrace.

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

I Go Pogo

-- By Tom Phillips

It wasn't on my bucket list, but it should have been.  The Okefenokee Swamp was a part of my childhood -- I felt I knew the place, though I had only a dim idea of where it was, until we passed right by it last week, driving from Jacksonville to a small college in south Georgia, where a friend was running a writers' workshop.  By the side of US Highway One was a sign pointing to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.  So we had to go.

I knew it from my childhood because Okefenokee was the cartoon home of Pogo Possum, Albert the Alligator, a feather-brained pontificating Owl, a Porky-pine, and a turtle named Churchy la Femme, all characters in a comic strip that was politically over my head, but had humor enough for a smart 12-year-old.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Things in Bloom

-- by Tom Phillips

A few years ago my pastor wife was visiting an old lady in hospice care, who posed a difficult question. She dreamed that she died, then woke up to find she apparently hadn't.

"How do you know when you're dead?" she asked.  The pastor couldn't answer.  According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the most authoritative work on the subject, just as dreamers don't know they're dreaming, the dead don't know they're dead.

So let's take up an easier question.  How do you know when you're in your dotage?

Back in the 1960s, the respected art critic of the New York Times, John Canaday, was nearing the end of his long career.  One day, instead of an art review, he came up with a random article about his favorite Japanese restaurants.  He gave them funny awards, e.g. "Most Japanese Japanese Restaurant," and "Least Japanese Japanese Restaurant."   But my favorite was "Japanese Restaurant with Waitresses Most Resembling Flowers."  Ah, I thought, he's in his dotage.

And now, in mine, I can confirm that the symptoms include a fondness for Japanese restaurants with Japanese waitresses, and a benign obsession with flowers.

These days I take my smartphone/camera out for a morning walk, and click on the flowers that bloom in the spring.  In the category of "Flowers Most Resembling Japanese Waitresses," I would give the nod to magnolia blossoms.

What draws an old man to a spring blossom?

Both of us have but a short time to live.  And we like to live it in carefree beauty.  Jesus said, "Consider the lilies of the field.  They toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed like one of these."  Like the lilies of the field, we elderly ones have no gainful employment, we live off the land.  And yet, the Chinese say, there is nothing in the world so beautiful as a healthy, wise old man.

As for death, who knows?  We may be there already.  If we're dead, we're grateful for it.

If this is life, we can look at things in bloom.  As the poet said, "About the woodland I will go, to see the cherry hung with snow."

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Hex on Exxon

by Tom Phillips

Sometime in the year 2000, I remember saying to my younger brother, “the world has improved.”  It was a spontaneous remark and it surprised me, considering that we'd been brought up in successive eras of doomsaying – World War Two, then the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.  If that didn’t get us, there was always the “population bomb” that was going to make the planet uninhabitable. 

For a few years in the Reagan and Clinton eras, it seemed as though we had righted the ship. The Cold War was over, nuclear weapons were being mothballed and the threat of war was reduced to brush fires on the fringes of a New World Order.  Peace was paying dividends, and the national debt that was going to overwhelm us was actually shrinking.  For news, we had to make do with shark attacks and the president’s dallying with an intern. 

It was a window onto a future that looked brighter than we ever expected, but the window slammed down on September 11, 2001.  Since then we have been blundering our way through a Clash of Civilizations that is actually a mismatch, just as the Cold War was, and which will probably end, as the Cold War did, with a whimper and a default win for modern civilization. To some of us, the world seems to be on the verge of improving again.