Good news from conversation partners

Some good news from a handful of current and former conversation partners in my philosophy practice:

  • One is leaving behind professional work to start an organic farm in the country.
  • Another is, after a long hiatus, completing a master’s thesis on sustainability.
  • Another is launching an artist retreat and craftsmanship school in 2014.
  • Another has rented a beautiful farm in hopes of providing artists and creative individuals with a ‘place to call home.’
  • Another has quit her corporate job to open up a body awareness practice.

We praise some persons for their virtues (such as courage), we wish some persons good fortune (in the face of uncertainty), and we congratulate others for their successes. In some cases, we praise, wish well, and congratulate the same. I do all three for those above.

Tree cutting

Socrates’ greatness was to be able to play with children, and to consider that his time was thus well spent…. Socrates lives a human life simply and humbly.

–Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone


Yesterday I bought bananas for Joan. She said she had plenty. Now I have four bananas to eat.

The rain from the past three days carried silt and stone from the neighbor’s yard into the back courtyard. At first, I thought the stones and such might have fallen from the sky since the fence separating the houses seemed well intact. As I cleaned up the mess, however, I saw how the rock could have passed beneath the wooden posts and settled like a temporary installation next to the august compost bin. The faux art would have to go into the rubbish bin, which is where it went, and now the courtyard is clean again.

On Sunday, Joan asked whether I could cut down an overgrown branch that might pose a hazard this winter. Calling this long arced being a branch is rather like calling a redwood a happy little tree. A branch it is not; half the tree it was, half a wishbone, half a life. I said I could come Monday and on Monday morning I put on the garden gloves, pulled out the hand saw, slipped on my sunglasses, and looked up at the branch (read: tree) like a manly man.

Let me tell you about this manly man. First he says Hmm… and then proceeds to ponder things mathematically. Should this branch fall that way, he reasons, it could very easily take out the tree beside it; and should it fall too far other way, it could smash in the other neighbor’s window. He calculates probabilities, devises a plan, and starts to cut.

I simply prayed.

I was relieved when the falling branch–20 feet long? 80 feet wide?–didn’t break the window of the brownstone next door. It fell cleanly into the middle of the courtyard. Then I cut the long branch into small logs, stacked them in a neat pile; broke the twigs, piled them neatly; swept the ground and left the patio newborn as the rain came and washed it.

Andy told Joan that he was impressed by my three stacks: leaves, small branches, logs for firewood. Joan tells me again that I am her best tenant ever. She is 89 years old. I am storing up her praise.

‘I pray to lay my limbs in the ground as one who gladdened his fellow-citizens’

The following is an excerpt from Pindar’s Nemea Ode 8. Pindar (ca. 518-438 BC) was a lyrical poet living during the Archaic Age in ancient Greece. The extant odes, apparently representing only a small part of his oeuvre, commemorate the victories of athletes from the Olympian, Pythian, Ishmian, and Nemean Games. Apart from the high style, what is striking about the odes is their sense of the heroic greatness of men. The theme of glory, not that of human frailty which was to be explored at great length by later Christian writers and, in more tortuous ways, by the Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne, seemed to call forth a poet who would have enough facility with language to be able to sing the praises of men. Enter Pindar.

A word about Nimea 8. Here, Pindar turns his attention back on the role of the poet, then provides an inchoate vision of human flourishing as being that which is set within, as well as made possible by, a community of men “wise and just.”

Zeus father, may such never be my way;
let me, walking always in the path
of simplicity, make my life, and die thus, leaving
to my children honor without reproach. Some pray for gold, some for lands
without limit, but I pray to lay my limbs in the ground
as one who gladdened his fellow-citizens,
praising that which deserves it, scattering blame on the workers of evil.
But human excellence grows like a vine tree,
fed by the green grass,  among men wise and just, raised up to
the liquid sky. Many are the uses of friends, beyond all else
in difficulty, but joy also looks for proof
to set before friends’ eyes. O Megas, bring back your soul to life. 

Pindar, Nemea Ode 8

How to play the rousing game of ‘getting to know someone you’ve never met’

Moves in the Game

You’re in the middle of a game that has only 3 moves. No more, no less. Until it chances upon a catchier name, the game shall be called “getting to know someone you’ve never met.” The goal of the game? Quite simply, to have an encounter with an acquaintance. An encounter in imagination or reality.

Let’s consider the 3 permissible moves in the game.

1.) The Note of Praise. First move: send the person whom you’ve never met a note of praise. The note to the stranger could take any shape but the one we’re after,  in order to “have an encounter,” would be the one that is most suitable. We’re praising the stranger in hopes that the stranger will become an acquaintance. The encounter may occur, magically, during the silence that dwells in the moment of the note’s leaving the hand or, just as magically, in the acquaintance’s windfall reply. (Best not to think of it as a reply as such; best to take it as a windfall. Surprise!)

But no chance of encounter, mind you, unless you’ve written something suitable. Hence, the appropriate note of praise would doubtless be short (nix the loquacity), eloquent (out with the cliche), a touch clever, and perhaps a touch touchy. Something like this perhaps?

Dear P,

Just a short note to say that I very much enjoyed reading your brief sketch, “C,” which appeared in the Nov. D issue of The New Yorker. Like most recent transplants to New York, I subscribed to the magazine mainly in order to pass: seemed like a good idea before I’d spent a year or two reading it. Your piece, though, is something else. The mood is so soft and homey, the transitions so simple yet elegant, the love of the everyday so evident.

Thanks for this, this little gift of redemption. Kindly, AT

2.) The Cordial Invitation. The second move: care to dance, no strings attached? Care to join me? Care to take a turn about the room? Nothing more than that. Anything more = pulling one over, fucking him over. No selling, no getting, no working, no hustling. No wiggling or needling or getting around. An invitation doesn’t figure in the mutual advantage or the mutual benefit. It doesn’t offer something for something, nothing for nothing, or something for nothing. It carries no “furthermore’s,” no riders, no amendments. I’d say that it is naively, hence goodly profligate with time: unhurried, unbothered, lovingly patient, rollicky by nature. “Care to” properly means: “I want us to get to know each other. Wanna?” Apart from that, we part.

3.) The Blessed Thanksgiving. The final move, and now we’re out, is the act of giving thanks. It could be argued that thanksgiving bears more on the act than on the person. It could be argued, but it would be false. Gratitude thanks the other (formerly, the stranger but here she is on her way to being an acquaintance: hurray!) for this. The “this” matters but only to the extent that it serves to connect the “I” and “you.” Done well, the good thanks has a very nice touch.

Good & Bad Sequences

The 3 moves can be combined to form good or bad sequences.

Good sequences: A) Praise, (reply), thanks. B) Invitation, thanks. C) Praise, invitation, thanks. D) Thanks, praise, invitation. E) Thanks, invitation. Etc.

Bad sequences: A) Invitation, invitation, invitation (Pathetic busybody). B) Praise, praise, praise (Sycophant). 3) Thanks, thanks, thanks (Hanger-on). Etc.

Some especially adroit sequences may take you out of the game. Fun! E.g., Praise, invitation, thanks. Stranger –> Acquaintance –> Possible friend?

A Thought Experiment: The Death of the Salesman

What if this were how you lived your life with regard to how you comported yourself toward strangers and acquaintances? Most of my days–I say this in earnest–are spent making 1 of 3 moves when in the presence of strangers or acquaintances. (True, more moves are available with friends, lovers, etc.) What’s nice in this way of life is that it rules out all of the following: hustling, vanity, pride, shamelessness, self-branding, self-promotion, selling yourself, solicitations, requests,  unbidden inquiries, unbidden pitches, unbidden proposals, etc. <–I’ve tried all these, including the etc., and they don’t work: don’t work for me, for others, for anyone well. (With regard to proposals, etc.: a good proposal is really just an invitation to get to know the other better. Seriously. Think about it.)

Caution! Caution! Caution! The Importance of Forgetfulness

Any move must be forgotten in the very instant it reaches finality. With one conversation partner, I spoke of blowing dandelion seeds into the wind. I still like this image. I wanted him to blow dandelion seeds into the wind. Blow, close your eyes, let go. Gone.

Now then, the praisesong is followed immediately by bon chance! Thanksgiving is followed immediately by vale! The invitation is followed immediately by my hand’s letting go of this note and… by the lost note’s disappearing into the dark void.

Have a lovely weekend! Bye!

DIY Monday: Notes of praise

DIY Week

This week I’ll be writing about a number of DIY exercises. Today my subject is the note of praise.

A Brief Caveat

In the past, I’ve been skeptical of DIY culture. I still am–not because DIY can’t put you on the path to self-understanding but because it’s insufficient for effecting genuine self-transformation. Understood properly, however, DIY can be useful; it is one exercise (or a small set of exercises) among others in an ongoing practice of living well.

Note of Praise Assignment

Send a short laudatory note to someone you don’t know. I’ve been sending these notes out frequently over the past 6 months. I love it.

The note should praise the work for its own sake or a life that is estimable. A short statement of how the work has affected you should also be included. Keep the latter short.

Usable Template

Header: Praise for X

Body of the Email:

  • Introductory sentence: Just a short note to say that I very much enjoyed reading Article or Book Q.
  • 2nd or so sentence: Brief summary of argument or work (etc.)
  • 3rd or so sentence: The work’s impact on you or yours or all of us.
  • Final paragraph: A short, direct (but not sentimental) thank you.


Header: Praise for “Varieties of Irreligious Experience”

Dear New Humanist Editor,

Just a short note to say that I very much enjoyed reading Jonathan Ree’s even-keeled essay on religion, “Varieties of Irreligious Experiences” (New Humanist, Sept/Oct 2011). In the piece, Ree ably explores the attractions of religion–the ethos, the mood, the practice of it all–as well as the problems associated with religious thinking–the problems of scale, soul, and morality. The principal aim of Ree’s essay, it seemed to me, was pedagogical. From first to last, Ree sought to soften the hubris of secular humanists, to quiet the insistence of dogged theists, and to maintain a certain openness to the questions that religions have persistently raised and that are not so easily put to rest. In this, he shows us something important about how to live.

Thanks again for publishing pieces such as this.

Andrew Taggart

Few Words of Caution

  1. Don’t think to expect a reply; instead, as you write, free your mind of all expectations, hopes, and resentments. These emotions have no place here. These notes are just seeds, meant only to be spread.
  2. Don’t take this as a backdoor form of introduction. This is not hustling by other means.
  3. Avoid the ill of talkativeness, particularly with regard to yourself. Be brief, honest, and accurate.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “An Encomium for Richard Holloway,” Butterflies and Wheels