Campus Tour

January 28, 2019

The Tigers of Clemson University won the national championship three weeks ago. Naturally, Sandy and I had to see the place.

img_20190127_065942765-14435706595616658466.jpgOnly kidding. I don’t follow college football. Nor do 99 percent of the people I know. I did watch that big game in which the Tigers dismantled Alabama’s Crimson Tide. I forgot about it almost immediately afterward.

But I had a full week of no medical stuff scheduled, and Virginia was dreary and cold, so we decided abruptly to drive to South Carolina to see our daughter/son-in-law/grandkids—although we’d just been there for Christmas. Clemson is an hour away from their place. Mike was on a work trip, so Sandy and I along with Marie and the kids went.  The little field trip got us back “on the road,” seeing a place we’ve never seen and most likely will never see again, this time a Division I football campus.

Although daughter Marie graduated from the University of Tennessee and son-in-law Mike went to Penn State, the big state university world is alien to me. I got my A.B. and M.A. from small liberal arts colleges. But I’m getting used to looking for odd, even bizarre adventures—things you may get only one shot at. Welcome the experience and learn from it, if there’s anything to learn.

Apart from ESPN, Clemson’s national championship probably got its biggest press coverage for the fast-food banquet for the team’s visit to the White House, laid out by President Trump after he shut down nine federal departments. Not the players’ fault they became props in a chapter of that sad, seedy melodrama.

img_20190125_1243042334121029123141958051.jpgClemson was founded in 1889 as Clemson Agricultural College by Thomas Green Clemson, a Philadelphia native who married the daughter of Senator John C. Calhoun. Clemson enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 54 and served during the Civil War, along with his son. Later, through a convoluted series of transactions, he and his wife inherited the property on which the university was founded. Clemson now sits, grimacing in bronze, on a pedestal in front of Tillman Hall.

The Agricultural College opened in 1893. The school graduated its first class in 1896 with majors in agriculture and mechanical engineering. Until 1955 Clemson was an all-white, all-male military academy, although the school didn’t officially ban women or blacks. In 1955 the first white women enrolled, and in 1963 the school admitted its first Afro-American student, Harvey Gantt, who later became mayor of Charlotte. Oddly, the campus hosts a Strom Thurmond Institute; nearby is the Clemson Area Afro-American Museum. The school became Clemson University in 1964.

We followed a trail of bright orange tiger paws along a four-lane road onto the campus and parked at the Class of 1944 Visitor’s Center. With a campus map we tramped past a hodgepodge of glass-and-brick-or-concrete campus buildings to the massive Hendrix Student Center, which strangely was nearly deserted. We enjoyed ice cream cones at the student-run ice cream parlor.

From there I had to see Tillman Hall, which boasts a tall clock tower and thereby stands out from the other uniformly modernish, flat-roofed campus architecture. We passed Carillon Garden, donated in 1993 by the golden anniversary class of 1943 to honor students who died in combat during World War II. We slogged around the glittering Reflection Pool and past the football-field-length Cooper Library, one side of which, in broad daylight, offered a light show advertising the virtues of a Clemson education: agriculture, engineering, overseas studies, a National Championship football team, among others.

img_20190125_1133149577427614449718680378.jpgMemorial Stadium, also called “Death Valley,” meaning for visiting teams, has a seating capacity of about 82,000. It appears surprisingly small, compared to the massive venues at Penn State, U-Tenn., Florida State, the few I’ve visited. Lampposts along routes to the stadium are festooned with banners that cite one survey or another: “happiest students,” “best S.C. education value,” “great alumni support,” and so on.

Although educators widely ignore the annual U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities, the higher-ranked schools typically flog them as testimonials. Clemson, which the magazine grades as 24th among public universities, is no exception. Although I once heard the school called a “farmers’ college” by someone who would know, that was some years ago. I’m sure that, if you apply yourself, you get an excellent state university education at Clemson.

We straggled back to the car, exhausted, our daughter not convinced that Clemson is the place for our grandsons. She and Mike are thinking more of Stanford. Clemson, though, would offer in-state tuition. Plus football.

Dark Night

January 21, 2019

On Thursday we approached the fortress-like medical office building where my doctor practices to see an ambulance and fire engine parked outside, warning lights flashing. EMTs were hauling one of those reinforced stretchers inside that rabbit’s warren of physicians’ and therapists’ offices. Couldn’t be my doc, I muttered.  We rode the elevator to my doctor’s suite. As I thumbed through the years-old magazines in the waiting room, sure enough, the EMT squad came hustling out of my doctor’s treatment room tugging the stretcher with an unconscious man strapped to it.

Make you wonder? Made me nervous. Hope he’s OK.

Why does this past week now seem brighter and happier than the previous one? Day to day, hour to hour, it was nightmarish. Seven days of biting, damp Virginia winter cold. A wretching all-day, all-night chest cough. Concerts of insurance company “hold” music, followed by baffling cross-examinations by reps who always want your date of birth but can’t answer your question.

Yet the weariness falls away, hope and good remains.

Like a nervous tic I can’t stop, the rotten weather draws my mind back to that September night Sandy and I spent at Picacho Peak State Park (yeah, that one) in Picacho, Ariz., (see this blog, Sept. 16). That 100F-plus evening that seemed to drain every trace of moisture from our bodies as we sat gasping in our lawn chairs trying to have fun now seems now like a warm, cozy dream. Me mentioning it still sets her teeth on edge (what, that again?), as if I’m recasting a hellish experience as an exotic summer adventure.

img_20180915_1908023948733243036808042340.jpgI recall the heat, the creepy, empty campground, the yellowjackets, the scorpion in the shower. But what also rushes back is the star-filled desert sky at midnight, the soft, warm breeze, the silhouettes of the giant Seguaro cacti against the moonlight, the overwhelming sense of isolation of the place that yet conveyed not loneliness, but a strange peace.

And now here we are standing in the cold in front of that ugly medical building. How do we get back to that midnight moment at Picacho? Why on earth would I want to? I’m looking at a big task, the health problem now staring me in the face, sure. But then we’re also stuck with all those mundane challenges that so-called seniors face: managing money, managing time, eating a healthy diet—all hard work.

Meanwhile, outside our little universe of semi-retirement, the fabric of national life is being shredded. Federal employees, treated like slaves, are getting groceries from food banks, selling their kids’ stuff, choosing between medicine and utility bills.

We are in a dark night, the metaphor fought over by novelists and poets to convey a thousand meanings. On the downward scale, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bleak novel “Tender Is the Night”  tracks the self-absorption of the 1920s that descends into depression and tragedy. Downward farther are the bottom-dwellers of culture and literature since, cued by Jean Paul Sartre’s line, “Hell is other people,” the close of his 1943 play, No Exit. What could be darker? Sartre was celebrated as a pop hero by the life-is-a-crapshoot school of thought, which is still with us in America, and now holds high political office.

The dark night I home on is that of the poem, The Dark Night of the Soul by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, and his accompanying essay, The Dark Night. The essay is famous on its own, but actually is a continuation of St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, which sets out the purpose of  “The Dark Night.”

St. John leads us through a progression of metaphorical “nights” during which man’s senses and soul are purged of sin, as God calls him to perfection. These steps in purgation strengthen the soul for the final Dark Night, during which angels permit the devil to attack the soul thereby to purify it and prepare it for union with God’s love.

The work of the Spanish mystics is spiritually intense, not typically taught in Catholic schools. St. John’s Dark Night may be a hitching post for me, leading me backward to the dreamlike warmth of Picacho, but then forward through my current health-care melodrama to the end of it. That is to say: the darkness of this season will end. We all will get well.

Steady …

January 14, 2019

Winter has swept in on us in northern Virginia, with a hearty six or seven inches of the white stuff, down from the 10 or more inches promised, or threatened. We looked at it out the windows, then decided to move on. We, and all those out-of-work federal employees, already know it’s the coldest, grayest, bleakest season.

On Thursday Sandy and I got home from our two-day trip to Philadelphia where our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline accompanied us to Penn Med, the University of Pennsylvania hospital in downtown Philly to get a sense of what it would be like to get my treatment up there. Like hicks from flyover country we gawked at the hundreds of patients, doctors, and staff people lining up and milling around that overwhelming, humongous institution, famed for the brilliance of its cancer specialists.

img_20190113_1237065963286440308502085236.jpgIn a nice but too-brief chat, the physician assistant who spoke to us before the surgeon showed up demonstrated some shoulder and arm exercises. “Bone heals quickly,” she said with a smile. “Your chest incision is healed.”

That was very good for my morale. She started to talk about how she loved Duke basketball (Duke? Here in Villanova country?), but then the doc walked in with his grim prognosis.

The docs were polite to the Virginia hicks, but I didn’t get having my vital signs checked in back-to-back meetings and being asked the same questions about my mental state three times. Policy, I guess. My blood pressure did rise a bit the second time.

Enough of that. What’s good, what’s positive? I drove for the first time in more than a month up to and back from PA, both ways over the 4.5-mile stretch of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which Sandy refuses to attempt. From mid-span you can see twenty miles or more over the glittering bay at the tankers on the horizon. Coming home, the wind was seriously brisk, whipping huge, stormy whitecaps, rocking the van, ours and others. She sank down in the seat, eyes closed.

Yesterday was CAT-scan day, another $250 co-pay, with my junk insurance. The technician made me stretch my arms straight over my head—I managed it without the sharp pain I had got used to since the surgery last month whenever I accidentally stretched. Stepping out boldly, I climbed into my shirt and jacket—by myself. That night I tested the breastbone by lying on my side. Almost no pain—nice. Still, the chest seizes up when I cough, sneeze, or laugh. This isn’t over.

What else? Michael’s and Caroline’s kitchen renovation is complete, and spectacular: new walls, cabinets, appliances, everything shining white, the whole house fitted out with high-tech stuff, like those “smart” light switches they can control with their phones from miles away.

From Colorado, Louisiana, South Carolina, the girls keep calling to check in with us. That matters.

We have something important next weekend: a memorial service for the son of a friend who passed at a too-young age last week. That matters, too.

In the middle of all this I still look occasionally at the Virginia Happy Trails website. I won’t be at the next event, the first-of-the-season Massanutten Mountain 50-kilometer (31-mile) training run, which I’ve done a half-dozen times. In those years Sandy tirelessly prepared veggie chili for the finish. We’d lug the chili, grill, pots, and plasticware out to Strasburg the night before and get a motel room. She’d dump me at the race start in pitch darkness at 5:00 AM. When I struggled into the finish eight hours later she’d be there, since noon, cooking and ladling out chili to famished runners. She became an institution, the “Chili Lady,” who runners would ask for through the training season.

But we won’t make that race, nor the second or third ones. But I still look at the list of entrants and recognize most of the names, friends, fellow trail runners. Once, not now.

Wait a minute, I should cut myself some slack, and everyone else. Right now in this chilly gray January, others everywhere are facing real crises. Looking back at what I’ve written—every week—there most definitely are too many “Is.” I this, I that. Too many people preening, starting, at this moment, in the federal executive branch, is bad for all of us. We struggle, some of us, to recognize it.

We are living through dark times. Still, I’m fine. This sloppy snow will go away in a few days. Michael says that in six or seven weeks, the planned extent of my treatment, this stuff near my heart will be a distant memory. Others have it worse. We’ll learn, gritting our teeth maybe–and move on.

The Last Christmas Card

January 7, 2019

Christmas 2018 was nearly two weeks ago, we’ve pretty much recovered from it. Then Friday we got the card, from Sandy’s young niece Sarah and her husband John. It was one of those cards you can create yourself, with a beautiful photo of the couple holding their two little boys.

It’s been more than a year since we saw them, maybe close to two. They got married young and lived in Nashville for a few years, John working on construction jobs and Sarah studying to become a midwife. A year or so ago they bought property, something like 10 acres, in Cumberland City, along the Cumberland River, between Nashville and Clarksville, which sits on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line and is known mainly for Fort Campbell, home of the Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division.

1546792440420blob7691990934453700341.jpg The suburbs turn rural quickly up that way. It’s country, and I mean country. John built a “tiny house” on the lot. Their life has included some hectic moments. Both are working at their own businesses, John drives long distances for work projects. Their two boys are a handful.

Yet Sarah’s message was brilliantly happy: “We miss being close to friends and family, but we love being out in the country. We’re excited to move into a loft apartment in our pole barn in the next couple of months. We love having company! So please do come see us!”

The card, somehow, freed me from my recent run of dark moods and bellyaching. I felt like jumping in the car and driving the 700 miles to drop in on them. Not possible right now, with everything we’ve got going on.

Their message conveyed a sense of pure exhilaration. It wasn’t Pollyanna-carefree/Merry Christmas/ho-ho-ho. It told me something about them, about how they go about their lives. Yet without Google Maps I couldn’t tell you how to find Cumberland City.

As I work at my hit-or-miss contacts with family, the nieces and nephews usually get left out. They’re all over the country, the way families scatter. Siblings and cousins, and then their kids, grow up and move away. The same goes for friends, neighbors. The Christmas card habit brings them back, if just in a flash of color and good wishes. It also brings those fundraising appeals, for cancer research, victims of homelessness, poverty. They’re mass-produced, sure, but they remind us that the world is complicated, that people are hurting.

We could pause our breakneck schedules and extend a hand, over time and distances. Or at least think about it. The rush of time and the onslaught of everyday life get in the way.

Then what we do depends on how we choose to be.  Do I wake up preoccupied, obsessed, beaten down, by what feels like a grind of annoying chores and irritating responsibilities? Do I scramble through each day on an ironclad schedule of thinking about all the terrible things that could happen if I forget to do something I think I absolutely have to do?

That takes you only one place: cluelessness about others.

The solemnity and serenity of Christmas is, each year, supposed to be the antidote for all that. But let’s face it, we can take some lessons over and over that never register. The magic fades. The decorations are taken down, the gifts go in the closet. We’re back where we started: cataloguing self-imposed obligations instead of choices.

So how do we want to be? The way we hope others see us.  Do we need to toss everything and buy some land in rural Tennessee and live in a tiny house? Sounds tempting. Maybe someday.

Short of that—look at things the way they are, recognize what’s good and true. Then turn to the things we have to do—they get done, eventually. If storms are coming, let them come—they’ll be over sooner. Think like Sarah and John. Welcome visitors.

Recap 2018

December 31, 2018

Everyone’s doing a 2018 recap, some with friends and/or family, some privately. Looking back to New Year’s Eve 2017 and moving forward to today, we add up the pluses and subtract the minuses and decide whether we like the result. Not that it matters—it’s over, we can’t change anything. Scratch that—we can adjust our criteria for what’s a plus or a minus. We can throw them out and pick new ones. Is that cheating? After all, it’s your year. Maybe a second try at a recap would produce a better outcome, maybe not. At my age, one immediate problem: how much do I remember?

The quick take: January, not much, except the weather: freezing. I did struggle through it to get to the Surface Navy trade show, enjoying the scramble for news, reliving my working days (plus).  February: 69th birthday, 71-mile Reverse Ring, followed by three days in Sentara Hospital (big minus). March: published long freelance article (plus). April: annual junket to Nashville to see friends and family (plus). May: 1,300-mile round trip to Georgia for Cruel Jewel trail run with visit to daughter/son-in-law/grandkids (plus). And so on.

Is this right? A list of stuff? Just doing that, I could go on: June: tragic death of friend (minus). July: bad medical news (minus). August: Walsh road trip, first week (plus).

As T.S. Eliot wrote, that is not what I meant at all. We’re always doing one thing or another, so we always can compile lists. I also worked in the yard a lot. Who cares?

Adjusting the criteria: Did I do anything actually worthwhile? Did I learn anything? Did I do anything that mattered to others?

Looking at the year that way, the recap gets more complicated. In May I wrote a letter to the new pastor on behalf of the food pantry volunteers, which they signed, questioning his decision to cut back drastically the food pantry hours. He backed off—slightly. It’s still in business.

img_20181230_1208430584204191841609546502.jpg  Then we marched into a hot, muggy summer. Sandy and I took a couple of neat overnight trips to Strasburg and ate at the Queen Street Diner, a great hash-and-eggs place. We walked the quiet streets afterward, admiring the old Victorian-style homes and churches.

I drove up to Philadelphia, where our son and daughter-in-law just bought an old home and helped him wire in new lighting (meaning I held the tools and ladder while he did the work). Sandy and I drove to the Outer Banks for a sad memorial service for a cousin’s husband who passed suddenly. The next day we visited with family I now only see at funerals—but promised for the future to do more.

The highlight for the year was Sandy’s 65th birthday. I hustled and wrote some freelance stuff for a trade pub, which paid me just in time throw a surprise bash for her. Without tipping her off I got all the kids to come in, her best friend flew up from Atlanta, a sister-in-law from Jersey, nieces, nephews, running buddies all showed up. The kids jumped in and cleaned the house, took charge of the rest. Even the weather cooperated.

Renewing contact became a theme. I picked up the phone and called friends and family I almost never see, got caught up with them, and promised, vaguely, to find a way to visit. We’ll do our best. The phone call always is free.

img_20181029_1336307363868600781791726539.jpg  My revised 2018 is looking different from the laundry list I started. It’s orienting more to people. I’m thinking now of two hardworking, selfless women, both originally from Guatemala, who made good lives for their families here, laid off in a financial “restructuring” at the parish. As you talk to more people, strangers, friends, or family, you learn about their contacts, their experiences. Sometimes you get good news, a nephew doing well at college, a friend’s daughter graduating, heading for a bright future. Sometimes exciting news: our younger grandson, now two, took his first steps in March—we all cheered. Congrats, all around!

Sometimes the news is mixed. Health, work, financial, relationship challenges—“challenges” sometimes meaning real personal crisis and tragedy—come to the surface. You say and do what you can, you offer a prayer and a good word.

Maybe my personal recap is easier than that of people 20 or 30 years younger. I’ve bumped into more situations. And they keep coming, which, if you’re honest with yourself, is what you hope for. I’ve reminded myself many times that the dead giveaway of a senior citizen is all those “I remember when …” anecdotes.

Old guys, me included, seem to just pump them out, like the geysers at Yellowstone. But that’s because they have those memories, which “recap” lifetimes, not single years, and teach the rest of us (or the rest of you) how to treasure life.

Christmas Every Year

December 24, 2018

Driving south on Interstate 95 from northern Virginia to Petersburg is a grind. Switching to I-85 brings some relief, the highway goes to two lanes, the traffic diminishes, and the woods close in, tall oaks casting shadows on the asphalt, even in the dead of winter. We fly through that to South Hill, pass Lake Gaston and cross into North Carolina, still a long way to Greer, South Carolina, where we’re heading for Christmas with our kids and grandsons.

We’ve made this drive a dozen times since Mike and Marie moved with their two boys to Greer from Alexandria, where they were 20 minutes from us. Now it’s around nine hours on a good day. This stretch of I-85 plods past scrub woods and small towns until Durham, where it joins I-40 for a while, then farther west, past Raleigh, then turns into more relentlessly commercial-suburban bleariness. It then tacks south before hitting Greensboro, in the center of the piedmont, then Charlotte in another 100 miles.  Sandy is driving all the way, since I can’t drive for another three weeks.

wp-15456215447488454348387759375065.jpgWe’re looking forward to Christmas, although not the cruise through near-empty Carolina countryside. Now, for me, it summons memories of our short-lived summer road trip, before we started thinking so much about doctors’ appointments. Starting off, in mid-August, we schlepped through the green mountain jungles of West Virginia, climbing and descending, rounding those scary turns, making slow time. We saw places like Romney, Burlington, Grafton, Clarksburg, none of which we’ll ever visit again, but can say at least that we saw them (does anyone care?). The adventure continued through Ohio’s rolling farmland and small towns, Indiana’s industrial kitsch, and Illinois’ flat miles of corn. Then Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, etc.

What a difference four months made. Now we’re veterans of a half-dozen doctor’s waiting rooms and operating and recovery rooms in two hospitals. The country is different, too, as national leadership has gone delusional, good people abandoning it, the guttersnipes ascendant. Even with the sun shining today in chilly late December, perseverating on the darkness of the moment has become almost reflexive.

Yet we’re persevering. We scrambled a bit to get ready for this Christmas—not in the delicious panic of years past when the kids were small, but—a bit. We got some shopping done, at a lower level, having pretty much given up trying to get what people really would like. The fun of it, I used to think, was being bold, giving gifts I thought the recipients SHOULD like. That never worked very well, and within weeks the gifts I gave were mostly exchanged, and I couldn’t remember any of them. I’ve given up on that approach. After all, thirty-something adults don’t really need anything. So the gift-giving  has become the trivial part of Christmas.

What matters now, as always, is Christmas as benchmark for renewal. The cards, Christmas Eve Mass, the bright lights, the travel planning, the food shopping—all that—makes us glad because it anticipates something else. Christmas reinforces our faith in its own truth, the birth of Christ, the wonder of children learning of the miracle conveyed by a church nativity scene. It draws us to the future. Seems that every Christmas we wonder what happened to the year since last Christmas—gone in a blur. So we promise ourselves that we’ll do great things in the coming year, and the promises are themselves worthwhile. To call them new year’s resolutions makes them banal. Christmas tells us who we are, or who we should be.

img_20181223_1707025094883467340590981247.jpgThe best part of this trip for me is the stretch south of Charlotte, when you know you’re out of the urban mid-Atlantic and into the South, although aside from the weather and the politics, there’s not much difference any more. The interstate through the Carolinas is lined with flat-roofed glass-enclosed factories, more of them, actually, than in Virginia. If you press on for another hundred or so miles, you approach the red clay of north Georgia then get swallowed in the traffic cyclone of Atlanta.

Beyond that you cross into Alabama, where the tragic legacy of this huge swath of the country resonates. You continue west on I-20 to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, retracing our September route, or turn north at I-65 in Birmingham towards Tennessee, the southeastern corner where Sandy grew up, then to Nashville, where we lived for 12 years and where our three older kids were born. She and I remind ourselves that the move to the Northeast changed the trajectory of their lives, but they still have to acknowledge the Southern connection.

The point of all of this is that whatever you do, or wherever you go at Christmas, you confront possibilities, even obligations, for thinking about the past, including the regrets and mistakes that cannot be forgotten—but then also the promise of grace. You change scenery or stay home, you put up a tree and decorate it or not, you witness the grim battle between the retailers marketing from October to New Year’s and the imprecations from church billboards to worship with them.

But the truth of Christmas has the power to outlast all that, and the power to make whole the mistakes and regrets. We look back, we remember trying times, but also the incandescent love of those close to us. We look forward to coming weeks and months, maybe nervously. But Christmas comes to us and remains, year after year, offering memories and lessons, renewing hope that brings peace, and joy.

Lunch at Joe’s

December 17, 2018

I had to pick up copies of my first MRI report at an imaging facility—hard to keep track of all this paper.  It was raining hard and I didn’t have to do it today, but I just wanted to get it done. My chore became Sandy’s chore, as they all do these days, since I can’t drive for three more weeks. But I suggested getting lunch afterward at Joe’s American Diner, and she was good for that.

Joe’s is the kind of place you think “Joe’s Diner” would be, one of thousands across America. We ate at lots of them on our road trip, in Ohio, Missouri, Texas, and so on. But something was off today. We stood for about 20 minutes before getting seated. We waited some more and finally ordered some lunch. Then we waited. So did everyone else. Time drifted by, half an hour, then an hour. This was for a tuna salad sandwich and a chicken club. But we weren’t pressed for time and it was still pouring outside. So we sat.

img_20181216_215055566-18856871527368260807.jpgI finally asked about our order and learned the cook didn’t show up, so one of the wait staff was thrown in to cook. It’s no profound insight, but the real situation we were trapped in (we could have stomped out) collided with our idea of lunch at Joe’s, which was way different. Strangely, it made me think about truth, and Etienne Gilson.

Gilson is the French philosopher who explained the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian. Aquinas’ monumental work, Summa Theologica, which he never completed, is the lodestar of Catholic-Christian theology. But beyond that he created a revolution in philosophy by using the teaching of the Greek pagan Aristotle to explain the world we live in, to explain truth. And this Christmas, truth would be a nice gift to find under the tree.

To get to truth, we start by wrestling with the meaning of existence. The way isn’t to quote philosophers or televangelists. It is to use our senses—sight, touch, hearing—to perceive the physical world. We watched the servers frantically carrying trays to the tables at Joe’s. No need to argue that they exist, that they are elements of truth. We know they are real because we see them running around serving people.

Gilson, who died in 1978 at 95, explains that in Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s thinking, anything capable of being defined consists of the physical, which they call matter, and the definition itself, which they call form.  You know your friend Tom not by his height, weight, and coloring (matter), but by his personality and character (form).  He needs both matter and form to exist. But it’s the form that defines Tom, that tells us who he is—what Aquinas called “essence.” Physical things (matter) we know through sense experience go out of existence. Form always exists.

img_20181216_131026395-2404909293807284020.jpgSo the baseline for understanding existence, truth, reality, is what we perceive. We can’t see “justice” or “courage,” but we know they exist because we see people acting justly and courageously. Every idea, every concept, every noble thought, e.g., “truth,” must begin with the objective things or acts that we perceive.

Gilson points out that Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s teaching transformed the way philosophers thought about reality, or truth—but not for long. Within a few years after St. Thomas died in 1274, a so-called “Back to the Gospel” movement started, led by religious leaders who opposed what they considered an excessive preoccupation with philosophy. They attacked Aquinas’ focus on physical existence. They argued instead that truth is based solely on belief, as with the philosopher William of Ockham’s declaration, “I believe in God Almighty.” As an article of faith, the statement cannot be proved. Yet it leaked over into philosophy, evolving into the presumption that reality is defined by abstract ideas instead of things that actually exist.

That presumption, Gilson explains, reached its tragic culmination in the work of the French mathematician Rene Descartes, who in 1619 resolved to create a universal mathematics that defined existence in terms of mathematical concepts. For Descartes, the definition of the circle and the triangle become the circle and the triangle, rather than any physical representation of them. In Descartes’ mathematical universe, reality, existence, truth, are represented not by the physical world but by a system of abstract formulas. The consequences of Descartes’ attack on truth derived from sense perception is expressed by his devastating announcement, Cogito Ergo Sum—“I think, therefore I am,” declaring that my thinking, my ideas, define reality.

What Descartes did, Gilson says, is to “thingify concepts,” that is, to look at concepts—ideas—in the same way Aquinas and Aristotle looked on physical objects as the foundation of truth. And so it went on down to the 20th century, as philosophers and political leaders relied on rigid, complex systems of ideas to define truth, instead of evidence anchored in the physical world. In time, those systems calcified into fanatical political ideologies. In 1941, Gilson wrote that “millions of men are starving and bleeding because two or three of these pseudoscientific or pseudo-social deified abstractions are now are war.”

How does all this hot air circle around to the present moment, at Christmas? This way: the country today is running on a strain of pure ideology empty of philosophical content, an ideology that feeds political opportunism by trafficking in empty promises, bluster, and lies that no one—no one—takes seriously or bothers to defend. In our nation’s public life, truth—that is, the perception of the world as it exists, as Aristotle and Aquinas explained it, has shriveled into an artifact of old textbooks that hardly anyone reads.

Back to Joe’s. How did our plan for lunch go so wrong? We had an idea, an assumption based on no facts, that lunch at Joe’s would go smoothly—the cook would be working and we’d be served promptly and efficiently. We didn’t know about the reality, and when we learned of it, we ignored it.

Like 300 million other Americans, we’ll look under the tree anyway. But we probably won’t go back to Joe’s for a while.