“The Good Life” is a popular title for ancient philosophy courses. For the Greeks, a good day involved a combination of doing something useful for your city and having some leisure time to philosophize. And being rich, or course, because otherwise you’d be, you know, working hard to pay the bills.
So, for us middle-class moderns, having that sort of good day is difficult in the best of circumstances. Still, it can happen. Exactly a week ago, I had a good day. I even did some work in the morning. Then I attended a free lunch concert at noon, and met Jack Abramoff that evening. Yes, really.
The Fusebox Festival lunch/concert involved Graham Reynolds playing Led Zeppelin on a drum kit of kitchen sounds, and “Teenage Wasteland” on piano, with what I understand is called a “ping-pong delay.” It was everything conservatives fear about long-haired hippies using your tax dollars to make free art and free lunch, except that I’m pretty sure Whole Foods sponsored the lunch.
And then, from art to, I suppose, commerce: cocktails with Jack Abramoff. I am not making this up. I’d consulted on some of the event planning involved to bring him in to talk about ethics (yes, yes, insert joke here), and, following Richard Feynman’s advice for having adventures, I’d put a line out (“I’d love to meet him!”) and waited. Ater a few weeks, behold: an invitation to the welcome wagon/cocktail party.
Abramoff is tremendously charming and charismatic, as you might expect. Mostly, people asked him about his experience in prison and lobby reform and all that. I, being me, asked him about being on Colbert. And when we were being herded out by his handler, instead of saying the correct “nice to meet you,” I was the twit saying, “Did I hear you use the word rhadamanthine?”
I just couldn’t help it. I thought I’d heard him use it, when he was talking about a prison guard. And in Greek mythology, Rhadamanthus is one of the big-daddy judges in the afterlife. It was a Classics thing in addition to being a word-nerd thing.
“Yes!” said Abramoff. “‘Severely strict in administering justice’.”
“When I was in prison…” he started, but the handler told him it was time to go.
“Two minutes.” he said. He then told me that when he was in prison, he’d read a lot of books, and when there was a word he didn’t know, he’d put it on a vocabulary card so he could learn it. And that he’d learned something like 3200 words that way. He said prison gave him more time to read than he’d ever had before.
“Well,” I said unthinkingly, “John-Paul Sartre said that his year in a German POW camp gave him more freedom than anything else.”
He laughed, and we parted ways. I happen to know a friend of mine asked Mr. Abramoff what he thought of the good life the next day. We’re good humanists, me and my friend. Civic duty done? Check.
Come to think of it, it was a good week by ancient Greek standards. Last Wednesday I was taking pictures at our robot-themed Dionysium, co-sponsored with Fusebox. I learned about artificial intelligence. I met robots, including an R2-D2.
By Friday evening I was watching Taming of the Shrew performed on a farm, and on Saturday afternoon I was watching a trippy post-human play starring William Shatner’s voice and image.
In fact, all this culture has left me exhausted. It’s time to lean a little more on the philosophy, or at least Python-learning, side of things for a while.
It’s been almost exactly two years since I officially left academia. I’m not going to say everything’s easy now; I’m still working out how to balance making enough money with not going crazy. But that was true even when I was in academia.
And I will say this: I never had the time and energy to do this stuff when I was a professor. I never had the wide variety of social networks I have now, which means I can talk about Plato or Sartre or whatever with people who don’t have ego invested in their article on it.
Of course it helps to have chosen where I live. Granted, this city houses an enormous, affluent, and influential university, and that certainly affects the cultural landscape. But it’s not the ONLY game in town, nor, as a private citizen, do I have to worry about accidentally insulting the Provost, or Provost’s niece, or the Provost’s favorite donor, if I venture outside my own department.
Most importantly, if there’s a robot-pocalypse anytime soon – which there might be, according to the AI expert we brought in – I’ll die where I wanted to be, with people I actually like. And as American Express reminds us, that’s priceless.