Soul Man, Soul Mate

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In high school, and even as a fraternity member in college, I was not much of a dancer. Squirming and gyrating to pop rock seemed awkward and a little phony. Simple jumping up and down to the beat, as the male and female groups do today, seems more fitting. At fraternity parties I tended to dance with the Nashville couples who had set steps, sort of like line dancing. Eventually, however, I did get a reputation as a wild dancer. But I won’t claim that it was dancing at all.

There was one man to emulate when it came to dancing: James Brown. With the funky beat of his band, it was hard not to feel the music directing the feet and the whole body from inside out and the floor up. Hearing a James Brown hit today immediately generates the same reaction – full abandon.

The figure of the soul man was significant in the late-1960s in Memphis. The attributes, attractions, and limitations of his type are worth further study.

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Born Again

With some frequency, I have mentioned that I once returned to college many years after leaving it. I never deliberately dropped out: eventually, after more than four years of hard study there, I was excreted.

The first time I left, though, I was propelled from college. Something was happening to me which I did not understand. Friendships were dissolving, personalities were shape-shifting, my body was bloating, the world was gnawing. And it was spring. But more significantly, I had hit a wall. I enrolled in a course on Renaissance Europe at Memphis State University. I had taken four very good required survey history courses prior to this particular course but had mainly taken courses in business and psychology. More inclined toward the latter – and seeing the former, based in no small part on the other people pursuing it, as a misfit for my temperament, principles, and evolving interests – I sought out new study paths late in my junior year.

The readings for the Renaissance course were complex and overwhelming on many levels. Though my professor was a spellbinding storyteller, I felt lost in material that I could neither digest nor piece together. I was captivated by images and tales of men and women who made my own life seem under-lived and completely uninteresting; I encountered ideas that made those surrounding me and my time appear clearly insufficient. Yet, I felt the time speak to me – call to me. Having read and attended with all my ability, I went to my professor and told him of my decision to withdraw from school. I told him that I would risk all, even risk being drafted for duty in Vietnam, to see the world and find my place in it. This man, who seemed to hold the world in his large hands, his imposing stature, and his deep, authoritative voice – a true believer in the power and fundamental necessity of education – did not attempt to dissuade me. He was genuinely supportive of the reasoning upon which I based my move outward.

I will be honest. I left school in pursuit of craft. The very word loomed noble and superior to bland consumption. Emphatically, I did not leave for humanism. I never would have dreamed that humanism could, through the twisted witchcraft of modern-day religion, be cast in popular American culture as the most wicked scourge ever to plague mankind. I was humanism through and through. I did not need to pursue it. And there was nothing that could drive it from me. It was the grand gift that had seeped into my pores from the moment that I was born. It was the alpha and omega of my education. It was the beginning and sustenance of my values. And nothing solidified humanism’s hold on me like the benevolent Protestant upbringing in my household that surrounded me since birth. To me, Jesus was humanism writ large. He would not stand so pervasively and personally approachable without the ideals, contributions, and sacrifices of humanism, and humanism would not thrive without the model and teachings of Jesus.

Consistent with my practice of posting manuscripts related to the Middle Ages, I have attached essays pertaining to my exploration of the Renaissance.

The mighty figures and events of the Renaissance would mock our petty conceits. And we justly deride many of theirs. But we easily see ourselves among them. We find their assumptions familiar. Their excesses are recognizably human in our eyes.

The Renaissance in History
Lawyers and Statecraft
Letter About Machiavelli’s The Prince
Review of Renaissance Letters

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post on dooms to view these learning journals. Read them or ignore them at will.)

A Fractured Brotherhood

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Who wasn’t dumb when young? Blessed are they who survive to laugh about it.

The 1960s were not for the faint of heart or overly idealistic. The same caution applies to the story for which these few words feign preface. Thinking of that time brings to mind the term wasted. But the times were wasted in intriguing ways.

Those who find modern society perplexing and unruly surely did not attend a large public university in American in the 1960s. The chaos was both diffuse and acute – and unremitting. Nonetheless, there were core standards that set a pace – even under long, unkempt hair and amid bizarre street-theater antics. We were wackos then as we are now in aging. Still there were, and are, steady limits that continue to yield results and reassurance.

* * *

The recollections associated with this introduction started with a dream about a hunt for a missing person. I began getting visits and phone calls from a disparate group of individuals with little more in common than prolonged proximity to one another long ago in youth. The individuals were roughly equivalent in experience, intelligence, class, wealth, ethnic and social background, and aspirations – but different enough to make interactions among them interesting and unsettling, offering a context for the personal evolution of all involved.

A youthful initiation into the world of intoxicants figures in this account. No serious offenses or accidents derived from said experimentation worse than what I had already accomplished as a very sober, yet equally dull-witted, 16-year-old driver. My first accident occurred two weeks after getting my license. Driving with four or five friends on the way to school, I was hit from my left at an unmarked neighborhood intersection. One friend broke his collar bone. Though the other driver was charged, it was as much my fault as not. The second was about eight months later after being caught downtown at night in a fresh snow storm with a car full of church friends. Of course, no one wore a seat belt; one girl in the lap of another friend hit her tooth on the dashboard. I was not charged, due to the ice, slow speed and minor damage to the other automobile, but I knew it was my fault ultimately. The third time, maybe a year later, while double dating, my engine (in the same car) caught fire in a quiet out-of-the-way suburban neighborhood. To my father’s dismay, the car did not burn up. Still it was damaged enough in my three accidents that my father traded it (rather than me) for a green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible. Finally, I had learned my lesson: there was no way I was going to scratch that beauty.

An excursion in fraternity introduced me to new ways of self-defeat – and maturity.

Memphis is sustained by social and emotional tendrils. Long after I left my college fraternity, a former brother occupied a house near campus with his best friend, who was not our fraternity brother but a party beast beyond any in that organization. When they gave up the house, my uncle and aunt and cousin moved in, and my grandparents moved next door. Within no time, my other two first cousins moved, each with a wife and child, into separate houses within a block of my aunt, uncle, and paternal grandparents. This area of Memphis became a frequent and much-appreciated resting place, especially after I moved into a duplex on the other side of the tracks, closer to the university, about six short blocks away. We all surrounded the location of my old fraternity house. In effect, it was as if over the years of significant events, I had not moved out of the realm of fraternity but rather stretched my links from it to the university and broader world beyond.

This story explores youth and fraternity as a potent, hazardous coupling. Though the subject and the telling may seem small, the personal consequences were enormous. And they live on in countless ways.

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Icons of Affection

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Art is a loaded concept. To ordinary Americans, always sniffing about something, it smells of pretense, fastidiousness (or slovenliness), delusion, and wasted time. If and when we think of ART, we associate it with Europe, museums, odd living arrangements, and media stories about outrageous sales prices at auction houses. Or we think of it as decoration to fill empty spaces.

What has no price is worthless in most quarters. Art as a commodity is the order of the day. Art as an ordinary activity is…well, befuddling.

Forays into the forbidding world of art, though personally rewarding and mind-expanding at times, generally go nowhere – except to a box hidden under the bed or to the attic or, if elevated above dismal, on the wall of an out-of-the-way room. Still the mind carries on, trying to connect, trying to understand – and perhaps gradually evolving to see more and more in more places. With time, one relaxes prejudices and self-deprecations and learns to coexist in parallel planes. After years of misses, one sometimes begins to understand the nearness of the creative process to skilled labor and simple, clear-headed insights.

Images persist while everything but gene exchange and self-extinction lapses. Adaptation builds and fades. What remains, if anything, are images and the changing values placed on them. The world itself, and its history, becomes a string of disparate, discontinuous movie frames.

Actually, it is much funnier than that, but only rarely. It is humorous when we think about art and its creators caught up in existential questioning amid all the fuss. It is painfully funny when we imagine someone else, too much like ourselves in this respect, repeatedly stumping a toe on an award-winning sculpture used as a doorstop, then ditching the whole enterprise in philosophical and exasperated revolt.

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What Worth History?

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. Important things never go away and are always relevant. The more time taken to connect events and properly sequence and emphasize them, the more potent the eventual story. Racial slander, commercial-political collusion, economic inequality, and popular outrage are ever-present. They are as ubiquitous as the Southern political operatives who sell the future of their fellows, and their own souls, for the sake of power and lucre in mimicry of the luxuries of more established and prosperous climes.

We all re-tell our stories. And the stories are the better for it. I repeat my stories and activities: over and over I rehearse the scripts, twist the unfoldings, and tweak the endings. They are the only stories and activities that I have. The Iliad was recited hundreds of thousands of times and changed with each telling. And the repetitions don’t seem to have hurt it at all.

Dirt, dirt, dirt – we come from dirt; we live from dirt (guided by intelligence, we hope); we return to dirt. There is nothing fearful or shameful in that fact – except when we forget it.

What is history worth and what is worth history? Why study history?

When I returned, at almost forty, to finish my college degree, my two most inspiring history teachers, my first one after returning and my last one, were confined to wheelchairs. Both were near retirement and not far from death. The search started in Italy and ended up in the American South. Proximity to toil and the soil pervaded both perspectives on history. Yet for all of this, there was a wonder at the endless spectacle and peculiarities of human history, especially pertaining to intricate, evolving human cultures. I suspect that I forgot the dirt of life at times in early college days, but I never forgot for long once I discovered history through the eyes, voices, passions, and reading recommendations of these two men.

Both professors were first and foremost storytellers and social beings, highly interested in cultures and institutions – in outstanding individuals and the life patterns of ordinary people. They were more interested in generating interest, materials-management skills and synthesis, befitting any professional, than in frail and filigreed scholarship for a closeted few. Both men shaped and shoved more students into forms of professional life other than academics. If a degree was needed for a career, why not choose a broad area of study that is rife with intrigue and relevance to life in all its connected manifestations over a commercially specialized focus?

For the last course of my belated undergraduate degree, in the winter and spring of 1990, it was my good fortune to study the post-Civil War history of the South at Tennessee State University. A more decent mind and gentle personality than my esteemed professor would be hard to find in academia, or any profession, at any time. He was familiar with his South and its people, he was compassionate but analytical about what happened there. However, he was not overly optimistic about where it might go – neither were my significant teachers at Memphis State University about the course that lies ahead for the people of the nation and the world.

Yet no matter how hard the grind, how pointless the day, returning to my stories – these stories of generations – revives my outlook and my body. How can history do more than prepare the mind and preserve the spirit?

While working on a short essay entitled “Guilt by Association” and its related material, pondering the worth of effort even in my sleep, I had a dream. I was a young boy in an enclosed horse-drawn carriage at a large rural event when a robust baby boy was thrust through the open window in a moment of wide-spread celebration. Years later, in a side room at that very setting, I was presented with an opportunity to ask questions of that, now, wise old man. A lifetime had jumped in an instant from birth to sagacity. In those minutes, talking with the experienced, sage Benjamin Franklin about people, events, and the mechanisms of life, my world view expanded exponentially: dirt and destiny combined to lift me above the common fray and into to it all at once.

That is why we study history. That is why a few magnetic storytellers rise from nowhere to teach it by being themselves.

May these fallen guides, born of practical experience, books, and noble goals, continue to speak in stronger voices that we can understand:
      Dr. Marcus W. Orr (1925–1990) – Memphis State University;
      Dr. Samuel H. Shannon (1934-2003) – Tennessee State University.

Guilt by Association

Click here to read a long review of related books.

“That the New South advocates perpetuated the Old South standard of an inexpensive and tractable labor force stands out as most harmful to the economy in that it forestalled the emergence of a vigorous worker-consumer society.”

* * *

Anger swells as I re-read my summations, drawn from the scholarship of excellent historians. The tale of Old South and New South, of populist Tom Watson of Georgia, is a modern-day screenplay. Elizabeth Warren is exhibit A.

Nation, read it and weep, for once again the experience of the South is a culture in a petri dish in which the illogic of a nation festers. Going back over one hundred years, we clearly hear the same calls for economic justice, the case against less government regulation – counterarguments to seedy, pernicious manipulations overwhelmingly aimed at forwarding the interests of concentrated capital at the expense of the public interest.

A student of history need not rush to publish in response to every detail in the daily press. The response is sometimes better voiced by authoritative, quiet history, for the truth is embedded there.

* * *

“The cotton mills, much as the cotton fields, became entangled in a financial and marketing system deleterious to self-sufficiency and growth, and without governmental or industry devices for correction. The earning and purchasing power of the Southern laborer was held low and inert for Southern and Northern enterprises alike – as a matter of Southern business and political policy. The laborer’s immovable wage was his contribution to regional development – his memorial to the original cotton mill uplift of poor whites.”

* * *

Weeks ago, I read a story in The New Yorker about West Virginia and have been out of sorts since. [1] I experienced the urge to cry with shame and fury over the insanity in our midst, about a people crushed by calculated deceit and their own self-deception. My family’s biography embraces people in those hills. Where did they, we, go wrong?

One bright spot about living in the politics of Tennessee today is that at least I don’t live in West Virginia, or Texas, or a half dozen other states that are led by worse misanthropes. For some reason, now when I think of the electorate of West Virginia, I think of the misguided, benighted people of Russia. Though not strictly of the Confederacy, West Virginia today, in its worst characteristics, seems Southern, too. What makes a people screw themselves right into the ground and contaminate it for generations to come on their way down?

The issues stay with us, particularly in the South. Nationwide we confront loud voices and maneuvers to lower standards of education and health, to neglect the environment and public safety, to proliferate and protect tax shelters, to suppress wages, to debilitate organized labor, to bait race, religion and sexual orientation, to promote wholesale exclusion and vigilante violence. We look away, but these issues never go away in Dixie.

* * *

This story goes way back, but we can start at the period following the end of the American Civil War. When I first read C. Vann Woodward’s account of the history of political economy in the South after the Civil War, I was both enraged and saddened beyond easy, scholarly recovery. The buying (or selling) of the South was the United States’ first foray into colonialization on steroidal dollars. I reacted mostly to the selling, but the two-faced buying was galling as well.

We have our green patches and charming ways in the South, but when we lift up the old full-grained oak boards lying on our sacred ground, they are riddled with worm holes and rot. If we don’t look underneath, we do not see the disintegration until it is too late. We can go our relaxed, pretending way, waltzing with our precious manners, but we harbor guilt by association with the cheerful neglect that is the gigantic mayonnaise blob, a cancer of the mind, that is Southern political style and anti-husbandry still eating at the core of our wallets, our health, and our valued earth.

The Roberts Court sees no problem with buying political influence, thinking it one of the honorable traditions of American history. It is a part no doubt – but not one to be esteemed or prolonged. Collusion between cash and public policy has had a comfortable rocker on the front porch of state and local government in the South for a very long time; it still sits there, smiling and rocking and getting fat.

We have seen this before and we are seeing it again: low-wage debates, rapacious mineral extractions, political skulduggery for personal gain, people not seeing the trees of their personal interests for the forest of moral and cultural hocus-pocus, for the thicket of junk, cultural distraction and social intimidation. Even so, one can hardly say that things are worse today. That is except for the growing sinkhole of willful unawareness – and the speed of negative change. We have a high-school- and college-educated citizenry who has the past record and expert analysis at its fingertips. We know that things we do are harmful to our long-term economy and to our planet, but we continue to do them.

This introduces ethical dilemmas of a whole new magnitude. Degradation of the planet and the future are no longer merely aesthetic or Biblically moral concerns, or former constitutional concerns of the Founding Fathers: they are concerns of survival – not just of ways of life or peoples, but of a habitable planet and everything of human value on it – far more complex than the problems that the old holy lands and wild frontiers once presented – though I am fairly sure that water-poisoning was a more grievous offense way back then than it is today.

Pollution, corruption, what difference do they make? In isolation these crimes injure but we struggle through. However, when connected and magnified as in modern day, destructive influences are more rapid and fundamental and can do irreparable harm to our social fabric and earth. Though difficult to imagine, over a few centuries, damage to our world could move beyond even human adaptability.

* * *

“The Farmers’ Alliance platform of 1889, formulated in St. Louis and endorsed by the Knights of Labor, highlights agrarian and labor grievances. Beyond a doubt it was a program containing radical elements: the end of national banks, the prevention of futures speculation, ‘the free and unlimited coinage of silver, reclamation of excessive lands granted or sold to corporations or aliens[,] decrease of the tax burden on the masses, fractional paper currency, and government ownership and operation of means of transportation and communication.’ One essential point worthy of special note is that while these allied individualists were engaged in unprecedented cooperative and organizational activities for self-help, they saw ultimate relief as depending on an expansion of government activism. They were not opposed to private property; theirs was a critique of raw capitalism, offering the corrective of a regulated capitalism compatible with democracy and workable on a broad, open front rather than on an exclusive one. As was proven in subsequent progressive legislation, it was a corrective that strengthened capitalism for agrarian and urbanite alike by bolstering consumer purchasing power and public confidence, and by building public management skills and local markets.”

* * *

Perhaps the widespread success of consumerism is our environmental problem. But I don’t think that is entirely true. Economic justice is implied in the growth of a middle class and a rising standard of living – to a point. That does not absolve leaders, Southern or Northern, from better management for public good. Nor does it absolve individual consumers and voters from their responsibility to not only see but to care for the trees of self-interest and public interest in tandem.

I will not spell out further how the South’s experience pertains, in part because that ruins the intellectual fun and in part because I have spelled it out in a long monologue, disguised as a glorified review of books, that I composed in 1990. It is like a long comparative review found in a famous New York publication, except that it is longer and less polished – and it conspicuously lacks niceties. (Links are included at the top and bottom of this much shorter screed, though I do not expect any takers. The bits of the cycle about Tom Watson might, however, induce some to take a look at that enlightening book.) [2]


1. Evan Osnos, Letter from West Virginia, “Chemical Valley,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014.

2. WARNING: As a precaution, I advise students to refrain from quoting or referencing anything from the linked essay (above and below) without returning to the source material; be particularly cautious about recycling my summarizing and paraphrasing statements which are outside of quotation marks. (NOTE: The extracts above between double quotation marks are my statements and not quoted source material.)

The elaboration of a reading assignment presented in the linked essay goes the extra mile and is spot on in melding key sources. The resulting product could point determined seekers in the right direction. But for the advent of Google Books searches, however, the facts and opinions embedded and commingled therein would be lost to curiosity beyond service as a passing journalistic synthesis and a tedious entertainment.

A real nerd could fault this linked essay for not going further in terms of academic notations that would have given it more utility and weight as a reference for others. But on the other hand, it goes well beyond what was asked for and required. At any rate, the professor who received it offered no such Pecksniffery in return.

Click here to read a long review of related books.

The Monk

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Exposed to the elements, stoic monks teach us ways to live and die.

Circa 1968, my philosophical college associates and I quipped, satirically shedding trappings of our suburban upbringing, that when we died, we would like for our carcasses to be thrown in an outside trash can for disposal. Looking back, there may be hidden irony in our joke: half-educated white boys resigning themselves, even seeking, to be dispatched by Memphis garbage collectors.

Nothing clears the head like big outdoors. I should have recognized that earlier from my childhood, when I spent most of my free time in wide-open spaces.

Every single day, my brain is cleansed and my thoughts refreshed by dreamy sleep and exposure to a pastoral setting under huge skies where fields, trees, and hills stretch to the horizon. The out of doors purifies and restores: it is a more effective eraser than drugs and drink; it is a better muse and memory supplement, too.

I suppose the impact of taking to the streets of downtown Memphis in the mid-1970s offered a similar benefit. Like a modern-day monk of Tennessee, one could unburden one’s soul in the big outdoors of a struggling city by a river, while afloat, alone, alongside an occasional familiar and the drift of harmless strangers.

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Odd Man Out

When you travel, particularly if you take photographs and take note of the people and places you visit, it is easy to see your relationship with foreign places and people as being one where you are on the outside looking in. That is not necessarily the whole truth about the nature and consequences of the transaction.

Although I spent many weeks traveling in Central America in 1973 – and with a companion who also carried a valuable camera – there is not a single photograph of me among those remaining from the journey. (There might have been a couple taken, but my companion lost his complete film record from atop a Volkswagen Beetle during a move within a year of returning to Memphis.)

I certainly took no self-portraits, nor did I ask a local inhabitant or a fellow traveler to take a photograph of me standing before an important cultural site. (I wish I had asked.) Therefore, initially, I viewed myself as being on the outside looking in on a culture, observing differences that were supposed to be foreign to me, but never viewing myself as part of the picture.

In time, however, in a slowly revelatory way reminiscent of the movie Blowup, when I enlarged and studied the people frozen in my photographs, I began to see that my subjects were observing me, too. In fact, in a deeply reflective exercise, I saw that I was observing myself, along with my hosts, through the act of photography. Going further in this exercise, in terms of both my photographs and my notes, I came to see the trip as a flushing and fleshing out of identity – a transformative journey made by watching myself in a foreign context, where the context, even if at times a caustic compound of heat, grime, privation, isolation, exoticism, and tedium, was both a stimulate and a healing aid toward a path of personal resolution.

The details of that resolution are grainy now as then, but the process and conclusions are clearer. A photographic image of ourselves in distant places offers little insight, though it can be a pleasure and a mile post to others who know us. The impression that we project and recall, at home and abroad, in our commerce with matters foreign is the souvenir that gives and endures.

I see nothing in my old photographs that render my image as a traveler as intrusive or unwelcome, as beggarly or greedy, as uninterested or mean. By traveling, I took a part of my culture to my hosts and they pointed me home again by being themselves, uninhibited and unthreatened by my presence.

The ancient Greeks had it down to a tittle: our duty as hosts and sojourners, at home and abroad, is kindness to strangers from afar who are on the road with us. As visitors, we owe it to pay our way by sharing, demanding little, and leaving a small footprint – and by fair observation, remembrance, and gratitude.

When we notice an immigrant – if indeed we are privileged to do so – we tend to see an outsider looking in. But the immigrant is a conduit for our seeing a foreign culture, for our seeing potential for ourselves. We are then on the inside looking out along with the visitor – or we should be, if we intend to reap full advantage of our being graced by a visitor who wants to be part of us – who wants to learn and mimic our ways while among us.

The odd man out, then, is not the man who is left out of the picture. He is the man who neglects the essentials of his own survival by failing to behold the foreign, by failing to wisely seize and invest impressions of a predictably surprising world full of shooting stars and common wonders.

My photographs, journals, and musings from this travel are an open door on a perplexing, perilous, marvelous, and vulnerable world. Despite its plainness, it is a view of ceaseless bewilderment in the presence of bountiful variety and inevitable similarity.

The foreign is among us constantly. We stand unfulfilled if we do not embrace it as our own while allowing it to be foreign and itself. Foreign to none, all is foreign. Foreign to much, much is freshly familiar – the necessary spur to our ascent.

Put Up or Shut Up!

Notorious Letters

While not the be all and end all, writing and art are important to the mature individuals I have known for many years. Though these two aspects of life do not seem to be pressing topics of debate in economic and social hard times, they are of interest for some and for good reason: there is a link between the standards of a time in all things and the bigger struggles of an era. Central factors in these struggles are the creative energy and direction of a people: can they be harnessed and if they can, should they be and how?

“Notorious Letters” does not refer to a juicy touch of scandal (I would be much better off if it did), but the discussion in this totally cut-loose essay does touch on legitimate questions involving creativity, how we learn, and the wholeness of human kind in our little part of the cosmos. (If that lead hasn’t killed the buzz, I don’t know what can.)

Suffice it to say, that as usual in this type of explosion, nuggets can be found – if you are willing to dig for them – and allow a few to fall randomly on your head. (Any resemblance of characteristics referred to in this piece to actual people is purely luck.)

Read it here.

Socratic Men & the Lads Willing to Listen

By a certain age, one can allow oneself only a brief time to sacrifice at the altar of illusive perfection. With TennesseeSoul, I allow myself no more than two weeks and a few readings for revision.

A year and a half ago, I was at the depths of my being. Today, miles later – 2,000 miles to be exact – I feel as though I am not yet, but nearer, to my peak as a thinker and a doer. For that, I am in no small measure indebted to Joyce, who for 36 years (34 of them legal, as of yesterday) has been my partner and TennesseeSoulmate in seeking sanity and growth.

The current feature in TennesseeSoul about Socratic men goes out to all our magnificent young men – and young women – about whom we worry so much. May you all muddle through as we older folks continue to do – and someday share how you did it.

Read it here.