Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Beautiful Minds, Part One

Last month I watched the movie Night at the Museum, starring Ben Stiller and Robin Williams. Stiller's character is a security guard in a natural history museum where the exhibits come to life in the middle of the night. It's a goofy comedy, founded upon the hero's interactions with Theodore Roosevelt, Sacajawea, Attila the Hun, and others.

It was targeted at a younger audience, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought "Gosh, wouldn't it be fantastic to speak with those brilliant men and women?"

After reflecting upon this, something important occurred to me. I've been preoccupied with personal achievement, but I was surrounded by fascinating men and women who carved out real history. Most of these people are still living. They are not yet reproduced in wax or encased in glass-walled rooms. But they are great men and women, nevertheless, and I have been privileged to spend a metaphoric night at the museum in their company.

Cady Coleman and Mark Lee are astronauts; Janet Graham is Vice-President at HBO; Atlee Hammaker was an All-Star pitcher in the major leagues; Robert Blake shot down a MIG in the Vietnam War and was personal aide to President Ford.

But instead of simply listing names, I'll acknowledge those who directly influenced me. Several spring to mind but I've chosen just five in the interest of brevity; five gifted human beings who crossed my path and taught me something important along the way.

Perhaps in some future museum, a few will have their own glass-walled exhibits. Some will certainly not. But to my mind, all shared the stamp of genius in their own particular way. So pull up a chair and take a tour through the museum exhibits of my imagination.

1. "Jimbo" or James Rachels, as hardly anyone called him, was the smartest man and friendliest soul I ever knew. He was Dean of Philosophy at Alabama-Birmingham when I met him in 1983, but more importantly he was father to my friend, Stuart.

At first I thought it curiously demeaning that Stuart and his brother David called him "Jimbo." But their admiration and regard for him was so obvious, I came to understand that their nickname was a more noble title --- a perfect title for an utterly unpretentious and uniquely great man.

James Rachels may be the most widely-read American philosopher of our generation. He was famous before I met him, although I didn't know it. I didn't recognize his professional fame until years later, when I started noticing his books in stores all around the country.

His specialty was ethics and his work has been translated into ten different languages. Unlike other philosophers, he had an uncanny knack for making philosophy
real. Whereas others confine their arguments to the abstract, Jimbo asked practical, newsworthy questions and provided concrete answers. Why is affirmative action the morally correct policy? Why should a person care about someone else's children? If that is true, then what about this case, or that case?

You don't need an education in philosophy to enjoy his books and essays. I was a political conservative when we met, and we never discussed politics or philosophy. But in truth, he changed my point of view. He made me think about difficult questions, without even asking, by the mere example of his own behavior.

In personal interactions, he had a mysterious way of infecting people with the belief that they were special. I recall one or two lunch breaks together, just the two of us, at chess tournaments. I was surprised at his genuine interest. What worthwhile thoughts could I possibly share with such a man? But Jimbo's affability knew no boundaries. Many American chess players enjoyed similar lunch invitations, and probably many others as well.

Another thing I liked about him is that sometimes he doubted his own infallibility --- not just in matters of great import but in trivial, everyday things. One day he would see a movie, and like it, and then later change his mind. He changed his mind about the relative merits of athletes and celebrities. He had less cause for self-doubt than possibly anyone I've known, but he changed his mind a lot. He wanted to be correct. Understanding the truth of things was vitally important. His son Stuart shares this quirk and it always amuses me to see it.

Jimbo died of cancer in 2003 and I'm ashamed to say, I wasn't there. Apparently he handled his death with the same grace and wit he displayed uniformly in his life. I knew he was gravely ill but hadn't spoken to him since Stuart went to college. At some point I should have told him how I admired him ---- and not because of his professional success, the way others admire him, but because of the way he treated me. I enjoyed the warmth of his company a very great deal, and the world is a little colder in his absence.

2. Stuart Rachels was an eleven year old chess master two years before we met. He was the youngest-ever American master until the record was eclipsed a few years ago. In 1989 he won the U.S. Chess Championship. He has played (and scored against) many of the world's best chess players and carries a live afterburner within his mental engine.

Stuart retired from chess in his early 20s. He moved to England on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford, and is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama. He is also the continuing editor of his father's books and essays.

I suppose I've had as much opportunity as anyone to appreciate Stuart's mind. In some ways he is my antithesis. I've always promoted the notion that human beings are emotional creatures more than thinking creatures; that people feel their way, more than think their way.

But Stuart thrives on logic and the power of principle. He moves in straight, efficient lines. He is somehow less distracted.

For example, one afternoon we examined my chess game against an International Master. We reached a critical turning point in the middlegame; it was a complex position where mere calculation was insufficient to light the way. At times, playing chess is like driving a car on a foggy night. You perceive the landscape as far as the range of your headlights, but if you consider only what is visible you will lose your way. You must follow your compass to navigate the course, and not rely simply on that which is visible.

In this position I made a "safe" move which led to barren equality, instead of a more adventurous move that my gut told me was correct. Stuart smiled and looked at me quizzically.

"Why did you make that move?"

"Well the other move might lose," I answered.

"Do you have a strong position?" I admitted I didn't know.

And then he zeroed in. "You have the white pieces. You began with an advantage. You must still have an advantage unless you've made a mistake."

I thought I had played correctly.

"Then believe in yourself! If you have played correctly then you must have a strong position, right? And if you have a strong position then you must also have a move which leads to something more than simple equality. You should have made the other move."

This kind of clear thinking is characteristic of Stuart. You believe in the principle, you follow the principle wherever it leads. The whole trick is to know at the outset that the principle is correct.

Even his humor is strictly principled. In April, 2007, I found a funny note that he had secretly written on something of mine in 1986. He never mentioned it, never hinted at it. He waited 21 years and grew bald before I got the joke.

When he was a 13 or 14 year old chess prodigy, many of his friends were in their twenties. Stuart was mature, socially adept, and charismatic even in that company. On a few occasions I met his younger school friends, and he was very different then --- a prototypical mischievous and wholly distractible teenager. Both personalities were genuine. He was like one of those glass disco balls, rotating above the dance floor and reflecting every color in the rainbow. If you thought you knew him, knew his colors, you really had to wait a few beats for the full revolution.

His success in chess and in academics is due in part to his native intelligence, but a greater part is owed, I think, to his work ethic. His capacity for work and concentration is tremendous. I remember many occasions sitting across the chess board, tired of calculating and evaluating, but Stuart never tired. He was oblivious to everything but the problem of the moment. I'm sure he translated that habit to academics, and even now I notice the same quality in his writing. He notices details, weighs options, and is never satisfied with the "almost right word."

He is perfectly suited by nature for philosophy, and I'm 100% sure that when he leaves this world he will leave a trail of well-communicated ideas that makes people think --- as his father did before him.