The last earthly home of the mystic-naturalist John Muir was a 14-bedroom Victorian mansion on the fringes of Martinez, California. Before that Muir’s home had been the wilds of America, days spent roaming the peaks and valleys of the West. But in 1878, when Muir turned 40, his friends urged him to leave the mountain life and rejoin civilization. “John Muir! The great prophet of the American wilderness!” they would say at dinner parties and in print, and then remind Muir in private that his way of living was impossible.

By all accounts, John Muir became a good husband and a good father after he came down from the mountain. He wrote books about his experiences in the wild, and tended the enormous fruit ranch that belonged to his father-in-law. Every so often, Muir’s wife would find him gazing into the air. She would send him off for a mountain… More…

Everything I know about cutting grass I learned from my father. He had three rules and one quasi-rule. The three rules undoubtedly reflected his occupation as a systems analyst. Rule 1: To maximize efficiency and, thus, save energy, plot the yard into squares and mow inward from the outer edge. Rule 2: To prevent the engine from overworking and, thus, save gas, always position the discharge chute away from the square. Rule 3: To extend the life of the mower and, thus, save money, always service the machine according to the manufacturer’s specifications. The quasi-rule, however, was prompted not by occupational mindset but, rather, to reward himself for performing the tiresome chore he found cutting grass to be: Have a cold beer afterward.  I follow these rules today, though I confess I do occasionally fail to observe the letter of the quasi-rule by having more than the one cold beer… More…

I first came across the term “idle chatter” in a seminar about German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time led by the only man I have ever really considered a mentor, Professor Johannes Fritsche. We picked our way through the book sentence by sentence: Fritsche — in his charcoal suits, fingers to his pursed lips — tried to show us exactly what Heidegger was up to and was determined, finally, not to let him get away with it. It was mental labor, and it sunk down into the core of me where it now swims alongside my most formative memories, feelings, and ideas.

It turns out that Heidegger was not a big fan of idle chatter. He ultimately preferred conversation that was mute and mysterious, dusted with poetry and allusive of the greater conundrums of existence. He delighted in saying things like, “Language is the house of the truth of… More…