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September 11, 2007


Congrats to Vanessa over at The Colonic on her 100th post! For a sampling of her unique brand of commentary, here's a couple of my favorites here and here.

Posted by stevemack at 04:47 AM | Comments (564) | TrackBack

August 27, 2007

Philip Christian Mack 1940-2007

Eulogy delivered on August 26, 2007 at Marina Del Rey, California

All of us who knew my brother Philip knew he was the black sheep of the family. He would not have found that label offensive. It was probably more of a badge of honor, a mischievous distinction. He was simply incapable of doing what he was told. He generally would not go where he was supposed to go or act like he was supposed to act. And he found it hard to play by the rules, especially if his own rules made more sense to him. He was like his father in this, but unlike his father, he took that impulse for disobedience to some rather dramatic lengths.

But while there may have been a touch of the outlaw in Phil—there was absolutely nothing of the villain. In fact, over the years, I’ve come to believe that whatever faults my brother carried around, in a paradoxical way they grew from something altogether decent: Phil was a lover of people. He had a natural love for others that was both a strength and vulnerability. It was the thing that enabled him to make friends instantly. It was the quality that made him a salesman. Wherever he moved, as he did often—from the San Fernando Valley to Marina Del Rey to St Petersburg to Phoenix—he would typically arrive alone and within days find himself in the center of a network of people. In Phoenix he was known as “Friendly Phil.” And that he was. Nobody could ever be indifferent to Phil. In most he inspired deep affection—and in a few, fierce loyalty. It wasn’t that he was excessively charming, though he often could be. And it wasn’t that he oozed empathy, though, when the stars aligned, he could muster that as well. It was more that he radiated a wholly genuine and irrepressible joy in whosever company he was in at the time. And, if you were in that company yourself at that time, you knew he felt an irrepressible joy to be with you.

It was turbulent kind of joy, to be sure—a voracious appetite, in fact. And an appetite he was ill-equipped or indisposed to manage. He was more inclined to indulge it—to revel in it. And, the thing I think captured it most vividly, it was something he would enforce with laughter. He had a slightly unreasonable laugh. He would laugh at your jokes, funny or not, with the same abandon he would laugh at his—funny or not. And he was loud. When something tickled him—and something always did—his laugh would explode like a loaded gun in his throat. His eyes would widen and dart about the room connecting with anyone who’d look. And he’d continue the laugh, kind of a hearty human bark, really—often repeating the joke or the line to keep the thing rolling. By habit, I think, he learned to pitch his voice just above the barroom din. Even without a few “cups of loudmouth,” as he called it, he was still generally loud enough to make you wince. But, over the top or not, it was always a laughter that strained with an urgent desire to connect, to rope anyone close enough to hear into comradeship.

The love of people and the need for comradeship was also, I think, his vulnerability. The company of others—and especially the esteem of others—were almost always the needs that animated his best and worst decisions. This was something I noticed long before I was old enough to understand it. It first manifested itself to me in the form of the 1957 Chevrolet Impala Phil bought while he was still, I believe, a teenager. It was red—but not just any red. ¬ It was a bright, in-your-face candy-apple red. As it stood in the driveway or was parked curbside in the front of the house, it screamed “look at me; I am more beautiful than anything else on this street.” And it was. It was not only his pride, but the family’s pride as well; tangible evidence of the speed and style that was Philip Mack. It was also the visible symbol of his need to impress.

Phil’s need for others and his infatuation with vehicles of all kind were life-long affairs. I’m reminded of the story dad once told me of the time he took Phil to a Hollywood parade to see Harry Truman. At the right moment, he lifted Phil on his shoulders and said excitedly “there he is! There’s the president!”—to which Phil remarked “Boy! Look at those motorcycles!”

But, of course, his main love was cars. And cars have more than one symbolic meaning. Not only do they suggest the need to win the admiration of others—but also, the need for escape, the need for freedom: Freedom especially from others when their presence is too close and their hold is too tight. Phil always needed to have his car keys close at hand.

It’s not that Phil needed to escape us or others—hermits do that, and Phil was certainly no hermit. It seems to me, rather, that distance, the option of escape, was his only real tool for managing the power his need for others held over him. For Phil, love for people was more of a social need than a social skill. His was an undisciplined heart. While most us grow up learning to navigate the sometimes fickle affections of others, resigned to the knowledge that nobody’s love is free of the quirks and flaws that shape our character, Phil never could. He would befriend nearly anyone, but if he judged that the friendship he got in return was marred by some imperfection, he was a little too quick to see in it the seeds of betrayal. And betrayal, for Phil, was the only crime serious enough to bother with. It’s not surprising, then, that two of his best friends in life were Trouble and Sugar, cherished dogs who were incapable of the sort of infidelity he was too ready to suspect of others. But for all that, the distance was rarely far and the escape never permanent. His love and need for others was far too strong. The legacy he leaves is the deep, rich, and sometimes colorful memories of a vital, life-affirming spirit.

And then, there were the boats. He loved cars, and made his living by them. But he had a special love of boats. He owned more than one. When he was younger it was a speed boat he needed. When he matured, he turned to something he could make a home of—which he did, for a few years, near where we’re standing right now. The water touched some deep chord in Phil’s soul. In the very first paragraph of Moby Dick, Ishmael, the outcast Melville creates to narrate the novel, tells us why he’s going to sea: “Some years ago,” he writes

Having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little while and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp and drizzly November in my soul . . . I account it high time to get to sea.

For Phil, as for Ishmael, I think the sea represented a kind of ultimate freedom. The waters may be navigable, but never managed or controlled. So no one ever thinks to try. To live on the sea, then, is to give yourself over to it, to surrender the urgent need for control to it’s currents, and drift and float and ride in harmony with rhythms not your own. My hunch is that that is what drew Phil to these docks. And so, as we stand here now, it seems fitting to bid farewell to a soul who loved too urgently to rest. He will be dearly missed, but it is high time he gets to sea.

Posted by stevemack at 12:09 PM | Comments (481) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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