Presence of Mind

Presence of Mind 1960 Magritte

Yesterday after the ballet instructor described to her class how 2 dancers dealt with an onstage crisis in a performance a student commented that it showed “presence of mind.” The phrase leapt out at me.

I think it might describe what’s missing from so much of my interaction with people and also much of what passes for rhetorical and political commentary.

Ballet class is an exception to this. Thinking and mind are definitely present there. The teacher’s response to the student’s observation (about “presence of mind”) was “Problem solving!” This is a theme of hers.

I also brushed with present minds briefly (and surprisingly) yesterday when John Erskine, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to Billy Mayer, an art teacher at Hope. We sat and ate salads and chatted about music and art.  I later confided to my wife how seldom this kind of connection happens to me these days. Very pleasant to discuss Zappa, Juan Munoz, King Crimson, guitars, guitar playing, recording, Steve Reich, and other stuff over lunch with a new acquaintance. I’m hoping I get to chat with this dude again soon.

A positive approach to “presence of mind,” however, would be to think of cultivating one’s own “presence of mind.” I abhor the squishy phrase I have sometimes heard that a person is not being “present” to another. That’s not what I mean at all. I’m thinking of “presence of mind” more as being aware and awake, something probably nobody does all the time. We all go unconscious or miss stuff. But like many things I think of it as something to strive for.

I was reading (actually re-reading) Bacevich’s The Limits of Power this morning and believe that his writing and ideas exhibit a certain presence of mind. I was struck by his assessment of the political crisis in the United States right now. Basically he says the government doesn’t work. He quotes the preamble to the Constitution as a definition of the task of government. You know. “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Our current system of government, having abandoned the idea of a system of checks and balances (power continues to concentrate itself in the executive, while the Incumbent Party in the Congress concentrates on getting re-elected) is “dysfunctional” in Bacevich’s estimate. “Grossly incompetent” is another way he describes it. Writing in 2008, he mentions the “bungled efforts to ‘reform”the Social Security and health-care systems,” attempts to “fix the immigration policy,” “the inanity of the ‘war on drugs,” and the “ill-starred federal response to Hurricane Katrina.”

Since then one could add many more at random:  the unseemly display of brinkmanship around the federal debt and the confusion of the recent bill to fund the military pop to my mind.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem like many U.S. politicians exhibit “presence of mind” these days. Just how it seems to me on an exhausted Thursday morning, of course.


The Atheist Who Challenged Cranston, R.I. –

Letters to the editor in response to the recent successful challenge of a young atheist to a prayer posted at her school.


Paavo Berglund, Finnish Conductor, Dies at 82 –

Winston Riley, Jamaican Music Producer, Is Dead at 68 –

Two obits which sent me scurrying to look up music by these guys.


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