Thursday, January 27, 2011

Butte College philosophy instructor answers the big questions


Ric Machuga has distilled thirty years of teaching philosophy at Butte College into a new book with a rather playful title: "Life, the Universe and Everything" ($36 in paperback from Cascade Books). But the book is serious in intent, and not only does it take up the biggest questions of all (what is truth? are humans free? does God exist?) but proceeds to answer them. In a calm, humble, and convincing fashion Machuga shows the implications of some simple commonsense propositions ("plants and animals exist; square circles and other contradictions do not exist; and nothing comes from nothing") have enormous consequences.

These consequences are fleshed out in what the book's subtitle calls "An Aristotelian Philosophy for a Scientific Age." Though no physicist or biologist would follow Aristotle's ancient Greek science today, Aristotle nevertheless had some profound things to say about the scientific enterprise. He was a philosophical realist, meaning that he was convinced that plants and animals were really there, outside of our minds. Some philosophers today are not so sure, and that's the problem. It's hard to make sense of the world without a real world to make sense of.

As my colleague and friend points out, Aristotle's insights, enriched (and surpassed) by the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the middle ages, can help ordinary people in their daily quest for "the good life." The modern age, Machuga writes, has mistakenly focused on promoting "values" (which frequently clash). Aristotle and Aquinas emphasized the virtues, those habits of life that lead to genuine flourishing for all humans.

The question of God dominates the final chapters (all of which feature lucid summaries and extensive notes for those who want to dig deeper). "Philosophical realism," Machuga writes, "is inherently theistic." But if God exists, why is there evil? The author rejects the standard free will defense since it envisions humans as autonomous creatures, a contradiction. A better answer involves "the paradoxes of omnipotence" and evil as a privation (as strange as that may sound).

Want a book to chew on? Make it this one.

The author will discuss what it means to be human at the fourth Science and Religion Conference, "Neuroscience and the Human Soul," hosted by Bidwell Presbyterian Church, tomorrow and Saturday. Details at

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A life of John Bidwell for teens


Kudos to Nancy Leek for bringing Chico's founder to life. "John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer" ($20 in paperback from ANCHR) is aimed specifically at the young adult audience, but it also found your friendly columnist standing and cheering.

The book is available at Lyon Books in Chico, at Bidwell Mansion, Made in Chico, and Teachers Book Connection, or from ANCHR (The Association for Northern California Historical Research), You can also write the author at or visit her blog at

Leek is children's librarian at the Orland Free Library and she and her husband Jim reside in Chico. Her words are beautifully crafted. She wears her research lightly and develops a strong narrative line with John, and later John and his wife Annie, at the center. Her choice quotations from Bidwell's journals and other writings reveal a man of his time but also a man who could little abide the harsh treatment of the native Mechoopda and the emigrant Chinese.

Replete with period photographs, the story opens with John, at seven, walking fourteen miles to see a new steamboat launched on Lake Erie. Throughout the rest of his life he pushed into new territories. Bidwell, writes Leek, "came to California in 1841, an event that he considered a 'mere accident.' . . . He never thought he would find himself taking apart a Russian fort or supervising Indians at a Spanish mission. He never expected to discover gold or bring a new state into the Union or rise to the rank of general."

Though too honest to be good at electioneering, in 1880 he and Annie were visited by President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife. And "the Bidwells became great friends with John Muir. ... In 1877 Bidwell took Muir" and several scientists "on expeditions to explore Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. Muir stayed with the Bidwells for two months" and "found it hard to leave his friends in Chico and their 'cool fruity home.'"

"John Bidwell not only saw history," Leek writes, "he lived it and created it. By the end of the century he could say, 'The history of California lies like a map before me. Somewhat confused it may be, but I have seen it all.'"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Local authors offer compassion for caregivers


William Martin is the founder of The Still Point Center for Zen Practice in Chico. His wife, Nancy, is its director. Together they have drawn on years of counseling to offer "The Caregiver's Tao Te Ching: Compassionate Caring For Your Loved Ones and Yourself" ($14 in paperback from New World Library). The Martins are scheduled to talk about their work tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books in Chico.

The ancient "Tao Te Ching" of Lao Tzu reflects on the mysterious Tao in 81 short chapters. Its message, say the Martins, is deceptively simple: "You are, by nature, an expression of the Tao, and its wisdom and power are part of your true nature. Let go of the stories to the contrary and live in wonder and appreciation." The "stories" come from what the Martins call "the conditioned mind."

For caregivers, the conditioned mind is always asking "Am I doing this right?" It tends to tell and not listen; it tries to problem-solve rather than accept. By contrast, the Martins have adapted the chapters of Lao Tzu to present what they call the "Tao mind" in short poems and brief commentary. "If we believe in our conditioned mind," they write in Chapter 30, "there is never a time when we can stop doing. / There is always more to do. // If we trust our Tao mind, / times to stop and rest appear like rainbows, / surprising us in the cloudy sky. / Pay attention to these times."

The book eloquently encourages "compassion, simplicity, and patience," but the paradox of the Tao is that it is indifferent even to these labels. So the Martins have interpreted the Tao though Buddhist eyes.

The authors know first hand the challenges of care giving. "We may look ahead to some task we fear we won't be able to do. From a distance the task seems like a cliff edge. . . . As we keep going, we find that we reach that cliff without noticing. We are doing what naturally unfolds, and suddenly here is the task we had dreaded. Now that it is here, there is no question that we will be able to keep going. What appeared too difficult is now just what needs to be done."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Authors: "Pitchapalooza" is coming to Chico


Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry know publishing from the inside out. Both are successful writers and "authorpreneurs." Together, the married couple has produced the most current and practical guidebook for aspiring authors I've ever seen. "The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully!" ($15.95 in paperback from Workman Publishing) is full of real-world examples, including the success of local author Susan Wooldridge, whose "Poemcrazy" is now in its umpty-umpth printing.

After years of promoting their own books, the authors found themselves in demand as "book doctors" for others. True to their own advice, they have plunged into social media with a website ( and more. Now they are bringing their well-received "Pitchapalooza" workshop to Chico.

This free event will be held at the 1078 Gallery, 820 Broadway, on Tuesday, January 18 at 7:00 p.m., and is sponsored by Chico's Lyon Books. According to publicity materials, local writers get sixty seconds to make their best pitch to a panel of experts, including the authors, who will provide feedback on the concept and its potential in the marketplace. The winner of the competition will receive an introduction to an agent.

"The Essential Guide" is divided into three sections. The first, "Setting Up Shop," deals with the new world of social networking as well as book proposals and finding representation (Eckstut is herself a longtime literary agent). "Taking Care of Business" takes on contracts, working with a publisher, and self-publishing. "Getting the Word Out" concerns the fine art of selling. Key to the guidance is the importance of research. New writers simply have to know the terrain out there--which books might be competitors?--if they are to increase their chances of a sale. In fact, the reader is halfway through the book before the authors say it's time to sit down and write.

Tips abound, like checking the acknowledgements page of similar books for possible contacts, but in the end a writer's passion must carry the day. Eckstut and Sterry have the passion, and wit. Get the book.

PROGRAM NOTE: Please join host Nancy Wiegman and me for a live edition of Nancy's Bookshelf tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. on KCHO (Northstate Public Radio, 91.7FM).