Friday, December 28, 2007

The Last Episode of The Sopranos

Craig and I saw the last episode of The Sopranos tonight. If you haven’t seen it, Wikipedia has a pretty decent synopsis to help you catch up. I was pretty disappointed. I’ve been trying to sort out why. I can hear the whiny bitches now. “It’s true to life. Real life doesn’t resolve itself neatly. Real life is ambiguous.” My instinctive response is, “Fuck real life. This is art. An ending is not running out of film in the middle of the scene and does not leave you wondering of the damned DVD player has just hit a smudge on the disk again.” The ending is sensationalist shit and the writer should be shot.

I’m bothered by my response. I’m the first to demand realism from art. On the surface, I ought not to be bothered by this ending. Where I am disturbed is that this argument has no emotional impact on me other than to cause this confusion. I feel strongly that art should emulate reality convincingly and I still feel contempt for this ending. When I was younger, I would take that emotional contradiction and explain it away. I’m older now, and I want to do something different. I want to understand what has made me feel this way and figure out if it tells me something that I feel about the art of storytelling that I don’t consciously know. I’m afraid I don’t know where, if anywhere this is going.

It’s strange, but I guess I feel that there is a bond that exists between read, writer and character, and I feel that the writer betrayed the bond. Odd that I should feel that, especially as one of these three persons does not actually exist, at least not as a person. I don’t know what the rules of that relationship are, but I feel in my gut that they’ve been violated.

An Associated Press article about the last episode (yes, I followed the link from Wikipedia—I didn’t work for it) quotes an interview with the show’s creator, David Chase and his response to his viewers’ response. This is a passage from the article:

The interview, included in “‘The Sopranos’: The Complete Book,” published this week, finds Chase exasperated by viewers who were upset that Tony didn’t meet explicit doom.

Chase says the New Jersey mob boss “had been people’s alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted ’justice’...

“The pathetic thing—to me—was how much they wanted HIS blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”

Tony’s death or lack thereof isn’t even interesting to me. The writer owed the character something, but I don’t think it was life or death. Moreover, the show didn’t seem to promise anything remotely like justice. If Tony had been killed, it would have been realistic. For the last nine episodes he had been getting sloppy. If he hadn’t been killed, it would also be realistic. Life has random elements in it. Sometimes we’re sloppy and get away with it and, sometimes we’re careful and are still fucked. None of that really mattered to me. I didn’t watch Tony kill as a way to work out my dark side and I didn’t need him to be killed in order to see validation of my choices not to act on my dark side.

What I resented was the denial of the moment. It was a hopeful and, for this series, weird moment. This money obsessed family had chosen to do something simple: meet for a meal. Tony doesn’t work in a gilded world (think about the Bada Bing—it’s not even upscale for a strip club), but his family lives in a gilded world pretty exclusively. They meet in a diner—a plain old diner. Nowhere fancy. Tony plays a song on the jukebox, talks to his wife, has a moment with his son. For this family, that’s huge. His daughter is outside trying to parallel park her ridiculously nice car. You feel the suspense. But here’s the thing. I needed to see one of two things. I needed to see Tony get shot just as she finally walked in, or I needed to see her walk in and sit down. If that moment, perhaps this family’s only moment with a soul, their fleeting moment needed to be sacrificed, it should have been sacrificed to some sort of message.

Clearly Chase doesn’t have a message of that sort, and I don’t ask him to. I would have been great with Meadow walking in, sitting down, and them talking and end it there. Their future was far from certain. Tony might be killed or thrown in the clink. There were plenty of opportunities for him to die right in the restaurant. AJ is a wussy, spineless spoiled brat who ultimately can be bought off by his parents. Carmella sold her soul for the upscale real estate and a snazzy wardrobe and she’s learned to accept it. Meadow, at least, treats people more kindly than she did in college. They’re not much of a family. But they would have had their one moment. It wasn’t much of one, but it was all they had. They deserved that much. We shared so much with them.

To care for a character isn’t the same thing as loving a character. You care for the ones you hate, too. The more you care for a character, the more you will for them to have a full story. None of the Sopranos are favorite characters of mine. But I cared for them enough as engrossing characters that I felt that they deserved an ending. I was disappointed that Chase apparently did not care enough for them that he would simply sell them out to sensationalism. I also felt he sold me out.

But he’s rich. What the fuck does he give a shit?

I care too much about stories. That’s the only reason that I do.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Giving Up That One Heroic Death

The coward dies a thousand deaths; the brave man dies but once. It’s a nice little saying as far as it goes, but it in no way constitutes a necessary and sufficient cause for the dying of a thousand deaths. Brain damage does this same thing. There are level upon level of loss, as you discover just how pernicious the damage is. I keep wanting to heroically get it over with, die the one death and move on—become the new person. I don’t have a choice, so why waste time on all the emotions?

But the whole thing is like algebra. You can’t skip steps. You’ll just get it wrong and have to go back and do it over again. And I can’t treat it like algebra. If you pull a C in algebra and get through the course, you’re done and don’t have to revisit it until it’s time to take the GRE. But God is a more thorough teacher than the school system. He makes you go over it again and again until you finally get it. There is no gentleman’s C. The course is pass-fail with a very high standard for passing indeed.

I’ve looked enough at skills to realize that devising organizational techniques to compensate for my shortcomings is no longer my major problem. I still fuck up badly, but it’s not because I don’t have a method. I think I’ve learned most of the skills that I need to compensate for the damage. I’m still fucking up because I can’t manage all the emotions involved.

There are three recurring emotions that I cope with whenever I deal with medium to large organizing tasks. These are: shame, inadequacy and despair. These three are a direct cause of my pronounced tendency to withdraw from or delay organizing tasks. As the intense negative emotion generates fatigue, experiencing these three emotions generate the fourth direct cause of withdrawal and delay.

I don’t have the ability to suppress the emotions anymore. So that’s off the table. I need more therapy, prayer and meditation. I need to learn to be okay with my situation so that I’m not ashamed, overwhelmed and despairing anymore. Being brave, in this case, means dying the thousand deaths. It also means my progress is going to be really slow.

Slow but steady wins the race. Fuckin’ tortoise.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Strategic Epiphany

Okay, I think I’m beginning to see a new level to learning to prepare applications again. My problem has been that I am focused on preparing a successful round. I want to get out about 6-8 applications, because the more shots you take, the better your success rate is likely to be. That’s stupid.

I have been aware of two immediate problems: First, my new learning speed has been compromised by the disease. I don’t calculate permutations nearly as quickly and as effectively as I used to. I used to subconsciously make the calculations in my head. Well, my short term recall deficit prevents me from making effective decision trees in my head. The only way I can deal now is to physically make a decision tree so that I don’t have to try to keep the diagram in my head while I think about it.

Second, all human beings make decisions on the basis of emotion, not reason. What a rational process is supposed to do is help you figure out which conflicting emotion to suppress. Reason (going step by step through the decision tree) doesn’t make the decision for us, even if those of us who can deploy this strategy quickly feel as if it does. Reasoned analysis simply changes how you feel about the decision you are making in a useful way. But if I feel very strongly about the wrong decision, I can’t suppress the need to decide that way anymore, because I can’t suppress strong emotions outright anymore. Going through the decision tree, even if it’s written down, isn’t necessarily helpful because I can’t suppress strong rival emotions effectively. I make bad decisions and I know they are bad decisions, but often, until the emotional dilemma is resolved somehow, I still make the bad decision knowing the decision is bad because I can’t help myself.

This morning, I am aware of a third problem. My systematic problem is often not my conscious feelings. It’s the underlying identity-forming assumptions that I adopted at, say, the age of twelve or sixteen that are fucking me up so badly. I need to discard core parts of my identity (again!). The truth is that I’ve always hated incrementalism. Always. I mean what can be more insipid than crawling at a slow and steady pace? What could be less satisfying? What could better represent the rankly inferior? I can’t think of any aesthetic way of living that isn’t fundamentally immoral that I have despised more. It all goes back to that stupid story of the tortoise or the hare. I’ve never bought it’s idiotic moral—steady by slow wins the race. Indeed, it’s a stupid moral. Steady but slow may help you finish the race, but you’re going to lose the race to steady but fast every fucking time! Let’s get real. It’s not a dominant strategy.

Well, I am slow now. Indeed, I saw a cognitive therapist named Annette Coangelo and she, very brilliantly made two points absolutely clear to me. The first is that I still have extraordinary abilities and can pretty much still do everything I used to be able to. The second is that I am going to do everything that I used to do far more slowly than I used to. I can make any journey. I’m just never going to win the race. Many years ago, my friend Faedah Totah gave me the text of a poem by Cavafy called “Ithaca.” I’ve always loved the poem, but this morning, I’m thinking more clearly than usual, and its point has been driven home to me clearly. The journey is meant to be savored and one cannot savor something quickly. A journey is not the same thing as a race and God means for me to take a journey, not run a race. God has reason in the lessons he has given me. As much as I’ve hated the course, what I’ve learned has been worth the suffering. Not every course can be fun. Life takes discipline and discipline is rarely fun. Not until you’ve mastered the discipline, anyway. Then it can get really fun, because you get the job done.

I still have a problem, however. Winning the race was one of the things that made it possible for me to provide the steady performance in the journey. I loved beating the other guy (get your mind out of the gutter, that wasn’t what I was talking about, even if your smutty insinuation is completely true). I also loved the fast aspect of my steady but fast strategy. I got off on watching what I was building grow before my very eyes. It kept me motivated. The most dejecting thing about the MS experience has been living through failure after failure as I keep fucking things up.

Which brings us to the point of the whole post. I need to learn from Ted Thompson. Two years ago, the Packers went 4-12. We started the next season by losing 26-0 to the Bears. We were rebuilding. Rebuilding hurts. Well, in a lot of ways I’m rebuilding, but I haven’t realized it. To be honest, I’ve responded a lot like Brett Favre has over the past two years. I’ve completely freaked out about the loss of identity involved in my brain damage, and ever since, because I can’t live with losing, I’ve been throwing stupid interceptions. My ability to organize has been seriously compromised, just as the Packers offensive line was seriously compromised in 2005 when Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle left the Packers offensive line. Mike Flanagan but it bluntly when he said that you can’t replace guys like that. You just move on. You don’t fix the old system. You abandon it and rebuild. And rebuilding hurts. Rebuilding means losing 26-0 to the Bears but, maybe, if you’re doing it right, going 8-8 for the season. Sure, it’s nothing to write home about, but it’s better than losing 4-12 for the season and it’s the trend that matters.

I’m currently organizing my second upper-division course. What I’ve noticed is that it is much easier than organizing the first upper-division course was. When it comes to organization, I don’t have much forward vision anymore. It’s frustrating that I don’t seem to anticipate what my problems will be the way that I used to, nor do I adapt as quickly as I used to. I learn more from hindsight now than I do from foresight. That hurts. Marx said of the revolutionary of the 19th century:

On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic before them, and recoil again and again from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the contradictions themselves cry out:

Hic Rhodus, hic salta
Hier ist die Rose, hier tanze!

I’ve always wanted work to feel like that. And it did! Yeah, true, I may have often wound up much more often like the revolutionary of the eighteenth century—

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling brilliants, ecstasy is the everyday spirit, but they are short-lived. Soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression seizes society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period.

—but what the fuck did I care? I loved working because working was a charismatic high and I loved being high on work. It was better than any chemical. If I had to weather a hangover in the morning, so what? I’d partied all night and that was all I cared about. I had the stamina for it back then. It was a fun lifestyle. I liked living that way and I liked myself for the life I lead. There’s a reason this has hurt so much.

Well, building a football team isn’t like that. Sure it takes passion. But it also takes perspective. It takes patience and quiet work in the face of all the bullshit that everyone is throwing at you. Ted Thompson hasn’t given a shit about what anyone has said about his strategy. He doesn’t run around justifying himself to people. People get pissy and ask why he didn’t pick up any new offensive players over the off-season and he replies, “Yeah, kinda strange that I didn’t do that, isn’t it? It’s not my usual approach.” Favre throws a hissy fit, and Thompson just quietly papers over the glaring breach. Last week, when asked about the failed trade, Favre said

Favre said. “I think Randy’s doing what I thought he would do. I mean, I’m not surprised. They throw it up to him in triple coverage and he catches it. I mean, he’s done that I don’t know how many times against us. Could he be doing that for us? Sure he could.

“But what our guys are doing is outstanding. A different style of play, but outstanding. What we ask our guys to do, we probably wouldn’t ask Randy to do and vice-versa. But we’re having a lot of success here right now, we hope it continues, and a big part of that is because of our receivers.”

This is a different style of play for me. It will have to lack dramatic effects and sparkling brilliants. I have to learn slowly now. So I’ll do the application that matters the most this term and realize there will be a lot of emotional stuff I’ll have to cope with. I’ll learn from that. As I start getting the hang of it, I’ll be able to add more on. I’ll get a feel and a rhythm for the work again and I’ll eventually learn how to do rounds of applications, just as I learned how to design a course. Yeah, it will probably be a losing season. But I’ve got to suck before I get better, because I’m learning this from scratch. I can’t replace the skills that were integral to the old system. I need to learn a new system. Rebuilding hurts, but I can do this.

But not tonight. Tonight is the Packers-Cowboys game. I couldn’t be more pumped.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Little Epiphany

I only have twenty hours of quality time and I keep wanting to push grading and applications into my ten hours of shit time, but both require quality thinking. Doing these things, therefore, crowds out meaningful work, creating resentment on my part, especially for applications. Grading at least has redeeming value in that it helps students improve. But crowding out creativity makes my life bleak, which is why I am so resistant to applications. I need a very bleak term in order to get applications done.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fog, Part III

When I left off, I said that the most difficult and frustrating problem that I deal with is coping with meta-object fields, object fields designed to help you coordinate action between various object fields. Even further back, I wrote about not being the kwisatz haderach anymore—not being able to be in many places at once and the feeling of reduction in self that results from being able to carry out fewer simultaneous activities. My problems handling meta-object fields are at the very heart of that experience. This is also where my other cognitive damage comes into play. In addition to the short-term recall problem, I also have difficulty suppressing emotion. That always plays into my problems.

A Divided Life

Habermas tells us that under capitalism, our lives are divided into many spheres of action. So much of who we are is how we balance the demands of many different spheres of life. Each comes with its own unique set of symbols, its standards and values. Indeed, often these are converted to a literal discrete setting to give individual setting that help convey the intended effect of a sphere of action. This actually makes a strong difference for managing my illness. You may recall from the first part of this article that object fields that relate to real physical places with objects in them, e.g. my kitchen, are the simplest for me to deal with. If I leave the salad I am chopping to go the refrigerator to fetch the next vegetable and then forget what I am doing, I can glance back at the counter, see the salad, and this will trigger my memory. Purely mental object fields are more difficult, because there are no physical actual objects to which I can refer to trigger my recall. That said, most mental object fields are stored in long-term memory. I can teach you the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, how to write a good persuasive essay or how to speak Arabic because these things are in my long-term memory. My long-term recall seems to be completely normal. I discussed how developing new ideas takes me much longer now because a newly imagined idea is not part of long-term memory. I can’t critique the idea as I write it. I need to write it, look at it, and then criticize it.

Our central problem, according to Habermas, is integrating our lives in order to be fully human and not some mechanized automaton. He talks about the colonization of the lifeworld, a phenomenon in which one of the spheres of action takes over that space in which we imagine ourselves as a human being and where those values that are central to ourselves as an integrated whole. Systems can colonize the lifeworld because they can create an overwhelming reality by presenting a world in which the activity is manifest as the obvious function and goal. The error is mistaking the system for our integrated life. An easy example would be the behavior of German bureaucrats during the Holocaust. German bureaucrats were given commands regarding the slaughter of innocent people, which they carried out. Many did not like it, but they nonetheless obeyed. Habermas argues that this is because of the colonization of their individual lifeworld. They ceased being human beings who were employed as bureaucrats and became bureaucrats who from time to time allowed themselves to encounter others in human relationships. The imperative to be a good bureaucrat and follow orders overrode their human values that told them what they were doing was wrong. Their identity as bureaucrats trumped their identity as humans.

The balancing act that Habermas was concerned with was being able to know when to put aside the technical values of work and pick up those values that make us genuinely human, those values that should serve to integrate our lives. My balancing problem is far less profound and, to be frank, a little embarrassing.

Meta-object Fields

There is a single object field that is never part of long-term memory—the meta-object field. Under capitalism, a person’s meta-object field changes quickly from day to day. It is subject to constant revision. Day-to-day work is not usually done in one sphere at a time. Rather we do a task or two every day in the various different spheres of life in which we are involved. If you want to view each task in a given sphere of life as having a story, a narrative, the meta-object field really has none. It is simply a world of changing lists. Right now, I’m balancing between six or seven:

1. Self-care and maintenance: Washing, eating, doing the laundry etc.

2. Finances: Keeping up with my budget, balancing the checkbook (like that ever happens). This element is by far the most complicated task in my life, see the bit about “Shame” below for more details.

3. Health: I see several physicians and take several medications, many of which have different rules for both when and how I take them and for their renewal at the pharmacy. Moreover, because contemporary illness requires you to see many specialists, the patient must take a highly pro-active stance toward health, constantly integrating the information with which they provide you and asking questions to prompt new strategies. It helps to try to follow, as far as you can, the state of medical research on the illness. Being a patient, ironically, requires dynamism.

4. Teaching: This, of course, is my actual job, in the sense that this is the task for which the university gives me a regular, if paltry salary. This is the professional sphere in which I have the greatest success. Teaching is a very structured object field. Its patterns help impose order on my day. It also is deeply satisfying. Items 1-3, in contrast, have become a colonizing force in my life. These things used to be peripheral. Now they are dominant fixtures in my life that are big enough to shape my identity (see the posting about the saucer).

5. Research: This is the actual process of contributing to knowledge, not funding that process. I’m having a great deal of trouble getting to this. I’ve presented a single paper at a conference. That’s basically it.

6. Searching for funding: Contributing to knowledge needs time away from teaching. Getting this time requires you to prepare applications, a serious endeavor in itself, one that is going to take serious space on my saucer if I’m going to actually get anywhere with it. I missed six grant deadlines last year—a complete and total failure. I’m starting from scratch again this year, and yes, I’m late. We’ll see if I get any out this year.

7. Family and social obligations: There are myriad birthdays and holidays to be recalled. Nothing in any of the above spheres reminds you of this. Moreover, failing to recall the events and respond properly is taken as a sign of disrespect. There is no one in my family who I have not unintentionally hurt in the past seven years. It’s all well and good that people need to understand that this is not deliberate, yadda, yadda. It will never happen. This requires too much cognitive discipline around an important symbol. People are simply going to be hurt.

The challenge is to create a scheme of prioritization and then actually use it effectively. Each subfield has its list of “next steps.” My first difficulty is one of contextualization. My ability to contextualize a given context, leave it, flip to another context and recontextualize is very limited. Before the illness, I used to do this unconsciously. Now, I do it with a great deal of effort.

I have many tasks relating to many projects. It would be swell if I could just work on one project at a time. But as you can see, self-care, finances and health are things that I can’t just shove into a corner and ignore. Well, I did for the first several years after I was diagnosed. I lived in utter filth and ate badly. My life was basically whatever I got done in my office and going out with my friends when I got a chance. Well, I’m married now. I can’t live like that anymore. Needless to say, my social life has died. Even with a very loving and helpful partner, I can’t take care of a household, take care of school and get out and see people. My basic social outlet in the fall is I go and see the Packers play with Jenni, mostly because she is kind enough to help structure me to actually get to the bar to see the game.

Well, the trick any busy person uses is to divide and conquer. You prioritize each sphere’s to do list, pick a few items from each list and go from there. But to prioritize them, you really need to track two other sets of information. The first is a relative weighting of how important each next step is in terms of the “big picture.” Which front requires advancement first? What ordering of steps is best for the war? The second is a knowledge of how steps can be “tucked” into the greater scheme of the day. It may be in my best interest to go the library to return a recalled book. Well, I often have other business in areas near the library or in the library itself. If I’m going to the library anyway, I might as well add those steps in so that I can kill two or three birds with one stone. Those other steps may be relatively low priority, but as they have to be done anyway, it makes sense to do them. Creating the day’s “to do” list is a cognitively difficult sorting task. So not only are the mental objects in the meta-object field not there for long enough to ever enter into longer term memory and, as a result, be recalled clearly and instantaneously, they require extensive sorting. Moreover, my lists have to be very specially crafted. Because my recall is bad, my ability to sort items is highly constrained. If there are too many items on the list, I won’t be able to order them.

I can easily spend two hours trying to plan a busy day. This is, of course, ludicrous. But it’s really a very difficult trade-off. If I don’t go through the effort, I will go out and have a very inefficient day with very spotty performance. Maybe things will happen and maybe they won’t. Moreover, I won’t get any “kill two birds with one stone” effects and things will take much longer to do. But sometimes, the sorting is just too fatiguing for me and I just run out and do whatever I can that day, feeling that doing something is better than nothing. Intensive sorting of any sort is highly fatiguing because it is highly taxing for my sclerotic frontal lobes. It also creates an emotion that I find very difficult to accept: confusion. Recall that I can’t suppress emotion worth a damn. Pushing past fatigue and confusion is not particularly easy. Moreover, I really only have twenty good hours and ten shit hours in which I can actively live my life in a week, instead of resting. Sorting takes quality time, not shit time. When school is on, I don’t have any quality time. My finances, in particular, suffer.

Back to Integrating Life

In a sense, our day to day life, while not meaningless, rarely exists as a discrete unit of meaning. Little fragments of the meaningful units happen each day and you put them together in your mind. Routinized life, when it’s good, is like a montage. Story units are the units of meaning. It’s really only in terms of the bigger story that life gets meaningful. Habermas’ bureaucrats live colonized lives. They cannot remember their true selves when they need their integrity the most. They are taking the wrong value cues from the situation. They sign death warrants for genocides because they think as efficient bureaucrats and not compassionate human beings. I remember the right values. The problem is that I have too much life. There are more spheres in my life than my poor eviscerated brain can handle. I am like a computer with a powerful processor, a large hard drive and a pathetic single stick of memory. The only thing I can think of to balance the damned equation is to drop out of school, but I’m fucking ABD and I want my goddamned degree. I haven’t suffered through thirteen years of post-secondary education and two masters degrees to be crushed here.

I used to see the big picture all the time. But to see the big picture, you need lots of short-term memory. I see the smaller parts of the picture quite clearly because I live in those smaller parts long enough for the schema to sink into my long-term memory. The big picture for a grand theory is much harder to put together, but eventually I will know it well enough that it, too, will become long-term memory and I will know it. But the grand schema of a "to do" list will never be long term memory. To do lists change daily. This means I am always going to have a great deal of trouble living with my life divided between many spheres of action. I’m having a dickens of a time getting any applications out because I just can't get out of enough spheres to stay in application land long enough for that schema to become clear. If I can't stay there, I can't get the applications out. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Your TA's Executive Summary: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A colleague asked for my notes from Steve Hanson’s 204 class on Friday. I wrote them up and thought, fuck it, I never write about the big ideas anymore. So, ta da! The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Like you really wanted to know.

* * *

According to Weber, the idea of rationalizing an action around a value has its origins in monastic life. Bit of background that I have having grown up Catholic: Monks and nuns were people who sought to follow the Bible's injunction to always be praying (having grown up Catholic, typically, I can't give you a chapter and verse—but I know it's in there).The most literal example of this was one of the saints (again, I' deeply embarrassed that I don't remember which one, but he was a monk) who actually strove to be literally praying all the time, having the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner" playing in the back of his mind always the way pop songs get stuck in the back of ours. The idea is a soul that is always praying will have difficulty consciously sinning. But at any rate, monastic life, if you will is the "rational choice" expression of those who wish to live a life that maximizes holiness, a life in which all work and rest is suffused with prayer. For a Catholic to this day, the term "vocation" refers principally to a calling to religious life, i.e. being a priest, monk or a nun.

Martin Luther rejected this stance, deriding the monastic life as a cowardly retreat from the world of the living. A religious radical, he sought to break the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church, but a political conservative, he had no intention of mobilizing the peasantry or leading political reform (which made him popular with kings who could then break the monastaries and confiscate their land and, in the process destroy the only system of social welfare in place in the medieval west). Catholics believe that being saved is a matter of baptism, a rite that is typically performed in infancy. Luther, in contrast, conceived that being saved required to be an individual experience of God's salvation (hence the ubiquitous evangelical question, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"). God further called human beings to work in a worldly vocation, i.e. one in contact with the world. Not being a political or economic radical, that vocation was basically doing what your parents did. This, as far was Weber's theory is concerned, was the extent of Luther's innovation.

With Luther, then, two changes emerge. First salvation becomes an individual experience (the story of how one was saved) rather than a status ascribed to a sacred community (into which the individual is initiated shortly after birth through infant baptism). Luther thought that this community approach had created the sort of slovenly Christianity that led to the Reformation in the first place. The second change is that Catholic idea of a religious, monastic vocation, becomes a worldly experience in which faith is expressed not through a life of prayer but rather through hard work in the world (not that Luther didn't believe in prayer, but he didn't believe in monastic life).

Calvin essentially "modernized" Luther's stance taking it further. Not only was salvation an individual calling, but the choice of vocation was an individual calling as well. The individual did not simply accept what his or her parents did mindlessly as a traditional nitwit, but instead searched their hearts to discover where Jesus was calling them to go. This is fairly easily explained to students. While few are looking to Jesus to tell them where to go, they almost all are still searching their hearts for what they ought to do with their lives.

Calvin's own approach to the question of theodicy led him to espouse a belief in pre-destination. Simply put, an almighty and omniscient God knows, because He knows His creation, who is saved and who is damned. Indeed, God alone knows who is saved and who is damned. Being saved or damned in Christianity has always been as simple as a response of faith. The question for the individual living on earth becomes, "Do you truly believe?" This creates a type of "salvation anxiety" among the faithful. Doubt, and indeed, who among us is so confident as to avoid doubt, in a sense made them work all the harder. If nothing else, they needed to reassure themselves of that which they cannot know: that they are the elect. [Individual grad students have this problem "Am I brilliant or a fake?" dwells in each grad student's mind in much the same way. Admission to the grad school is never real proof.] So, like the monks who sought to make every part of life a ceaseless prayer, Calvin's Puritans sought to work every minute of the day, because the true response of faith is work. Hence, time is money, a la Ben Franklin.

Well, working this way accumulated a great deal of financial capital. The Puritans were the most austere sorts of Christians, so blowing the money on booze and hookers was completely out of the question. Charity was never really quite as big with the anti-monastic Protestants as it was with the monks and nuns of old (after all, by the new dogma, the drunk in the gutter probably belongs there, but maybe you give to the Salvation Army, just in case). So you reinvest, to show God you take the Word seriously, i.e. by working even harder, making the work even more productive, etc.

Well. most people don't want to work this way, but the problem is if they don't adopt the technique, they'll be driven out of business. The fading of Puritanism (their descendents the Congregationalists have a nice church north of campus with a gay couple as their ministers, to give you some idea of how much things have changed) did nothing to make a dent in this phenomenon. Once the pattern existed, it was available for use. People like Bill Gates find meaning in this sort of work, even if they aren't Puritans. Perhaps it's keeping score that drives them the way our students are driven to hit the start button every time they get a "game over" on their video games, even if it is two in the morning and they're bleary eyed. For whatever reason, a cadre of people are always internally driven to work this way. As they are, the rest of us are forced to work to their standards lest we be weeded out of the market.

Rinse, lather, repeat until the last ton of fossilized fuel is burnt.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Back to School

There’s a lot to write about, but I’m too tired. The Packers beating the Chargers alone would be worth a few paragraphs. But I feel rather melancholy this evening. I’m really happy to go back to teaching. I’m TAing for Steve Hanson’s comparative class, which is really his POL S 101 class, the first class and professor I taught for here at the U. Marx and Weber. Plus, Steve says that my proposal is basically ready to be shipped off. He said he’s proud of me, which really means the world to me. I feel like I’m coming home in a way, for the last time before I leave. I’m grateful to get one last shot at this.

But this wonderful news has come along with some very sad news. One of my colleagues is leaving the program. When he told me today, I was quite distressed, as I don’t think he should go. I don’t know the whole story, but it’s terrible news. It’s a hard thing. Graduate school is hard hazing. It isn’t without purpose. It does allow one to arrive at the discipline needed to tame the imagination and make it genuinely productive. But they don’t tell you why they do what they do to you. Indeed, too often it has become savagery for the sake of savagery. Our faculty does not strive to give graduate students a reason to keep their faith. And there is too much personal savagery involved, too much vanity. There is no sense of the sacred in what too many of us are doing. Without recollection of the values of a liberal education, we are losing sight of our work. When good young men and women are leaving the field because of these stupid games, one can plainly see that we are losing our bearings.

All too often in my life I have been caught by unaware by the depth of my emotional commitments, by how deeply I am moved by the values I hold. I went to USAID to work in the Democracy Center, I thought that the worst that would happen was that my career would waste money. If I didn’t end up screwing people over the way I might have to at State, if the worst that happened was that I was a party to wasting money, I could be okay with that. And I was wrong. I never really got over the fact that we were wasting sums of money twenty times larger than my annual salary, that people had worked hard for this money. It may be that the average citizen could give a flying fuck about whether the world was democratic or not, but if Congress had elected to spend $4 million on democratization in the Middle East, the least that we could do was send the money somewhere it might have a prayer of having a positive impact. We owed it to those who had worked to create this wealth to do the best we could with it. When we flushed it down the toilet, I was bitter. My skin isn’t thick enough for politics.

I realize that if my professional life has any meaning at all, I would like it to be to keep the spirit of liberal education alive—to not have it die on my watch. I can’t change the academy, but I can give my students and colleagues the best that I have. I don’t know if it can be enough, if it’s anything other than sticking my thumb in the dike. But I know that in the face of the suffering of life, my education has been the only defense I have had to carve out a little island of sanity. The greatest mercies God has given me have been Craig and my education. I cannot pass on the spirit of romantic love to them. I am not a poet. But I can give help them find the spirit of a liberal education, to build their safe haven in the storm. It would mean a great deal to me if I could help others do that. Those who taught me how to do think have given me all that I have had to carry me through my darkest hours. I might be able to help a few others. That seems to me to be a good life.

And hey, today, four years ago, I met Craig Rock. Day after tomorrow, two years ago, we got married. A good life indeed.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Week in Review

Dave’s Been Awarded a Purple Heart

The latest breaking news is that my friend Dave Huntoon has been injured in combat and has been awarded a Purple Heart. Here’s his report:

My injuries are as follows: Two shrapnel wounds to my right rear flank. One piece of shrapnel is deep near my hip, and too small and deep for remove. One piece of shrapnel removed from my back tricep, straight through the arm. One piece of shrapnel that went in my back right shoulder and next to my lung, also too deep and small to remove. I guess I wasn't a pansy, and my doubts were wrong...every medical professional was absolutely right to get me out quickly, and knew something might be bad. My lung was bruised as well.

My body armor had saved my life (I still want to see what it looks like), and the shrapnel had only managed to penetrate me in the gap where my arm came out of the armor.

I’m deeply grateful that he’s alive and that the wounds are not serious. I’m very deeply aware that this happy result is by no means guaranteed. George Bush, meanwhile, is meditating on his post-presidency. Here’s a blurb right out of the Guardian:

“I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch,” he says. He also has big plans for making money. “I’ll give some speeches, to replenish the ol’ coffers,” says Mr Bush, who is already estimated to be worth $20m. “I don’t know what my dad gets - it’s more than 50-75 [thousand dollars a speech], and “Clinton’s making a lot of money”.

Swell guy, ain’t he? Bush, “feet up on his desk, munching on low-fat hotdogs, tells Draper of the loneliness of the US commander-in-chief.” What noble sacrifices our president makes on our behalf. How can I emulate such a worthy role-model? I know! I'll play more Civ!

Back in Civ World

My 1956 victory over China has left me in quite a bind. That bind goes by the name of Babylon. No, I’m not talking about the gay nightclub in Queer as Folk or the Texas town of phantom miners in Carnivale. I’m talking about the Babylonians, ruled by Hammurabi, depicted above in his striking post-modern attire. Usually, the Babylonians are no problem at all. They tend toward perfectionistic development and, as a result, lack a powerful military and can easily be annexed. But, if they are far enough away that I can’t deal with them early on and if they don’t have many hostile neighbors, then they can grow to be an economic and technological powerhouse with the military to match. They went nuclear in the mid-‘70s. It’s 1992, now and I’m just learning the secrets of fission. I’ve spent most of my time since the China war retooling my military to keep me from being vulnerable and trying to drag my new Chinese provinces out of the medieval age.

My situation is further complicated by Babylon’s recent completion of the United Nations. Whenever Hammurabi feels like it, he can call an election for Secretary General. Now, I’ve never broken a treaty and have sold lots of luxuries to the little AI nations. Knowing this, the minute the UN was completed, I started making gifts to everyone, including the remnants of China. So far, Hammurabi hasn’t called an election. My guess is the AI’s strategy is to go for a space race victory.

My northern ex-Zulu provinces are nearly industrialized now. The completion of my Forbidden Palace at Jugular Thrust Big Bear has guaranteed a highly productive north. I am fortunate that both the Chinese mainland—

—and the oilfields of New Beijing—

—are relatively near both of these capital cities, making possible, eventually, a moderate decline in their corruption. I don’t know how much that can really pay off in real terms, however. In fact, at the present, in an empire of 72 provinces, I am losing only 537 gold pieces a turn to corruption, out of a total income of 2,629 gold pieces a turn. Shockingly, a corruption rate of some twenty percent is actually negligible by Civ standards. In contrast, some 47 percent of all revenues are being funneled into research. I divert some 70 percent of actual tax revenues to research, paying for things like my military “off-budget” by selling luxuries to the decadent AI players. My little luxury tax on the AI pays out nearly 70% of the cost of my military, which is the second most powerful on the planet. I routinely deny such pricey exports to my own whiny people. Such pampering just makes them weak. Work and war are the only true salvation. Pass the low-fat hot dogs, please.

So, bearing all this in mind, do I annex Egypt? It’s a small, but choice territory and that bitch Cleopatra can get on my nerves with her laughable invasion attempts. It’s like dealing with pesky mosquitoes. Perhaps it’s time to demonstrate how to really invade someone else’s empire to her. It would be great fun to tutor her in war. On the other hand, the may make me unpopular enough to swing a UN vote to Hammurabi’s side. The Chinese already despise me and still, laughably, get to have a vote. I can’t be sure of the Vikings, but the Americans rather like me. Moreover, Hammurabi may be building spaceships while I fight. Egypt is too small to get me up to the 70% of the world I’d need to gain a domination victory. I don’t think I’d have time to conquer more in time for the end of the game.

On the other hand, I can make a last minute push for technology. The mainland has several fully industrialized cities. I can begin to divert their productive power to generating new revenues, which could allow me to increase my research prowess significantly. Perhaps I’m not too far behind Babylon to win the space race. That solution sounds to have a better chance of victory, but has none of the panache of annexing Egypt. If I’ve already lost the game to Babylon, shouldn’t I at least have the satisfaction of this brilliant new war? If I must lose, shouldn’t I lose with classic neo-conservative panache? Think of all the artificial men and women who can die at my whim. I need to get some low-fat hot dogs, damn it. How better to relish the loneliness of being emperor?

Football’s Back!

The Pack won yesterday, although it was a really ugly win that highlighted the fact that we have no offense. Our leading scorer this season is Mason Crosby, our new kicker. Ted Thompson, the Packers general manager did absolutely nothing to bolster the offense this season. Nothing, nada, the big zero. All evidence suggests that we’re going to suck this year. It’s kind of hard to make do without a running back.

So why doesn’t Ted Thompson give a shit about the offense? My theory is that he wants Brett Favre to go away. Some of you may recall Kirk’s analysis back in February of the Packers’ rebuilding situation. To quickly summarize his point: The Packers offense has much potential but needs about three years, after which it might well be a contender. Favre, in contrast, is declining and is going to continue to decline. Favre can’t run that show, because he’ll have delined too far when the team has peaked. But how much less will it be worthwhile to have a rookie Aaron Rodgers calling the shots three years from now? QB is among the hardest positions to learn. Rodgers needs experience now to be ready then. From Thompson’s viewpoint, Favre needs to get out and Rodgers needs to go in, or the Packers will have to acquire a QB via free agency. That will be pricey and Thompson isn’t really in the mood to shell out for talent. He seems pretty committed to growing it at home.

So Thompson wants Favre to retire. Problem: he can’t say so. Why? Because Thompson plans to keep on living in the state of Wisconsin. Everyone loves Favre in Wisconsin. So far, precious few love Ted Thompson. So Thompson can’t fire Favre. Indeed, firing Favre before Favre wiped Dan Marino’s name off the record books would be monstrously unjust in anyone’s eyes. So what does he do? He ignores the offense until Favre gets the picture and gets out of the picture on his own. We’ve all seen how well that’s been going. But I bet Favre retires at the end of this year. This year, maybe when Vernand Morency comes back, things might pick up a little. Maybe we don’t suck as badly as last season. I mean, we didn’t lose to the Bears 26-0 as our season opener this year. But the Packers will not trade for a running back, at least not until Favre retires.

See, Dinur? Ted Thompson is your hero. And George Bush the Younger is mine.

Not that I’m bitter about any of this, mind you. 'Cause we all know that I'm the paradigmatic example of detachment. I wonder if we have any low-fat hot dogs in the fridge?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Luckiest Guy in the World

Craig sent this to me on Friday. I'm the luckiest guy in the whole world!

Small Things With Great Love

Life on a daily basis, day in and day out, may seem trivial and unimportant. However, when I consider that I live each day with a great and profound love, then I'm reassured. Even the smallest portions of my existence are meaningful when founded in a great love.

I love you, you make my life great with love.


Hattar '56

There’s a classic Arabic movie called Nasser ’56, about Gamal `Abd an-Nasir’s miraculous triumph at the end of the 1956 British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt. He really didn’t do that much. Basically, President Eisenhower got pissed at the Brits and the French and told them to haul ass back to Europe. The Israelis got UNEF installed at Sharm al-Shaykh to keep the sea route to Eilat open, so they lost the least of the three adventurers. Nasir of course, became a god, until he blew it all in 1967.

Brian McGrath and Nasser ‘56

I’ve never seen the movie. Brian McGrath, my buddy in the State Department (well, my other buddy in the State Department—I have two now, but Sean is only civil service. I don’t know if that really counts—does it, Sean? What do your fun co-workers say?) and I have a funny story about that. Neither of us had seen this epic, and as students of the Arab world, this was disgraceful. Opportunities would come up and for one reason or another, we never got around to it, yadda, yadda, you know the drill…. So, one spring day, the Sackler, one of the many very cool museums in the Smithsonian (and one of my very favorite ones, to boot), was playing it for free. So we line up early, get our tickets, and we sit down. As we’re waiting for the show to begin, we’re shooting the shit. I was actually looking forward to the movie. Then suddenly and inexplicably, I shoot Brian a look and I say, “Hey, Brian? Wanna dump this and go get shitfaced at the 4Ps?”

Brian, my buddy the Irish Eagle Scout, smiled cheerfully and said, “Sure!” God bless all Irish Eagle Scouts. I’ve always been proud to be a good bad influence on Brian. And so we returned our tickets to see Nasser ’56 to the wizened old lady at the door and went to drink pints and quarts of whiskey and beer at our favorite pub, up on Connecticut Avenue. We used to pack it away, back then. God, I loved that pub! Brian and I had some swell times there. I can’t believe that they renamed the 4Ps. It just ain’t right. I also hear that it’s become a sorority girl hangout on the weekends now. Our Irish pub! The wand is broken, friends. Truly all our revels have ended.

I don’t know if Brian’s ever gotten around to seeing Nasser ‘56, but nearly a decade later, I still haven’t. I oughta rent it someday. Brian’s in Yemen, now. Unlike Nasir, he isn’t trying to get out. I think the political experience of conducting U.S. policy in Jerusalem would have made Yemen alluring to Brian, even without the marvels of San`a architecture. I wonder if he’s met `Ali `Abdullah Saleh, yet. It’s a small country, after all.

My Nasser ’56 Moment Playing Civ

In the spirit of the story, I have had my Nasir ’56 moment. It’s 1956 in Civ time and I have conquered mighty China, adding its cultural and genetic distinctness to my own. I’d already wiped out the Zulu by the late medieval period, uniting my continent beneath the banner of the Big Bear Empire. Shaka has had bad luck against me lately. But the continent is not particularly largish. Indeed, like Yertle the Turtle, I’ve realized that the continent I ruled was too small.

As a result, loathe as I always am to become a seafaring nation (boats are so pathetic in Civ), by the late 19th century, it became apparent that I needed to float a grand army overseas if I was to build a respectable empire. In that first Chinese war, I had already taken China’s rich southern coast for my own. The choice was irresistible: Adam Smith’s Trading Company was in Xinjian, and I wanted it—free marketplaces, banks, stock exchanges, courthouses and harbors, i.e. free capitalism. I had to have it. So I took it. That was the 19th century war.

But, the trouble is that you can’t just conquer limitlessly in these overseas adventures. Resupply is so much slower. You typically can get a good wave off and, then, you need time to digest, resupply and get ready for a new round. Having to ship everything by boat is a real bummer. By 1916, I was ready to go back to China and finish the job. But out of the blue, the fucking Vikings decide that they want to take me on. This frequently happens when you are prepping for a war. The machine forces you to fight a stupid war that you don’t want just before you can launch a brilliant assault on your prey. Well, Scandinavia is way further away than China. Not prime real estate. I’d hit that uppity bitch Cleopatra before I tried conquering the Vikings anyway. I like my empires to be as contiguous as possible. Moreover, China had something that I wanted: oil. Black gold. Texas tea. I didn’t have any. I was close to developing the technology for building tanks and would need the stuff when the time came. The Chinese have a colony with an oil well that’s on an island adjacent to my capital. The prize was too irresistible. Being near my capital, the conquered territory would be low-corruption with oil. I had to have it.

So how did I deal? Well, a few well-placed bribes allowed me the luxury of an alliance with the Babylonians and Americans against the Vikings. I had already buttered them up by allowing them to buy luxuries from me at outrageously high prices. The AI players, particularly the ones who are good at capitalism, will pay huge amounts for luxuries, far more than they’re actually worth (even up to forty gold a turn, and that’s an average price!). And they’re grateful, too, because they think you’re giving them a deal. This strategy allows me to pursue a “guns and butter” strategy, churning out cavalry unit after cavalry unit while still investing in new technologies (up to 70-80% of my budget, which is impressive any time after capitalism, as capitalism requires extensive infrastructural outlays). After I’ve emptied their coffers into my general revenue, the Babylonians and Vikings were so happy that for a few hundred gold pieces, they were more than happy to go to war for me.

So while the U.S. and Babylon went picknicking on the Vikings, I focused my attention on the Chinese. The lovely thing is the AI has very low standards for what constitutes an alliance. So long as I didn’t make a peace treaty with the Vikings before the Americans and Babylonians, I would still count as an ally in good standing. So I ignored the Viking war and found myself completely free to conquer the Chinese. The Vikings were quite busy dealing with the Americans and Babylonians, so busy that they really weren’t able to make any more of their petty raids into my territory. Pretty slick, eh? Fuckin’ stupid AI. I don’t know what those programmers were thinking.

My first priority was to secure the oil. I had built up a sizable fleet and deployed roughly twenty-four cavalry units to secure the island. This part of the war was short and sweet. The Chinese colonists gave way and, fortunately, they had already built a port at Yangchow. Perfect! A few minor popular uprisings suppressed and a few railway tracks added and I was pumping oil into the network within five turns. See? I’m so much better at this than Bush the Younger. And I reserve my gear for purely sexual purposes. I wouldn’t go traipsing around an aircraft carrier in fighter gear declaring, “Mission accomplished!” I have some dignity.

Because, of course, I knew better. The mainland war looked to be and, in fact, was far harsher. Canton fell fairly quickly, but I had serious supply problems. Navies are a pain in the fucking ass and not in that oh-so-sweet sort of way. You can’t put a boat on railroad tracks. Modern warfare in Civ rests on the railway, a mode of transport that allows instantaneous travel between any two points connected by your railway network. It’s like a transporter on Star Trek. You beam the units in, fight, and then whisk the damaged units back to recover and return in the next round. The perfect solution? Well not really.

This instantaneous transport and communication does nothing to reduce corruption in your empire. Remote cities are hopelessly corrupt and develop slowly, despite the fact that it takes no longer to get there than it does to the outer suburbs of your capital. My capital is in the south. So my north has few working factories that are equipped with ports. I make veteran boats in the south and the boats move a few squares at a time. I had plenty of caravels up north, but I couldn’t deploy them without ironclads to guard them. So I had to wait while the ironclads worked their way up from my military industrial complex in the south to be deployed in the mainland China invasion. One would like to be more impetuous in the style of Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, but I don’t like watching my troops sink to the bottom of the ocean. The process took a while, despite the fact that the troops to be loaded onto the damned boats could be moved up from the south instantaneously. It was irksome indeed.

Sadly, the Babylonians beat me by a turn in building Universal Suffrage, that fabulous popularizer of long, drawn-out wars. The people were really bitchy during the Second China War and required a great deal of placating. I conquered all of the Chinese mainland, however. Beijing fell in 1956—sort of a latter-day Budapest. All of mainland China was mine. With the declaration of peace, the people are rejoicing and I have put all those errant entertainers back to work. All that was left of their once mighty Chinese Empire are these loser little colonies. Imagine, going from fabulous empire to being a suburb of Dallas. The cultural humiliation must be unreal. I mean Chairman Mao Does Dallas? Ouch. What was he thinking?

The Dissertation

“So, Hattar,” I can hear you saying, “Do you ever fucking work? I mean at something meaningful. Not that bullshit at Group Health where you whore your mind out for money. Something like, say, your dissertation. What’s the fucking title this week?

Yeah, I do fucking work, thank you. Look, all great intellectual breakthroughs are preceded by playing lots of Civ. It’s a fact. You could look it up. My dear friend Nelly Samoukova at the University of Chicago will back me up on this. We even trade techniques. She was the one who alerted me to the fact that you can often coax the AI into paying outrageous amounts for luxuries.

At any rate, the title this week is Pathologies of Identity and Violence: Palestinian Insurgency and Civil War in the Twentieth Century Levant, and my official rivals have been selected. The political science dissertation genre requires you to trash at least two other theories and show why the existing literature has got it wrong and why you are right. I’m going head to head with three rival theories. The first is Arend Lijphart’s theory of consociational democracy. He’s the easiest to pick on, as he really doesn’t have a theory. Here, read this review of his work. It’s a hoot. It also details the strategy by which he’s built his career. The marketing has been formidable, which, as Steve Hanson reminds me, is the reason I should keep working on my proposal skills. The second is Stuart Kaufman’s theory of “ethnic war.” He’s just won a $750k grant for the book, but it’s weak. He has an imagination and he’s into a lot of the same theory that I’m into, which makes him a rhetorical challenge. I have to fend him off without shooting myself in the foot. That will be tricky. His weakness is that he is not really good at disciplining his imagination and that’s where the knife goes in. The last theory is Fearon’s and Laitin’s theory of civil war. They, of course, are the scary ones. They’re kind of big in the IR world. They’re from Stanford. They publish a lot. And they aren’t sloppy.

We’re not dealing with AI knock-offs of Shaka and Mao anymore, brothers and sisters. These guys are the real thing. I’m scared shitless, so let’s hope I can pull the damned proposal together. Once more unto the breach…

The House

Pictures are coming, I swear. It’s looking pretty decent. My office is as the “usable” stage and I’m working on the garage tomorrow. Slowly but surely, it’s going to become my gym. I’ve been pricing weight benches and dumbbells on The second-hand sports store sells hex dumbbells for 59¢/lb. So if I can’t beat that price, I’ll buy there. I also need an ellipsis machine. I’ll need to burn a few calories, too, and I do really well on those things. They burn the most calories for the least fatigue. For an MS patient, that’s a must.

Craig’s gotten the rest of the house quite charming. I like this place. I can’t recall the last time I liked where I lived. It’s kinda cool.

The only thing that’s undesirable is the large underground nest of yellowjackets I discovered while moving the lawn. I was stung ten times and let out what Craig calls “a war hoop” and had to hide under the shower to escape from the damned creatures. As the damned things followed me into the house, I later used a spray bottle to douse their wings with water and crush them one by one in vengeance. I’m Yertle the Turtle, damn it. No insect fucks with me!

The landlord sprayed the nest with some stuff, and sure enough, there don’t seem to be yellowjackets at the entrance of the nest anymore. But multiple sources confirm that those nests can be huge. I’m worried that all the stuff did is force them to close a door and now, they’ll open a window elsewhere. I need to spend some time watching that damned thing. We wanted to hire the boy scout next door to do the mowing, but the kid’s twelve. I don’t want him attacked.

And that’s sort of what’s going on. Hopefully I write a little more in the fall.

Monday, August 20, 2007

An Answer for Fiona

Fiona just posted a question to me that deserved a little detail for its answer. So, here goes.

I don't think love, sex, child-bearing or child-rearing is any different here than anywhere else. Life is all about finding a place where you can be yourself.

This is a decidedly modern viewpoint, one that I have to disagree with. Tradition is very inflexible. Child-rearing and child-bearing are markedly different from place to place.

The rules genuinely matter. Indeed, they are all that matters.

Finding a place where you can be yourself is a thing that has only very recently become possible for human beings. This is one of the gifts of capitalism.

If you can find someone to share it with, so much the better. It's a lot easier for me in that regard, and I'm not just talking about the red-necked homophobic tendencies here. I found love before I got here. Makes it a little easier than trying to find someone from scratch.

But you have a choice. This is a novel and precious thing, quite remarkable, and still not common in much of the world. Most of my cousins have had arranged marriages. I don’t think that anyone in my father’s family has been forced to marry someone they generally did not like, but this is nothing like finding someone and falling in love.

OK, I have to ask: What's wrong with dating Arabs? I ask out of pure ignorance, having never had the pleasure myself.

Not Arabs per se, as much as any male from a deeply traditional society. Traditional masculinity is a cumbersome and, yet, fragile façade. For a man to be powerful, so much rests on a woman’s obedience. Indeed, no one can emasculate a man as well and so easily, as the façade rests so entirely on a woman’s cooperation.

There’s a great movie in Arabic and Hebrew called A Wedding in Galilee. A Druze Palestinian family living under the occupation want to have a wedding for their son `Adil and his fiancé, Samiyya. Of course, free assembly is strictly governed by the Israelis and the family must apply to the local military governor for permission to host so large an event. `Adil’s father is the village mukhtar, a traditional mayoral title antedating the San Remo settlement in 1920. Being called mukhtar is still a token of respect. Anyway, Abu `Adil (Arab men are given a name after their eldest son, Abu `Adil means “Father of Adil”) goes to the military governor to ask for permission.

The Israeli governor thinks he’s going to be clever, and decides to tell Abu `Adil that they can hold the wedding if the Israeli military governor can attend. Abu `Adil is in a complete bind. The military governor is clearly his enemy, however, Abu `Adil is a traditional Arab. No true Arab refuses a request for hospitality. He naturally replies, “Please stay with me until the very end of the wedding.”

The Israeli military commander and his entourage attending this wedding is of course the central conflict in the very complicated plot. It’s a great movie (crappy production values, but great characters and plot). But `Adil, an ardent Palestinian nationalist, is outraged by his father’s decision to show hospitality to Israeli soldiers occupying their land. But he wants to get married (it’s not like you get any before marriage in the Arab world), so it’s a catch-22.

Well apparently, the Druze have a custom where the bride and groom consummate on the wedding night and the sheet with the blood stain from the woman’s hymen is displayed for all to see. No Muslim or Christian Arabs I’ve ever heard of have this custom, so I found it novel. At any rate, Abu `Adil needs to display the sheet. But `Adil is so choked up that he goes impotent. Dad is going berserk and cousin Khalid, the sensible one, tells his uncle, “Look. We’ll get a sheet, make a small cut on the cow, get a blood stain and show the people. Then tomorrow, we take `Adil to the doctor.” Dad will have none of this, so `Adil and Samiyya are stuck in the room and the people are beginning to talk. Samiyya says, “Look, clearly this isn’t happening tonight.” `Adil won’t come out, but, on the other hand, he’s not getting it up either.

Samiyya realizes that something has to be done to save male honor, so pressing the sheet into her vagina, she says, “I take my virginity with my own hand.” `Adil throws his face into her lap sobbing.

Masculinity, that kind of masculinity, is so fragile. It’s not just the Arabs. There’s a great gay movie called Wedding Banquet about a gay man from Hong Kong named Wai-Tung who is an immigrant success story in Manhattan. The catch is that he’s gay and has an American partner named Simon. His parents don’t know and are determined that he will marry. Wai-Tung and Simon have a mainland Chinese tenant, a starving artist named Wei-Wei. Wei-Wei is about to be deported. So they concoct the perfect solution. Wai-Tung marries Wei-Wei enabling her to stay in the country and allowing him to get his parents off his back. The comedy of errors begins.

But in both movies, the women make sacrifices for the men’s honor. Except in Wedding Banquet, Simon gets to be one of the women. I saw the movie early in the process of coming out and decided that I was not Simon. Hence, I never dated Arab men, not that there are that many to meet at your average gay bar.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Back in 1998, I read this passage at a meeting of the Sheikh Zubayr society:

LATE that night, refreshed and strengthened by a good dinner and much free laughter, Isaac Penn and Peter Lake sat in the small study, staring at the fire. The heat ran around half a dozen logs that had become red cylinders of flame, changing their colors until they looked like six suns in a black universe of firebrick. Their glow was an in­visible wind that irradiated the room and froze the two men in place—like deer in a forest which is burning all around them, who lift their heads to the highest and brightest flames and look into a tunnel of white light.

“The doctors told me,” said Isaac Penn, as if he were talking to himself, “that she would be dead in a few months. That was almost a year ago.” He glanced at an ice-covered window in which the moon had gone all astray, and listened to the wind coming off the Lake of the Coheeries as it could only there, on a midwinter night, like the roaring jet winds of Mars or Saturn. “It’s a mystery to me that she can sleep outside, in that. She wasn’t supposed to. In winter, she’s supposed to come in. But she refuses, even up here. I can never get used to thinking that my daughter is out there in that caldron of ice. And yet, in the mornings, she comes to breakfast revived after twelve hours in cold that would kill a strong healthy man. The wind and snow cover her, attack her. At first, I used to beg her to come in; but then I realized that doing what she does is what keeps her alive.”


“I don’t know.”

“I wonder,” said Peter Lake, aware that he was in a warm com­fortable place in a vast sea of snow and ice which maneuvered beyond the walls like a wild unopposed army. “I wonder about the others.”

“What others?”

“The thousands, the hundreds of thousands, like Beverly.”

“We’re all like Beverly. She’s early, that’s all.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“What way? Be clear.”

“The poor should not have to suffer, as they do, in their mil­lions, and die young.”

“The poor? Do you mean everyone? Certainly you mean every­one in New York, for in New York even the rich are poor. But is Beverly poor according to your definition? No. And yet, what’s the difference?”

“The difference,” said Peter Lake, “is that small children, their mothers, and their fathers, live and die like beasts. They don’t have special sleeping porches, a hundred pounds of down and sable, mar­ble baths as big as pools, ranks of doctors from Harvard and Johns Hopkins, salvers of roast meat, hot drinks in silver vacuum bottles, and cheerful happy families. I want Beverly to have these things, and would die rather than see her go without them. But there is a differ­ence. The child I once saw in a hallway was barefoot, bareheaded, dressed in filthy rags, starving, blind, abandoned. He had no feather bed. He was near death. And he was standing, because he didn’t have a place to lie down and die.”

“I know this,” Isaac Penn asserted. “I’ve seen such things far more often than you have. You forget that I was a poorer man than you have ever been, for a longer time than you have yet lived. I had a father and a mother, and brothers and sisters, and they all died young, too soon. I know all these things. Do you think I’m a fool? In The Sun we bring injustices to the attention of the public, and suggest sensible means to correct inequities where they serve no pur­pose. I realize that there is too much needless and cruel suffering. But you, you don’t seem to understand that these people whom you profess to champion have, in their struggles, compensations.”

“What compensations?”

“Their movements, passions, emotions; their captured bodies and captured senses are directed with no less certainty than the mi­croscopic details of the seasons, or the infinitesimal components of the city’s great and single motion. They are, in their seemingly ran­dom actions, part of a plan. Don’t you know that?”

“I see no justice in that plan.”

“Who said,” lashed out Isaac Penn, “that you, a man, can al­ways perceive justice? Who said that justice is what you imagine? Can you be sure that you know it when you see it, that you will live long enough to recognize the decisive thunder of its occurrence, that it can be manifest within a generation, within ten generations, within the entire span of human existence? What you are talking about is common sense, not justice. Justice is higher and not as easy to un­derstand—until it presents itself in unmistakable splendor. The de­sign of which I speak is far above our understanding. But we can sometimes feel its presence.

“No choreographer, no architect, engineer, or painter could plan more thoroughly and subtly. Every action and every scene has its purpose. And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent—a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery. We try to bring it about without knowing exactly what it is, and only touch upon it. No matter, for all the flames and sparks of justice throughout all time reach to invigorate unseen epochs—like engines whose power glides on hidden lines to upwell against the dark in distant cities unaware.”

“I don’t know,” said Peter Lake, confused. “I think of Beverly, and I’m not sure about the golden age of which you speak, which is beyond our lives, and which we will never see. Think of Beverly. How could it be?”

Isaac Penn got up from his chair to leave the room. At the door, he turned to Peter Lake, who felt cold and alone. Isaac Penn was an old man, and sometimes he became dreadfully grave, as if he were in the presence of a thousand tormenting spirits. His eyes reflected the fire. They seemed unnatural, like tunnels of flame into a soul grown so deep that it must soon leave life. “Have you not yet realized that Beverly has seen the golden age—not one that was, nor one that will be, but one that is here? Though I am an old man, I have not yet seen it. And she has. That is what has broken my heart.”

I have two friends who are sickeningly well read. One is Peter Hovde and the other is Garner Gollatz. It was Garner who pointed out that the writer, Mark Helprin, was a neo-con. I was embarrassed, because the text could be given a flat, vapid reading as some sort of support for laissez-faire capitalism, which certainly was not the interpretation I had made of the text. Moreover, I don’t know Helprin’s work well enough to really venture what his specific agenda in writing the piece was. I will interpret the text only to extricate a certain meaning that I find useful. Anything else, he may keep.

One of OED’s nicer definitions for melancholy is: tender, sentimental, or reflective sadness; sadness giving rise to or considered as a subject for poetry, sentimental reflection, etc., or as a source of aesthetic pleasure. This feeling is one that I am first conscious of having felt early in the summer of 1996 and it has been my frequent companion since then.

It was the very end of my Fulbright year in Jordan. A few days before I left the country, I had a small get-together at my Aunt Zakiyeh’s house. She lives on the top floor of a three story building in the village of Safut. Her small apartment does not take up the whole floor, so she has a very large open-air patio. In the evening, one can entertain under the stars quite splendidly. That night was an evening of extraordinary blessing in my life. It is hard to get everyone to get together in Jordan—the Arabs are a very spontaneous people and event planning is quite the challenge in Jordan. But everyone made it that night: Kholude, Norma, Maysa, Firas and even my Jesuit friend, Paul Heck. Later in the evening, Charlie and Elaine stopped by just before they were about to emigrate to Canada. We all talked and talked: politics, theology, you name it. We drank whiskey and `araq and had a royal meza. At the end of the evening, a shooting star streaked across the sky. The evening was perfect. If I’d had MS at the time, I’d have undoubtedly shed a tear. I never cried, back then. But it was beautiful. And I knew that we’d all be scattered to the wind, that I couldn’t hold the moment. That was sad, but it made the moment real. I was able to enjoy living in the moment fully, without the need to hold on. My heart was open, as were the heavens.

Melancholy is a powerful and strange emotion, so different from depression. Depression takes away your desire to live. Melancholy makes you sublimely aware of just how alive you are, of how exquisite life is. In the same breath, it reminds you that you are mortal, that you cannot capture the moment, that it will pass and, eventually, that you will die. Melancholy makes you especially present. This for me is a good thing. Like all those plagued by their imaginations, my soul’s chief passion has always been to become. Melancholy teaches me to be, to relish being, to be grateful for being, to be grateful for life.

The experience of melancholy teaches us to release irritation at the world’s persistent inability to meet up to our highest ideals and to replace this irritation with gratitude. It teaches us the importance of seeing the moment and living in it, of seeing what is good in every moment, in finding a way to let go of irritation. When I am clear-sighted (sadly, it isn’t often), I see that this is God’s plan for me. My life is an exercise in learning to understand the melancholy. If there is purpose in my life, I think it must be that.

God help me, for I’m not much good at it. But I want to be. I want to be. Help me, Lord.