Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jenni and Talal at the Slush Bowl

At long last, here’s the photo of Jenni and me at the Slush Bowl. And, yes, folks that is a genuine cheesehead hat and my hoodie is indeed blaze orange.

Monday, January 15, 2007

We Beat the Fuckin’ Bears
(and That's What Counts)

Now and then you need something that’s good for your soul. And on New Year’s Eve, we beat the fuckin’ Bears. That was good for my soul. I watched the game on my brother-in-law’s 42-inch TV screen. He’s got a pretty cool sound system hooked up to it. The Pack dominated the game. Rex Grossman, that limp-dicked loser, got pulled and Brian Griese threw the Bears’ only touchdown. The Packers offense came alive. Donald Driver hoisted Brett Favre—a moment that perhaps defines our season, as the Packers are becoming a real team again. And Favre cried in the interview at the end. I hope he comes back, but you know, I’m okay with it if he doesn’t. And it's not that I won't miss him.

It’s funny. For the first time I feel like the bastard is grateful for having been Brett Favre. He’s beginning to be likeable to me as a person. Yeah, I’ve worn his jersey for years. He’s Brett Favre, after all—legendary quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. I admit it. I’m in awe of him. But he’s been an asshole for a lot of his life. For the first time, he appreciated what he had. It did my heart some good. At least, if he retires, he sees clearly what he’s taken for granted and can be grateful before it’s over. He’s only a year older than me. Maybe, just maybe, he's begun to learn what football has to teach him about life. And if he has, then it hasn't been a waste and it was good that he came back. Because life is more important than football.

I’ve been dealing with something of a personal crisis over the past two weeks. That particular Arab-Israeli class was one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taught. You see, the evals weren’t good by my standards. I mean, I got an average of 4.1 out of 5 points on all the indicators—the numbers were fine. The statistical breakdown made it fairly clear that there were only one or two students who really hated my guts. That’s certainly acceptable—my guts are not there for them to love. But, basically, the general consensus on all the written eval sheets was “This class is really interesting, but it’s too damned hard.” That evoked a great deal of bitterness in me. I did tell them after all, that the course was hard. It’s the Arab-Israeli Conflict. There’s nothing easy about it. That said, their course mean was strikingly normal. The class clearly wasn’t too hard for them to handle. It was simply harder than they wished to work. And between their complaints and their numerous personal problems, they drained the soul out of me. That left me resentful, because they didn’t match my commitment to them. They just whined and bitched and killed any affection I had for them.

Of course, Craig would say to me (and he’s right) that I have to match their level of commitment. One cannot expect them to match mine. Jamie Mayerfeld once gently reminded me, “Talal, this is the most important thing in our lives, not the most important thing in theirs.” And he’s right. My emotional response to this course is a direct result of a failure in discipline on my part. My guts are not there for them to love. I try to leave them with the joy that can only be found in a genuine encounter with knowledge. But ultimately, Plato is right that education is about turning a person in the right direction and praying that they see what they need. I’m better at it than most, but at the end of the day, it's they who have to see, not me. More than just my will is at work in this process. And, ultimately, and what’s more to the point, whether they like me is not is not material. I can’t be hurt because we didn’t connect. It’s great when it happens (and has happened often enough that I know that I don’t suck at this), but ultimately my guts are not here for them to love.

Like Favre, I have a deeply rooted need to believe that I can be the difference maker. The last two seasons have taught Favre that football is a team effort. Now don't get me wrong—Favre was never the sort of asshole that Terrell Owens or Randy Moss are—Favre’s a genuine leader. He doesn’t have delusions that he doesn’t need the team. But he used to believe that no matter what went wrong, he could always make the difference. The past two years have been a sharp lesson to him that for a man to be Brett Favre, you need more than raw talent and discipline. You need a supporting cast. Yeah, Favre has made the difference for the Packers for a whole decade. But there are no-win scenarios. And some seasons, you can’t win for losing. Yes, I made errors last term. But ultimately, if any class makes it to the next level, it relies on more than my will and skill. I worked goddamned hard last term. But that isn't enough. They’ve got to want to go there. And now and then, you get a bunch that just aren’t that interested in working that hard, just like sometimes, you’re rebuilding.

I need to remember the victory over the Bears. Even in a lackluster season, there are golden moments. And there were golden moments in that class. I’ve got to remember my love of the game. Favre seems to have learned to be grateful for being Brett Favre. I need to remember to be grateful for being me. I’m a pretty lucky bastard. I get to teach stuff like the Arab-Israeli conflict for a living. And I need to get the head straight about that last course. Life is a slow boring of hard boards. I can’t lose my passion or my sense of perspective.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fog, Part I

I promised Sean that I’d explain what I meant by “fog.” He asked, “How problematic is it? As someone who is absent-minded naturally how different is it? One article said you forget why you went to a store. You forget people’s names etc. This happens to me often, so I write everything down. I am assuming there is something much more serious and sinister.”

Yes and no, Sean. It is a very natural response to trying to use empathy to understand the problem (indeed, that act is the very foundation of social science). Moreover, you are right in believing that you have experienced what I experience—indeed everyone does experience absent-mindedness. The practical difference is not qualitative. It’s quantitative. A healthy person does not experience absent-mindedness as many as twenty to thirty times a day. For me, this is quite normal.

Recall not memory

You are right, however, that this is a problem that normal people have. We all experience small recall problems. We search for a word that is on the tip of our tongues. We forget someone’s name. We got to the refrigerator only to forget what it was that we were getting. These are recall problems—the memory is still imprinted in the cerebral cortex, it can still be accessed. If you have a memory problem (an illness such as Alzheimer’s, for example), the memory itself is being destroyed and, as personality is a direct product of memory, your identity is destroyed with it. You know less and less that you have a problem and everyone you love suffers as your personality and every memory you have of them are destroyed and they get to watch the walking corpse.

A recall problem is nowhere near as cataclysmic. You can remind me of what I’m forgetting and, almost without exception, I’ll remember it. While you are out of sight, I may forget that I was supposed to do something with you, but my memory of you and what we were supposed to do is still there. If I have a list of things to buy at the store, it will jog my memory. Someone with Alzheimer’s will not even recall the context of the list or know what to do with it.

I think a good analogy is to think of a computer. A computer has a processor, memory and a hard-drive. My processor is fine. I think pretty quickly and accurately. My hard-drive is fine. People with Alzheimer’s essentially have a bad hard-drive that is destroying all the data on the disk. My problem is that I have shit for memory. Just like a computer that’s running the latest software with low memory, I can still do the task. It’s just slow. I can still do virtually all the things I did before. I simply cannot do them efficiently.

Some of the tricks a normal person uses will work for me too. Writing things down is key. But unlike a normal person, I need to make sure that I get things written down where I can see it when I can actually do something about it. For example, my mom can call me earlier in the day twice to remind me that it’s my father’s birthday. But unless I write it where I can see it in the early evening, I’ll completely space. It doesn’t matter that my mother called me twice to remind me. And it doesn’t matter how important the person involved is or how much I love them. I’ve spaced on Craig’s AA birthday, my mom’s birthday and most of my friends can attest that it’s been years since I remembered their birthday, if indeed, they ever knew me before MS. Plus, recall that multiple sclerosis is a nerve conduction problem. There are good days and bad days. Some days I remember without a reminder. Some days twenty reminders won’t be enough. There’s no way of telling which kind of day tomorrow will be.

Concrete Object fields

Coordinating between different times and spaces is very difficult for me. This is hard to explain. I had to develop a vocabulary to even explain the problem for myself. So that’s how I have to explain it to you. In order to relate to a set of discrete objects or ideas, we construct what I’ll call “object fields.”

Object field: a cognitive “space” delineated by networks of associations that lead the mind to group certain objects together as an interrelated and discrete whole.

Meta-object field: a cognitive object field that contains other object-fields and that is constructed to coordinate between them

The object fields that are the simplest for me to deal with are those that are based on real physical locations where I happen to be. The advantage in this case is obvious—I can see the space and that sensory stimulus is a constant reminder. It’s hard to forget something that you’re looking at. But even when dealing with physical object fields, I have problems, particularly in complex work areas such as the kitchen.

Say I’m making a salad. I leave my cutting board and the knife on the counter and go the refrigerator to get some vegetables. When I open the refrigerator, I’ve entered a new object field. Often, when I move from one object field to another, I forget what I’m doing. So I’ll be standing there looking at the refrigerator trying to remember what I was doing. So I’ll have to look away from the refrigerator and look back at the counter. When I see the cutting board and knife, they jog my memory. So far, so good, right? That happens to everyone.

What doesn’t happen to everyone it that when I look away again, I’ll forget again. Lather, rinse, repeat. On a bad day, it may take three or four repetitions before I get it right. Imagine accruing all of those time losses every time you change object field (if you open a desk drawer, you’ve just changed object field—we change object fields just that often). The time losses rack up. Bottom line: I can still make a great salad, but you can do it faster, especially since you don’t have the recall problem and are likely to be faster with a knife than me. Being slow with a knife, however, has nothing to do with MS. I’ve always been a klutz.

Object Fields and the World of My Imagination

Now, I’m allegedly an intellectual. Lots of what I do happens solely in the mind. There are no physical objects to glance back at to remind you. Yes, there is a physical bunch of people who are the Congress of the United States, but no one who studies them has them all seated in a room. Moreover, certain things like “institutionalization” are rather abstract. Fortunately, most of those object fields are part of my long-term memory. But you see, it’s my job to invent new concepts. Now my imagination still works just fine and that was my real academic asset, as not everyone has one. So I can still do this job. But now, I’m way slower.

In my imagination, there are all sorts of connections. One thing hooks up with another and another. There’s always this huge, amorphous incoherent “structure” that feels like it’s the Theory of Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, back when we were first-year grad students my buddy Peter said (and he had a point), “Talal, you can’t write the Theory of Life, the Universe and Everything. You have to pick one. So what’s it going to be: life, the universe, or everything?”

Well, what I would have done before MS was to loosely define the contours of the whole pseudo-structure in my mind, find the general boundaries of the part I wanted to write up and distill that bit into a coherent, well-crafted theory. But my short-term recall is shot. Trying to cut out the bit in my mind that I want is virtually impossible. I don't know the pseudo-structure very well, so it exists only in short-term memory. I have to do two things at once: recall the whole structure and then step away from it and criticize it. That's too much brain-power at one time. I keep losing focus on the outline of the large structure as I explore it to criticize it. In the seconds in which I lose track of the process, I start following all the luminous connections that my imagination has generated and, as a result, keep losing track of the task.

What I’ve discovered that I have to do is do my best to spend a few months writing a sixty-page document that is a rambling mess but contains a great deal of the amorphous pseudo-structure in my head. Then I can see the pseudo-structure and don’t need to hold it in my head and criticize it at the same time. Yes, I'll still get distracted, but my eyes will still be resting on the same shitty passage I was critizing before and that will pull me back on task. I don't get as lost that way.

After doing the write-up of the pseudo-structure, I need to wait a while before proceeding to criticism, because trying to force that much material out of one’s imagination into the daylight at one time is exhausting and really fucks with your emotions. So a few months later (yes, that long) I can pick up the rambling mess and use all my brain power just for criticism. I don’t need to recall anything, because it’s right there on paper in front of me. Plus, having given birth to far more of the pseudo-structure than I needed, I can probably distill a few papers out of the mess.

But it’s slow. Worse, it looks like you’re not really working most of the time, especially to people who are not writers. That’s pretty humiliating, because I’m trying really hard the whole time. And you burn out several times on the road and wind up playing Civ 3 or Spider Solitaire just to get you mind off of it and let stuff work at the back of your head. That doesn’t build other people’s external confidence either. But you’ve got to take those sort of breaks if you’re to get the job done.

This is quite a mouthful. I’ll start with meta-object fields next time.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

That Cheeky Bastard Dinur

Dinur sent me this photo from the Sharks-Wings game a few nights ago. This is what happens when you become friends with your students. They get cheeky. They send you obnoxious sports photos. They stop asking you questions about social science and start asking you questions like:

Do the Red Wings dislike Osgood? Dominik Hasek plays roughly 2/3 of the team's games, and with the exception of tonight, has a phenomenal season (his GAA before tonight was 1.80, and he was 2nd in the league with 5 shutouts). On nights he doesn't play, the Wings list him as a scratch, and start a guy by the name of Joey MacDonald (sorry, I thought Jimmy Howard, he was the backup last year). They scratch Hasek so that there's no chance of him seeing ice time if he's not the starter. Osgood rarely (if ever) starts for the team any more. Do you think it's just the team grooming a goalie for the future in MacDonald, or do they not think highly of Ozzie in the organization any more?

You see, that cheeky little bastard Dinur knows that I’m a really big fan of Chris Osgood’s. In the realm of male sports banter, that’s called a liability. You see, it’s not that Chris Osgood is that bad. It’s just that he’s not that good. There’s the essential rub. You see, Chris Osgood can be a completely inspired player. He makes some exceptional saves. Back in 1999, I remember my friend Baron Bryan (he’s not Irish—in fact, Bryan is a corruption of Ibrahim—he’s Lebanese! He’s an airline pilot and a hockey goalie, really good-looking and a lot of fun to drink with—I taught him the Arabic alphabet) saying, “Yeah, you see, Osgood will make a great save like that one and then turn around and let in a soft goal later that evening.” Even back in ’99 I’d get flack like that.

When I first became a Wings fan in ’98, I wasn’t really impressed with Osgood until I saw him play live in DC. He’s the most gloriously alive goalie I’ve ever watched. He’s about my height, so he’s not very big for a goalie. He looks like a small tiger when he’s in net. Any goalie can look focused on camera. But off-camera, most goalies stand around looking bored while the puck’s on the other half of the ice. I mean, watching Olaf Kolzig, I swear he could be thinking, “I am so fucking bored [swig of water from sports bottle]. You know, I could be jacking off right now.” Never Chris Osgood. He’s focused every moment he’s in net. He never takes his eyes off the puck. He’s excited. He fucking loves hockey and that’s why I love him. He’s a great sport. No ego, no bullshit. Completely focused on the game. Loves Detroit and his teammates. Couldn’t wait to get back.

To answer your question, Dinur, after that last slump he had that led them to pick up Hasek, I think that the Wings management decided that they wanted a star goalie, which is why they’ve been infatuated with Hasek. Hasek sucked, so they gave Manny Legace a chance, but Legace fell apart in the playoffs. Playoff hockey is like regular season football: each game isn’t purely decisive, but every game counts seriously. The victory in the here and now is absolutely essential. It’s a totally different psychology. Yeah, there was lots of other stuff wrong last year, but Legace’s performance was the most damning part of the Wings’ playoffs fizzle. So they axed Legace. Chris wanted back in, badly enough to take the humiliation. So unless something goes hideously wrong with Red Wings goaltending, I’ve got to think he’s permanently out. He came back for cheap, so they won’t fire him. But he’s dead-ended. They decided after that last slump that he was a nice guy, but he doesn’t have the makings of a legendary goalie. They want a fucking legend.

I love Chris Osgood because he’s a value-rational player. He doesn’t play hockey for the money or for trophies. He plays because he loves the game and he loves his teammates. That’s the reason you play—for the game itself and for the love of your teammates. That’s life in a nutshell—the quest to grow and express the form and the love of those who share the quest. I’ll always cherish Chris Osgood for that. His example made me a better person.

Plus, he’s kinda cute. And I remember the old days.