Friday, August 28, 2009

Craig and Talal in Tel Aviv, Day 1

I have a blog entry for Simon that’s an installation of our ongoing argument about the Star Trek (the new movie) that was inspired while watching the sun rise above the Irish Sea from 30,000 feet. It’s good. But philosophy later. Let’s talk about the shit. Literally.

So we get to the apartment circa 3 am Tel Aviv time (that’s 5 pm PDT). Our landlady, Raya is off in Budapest settling her daughter in for a few years of academic study. We’re greeted by a lady named Ilam, her assistant. The apartment was very warm, so we cranked up the AC. It works, thanks be to God. It works really well, so well that I’m probably going to spend the next few weeks worrying about the electric bill. The apartment is actually bigger than Craig and I expected. All of that is the good news.

The bad news was that the toilet is clogged. We need to call her in the morning so she can make arrangements for the plumber. Apparently, Friday is a half-day off and Saturday is a full day off. I suspect that this may have something to do with the Sabbath beginning at sunset on Friday, but I am not certain. Well, the guy at the airport wanted to screw us on a deal for cellphones (praise God for Grace who provides us with the necessary tip-off), so until I figure out how to buy a local simcard from local telecom giant Cellcom, we have no phone. The apartment had no plunger. Through vague descriptions of what you do with the device, we discovered that a plunger is a called a plumba and purchased one for sixteen shekels. Our toilet has a very bizarrely shaped drain hole, which makes it difficult to get a proper seal using the plunger. Sadly, if fortunately, I have developed some expertise with a plunger and, by trial and sewage-soaked error, I managed to unplug it.

Craig has taken some lovely photos of our apartment. They follow.

I love the detail he got on the building number.

The problems below really aren't visible. The dirt doesn't show in the photos.

That toilet looks innocuous. Trust me. It's not.

Of course, I spent some time this morning focusing on the smelly mold in the kitchen, depicted below.

We bought a mold stain remover with bleach as a component. It’s cleaned up well. Craig is still sleeping. When he wakes, I’ll see if I can get him to get on a chair and reach the very top zone. I hope he sleeps until morning, though. It makes all the sense in the world that he’d get over jet lag faster than me. He can sleep twelve hours at a drop anytime. He wakes frequently, but falls back asleep just as easily. I wish I slept like him.

We desperately need to buy some bleach come Sunday. There are several surfaces I’d like to scrub. Everything shuts down come Friday afternoon. Fortunately, our supermarket was open. So we did get enough food to survive until Sunday.

The Aesthetics of Tel Aviv

We explored some yesterday. Tel Aviv is the most unusual city. It’s ugly in person, yet strangely photogenic. I can’t explain it. This view from the beach at the Hilton looks hideous. It’s an ugly factory abutting on the beach. Yes, I composed it to use space as effectively as possible. I did add that much to the image. But it never dawned on me the photo would be attractive. But surprise, it’s not that bad.

It's obviously not alluring, but it was ugly in real life. I'm having trouble sorting it out. Part of it may be an issue of light. The sea, while pretty in real life, appears with deeper, more beautiful color in these photos, I didn't doing anything special to the color in the pictures.

I do notice that the automatic setting is leaving the rocks and surf overexposed in several of the other photos I've taken today. I'm going to have to experiment with manual control. I have a beautiful sketch (somewhere) of a Bedouin tent pitched on the beach of the Mediterranean. I remember how jarring it was, the first time I saw it. Obviously, I grew up post-'67. There were no Palestinians on the beach in my Jordanian imaginary. I can't venture to make any comments about the Israeli imaginary, other than to note that again, class organization trumping tribal organization seems to be the rule. The people here all have recreational hobbies like fishing and windsurfing, something I don't see a lot of in the Arab world.

But to return to the topic at hand, perhaps Tel Aviv light has a photogenic quality. Georgetown light did, but Georgetown looks beautiful to the naked eye, too. I can’t explain Tel Aviv. The stores look grimy, crowded and nasty. But look at these photos Craig took while shopping.

Yeah, Craig has an artist’s eye (I love my Big Bear), but it’s not all just his eye. He’s finding these results unpredictable, too.

Part of it is a problem of maintenance. Like the apartment, the city as a whole is exceptionally poorly maintained. You can see how Labor Zionism shaped the ethos of the city. The bourgeois compulsion toward creating a perfectly commodified cityscape simply has no expression here. Buildings are run down and filthy. There are our apartment windows, taken from the outside. This grime is standard, at least here on Arlozorov Street.

Indeed, Craig wonders if we have any right to complain of the apartment’s filth. For all we know, this may be par for the course. The neighborhood has its share of blown-out buildings.

And façades can be terrible. Who dreamed up this monstrosity?

But there are people who share Craig’s sensibility and try to create little nooks of cozy beauty.

And there was some aesthetic sensibility, for example in the creation of street signs. Here is one for Ben-Yehuda Street:

I find these trilingual signs quite charming. The street is named for the guy who revived Hebrew from the dead. Hebrew died circa 500 BC. That’s roughly contemporaneous with the founding of the Roman Republic to help you contextualize. This guy, through force of will, brought it back from the dead and now a few million people speak it as naturally as if it were, say… Arabic. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Michael Dewar, a new friend in Portland I made through my goddaughter Michelle, is an old Tel Aviv hand who has helped Craig and me with much practical advice. He reminded me of Theodor Herzl’s slogan from AltneulandIf you will it, it is no fairy tale! I think of that phrase a lot while I’m here. Michael sent me the German phrase translated into Arabic (إن أردتم فهذه ليست أسطورة) and I had to scramble to figure it out at first, as it didn’t seem to be an Arabic idiom he picked up while in the Peace Corps in Madaba. While the translation with literally accurate, if one were to translate its emotional impact on the Arabs rather than the literal words, it would have to read as a wry Though we do not will it, it is nonetheless no fairy tale. I mean, here I am.

Yes, sure enough, the fairy tale became real. But the word real has so many meanings. In the process of becoming real, it feels as if Tel Aviv has none of the positive qualities of a fairy tale. It's all too real and not in that Arab political sense, either. It’s just not at all enchanting. It’s not that it lacks charm, but it’s in little things like the street signs. Like an unexpected photo taken by your partner of you trying to figure out which carton of milk to buy.

NOTE TO NEIL: Yes, that is my old Packers cap. But I wore my new Yankees cap to the gym everyday last week, which won me a snarky comment from the gym owner and a few glances from other clients, including a guy in Red Sox cap. Rest assured, the Yankees cap will make it into the rotation regularly on this trip.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Self-Doubt and Teaching

A while back, I told a friend about my students, "Every year I'm a year older and and every year they're the same age." He didn't quite get why I'd have trouble relating to them and I realized that I'd explained myself poorly. I'd like to take another shot at it here.

It’s not that I don’t relate to them, although the cultural gap is growing—not all of them have seen Star Wars, for example, and most sitcoms I watched they haven’t. They still know who Madonna is. The problem is that I became me because of a charismatic experience of being taught by someone who could really do the job when I was their age. In comic book terms, to be a perfect geek, it was my origin.

I face my origin every time I teach. I face that romantic passion that propelled me down this course. When a man is a young, he is willing to pay any price for the object of his passion. All you can see is the Holy Grail, shining, clothed in white samite. No price can be too great to taste again this holy glory. This moment is, at its essence charismatic, in the Weberian sense of the term.

Charisma is the experience of the divine. This can, but need not refer to a deity. Rather, it is the experience of newly found power against the monotony and limitation of everyday life. Most students have experienced this only in its romantic form, which we call infatuation. You meet that special someone and, suddenly everything becomes possible. Their very presence is intoxicating. You feel you can do anything at all when that person is with you. I ask the students if that feeling is love. I always love their emotional response. They know that it’s not but, looking in their eyes, you can feel the pain that accompanied their discovery that it wasn’t. The students tell you it’s not because it doesn’t last, that you don’t really know the person yet and that when you do, they’re never as magnificent as they seem while you’re infatuated

I explain to them that the reason that the person seems perfect is that because our image of them is one-sided. We can see only what we like. Invariably, everything has another side and the thing that we like contains things that we don’t like that are associated with it. In fact, we often learn that the thing that we like needs that thing that we don’t like in order to work at all. So while what we imagine is more imperfect than the world in the sense that the world is much more complex and our vision is invariably too simple and reductionist to be of practical use, what we imagine is more perfect than the world in the sense that it is inspiring, it lets us know what we desire to change the world into. But the imagination has a powerful impact on our emotions. Human beings love power and the imagination is at the root of that love. You have to be able to imagine the world differently in order for power to be meaningful.

Well, when I was their age, I took up the quest to become a professor. I loved what a good teacher could do and loved theory. I wanted to be the one and forge the other. The price didn’t matter; I would take up the quest. When I said I would do anything, I had no way of understanding what that word “anything” meant. I did not understand pain or sorrow in anything but the most superficial sense. This is the essence of innocence. Innocence is a strange thing in that it is both beautiful and a source of shame. We try to preserve it in our children because of its beauty. Yet losing it shows us that we cannot be who we imagined ourselves to be and this is a source of pain and, for a moment at least, shame.

I see that innocence in their eyes. I loved the intoxication of charisma, the romantic zeal, the passion of being young. I see a very young Talal in their eyes and I know the road that they will walk and what they will learn on that road. Because I am, sadly, very romantic I remember the pain all too vividly. I cannot shield them from it. I would not be their teacher if I did.

I know what my teachers were for me and I know, therefore, the limits of what I can be for them. I remember how I judged my teachers when I was their age. Because I know the pain of their journey and how badly I needed a teacher when I was young, I live in fear of their judgment. But it is not really their judgment. It is the judgment of that young Talal whose innocence I have spent. I know his suffering exactly. It is his passion that I have spent and if he were to look at me and ask, “What have I become?” I feel as if I would wither and die.

Now and then, there is a student whom you must perforce disappoint because they want to be indulged in a childlike way and you must be stern. Most of the time, I do this without difficulty. But, now and then, there is one who reminds me very strongly of the old Talal. Now the old Talal was a great believer in legitimate power. But now and then there were times in which he could not defer and then he was quite defiant. When it happens that I have a student who reminds me of the young Talal and he or she is defiant with me, even though I am certain that I have not wronged him or her, I cannot help but wonder if I have become that which I hated as a young man. I do not believe I have. But there is always room for doubt.

One can’t do without self-doubt. It is central to good leadership. Machiavelli said something along the lines of, “A leader needs good information, but hierarchy distorts good information. All you can do is reassure your subordinates that they can tell you anything. But if they can actually say anything to you, it because they have no respect for you.” For this reason, a leader needs self-doubt. Because in the final analysis, the leader is responsible for his actions and must actively work to compensate for the fact that the better he does his job, the less able others are to check him and the worse his flow of information becomes. Without self-doubt, any leader will become a tyrant.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll keep coming back. But seeing myself through their eyes is the part that gets harder on me every year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Israeli Cell Phone Commercial

While looking for some sort of cheap cell phone to use in Tel Aviv, I stumbled across this recent "Cellcom" commercial that has caused quite a stir in Israel and among Arab activists.

I'm not quite sure what I make of it myself. Certainly, the fact that we can't see the other side of the wall is very interesting. While I don't interpret the intent of the advertisement as sinister, I seriously doubt that Cellcom is connecting people on both sides of that wall. Some of the commenters, probably correctly, argue that a Palestinian who got close enough to the wall to kick a soccer ball over would have already been shot. The wall itself is the cause of a serious humanitarian crisis. The Palestinian "economy," if you can justify the use of the word, was designed to be entirely dependent on Israel in order to prevent any basis for a future Palestinian state. Sealing off the territories from the economy of Israel has sealed off a large number of Palestinians from making a living. That wall represents more than political separation. It represents very real economic deprivation. Malnutrition is a serious problem for the Palestinians.

Certainly, the problem here is one of imagination. The commercial gives us some clues about "Josef Q. Public" views himself. The view is almost identical to that of a suburbanite in the United States. Of course, suburban identity works because of its lack of an "other." To be a happy suburbanite, you can't imagine yourself as the source of oppression. In a sense, that identity rests on not seeing the other side of the wall. So much in politics rests on the management of time and space. As I get older, I find more and more uses for Foucault.

Michael Dewar, Michelle's good friend who has given Craig and me a lot of good information about getting around Tel Aviv, told us that the gay community in Israel is the one of the few places where Arabs and Jews get along. It makes sense. If we believe Kinsey, roughly ten percent of American men, at least, experience only homosexual attraction and an other twenty percent fit along the gamut of bisexuality. Assuming that Kinsey uncovered a biological regularity, that means fewer than one in three guys is a potential fuck and a number of these guys are not in the regular hook-up market. If we believe that Arab and Israeli queers are as sexed as American queers and we believe that a good fuck is a good fuck, it makes all the sense in the world that Arab and Israeli queers would get over it. The market is too small to entertain prejudice. Surely any guy can see the logic in landing the next fuck. Feminists don't get this, but the penis can be a remarkably democratic organ. It's really the other brain that is steeped in prejudice.

A year or two ago, when I first started planning this trip, Ellis Goldberg, my committee chair, suggested that it might be rather hard on me emotionally to be in Israel, given the Israeli openness to homosexuality in comparison to the sort of denial most Arab societies have with respect to homosexuality. Indeed, I imagine that closedness is an other factor that makes for this "peace between the queers." It must be very hard to maintain a gay community in Arab Middle East. Yeah, it makes sense to hang out in the Israeli gay neighborhood when you can't have one of your own. But it's hardly free of political complication, is it? Sex is never free of political complication.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Crossing Over to the Dark Side

Life is too busy. I don't like busy. I'm not wired to handle it anymore. Here's the latest.

Neil Has Converted Me Into A Yankees Fan

Neil, Craig, Pam, Pam's friend Hala (who's quite a pip!) and I went to the Safe to see Yankees beat the Mariners (5-2). Neil bought me a cap and a commemorative pin to mark the event. At that point, as no one has ever explained as much baseball to me as Neil, let alone buy me a cap, I felt that I had to swear undying loyalty to the Yanks. So Michelle and Gretchen can rejoice. Kirk's wife Keriann will probably never forgive me. But, had fate left me in Bridgeport rather than moving to the ends of the earth, I probably would have been a Yankees fan anyway, so there we are. Plus, I'd like something that links me to my favorite city on the planet, which will always be New York. It's probably never going to be a job, so I take what I can get.

So Neil, since I swore I'd go to Fenway with you, do you feel like taking some martial arts classes with me next fall? We're gonna need all the help we can get.

Craig and I Head to Tel Aviv in Ten Days

My mom had a dream that my dissertation was published. The cover was blue and white. Odd color scheme, given that my dissertation is about Jordan and Lebanon, but from her lips to God's ears. I want a real job that has a paycheck in the month of September.

I Finally Signed Up for a Facebook Account

Craig is now very happy. My favorite greeting so far was from Fiona Davis, who said, "Oh wow, has Hell frozen over? Kidding! Welcome to the dark side, my friend!"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Anatomy of Denial

The emotional dynamics have changed over the years I’ve been dealing with my cognitive problems. Rewind to the summer of 2004. This was Craig and my first summer together in that shithole house in Skyway. Craig was heroic and made certain that we bought air conditioners and made several other modifications that helped keep the house cool. It was the first summer I’d had since I moved to Seattle in which I wasn’t lost in lethargy. Moreover, my mom helped me out with some money for the summer, so I didn’t have to work. It was the first time in a while when I wasn’t broken by exhaustion. But I bounced six checks. I’d always assumed my problem was being overwhelmed by fatigue. But I wasn’t hot and I wasn’t exhausted. I realized something else was wrong. So I started searching MS profiles. I read about short-term recall problems and realized that was my difficulty.

I consulted my neurologist and, by spring of 2005, I was in a cognitive symptoms support group organized by Mary Pepping, a neuropsych PhD at the UW hospital. The group wasn’t an MS group. It was a group of patients that were dealing with cognitive problems caused by things as diverse at traumatic brain injury and aneurisms. This was the first time that I realized that, yes, lesions in your brain count as brain damage. The group had a skills component and a therapy component. Because of school conflicts, I was only able to attend the skills component. I only got to go to the therapy group once.

The group I was part of happened to be all men, three of who really stand out in my memory. One was an elderly gentleman who had had a stroke. He was always cheerful and upbeat. I later found out that he had been comatose for six months after the stroke and in that period, his wife had passed away. She had been ill and he was not there to care for her during that time. I remain in awe of this man’s character. I cannot imagine waking up to discover that Craig had died of a debilitating illness and I had not been able to be there for him. That he could hold himself together with such composure still leaves me in awe. I can think of no other word to describe it. The second man’s disability had in essence left him in a constant state of sexual arousal. Many of us had read about this possible damage and said, "Hey that doesn’t sound so bad." I didn’t get to hear the man’s story, because he was only in the therapy group and I only got to go the once, but seeing the tears in the man’s eyes, I could see that no, this was a nightmare, not an adolescent fantasy. The last man was a construction worker who had been injured on the job. His damage was, I think, the most pronounced of all of us. He would, for example, wash dishes and then put them in the garbage can, instead of the cabinet. He would not realize that he had just thrown away his dishes.

At these sessions, I realized that one of my major problems was that, before I realized that I had a short-term recall problem, my response had been one of unconscious terror. This had been a major source of fatigue, as the most fatiguing stimulus I can feel is heavy, negative emotion. Carrying boxes up stairs is literally a good deal less fatiguing. Carrying boxes is cognitively simple. Before I consciously understood that I had a problem, I would feel terror five or six times a day. The most visceral memory I have of this was one day when I was looking for a paper in the many unstable stacks that, after the onset of MS, have plagued me. I found a library book that had been recalled. At that time, recalled library books were the bane of my existence, as I would rarely remember to bring them back if I could find where they were in the first place. The fines I paid at this time were quite expensive. Finding the book terrified me. If I picked up the book and put it somewhere where I would see it and remember to take it to school, would I remember to keep looking for the document that I needed? And if I kept looking for the document, would I later remember that I had found the recalled book and go back for it? I was fucked no matter which decision I made. The experience of the "Catch-22" was unbearable and totally overwhelming.

The terror was only able to remain terror so long as I was unconscious of the emotions and of the cognitive problem itself. The experience of terror had set in slowly and been part of my life for so many years that I never realized it was there. The difficulty is that of all non-moral failings, the one of which I had always been the most contemptuous since I was a child had always been disorganization. Having become this sort of contemptible person was deeply distressing to me. After I became conscious of the problem and understood the source, I could begin to consciously work on letting go of a value that was one of my core values. Unconscious terror gave way to conscious shame.

For about four years (say 2005-2008), my progress was made very slow by shame at being unable to live up to a core value. You can’t simply give up a core value just because you have no realistic way to live up to it. If you could just punt an ideal, it wouldn’t be a core value. Shame is a reflexive emotion. Evolutionary theory suggests that the reason we feel shame is that those individuals who confronted a situation in which they had exceeded their rightful identity claim in that situation tended to withdraw from it. This reflex aided individuals in social circumstances, as withdrawing often kept someone who was angry about the slight the person had committed from killing them. Shame can often lead to anger because it is a reflex. The thinking "You made me feel ashamed and made me withdraw. Because it’s a reflex, I couldn’t control it, so that makes me doubly angry, as I had no real reason to withdraw." Shame gives way to anger and then to violence.

The only way to stop feeling shame is to find a way to let go of the value. But letting go of the value is difficult because core values are a central part of identity. You were someone and now you can’t be that person. But you liked being that person. And now you’re some other fucker who you’d never sign up to be, some guy who has traits of which your old self would have been actively contemptuous. The only realistic way to let go of the dead guy’s values is to find things that you actually like about the new guy. You have to be willing to sign up to be yourself at the end of the day. You can’t live if you don’t.

So that’s taken the last year. I fuck up a lot now and I’m choking a lot less when it happens. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a flake. I have other redeeming values. But like an onion, there’s always a new layer. I now have to deal with the emotion that created the Old Talal’s character in the first place. The Old Talal became an intense organizer because, dating back to my early childhood, the feeling over being overwhelmed was just about the thing I hated most. I hated feeling powerless. That’s why I became such a good organizer. I organized everything so that I would never feel overwhelmed again. And I was pretty effective, too. I might get overwhelmed in round one of a new activity, but I’d definitely organize to be ahead of the curve for round two. Not organizing was, in my view, a will to be weak. What could be more contemptible?

Apparently contempt is an emotion that I prized as a child and a young man. Clearly, I’ve had to learn the real nature of compassion the hard way. Kinder, gentler ways might not have broken through my character flaws.

I’ve learned a number of organizational methods that can help someone with my weird frontal lobe problems. Yet, I tend to desert them. So I’ve been paying close attention to how I feel. For example, in the early trip planning phase, I worked last spring with a speech therapist named Stacy. She taught me some planning techniques that were genuinely helpful. I created several lists of tasks using this method and got a lot done. My mom kicked in both the cash and the communications needed to land the apartment. I’ve needed to do another round. I should have repeated the technique, but I didn’t.

I’ve asked myself why and tried to pay attention to my emotions. I’ve realized that I dislike organizing because when I have an accurate picture of how many details I have to organize, I start feeling overwhelmed. Using the organization techniques, I have quantitative proof of the extent of the disability in the form of the list staring me in the face. By not organizing, I’m protecting my mind from the horror of really seeing just how daunting the once manageable world is for me now. I've learned to hide in the fog of my mind. The fog, the cause of my disgrace, now is my hiding place, my retreat from feeling disgrace. As someone who has always prided himself on looking at the world face on, this is a painful realization.

Plus, there is just procrastination to cope with as well. Not being able to simply crush entropy-related emotions, I not quite sure how to push past it. In fact, it probably won’t have a "pushing" aspect to it. That’s why I hate it. In pushing past, I felt freedom from constraint. I was Superman. I have to learn to like being Clark Kent.

I think I need to go back into therapy again. Well, I’m really late for the gym. Gotta go!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Just In Case

Just in case any of you guys are geeky enough to want to see what a full page of newspaper text looks like, given my setup, click here. I have now followed in Dinur's footsteps (bold trailblazer that he is) and gotten a paid Flickr account to store all the newspapers that I am going to photograph. This way, I have a nice, online backup in case the worst happens.


I forgot to make copes of the lit reviews from Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. One of my students who is a friend came to office hours yesterday and when the time was up, since we were talking, I forgot to go into the copy place next door and just walked with him to the parking lot. That means I’m fucked till Wednesday. Can you believe that there’s no place in Renton where you can make cheap photocopies? It’s the U District or bust. Renton sucks. But our house here doesn’t and I need to keep that in perspective. I have to grade all day. That will suck. I should be at the gym, but I forgot to charge my MP3 player. So I need to fill in 20 minutes or so before I can go. I don’t get far on an ellipsis machine without a good strong beat and something good to read that helps me keep me in the mood.

I need to timeline Dilip Hiro’s Lebanon: Fire and Embers. It’s a very basic history of the Lebanese Civil War. The Lebanese Civil War is anything but cut and dry and that could cause me troubles.

I have to write to Haim Gal today too. Too much going on.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Looming Departure

Ugh. We leave on August 26. Not much time. I forgot to set my alarm this morning, so with the afternoon’s schedule, there is no time for the gym this morning. They close at 7 pm on Sundays, so if we manage to get back by the afternoon, I’ll hit it then. The impact on my energy level is best in the morning right after breakfast. It’s my fault for being unfocused. I’m totally behind in grading. Weekends are getting too busy. Preparation for this trip is taking too much time. But I can’t blow it off. I’ve got the get this data if I’m ever going to graduate.

I’ve been coping with power conversion for the past few days. Craig and my laptops work just fine on both power sets, and I’ve discovered my battery charger for the camera does too. I’ve bought plug adapters. Sadly, my cheap lamps don’t work on a universal basis. I bought a power converter, depicted below, to power my lamps.

It’s going back to the store. Israel is set at 230 volts, 50 Hz. We’re at 110 volts, 60 Hz. This particular converter can only “step down” from 220 volts, not 230. It also does absolutely nothing to the frequency. I’ve found one that seems to handle all possible conversions.

If these were normal lamps, I’d just buy them when I get there. But I have no idea what it would take to buy Israeli lamps with clamps and low-heat bulbs. I’d rather avoid wasting time and come prepared. I wasn't a Boy Scout for nothing.

I need a better lit review in my proposal. Iza Husin, one of my colleagues who has a real PhD and a real job now, recommended I look at Lisa Wedeen’s lit review from Ambiguities of Domination and Benedict Anderson’s lit review in Imagined Communities for ideas on how to mix an eclectic series of texts. There is no “natural” book review for this damned piece, so I sort of have to invent one. I’m going to try to photocopy the original texts for mark-up this afternoon.

Plus, I've been meaning to write a post about what Neil has been teaching me about baseball. I’m beginning to see that the reason that baseball appears to be so boring is that the strategic interactions between the players require a lot of previous knowledge of the batter and the pitcher and their choices. Without this knowledge, the game is boring, because there is virtually no action in it.

EDIT: Sorry if the link to the new transformer didn't work for you the first time. It's fixed now. (8/10/09)

Friday, August 07, 2009

Why I Hate Online Classes

Teaching online sucks. This is the first five minutes of a lecture. It took me hours to compile. I gotta admit I gotta admit I'm glad the class was cancelled.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

First Tired Day in A While

Life has been a little too intense lately. I'm zonked today and, sadly, didn't make it to the gym. The past two weekends have been very social. My life tends to work best when I’m not social at all on the weekends. But that gets to me after a while. But, sadly, fatigue also gets to me after a while. The trip is coming up and I’m not really looking forward to it, as much as it is a sign of progress in my life. I need to work on getting centered.

Here’s what’s going on:

Discovering the World of Low-Weight, High-Rep Shoulder Exercises

I used my free trainer session with Richard, my gym’s trainer to discuss my utterly unresponsive shoulders. Richard is the most magnificent older man I’ve ever met. He’s either in his late fifties or early sixties. He’s totally ripped. I think I have a new role model. Richard is fairly unemotional in his demeanor. He listens and diagnoses very quickly. He said that he once had a similar problem getting his shoulders to grow. His present shoulders show no evidence of this problem. He suggested that two things were likely at fault. The first was that the blood vessels running into shoulders were relatively small and until the shoulder started getting more exercise, they would remain small, and hence the muscle would have trouble. The other is that my triceps were more developed than my deltoids (this is a sad commentary on my pathetic shoulder muscles, as opposed to any notable development of my triceps or any other muscle at all in my body) and were probably doing a share of the work. His solution—low-weight, high-rep lateral raises, depicted below:

The goal is to get to three sets of fifty using five-pound dumbbells. I did two sets of fifty with him day before yesterday, broken up by some shoulder presses using ten pound dumbbells in sets of ten. It’s truly humbling to know that five pound dumbbells can totally kick my ass if I do enough reps. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a genuine geek, in case you were wondering. No one will ever mistake me for an athlete. I was the kid who got beat up every day in the seventh grade. Kirk and Briggs can confirm this. They were there. I had to break my first set of fifty into two sets of twenty-five. The second had to be broken up into fives and tens. He patiently waited while I worked my way through. He said I’d feel it the next day. I felt it a little yesterday morning, but by night again, I was quite decently aware. I’ve been sorer, but I can tell the strategy had a new and different impact. I’m definitely going to work on this for a while.

I Need to Grade Again

'Tis the season! Fa-la-la-la-la!

I Started Work on Rewriting My Proposal

It took two days, but this is the revision chart. The only thing left to figure out is what the lit review should look like. I'll spend some time there tonight.

I’m Getting to Know My Camera

I discovered that in addition to having a receptor for an external flash, my camera has a built-in flip-up flash. If I get a telephoto lens, it will be very viable for everyday uses. I've also been learning that minature photography actually has many problems of focus. Look at this photo of this grill ornament Craig gave be a few days ago.

It never really dawned on me that focus could be complex in photographing a small object, but here, the focus is clearest on the dials and on the little hook on the lid. I'm realizing that in macro photography, you have to put a great deal of attention to how you focus in composing your picture.

I need to work on packing the equipment and figuring out how I'm going to tote it all around Tel Aviv.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Writer's Block in a Glass Bubble

Here are the first two entries in the "Kaleidoscope" train of thought:

Glass Bubble

For a while, earlier this year, Kirk, Simon, Nelly and Josiah and I were playing an online game called Legends of Elveron. As happens when geeks gather in one place, we got to storytelling about old D&D campaigns. In telling the story of my favorite gaming character, Max Forger, I started talking about living in Seattle at the turn of the millennium. This is what I wrote:

I've promised myself that if I ever manage to teach myself to write again and graduate, I'm going to write an Eighteenth Brumaire of George W. Bush. I owe him and his men so much of what I learned about the limits of democracy, rationality and, indeed, how under the right circumstances how an adroit politician may shape, no—virtually sculpt public opinion like so much clay. There was so much to talk about then. We were not yet desensitized to horror, as we are now. Truly these were the last days of my youth.

We drank a good deal together and had a lot of fun. One of the greatest blessings in my life was that Simon lived very close to me. He and his girlfriend Nelly, with whom I also became very good friends, hardly passed a day when we didn't bump into one another, if we hadn't planned on meeting. While I've never smoked tobacco, Nelly and Simon did, and we all drank coffee in the upstairs room at Cafe Allegro. We'd drink coffee and play cards and philosophize. We played this delightful Russian card game Nelly taught us called Durak, which Simon dubbed "Russian Ratfuck." It's the perfect salon game. As it was the game of nobility, Nelly and I decided that everyone should have a title. As Nelly was my courtly lover, we ripped off Les Liasons Dangereuses and she became the Marquise and I became the Vicomte. Simon became the Duke. I forget what title we gave Peter Hovde. Ru became the Pirate King (despite the fact that in my mind, Simon has always been the Pirate King). We talked and talked and talked. We lived in a glass bubble in the storm that engulfed the nation. Outside, the storm raged on and we were hardly senseless to it, after all, the bubble was made of glass. But I never realized until now how safe the bubble was and how beautiful. I was too stupid to realize it at the time, but it was one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Nelly and Simon were here over the past view days. We had such a good time just talking. I miss them both so dearly. Seattle lost much of its charm for me when they left. But whether or not they were here to lend it charm, Seattle has been a safe, glass bubble for me. There is virtually no place else in America in which it is easier to be an out queer than Seattle. This town has been good to me.

We’ve had a heat wave in Seattle (90+ degrees for several days—we aren’t designed to weather this sort of thing here). Nelly needed to buy a summer dress, as she had no idea that she’d need one here. So Simon and I left her to shop at Alderwood mall and we browsed through different geek-oriented stores. We came to a knife shop and Simon wanted to go in, so we did. I saw a particularly lethal looking knife blade there. This is the closest image I could find, but it’s a good deal scarier that this one:

Looking at this knife in the store’s cut-up, a thought that has been growing in my mind began to crystallize. I’m not going to live in a glass bubble forever. Looking at the knife, so clearly designed to disembowel upon exit, I could see human hatred. It takes a certain mind to objectify a person enough to create a knife like that. That person is out there. Odds are that person hates queers. Well, I’m a loudmouth queer. And I’m not going shut up either. I need to learn to defend myself and my partner. I can’t live in a glass bubble for the rest of my life. I’m going to graduate and probably have to leave Seattle. I need to start getting real. I believe in democratic political order, but there are plenty of people involved in creating democratic political order who don’t believe in me or mine.

I think I want to take a karate class when Craig and I get back from Tel Aviv.

Writer’s Block

In a recent e-mail, one of you guys asked:

It's curious in your blog you talk about how you have difficulty writing but then you write these very long thoughtful emails to me.

I could say that it’s a very different type of writing. That is technically true. It is totally different to spew at someone in a conversation (hockey again) then to write an intellectual argumentative essay (football). The differences between the structural demands of both types of writing couldn’t be more stark. The difficulty with that claim is that it is emotionally dishonest. I think I have, after many years now, figured out how to break the job into parts and conquer it. There remain technical challenges, of course, but I know that this is something I can handle. Something else is wrong.

The something else is that I have writer’s block, because I know that I will never again experience writing as euphoria. A while ago, I did a blog entry on a piece I read by Talal Amin (the other Talal in the social sciences, the one whose name some other social scientist might actually recognize). This was the passage that set me off:

Johann Sulzer, a theorist of the fine arts, wrote in more general terms: “All artists of any genius claim that from time to time they experience a state of extraordinary psychic intensity which makes work unusually easy, images arising without great effort and the best ideas flowing in such profusion as if they were the gift of some higher power. This is without doubt what is called inspiration. If an artist experiences this condition, his object appears to him in an unusual light; his genius, as if guided by a divine power, invents without effort, shaping his invention in the most suitable form without strain; the finest ideas and images occur unbidden in floods to the inspired poet; the orator judges with the greatest acumen, feels with the greatest intensity, and the strongest and most vividly expressive words rise to his tongue.” Such statements, Flaherty argues, are strongly reminiscent of accounts of shamanism—in this case of a shaman described not skeptically but in wonderment. They employ the idea of inspiration metaphorically—as control of an “instrument” from outside the person, or as a “gift” from a “higher power.” But these remain metaphors, covering an inability to explain a this-worldly phenomenon in natural terms.

Before I got sick, writing was always that way for me. I’ve always had a powerful imagination. Before the fateful autumn of ’99 when I had the really nasty attack that gave me optic neuritis, my frontal lobes were capable of processing many, many steps at the same time and I could keep up with the flood of images coming into my brain. I loved writing because it was the highest experience of creative power I knew. I loved it even more than singing. That’s why I became a scholar, not a tenor. The reason I have writer’s block is because I know that I will never feel that power again and my heart and soul hates that fact. Like a child, I refuse to accept what is hateful.

When my niece Valerie was very young, she would often refuse to come along with me when the appointed hour for leaving the McDonald’s playland to go home or leaving the television to go to her bath or her sleep. I would look down at her (as my niece at the age of four was much shorter than me) and say, “Niece. You have two options. You can come along with dignity or without dignity. But you’re coming along. So which will it be?”

At this point Valerie would usually stare up at me in resignation and sigh, “Dignity” and come along. On occasion, however, she would clench her jaw, stare up angrily and say, “NO DIGNITY!” This was boundlessly entertaining and I would laugh, scoop her off the floor and carry her to the next exotic port of call.

I am not a four year-old niece. I am a nearly forty year-old uncle. As much as my subconscious has been screaming “NO DIGNITY!” lately, it is not charming or entertaining. It is unacceptable. I must accept that writing will be plodding and not euphoria. This isn’t cooking. I can punt cooking. I have things I want to say, damn it. I can’t punt writing. Damn it, I’m a scholar. Scholars produce scholarship. This is not negotiable.

I need to make tables, lay out tasks, make check marks and I need to do write everyday, just like I work out every day. I need to accept that change will happen slowly, that I’ll never be directly satisfied with a day’s work, that I cannot measure my life in immediately visible results. Writing will never again be ecstasy, because it will never happen quickly enough to overload my senses. Of all the limitations, this hurts the most, for I wrote once with divine inspiration and will not write that way again. But I have to write every day from now on. This won’t work otherwise.