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I don’t recall many of my college successes with great clarity, but I do recall my few failures. Two in particular stand out: both D’s on short papers because “the assignment was not addressed.”

One was for a course on art in New York City, where we were to pick a work that moved us, say why, and discuss the work. We were not limited to the visual arts — the course covered architecture as well as paintings in museums — but I apparently stretched the definition of art a bit too far, and wrote of a surprising cornfield in the front yard of a house in The Bronx.

The other was for a course on communications technologies, where we were to discuss an emerging technology and its current and potential effects on society. I wrote on how credit cards and networked point-of-sale magnetic stripe readers enabled the elimination of people from the purchase of gasoline and, by extension, the elimination of clerks in general. This was in 1991 or so, and most credit transactions still involved imprints in triplicate on carbon paper. By 2001, full-service gasoline stations were no longer an option (except where required by law), and staff had been reduced to a sole employee whose only purpose in life was to check identification for cigarette and alcohol sales. And nearly all retail stores were experimenting with self-checkout lanes. Not sure how this didn’t satisfy the assignment.

I wonder if I were able to revisit those pieces today I would agree with the professors. Because I’d like to point out that I was right.

To Do List

  • Wake up
  • Empty the bladder
  • Brush teeth
  • Make the bed
  • Feed the cats
  • Your son writes his grandmother
  • Write your lover
  • Insulin
  • The school bus
  • Breakfast
  • Dishes
  • Laundry
  • Dinner plans
  • That book under your skin
  • No, I already fed you cats
  • Write museum ask what was that poem
  • Laundry
  • She doesn’t want more college advice
  • Maybe she does
  • Why don’t factory towns in New England resemble coal towns in West Virginia?
  • Sweep
  • Pick up soccer kits and distribute: game’s tomorrow
  • Grocery store
  • What was on the list?
  • Do this first
  • No, the litter box needs changing
  • Sweep
  • What was that about lunch?
  • Laundry
  • Sweep
  • Vacuum
  • No homework today
  • Bon-bons
  • Idle chatter that’s how you learn about another’s day
  • Guests!
  • OK. You cats never give up, do you?
  • Dinner
  • Insulin
  • Will they want to read tonight?
  • Dishes
  • No, you can’t stay up: game’s tomorrow.
  • Bed
  • Wait: weren’t you supposed to work today?

Certainly Meaning Matters

One of my more annoying habits is to speak in uncertain terms: to use perhaps or probably instead of yes; to use maybe or unlikely instead of no. Everything always seems to be rather than is. I find it less annoying than my urge to cite references, which interferes with the flow of conversation, but my interlocutors probably don’t. I would guess they think they I’m waffling, but this is done more from doubt and an awareness of statistics than indecision or equivocation.

But there are some things of which I am certain.

It’s much more relaxing to watch the UEFA Champions League or the Cincinnati Reds, where I know I have no power to affect the results, than the turmoil in public education or trade wars or shooting wars, where I’m only probably impotent. I can feel the difference: the excitement, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat compared to the anxiety and frustration and hopelessness and despair.

In The Chomsky Reader (1983), Noam Chomsky discusses with James Peck our fascination with sport instead of politics, and speculates that it might have to do with powerlessness:

[T]his concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. … The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn’t going to waste his time on international affairs, because that’s useless; he can’t do anything about it anyhow…

Analysis of the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti noticed that adverse reactions to psychological stress increased after help arrived. That is, when the population was able to do something to help each other and rebuild, they were fine. When they were told to stand back and let their saviors do all the work, when they couldn’t act in response to the stress, their resilience failed.

The well-known Whitehall Study found death rates were inversely associated with one’s position in the power hierarchy, particularly with regard to one’s lack of control over one’s work: associated, that is, with powerlessness.

How are sports different that they are so casual? I’m not invested in the outcome. Whether the Reds win or lose will not affect me. I’ve not placed any bets on the outcome. It doesn’t matter. I certainly don’t care.

They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Some football fanatics get wrapped up in the result. For them it has meaning. They care enough to kill for it.

Should we expect the same of politics as it subsides into an identitarian team sport? What if this were a monarchy, where I knew my actions had no bearing, where I had no control over death and taxes?

What then? The Serenity Prayer, probably. Why not now?

There is a context where I can act, where I do have control, where my actions do matter: at home.

Let me turn my attention there.

Proud to be an American, Where What?

I overhead part of an odd conversation between No. 1 Son and No. 2 Son that came while they were preparing for bed after we’d watched The Gamers: Humans & Households.

No. 2 Son: Which would you rather be: American or Canadian?

No. 1 Son: Canadian.

No. 2 Son: Me too.

Ah, the corrupting influence of the Internet that causes such young souls to have a strongly positive opinion of Canada.

Though I must admit Lucy Maud Montgomery did convince me that Prince Edward Island would be a lovely place to live. And I did like the Montreal Expos (though not the Mets) because of Gary Carter (and the Reds because of Johnny Bench–apparently I wanted to be a catcher). (There was trouble in the household due to my divided loyalties.) And the Maple Leaf is an attractive flag.

But how can one cultivate the love of one’s country and its people when the actions of its, supposedly representative,  government in the world and at home are of such low character?

Intrusion

There are times when I get myself in trouble because I minimize the details, and see only the Big Picture. One of those days was when one of our clients complained that his customers were complaining that his site didn’t work. He couldn’t figure out why and asked for help. Turned out that an advertisement originating from the third-party ad server was injecting HTML that caused his page to not render. It could have been worse. It could have been pr0n.

He bought service from us, we hosted the ad server, the ad agency sold inventory, and no one in the supply chain knew where the advertisements came from or who what they contained, or could predict what advertisements would show on which site. Now why would anyone let some anonymous fourth-party alter their work? Why would we make that possible?

Oh, we have to do that. We need the money from the advertisers.

::facepalm::

the creation of the modern web

XKCD may be talking about the current brouhaha in social media, but it’s always been exactly the way advertising works.

Now

The iPhone crouches at the corner of my chair, well within reach. The iMac sits on the altar in the living room, but I can worship from afar by picking up the iPhone. The god of distractions is generous this way: it does not care what use you have for it, only what use it has for you.

Poetry rests in the little spaces between distractions. It waits in the silence for brief attention, patient, burdock along the trail.


There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

— Mary Oliver, “Moments,” Felicity (2016)

All These Many Voices

We, all of us, have something to say. So many of us found a voice writing on the web, broadcasting on YouTube, or talking through a podcast, not to make money or sell something–though some do start with that thought–but because we must.

Year over year, there are more songs, more musicians, more books, more authors, more movies, more actors, both absolutely and as a percentage of the total population.

Are fewer making a living from it? Fewer “capturing the value” of it?

The value is in the sharing. We humans are a talkative species of chattering, gregarious simians.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Yesterday I spotted a valiant, optimistic beauty in my lawn.

The crocus uses what time it has, when it can. It must. Today it still reached for the sun.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. [Matthew 6:34 (ESV)]

The Illusion of Perfection

One of my favorite stories of a political figure is of Jimmy Carter, who said, yes, I’ve sinned.

I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.

We know no one is perfect–we certainly aren’t–but we insist on believing others are. Our heroes must be, at all costs. Columbus, for example, who bumped into the New World by an accident of math, couldn’t possibly have been a brutal, ravening slaver. It would not do to admit that the emperor has no clothes or that the king has feet of clay.

After all, he’s just a man. — T. Wynette

Sherry Turkle spends a balanced chapter on the subject in Alone Together, but I’ve since run across a number of snide remarks bemoaning the cultivation of an image of perfection on Instagram or of editing one’s online personality on Facebook, at once more plastic and more permanent. This seems such an ungenerous assessment of how we use those tools, unlike Pinterest which is obviously solely aspirational, engendered perhaps by our American obsession with marketing our personal brand illusion. Why not see these, of necessity cropped, images as snapshot of beauty in the world?

Beauty’s where you find it. — Madonna

At times the entire project of the American Dream seems collapsed to nothing more than envy and covetousness, underlaid by a deep sense of unease. That’s more motivation than one can reasonably extract from the purchase of a large home with a large mortgage and a large garage filled with large cars. It’s exposed more in the frantic scurrying for a place in the Right kindergarten or avoidance of the Wrong school district, anxiety about getting into the Best college or joining the Prominent firm, as each of these choices appears to open or close future opportunity: My children won’t have a perfect life if I eat Frankenberries while I’m pregnant, if I’m not a Tiger Mom, if I am a Tiger Mom. We simply must do the one single right thing, but doubt what it is. The courage of our convictions is lost in the crowd.

There can be only one king of the hill. That’s how superlatives work. There’s only one greatest of all time. But these are terms for comparison within a group: relative positioning, not absolute. The argument over who is the best is absurd without context. Nevertheless, the struggle for position in this tribe of great apes matters. Because shit rolls downhill, one must fight for one of the few limited spots closer to the top of the shit heap. The ape on the top of the heap can’t show weakness.

Sports model society, to a degree. Not all the parents are LaVar Ball, nor do all sporting enterprises target the anxieties of parents, but a number are, and a number do, leading to the impression that one needs to specialize early, that one just has to join the elite academy team at age 8 in order to play in college at 18, if one harbors any dream of playing professionally. Have to be ready when those scouts come looking for the next 13 year-old star. Never mind that puberty happens. One could also move to Argentina and acquire a growth hormone deficiency in hopes of trying out for Barcelona. Not that either method works: Sales doesn’t like statistics that get in the way of money.

What happens to joy? What place has fun?

What if we looked at life, and particularly parenting, as an unfolding practice instead of something we have to perfect on our first attempt? What if we could make mistakes in public? What if we could admit fallibility? What if we could experiment? Does anyone have all the answers? Has no one seen nothing new? Is everything the same day-to-day? Why is it so hard to respect how things are and, at the same time, allow the possibility of improvement? What if curiosity and compassion were stronger than fear?

What if we said yes?

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” [Luke 18:16–17 (ESV)]

Connectivity

Respect for others’ time is difficult when you cannot see them. The telephone interrupts dinner, church, conversations. The burden of ignoring the interruption placed on the recipient no matter how respectful the caller intended to be. Social cues are missing.

The same for e-mail, or instant messaging, or the apps on that phone in our pocket.

The things that connect us disconnect us.

Sabbathday

Sun shining over the hill and through my window, slowly climbs down the wall. The calico sleeps and purrs after breakfast, half on the book I was reading. There’s a feeling of possibility.

This spaciousness and calm I miss during the week. In conversation with Joan Halifax, Krista Tippett remarked, “We experience time as such a bully.” The clock, she meant, the calendar; how we use our days against ourselves, letting them be so demanding, a treadmill.

Which bird sings outside his courtship song? Sparrow, cardinal, chickadee? Titmouse?

I am so ignorant of so much in this world.

Woke Up This Morning

Starting the morning with a poem is, oddly, a practice that hadn’t occurred to me until listening to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Naomi Shihab Nye: Your Life is a Poem. No. 1 Daughter, around the time she became the Big Sister, wrote “pomes” she would carry around the house in her pocket. I wonder if she still does.

Today’s offering from the American Academy of Poets is Jenny Xie‘s “To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement.”


The Zen priest says I am everything I am not.
In order to stop resisting, I must not attempt to stop resisting.
I must believe there is no need to believe in thoughts.
Oblivious to appetites that appear to be exits, and also entrances.
What is there to hoard when the worldly realm has no permanent vacancies?
Ten years I’ve taken to this mind fasting.
My shadow these days is bare.
It drives a stranger, a good fool.
Nothing can surprise.
Clarity is just questioning having eaten its fill.

Jenny Xie, “To Be a Good Buddhist is Ensnarement” (2018)

The War on Terror

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

What are arms?

An intercontinental ballistic missile? A tactical nuclear device? A MiG-29? A tank? A Gatling gun? Chlorine? Ammonium nitrate? A sword? Any blade longer than three inches? A penknife? Knitting needles? Tweezers? Shoes? A stick? My hands?

What does it mean to keep and to bear?

There have been some laws made on this subject since 1791. There have even been discussions about the placement of the commas.

Let’s imagine for the moment that the Second Amendment is plain on its face, and that Congress, and, by way of the 14th, the several States, shall make no law concerning the simple possession of a weapon.

Let’s make this assumption because otherwise everyone just shouts past each other. Fear and shouting among the populace is all well and good if one’s intent is to retain power, but it doesn’t address difficulties surrounding the use of weapons.

How else, other than by forbidding possession of weaponry, might one address the fears expressed by the citizenry?

Because there is no doubt they are afraid. Parents are afraid their children will die in school. Children are afraid that they will die in school. And fear is one of the defining reasons why one has a weapon.

Let’s not amplify those fears.

Because we are afraid, we want to prevent Bad Things from happening. We want assurances that nothing will go wrong, that no one will die. Unfortunately, those are not assurances that can be made. Everyone dies. Media vita in morte sumus, etc.

Let’s not discuss prevention. That way lies pre-crime. While prevention is exactly what we want, it is imaginary. The aforementioned fact of life, and the rules of the game, which preclude certain actions and insist that one be punished only for what one has done not what one intends, stand in the way. For good reason. Jesus may say,

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV)]

But we are not omniscient. We are fallible.

Let’s discuss risk reduction.

Perhaps it would help to ask different questions. What might reduce the probability of murder? What might reduce the probability of accidental death?

To answer these, it would help to know the cause.

In the case of murder and suicide, the weapon is a means to an end. The choice of weapon is often a matter of convenience. In America, guns are convenient. The kill decision is made by a human. Why? Because it was Monday? One interesting thing that’s been discovered in recent years is that math describing epidemics can also be used to describe violent crime: murders behave as if they are contagious. Mass murders, whether in one event or a series, are generally thought to result from a disconnect from society. Why? Violent crime is strongly correlated with young men. Why? Violent crime is correlated with a disproportionate allocation of sexual partners. Why? Men commit most intimate partner violence. Why?

In the case of accidents, there is no intent; the weapon is the cause, and risk reduction is related to training, handling requirements, liability insurance, and torts.

Accidental gun-related deaths are easy to address. Start there.

You can have the gun. But you are liable for the consequences of its use.

This is a different discussion than in other countries because the Second Amendment removes the obvious remediation from discussion. One cannot simply take away the child’s toy. Work within that limit. What sort of creative solutions to the actual problems–murder and suicide–can be found?

Apt

Courtesy of her grandfather on her mother’s side, No. 1 Daughter took the aptitude tests offered by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. We accompanied her to New York City this past weekend to discuss the results. I’ve not done any research in the area, but my opinion, having suffered other aptitude and personality tests, and the daily horoscope, is that they have some usefulness as descriptive tools, but little to offer in the way of prescription. Since they intend to sample her aptitudes every five years, I’m intrigued about what, if anything, this will show.

Imagine my total lack of surprise then when they confirmed what I already thought: she’s just like her father.

Or, as they put it, a diagnostic generalist.

She scored in the 70th percentile on the inductive reasoning test, and in the 99th percentile on the foresight and analytical reasoning tests. They group personalities by word association and call her “objective.” There are longer descriptions of each aptitude in their book.

We believe that those who [score high on Analytical Reasoning] are “born organizers” who tend to enjoy the process of shuffling concepts into place, classifying data, and creating systems.

A high score on our Inductive Reasoning test suggests that you have the ability to think diagnostically, rapidly evaluate situation or data, and quickly solve problems.

Scoring Objective on our Word Association test suggests that you would tend to prefer working with and through others to accomplish a variety of tasks. …[And] tend to be generalists who like to be involved with multiple aspects of a project, assignment, or team.

It was an annoyance when one of my sisters had everyone take the Enneagram a couple of decades ago, but I can understand the impulse: I wonder how the tests would describe the rest of my family. We do all insist that there’s a correct way to load the dishwasher.

Member Since 1994

One does not simply passively consume the Internet–though small children with YouTube on auto-play might. It is not broadcast, or even interactive, television: the Internet is a many-pronged communications platform, a universe of ends. Its killer application was e-mail (and USENET and IRC and FTP and gopher and) then the World Wide Web. The web took off, not because of streaming music or video, but because anyone could share anything with anyone else. The utility of each of these tools–news, mail, chat, bulletin boards, blogs–was degraded by spam, aggressive advertising, untrustworthy and undesirable content. By undesirable I don’t mean in a general sense, as one might mean in talking about pornography and its effect on society, but in the particular: individual recipients did not want it.

But we keep using these tools because we are gregarious, social animals who want to connect with each other.

I would share books and articles with friends and family even before the Internet. Look at this: I read this thing you would like. I did the same online, sending links to others in chat and e-mail, sometimes with comments, then later sharing with and connecting to a wider world by posting to my website, frequently, with Radio Userland and syndicating with RSS and Atom. Those early blogging days were heady, just as the early online chat, news, and e-mail days were. Everyone knew everyone else. There were scaling issues, and personality conflicts, and tools changed. And comment spam and trolls became a problem. Is the FOAF application of RDF still a thing? The Semantic Web?

And then there was Facebook.

Facebook was not the first social network, but it was the one my IRL friends and family joined. Facebook offered a way to reconnect with people I hadn’t yet found online and, more particularly, opened a path to conversation with them. We could share things we thought interesting and discuss them.

A lot of the utility of Facebook was driven by the desolation elsewhere on the web, which had become a desert filled with blipverts, billboards, and trolls desperately grasping for you and your attention–and still is if you travel without an ad blocker. The usefulness of Facebook has diminished over time, but the same basic draw is still there: my friends, the people I know and to whom I want to stay connected.

It’s the same reason I have a phone.

Some have called relationships on Facebook a facade of a community. That depends on how you use it. It can be either. It is an attempt to reproduce something we miss: A village, a neighborhood, a college, a pub. A great Third Place.

Can it be if the host is a Ferengi, and you are not his customers?

Escapism

I have not been bored since I learned to read. I would read anything and everything; and what with the public libraries and my family’s collection, I didn’t often run out of material. Unless there was a planning failure. If I forgot to stick a book in my pocket. Did you know other houses don’t have as many books? Did you know some have none?

Ours was a household of readers. We didn’t have a television until after I was the fourth grade, and that was a small black-and-white set kept in the spare room. Later, someone in the congregation gave us a cast-off color TV just before we moved back to Virginia. (My own sons are now that age. Time moved so slowly for me then.) I have few childhood memories of television shows; most are of books and places and playing. My grandparents’ houses were defined by smells and their libraries: brick, boxwood, and Classics Illustrated on Mom’s side; apples, bread, mathematics, photographs, and genealogy on Dad’s.

I would sit for hours and read, so deep in concentration that I couldn’t hear the world outside. Reading filled all the gaps in the day: walking down the street, sitting on the toilet, riding in the car, between classes. Still now when I finish a book I immediately look around for something else.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of doing something similar with other entertainments–grasping for the next movie, the next update, the next web page–until there are too many things all at once, pulling in a multitude of directions, and I feel torn limb from limb. I stay up late restless, unsleeping, unthinking.

What am I not doing?