Archive for January, 2014
So, from AL Daily
Heather McDonald going ballistic on the state of the humanities, and that kind of thing.
I will finish this syllabus eventually.
It is now Thursday, and last night marked the fifth time in a row that I couldn’t manage to get myself to sleep before two o’clock in the morning.
Actually, the two o’clock was good news. On a couple of occasions over this stretch, I have not been able to get to sleep before four, or I’ve gotten to sleep for about an hour and then woken up at five thirty. When I don’t get to sleep until four, I wake up at nine and the day is a mess and ruined.
It’s gotten to the point where I can’t figure out what would make this better.
Usually, if I don’t get to sleep until two on Day 1, then on Day 2 I crash very early and the whole cycle rights itself.
But nothing like that is happening at the moment, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do to get back on schedule before I start teaching next week.
In the meantime, I feel like I’m walking through cotton wool, and my brain is stuffed with fuzz, and I’m not getting nearly enough done.
I might be more patient with myself about all this if my mind was racing through the night on some problem of serious importance.
And I’ve got a few, and that could be what I was thinking of.
Instead, I seem to be obsessing about things that make no sense and make no difference.
I keep replaying arguments I had months or years ago–or, worse, rewriting them in a way that makes me make the points I couldn’t think of at the time.
Or I obsess about plots, or books I’ve read, or something. And my mind goes into overdrive and just won’t stop.
The result is that I do things that are completely nuts. I just tried to send an e mail, and instead of clicking on the “send” button, I clicked on the “save” button and had to go work it all through again.
It gets to the point where I can’t even do what I usually do to calm myself down. I can’t play Solitaire, for instance, because I fuzz out and miss half the moves and mistake the cards and lose over and over again and get frustrated and annoyed with the whole thing.
And if I’m tired enough, I start thinking that all the losing is a Secret Coded Message from the Universe which means…
I don’t know what it means. I can never get quite clear on that.
It is one of the very peculiar things about me that I am sometimes very superstitious, but I don’t believe in any of the traditional superstitions. I have no trouble with black cats or the number thirteen or cracking mirrors or throwing salt over my shoulder–although I do always kiss bread before I throw it out.
That’s a Greek thing.
But even when I was a very small child, I would go through periods where I would invent superstitions out of whole cloth, and then find myself unable to convince myself that they were nonsense, even though I knew very well I made them up.
If you’re going to say this makes no sense, I agree with you. It makes none whatsoever.
But I do it, and no appeals to common sense seem to be at all capable of talking me out of it.
In the meantime, things have to be done because things have to be done. Neither my life nor the world at large goes on hold because I’m behaving like an addled ninny.
Fortunately, bulling things through is something I’m generally good at. How well I bull things through is another story, but you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.
All of this is by way of saying that the lack of blog posts has been as much a matter of this as of anything, because there’s another hallmark of the times when I get like this: I begin to fell that I really have nothing to say.
And maybe that’s true.
Maybe the secret underneath all the blathering we do about everything from the plots of cat detective novels to the meaning of life is that it’s all completely irrelevant to…everything.
Reading the comments on this blog, I am sometimes bemused by the extent to which some of you see the apocalypse coming Right This Minute.
The whole thing gets even more curious because you don’t all see the same Apocalypse coming. Maybe we’ll all die because the ordinary people will rise up against their government/corporate/academic elite masters, or maybe the corporations will mechanize everything to the point where human work is no longer needed and we’ll all starve to death.
This morning, it feels to me as if none of this will ever happen, because it would require absolutely everybody to expend too much effort.
Which reminds me, of course, that I need to go expend some more effort myself.
So, it’s been mostly all right around here lately, even a little on the warm side, if you keep in mind that I never turn the heat on until the house gets below 50 and I turn the air conditioning on really early in the season.
I’ve had something of a messed up sleep cycle, caused by the fact that a few days ago I didn’t just oversleep, but overslept until nearly 9 o’clock, and now my biological clock is completely haywire. One night I couldn’t get to sleep until nearly one, when I usually conk around nine. It’s been a mess.
In the middle of it, I’ve been trying to read a book, called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civiliation by Arthur Herman.
I’m not going to do a big commentary on this thing now. Let me just say that not only is this a book I got for Christmas, it’s a book I specifically asked for for Christmas, and the person who got it for me has been reading it also.
There’s a lot to say, most of it unfortunate, but I haven’t finished the thing, and the time to say it isn’t now.
However that may be, the book did bring up something that I think is interesting, or reminded me of something I think is interesting, so let me get to that.
We talk a lot here about people who have a will to power, whose basic motivation is to control others in virtually every possible way.
These people are, at the moment, busy trying to redefine free adult citizens as anything but actual adults. They’re stupid and deluded, easily swayed by advertising, being manipulated by advertising and demagoguery, incapable of thinking rationally or controlling their worst instincts.
Given that people are such a mess, they really can’t be trusted with actual liberty. They’ll make all the wrong choices and end up doing damage to themselves as well as the rest of us. Therefore, their choices should either be made or manipulated by people who have been “trained” to think differently and who will therefore make the choices “untrained” people would have made if they weren’t such irrational children.
Arguments like this have always bothered me on lots of different levels, including the most obvious one–if our natural state is to be irrational children, how do we know that the “experts” are anything else, or that their “training” is anything but a different kind of irrational childishness?
Eras before ours had a kind of essentialist assumption to fill in here. They believed, with Aristotle, that some people were naturally born slaves, and that others were born to be free and rule.
Our present purveyors of all things expert driven believe the same thing, really, but nobody is going to say it out loud, and it remains a simple assumption without scrutiny.
We tend to talk about the people who set up this kind of thing, who are operating on a will to power–the Nurse Ratcheds, Delores Umbrages, Kathleen Sebiliuses of this world.
And that makes sense. Without such people, the totalitarian impulse can go nowhere.
But there’s something else going on here that we always ignore, but shouldn’t.
If all that existed were the Nurse Ratcheds, they couldn’t get anywhere.
For totalitarianism of any kind, soft or hard, to succeed, it requires a vastly larger number of people who crave security to the point that they are willing to put up with anything, anything at all, to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.
Now, I want to make something clear here.
I am not talking about people who go on welfare or disability or who have Medicaid or food stamps or any of that.
Too often in this country, we discuss the issue of personal responsibility as if it’s code for getting along on your own without “sucking at the public teat.”
In the sense I’m talking about personal responsibility, though, I know, personally, plenty of people on public assistance who do take it and plenty of people (even more) surviving under their own steam who not only don’t, but reject the idea entirely.
The accept responsibility for ourselves means to accept that we are the authors of ourselves. Luck may have a lot to do with our exterior outcomes. Influences surround us and impact us daily.
In the end, however, who and what we are is determined by the choices we’ve made. You can be born disabled and into poverty and still be a person of great integrity all your life.
Or not. That part is up to you.
At about this point in these discussions, I am usually assailed with wailing and weeping and fury and righteousness. I am told that I’m “blaming the victim.” I am told that I’m heartless and arrogant. Lately, I’m also told that I’m “out of touch.”
But note–I am not saying that the poor are responsible for their poverty. Some of them are, and some of them aren’t, and we’ll have to take that up on a case by case basis, if we want to bother to try.
Nor am I saying that the unemployed are responsible for their unemployment–although, again, some of them are and some of them aren’t.
Issues of that kind are complex and vary from person to person.
Even the more obvious things aren’t what I’m talking about. If you’re a teen aged girl and you choose to have sex without any form of protection, you are almost certainly responsible for the fact that you got pregnant.
But you know what? We all get stupid from time to time. Everybody makes mistakes. What I want to know is how you approach the pregnancy and what you do about it and the rest of your life.
There is an awful lot of difference between the kind of person who says, “Okay, I caused that. That’s on me.” and the person who says, “I couldn’t help it! It was out of my control!”
It’s that second thing that fascinates me, and I had a hard time (and a long time) accepting that anybody approached life that way.
When I was growing up, my father had a thing he used to say over and over again: if something goes wrong, hope like hell that it was your fault. Because if it wasn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it.
There are some obvious caveats here–it is, in fact, sometimes possible to fix the problems other people have caused–but as a rough and ready guide to how to live my life, it’s always been pretty effective.
What’s more, from what I’ve seen of people doing it the other way, the other way has given evidence of not being effective at all. In fact, of being countereffective.
It has therefore always seemed to me to be completely obvious that people should, in the majority, opt for the first approach rather than the second.
But lots of them don’t. Lately, I’ve been wondering if the majority of people don’t.
That majority would include people who have jobs and houses and children, who get educations and make sure their children get them, who vote and pay taxes and put out the garbage at night.
And yet, they will tell you, any time you want to ask, that they have no control over who and what they are. They are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. They want restrictions on Big Gulp sodas and bans on cigarettes not because Those People can’t help themselves, but because they themselves can’t.
The take-responsibility people want a government to protect their liberty to make their own choices. The it’s-beyond-my-control people want a government to protect them, period.
I am aware, of course, that I am simplifying the hell out of all of this. I think that’s inevitable in a blog post.
I still think this is something that deserves our attention, and rarely gets it.
For one thing, I’d like to know what I’m looking at.
Are these people who simply feel so vulnerable, and so weak, that the very process of living scares the hell out of them?
Or do they feel so innately guilty that taking responsibility for who and what they are would condemn them forever as irredeemably evil?
Or is there a third possibility?
Remember–I’m not saying these people actually are weak or evil, only that maybe they think they are.
Whatever it is, it makes me a little nuts. And I’m more than a little aware that it takes both the totalitarians and the (essentially childish) vulnerables to make a restrictive society. Maybe they’re two halves on one psychological whole.
Whatever it is, I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.
I know it’s been a while, but it’s been an exciting start to the New Year.
It’s not just that the temperatures have been very low, which makes working in my office very difficult. Unlike every other writer I’ve ever heard of, I like to be able to look out and around when I work. My office is in a sunroom, with two sides of solid windoes.
Ninety nine percent of the time, that works really well for me. I can look up from whatever it is I’m doing and curse the turkeys or commiserate with the squirrels. I’ve seen some pretty neat and amazing things outside my window. And usually, the arrangement makes me very happy.
At minus nine, not so much.
So, I will admit it. I’ve been avoiding the office for a few days, and the cold was bad enough, but then there was the day before yesterday.
The day before yesterday was the day AFTER the night when it was minus 9, and it was still a very cold day.
And at 7:05 that evening, a frozen pipe under my kitchen sink exploded, spewing water everywhere.
The only thing to do was to turn off all the water to the house and wait till somebody could come help–my friends Carol and Richard, who know how to do house stuff, and who also do the website and the blog.
In the meantime, we were not only without water, but without heat, because we have baseboard hot water heat and the system has a safety feature that shuts it down when it detects less than the necessary water pressure in the system.
Carol and Richard showed up the next morning, fixed the burst pipe and turned on the water, and then–the upstairs started heating up immediately and well, and the main floor just…didn’t.
Except it did, sort of. The heat coming out of the baseboard started out as nil and then got to sort of luke warm and then traveled from one end of the house to the other and then…
I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it. Since the upstairs and the downstairs both run on the same pump, it’s not the pump or the furnace itself that’s the problem.
The best guess anybody seems to be able to come up with is that there’s a bubble somewhere in the pipes, and we even think we’ve found the bubble. We’re not too sure what to do next.
Of course, it’s going to be 8 overnight.
In the meantime, though, let’s look at the December list, and then let me make a few notes about the entire year and the entire project.
The December list goes like this:
68) Chris McNab. Deadly Force: Firearms and American Law Enforcement from the Wild West to the Streets of Today.
69) Charlotte MacLeod. The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond.
70) Luis van de Camoes. The Lusiads.
71) Rick Riordan. The Lightning Thief.
72) Theodore Dalrymple. Anything Goes.
t) William Deresiewicz. “What the Ivy League Won’t Teach You.”
A couple of things about December itself.
The Rick Riordan novel, The Lightning Thief, is what’s now called a “young adult” work. I read it because my younger son asked me to. It was his favorite book when he was growing up.
It’s a children’s fantasy adventure, and obviously not my kind of thing. My older son explained this series to be–this is the first in the series–as “Harry Potter for kids who have real problems.”
I ended up finding it interesting on two levels, both of which are personal and idiosyncratic, and may not work for you.
The first and most personal of these levels is that the narrative voice of the main point of view, first person narrator is incredibly similar to my son Greg’s actual voice, both spoken and written.
And although Greg’s problems growing up weren’t the same as Percy Jackson’s, I didn’t have any problem at all understanding why he identified with that character so passionately.
The second level is maybe of more general interest.
The thesis behind these books is that the Greek Gods still exist, still impact our world, and still have children with mortal women. The result is that there’s an awful lot of information about Greek mythology, which I think is a Very Good Thing.
Unfortunately, I also think that that might be the reason why these books were far less popular than the Harry Potter ones. Totally not thinking is not really an option here.
Of course, my two had Edith Hamilton and Ovid almost from infancy, so they had a head start on all this.
I talked about the Chris MacNab on the blog before, so I won’t go into it again. I talked about The Lusiads, too.
The Charlotte MacLeod is one of the better entries in the Peter Shandy series, so I’d definitely recommend it.
The Dalrymple is a collection of essays, and as always very, very good.
As to the year long project itself, a couple of things.
1) I still think I did the right thing by entering a book when I had finished reading it.
The decision to record things like that did, however, lead to a few distortions.
For instance, I spent most of the month of December reading Bruce Catton’s Never Call Retreat, the third in his trilogy about the Civil War written for the war’s Centennial.
It turns out that there is something else besides boredom or distaste that makes me read slowly: material in a field I understand very little about.
The Civil War was a war, which means it was made up of battles.
I am the person who falls asleep in the movies when the battle and action scenes come on.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on at Shiloh and during Pickett’s charge. I don’t know if it was good or bad that Catton helpfully supplied lots of maps.
There is in principle nothing wrong with all that, of course, except that it does give a kind of skewed idea of what my December reading really was, leaving out what turns out to have been the majority of days in the month.
2) The second thing has to do with my decision to leave out what I thought of as “minor reading”–magazines, for instance, and articles in newspapers, on web sites, and that kind of thing.
The problem is that I do an awful lot of minor reading. \
I’ve listed elsewhere on this blog the magazines I read, and there are over ten of them, from every side of the political spectrum.
When I woke up on New Year’s Day, the first two things I read were a story on the website of a local television station about its problems with a local cable provider, and Michael Moore’s essay on Obamacare in the New York Times.
It was only after that I got back to the Catton.
I’ve thought all this over, and I really can’t see any other way to do it. I couldn’t possibly write down all the minor reading I do. I read almost constantly.
Even if I were to exclude by definition things like ordinary mail and e mail, what category (listed or not) would I put my harpsichord e mail list into?
This morning, before writing this blog, I read a series of e mails about how to mount battens on a harpsichord, carried on by people who are professional harpsichord makers.
I don’t know all that much about harpsichord construction, but I’m trying to learn–so maybe this isn’t minor reading after all.
And I do a lot of that kind of thing. I’ve got another list that consists of professional scholars talking about Portuguese history and culture.
And there are others.
3) Looking over the entire list, I think it’s sort of odd. I sometimes go on jags where I read All About Something.
Once when I was in graduate school, I spent several months reading all I could get my hands on about China. That ended up including Mao’s Little Red Book and a volume on the proletarian poster art of the People’s Republic of China, but also Confucius and several 19th century Chinese novels.
If you want to give yourself a serious headache, try reading novels with casts of characters in the hundreds in a world with a very restricted number of surnames.
Okay, the novels were interesting. They were certainly a lot more interesting than Mao’s Little Red Book.
This past year, however, I don’t seem to have been interested in any one thing.
5) And, on consideration, I’ve decided to do it again for 2014.
Part of that is just to see if there’s a difference in the reading from year to year.
I know it’s the kind of thing I should have been paying attention to all along, but I just haven’t been. But I’ll see.
And there’s another reason.
I’m supposed to teach 102 this coming term. Last I checked, that was still on.
And some years ago, I got around a problem in a class by offering to read any book or short story that anybody wanted to give me–to take reading assignments rather than give them.
After a while, I modified this offer by saying I wouldn’t read the Bible any more. I’ve already read it more than once and parts of it in various languages, so I don’t see what reading it one more time will give me.
The volumes recommended to me have ranged from the truly awful (any Chicken Soup book, trust me), to the impossible to explain (Fifty Shades of Gray–I mean, honest to God?), to a little clutch of books that make me wonder if my students are at all representative of the population at large.
In case you ever wonder what people who don’t read read when they get around to it, the answer seems to be watered-down religion and not-watered-down-at-all conspiracy theories.
And very often, the same people are reading both.
Unless Fifty Shades of Gray represents some kind of genre I haven’t run into before–sticky-sweet sentimental porn?–my students don’t read much in the way of fiction, and certainly n ot genre fiction.
In my generation, people who claimed not to like to read tended to read romance novels, but that does not seem to be what is going on now.
I figured I’d give it a shot and see what’s going on now.
Except that, now now, it’s an absolutely gorgeous day, which means it ought to be possible to get things done.
I’d better go do them.