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Archive for May, 2018

8 Every Victory Is Temporary

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This is part 8 in a series of posts. If you want to read the whole series, scroll down until you get to 1.

One of the worst things about January and February of this year, when I was sick with more than the cancer, was that I couldn’t read, pretty much at all. I managed to finish one book, a traditional mystery, in January, but I forgot to write it down. I think it was an Agatha Christie.

In February, I tried to reread Gaudy Night, but couldn’t finish it.

Then we called 911 the first time, and everything went to hell. I did the hospital for 2 weeks, came home, had to call 911 two days later, and then spent the next three weeks in a nursing home.

Which is a story for another time, and I hope to get to it. I have a lot to say.

Anyway, even though I felt steadily better through March, and got pulled back from the brink of almost-died, I still didn’t read anything in the first 3 weeks of March.

Anybody who knows me knows how really odd this is. I learned to read before I was 3 and I have been reading compulsively ever since. Other stints in the hospital—for a broken leg once, for C-section pregnancies twice, to have my gall bladder removed—didn’t even slow me down.

When I finally got home again, after the Really Bad Diagnosis but actually feeling pretty normal (although tired) otherwise, I went into a kind of hypergear with the books. I also went back to my customary method for choosing what to read. I followed fiction with nonfiction, liberal with conservative, back and forth.

It was this back and forth that landed me, this month, with reading Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West followed by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blindsided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Between them I read Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die, which was definitely a change of pace.

Goldberg and Ehrenreich don’t have a lot in common politically, although they both hate Donald Trump.

And the two books are not even ostensibly on the same topic.

Except, oddly enough, they are.

Jonah Goldberg is writing about our retreat from Enlightenment commitments to objectivity over subjectivity. Barbara Ehrenreich is writing about our desperate clinging to the idea that our feelings control our reality.

Both of them are writing about our terror of living in a world where there is no permanent security, not ever, and never can be.

Oh, we do have temporary control. If you study hard and work diligently, you will definitely do better than if you start drinking every morning as soon as you get up and never venture out Excrpt to buy another bottle of booze.

But it’s like John Maynard Keynes said. In the long run, we’ll all be dead.

For most people on this earth, that particular problem has been solved by religion. Religion gave us an afterlife that meant that death wasn’t really death at all, and religion gave us a structure that said that this mess was controlled by somebody or something, if not by us.

In the 21st century, large numbers of people have abandoned religion for either nothing, or for what we call “spirituality.”

As far as I can figure out, “spirituality” is about keeping the parts of religion we like while jettisoning the parts we don’t. We keep heaven and get rid of hell. We tell ourselves that “everything happens for a reason.”

In the end, though, I think spirituality is a less powerful deterrent to terror than traditional religion. I think that may explain why so many people are so desperate to nail down “what you did” to get cancer.

This was the thing that drove me craziest when Bill was dying. The man had a form of cancer so rare there weren’t any risk factors for it. He couldn’t have “done” anything.  And yet, this was what most people wanted to talk about. Did he ever smoke? Maybe it was his weight? It had to be his fault SOMEHOW.

One of the wonderful things about Ehrenreich’s book are the chapters on her own breast cancer, and the way she was driven absolutely wild by people insisting that she maintain a “positive attitude,” as if a negative attitude must have caused the cancer or would prevent her from being cured of it.

The woman was trained as a molecular biologist. She wasn’t having any.

And she quite rightly pointed out that the real problem with the positive attitude approach was that its flip side is the worst kind of victim blaming. It’s YOUR fault you got cancer! It’s YOUR fault you died of it! You should of changed your attitude!

Living in the world is a scary thing. The universality of death is even scarier.

Jonah Goldberg is right. Every victory is temporary.

I wonder if we’d all do better—yes, even in enduring cancer—if we could figure out a way to accept that.

 

 

Written by janeh

May 25th, 2018 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 One True Thing

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This is number 7 in a series. If you want to read the entire series, scroll down until you reach number 1.

For several years after Bill died, I taught part time in a program designed to prepare students from very bad high schools to handle college work, and therefore—at least theoretically—make it possible for them to stay the four year course and eventually graduate.

Most of the students in this program were from high schools in inner city New York and Philadelphia, which meant I was frequently teaching sections whose students were entirely African-American. Some years later, when the whole “white privilege” thing became a cultural obsession, I would end up getting VERY low “privilege” scores because, among other things, I HAVE been required to be in places where I was the only person of my race in the room.

But this is not about that, exactly. If you want to debate “white privilege,” there are hundreds of places on the Web that will be happy to let you do it.

What I’m getting at here is twofold: something I read, and something I’ve learned about myself.

The thing I read is called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, a memoir about growing up dirt poor in Appalachia.

What I’ve learned about myself is somewhat more complicated, but I’ll get to it.

Hillbilly Elegy was an extremely weird experience for me. Before I read it, I read dozens of comments about it on my Facebook feed.

Those comments had a few things in common. They were almost universally written by people who were, like me, middle class white girls. In other words, the people commenting had never directly experienced the kind of life the book described. To the extent that the commentators knew anything at all about the life described, they knew it either entirely ideologically, or they knew it second hand, by working with the “target population” as teachers or social workers or other members of the “helping professions.”

The comments were also almost universally negative. Vance, I was told, “didn’t understand the context” of these people’s lives—interesting, since Vance had actually LIVED the context, as the commentators hadn’t.

And Vance’s big sin was to insist that the failure, degradation and poverty he saw all around him was at least as much the fault of the conscious decisions his family made as it was of any outside forces.

By the way, as an aside—Hillbilly Elegy is the third memoir I’ve read by somebody who grew up in extreme poverty. All three of them insist that the poverty was largely the result of decisions, not circumstances.

But that’s another discussion, too.

What made Hillbilly Elegy such an odd experience for me was that it was all too familiar. The culture it described—the chaos, the violence, the drugs and alcohol, the long stretches of joblessness, the periodic descents into near starvation—was exactly what I had had to wade into with my inner city kids.

One group was black and one was white.  One group was urban and one was rural. One group founded formal gangs and the other embedded itself in complicated webs of biological kinship. It didn’t matter.

When I was still teaching in the program, I would get asked what I thought was the biggest obstacle to my kids’ success in academia. My answer was always the same, and would be the same today: disorganization and passivity.

The disorganization is so endemic as to be bewildering to anybody who hasn’t grown up in it. Most of us don’t realize how organized we really are. Culturally middle class families instill organization in their children automatically. There is a time to get up and a routine—take a shower, brush your teeth,  get dressed, eat breakfast. There are scheduled events throughout the day, school or work or church or Scouts or team practice. There is rhythm and regularity. There is predictability.

If you haven’t been taught this kind of rhythm and regularity, if you haven’t incorporated it into your very blood and skin and bone, you’re going to have a very hard time getting anything done. Showing up to class on time, or at all? Finishing your homework and handing it in on deadline?

The passivity goes at least as deep, and maybe deeper.  It is the deep seated, almost ineradicable conviction that whatever is going wrong in your life is not your fault, and nothing you can do will ever make it any better.

Both my kids and J.D. Vance’s family exhibited both these traits is extreme forms.

And that’s what brings me to the thing I learned about me.

My father used to have this thing he said, over and over again, in my childhood and adolescence: if something goes wrong, you better hope to hell that it’s your fault. If it’s your fault, you can fix it. If it isn’t, you’re just plain screwed.

I’ve got more reason than most people to accept the inevitability and importance of luck. I know all about circumstances beyond our control. I know that we can’t always overcome obstacles or even affect our circumstances. Neither people, nor life, is perfectible.

But.

I also know that to the extent that I have accomplished anything in my life, it’s been because I have put that knowledge aside and convinced myself that my choices matter, that they make a difference, that they (and not some shadowy something or somebody out there) will determine the outcome.

The Franciscans have a saying: pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.

There’s one true thing.

 

Written by janeh

May 15th, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Just Desserts

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This is number 6 in a series. If you want to read the whole thing, scroll down until you get to number 1,

There is a sweet little single panel cartoon that gets shared a lot on Facebook.

There is a little dog, maybe a Scottie, walking off through the clouds side by side with the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe.

We see them both from behind.

The dog asks the Grim Reaper, “Was I a good boy?”

And the Grim Reaper says, “No, From what I hear, you were the best.”

I would post a link to this cartoon here, but, of course, as soon a I went looking for it, I couldn’t find it. Maybe somebody has a link and will post it to the comments.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about this cartoon lately, and for a reason that may seem a little odd.

The book I’m reading now is volume 1 of the Modern Library’s edition of Plutarch Lives.

This is a book that was a staple of a classical education for centuries. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison almost certainly read it.

Plutarch was a Roman writer, working in Latin. In this work, he took pairs of famous men, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, who had enough in common to be recognizably related. First he wrote a short biography of each one. Then he wrote an even shorter mini essay comparing the two.

Then he went on to the next pair.

The reason Plutarch reminded me of the dog who was “the best” is this: the idea that there is a life after this one in which our condition is decided by the way we lived on earth is nearly universal.

It’s even true of the most esoteric forms of Buddhism, where the reward for living a good life is obliteration. The result of living a bad one, after all, is to be returned to the endless pain and travail of the circle if rebirth.

And I’m not knowledgeable about Asian religions, but one of my sons is, and he says you find the same thing there. What happens to you after you die is determined by the way you lived when you were alive.

I have a number of rules I try to follow when I think about life, and one of them is this: any idea or practice that is universal or nearly universal in human beings is grounded in something that is also universal or nearly universal in human beings, and must be taken into account.

This is what makes me such a cynic about so many of the causes my friends are passionately attached to. I don’t think that either “affirmative consent” or #metoo is going to change 100,000 years of human sexual evolution. I think slavery is always one distracted moment away from coming back as “normal.”

With the idea that we are rewarded after death for the good and evil we do in life, I think it’s easy to see the origin. It’s practically the only corrective available for one if the most depressing realities of human life.

Let’s face it. In day to day life, there is no obvious correspondence between Good People and Good Outcomes. We all know good and decent people who are hit by wave after wave of awfulness. We all know complete jerks and sociopaths who get everything they want, enjoy blooming good health into their 90s, and are too good looking for anybody’s own good.

There is a deep seated need in human beings—here’s something else that’s universal!—that life should be “fair.” Never forget it.

What isn’t as universals is the details.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that morality is different in every different culture, so that there can be no objective standard for good and evil. There are plenty of moral precepts that show up in every culture. The Golden Rule, for instance, operates everywhere.

And some things, that seem not to be universal, turn out to be more universal than not on closer inspection.

Cultures that seem to tolerate acts that other cultures find to be beyond the pale don’t actually think these acts are morally okay. Instead, they think these acts are evil, but can be visited on people who are themselves evil, as a deserved punishment.

OR

They think these acts WOULD BE evil if they were visited on human beings, but the people they are being visited on are not, in fact, human.

Check out the way a lot of cultures deal with rape.

But.

There are cases, and areas, in which there is real disagreement.

Which is how we get to Plutarch.

One of the short biographies in Lives is of Lycurgus, who was identified in legend as the founder of the Greek state of Sparta.

And one of the practices that Plutarch commended Lycurgus for establishing was one that saw middle aged men (and sometimes older teenagers) having close relationships, and definitely sex, with boys at the start of puberty.

Yeah. I brought that one up on purpose.

If there is a practice in classical civilization that we would recoil from, this is definitely going to be it.

But the fact is that this practice was not rare in classical Greek civilization, and it wasn’t restricted to Sparta. We know from the writings that have come down to us, that, in Athens, fathers would send their pubescent sons to live in the houses of successful men, and that these men would initiate the sons into sex. These live-in arrangements would last for years, and often continue after the boys were grown and living on their own.

Now, if it is indeed the case that there is an afterlife waiting where we will be rewarded or punished for the way we’ve lived this life, then one of two things has to be true.

Either the people who live in those societies that aka practices that are objectively evil automatically end up in the (equivalent of) hell, even though all they did was to follow moral rules they had no way of knowing were wrong.

OR

The Catholics are right about the principal of the primacy of conscience.

In case you don’t know, the principal of the primacy of conscience says:

1) Conscience is the voice of conscience within us.

2) We must always obey our consciences.

3) As long as you have sincerely tried to interrogate your conscience and understand what it is saying, then to do something else is a mortal sin that can send you to hell EVEN IF what you did against your conscience was objectively the right thing to do.

4) Which means that two people on opposite sides of an issue—say, an abortion doctor and a pro-life activist, or an atheist and a believer, or two men married to each other and the baker who wouldn’t bake their cake—can both be going to heaven.

And all without confessing it and being absolved.

I give you a bet that that last one would have given even Sister Victor an aneurysm.

 

 

 

 

Written by janeh

May 1st, 2018 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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