Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Archive for November, 2010


with 2 comments

I know, I know.

Second post of the day.

But this site


is a lot of fun.

Written by janeh

November 30th, 2010 at 11:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The God Thing

with 3 comments


I’ve been walking around this post all morning, not sure how to get it started–and to tell the truth, I still don’t know.  I can’t really think of anything in the way of a lead in that makes sense, and what I can think of feels sort of abrupt.

Let me try this is the most direct possible way.

Over the last several weeks–and on and off over the time I’ve been on the Internet–I have had people say some variation of the following sentence to me:  you’ve already decided that God does not exist.

When this comes from one of those pe0ple on the Internet mostly to debate the existence of God, it often takes the form of:  I have faith that God exists, and you have faith that God does not exist.

Or:  I believe God exists, and you believe God does not exist.

The problem with all this, for me, is that it isn’t true.  I don’t believe that “God does not exist.” 

Unlike many people you’ll meet who are now atheists, I did not reject a religious upbringing, marshall a bunch of arguments and conclude that “all that God stuff” had to be untrue.

I needed to reject nothing and marshall no arguments–God was almost never mentioned in my house growing up, except by me, and then it was only in pursuing the interesting idea that I might have an excuse for one day walking around in a nun’s habit. 

Those were the days when nuns had really impressive habits, and I would have given anything to be allowed to swish around in a long skirt and a wimple and a veil.  It looked romantic as hell.  I was so convinced that all things having to do with wearing a habit had to be good things that, when my mother told me she’s seen a movie with Audrey Hepburn where nuns were required to shave all the hair off their heads, I refused to believe it.  I never did believe it until many years later, when I met actual nuns, who explained the whole thing to me.

I had nuns for teachers in high school, and loved them, and mostly like the nuns I know now.  For that matter, I like most of the priests I know now.  I never did have those lower-level, largely uneducated orders of nuns that resorted to corporal punishment or autocratic high handedness to compensate for their lack of intellectual rigor. 

Then I did a lot of studying in an area of literature that required a solid understanding of Catholic theology, so there was that.

But belief seems to me to be a largely emotional thing–well, okay, let me back up.

The Catholic Church, at least from the time of Aquinas, has defined belief as an act of the will.  You decide that X is true and you hold to it, even though it doesn’t “feel” right, or even if it doesn’t feel real.

The Catholic Church feels the same way about love, which it also defines as an act of will, and that would be an interesting subject for a later date. 

But I can’t get past the “feel” part.  I read the various dogmas of Christian belief, the Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, even the Crucifixion and Resurrection–and they just don’t ring true in my head.  They sound like stories–and I mean that literally.  The underlying structure seems to me to be narrative in the same sense that The Iliad is narrative.  I sometimes think that narrative corresponds to a particular kind of structure in the brain. 

For better or worse, the Christian stories seem to me like stories.  They always did, maybe because my earliest acquaintance with them were as stories.  I was taught the basics of the Gospel story by people who did not believe that those basics were factually true.

On the other hand, since I never had to reject a religious upbringing, I’m also not antagonistic to those stories, and I’m not antagonistic to all religious thought and tradition. 

There are certainly segments of the larger community of Christians who repel me–the ones who let their children die of meningitis because all secular medicine is really witchcraft, say (and no, I did not make that up)–and segments that leave me exasperated.  I mean, go ahead.  Show me where in the Bible it says that the earth is only 10,000 years old.  And if Augustine could think it was compatible with Christian doctrine for the human body to have been created through a process of evolution, who the Hell are these people to say it’s not?

But unlike a lot of people who have run from specific Christian traditions and therefore think they know all about what Christianity says, I didn’t, so I actually went and found out.  And what I found was that there was a lot in Christian moral theology that I admired, and a lot in the Christian intellectual tradition that I more than admired.  You take John Rawls.  I’ll take Augustine, Aquinas and Abelard any day of the week.

And Hildegarde, too, next to almost anything that’s been composed in the last fifty years, except maybe some stuff by John Williams.

And a lot of jazz.

But along with all this, I’m very aware of something else:  I may not “believe” in God, or in not-God either, but when it comes to choosing up sides, I almost invariably end up with high-intellectual-end Catholicism and not with the secular philosophies of the last century or so.

I most certainly do not end up with what passes for philosophy–especially moral and political philosophy–in organized Humanism and Secular Humanism these days.

I never got around to talking about Sam Harris’s new book in any detail, but in the end what it came down to was this:  he, like everybody else–including a fair number of Christian theologians–tends to want to “prove” the truth of his moral and political ideas, and he starts with the ideas, not the data.

But let’s look at the list now, for a minute:

a) the equality of moral worth of all human beings (and only human beings), whether the person is “conscious” in some abstract sense or not–high-end Catholicism will give it to me.  The present run of secular moral philosophers both deny the moral equality of some human beings (those  in “persistant vegetative states” or who are not “self aware”) and attempt to raise other animals to a position above such rejected human beings.  If you don’t believe me, see Peter Singer.

b) the primacy of the individual over the group as the locus of morality, rights, and justice–high-end Catholicism will give it to me.  The present run of secular moral and political philosophers are nearly manic in their rejection of the idea and their need to assert the primacy of the group in almost every aspect of politics and private life.  To those nuns, I was always just Orania.  To The Humanist I’m “a woman” and “an atheist” and a lot of other things that seem to me to be unuseful as descriptions of anything that hasn’t been mass produced.

c) the imperative of democracy–the right of ordinary, everyday people to make the decisions that structure their lives.  High end Catholicism will give it to me.  The present run of secular political philosophers is enamored of “experts” who just know better than the rest of us because they have professional knowledge we lack.

d) the imperative of liberty over security–that is, when a choice has to be made, we should err in the direction of liberty and not of security.  High-end Catholicism will give me that, too, although, like any other bureaucratic organization, liberty makes the actual Roman Catholic Church a little queasy.  But the present run of secular moral and political philosophers seems to abhor liberty in any meaningful sense.   On the one hand, it insists on absolute license–never mind liberty–on a few very narrow (and in the end, largely trivial) areas,  like sex.  On the other, it wants to expand further and further into private life to control what we eat, what we drink, how much we exercise, how we raise our children, what we do in our churches, even what we are allowed to express of our beliefs and convictions. 

Those are my four biggies, what Robert would probably call my “satisfying personal philosophy.”  What they really are, in all likelihood, is the expression of my temperament, which is what it is. 

But at the end of the day, I’m left with the realization that I may not know whether God exists or not, but I do know what side I’m on.  And I’m not cheering on the expansion of the New Atheism into public life.  Given the things that are most important to me, that would be a personal disaster.

I’m also left asking myself why this is so–why it is that the public face of atheist and Humanism is what it is and not something else.  I certainly know other people who do not believe in God who also believe in the things I do.  There does not seem to be anything inherent in the lack of belief that would inevitably push you in one direction.

Even so, it does seem to push most people in one direction, and I haven’t stopped asking why that is.  That may be the reason why I do, every once in a while, deliberately read books whose purpose is to challenge my lack of belief in God.  I’ve got one on the coffee table now, called The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, which is a book by Peter Kreeft and somebody else whose name I can’t remember meant to be the basis for Catholics who want to contend for the Church in debates.

I don’t really think I’m going to change my mind and suddenly start believing that God exists–or at least, not the God of the Christians, which is a considerably harder sell than the idea of “God” in the abstracting.  The feeling thing does matter to me.

But I really do go out there and delierately read and engage with things that I definitely to not believe in, and even that I actively oppose.

Because let’s face it.

You never know.

COMMENTING ON THE BLOG–don’t forget, if you get “invalid registration status,”  or have other difficulty posting, e-mail and we’ll get you on manually.

Written by janeh

November 30th, 2010 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Apropos of Nothing

with 4 comments

Well, I woke up to find Leslie Nielson died–so the day hasn’t started out as well as it could have.

And I’ll just note, re Cheryl’s comment, that I never took up space in my journals trying to figure out the “root causes” of why I was so awful.  I just went on and on about how I was so awful.

I think I don’t do it on the blog because I know most of you would laugh at me.

But this morning I’m a little short for time, and I just want to note one thing.

Yesterday, I finished a book at one of those mental places where I just couldn’t think of what I wanted to read next.  What I did instead was to read an essay called “The Prevention of Literature” by George Orwell that I have in one of those compendium “readers” that contain a few complete essays and lots of excerpts from books.

Compendiums like that are definitely an exception to my compulsive need to finish everything I start.  For one thing, I don’t read abridged versions of anything if I can help it, so I’m not going to read the excerpts from Homage to Catalonia or 1984.  I’ve already read 1984, and if I want to read Homage to Catalonia, I’ll find a copy of the whole thing and read that.

All that being said, “The Prevention of Literature” was what I had expected it to be, a little piece on the sad post-War decline in the quality of English murders was kind of fun, and then I hit the essay on Rudyard Kipling.

This was one of those things I wish was up on the Net so that I could post a link to it.  For one thing, it reminded me that, no matter how useful Orwell has become to anti-Communisits and anti-totalitarians, he always was a writer on the left.  

What makes him more interesting than most writers on the left is the fact that he’s very aware of the kind of intellectual dishonesty this can cause and the way in which “intellectuals” blind themselves.

But the essays is a weird mixture of highbrow leftwing contempt and reluctant admiration, periodically veering into outright condemnation of the people he calls “enlightened”–just like that, with scare quotes–whenever he gets on to them.

And that led me back to my Kipling short story collection, although the essay itself was about Kipling’s poems.

I ended up reading one of the oddest little stories I’ve ever read in my life, called “The House Surgeon,”  and then sort of sitting back, nonplussed.

I’d tell you what it was about, but it’s one of those things–if you know ahead of time what the point is, you’re not going to be nearly as weirded out as if you come to it fresh, and I have a peculiar feeling that getting the reader weirded out is part of the point here.

Or maybe not.  It’s hard to tell.

Let’s just call this my recommendation of the day–no India, no dialogue writing, a straightforward story about rural Britain.

And really, really peculiar.

I’m going to leave that message now for people who hope to send COMMENTS TO THE BLOG, just in case:

If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Written by janeh

November 29th, 2010 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

When I was in graduate school and going through a period where I couldn’t write anything–I do not go through periods like that often, and they don’t usually last long–I decided to keep a journal.

Keeping a journal is the kind of thing writing teachers are always suggesting you do.  Writing magazines like that kind of advice, too.  I’d done my best to stay away from writing courses throughout my academic career, but I’d managed to pick up this thing about keeping a journal, and I decided I’d try it.

What happened next was either a wild success or a complete disaster, depending on how you’re defining each of them. 

On the plus side, I wrote.  I wrote a lot.  I wrote almost compulsively.  I’d often write as much as ten to fifteen pages a day, while taking a full courseload and working as a TA.

On the minus side, it took about a day and a half of that for all my writing to become distinctly suicidal.

I’m not exaggerating here.  I wasn’t writing about suicide, but I was writing things that were increasingly self-abusive:  I was stupid, I was ugly, I was at base a congenital liar, I was never going to be a writer because I didn’t write and what I wrote was bad anyway.

And on and on and on.

It would be funny, except that the more of this kind of thing I wrote the more depressed I got, not in the modern “oh, I’m depressed” sense, but in the sense of no longer being willing to eat or get out of bed.

So one day, I took the notebooks and tore them to pieces and threw them away.

I tried the experiment again a couple of years later, with the same results.

And that was the end of me and journals.

I’m bringing this up at the moment because I’ve noticed myself doing something similar here.

Oh, I don’t get suicidal, and I don’t get obsessive about writing endlessly every day.  It helps to have a life.

But I have noticed that I get very pessimisstic on certain particular subjects, and that I get that way even when I start a post not intending to write about them. 

This is sort of what happened in my last post, when I was having a perfectly good day, and ended the post on the usual whine about anti-intellectualism and schools.

Except that I am, in fact, really depressed about the situation in schools and in colleges. 

But I wasn’t intending to go there.

If you see what I mean.

Anyway, I’ve done all this in preface because I want to go back to schools for a moment, and this time to elementary and secondary schools.

And I’m aware of the fact that we’re at a disadvantage here because I think I’m the only one who has had any actual contact with elementary and secondary schools in the last ten years.  Lots of you remember your own experiences in that range of education, and what you remember is a world that is dead and gone.  Nobody reads Silas Marner any more.  They only read Catcher in the Rye in honors classes.

So, I want to answer a question that’s been put to me very often and that up to now I think I’ve answered sort of in a round about way.

What should students learn in elementary school?

The purpose of elementary school is to

a) impart basic skills necessary to functioning in the school’s society


b) give children a rudimentary understanding of their culture in order to recruit them to the defense of it.

What is the purpose of secondary education?

Both of the above, on a higher level of complexity and completeness, plus the foundation for college work for those who want to go on to it.

I think that, if I started there, I could manage to construct a decent curriculum for any particular child.  I could even manage to construct a decent curriculum for a school, although I think that would be harder.

But that’s for another day.

There’s a cycle of America’s Next Top Model I’ve nearly missed entirely, and I’ve got to go see if they’re doing an encore marathon today.

Okay, it’s silly, and it’s not Bach.

But sometimes I get silly, and ANTM is my favorite form of idiocy these days.

Written by janeh

November 28th, 2010 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Getting Away With Murder

with one comment

So, you know, that was nice.  We still have a ton of food.  That’s nice, too, because it means we don’t cook anything serious for a day or two.

And as most of you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time rereading all the Agatha Christie in existence.  Or that I’m interested in, which might be more to the point–I like Marple and Poirot, but not most of the others.

At the moment, I’m rereading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I remembered, for some reason, as thin and badly written.  So far it’s neither.

But it’s the book I just finished a few days ago that has me thinking, and that was Murder on the Orient Express.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it–if you’re looking for a movie, get the version with Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall, which is true to the book and really marvellously done.  It also has that neat thing where you’ll recognize everybody in the cast–Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman–all willing to take relatively small roles because…well, because actors do that sometimes with material they like.

The BBC Masterpiece Mystery thing is a travesty, giving Poirot a sudden serious Catholicism he has nowhere in the books and turning the ending into a prolonged period of moralistic angst that is opposed to the very spirit of Poirot as Christie wrote him. 

But the book of Murder on the Orient Express is interesting for another reason:  it is over two hundred pages of Poirot interviewing suspects.

Just that.

Chapter after chapter, each suspect is called in and questioned.  There are no Big Scenes.  There is no violence.  There is no action.

The book is, very nearly a pure puzzle mystery.  There is characterization, and it matters–but not a single page from the point of view of any of the suspects, no flashbacks, no running around chasing anybody, nothing else.

Suspects.  Interviews.  Puzzle. 

I liked this book the first time I read it, and I’ve liked it every time since, including this last time.

But it occurs to me that it would not be possible to get it published today. 

It’s hard enough to get publishers interested in puzzle mysteries at all, but something like this, without action, without anything cinematic happening (although it made a fine movie, twice–interesting, that), would be incomprehensible to most editors any more than, say, ten years younger than I am now.

I’ve been thinking about Christie’s other breakthrough books–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance–and I think some of these would be easier.  But the likelihood is that Christie would have had to be far better known than she was (I think Ackroyd was something like the third of the fifth book), and to get that way she would have had to have written books very unlike the ones she did.

The other thing I wonder about is Christie’s complete lack of consistancy in the formal aspects of the novels in the early days of the Poirot series–the books are in first person from Hastings’s point of view, or they’re from third person mostly Poirot’s point of view with a couple of glimpses from characters, or they’re in omniscient narrator, or they’re in first person from yet another person’s point of view.

If part of the attraction of a series to readers is its predictability, Christie was not being very predictable when she started. 

I don’t know why any of this should be the case, or why modern readers should be so fundamentally uninterested in puzzles. 

Part of it, I’m sure, is just the difficulty of constructing really interesting puzzles.  There are over thirty books about Hercule Poirot, and in that list I’d guess there might be four or five that are really unique as puzzles

But part of me thinks that the disinterest in puzzles connects to the disinterest in all things intellectual, with that word given the broadest possible definition.  People who see nothing wrong with cheating their way to a master’s degree are not likely to be interested in making their minds work to figure out who killed the butler.

Robert said, a few days ago, that it would be interested to find out just what students cheated on–if they cheated more on their “distribution requirements” than they did on the courses they thought were giving them actual information in the field they were interested in working in.

At the time, I forgot that several of the examples in the article about bought term papers I had linked to were of graduate students, who have no distribution requirements and are, at least nominally, dedicated entirely to learning things in their chosen fields.

It also occurs to me, whenever we have that kind of discussion, that in my father’s era, the Required Reading List was even narrower than it is now, that it included nothing at all of the kind of “exciting” book some of you think would get more people to love reading,

These days,  you couldn’t publish Murder on the Orient Express, and if you wanted to publish The Mysterious Affair at Styles, you’d have to cutesy it up with comic great uncles and even more silly housemaids.

And even then,  you’d only sell it to old ladies.

I think I need some caffeine.

Written by janeh

November 26th, 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Day of the Turkey

with 4 comments

I wonder how many people out there remember a movie called Night of the Lepus.

It was a horror movie about gigantic, carnivorous rabbits.


And in the end, gigantic or not, carnivorous or not, they were still rabbits.

But it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m in that odd position where I’ve got people coming and not enough chairs.

I’ve got a turkey but no celery.

I’ve got–well, you get the picture. 

In a couple of minutes, I’m going to run out to the store and pick up the celery, and then I’m going to come back and stuff the turkey.

My older son is home, which we were not entirely sure was going to happen this year, so there’s that.  That makes me happy.

But I’ve gotten stale.  For some reason, I don’t look forward to this kind of thing as much as I used to.

Maybe it’s because my life seems to be in some kind of holding pattern.  I’ve got a half dozen serious problems that need some kind of resolution, and there are no resolutions in sight.

Of course, there are also no particular bad things in sight, either. 

I’ve had periods in my life when everything has been falling apart and I’ve thought that I was going to crash and burn–that we were all going to crash and burn–but this is not like this.

There are bad things and better things and good things that will happen eventually, it’s just that none of them has happened in months, and none of them looks set to happen in the next few months.

That is, I think, one of the reasons I don’t seem to be able to make up my mind about what to do about teaching, or to finish the Georgia Xenakis novel. 

Or even find a title for it.  I really do have to figure out the title thing.

With so much up in the air, it just feels like there’s something wrong with making a definite decision about anything.

This is not the kind of thing that’s good for me, and I’ll shake out of it in a month or so.


Of course, turkey is one of my favorite foods, and actually stuffing one is even better. 

So there’s that.

And I’ve got a lot of Poirot novels in the house, and no reason to set the alarm for the rest of the week-end.

So there’s that, too.

Come Monday, I’ll have to start making some sense.

But that’s four days away.

Happy Thanksgiving for those of you who are having it.

The rest of you should find an excuse for a four day week-end of your own.

Written by janeh

November 25th, 2010 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Turkey Shoot

with 4 comments

Actually, the only turkey I was referring to here yesterday was the one in my refrigerator, which is very large and requires mushrooms, onions, celery, chestnuts, butter and breadcrumbs to get stuffed for Thanksgiving. 

I didn’t think Robert was complaining I didn’t write enough.  I thought he was worried I was sick again–which I don’t seem to be, thank God–but it freaked me a little, because I thought I’d been posting a lot.

The manuscript, however, did get off, so there’s that done.  And today is my last day of teaching before the week-end. 

I had a momentary thrill there for a few moments, because it looked like our last week of class was going to be next week–and then, of course, it turned out I’d read the schedule wrong.

Although you never know, at our place.  I can never figure out what they use to determine what our schedules are.

For the moment, though, I just want to point out one thing.

A couple of days ago–might be nearly a week now–I posted a link to an article I found on Arts and Letters Daily about people who buy research and other papers–buy the services of somebody who writes those papers from scratch.

I don’t know how many people followed that link and read the article, but it was thoroughly depressing on a lot of levels.

And there was one thing I could take some comfort in–most of the students in my classes, and most of the ones taking courses where I teach (even non-remedial ones) don’t use services like this, because they can’t afford them and because they don’t know they exist.

When my kids cheat, they do it by going on the Internet and copying and pasting wholesale.

That said, one thing in the article rang true–the colleges this guy’s clients attend are not interested in education, only in evaluation.

Actually, the word these days is “assessment.”

But it comes down to the same thing.

Unless you’re attending something in the first tier–and sometimes even then–nobody is going to bother you with what Robert calls “the required reading list.”  Nobody is going to care if you’ve read Aristotle or Shakespeare or Kant.  

All they’re going to care about is whether you managed to follow directions and do what you were told. 

The issue is not to mold your taste, or to introduce you to the Great Conversation, or to introduce you to your academic field, or to teach you how to think.

Nobody cares if you’re right wing, left wing, or anything in between.

Nobody cares if you can actually read, write or think.

All that matters is the credentialing.

And the guy who wrote that article is right.  Teachers know when students are teaching.  They by and large no longer care.  Bringing a charge of plagarism has gotten to be so complicated–in one place in this area, it triggers an automatic appeal and a full faculty board hearing–that it isn’t worth it, and teachers are very aware that the administration doesn’t give a damn either.

All the issues we talk about here, all the articles about speech codes and indoctrination in the classroom and wild charges of offense brought against speakers with the “wrong” ideas–all those things are restricted to a very small subsection of institutions who get the very best students.

It’s the top twenty and the flagship state universities where you have those problems.

Everywhere else, it’s just a matter of processing bodies through the system, certifying them “educated” and then passing them into the world of work. 

Our third and fourth tier colleges and universities–the places where people go to get nursing degrees and “degrees” in things like “computer assisted design” and “sports management” and “automotive science”–have become what our high schools were a generation ago.  They’re place holders with a fancy piece of paper at the end of them, certifying competence where none exists.

And I think that we can’t avoid the racial aspect here, because there is one.  It’s true, as Cathy, I think, said, that educators assume stupidity in poor whites from Appalachia just as much as they do in poor blacks from the inner city.

The difference is that every college and university receiving federal funds has to keep records on race, and those records are made available to the EOC, and the EOC is more than willing to go to court on charges of racial discrimination if those records show too much of a “disparate impact” in assessment policies.

So if you’re university has a large population from the inner city, and the schools in the inner city are rat crap that teach virtually nothing, then you’re stuck with a problem–any honest assessment program will end with your having a record that shows that black kids are failing at far higher rates than white kids.

This is not because the black kids are stupid, because they’re not.  This is because the black kids went to school where math ended at pre-Algebra and nobody ever assigned a paper longer than a single page and “history” consisted of some old guy with tenure showing movies while he sat at his desk and picked his fingernails.

In the meantime, even your poor white kids most likely went to one of the surrounding suburban schools where the standards for even the worst of students were considerably higher than that, and where they were surrounded by kids who did take education seriously.  Or at least semi-seriously.

So there you are–do your assessment tests show three quarters of black kids being shoved into remedial programs and only one quarter of white kids?  Racism!  And racism you can take to court, too.

And if none of the kids or parents is willing to sue, the EOC will do it on its own sometimes. 

There is only one possible safe haven in this mess, and that is to make sure your numbers fit what the bureaucracies expect to see. 

So, that’s what everybody does.

We’re in the middle of a big project to send everybody to “college,” but barely 10% of our kids are going to “college” as we understood it in the Sixties and Seventies.

The rest of those kids are doing what I’m talking about here.

At Dartmouth, you worry about political correctness.

At places like mine, you worry about whether, when they graduate, the kids will be able to read the directions on the back of a packet of jello. 

And it’s not going to get fixed any time soon, because there’s no incentive to fix it.

And on that note, off I go.

Written by janeh

November 23rd, 2010 at 7:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

I was a little startled to get an e-mail this morning complaining that posts on the blog had been rather scarce lately–it didn’t seem that way to me, since I thought I’d been writing nearly every day. 

But maybe it’s true.  If it is, it’s nothing in particular–I’ve got a copyedited manuscript that I’m late getting back because having the cold for that long put me behind, and it’s the end of the term at my place so everybody is freaking, and Thanksgiving is coming up and I have to wrestle with chestnuts.

If anybody knows how to get roasted chestnuts out of their shells without leaving on just tons of that fuzzy crap, I’d like to hear it.  Martha Stewart does hers in the microwave, and I’m thinking of trying it this year.

So if I haven’t been writing much, that’s why, and I’ll get back to it in a day or two. 

And the really odd thing is, I keep wanting to get around to something else:  why it is you can’t say I ever decided that I didn’t (or did) believe in God, and why I do, in fact, deliberately read things that I think might change my mind on that subject (and on several others I’d call seminal to my “philosophy of life”) on a regular basis.

But it’s a very long story, and it’s six o’clock and it’s running late.

Written by janeh

November 22nd, 2010 at 7:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

That Monty Python Moment

with 5 comments

Meaning, of course: and now for something completely different.

At least, completely different from what we’ve been doing lately.  I meant to do this last year, and then I got worried that I’d sound hectoring, so I didn’t.

But this year I keep running across stuff–hard to explain it any other way–and I thought I’d do it.

In the meantime, you might want to look here


which is a link I found at Arts and Letters Daily this morning.

It nears some relation to all this, if only peripherally.

So, what am I on about?

The holiday season is here, no matter what holidays you celebrate, and with it there are dozens of people and dozens of organizations that all want us to do something.

And, as far as I’m concerned, we should do something.

I’m not a romantic.  I’ve dealth with “targetted populations” long enough, and consistently enough, to understand that “the homeless” aren’t the pitiful victims of chance and circumstance that the volunteer organizations like to portray them as.  I know that not everybody who shows up at the food bank is short on groceries because they just haven’t been able to find a job in this economy.

I know it, and I don’t care.  One of the most startlingly impressive things I ever read in my life was a Latin essay–I don’t remember by whom, a minor writer, not somebody you’d recognize–written in around 200 or so AD/CE, explaining that the people were much drawn to the Christians because they gave charity without inquiring into the merit of those who needed it.

In other words, they fed the deserving poor and the bums alike, they tended the sick whether the sick were that way because they’d been struck by a rare disease or driven their health into the ground on vino.

So, as far as I’m concerned, charity–real charity–is a good thing, and we all ought to be engaged in it.

That said, I have some suggestions.

The first thing is that the best thing you can give is time.  Food banks, food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, toy drives all need people to man the cafeteria lines and to drive stuff here and there.

They especially need those things near or on the holidays.  Almost all soup kitchens serve Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at some other time than actual Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner because most people want to be home with their own families when the holiday comes.

And I’m one of them, mostly.  We only did one year where we served Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving afternoon and one where we did Christmas, but late–we had Christmas dinner at noon at home and then did a round in the evening.

And Bill was still alive both those times, so you can figure out how long ago that was.

I want to be home for the holidays, you want to be home for the holidays.  But the poor and the homeless want to be home for the holidays, too, and it’s a great thing when the local soup kitchen can find enough people willing to work on the day to be able to serve on the day. 

So look into ways you can give your time, and if you’re stranded this holiday, see if you can’t find someplace that’s looking to do the holiday on the holiday for the people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.

Oh, and while we’re at it–Meals on Wheels has a lot of trouble finding people this time of year, at least some places.  They’re a good group to go to to give some time.

But on the subject of old people, the best thing you can do is invite one you know who’s alone–the old lady down the street, whoever–or go to visit if they can’t get out. 

The second thing is that, if you’re giving stuff, rather than time, and you’re contributing to an organization that works directly feeding and clothing the poor, give money.

I mean it. 

Most soup kitchens and food pantries are part of national networks that make it possible for them to buy food in bulk.  They may have drives for your cans and bottles, but they’ll be more than happy for money instead and they’ll do a lot more with it than you will.   Our local places up here say they can get enough food for 17 Thanksgiving dinners for $5. 

And while we’re at it: if you work at a food pantry or soup kitchen, or you just give to them, I wish you’d give some thought to solving the “please sir, can I have some more” problem that is endemic to the holidays.

By that I mean the fact that most of these places just don’t collect enough food or money to manage second helpings, even for children. 

And yes, I know why that problem is there and no, I don’t know how to solve it–but I wish I did.

Third, if you do give cans and bottles to things like a Boy Scout or a police drive, let me suggest this:  don’t just clean out your cabinets of everything you don’t want.  Go get some stuff you’d want and give that instead.

A lot of stores around here have two for one and three for one sales around this time of year–buy one, get one free; buy one, get two free. Go to those and give the “and free” to the drive.

People with little or no food will be grateful for what they can get, but they’re human.  Kidney beans and canned stewed tomatoes are all well and good, but it’s Thanksgiving.  Cranberry sauce and sweet corn would be nice. 

Finally, the holidays will come and go, and the rest of the year will be out there waiting.  And there’s a lot of the rest of the year. 

Time is short, and we’ve all got to make a living.

But, you know. 


End of hectoring rant.

Written by janeh

November 20th, 2010 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

Sometimes I do something so incredibly boneheaded and clueless, I can’t believe I can walk and talk at the same time.

To tell you all the truth, it hadn’t occurred to me, yesterday, to think about the “unified field theory of everything.” And it should have.  I’ve certainly heard about it enough.

But when I was talking about how we’ve lost the idea that the universe is a whole, and all of it’s connected, I was thinking of something considerably more modest.

When Alberti talks about the relationship of mathematics to painting, he does indeed go on–at great length–about how geometry relates to perspective (something he’s credited for being the “inventor” of, although that’s probably not quite accurate).

But what else he does is to assume that the standards for art–what makes a work of art “good” or “bad”–are also related to mathematics.

Most Medieval and Renaissance moral philosophers, when they talked about morality and conscience, did not simply say “this is what God said,” but assumed that right conduct was that conduct that fulfilled the purposes of nature.

To use the most obvious example:  the Medieval identification of homosexual practice with sin came from the Bible, but its identification of homosexual practice as wrong came from the assumption that nature’s purpose in sex was to produce babies. 

All the other reasons why people might have sex–lust, for instance, or orgasms–were morally wrong because they were not “ordered to nature” as Aquinas would say.

I’m not saying that we should adopt such a standard ourselves.

And I’m not unaware that there are problems with the standard as the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance understood it–hell, even as Aristotle understood it.

There are complicated reasons why both Aristotle and Aquinas–both the Greek rationalist and the Medieval Christian traditions–treated pleasure as superfluous to sex, but I’m not sure they would (or should) hold water today. 

Both societies had a screamingly wrong conception of what happened in conception, too, which didn’t help any.

But it’s interesting that neither society fell into the naturalistic fallacy–at the same time they both saw conformity with nature as good, they both thought of a lot of what we would consider “natural” behavior to be unnatural. 

They saw man as being the one creature who could deny nature, so to speak.  Nature decreed that sex was for making babies.  Man decided it would be a good idea to screw goats because it made him feel temporarily good.

The temporarily is important.

I’m doing that thing again where I wander around blithering. 

But what I was getting at was the idea that if we think of nature as a whole–rather than a collection of discrete and largely unrelated parts–then we think about the parts differently. 

We don’t have to have a unified field theory of everything.  The concept is simpler and much more obvious.  We are all here together–the physics, the chemistry, the biology, the anatomy, the poetry, the music, the lobster thermidor.

I could not eliminate physics and still have this world. 

But I couldn’t eliminate poetry, either–I could eliminate a particular poem, or a poetic tradition (say, the sonnet, or haiku)–

But all people everywhere have had poetry.  And all of them have had narrative.  Look at the existence of poetry and narrative over time, and what we see looks a lot like poetry not as something people do, but as something people feel compelled to do. 

And yes, of course, if we eliminated people, we would still have a world–it just wouldn’t be this world. 

Nor was I asking that we should all become “experts” in everything.  In terms of the kind of holistic understand of the world as a whole that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance strove to achieve, our “expertise” would be more of a hindrance than a help.

A lot of what we call expertise is fragmented knowledge of bits and pieces and parts of things that is only of any use when we bring it together with the equally fragmented knowledge held by other people.  And a lot of it is of very little interest to much of anybody.  I really like the idea of quarks going in and out of existence at will, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the “knowledge.”

I don’t have to be an expert in physics to understand that the physical properties of the material world constrain my action in that world.  I don’t need to be an expert mathematician to understand how the rules of geometry underpin perspective.

I am not a big fan of the cult of expertise–in case you haven’t already noticed–and that’s at least partially because it often seems to me as if it is a cult.

But what I’ve been talking about here is something else–it’s the possibility that the designation that some poetry (or painting, or music or literature) is “good” may rely on its congruence with things we now think of as “outside” the field.

If that makes sense.

I’m going to do that thing again, and remind anybody reading of the problem we’re having with COMMENTING ON THE BLOG:

If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Then I’m going to go get ready to leave.

Written by janeh

November 19th, 2010 at 6:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad Behavior has blocked 864 access attempts in the last 7 days.