Monday, December 29, 2014

Three Micro-Moments In 2014 Literature

Woman Reading, By Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you don't remember the interview from the mid-nineties where David Foster Wallace talks about the magic of fiction. I do, because I think about it all the time. He said:

"There's a kind of Ah-ha! ... It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art."

I get this feeling from literature as well. This explains why, while I can't bear to see sad movies because they just make me sad, I can and do read sad books. Because there's something about the internality of reading that for me that I can share the sadness, or put it into context, or feel it as a way of being human rather than as a crushing pointlessness.

So, here at the end of 2014, a pretty bad year for humanity overall, I thought I'd mention just a few things I read this year that I can't stop thinking about.

1. I just finished reading Akhil Sharma's new book, Family Life: A Novel, which is about a boy whose older brother becomes severely brain damaged when he hits his head on the bottom of a pool, shortly after the family has immigrated to the US from India.

Over time, their father develops a terrible drinking habit. Later he tells his family how awful it is to be hungover all the time:

"He said that in the morning he would be in his car driving to the train station and, when he heard people on the radio, it was as if they were broadcasting from another country, that he was in a country where there was a war going on and these people were broadcasting from a nation that was a peace."

I love that so much.

2. In the middle of the year I read Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant. It's about her experience with her parents aging and dying. At one point her mother has been so seriously in decline that Chast has mentally prepared herself for her mother's continued weakening followed by death.

You can tell she wants it to be painless. You get the impression that after months and months of the process, she's looking forward to that process winding down and finally coming to an end somehow.

But then she comes by for a visit, and there's a new nurse, and Chast's mother is up and dressed and sitting on the sofa eating lunch. And she's a little shocked, and she says,

"Where in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?"


3. This year I also read Miriam Towes's recent book All My Puny Sorrows. It's about a woman dealing with her suicidal sister. Her sister is a perfectionist, and at one point the narrator explodes with frustration over her sister's whole world view.

And she says,

"Stop being perfect! That doesn't mean you have to die, you moron. Can't you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful? Get fat and start smoking and play the piano badly. Whatever!"

When I feel down on myself for not meeting some stupid life goal or whatever this passage occasionally pops unbidden into my mind. It's a good reminder that a lot of what people need from one another has very little to do with being brilliant and accomplished, and much more to do with just being around, sharing a meal, cracking an occasional joke, you know.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When Did We Become A World Of Debate Team Lunatics?

To me one of the weirdest things about the modern world is the way social media has brought out the debate team nerd in everyone.

Wasn't it not that long ago that if you talked to people about having an "argument" for their claims, or having an "objection," or a "rebuttal," that people would look at you like you were from Mars?

Maybe I'm sensitized to this because as a philosophy professor it's long been part of my job  to encourage people to engage in just these activities. For a long time, like in the 90s, that encouragement used to meet generally with just blank stares. Like, you want us to do what, exactly?

Some of those blank stares I understood as arising from the idea that communication was, for most people, not generally about convincing people of things. Communication, people seemed to generally feel, was about expressing feelings, or sharing something, or making a joke, or coordinating plans.

Sure, if you were protesting, or canvassing for a cause, or involved in a political campaign, you might get involved in the "making arguments" and "having rebuttals" business. But for most people, most of the time, that was not the main thing we were doing with words.

But now, with social media, it feels like that is all anyone ever does with words. "Having an opinion" is like the main currency of online communication. People are constantly challenging one another's epistemological credentials, standpoint biases, and unstated assumptions.

You click on the "comments" of almost anything and it's like you stumbled into some parallel universe where everyone signed up for lifelong membership in some focus-group-debate-team-mashup where it's really important to state an opinion and challenge those who don't agree with you.

Some of the constant comment arises because people with horrible offensive views now feel empowered to express those views and disagreement with those views is essential, and I get that. But it also feels like there's been a huge uptick in the expression of views about every conceivable thing under the sun: the relative merits of this or that thing; the right way to prepare this or that food; the hidden ethical and social implications of seemingly trivial and innocuous choices.

And if the thing you're sharing is SO innocuous and nice that it's impossible to generate some debate about it, you can rely on someone to start a discussion of whether sharing that innocuous and nice thing is OK and how and why and when.

You can't debate baby pictures, but you sure as hell can debate whether, how, why, and when it's appropriate to share them. I'm often astonished by how passionate people's opinions are on which cute or fun things it is and isn't OK to share.

Why is this happening?

Are people naturally full of opinions and the need to convince other people and social media just finally gave them an outlet for pent up demand?

Did social media just happen to evolve that way so that it's a culture of the thing and now when we get into it that's how it is?

Are we living in an age of indignation and OMG it's so unfair for other reasons so that in an act of psychological transference we are putting all that "I WAS DISSED" energy into pointless arguments that have nothing to do with the true source of indignation?

Maybe it's a perfect storm of all three. Anyway, thinking about all this always reminds me of the Paul Krugman quote from 1988:

"The growth of the Internet will slow dramatically [as it] becomes apparent that most people have nothing to say to each other."

Boy, was that ever wrong or what.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guest Post: A Dry Rob Roy

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

My father’s mother died Thursday night. She was 97 years old, which I find easy to remember because she was born in 1917 and I was born in 1977. She died in her sleep after about two years of mostly waiting to die.

My father and his partner happened to be visiting me at the time. We decided to honor her memory by making dry Rob Roys and cooking beans and greens. The beans and greens were a more straightforward tribute than the Rob Roys. I lived with my grandmother for about three months after college. It was a time when I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself and I took over the cooking because my grandmother’s idea of dinner was a single hot dog on a little plate without a bun.
After the first night I cooked, she said, “Do you think you could make beans and greens?”

I had never heard of beans and greens. This was a number of years ago, so instead of going on the internet I went to the library and checked out the cookbook section. I found a recipe and made beans and greens. When I went to visit her this spring, she told her caretaker that she had taught me to cook, which is true, in a certain sense. My husband reminded me, when we were talking about the beans and greens, that beans and greens were the first thing I ever cooked for him. My grandmother loved being cooked for; she loved being taken care of.

My grandmother also enjoyed drinking. She was not, at least to my knowledge, a rowdy drinker -- she was a quiet drinker. She drank beer in summer, but in winter she said she needed something to warm her up. When I was a child she became very concerned about the American trade imbalance and so she switched from drinking Scotch to drinking rum.

The story with the dry Rob Roys is that there was a time when she was on a long-distance car trip with my father and his partner and they stopped for lunch at some kind of diner-type place. The three of them were on their way to an event and they were running late. They had hours of social engagement ahead of them. The teenage waiter came over to take their order, and my grandmother pursed her lips thoughtfully. I wasn’t there, you understand. This is an imaginative re-creation. “I’d like,” she said, “a dry Rob Roy.”

Do you even know what a Rob Roy is? The teenage waiter didn’t, in any case. In any case, it was a strange time to order a cocktail and a strange place to order a cocktail. Several years later I read a Lydia Davis story in which the narrator’s elderly father requests a Rob Roy under similarly inappropriate circumstances. It gave me a funny feeling about the world, a feeling that the world, rather than being a place of infinite possibility, is more of a Tetris-type situation, where certain pieces will always have to be combined with certain other pieces.

A dry Rob Roy is Scotch, dry vermouth, and Angostura bitters. At least, that’s what the internet and the Joy of Cooking tell me. It is one form of alcohol combined with two other forms of alcohol. I don’t usually drink cocktails, and so I was surprised that all three of the ingredients were alcoholic. The grocery store nearest my house sold all three forms of alcohol, which surprised and pleased me. I didn’t have a single cocktail shaker, although at one time I had two. I got rid of them because I never used them. When I do drink a mixed drink it usually means that I have added some significant quantity of non-alcoholic mixer to the alcohol in my glass. You don’t need a cocktail shaker for that.

We mixed the ingredients in a pint glass. We used crushed ice, which was a mistake, because it started melting almost immediately. When we poured out the dry Rob Roys my father’s partner used a coaster to keep the ice in the pint glass. The recipe said to use two dashes of vermouth and one dash of Angostura bitters per cocktail. I wasn’t sure what a dash multiplied by three looked like.

The dry Rob Roys were very pretty looking, all golden in the glass. We raised our glasses and took a sip. My father made a face. “It’s so sweet,” he said. I didn’t think it was sweet. It burned. My father drank about a third of his. My father’s partner drank hers. “It makes me feel weird,” she said. I drank mine very slowly. Because I drank it so slowly it got warm, which did not make it taste better. It made me feel drunk, not in a fun way, but in a way where the room seemed a little askew. I couldn’t get past the idea that the taste was made by combining different varieties of alcohol.

I could tell you endless stories about my grandmother -- how she kept her belongings beautifully clean and took care of them for decades, how she declined to get a new cat when her last cat died almost fifteen years ago because she thought the cat might outlive her, and that would be unfair to the cat, how she loved being kidded -- she loved it when I or my father, telling her goodbye, would tell her to behave, to stay out of trouble. “I try,” she would say, and she would shake her head a little bit with the difficulty of the task. There are a lot of things I know about her, a lot of things I could tell you, and even more that I couldn’t. I knew her better than I know most people and she remains mostly mysterious to me. The desire for a dry Rob Roy at midday in a roadside diner, with a long day ahead, is only one of those mysteries.

From The Archives: Let's Make War On Christmas A Reality

Due to circumstances beyond our control, TKIN is going to be delayed today. If you're bored, why not check out this timely classic from the archives, Let's Make War On Christmas A Reality?

Monday, December 8, 2014

News Flash: People Have Priorities Other Than Just Living Longer

Dispensing of medical electricity. Oil painting by Edmund Bristow, 1824. Via Wikimedia Commons
A little while ago the doctor and medical culture commentator Atul Gawande wrote this very touching piece in the New York Times about a woman who was told she didn't have long to live, and how neither "extraordinary measures" nor "just dying" seemed like the right thing, and how her hospice team was able to arrange things so that she could have a few good days toward the end doing what she really wanted most to do, which turned out to be spending some time with the students she'd taught piano lessons to for years and teach them a few more things.

Dr. Gawande's own kid is one of those piano students, so he happened to see the whole thing unfold in a personal way. It prompted him to engage in conversations about dying, with end-of-life care specialists, patients and other people. Summarizing what he's learned he writes,
"First, in medicine and society, we have failed to recognize that people have priorities that they need us to serve besides just living longer. Second, the best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them."
From the context, you can tell he's talking specifically about people near the end of their lives. These people want to do certain things or live a certain way and doing that is more important to them than just having more time.

But to me the truth is much more radical, and it is that everyone, at every age, has priorities beyond just living longer.

You'd never know this from the way medicine is practiced, though. Basically if you ask your doctor anything you just get told what to do. Medical advice in the media is basically just do this don't do that. There's no acknowledgement that most medical decisions these days actually involve trade-offs.

There are trade-offs between medications and sex. There are tradeoffs between medications and other medications. Virtually all birth control entails trade-offs. And, of course, there are relentless constant trade-offs between things that "will make you live longer" and things that you enjoy doing that make you feel good.

 If a medication makes you feel like crap but will make you live longer, how is it not a reasonable decision to just not take it? Of course it's a reasonable decision.

But there's no space for these discussions. Instead you have the concepts of "compliance" and "non-compliance," where you're supposed to do what you're told without any consideration of what things matter to you and why.

It's always kind of mystified me that the principle of informed consent can co-exist beside the concept of non-compliance. I mean, who's in charge here?

There was this great moment on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" a while ago where the guest was Michael Pollan and he was talking about eating real food and how you tell if something is real food instead of a food-like substance and the great Paula Poundstone said "Okay, but let me ask you something. One of the things that has made my life worth living is Ring Dings. And I feel that it is food. Are you going to tell me that's not food?"

And Pollan mumbled something about Ring Dings and a "special occasion" and Paula basically shouted at him, "What do you mean, special occasion? I said it's what makes my life worth living."

So. Cancer or not, old or young, healthy or not: People have priorities besides just living longer. The best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them.

Why is this such a difficult concept for people to get their heads around?

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Problems With People And Doors

William Henry Margetson, At the Cottage Door, via Wikimedia Commons

What could be simpler than going through a door? And yet: doors are a site of contestation in my inner life.

Problem 1: The perverse and pointless door crunch tango

My first problem with people and doors arises in the context of a bank of glass doors. You know: you're entering or exiting a large space, like a mall, or a subway station, or (cough cough) a university building, and there are three or four or six doors all in a row.

I try to stay to the right -- and you could do a whole blogpost about this, I think, is staying on the right in pedestrian contexts a thing? but passons... -- but mostly I try to go through doors that other people are not attempting to go through. That is, if I'm about to go through door X, and I see someone coming toward me through the glass from the other side like they're about to come through door X, I shift to go through door Y.

So far so good. But then some non-trivial percentage of the time, the perverse opposite happens, by which I mean that a person seeing me trying to go through door X decides this is a great moment to go through door X themselves. So that we have to pass through a single door going in opposite directions at the same time For No Reason. Even more infuriatingly, sometimes if I shift to go through door Y, as above, the person on the other side will themselves shift to go through door Y. What causes this utter perversity in door-related behavior?

I can only come up with one theory. And that is that by going through the same door I'm going through, instead of a different door, the other person is hoping to avoid the strain and hassle of opening a door for themselves.

If this is even close to right, it's mind-boggling. And it's made more so by the fact that I often have this experience when I'm on campus surrounded by university students. What, are they so weakened and worn down from being on social media and avoiding their work that they can no longer opens doors on their own?

The door crunch tango conclusion: Not my fault. Everyone else's fault.

Problem 2: the ambiguous holder/blocker

My second problem with people and doors is when there isn't a bank of doors, there isn't even a pair of doors, there's just the one door, and someone is coming through it toward you as you're getting ready to pass through it the other way, and that person tries to hold the door by standing in the doorway holding the door open behind them.

I don't get this. So now I'm standing there, and the door is open, but you are in it. WTF?

I usually try to smile and gesture like "oh go ahead" hoping the person will take the hint and move along and I can, you know, go through the door all by myself, which is something I know how to do. Sometimes it works. But sometimes it's a stalemate, and the other person stands there goggling at me, like "but I'm holding the door for you."

This problem has the obvious gendered component, that sometimes it's a guy you don't know standing in the door, and you're a woman hoping to go through the door, and the way he's holding it open, you'd have to smush yourself all up against him to get through. And you have to wonder: is this guy just hoping for a casual, unwanted smush? Gross.

The holder/blocker conclusion: these people are probably just trying to be nice, but I don't have to like it.

Problem 3: the person you're not walking with who just holds a door

You'd think if someone is walking ten feet or so ahead of me and we're going in the same direction and we're going through the same door and that person pauses in the door to just hold it back for me so I can catch it as I go through before passing through myself that at least that would be the kind of reasonable, nice, normal door-related interaction a person like me should be able to get behind, but for some reason even having the door held for me can annoy the hell out of me.

Usually it happens when I'm 1) lost in thought 2) not in a rush and 3) tired of interacting with people all day long. I'm in my own headspace. If the person is right ahead of me, it's fine, but often they're a bit ahead, and they pause there, and I have to decide whether I'm going to rush to the door so they don't have to stand there holding it longer than necessary or whether I'm going to mosey in my own sweet slow way even though they're standing there. Either way is annoying. And if I've been talking to people all day, even that little "Oh, thanks" "Oh, my pleasure" or whatever feels like too much interaction. Just let me me listen to my headphones and pass through the door alone.

The door holder conclusion: I'd be a better person if I could just chill and smile and say thanks without treating every situation like a goddamn federal case. But sorry: no can do.