Virtues and Vices

They say that ignorance is bliss. I think that this is true, not because ignorance itself is particularly virtuous, but rather because knowledge imparts two heavy burdens. I say two, but perhaps they are more like the opposing faces of the coin than entirely independent things. The first is responsibility. The second is power.

Let us consider this for a moment in terms of a painfully first world problem: ethical clothing choices. The average American wants cheap clothing, and to get it, we've turned a blind eye toward inhumane practices and the relatively poor quality of the goods we're so eagerly consuming. It's awkward when we find out that our shoes were produced in a sweat shop in Cambodia. Why should someone suffer so I can wear name brand kicks? And yet... How can I even begin to care about someone I've never met and will never meet, care about them more than my competing priorities for social status?

Even if the factory conditions are fair and the workers are being treated well, there's a second issue to which I have already alluded: the cheapness of the clothing manifests itself in poor quality, leading us to always be purchasing new things and often to wasting the old. It's a huge culture of waste and consumption that basically requires low quality in order to ensure its continued existence.

In a world of newsfeeds, it's so much more comfortable to check out and disengage from these difficult realities. And they demand something effortful from us, something we don't want to give. So yes, given our bent toward inertia, we do find ignorance to be blissful. But it's also naive and utterly unsustainable.

It's naive to think that this culture can go on forever without returning the harm to us. It's unsustainable to consume and consume without consideration for our future selves and others who will share our world. 

Kierkegaard was a rather melancholic philosopher and in his Sickness Unto Death he argues that knowledge and specifically self-knowledge are incredibly depressing, but that awareness, for all its pain, is better than ignorance.

When we obtain knowledge about something, we also gain a responsibility to act in accordance with the dictates of conscience and, such as it is, truth. At the same time, we gain a certain measure of power over the thing in question, even if we don't always see it in that light.

For example, I personally don't have the power to change the clothing industry to make it more humane and less wasteful, nor, arguably, do I have that responsibility. What I do have is the responsibility and power to change my own habits of consumption and to urge my friends to do likewise. 

One person can only do so much, save by the strange machinations of history and social events, but it is still better to see the iceberg and to do one's part than to ignore it entirely and go on dancing through life merely to spare one's peace of mind.


Some Conclusions

Today marks the one month goal, and I'm pretty happy with the results. Honestly, just proving to myself that I could do it feels pretty significant. To some extent, the fact that I'm publishing what I wrote holds me accountable, even if no one else is keeping track. And yes, there were days when I felt like I couldn't muster a subject, much less incisive, interesting, or original commentary on it. But I'm actually quite proud of some of the writing that came out of it, and even bizarrely got 60-some-odd views on one of the posts. 

One of my goals was to work on eliminating certain quirks in my style. For example, I have a tendency to use a lot of "softening" words, like "I think maybe" or "perhaps it's the case that" or "I guess." Those are fine in the right time and place--everything in moderation, including wife beating?--but I use them so much that at times I am undermining the validity of my own points.

Another thing that I was doing more or less consciously was to try to organize my thoughts more coherently and to keep a tighter rein on the tangents I took. I can occasionally take very long detours and end up in strange places, usually when I'm not sure where I'm going from the beginning. I think I have improved on this a bit, although to be fair, I didn't actually write that many long pieces.

I want to reflect on the experience a bit more, but I have some important stuff going on tomorrow and, just in time, an energy-devouring upper respiratory infection has set in to make me totes exhausted. Christy must make sleep, not blog posts. Until next time...


Pros, Cons, and Happiness in Strange Places

I had this funny moment recently, when I was thinking longingly about what my yearly salary would be if I manage to get one of the jobs I'm interviewing for on Friday (it's roughly 2.5 times my current wage, and honestly that sounds like leprechauns and unicorns to my dazed mind). Obviously, I don't have the job, and after a year of being rejected on any number of grounds, I think I might be past the nerves and the heart-set-on-it hoping to a point where I'm just going to do my damnedest and call it a day. No unhatched chickens are being counted.

BUT. Pretty much regardless of what job I manage to get, I will be making more than my present wage and tips. You can actually do pretty well at an established coffee shop since tips tend to be quite nice (and yes, I do have another coffee shop interview... pride is irrelevant when you have bills to pay and a cat to feed), but even a relatively low paying writing job would be a step up from where I am now. And one of my first thoughts was: "Oh hey, I can go out for drinks again."

It's a small pleasure, but it has been an expense that I can't justify. Food is food, so if I spend a few extra dollars to eat out, I'm not as concerned. But alcohol is a luxury, as you quickly discover when you're just trying to make ends meet. I did splurge and buy a bottle of whiskey when I got my tax refund (because it's cheaper to drink at home), but for the most part, that money went toward more responsible things like a car inspection, renter's insurance, and my savings account. Right now the mere thought of casually going out in the evening with a friend for a drink sounds like the height of indulgence. Which is actually really pleasant, as perspectives go. How much more do we enjoy things when we can't or don't have them very often?

My second thought, though, was one that caught me off guard. "...But then I won't accomplish as much."

Look, I like having a social life. I like spending time with people, usually only one or two and occasionally small groups. I'm an introvert, but I could do a lot of that one-on-one time without feeling like I'm suffering very much.

And yet, this combination of not getting home till 7, having relatively few friends in the city, and not really having the money to do much anyway has actually been really good for all of my other goals. If you've been following along/know me, you know there are a decent number of those. And I will freely admit that I don't typically make a lot of progress.

But here I am, astonished to find that I've been slowly working my way through my Latin textbook. I've been practicing my German alongside that. I finally made the grid sheet I needed for writing Copperplate. I've written a blog post almost every single day for the past month. I've read relatively enormous quantities of articles and essays. I've finished 9 books already, which puts me just barely on track for my goal of 50 per year. I've applied for quite a few jobs and heard back from four of them for interviews. I've gone to numerous meet ups and even led one of my own. I've knit a couple of things. I finally put my bookbinding press together and contacted a binder in Philadelphia about meeting with him and possibly doing some sort of internship.

And I frankly would not have managed to do even half of that if I had actually had an active social life. Also, if I'm really being honest, I wouldn't have managed a quarter of that if I hadn't had so many dull hours at work when there's literally nothing else to do so why not read an essay on Longform or a few chapters of Debt by David Graeber? As for that last point: I know that I need to at least be doing something that demands more of me and hopefully also pays better, but there's a small part of me that enjoys how much time I have had to feed my love for stories, real and fictional, and to keep abreast of politics. This has been a strange season, but not wholly bad, for all that it included February and some serious personal budgetary crises.

Having had that reprieve, however, March is just around the bend, and with it, the end of this confusingly enjoyable season. Regardless of how the employment situation turns out, I imagine that it will demand more energy, both on a daily basis and with regard to the overarching learning process. I hope, even so, that I will be able to carry some of this momentum into the coming months, or at least, be able to figure out which parts are important enough to continue and which parts can wait their turn. For now, I'm just going to enjoy my last few days or weeks of freedom.

*Fun fact: this is my 300th post on this blog. Hurray!

Today's Reads:
How the U.S. Went Fascist by Juan Cole
Staying Silent: Low-Income Students At Penn by Megan Russo
Taking the Hobbits to Isengard on Speculative Past
The Harms of Accepted, Wanted Advances by Jenny Saul
An Open Letter to Millennials Like Talia by Stefanie Williams
Why Bernie Can Win by Matt Karp
Fetal Cells May Protect Mom From Disease Long After The Baby's Born by Michaeleen Doucleff
A Ghost Among Us by Megan Michelson
Fernando Cardenal, RIP by Erik Loomis
Antonin Scalia and the Death of Originalism by Scott Lemieux
Why Is Richard Shelby Talking Like Bernie Sanders? by David Dayen
After Nevada, Will the GOP's Trump Denial Finally Break? by Brian Beutler
It's Trump's Race to Lose by Russell Berman
A Responsibility I Take Seriously by Barack Obama
Tribute: A Mentor and a Mensch--Remembering Justice Scalia by Danielle Sassoon
Debtor's Prison in 21st-Century America by Whitney Benns and Blake Strode


the laurels on which we rest; the shoulders on which we stand

If I had to put it into words, I would say
It was the hole in her shirt
When we stood there, uncomfortable
All in our sweat-soaked best,
Exchanging nervous pleasantries and
A grief for something dying.
(Maybe for the others there was
The joy of something new.
I don't know. I didn't feel it.)
The anxious hovering in the background,
The way he couldn't walk too fast,
And that moment, while
Trying to chop fruit,
When sweat changed to tears.
But they basically looked the same,
And it didn't matter that much.
It was a crescendo in the expression;
It was a day like any other.


Part II: The Democratic Man and the Numbers Game

"Go back to school," her father said. "All the Democratic Party has to do with Jefferson these days is put his picture up at banquets. Jefferson believed full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn't vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson's eyes. He had to be a responsible man. A vote was, to Jefferson, a precious privilege a man attained for himself in a—a live-and-let-live economy."
{Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman}

For the first time since I turned 18 on election day in 2008, I'm planning to vote in a primary. And to be completely honest, I didn't actually vote in the 2012 presidential election, or the off-year election in 2010. I think I did end up voting last year, mostly because I had just spent a semester at Cambridge with someone who frequently got frustrated with her very English, very patronizing supervisor and would soapbox about the merits of the democratic ideal.

But throughout my years in college, I generally felt compelled not to vote. I was not, I hope, merely being lazy and failing to drive a half mile down the road to the elementary school. Rather, I had very little time, between juggling five classes and a part-time job, to properly research candidates and get some idea about who I should be voting for. I thought to myself that it was better not to vote at all than to cast a vote in ignorance.

If I weren't so concerned about the outcome of this year's election, I would probably still hold myself to that standard. And really, I think I am holding myself to that standard, except that I actually have had the time to make good on my aspirations to responsible politics. But reading that passage I've quoted above made me pause for a moment, because it's smack in the middle of the bit where Atticus comes out with the character of his racist sentiments, and I didn't want to agree with him. (Which is fair, I think—better to see your subconscious beliefs and question them, regardless of motive, as long as you're honest in your inquiry.)

We think of voting as a privilege, but one that ought to be open to all people. Since land ownership was removed as a qualification for voting, and African-Americans, women, and individuals under the age of 21 were admitted to the ranks of the eligible, it seems like the glow of accomplishment has worn off and there is a sense that there's nothing special to it. If anybody can do it, why does it matter if I do?

In my head, I want to make a comparison between voting and literacy. I've heard it said that for the first time in history, the vast majority of people in the West at least can read. And yet, poll after poll has shown that approximately 30% of the populace rarely or never read an entire book from cover to cover after high school (and maybe didn't in high school either). The phrase "post-literate society" has been thrown around, perhaps a bit too casually. The suggestion too that by making education for all and insisting on access to public schools has cheapened it in the eyes of the students.

I'm not sure if I'm prepared to stand behind these last explicantia, but in hindsight, it's an interesting comparison to make because those who tend to read books also tend to be more civically engaged, though of course this is a correlation and not a statement of causation.

The point I'm ultimately trying to get at is that we often talk as if the numbers were what counted. Journalists write headlines about record showings at the caucuses or for primaries, and everyone talks about Get Out the Vote initiatives and how many people are registered to vote in the area. The volume is made to seem significant.

But realistically, how many of these people voted straight ticket, or just listened to the opinions of someone authoritative with whom they generally agree, and then went and voted that way? It's not as shady as Chicago politicians slipping dollars to meatpackers, of course, but there's a certain similarity in that both are about the numbers and both rely on a lack of individual, critical thought on the part of the voter. Let Joe Everyman be led by a promise of remuneration or a promise of social inclusion, the result is the same.

I suppose it's ultimately a reflection of two aspects of government. On the one hand, it is meant to be as representative of the will of the people as possible (Ideally. No comment as to how true that actually is...). On the other hand, it's meant to govern said people as well as possible, and sometimes good governance means acknowledging the limits of its ability to express that will.

Insofar as you or I think that we and our interests are best represented by a particular candidate—or party—we may not be too concerned by the details of how those candidates actually intend to govern. If, however, we are concerned about longevity and about what is best for all concerned, then we might actually have to take some time to consider our options and research them as best we are able.

Ultimately, I guess I still side to some extent with Atticus on this question. Oh, I don't think we should set up, say, voter ID laws or poll taxes or any other restriction to ensure that voters are serious about the act of voting. The fact that they even show up seems miraculous in itself at times. But I do think that we are meant to do something more than merely nod our heads and go along with whatever the party we usually side with says. For one thing, we have only two major parties properly represented in the American political system, and that is a severe dearth of expression by contrast with the incredible range of opinions and beliefs that can be held by any one individual. For another, it matters not only who we choose, but also how we choose them, because the depth of our engagement and our willingness to challenge the establishment is our way of participating in a political process where we just don't get to speak as individuals. Even though I think the system has some serious and deep flaws, that doesn't give us an excuse to move to Canada and let the whole thing burn. Quite the contrary: that's when it's time to get serious, man or woman up, and actually try to change things. It might take a long time, but as a woman who lives beyond what many feminists of bygone decades dared to dream of, I kind of have to believe that, some day, it will work.

Today's Reads:
- Single Women Are Now the Most Potent Political Force in America by Rebecca Traister
- The Decline of the American Booklover by Jordan Weissman
- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Hasn't Asked a Question in Over a Decade by Jon Schuppe
- We Asked an Expert if Kanye West Could Possibly Be As Broke As He Says He Is by Sam Wolfson (Yes. I totally read this article.)
- The Stigma of Doing Things Alone by Christina Ling
- Looking Back by Jeffrey Toobin
- Bernie and the Millenials by Corey Robin


This Is Not a Tribute (It's a Cry for Repentance)

-"Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?"
-"If you will refrain from echoing either the last clause or the last word of everything I say to you, I will be much obliged. Home. Yes, home."
Jean Louise grinned. [...] "No sir," she said.
-"Well, at the risk of overloading you, could you possibly give an undertaking to think about it? You may not know it, but there's room for you down here."
-"You mean Atticus needs me?"
-"Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb."
-"That'd be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life's an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don't think I'd exactly fit in."
-"That's the one thing about here, the South, you've missed. You'd be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side's the right word. You're no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you."
She started the car and backed it down the driveway. She said, "What on earth could I do? I can't fight them. There's no fight in me any more..."
-"I don't mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends."
-"Uncle Jack, I can't live in place that I don't agree with and that doesn't agree with me."
-"...I'll put it in my own words: the time your friends need you is when they're wrong, Jean Louise. They don't need you when they're right—"
-"What do you mean?"
-"I mean it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days. You don't have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven't the humbleness of mind—"
-"I thought the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom."
-"It's the same thing. Humility."
{Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee}

It's a bit disappointing to me that all anybody seems to have had to say about Go Set a Watchman is that Atticus Finch is a racist. I can't help but think they must have closed the book and stopped reading after the Citizen's Council meeting. To be fair, I still wouldn't be able to say that he's not a racist, but I don't think there's as much of an inconsistency here as our immediate, reflexive—indeed, Scout-like—reaction to the revelation would suggest. But my point isn't really to defend Atticus. What I'm more interested in is defending the book.

Watchman probably won't go down as anything half so high school American lit class meritorious as To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't honestly recall much about how Mockingbird was written, but I loved how Lee writes the South in Go Set a Watchman. And her words: she uses the lilting vernacular for her 20th century Huck, but interspersed with the most casually fabulous diction. From the women who remain "enisled in Maycomb" to the "drawing of an anthropophagous Negro," and yet it doesn't feel out of place (certainly not the anthropophagy, which has a very refined delicacy given its subject matter). If anything, I suppose the book will suffer for its plot, of which there isn't much, and maybe that some parts of it were good concepts but clumsily executed. Ultimately, it's mostly words and feelings without much action. Frankly, I don't care. That's basically what I want.

So what are those ideas? There's not much action to spoil, but I'm going to spoil like crazy, so if you have a problem with that, this is not the blog post for you. I should probably also note right now, for anyone who cares and has read To Kill a Mockingbird, that Go Set a Watchman would theoretically be a sequel, chronologically speaking (Atticus is in his 80s, Scout is a 26 year-old Jean Louise), but that Harper Lee actually wrote it before Mockingbird, and apparently her publisher or someone in the industry read it and recommended that she use the characters and setting, but strengthen the storyline. Hence, the two books are not meant to be compatible or contiguous, except perhaps insofar as Lee would have had an idea of how they ended up. Indeed, there is serious argument that Watchman would never have been published at all without external pressure on an aging Lee. But back to the ideas:

To put it in a nutshell, a worldly Jean Louise Finch comes home from progressive New York City to little backwater Maycomb for her annual two week visit in the midst of the post-Brown desegregation furor. The town is much as it once was, but the tensions have created a visible, severe polarization, to the point where Calpurnia will not even acknowledge her because she is white. While she is bewildered by the state of affairs, she is not deeply affected by it until she stumbles upon racist propaganda amidst Atticus's reading materials and follows him and her would-be fiance to a Citizens' Council meeting. Jean Louise feels like her whole world has shattered and spends the rest of the book yelling at people about it.

The last person she yells at is her Uncle Jack, who has served throughout as not quite an apologist, but at least an expositor for the South of which both gentlemanly Atticus and the loathsome Mr. O'Hanlon are a part. I know that the quote I opened with is rather long, but I wanted to capture that entire bit, because I think it picks up on something that we so desperately need to hear right now.

The most trite illustration I could use would be the current popularity of two such polarizing figures as Trump and Sanders. What a strange season at the polls, we say. Who would ever vote for...?! We're told that Facebook helps us exclude people with whom we disagree, and I've seen it in action and have even been guilty of it myself, as much as I want to resist it. Slowly, but surely, we create insular worlds for ourselves where we only hear what we want to hear. And then we are shocked and outraged when the disagreement actually filters through. How DARE they believe that! They're so ignorant, so hateful. How could anyone think...

The thing that struck me most about Jean Louise's reaction to the revelation was how personal it was. Uncle Jack tries to point it out to her, and she figures it out eventually herself, but it's so obvious from the start: she's not offended by racism because it's wrong. She's offended by her father's racism because it hurts her.

When we're so busy arguing past each other, who are we actually doing it for? If we really, truly cared to change anything, shouldn't we be building relations of mutual respect first and then using those as bridges that allow us to speak to each other as equals? It's like we've created this zero sum game of social relations, where if you don't agree with me, I've lost something personal, and vice versa, and to avoid the situation, we just break off the friendship entirely.

And look, I don't know how far I can push this either, because there comes a point where Atticus is part of a segregationist organization because he is an old man defending a way of life that, however flawed, is the way of life that he knows, and even explaining it like that can't deny that the way of life in question was founded on a deeply wrong attitude toward African-Americans and their right to equal participation in all levels of society. But can a Jean Louise actually change that fundamental inequity by shouting down her father's hate, such as it is, and then storming out the door? I don't think so.

I don't know how much more I can say, in part because there are a hundred more things I want to say, but this would rapidly become incoherent. I guess I'll end with one more quote, because this was probably the moment that really slapped me upside the head:

Jean Louise rose and went to the bookshelves. She pulled down a dictionary and leafed through it. "'Bigot,'" she read. "'Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.' Explain yourself, sir."

"I was just trying' to answer your running question. Let me elaborate a little on that definition. What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn't give. He stays rigid. Doesn't even try to listen, just lashes out. Now you, you were turned inside out by the grandaddy of all father things, so you ran. And how you ran.

"You've no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you've been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, 'I don't like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.' You'd better take time for 'em, honey, otherwise you'll never grow..."

In other words, what makes someone a bigot is not hate, but intolerance, specifically intolerance for the beliefs and opinions of others originating in a sort of nationalism about one's particular creed. But maybe it's time we grew up and learned how to listen and how to tolerate (within reason), because it seems like this whole "we won't confirm any candidate Obama nominates" bullshit was old before it was new, and it's coming from both sides of the aisle.


The Form of the Void

The sky spills out around you, a million-mile, sequined black blanket, rumpled and folded and curled warm about the curve of the horizon. This is how we learn geometry: the shape of mother's breast, the shape of mother earth, and as we nuzzle up against it, we taste the world with our infant lips. Pi r squared and my oral fixation.

In a manner of speaking, humanity is a lonely creature. Its many fronds spill out across the surface of the globe, waving in the geopolitical currents of time and tyranny, driven by the extremes of cold and of heat to seek the friendliest places, until it has sucked all the nutrition out from under its own feet. Not exactly a parasite, just... misguided. In colonies, it finds itself and knows the safety of numbers. But beyond its own species, the line of uncertainty looms large in the field of vision.

Is there really no other which thinks?

We have the cold comfort of visual similarity, cold because at the same time it chills us to our bones when we find our faces reflected back to us within the simian features of a creature in the trees. In an attempt to deflect the chill, we teach the language of children to the gentle ones, forming their hands into the emblems of speech, if only so that we shall not be alone, alone. It is, after all, a burden, this thinking.

It would not be so hard to look out at the emptiness of that light-filled firmament if we could only know that the questions with which we have populated it throughout the centuries are questions not echoed back by the cool mineral walls of a cavern but by the voice of one who knows the anguish of the mental limit. Even separated by a distance that cannot fit inside our skulls or behind a spaceship in the lifetime of a man, we might then know the peace of a populated universe.

The earth rotates fast, fast, and revolves fast too. But we feel it as the slowness of the summer dews, the quiet, hidden coalescence that draws the moisture to the leaf of grass; the wind does not whistle 'round our vessel in our hurried trip through space, but would that it did, that we could hear the music of the spheres. Then perhaps we'd have at least a lullaby to woo us gently to our sleep.

Today's Reads:
- The Down & Dirty: Making Peace with the Age-Old Practice of Eating White Dirt by Chuck Reece
- Bernie Sanders is a candidate for, not of, today's movements by Kate Aronoff
- Inmates Paint and Draw the Rich People They Think Should Be Behind Bars by Brian Josephs
- How being bilingual rewires your brain by Frida Garza
- Income inequality in China and the urban-rural divide by Nan Wu
- UN projects world population to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, driven by growth in developing countries
- A country on the brink: Millions go hungry in South Sudan by Benedict Moran
- Paris talks come at urgent moment for the planet by Heather Coleman
- World sets goal of eliminating hunger, but food aid remains underfunded by Benedict Moran
- Nevada Will Test the Breadth of the Bernie Sanders Revolution by Jeet Heer
- The Pious Attacks on Bernie Sanders's "Fuzzy" Economics by David Dayen
- How We Failed to Protect Kesha by Madeleine Davies
- The Invention of Female Adulthood by Elizabeth Winkler
- How John Roberts Can Save the Supreme Court by Simon Lazarus
- Marco Rubio's Big Test by Brian Beutler

"Famine, Affluence, and Morality" by Peter Singer
"Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor" by Garrett Hardin

...I also led a philosophy discussion today, and I'm suddenly realizing why I'm so braindead...


Kicking Your Own Butt

The pleasures of self-imposed discipline.

If your first thought is dieting or exercise, then pleasure is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. There's the pleasure that you take in the results, from defined biceps to dropping a dress size, but hardly pleasure in the act of self-discipline. Or at least, there wasn't really for me. Not even the smug self-satisfaction of posting just barely sweaty gym pics of you looking beastly after Crossfit is a pleasure in the discipline. It's more like the pleasure of the comparison, the look-at-me.

What I'm talking about is the quiet pleasure that you get from establishing a habit that is personally fulfilling and then sticking with it. So yes, fitness and food goals can fall into that category, but not for their particular ends.

Right now, I can't really name something that I'm doing that fits that bill, except perhaps for keeping this blog. And to be honest, it's still not at the pleasure status, but I didn't start it because I felt like it was going to be personally fulfilling, I started it because I need to flex my writing muscles and push back against the laziness of post-academic life. (Laziness with regard to production. I'm happy to read and do read a great deal, but all the information tends to sit and rust inside my head.)

But I guess what I was going to say, and the reason why I thought of the subject in the first place, is that this is part of why I'm taking a particular interest in looking at my hobbies lately. I absolutely have a lot of interests, but I am keenly aware that casually picking up a dip pen once a month is not going to result in the kind of beautiful penmanship that I find while casually skimming through my Instagram feed. Likewise, if I actually want to become fully proficient with German, it's going to take more than wishful thinking, and if I want to learn Latin at all, that "more than" will be a lot of effort.

And yet, the pursuit of these hobbies in a focused, effortful way is about so much more than just their particular fruits. What each one offers is another opportunity to learn the replicable practice of discipline. The experience of training yourself to pay attention and to do not merely as your whims prescribe, but because it is what you do at this time. This is a skill in itself, and it may be improved by all sorts of tangential means, from meditation to just reading a longform piece all the way through (Confession: I started deliberately and determinedly finishing long articles after I read that most people get barely a few paragraphs in before they get distracted or give up). It seems, however, that the most potent method of learning is by establishing one thing at a particular time and then sticking with it for the long haul. In this sense, it would not simply be the mind-clearing act of meditation that improves focus, but the mere fact of doing it every morning in spite of the weather, how hungover you are, and what your ex-best friend said about you on Facebook last night.

I think the satisfaction that we get from self-discipline is this sense that not only have I done something, but that I have achieved mastery over my own will and desires along the way. Or perhaps mastery is not the right word, because my overarching will is to become more physically fit. But that will clashes against the demands and emotions of the present moment, so perhaps it would be more apt to say that I have successfully and consistently brought my current actions in line with my ongoing will, regardless of circumstance. What could be more enjoyable and confidence-boosting than the knowledge that you have a measure of control over your own life?

Today's Reads
*****!!!! This is awesome! I hate how quickly clothes wear out, and I'm psyched that there's a push back: The Power of Buying Less by Buying Better by Elizabeth Cline
- Texas health official out of job over study favorable to Planned Parenthood by Sarah Kaplan
- Skinny People Rarely Diet by Olga Khazan
- Inside the Artificial Universe that Creates Itself by Roc Morin
- Go Set a Legacy: The Fate of Harper Lee by Megan Garber


Practical Math for Lazy People

A person who receives food stamps or any other form of welfare is not by definition lazy. (I'm a bit irate about this, because I was reading an article that put some numbers to what current minimum wage work is like and what an elevated minimum wage would actually have to be for it to be livable, and then someone posted something that was a blatantly false analogy for welfare. Fortunately, I like the person and I understand the initial appeal of the illustration, but very. intense. feelings.)

Since crunching numbers is a helpful illustration, let's crunch some numbers.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25
Yearly salary if you're lucky enough to manage 40 hours a week (And trust me--this is not easy. I have been fortunate to make more than minimum wage even though I've worked primarily in food service, but even then, getting more than 35 hours a week has been a struggle, and I haven't even faced health insurance dodging quotas): $15,080 before taxes

That's not so bad. If you don't have a child. And your parents pay your cell phone and car insurance bills. I could live on that. When I wasn't paying rent.

Since I'm using myself as an example now... Assume I'm about as basic as you can get. I have the no frills data package (all of 2gb), so my cell phone bill is under $60/month. My car isn't worth much, so I don't have comprehensive car insurance, and where I live upped the number but then I bundled in my renter's insurance, so that's about $65/month. Rent is $500 and PECO is another $50-$60 on top of that. My student loan payments come to approximately $150/month. And I should pay at least $75 toward my credit card bill. So I'm looking at $900 in bills, if I'm paying the bare minimum for one person. That's not counting savings; gas; necessary extras like my car inspection, renter's insurance, or registration renewal; the cost of taking the El to and from work every day ($3.60/day); or the food, litter, and other items that I have to buy for my cat. And this is all before I get to eat. So let's just multiply that out, and we get $10,800. 

Now the number that I was using before was pre-tax. I generally find that if I multiply my gross pay times .8, I get roughly what my actual pay is after federal, state, local, Social Security, and so on have had their way with me (I would like to state, for the record, that I am not opposed to paying taxes, at least not all of them). That leaves me with... $12,064.

Inconveniently, I find that I have $1264 left over with which to take care of everything else. A grand total of $100/month. Remember how I said it costs $3.60 a day for me to get to work? In a year, that works out to $936 by itself. And I don't even have to worry about things like childcare.

Fortunately, this is not my real circumstance. But it does make you want to take a big stick to the backsides of people who think that the minimum wage is perfectly acceptable where it's at. 

And do not tell me that people who work those jobs should just get better ones. I do not argue on my own behalf here--I am perfectly capable of not working in a coffee shop if I choose to leverage my degree and access to a variety of resources and talents, but I am also a hot mess, white lower middle class 20-something, and I have the luxury of working as a marginally skilled worker for approximately $10/hour while I hate all of my alternatives.

The options are few and the competition fierce. If English is your second language--forget about it, especially if Spanish is your first. If you are a convicted felon--forget about it, even if it was a minor offense. If you don't have a four year degree--good luck, you might manage if you have other skills, but even being a secretary requires a Bachelor's these days. If you have a name that sounds African-American, you are statistically less likely to get called in for an interview.



I've run out of words, because it's too fucking grim.

Today's Reads:
^ all by Kate Kilpatrick
Dark Science by Omar Mouallem
Nickel and Dimed in 2016 by Peter van Buren

I need to hear the other side of this story, because if this is the only side there is, then I'm giving up. And regardless of what the other side is, I am opposed to the death penalty: When a Kid Kills His Longtime Abuser, Who's the Victim? by Marc Bookman
And a partial follow-up to that, Christmas Is Still on December 25th by The Atlantic Center for Capital Representation


Bullets Bitten and Selves Gotten Over

There is no motivation quite like intense disgust.

Which is why I stopped dallying about emailing the admissions people at a college offering a graduate program I'm interested in, responded to the book repairer with whom I had hoped I could get some practical experience, and have the phone number for Penn's center for research and fellowships with intention of scheduling an appointment.

Obviously, that time could have been spent looking for jobs, but if I've realized anything this past week, it's that I just straight up find most office work repugnant. Mostly because it's not real. I know, I know, I live in a world of things that aren't real. I am a millennial, and while I can recall things like rotary phones, floppy disks, dial-up, and Windows 95, I also casually post cat pictures, skim my Instagram feed for furniture deals and calligraphy, read my news on the internet and my books on a Kindle. I participate in that world, have participated in it since I was a middle schooler looking for an escape from everything.

And hell, it hasn't always been this obvious to me--how much I object to the abstract world, I mean. I am, after all, someone who loves ideas. I studied philosophy, which is probably the poster child for abstract anything. But among the several reasons why I stopped studying philosophy after I got my Bachelor's is that I didn't feel psychologically competent to handle the implications of so much of metaphysics and epistemology. A friend was bemused when I blamed my semester's depression on taking my major too seriously, but I wasn't exactly kidding. Take ethics and political philosophy seriously, please do. But laugh in the face of ontology, or it will kill you.

 Anyway. I was faced with my aversion this morning when I got a callback from one of my more dubious applications to a marketing company. I find the language of professional office work to be all kinds of vague, so I asked for a little more clarification on the role, which was met with a silent raised eyebrow and a still vague answer that began with "well, you saw our website." Yes. Yes, I did. Your website tells me that you do branding and offer solutions. This is fluffy. What I want to know is, literally, what does an account executive's day look like, task-wise? And what is this "weekly bonus"? Do you have some kind of up-selling or cold-calling incentive?

I should not be so skeptical, I know. I did apply, after all. And I accepted the interview. And I'm always a huge pessimist up front, and then settle in and everything is okay afterwards. It's probably something I could do and then run out on it in a year and a half. I just didn't want this. Of course, I didn't know what I wanted. Which is why I'm here.

Adulthood: ready and waiting to grind would-be astronauts into real-life paper pushers.

Today's Reading:
- The FBI vs. FIFA by Shaun Assael and Brett Forrest
- The decisions we make about climate change today will reverberate for millennia. No pressure. by David Roberts
- Thomas Piketty on the rise of Bernie Sanders: the US enters a new political era by Thomas Piketty 
- How to Make Sense of All the Post-Scalia B.S. by Brian Beutler 
- Mythos Erfolgsmann: Die Wahrheit hinter Trumps Milliarden von Marc Pitzke


The Silence of the Wise

I just wrote a post about gerrymandering, my excitement at the prospect of Kennedy's retirement, and the childishness of our current presidential candidates. Unfortunately, the Blogger app is designed in such a way as to totally obliterate any trace of your post if you accidentally leave the app for too long, and I can't be bothered to rewrite it. In the long run, this will probably be much healthier for my friendships and it will also prevent me from publishing anything that seriously reveals my ignorance, since that seems to be the primary function of political talk.

Today's Reads:
In Conversation with Antonin Scalia by Jennifer Senior (nymag.com/news/features/Antonin-Scalia-2013-10/)
Nine Battlegrounds States That Could Flip the Senate--and the Supreme Court (http://prospect.org/article/nine-battleground-states-could-flip-senate-and-supreme-court)
Little Girl Lost by Mike Sager (longform.org/little-girl-lost)
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


In Twilight Hours

It's a cold night for the hot words that rise up in my mind and threaten to overflow: but only for a moment, on the subway, when I've lost the boundaries of that physically/psychologically/soulfully contiguous something that I dare to call my self, and I am simply a stream of impressions moving through space from god knows where to god knows where. When I reassemble, I am chastened by society, which is every bit as abstract as this self thing monster being, and maybe more so, because it is made of rules, and rules can only be expressed in acts, and acts are likewise produced by matter but not composed of it. What a world. What a mess.

There is a man with an oxygen tank who desires no foam on his cappuccino, who wishes for a beach at 2am and a shameless Italian beauty, who tells stories about making coffee in cans by a roadside while dodging danger, and sometimes I find it in me to wait for the slow moving, as if there were some shred of not-exactly-pity but perhaps patience. I have seen something of what makes men, good or bad, grow old, and I feel for their white hair, their poor eyesight, their memories of yore. Even when they slop their coffee, spill their croissant crumbs, and come in to sit down at a quarter til six. They are at my mercy and so they shall stay.

I am the loom upon which a hundred thousand words are woven daily, entire sentences lifted from the lives of people I cannot even begin to sympathize with because they are remote, because their desires are not my desires, because they have been in the right place at the right time and I am forever somewhere else at some other time of day. If you follow the threads, they will lead you, lead you, they will take you via no shortcuts. There is only the long way 'round and you must proceed hence if you wish to understand. The food that you will eat has been brought up from the earth and set before you, raw pink radishes scrubbed clean like the cheeks of an ordinarily dirty boy on his way to Sunday School, expect nothing to be cooked but perhaps it has already been digested. This is the meaning of the spinner's work, and perhaps this is the way that we layer upon layer our thoughts and our stories going back through the centuries of input and input and input then output as an unsurprising combination of the three.

There can be no revolution in the absence of history. To revolve: to return to a point previous, for the circle is absolute. This, then, is the difference of accounts. The conservative heeds the dead. The revolutionary heeds the longer-dead. And language hides the coffins in the cemetery of its terms, whose function is largely to reinvent what never can be new.

Today's Reads:
Young Women Don't Owe Clinton by Shasta Williams
Untold story: How Scalia's death blew up an anti-union group's grand legal strategy by Michael Hitzik
The Boy Who Heard Too Much by David Kushner
Scalia's death could have quick impact on NC redistricting case by Anne Blythe
The Killer Cadets by Skip Hollandsworth
See No Evil by Skip Hollandsworth
The Diplomat and the Killer by Raymond Bonner
plus 20 pages of Graeber's Debt and
Walden; or, Life in the Woods (courtesy of Existential Comics)
I swear, I don't normally read so many true crime articles...


[Interlude: Finger Fatigue.]

I knew when I set out to publish something every day for a month on this blog that there would be days when I wouldn't want to do it. I'm used to writing whenever the mood takes me--which is probably better, because it means that I'm writing about things that interest me, rather than writing for the sake of writing. Probably for those few of you who get these blog posts delivered to your inbox, you wish I'd stop spamming your email with meandering rambles through my brain, my methods, and whatever current or historical events and ideas catch my fancy.

Anyway, today is a dregs day. I spent most of my free time searching for jobs and throwing together cover letters. I didn't really think about many things, because I'm trying to conserve my brain energy. I did read several interesting articles, including a SCOTUSblog piece on what Scalia's death means for cases on the docket that are still awaiting decisions and another, older article on Jacobin's website comparing the Democratic establishment's response to Bernie Sanders in contrast with, for example, Obama in 2008. And I started on Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. I'm not very far into it, but those few pages have already hooked me. There is something incredible about just really well-written fiction, and I forgot how good Lee's authorial voice is. I can't wait to see how she handles the subject of integration and Civil Rights-era South, not least because small-town Scout is now educated urban outsider Jean Louise. It's probably too early to recommend, but I'm poised for a thumbs up.

Since I can't really supply anything more valuable than a list and a little commentary on my daily reading, I think I'm going to leave it at that. Out of curiosity, would anyone find it interesting if I were to include a list of what I've read or listened to on a given day at the end of each post? You don't have to comment here, just text/email me or don't. I might just do it anyway, since I only keep track of the books that I've finished, and that is an extremely small part of what I consume at any given time. Then again, I don't know if I'm ready for to expose myself in an unabridged list... Hmm...

On a more humorous parting note:


Inscape, Geometry, and the Reduction of the Court

What happens when a person becomes a figure? The word figure of course has many dimensions (ha.) but I tend to associate it with geometry and the endless parade of squares, rhombuses, pentagons, cones, and the like. They're always meant to express total abstract perfection, and thus nothing to be found in reality.

Last night, Gwen and I were talking about our habit of mythologizing historical figures. As time passes and the depth and texture of their inscape is lost, they became flattened and comply easily with our attempts to reinterpret them or pin adjectives and characteristics to their lapels such as they could not honestly have born in the company of those who knew them. The neuroses, the moral failings, the physical deformities, the social awkwardness, these are gone. We can only look through the catalog of their deeds and attempt to reconstruct them from letters, autobiographies, whatever other detritus they've left behind them.

Perhaps it is not so difficult as all that, though. The evidence is there, but it does not suit our narratives to heed it. After all, I think few people who've read anything of Rousseau would be loathe to acknowledge his profligacy and mishandling of his personal life, because it really doesn't matter in our grand story arcs. Rousseau was a man of ideas, but not an anchor in, say, our foundation myth. It matters more to us and to our understanding of our own national identity if the Founding Fathers kept slaves, were sadists or sociopaths, abused Native Americans and treaties made with them, consulted spirit mediums, murdered other men in the midst of duels, and so on. And that's it there: somehow, I've invested a bit of myself in these people and their stories. If it is somehow going to reflect on my character that I am identified as an American, then I am comforted by this correction fluid version of history. I'm much less concerned about Rousseau's family life or Kepler's neoplatonic obsession with numerical harmony, because it doesn't affect how I or others see myself.

To return to my original thought, it seems as if we've gotten to a place where we not only abstract from historical figures to get these perfectly outlined "figures," but we do the same thing to those who occupy public, visible roles in society. I'm not so sure that it was always this way. It's easy to read such categorizing into past language, it's true. However...

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) was a pivotal case in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence regarding slander and libel. I am led to believe, from my vague recollections of a constitutional law and political philosophy class, that prior to Sullivan everyone was roughly equal in the extent of the protection that they could expect to receive. If a newspaper reported falsely or something malicious were said, a mayor had just as much right as a blacksmith to protest. That's an odd way to set up a contrast--the presumably more powerful figure being brought up to equality with the humble blacksmith. But it fits, because in the unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the idea that people in visible, public roles were exempt from the protections against libel that had been historically excluded from freedom of speech.

This sets the stage for an interesting separation of self from role. There is the public figure, say, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. And then there is the man himself, a situated individual with parents, perhaps siblings, presumably wife and children, one would hope some friends, and so on, all enmeshing him in a web of relations and respecting of his personal quirks and characteristics.

But maybe I read too much into that decision. In spite of my initial skepticism, I have to remind myself that we all have our public and private selves. That some people's public selves are less constitutionally protected than others is not relevant, except perhaps in a debate about open political processes, which this is not.

Quite simply, I am struck by the immediate tidal wave of subdued and conflicted responses to Scalia's death, all of which seem to take the tone of: here is a man whom I have abhorred, and yet I respect that his family should grieve for him--let those who can, mourn his loss. Scalia has inspired both respect and hatred, the former for his incisive mind and careful argumentation, the latter for his predictably conservative stance, and so here he is, a divided man in death as in life. Is this really an honest division? I suppose I haven't answered the question, but I don't think I'm going to.


When Your Hours Get Cut and the Future Looms but You Don't Know How to Weave

"We bombard ourselves with stimuli, input, input, input, and we wonder why we're ... dissatisfied. We wonder why nothings lasts and everything feels a little hopeless. Because we have no idea how to see our lives for what they are instead of what they aren't." {taken from THIS article on thoughtcatalog.com}

Sometimes I feel like my biggest struggle is putting my life in context. Instead of seeing it as a perpetual work-in-progress, I see it as a series of failures to accomplish, brought on partly by an ongoing comparison to a vague checklist that hovers at the back of my mind like the ghost of a seriously legalistic revival preacher.

It's not like there isn't a social precedent for this mindset. As you go through life, certainly in your younger years and I imagine as you get older as well, there is a set of questions that people ask you in their casual "getting to know you" conversations. The questions change, of course. And that change only reinforces the sense of a looming deadline. Oh, you haven't done this yet? The nagging pressure to conform.

What does it actually look like to accept and support someone where they're at? I mean, I've probably experienced this, but I'm so ready to project my own anxieties onto the things that other people say that I am more likely to misinterpret than to be soothed.

I have this friend who can never tell me about something he's accomplished without mentioning his ranking. He has to be one of the best, if not in fact the best, at everything. On the one hand, that demonstrates an admirable drive to succeed, sure. But on the other hand, it strikes me as a little depressing that a large part of his self-conception seems to be one of his relation to others in competition with them. Maybe that's just something we're taught to do with class ranks and employee of the month awards. But it kind of sucks. Why can't we just do for doings sake?

I went to a meet up discussion on envy recently where the subject of the utility of envy came up. Someone mentioned that the artist doesn't create out of the drive of envy, but rather out of the passionate desire to create. It's the drive to succeed as an artist that is energized by envy.

But I observed to the group at one point that sometimes envy has the opposite effect. If we lack the competitive instinct that my friend has, then we may fold up and shut down in the face of what could be. Each person's path is so much the product of both hard work and fortunate chance that it's hard to see how I could even hope to accomplish what they've accomplish.

But that's precisely the point, isn't it? I don't actually want to replicate what someone else has done to the letter. It would be utterly impossible, for one thing, but it's also an abdication of the awesome right to express myself and my life freely and uniquely--without the pressure to do it like everyone else. (Okay, within reason, if you want to eat. But let's just take the soft interpretation here.) So when I'm drooling over the calligraphy being posted on the Philadelphia Calligraphy Society's instagram feed, I don't have to feel second-rate because I can't do what that person does. I can rejoice in their skill, and then go on to do my own thing, however that looks in the end.

Frameworks and checklists can channel our efforts and reduce the demand to make decisions, if they work for us. Maybe you really do want to enter a field where the path is: undergraduate major in a particular degree with internships over the summer, graduate study leading into a residency or similar, enter the field in a specific position and work your way up through the hierarchy for the rest of your life. In that case, it's literally that simple. But for other people, those frameworks end up being a source of anxiety and frustration, because they don't leave room for alternatives, for creativity, for the mental health requirements of being a particular kind of human.

Or maybe I'm just justifying my failures. I dunno. It just feels like in the comparison game, there's always someone ahead of me, and I'm starting to get really tired of losing.


Tips for the Tippers

There are many irksome things about working in food service. The pay can be rather lousy, the hours are odd and almost always involve weekends, and finding the perfect staffing balance is apparently impossible, because there are either so many people that you can't get enough hours or so few people that you do nothing but work. There are benefits too, of course. When I get home from work, most of work stays there. There is scheduling flexibility, for those who are in college or simultaneously investing in a real career. As with most things, it's a mixed bag.

But here's the thing that will probably never happen to you in an office job: you'll never feel vulnerable telling someone where you work, because chances are pretty damn good that they're not just going to casually show up there (because what are they going to say? "Oh, you know, I needed to start an office supply account for my...mom."). And, to add to that, you're not going to have some random creep off the street walk in and start asking you personal questions with very obvious interest and equally obvious lack of concern for the finer points of human decency, e.g. that following you home is completely unacceptable. Even the "sweet old guy" version of this gets obnoxious pretty quickly. Newsflash: the human is not on the menu. 

It's a frustration that I've felt in less scary ways too. You want to be friendly, so you strike up a bit of a conversation, but you also have a job to get done, whether it's a task or helping the next person in line. The customer, however, is so totally oblivious to the fact that the two of you are not chatting over drinks, and they think that monopolizing your time is what they paid their $2.50 for. Sometimes there is room to say, "Hey, that's great, but I need to get something done." But if you don't know the person, then you're stuck trying to balance tact and grace with the demands of your job.

It just makes me feel trapped. Here I am, out in the open, in a position where I have to serve you unless one of my coworkers covers for me. They often will, because it's family code, but they're not always around. I can't hide. I don't want to refuse to serve you, because I do care about my employers too. And ultimately, I wish this struggle weren't necessary, because it feels like I'm having to sweet-talk someone who is, by contrast, being utterly disrespectful. Why would you even want to have this kind of interaction anyway?? Don't you want to be around someone who isn't being paid to stand there and talk to you? Not that I haven't had work-transcending friendships with customers, but those are pretty rare. 

So no, she doesn't want you to bring her flowers--she already has a boyfriend. And no, she doesn't want to tell you where she works, because she doesn't know what your interest in knowing that is, and she'd rather not see you there, thanks. And she definitely doesn't want you to message her on Facebook telling her how various parts of her anatomy make you feel, because that's common-fucking-sense.


An Addendum

I've continued thinking on and off for the past few days about that question of why I do all the things that I do. One of the answers that occasionally surfaces is that I'm distracting myself. From what, exactly?

I tend to frame things pessimistically and to spend a lot of time in my own head. This combination is not infrequently detrimental to my mental health. Also, in case you were curious, why I so frequently feel the need to end my musings on an "up" note that usually involves the word hope. (I'm tempted to say that appeals to hope are often the way station at which everyone gets off the train though. Before the action or change actually occurs, I mean. Let's all feel good, but never do anything to sustain that because good feelings rarely persist in their warmest and fuzziest manifestations when we're getting down to brass tacks.) (I know I've used the phrase "getting down to brass tacks" in another post recently, but I absolutely love it, so let's just move on please.)

To get out of my mental world, I not infrequently resort to distractions. Going out with friends has  historically been the default, but that doesn't always work, because I'm not expert at leaving my sulks at home. And perhaps that's all I'm really doing here. Trying to go out in public to also be out of myself. And when I'm by myself, spend more time thinking about things that aren't my own emotional state. It doesn't always work--the motivation is frequently insufficient to drive me to do whatever I plan for myself to do. But it has been a remarkably effective tonic recently.

The follow-up question, I suppose, is whether this is a healthy way of going about things. Whether I'm just distracting rather than dealing. But I honestly think it's more healthful than harmful. Nothing I'm doing is intrinsically bad, and a lot of it feels like it's (incrementally) furthering personal goals that I've had for myself. I've spent so much time wishing to do things and much less time actually doing them that any movement is exhilarating. You can feel a little wind in your hair at 15mph, even if it's not quite the whipping gale forces of 80 in a convertible.

I don't really have more to say on the subject. But speaking of hope, I'm watching the New Hampshire primary result updates and seriously enjoying them. That is all.


Pocket Change

I went to a talk given by Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz this evening, during which he discussed his work on the paradox of consumer choice. Namely: that we hate giving up the freedom to choose, but we are more successful at actually choosing and are more satisfied with that choice when we have fewer options. It was an extremely interesting snippet of a talk, but the one thing I thought of, which he didn't actually mention, is this:

If we want to really get people serious about climate change or even just care for the environment, we should have a sort of selective service that, instead of drafting people into the military, would require everyone to spend a period of time working at a waste management facility.

Marketplace efficiency shouts. We have to deliberately press mute if we want to hear a better story.


The Observable Universe in a Remote Corner of All That Is

Life is short and time is valuable. Not so short or so valuable that we shouldn't make space for silliness and tomfoolery, but enough that if we don't occasionally pause to justify our activities then we may be doing ourselves a disservice.

I want to do a lot of things, and usually that's posed as a problem of trade offs. What do I have to give up if I want to do this? For those who are want to go deep, who want to become an expert at what they do, the trade off is steep. You can't dedicate hours to one thing every day and not ultimately be missing out on a lot of other possibilities. But the flip side is that if I pursue all of my interests rather than picking a few and going with those, I "trade" the pleasure of expertise for casual, general knowledge. 

Honestly, it's also a huge time suck. My life activities right now are basically: work, going to meet ups, preparing to lead a discussion, learning Latin, brushing up on my German grammar and vocabulary (with the hope of trying my hand at a rough novel translation), reading books for pleasure, reading books for discussions, reading books for book clubs, knitting leg warmers, cooking/baking whenever possible, learning how to use dip pens and fountain pens, learning how to bind books, writing poetry, learning Gothic script, learning copperplate calligraphy. For work, I've also had to learn some new skills, which was part of my interest in making the transition to a new coffee shop at all, and I've been playing around with what I learned in a manual brewing class, plus of course honing my latte art skillz. And amidst all of this, I've been trying to explore my new neighborhood, hang out with friends whenever possible, and not miss out on cultural events if they're free enough for me to be able to afford them--Evensong this afternoon, an ethics of consumerism talk tomorrow. Oh, and blogging. This takes a lot of time, believe it or not, which is partly why I totally failed to write anything yesterday (there was also a spontaneous trip to a hookah cafe, but details, details...), and kind of cheated the two days before that. I am also digging my proximity to small arts picture houses and am itching to watch more independent films, as much as my somewhat limited finances will allow.

My preference for variety was once posed back to me as something bordering on a moral failing. That engaging in that kind of committed labor of study was a non-negotiable for the good life. I appreciate the sentiment: commitment is extremely important, and if we didn't have people who are willing to go the distance, there is a great deal that we would be lacking.

But I'm know I've argued this obliquely, if not directly before on this blog, and I'm going to say it again. There is room for both the specialist and the generalist. I will probably never reach a state of expertise at anything, but that's not what I'm aiming for. The variety of things that I'm trying to do can be exhausting, but I'm also aware of something that critical underlies all of this, and it's that I have an intelligent, active mind that gets depressed and dull when it is not stimulated. A major part of that stimulation is in making connections and conceiving of things in different lights from the ways that they are ordinarily situated.

Furthermore, I don't see a lot of these interests as being divergent in ways that would start demanding more significant trade offs. I keep myself busy, sure, but I don't see myself as being any sort of polymath, for example. Maybe if I were trying to delve into theoretical physics or something. But most of my activities branch from a few central interests: ideas, language, coffee, paper/ink arts, and culture (of a selective, curated sort). As long as I'm not straying too far from my themes, much of what I do is mutually reinforcing. For example, when I do my Latin lessons, I translate the exercises into German, which has the effect of forcing me to learn new vocabulary while brushing up on the finer points of grammar. The real trade offs aren't so much in terms of things that interest me as in things that I have to do but don't have any particular interest in, beyond sustaining life and relationships. 

As for what I'm trying to get out of all of this... I'm not really sure, beyond what I said earlier about mental stimulation. I suppose I want to express myself creatively, develop my natural strengths, and both challenge and be challenged by others to think critically about important aspects of worldview and the way that plays out in society. I also don't have a major end game that I'm working towards now, and there's probably a small part of me that hopes that out of all this activity, I'll learn something meaningful about myself or meet someone who can help me along the way. If all else fails, as Francis has always told me, it's important to be interesting, if only so that you'll be able to make an impression or the strange connections. Now if only I were as motivated to work on my social skills...


The Relativity of Life and Death

You will grow old.
Here and now, I feel the weight
Of your limber, youthful body
As it rests upon my hip
Where you have and will have lain,
This night and many others.
A girl and her book and her cat:
We are like a picture,
Or a daydream of a single girl life
That is single yet not lonely.
And even so,
Though just now we are both fine,
I see your brevity and know
A tiny shock of sorrow
For the moment that will come.


Thought Bubble

Walking side by side--facing forward, not each other, because a gaze is an open door and it's not time to go inside yet. The funny thing about doors: they don't always lead where you think they're going to. One reason why I like these huge lenses that conceal/reveal simultaneously is that they might help me look out or they might reflect either of us back in. We're always separated by a pane of glass, though which one is the prisoner and which the imprisoned is unclear. Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, we can still walk forward.

And now what? Is it briskly cold, to the point where the points of icy breeze pinprick the red burst of blood to rise in my windburnt cheeks? Is it warming in a foreshadowing of spring, so that you take off your coat and throw it over your arm before we've gone too far? Are we going to go too far? The line shifts when it's anchored in a relative term, and I am uncertain as to where it can be found this time around.

Uncertainty. And never a lot of words. I like the textures you bring to the moment and how you give it shape around you. You may occupy this space--not because you've claimed it, but because I find that you fit it so well. Ah, but there I've gone again, the flighty of mind and heart.

Let's skip all the other context. Inside of time or outside of time, it really doesn't matter. It'll be the same, either way. Where we are is here. I look forward to it.


Without Borderlines

In Henry Shue's book Basic Rights, he frames solutions to problems of global justice in the modern language of human rights. At the bare minimum, everyone has an inalienable right to enjoy (read: actually experience) the basic necessities that allow them to continue to exist. Some philosophers and political scientists extend these rights further and say that a distinction between the narrow "basic" rights and the broader "human" rights (to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, etc.) is a false dichotomy. They would argue that the minimum is all that is necessary for full physical and mental flourishing. They have a point, insofar as a life where you are free from physical harm but filled with terror or perpetually thwarted in pursuit of non-state-sanctioned intellectual quests would be quite disappointing in its own way. But let us simply take the basic rights, for they are somewhat more difficult to quibble with. (A utilitarian would take a completely different approach to the problem, one that likely does not refer to rights at all, which might actually make them better able to provide a coherent transition from basic rights to the full complement, but they have other important criticisms to deal with.)

According to Shue, there are two basic rights: 1) subsistence rights, or rights to food and water; and 2) security rights, which are rights to be free from physical violation, injury, or violence. He begins his book with a concern for rejecting the idea that the former is "positive," or calling for specific action--we should feed the hungry--and the latter is "negative," or calling for personal restraint only--do harm to no one. He urges that both rights are positive, demanding that those with the power to do so are morally obligated to ensure not only that people are fed, but that they are safe.**

This is an interesting spin, given that it seems like our aid programs concentrate much more on the "safe" problem of feeding those who are starving. Some do address the physical well-being of their recipients, usually through medical relief--preventive, routine, or through post-disaster trauma care. However, doctors are usually not simultaneously equipped to physically protect their patients from further harm. 

I think a large part of it stems from the fact that we can go and take pictures with adorable, if frail children to celebrate our generosity, but nobody wants to go into a war zone. Because--and this seems to be the most critical point to me--to ensure that others are able to enjoy their basic right to physical security from harm, we have to lay down our own claim to that same right and deliberately take some of the risks of their situation upon ourselves. 

Here, of course, is where it becomes infinitely more complicated, and I can't and don't deny that. It is always one thing to say that someone, by mere dint of being human, deserves to go to sleep at night without fear of mortal harm. It is another thing to act against the Bashar Assads or the Boko Harams of the world. Arguably, it is less difficult to deal with the systematic harassment of black men in the U.S., which all of American history encapsulates as an ongoing bloody tragedy. But here I think it is fair to make this one us vs. them comparison: while we should never reduce the security claims of people in developing nations on the grounds that "they're used to violence and turmoil," we do have more agency and internal influence to alter systems in our country of citizenship than we have in, say, Syria. There diplomacy becomes all the more important, because we do not want our political activities to result in further individual loss.

Perhaps the hardest part is that I absolutely do not want to advocate going to war. I'm deeply sympathetic with the pacifism of my Mennonite forebears, whether they developed a systematic justification for it or not, and I think that nonviolence is one of the great untried solutions to so many of our problems. It definitely requires playing a long, patient, and oft-times barren game, but I cannot believe that violence solves violence. Communities heal. War destroys--not just once, but a hundred times over, as it stirs up resentments, encourages rivalries, facilitates the further production and circulation of weapons, and trains young men (and young women) for a life in which their skill set is dominating, inspiring fear, and killing other people. So how, then, do we carefully, responsibly mobilize at grassroots and national levels to protect others' rights to physical security?

No answers. But damn, do I ever want to know the answer to that question.

**It has been a while since I read Shue closely, so my apologies if I have misrepresented his position in any way. That being said, I don't think anything that I have said is too far afield of his work.


The Parable of the Ower

I have this bad habit of reading six books simultaneously, because my tastes vary wildly with my moods. Also, I like to read stupidly dense books, and so I have to actually be mentally alert to read them, which means that I'm always detouring into something easier, usually fictional... You get the idea. For example, I'm currently racing through the omnibus edition of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, walking through David Copperfield, meandering through Seeing Like a State, and occasionally eyeing Culture and Imperialism with a look of mild interest.

"Ah, but that's only 4!" you exclaim triumphantly, because you're a smart ass math whiz. Well, congratulations. That's because, a) I overstated slightly, and b) I'm not done yet. Also, c) the omnibus edition of HHGG is like five books, so it should count for more than one, even if I'm not reading them all at once. Just saying. And d) I usually read at least one longform piece per day, so we should probably just round up to 7 and call it a day.

Right. So then I got my hands on an ebook version of David Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and, hyperbolically speaking, I threw all the other books out the window. I like economics, sort of. That is to say, I'm interested in several fields that economics happens to be important to, such as: Marxism, global aid, and my future. But when we actually get down to brass tacks, I don't like economics, because I think it's a dry, reductionistic way of looking at vivid, highly complex, real world relations that are frequently altered--or even, dare I say, damaged--by their contact with the abstract quantifications of modern economists. I'm also just bitter, because the number of potential students at Penn who unselfconsciously patronized the humanities by saying they wanted to "major in economics, but minor in [actually fun, interesting, and deeply human subject]"... sorry, sentence got too complicated. Basically, there were too many of them. I mean, great for them, because they want jobs and that's important too. But please, let's not sell our souls too eagerly.

Graeber, however, is not writing as an economist. He is writing as an anthropologist who does a much better job of expressing my concerns about the role of economics in modern life. I'm not that far into it, but he's totally shredding up the economic myth of barter as the original system of exchange, and I'm a fan of this activity. Plus, it's generally really well written and informative. I'd sass this hoopy frood--he definitely knows where his towel is at.

There's a reason why I'm mentioning the book, aside from the fact that I have pledged to write something today and every day for the next... 22 days. God... But hey, who's counting? For the past few days, I've been cobbling together a meet up discussion on ethical theories to guide our efforts for global justice. My source text is Onora O'Neil's "Rights, Obligations and World Hunger" (In every relevant heading in this essay, she uses the Oxford comma, but not in the title. WHYYYYYY???), in which she argues for what she sees as a much older conception of justice, beginning from obligations rather than human rights. This might not sound like a huge difference, and I'm still not entirely convinced that it is, but part of her reasoning is that the responsibility for action should not be on the bearer of the right, as an often powerless claimant making demands of the powerful. Rather, action should naturally proceed from those who are obligated to do so, where their obligation arises in part from the mere fact of their ability to do anything. (I might be embroidering this last part ever so slightly, but it's the only way I could resolve the "ought" =/= "can" dilemma.)

Early in Debt, Graeber talks about the difference between a debt and an obligation. Basically, the former comes down to a matter of quantification. Or, alternatively, an obligation is an unquantifiable debt. This isn't really a revolutionary thought, except that I personally don't find the word "obligation" to have the impact of the word "debt"--something Graeber himself touches on obliquely when he notes that debt has an impersonal, moral force to it. "One must pay one's debts" is a truism that even a bleeding heart liberal could parrot with a straight face.

If I transfer my associations with debts to my conception of obligations, I am left in a rather more uncomfortable position than when I started off. Whatever my own ethical theory for understanding global aid might be, I have not personally acted as if it were anything but a charitable act--that is, something that is good and praiseworthy to do, but not something that I am required to do. What if I brought that mentality to the table? Suddenly, the intensity of Peter Singer's arguments about getting the best possible paying job that you can and donating most of your income to charity... kind of make sense. Because if this is something that I owe my fellow human beings, then I don't get to think about whether I want to do it or not. And that's a pretty sobering little epiphany.


Writing About Writing

Since my aforementioned friend Dan asked me several questions about my creative process, I figured I'd make that today's post. Not least because my fingers are about to fall off and I exhausted most of my creative energy for the day by plotting out a discussion + my future. (Also, if I spend much more time typing at my computer and not playing with my cat, said cat will probably report me to PETA for neglect.)

Q: How do I come up with ideas?
A: For starters, I don't have a list stored somewhere of topics that I would like to write on eventually. Perhaps it is due to a lack of discipline on my part, but I find it extremely difficult to plan to write something at some distant future moment. In fact, I find it difficult to write with any destination whatsoever. More on that momentarily (...I don't think that was a contradiction. Not sure.).

Often you can kind of see what's motivating my subject from how I open. Today, for instance, I'm answering some questions, although a little more broadly than was asked of me. I once wrote a post about being surprised by grief that coagulated from a coworker's grandparent's death and my sudden inclination to eat honey butter. So there are some that are more spontaneous, contingent on what I've been reading, talking about, watching, etc., and others that are the result of several things coming together.

I will say that I occasionally jot down or otherwise take note of thoughts that occur to me at random, and sometimes I'll cull from those if they still interest me enough to write about them. But as I look back through my notes in my phone, it seems like these are meant to be complete thoughts in themselves and not something I'll develop into a longer piece.

Then there's my poetry. I dunno. That sort of appears from somewhere that I don't really look at too hard.

Q: Do I edit?
A: If by "edit" you mean, do I go through and rigorously check my structure, look for a controlling thesis, ensure that everything flows correctly, that sort of thing: no, I do not. If I'm worried that where I start and where I finish don't have enough breadcrumbs for someone else to follow me, or if the conclusion seems to be a million miles away from the introduction, then I may wade back in with a machete and do some serious plastic surgery. But that's pretty rare, in part, I think, because I am deliberately writing shorter pieces that can't get that far off topic. I do give every post a once or twice over to check my wording or rearrange sentences, because I am an overeducated, overdeveloped fetus (as a friend once affectionately told me) and I tend to write in an unnecessarily convoluted manner.

Let it be noted, however, that to get to this point where I don't feel it necessary to edit much, I have had to write a heck of a lot that did need to be edited. I am indeed overeducated. And I had some seriously good English teachers in middle school and high school. Also, I read a lot, and I am extremely comfortable expressing myself in writing. I probably should do more editing than I do, but I think I can scrape by okay as I have been doing (feel free to disagree), and for what is essentially a side project, I just can't be bothered. If you don't have a lot of experience writing or if you don't have a love affair with yourself like I do, then please, please do edit. It's totally worth taking the time to tweak and perfect, as long as you don't get so stuck in the process that you never hit post. As a wise friend once said... "Fuck it. Ship it." (Sorry, Grandma.)

Q: What do I need to get started?
A: Rarely: a destination. This is what I was saying earlier. I often start with a thought, start to spin it, and then see where it will take me. I feel like my conclusions are the weakest part of my writing--said every honest, self-reflective writing seminar student ever--but that's partly because what I'm doing here is not meant to be a presentation of a particular thought: it's me trying to see where I can go with something and you getting to find out where I ended up.

Q: When I write, do I frequently discard what I do?
A: Hmm. Yes, and no. Usually if I start to write something, I will finish writing... something. Not necessarily what I started writing or was planning to write. There are, however, several unpublished drafts lurking in my post stash. The former circumstance happens when I haven't thought through what I want to write, or I realize that I disagree with myself, so I have to change direction mid-stride. Since I usually just write on a whim (usually = always before this past week), I don't have the room to totally throw something in the trash. If I start it, I'll finish it, somehow. If I didn't finish or didn't publish something, it's probably because I was either trying to bring together two thoughts that just wouldn't fit and I gave up or else because I had to leave my computer to do something else mid-post and was, again, trying to do something too complicated for me to pick up the thought where I left off. It is pretty rare for me to discard anything wholesale though. I mean, I still have a box under my bed with my notebooks from middle school, and trust me, I was not writing stories or poetry that anyone would ever want to read.

Please note, that unless stated otherwise, everything I've said here applies to writing blog posts (and to some extent, poetry) only. My academic papers were a very different process, in part because the demands placed on me were external: when you have to dance to someone else's beat, you have to be more strategic. And honestly, I think that's just true of anything where you're trying to argue a particular point, or develop a story, or do anything in an intentional way, especially if you have to be conscious of your audience. This particular writing is very much for myself, which is why I might get a little weird if you come up to me in person and say, "So about that thing you wrote on your blog..." It's like you're reading my diary, you creep. Of course, I'm the one who makes it public, because I'm the exhibitionist to your creep. Whatever. As long as we both know where we stand.