Life Lessons

You have to pick your bullshit battles. Sometimes the man is going to want you to cite in a bizarre and senseless fashion to provide articles with a semblance of legitimacy. Sometimes, he'll want you to compromise your personal values to advocate poor character decisions. It's all bullshit, but you can only waste so much energy caring about these things, so choose wisely and just let the rest go.


Further Up and Further In//Mixing Bowl Full of Metaphors

When we think about things that require effort, we usually don't even bother to include something like "me time." Because hey, me time means relaxing with a bottle of beer in a hammock--or, if you envy the beer its bed, then in a hammock with a beer. Or it means plunking down in front of the tv to watch a couple of tv shows. Or curling up in bed on a Saturday morning for hours and not coming out until you absolutely can't resist your empty stomach any longer. Right?

What if our concept of me time were more expansive though? Think about it. French fries are easy to eat, and I like them A LOT, but I know perfectly well that a diet consisting solely of French fries is not much of a diet. I would be unhealthy and unhappy. Resisting "easy" and eating something homemade that's equally delicious and much healthier is going to be a lot better for me in the long run. I'll feel better physically, and I'll feel better mentally, because I know that I'm making good choices.

Likewise, it's easy for me to curl up in bed and watch something on Netflix. And sometimes I really do need to unwind, and that's a great way to do it. But often when I do that it's really because it's just easier than something I care more about, like reading David Graeber's 500+ page tome on debt. I come home from work, and I'm tired. I just want to make my dinner and then float on the edge of my post-work weariness until I can convince myself to go to sleep. Whatever happens between food and sleep should require as little thought as possible.

How much better do I feel though, when I'm actually putting forth the effort to do the things that I actually care about? the things that I want to identify with—not as "girl who watches Netflix" but as "girl who loves to learn"?

I've watched coworkers do this thing where they go home every night after work and just spend hours upon hours watching television. Okay, I haven't literally watched them do that. I'm not outside in the bushes or anything, but I have listened to them talk about tv shows and movies. Just think about the amount of time the average person has to put in to be conversant in the details of everything from Breaking Bad to Parks and Recreation to Madam Secretary to South Park. Seriously. I've binge-watched television shows before (and usually I go for the real doozies, the BBC productions or the HBO series that are a minimum of one hour per episode), and I know how astonishingly fast you can vacuum up 30-40 hours of your life on one show.

But I was reminded recently that "easy" isn't always "good," and that when we let easy choose our lives for us, we frequently find ourselves in a situation where we've given up so much more than we realize. Hence, that one guy will tell you how much he loves to play guitar and how he'd really like to devote more time to music, and it's not that he doesn't have the time to give, it's just that there are easier things to do, and then it's 10 years down the road, and he could have been so much better at playing, but he didn't put in the effortful hours of dedication.

It takes effort to actually care for yourself. It takes effort to go beyond identifying what makes you feel fulfilled to actually doing it: on a day-to-day basis, when you're tired after a long and mind-numbing day at work, amidst so many easy distractions that require half the focus and work.

But just like I don't really want to eat French fries for every meal, so too, I don't see myself being very happy if I pick easy over effort.

I meant to conclude there, so it's a bit of a tangent to mention it, but this blog has two names, "Fire in a Jar" and "At the Wicket Gate." I meant the latter to be more of a subtitle or a description, but the two have distinct origins, and so I find it a bit difficult to subordinate one to the other.

Anyway, "At the Wicket Gate" is an allusion to Bunyan's novel, The Pilgrim's Progress. The entry to the straight and narrow path is a wicket gate, and when I first started this blog, I was 18 and feeling like I was setting out on that big journey into adulthood, with whatever trials, travails, blessings, and laughter it might hold.

I guess I just wanted to say with that, that there are two options that Christian has. The broad and easy path that leads to destruction, and the straight and narrow path, with all its stones and its hills, but oh, it leads further up and further in, as Aslan put it in a different book.

The thing about those options, though, is that they're never that far apart. In a sense, we're always "at the wicket gate," always choosing a particular path, though our choice may vary from one moment to the next. It's an always, ongoing commitment that we make when we choose a particular way, and while the discipline of a stretch may make us doughty road warriors, it takes little more than the empty circus festivities of Vanity Fair to turn us aside. Pride, therefore, has no place in it, but likewise neither does despair. Just as Vanity Fair is nigh unto the path and easily turns us aside, so the path leads away from it, and all we have to do is make the choice.

Because every evening of my life is an incremental step in the arc of my story. That's why it matters. Even when it feels like it doesn't. Even when I don't want to feel like it does. Further up and further in.


On What Is

Apologies to Quine for cribbing his paper title. It seemed appropriate though.

I was curled up with a book, newly opened with all the thrills that attend those as yet unexperienced  literary adventures, and my interest had been suitably piqued by its curious introductory vignette of two old ladies who were starved to death in a crumbling house on an old plantation in Jamaica. The book, by the by, is Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica.

Things were going splendidly for my plan to get lost in said book, when in the transition from page two to page three, I became too indignant to go on without expressing an opinion. So now you know: I'm really a crotchety, anal-retentive, and opinionated old 20-something. New information? Does it matter? Anyway.

The fatal line:
That is the sort of scene which makes a deep impression on the mind; far deeper than the ordinary, less romantic, everyday thing which shows the real state of an island in the statistical sense.

If you read that calmly, please go back and read the last four words in a tone of outraged disbelief. Thank you.

WHAT the blue blazes is REAL about statistics? Pray, do tell, when was the last time you met an average human? Or an average family, with 1.7 children? I don't think we're yet calculating enough to take out shares in children, but even then, some families would have to own shares of multiple children to make up the difference, and I don't think the children would like that very much.

I mentioned Quine in the beginning: earlier this evening, I was skimming his paper "On What There Is," which expresses his preference for a clean, metaphysical landscape, cleared of such rubbish as "abstract objects." I'm not entirely sympathetic to his reptilian love of the desert, but I am sympathetic in at least this sense: if anyone would like to come up to me and tell me that statistics are real, I will laugh in their face.

This is obvious in one sense, being the aforementioned absurdity of talking about a .7 child. I hope that no one is foolish enough to think that .7 children exist, and if there are people who think that, I'm not sure whether I want to meet them. But in the sense that we usually take statistics—as expressing something true about a feature of society, albeit in a general way—I think that Hughes's formulation is a bit more the norm than the deviation. What is real is not the anecdotal: it is the mystical "average" experience.

On a certain level, it makes sense. We casually recognize that there is no one, single, objective point of view, that all experience is subjective in that each person brings his or her own back story and biases to the moment. Historians rewrite good and bad across the pages of the past, but yesterday's villain could just as easily be today's hero, depending on the script and the players. Amidst such a plethora of possibilities—converging here, diverging there—is it any wonder that we desire something stable to steady ourselves against?

But with statistics, as with the desperate straining of early modern philosophers to know the external, objective, independently existing world, there is often a tendency to dismiss the subjective and the anecdotal as inferior. "Certainly," we sniff, "that may be your experience, but 95.3% of Americans rate their stay at 4 stars or better when they book at Hampton Inn." Of course, it starts getting really amusing when statistics purport to measure more clearly subjective experiences, like, say, how comfortable people in Fishtown feel when walking down Frankfort Avenue at 3am on a Tuesday morning.

And isn't that essentially what Hughes is doing in the line I quoted? Trying to average out unique, subjective experiences? What else is this "state of an island"? Surely, following opening paragraphs that talked about negroes fleeing sugarcane plantations and planter-class women who were taught that being useful was low, and therefore not de rigueur, surely Hughes doesn't mean to talk about the flora and fauna of Jamaica or remark on the erosion of its beaches. While vines climb the porch and prop open the old front door, they are not there to speak themselves. They are, instead, representative of a very real experience of the decay of old hierarchies, human hierarchies, and those experiences cannot be anything BUT anecdotal, for no two people are liable to have identical experiences under a given system, whether that be a political oligarchy, a matriarchy, or, as is the case here, slavery.

Perhaps it wouldn't matter so much, except that as we try to subordinate the subjective to that attractive, illusory objectivity that statistics provide, we actually begin to change the ways that we see ourselves, whether we suffer from the sense that we aren't hitting the mark or we point to a statistic to justify our feeling of isolation as a member of *a* 1% (to be distinguished from the economic 1% here).

Even more concerning to me, though perhaps more of a dry subject, we make ourselves vulnerable to political reduction and manipulation. When we remove the element of individual human consideration, our circumstances become irrelevant: it is only the numbers that matter. But I suppose that boils down more to the creation of artificial categories and has less to do with statistics. Or are they related?

Also, have I been completely muddling averages with percentages here? Technically an average or a mean or whatever is considered a statistic too, right? I'm clearly too tired to be airing my grievances in this manner...


I Preserved My Good Times in a Jar

I was going back through my Instagram photos and felt such a rush of nostalgia. For the autumn light that I couldn't get enough of. The potent, intriguing fragrance and taste of lavender. Fourteen pounds of juicy red strawberries. Misty dandelion globes, red cliffs, and the sweeping farmlands of PEI. Concerts that brought me joy and concerts that made me cry, sometimes overlapping in one. And so many good times--with people who are still in my life.

I realized with the usual shock of post hoc revelation that I have enjoyed these past few years. And all the ingredients are in place, from the people I love to the person I'm challenging myself to be: here's to more good times and memories to be made, to eating good food with great people, to reading great books, to traveling to places new and old, and to embracing new challenges even when they hurt. This is my life. I'm going to make sure it's awesome.


The Economist and the Mad Farmer

The largest major in my graduating class was economics by far. Somewhere behind were the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) majors, who generally wanted a little more human context to their quantificational data analysis while still preserving that prized hire-ability that comes of being an Econ major in this day and age. Common occurrence: visiting high school senior sits in on a humanities class. When asked what she wants to major in, she says economics, but (patronizingly, though she doesn't realize it) she would love to minor in [insert philosophy, English, classics, history, etc. here].

Okay, fine, so I'm obviously a little skeptical and/or bitter. Big surprise, since I majored in philosophy and I'm scraping by while all those Econ majors got consulting jobs. That's mostly a joke at my own expense, I think, because what bothers me more about the trend is what it expresses about our orientation as a culture, and I'm not entirely comfortable with the consequences of that orientation.

I recently led a meetup discussion about the ethics behind global aid. For supplemental reading, I had offered Onora O'Neil's "Rights, Obligations, and World Hunger," in which she argues for an obligation-based ethical theory. One of the participants in the discussion questioned whether the language of moral obligation could be meaningful at all for those who do not believe in a higher power. Certainly a hollow threat of divine or karmic retribution possesses minimal strength to motivate or alter human behaviors.

In hindsight, however, I would dispute his premise that for a non-theistic society there is no higher power. Indeed, he is the perfect example, because he was an atheist, but he put a great deal of faith in the benefits of capitalism and in its ability to resolve global issues.

In David Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, he notes that prior to Adam Smith and his contemporaries, economics did not exist as a separate discipline. There was no abstract "market" distinct from other human political or social structures. 

Fast forward a few hundred years and you can't escape the idea. In an era of financial instability, students learn the principles of microeconomics, desperately hoping to gain some modicum of control over an abstract and slippery fate. They toss around the jargon of supply and demand, sunk costs, public goods, and game theory as they graph neat curves and calculate deadweight loss. 

Arguably for my discussion participant and for many others, the market has taken on some of the role of the divine. It is seen as an objective force, the cosmic balancing agent, and, intriguingly, an arbiter of justice. Note how trade has supplanted outright warfare on the world stage: where once we shot a man in the heart, now we're civilized and resort to picking his pockets. 

And of course we need a priesthood to act as intermediaries between our lives experience and this ultimate reality. In spite of all our neat equations, the Market is a nebulous being and its demands and judgments are difficult to interpret and hard to predict. Enter the economist, who knowingly looks on and provides financial guidance in the form of prophetic words about GDP growth percentages.

Where does that leave us? We are subjected to an impersonal, amoral, external will that determines everything from our education to our employment to our housing to our marriage prospects. We are told that our new ideals are to be efficiency, which unites with the old Protestant work ethic to produce a generation of hamsters forever running in their wheels and getting nowhere fast. But ah! We are to be consoled: the economy is growing. 

Someone like Wendell Berry runs perpendicular to the cult of economy, offering us a glimpse of an alternative. The center of Berry's world, the organizing principle toward which human efforts are directed, is the local community, to be understood as both the people and the land on and off of which they live. In this world, the money does not lead--it follows the concerted, directed efforts of the people and is a contributor to but not the sole arbiter of their flourishing.

In a recent article for The Nation about massive layoffs among journalists, Dale Maharidge states, "...The shift is deeper and more systemic. Like the story of Willy Loman [in Death of a Salesmen], cast aside in his creeping middle age, the tale of today's discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes."

Does it really have to be this way? Berry casts himself in his poetry as "The Mad Farmer," whose romantic idealism leads him to throw himself, alone and small, against the giants of modern society. But surely, if he is alone in his fight, he is not alone in his desire. We may not believe it, we may hide behind pragmatism and cynicism, but I believe that we still carry a small seed of hope for something better, something that honors what is best and brightest about the human social life and does not treat individual lives as so much usable energy to be expended and cast aside at will. The mad farmer is the voice in the wilderness, drawing us out of our organized temples of finance and telling us that there is another way. It's up to us whether we will take heed and listen.


Dropping Bombs Now and Then

I like to engage in the sort of thought that reveals to me all of my hypocrisies. Por ejemplo.

While reading W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, I was especially struck by his account of the Allied bombing of Hamburg, Germany. The devastation of that one city alone was incredible: a wasteland that, by one account, took a full fifteen minutes to travel across on a very silent train. There were rumors of mothers, cast adrift by the loss of their homes, who arrived in distant towns with the shrivelled corpses of their children packed in their suitcases. 

"And what of it?" you might say. So thousands of people perished in a small letter holocaust. See also: justice. The capital letter, definite article Holocaust. And perhaps you and I would be righteous in our judgment. Sebald himself noted a peculiar unwillingness on the part of the Germans to dispute the ethics of the bombing. Perhaps they felt it was what they deserved.

Of course, the Germans were also bombing England, as I have recently been reminded while watching every single season of Foyle's War on Netflix (I'm so uncomfortable with binge-watching things--I have serious anxiety every time I go to watch it. It's kind of hilarious...). Hundreds upon thousands of people fled London for the countryside, some to work in various organized efforts like the Women's Land Army, others simply to hide. The blitz was a huge part of the English experience of the war, from blackouts to air raid shelters to the ongoing discovery of unexplored mines as the country repaired itself. 

What intrigues me about the air raids featured in Foyle's War is the unreflective quality of the characters' response to them. Of course, I'm not expecting a thoroughgoing critique of the morality of war in a well-written but entertaining television show. But in light of the fact that the English were doing the exact same thing in Germany, to even more devastating and ultimately pointless effect, it's a little hard to see how they get to take the tone of injured outrage.

Ah, but I said something about hypocrisy, so I should probably explain myself now. In some part of the back of my mind, I've been wrestling with the question of whether the Syrian air strikes are the right course of action, in part given what I've written before about a concern for basic human rights to physical security. Surely if any war is justified, it's war on behalf of others, for their protection.

A few days ago, I read Tom Engelhardt's article entitled "War, What Is It Good For?" and I was struck specifically by what he had to say about the air strikes. Certainly, we've managed to use such tactics to take out strategic leaders, but for that handful of people, we've also taken out a large number of civilians, many of them women and children. If this doesn't sound like a perfect perpetuation of a cycle of violence bred from historic grievances, then perhaps you should re-read that last sentence. 

I suppose why I'm calling myself out for hypocrisy is simply that I was willing to condone the air strikes as an unfortunate necessity, even having drawn some conclusions on the morality of massive, sweeping, air-driven warfare from reading Sebald. It's so easy to draw a line between then and now, to think in different sets of terms depending solely on the decade and which side of history the actors have fallen on. 

The Germans lost, so the bombing of London = bad. The Allies won, so the shattering destruction of largely civilian areas (with comparably minimal impact on the intended targets: munitions factories, supply lines, etc.) can be excused because the Jerries were the bad guys and they needed to be taught a lesson for their sins. People in the Middle East are used to destabilizing cycles of violence, and we need to stamp out extremists by whatever means possible short of visibly placing troops on the ground because politics, so we'll send in planes and kill whomever we must to get to those bad olive-skinned men. But if they retaliate, hurt us on our soil, let God rend the heavens and come down, for His chosen, white, manifestly-destined race has been desecrated and cisturbed from its somnolent, stupid, peaceful prosperity. How dare they do to us what we have, for the past thirty years, done to them across nations and continents? 

Sebald observes that the English initiated their bombing of German factories and rail lines in part because it was the simplest solution proposed among a plethora of complicated and potentially ineffective suggestions. That it quickly proved to be effectively useless was irrelevant, because by then the machines of production had been set in place and the financial investment, coupled with the propagandistic impact on national morale, was already enormous. 

I believe that this is still very much the case: that we have a hard time proposing concrete, non-violent alternatives to war, in part because it sounds like such a simple solution (we've done it before, so all the machinery is in place) and in part because we're familiar with it, and familiarity, as advertisers know too well, inclines us to be more comfortable with the thing in question. 

If we push back against our habitual ways of thinking, however, and try to take apart the "simple" monoliths in our midst, we may find that we've been accepting a fiction to disguise from ourselves the questionable of morality of what we're engaged in. Hopefully, through that process of unveiling, we may at last became sufficiently candid with ourselves to admit that we've been wrong and that we need to invest the time and energy that it takes to find better alternatives and to implement them in a conscientious and forward-looking way.