The Lantern Waste

"Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate..."

There's a triumphant, stirring theme that wends its way through Longfellow's "Psalm of Life." I've skipped right to the end, because those were the lines that first came to mind. But I could have just as easily rattled off the first stanza - "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!-- / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem" - or the second - "Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal; / Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul."

I've been finding brilliant red leaves in the drifts of dead brown lately. Metaphorically, that is, since autumn is coming slowly to Pennsylvania. I mean that by keeping my ears open, by listening around the edges of the negativity, I've been hearing some things and meeting some people who are doing the kinds of things that give me... dare I say it? A little hope.

I was listening to an interview with Rebecca Solnit in which she talked about communities rising from the ashes of disasters, and I jotted down a thought.

The future belongs to the hopeful, who have the strength to see through the present reality to a possible world built not in spite of, but because of the tireless, daily work of flawed human beings who are, though aware of their shortcomings, nonetheless willing to try.

That's not to say that everything will turn out alright, not tomorrow and not ever. We have no guarantees. There's a darker side, too, because while some of us may hope for beautiful things, others hope for destruction. A contorted hope, perhaps, but there even so. For example, I've been reading about Germany in the Zwischenkriegszeit, the period between the two wars. Here is a "community," or at least a great mass of people, who rose up amidst the ashes of an angry, hurting nation, and they built something, realized a hope, but it was a twisted hope that gave birth to a dark world.

Yet it could have been otherwise.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes of how the elite were brought within the mass of the totalitarian movements, that they despised the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality, and while they perhaps saw through the propaganda and the demagoguery, in their bitterness they wanted nothing short of complete destruction.

I have to admit that I have expressed similar sentiments: that sometimes I think it would be easier if the whole thing would just burn. If we cannot repair the mounting harms against each other, against the earth, then why not just let it all go before the remote justice of the meteor?

But there's something (forgive me, Rick) a little cowardly or even perhaps lazy in that sentiment. The elites may have been correct in identifying the rotten core behind the living face of society, but their willingness to commit an even greater crime hardly improved the situation.

"If we abstract from thick conceptions of courage that a culture may put forward in a particular historical period - whether martial valor or counting coups or maintaining a stiff upper lip or being true to one's conscience - and ask in the most general terms what it is about courage that makes it a human excellence, the answer, I think, is the capacity for living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence. [...] In different times, in different cultures, there may be different risks; but as long as we are alive and human we will have to tolerate and take risks. The courageous person is someone who is excellent at taking those risks. That is why courage counts as a virtue: it is an excellent way of inhabiting and embracing our finite erotic** nature." {Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear}

Hope is mere wishful thinking without courage, and courage is that virtue which does not back down in the face of the awful, the unimaginable. Courage keeps someone working toward the world they want to see by living, insofar as it is possible, as if that world were already the way things are. (This, by the way, is why the end cannot justify the means: we can never rise to the ideal if we live down to our present poverty.) But to do so is, of course, to take a great many risks. To live openly trans is to be subject to a social and too often physical violence. To simply be black or female is, as we've been so recently reminded, to live with consistent threats to our every attempt to assert agency in a world built out of entrenched hierarchies of power.

And these are my red leaves, made all the more visible against the backdrop of current events: that there are still courageous, hopeful people, finding practical ways to live the reality of a better world. Perhaps if we fix our sights on those beacons, we'll find our way back home.

** For anyone wondering what the hell that's supposed to mean: "By erotic I follow a basically Platonic conception that, in our finite condition of lack, we reach out to the world in yearning, longing, admiration, and desire for that which (however mistakenly) we take to be valuable, beautiful, and good."


The Other Half

When you think that you know exactly what you believe or, worse still, that you know everything you need to know: stop. Find someone who disagrees with you, but who can coherently explain their beliefs through the use of reason. Or who can explain how they feel without resorting to hate-filled rhetoric. And just listen to them.

This is something I've had to do recently, and no, in case you were wondering, it isn't easy. I don't know what the past two years have been, aside from intensely polarizing, but what they felt like was a constriction, with every passing headline, Onion-like real life moment, and political debate drawing tighter around me until I could barely breathe.

When it's us vs. them, we lose half the world. Am I the only person who is grieved by this?

I don't want to miss out on so much that's good and true and beautiful. Because, newsflash, "we," whoever we are, don't have the monopoly on those things. My brother and I will (probably) never see eye to eye ideologically, but today is his birthday, and when I called him he and my dad were helping to distribute food at a food bank. That's something that's good and true, and I wouldn't have it if I were to shun him in the face of our differences.

I've been thinking about this ever since I listened to Glenn Greenwald's interview with Tucker Carlson on the podcast Intercepted (you can find it here at Glenn Greenwald on the New Cold War or via iTunes). Carlson is precisely the sort of person that I'm told I should never listen to - and he absolutely has said things that make me cringe, just to be clear - but he's also not a completely unintelligent asshat speaking solely to fill silence. He said one thing that I keep coming back to because I've rarely heard it put quite so well in conversation*:

"The law of unintended consequences is never gonna be repealed. Like, you don’t know. You think you know what’s gonna happen when you do something, but you really don’t. And so, humility is a prerequisite for wise decision-making. And whenever you have people telling you — people like Max Boot, for example — we know exactly what’s gonna happen when we do this, that’s a tipoff that these are very unwise people who shouldn’t have power."

And I appreciated his ability to articulate exactly why people might feel threatened by immigration:

"And I’ve seen this exact thing happen there [rural Maine], where Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services or some group that thinks it’s doing good moves refugees into a depressed community and then leaves. And it’s massively disruptive for the people who live there. Massively. And nobody cares. [...]  I feel like the middle of the country is just a dumping ground for refugees. And the point of it, of course, is to make the people facilitating it feel virtuous, and then they never deal with the consequence. So, what about the people who live there?"

The point isn't so much that I'm ultimately going to share Carlson's views. But he makes some solid criticisms that starry-eyed liberals and progressives like myself would do well to heed. Refugee resettlement en masse does tax local infrastructure initially and can be daunting when you've had a homogenous culture for over a hundred years. I'm still stubbornly stuck on the belief that we should welcome people in as long as they need a safe place to flee to, and to hell with the consequences, but I can see how we could be wiser in our procedures and gentler in our rhetoric.

Maybe it doesn't matter much what I, one individual, actually think about any one political issue, at the end of the day (I don't believe this, but maybe). But it goes back to that first quote from the interview, that humility is a prerequisite of wise decision-making. I would take it a step further and say that humility is a prerequisite of wise life-making. You can't consistently make good decisions, build sound relationships, and navigate all the perils and pitfalls of life if you're closed to wise counsel, headstrong, and rigid in your ideas and beliefs. If your beliefs are sound, they will only be sharpened by coming in contact with opposing views and the hard facts of reality. If they are not, then you will fall less painfully: the humble stay close to the earth, rather than building themselves tall soapboxes with no steps to descend by.


Radical Freedom

Every morning of every day, I choose my life.

There are many degrees to which I could mean this. As someone who certainly believes in the power of environment and chance circumstance to shape our opportunities, I do think there are "passive" choices. For example, a prisoner can only actively choose her mindset and not the broad routines of her daily life. Even her mind may be under great strain, however, if, for example, she is in solitary confinement. On the other hand, while I cannot force my mother to take medication or be a sane, balanced human, I do continue to engage with her (though sometimes I am better at that than others) and have not "coldheartedly" shut her out of my life completely. I put coldheartedly in quotes to pick out that there is a reason for this: there is a social judgment that I choose not to have passed on me, and thus, I do choose.

But mention this at all?

Because #1: I see people who resent the success of others and regret their own choices, but make no move toward altering the patterns of their lives in a way that might enable them to excel in the attainment of their desires.

Because #2: I have achieved some level of comfort, but it's a comfort with a price - "we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond." I am at a particular salary point that will permit me to pay off bills, buy a better car, put something by in savings... And yet, even amid my gratitude, it becomes painfully clear that this is not work that I can do for the rest of my life either. Among other things, maturity and adulthood means, I think, taking on greater responsibilities for making decisions, charting a course, and accepting the burden for mistakes, none of which are a significant part of my current job. Nor does work provide me with the sort of stable community I crave, even though it may suggest the illusion of that after 40+ hours a week spent in the company of the same four people.

So, who do I want to choose to be? What do I want to choose to do? What life am I crafting for myself with each day that dawns? When each moment feels inevitable, it's good to remember that it could be wildly otherwise and that what keeps it in this track is, oversimplified, my will that it should be so.


City Mouse and Country Mouse

I once read a criticism of Wendell Berry that, I think quite validly, pointed out that we cannot all abandon our cities to return to the land, and nor would Berry even want that. Good stewardship of land is not merely a matter of having an infinite number of small holdings, each with a farmer who farms no more than he can see from his front porch. It's also important to have some knowledge and training. The damage that might done, while perhaps not of the same type as modern factory farming, would still have the potential to be substantial. And even were all the arable land to be sustainably farmed under the tender care of a seasoned farmer, I suspect that many of us would find ourselves without a plot of land. Besides, an appreciation for pastoral life does not exclude the acknowledgment that there may be something of value to towns and cities.

But I do think that Berry's work has some redemptive merit against the charge thus laid. That is, while most of us will not run out to become tobacco farmers in Kentucky, we can still find something  there that might guide our understanding and our plans. Because so much of what he writes about also deals with the question of local economies.

I'm thinking about this right now because I was recently reminded of a woman I met on the last leg of my journey home from the Netherlands. My adventures rarely feature people, because I am not very skilled at engaging in conversation with strangers and accidentally rebuff most of those who try. But on this occasion, I was stranded at the Trenton Transit Center, within what felt like spitting distance of home, at 10:30, and nary a train to deliver me home.

Whilst I checked my phone for alternatives, I discovered that I was inadvertently by the taxi stand and a taxi had pulled up. A woman got into the cab, but the driver hopped out and asked if anyone else needed a ride and would they mind sharing. I was too tired to figure out something cheaper and so I took him up on the offer.

We dropped off the woman first, because she was headed to a local destination. She works night shifts cleaning at a psychiatric hospital in Trenton. The driver knew where she was headed - he's picked her up before - and when she got out of the car, he told me that he thought that another cab driver had avoided pulling up to the stand, because he didn't want to take her on. It turns out that Trenton is a "distressed" city and there are restrictions on how much the drivers can charge. Something like $9.75 a trip.

That was all very interesting, although I didn't give it more than a moment's thought at the time, being rather exhausted. In thinking about it a month later, though, I was struck by a different detail.

This woman is on janitorial staff. She can't be paid very well. I max her at $12 an hour, if she's lucky.

She had to take a train and then, because there were no buses, a cab that cost her almost $10, to get to this low or minimum wage job. I don't know if she could catch a bus back whenever her shift ended in the morning, but she's probably spending at least $15 per shift and possibly more like $25 with train fare factored in and having no idea how far she comes and what the options are.

Meanwhile I'm whining because I'll have to pay about $5 per workday on a pass, instead of the $2 I pay now. And I'm making... double her salary? At a job that literally sits above a regional rail station and a subway stop and one of the busiest bus stops in center city? I will never have a reason to take a cab home, unless SEPTA goes on strike again.

But no, that's not actually the main point, although conviction can be a healthy thing. I was thinking about that in the broader context of structural problems relating to transportation, access, and isolated communities. There's a body of literature that highlights the issues for especially people of color but anyone poor and trapped in an urban ghetto: many people flocked to the city for manufacturing jobs and found themselves stranded when those factories fled. Jobs relocated to suburbs or maybe city centers, but generally places far from where these people called home.

Lacking resources for a vehicle, they have to rely on public transportation or walking. Not just for work though. For literally everything. Kids need clothes for school? Bus trip to the mall, with a transfer, and two of your kids are over 12 years old, so you're shelling out half your budget just on bus fares and transfers to get you there and back. Big grocery stores may be located on the fringe of your neighborhood, but if you're older, even walking a half mile with a rolling basket can be agonizing and the stores are often along major roads that are lined with strip malls. They're great for cars and terrible for pedestrians, who have to cross busy four lane roads at dangerous intersections.

So where does Wendell Berry come into all this? Alongside his commentary on politics and farming, there's also this emphasis on a diverse, thriving local economy. There's this idea that money spent should circulate first and foremost in the community, going to the people who will also spend it there and not to the Waltons in faraway Arkansas or to Aldi's parent corporation in Germany. It provides jobs locally, lends strength and durability to weather hard times, and gives the next generation something worth staying for and building into.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, as is true, I am sure, of many cities. For outsiders, center city and Old City may be the extent of their experience, but Philadelphia is much, much, much more than that. Honestly, after living here for a year and a half, I find center city to be a false face, a dead heart, compared to the thriving, at times ugly and messy, at times beautiful and unique and goofy life of the neighborhoods. Kensington, West Philly, Bella Vista, Point Breeze, Fairnount, Bridesburg, Oxford Circle, Roxborough, East Falls, Mt. Airy, Port Richmond: all of these places burst with life in a way that center city can't compare to. But that's where all the jobs are.

Oh, not all. There are a few restaurants, coffee shops, laundromats. Mom and Pop corner stores that have been hit hard by the soda tax and are struggling. Grocery stores crop up here and there, on Aramingo, on Columbus, on Gerard, on Oregon, on West Market under the El. But the office buildings and the enormous network of lunch spots, food carts, dry cleaners, shoe polishers, couriers, valet parking attendants, security guards, window washers, 9000 coffee shops of an incredible range of qualities, all of these are located in center city.

We all have to leave our communities to work. And in the process, we contribute to an economic structure that means other people, who are maybe less able to afford the commute, also have to do so. And how much of that benefit really pours back into the community? How much more would we care about and lobby for better streets, more parks and green spaces, greater accessibility, if we actually spent more of our time where we live? How much more of an investment would we have in our neighbors if we actually knew the woman who owns the store that we buy our produce from - and cared to step up when it hits a rough patch or there's a fire, because we recognize the value of having her market nearby, where she employees two full-time clerks and takes on a few teenagers over the summer.

I've run out of time and energy to keep waxing on this theme, but hopefully there's something coherent buried in there. That spending money locally might, in some long term, actually help the woman who has to leave her community and spend $15-25 per shift just to get to a low wage job. And maybe it will help us too, if we can set down our devices long enough to discover that there's something worth experiencing, preserving, stewarding, and developing right outside our front doors.


Sabbath poems

I do not come into this home as an invader,
Arms piled high with boxes
To weigh the floorboards down
Beneath the oppressive yoke of my material existence.
Instead, I come with a gentle touch,
Slowly accommodating the shape of my presence
To the shape of the space
Through tactile intimacy: one
Window sill and one cabinet door
At a time, cleaning
As my grandmother would have cleaned:
All of it, thoroughly, as though
To prepare communion
For the moment to come
When lives are brought together into one life.

*Sabbath poems are a Wendell Berry thing, but I like the idea, so thanks to the master and all credit where credit is due as far as that goes.



And so the next act of my life in Philadelphia begins.

There was, first, a trip to the Netherlands and Eli's ordination, which was a joy. It is an unusual thing, to be witness to the ceremony through which someone gives their life to God. And, as with a wedding, I think there is a tacit sense of the community giving them as well, though most of us have less skin in the game and therefore can give gladly. I don't quite know how to phrase that well, so I'll leave it there before I bludgeon it to death.

Then, rested, refreshed, and at peace (okay, after a looooong day of travel, maybe rested is a stretch), I began the new job. I tend to report things conservatively and cautiously, I think, because I wanted to begin this sentence instead by leading with one or two things that have been hard for me in making the adjustment. But I apparently gave Rick the impression it was off to a hard start by doing that, so let me lead with enthusiasm for once: I cannot overstate how thrilling it is to be treated like an intelligent, thinking human with diverse strengths and abilities. Do I have to do some tedious things? Yes. Punching holes in paper and binding books of briefs is not exciting. However, there is no expectation thus far that that is the sum of my value to the firm: to be a brainless hole puncher. I have no idea how I'm measuring up to the tasks that have been set to me thus far (see aforementioned one or two hard things), but I have seriously enjoyed some of them and don't even mind when I'm puzzling about work things outside of work hours.

And, not gonna lie, paying bills out of my first paycheck was practically a delight. I've never been so excited to write up my budget for the next few months. It's not like I'm raking in the dough. But I have the satisfaction of knowing that I'm being paid enough to do a job that involves some challenges and where the days are not predictable. Occasionally my coworkers complain and I just sit at my desk and smile, because hell is located at 123 South Broad Street and I got out.

Which leaves the other part of this next phase of life business: moving house. Today, Ryan and I went to pick up the keys for the new place. Molly is at a wedding all weekend, so a doom is upon us to clean the house up to her standards (and let's be honest, mine too -- I have a Mennonite farmer's wife for a grandmother, and I don't like living in other people's filth).

I am currently exhausted just from cleaning the windows and walls on the first floor, and cleaning the kitchen cabinets. I've also spent half the evening measuring everything and plotting possible combinations of furniture: it's amazing how hard it is to find room for bookshelves when there are windows everywhere. I may have to re-evaluate the respective weights of my desires for sunlight and reading material...

But, conclusion, I am prepared to be deliriously happy living in this house. We are not exactly an intentional community, so much as a happy accident of willingness to abide together, but I have chosen these people and for better or worse they've got me. Also, I am super close to Wissahickon Park, within walking distance of good pizza and a nice Episcopalian church, within an easy drive of a Canter Hill-attended farmers' market and St. Paul's for evensong or choral vespers, and my street is lined with gigantic trees. I feel like I'm living in Fangorn. I fully expect one of the ones by the house to lean up close to my bedroom window, peer in with huge gold-green eyes, and politely wish the best water to my roots, or however it is that Ents greet people they don't think are orcs.

In short, it is a good beginning all around, and while I have my nerves and my doubts, they are thus far outstripped by my satisfaction in this place that has been set for me.


Ode to the Sunlight on a Church Pew

At times I am stirred to regret
The tenuous threads in my strings of logic,
Those points where intellectual rigor has failed
Or merely, perhaps, fallen asleep.
Shamefaced, I admit, I hold too loosely
To the strict principles, those straight-backed chairs
With their unyielding seats, upon which I fidget and shift,
And let slip the patient persistence
Of a mind habituated to careful discipline and slow thought.
But there is a sunlit corner even for such a one as I,
Where, sitting humbly, slightly hunched, in stillness
I cup my warm palms like psalms of adoration
Around the feathered creatures with their quick-beating hearts.
The heart yearns as the mind yearns:
To hold the beautiful mystery thus, and share
This fragile, winged child of heaven
Come down to us in the form of a sacred word.


Seen From Another Angle

I very recently started work at a new job, and one of the tasks of involved in that process is the salary offer and negotiation. When you're working your way up from $25,000 a year, most offers seem generous, but of course there are all sorts of statistics and articles that say superiors respect people who negotiate and also women are less assertive in these areas, meaning that they often are complicit in their own lower wages.

I feel that I am doing quite well and am perfectly happy with the arrangement as things stand, but it did get me thinking about financially structuring my life and the undergirding assumptions and values that we bring to our ideas about appropriate remuneration. For example, as Robert Reich has been reminding me as I read Saving Capitalism, salaries do not reflect worth, except in the most shallow sense imaginable. But just as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company isn't really "worth" the enormous pay package, so also my "worth" both to my employer and to myself is equally untethered from whatever yearly sum I happen to be bringing home.

Which brings me to a question I've been mulling over. If salaries aren't based on worth, what should they be based on instead? (Always ethics.) The thing is, I don't *need* to be making an enormous amount of money. My father managed to hold things together (just barely, but still) for between four and six people while grossing maybe $20,000 more than I am individually making now. I think living wages, especially where children are involved, should be generously sufficient, and I gather that these things are or can be taken into account. However, as an individual with minimal needs and debts, I consider myself fortunate to be able to make myself comfortable enough on what I have at present.

What I'm getting around to, but don't really have time to flesh out, is this thought that maybe instead of planning for pay raises and always wishing (and being prompted to wish by advertisers and advocates of consumerist ideologies) for more, we should spend more time thinking, planning, and defining for ourselves what exactly is enough. I have my non-essential pleasures, but at the end of the day and the end of my life, I would rather say that I am content than rich.

Post-Script: I'm not opposed to making more than enough, per se, but the value of that, to me, is in the opportunity for generosity (I say, as someone who has primarily benefitted from the generosity of others and perhaps not so often been the generous one).

Also, I am intrigued by the notion of vocation and of commitment to a workplace such that you are willing to prioritize factors other than solely what you get out of it, which I think most non-invested wage workers don't typically think of because they're not motivated to participate in the long-term future of the company, but that's a different subject.


Parting Words

A new morning
A new letting go
Where I have drawn the riches
Of these few passing days
Close to my heart
(For they are warm)
Now I must open my hands
Spread my fingers wide and
It is not for me
To make the sweet things bitter:
I have had my moment
And now it goes.
That must be enough.


Harping on a Theme

I think a lot about the subject of an unread library. As someone with an enormous number of books that I have not read or have only half-read, I have a personal stake in explaining the whole business in a way that is favorable to me. But I think there is so much that is revealed in this peculiar tendency, and it's that that I can't help exploring, as much in an act of seeking after self-knowledge as it is self-justification.

My thought yesterday was to link this personal library, abounding with mystery, to a public library, which doesn't favor the tastes of any one individual, but deliberately seeks to provide a diverse range of titles and subjects, so that it may better serve a broader community. I am free to load my shelves with classics and tomes of philosophers long dead, but the library has all of those and also books on volcanoes and tarot card reading and autobiographies of famous lacrosse players whose lives are of no interest to me. The public library, on a much grander scale, always gives one the impression of a super-abundance of knowledge and of the bounty of subject matters. Take a walk through the non-fiction section and it is difficult to believe that you have a monopoly on wisdom and understanding, for you, frail and evanescent human, have not enough life to read a tenth of these books, and were you to do so, could your mind hold all those ideas within its grasp?

While the personal library, usually curated to the tastes of the one who owns it, can never attain to that degree of magnificence, there is monetheless a feeling of a similar type when simply confronting all the books you have yet to read. If I were only to look to my bookshelves, I would be occupied for years. And they are but a drop in the ocean by comparison with, say, a single hall of the Parkway Central Library branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. Even accounting for duplicates, my mind can't grasp the number of books they have circulating. And even if I were never to do aught else with my life but read, I'd still fail in attempting to read them all.

The key here is a sort of humility that we must all face in the attaining of our projects and our desires. We can do so much that is amazing, beyond imagining (except clearly not, for someone dared to dream that we could go to the Moon), and yet we can only do that as one of a particular species, and not as ourselves. Were I born alone in the dawn of the world, I could not in my limited life reach even a small number of the civilizing elements of progress that mark our lives today. There is something to be said for reaching similar conclusions at an intellectual level: we are ready in our criticisms of dead geniuses of a bygone era, whether it's Descartes' magical pineal gland or Socrates' justified true belief theory of knowledge, but as individuals we are the beneficiaries of a vast, depthless pool of knowledge, learning, and break throughs, and we are certainly not the holders of all wisdom, nor will we ever be.

That was yesterday's thought.

Today's thought begins with an observation. That part of the reason why I have so many books I haven't read is because I cull the ones I do read and pass them on to new readers. Some survive, and that's the interesting part to observe. Yes, I have my Harry Potter series, much loved and well read (the more so because I deliberately collected used first versions of the original English paperbacks), and those I'll keep forever. Those are an exception to the interpretive analysis.

Which is this: that the books I give away are not necessarily inferior or somehow undesireable. The difference is simply that the ones I've read and kept have been almost exclusively those that I have had the opportunity to discuss in some setting or another, drawing out their meanings in such a way that they have become as friends rather than as mere objects to be traded and given away. Hence most of the books I read in college and high school literature classes remain on my shelves, but a supply of contemporary fiction is ever rotating in and out.

I suppose in this way, my personal library has been molded by my communities. For they have been the bridge to bring me insight and understanding, connections to a text where I had none before. Through them, I have befriend unusual characters with whom I have no other sympathetic link. And so they have kept these books for me, giving them a greater place in my life and affections than they might otherwise have warranted.


More Thoughts on Intimacy

England is, to use Bill Bryson's phrase, a "small island," it's true. But that only makes it all the more pleasantly surprising when you discover that for its size, it's a startlingly diverse place. Not in terms of melanin or world cultures, although there is some of that, albeit probably restricted to the urban areas. I mean that in a country with only 4,000 more square miles than the state of Pennsylvania, the accents of people who were born and raised a thirty minute train ride away from each other are distinctly different enough that an outsider can distinguish them and identify their places of birth.

Things have changed a bit with the advent of television and, before that, radio. I'm led to believe that there's a sort of "BBC English" that has subtly or not-so-subtly standardized spoken English like a verbal version of what the King James Bible was for written English. But what I said before still holds true: Norfolk speech is clearly distinct from Yorkshire speech is clearly distinct from Welsh speech and so on.

And that's just the ways of speaking--that's not even accounting for the language itself. Which is, of course, what I'm really interested in. England's history is dense and rich, such that you could spend weeks in one place and barely scratch the surface of all that's there. And a huge part of that is the language. What with different conquests and industries, the languages of different regions have developed entire dictionaries of hyper-specific terms. Okay, so they might be smallish dictionaries, but still more than you might expect for an area the size of, oh, Philadelphia County.

The thing about this rich, complex language is that it's born out of an intimate familiarity with a particular place. It arises when you're paying attention, and you've paid attention for forty years in a row, until your knowledge of the land (or a craft) has become minutely detailed. The shape of the land makes itself known in the shape of your speech, and your life is molded to its peculiarities, from the question of what vegetables grow in the local soil to the easiest route to walk from here to there to the terms you use to describe the weather today.

I say walk, because driving is the enemy of familiarity. As we speed up our lives, the spaces between where we're coming from and where we're going begin to blur, losing their right to claim our attention and becoming alien to us. Our lives are defined by choice, here the choice to attend only to spaces that form the points at either end of a line, so that we rarely have to attend or adapt ourselves to the circumstances of all that's in-between. But setting that aside.

Robert MacFarlane's book, Landmarks, is partially a glossary of the wildly unique, regional terms that have arisen in response to the particular local features of terrain and climate. Just to give a selection...

Many of these terms have mingled oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognizable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw, a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, f'rug, for 'the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore'; another, pirr, meaning 'a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat's paw on the water'; and another, klett, for 'a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore'. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for 'the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal'; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.


As well as these untranslatable terms, I have gathered synonyms - especially those that bring new energies to familiar phenomena. The variant English terms for 'icicle' - aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cambria) - form a tinkling poem of their own. In Northamptonshire dialect 'to thaw' is to ungive. The beauty of this variant I find hard to articulate, but it surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift - an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

While he's attempting to capture some of the words that have been used in the past, MacFarlane notes that this is an ongoing process. It has not stopped simply because most of us have lost touch with rural life and the land. Perhaps it has slowed, although he doesn't say that. But languages are fluid, flexible things, more like water, shaping itself within its banks, even as it changes those banks with its motion. As long as there are people speaking, there will be new words, new combinations, to express the range of human experience, new words and new combinations to shape our understanding of those experiences. But they can only arise when we're paying attention.


{Burbs} The Utopia of Rules

Title: The Utopia of Rules
Author: David Graeber
Year First Published: 2015

The biggest problem I had with this book is that I couldn't underline it. Libraries are honestly just about the closest thing that we have to magic (obviously the closest thing is the postal service--an opinion I've held for a long time and one that, coincidentally, Graeber addresses in this book, but more on that later), but the one thing you can't do with non-digital library books is underline them. So at last, it would seem, I have found something useful about ebooks versus physical books: you are actually able to underline or bookmark a borrowed ebook, and nobody will ever give you a nasty look for it.

As with his somewhat better known tome, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber is tackling social structures that we don't often look at, from a perspective that we don't often think of. Admittedly, most of us aren't anarchist anthropologists (which is a pretty badass-sounding combination of words, btw), so that's hardly surprising. But also, most people don't busy themselves thinking much about bureaucracy, except maybe how much they hate it, and even then, they mostly just resign themselves to the whole thing.

Oh right, so we're three paragraphs in, and I haven't even made this clear yet, because I'm not a very good book reviewer. This book is all about bureaucracy. Why we love it, why it makes us stupid, and how it is fundamentally rooted in violence.

In case you think I'm joking about that last bit, we come to our first quote:

In contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as "criminal law enforcement"--particularly, to police officers. I say "euphemistically" because generations of police sociologists have pointed out that only a very small proportion of what police actually do has anything to do with enforcing criminal law--or with criminal matters of any kind. Most of it has to do with regulations, or, to put it slightly more technically, with the scientific application of physical force, or the threat of physical force, to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. In other words they spend most of their time enforcing all those endless rules and regulations about who can buy or smoke or sell or build or eat or drink what where that don't exist in places like small-town or rural Madagascar.

So: Police are bureaucrats with weapons.

A case in point that was possibly too recent to have included in this book when it was submitted for publication: Eric Garner. How do you go from maybe selling individual cigarettes to being choked to death on the sidewalk by a New York police officer? See the above.

Or here's another situation, not to do with race (necessarily--although there's probably a racially disparate impact): police are often called in to deal with people manifesting serious mental health issues. Sometimes they are called in when those people in fact have committed a crime, and if you follow the Southern Poverty Law Center on Facebook, you'll quickly learn what the statistics are on mental illness, prisons, and--surprise, surprise--lack of treatment coupled with institutionalized procedures that may contribute to further deteriorating mental health. Sometimes it's just crazy Michelle in the court yard, building a box tent in the rain, and she's obviously not okay, but they're not really going to do anything either way, and it raises the question: why are the police the people we're calling in that situation? Because we're afraid of "crazy" people and need to be protected from them, just in case? Because Michelle needs to be protected from herself? (I don't know how much this proves Graeber's point, but I figured it was worth bringing up in relation to that, if only to stir some thoughts)

Post offices. I promised, now let me deliver. This book happens to be a collection of three longer essays (at least one appears to have begun life as a lecture, actually, but close enough) and a fourth shorter piece that was an expanded article critiquing The Dark Knight Rises for its clumsy handling of current affairs and developing the relations among superheroes, the far right and the radical left. The third essay, for which the book is named, deals in part with the tension between "play," here understood as a kind of free, chaotic creativity and productivity, and "games," which are transparently rule-bound and can only produce a limited range of results.

[...] Bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I've called poetic technology, that is, one where mechanical forms of organization, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshaled to the realization of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratization of despotism. Once, the privileged waving of one's hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organize themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.

Graeber traces the development of the postal service in both its German and its American incarnations, although primarily the German. As a sort of marvelous tidbit of history, the German postal service was such an astonishingly successful top-down enterprise that it was arguably an inspiration for Lenin. It took a military requisite and turned it into a civilian necessity.

Arguably, the postal service is a bureaucratic sort of institution. But, as suggested by the above quotation, it's the sort of institution that has results which are anything but dull and trivial. We often get irritated when our packages don't arrive on time or get held up or get lost in the mail. And in our frustrations over what doesn't happen, we lose sight of just how wondrous it is that an Etsy seller in Bulgaria or Thailand can ship something to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and 99% of the time (probably/maybe better), it actually arrives just like it's supposed to. We're not quite at the pneumatic tubes shooting letters throughout Berlin in 1873 when it comes to magical delivery methods, but the postal service itself is a bit of wonder that has somehow worked its way into the gray background of our everyday life.

Actually, I say "somehow," but Graeber has an argument about that too, saying that the postal service got its tarnished reputation from a very deliberate conservative smear campaign in the second half of the 20th century, in an attempt to show how governments should not be in charge of such enterprises. Plus, now we have the Internet, 9,000 messaging apps (I personally have four on my phone, and five if you count the messaging feature on Instagram -- WHY??), and email, so sending things at the speed of light by dissolving them into 1s and 0s admittedly may have stolen whatever glamour remained.

There is so much more in this book, but it's almost my bedtime and I have to return said book to the library tomorrow, so that's all you're getting. I found it to be highly accessible and engaging, and I liked the bits about Madagascar (if for some reason David Graeber ever were to read this, I'm apologize to him for damning his PhD research with such faint praise--mea culpa, I know nothing of what I speak). I highly recommend both this book and Debt (which I haven't finished yet, because it's 500 pages long and I have the ebook version -- yet another advantage that real books have over ebooks: I find the long ones much easier to read as a physical copy), at the very least to look at everything from a different angle and to maybe compel you to consider that the world doesn't have to be the way that it is, in spite of all attempts to convince us of its predestinated inevitability. If, like me, you're sympathetic to some of the more political aspects and also loathe the meaninglessness of most labor in the 21st century, then you should definitely read it, because you might weirdly end up with a "smidgen" of hope in the middle of your existential despair.

When I Say Your Name

I discovered something recently that probably shouldn't have surprised me, but it did.

For whatever reason, the weather during both of my trips to England was stupendous. The first time I was there, it was late March and all of April. The second time was from early January through late June. While Pennsylvania groaned under the wintry weight of an unmoved blanket of snow for four weeks straight, I was wearing light coats and enjoying brisk but pleasantly sunny walks through the Grantchester Meadows. The real clincher though was that on my walks along Silver Street out to the Sidgwick Site, I would pass by large grassy area where crocuses were pushing up their pale spikes and beginning to bloom in a flowery carpet... before the end of February.

I brought this up recently, sort of absentmindedly, to a coworker of mine. Crocuses have always been a sign of spring for me, maybe more so even than robins, because when I was a child, our neighbors had a huge bed of crocuses in their front yard. We would walk past it every day when I went with my mother on her paper route rounds. So I feel as though I've never not known what crocuses are. Or daffodils, tulips, irises, English ivy, mimosa trees, zinnias (which are precisely the sort of friendly but stupid flower that you would expect something named "zinnia" to be), chrysanthemums, larkspur, Queen Anne's lace, hydrangeas and hyacinths, lilacs, fuchsias, pansies (which are amiable, practical, and not at all stupid), lavender, daisies, black-eyed Susans (I love that name), sunflowers, poppies and peonies, pine versus spruce versus fir... I used to pore over Burpee seed catalogs, picking out my favorite flowers and thinking how hideous cockscomb is, like some kind of strange sea creature that I'd be more likely to see in a National Geographic underwater film than in someone's garden.

But my coworker, bless his heart, had no idea what a crocus was. My mind was blown. To me, a crocus is like a basic shape that you learn in elementary school. This is a crocus, that is a triangle. Easy. Knowledge that you have forever.

There is something so intimate in the knowing of the natural world. As if, when you walked outside, you were greeted by a thousand friends or by soon-to-be friends, whose easy acquaintance might be made with the mere uttering of the spell. What's in a name? The summons that knows it will be answered because it cannot help but be answered. I say your name in a conversation on the other side of a crowded, noisy room, and you look up, because it is a command to attention even when I do not wish to engage in such tyranny.

And I feel as though I know so very little, but I want to know more, to be brought into that place where mere recognition surpasses itself into friendship. The name summons, greets, but it also distinguishes one from another. A tautology: you are you, unique unto yourself. The infinite variety of the world unfolds before us in a language whose grammar has been lost, leaving us only with its proper nouns, and even those feel unfamiliar on our urbanized tongues.

Yet it's a closer thing, to at least speak those names, however few, than to know none of them at all.


Time and Memory: Austerlitz

Book: Austerlitz
Author: W.G. Sebald
Year First Published: 2001

"After our game we usually stayed in the ballroom for a little while, looking at the images cast on the wall opposite the tall, arched windows by the last rays of the sun shining low through the moving branches of the hawthorn, until at last they were extinguished. There was something fleeting, evanescent about those sparse patterns appearing in constant succession on the pale surface, something which never went beyond the moment of its generation, so to speak, yet here in the intertwining of sunlight and shadow, always forming and re-forming, you could see mountainous landscapes with glaciers and ice fields, high plateaux, steppes, deserts, fields full of lowers, islands in the sea, coral reefs, archipelagoes and atolls, forests bending to the storm, quaking grass and drifting smoke."

Austerlitz is the fourth and final piece of... fiction? Prose? Not fiction. But not entirely fact either. And we've already arrived at the conundrum which is so much of Sebald to me. Anyway, it was the fourth major, non-academical bit of writing that this German expat professor at the University of East Anglia published, and it happened to be his last, by dint of his dying the year it came out. Having read two of the other three (The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, with The Emigrants still remaining), I couldn't help but feel like this was the best of the lot, or at least, that it was equal to The Rings of Saturn, which was the first that I read and which has perhaps made the most startling impression.

Perhaps the most relevant thing to know about Sebald is that he was born in Germany in 1944. While that might sound like a rocky way to start things off, the town he describes in Vertigo seems to be quite sheltered in a remote mountainous area. Thanks to a New Yorker article published on the tenth anniversary of his death (link below), I've also learned that his father was in the Army and participated in the invasion of Poland, so perhaps while he was geographically isolated from some of the aftermath of the war, he was nonetheless raised in a household where at least one of its members had come face-to-face with the realities of World War II.

Oh, but why is this relevant? Because, to go back to my original point, Sebald isn't really writing fiction. I described it once as the sort of thing you would read on a hot, dusty summer evening in a cemetery, probably with a beer nearby or something. It's like you're reading an old sepia-toned photograph that was slightly overexposed in one corner and has faded with time. He's writing something like a memoir, something like a travelogue, something like... but not quite like anything else.

I recently watched the movie "Night Train to Lisbon," which slow, quiet, and lovely, and it reminded me a great deal of Austerlitz, I realized, because both of these tales are built around a glaring absence. In "Night Train," Raymond mysteriously comes across a book written by a Portuguese doctor and by an odd series of events ends up in Lisbon, looking for the doctor and, upon learning of his death, fumbling to reconstruct the life of this unusual individual.

Austerlitz takes "Night Train" a step further, with the glaring absence being a character who is alive, present, and half-narrating the novel, but who is himself in the course of the story rebuilding his own life. I'm already making no sense, but I'll try to untangle that. The narrator meets the title character, Jacques Austerlitz, in a chance encounter at a railway station in Belgium. Austerlitz is engaged in the study of the history of architecture and they have long chats about various places, but never really delve into their personal lives--or at least, not Austerlitz's, and we never learn much about the narrator. Over time and after many years, the narrator discovers that in fact Austerlitz himself did not quite know who he was. The rest of the story chronicles the series of events by which Austerlitz came to learn that he was brought to England as part of a Kindertransport in the 1930s and what became of his mother.

It's an odd setup, in that the narrator of the story is essentially giving the reader a secondhand account of that which was narrated to him first by Austerlitz, which is regularly impressed upon the reader by the frequent appearance of "...said Austerlitz..." And virtually the entire book, save for a few place markers, is just that: narration. The device of the second, otherwise redundant narrator seems to be an attempt to convey an outsider's perspective of Austerlitz, from his slightly odd methods of communication to his home, which is sparsely furnished and painted all in gray.

It is worth noting, however, that the narrator, though a largely colorless character, doesn't entirely fade into the background. Especially in the beginning, where he speaks of his own travels in Belgium, his visit to the fortress of Breendonk, and the difficulty of reconnecting with Austerlitz after some years had passed, and at the very end, when he returns to Breendonk to read Don Jacobson's book about reconstructing a family history in a Lithuania gutted of its Jewish population. He is present--there is the occasional I--but he is also a step back from it all, giving the impression of allowing it to speak for itself. I'm not sure if it's an intentional element or a flaw that the narrator's account of his own few adventures is written in much the same tenor as Austerlitz's retellings. I'd have to read more closely with an eye to the narrator's role.

Anyway, curiosity of the narrator aside, there are two things that are inescapably Sebaldian (at least from my uneducated perspective): time and memory.

Time is everywhere. Time that freezes, time that doesn't exist, all points being one point.

Time, said Austerlitz in the observation room at Greenwich, was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate, quite apart from the fact that the solar day which we take as our guideline does not provide any precise measurement, so that in order to reckon time we have to devise an imaginary, average sun which has an invariable speed of movement and does not incline towards the equator in its orbit. [...] In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it? Why do we show the hours of light and darkness in the same circle? Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction? [...] In fact, said Austerlitz, I have never owned a clock of any kind, a bedside alarm or a pocket watch, let alone a wristwatch. A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and never-ending anguish."

Perhaps this is also one of the functions of the second narrator. For Austerlitz comes in and out of his life, but he (Austerlitz) has an unusual, marked tendency of picking up the conversation almost exactly where it left off. The effect is to compress time. We are made aware that time is passing by the sporadic comments of the narrator. Here a few weeks pass, here twenty years passes, here it is only a matter of an evening into the next day. The result is that at certain points in the book, Austerlitz shares memories of things that may have occurred around the same time that he first met the second narrator. Practically nothing is told as it occurs. With perhaps the implication that nothing in the present has a meaning. It is only when we look back and begin the process of organizing the data of our lives into a coherent tale that we discover that this thing happened because there was a man who didn't understand what he was avoiding--or even that he was avoiding something at all--and therefore couldn't grasp his reactions or spell out the nameless darkness of his emotional life.

I don't know how much more I need to say. There is so much here, and yet so much of it is in a sort of monologue that doesn't always relate back to the identifiable plot. Sebald's passing vignettes are luminous things. The story of Uncle Alphonso taking young Austerlitz and his friend Gerard up the mountainside to watch moths in the night is painfully lovely, as are Austerlitz's remarks on moths who have "lost their way" and cling, stricken and fragile, to a wall even after their death.

Or, at Marienbad I believe:

As I listened to Marie and tried to imagine poor Schumann in his Bad Godesberg cell I had another picture constantly before my eyes, that of the pigeon loft we had passed on an excursion to Koenigswart. Like the country estate to which it belonged, this dovecote, which may have dated from the Metternich period, was in an advanced state of decay. The floor inside the brick walls was covered with pigeon droppings compressed under their own weight, yet already over two feet high, a hard, desiccated mass on which lay the bodies of some of the birds who had fallen from their niches, mortally sick, while their companions, surviving in a kind of senile dementia, cooed at one another in tones of quiet complaint in the darkness under the roof, and a few downy feathers, spinning round in a little whirlwind, slowly sank through the air.

I think the potency of these brief images lies partially in their ordinariness. A moth on a wall, an old dovecote. These are things we pass by, don't look at, don't think about. But Sebald (or his characters, I suppose) stops, looks, thinks, and with a few well-placed brush strokes makes a dovecote into a sign of spiritual decay.

Indeed, as I was reading this book over the course of a few weeks, I found myself more inclined to take note of my surroundings in ways that I normally don't. As I was walking to work on a gray morning, I was startled by the sight of an otherwise unremarkable man with a bright yellow banana peel in his hand. Or as I was walking home on a chilly afternoon, absorbed in listening to a podcast, I passed under a bridge where water from the melting snow had frozen in a column down the wall and looked like a river paused in mid-sentence. Likewise, I felt as though the things that the narrator or Austerlitz described were unusual, but not so much in their having occurred as in their being noticed.

I should go back to an earlier remark before I conclude this, that is, that it's important to know some of Sebald's own history, because his work isn't exactly fiction. The backdrop of Austerlitz is World War II, specifically the pressing horror of the Holocaust. Austerlitz was the child of Jewish parents. After he escaped Prague, his mother was deported to Theresienstadt, and probably from there went on to a death camp. He has to begin his search with pre-war records in Prague, is foiled in his search for his father by the unhelpfulness of bureaucrats in Paris, watches footage from a propaganda film in which he believes he sees Agata's face, recounts readings and diagrams from a work published in 1955 that explains the arrangement and daily functions of Theresienstadt in painful detail, and so on. The tragedy that erases Austerlitz's past, that brings him to a melancholic home in Wales, is a huge, difficult fog on the horizons of history. It is impossible to read the book without having an ever-present sense of the recency of the war and the Holocaust, just as, I think, it is impossible to understand Sebald without recognizing that as well.

Oh god, and I totally forgot to talk about the architecture. Okay, one last thing then: I'm currently reading about the history of architectural phenomenology, for not entirely unrelated reasons. The person who first brought Sebald to my attention is an architect, and he had read some excerpts from Austerlitz and Rings in an architectural journal. For some reason or another, when I described parts of Austerlitz to him (he hasn't actually read either yet), he suggested that I look up an architect by the name of Jorge Otero-Pailos, whose writings are influenced (from what I can tell) by architectural phenomenology.

If I'm doing it justice, this was essentially an idea in architecture that what one should pay attention to was not the specific technical elements of a design, but rather the individual, lived feeling that a building gave.

And while it's not exactly in the foreground of the story, wow, is this ever important to the crafting of it all. From the narrator's impressions of Breendonk to Austerlitz's descriptions of the Great Eastern Hotel, the old Liverpool Station and its concealed waiting room, the castles on the Rhine. The section on the Bibliotheque Nationale is a stunning and unusual critique independent of the story.

...I was approached by one of the library staff called Henri Lemoine, who had recognized me from those early years of mine in Paris when I went daily to the rue Richelieu. Jacques Austerlitz, inquired Lemoine, stopping by my desk and leaning slightly down to me, and so, said Austerlitz, we began a long, whispered conversation in the Haut-de-jardin reading room, which was gradually emptying now, about the dissolution, in line with the inexorable spread of processed data, of our capacity to remember, and about the collapse, l'effrondement, as Lemoine put it, of the Bibliotheque Nationale which is already underway. The new library building, which in both its entire layout and its near-ludicrous internal regulation seeks to exclude the reader as a potential enemy, might be described, so Lemoine thought, said Austerlitz, as the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with everything which has some living connection to the past.

This conversation is preceded by an intensive description of the new Bibliotheque, which not coincidentally has been built (or so I gather) more or less on top of the buildings in which the worldly goods of Paris's deported Jewish families were stored and sorted prior to being sent back to Germany. Also not coincidentally, these warehouses were nigh unto Austerlitz railway station, which also gets a feeling-full description. But the new national library is given its own special treatment apart, theoretically, from those details of history. Namely, it is built up in the reader's imagination as a place that is actively hostile toward history, or at least toward the people who would seek to make use of its largely historical contents, its records and archives. Its location remote from the heart of the city, its steep, high staircase which is of no purpose save to inspire feelings of insignificance and to daunt the arthritic, for as soon as one enters one is not at ground level but must take an escalator down to an entryway where security officers review visitors before permitting them to go in. And of course, to maintain the impression, the architectural sensibilities are reinforced through the internal procedures, wherein those who seek access must wait in queues, get numbers, go through interviews, and even then, may not be able to find what they are looking for. Insofar as it adds anything to the story, it's rather subtle and more to do with the history of the place than its present incarnation, but the whole image is so well done. (The Guardian's book reviewer makes a point that I obliviously sailed past, namely, that the library is meant to be a re-incarnation of the Theresienstadt ghetto which so obsesses Austerlitz throughout the story. I am clearly out of practice with this literary analysis business.)

And now that I've done an absolutely terrible job of describing or explaining this book for anyone who hasn't read it (and anyone who has read it will either sympathize with my plight or think me utterly wrongheaded in everything I've said), I think I'll add nothing more.

Additional Things Which A Casual Google Search Has Turned Up:
Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald - Mark O'Connell
Review of Austerlitz from The Guardian - Charles Saumarez Smith
Different (Somewhat more critical) review from The Guardian - Andy Beckett


Three-strand cords

In a post that I wrote a year ago, Justice Without Borders, I described how in Henry Shue's formulation of basic rights, the right to security is a positive one, calling for action, and not merely a negative "do no harm" principle. At the time, I was puzzled by the question of practical responses, especially coming from a largely pacifistic perspective. If we are not to go to war on behalf of someone, then how are we to protect their right to be free from threat of bodily or psychological harm?

As is so often the case, life answered.

First, I want to respond to my own comments grappling with the possibility of going to war on behalf of the oppressed. I haven't really studied just war theory or read much about the subject. However, as a general principle. I believe that violent confrontation is an ineffective non-solution to problems, and that it should not be the resort of civilized persons or nations, certainly not on a large scale and not even, as my previous posts have highlighted, through the selective application of drone strikes. The one possible exception to this case would be in the case of genocide. I believe this is a fairly common exception to make, but to be honest, I am not entirely happy with it and I wanted to challenge it to see if it might too be an unnecessary application of violent means.

Enter Žižek. In an interview published on Quartz, he shares some of his thoughts on the rise of right wing and extremist/radical right politicians and groups. At one point he makes an intriguing comparison, saying that Hitler was less violent than Gandhi, and that Hitler did not succeed partly because he was not violent *enough.* His basis for this claim is in the ends toward which the two men worked. Hitler used violent means to defend a status quo, or perhaps even to carry it out to its darkest implications. There was no break from the past, no great change to the people or the state of the nation. On the other hand. Gandhi's passive resistance was incredibly violent in that it effectively overthrew the historical, social, and political order of the British Empire's claim on India. The change was so great as to be considered a form of violence. And this is one of Žižek's points: that nonviolence can be more effective in bringing about radical change than violence. So we must take the high road.

Which leads me to my second point.

In order to ensure that others have access to a security right, sometimes we must voluntarily give up our own right. It is ours insofar as our society is built upon a respect for that right and our government is structured in such a way that it protects it and does not threaten it. A right cannot be lawfully taken away: but it can be foregone.

This is essentially what we do when we open our borders and our communities to refugees. There is some risk there that no amount of intensive, "proctological" examination of a person's history can ever fully mitigate. There is no way to see the future, and as that will always be the case, we can't know what someone may become. All we can do is weigh who they are and have been.

Some Americans want to block these refugees from their communities for fear of terrorism. Fair enough, in a world of threats, why add yet another possibility? And yet, I can't support that. What we have is not ours. What we hoard will only slip through our fingers in the end.

Likewise, the unofficially official American rhetoric against Muslims generated by fears for our own security can only exacerbate the already fraught situation. It is commonly held that terrorist organizations gain adherents by creating narratives about uniting to fight a common enemy. If we play into that myth by placing religious or ethnic bans or by spreading hate and vitriol through both official statements and poorly regulated presidential Twitter accounts, we have armed our own executioners (in a much more lasting way, might I add. than putting mere physical weapons in their hands--a weapon can be broken, lost, or taken, but an ideology endures until the last written words of the last man have been burnt to ash, and even then we are not safe).

I was thinking today about the way that all of these things come together. I do not desire war, but I do wish to act on behalf of those who have had their lives taken away; their most basic rights stripped from them. And I think what we find is that war is not necessary if we can find a more radical path, one that violently overthrows the destabilizing forces of a region through non-violent means.

What is this path?


I cannot kill a man once I have broken bread with him. And I cannot stir up anger against him if his reputation for genuine beneficence is established and he consistently acts for the good of others.

This doesn't even involve giving up much. In fact, it doesn't mean giving up anything at all. This so-called travel ban was meant to place additional restrictions on travel for some nationalities and for a limited period of time. I have separate problems with it, but my point here is that it's not something we already have: it's an attempt at the security bonus package.

But realistically, our existing immigration reviews are extremely intensive. Your chances of dying at the hands of a Muslim terrorist on American soil are infinitesimally small compared with the chance that you will be involved in a fatal vehicle crash or that you'll die of cancer. What actually went down at Bowling Green, Kentucky, involved men who were prepared to support terrorism... in other countries. They were trying to supply weapons overseas, not plan an attack on American citizens in their own homes.

In other words, as sacrifices go, this one is really small. And as far as its impact, the potential is incalculably great. When did support for gay marriage dramatically increase? When people began to realize that gay people weren't somewhere else--"they" were close friends and family members who had been to  afraid to speak out. The other wasn't so other.

When you invite someone into your home, when you REALLY open your community to them, they stop being representatives of a culture you don't share and a religion you don't understand, and the start being friends. People you'll actually make an effort to understand. People you're committed to helping. And it goes both ways. Through the generosity of hospitality, we find ourselves ably defended. How can you stoke hatred for Americans when old friends visit or call and talk about how friendly Americans have been to them, how open they have been? The charges do not stick.

Is this a tremendously idealistic picture of the world? Absolutely. But better to fight forever for an unattainable ideal than to sit passively by in cynicism and watch it all go to the dogs.


Book Blurbs {A Brief History of the Crimean War}

For 2017, I'm going to try something sort of borrowed and sort of new.

I've kept track of the books that I've read each year since 2009, partly so I can remember what all I've read and partly so I can keep a count going. My original goal was to read 100 books a year, which was quite reasonable as a teenager. I only met it once, but I did get into the upper 80s and 90s a few times. These days, I aim for 50, a rather more modest, but attainable goal. Unfortunately, I still find that even with a list of titles, I can't always remember having read something. This is the downside of reading so much. Everything sort of starts to blur together and you pick up a Diana Wynne Jones book of short stories, thinking it's new to you, only to discover that all the plots are somewhere between startlingly new and confusingly familiar.

Quite a few years back, I participated in a blog called Fifty Books Project (if you look at the side bar, you'll note that "quite a few" means "seven"). It's a small group of people who share the goal of each reading fifty books that year, and with each book completed, they write a short piece about it. Some of the members are English teachers who write lovely critical analyses in four paragraphs, others are (like myself) more inclined to summarize or share impressions. Anyone could join, and it was a nice challenge.

In the spirit of the project, and in an attempt to do something with what I've read, so that I might be able to remember it for more than two days, I'm going to write short posts about books that I read throughout the year. Not all of them--there are some novels that just aren't worth it--but as many as I can. So without further ado, I bring you...

A Brief History of the Crimean War by Alexis Troubetzkoy

Why This Book? 
A bit of an association and a bit of pure curiosity. I've been watching this TV show set at the same historical time period as the Boer War, and I don't know much about that war, except who the major players were and where it was fought. This put me in mind of another English war about which I knew very little, namely, the Crimean War, which always sounded poetic, but was otherwise a mystery to me. I might have known that it was where Florence Nightingale jumped into the pages of history, but even that might be too charitable to myself.

What Happened?
The story is a mostly chronological survey of the events leading up to the Crimean War. Since Kinglake managed to write six volumes on the subject, I suspect that 300 pages hardly captures more than the Sparknotes of the occasion.

In the 1840s, the major European leaders were Tsar Nicholas I in the East, the Hapsburgs' Franz Joseph I of Austria, Queen Victoria of England, and the upstart Napoleon III, leader of France. It was an uneasy time for some of the more established monarchs. In Italy, the northeastern states staged an uprising to throw off Austrian rule. Napoleon III was himself the leader of an uprising, first riding into the presidency of the Second Republic, then staging a coup d'etat to become Emperor.

The balance of power was ever-changing, and in the midst of this uncertainty, the sun had clearly begun to set on the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans themselves seem to have felt it, taking measures to boost a lagging population through social policies and playing European powers against one another in an attempt to avoid conceding more of their own power.

Tsar Nicholas may have wished to speed that decline, for his defense of Orthodox rights and privileges in Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem strikes my modern sensibilities as unnecessarily pig-headed. Troubetzkoy notes that neither the pope nor the acting head of the Orthodox church were unduly concerned about what was a largely political power play. Certainly, Nicholas's added demand, that he have protection of Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands, has only the thinnest veneer of religious legitimacy. He was nominal head of the church, but a secular (that is, worldly) emperor in fact.

The Turkish sultan did agree to Nicholas's demands regarding Jerusalem, but he was much less inclined to grant such invasive overreach as protection of the Ottoman Orthodox Christians. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he had the English ambassador, Lord Stratford Canning, present to assure him of English military support.

Ultimately, the Crimean War seems to have been an ill-planned, haphazard affair. Its major engagement was the siege of Sevastopol, which lasted for nearly a year and claimed tens of thousands of lives. The war itself only lasted two or three years, and by its end, it was looked on with great disfavor. Logistically, the British troops were unprepared--and they were raw. They hadn't fought a war in two generations. Their commander-in-chief had never seen battle, and he appointed as leaders other men who had never seen battle, intending to give them their chance for a little glory.

The famed Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized by Tennyson, was the result of a miscommunication from a snide, disrespectful aide-de-camp, and it was essentially a suicide mission. Cholera was rampant, along with more prosaic forms of dysentery. Troubetzkoy observes that the entire siege of Sevastopol could have been avoided if Lord Raglan hadn't acceded to the dying St. Arnaud and had pressed forward with a revised plan to attack from the poorly defended north rather than taking the two day march around to the south.

By the time the war ended, Nicholas had died of heart failure, and his son Aleksandr agreed to terms on the status of the holy places. The Red Cross was born. And Napoleon III's determination to cement his favor with glory on the battlefield had been achieved to his satisfaction.

Where Does It Lead?
I find that most books are not the end of a journey, but only a hallway that ends with another, or indeed many other doors. In this case, I actually paused midway to open one. I read this essay about abortion policy in the Ottoman Empire because of a passing comment Troubetzkoy made about a rise in abortions being to blame for a decline in population. It's absolutely fascinating reading--not least because it suggests that several interpretive traditions of Islam permit/permitted abortion, and it was only due to political ends that abortion came to be widely stigmatized and ultimately outlawed.


A Quotation

We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacities.

I recognize the possibility and existence of this knowledge, even its usefulness, but I also recognize the narrowness of its usefulness and the damage it does. I can see that in a sense it is true, but also that its truth is small and far from complete. 


We can, to be sure, see parts and so believe in them. But there has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth. Genesis is right: 'It is not good that the man should be alone.' The phrase 'be alone' is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.

{Wendell Berry, Paragraphs from a Notebook}

Some Questions

{This is something I had started writing months ago, and I no longer remember whether it was meant to be more than these questions. Since I feel that they are still quite relevant, I decided to publish them as they are.}

What are alternative micro-economies that exist alongside of/outside of capitalism?

Why don't we dedicate more time and resources to exploring those alternatives when the system that we have in place routinely excludes or reduces the opportunities available to people with physical and mental disabilities, former prisoners, immigrants, the un- or under-educated, people of color, women, and the historically impoverished?

What is this fundamental belief in price tags that denominate the terms under which goods or labor will be exchanged, and that forms the basis for calculations of debts carrying a tsunami's worth of moral force?


2016 Book List

My Name Is Red - Orhan Pamuk
The Devil in the White City - Erik Larsen
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - J. K. Rowling
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams
Life, the Universe and Everything - Douglas Adams
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish - Douglas Adams
Mostly Harmless - Douglas Adams
Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee
A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes
Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris
All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr
The Bridge of the Golden Horn - Emine Sevgi Oezdamar
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life - Richard Hofstadter
Urn Burial - Kerry Greenwood
The Hummingbird’s Daughter - Luis Alberto Urea
The Unity of Philosophical Experience - Etienne Gilson
The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett
Beauty Is a Wound - Eka Kurniawan
Archer’s Goon - Diana Wynne Jones
A Tale of Time City - Diana Wynne Jones
Unexpected Magic - Diana Wynne Jones
The Swan - Gudbergur Bergsson
Hitler’s Furies - Wendy Lower
The Man Who Was Thursday - G. K. Chesterton
So, Anyway… - John Cleese
The Sea Captain’s Wife - Martha Hodes
Remembering - Wendell Berry
The German War: A Nation Under Arms - Nicholas Stargardt
The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford
Vertigo - W.G. Sebald
Bridge of Spies - Giles Whittell
Regarding the Pain of Others - Susan Sontag
The Road to San Giovanni - Italo Calvino
Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays - Iris Marion Young
Gratitude - Oliver Sacks
What It Means to Be Human - Joanna Bourke
The Bone Clock - David Mitchell
The Body Artist - Don DeLillo
On the Use of Philosophy - Jacques Maritain
Men at Arms - Terry Pratchett
Maskerade - Terry Pratchett
Snuff - Terry Pratchett
Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Princess Bride - William Goldman
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
Mind & Cosmos - Thomas Nagel
Dr. Mutter’s Marvels - Cristen O’Keefe Aptowicz
Dracula - Bram Stoker
An Intimate History of Killing - Joanna Bourke
The Kelayres Massacre - Stephanie Hoover
Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth
As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner
When Paris Went Dark - Ronald C. Rosbottom

All the Single Ladies - Rebecca Traister