Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I am not . . . an animal!

I know I should have written more yesterday, but I couldn't psyche up for it. I was too upset and drained.

Yesterday we had our first parent-teacher conference for our five-year-old in preschool. And we find out that our son is The Problem Kid. If you don't think you're identified with your children, just be told that your child is on track to be socially ostracized and permanently labelled as "weird." As one Zen teacher said to his students every morning: "Are you suffering today? Ahhhh . . . you must be attached."

So what's the problem? In a nutshell: he acts like an animal. Aidan can talk a happy blue streak to strangers in the grocery check-out line, and rap non-stop about dinosaurs and primates, but when confronted with a social situation with his peers, he goes into animal-mode, and growls, and bares his claws, and in short regresses to some totemic Animal place.

Thankfully, the Waldorf teachers are sensitive, psychologically, and they have a pretty good sense of where he's at. He is hyperdeveloped in Head (intellect) and Hands (will), with a corresponding underdevelopment of Heart. So it seems the sins of the fathers (and mothers) have visited upon the sons. As Aug has said again and again: "You can never run away from your issues. No matter where you go or what you do, you will meet them again."

So, we're left to brainstorm ways to get Aidan to stop identifying with animals and get more in touch with is inner human. What I want for Aidan, ideally, is to see it terms of a Nietzschean "dionysion ideal" -- a true human is someone who is full of primal animal energy that has been sublimated and transformed by the mind and the will into something spiritual. He can have all the animal he wants inside of him; he just has to human enough to control it.

So now I'm on the lookout for the best myths I can find on making that transformation . . . I need to go back and read the story of Mowgli in The Jungle Book. It's the only story I can remember where child-raised-by-wolves crosses over into socialized Man. But there have to be others.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Toe Touch

One word post. Psyche.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I am shocked, shocked to find . . . doughnuts

A friend of mine at NYU was gearing up for the "All-U Games", and annual event in which the different schools at the university compete with each other in various games like ping-pong, tug-of-war, etc. There was one event, though, that was pulled at the last minute:

Subject: Final Decision on Doughnut Eating
Hi Everyone,
The final decision is that doughnut eating will not be allowed at the All-U Games. I am very upset by this decision, but we have no other choice. Legal council has advised against this activity, and in the event that an incident does occur, they've transfered their liability onto the SSC by forewarning us. Regardless, I know that the All-U Games will be a tremendous success with all the other activities, so we shouldn't let this put a damper on our night. Please feel free to email me with your thoughts or comments. See you all tomorrow!

So, here's the magic question:
What exactly is so legally inadvisable as a doughnut-eating contest?

It can't possibly be a safety issue. When was the last time you heard of someone dying in a binge-eating incident . . . in public, no less? I mean, more people probably die of binge drinking at NYU, and I haven't heard any calls for a dry campus.

Here's my unscientific but nonetheless compelling evidence: google "doughnut eating contest death" and see what you find. Uh-huh. I thought so.

Still, I put 20% odds that it's a (perceived) safety issue.

Could it be (gasp) the sensitivity police? I am saddened to say . . . yes. Somebody will accuse the university of being insensitive to the plight of bulemics, and threaten it with a lawsuit that will be impossible to defend against, because it is absolutely impossible to prove you didn't hurt someone's feelings. Someone will smell an out-of-court settlement in the mid-five-figures, and crank up the outrage.

Mostly, I am embarrassed, because I have been publically blogging the opinion that there is not more fear in our society than before, and these dumb-asses have to go contradicting me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

An end to homelessness

Every once in while you read something that challenges assumptions so strongly that you sense anything is possible. I was fascinated by Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker that proposed that homelessness is a solvable problem. And not through some grand rationale about human nature, or a sweeping new reform, or a call for a lot more time and money . . . but rather through (gasp!) looking at the numbers.

Gladwell makes a compelling case, through both statistics and first-hand accounts from cops, nurses, and mayors, that homelessness is not broad, intractable problem afflicting millions, but rather a chronic problem affecting a few thousand very hard cases. And for those hard cases, the classical solutions to managing homelessness -- shelters, soup kitchens, and episodic medical treatment -- only enable the homeless to remain homeless and perpetuate the problem. When you tally up the costs of emergency room visits for these street drunks, they can cost upwards of a million dollars over their (relatively short) lives. With that kind of cost, you're better off pulling them off the street, putting them in an apartment and having them closely managed by case workers. Which is exactly what some cities have started to do.

The problem (of course) is really political: neither the left nor the right has much stomach for this kind of solution. The conservatives don't want to help people who don't deserve it: why should we reward someone for being a bum? And the left doesn't like it because it isn't egalitarian: it concentrates resources on the high-cost problems instead of treating everyone equally.

What gives me hope in all this is that somebody used science and common sense to address a problem that everyone else assumed couldn't be solved.

One facet of the solution that Gladwell didn't focus on much was the fact that it essentially required limiting the freedoms of those who abuse their freedoms. How many times does someone have to land in the emergency room, and not pay their bill, before we say: ok, we're cutting you off. You obviously can't handle the freedom afforded most people; time to put you under house arrest. I think even conservatives could handle the costs of such programs if they also came with stiff restrictions on behavior that no one (especially the drunks) would willingly take on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Survival Value of Obedience

Another thing that struck us both while we were reading the “Little House” books to Aidan is the severity of the discipline in those days. It seems there was only one form for correcting one’s children back then, and that was to take a switch to them. If a boy failed to bring the cows in by dark, he could expect a good thrashing from his Pa. And yet, there is a very strong sense of love and devotion between Laura and her parents.

This is cause for some cognitive dissonance with my wife, who is a leader of Attachment Parenting International and one quite committed to avoiding corporal punishment. “I don’t want to believe that everyone was completely screwed up back then . . . and yet their parenting seems pretty unenlightened.”

I thought about it some, and decided that there was good reason for the severity of the discipline back then – survival value. Back then, if a child didn’t do exactly as he was told, all the time, the consequences could be high: your son or daughter might be eaten by a panther, or (even worse) they might allow the pig that will feed the whole family through the winter to be killed by a bear. There were no emergency rooms to go to, and antibiotics were only just barely starting to be used; even a slight physical trauma could spell infection and death. In our world, children are the most expensive luxury item you can have, the recipients of everything. In their world, children were necessary laborers, vital parts of the household economy, soldiers in a daily fight for survival.

In that world, having unquestioning obedience from children had the same value that it has in the military: do exactly as your told, because if you don’t you will get us all killed.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The 100 Year Test

This past week we started reading the "Little House" books to Aidan. Janet and I had both grown up with the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic, and we were really excited to read them again with an appreciative audience. And Aidan is just eating it up -- he asks to read more two or three times a day, which is more than he's ever asked for a book before.

Now, for those not familiar with the books, it's important to understand that there is almost no plot. Every chapter is just a slice of life in Laura Ingalls life, starting in the 1870's. The first book is called "Little House in the Big Woods," but it could easily be called, "Little House, Like, In the Middle of Fucking Nowhere." Can you imagine being six years old and never having seen a town before? And yet the life of these people, through long winters and welcome springs, surrounded by deer and bears and panthers, is just fascinating.

Janet said to me today, "Are all slices of life created equal? Because I have a feeling that there is nothing in my daily routine that is a interesting as what these people are doing." So what makes for an interesting slice of experience? And how is it that our lives, with all the books and TV and movies and late-night philosophy, is not as compelling as venison, corn-cob dolls, and cold lonely nights?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Limits of Liberalism

Some friends of mine have been discussing the recent New York Times article about how the Mohammad cartoon flap illustrates the virtues of liberalism, and why arguments based on a culture of tolerance and discussion is going to be completely lost on the fundamentalist Muslim world.

Stanley Fish describes "liberalism" as the ability to hold certain beliefs seriously in private but casually in public, and to feel free to "let it all hang out" in the public sphere. This supposedly backs up the Danish publication for feeling free to overcome its "self-censorship", by deliberately printing cartoons they knew had the potential to offend the Muslim public.

I think we have to clearly define what "freedom of the press" means, and to do that we need to have a good understanding of what "freedom" in general means. "Freedom" means that you are not restricted by law in what you can do. But that has absolutely nothing to do with what you ought to do; we are always constrained by moral judgements of what's right or wrong. So, I can feel quite strongly that the government has no business telling people who they can sex with, and still feel equally strongly that sleeping with your neighbor's wife is reprehensible and wrong. I believe the press is legally free to say whatever it pleases . . . but there are still some things that are wrong to say, and we are free to say so.

To hold up freedom as a value that trumps moral judgement is not merely misguided. It is the beginning of real Evil. It is the attitude of Lucifer, wanting to do something hurtful, not because you want to, but precisely because you know it's wrong. It is Raskalnikov killing an old lady, precisely because he wants to show that his freedom of will transcends moral restrictions.

So, anyone who rushes to publish scandalous items (whatever their content) merely in the name of "freedom" is on very shaky ground. With freedom comes responsibility . . . and freedom untethered from responsibility quickly becomes something quite unfree: chaos.

Decisions, decisions

My wife is still struggling with the decision over whether to have another child.
"Why am I having such a hard time with this? I wish I could just take some Cosmo Quiz to figure out whether I really want this or not."
"Well," says I, "I'm guessing you're having such a hard time with it because you know you will be unhappy either way. If you do have one, you know that you're signing on for another year or two of intense work, on top of everything else, and all your carefully constructed routines will be blown to smithereens. If you don't have one, you're going to have to answer all those questions about what you really want to do with your life, the ones that you never really resolved ten years ago.
"So, you need to make a decision, and you always hate to make decisions, because you're always worried you'll make the wrong decision. And since you know trouble is waiting on either side of the decision, you don't want to make it."