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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The cons of Crunchy Cons

"Oh my God, we're a demographic," says my wife. It's been happening more and more. We think that we're different from most other people, unusual in our habits or tastes or values, and then suddenly we see a product or article or opinion that is targeted squarely at us.

Such was our initial reaction to seeing Rod Dreher's book Crunchy Cons, a self-described "manifesto" about the politically and religiously conservative people who are embracing such "counter-cultural" practices as limiting media exposure, home schooling, homesteading, community-building, etc. It seemed at first like a fit to us . . . my wife has often joked that she looks for all the world like an "earth momma" in her Birks, tie-dyes, and long hair, but none of her friends at school would guess that she listens to Rush Limbaugh.

But now I've read a couple reviews of the book, and I'm not sure we fit into the crunchy con category. I certainly hope we don't seem as smug and self-righteous as these people, in their continuous distain for the majority of people who define themselves by "things." Yes, we have a strong committment to our family life, and to doing things differently for the sake of our children, like eliminating television, embracing alternative education (in our case, Waldorf), etc. But I don't think we ever tried to build an identity out of it. It's not like we were longing to be rebellious counter-cultural types . . . we just wanted the best thing for our kids, and it was clear that public schools sucked.

In a lot of ways, I've come to realize that we are not nearly as concerned about transforming our kids into paragons of virtue, as the crunchy cons are. That would be nice . . . but actually our mission is (like most folks), "Let's not screw them up too badly." Yes, we raise our children in a "mission-minded" (as Dreher puts it) way, but the mission is to nurture, not to mold. I don't have to tell myself, "Someday they will become their own persons." Jesus, they're already their own persons. Their individual qualities and flaws have emerged fully-formed, with seemingly no regard for my designs. If I water and fertilize the tree, can I take credit for it? Well, yeah, I helped . . . but the tree did most of the work.

I also think we lack some of the prophetic zeal for conversion that Dreher seems to possess. I have very little interest in convincing others to change they way they live. I alway told folks that the SKS never converting a single person -- we only served the people who already knew that they needed something beyond the ordinary bounds of traditional religion. Janet's work with API is not really geared to changing parenting practices, so much as supporting people who already intuitively guess that Dr. Ferber is a barbarian. In short, our community building is pretty self-serving; we just want to build islands of sanity in remarkably disfunctional culture.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Of course I'm biased

Kenny sent around an article from the New York Times about psychological studies of bias in judgement. The research generally found that most people were more biased than they thought they were, but less biased than other people expected them to be. Which makes sense . . . whenever I heard people complaining about "how could so-and-so do that and live with himself?", I usually replied, "There are plenty of assholes in the world, but nobody thinks they're an asshole."

I have long been aware of my own biases, especially in terms of financial motiviation, (see my previous posts) which is why I went to such Herculean lengths to make sure my compensation was closely aligned to the interests of the company. It's so much easier to do the right thing when you know that all the expected biases are pointing in the right direction.

I tried, upon reading the article, to think of other ways that I'm biased and don't recognize it. It's really, really hard. I know that odds are good that I will be biased in my opinion of my kids, especially on esthetic questions . . . yet I truly, firmly believe it is an objective fact that I have the best-looking kids that I know of. I know that I'm biased in my opinion of my own abilities . . . and yet I can count on one hand the number of people that I know for a fact are smarter than me.

What I find myself thinking about the most is the subject of Law . . . how in the world can a judge recognize his or her biases, or in the biases of the arguments presented? What kind of psychological preparation would they need to be able to hear a case fairly?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Punctuated equilibrium

We went away for the Easter weekend, and when we got home a scant three days later, all the leaves were out. We went from, like, nothing to solid green in a few days. Suddenly we can't see our nearest neighbors, and the trees feel a lot closer. Even though this happens every year, it always comes as a surprise when, instead of gradually fading from winter to spring, or from fall into winter, everything happens all at once. You're just walking along, minding your own business, and suddenly wham -- you get mugged by springtime. In the blink of any eye you have nothing to wear because you've (ahem) outgrown your shorts and all your other seasonals are in trunks in the attic. Suddenly the grass needs to be cut, and you're thinking, "When did that happen?"

How can a life that seems so constant be so surprising? Of course changes are happening all the time . . . but silently, like a cat creeping through spring grass before the pounce.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Everything I needed to know I learned at NCSSM

By popular request, I wanted to share some of the "keeper" quotes from my favorite instructors from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathemetics. The school made a tremendous impact on my life, not only for the environment and the peers, but also because I had teachers who were wise as well as knowledgeable.

JOHN DAVIS, Intro. to College Mathematics

"There will always be people better than you, and there will always be people not as good as you. The trick is to find your place, and be happy with it. Find your niche."

"You might see someone who is better than you, and think, 'Yeah, but I bet he can't play baseball as well as me,' or 'I bet he can't get a date.' But you'd be surprised . . . sometimes he can play baseball better than you, and his girlfriend is prettier than yours. There is such a thing as the Basically Better Person. Get used to it."

"Because there will always be someone just as good as you, you need to find something that differentiates you, some spark that sets you apart. No degree of specialization can ever overcome the need for diversity . . . unless you happen to be the best."

"All real learning starts within confusion. So when you get confused, for God's sake don't put your pencil down. Stay with it; stay with the confusion. Come out the other side."

"Start by stating the problem. Then state what you know. If you can't solve the problem, try solving an easier problem that's like this one."

"Tell me why you've been studying mathematics for the last ten years. And don't tell me, 'It'll make me a better person.' "


"True, but irrelevant."
(Kolena taught in rather a Socratic fashion, which meant that he was saying this often. )

"When you know absolutely nothing else, you can always write down 'F=ma'."


"Kissin' somebody is just like spittin' in their eye."
(In either case, it's an exchange of bodily fluids. By her own admission, Ms. Baker was a wild in her youth, and she didn't mind dashing a few illusions, in a good-natured way.)

DEAN THE REVEREND DR. MR. WILSON, Religion & Philosophy

"Go in peace . . . but go."
(I guess you'd have to have some experience with the Catholic/Episcopal/Methodist tradition to appreciate this . . . the standard church liturgy concludes with some variation of "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!" Dr. Wilson's dismissal from class was a great twist on the traditional formulation.)

(And that's just what I can remember now, at the end of a frazzling Easter weekend with extended family . . . I'm sure more will come to me.)