Monday, December 15, 2014

Guest Post: A Dry Rob Roy

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

My father’s mother died Thursday night. She was 97 years old, which I find easy to remember because she was born in 1917 and I was born in 1977. She died in her sleep after about two years of mostly waiting to die.

My father and his partner happened to be visiting me at the time. We decided to honor her memory by making dry Rob Roys and cooking beans and greens. The beans and greens were a more straightforward tribute than the Rob Roys. I lived with my grandmother for about three months after college. It was a time when I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself and I took over the cooking because my grandmother’s idea of dinner was a single hot dog on a little plate without a bun.
After the first night I cooked, she said, “Do you think you could make beans and greens?”

I had never heard of beans and greens. This was a number of years ago, so instead of going on the internet I went to the library and checked out the cookbook section. I found a recipe and made beans and greens. When I went to visit her this spring, she told her caretaker that she had taught me to cook, which is true, in a certain sense. My husband reminded me, when we were talking about the beans and greens, that beans and greens were the first thing I ever cooked for him. My grandmother loved being cooked for; she loved being taken care of.

My grandmother also enjoyed drinking. She was not, at least to my knowledge, a rowdy drinker -- she was a quiet drinker. She drank beer in summer, but in winter she said she needed something to warm her up. When I was a child she became very concerned about the American trade imbalance and so she switched from drinking Scotch to drinking rum.

The story with the dry Rob Roys is that there was a time when she was on a long-distance car trip with my father and his partner and they stopped for lunch at some kind of diner-type place. The three of them were on their way to an event and they were running late. They had hours of social engagement ahead of them. The teenage waiter came over to take their order, and my grandmother pursed her lips thoughtfully. I wasn’t there, you understand. This is an imaginative re-creation. “I’d like,” she said, “a dry Rob Roy.”

Do you even know what a Rob Roy is? The teenage waiter didn’t, in any case. In any case, it was a strange time to order a cocktail and a strange place to order a cocktail. Several years later I read a Lydia Davis story in which the narrator’s elderly father requests a Rob Roy under similarly inappropriate circumstances. It gave me a funny feeling about the world, a feeling that the world, rather than being a place of infinite possibility, is more of a Tetris-type situation, where certain pieces will always have to be combined with certain other pieces.

A dry Rob Roy is Scotch, dry vermouth, and Angostura bitters. At least, that’s what the internet and the Joy of Cooking tell me. It is one form of alcohol combined with two other forms of alcohol. I don’t usually drink cocktails, and so I was surprised that all three of the ingredients were alcoholic. The grocery store nearest my house sold all three forms of alcohol, which surprised and pleased me. I didn’t have a single cocktail shaker, although at one time I had two. I got rid of them because I never used them. When I do drink a mixed drink it usually means that I have added some significant quantity of non-alcoholic mixer to the alcohol in my glass. You don’t need a cocktail shaker for that.

We mixed the ingredients in a pint glass. We used crushed ice, which was a mistake, because it started melting almost immediately. When we poured out the dry Rob Roys my father’s partner used a coaster to keep the ice in the pint glass. The recipe said to use two dashes of vermouth and one dash of Angostura bitters per cocktail. I wasn’t sure what a dash multiplied by three looked like.

The dry Rob Roys were very pretty looking, all golden in the glass. We raised our glasses and took a sip. My father made a face. “It’s so sweet,” he said. I didn’t think it was sweet. It burned. My father drank about a third of his. My father’s partner drank hers. “It makes me feel weird,” she said. I drank mine very slowly. Because I drank it so slowly it got warm, which did not make it taste better. It made me feel drunk, not in a fun way, but in a way where the room seemed a little askew. I couldn’t get past the idea that the taste was made by combining different varieties of alcohol.

I could tell you endless stories about my grandmother -- how she kept her belongings beautifully clean and took care of them for decades, how she declined to get a new cat when her last cat died almost fifteen years ago because she thought the cat might outlive her, and that would be unfair to the cat, how she loved being kidded -- she loved it when I or my father, telling her goodbye, would tell her to behave, to stay out of trouble. “I try,” she would say, and she would shake her head a little bit with the difficulty of the task. There are a lot of things I know about her, a lot of things I could tell you, and even more that I couldn’t. I knew her better than I know most people and she remains mostly mysterious to me. The desire for a dry Rob Roy at midday in a roadside diner, with a long day ahead, is only one of those mysteries.

From The Archives: Let's Make War On Christmas A Reality

Due to circumstances beyond our control, TKIN is going to be delayed today. If you're bored, why not check out this timely classic from the archives, Let's Make War On Christmas A Reality?

Monday, December 8, 2014

News Flash: People Have Priorities Other Than Just Living Longer

Dispensing of medical electricity. Oil painting by Edmund Bristow, 1824. Via Wikimedia Commons
A little while ago the doctor and medical culture commentator Atul Gawande wrote this very touching piece in the New York Times about a woman who was told she didn't have long to live, and how neither "extraordinary measures" nor "just dying" seemed like the right thing, and how her hospice team was able to arrange things so that she could have a few good days toward the end doing what she really wanted most to do, which turned out to be spending some time with the students she'd taught piano lessons to for years and teach them a few more things.

Dr. Gawande's own kid is one of those piano students, so he happened to see the whole thing unfold in a personal way. It prompted him to engage in conversations about dying, with end-of-life care specialists, patients and other people. Summarizing what he's learned he writes,
"First, in medicine and society, we have failed to recognize that people have priorities that they need us to serve besides just living longer. Second, the best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them."
From the context, you can tell he's talking specifically about people near the end of their lives. These people want to do certain things or live a certain way and doing that is more important to them than just having more time.

But to me the truth is much more radical, and it is that everyone, at every age, has priorities beyond just living longer.

You'd never know this from the way medicine is practiced, though. Basically if you ask your doctor anything you just get told what to do. Medical advice in the media is basically just do this don't do that. There's no acknowledgement that most medical decisions these days actually involve trade-offs.

There are trade-offs between medications and sex. There are tradeoffs between medications and other medications. Virtually all birth control entails trade-offs. And, of course, there are relentless constant trade-offs between things that "will make you live longer" and things that you enjoy doing that make you feel good.

 If a medication makes you feel like crap but will make you live longer, how is it not a reasonable decision to just not take it? Of course it's a reasonable decision.

But there's no space for these discussions. Instead you have the concepts of "compliance" and "non-compliance," where you're supposed to do what you're told without any consideration of what things matter to you and why.

It's always kind of mystified me that the principle of informed consent can co-exist beside the concept of non-compliance. I mean, who's in charge here?

There was this great moment on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" a while ago where the guest was Michael Pollan and he was talking about eating real food and how you tell if something is real food instead of a food-like substance and the great Paula Poundstone said "Okay, but let me ask you something. One of the things that has made my life worth living is Ring Dings. And I feel that it is food. Are you going to tell me that's not food?"

And Pollan mumbled something about Ring Dings and a "special occasion" and Paula basically shouted at him, "What do you mean, special occasion? I said it's what makes my life worth living."

So. Cancer or not, old or young, healthy or not: People have priorities besides just living longer. The best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them.

Why is this such a difficult concept for people to get their heads around?

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Problems With People And Doors

William Henry Margetson, At the Cottage Door, via Wikimedia Commons

What could be simpler than going through a door? And yet: doors are a site of contestation in my inner life.

Problem 1: The perverse and pointless door crunch tango

My first problem with people and doors arises in the context of a bank of glass doors. You know: you're entering or exiting a large space, like a mall, or a subway station, or (cough cough) a university building, and there are three or four or six doors all in a row.

I try to stay to the right -- and you could do a whole blogpost about this, I think, is staying on the right in pedestrian contexts a thing? but passons... -- but mostly I try to go through doors that other people are not attempting to go through. That is, if I'm about to go through door X, and I see someone coming toward me through the glass from the other side like they're about to come through door X, I shift to go through door Y.

So far so good. But then some non-trivial percentage of the time, the perverse opposite happens, by which I mean that a person seeing me trying to go through door X decides this is a great moment to go through door X themselves. So that we have to pass through a single door going in opposite directions at the same time For No Reason. Even more infuriatingly, sometimes if I shift to go through door Y, as above, the person on the other side will themselves shift to go through door Y. What causes this utter perversity in door-related behavior?

I can only come up with one theory. And that is that by going through the same door I'm going through, instead of a different door, the other person is hoping to avoid the strain and hassle of opening a door for themselves.

If this is even close to right, it's mind-boggling. And it's made more so by the fact that I often have this experience when I'm on campus surrounded by university students. What, are they so weakened and worn down from being on social media and avoiding their work that they can no longer opens doors on their own?

The door crunch tango conclusion: Not my fault. Everyone else's fault.

Problem 2: the ambiguous holder/blocker

My second problem with people and doors is when there isn't a bank of doors, there isn't even a pair of doors, there's just the one door, and someone is coming through it toward you as you're getting ready to pass through it the other way, and that person tries to hold the door by standing in the doorway holding the door open behind them.

I don't get this. So now I'm standing there, and the door is open, but you are in it. WTF?

I usually try to smile and gesture like "oh go ahead" hoping the person will take the hint and move along and I can, you know, go through the door all by myself, which is something I know how to do. Sometimes it works. But sometimes it's a stalemate, and the other person stands there goggling at me, like "but I'm holding the door for you."

This problem has the obvious gendered component, that sometimes it's a guy you don't know standing in the door, and you're a woman hoping to go through the door, and the way he's holding it open, you'd have to smush yourself all up against him to get through. And you have to wonder: is this guy just hoping for a casual, unwanted smush? Gross.

The holder/blocker conclusion: these people are probably just trying to be nice, but I don't have to like it.

Problem 3: the person you're not walking with who just holds a door

You'd think if someone is walking ten feet or so ahead of me and we're going in the same direction and we're going through the same door and that person pauses in the door to just hold it back for me so I can catch it as I go through before passing through myself that at least that would be the kind of reasonable, nice, normal door-related interaction a person like me should be able to get behind, but for some reason even having the door held for me can annoy the hell out of me.

Usually it happens when I'm 1) lost in thought 2) not in a rush and 3) tired of interacting with people all day long. I'm in my own headspace. If the person is right ahead of me, it's fine, but often they're a bit ahead, and they pause there, and I have to decide whether I'm going to rush to the door so they don't have to stand there holding it longer than necessary or whether I'm going to mosey in my own sweet slow way even though they're standing there. Either way is annoying. And if I've been talking to people all day, even that little "Oh, thanks" "Oh, my pleasure" or whatever feels like too much interaction. Just let me me listen to my headphones and pass through the door alone.

The door holder conclusion: I'd be a better person if I could just chill and smile and say thanks without treating every situation like a goddamn federal case. But sorry: no can do.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Data And The Spread Of Knowledge Pretense

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica, 1504, via Wikimedia Commons
The aphorism industry would you have you believe that one of the signs of intelligence is knowing how little you know. It's a nice picture, like we're all sort of mini-humble-Einsteins, meek in the face of a mysterious universe. But to me trends seem to be going the other way -- by which I mean, the more knowledge we're gaining, the more knowledge pretense there seems to be.

By "knowledge pretense" I mean the idea that it's important to have "an answer" even if you don't know whether it's the right answer and maybe even if you know it's the wrong answer.

It's like, no matter what problem you are facing, in our era of metrics and optics, you hear constantly about the importance of gathering more data. Gather data. Plot it visually, and run it through some software. Some numbers will come out.

But with a lot of modern problems the issue isn't that we don't have enough data, it's that we're trying to measure and what we have data on are two completely different things. But no one wants to admit we just can't know. So we gather more data.

For example, everyone wants to improve K-12 education. And we keep coming up against the problem that what we want to improve is really really hard to measure. "How much a student learned" just isn't the kind of thing you can go around easily quantifying.

But instead of acknowledging that, and admitting there's a lot we don't know, there's this relentless rhetoric about the importance of data, gather more data, it's important to get more data so we can understand, make rankings, evaluate. Then when that doesn't work everyone freaks out. But of course it doesn't work. The answers measure what we don't want to track and so can't help but be wrong.

I was first alerted to this problem in my research in ethics. The approach I favor involves acknowledging that there are multiple values -- such as justice and benevolence and respect for others' autonomy -- and then thinking about how we should weigh those values against one another when they conflict, as they so often do.

It's a common knock on this kind of approach that to do that last bit -- think about it, weigh values against one another -- you have to make a judgment call. The theory itself doesn't give you an answer. Often, the explicit implication is that a more unified ethical approach, like simple cost-benefit analysis, would allow you to avoid this problem, by giving you an answer in every case. One principle, a complete set of answers. Voilà! No judgment required!

But this line of thought has always really bothered me. It's no advantage that your theory gives you an answer if you have no reason to think it's the right answer. If there really are a plurality of values, unified approaches like cost-benefit analysis give you the wrong answer. How is it any improvement to get an answer if you know it's wrong?

Isn't a judgment call better than an answer you know isn't right?

Here, I believe, we get to the deep cultural nub of the matter, which is that for some reason in our modern era nobody wants to make a judgment call.

Some people who want to improve education find it alien that the answer might partially involve attracting and retaining people with really good judgment who might exercise that judgment in making decisions. The suggestion that we should use our collective judgment to sort out tricky issues about distributive justice or the environment is scorned as touchy-feely, old-fashioned -- not the kind of objective data-generated answers we've come to know and love.

It's like everyone wants everything to run by algorithm or something. WTF? Why is this?

I'm sure there are many reasons, but I suspect lurking in there are the following. There's the anti-elitism of "who gets to decide?" There's the fear that someone is looking out for their own interests in an unfair way. And mostly, I think, there's the sense that somehow a judgment call is arbitrary. What's a judgment call but just what some person happened to think about something?

I get these are concerns. But honestly, they don't seem weighty enough to me to avoid the alternative,  given that that alternative is knowingly preferring the wrong answer, just because it looks like "science," which seems to me an exercise in utter perversity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Impotence Of Rational Thought, Or, You Know It's Somebody's Job To Make You Feel Bad, Right?

Self-Loathing Comics! How did I not know about this?

I don't know if you read the piece in the Guardian last week by the feminist who "confesses": "I feel guilty but I hate my body."

I thought it was a good and interesting piece, and I'm sure the point of view expressed is -- well, shall we call it "relatable"? Is that the right word for millions of women of all ages and body types screaming "Oui! Oui! Moi aussi!"

But personally, I wasn't surprised at all to hear that a feminist woman hated her body. What could be less surprising than any woman hating her body in the 21st century? Why is it a "confession"?

I guess it's supposed to be a confession because somehow as a feminist she's supposed to "know better," but I've always thought that was pretty much a dead end kind of thought. I mean, who thought "knowing better" was the key to all mythologies? How often are intense feelings like self-loathing impacted by rational thinking? Like, never?

If you ever want to experience the impotence of rational thought, just try to think yourself out of anything like self-loathing, or feelings of inadequacy, or really any negative emotion in which you compare yourself to others.

Your thoughts will just sit there like cartoon bubbles, inert, powerless, hovering over you. Your cartoon bubble might say in 18 point bold point font: "you are good and smart and beautiful!" You might try to think it. You might reason it out. You might even come to think it is true. Still, you get that thought into your brain alongside some bad feelings, it's like a bug going into a the ring with an elephant. "Oh, it was cute you had that though but ... oh."

I was also struck that there's so little reflection in the essay about the various causes. In keeping with our highly individualized times, it's a very individual essay, about what is and isn't "wrong" with certain kinds of eating and certain kinds of thinking about eating.

I always think that in these situations that it's important to remember - among other things - the wide array of forces assembled against you. I mean, in addition to all the usual suspects, you have to remember that it's practically the first commandment of capitalism that you have to feel bad about yourself.

Can we pause to remember there are armies of people whose whole job it is to induce you to feel like you are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough -- and while we're at it, you smell, and you're fat, and your dick isn't big enough?

After all, the insecure consumer is the consuming consumer. And the consuming consumer is the lynchpin of the new categorical imperative: "economic growth." If you're not feeling inadequate, you probably won't buy as many things.

Obviously, I do not mean to imply that somehow in a world of equality and mutual respect and free love that people would go around feeling magically happy and self-loving and so on. People don't NEED capitalism to feel awful. They can do it by themselves. And they can do it to each other, very effectively. And obviously, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing gendered about body-loathing and disordered eating, because obviously there is.

I'm just saying that when you feel bad, it's worth taking a moment to remember that among the many factors and causes the set-up is not neutral. They're using sophisticated tools, honed through eons, to target your emotions. Against that army, how is your little rational thought going to get any traction whatsoever?

News flash: it's not. In a world of competition for everything, when you feel bad, someone actually benefits. It's not a problem with an individual solution. And it's not something you can think your way out of.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Culture of Judgment

Athletes in a gymnasium. Gouache painting. Via Wikimedia Commons

Overall I consider myself a pretty non-judgmental person. Unless you're doing something mean or hurtful to other people I'm usually pretty much like "Whatever; knock yourself out." It's a free country.

But lately I've been catching myself judging. Especially in certain situations, I seem to be judging beyond the judgment necessary for daily life. And for some reason the gym -- and especially the exercise class I go to -- is a place that really brings out the judgmental asshole in me.

I judge people who join the exercise class late. I judge people who bring their phones into the class and check them in between workout tracks. I judge people who choose the more challenging option for a particular movement instead of the less challenging one even though they're physically incapable of doing the more challenging one in anything like a proper style.

You know when people doing a plank refuse to put their knees down even though they're not strong enough to do a plank on their toes, and so their butts go way up in the air, so it becomes a non-exercise for them, like doing downward dog? I am so judging those people. They drive me nuts.

But why? I know it's stupid to have an opinion. I know these people all have their reasons. Besides, what do I care? But unless I'm constantly policing my thoughts, these judgment comes right back.

The other day I went to an hour long exercise class and fifteen minutes into it -- fifteen minutes in to an hour class! -- a woman-of-a-certain-age came in. This happens to be a class where there's a lot of running and jumping, so before class the instructor always asks "Is this anyone's first time at this class?" and then explains how you don't have to do the running and jumping and how you can do other things and make substitutions so you're still getting the same workout etc. etc. etc.

Right away my inner judgment person was on high alert. Fifteen minutes late! But I thought to myself, "OK, maybe she comes to this class all the time and knows the drill; that'd be all right."

But no. She had no idea what was going on. For all the moves she couldn't do, she just kind of made up her own bopping to the music in a way that suited her. Her burpee was a kind of touch-your-toes and mini-hop move. Her plank was a classic downward dog.

And inside -- even as I'm doing the class and panting for breath -- I'm thinking, "If it's your first class you should come on time! And follow the instructions! They're there so you don't hurt yourself! And so that you actually get a work out!" She was right next to me and I just couldn't put her out of my mind.

So, WTF? What the fuck is my mind on about? I can't understand it myself. But since we're all here, let me work through a few hypotheses.

The "What Is The Point Of Exercise Class" Hypothesis: Exercise classes work partly because of the camaraderie of everyone being on the same page. The latecomers and flakes get in the way of that, and so I judge them.

Evaluation: Probably partly true, but doesn't explain the depth of feeling I bring to the whole thing, or the way I judge at the gym generally. Also kind of boring as an explanation.

The "Chaotic Environment Hypothesis": The rest of everything has become so chaotic, with everyone doing whatever the hell they want all the goddamn time, that the few spaces of structured expectation become sacred. Dealing with constant crossing against the light, eating and talking in the library, and throwing the recyclables in the garbage wears me down and turns me into a judgmental lunatic.

Evaluation: There may be something to it. You're in a long line and you deal with ten people in a row who finally get up to the cash register and THEN suddenly start getting out their wallet and you want to scream "Yes, payment! You will be paying! You could have spent the last ten minutes getting out your wallet! It wasn't a surprise" It builds up.

But still, it's pretty incomplete. Why judge at the gym when I could directly judge these actual anti-social behaviors?

The "Culture of Judgment Hypothesis": We live in a culture of relentless and constant judgment. Every third thing out of someone's mouth is passing judgment on someone else. It gets to me. Judgment is normalized, and feeling judged, I judge back.

Evaluation: There might be something to it. Even though on the surface we're all "live and let live," underneath, we're all silently judging one another. The internet these days is like one massive sharing of everyone's grievances with everyone else's behavior.

Not only does this normalize judgment, but maybe it makes me defensive. You judging me? You have opinions about my hairstyle or my devotion to Apple products or my love of Trollope or my  choice to wear high heels?

Well, two can play at that game, sweetheart.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hard Copies And The Coming Apocalypse

Detail from Medieval Book of Hours (1533), via Wikimedia Commons

A little while ago I told a friend that when I buy an e-book, I often buy a hard copy of the book at the same time. Not surprisingly, my friend was a little like, WTF? Is that an "oh look at my library" sort of thing?

No. As I told my friend at the time, one reason I buy and hold on to a lot of hard cover books is that I think you'd have to be crazy to trust the mega-corporations that produce e-books. Surely you remember when Amazon disappeared all those copies of 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009, becoming an early strong entry in the most ironic moment of the new millennium? How creepy was that?

Amazon just has the power to take away or change your book at any time. Once Amazon has that power, what are we supposed to do, trust them not to use it? What will happen when Homeland Security tells Amazon some book or part of a book is pro-terrorism/anti-American/related-in-some-nebulous-way-to-the-vague-possibility-of-child-pornography?

You know what will happen. The book will be synced out of your kindle and out of your life forever.

That's reason number one for having the ink and wood pulp on the shelf. But there's also this other thing, which is that the fact that so few people want to buy and hold on to physical books makes me wonder: is no one else thinking about the coming apocalypse?

I mean, is it really so far fetched to think that part of the coming climate disaster is going to involve having little access to electricity? And that if there's not much electricity, the only texts we're going to have access to is the text that's actually printed on paper?

Everything else would be lost, right? I'm struck at how few people seem to worry about this. Getting rid of library books -- especially if you can have "e-access" -- seems to strike almost everyone as simple common sense. But what's going to happen when the lights go out?

In his recent book Ethics for a Broken World, the philosopher Tim Mulgan deploys the incredibly imaginative technique of presenting his book in the form of lectures that take place after the coming apocalypse, when resources are terribly scarce and there's not enough to keep everyone alive. In the imagined future, they refer to life in our period as the "affluent" world.

In studying the affluent world, the lecturer of the future explains, they use texts "translated from fragments of affluent philosophy recently recovered from the sunken cities of the western Atlantic: the famous Princeton Codex."

You get the picture. A lot of land is under water. There's no internet. There's no JSTOR or iBooks  or Project Gutenberg.Whatever we got is salvaged from some actual books and actual pieces of paper.

In my home, we use the term "Princeton Codex" as shorthand for the collection of ideas around the possibility of a dark future, where tattered damp copies of Portnoy's Complaint and A Theory of Justice and The Autobiography of Malcom X are all there is from which the people of the future might be able to connect with us, to remember us, and to grasp what the hell we were thinking.

Hard copy books were much on my mind a few weeks ago, when I went through my crisis of stuff. I got rid of clothing and kitchen stuff and unwanted gifts and old pieces of paper, but there's one category of thing I didn't touch: the books. They're piling up, but it doesn't bother me.

The possibility that the tiny libraries of readers like me all around the globe might help, or at least momentarily entertain, the people of the future came to mind immediately when I read this week's fiction in The New Yorker, a story called "The Empties" that takes place in the near future, two years after the power goes out.

A small city Vermont is struggling along. Everyone who hasn't died of disease has pretty much learned how to chop wood, how to use fireplaces, how to make "arrangements" for the other things they need, and how to get along without knowing what is happening anywhere else.

And at the center of town, a librarian carries a shotgun. She sleeps in the library, and allows no one to check out anything. You want to read, you sit in the building, because:

"People might share their last finger of motor oil, Matilda says, break a four-inch candle in two, divide a pot of beans to serve eight, but they’ll kill you for a book."

Next time you're tempted to avoid the clutter and go e-book only, think of your 23rd century counterpart. She might be cold and hungry, but she might also be jonesing for a little education or light reading. Don't let the Princeton Codex be all she has.

Monday, October 27, 2014

World Citizenship And Its Discontents

I feel like there's an idea out there that we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world and that somehow the internet, by connecting us all up together, is part of making that happen.

Whether a person lives on your block or lives halfway across the world, no matter: with the click of a mouse you can find out what they had for breakfast or whether they're being shafted by their local city council or law enforcement or what their views are on the latest celebrity sex scandal.

It's a nice idea, and when you're looking at one of those pictures taken from space of the whole earth it's easy to get into that "big blue marble" mood. . 

But honestly it's not really working out for me.

For one thing, I can only care about a pretty limited number of people at a given time. I care a lot about the people in my actual life. I'm sad when they're sad and I'm happy when they're happy and I'm worried when they're in trouble. But I can only do that for so many people.

The rest of the world? Sorry, no. The truth is, when I read about the sadnesses, thrills, and troubles of strangers I often feel overwhelmed, annoyed, envious or impatient. And then I feel like a cold, surly, heartless son of a bitch. It's not good.

Also, I'm tired of hearing so many opinions. Why is so much of what people have to say to one another their opinions about things? "Cats are mean and destroy wildlife." "No, cats are cute but you must keep them inside." "Person X is a hateful monster." "No, person X is doing the best they could, is so much better than person Y." "X is bad." "No, people who criticize X are bad."

I have nothing against opinions per se. They're often very important. But I can only handle a few at a time. A lot of opinions send my brain into overdrive, because I don't know the backstory, or because I know part of the backstory and have to suddenly decide whether I should be learning more of the backstory which causes me to have to think about the sources of my information, or because I do know the backstory and I don't really agree and I have to think about why that is.

Worse, being a citizen of the world often seems to require having a lot of opinions. Once you've heard a bunch of things about what happened and then you've heard a bunch of opinions, you're often then asked to have an opinion. Again, nothing against opinions. I have lots. But I can only handle a few at a time. For me, forming a bunch of new ones can be a serious drain on my mental energy.

Before I started studying philosophy I studied math. And one of the things I loved about studying math was how few opinions I was called on to form. Mostly I just learned mathematical concepts and struggled to prove some things from some other things. I could go days without hearing or forming opinions.

One of the few things I heard my math professors express opinions about was the relative difficulty and merit of different kinds of math. The topology people thought that category theory was stupid and easy, or the algebra people thought analysis was dry, or someone thought the "best years" of set theory were over. It's a narrow range, and, especially as a student, it was easy to just let it go in one ear and out the other.

Once I started studying philosophy and hanging out with humanities people, I was stunned by the number of opinions I was expected to have right off the bat. "What'd you think about that article?" "What'd you think of the talk?" " What do you think about so-and-so?" "What do you think?" "What's your view on things?" "What's your take?" "We want your opinion!" Phew.

World citizenship means you can have opinions on anything, anywhere, happening in any context. It's exhausting.

But honestly, I think one of the biggest discontents of world citizenship for a lot of people is the way it constantly hammers home at you that you are a tiny speck in a gigantic world.

If you think of yourself as part of a smaller community unit, and you use that unit as a comparison class, it's likely you can achieve something great relative to that group of people. Maybe you're smart or accomplished, or maybe you're just really funny or nice, or maybe you make really great potato salad or something.

When you're a citizen of the world, you see everyone's eyes on someone else, twenty-four seven. You're either super brilliant world famous amazing person, or you've got something viral, or else ... or else you're nobody: just some fruit fly in the banquet of life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things

Here at TKIN we pride ourselves on our highly developed advance planning skills. But even the best planner sometimes can't get it all together -- especially when it's grading season. I didn't have time to write a post -- so I thought I'd post some photos for your week's amusement.

This was the attribution plaque for an LGBT-themed mural near my home. I assume that's a self-portrait by the artist, and every time I walked by it made me happy. I like the way the rainbow theme is worked in, but mostly I like the expression on the artist's face. After a month or so someone put a stupid sticker in the middle of it, advertizing some dumb thing, and the whole sign got taken down and replaced with something drab and informational : (

I go to Buffalo a lot, and this was taken at the public library downtown.  They must have had some Wizard of Oz-themed event. I have no idea what it's about, but I like it.

Wine at the LCBO.

I've always been crazy about color swatches and paint samples. Generally anything where there's a bunch of things that are similar but different knocks me out. So I love this mannequin that I saw at The Bay last summer. I also love how the other mannequin is like "Stick with me, sweety, and I'll show you a good time!"

I think this picture speaks for itself.

I commute on a Greyhound bus, which means I spent a ridiculous amount of time at the Toronto bus terminal, which is where I took this photo. I've been looking at this excess comma for about nine years, yet it still has the power to drive me f*&#ing crazy on a daily basis.

 A few years ago I spent some time in Ann Arbor from January to April and I joined the local Y to work out. They had FIVE different locker rooms: women with children; women, no children; men with children; men, no children; and families. I understand this sign is meant simply to convey "women, no children," but somehow I always found the image of a child with a red slash through it kind of disturbing.

It was a cold winter that winter, and I had kind of a boring lonely walk from my apartment to the Y. But that walk always took me past this window, where someone had placed this Gumby-like figure. It always made me smile:

Happy autumn everyone and I'll see you next week!