Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wasteful Spending

Every season of congress there are a spate of stories about the junkets, art acquisitions, and cushy surroundings Senators and Representatives lavish on themselves, to the outrage of the taxpayers. They travel with families in tow to some exotic place in government jets, stay at expensive hotels, sightsee and shop, meet for a few hours with some foreign businessmen or dignitaries, and charge a large portion of this to us. Comments in the popular media focus on how symbolically out-of-touch these politicians are or how insulting it is to those who support them. Faint defenses are sometimes raised that the overall expense is pocket change in the national budget, not something worth even the momentary distraction of a sneer amidst the vast cataracts of spent money in DC.

There is some merit to the defense. Millions of dollars wasted are hardly worth mentioning in comparison to billions, which are a thousand times larger. We are now even speaking about trillions with ease, a thousand times greater than that. Among all these rhyming amounts of money, all sounding so similar and hard to tell apart, taking our eyes off the prize of cutting back the trillions, dammit, in order to focus on amounts which are .0001% as large does seem a useless distraction.

Yet from observing my own behavior, I believe the individual wastefulness, though petty in amount, has a great effect on the personality, and thus the larger picture.

We grow used to spending money in different orders of magnitude for different purposes. When we were younger, we spent only in terms of what we had in our pockets. If I had a $5 bill on me in college, I considered myself comfortable. Even now, if I am carrying $20 it seems like a secret fortune, and carrying a second $20 seems an excess. I make exceptions for specific events and purchases, but I am aware that these moments are exceptions.

$20 does not seem anything like a fortune, however, when discussing a salary or the purchase of a house. For those sums we move into different modes of number-understanding. Yet I don't think those numbers are clearer to us. In fact, I think they are less real, relying more on comparisons to other numbers than to imagined stacks of cash. $20 is real.

But when I go to a restaurant and am paying for multiple people, with entrees running at $28, drinks at $7, and appetisers at $12, spending $6 on a side dish no longer looks like a lot of money. When we travel and have just plunked down $1200 each for plane tickets, calculated in hundreds more for hotel rooms, rental cars, theater or museum tickets, subway passes and the like, I find money in large somes just continues to flow from my wallet. I have entered a new plane of spending, where $20 has become a barely noticeable sum. My normal self, if I were to look at the traveling self objectively, would be appalled. But it is an exciting plane to live on, a new normal, and I rapidly switch over to being a person who is comfortable in that world. I now play with numbers that are much more abstract, more vague, more imaginary.

It would be good for at those moments, I am sure, to try and train myself back down to a spot where having $20 in my pocket seemed like a lot again.

When you fly the equivalent of first class to Scotland, stay in hotel rooms that cost $400/night, are chauffeured about and wear expensive clothes in order to create the proper impression, you are very far from that $20, never mind the $5 of youth or the redeemable bottles of childhood. You have become some other person; perhaps one you wouldn't like very much if you had met him thirty years ago. This new person, who has moved beyond creating $3,000,000 buildings with a wave of the hand, beyond $300,000,000 programs to fix something or other that your fellows feel have gone wrong, beyond $30,000,000,000 of jobs-creation or military hardware, is now on a plane where dollar amounts are a complete abstraction, vague, imaginary sums that people speak about authoritatively.

These unrealities are related. The mere arithmetic of the -illions already untethers us from our roots and our selves. If we add to this the separation of going where few others go, staying where few others stay, traveling as few others travel, we become less real ourselves.

How many twenty-dollar bills are there in a junket to Thailand? Uh, uh, uh, lots, I don't know. How many twenty-dollar bills in health care reform? Uh, uh, uh, lots, I don't know. It's the same number.

That is not especially an accusation against politicians, but simply noting that they are made of the same stuff as all of humanity. We might do worse in their shoes. But somehow, they have to get back to a place where $20 in your pocket as you walk down the street is a happy sum.

The Most Difficult Language

The economist has a light piece speculating on which of the world's languages might be the most difficult to learn.
It may be natural to think that your own tongue is complex and mysterious. But English is pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember.

English-speakers appreciate this when they try to learn other languages. A Spanish verb has six present-tense forms, and six each in the preterite, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive and two different past subjunctives, for a total of 48 forms. German has three genders, seemingly so random that Mark Twain wondered why “a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has”. (Mädchen is neuter, whereas Steckrübe is feminine.)
The exploratory essay was interesting to me primarily for how much it gets wrong. Not the fascinating anecdotes about languages, which I grant are accurate, but in its poor logic right down to the root.

If your native language is one without tones, then languages with tones will be difficult for you to learn. If you grow up speaking a language with 19 cases, it will not seem hard to you, any more than English seems hard to six-year-olds just because it has such things as gerunds and prepositional phrases. Such things are mostly noticeable only from the outside. There is a hoary tale - likely apocryphal - among linguists of an aboriginal from some remote part of empire who studied linguistics in London. When asked by the School of Oriental Languages to prepare a grammar on his native tongue, he declared that it had no grammar.

I should note that I am grateful to the author for taking down the general misconception about gender in languages in as succinct a manner as I have seen. It is related to the word genre, which is a more accurate concept. While it is not entirely accidental that the genders in the languages we are most familiar with - natural gender is related to grammatical gender, it is equally true that we might have named them blue, red, and green noun classes instead of masculine, feminine, and neuter.

In the main, however, all the engaging examples the Economist article describes are completely beside the point. Children master their native language between four and six years old regardless of the difficulty it might present to outsiders. There are a few languages in the Caucasus which take eight years for children to master, and these might thus lay some claim to being most difficult; also, languages which are spread wide in the world and touch on many subjects always have more that one can learn in them. But whether languages are agglutinative or have many cases are mere accidents. It does not make them harder in any real sense. Even the fascination with those most unusual of consonants, the clicks of a few African languages, turns out to be more a mark of simplicity than complexity. The clicks were likely there in the earliest language and have gradually disappeared over millennia. They are an adaptation to the sudden need for more complexity in language before our tongues and voiceboxes had quite fine-tuned themselves as they are now. They are most likely related to more primitive primate calls and sounds pressed into service for new, nuanced thought. But it would be odd indeed to think that languages have gotten simpler over the last 50,000 years because they have lost the clicks.

Our brains used to distinguish among smells far better than they do now; losing that ability does not mean our brains have gotten more stupid.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Predictable Prediction

I doubt that I’m the first across the finish line with this, but I did want to get my predictions in early. When health care reform doesn’t work, it won’t be Obama or the Democrats’ fault. Whether it will be fault of some industry, such as insurance, or of conservatives, or of Congressional Republicans – that I can’t tell you. I think that could vary according to political circumstances.

There will also be a considerable number of people (I can think of several off the top of my head), who will be certain that health care in America is nonetheless better than it was, impervious to any actual data. Their impression that we are at last a “good country” will trump any health outcomes.

Regarding this last matter, I wonder if the desire to be thought of as a good country by some social standard is related to the deep insult non-believers feel at the suggestion that religious people don’t believe they also can be moral.* There is a touching, perhaps even childlike wish to “be good.”

*Answer: It depends entirely on how one defines one’s terms. Any individual unreligious person can be more generous or honest than many or even most religious people. They don’t tend to be so, but it certainly isn’t impossible. That tendency is unlikely to be accidental, but diverse explanations are possible. At great extremity, when the costs are very high, do religious people tend to behave better? Well, no one does very well, frankly, so no one should be bragging. But the few who behave morally even under duress tend even more strongly to be religious people. Yet caution must be applied in interpreting this. It may be that their religion makes them more able. It may also be that those of determined morality are more likely to seek out congenial religious systems. Egg. Chicken. As to the question of whether religious or nonreligious people are more moral by the definition of having warm feelings toward others, I consider this uninteresting.

Okay, that was three subjects in three paragraphs and a footnote. I’m displaying some lack of focus on this post.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Top Albums of All Time

Talking with Ben, who is back for Christmas for a few days, I decided it would be fun to do a takeoff on the predictability of Rolling Stone magazine's reviews and top (anything) lists. I would make my whole list all be albums from 1965-1970, which must be when the magazine's reviewers were all in junior high. To lend an air of verisimilitude to my fake list, I looked up RS's top 500 list, planning to take the titles from their actual top 25, and call it their top 10.

I only had to go to 15. The list is impossible to parody, as it parodies itself. The year of release for their top fifteen albums of all time:
1980 (!)
1976 (token roots album)
1959 (token jazz album)
Well darn it, the token roots and token jazz albums finished just short of the top ten! What bad luck, huh? Notice also that the big statistical outlier - a fluke, really - is from 1980. I guess they figured they had to include something from the 80's, and grudgingly included something from the first year of that decade.

The other exceptions are from 1971 and 72. Can you believe that there were zero albums worth including from the year 1970?

Targeted Killing

Orin Kerr at Volokh continues a fascinating discussion on the topic of "Perceptions of Necessity on the Choice Between Killing and Detaining/Interrogating Terrorist Suspects." post below asked why a lot of people have less problem with just blowing up a terrorist suspect together with his family than detaining just the suspect and perhaps interrogating him.
If you wish to start even earlier in the conversation, Kerr initiates it here.
News of a U.S.-supported attack on a suspected Al-Qaeda operative meeting in Yemen reminds me of a curious dynamic in the public response to how the U.S. fights the war on terror: Killing Al-Qaeda suspects seems to be much less controversial than detaining and interrogating them.

In response, Kenneth Anderson has a paper on this subject, which he links to and summarises here.

It is indeed fascinating that our sense of necessity, and hence what is moral in a given situation, is so strongly influenced by time constraints. I suspect there is some hard-wired impulse which prevents us from treating situations which describe similarly except for time as identical. The sense of time may weigh more heavily in our actual moral decisions than we usually think.

Consider the many moral questions that are proposed in the abstract - is it permissible to steal food for starving family members, or when is concealing the truth appropriate. How many of these change when we bend the time-scale. That is, when the family will starve within the year, but not within the week.

Lots to think about.

Evangelicals and Catholics - Reminder

The E&C post below is long, and does not touch much on current events, but there's a lot of controversy there for people to weigh in on. Suck it up and put in some comments, people.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hate Speech

Gringo sent along the recent speech by Senator Whitehouse, wondering after my comments. Text and video here. Here are the key lines, for my purposes. I have inserted what the words refer to in parentheses. Tumbrels… (The French Revolution, when the revolution killed thousands, and the mob resorted to rule by guillotine.) Strange fruit…(lynching of blacks across the south); broken glass… (Kristellnacht); tailgunner …(Joe McCarthy).

This is hate speech. When we hear the phrase “Hate Speech” in current usage, we have been trained to think of something quite different than a US Senator complaining about his opponents. But this qualifies far more. This does not rely on subtlety or suggestion – it is a declaration: The people against Obama are murderers. They have it in them and they are moving that way. If we do not stop them they will murder people.

This is the rhetoric countries use leading up to a war. They pitchfork babies. They attacked a woman just walking down the street with a little girl. That way the leaders can claim to have clean hands. The gentle people do not have to be involved. They just incite the others. “Why, we never advocated violence against anyone. But these people have to understand, if they keep poisoning children, they shouldn’t be surprised at the consequences. We’re not the haters. It’s them.”

Because, after all, if we’re murderers, what should be done with us?

The objection will be raised that Sen. Whitehouse did not actually say “will lead” but “can lead.” No, look at the rest of the text. This is not a matter of context or interpretation, this is a direct connection. He is not exempting his colleagues. He is not exempting responsible opposition. Whitehouse slips free of the definite statement in that one place, but connects it back in everywhere else. Nifty. The reason it gets a pass is because a fair number of people think it’s true. They are quite sure, despite the absence of lynchings, that we could restart at any time – we conservatives can turn on you like a wild dog, doncha know. No violence in the streets – not from the conservatives, anyway; there’s still a fair bit by various groups of Democrats – but they see the shadows of the guillotine anyway. Senator Whitehouse quotes a raft of liberals who think so. I guess that’s good enough for some. Note also that the word “lie” drops easily from his lips.

If you are one who believes I exaggerate and overinterpret what the Senator is saying – that he is actually just engaging in a bit of political rhetoric, and is really a quite reasonable person who would never take up arms, I have three questions: Are all his hearers that reasonable? Does he know this? Have there been abettors of the great tyrannies who did no violence themselves? (That would be No, Yes, Yes, for you scoring at home.) What argument remains?

But couldn’t, really, Sen. Whitehouse just mean that some of Obama’s opponents are dangerous, with no number or percentage identified? Well, I don’t know what he means, I’m not a mind-reader like he is. But I do know what he said. If he meant to limit his accusation in any way, he didn’t actually do so. The context in which liberals read this – and here I am venturing a guess based on my own history as a liberal, plus my reading of current rhetoric – could very well be “OK, not all opponents of Obama are like this, that’s a generalization. But there are more of them than you’d think. And they are violent and dangerous just below the surface, but people don’t appreciate that. Mobs can get out of hand quickly.”

Yes, yes they can. And when they do, there are always powerful people willing to make excuses for them, blaming their victims for inciting them to violence. It’s already happening, in Copenhagen, in Seattle, in Nashville, in St. Louis, in Derry and Portsmouth NH (irony alert),

This is not a blogger or commenter at HuffPo making these incendiary statements. This is a United States Senator calling those who disagree with him potential murderers. It is far more a hate speech than anything said by Limbaugh or Hannity or Coulter – and they are, you may remember, pretty dramatic.

This is hate speech. It is only accepted because liberals will not perform the simple exercise of reversing these comments to see how they might sound. Why would they refuse this simple exercise? That train left the station years ago. They can no longer afford to even pretend to be evenhanded.

Merry Christmas

It is my patients, mostly, who say “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Have a nice holiday.” It is the staff who says the latter. I don’t think psychiatric patients are more likely observant Christians than average (though just about any group would be more Christian than the staff at a psychiatric hospital); I think it is because they are in less contact with the political correctness of the surrounding society. Theirs is the older response, the one they grew up with – they haven’t changed.

Shopkeepers are quite careful to stick with some “holidays” formulation. One exception is the place where we cut down our tree each year. Without having to ask any specifically religious questions, it does seem a safe bet that a person buying a Christmas tree would be a little petty to object to “Merry Christmas,” even if their tree marks only a secular version of the holiday. People who claim to be buying “a tree for Solstice” or a “Hanukkah Bush” will have to just endure it. They are rationalizing anyway, buying a tree that fits the celebration of the surrounding culture, based on its overwhelming Christmas orientation, and just renaming it. If you’re that opposed, don’t buy a tree.

Who does actually say “Merry Christmas?” People who are aware I am a Christian, but often only if they are Christian themselves. Only rarely do I detect an aggressive note to “Have a Happy Holiday” from a person determined to remind me not to dare impose my “Merry Christmas” on them. Mostly, people just install an automatic saying at the beginning of December and just go with that throughout. Most people would likely most want to say what you’d most like to hear, but that takes a lot of energy to size up fifty greetings a day.

Desteapta-te Romane

This is a repost from over a year ago, but more appropriate today.

Christmas Day, 1989, the tyrant Ceausescu was finally overthrown. Congratulations, Romania. Chris doesn't remember any of the revolution. J-A was four, and remembers the crowds in the street shouting "Iliescu Sus! Ceausescu Jos!" Which turned out to be Romanian for "Out of the frying pan, into the fire," but it was a start. They have a great national anthem. If you listen to all three one after the other, you will be a little bit Romanian at the end.

We got the only two Romanians who can't sing, by the way.

These three (now four!) performances of the Romanian national anthem ("Romanians, Awake!") will tell you everything you need to know about the culture since the revolution of December 1989. If you are pressed for time, the first one - the pop version - will tell you enough.

You have to admit, these folks put a lot into the anthem, though not with expressions we usually associate with patriotism in America. Defiance, joy, smoldering sexual display - yeah, that's them.

The Rock Version

And the national rugby team.

20 years, Romania.

Five! Okay, I'm getting carried away here. But somehow you just can't stop.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sheep Among Wolves

Retriever sent this link along, wondering if it is appropriate, commenting on the fear and trembling of a new Christian (writing in Salon, no less) among her anti-religious friends.

Yes, it's appropriate. I don't link to you often enough. And the photo of the Lamb ornament was perfectly placed.

Evangelicals and Catholics

From the correspondence with my college friend, a practicing Catholic with evangelical friends. Some of this is a rehash of posts from a few months ago.

Evangelicals lack knowledge about the European churches which they spring from. Christian school history books will reference some high points of the Reformation, with particular emphasis on translating the Bible into the language of the people, but religious history for them very nearly ends at 100AD and picks up again at 1600AD in colonial America. This is changing, but remains largely true. Exceptions to this run along ethnic lines, as each group does tend to preserve something from its ancestral faith even into the New World.

This seems odd, but it is partially true of every religious group in America. Even Catholics, Jews, and the Orthodox, which have abundant histories in many times and places, tend to focus on the foreign context which immediately preceded their ancestors coming to America. The evangelicals are just more pronounced in this. The fundamentalists are more pronounced still - I will get to them later.

Will Herberg wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew in the late 50's, about an era when nearly everyone in America identified with one of those categories - the era we grew up in. He made the observation that not only did most Protestant churches in America seem more like each other than they did like their European origins, but that even Catholics and Jews had a generic Americanism about them, in contrast to their churches across the water. These latter commonalities were not so pronounced, but still observable. Foreign visitors often remarked on it, seldom with approval, and American visitors to Europe were often struck by the difference between Mass in an Italian village or worship in a Lutheran edifice outside Munich and what they experienced at home. Language was certainly a large part of this, and the appearance of the people around them in the old place and the new, but a strain of Americanism seemed to infect all churches.

This is less true now, as the wealthy, dominant, well-attended American churches have influenced the European churches since then. There was an informality at Mass outside Dublin that was different from the world Tracy's great-grandparents left. It is as much a globalization as it is an Americanization of the world's cultures, but we get the credit and the blame as the most recognisable player. (On a side note, McDonald's is often a focus of anger of the world's nations at their disappearing culture. No one here asked for this, I have heard English friends complain. Well sure they did. There was an existing market for beef sandwiches cheap and fast in a consistent setting that included clean restrooms and preparation standards. The fat and calories seldom exceeded the local fare. People have flocked to such places as soon as they've opened - even in Paris and Vienna - because they met a need that already existed. No new values were imposed.)

Thus, Americans tend to highlight the history of the Christian church in America. Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Jews are likely to know something more of their faith's history, but not often a lot - and not always accurate. Evangelicals are an exaggeration of this trend, not an exception.

Modern evangelicals descend from two broad church groups: frontier fundamentalists and those from the mainstream denominations who have disliked the changes of the last decades. The former group was bitterly anti-Catholic (and often anti-Lutheran, Episcopal, and Orthodox as well, because they were too Catholic-seeming). The latter group, not so much. They tended to see Catholics as another mainstream denomination - a bit more separate and hierarchical, but not entirely different. The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals around the issue of abortion, and to a lesser extent around issues of sexual morality, has seriously undermined the anti-Catholic tendencies inherited from the fundies. One can still find it, but it's disappearing. Anti-catholic prejudice among evangelicals now comes more from the ex-Catholics.

Fundamentalism comes from an interesting coincidence of the printing press and frontier culture, including especially architecture and formal education. The Protestant idea of having worship in the language of the people may not have been an accidental coincidence with the invention of the printing press and the general spread of a moderate literacy in Europe. Protestantism has always been very Bible-centered in that way. But this written word emphasis was balanced by the houses of worship themselves in Europe. St. Dennis-by-the-Wey might switch from Catholic to C of E, but it was still dedicated to St. Dennis, still had the same windows and pews, and childhood memories. People might want to throw off Roman rule and structure, but there was never any thought of throwing the whole thing out.

On the American frontier, settled largely by a combination of Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, all with a history of independent religious meetings outside of the church building, plus a German/Moravian strain of Pietism that emphasised simplicity and personal devotion. These throve in a region where there were no church buildings, but had constant movement, little formal education but a respect for the written word, and a fierce independence. Me 'n my Bible is all I need. There's God right there, in the book. Portable. Individual. Little wonder that one-time salvationism, rather than community involvement, took off so well. The Scots-Irish moved out from Appalachia and settled southwest, which may be why the beating heart of fundamentalism has always been Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and west Tennessee. The frontier settlers in the northern half of the US, the Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians, had similar attitudes, but a bit more connection to history, tradition, and decorative arts in the sanctuary.

The Scots-Irish in particular, because of their historical memory of the Siege of Derry and mutual suspicion of Catholics in Ireland (see Belfast, Glasgow, with equal murder rates to US cities) were anti-Catholic and carried that prejudice long after they had ceased to have much connection with actual Catholics. They were suspicious of Easterners, more suspicious of Europeans, and most suspicious of all of Catholics, which seemed to them the distillation of everything wrong with Europe. So they also disliked Episcopalians and Lutherans for not rejecting Catholicism forcefully enough. Preacher talks straight from the Wordogod. You can look it up yourself.

By about 1800 you see the emergence of fanatically anti-Catholic sects, such as the Seventh Day Adventists. The reputed antisemitism of these groups is more mixed. They were very ambivalent on this score, some even being philosemites. Their only history was Bible history, but they counted it as their own, and, well, despite the natural animosity that all human groups seem to feel for one another, and despite all the inherited stories about Jews killing Jesus, these were people who took their Bible stories very seriously. They saw themselves in those stiff-necked Jews. If that tribe had rejected their own Jesus, well, brother, you 'n I might not have done any better. The lives and beliefs of their actual ancestors or institutional ancestors faded into the mist.

As the frontier was settled, buildings built, and people grew up in towns they stayed in, the usual irony occurred: they became deeply conservative about the times of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The historical impulse will not be denied, I think. The fundamentalists identified strongly with the lives of their immediate ancestors, even if they had forgotten most of what had been five to twenty generations before. The King James Bible itself became a part of the faith. (I don't know if you ever run across that, but there are still fundamentalists who believe the KJV, derived from the textus receptus, is the only reliable translation. A weird guy who developed an interest in my two Romanian sons tried to convince them of that - an amazing denseness when you think of it. The Bible that God uses - his return address stickers actually say that.)

Hey, I kinda like this essay. I think I'm going to post it.

So, completely lost in the whole understanding of Catholicism and its symbols and rituals is the idea those people couldn't read. They needed that. And the best of them devoted their lives to expressing the great truths of the faith artistically. What would you do? And as for keeping a great deal of Latin in the Mass, it was not only an expression of Vatican dominance and intentional mysteriousness. It also communicated the transnational, universal nature of the church against the tribal and nationalist urges of human beings in general.

In a related matter, this is why American evangelicals do not hesitate to evangelise Jews - which annoys the heck out of Jews who are aware of their history in Europe among the Christians. But to the evangelical, all that history seems to have nothing to do with them. They are related biologically only in the most distant way. They are related institutionally only indirectly. They repudiated the European churches two- three hundred years ago. There has been prejudice here, but no pogroms, no holocausts.

Until very recently, I sided with the Jews on that. I am a bit of a philosemite. But after getting into an online argument with a Jewish woman who regarded even modest modifications to the idea of Christian perfidy as mere evasions, I have looked at this differently. How many centuries is enough before the American experience of Jews outweighs what our seventh cousins did? As a medievalist, I felt quite connected and sorrowful about the Christian persecutions. But in the argument, I started to question my premises. My institutional and biological ancestors were Swedish Lutherans, Puritans from the south of England, Scots-Irish Presbyterians. For what reason should I feel an identification with any persecutors of Jews? If Christian doctrine leads so readily to antisemitism, why did it not infect my people as well?

In 500AD the Mediterranean had culture and civilization, China had culture and civilization, Persia and India had culture and civilization. Europe had violent, 99% illiterate, barbaric pagan torturers. Enter Christianity, very irregularly and incompletely, and the whole world slowly changes. It is fashionable to accuse Christianity, especially Catholicism, of all the ills of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. What if the opposite is true? What if the crimes are mainly the crimes of all human tribes everywhere, killing outsiders and having no values above tribal loyalty? Except that monks kept good records, and the desire for virtue preceded virtue itself, so we have an ample catalogue of Christian sins.

The Puritans get the rap and reputation for witch-burning for a one-off incident in a notoriously unreligious seaport in Massachusetts. In Europe, the farther east you went, the more witches got burned, especially in the less religious areas.

But that's another story. I get irked about the misreporting of the Crusades and the Inquisition, too. People have a narrative that is congenial to their desires, and cherry pick the historical data to suit that.


When I awake from an uncompleted dream, I experience a moment of frustration, wanting to drop back into the sleep story to see how it comes out. Yet as I try to recapture the thread, I am usually struck by the impression that there was no real plot, no going anywhere about the dream. Just random associations, tying themselves into a plot for a moment, then dissolving. This is consistent, BTW, with the evidence from brain waves that dreams are just a wash of energy pulsing back and forth, hitting memories at random. There can be interesting self-knowledge extracted from that, as each random thought sets off associations that might be revealing, and how your mind constructs a story is likely unique to you. We have a sense of plot and of story because the emotional cues are also being randomly triggered, giving us a simulacrum of the feelings we would experience with an actual story - as if the theme music were playing under the movie telling us what's important, or sad, or funny. But there isn't necessarily a connection.

Compiling data about those who attempt suicide via bridge jumping has also proved interesting. Notorious bridges also have notorious spots. If you make access to those spots impossible or difficult, or put nets under them, the suicide rate goes down. People do not, apparently, just move fifty feet along the rail and jump from a new spot. If a bridge is closed off to jumpers entirely, nearby bridges do not see an increase.

This is consistent with my professional experience. I have known many people over the years who have made serious attempts but survived, or been interrupted unexpectedly in an attempt. Some remain suicidal, intent on finding another method or repeating the previous one with more care. Others have their suicidality reemerge pretty quickly. But some cease to be suicidal at that point - indefinitely. They may or may not have a new story to go with it involving a theme of God or fate intervening for a reason. And "do you have a plan?" is one of the key questions on evaluations of suicidality.

It is almost as if some people create a narrative that they expect to play out. If the narrative is broken, the Whole Thing is broken, somehow. They do not have an immediate adaptation of means. They are certainly clever enough to make a new plan, and despondent enough to desire death, but somehow, the spell is broken.

We are story-making people quite automatically. It is hard-wired into us. We can imagine events that have not happened equally well whether they actually come to pass or not. The narrative is equally powerful, equally real, event if the event never becomes real. NPR puts anecdotes into its news because they are gripping. Human-interest stories still make the front page. Soap operas and celebrity stereotypes are still gobbled up avidly. Sporting events play out mythic story elements as well: underdogs, crafty old pros, familiar personalities, cheaters, the determined, the unlucky, the arrogant. We make stories even when they aren't there, filling in the blanks with our own material. It is who we are. We cannot stop it, though we can suspend judgment, suspend narrative, for a while.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


From a correspondence with a college friend:

Your last question (Why are UU's so humorless? ;) )is the one that caught me. I had not thought so before, but as soon as I read it I recognised it as true. Not that there are no funny or congenial people among them, or that they never laugh, but that this quality of humorlessness is more common among them, and a little more present than average in most of them individually.

I might not have noticed because everyone seems humorless compared to us. The wit and male banter of Wymans getting together is dizzying to those who encounter it for the first time. It is semi-intentional. If you recall those male dorm moments of just guys talking together, winding down, as fondly as I do, you will understand why I wanted to perpetuate it, and raised my sons to participate. The practical joke aspect of male dorm life never did much for me - it was the banter.

It descends from my father, a route salesman who always had a joke ready and was always in community theater. As his own father was not an especial wit or raconteur, I don't know where he got it from. (Though Grampa did like to go off drinking and hunting with his brothers back to Nova Scotia every year, and a picture of Charlie, my great-grandfather, suggests he may have been fun to be around. I'll have to discuss this with my brother.) At any rate my brother and I were banterers from quite early ages, and a younger brother (from my father's second family) has said we should have done a radio show like the guys on Car Talk. We could have, if we could have thought of something of general interest as a foundation as they did.

Even our Romanians, a humorless ethnic group these days, learned to engage in it once they became part of this family. There can only be brief times now when many sons plus a brother or two can all be together, but nothing beats it in all my existence.

So to us, everyone is nice enough, but a bit humorless. They need to be brought out by a Wyman to show their best side.

Anyway, the UU's. There is an earnestness to people who have causes which can make them unable to laugh at themselves. I consider ability to laugh at oneself one of the quickest measures of emotional health. Liberals often seem to lack this. Exceptions would be Bill Clinton (more an anti-conservative than a liberal); Joe Lieberman (now on the outs with the party); James Carville (also not very liberal even though he is rabidly anti-conservative. Hmm.) I hear Bill Richardson is. But Hillary? Obama? Chris Dodd, Robert Byrd, Al Gore, Barbara Boxer? Gad, think how many drinks you'd have to get into those people to make them fun. Liberal humor runs to cleverness and wryness, both of which quickly deteriorate into bitterness. See for example, the genial humor of Gary Trudeau and Garrison Keillor when they are making fun of people they genuinely like, compared to the plain meanness when they don't. The guy that writes the Tom Tomorrow comic strip - he's turned the venom he feels for conservatives onto Obama now. You'd think I'd be prime for finally thinking he's funny. But he's not. I feel sorry for the poor bastard, who is clearly a devoted liberal instead of a partisan, but he's just sneering, not funny.

Contrast this with both Bushes, Cheney, Reagan, McCain, Dole - well able to make fun of themselves. Palin, now that I think of it, isn't quite so comfortable with that. She can do it, and maybe it will get better, but it still has a forced quality. Rush Limbaugh can make fun of himself - Al Franken can't, even though he's a comedian. I don't think I've heard enough of Hannity to know, but I think he takes himself pretty seriously.

Where is the liberal humorist who makes fun of liberals the way O'Rourke does of conservatives? Maybe they can do it, but are tired of getting vilified, as Chris Rock did.

And UU's are great for causes. The Save-The-Whales Church. Well, I guess that one's passe now - they must still be into the usual diversity, gay marriage, green living, and economic justice causes, though. Up here they often post the sermon topic for the week on their signboard. I still recall shaking my head at the Easter Sunday sermon "Guns in America." Give me a frigging break. If the resurrection thing is too weird for you then go with "New Life," or do something with the bunny. Or, if you want to stay away from the whole topic as too Christian, then don't bill yourself as having respect for all the Great Teachers. Robert Fulghum is a notable UU - All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten, or whatever that was. Cute, but it's just a sermon - a hundred-page harangue about how everyone else should live. Even though the title says "I," he doesn't spend much time on how he needs to know this - his point is that he's learned it, and now should you. Just a fundamentalist with better social skills.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Point Taken

Several have made the point that my choices of topics and my type of observation is congenial to them, not because they are so all-fired better than anything else on the net, but because they share the same general approach and there is a level of trust I will bring you to places you like. I see the point of that. In a fragmented culture, why wouldn't a small group coalesce around a shared set of topics?

I had also forgotten that smallness (it was about 60 people a day, I'm sure that has dropped off now) can be a virtue. There are several blogs where the topics are fascinating, but the number of commenters so great that it feels like a town meeting instead of a gathering in one's home. Here, you not only get to know something of me, but I of thee, and all of you of each other. There is value in that itself.

So the two or three posts I have rolling around in my head I will complete, and we'll see what happens from there. I have some new thoughts on the power of narrative, more as it relates to general thought than to politics. New studies on suicidal people figure prominently in that. I am also exchanging emails with a college friend who I have long been out of touch with, who asked apropos of something else, why Unitarian Universalists seem to have little humor. That was right in my wheelhouse, and I will lightly edit and post my reply.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Craciun Fericit

“Life Changes”

So. Chris is in the Marines. John-Adrian gained and lost a fiancée. Our nephew Kyle came to live with us. Tracy’s dad long pondered moving into an apartment, then decided all at once to do it. And put the house on the market 2 days later. David’s brother stays with us about half the time. It is odd that Ben’s news, and especially Jonathan and Heidi’s news, is now for them to share. It’s hard to let that reporting go. In brief, Ben continues as a videographer in Houston – he has a steady girlfriend. Jonathan, Heidi, and Emily live nearby and we get to see them, amidst everyone’s busy schedules.

We’re about the same, thanks. But everything around us changes. Things don’t turn out like you thought, I keep saying. Life changes. Tracy’s refrain is All will be well. Perhaps we should set those to music.

“I’ll make you Hip”

That’s Kyle’s plan for me. He’s in eighth grade, a stage of life when such things are important. He’s not going to succeed, of course. Silk purse, sow’s ear. Ben made a concerted effort to accomplish the same thing years ago, and now advises Kyle that the best he can hope for is to limit the damage. Kyle’s having better luck with Tracy. She’s learned the proper context to say “Epic fail” rather than “fail,” for example. We have entered an environment in which brand names are of consummate importance – clothes, breakfast sandwiches, restaurants, electronics, everything. I had forgotten that world existed. He’s witty and sociable enough that he’s already got himself elected to student council, and is a natural in the school mascot costume - so he has settled in at the talkative Wyman household pretty seamlessly. For Kyle’s adjustment, he’s entered a world with Power School, which allows Tracy to track his grades daily. We wish that technology had been in place for at least one of the first four sons – we’ll leave you to guess which.

“Just out of curiosity, when were you planning on telling us?”

Samantha had sadly returned his engagement ring on a Sunday. It’s John-Adrian’s business, not ours, so you’ll have to worm the story out of him. But for our part of things, it’s fair to tell you that by Wednesday he still hadn’t mentioned it, even though he lives here. I cornered him at a Fisher Cats game. “I figured you would know already.” True, but still…

He has made noises about joining the Air Force, and even voluntarily bought a book to study for the test. Amazing. He’s cheerful. Inscrutable. Charming.

“This is Recruit Wyman. I have arrived safely at Parris Island.”

Ninety days later, the rest of us arrived at Parris Island to watch him graduate. Ben flew up from Houston; Jonathan, J-A and I drove down; Tracy, Heidi, and Emily flew down. During those ninety days we sent cards and letters, and Chris wrote letters home. Let me repeat that: Chris wrote letters home. This was one of the early clues we had that the USMC would be developing a more responsible individual. The myth in my era was that the military made everyone into robots with no personality. Emphatically not true here. Chris is still Chris – now Lance Corporal Wyman – but a few years older in the space of a few months, and he’s never looked better. They send him to various trainings at bases around the country. He is possibly being deployed in February, but the plans keep changing.

“9 People Like This”

We are lightly connected to alumni and Facebook networks, which has allowed us to renew contact with several folks we have not heard from in years. It’s a different world now. Life changes. John-Adrian, who associates farming with some of the worst years of his childhood, finds himself playing Farmville these days.

“The Year of the Teenager”

The year began with acquiring Kyle and starting over with middle school and teenagers. Then in July, Tracy finally got to go to CHIC, the Covenant Youth conference that takes place every three years, with 6 teenagers from her church and 5 from Maine and 6,000 from around the world. She had wanted to go for years but no son had been willing to let her attend with him. So this was her turn. After CHIC, it was time to take Kyle and some of the Chicisters to Soulfest for four days of Christian rock music (including two days of rain). Then on to Pilgrim Pines where we heard “Hiii, Kyyyle” from every middle school and most of the high school girls. Next was the mission trip to the Children’s Home of Cromwell, CT. with Kyle and a whole flock of middle and senior high teenagers. In September Tracy returned to her cherub class but still is involved with the Solid Rock Youth Group.

Merry Christmas from the Wymans

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


It has been a month, and I haven't missed posting as much as I thought I would. I was actually thinking today of a post about politicians, and the ability of human beings to rationalise. I sometimes think of topics I could post about, but none I feel driven to post about.

I thank you for your generous sentiments, but am not sure I am providing much that one could not find in a dozen other places. I have had some mildly original thoughts on things, and I do understand that a blogger whose collection of usual topics fits one's style is more congenial. I have certainly not ceased in anger or because of any tragedy.

I will at a minimum post the yearly Christmas letter.