Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some Poor Uses of Irony

  • Irony as a way of distancing yourself from things that are implicating to you when you identify with them
  • Irony as a way of criticizing or ridiculing something / someone from a safe distance, ensuring that your own positive beliefs remain invisible and therefore impervious to attack
  • Irony as a way of remaining inscrutable and aloof, even around those whom you love
  • Irony as a way of selfishly appropriating what is interesting to you from other cultures / movements / communities while draining them of any significant power to symbolize or signify in a way particular to the original culture / movement / community (in example: donning a keffiyeh without knowing/caring about Middle-Eastern politics one way or the other, or without being aware that a keffiyeh has historically been used by Westerners removed from the situation in Israel to show their solidarity with Palestinians)
  • Irony as a way of remaining safe, in life and theater (because it is not ultimately safe, and you will more likely remain alone) 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some Haps

  • I have completed my first five days of training
  • Sunday and Monday, we are moving out of this house and into an apartment
  • Then we will be able to get library cards (hallelujah)
  • Also we will have access to a fitness center, replete with walls of mirrors and a sauna
  • Furthermore, that is hopefully when we will return to purchasing groceries
  • I'm working on a better post about power and being cool 
  • Great Expectations opens this weekend at Arena Theater, so if you're around Wheaton you should see it
  • I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and it is wonderful. If you're into whimsy, beautiful descriptions and characters that feel more real than some of the people you know, you may find this worth your while 
  • Having a job is excellent for this reason: 
    • Tomorrow I actually have a day off
      • I get to decide how I want to spend it
      • There are many things that would be worth doing, and I may actually do them
      • Writing is one example
        • Possibly fiction, which would go up at my other blog
        • It is called "little forays into fiction"

So I feel pretty good about where my life is today; things are going well in a lot of ways.

PS I gave up on non-sequiturs, as you may have been able to tell.

PPS My friend Tim: he is good. He understood Mulholland Drive on his first viewing. Recently we carved a pumpkin together, and a friend's dad was there, and he said to her later: "they were such a cute couple." To be clear (since this question has come up a few times, and I don't know exactly why) Tim and I aren't a couple. And if you know why this comes up so often, please let me know.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Next Step

Tonight I finished the intensive three-day training program I began on Friday. Two of the facilitators shed tears over how proud of us they were during their final words to us several hours ago (this is not a joke). So: Tuesday I start in-store training. I am excited, but also nervous. I guess this is a totally typical emotional state for someone who has recently acquired a cool job.
Also I have had five hours of sleep total in the last two nights and keep forgetting when I don't get dinner. This has proven to be a problem, when I additionally have been furnished with drinks that are not intended to be consumed with nutritional goals in mind. I am slight of stature and without food in my stomach, I am unsurprisingly sensitive to the effects of grown-up drinks, even when they are consumed in relatively small quantities. 
Tomorrow is a day off, so maybe I will be able to put up something cool. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

First Day

Sometimes you need to just pack your reservations away for a little while and will-to-drink the coolaide. It was fun, and exhausting, and it's hard to imagine two more total days like this, but ultimately it will be worth it.  

Enthusiasm exercises we did today involved: 
triumphant leaping, with yells

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chapter Two: Beginning Work

So: tomorrow, I begin the first day of an intensive three-day training program for my new job. It is going to be great! But I am nervous. It is downtown and I won't know anyone else there. I just hope I don't prove myself to be a total idiot on the first day. Or second or third, for that matter.

Also: according to the contract I signed, I am apparently not allowed to write anything about the company I am working for, and will have to take down an image I posted recently of its logo. From here on out, I will have to deal only in the vaguest generalities when I write about anything work-related. I figure that this could be pretty fun.


Here are a couple of quotations which have become personally meaningful to me in this season of life.

"We read to know we are not alone." - CS Lewis

"What happens to a... man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course." - Walker Percy 


How would a horse in a horse trailer feel if the truck the trailer was attached to stopped at a light, and next to the horse's trailer was another horse trailer, but when the horse looked over at the other trailer the only thing the horse could see in it was a whole bunch of furniture? I will explain the relevance of this question at an appropriate time. 

Love you guys. The ones of you I know, anyway. Especially the commenters. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On Not Being Happy But Not Exactly Unhappy Either and is it a Problem?

So. I get anxious around those whom I would uncharitably describe as the "insistently-happy." A polarizing undercurrent sets the tone for even our most casual chance encounters; it's as though I'm understood to either be enthusiastically pleased to see them and to be in the world generally, or to find life itself (and them, by extension) hateful to me,without the possibility of a middle-ground. The only possible modification on these two modes in the other's perception would be an intensification, which would permit ecstasy or sheer rage.  The experience is to normal interpersonal interactions what fundamentalism is to religion.
At some point the sentence will be released into the air between us that conceivably can be either a greeting or a very serious question. With this sort of person, it is typically communicated more or less as the former, but with an unsatisfactory response, it will transmogrify into the latter. In example:

"I'm okay."
"Only okay?"
"Yeah. I mean, yeah, I'm doing pretty well."
"Why aren't you better?"
"I dunno?"
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"You know, I think I really am okay."
"Are you sure?"
"Uh, yeah."
"Okay. But if you ever want to talk about it, you can talk to me."

I am pleased for my friends for whom emphatic well-being colors day-to-day life. From my current perspective, I just don't see how it can be a reasonable expectation for everyone else. It becomes especially problematic when it's given moral weight, as if to suggest that it is wrong to experience negative emotions, even if they (appropriately) correspond to negative situations. And somehow, even more neutral emotions - feelings of "only okay" - are similarly, implicitly, condemned. These are big exclusions from the spectrum of emotional appropriateness for people living real lives in the world: be happy, or you're not "being" correctly.
But being "okay" is just that - being okay, right? It's what a "C" was before grade-inflation. Satisfactory, but with no reason to call it great. It helps to make sense of real sadness and real joy, for the difference from "okay" that both of those are. Of course, emotions are complex and this is a very simplistic way of looking at them, but I think there still is something to be said for an average state of affective affairs, when it is appropriate. In the least, I don't think "only okay" should signify that something is seriously wrong.

So, "insistent happiness:" I think it is primarily some kind of maturity issue, because I do have a number of friends who are doing really well in life generally, and who don't feel a need to force that well-being down the throats of those around them. I spent a couple hours with one of these friends tonight; she gave me the wonderful gift of listening to me talk out some things that have been bringing me down, without wantonly doling out prescriptives intended to immediately resolve The Perceived Problems. That's a real kindness - a small, good thing, in Raymond Carver's words. So thanks Emily. You're really pretty great.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lame Excuse for a Post


  • I start training for my new job Friday
  • I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy in one sitting a couple of nights ago
  • It was terrifying but also wonderful
  • I haven't seen the local turkeys for several days
  • I will begin posting with less regularity on Friday, the day I start with the New Work

Monday, October 18, 2010

On Being Asked One Particular Unkind Question, and How to Respond to It

I live close to the college I recently graduated from, and for a lot of good reasons. My brother and sister still go to school there and I have a number of friends still in attendance, so I have been on campus frequently in the last couple months. The problem is seeing the people at the school whom I don't anticipate seeing, and the probing questions that come with these chance meetings. I can tell at a distance whether or not I am in for trouble. Initially, if a person I know (but not well) recognizes me while I'm around, their face will do a few things sequentially:

  1. Eyebrow raise of surprise
  2. Smile of recognition as they begin approach
  3. Smirk of deviousness as they formulate invasive query
It is best to remain staring at them for the duration of this process, so as to be sure about intentions. Sometimes people only want to say "hi, how are you?" but typically it does not end there, and it's the smirk that can tip you off to less-benign purposes if you're aware of the common tactics of the misanthropic.

So, the tractor-beam has been activated and you have been pulled into the orbit of an acquaintance who decides en route to you that they want to remind you of as many of your insecurities as is possible in a forty-second window. Any impulse that would propel you towards physical violence at this stage must be put down. The problem ought to be taken care of in a more creative and diplomatic way.

They approach and enthusiastically greet you: "HEY how's it GOINNNNN?" but the one incongruous element of their expression corroborates your developing theory on their intentions - the single raised eyebrow, the corner of the mouth upturned in a way that escapes the dictates of normal friendliness, the total lack of color in their irises.

You exchange the usual niceties. Yes I am well, are you well? Good. Yes. Classes? Great, oh those sound so interesting, I wish I would have been smarter with my schedule when I went here as an undergraduate student ha! And you are doing several wonderful extracurricular activities that is so good!

This is the kiss-or-kill moment, as it were. If your life has a face, your interlocutor has two options for what to do with it:

  1. Kiss your life's face: confirm your value as a human being, allow the conversation to end on a pleasant note, ask what kind of work you are doing, how your brother and sister are, etc.
  2. Kill your life's face: "so what are ya doin around here (*sweeping arm gesture*)? Just hangin' around? Hangin' on?" 
God confirms his love for you just the slightest bit more if your acquaintance goes the first route. Something else happens if they go the second.

Assuming the worst, you may choose between a number of possible responses to your acquaintance's decision to make themselves temporarily your enemy.

  1. "My brother and sister go here still and I'm working part-time for a professor who's working on a book, actually." (Low Strength Response, Not Deceptive)
  2. "Haha, no, actually; I'm candidating for an adjunct professorial position for which I'm inexplicably well qualified." (Medium Strength Response, Moderately Deceptive)
  3. "I'm actually interviewing students for a fascinating project being done by Notre Dame sociologists on social and emotional immaturity in 18-24 year olds; would you like to be interviewed? You will be able to take one free book home from the library if you sign this consent form and talk to me for a half hour about the most uncomfortable aspects of your romantic life!" (Medium Strength Response, Moderately Deceptive) 
  4. Ignore question, pose embarrassing counter-question - "so what was it like to find out that you were on academic probation after getting busted for cheating on all those tests?" (High Strength Response, Not Deceptive)
  5. Punch acquaintance and leave. (Prohibitively High Strength Response, Not Deceptive)

After it goes down, it will be important for your friends to cover for your having acted out, if you chose a higher-strength response - for them to offer something to the tune of "he's having a really hard time right now," or "I know how easy it is to interpret that in a specific way, but in light of his ... condition, it's actually the wrong way," or "here's five bucks if you promise not to talk about this to anyone."

The more justified you feel in being around campus after graduating, or in being around anywhere generally, the easier it will be to field unkind questions as to why you're "hangin' around." In this case the higher-strength responses will become less and less attractive as well. So next time you recognize the pattern in the approach, remind yourself of a job opportunity and run out to go pursue it. Or, if you have a job - well, then, just stand there squarely and let the condescension break over you like the waves of the sea on an ancient weathered stone.

And you know, there is the possibility that your acquaintance didn't intend any harm, anyway - in which case, I owe a lot of apologies...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Can Has Job?


oops . . . 

Leaving the picture of the company's logo on this site would have violated the contract I just signed to work with them

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Defense of Lost Causes, First Installment, With Postscripts

The Blood Brothers
I love this band. I don't care that they broke up in 2000-whatever, or that their singers, when singing, sound like a sonic representation of the most brutal moments from Watership Down, or that their songs have hilariously unsubtle titles like "Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck" and "Trash Flavored Trash." Sometimes, I just need a little angry music to take the edge off my own inarticulable anger over everything that's not right with the world, and this is the perfect band and the perfect music for that purpose. It is the unifying theme; a single brilliant bloody thread of rage is woven consistently through this group's canon. They're pissed about everything, and lyrically run the gamut from the vanishingly personal to the insidiously global, with everything in-between and in a variety of imaginative combinations. Their screechy earsplitting aesthetic is, ironically, in perfect harmony with their subject matter; I can't think of three bands better at unifying form and content into an internally cohesive whole than these banshees.
What does it mean to live truthfully when even identity is a marketable product, and nothing seems capable of transcending the impersonal, a-moral outworking of the inner logic of late capitalism? Well, the Blood Brothers positively can't tell you a thing about that, but as muckrakers, they're as provocative and insightful as they come.
For some noxious obnoxiousness with a keen but screwy moral sense, for a manageable adrenaline spike, for your curiosity, for the sake of doing a hard thing, and for that neglected niche that is your post-hardcore indie cred (Pitchfork gave their first album an almost perfect score), I would ask that you give the Blood Brothers a listen, maybe with the volume low to start.

PS I got a job today?

PPS A couple years ago, a friend and I were walking in the city and passed a guy that wanted us to give him a few bucks and when we didn't he yelled "y'all look the same anyways!" I suppose that is an example of a non sequitur. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

BOOKS!1! Also TJ & Dave. Also Promissory Notes.

So: in the last several months, I have read a lot of books. Primarily fiction, but with some other things thrown in too.
I love books. The printed word is one of my favorite media. There's something about turning pages that just jives with my jabbers, and you know, reading is great too. Anyway, to start, here's a near-comprehensive list of the things I've read since, perhaps, May, in no order:

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Whose Community? Which Interpretation? by Merold Westphal
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose
Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds & John Eidinow
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
The End of Memory by Miroslav Volf
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
i told me so by Gregg A. Ten Elshof
Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Scott Pilgrim Series 1-6 by Bryan Lee O'Malley

I also read a bunch of poetry books and plays but they're for some other post.
This is what I would like to do: write up sparkly little blurbs for most of these in the next couple of weeks. I adored them almost without exception, and would like to give thoughtful recommendations with specific reasons why they would be worth your time.


Wednesday night I got to see my favorite performing duo, TJ and Dave, at the usual time and place, and afterward went to a little all-night coffee shop to catch up with some friends. It was very late. Dave walked in after we arrived and used the bathroom there! Then he came out! THEN I mustered my courage! AND THEN I approached him, told him how much I admired his work and have been influenced by it, and he shook my hand and said, "thanks!" All in all, it was a wonderful night. 

Here is a picture of TJ and Dave. They are by far my favorite improvisers, and are more or less why I am still interested in improv at this point in my life. I love them. If you see them some Wednesday night in Chicago, you will understand why. I intend to write a lot about them in the future. 

Dave is actually on the left, TJ on the right. They are in a typical pose.


From now on, readers may expect at least one non-sequitur per post. Like "jives with my jabbers." Well, either a non-sequitur, or plain old-fashioned gibberish, I guess, but yeah. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some Hopes & Fears


  • Get a job soon
  • Happiness
  • Put up some reviews of things I've read recently
  • Get a bow tie
  • "Come to an understanding" w/ local turkeys
  • GRE: prep & take it
  • Applications to grad programs: do them
  • Find "pretty good" life direction, goals, etc
  • Peace 
  • Pay back college loans
  • To not sell out
  • Write and perform better every time
  • Teach
  • Make world better


  • No job soon
  • Happiness turns out to be philosophically ideal
  • Put up 0 reviews, read 0 things in the first place
  • Give in to internet spelling, grammar lol
  • No bow tie
  • Turkeys
  • No GRE prep, taking
  • No grad apps
  • No direction
  • No peace
  • College loans never paid back
  • Selling out
  • Teach, but only lies and evil
  • Write and perform worse every time
  • Make world worse
Hope is the thing with feathers...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Job Update

Potential employer A (for awesome) is initiating a background check on me. Hopefully, this is a good sign.

the background check begins

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Intermittently-Risky Business

I suppose I would very loosely characterize risk (v.) as the act of opening oneself up to the possibility of loss, ideally in the pursuit of a goal. It is an important thing to be able to do! But in me, and probably in many people, the muscle for it has atrophied.

There is no way to eliminate risk from one's life. All of us are subject to chance events and cannot guard against all possible threats to our well-being. However, if one thing is true about the human species, it is that we are creatures capable of profound self-deception. Awareness of the inherent risks of living is something that can be willfully suppressed easily enough. Certain ways of life seem to involve little to no risk, and it may be true in one sense - negligible amounts of possible loss may be apparently involved in one or another venture - but the hidden risk wound up in decisions primarily made out of a desire for comfort and safety is enormous: it is the possibility for damage to be done to the human spirit. For serious.

I think it is a kind of violence to ourselves, to will to believe that it is possible and desirable to go about life without putting much on the line. And the more I practice that willed belief - the more I live and act out of it - the deeper the problem for me becomes. I don't want to believe that I do this even as I write about it! But there's not much that I would count as seriously risky in my past actions, especially in the last couple of months.

So I suppose the question is: how does a person get back into a healthy relationship with risk? Obviously not all risks are good ones, but the thing is, tons of them are good, and healthy to embrace. Some risks are even necessary to consciously accept - for example, the risk of utterly failing in front of an audience is a necessary one to take on for a person who desires to be a performer.

If there is a muscle for it, then maybe working it out will do the trick. And certainly another important aspect of changing an attitude towards risk would be a re-articulation of the constellation of goods involved in a given decision - a re-appraisal of the comparative value of different options, and a reconsideration of the things that lend those options their value. But who knows, really? Maybe at some point a person just gets forced into opening herself up to the possibility of greater losses than she is comfortable with, and when things turn out okay, she ends up with a new mindset. That would be pretty great. But to hope for that also seems rather passive, and passivity is part of the problem.

My brother is the one who has been provoking me to think about risk and my attitude towards it. Recently he got really angry about all the opportunities we (he and I) pass up because they're too risky. Here is a picture of him:

That expression pretty well sums up his outlook right now. May he inspire us all to take greater risks in the course of extraordinary pursuits. In fact, if you want to find me in the next couple of hours, just look for a lot of huge dangers. Wherever that place is, Jon will probably be there too, probably late.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pointers for Anything Involving Turkeys

  • Stand back
  • Shake whatever turkey is in hand
  • Just in case, repeat 2 if applicable (turkey remains in hand)
  • Wash hands
  • Cook it, or bury it, or try a combination
  • Either will result in: all turkeys being on to you
  • Confusing the turkeys will not work
  • Ruses generally will not work
  • Disguises do not work (unless + scent mask, then only sometimes however)
  • Costumes have limited effectiveness
  • Feigning disinterest works until they are on to you
  • Unless they were originally feigning too
  • Do not try to hide whatever it is they are looking for (if you have it)
  • Offer it to appease them or throw it out to distract them (if possible)
  • Don't be hopeful
  • Cars are typically safe
  • The house is not always safe but usually it is safe
  • A tall fence does not help the house to be safe
  • Doorknobs are favorable
  • Handles are not
  • Low handles are especially not
  • A house breach usually signifies the end, unless there are fortified rooms
  • It is not a good time to get distracted by your phone
  • If they blitz you and still you manage to get inside and lock the door and everyone else has fled or was taken out, and all you have is a bottle of brandy and an ambien, just be thankful that you've got em and try to go to sleep if you can ignore the scratching and calling and general horror, also write what you can on the white-painted wood of the wall with the sharpie stored under the sink for this purpose; it is the turkey reckoning so you'd better come up with a clever line by which to be remembered in the human resistance
  • Ambien dreams can be pretty cool but in your dreams, don't open anything
  • When you wake in the morning and they are gone, the area will need a good cleaning
  • Welcome to the new world order

high-ranking turkeys, surveying

* * *

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sufjan Stevens, Etc.

I have come around to loving his new album. It took a while to get past the bombastic flautistry and what-have-you, but honestly, I love it, even with how slight the reserves of my patience are for most electronic and techno music. This is the age of adz, and it is awesome. 

My favorite album of the year, however, is still Hadestown by Anais Mitchell and friends. I never thought folk opera would be my thing, if I ever knew it was a thing (I'm pretty sure I never knew it was a thing), but this contemporary retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice won me over on a first hearing. Perfectly cast, perfectly arranged, and beautifully written. Thanks be to Dan for introducing me to this indie diamond. 

I love me some music. 



Though there has been nothing new since Thursday, I am still jobless! And I apologize for any confusion my not-posting may have caused. This is why a person ought never to be clear about their intentions.

The big disappointment of the day was the discovery that GarageBand does not work on this computer, even though there is an icon for it.

Also, whistling has an interesting musical history that I would like to know more about. I consider myself to be a fairly mediocre whistler. In this, I would rate myself inferior to both Axl Rose and Andrew Bird, since they are professional, recorded whistlers. And also: Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was apparently a virtuoso whistler! He came from a very musically talented family. His brother, for instance, was a very famous one-armed pianist. And that is not a joke.


I've never met an agreeable cat but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Today Tim and I carved a pumpkin in the likeness of one particularly disagreeable cat, and it turned out to look more-or-less like this: 

Tomorrow is the Chicago Marathon, but I am not going to be able to go. I suppose I'll have to run one in the afternoon to make up for it. Also, our pumcat ended up looking better than the one pictured for being more complicated, and mysterious. I do not know how it looks backlit, but it is important to save some good things for the future, so as to guard against running out.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Favorite Syllogism, and My Friend John Who is Leaving

  1. Babies are illogical.
  2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
  3. Illogical persons are despised.

  4. Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.
(Taken from Steve Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up)

* * * * * 

this is my friend John:

and this is my friend John when he realized he had to go back to New York:

we'll miss you, John.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Today's Twofer

I couldn't help but put this up too. It's taken from A Heidegger Dictionary, accessed at

Heidegger's interpretation of DASEIN purports to show it ‘as it is firstly and mostly [zunächst und zumeist] in its average everydayness [Alltäglichkeit]’ (BT, 16). Tag, ‘day’, and all, ‘all, every’, furnish: Alltag, ‘weekday; everyday life’; alltäglich, ‘daily; everyday, ordinary’; and Alltäglichkeit, ‘everydayness, ordinariness’. In contrast to a ‘distinctive, definite way of existing’, everydayness is Dasein's ‘indifferent Firstly and Mostly [Zunächst und Zumeist]’. Since it is so close to us, it is usually overlooked: ‘What is ontically closest and most familiar is what is ontologically furthest, unknown and constantly overlooked in its ontological meaning’ (BT, 43). Alltäglichkeit ‘clearly means that mode of existing which Dasein observes “every day” [‘alle Tage’].’ But everydayness is not a quantitative concept: ‘“every day” does not mean the sum of the “days” allotted to Dasein in its “lifetime”.’ It means ‘a definite How [Wie] of existence that pervades Dasein “for life”.’ That is ‘the How in which Dasein “lives from day to day”, whether in all its conduct or only in certain conduct prescribed by being-with-one-another’ (BT, 370). Everydayness contents itself with the habitual, even when this is burdensome. It is uniform, but it finds variety in whatever the day brings. Everydayness is inescapable. . .

I had forgotten about the importance of everydayness for Heidegger when I started this blog, but now realize that it's the perfect title. Anyways, cheers. 

Job Update, Etc.

God would have to do a miracle in order for a potential employer to remain interested in some idiot who couldn't manage to arrive any earlier than 7:22 PM to a 7:00PM group interview - but wonder of wonders, I have been scheduled for a meeting next Monday with the "regional leader," which may be the last step on the road to employment. It will be my fourth interview, following the initial group event, a double-feature with two store managers, and a pleasant chat with the "store leader." I wonder if the CEO of the company is referred to as "supreme leader."

I didn't write this for my original "intentions" post, but my goal is to post on this blog every day until I get a job. So far, so good. It's been over two weeks of having some laughs and keeping the hope up. Here's to six more days of regular posting, and then a job.

Yesterday I went for a walk with two good friends, and we observed the roving turkey gang effortlessly jumping up to perch on top of someone's fence before hopping over to invade their yard. It was a tall fence. One of the turkeys even stood lookout for the other turkeys, but was facing the wrong direction and didn't see us.
I wonder what their devious plans are for our neighborhood, and despair.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Love, Desire, and Humanity Swirled Into an Expansive Harry Frankfurt / Jonathan Safran Foer Marble Cake

You'll need some time and patience for this one.

Harry Frankfurt's hugely important paper "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" is one of those pieces of philosophy that's helped me to understand myself and other people better. His basic thesis is that the essential feature of "personhood" is a certain quality of the will, which is a condition for moral accountability as well as the basis for the peculiar sort of respect that we give to other persons. (Personhood has empirically only ever comprised members of the human race, but theoretically it could extend to other species as well if certain conditions obtained.) Frankfurt argues that this certain quality of the will is the possibility for regulative self-evaluation; basically, we have first-order desires (think: hunger, thirst, libido, etc, but also less strictly-biological yearnings, like a longing for a father's approval), and second-order desires that actually have our first-order desires as their content.
Persons, then, are the sorts of beings that are concerned with the desires that they have; beyond mere calculation in the pursuit of first-order desires, we also have the ability to reflect on our desires and choose ones in particular that we desire to be aligned with our will. Charles Taylor, in typical brilliant fashion, takes this characterization one step further by arguing that second-order desires also involve what he calls 'strong-evaluation', a moral (in a very broad sense of the word) judgment that is informed by an idea of the sort of person that one wishes to become.
Persons, on this account, are creatures that are concerned with the sorts of creatures that they are, and the sorts of creatures that they are becoming. Interestingly enough, this is more-or-less in line with Martin Heidegger's phenomenological description of da-sein (the sort of being-in-the-world of human beings), but conceived almost entirely within the analytic tradition. The key element here that I wish to emphasize is the desire for other desires.
Now I will geek out in a different direction. I'm reading a great novel by Jonathan Safran Foer called Everything is Illuminated. The story is divided into alternating narrative halves: the first is the ongoing personal account, in hilariously broken English, of a Ukrainian translator who has been hired to work for an American writer intent on finding the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The other half is the story being written by the American, which traces his grandfather's lineage in a remote shtetl community back to the late eighteenth century; it is whimsical and delightfully droll. The chapter I just finished deals with Brod, the American writer's great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who as a baby was rescued from a river after it swallowed her family's wagon as well as the rest of her family. She is adopted by Yankel, a seriously misfortunate but big-hearted old man, who does his best to raise the precocious and beautiful girl in a community filled with men that obsess over her.
Several pages dedicated to Brod and Yankel's relationship touch on a common human problem which refers us back to Frankfurt and second-order desires. Though Brod and Yankel are attentive to one another and seem to cherish one another, Foer writes (and it is worth quoting at length)
But my very-great-and-lonely-grandmother didn't love Yankel, not in the simple and impossible sense of the word. In reality she hardly knew him. And he hardly knew her. They knew intimately the aspects of themselves in the other, but never the other. . .
But each was the closest thing to a deserving recipient of love that the other would find. So they gave each other all of it. . . when Yankel said he would die for Brod, he certainly meant it, but that thing he would die for was not Brod, exactly, but his love for her. And when she said Father, I love you, she was neither naive nor dishonest, but the opposite: she was wise and truthful enough to lie. They reciprocated the great and saving lie - that our love for things is greater than our love for our love for things - willfully playing the parts they wrote for themselves, willfully creating and believing fictions necessary for life.
There is a lot worth going over in this passage, especially the brief riff on 'otherness', but I want to focus on the theme of love for love. Earlier in the chapter, Brod discovers that the world does not meet her expectations, and she cannot find anything that deserves to be loved by her, because her love is perfect and tremendous. And so, in need of an object, her love turns in on itself, and her relationships with the things in her life becomes mediated by her meta-love; she loves her love for things primarily, and the things themselves secondarily. Brod cannot sustain an un-mediated love for an imperfect object, and so cannot love the world she finds herself in or its contents. Yankel's love for Brod is founded upon his various emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs; when he was much younger, his wife left him without a reason, and he was additionally dishonored in his community for reasons that are not made clear. He gives himself over to his care for Brod as a way of giving his waning life purpose and direction, and so his love is similarly mediated.
As Frankfurt argues that a capacity for second-order desires are partially constitutive of our personhood, Safran Foer obliquely points towards this capacity as a source of our loneliness and sorrow. Second-order desires have both a positive and negative aspect, and the negative looms larger than the positive; second-order desires call into question our first order desires, and lead us to make choices against the majority of them in the pursuit of one that we would wish to identify with our will. However, this choice is susceptible to weakness and a lack of resolve, so even our positive willful affirmations do not result in success in every case. Frequently, we don't have the heart to do what we want to do (in this, there are echoes of a Pauline lament). We are self-regulative creatures, but therefore, we seem also to be creatures that are largely incapable of fully embracing our desires, and of sustaining direct and unmediated loves for things. Fear and disappointment prevent these important human happenings from happening.

The reason for today's post is my growing unease over mediated loves and truncated desires in my life and the lives of those around me. An insightful article from a Spring '10 issue of Harper's Magazine identified this problem with late-stage post-modern capitalism. The logic runs like this: 19th century industriocentric capitalism had essentially to do with the production of goods. Modern 20th century capitalism had essentially to do with the production of desires. Late-stage postmodern capitalism, our particular digitally-affected variety, has to do with the production of identity. Advertisers and marketing execs use psychological research to figure out what's cool or classy, and sell people an ideal image of themselves (a classic apple-polishing fallacy, but when since the 1800's have advertisements operated on a logical level to make an appeal?). Of course, intuitively it seems that mediated love in particular is a more human, less particularly economic, problem, but perhaps it has been compounded and intensified by our current social and cultural moment, allowed to grow large in the toxic commercial-psychic water we're all swimming in (but not drinking or using to bathe, at least not at my house, nope).
It takes a lot of guts to love something that is imperfect for its own sake, and not for the sake of loving your love for it or the appearance of loving it. And the full embrace of desire - the affirmation that it is good (desire itself, but obviously not all desires), and the commitment to the pursuit of it - is almost impossible, in the face of our nervy regulative self-evaluation, doubt, and concern for who we are in the eyes of an unknowable 'public.' But, reiterating a Heideggerian theme from an earlier post, care is the most basic human posture towards the world, and in this vein it is our loves and desires that give our lives thickness, richness, and depth. I would choose to love in a gutsier and more whole-hearted way, because that is humanizing, and to allow my desires to be full-sized and compelling to me, because that is also humanizing - but the risks involved are too significant to ignore. To give this problem a Nietzschean spin: why choose to explore the heights and the valleys of human life when the comfortable lazy plains present themselves? This is the pressing question for people in our epoch, I would suggest, and the denigration of theistic resources in the service of an answer may directly correspond to the growth of the postmodern malaise of inarticulate anxiety, boredom, and purposelessness.

So here's to love, desire, and everything else that makes us human, and a prayer for the miracle that would be full, unmediated love for things and an embrace of the desire that is eternal and infinite in scope.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Today I am driving to pick up bottles that I will fill up with water taken from various sources around our house. I will then take these bottles back to our county's health department so that our water might be professionally tested for heavy metals and other toxins. We are reasonably sure that our water is contaminated with one or more substances that are not meant to be consumed by humans. It comes from a well that may actually be located underneath the building, which means that it would be almost impossible for our landlord to fix in a timely and cost-effective way. Fortunately, our lease contains a clause that allows us to move out without a penalty if serious health concerns are discovered, and we already have one of those, more-or-less, with a basement mold situation.

Leaving our current house would obviously require us to find a new place. In the midst of all sorts of instability that is par for the course in the life of a recent college grad, this turn of events is disheartening, to put it lightly. Who knows what good might come out of moving into a more health-friendly environment, but from the perspective of this point in time, things are looking a little glum. I have to say, though, I won't be missing the brown recluse spiders.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Evening Observations

  • It is far less satisfying to beat a video game than it is to finish a good book
  • Hosting parties is fun but can be exhausting
  • A large house gets cold easily
  • I get cold easily
  • Everything becomes more difficult when you can't use the water at your own house
  • The Social Network really is a great movie

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Party Tonight?

Or "get-together"...

we have no idea how many people are coming! God help us.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pointers for Rummaging

  • In the fridge, Creamy vs. Extra Chunky should correspond only to a decision between peanut butter options, not a decision between dairy product options
  • Shake the pile of clothes first before going in to retrieve your wallet from earlier-worn pants
  • Leave most of what you can in a storage container, unless you want to get crud out from the bottom; in that case empty away but remember that you will have to repack it unless you intend to actually put away all that stuff (yeah right)
  • Shake the grass just in case, or make things easy and get a metal detector that will sense whatever material it is that your keys are made of, PS if it is night, forget about it
  • It was a bad idea to enter your neighbor's house in the first place, no tips for you, get out of their basement
  • Make it look as though you accidentally threw away your cellphone, and aren't in the pursuit of food, or shredded documents, or whatever, in that can/dumpster
  • You need to get a money clip, a person shouldn't "rummage" through a wallet, jeeze that thing is enormous
  • If there is a body in the trunk, well, I hope it is someone else's trunk, PS don't take anything
  • If there is a gun in the glove compartment, then why are you still in this guy's car, rummaging?
  • If there is a bound and gagged person in the backseat - I don't even care, you're done, "A" for listening you big dumb schmuck
  • Common sense should suffice for most other contexts, though I anticipate that it will prove insufficient in certain cases (ha, two meanings)