A conversation

I was recently issued a new computer at my job. The one it replaced was a hand-me-down from someone more senior than me, and I’d had it for almost five years, so it was a bit of an antique. The new machine is brand new. It is also noticeably slower than the old one.

Not only is the machine slow, but its mouse is poorly designed. Left-click is a tiny portion in the corner, right-click is approximately 99.99999999% of the surface. It’s like the Cosmic Calendar in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos where the whole of human history is an infinitesimal square at the end representing the last couple of seconds before midnight on the night of 31 December. cosmiccalendar

So it’s frustrating to have to use the thing. I find myself doing a lot more work at home now so that I don’t have to fight with it.

Anyway, one day I left my office to eat lunch in a food court across the street. The only thing that looked edible was an egg salad sandwich. It cost $4.50, showing a poor grasp of the concept of an egg salad sandwich, the whole point of which is its inexpensiveness, but I was too hungry not to get anything. So I bought the sandwich and sat down at one of the tables.

An old friend of mine showed up and sat with me.  By this point, I had discovered that the sandwich was not only inappropriately priced, but was disgusting. The egg salad included fresh onions, creating the illusion that the eggs were rotten. It was a struggle to eat, but by the time I made that discovery I was no less hungry and much less wealthy than I had been when I decided to buy the sandwich, so I was stuck with trying to eat the accursed thing.

We started chatting. I told him about the sandwich’s price and disgustingness. He works as member of the university’s staff, in a position where a wide variety of researchers tell him about their work, so he always has something interesting to say. He told me that the price of the sandwich might very well reflect a change in the way foodstuffs are priced, a change that is connected in some way to global warming which is in fact an even worse problem than is generally realized. He began explaining, further, that the idea of mixing fresh onions with egg may be connected to the collapse of production in other crops that are traditional in egg salad, but that was so depressing we quickly changed the subject.

I mentioned the weird slowness of my new computer. He explained that computer hardware makers have now reached the limits of Moore’s Law, while software makers keep adding new functions, so that we can expect computers in general to get slower, not faster, for the foreseeable future. The awkward mouse is apparently the consequence of some other ineluctable trend in the decline of the technological age.

This was getting too grim. I made some remark about what a sunny day it was; that brought him back to global warming, which by the way is acidifying the oceans and triggering a mass extinction event that may yet be the greatest in the earth’s history. I mentioned something about packing my lunch in the future, to avoid inedible food and save money. The reference to saving money reminded him of a researcher who had told him about his findings that people our age (we’re now in our mid-40s) are far more likely than were people in days gone by to spend their retirement years living on the street.

By now I had choked down that entire sandwich. A supremely gloomy conversation was just the thing to take my mind off its loathsomeness. I wanted to close our conversation with something that would not lead him to share depressing information, but couldn’t think of anything. He excused himself, saying he had a meeting in a few minutes. We left it there.

Tom Mulcair’s voice

Canada’s New Democratic Party recently ousted Tom Mulcair from his post as its leader. Which gives me an opportunity to tell a true, if not very grand, story.

The first time my wife, Mrs Acilius, heard Mr Mulcair’s voice, she was very excited. She’s all about inclusion of people with visible disabilities (which is why “Disability Visibility” is a topic on this blog,)  and she was thrilled that someone using an electronic voice synthesizer was the leader of a major political party. I hated to tell her that he just talks like that, but I had to- she was so happy about it, she was on the verge of calling up friends of hers who do in fact use voice synthesizers and sharing the good news with them.

She refused to believe me. He was on TV, not the radio, so she came into the room where I was watching him and saw for herself. Here’s a video clip that may show you why she was so convinced:

Anyway, far be it to me to kick a man when he’s down, even if I suspect he may be at least part robot. Best wishes to Mr Mulcair for success in his future endeavors, whatever they may be.

The Rite to Remain Silent

There was also a nun, a prioress, who in her smiling modest was and coy, and her greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!”

In 2002, I took in a dog.  He’d lived in my neighbors’ backyard, and they couldn’t take care of him any more.  For those first few weeks, training him to live in my apartment kept me from getting much sleep.

Something else that was new to me at about that time was cable television.  Since I was now up at all hours, I started turning on the TV at all hours, looking for something to watch. I quickly found that there were always reruns of Law & Order on some channel or other.  I’d never seen the show, and was soon hooked on it.  When the announcer started in with, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups,” I would turn to to the dog and say “While the dogs aren’t represented at all!  That’s not fair, is it, boy?”  He never expressed an opinion.*

Anyway, I kept watching reruns of Law & Order long after the dog was housebroken.  I wondered why, and formed a theory.  Each episode starts with a very small group of people, usually two, sometimes more, minding their own business when they stumble upon a murdered corpse.  They make these opening sequences evocative of as many aspects of ordinary life on the island of Manhattan as possible, creating the impression that Manhattan is a place where you might find a murdered corpse at any moment.  Then they go on to explore the relationships the murdered person had with people still living; any relationship, between spouses, lovers, friends, relatives, business associates, anything, is established as a potential prelude to murder.  Having thus painted Manhattan as Hell, as the ultimate disorder, they move on through the police and courtroom procedural to culminate in a jury verdict, a symbol of Order.  So it’s a ritual that dramatizes the survival of order in a world of disorder.  As such, it can function as a substitute for a conventional religion.

I was quite sure from the beginning that this insight was not new with me, but was recently jolted when I saw a movie I’d heard about for many years and saw that it was already so familiar that it was the topic of a filmed spoof as long ago as 1979.   The movie was Mr Mike’s Mondo Video.  The police procedural in the sketch isn’t Law & Order; in 1979, Law & Order was still eleven years from its debut.**   Instead, it was Hawaii Five-O.  In the sketch, there is a religious group that worships Jack Lord, star of Hawaii Five-O.  The sketch goes on too long; if they’d cut after the singer finishes the first line of the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified Jack Lord,” it would have been a lot better.  Still makes the point, though:

*The dog is still around, and I still say that to him whenever I happen on the opening of Law & Order.  He still isn’t talking.

**Eleven years is less time than has passed since 2002 and now, and less time than passed between the debut of the show in 1990 and 2002.

A variant of poker

One morning years ago, I woke up from a dream in which I was playing a card game by the following rules:

  1. Each player is dealt a five-card hand (face down) and a five-card tableau (face up.)
  2. The remaining cards are placed face down in the center of the table.  These cards form the stock.
  3. The player to the dealer’s left takes the first turn.  Play proceeds clockwise around the table.
  4. Each turn begins when the player draws a card into his or her hand.
  5. On his or her first turn, the first player may draw the top card of the stock or any card of his or her tableau.
  6. During a player’s turn, s/he must direct another player to discard a specific card from his or her tableau.  The first card to be discarded goes face up next to the stock.  This is the first card of the discard pile.
  7. During a player’s turn, s/he may bet.  Betting proceeds according to the usual rules of poker.
  8. During a player’s turn, s/he may knock, indicating that play will proceed around the table just once more.
  9. A player’s turn ends when s/he discards a card from his or her hand.  If there are five cards in the player’s tableau, s/he discards to the discard pile.  If there are fewer than five cards in the player’s tableau, s/he discards to his or her tableau.
  10. When there is a discard pile, any player may begin his or her turn by drawing either the top card of the stock, the top card of the discard pile, or any card of his or her tableau.
  11. When the stock is exhausted, the discard pile is turned over and becomes the new stock.  The discard pile is not shuffled.
  12. Hands are ranked in the usual order of poker hands.

I’ve played this game a couple of times.  It works pretty well, for something that came to me in a dream.  Play is comparable to Whisky.

A summer sadness

I just spent a few minutes doing various online searches involving the terms “dehydration” and “self-awareness.”  I don’t know anything about medicine or psychology, but I’m pretty sure one of the symptoms of dehydration is a loss of emotional self-awareness.  I was thinking about that this morning; yesterday was a hot, humid day, and I was strangely moody.  Some friends stopped over at our house; I’m always happy when they come, and always miss them when they go, but yesterday I was overjoyed to see them, so much so that I became annoyingly silly, and unreasonably sad when they left, so much so that I had to take a nap.  Neither of these reactions was so far out of the ordinary as to cause a problem; after a few moments of annoyingness, I was able to dial my silliness back, and after my nap, I was no longer sad.  After drinking water and eating fresh fruit, I was fine.

As I reflected on this minor episode, it struck me that my exaggerated emotional responses may have been the result of a loss of self-awareness.  Usually, when our friends showed up, at some level of my mind I would have had a thought like “I’m happy because they are here”; when they left, I would have had some thought like “I’m sad because they are going.”  In my dehydrated condition, that level of my mind seemed to have closed up shop.  If I had been asked why I was happy at one time and sad at the other, I don’t suppose it would have been difficult for me to explain it in terms of our friends’ arrival and departure, but that knowledge didn’t seem to connect with the feelings or to give them the shading that emotions usually have.

Among the most famous lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous “Ode to a Skylark” are these:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Shelley thinks that this marks us as inferior to the skylark, who feels the “clear keen joyance” of one emotion at a time.  Thinking of my summer sadnesses, I disagree.  Drained by heat and squeezed dry by the humidity of the North American interior, I’ve often experienced a loss of self-awareness and a severely simplified emotional life while dehydrated.  The highs can be intoxicating.  I use the word “intoxicating” advisedly;  of course, alcohol consumption brings both dehydration and low self-awareness.

A recent installment of Unwinder’s Tall Comics deals with a similar point:

Marcel Duchamp, Calvinist

Tonight, Mrs Acilius and I were watching TV.  The program was a documentary called Paris: The Luminous Years. In a video clip from the 1960s, Marcel Duchamp said every visual artwork was a collection of shapes and colors.  The essence of art lay in the artist’s choice of these shapes and colors.  One set of shapes and colors was as eligible for this choice as another, and the actual production of the artwork was purely incidental.  Once the artist had made his or her choice of shapes and colors, the “art” is complete.

Mrs Acilius (who posts on WordPress as “Believer1“) said something about this.  “I think art is freedom.  When I paint a plate, I know that I’m painting it with fingers that have cerebral palsy.  So I have to start by accepting the fact that the picture I have in my mind is not going to be the same as the picture on the plate.”  We talked about this.  I asked her if she was saying that art wasn’t just something that happened in the artist’s mind, or just the finished product, but was to be found in the process, in the difference between what she was trying to do and what wound up happening.  She confirmed that she was saying that.

A plate by Mrs Acilius

I told Mrs Acilius that the difference between her and Duchamp reminded me of the difference between Calvinism and sacramentalism in Christian theology.  Duchamp’s idea that art is art simply because the artist has decided so, and that the events that take place in the physical world subsequent to that choice have no bearing on its status sounds rather like the Calvinist idea that the Elect are the Elect simply because God has decided so, and that events that take place in the physical world subsequent to his free election have no bearing on their status.  Her idea, by contrast, sounds like a form of Christianity that regards salvation as inseparable from particular forms of matter and particular events in time.

The Mrs is a Quaker; unlike the classical believer in the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican versions of Christianity, Quakers typically reject ritual.  They do, however, embrace sacraments.  Quakers do not practice baptism by water, not because they think it puts too much of God in the physical world, but because it puts too little of Him there.  Believing that the soul can encounter the Holy Spirit under any circumstances, they see the whole world as the scene of baptism.  Likewise, in their meetings for worship they do not have a ritual sharing of wine and bread, not because they lack communion, but because in their shared silences they make their fellowship a communion, and their whole persons an altar on which it is consecrated.  They do not make lists of sacraments, such as the traditional seven sacraments of Western Christianity, not because they deny that God interacts with humanity through matter, but because they believe that He interacts with us in more ways than we can count or foresee.  So when the Mrs puts an emphasis on the unpredictability of the artistic process, she is using categories familiar from the theology of her religious tradition.

A proposed definition of “feminism”

I teach at a state university deep in the interior of the USA.  The other day I was grading some papers students had written about ancient Greek culture.  One student focused on women’s clothing in ancient Sparta.  She included a paragraph starting with the famous phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…”  In her case, she’s not a feminist, but she believes that it is an unacceptable infringement of the equality of persons for the law to require women to cover their breasts in situations where men are allowed to go shirtless.   That puzzled me.  If a principled insistence that women must have a legal right to bear their breasts in public doesn’t make you a feminist, what do you have to do to earn that title? According to the eminent philosopher Lady Gaga, only someone who despises men can be a feminist.  That would disqualify most of the feminists I know, including many people who have spent decades on the radical fringe of the women’s movement, and several who have made a living as professional advocates of what they call “feminism.”

I haven’t brought this up in class, since I’m not quite sure where a discussion of the word “feminism” might lead.  Also because we’re behind schedule, and I want to catch up.  Eventually I will bring the question up, though.  To clarify my own thinking, I’ve been trying to craft a definition that will describe what I mean when I say “feminism.”  What I have on this so far breaks into two parts:

1, The belief that women have a right to play a wider variety of social roles than they play at present.  2, The habit of placing a higher value on this right than on the traditions that tend to restrict it.

I see seven advantages to this proposed definition.  First, the expression “wider variety of social roles” accommodates, on the one hand, liberal feminists who want to praise both women who choose to play traditional roles and those who move into what have been male-dominated areas, and on the other hand radical liberationists who want to stamp out the traditional roles on the grounds that they tend to crowd out the nontraditional ones.  By the same token, it leaves room both for feminists who claim that pornography and other forms of sex work can be a way of empowering women, and for those who argue that the sex industry and its products are just so many attacks on women.  In each debate, both sides agree that women should have a wider variety of options than they do now, but disagree about whether a particular sort of role opens more possibilities than it closes off.

Second, the vagueness of the term “social role,” which may seem like a weakness of the proposed definition, is in fact one of its strengths.  Consider the question, are right-wing female politicians feminists?  If they seek offices that have been strongly gendered as male, then to a certain extent they are feminists, no matter what they may say.  So, US Representative Michele Bachmann claims to view the proper role of a wife as submission to her husband.  Yet at this moment, Representative Bachmann is running for the presidency, an office in which she will not only be barred from taking direction from her husband, but which no woman has ever held, and which makes its holder, as commander-in-chief of the US military, a symbol of one of the most masculinized institutions in society.  Of course, it is possible to exaggerate the extent to which right-wing women are feminists in spite of themselves when they run for high office.  One thinks of Margaret Thatcher appointing a cabinet in which she was the only woman.  The ambiguity of “social role” captures the paradox.  Some might say that the relevant social role is “politician”; as this role has been open to women for some time, it was not an act of feminism for Representative Bachmann or Lady Thatcher to seek advancement within a political career.  Others will say that the role of “politician” is one thing, the role “head of national government” quite another.  So that any woman seeking to add that role to the repertoire of female possibilities is perforce a feminist, whatever she may call herself.

Third, “at present” makes it clear that the qualifications for the label shift over time.  To return to the example of Representative Bachmann, she is one of 72 women currently serving in the US House of Representatives.  While that leaves the House more than 80% male, it is a sign that service in Congress is not viewed as the sole prerogative of men.  So one could not say that the simple act of running for the House made Representative Bachmann a feminist.  The 41 women who served between 1917 and 1951, however, could be so labeled, especially the 23 who were elected to seats that had not previously been held by their husbands or fathers.  Among them were a number of women who were fiercely conservative in many ways, but even in the act of avowing their support for the old ways they were in fact increasing the opportunities women had to participate in politics.

The fourth advantage stems from the phrase “than they play at present.”  Notice, the idea is not that women should be free to play roles they are not now free to play, but that they should be free to play roles that they do not in fact play.  This avoids the dead-end of feeling obligated to make a legalistic argument proving a history of sex discrimination every time we express joy that women are starting to enter a previously all-male domain.

The fifth advantage is the converse of this.  Saying that feminism involves the ” belief that women have a right to play a wider variety of social roles than they play at present,” we do not imagine feminists as people who shame women into playing particular roles.  So, if all the sewage workers in town are men, one need not go around insisting to each woman one meets that it is her duty to take a job in that area in order to meet this definition of “feminist.”  I see that as an advantage in a definition of “feminism” since I’ve never met a feminist who insisted on such a thing.

Sixth, the word “habit” at the beginning of the second clause of the definition opens the door to assertions like those I’ve been making about right-wing women, that one can be a feminist without knowing it or intending it.  Beliefs and the labels attached to those beliefs tend to be associated with each other so closely that it is hazardous to say that a particular label “really” applies to a person who rejects it.  So  someone who resists the label “feminist” might well resent being told that s/he holds beliefs which merit the label.  However, we all have habits that we aren’t aware of.  So it might be fair to expect that if we present a reasonable person with evidence that s/he has a habit which we call “feminism,” that person will at least see why we want to say that s/he is a feminist.  Not that such a person would necessarily be unreasonable if s/he continued to reject the label, but s/he might be less likely to be insulted by our presumption in applying it to him or her.

Seventh, saying that feminism involves “habit of placing a higher value on this right than on the traditions that tend to restrict it” is another way of opening the label to people who differ in other ways.  Some people whom we would call feminist refuse to find value in any tradition that restricts the variety of social roles women are free to play.  Others place very high values on many such traditions, but not usually so high a value that they would be comfortable with their restrictive aspects.  For example, there are many people who grew up as Roman Catholics and who wear the feminist label proudly.   Some of these look at such policies of that church as its refusal to ordain women to the priesthood and break away from it altogether.  Others continue to participate, not necessarily because they like those policies but because they find other elements in the tradition that in their view make it worthwhile to stick around.  Emphasizing, as this clause of the definition does, that feminism is about placing a higher value on the right of women to play a wider variety of roles than they do at present than on traditions that restrict that right allows people on both sides of this dispute to continue calling themselves “feminist.”

The proposed definition is more or less a top-of-the-head exercise.  So I’m not committed to it.  If someone could suggest another definition that preserves all seven of its strengths, I’d be excited to hear about it.

Remarkable coincidence

Here’s a comment I just had occasion to post on Alison Bechdel’s site:

This morning, I was teaching a class about English words derived from Latin and Greek. One of the exercises required them to write definitions of English words and illustrate their definitions with examples of the words in use.

I wanted to show them how they could use Lexis-Nexis* to find example sentences. So I projected the computer onto the screen in front of the classroom and opened the Lexis-Nexis search window. I asked the class which word they wanted me to look for in my demonstration. From a list of several dozen words, someone picked “neurosis.” So I typed “neurosis” into the search window. Up came hundreds of results. Looking these over, we could see not only potential definitions, but a good deal about the usage of the word. For example, finding it in hundreds of daily newspapers but only one medical journal we formed the hypothesis that it is a word that is no longer in technical use, an hypothesis which that one journal reference** explicitly confirmed.

Then I wanted to show them that you can narrow the search so that it only brings up items posted today. When I did that, paragraphs six through eight of this article appeared on the screen***:


You could have knocked me over with a feather. I gave a little eulogy for Harvey Pekar and said something like, “Hey, Alison Bechdel! She’s great!”****  Then it was back to lexicography.

*Here’s a link to Lexis-Nexis.  My students and I have access to their “Academic” service

**It was the 2 May 2009 edition of The Lancet, in case you’re curious; “Twisted Science, Regulation, and Molecules,” by Peter Tyrer, Pg. 1513 Vol. 373 No. 9674, wherein appear the sentences “The condition from which my patient suffers used to be called depressive neurosis. It was not a very good diagnostic label, and its boundaries were unclear, but it did allow anxiety and depression to coexist without the need for splitting them into interminable subgroups that, when they were subsequently found together in one person, were pompously described as “comorbidity.”” 

***The portion that appears on screen starts with the search term you used to find the article.  The first appearance of “neurosis” was near the top of paragraph six, and the screen I was using had room for that paragraph and the next two. 

**** Come to think of it, it may have been closer to “Whoa, there’s Alison Bechdel!”  Or maybe “Whaa–!  Alison Bechdel!”  It may even have been “Alison Bechdel!  Golly!”  I taught another class right after that one, so I can’t be certain of my exact phrasing.

The Interpreter

I teach at a university deep in the interior of the USA.  Most of the residents in the apartment complex where I live are students at that same university.  Several of these neighbors are Iraqis who have come here as part of an exchange program between our university and one in Baghdad. 

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I left my apartment and walked to the bus stop.  Two of my Iraqi neighbors were sitting on the bench, a man named Abdullah and a woman whose name I did not know.  Abdullah greeted me; his friend turned her face shyly and tugged on her headscarf.  Abdullah offered me his hand.  I declined to shake it, explaining that I had a cold and did not want him to catch it.  Abdullah turned to his friend and said a few words in Arabic.  She nodded at him and gave a grateful smile, saying nothing.  As we waited for the bus, Abdullah and I talked about colds and remedies for them.  After each exchange, Abdullah turned to his friend and spoke for moment in Arabic.  Each time he did, she nodded at him and gave the same smile, never saying a word.  It was clear to me that he was interpreting for her. 

I wondered how well Abdullah was doing as an interpreter.  I was talking slowly and making an effort to keep my vocabulary simple, but still I came up against the limits of his English a number of times.  That didn’t stop Abdullah.  Even when he wrinkled his brow and paused for a few seconds, he still turned to his friend and talked, I suppose offering an Arabic version of whatever he had gathered from my words.  His friend seemed quite pleased with Abdullah, impressed with his gallant efforts. 

The bus came into sight.  Distracted to see it, I forgot to keep my English simple.  Thoughtlessly, I gave poor Abdullah a challenge that even professional interpreters can rarely meet successfully: I made a joke.  “Well, there’s a saying,” I told him.  “A cold usually lasts about seven days, unless the patient is under a doctor’s care.  Then it lasts about a week.”  When I said this, Abdullah’s friend immediately burst out laughing.  Abdullah gave a blank stare for a moment.  He wrinkled his brow and leaned forward.  Then he turned to his friend and interpreted.  She nodded at him, smiled gratefully, and said nothing.

Wintertime Adventures

This afternoon Mrs Acilius’ power wheelchair got stuck in the snow on an unshoveled sidewalk. She’d wanted to go through the street, but had let me convince her that the snow on the sidewalk looked to be worn down enough that she could get through. It worked just fine, until the very end, when she hit a narrow pass in the snow and couldn’t move forward or back. She drove forward and back while I pushed, but it wasn’t budging. Two people converged on us, a fashionably dressed woman of about 60 and a thin man of about 20 with a thousand-yard stare and summer clothes, obviously just back from someplace much colder and much scarier than our college town. (”You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”…)

Anyway, the two of them greeted us with offers to help push. The first words out of Mrs Acilius’ mouth were “I’m going to live here from now on, apparently.” The young man couldn’t bring himself to believe that pushing wouldn’t solve the problem, and kept looking for ways to grab hold of the chair.

The woman said that what we needed was a shovel. She looked at the business next to the sidewalk, a funky little used-record store, and said it was too bad they didn’t have a snow shovel. “I bet you a nickel they do have a shovel,” I said. “Well, look at their ramp,” she said. The ramp was covered with snow, but she went in anyway, perhaps curious to see whether I’d pay that nickel.

We waited a moment. I told Mrs Acilius that I supposed she had been right about using the street. She reminded me that it was my idea to use the sidewalk. Channeling General Buck Turgidson, I said I din’t think it was fair to indict an entire plan because of one failure. She seemed to think that was funny.

The young man asked me if we could grab the small wheels on the front of Mrs Acilius’ chair. Mrs Acilius wasn’t opposed to this plan, but before we could put it into effect the woman came out of the store, followed by its proprietor bearing a snow shovel. I took the shovel and dislodged Mrs Acilius’ chair.  The young man pushed her forward once I’d broken up the snow.