Monday, June 29, 2009

Some further thoughts on deadlines

Epic fail.

No more free books

One of my favorite parts of my job is flipping through the twice-annual publishers' catalogs and ordering review copies. Ostensibly, the books are for my boss to consider and possibly one day mention in print, which is mostly how the process works out (and which theoretically justifies the alacrity with which any book I select arrives), but at least a half dozen each cycle are really for me. I try to make it ethical by giving my boss first dibs on everything that comes in, including the books I ordered for myself. Usually, our tastes don't overlap, but sometimes I miscalculate, and what was supposed to be my copy of Plato's Philosophers disappears. But I can accept these occasional forfeitures for the greater benefit of tons of free books all the time woo!

Now, though, my pipeline of free books is being closed off. The Fall 09 catalogs are here, but I will never get to see (and take home) the books I order from them. So I have given up ordering, and the stack of them accumulates on my desk. I guess they'll be more useful for my replacement anyway, since he'll be here in October to intercept the autumn catch.

These are the sad things about leaving a good job.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The geography of childhood

This essay pretty much made my day, except the end, but let's start with the good parts. The geography of childhood:
It captured perfectly the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine. Childhood is a branch of cartography.

Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That's because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale. But I think there is another, deeper reason for the reliable presence of maps in the pages, or on the endpapers, of an adventure story, whether that story is imaginatively or factually true...

People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.

We imagine, when someone tells us he grew up in such and such a place, that he knows it intimately, and that is often true, but not quite in the sense we'd think. What he knows is not the best place to get a suit dry-cleaned or how to get a parking permit or which restaurant has the best steaks or any other such thing that falls under the adult understanding of knowing a place well. I knew none of these things about Lincolnwood, where I lived for 13 years, but I know all of these things about Arlington, where I've lived for two. Instead, what I knew about my neighborhood included: the location of every mulberry tree in my neighborhood, which swings at which park creaked the least, where all my nemeses lived, where all their cousins and partisan countrymen lived, in which alleys you could find pineapple weed to smell (an actual activity), which streets had the best slight inclines for bike-riding (this was the Midwest--a slight incline was a big deal), and which houses to hit up on Halloween for the best candy. That is the geography of childhood, which is an impractical geography (though according to those who address the hat/elephant problem, it only seems impractical to adults because they can't comprehend very practical concerns of childhood), but a nonetheless intimate one.

Chabon focuses on the boys' books that tapped into this view of childhood as a kind of navigation and mapping out of the known world (a point which Seth Lerer actually also picks up in his discussion of adventure books), but there was a dimension of this geography for girls too--Harriet the Spy comes to mind as a book deeply indebted to this trope, but I'm sure there are others. In fact, I can't think of a single classic girls' book that wasn't somehow dependent on laying out a neighborhood of stable landmarks in which to map the events--how many grown women could still describe Avonlea?

But, Chabon thinks that this "wilderness of childhood" is an understanding of childhood that transcends history. "Though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington's adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood." Maybe, but I'm not sure it goes any farther back than George Washington, or any farther east or west than England and its colonies. To portray childhood as a wilderness requires adults (who are actually writing these books and shaping childrens' self-understanding) to elevate the imagination above all other qualities that can be said to characterize childhood. Developing the imaginative child must be the priority, and it's not clear that it was a priority or even a possibility before the late 18th century.

So if you, like Chabon, are going to believe that the wilderness of childhood is shrinking, you should at least recall that it may always--for all of its brief life--have been a contingent place. You may also wonder if this shrinkage is actually taking place for everyone, or only for a tiny elite who is more single-mindedly focused on child-protection than most people in America. My own quite recent childhood was spent much as Chabon describes, and I suspect that the childhoods of those still living in his Maryland suburb are spent that way today. Phillipe Aries argues that all innovations in our conception of childhood begin with the elite and trickle down to society, which means that one day, we may all be keeping our children inside houses, cars, and recreation centers, but so far, it's only Michael Chabon and his friends.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


The hair war is over. Now I am just happy if I don't have to wash my hair twice in one day because of the humidity. I'll muster forces again for a rematch in October.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Let's all move back to the savanna

Cheryl has a theory about the African savanna that I agree with and that was demonstrated most recently by the infamous Sandra Tsing-Loh 'divorce is good because I'm doing it' article. This is how it goes: Once upon a time, man was his ancestor--a primate living on the savanna. There, he lived in a permanent state of barbarity and violence and committed many heinous crimes which were not criminal then because primates have no concept of crime. Then he stopped being a primate and began living in society, which curbed his violent tendencies by imposing rules and punishments on him. Society was really great! He was no longer living in constant fear for his life, and had time to do something other than kill other men. Farm, for example. Form a conjugal union with a woman to which she actually conceded. Weave baskets and sell them. Write books about the motion of the stars. Makes laws for cities. That kind of thing. Sometimes he had to go to war and some people still committed heinous crimes and broke the laws, but war was part of the civilized way of things and subject to its own rules, and no one celebrated crime or barbaric behavior.

For many centuries, man enjoyed his social and political life and tried to improve it by thinking about justice and happiness, and trying to implement his ideas in the world--sometimes with better, sometimes worse results. One important way he thought about this was by comparing human political behavior to the standard of nature, which was the organization of the world by God (except for the pagans, who didn't so much care about that God) and so the most just standard there was. In nature, every species had a purpose of its own to fulfill, and fulfilling it was justice and his means to happiness. In this view, man and his social world were also part of nature, but not like the other animals--the exact purpose of man was debated, but there was no confusion over whether the purpose of a man was the same as the purpose of a turkey.

Then one day, magazine journalism appeared on the scene. Just kidding, that comes later. One day Darwin appeared on the scene. He proposed a new understanding of natural law, by which he either meant or was taken to mean, 'what the animals do.' In this view of nature, men and turkeys do have the same purpose--to reproduce as many copies of themselves as they can. Suddenly, people who had always been chafing under all the rules that civilization called for began to feel a certain nostalgia for savanna life. The savanna--not the city--was the new natural state, and therefore the good state. Let us look to the savanna to show us how to live well (and procreate more), they decided. What are the chimps up to these days?

Turns out the chimps (and the dogs and the birds and the spiders) were up to a bunch of really weird stuff. Some of them were polygamous, some of them lived in packs and shared everything equally, some of them killed enemies and sexual rivals in bloody competitions. (Some of them also ate their babies and bit off the heads of their mates and generated new limbs when the old ones fell off, but man has decided to hold off on incorporating these behaviors into the human canon of natural conduct.) At the same time as his discovery that animals did barbaric things which some humans were also capable of, man discovered that animals also did some things only people were thought to do. They communicated with each other and nurtured babies, for example. On all essential grounds, they were just like us, except with different plumage. And if that's true, then what's good enough for the turkey is good enough for man. It was uncanny how some animal behaviors overlapped with various human social theories being advanced at the time. THEN came magazine journalism.

The popularizers of science--themselves as susceptible to falling short of excellence as the rest of us--examined the new, more optimistic thinking about the savanna and found justification for nearly every misbehavior in which they would have liked to engage. Hey, forcing women into sex by violent coercion? They do it on the savanna! Leaving the weak members of the herd out to die, or just outright killing and eating them? Done on the savanna! Rule by force, strength, and pointiest teeth? Savanna! Adultery? Pretty much the most popular activity on the savanna! Dishonesty, theft, assault--all natural! We should try it! The rule of law and the pursuit of justice--um have you ever seen turkeys abiding by that? Negative!

The result was the blossoming of a genre of popular writing that justified such arguments as 'men are aggressive and hierarchical,' 'marriage is obsolete,' 'poor people deserve it,' 'the ill and disabled people are weighing society down' (and a whole host of other transparently eugenic claims like the last) by pointing to animals and saying, 'See, it's true on the savanna. Evolution made us this way. It's natural.' Therefore, we should believe, ideal and just. Another recent addition to the savanna enthusiast's oeuvre is neuroscientific research about "brain wiring," which locates the gifts handed down to us from the turkeys even closer than the actual savanna.

The result has been, well, Roissy and his cult of alpha-male aspirants, and also this view
...Men’s genes program them to seek many mates and try to monopolize the reproductive lives of those mates; think of the manners of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints sect’s sprawling compound in Texas, in which the older men ran the younger men off and had as many of the girls--as young as 14--as they wanted.
On the savanna, apparently, everyone is a Mormon. Poor Phillip Weiss is getting left out of the polygamous, pedophilic compound of nature, stuck with a sagging wife whom he leans on to perform such essential tasks for him as "manag[ing his] social calendar," though he would much rather be having sex with poor but hot young women, which he hopes will be easier once he launches his campaign to "encourage New York waitresses to look on being mistresses as a cool option." Do try to contain your tears of sympathy.

But lest you think that the savanna fuels only male sexual fantasy, this should set you straight:
As far as the children are concerned, how about the tribal approach (a natural, according to both primate and human evolution)? Let children between the ages of 1 and 5 be raised in a household of mothers and their female kin. Let the men/husbands/boyfriends come in once or twice a week to build shelves, prepare that bouillabaisse, or provide sex.
This apparently justifies the author's adultery, because marriage is not practiced on the savanna, and neither is two-parent child-raising. Tsing-Loh was only behaving according to nature when she cheated on her husband, while the rest of us out here in retrograde civilization-land insist on making ourselves miserable by refusing to model our lives on those of gorillas, and believing that the move from living like gorillas to living like humans was a basically positive step and should be sustained.

While we are often quite happy to accept the savanna excuse for bad social and especially sexual behavior, Cheryl points out, we have yet to employ evolution to excuse things like purse-snatching and people-killing. Weird, because the savanna has no problem with these things either. As evidenced by centuries of human behavior, we have evolved just as much predisposition to steal and kill as to commit adultery and feel repulsed by the weak and unattractive. But only the latter two find defenders on savanna grounds. Maybe it's just because our hankering to return to the savanna has not reached its zenith yet, but maybe we still kind of see how man is not exactly a turkey and would not be happier living like one. So we still accept that some human rules and institutions are good or even, some might say, natural, even though none of the plants and animals we know seem to share them.

This is wholly inconsistent. The savanna is a great place, people! Constant, no-strings attached sex for the having (as long as you can get enough food to survive)! All your illicit proclivities--totally acceptable (if you can kill whomever is in your way)! No one to judge your life choices or, equally bad, punish you for them (except, sometimes, by eating you)! Let's go there, but not halfway there--all the way there.

I, for one, am sharpening my teeth as I type.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Home, sweet home

Adam sends this video, which is 100% true.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Open letter to U of C NSIT, #2

Dear U of C NSIT,

Whev, stinges. I don't need you anymore. Now I have my JSTOR and EBSCO back, plus free health insurance. When did you ever do that much for me?

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Exhaustive but lax summer planning

The biblical rains over Washington have ceased for a day, perhaps to allow us to gather up our pairs of animals and caulk the ark. I, however, have done nothing nearly as productive today, though not for lack of things to do. I did vacuum and change my sheets, which will give me pleasure for precisely one night before Nigel, who spends more time lazing in my bed than even I do, furs them up again. I also made this to-do list, which I think should count as a major task completed. Given my productivity record for the past two months, making a list may actually be a substantial accomplishment.

Summer, divided:

1. Now to the end of July:
- finish article
- Greek through ch. 20
- Russian through ch. 6
- finish: The Puritans vol. 1
- either finish or give up when it gets too repetitive: By Birth or Consent
- start and give up after 100 pages: Calvin's Institutes (side note to self: what kind of idiot purchases this book in the 30 lb. edition just before moving? it couldn't have waited two months?)
- find a home for Nigel in August
- optional, contingent on laziness: write something else

2. Dates during which productivity will not take place:
- June 25 - 28: Boston
- July 9 - 12: College Summit
- July 18 - 22: Eastern Shore (maybe this will happen later)
- July 27 - 31: Pack, cry, move to Boston

3. August
- early Aug - Aug. 20: Chicago
- finish all the things from section 1 that I have already anticipated I will fail to complete by deadline and so have allotted an extra month for
- invent a time machine (alternatively: watch a lot of Bob Newhart episodes)
- optional again: War and Peace, second half, in which all the other male characters who haven't had their chance yet propose to Natasha
- jump through school-related bureaucratic hoops
- adjust budget and spending to stipend-sustainable levels

4. September and onward:
- decide whether Greek or German is more worthy of my attention at this point
- make some Russian friends, but not people who like chess, math, or Russia
- devise a concrete Grad School Failure Contingency Plan

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Think of your mother!

Sometimes I wonder why I would bother studying American and European political thought, when everything I'm interested in is so much more fascinating in East Asia.
At Megastudy, high school students can choose from 2,500 courses. Tailored for students at various stages of academic achievement, the courses offer options unimaginable at the country’s crowded public schools, like some that promise to teach modern poetry in two weeks. The courses are made up of 10 to 20 lectures that last as long as three hours each.

“Think of your mother!” a message chastises if a student logs off without finishing a tutorial.
Clearly, this is the society I want to live in.

Cheapness studies: the blog

Is now up.