'Away from the straight path'

What was Dante doing lost in the wood so dark in the first Canto of Inferno in the Divine Comedy? 

As you shall hear, 
It lead to good things too, eventually,
But there and then I saw no sign of those, 
And can’t say even now how I had come 
To be there, stunned and following my nose
Away from the straight path. 
-Dante, Inferno, translated by Clive James

He must have done something bad, something he felt remorse for, right? He’s an adult after all. We all have those pangs of a bad conscience. 

The more important question is what are we doing we we are? What kind of decisions have we made to be where we are today? And, are we happy with those decisions? Are we proud of them? 

A pilgrim in search of a guide

The professors in my course on Dante's Divine Comedy made an interesting point: Dante the character on this journey is looking for guides, much like Dante, the writer, is looking for literary guides.

The writer looks for models and sources and direction. For example, Virgil's Aeneid gives Dante idea for stories (Dido and Aeneas) and geography (the entire underworld comes from him). He also looks to Augustine for influence, and two now lessor known writers, the Roman poet Statius and an early Christian historian named Orosius.

This got me thinking. What do we look for when we seek out guides?

Some people may look to pure heroes as life guides. They will seek out people like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi or Helen Keller or Cesar Chavez. These people have done incredible work, and some of them have left amounts of large bodies of work that people can mine to find information.

But do these heroes help you like a guides? One problem with being a hero is the humanity can be stripped from them, and their positive characteristics are expanded. They look less than people and more like...icons. Can you learn life lessons from a statue?

Other people find people who have been through great struggles to help show them the way. Perhaps that is why Christians still follow st. Augustine. Steven Jobs was a person who lost many things and made a remarkable comeback. As did James Dyson and Willie Nelson, who both struggled and persevered. Some people want that — to learn from those who at one point lost but learned from it and came back.

We are all on life's journey, and each of us look for inspiration to help make sense of it. Picking a set of guides probably tells a lot more about this than we care to admit.

Dante, the writer, looked to his guides after he was exiled from the city and culture he loved. He began writing the Divine Comedy when he realized he wasn’t going to return to Florence, the professors argue. Perhaps he began writing as a meditation on longing and exile and used the time to prepare the project to be able to find guides well versed in those issues.

“Poet,” I said, “I ask you to effect,
In the name of that God you will never see,
An exit for me from this place of grief,
And then an entry to where I would be—
Beyond the purging flames of which you tell—
In sight of Peter’s Gate, though that relief
Demands for prelude that I go through Hell.”
And then he move, and then I moved as well.
-Dante’s Inferno, translated by Clive James

Death and loved ones

To suffer a loved one's long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.

A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.

Then, in the weeks after she died, something strange happened. I did not plunge. Life did not stop. Instead, I felt something so unspeakably strange, so blasphemous, that I wondered if I could talk or write about it, at all. I felt okay.

For some, grief is a dull and unrelenting ache that fades—or doesn't. But for many of us, grief is something else. Grief is resilience.

Derek Thompson 

My mother died two years ago, and today I’ll be at a tennis tournament. I tell myself that this is what she would have wanted. But that’s most likely not the case. She wouldn’t have wanted me to travel to UAE to work in the first place. I know that because she told me as much. But she was on her death bed, and my moving date was months away. I just told her, “we’ll talk about it later.” I knew that later would never come. 

What began as a trip home ending in my mother’s death. She had been sick for years, and we knew that she was falling, we didn’t know how fast she had fallen. And how difficult it was for her to keep fighting. 

Like the author, my grief was also quite normal. It wasn’t a wave of despair. I was not hit and knocked over unable to function. It was something more sneaky, persistent that kept at me. That continues to gnaw at me still. It comes in the weirdest times, this grief, like experiencing something and thinking what would my mom think about this? Most of the examples are from a life lived where she would not know what exactly to say. She would just sit and smile.  

But this level of grief continues. And those longings continue. And that is what I guess she would want. To remain part of my life in even the most quotidian of times. She had long ago stopped trying to oversee what I thought and did and how I behaved. She was used to behaving as a mother of an adult child. She felt I was strong enough to fly, and she had other burdens. Maybe it was my other siblings who needed more guidance and she maybe it was because she was responsible or some of her family, too. I don’t know if she completely accepted it, but she played the role. 

And so grieving her death has become a very strange process. A hole in my life appeared where I didn’t know I had an appendage before. I had moved out of my home state more than two decades before. We continued to speak weekly, sometimes every other week. Like anyone else, I would not know the bond that existed until she was gone.  Would I have changed a thing? Probably not. 

I miss you, mom. I always will. It just comes out in weird ways. 

'A place of play'

The writer Patricia Lockwood is noting her experience with the internet.  

A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever.

Reading the entire piece reminds me of the Divine Comedy, or the course I am currently taking on Dante’s masterpiece. “How do you get into the Divine Comedy,” the professor inquires of his students every term. "You have to be dead," one of them volunteers. “Or, you have to be dead by 1300 [when he started writing it].” 

How do you get into the internet? You have to be alive. Or recently alive, that would be helpful. Sometime during the advent of the WWW, a someone may as well say. For the internet—like the supercharged media before it—collapses the past until a permanent present. Only the internet does it from a much larger scope. A billion times larger. 

Everything happens on the same day. And it’s today. Over and over. 

Highsmith, again:

The mind we were in was obsessive, perseverant. It swam with superstition and half-remembered facts, pertaining to how many spiders we ate a year and the rate at which dentists killed themselves. One hemisphere had never been to college, the other hemisphere had attended one of those institutions that is only ever referred to as a bubble, though not beautiful. At times it disintegrated into lists of diseases. But worth remembering: the mind had been, in its childhood, a place of play.

It had also once been the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.

Our democracies are governed by elites

But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and under appreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it a a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable.

-Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites.

Our desire to be ruled by elites is most on display in our highest ranked universities and the students who attend. Jennifer M. Morton, writing in Aeon, argues that the US, UK and France are governed by those educated in their respective select universities.

All of the current Supreme Court Justices in the US attended either Harvard University or Yale Law School. In the UK, 41 out of 54 of the country’s past prime ministers received their education at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Seven recent French presidents and 12 prime ministers attended the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly called Sciences Po. These universities pride themselves not only in offering superb educational opportunities, but in educating those who will go on to hold influential positions.

As Morton points out, these schools not only teach our elites: they teach people how to be elite.

Another key difference between universities such as the CCNY, where I teach, and Princeton, where I did my undergraduate degree, is that they offer quite different social environments in which that learning takes place. A student attending an Ivy-plus college acquires her skills and knowledge in an environment dominated by the cultural capital and norms of the very elite. A City College student, in contrast, can gain similar professional or technocratic expertise, but will do so amid many other working-class and low-income students. The different social experiences are bound to influence a student in ways that go beyond professional expertise.

And this is precisely the problem. Diversity debates ring shallow when talking about mere ethnicity of undergraduates. You also have to talk about experience. Morton, again:

If we are concerned with creating a representative elite, we shouldn’t just look at the racial or economic background of its future members, but also at their educational experiences. If, for example, we want to foster policy discussions that include a broad range of perspectives, we must do better than turning to a room full of Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates. Instead, fill that room with graduates from places such as CCNY or the University of Hull. These students are much more likely to have educational experiences that can contribute different insights for a more representative elite.

These debates didn't mean much to me until I first went overseas and met Americans from outside my social and educational milieu. In our little teaching program of young graduates from all over the country, I learned that I could handle myself on an intellectual level with my peers. But from a social level, I could not hold any water. There were things they know that I just didn't. This became more acute as I met more people who attended elite universities and I began understanding what doors they could walk through that I barely knew existed.

Listening to the arguments of Hayes in Twilights of the Elites, this is precisely how we would like it. Create a class to lead our most important institutions in many fields and let them employ and lead the others. Regardless of the outcome.

When to leave the comfortable life for fame and glory

I was listening to an interview with Sam Esmail the creator of Mr. Robot, talk about his first professional break in the movie industry. It wasn’t a big break, but he became so good at producing those extras (director interviews, etc.) the box movie sets that came out about a decade ago, he was promoted with a bump in pay, got a salary (he had been working hourly before) and received health insurance. It was a great place to work, he said, and he witnessed a lot of five-, ten- and twenty-year employee anniversaries. 

He liked the work enough, and it was easy. Esmail could imagine himself staying there, getting old and loving life. But he went home at 6 pm every night and wrote until 2 am. He wanted something better, and he didn’t mind getting out of this comfortable life with a good network of co-workers to get that. 

I didn’t come right away, but his talent was eventually noticed.

I don’t have nearly success as Esmail, but I do see what he was after — and what he was willing to give up. Just about anyone who has lived overseas for some time has most likely left very safe and comfortable places, jobs where they’ve felt they belonged and could stay, to keep pushing further. Whether it was to expand the boundaries of their professional lives or their personal lives, they felt they had to leave a nice job or a nice town to get that done.

Many years ago we left Eugene Oregon to pursue a different style of life. We were very comfortable there, had finally gotten good jobs (after graduate school at the University of Oregon), which is harder to do than you think. We had a lot of good friends. But we wanted to live overseas, and we didn’t have too many reservations about leaving. We were a lot younger then and we didn’t know that certain sets of friends only come around a few times (if you’re lucky) in your life. 

We’ve lately been thinking about Eugene for a few reasons. One of our very good friends we met there (who stayed) recently passed away. So we reconnected with her family (which we knew well) and our friends who also remained. We thought about the great times we had with our friend Megan, and even though we could catch up quickly with her, we were very separate from her life. Secondly I also have a friend from a different part of my life who is currently working in Portland but who is interviewing in Eugene for a job at the U of O. (My guess is he would stay at their Portland campus).  

There is part of me who can see us still living in Eugene, with a lot of friends, a cute little house with a yard and a garden and a nice little store at the corner where we could drink fancy northwest beer. It’s a nice thought, one I think about often when I get sick of living here, or the UAE traffic or whatever. What I like about it is I know it will never come true. No disrespect, but I wouldn’t have loved life in Eugene. 

My life hasn’t been perfect, but I am on the way to meeting more goals — especially the cloudy, misty goals you kind of set with yourself but never verbalize — than if I had stayed in comfortable Eugene.  As nice as that town was, we wanted something different.

Life, of course, comes at you weird. Who knows what would have happened. Maybe I would have created a hit show. 

Media conglomeration and its future

Conglomeration can be good for business, but it has generally been bad for journalism. Media companies that want to get bigger tend to swallow up other media companies, suppressing competition and taking on debt, which makes publishers cowards.

Jill Lepore

The hand ax and black swans

Once I was shown what to look for, I could see the beveled edges that the Neanderthals had crafted. One tool in particular stood out: a palm-sized flint shaped like a teardrop. In archaeological parlance, it was a hand ax, though it probably was not used as an ax in the contemporary sense of the word. It had been found near the bottom of the trench, so it was estimated to be about seventy thousand years old. I took it out of its plastic bag and turned it over. It was almost perfectly symmetrical and—to a human eye, at least—quite beatiful. I said that I thought the Neanderthal who had fashioned it must have had a keen sense of design. McPherron objected. 

“We know the end of the story,” he told me. “We know what modern culture looks like, and so then what we do is we want to explain how we got here. And there’s a tendency to overwinter-it the past by project the present onto it. So when you see a beautiful hand ax and you say, ‘Look at the craftsmanship on this; it’s virtually an object of art,’ that’s your perspective today. But you can’t assume what you’re trying to prove.” 

-Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The past, even more than the present, will be fought over, remapped and attempted to be fashioned to fit the shape of whatever argument we’re trying to make. 

We have to worry in the same for those who claim the future. But futurologists have fewer details to spar over, which may be why we can make more things up. One idea about the future, or at least prognostication, is the black swan: The unknown, abstract, imprecise event that completely comes out of the blue. It’s such a surprise we really only see it when we’re looking back.  For many people the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks came out of the blue; they only saw the signals leading up to the attack in hindsight.

Can we have a black swan in the past? What if the hand ax is not a hand ax, but something else completely? Could a single item, a solitary find, possibly change the entire narrative we have for neanderthals? 

Of course, we do know the story. We ended up here, and I guess there are no other examples of what we think as a hand ax being used for something completely different. But that doesn’t mean those things aren’t there. 

If our contemporary history is a fight over competing narratives, we also have to worry that ancient histories—biological, ecological, anthropological—is also a series of theories fighting for supremacy. In a good story, we put in parts that fit. We don’t always care about telling the truth. 

Power and the narrative of history

When thinking about the History with a capital H, you may not want to re-write it — or take part in its rewriting, argues professor Isa Blumi in a recent lecture. To join History you will become part of a large narrative controlled and paid for by powerful forces who have a stake in owning the story. 

Joining this narrative, your tales will be flattened and twisted to fit its scope and shape.  What gives these forces such power is how they are able to control the shape of the stories but also set the limits of debate. 

If you want to join this History, you better be careful what you wish for, Blumi argues. You will need to conform to civilization not on your terms, but on the terms of the narrative. This will inform what you speak, how to speak it and basically what points to make. You become one of the categorized people, he says, the counted ones who could be called to pay taxes, fight in wars and stand at attention. 

So, what did he tell this group of largely undergraduates to do? Don’t follow people like him, he said. He’ll just create his own metanarrative and force you to mold your story to fit the one he’s created.

What gives the people outside this Historical narrative power, he argues, is the ability to read it for clues. No matter who creates the narrative. Understand the master story for what it is: an argument to power, justifying and expanding its scope. Active reading and engaged thinking will teach you how to understand the narrative for what it is and whom it is for. 

Epistolary blog post

Some people never run out of things to say.

Saul Bellow once wrote to Bernard Malamud, “a novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay."

He was a great letter writer. I am not a great letter writer. Whether it be the time I live in or the lack of time I put in these letters or the fact I sometimes run out of things to say.

Letter to friends:

  • Explain job and university as way of giving news of the day

  • Anecdotes about family life here (crazy traffic, farmers' markets, schools)

  • Inquire to friend and family

  • Inquire about home country or region if undergoing out-of-the-ordinary good or bad luck

  • Ask about summer plans

  • Sign off

How to find a five-tool employee?

In his chapter on statistics versus scouts in baseball, Nate Silver spoke to John Sanders, a veteran scout about the data he collects. As a scout, he's responsible to rank each player on from a 80-20 scale on the five tools of baseball:

  • Speed

  • Arm Strength

  • Fielding

  • Hitting for average

  • Hitting for power

This scout says those tools are just a starting place. In his years scouting, he's developed at least five more, which Silver places in the following categories:

  • Preparedness and work ethic

  • concentration and focus

  • competitiveness and self confidence 

  • stress management and humility 

  • adaptiveness and learning ability

What if these list of tools wasn't just for baseball players? What if was also for employees at non-sports jobs?

Most of the seem to be a very beneficial for employees. Focus talks about the daily tasks. Adaptiveness and learning describes how successful you are able to process new information. On the other hand, competitiveness and self-confidence may not be so welcome in majority of offices.

We all try to find good employees, and while we're not as analytical as a multi-billion dollar sport as baseball, we still take it pretty seriously.

The problem is that scouts spend a lot of time gathering data on these players. Managers looking for an assistant couldn't do that. Also, there are only so many applicants for jobs, especially at an assistant level. There are hundreds of thousands of young people looking to play baseball.

But expanding and better quantifying the criteria on how people hire may be beneficial for the people looking for work. They will know what to which skills to concentrate.

Seneca on anger (and us)

I think about public anger as generally a modern phenomenon, perhaps since back the American revolution or more possibly the French. We have to remember that Rome during Seneca’s time had conquered a good portion of the world and they didn’t do it because they loved travel. They had bloodlust. 

What they didn’t have is anger, Seneca argues. At least the good Romans didn’t succumb to those irrational forces.   

Seneca tells us why in his three book treatise On Anger: 

"But," argues he, "against our enemies anger is necessary." In no case is it less necessary; since our attacks ought not to be disorderly, but regulated and under control. What, indeed, is it except anger, so ruinous to itself, that overthrows barbarians, who have so much more bodily strength than we, and are so much better able to endure fatigue? Gladiators, too, protect themselves by skill, but expose themselves to wounds when they are angry. Moreover, of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger.

Seneca equates anger with a lack of rationality or discipline. Once that indiscipline enters into people, it’s very hard to control.

Next, if you choose to view its results and the mischief that it does, no plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame. See the foundations of the most celebrated cities hardly now to be discerned; they were ruined by anger. See deserts extending for many miles without an inhabitant: they have been desolated by anger. 

As I said before, the surprising aspect of reading Seneca is he describes his world as so similar to ours. Perhaps it is confirmation bias, but when we talk about all things Roman the conversation eventually seeks out a US equivalent to some ancient fact. How much can we translate Seneca’s worries of anger in his time to the modern context? 

We have anger issues in the United States. In fact, anger and vengeance has defined our relationship with the 21st century. As the wounds slowly heal, and the wars slowly fade away, it may manifest itself in other ways. Which direction will it go? 

From Seneca: 

Some therefore consider it to be best to control anger, not to banish it utterly, but to cut off its extravagances, and force it to keep within useful bounds, so as to retain that part of it without which action will become languid and all strength and activity of mind will die away

In the first place, it is easier to banish dangerous passions than to rule them; it is easier not to admit them than to keep them in order when admitted; for when they have established themselves in possession of the mind they are more powerful than the lawful ruler, and will in no wise permit themselves to be weakened or abridged. In the next place, Reason herself, who holds the reins, is only strong while she remains apart from the passions; if she mixes and befouls herself with them she becomes no longer able to restrain those whom she might once have cleared out of her path; for the mind, when once excited and shaken up, goes whither the passions drive it. 

On reading Seneca for the first time

What is man? a potter's vessel, to be broken by the slightest shake or toss: it requires no great storm to rend you asunder: you fall to pieces wherever you strike. What is man? a weakly and frail body, naked, without any natural protection, dependent on the help of others, exposed to all the scorn of Fortune; even when his muscles are well trained he is the prey and the food of the first wild beast he meets, formed of weak and unstable substances, fair in outward feature, but unable to endure cold, heat, or labour, and yet falling to ruin if kept in sloth and idleness, fearing his very victuals, for he is starved if he has them not, and bursts if he has too much. He cannot be kept safe without anxious care, his breath only stays in the body on sufferance, and has no real hold upon it; he starts at every sudden danger, every loud and unexpected noise that reaches his ears.

-Seneca, Of Consolation: To Marcia

I have read about Seneca, but I have never read Seneca. I started working my way through some of his philosophy and I have a few thoughts. The caveat is that I am quite uninitiated to his thinking, his influences and his milieu. 

His writing is very modern. More than his writing, the way he builds ideas feels similar to how we design arguments today. This could be an effect of the translator, but I wonder if it is how the style Seneca wrote in is what remains influential. Another point is that his examples are very specific and from the real world. Although he speaks about contemporary Roman issues, they often have a universal quality to them.  

Two ideas in Of Consolation: To Maria really surprise me how “modern” they sound. His work quoted above about the frailties of humans is very similar to how people would think about it today. 

Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause. Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. 

Even more eerie is the way he talks about what happens to the body after life (quoted directly above). Not only was this written nearly 2,000 years ago, but my understanding was that Seneca was not a monotheist. He was a known humanist who lived around the time of Christ, he didn’t seem to be swayed by the new Christian religion. His arguments about death freeing people from the prison of their body could have been written by a Christian a Muslim or a Jew. 

What does this say about the influence of Seneca’s writing? Quite a lot. But could it also show how deeply ingrained these ideas are for most people, regardless of religion. Seneca does not talk about heaven in a Abrahamic sense (a victory of the self over death), nor does he speak about a soul’s separation from the body to be redeemed as it passes into heaven. Seneca didn’t speak about an afterlife, but he did talk about the separation of the body from the person. 

Political scientists: what are they good for?

If the fall of the Soviet empire seemed predictable after the fact, however, almost no mainstream political scientist had seen it coming…If political scientists couldn’t predict the downfall of the Soviet Union—perhaps the most important event in the latter half of the twentieth century—then what exactly were they good for? 

-Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

I asked a similar question when my train slowly made its way into Bratislava Hlavna Stanica, the main train station. It was hot and dusty and the station was undergoing serious construction. (26 years later, when I was there last year, it seemed the station was still undergoing that same construction project.) 

What I realized that these were the people who were supposed to our superior enemies. The city was under construction — the post communist boom was on in Bratislava — but underneath all the tarps was a pretty dreary looking skeleton. 

It was the first time I had been overseas and put too much stock in the look of things. If it didn’t look up to the snuff of the US, it was poorer than the US. (I say it doesn’t affect me anymore, but it certainly still does.) 

What I saw those first days in Western Slovakia and then soon afterwards in much poorer Eastern Slovakia was not of an empire I was brought up to fear. I saw a somehow overdeveloped poor place. Lots of power lines, lots of factories and weird metal pipes going everywhere. But the rest of the infrastructure like the stores, hospitals and some of the roads seemed to be crumbling before my eyes. The place had a weird smell. (It later turned out to be coal used for heating.) 

I thought about how I heard horror stories from these places from all our political leaders, the media and people who visited here. We have to stop them from tricking people with their propaganda, we were told. Their system is built on tyranny. But these tales never said that the former Soviet satellites seemed kind of run down. They didn’t say that because run down wouldn’t strike fear in our hearts. Had we all visited Eastern Europe like our tastemakers, we would have shrugged and left, wondering what the big fuss was about.  That’s not a way to run a foreign policy.

Later I did figure out that they did a lot of things well in Eastern Europe. They did things poorly, but not as poorly as I would have first suspected. 

But this gets back to our foreign policy class. Yes, the American diplomats, politicians and, yes, political scientists who traveled behind the Iron Curtain received a special tour. But all they had to do was look out their hotel window and say, they’re not that scary. 

I wonder how many people got caught up in that narrative. You don’t stick your neck out and say that we shouldn’t worry about our enemy. one, what if you are wrong? And two, how could all those people be completely wrong? Three, only a few journals were going to print what you had to say anyway.