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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Stay the course in Klendathu

Yesterday I learned via Mad Kane that Bush has been evacuated to safety.  Then while I was driving down to DC yesterday afternoon, I caught Bush’s speech in San Diego on C-Span radio—every second of it.  So now it appears that our mission in Iraq is just like our mission in World War II—and our “reconstruction” of Iraq is just like our reconstruction of Imperial Japan.  They were evil, we defeated ‘em, we rebuilt their country, and now they’re one of our closest allies.  Well, I’m no military theorist, but this sounds like a pretty solid analogy to me, except for the “rebuilding” part and the “ally” part.  And I’m no historian, but I don’t remember any entrenched Japanese insurgency that targeted the domestic security forces-in-training who were working with or for Americans, and I haven’t been able to Google any Japanese clerics who demanded that the constitution for postwar Japan be written in accordance with Islamic law.  I’m still trying to figure out who the Japanese equivalent of the Kurds might be, too.  Any help?

Actually, I don’t think the Japan thing is going to work.  For one thing, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for Bush to draw parallels with past American military operations in east Asia and the Pacific.  You never know—people might get confused, and start thinking about Vietnam or the Philippines instead of Japan.  (Especially when the President is speaking in San Diego, where, you’ll remember, he seemed to suggest that major combat operations were over two and a half years ago, though I suppose it all depends on what the meaning of “over” is.) For another thing, the premise of the analogy is reality-based (insofar as it appeals to actual historical events), and reality-based politics has never been Bush’s strong suit.

So I think the Bush Administration is making the wrong kind of appeal altogether.  Instead, as Rox Populi and I agreed last night, Bush should be telling his supporters that the situation in Iraq is just like Starship Troopers: the enemy threatens our very way of life.  We’re fighting the aliens over there so that we don’t have to fight them here.  Containment didn’t work, and we can’t go back to the pre-Buenos Aires mindset.  It’s a hard fight against a determined enemy but we will prevail.  Sign up now and you may get to serve alongside Denise Richards.  And don’t forget—we’ve already caught the brain!

Not only would this strategy take the heat off the WW2 analogy—it would also help prepare Americans for what will surely be the Bush/Cheney alternative to the draft.  Service guarantees citizenship!

Would you like to know more?

Posted by Michael on 08/31 at 09:08 AM
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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

On the road again

My apologies, folks, but I don’t have time to do a real blog entry today.  I’ve been home for 48 hours now, and you know what that means—it’s time to hit the road again!  This time I’m off to Washington, D.C. to meet the powerful and mysterious Rox Populi.  John McGowan will be there, too.  We should be able to settle this whole Butler-Nussbaum thing over dinner, while offering theories as to why the music of 1981 sucked with such a high degree of suckitude.  Then tomorrow I’m in lovely northern Virginia to conduct some Secret Business.  It’s making me very nervous and I can’t tell you what it is, so you’re free to assume that it involves national security matters and “safe houses,” as do all things in northern Virginia.

So I don’t have time to attempt a full-dress response to this recent essay by KC Johnson.  Instead, I’m going to ask you all to give it a look, and offer your suggestions as to how it testifies to the Plight of the Modern Conservative Intellectual.  Here’s a hint: think of the major conservative “intellectual” movement of our time.  Now explain why KC Johnson doesn’t mention it.

Johnson writes:

Inside Higher Ed recently reported on four University of Pittsburgh professors critiquing the latest survey suggesting ideological one-sidedness in the academy. According to the Pitt quartet, self-selection accounts for findings that the faculty of elite disproportionately tilts to the Left.  “Many conservatives,” the Pitt professors mused, “may deliberately choose not to seek employment at top-tier research universities because they object, on philosophical grounds, to one of the fundamental tenets undergirding such institutions: the scientific method.”

Imagine the appropriate outrage that would have occurred had the above critique referred to feminists, minorities, or Socialists.

Um, OK, I’ll try, but I’m not convinced that, say, the Intelligent Design movement has all that much to do with feminists or minorities or Socialists.  I tend to think that the scandal of ID is pretty well confined to the conservative end of the ideological spectrum.  The intelligently designed ball is in your court, folks.  The ravings of people like Grover Furr and the fringes of the Monty Python Left may be my problem, sure enough, but the ravings of the ID crowd are your problem, as is the recent endorsement of those ravings by your President.

Hendrik Hertzberg was divinely inspired on the subject of ID a few weeks ago, by the way.  Hey, I wonder what he thinks about the plight of conservatives in academe.

Posted by Michael on 08/30 at 09:06 AM
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Monday, August 29, 2005

Running on Empty

So I’m—we’re—back from dropping off Nick in St. Louis.  We drove home on Saturday, setting a new family record by making the 770-mile trip in one day:  thanks to Jamie for his travelling skills, his patience, and his willingness to entertain himself for twelve hours at a stretch.  Last year we screwed up almost every aspect of the trip: we stayed in a one-star motel, we dined at a skeezy Del Taco at 10 pm because everything else was closed, and I booked one of The Hill’s weakest Italian restaurants for the farewell dinner.  This year we stayed in a good place for cheap, we moved Nick into his dorm with brutal and terrifying efficiency, and we dined at one of The Hill’s best Italian restaurants, where the maitre d’ stopped by to cut up Jamie’s chicken saltimbucca for him and then took Jamie and Nick on a tour of the kitchen so they could see how the gelato and sorbetto are made.  Next year, we want to become even more adept at this game: we’re going to drop off Nick and drive back in one day, slowing down to 30 mph as we approach his dorm and throwing him out of the passenger side with a sleeping bag as he does a drop-and-roll.

St. Louis looks much the same as when I last visited, and because Nick is now a sophomore, I was spared the many wearying challenges of Parent Orientation (though I have to admit I enjoyed the reception with the School of Architecture faculty last year; I did the Orientation drill while Janet and Jamie drove up to Champaign, Illinois), and of course I didn’t have to reprise the traditional father-son knife-fight in the parking lot.  And because we delivered Nick a bit early, we were spared the very worst features of the Annual Parental Infestation—the parade of J. Crew-festooned forty- and fifty-somethings carrying laundry baskets and clock radios for their offspring, fighting with each other (and us!) for the last remaining boxes of inexpensive-but-nice silverware at Target, and recalibrating their families’ wireless calling plans and auto insurance rates for the school year.  You might recall that Don DeLillo’s White Noise opens with such an Infestation; it’s the postmodern version of the Epic List, with noble antecedents in Homer, Virgil, Spenser, and Milton:

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus.  In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories.  The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn: the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years.  It is a brilliant event, invariably.  The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse.  Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always.  The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction.  The conscientious suntans.  The well-made faces and wry looks.  They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition.  The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names.  Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.  This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.

Great stuff, that White Noise.  Written twenty years ago, but still relevant today, like the great timeless classics of literature.  But hey, does anybody remember station wagons?  Does anybody remember stereo sets, phonograph records and cassettes?  For that matter, does anyone remember controlled substances?

I’m serious about the station wagons, actually.  Maybe it’s just the shock of driving two thousand miles round trip to the Outer Banks and then turning around and driving another two thousand miles round trip to the Midwest, but I’m starting to get the impression that no one drives cars anymore: everywhere around me on the interstates it’s SUVs, SUVs, SUVs (I tell you, the movie Robocop, with its SUX 6000 cars with “really shitty gas mileage,” is looking savvier every day).  Not that we’re especially virtuous ourselves: our 2003 VW Passat gets 28-30 mpg (and has great interior room, with a big trunk), but even that kind of mileage means we spent about $350-400 on gas while spewing all our fossil-fuel refuse into the air.  The time seems right for a hybrid—though at this point I’ll try anything, including Floo Powder (there’s no point anymore in developing the car that runs on water: we’ll be all out of water by the year 2078 anyway).  But I can’t even begin to imagine how the SUX-6000 drivers are handling this.  I have to think that, quite apart from the farcical driver-masculinization involved in the SUV phenomenon (as opposed to the soccer-mom minivans, which are considerably safer and more fuel-efficient, hence feminized, hence abject), there’s a perverse kind of conspicuous consumption going on with these top-heavy, tip-on-a-dime boxes-on-wheels: they say, almost as if they carried bumper stickers to this effect, these piddling gas prices of yours are of no concern to me.  Or, as Janet put it, channeling Leona Helmsley:  fuel efficiency is for the little people.  I think the appropriate movie reference here isn’t Robocop so much as The Freshman, with its hilarious depiction of a decadent group of the global ultrarich who dine on nearly-extinct species.  (And if you haven’t seen the scene in which Bert Parks sings “Maggie’s Farm” for those diners, you have missed one of American film’s more sublimely loopy moments.)

Anyway, don’t get me wrong here.  As our national leaders have pointed out, there is no such thing as global warming, and even if there were, it certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with increasingly violent hurricanes.  In fact, I believe that recent studies have shown that SUVs have a beneficial effect on the atmosphere and help to protect us from the sun’s harmful SUV radiation.  Though (via Susie Madrak the Suburban Guerrilla), I did learn that hurricanes can have an impact on oil production (Susie links to this New York Times article):

In an interview later with CNN, the mayor also referred to the potential impact the hurricane could have on the oil supply from the vulnerable area.

“The real issue—that I don’t think the nation is paying attention to—is that through the city of New Orleans, through the Gulf of Mexico, we probably deal with almost a third of the nation’s domestic oil that is produced. And that will most likely be shut down,” Mr. Nagin said.

“So, this can have a significant impact on oil prices going forward,” he added.

This, children, is what’s known as the Oil Circle of Life: the fossil fuel goes into your tank, the exhaust goes up into the air, the air swirls around and around until it reaches speeds of 150 mph, it hits the Gulf Coast, and then it gives the country’s gas and oil production a kick in the shins.  This then increases oil-company profits, and the fossil fuel goes into your tank, and . . . well, it’s just like the Water Cycle, only oilier.

In the meantime, this blog sends its best wishes to everyone in the Gulf Coast, particularly the people who don’t own cars and can’t evacuate at will.

Posted by Michael on 08/29 at 01:43 PM
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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Theory Tuesday: Nussbaum v. Butler, Round Two

Just to keep you on your toes, this “theory Tuesday” post comes from John, not Michael, and is the promised discussion of the relation of theory (or “thinking"--to use Nussbaum’s and Hannah Arendt’s term) to politics.

Near the end of her essay on Butler, Nussbaum writes that it is no surprise that Butler’s “hip quietism” has “caught on here [i.e. in America], where successful middle-class people focus on cultivating the self rather than thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others” (Section VI).  This charge is connected to Nussbaum’s opening gambit, the claim that “For a long time, academic feminism in America has been closely allied to the practical struggle to achieve justice and equality for women.  Feminist theory has been understood by theorists as not just fancy words on paper; theory is connected to proposals for social change.”

There are any number of entangled issues here.  For sanity and brevity’s sake, I am only going to focus on what counts as “political” and what does not.  Nussbaum is obviously outraged by the fact that Butler and her readers think that her work is radical and has significant, even if not immediate, political consequences.  At most, Nussbaum is willing to grant that, “in its small way, [Butler’s work offers] a hopeful politics.  It instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold.” Except that whatever “small” concession these two sentences offer is completely withdrawn in the next sentence: “But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures are political change, it offers only a false hope.” And Nussbaum returns to her basic “get real” position: “Hungry women are not fed by this . . .” (Section VI, penultimate paragraph).

If our criteria for true or real politics is that the formerly hungry now get fed, what academic work will meet the test?  I want to highlight just how weird Nussbaum’s formula is.  Truly feminist academics, she says, should be “thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others.” What could that possibly mean?  Even at the most concrete level—a nutritionist in a university’s School of Public Health who thinks about how to improve school lunches—thinking is still at least one step away from helping the material condition of others.  Thinking is not politics. 

Hannah Arendt was admirably clear about this distinction, one that much current academic work seems to have abandoned in favor of some magical faith in the “omnipotence of thoughts.” Arendt distinguishes sharply in The Human Condition between the vita activa, which is the very stuff of politics, and the vita contemplativa, which much of Western philosophy and many of the world’s religions have extolled as superior to action.  And she knew that her own work was about politics, but that it wasn’t politics.  “You know,” she said in a 1972 interview, “all the modern philosophers have somewhere in their thought a rather apologetic sentence which says, ‘Thinking is also acting.’ Oh no, it is not!  And to say that is rather dishonest.  I mean, let’s face the music: it is not the same!  On the contrary, I have to keep back to a large extent from participating, from commitment.  . . . And I think I understood something of action precisely because I looked at it from the outside, more or less.”

Thinking can have political implications.  But politics involves the realm of action and thoughts are not political until they are put into action.  What one chooses to think about is a good indication of one’s interests and commitments; that fundamental choice may be (but is not necessarily) a clue to the thinker’s political beliefs and priorities.  But none of that thinking is political until it undertakes to translate itself into action (with all the complications, difficulties, and frustrations that such translation always entails, not least of all because unilateral action is impossible, whereas unilateral thought is all too common.) And, finally, we should recognize that some thinking neither desires nor attempts to connect to action—and we should be happy that such is the case.  Freedom from politics is as important as freedom within the political realm. 

My proposal, then, is straight-forward.  1) Thinking in ways to help the material conditions of others may prove useful indirectly.  But there are crucial and complicated intermediary steps between the thinking and the helping.  Someone who just thinks a lot about the hunger of others is not morally superior to or more politically involved than someone who thinks a lot about his red car.  2) Therefore, any thinking that is going to qualify as even potentially political needs to articulate its political implications clearly and suggest some ways to act upon those implications in the world.  3) But political action per se only begins when one leaves the library or the study.  Even the rhetorical urging of others to embrace this or that political cause is preliminary to political action itself. 

So: are some thoughts more useful politically than others?  Undoubtedly.  But it is not so easy to judge that usefulness from just hearing or reading the thoughts.  Who is doing more useful work on health care at the moment?  Someone who is trying to think about extending health coverage within our current system of mixed governmental and employer-provided benefits, or someone who is developing a model of a single-payer system?  The second proposal may be completely unfeasible politically (i.e. within the current alignment of social forces).  So that thinker may be very far from helping anyone concretely, no matter what her intentions are.  But do we really want to say that such utopian or radical thinking should be barred—or should not think of itself as having any political interest because it doesn’t have any way to put its proposals into action?

There are other ways to judge usefulness and relevance besides feasibility.  The range of human interests is remarkably wide, as is the range of actions taken to promote and live out those interests.  Thinking—and the ideas it introduces into the world—play a large role in the formation and extension of that possible range.  Richard Rorty has proposed that we distinguish between intellectual work that aims primarily to imagine the forms our collective life together should take (and perhaps even how to act to develop and maintain different forms) and intellectual work that has a more perfectionist slant, focusing on the forms an individual life can or should take.  (He develops this distinction most fully in his book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity [1989].  As with a disconcertingly large number of Rorty’s ideas, my original response was vehement disagreement, only to find myself as the years roll by slowly coming to think that he was on to something important and probably even right about how to think about that something.) Rorty’s distinction was introduced in part to suggest that much post-structuralist work is best understood as perfectionist.  It is work that is aimed more at personal transformation than at social transformation, which accords with its avant-garde and Freudian heritage.  Foucault’s final work on “the care of the self” explicitly forefronts this focus on the person.

Butler, of course, believes her work is political because she presents the subject as formed by social processes that include an insidious, oppressive power. As I said in my last post, there seems good reason to accept Butler’s insistence that certain selves suffer very real pain as a result of not fitting within certain social norms.  Thus, her thinking, while not addressed to hunger, can plausibly claim to be addressed to suffering that it urges us to alleviate.  Can her thinking aid in that political work of alleviation?  Yes, insofar as it alerts people to the existence of a problem, gives them a vocabulary and concepts for the articulation of the problem, and suggests some forms of action that would remedy the problem. 

Nussbaum objects that the action Butler suggests is vague, non-collective, and likely to be ineffective.  Those are possible objections, but the only proof is going to be in the pudding.  Thinking about what is possible or effective is never going to be an adequate substitute for doing something and seeing if it works—where works is defined as getting approximately what you aimed for.  Better to try things than to argue ourselves out of it.  It’s not like we are flooded with proposals, or that what we are currently doing is working all that well.  Much of what we do is habitual and follows well-traveled paths.  Suggestions—and actual instantiations—of something different should be encouraged.  Nussbaum comes across as the old fogy who lodges in every institution, the one who meets any proposed change with the pronouncement: “we tried that already in 1935 and it didn’t work.”

Nussbaum’s more important point, it seems to me, is that Butler’s proposals for action are so under-developed because Butler in fact believes that action is most likely going to be futile. Or, to put this in a slightly different way, Butler works on the personal, therapeutic, perfectionist side of the pitch because she believes the social forces she describes are ineluctable.  I think Nussbaum is right in this analysis.  Many radicals of what we can call the “cultural left,” like Butler, have adopted the notion that “liberalism,” or “capitalism,” or “patriarchy” or whatever other name you want to give to the overarching “system” within which we live has gotten so deeply inside our heads and has developed such subtle ways of co-opting all opposition, that collective political action on social conditions is hopeless.  So, instead, they emphasize work upon the self.  They believe more hope rests in the utopias that can be projected in art than in the nitty-gritty of political work within the terms and institutions of the present.  They are impatient with the compromises and far-from-perfect results of mundane politics, in which progress is piecemeal at best, preferring instead the visions of complete transformation expressed in various cultural artifacts.  Not surprisingly, those engaged in mundane politics will often be annoyed by such pie-in-the-sky dreamers, especially when the dreamers criticize some concrete accomplishment as trivial or deeply flawed.  But does that really mean we want to stop all dreaming, that thinkers should not articulate ideals that extend far beyond what we can currently achieve?  Be careful what you ask for.

Rorty has it more right than Nussbaum.  Perfectionist concerns and recommendations have a crucial and honorable place in our intellectual traditions and in our daily lives, as do utopian visions.  It is quite simply misguided to insist that “real” feminist work or the only useful thinking must be directed toward the social rather than toward the personal, and to what can be feasibly accomplished in a relatively short time frame.  Not only are self and society intertwined (remember “the personal is political?”), but each involves matters of ultimate concern for every self.  We should fully expect that intellectual work will engage these two realms with different intensity—just as such work will offer different understandings of how they are related to one another. And we should fully expect that intellectual work will continue to articulate ideals that are far from realization and remote from the difficulties of providing basic material resources to all. In both cases, these various intellectual musings and modelings will be distinct from the political work of putting thoughts into action, even if they do suggest motives for such action and a map (an understanding) of the world in which such action will transpire. 

Posted by John McGowan on 08/23 at 09:41 AM
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Monday, August 22, 2005

Barnacle Bill’s Two-for-One Crabs Special

Jamie took this picture during our dolphin watch off the coast of North Carolina.


It was just a week in a rented house on Hatteras Island, but it was fun, and we badly needed it.  We’ve been to the Outer Banks about a half-dozen times.  In 1993 and 1994 we actually dropped off the kids with my parents in Virginia Beach—our only child-free vacations between 1986 and today—and spent three days in Avon, NC in a charming and slightly ratty beach hotel called The Castaways.  Funny thing about the Outer Banks below Nags Head, where the Cape Hatteras National Seashore begins: you have twelve miles of federally-protected, pristine, undeveloped beach, then three little towns (Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo), then another twelve untouched miles, then Avon, and it’s like the Land that Postmodernity Forgot.  Just as U.S. route 158 gives way to state route 12 (Hatteras’s only major road) at the Manteo/ Roanoke turnoff, there’s a KFC, and then . . . no franchises, no multinationals, no crap for the next 50 miles, until you get to Buxton at the island’s elbow.  Buxton has a couple of fast-food joints and cheap hotels.  But for many years, The Castaways was the only structure of its kind for miles and miles, the only “beach hotel” between Nags Head and Buxton.  Certainly the only five-story building around.  It was as if The Castaways had itself been cast out of the Kitty Hawk - Kill Devil Hills - Nags Head region, which is chock full of ratty beach hotels and fast-food franchises (but not quite as bad as, say, Ocean City, Maryland, which seems to me to have been completely paved and Hardee’d from one end of town to the other).  But we loved it.

The Castaways was torn down a few years ago.  In its place is Hatteras’s lone contribution to postmodernity: a string of new beach houses borne aloft on the housing bubble.  I don’t have the exact numbers, but I think that housing prices in Hatteras have increased approximately five trillion percent in the past six years, even as the average rental price has stayed pretty level.  And this despite the fact that the island gets battered by hurricanes every year (and was actually severed by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003).  Some of the beach houses we’ve seen amount to McMansions on stilts; we rent more modestly, needless to say, and despite all the money sloshing around in some corners of the Outer Banks (in and around those new houses), there are still plenty of trailers and campgrounds and guys with pickups who are here just for the fishing.  Which, I hear, is amazing.  But me, I don’t know nothing about no fishing.

In fact, as this post will soon demonstrate, I don’t know nothing about no aspect of the natural world.  I interact with the ocean only by way of a boogie board; when I was a kid in Queens and we took off for Jones Beach, I was capable of body-surfing, but I’m too old and slow and delicate for that kind of thing now.  On certain days at Jones Beach the waves would be reasonably strong and would break quite close to shore, which meant that if you rode them wrong and got caught in the break, you could be deposited on the sand from a height of four or five feet, face first.  On a boogie board you have a margin of error, though not so large a margin as to save me from wiping out twice and getting tumbled onto shore in a most undignified fashion.  “Michael,” Jamie said as I rolled in on one wave, “you forgot to stand up.” I asked Janet what my wipeouts look like from the safety of the beach.  “Well, I can see your feet sticking straight up in the air as you go under,” Janet said.  “That’s usually a bad sign.”

And the only reason I’m indulging in boogie-board discourse on this bumbling blog is that this year, boogie-boarding involved interacting with some very interesting global (or at least hemispheric) processes.  The day we arrived, August 13, the news was full of Hurricane Irene, which might or might not reach land and which might or might not cause the island to be evacuated by Wednesday.  (My mother, who stayed with us for a couple of nights along with my two sisters, my niece, and my nephew, prepared for the possible evacuation by bringing along extra food.  “Mother,” I said, rolling my eyes with considerable vigor, “when they ‘evacuate’ the island, that means they make everybody leave. We’re not going to be holed up in a bunker, grateful that you’ve remembered to bring a box full of canned tuna fish and hot dog rolls.” “Well, you never know,” she replied, an all-purpose incontrovertible answer if ever there was one.) Irene never did hit North Carolina, but she did send some serious waves our way: when we went down to the beach that Saturday evening, we heard and then saw these massive things crashing just a few yards out from shore, keeping almost everyone out of the water except for walkers and waders.

So, of course, I plunged in with my boogie board.  After all, half the fun of riding waves comes from that adrenaline rush of watching a good wall of water form right behind you as you prepare to jump into it, right?  Surfers do this kind of thing for real, and we baby-surfers have our Adrenaline Lite version of the thrill, too.  But I couldn’t even manage to get out to where the waves were forming; after fifteen minutes, I realized that the best I could do would be to get to the point where the most modest waves were actually breaking, and if I managed that feat, I would very likely be smacked in the head and tumbled end over end until some bigger wave took me out.  And weirdly, the water was cold—much colder than I’d remembered from 2002, the last time we were on the Outer Banks.  Not quite New England cold, but biting nonetheless.  And the undertow was vicious.

I watched eagerly as some young folk ventured into the water with boogie boards.  “Good,” I thought, “I’ll get to see how it’s done when the waves are scary high.” But one after another, the young folk backed off.  Nobody rode any waves that day, or the next.  And the water stayed cold.

Not until Tuesday did we hear that the water temperature was attributable less to Irene than to an earlier tropical storm that (in the words of the Talkative Guy on the Avon Pier) sucked all the warm water off the continental shelf and replaced it with this cold stuff.  Regardless of whether he was right about that, the water temperature increased by more than ten degrees in the next five days, from the mid-60s to the high 70s.  It was quite weird.  Every day the water was warmer and the waves milder.  Tuesday and Wednesday were ideal for boarding; after that the rides were markedly shorter and less exciting, though Jamie had an easier time with his boogie board.  (I hold him on the board and wait for a wave to break near shore, then let him ride the rest of the way in on the foam.  Depending on our timing, he can get himself a nice quick shuttle up the beach this way.)

Then on Thursday night, Janet suggested we go watch the sunset over Pamlico Sound.  The sound is about twenty miles wide and three or four feet deep; I imagine that if the ocean levels change even the slightest bit either way, North Carolina will either lose its beautiful outer banks or gain another twenty miles of marsh and swamp.  (Either way, I will blame Bush.) But we were thwarted in our attempt to get right up to the shore of the sound, so we went back to the sea side of the island (it’s only a five-minute walk across the entire thing) and saw, much to our surprise, a stunning moonrise over the ocean.  Actually, we’d missed the spectacle of the moon being born from the waters by about ten minutes (my guess) or an hour (Janet’s), but we watched in awe for a while before reluctantly agreeing to go back to the house and reclaim our children.  But we vowed to return on Friday night for the full moon.

Now here’s where the fun began.  Because I’d estimated Thursday’s moonrise at 7:50 and Janet had pegged it at 7, Janet suggested we go out to the beach on Friday evening at 7.  “Uh,” I said, “I think moonrise is later each evening.  Maybe 7:30.”

“We don’t want to miss it,” Janet said.

“I agree,” I agreed, “but we ought to get some ballpark figure.”

At this point the amateur astronomers in the room should be mocking us with a great mockery (Janet for misunderestimating the time of Thursday’s moonrise, which was 7:45, and me for not knowing anything about moonrises), and everyone else should be saying, “hello, fool, each day’s moonrise and sunrise is listed in every newspaper available at the local Blue Whale General Store down the block.” Had we been home, we could have looked at the Internets, but in our rental house we didn’t have any Internets access.  Or, more simply, one of us might simply have remembered that moonrise at the latitudes we’re familiar with comes about 35-40 minutes later each evening.

But no.  And even though I had spent a blissful half hour on the beach sunning myself and miscalculating the rotational speed of the Earth 35 degrees from the equator (that is, the tangential velocity of a point on the globe more or less right around the point I was lying on, which just happens to be something like 850 miles per hour—I’d had it at 650), I could not figure out when Friday’s moonrise was likely to occur.  So we sat together Friday evening at 7:30 under a brilliant sky under layers of soft and shifting clouds, a sky whose colors changed minute by minute, and I drew circles in the sand trying to plot the moonrise.  Let’s see.  It’s revolving around us counter-clockwise, just as we revolve around our axis counter-clockwise, and the moon is zipping along an orbital path of about 1.5 million miles every 27.3 days, or just over 2300 mph.  Now.  If the moon is 240,000 miles away and we have a tangential velocity of 850 mph. . . .

All right already, the answer is 8:22 pm.  You know, four million years ago when that big black monolith showed up on the African plains, Australopithecine hominids figured out that moonrise comes x minutes later every day, and here in 2005 I couldn’t do it.  Granted, they were the smart Australopithecine hominids, the ones who believed in evolution, and they got neural-net upgrades and bigger hat sizes in the next round.  But still.  Had we known that moonrise would be 8:22, we’d have shown up at 8 instead of 7:30, and we’d have missed the spectacular sunset we’d wanted to see on Thursday but wound up seeing on Friday instead.  So let that be a lesson to us.

And don’t be telling me I was “ruining the moment” with my cosines and circles in the sand, either.  The moon is only more amazing when you realize its anomalousness; no teeny inner planet has any business with a moon so big.  How would you like to be stuck on Mars, waiting for the imperceptible moonrises of Phobos or Deimos, both of which are basically glorified pebbles?  I bet you wouldn’t like it at all.  And the more I sat outside and hurt my head with forms of math at which I was never very adept, the more I realized that Earth is my very favorite planet in the entire solar system.  The liquid water we have here is especially nice.  Such a small window to work with—just 100 degrees Centrigrade.  Oceans of steam or ice just wouldn’t be the same.  You frozen methane-and-ammonia fans can have the outer planets all to yourselves, thank you.  I’ll stick with the liquid water.  Also, I have to say that the atmosphere was a good idea, on balance.  It’s very pleasant not to be bombarded by cosmic rays when you’re just trying to soak up some sun.  And it’s breathable, too!  At least in most places.  Yep, the atmosphere and the liquid water are OK with me.  In fact, the whole setup is so cool that it eventually produced beings capable of figuring out what the moon and sun are, and plotting their diurnal rise and fall, among other things.  Of course, those beings were eventually wiped off the face of the Earth by religious fundamentalists, and then came the invasion of the giant enlightened insects from the planet Effexor.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet!

I don’t want to suggest that our vacation was all fun and games.  We don’t do all fun and games.  Jamie’s ear infection persisted all week—it seems to have persisted all month—so we had to be extremely careful about plugging up his ear with moldable wax and keeping his head above water as much as possible.  But even when his ear wasn’t plugged up with wax, he still had himself a perforated eardrum, and (as a result) a pretty significant hearing loss.  We hope it’s temporary, of course, but it’s still unsettling.  Send Jamie your hearing-restoration vibes when you have a moment, if you would.  He’s getting better every day, but vibes would help.  If you need to know Jamie’s tangential velocity in order to “lead” the vibes correctly, consult the Internets.  I’m no good at these things.

John McGowan will post Butler v. Nussbaum II tomorrow, and then the family and I are driving to St. Louis to drop Nick off at college.  I’ll be back next week with a resumption of Theory Tuesdays and everything else.

Oh, and here’s Jamie from that same dolphin watch (on which we saw many Atlantic bottlenose dolphins):


Posted by Michael on 08/22 at 01:55 PM
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Sunday, August 14, 2005


Due to a mix-up too tedious to explain, but which I very much regret, my post on Nussbaum and Butler crowded Michael’s important post Sense of an Ending off the top of the blog.  Thanks to everyone for the comments on the Nussbaum post. I have posted in the comments section a (very inadequate) reply to some of the points raised.  But I am going to postpone the promised second post on Nussbaum and Butler until Thursday August 25th.  And Michael will be back on Monday the 22nd. 

In the meantime, here’s the Sense of an Ending post once again for those of you who may have missed it. 

First posted Wednesday, August 10.

OK, so this is the fourth post I’ve put up today (and I’ve updated and revised it a few times, too).  A new record for this blog—an unprecedented flurry of things in the past thirty hours, and not one of them—not Theory Tuesday IV on Althusser, not the Invasion of the Marriage Disaster Flicks, not my visit to the dentist, and not my tribute to the English department’s softball team—has a damn thing to do with the state of the nation.  Once upon a time, this was a mostly political blog, specializing in bitterness, incredulity, and over-the-top satire.  Now you can hardly find a passing mention of Karl Rove, Judy Miller, or Robert Novak around here. 

But over the past few months I’ve been seriously rethinking the parameters of what this blog can and cannot say.  It has not escaped my notice that there’s a fairly clear distinction between “raw” blogs and “cooked” blogs: the former offer to-the-moment musings on the lives and times of their authors (The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy, for example), and the latter present a clear surface, a finished product that betrays nothing about their authors’ lives or its vicissitudes (Tom Burka’s brilliant and brilliantly-named Opinions You Should Have, for example).  Most blogs fall in between, and blogs like these seem to me to have negotiated the demands of the raw and the cooked most appealingly and impressively over the past year.

I’m well aware that I’ve leavened this blog now and then with a few immediate-family stories, most of which have to do with Jamie—partly because people keep asking about him, for good reason, and partly because he loves to see himself up on the Internets, also for good reason.  But I’ve tried to keep most of my personal life out of this.  I’ve even tried to keep most of my professional life out of this: while I’ll comment on Horowitzian initiatives in state legislatures and MLA resolutions, I won’t talk about most of my daily professorial routine here.  In fact, for a long time last year I was reluctant to deal with anything relating to my day job—so much so that it simply never occurred to me that I could use the blog for things like Theory Tuesdays and extended responses to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?

And until recently, I would never have thought of writing anything about the EFF (extended family and friends) in this space—at least not in a serious way.  Two weeks ago, however, a dear friend of ours, Jimmy Crofts, died at the age of 48 after a long and utterly inexplicable illness.  He was married to Gail Corbin, who’s been Janet’s best friend since toddlerhood.  Gail and Jimmy’s marriage was complexly intertwined with ours, even during the twelve years Janet and I lived in Illinois and saw the Connecticut crew only once or twice a year, and even though most of Jimmy’s family still lives in Ireland.  Janet traveled to Dublin to attend Jimmy and Gail’s wedding on New Year’s Eve 1983; she and I had met but three months before.  Jimmy and Gail moved to New Haven shortly thereafter.  Gail is basically the fifth Lyon Sister (after Cynthia, Barbara, Janet and Todd), just as Mal Evans was the fifth Beatle, and Jimmy’s large family is almost the mirror image of Janet’s: the Lyon brood consists of four charismatic daughters and one charming son, and the Crofts clan consists of four charismatic sons and one charming daughter.  Not that Jimmy lacked for charm; quite the contrary.  He was stunningly handsome (Aidan Quinn, twenty years ago, was a pale approximation), multiply talented, impossibly witty, and unfailingly kind.  And Gail:  Gail is just incandescent—a passionate dancer (in the Doris Humphreys mode), a keen and wry wit, an exhilarating interlocutor.  The two of them seemed perfectly matched.

Jimmy and Gail had two children, right around the time that Janet and I had two children: their Brendan is 17, our Nick is 19; their Anna turns 14 in November, our Jamie turns 14 in September.  We all went through the stages of postmodern childrearing in the industrialized West at the same time, marking our offspring’s baffling attachments to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pogs, Nintendo 64, taekwondo, baseball, and stuffed animals.  We debated Barney the Dinosaur: unmitigated evil, or post-post-parodic scourge?  We felt very strongly both ways.

Then late last summer, we heard that Jimmy had fallen ill: his white blood count had plunged precipitously, and no one knew why.  He was hospitalized late last fall.  And ten months after the initial onset of this mysterious disease, no one knows what it is or where it came from.  Not Gail, not us, not the head of oncology at Yale-New Haven.  No one.

The last time I saw Jimmy, Janet and I were visiting him in Yale-New Haven hospital just before Christmas.  Though Jimmy was barely able to walk, he and his brother Martin were bantering hilariously about the novels he’d been sent to keep him “occupied” during his hospitalization: someone had given him Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, apparently unaware that the Crofts family is ridiculously well-read, having memorized most of everything from Spenser to Flann O’Brien, and Jimmy and Martin had us howling about the Dan Brown Howlers.  At one point the two brothers decided that the books were so bad that, on some level, they were aware of how bad they were, and had to be watched lest they slip off the shelf, wander into the back yard, and shoot themselves.

But the last time I saw Jimmy outside a hospital was at the funeral for Janet’s father on November 6 of last year.  Janet’s father, Bradford B. Lyon, died on October 14 at the age of 83.  He had been very ill for two or three years: there was lung cancer, and lupus, and his incomplete recovery from knee-replacement surgery.  He was doing his best to manage his pacemaker/defibrillator.  His hands, his legs, all his joints were out of joint—and this in a man who swam daily, skiied capably, and rode his bicycle well into his late 70s.

Brad was very much like Jimmy: not quite so quick a wit, mind you (for who could be so quick as Jimmy Crofts?), but every bit as charming and industrious and gracious.  He flirted with death for most of last summer; though I had the good fortune to walk and talk with him alone for an hour along the southern Connecticut shoreline in May, I saw him only twice more before he died, and on neither occasion was he able to communicate verbally (though he did laugh noiselessly in his hospital bed when I told him I would not jump on his daughter Cynthia’s trampoline because you can’t get me into one of those chicken outfits).  Janet left for New Haven four times last summer, each time for a week, each time thinking that it would be her last chance to see her father; and yet each time he rallied.  Finally, in mid-semester last fall, Janet and I decided that it would be a good idea for her to drive to her parents’ house to see her father midweek.  Against all odds, he had rallied from his summer’s many trials, to the point at which he was able to live at home (with ramps, and with much assistance from remarkable caregivers): to this day the family refers to this as his victory lap.

Bradford Lyon died while Janet was visiting him, on that early Thursday morning in mid-October.  He died quietly while Janet was attending to him, ushering him into whatever awaits us when we pass.

Yet I did not grieve about Brad, even as his family walked with him through the valley of incipient death, back and forth, all summer long in the long summer of 2004.  I was the Voice of Cold, Clear Reason.  I pointed out that he had led a full and satisfying life: he had watched his children grow up, he had met his grandchildren, and he had fought off a series of very grievous illnesses before going gently into that good night, overseen by his devoted daughter. 

His funeral was attended by about 150 people who loved him, all of whom testified to his exuberance and his generosity and his truly indiscriminate (and therefore often regrettable) sense of humor.  I missed his presence at that funeral—he would have enlivened the proceedings immeasurably, so to speak—and I miss him today.  But as I mourn his death, I do not mourn the mode of his passing.  Instead, I ask this: let all of us die as peaceably and as gracefully as Bradford Lyon did in the early hours of October 14, 2004.

Jimmy Crofts’ death was, and is, quite another thing.  And his funeral, this past Friday, August 5, was almost an affair of state: held at St. Mary’s Church in downtown New Haven, it drew about 400 people—all the people Jimmy’s life had touched, all the Lyon and Crofts families, dozens of people from the Wilton, Connecticut school district in which Jimmy had worked since 1994, and a number of Wilton policemen and firefighters in their ceremonial dress blues on a 95-degree day.  At Gail’s request, Janet delivered the eulogy, and I don’t believe I have witnessed a more moving or brilliant five-minute address in my life.  The eulogy spoke to Jimmy’s mother and siblings; it spoke to his children; it spoke to people who’d worked beside him for years, and it spoke to people who’d known him for an all-too-short lifetime.  It seemed that almost all of those people came up to thank Janet, one by one, as the mass ended and we filed out of the church.  The sound of the piper, as the pallbearers loaded the casket into the hearse, shredded everyone within listening range.  And I thought to myself:  it is for such occasions as this that this instrument was invented.  I cannot imagine anything more plaintive or evocative.  And then I stopped thinking, and silently watched the hearse drive away.

We all made our way to the Playwright, an Irish pub that Jimmy and Gail had regarded as their local for lo these many years.  The air was an extraordinary mix of gravitas and levity and then more gravitas.  But underlying the myriad busy-nesses of the day was the insistent reminder: this doesn’t make any goddamn sense, not a bit of sense at all.

I do not know how to represent such a thing on a blog.  If you go back and look at my archives from May to October 2004 (no, don’t bother—just take my word for it), you won’t find a single mention of Janet’s father or her summer-long waves of grief and anxiety: back then, I thought that blogs—or, at least, blogs like mine—were not capable of dealing with such things.  Better that they serve as vehicles for snarky political commentary and bitter satire, I thought.  But over these past two weeks, as Janet and I talked about Jimmy’s death and Jimmy’s wife and children, she told me that it was jarring, ten or twelve months ago, to come upon my blog and find here no acknowledgment whatsoever of what we were all experiencing about her father.  “Well,” I replied, “I guess I thought of the blog as a world apart from that kind of life, and that kind of emotional complexity.” Janet understood.  But still, she said, it was weird to see that severe a disparity between the Erving Goffman front stage and the Erving Goffman back stage.  That’s what blogs try to calibrate, in their bloggy way: some are mostly front stage, some are mostly back stage.  Most of us try to strike some balance between the two.  And until two weeks ago, I would never have dreamed of putting up this post.  But the untimely and unfathomable death of a friend, in its brutal finality, provokes every kind of introspection and retrospection, about his life and about ours, especially since his has been so intertwined with ours.  My apologies, then, to those of you whose expectations I have traduced in this post, and also to those of you who might have wondered why I’ve never posted anything quite like this until now.

I’ll leave you with the words of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, because I cannot improve on them:

Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.  The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.  They fear it, and as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths.

The ends of our lives will recast everything that has gone before; we will never discover how it all turns out until it all turns out, which, as Kermode says, is one reason we tell ourselves stories that begin in genesis and end in revelation.  But in the meantime between now and the End we imagine, I offer this post in memory of Jimmy Crofts and Brad Lyon.

I’ll be back on August 22 or 23.

Posted by John McGowan on 08/14 at 10:31 AM
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