Friday, December 25, 2009

Globe-Trotting Philosophers

You know the TV show, the Amazing Race?
You know what's been missing from it?
Not enough teams with wisdom and razor-sharp wit to match.
People who read my blog and the blog of my good friend and fellow philosopher, Dr. J., know that we both have both qualities in spades.
So what do you think?  Should we apply to be on the show or what?  If we do, we'll blog the whole process.

Oh, Happy Baby Jesus Day!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Winter Solstice, wherein the Ideas Family Holds a Constitutional Convention

Recently, I had the idea of using the game nomic to help manage our precocious little 5-year old philosopher/lawyer.  Here's a fragment of how that's gone.

Ideas Woman:  Turns will be suspended for constitutional convention where Ideas Girl and Ideas Man will make new rules, called Constitutional Rules of the Family.  Later there will be a review and amendment process during which the final form of the document will be decided upon, line by line.  At this point Ideas Woman and Ideas Boy can propose any changes also.  The Constitutional Rule of the Family  which will be voted on as a whole and accepted or rejected as a whole.  Ideas Girl must call consitutional convention to order.  Passed Unanimously.

Constitutional Convention

I. Ideas Girl:  This Constitutional Convention is called to order.  Ideas Man will preside.

II.  Ideas Man:  I propose we start with family goals.  Instead of winning or losing, these will be goals that will help whole family win.  Ideas Girl and Ideas Man will discuss first set of goals, but when we ratify constitution, Ideas Boy and Ideas Woman can add new goals.

III.  Goals:

1. 
Talk with one another peacefully and respectfully.
2.  Take turns making new rules.
3.  Work to solve problems together.  If someone has a problem, everyone helps solve it.
4.  Have as much time to play; avoid time-outs.
5.  Resolve conflicts peacefully.
6.  Tell Mom or Dad if you wanna go in the snow by yourself.
7.  Help everyone succeed at school and work and home.
8.  Girl goal [proposed by Ideas Boy]
9.  Boy goal [proposed by Ideas Girl]
10.  Everyone can have their own goals.  If their goals fit in with the family goals, the whole family will help them achieve their goals.
11.  Daddy goal
12.  We take everyone's voice into consideration when making rules.

IV.  Ammon:  I propose we have family values.  Values are qualities that we all try to use to help one another out.  We try to promote these values.

Respect
Tolerance

Love
Family-Centeredness
Daddy
Mommy
Patience
Fun
Friendship

V.  Family Rules

1.  Boogy
2.  Everybody has to love each other.
3.  When we get home, we put our coats and shoes and backpacks and scarfs and anything else we brought in from the car away where it goes, and throw the garbage in the garbage.
4.  Zazee Gagee.
5.  At meal-time, we all help to prepare the meal in a way appropriate for our age.
6.  Lovey.
7.  We make our best effort to get to school and work pronto, which means on time.
8.  Eat all your meal.
9.  The family will have meals together.  Everyone will try the main food, unless it conflicts with one of their values.  If they don't like it they can say "Je n'aimes pas," which in French means I do not like it, in which case they do not have to have anymore and they
can propose something else simple to prepare.
10.  Every favorite food has to be vegetarian.
11.  Everyone can choose their own favorite food.
12.  You have to goo-goo gaga if you're a baby.
13.  We respect one another's bodies.  We do not physically hurt them, including by accident.
14.  A goo-goo gaga is a silly zoo-zoo.
15.  We control our own bodies, using appropriate actions and remaining calm.
16.  If I goo-goo ga ga you suck your finger.  Ha ha
17.  Put your clothes away:  put clean clothes in their drawers or closets.  Put dirty clothes in the hamper.
18.  We don't eesza.  Kiki sasa.
19.  We like rules.
20.  Twenty-two is your favorite number because roaring dinousar walk down the street.  When they were silly gillies.  If they walk down the street, they do it again and again and again.  What do they do when they do it again and again and again.  They should be nice to other dinosaurs like we should do.  Mine is good.
21.  If you toot, just say "excuse me" because everybody toots.
22.  We wake up in the morning, neither too late nor too early (which means on school-days between 6:30-7:00).  Otherwise Daddy or Mommy will have to wake you up by saying "Wake-up" --- if it's too early, you stay quietly in your own room.
23.  If goo-goo gaga comes in to dinosaurs should be nice to each other.  If they don't be nice to each other, they are in trouble from Mommy or Daddy and if he sits there or she sits there and moves around they shouldn't do that then they should quietly sing on that log or tree.  If your Mom or Dad calls you back you should just come back or just sitting there if you want to but you have have to tell your mom you want to stay there quietly.
24.  If you are under 4 you need to take a nap.  You should lie in your bed or crib and rest until you're ready to wake up.
25.  Don't run away from your Mom and Dad.
26.  Mommy and Daddy might have to use physical restraint to protect the children, but they will only do so for the benefit of the children and to the minimum degree required.
27.  You can't unbuckle yourself in the car if Mommy or Daddy is still driving because it's very dangerous.  It might be like an airplane flight or you might be in a model car with no buckles, and if you're a kid you might be able to sit in the front but only if you're still like Elena is.
28.  We clean up after ourselves --- including putting away toys, books, dishes, work.  If we are working on something together, we will clean it up together.  If someone wants to help they may, but they have to ask and it is the responsibility of the initial person to make sure everything is put away orderly.
29.  Ideas Girl must put her head on Daddy's head.         
30.  If you are sillly, you have to go to the bathtub.
31.  Everyone must bathe at least every other day.  If Mommy or Daddy decides that someone is dirty, they have to take a bath even if they did the day before.  And if you poop your pants you have to take a bath even during the day (since we usually do it [baths] at night.  If you're a goose you have to go to the bath, too.
32.  Go potty-poopy when a goose is on the potty because it's silly.
33.  Once a week, we make sure the whole house has been cleaned.  Mommy and Daddy are responsible for making sure the public areas are cleaned but Ideas Girl and Ideas Boy can help (and can be required to help) in age-appropriate ways.  Everyone is responsible for making sure their own room is cleaned.

Whereupon the convention was called to recess.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Walking on the Ground of the Earth (A Fragment from the Book of Prometheus)

Memphis will continue, but when I was writing it by hand, Ideas Girl asked me if I'd write a Zeus story. Here one is.


Walking on the ground of the Earth

Patroclus and Briseis, Eight Years Later

My dear, sweet love. What are we doing here? Why do we wander amidst these rocks, this stony landscape. Why were we in the heat of the sands? What wind blasted us here?

You don’t remember walking then?

Walking, yes, after falling.

Nothing moves for us, my dear. We are walking over the stones and the snow and the sand, our feet crunch the timeless earth.

It changes beneath us.

It is timeless. Let us go, therefore you and I, down to the river banks, to the Tigris, to the Tiber, down the banks of the Hudson, where a silver eagle splashes in the icy, dirty water, though we were not there. Let us go. And here, on the snowy rocks, let us walk against time. The earth is bloodied, but what of it? We walk against time, we walk in such a way that blood is not spilled. It blooms like a flower shooting from the snowy stones, it grows and makes the neck of the child whole.

You steal everything. You stole that, my dear, from Homer.

No, my dear, I stole it from Achilles. I stole it from his wrath.

Why was he angry, my dear?

Because Patroclus, his beloved, had been killed. And so he killed Hector.

But it’s so absurd. You are Patroclus. I am Briseis. And we are together now.

But where were we? I feel that we were in two places at once. A steel city, a cage high above the earth, we paced its ladders. We were impatient to be with one another. But you were with Agamemnon, I was with Achilles. They hated one another and there was nothing we could do.

It’s not as though we were Romeo and Juliet, you know.

That’s true. We are together. We were also together, in red canyons where the water lapped against the steep sides of the red walls. Slender green shoots clung from the sides of the rocks where the water slapped the walls. Tender young vines crept up the slick wet walls, heading up towards heaven. Up there, there was another city, of marble and sand. A great, dusky horizon. Kallipolis, the slender jewel of a kingdom that never was.

But we were there.

And it was burning.

True.

What lay between them?

Silly love, you know what lay between them. Prometheus told you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Ideas Man Goes to Memphis Part 2A

[Note: Rather than leave such long posts with such long spaces between posting, I'll try posting in shorter chunks --- if this is annoying or breaks up the flow too much, let me know and I'll go back to bigger chunks.]

Part Two

Within seconds of entering the museum, everything was what it was again. This was a museum, and I would have loved to visit the museum, but I wasn't there to visit the museum. I didn't have time to visit the museum, and visiting hours were over anyway. We were led to the museum's comfortable auditorium, well-lit, appointed tastefully but anonymously. We should have been about 20 minutes late, but by the look of things, they must have started late themselves because the first speaker was still giving what was clearly an impromptu preamble about the conference, the setting and her visit to Memphis before launching into her paper proper.

Although we weren't that late, the auditorium was full enough, the rows of seats laid out in such a fashion, that it would be impossible to sit down without some disturbance. I bee-lined to a single seat near the back that I only had to step over a couple of people in taking. Someone else braved an empty seat up front but off to the side. The rest of our company of stragglers made do with the upholstered wall curving around the back, partitioning the auditorium from the rest of the museum, and within minutes I was beyond the comma I'd been in, beyond the shock that had roused me from that comma. I was ensconced again in the comfortable world of academia, the world I essentially grew up in and have never really left. I was ensconced in that world, but there was lodged within me the memory of what had happened, what lay outside, that bigger world of America. Heim aber unheimlich.

My last little bit of German, which I'll leave untranslated, pays homage to a whole philosophical world-view that some might recognize, but that I'll contextualize nonetheless. I hope all of you will forgive an extremely long excursus.

Excursus: Tribes and Categories

What lay outside? America? Really? America, whose parts do not all make a whole --- where exactly is that? America, where I've always more or less been. America, where I've more or less always been. The longest I've been out of the country was a five or so month stint in Mexico. Not much beyond that, a couple of three or four week trips to Italy, lots of shorter jaunts to Canada and Mexico, a ten day trip when I was ten, the first time I'd ever flown on an airplane (we estimate that at five, the world-weary Ideas Girl has already taken 25 airplane flights). I don't know whether I should count the years in my head that I've lived in Greece and in her fictional colonies, a guest of the titan Prometheus. Someday maybe I'll write about that. But perhaps that's still America. It's not as though America is a self-enclosed whole.

Let's divide groups up into tribes and categories (I'm thinking here of groups that make up parts of America, but that isn't essential quite yet). The difference between a tribe and a category is that in a tribe, there are real historical connections that tie its members together, whereas in categories there are qualities that all members of a group are recognized as having. Those of you who know Spinoza can think of this as the difference between the real modal connections (known by third-order knowledge) and attributes (known by second-order knowledge).

Tribes

I think that the tribes that are the most important to me are: 1) my family, the Ideases first and foremost along with the rest of my immediate family and their kids, and a small subset of my enormous extended family. 2) the "social" subset of my colleagues, those of my colleagues who are also personal friends, and 3) a very small subset of the members of my various social circles from childhood --- and I'd extend this to college and to include a few good friends who I met in the Mormon world of Philadelphia, because and was although I didn't know them until I had lived in Philadelphia and was technically (although barely) an adult, they all turned out to be separated from the groups of my childhood by just one degree. This will be true of virtually any of a certain kind of Mormon, just as I can go to any academic conference and find someone one degree removed from my tribe #2. This is how we navigate the massive country we live in without succumbing fully to the alienation that breeds fascism. It's what had allowed me to have such a fantastic day in Memphis, a town I'd never been anywhere near before.

By the process of what structural anthropologists would call lines of alliance, I'd also include much of what are for Ideas Woman the equivalent of Tribes #1,2 and 3. By intersecting lines of filiation and alliance (lines of affiliation, lets say), I'd add the tribe forming around the Ideas Kids' social world (some of the families of my children's friends, or the people that I know in my context as a father). Because I am, after all, the titular head of the Ideas Clan, I may as well think of this as my Tribe #4.

Let's give these four tribes names. We'll call #1 The Big Ideases, #2 The SPEP Squad, #3 The Happy Valleys, and #4) The Toledottawa Hilliards. The Tribes of course aren't mutually exclusive. My colleague in the Anthropology department of my university, who I know through my kids' school, or my neighbor in Philly who is also an English professor, both belong to the SPEP Squad & The Toledottawa Hilliards, and my brother's family who live just a mile from where we lived in Philly fit into the Big Ideases and the Toledottawa Hilliards. There are the connections forged after the fact. My colleagues who got jobs at the university a mile from where I grew up and who have as colleagues some of my parents' friends and as students my siblings' friends and my old friends' siblings have the privilege of being part of the Happy Valley SPEP Squad. Then there are the truly weird connections that the Facebook reveals: that my colleague's partner got her Master in Library Science's with my cousin (Big Ideas --- SPEP Squad), that the guy whose family my family hung out with during a kick-ass parade turns out to be friends with a guy I know from graduate school and both of our first post-graduate jobs (Toledottawa Hilliards SPEP Squad). And so on.

Another thing to notice is that my Tribes mostly consist of Americans, but there are non-Americans in all 4 groups: immigrants to America, ex-pats living abroad, temporary visitors to America, foreigners who have always lived abroad and maintain only tangential tribal connections to America. We'll have occasion to think about this more later. But let's move on to categories.

Categories

I think that the categories that are most important to how I understand myself are: 1) intellectuals, 2) Mormons (even if this is by a complex relationship of upbringing, culture and rejection), and 3) the political/social/cultural ideology that I identify with, often called liberal or progressive (both terms I'm uncomfortable with), often erroneously equated with being part of the Democratic party (though the Democratic party is a much bigger tent and though this wing's loyalty to the Democratic party is by no means absolute). I'll just call it the Left for now.

Now, certainly these three categories will end up being important in manifold ways to the tribes that I listed above. They have a lot to do with how those tribes are constituted, and they tell you a lot about how I personally inhabit those tribes. But they are a different way of conceptualizing the world. Because we don't immediately present our tribes to the world (at least not in the way I'm using the term here), we will find that however much we identify ourselves tribally, others --- particularly others from outside of our tribes, unaware of all that tribal belonging entails --- will identify us categorically first.

And I'm not so naive as to be blind to the fact that I've left out three categories which are quite important to how other Americans will identify me, particularly insofar as they are the categories people are most inclined to use in anonymous contexts, contexts laid bare of any other social indicators. These categories are, in no particular order: 1) my whiteness, 2) my maleness, and 3) my upper-middle-classness (I'd prefer to say "professionalness" as a more accurate designator of the socio-economic class I'm talking about, but I'll acquiesce to more familiar, if slightly misleading, usage). Although none of these three things are inherent in me, these three things are the three things that I think most Americans will most easily "read" into me without any other cues (Some people might include my age or generation, but I don't think that's salient in the same way, at least not for our present purposes).

The reasons that I list these categories separately from the categories of "Intellectual" or "(ex)-Mormon" or "Leftist" (categories themselves enmeshed in the other categories in fairly obvious ways) is that they aren't particularly important to how I identify myself, and I like to think that they aren't particularly important to how I identify myself, while the others are. Now I'm fully aware 1) that my identification with these categories probably does in fact orient me in ways that I am unaware of --- that I probably even blind myself to; and 2) that the very possibility of not identifying with these categories depends upon the normative privilege these categories enjoy. An outsider should feel free to explain to me what 1) and 2) mean concretely. Once the outside is done with that I'll move on in Part 2B to talking concretely about my reasons for saying that I don't find my identification with these categories to be particularly important to me.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Ideas Man Goes to Memphis Part One

Last week, I went down to Memphis for the meeting of the North American Sartre Society. On Saturday afternoon, I cut out of a session to visit two friends who recently moved down to Memphis. They didn't know the city too well themselves yet and they apologized many times for their tour guiding skills, but it really wasn't necessary. My favorite thing to do when I'm visiting a city is just to take it in, which means seeing some of the tourist sites, but also just walking around, sitting in a non-descript corner cafe, visiting the grocery store, looking at the local paper to see the real-estate section. Somewhere in the middle of all that, you might take in the city, but you also might not. I don't mean that you might grasp the essence of the city or you might not. I don't know if you can be any more precise than that you might just take it in.

I have to admit I felt a little guilty about taking the time off, though it was great to see my friend Dr. G.-K. who I've known for almost ten years but who I haven't seen in some time. It's nice to have colleagues who are also friends, colleagues whom you'd like even if you weren't their colleague, and in academia, where your colleagues and friends end up scattered across the country (and more and more often, the world), it's nice to have friends and colleagues with whom you can effortlessly pick up conversations that you've been taking up and leaving off for years and years. And it was also great to meet his fantastic wife Ms. K.-G. in person. She's one of my internet bffs, but we'd never met in person. So it was wonderful to have an afternoon with them and I was more than happy to be taking time off from the conference. The guilt was more about being gone from home at all. I missed the Ideas Clan terribly. It was the longest I'd been away from them since Ideas Boy had been born. And Ideas Woman, Esq. had had an extraordinarily shitty week. The day before I'd come down, I'd wanted to cancel. She insisted I shouldn't, and that she didn't want me to or need me to. I didn't believe her, but I decided it was important to go (for the record, everything turned out fine at Ideas H.Q.)

When you have little kids, you never really have time off at home. Even when you try to take time off, there's just too much that has to be done, and the thoughts of them press in on you. Or you want to lift the weight off the shoulders of the one you love, though you never can fully.

I haven't been going to academic conferences for the last few years. I'd lost the thread of that part of my career, but as it happened I ended up going to three conferences this month. For the first two, I hadn't been gone for much more than 24 hours, so I didn't have time to do much more than just give my paper and attend a few others before heading home. But here I was in a strange city, with the emptiness of my time, and it felt strange, disconcerting. I talked too much about my family and no doubt annoyed the childless and child-liberated alike, but of course it didn't abate my sense of responsibility.

But I've been trying to let myself free when the circumstances are propitious. In the car, as I talked to my friends, and remembered people and events from years ago, I eased into a comfortable peace. We parked downtown, next to an old church and across the street from what seemed to be a church converted into a night club. We walked a short walk to Beale Street, which I was told was Memphis's answer to Bourbon Street. Sure enough, there were frat boys aplenty, college kids in cakey make-up waiting to see Insane Cloud Posse. There was a little boy doing flips and gymnastics in the street, while a bouncer/carnival-barker egged him on from the open door of a seedy bar tarted up in kitschy tourist clap-trap.

Like Bourbon Street, and unlike Las Vegas, it had too much history to succeed at approximating Disneyland. You could still see the dirt and grime that the neon and glam couldn't fully cover over. The street was famous because of its connection with blues culture, the Mecca of the unlikely triumph of a downtrodden people. A down at the heels seediness lingered in the air of the street, the stain of the real. We walked into a huge store, a cavernous duplex town-home from which all the interior walls had been removed, two huge floors of tourist knick-knacks lying alongside bargain-basement items: a T-shirt or stuffed animals next to a dingy used lampshade, a pile of unpackaged light-bulbs or an old plumbing wrench. For a couple of dollars, I bought a few refrigerator magnets for Ideas Girl and the toddler formerly known as Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y.) They were tourist tchotchkes, no doubt, but they looked like they belonged more with the light-bulbs and plastic. They seemed like imitation tchotchkes --- souvenirs from the 50s no one had ever bother to clear off the shelves.

We went back outside; we turned off of Beale Street and walked past the Orpheum, past tourists milling out front, waiting for the doors to open. We stepped over the stars in the sidewalk, generic stars, stars who may or may not have an actual connection to Memphis. B.B. King next to Mandy Patinkin, Lyle Lovett alongside Engelbert Humperdink.

Ideas Woman, Esq. called me because she'd just picked up the kids from our friends' house, and I talked to them while we walked along the side and then the back of the Orpheum, past a door opening onto the backstage. At the threshold, a striking chorus-girl smoked a cigarette; there were more voices coming from within. But that was all background noise. I was focused on the tinny sounds coming from cell, the shrieks that I suppose must have been words and the sounds of pots and pans. In my mind's eye, I was looking down on our kitchen in Toledo, through the huge glass solarium that we use as our dining room, over the formica to where the kids would be piling up their toys, although they have a sizeable playroom (the original dining room) ten feet away. But they like to be near us.

I said goodbye, and I also said goodnight, because although they wouldn't be going to bed for a few hours, I'd be at the keynote address for the NASS so I wouldn't be able to talk to them then. Most of the conference had been on the University of Memphis's campus, but this would be at the National Civil Rights Museum. I hung up, and we walked down toward the riverfront. To get there from downtown, we had to cross a huge highway, but then, right when we were overlooking the river, which had once been the raison d'etre for Memphis, we were stopped by a chain-link fence that kept us from quite reaching the crest of what we would have called an escarpment, back when we had names for the different features of the landscape, back before huge machines had leveled the descent to give room for the huge highway behind us, where the air whipping against the racing bodies of the cars whistled and where the engines roared back against the wind.

It wasn't too late, but we were far enough east in Central Time Zone that although it wasn't getting dark, the sun was already low in the sky and reddening the whole southwest; far off, the huge river had the same dusky color. Across the river, Arkansas glittered pink, as though it had been dipped in the lambent dew of a giant celestial rose, but when I looked in the sky, the rose was gone, or covered by low white clouds that diffused the sun's warmth (if not its light) over us as well. Nearer, you could see the river's true colors, what gave it the name The Big Muddy, and a few sports boats moving across its surface, some almost straying to the gigantic pylons that connected our brown banks to the rosy banks of the other state, whose color seemed so unreal that I refuse to believe it exists. And yet it was on our side that there stood an absurd eye sore, as Dr. G.-K. delicately called it, the kitschy and grimy, seedy though shining pyramid that honored the city's name-sake. But this pyramid hadn't been built brick by brick over generations and generations by gangs of slaves. And it wasn't the city's raison d'etre. The city was here because of the brown river spread out below us. Though we were blocked by it, we could see the brown earthworks along the low brown banks, where generations of brown hands would have loaded and unloaded all the freight that flowed up and down the river, building the frontier of old America, connecting north and south, knitting together a country so that it could tear itself apart. That was the city's raison d'etre. The pyramid was an afterthought, like the glam built onto Beale Street, caked onto the road to capitalize on the unlikely culture that had sprouted along the banks of that river, the shoots that had sprouted from seeds gathered from across the globe, that took root here and were nurtured here, before they flowed back to the world, mixed with the effluvium of other Mississippi River cities, St. Louis and New Orleans, down from Chicago, that whistled through the airwaves, took wing and flew up into the air, piercing the air like the whistling cars, before hitting the gigantic invisible rose, the ionosphere, and scattering its celestial music over the face of the earth.

We left the river and walked back up. It was so pleasant, the warm fall air and subdued late afternoon lights; we decided to have a drink outside, but not on loud Beale Street. We walked through an alleyway carved out, it seemed, by the demolition of one or two of a row of houses (you could still see the haphazard texture, the seems and floor-beams like a haphazard modern art memorial to a bygone era of brick and mortar architecture.) It was far quieter than Beale Street, and presented itself as what it was. Myriad signs: the big, tree-lined sidewalks, the trolley line running along the street, the substantial building stock so naturally turned out in Art-Deco trimmings, all indicated that this street still was it had always been intended to be; stately, fashionable, prosperous, respectable. Large terraces of dining tables and chairs filled the sidewalks in front of the restaurant that lined the street, though they were empty. We wondered if they were only seating for dinner and whether dinner would be too expensive. But in fact, the menus looked quite reasonable and they would be seating for hors d'oeuvres and drinks --- but not until 6, still a little over an hour away. But G.-K. and K.-G. knew of another place nearby. It didn't have outdoor seating, but it had an open, breezy counter facing the street, and an extensive beer list.

So we walked towards it. We were getting closer to the sports arenas and convention centers, and again the surroundings shifted, alternations of big parking lots, big parking garages, and big buildings to hold the passengers of all those cars, all done up in the same dull brown brick that every city in America had become enamored with in the 80s and 90s, when they wanted to find cheaper ways to compete with the big, cheap big-box culture overgrowing America's exurbs.

Across from what I believe was a basketball stadium was what looked like a massive sports bar. It had a big electronic billboard that flashed: Eat Here! Drink Here! Play Here! Win Here! Oh, I asked, does Memphis allow casinos? No, G.-K. said, he was pretty sure it was like Dave and Buster's, Chucky Cheese for the over 21 set. I said that I found those places disturbingly infantalizing. I'm no big fan of casinos. Despite a healthy interest in a) probability and b) deception, and a belief that I deserve to get rich without doing anything for it, I've never been much of a gambler. Though I played a lot of cards in high school and college, it was rarely for money and even then only for a few bucks. The one time I did some real gambling, the whole Atlantic City thing, I won a couple hundred bucks, but I blew most of it buying everyone drinks (I actually think Dr. G.-K. was there for that, though it was before either of us was doctors. But that's all another story). Anyway, the point is that though I find casinos a bit depressing and I don't really go for them, I get the point of them and I understand the appeal. And they are what they are. Those Dave and Buster's things seem all wrong. Dr. G.-K. agreed with me and compared it to ch__d p_rn (hopefully my clever use of dashes will keep disgusting weirdos from wasting their time on my blog). How far the analogy works, I'll leave my reader to decide. Being decent human beings, that wasn't where we went.

The bar we were going to was maybe a half-block away. It wasn't too crowded and though in certain respects its decor skirted a little too close to, let's say, Applebee's or T.G.I. Fridays, it had the basic layout of a German beerhall, with big, long tables. A long counter ran along the length of its side, and it opened up to the street. So, although we weren't outside we still had the warm breeze, the soft light and autumnal smell of November in the South (September in Toledo). The place was maybe a quarter full. The only other people at the outward facing counter were leaving right when we got there. We had been sitting and talking for maybe five minutes without anyone coming over to take our order, and it was getting close to the time I'd have to leave to get to the keynote address. So Ms. K.-G. and I went off in search of help. The biggest group in the bar was a cluster of girls assembled in one corner, all wearing plaid "school-girl" miniskirts and tight tops, all heavily made up, too. My first thought was surprise that they'd been allowed in, so it took me a moment to realize that they were the bartenders. We hadn't escaped infantilization after all.

We were planning on just giving them our order right there but when we told them we'd been waiting one of them sheepishly insisted on bringing us menus. She had a miniscule frame beneath her tight pink shirt. A undoubtedly heavily padded bra worked mightily to shove her modest breasts together, struggling to display them front and center. Ms. K.-G. knew from a friend of hers who'd worked there that the bartenders were supposed to present themselves like they would on a date. I think our bartender had succeeded perfectly, with her unironic artfulness that tried to mask a lack of sophistication through studious composition, her look seemed less that of a 21 year old playing at being 16 than a 16 year old playing at 21. When I was 16, I would have fallen for the whole story, and lusted after her mightily but never dared to ask her out. When I was 16, I had wanted to be grown up too, but I was too acutely aware of the pretenses of my own shtick to think anyone else might buy it. Of course, when I was 16, our bartender would have been my daughter's age. Back to Chuck E. Cheese.

The beer-menu, however, delivered on its promise. It was fantastic. I was curious to try barley wine, which I'd never had though it seemed familiar (Later, I realized I associated it with the drink Odysseus gave to Tiresis when he'd wanted to talk to the dead). I don't know if our 16-year old server was aware of this connotation (I would have been, not that it helped to get any dates), but no matter. She hadn't ever had the barley wine. I wondered what it made it wine, but she hadn't the slightest idea, just knew it had a higher alcohol content than most beer. Later, I learned it was fermented in basically the same way as a sparkling wine, which makes sense. I ordered it despite not knowing what I'd be getting and drank it while we watched the afternoon darken itself away. It was quite good, hoppy and heavy, like a stout, but not so much nutty as sweet, like clover honey perhaps. Because it was called "wine," I'd wondered if it would be still (I didn't know about the champagne comparison yet), but it was lightly carbonated.

We were all lethargic. Not sleepy, I think, at least I wasn't. But it was around the time a Latin town would be reviving itself after siesta, and there was that feeling of waking from a dream into a dream-like state, where the significance of things melts away and everything floats to the surface. The significance of things depends on the flow of time, but there are times when it flows quite slowly and the present simply floats about with just a loose connection to past or future. I found myself drifting into a mood --- what was it? If I were by myself, or not enjoying myself, I might call it depression. If I were cut adrift in the nineteenth century, I might call it melancholy. But neither of those is precise enough.

Sometimes it it is important to be precise about emotions, although emotions are not themselves precise things. I think Pierce was on to something when he described emotions as simplified hypotheses about complex states of affairs. One defect in theories that understand emotions as affects, things that happen to us is that even when those theories make emotions constitutive of knowledge (as Spinoza does), they fail to account for how this simplified quality of emotions can itself be a constructive feature, and how it can be refined without being rejected. Most of the time we only need to be a little bit precise about our emotions to make sense of what they are doing for us (I'm planning on eating because I'm hungry. I want to celebrate because I'm happy). But it is often helpful to be a little more precise (I am angry, but when I realize I'm not so much angry at you as at the hurt I feel I change my attitude towards that anger, towards you and towards myself). And sometimes it is helpful to savor an emotion, which is different than just having an emotion. Beer or wine don't exhibit that great a range of flavors, and there's a wine-y flavor and a beer-y flavor that I can enjoy for what it is. But by getting more precise in my descriptions, by refining my understanding of how I react to it, and by developing concepts in which to imagine and distinguish my tasting, the act of enjoyment becomes richer and more pleasurable.

It would be a dishonor to use a word as simple as depression or melancholia to describe the mood I was settling into, although they effected my body in similar ways. They imply a certain lowering of one's excitability, a lowness, a slowness, a quiet. In the wrong contexts, these can be depressing, they can make you melancholy. But perhaps this was the right context. I had been so stressed out for such a long period prior to my trip down to Memphis, between grading and writing. I had been planning on getting more work done during the downtime on my trip, but I'd forgotten my power cord. This had sent me into a panic because I hadn't finished typing the paper I was giving, and so I'd had to hurry and type it up in the hotel's business center. I hadn't had the time to settle into feeling comfortable with the paper before I had to give it. But everything had gone well and now the forgotten power cord meant that I couldn't do that looming work even if I wanted to. I might as well enjoy myself. I had just sent out a round of job applications, a process which is hellish in the best of worlds, and which I was ambivalent about anyway. Why not make my ambivalence work for me, as an excuse for not worrying? These worries would return to me tomorrow, but the conversation, the different surroundings, the pleasant warmth, the exotic familiarity? Why not just enjoy these. I was so worried about Ideas Woman. Her week had been so shitty, and it wasn't the kind of self-contained shittiness that one simply had to go through. I was worried about her, and I knew she needed me. And I wanted to be there for her. I hadn't wanted to leave because I'd wanted to be there for her. But it was the weekend, and I couldn't do anything now anyway. Why not enjoy myself and renew myself? I was worried about the Ideas Kids, who I missed, who I usually pick up from school, who I often get ready for school, who can be difficult to handle on the weekends. The last time I'd been gone, things had fallen apart somewhat, and it was difficult for me not to worry that that would happen again. But I knew that Ideas Woman regretted how that had turned out as much as I did. So why not allow myself to forget it? I have a friend who says that if you properly understand stoicism, it becomes the same thing as epicureanism. And I think that's perhaps right, at least in the proper context. Here is that context: when the world is adrift, when it stops moving, at twilight, when the sky is growing dark but there is still light, and the light is deep blue. When the color of the sky is coming through the light and touching the earth while the sky darkens. A punctuated time, present, set off from past and future by commas. I felt as though I were in that punctuation mark, as though I were in a comma.

We walked in that comma back to the car, down Beale Street, where the crowd had grown thicker and the lights brighter. We were in the car for a short time before we saw the back of the National Civil Rights Museum, the massive gray bricks of memorial public architecture. It was totally dark by now, and I realized I was going to be a little late, and felt a little guilty about that. It was time to start thinking like an academic again. I was beginning to leave the comma.

When we turned the corner, Dr. K.-G. started to try to tell me where the entrance was, based on his memory, because cars were blocked from getting too close. For a brief second, as it moved from comma to conference, I heard my mind say: "What an odd place for a shitty motel." But instantly, of course it hit me. Of course I knew that they'd preserved the facade of the motel Martin Luther King Jr. was staying at when he was murdered. And of course I'd seen that very motel countless times before. Of course I knew exactly where he'd been standing when he was shot without having to see the large memorial wreath hanging from the wrought iron balustrade.

My mind had been thinking it had seen countless motels just like that one before. I have no idea how many motels I've stayed in just like that. Cheap, squat two story buildings with uneven plaster and big plexiglass windows, air-conditioners hanging beneath them. I could fill in the interiors without seeing them, the row of two double beds with comforters that looked like Las Vegas carpet patterns, green or maroon or blue carpets, smooth, glossy wallpaper for easy wipe down, a double sink through a doorway at the back, the small white or yellow bathroom off of that. I'd stayed in that motel on every trip my family had taken, crammed into our station wagons. There is nothing more familiar...

I've been to many so-and-so was shot or was born or slept or died here spots, but few of them felt so familiar. There are so few Americans that we truly revere, who we hold in awe and reverence. Most of them lived so long ago. If we see the remnants of their lives, they belong to a world that is not our world, whether it's the stately majesty of Jefferson's Monticello or the humble rusticity of Lincoln's frontier. This was my world. It might not be my children's world anymore. Although they'll still see these faded motels on the sides of highways, we don't really stay at places like that. Our smaller, more modern and secular family travels much differently than my family did, and inhabits the world much differently.

And yet, here was the place where perhaps the last great American was murdered (I'm not saying martyred, though that's true too. I'll have a chance to explain why I avoid that word in the next post perhaps). I've taught his Letter from Birmingham Jail to countless students in my philosophy courses. The next week, we'd be reading some of his later writings on social justice. I'd heard his speeches and been moved by them and used them as a model. There are so few people we reverence, and here was where the last great man was murdered, where he met his mortality.

I was taken aback by just how profoundly moved I was. I hadn't been expecting this. I hadn't been thinking about it at all. There was nothing about the sight that should be so moving, but I felt filled with the weight of America's memory. I had left my own personal coma and entered a sacred space.

I stood there, overwhelmed. What's more, I wasn't clear exactly where the entrance was. Fortunately, a few people I recognized from the conference were just then walking over, people around my same age who I'd hit it off with pretty well and been hanging out with some. They had skipped out on the previous session like me and were walking over from an adventure that involved a bartender. I started talking to them and I said that I found the place surprisingly overwhelming. "Why?" One started to say, but then changed to "Oh, I hadn't noticed," because he noticed the uncanny ordinariness of where we were, and they all grew silent.

We stayed outside for a couple minutes, quietly. I took a grainy, underexposed photo on my cell phone and sent it to Ideas Woman, with a brief caption of what it was. I looked around. It was like a silent movie set, an old motel ripped out of its context (because the area around it had changed while it had not), there wasn't much to distinguish it on the outside, at least not in the dark. I looked up at the sign that would have held the room's cheap rates or a wedding announcement or a message welcoming the Shriners or Boy Scouts or whoever was converging there. It said "I have a dream. MLK" It should have been so schmalty, so contrived. But it felt so, so real.

We mulled around quiety for a couple of minutes, and then we went through the doors in the bottom corner of the motel, where the office would have been. And we entered a museum.

Friday, July 03, 2009

From the Archives: A Short Parable

When I feel too brain-dead to do anything much other than vegetate, I've been slowly making digital versions of various fragments I've produced over my adult life. Let's call it the prehistory of the blog. Here's one such fragment, which I include here because I don't think I'm ever planning on doing anything else with it and I like the ending. I can't remember when it comes from, and it was on some loose sheets of paper. But it seems to have been from the height of my infatuation with Kierkegaard, so that would make it the mid-90s.

Ah the joyous narcissism of archiving oneself!

A Parable

Martha had discovered that over the years that she had lost her faith in God and organized religion. But, despite a strictly religious upbringing which had equated being good with obedience to the commandments of God, she had nonetheless maintained a deep commitment to the ethical life. Her whole adult life she had contributed to humanitarian efforts through both active political involvement and her work as a public interest lawyer. And she was equally well respected in her personal life for her genuine compassion, warmth and care. She was a giving person, people would say. She has faith in humanity. Nonetheless, her friends who were remained religious would always ask her how she sustains that kind of charity in her life without religious belief to ground it in. And Martha would hem and haw, and try to divert the issue until, when pressed, she would appeal to faith in humanity. For this beautiful ideal, her rhetoric knew no limits: in its defense, she had at her fingertips the ideals of countless Enlightenment and humanistic thinkers. If asked what motivated her, Martha was particularly fond of Kant’s idea of “religion within the limits of reason alone.” But even when pushed she refused to recognize any sort of personal motivation that drove her pathological devotion to righteousness. That was the thing that so frustrated her religious friends. Martha obstinately insisted first that it wasn’t “her” who did these things, that she tried to do what she thought everyone should do and second that whatever secret satisfaction Martha might have derived from her life of giving was hidden so deep that you couldn’t see it --- in which case, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t exist. Amazed, they would privately conclude that Martha was somehow naturally more Christlike than they could ever hope to be.

So it should come as no surprise that she was shocked by the dream that she had one night after a particularly heated discussion of her motivation. Now she was suddenly forced to speculate about whether Freud was right and dreams were indeed the royal road to the unconscious or whether older traditions that suggest that God himself speaks to dreamers through their dreams is true. Certainly, she couldn’t just chalk it up to random neuron firings, it was just too significant.

In her dream, she was talking with Jesus. He too had the audacity to ask her: “What’s the point? I’m not saying I’m not pleased with your work, but your father and I can’t possibly imagine why you go through the effort.” “It’s what’s universally right,” she protested. “Yes, Yes, You do lots of that. You’re so admirably devoted to the abstract idea of the universal it makes me wonder why I went through the effort of dying.” “I don’t mean to sound unappreciateive.” Martha said, “I think we’re sort of in the same bout when it comes to wanting to help.” “Oh, yes, of course,” Jesus said. “And I’m not trying to guilt trip you or anything, but how do you keep from losing faith?” “I have a faith in humanity that sustains me.” “Martha,” Jesus says, “I can sympathize. I had that too, but it let me down. I think that you’ll find that after defeat upon defeat the only thing that won’t let you down is --- well, me.”

She and Jesus removed themselves to a hill and watched Martha’s dream unfold. She dreamt that she was a young girl and that she was praying. She had been a champion prayer, beginning with herself and her family, she moved out concentrically, praying for the missionaries, the sick, the poor, the afflicted, the victims of war and hatred (In her dream, she even saw them starving and dying, forgotten in permanent internment camps, homeless and countryless, these same victims whom she and others had ceaselessly lobbied the United Nations and NATO to protect.) The voice of Jesus said in her mind: “I don’t sit passively in committee, do I?” “No, she said, “But I don’t remember you being more effective. Watch what comes next.” She prayed for reconciliations --- that the bad people will become good and that when they somehow mystically become good, that they too would be blessed. She prayed for peace, and ended pleading with God: “And do it! Because you never do my prayers!” She really had ended her prayer that way once, forgoing the customary amen in favor of an expression more heart-felt. She dream that she was once again spanked for her fervent, heartfelt wish that God would own up to his promises, but in her dream her father was asking her: “Have you done any better than I have?” In pain, she was speechless.

The next morning she struggled to understand her dream. If she had been a psychoanalyst, it might have been easy. But she was stumped and concluded it must be a message from God. That Sunday she went to Church for the first time in years and remained an active Mormon the rest of her life. But she had finally lost her faith in humanity, something no rediscovered religion could restore.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bald Habt Ihr Geburtstag

I have been delighted by all the Happy Birthday wishes I've gotten on the facebook. People might complain about the shallowness of social networking sites, but I don't necessarily see that as a problem. I don't expect people to do anything onerous just because it happens to be my birthday, but it still nice to hear from people who I haven't heard in some time.

But now I feel bad because I never wish happy birthday to people.

Thanks for making me feel bad on my birthday.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

What next

So my last project on this blog took a lot of time and effort and I kind of don't know what to next. Suggestions?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ideas Man and the Mormons: Act V scenes iv and v

N.B. earlier scenes are here and here. The prequel is here.

Act V scene v

On February 24, I received a letter informing me that I was no longer a member of the Mormon Church:

Dear Brother Ideas Man:

This letter is to notify you that, in accordance with your request, your are no longer a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.

It was brief and to the point and even struck a conciliatory tone, right?

Let's back up a bit.

Act V scene iv

It was only as I drove home from my colleague's house that I realized that the Mormons' coming over obviously wasn't just a random occurence. As dumb as it might seem, it didn't even occur to me at first. And it wasn't as though this was the first time they had dropped by (although it was the first time that they had dropped by in Toledo).

FLASHBACK

Going to college at BYU, Ideas Woman and I were required to go to church regularly, although we managed to do so far less than you'd think (every year BYU students have to get an "ecclesiastical endorsement" from their bishop stating that they are in good standing with the church, but there's good standing and then there's the perception of something close to good-enough standing. It was the latter that we managed to barely achieve...) We were also semi-involved with the church our first year out in Philadelphia --- and these two facts created an opening of sorts.

What I mean is this --- after we stopped going to church at all in Philadelphia, we were still technically in the local ward (equivalent to a parish or congregation) and in every ward, 2 men (well, usually one man and one teenage boy) are assigned to be "home teachers" for the whole family and 1 woman (I think maybe 2) is assigned to be a "visiting teacher" for the wife specifically. They are supposed to come over at least once a month, give some sort of "lesson" and help out with anything the family needs --- in practical terms this can mean just stopping by to visit occasionally if the people you are assigned to teach is an active, "functional" families, but for active needy families it can actually translate into a lot of assistance. And for inactive families, it amounts to a regular check-up.

Here's a quick chronology to help make sense of the next part of this post:

The Ideases lived:
In Philadelphia from 1998-2002 (and went from being "active" to "semi-active" to "inactive").
In Harrisburg from 2002-2005
back to Philadelphia from 2005-2008
and in Ohio from 2008-present.

So when we were in Philadelphia during that first chunk, I wasn't particularly surprised that we got harrassed by the home teacher (who was actually a nice enough guy --- an art history PhD student at Bryn Mawr --- the nice guy thing is of course a very important part of the job because it means that you don't have the heart to be rude to them and tell them to stop calling so instead you make lame excuses for why they can't ever come over....) But I thought when we moved to Harrisburg we were home free. Then, one day the missionaries and "our" home teacher just showed up. And to make matters worse, it was right during the middle of American Idol when they were about to unveil "The Worst Singer in the World" (Keith, for those of you who were watching all the way back in Season Two). This was before we had Tivo, so I was understandably irked and basically just shut the door in their face. This short interaction was enough for me to say "I don't want to talk to you guys" and for the hometeacher who seemed like a total douche (so that's what we'll call him) to respond with something like "if you don't want us to come by you'll need to have your name taken off the church's records."

About 10 minutes later I got a call from my mom who said "I was just talking with a guy named Brother Douche who said you slammed the door in his face." My mom lived about 3000 miles away but I still shouldn't have been surprised. Brother Douche had called her to figure out what my problem was (because he was concerned for the well being of my soul, not because he was a douche). My mom had patiently explained to him her situation to explain why I was so hostile to him. This little bit of narcissism on her part irked me somewhat but since I didn't feel that Brother Douche was owed any explanation a wrong explanation that would at least get him to leave me alone was hopefully good enough.

Still, though, that didn't answer the question as to how they had found us. And that answer requires yet another excursus (even though I'm starting to feel a little like Tristram Shandy).

The Church runs a "Member Locator Service" whose job it is to find people who have dropped off of the radar. They do this using essentially the same methodologies as debt collectors, relying on a mixture of public records and calls to friends and family (I should say that unlike the debt collectors they don't rely on outright deception --- they are mostly nice little old ladies who identify who they are and why they are calling --- Ideas Woman's grandmother had done this for many years before she passed away.)

I knew about this service but I didn't realize how efficient it was in keeping tabs on who had moved and relocating them. So once I realized we had been found out, the next question was "which of our family members had ratted us out?" Many of them have their own problems with the Mormons and those in our immediate family that are active members all (mostly) respect our decision and so my immediate thought was that it was probably my dad because even though he (mostly) respects my decision he is inordinately, even comically, naive. When I called him, he insisted it wasn't him. When, in the course of this narration, I mentioned the bit about "having to get my name removed from the church's records" he freaked out, though. He's a mild mannered person so I was a bit taken aback. I was especially surprised by his claim that our family couldn't handle going through something like that right now --- the thought of me removing my name from the church's records apparently being worse than my parents' near but nonetheless acrimonious divorce and our family house burning down, both of which and inter alia had occurred in the previous two years. All of this, of course, weighed heavily on me when I decided to take my name off the church's records last year.

But I digress. The point is that they had a way of keeping tabs on you. When we moved back to Philadelphia the Mormons of course found out and assigned a very nice husband and wife team with whom were on good terms to home teach/visiting teach us --- they were nice, open-minded folks and made sure never to mention that they were "home teaching" us so it wasn't such a big deal.

END OF FLASHBACK

So I had initially just assumed that we had been found out again. It took me fifteen or so minutes to realize that the timing, and the fact that they were asking for just me was too close to be co-incidental. Oh, well, I figured, they were probably scared enough and wouldn't want to come back.

But the next day I got a letter that made me realize that I was probably wrong and that my renunciation of the church hadn't necessarily taken.

[Sadly, I have apparently recycled this letter in the 6 month hiatus between receiving it and finding the time to write about it --- my good-faith reconstruction nonetheless follows.]

Dear Brother Ideas Man,

We have received your letter requesting to have your name removed from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, such requests need to be handled on the local level. Please contact your Bishop [whom we'll call Bishop Blank and whose contact info followed].

Please remember that what you are requesting is very serious and has grave eternal consequences. If you choose to go through with your request and later want to come back through the church, you will have to go through the process of baptism.

Sincerely,

Brother Josef K

In case it isn't amply clear yet, one of the main source's of Mormonism's strengths is its tremendous organizational power, so I knew that this sort of mistaken address could cause a real snafu (Although I had sent the address to precisely where I had wanted to send it. More on our competition to define my apostasy will follow). So I felt like I had basically given away our position without even accomplishing what I had meant to do. I would have to contact the bishop now, and that could potentially entail other problems, as I'll discuss below.

And it was accompanied by a lovely pamphlet. It had a picture of a statue of Jesus on the front. It opened with a generic apology: "If we have offended you, we are sorry." and ended with an invitation "the path to return is the same for all."

Let's stop and reflect on the message of the pamphlet and the letter. Once we are clear on what it means, we'll be in a much better position to understand the letter I quoted in scene v above.

First of all, I have no doubt that the apology is very sincere but it is very sincere in apologizing for one kind of offense, to which it reduces all other forms of offense. The generic apology serves to put my decision to leave (and presumably to become inactive 9 years earlier) in a certain context. It's the context of what I'd call, to echo something I said in scene iii, private offense. Because Mormonism is a religion that is both very hierarchical and primarily run by the laity it can often run into the problem where a local leader offends one of the people he (or in certain limited contexts she) is responsible for, and this is often the cause of people becoming inactive (one bishop I had growing up practically caused a ward schism over the fall-out from his attempts to interfere in his daughter's dating life...) The church hierarchy is aware of this, recognizes it as a problem and has a mechanism in place to deal with it. You might think of this like a company with very good customer service where bad applications of corporate policy by low or mid level employees is actually corrected by people at the top who are correctly applying corporate policy. But the people at the top cannot be causing offense because they are by definition correctly applying policy that is by definition good. (Notice how my letter to Church Headquarters was "referred" to the local leader who must really have been the person I meant to address...)

So when they say that they have offended you, they mean it in this context. It is part of a larger message to not let personal or private issues get in the way of your relationship with the Church (and therefore with God). And you cannot have public or political issues with the leaders of the Church because they are by definition right (if you don't like what they say, it's your job to re-interpret it --- and this is often easy enough to do because they are often both intentionally and unintentionally vague).

Now on to the next part: What kind of path is the same for all? Why, the path away from apostasy of course. Because, if the Church is truly sorry for your having taken offense, you should have the decency to be sorry for having taken offense. If you cannot recognize your role in your estrangement from the church then you will not be able to return to the fold. And if the path is the same for all who are estranged, the role is the same also. That role, of course, is the role of sinner. What other word would there be for someone who lets their private grievances get in the way of their eternal salvation?

In case you think that I'm reading too much into this, stop and reflect on the following procedural matters.

The reason why my letter needed to be referred back to the local leadership is that the local leadership is responsible for the membership records of its congregants. But the reason why it is responsible for them is because it has authority over those memberships.

Authority in the Mormon church is largely a matter of "priesthood" and priesthood, as I've made abundantly clear is largely a hierarchal thing (who is responsible for who and for what and to whom). The priesthood is divided into two parts: The Aaronic (or lesser) and the Melchezidek (or greater) priesthood. I have (or had until recently) both. The local leadership is also split along these two lines: the bishop is the local head of the Aaronic priesthood and the stake president (probably closer to what would be called a Bishop in the Catholic or Anglican traditions because he is responsible for a number of wards) is the local head of the Melchezidek priesthood. They are "local authorities" --- their authority extends only over people in their area --- whereas other authorities are "general authorities" --- it extends over everyone.

These distinctions become important when it comes to the matter of Church discipline because it determines who has jurisdiction over a church disciplinary court. These disciplinary matters, although regulated by the general authorities, are handled by local authorities, because they are in the best position to exercise sound judgment (since they know their flock.) By referring it to the bishop the central church organization was referring it back to its proper provenance within the church disciplinary system. It's just a procedural issue of course, where the letter goes. But procedural issues can tell you a lot.

In essence, what I was doing by writing my letter was admitting my sin of apostasy. I was acting as the star witness in my own excommuncation. I had thought that I was making a principled stand against what I regarded as a gross injustice, but I was wrong (my specific reasons for leaving of course went unaddressed since they were inessential to them). The proof that I was wrong was that this matter had to be referred back to the local bishop. Nonetheless, the church continued to support me by insisting that, should I want to return, the path is the same for all. It begins with repentance (mine) and ends with forgiveness (theirs). Their apology is not an act of repentance, but an assurance of their willingness to forgive me.

But perhaps I should have been happy that the letter had not reached its intended addressee. This would give me time to reflect on just how grossly I wanted to sin. Because the letter reminded me of this also. It reminded me that my decision would have eternal ramifications.

A List of Ramifications
Just what sort of ramifications would it have? Well, by removing my name from the Church's temporal records I was also removing my name from Heaven's eternal records --- the priesthood, after all, gives the authority for a priesthooder hold to bind and let loose things in Earth and Heaven. By removing my name, I would of course be losing my priesthoods and all the rights and responsibilites that had come with that. But of course, I had lost those anyway by not exercising my priesthood, and presumably I didn't care.

Well, what else had been written in that book of Heaven?

Here's a rough guess:

My blessing soon after I was born, where my father promised that I would be a great missionary and would convert many people who regarded themselves as enemies of God (I am named after a famous missionary in the book of Mormon). My parents place great stock in the stories from the scriptures, and all 9 of their children have names from the Bible or the Book of Mormon. When I was in utero, my mother had had a sense that this was the proper name for me, and Mormons (and my parents especially) place a great deal of faith in these premonitions (personal revelation, referring to their place in the general-local-personal hierarchy referred to above). Mormon babies are blessed somewhere between a month or two after they are born, usually by their father (as long as he is a Melchezidek priesthood holder in good standing), and by giving this name to me and conferring this blessing on me, he wrote it in the Book of Heaven (by having priesthood authority over our family, he was doing the work at the smallest local level).

I was told the meaning of my name so often, and had it drilled into me so much that it became part of my essence, at least while I was growing up. What enemies of God would I preach to? Because it was the 80s, godless communists came to mind. Would it be the U.S.S.R? China? But I hated rice (Mormon mothers use the threat of having to eat exotic foods on their mission to scare young boys into eating their food...) Boys are supposed to go on a mission when they turn 19 (girls can go when they are 21, as a consolation prize if they are not married --- if someone proposes to them while they are on their mission they can leave early with an "honorable discharge.") Because I had skipped a grade and was on the young side even before that, all my friends left quite a bit before I would have, and as I got closer to turning 19, the reality of the mission set in and I began to dread it. As I began to realize I didn't want to go, my name and the promise made to God through it, weighed heavily on me. I don't think it was just a symbol of parental expectation, although there was that too.

My baptism, when I was eight. Baptism is the central event in a young Mormon child's early life. "Junior Primary" (2 hours of Sunday School for children under 8) was organized around the expectation of baptism, summed up in the following couplet from a primary song: "I can't wait until I'm 8 because then I'll be baptized you see." I had forgotten just how important this was until recently, when Ideas Girl was holding the hands of one of my cousins who was explaining to her --- as the first piece of information you'd need to know that next year she'd turn 8 and would be baptized next year (I have lots of cousins, occupying close to a 40 year age span). Ideas Girl shrugged and filed that piece of information in the "words I need to figure out" part of her brain. Mormons don't believe in original sin prior to the age of 8 (they don't believe really believe in it at all, but that's another story) --- prior to 8 one is innocent, untemptable by the devil and with a free ticket to heaven should one meet an untimely end.

Two stories that illustrate just how palpable these realities were:

I remember being 5 or 6 and getting in a fight with one of my brothers. When parents asked why I punched him, I said that the devil made me do it. Can't be, my mother shot back, you're not eight yet.

I also remember being a little older and lying in the bath idly speculating (something I still like to do), wondering what it would be like to be baptized. I had been told that your sins would be washed away. I imagined words floating in the water, there for everyone to see and was horrified that they would know that I snuck candy and lied to my parents and fought with my brothers. And after that, unless I developed the fortitude to give those things up, I'd be responsible for these weighty sins. Wouldn't it just be better to end it? I still remember looking out the window and thinking, "if I jumped now, I'd go to heaven."

My father baptized me when I was eight and then:

My confirmation. Right after getting baptized I was confirmed, which means that I "received the Holy Ghost" (this is described as baptism by fire) --- The baptism and confirmation are the most public events in a young Mormon child's life --- there's a little program with talks and desserts and it's all about you. I had been taught so often that I would feel the Holy Ghost in my heart AND I ACTUALLY DID. Or I think I did. I felt something, and remember trying to puzzle out what it was, lying in a little nook created by a fake plastic tree near the baptismal font, away from everyone else after my baptism and confirmation. I brought this up with my parents when they asked me how I felt afterwards, and they brought it up with me several times throughout my life, like when I was 15 and said I didn't think I believed in God anymore. The confirmation was a public event, and therefore my feelings about it were public feelings, available for anyone to avail themselves of as needed.

My ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood. At the age of 12, the start of young Mormon boy's training to becoming a leader and a full-fledged part of the community. I passed the sacrament when I was 12 and 13 (a deacon), prepared it when I was 14-15 (a teacher), and sat in front of the congregation and blessed it when I was 16-17 (a priest).

My patriarchal blessing. I got this when I was around 17 or 18 (people get them anytime during their teenage years). It was given to me by our stake patriarch, who puts you in a tribe of Israel (I have no idea what their criterion was, but like most Anglo goyim I was part of the tribe of Ephraim) and gives you a series of personal responsibilities, promises and advice. I don't remember what mine were although I have a copy of it written down somewhere. At any rate, it's no longer written in the Book of Heaven.

My ordination to the Melchezidek Priesthood. This happens to most young men soon before they go on a mission. Since I didn't go on a mission, I was ordained soon before I went to the temple (all men who go to the temple have to be Melchezidek Priesthood holders), which I did in order to get married --- to be honest, I hardly remember it [you can see by the length of my descriptions how much less Mormonism was becoming to me --- but see below] since it was a minor part of the blur that was one of the most eventful years of my life, and including (most importantly)

My marriage in the temple. When someone is married and sealed in the temple, it is "for time and eternity." Mormon theology holds that righteous people will become gods in their own rights and have spiritual children that will people worlds like our own. Marriages in the temple form the kernel of that family and connects all the righteous families on earth into a massive dynasty, written in the Books of Heaven. We were really conflicted about getting married in the temple. There were lots of reasons for this. We both already had serious issues with the church, and we weren't precisely "temple-worthy," my mother and other people important to us couldn't come to the ceremony because she was excommunicated and only other temple holders could come. But our families (including my mother) really wanted us to and it was both of our life-long expectations. In fact, deciding to get married in the temple and going through all the ropes involved in that did end up marking both of our last rapprochements with the church (averred to in the synopsis of our lives above --- we moved to Philadelphia two months after we were married).

This also meant that we had to go to the temple for the first --- and as it happens, pretty much only --- time, where we were given the keys to go to heaven (consisting ritualistically of signs, words and one's secret, true name --- because I was going to marry her, I was able to give Ideas Woman hers, although I didn't get to pick it --- all men and women who go to the temple for the first time on the same day co-incidently have the same secret, true name).

My grandfather performed the ceremony. He was, until his health recently forced him to stop, a sealer in the Denver temple --- this is a calling given usually to retired, respected older men and although we were married in the Mount Timpanogas temple, he was able to perform the ceremony (there are such provisions for special cases).

So my marriage was also part of the cosmic drama writ in Heaven and is now severed, although the church presumably has the decency to let us remain married during this life, a courtesy they don't extend homosexuals (to bring our story full circle).

As another ironic corollary, I had presumably severed myself from earlier parts of this heavenly dynasty, whose presence I had invoked in my argument against the church. They were, quite rationally, denying one of my premises.

All of these things were surely written in the books of Heaven and no longer are. Another possibility:

My college diploma. If I had left the church (or been excommunicated, which we've already seen are functionally the same thing) while I'd been at Brigham Young University, I would have been kicked out of school Even without those two clinchers, I was almost kicked out of school. But, of course, once I've been granted a degree by an accredited university, that's all that matters, right? Well, temporally perhaps, but not spiritually: a degree from BYU has a certain spiritual significance for a Mormon and surely I was cut off from that. Alumni relationships to the school are quite strong and depend upon the common bond of Mormonism which structures the programs, affiliations, newsletters, etc. that keep those bonds tight (the alumni network of BYU's business school formed the unofficial but very real backbone for Mitt Romney's massive fundraising operations.) BYU's philosophy department (and many other departments) bring back their alums who have gone on to graduate work to give talks, colloquia, etc. --- and for that matter, to staff the department --- even if I were interested in doing so now (I'm in Utah on average once a year), would I be welcome?

I was, in short, cutting myself from virtually every significant mile-marker in my life, from events that had very deeply structured my childhood and that should have structured my teenage years and adulthood also, that hadn't in fact structured them but that had nonetheless existed for me as a shadow-life, the life I knew I was supposed to be leading, the life I'd seen led by so many of my acquaintances, friends and family members. How could I leave all this behind?

To be honest, I think that this is one of the things that is hardest for my parents, that they don't know how to understand me outside of these parameters --- it has been very difficult for my mother to reconstruct herself apart from this identity that was taken from her. That I had chosen to construct for myself an entirely different identity and with relatively great ease (the greatest difficulty was really how little difficulty there was) was bad enough, but now to make it official?

Well, maybe it wasn't. Maybe it wouldn't have to be. The church has refused to listen to your objection, I can hear my father saying, it was admirable (my parents were no fans of proposition 8) but it's over.

Or, as Ideas Woman put it, now you'll have to call the bishop so he'll leave us alone.

Have you noticed how the Church succeeded in making it all about me? This was a personal drama, personal willfulness. Maybe I had my reasons --- the church would respect them and not talk about them. But they were only my reasons.

What I had wanted to do (what I want to do) is force them to talk about it: to make them acknowledge what they have done and what they continue to do and not hide behind a mask of corporate neutrality. The truth is that they forced me away --- I don't pretend that I ever would have been a believer or active member, but there are all sorts of ways that I would have and could have found something approximating a Jack-Mormony truce if only they had let me. They first forced me away by wasting their presence in what Mormons regard as Zion (the Utah-y parts of the world that roughly include Utah, big chunks of Idaho and Arizona and tentacles in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California) to enforce a rigid, unthinking and obnoxious orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the result of what I think is their palpable anxiety: They have been called to speak for God, but they have nothing to say (they should talk to Nietzsche about why). But when I left Zion behind I thought I could perhaps maintain a distant non-relation, at least --- an uneasy truce. But then they took that away by moving their anxiety outwards. Because they had nothing to say they figured they'd better line themselves up with the social conservatives, the most hateful wing in our country. They hitched their identity to that wing and made the persecution of homosexuals the most visible face of that. And because their identity is my identity, they forced me away by forcing my to be with them or against them. I do not regret my choice, but I regret that I had to make it.

I do not regret it even if it meant having to give up so much of my own identity.

Nonetheless, I found muself putting off calling the bishop for a few days, and fortunately in the meantime got another letter from Bishop Blank:

Dear Ideas Man,

I have received a copy of your letter, where you have requested to have your name removed from the records of the Church of Jesus Chirst of Latter-Day Saints. Please understand the seriousness of this request, and consequences that arise from this action. This will cancel the effects of baptism, confirmation along with priesthood and temple covenants.

You could be re-admitted into the Church by baptism only af
ter a thorough interview. A person who requets re-admission must meet the same qualifications as others who are baptized into the Church.

I am forwarding your request, for name removal to the Stake President [this is necessary because I was a Melchezidek priesthood holder]
. You may rescind this request by sending a written request within thirty (30) days after receiving this letter. If the Stake President does not receive a written request to rescind, he will forward the request onto Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah and your name will be removed from the records of the Church.

We also have Ideas Woman, your wife, listed on our records, is this still her desire? We would welcome her to our services and could assign home teachers and visitin
g teachers. However, if she would like her name removed she would need to send me a letter stating her wishes [she would not, however have to send it to the Stake President].

Sincerely,

Bishop Blank.

Hopefully you have the tools now to understand all the elements of this communication from a non-presence, the mere conduit by which my message could get back to its proper recipient but now through the proper channels and with all improper content removed. It was kind to give us a thirty (30) waiting-period. The Church, however, did not use this time to apologize for its role in passing Proposition 8 and so there was nothing to do but wait.

Act V scene v

On February 24, seventy-one (71) days later, I received a letter informing me that certain things written in the Book of Heaven had been erased. Promises that had been made had been rescinded, covenants that had not been kept had been cancelled, the orders of souls in the intimate chain of being that ties all humans to one another had been re-arranged.

The world, however, remained to all appearances the same.

Postscript

If you thought that was the last we'd hear from Bishop Blank, you'd be wrong. One evening, a few days after the final letter, while Ideas Woman was pouring us drinks to enjoy the few minutes of quite between when our children went to bed and when we did, we realized that someone was knocking on the door. It was someone I didn't recognize but who called me by first name. It was "Bishop Blank" --- apparently he is still my Bishop despite my apostasy. "I don't want to talk to you," I said, "What about Ideas Woman?" "She doesn't either," I said and shut the door.

A few days later someone called to ask for Ideas Woman. "May I ask who's calling?" "Bishop Blank." I realized he wouldn't stop calling so I gave Ideas Woman the phone. He talked for a second and then she essentially said "thanks but no thanks."

Ideas Woman thinks that that's the end of it, but I'm not so sure. How do they know I wasn't forcing her to say 'thanks but no thanks?" I was in the room, after all. And they care so deeply about her soul (wasn't it an excess of concern for her soul and the souls of all bright Mormon women that made her have to leave in the first place). They're probably waiting to call her sometime when I'm not home. This will be difficult, becaues Ideas Woman doesn't stay at home, like God wants her to. We have, despite our loving and strong marriage and our two fantastic children who are the center of our lives, no family values.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

25 Random Things as Revealed Through Facebook's Forced-Confession Meme (and now in legible format!)

25. First, and by way of concession, I'm pretty sure it's not possible to say anything random. I'll just have to try to write a list of things that have a logic that I can't discern.

24. I've been together with Heather for a few years shy of half of my life now. We met our freshman year of college and got married right out of college (I was 20). I wouldn’t have had it be any different – we’ve really grown into adulthood together and I feel like we understand and are committed to one another in a way that requires that kind of shared history. But I know that we were also extremely lucky, since we could have just as easily (actually much more likely) grown apart as we grew into ourselves. And if either of my kids tried to pull a similar move, I would do everything in my power to stop them.

23. Speaking of kids, Elena and Jasper mean the world to me. I especially love how much they love each other, and hope that never changes. Not much more to say about this, mostly because they are too exhausting to say much about.

22. I come from an large family. I'm the fourth of nine (7 boys and 2 girls). There was a brief time when I shared a room with four of my brothers. All of my sibilings are brilliant and a little infuriating, opinionated, well-read and shade somewhere to the left of eccentric. I am both invigorated and a little depressed when I get to spend time with them now that we’re (mostly) all adults. Lots of us have literary aspirations, which only make things worse (on the logic of the family see the serial blog novel that my sister and I have been writing on and off again – lately mostly off. You have to read the comments b/c that’s where half the story is).

21. When I was around 7, I bet my older brothers 20 pounds of chocolate that I would be a spy when I grew up. I still regularly consider joining the Foreign Service. When I was going through one of my periodic disenchantments with academia and when it was timed with one of Heather’s periodic disenchantments with lawyering, I actually took the Foreign Service exam – passed the written test, but failed the newly instigated –- and I’m not making this title up – Qualifications Evaluations Panel. It’s a little like being told that the Committee to Award Achievements in the Field of Excellence has turned you down. Oh well –- I’m giving academia another serious go instead.

20. Before I wanted to be a philosopher (my aspiration from 14ish on), I wanted to be an archaeologist or a classicist. Simultaneously, and to this day, I also wanted to be a spy (see above), and a writer.

19. Even though (probably because) I love to write I have terrible writers block (it grew out of my conscience which speaks to me in the voice of my mother). In addition to the aforementioned often interrupted collaborative serial novel, I have fragments and the beginnings of a novel (a Mormon murder mystery), a screenplay(based on a philosophy text, so it must be good), a collection of poems, two philosophy books and a couple of articles, innumerable short stories, quasi-autobiographical scribblings, and a sort of novel masquerading as a religious text and centered around the re-emergence of Prometheus (I wish I were lying about that last one –- it also features the great philosopher/poet Sapphocrates). Some of them are more complete than others, but I don’t have much confidence any of them other than some of the philosophy stuff will see the light of day.

18. I tend to be prolix.

17. I have a long-standing adoration of Greek mythology and classical culture. When I was 7 I spent a lot of time trying to work out how both Greek myths and Mormonism could be true. I had decided that Zeus must have been an angel, but never really worked out the point of the difference (see Hölderlin’s Der Einzige). When I was 12 I decided that I wanted to write a historical study of how the Roman Empire paved the way for Christianity. I started to do “scholarly research” –- my dad’s a professor so I had access to Brigham Yong University’s 5 million+ volume library –- and quickly became overwhelmed. I’ve been afraid of scholarly research ever since.

16. I’m a little bit afraid that I’m going to be highly disillusioned with Obama and/or (and more likely) the Democrats for some stretch of the next 4 years. This makes me anticipatorily sad.

15. Although I come from a very religious background, I am always genuinely shocked when I learn how foreign atheism to most Americans (and how few Americans are atheists). It just seems like the common-sense, default position to me now…

14. Despite my atheism, I have a deep and abiding love for a folk-figure I’ve invented: Unca’ Jesus. Unca’ Jesus is the version of Jesus who quit the whole Messiah thing in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Father, thy will scares the bejeezus out of me...”) and went back to being a middling carpenter (he has permanent scruff in place of a genuine beard). There have been talks of a sitcom featuring his bumblings (which he gets out of through reluctant use of his Jesus powers), but they haven’t gone anywhere.

13. I wish I were more patient, and less ambitious. I’m getting there.

12. I recently entered an aphorism writing contest, and I really want to win.

11. I once gave a total stranger the shirt of my back. Granted, it was because this total stranger was highly intoxicated and in my car and I wanted to get him out so I could go home and go to bed. But still…

10. When I was 15 I spent a semester living in Mexico (my Dad was doing research there while on sabbatical). My parents gave me way more freedom in exploring the cities we lived in (1 month in Mexico City and 4 in Saltillo, now known as “Little Detroit” thanks to NAFTA and it’s proximity to the U.S. Border . . .) than I think was rational. I am grateful to them for it.

9. I started taking college classes when I was 11, which gave me the nickname “Doogie Howser” –- too bad I didn’t know that show.

8. I became interested in philosophy through two things that happened pretty much simultaneously, around the time I was 14: For some reason, I decided to start reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Around the same time, I had the chance to attend a seminar on Hellenism that Martha Nussbaum was giving to the faculty at Brigham Young University. Imagine my joy when I encountered Heidegger and discovered that I could mix my classicist snobbery and love of existential provocation!

7. My greatest temptation is dilettantism (so much so I’m not sure it’s really such a bad temptation…)

6. I am a technophile.

5. If left to my own devices, I would probably spend all day surfing the Internet and playing video games. Sadly, I so rarely have the time to be left to my own devices.

4. I am a horrible manager of time. For example, I’ve been trying to multitask: writing this list, cleaning my house, getting all the gadgetry and gizmology involved in WebCT for this semesters courses up and running, and putting license plates on Heather’s car this morning. All of this is just preludes to the things I’d really like to do (except this list, which has been delightful –- combining my love of the Internets and writing with my hatred of being laconic), but I won’t make it through the multitasking stuff.

3. When I started writing “Heather” in the previous example. My fingers wrote “Heidegger’s” on auto-pilot. I only just noticed that I had written “putting license plates on Heidegger’s car this morning” after I had taken a hiatus to work on cleaning the house.

2. I am overly proud of the diversity of things I listen to on my IPod and on my Pandora station, despite the big gap of no country (sorry, not for this old man) and not much hip-hop. I do like hip-hop, though I don’t know much about it. And I just really can’t bring myself to like much country (although I do like some pop with subtle country influences).

1. I let my ideological commitments sway my aesthetic judgments more often than I’d like to admit. I also let my aesthetic sensibilities commit me to more ideologies than I’d like to admit. These two statements are not contradictory –- they are dialectical.