Sunday, January 10, 2016

It is the endless hunger
the lake eating the shore
the bitter eating into your basil leaves
because you did not, would not
pinch off the pale purple flowers
just as they appeared, their delicate heads
brushing against the kitchen window.

It is slipping the string from the back
of a snap pea, pinning it
between your fingernails, wondering
how such fine floss, such a slim little wisp,
could make any difference to the pea, let alone
the dinner, but what if it does, what if it is in fact
all the difference, what if it is
this single thread that unravels the whole dish,
the whole evening,
the whole enterprise on which you are embarked,
miles now from the crumbling shore?

It is why you sit in a coffee shop
and search on your phone for images of buttons,
and scroll on and on as they keep loading,
round buttons, square buttons, triangle buttons,
red green spotted beige the color of burnt wood
bronze ivory tin
buttons made out of a nut called tacua
buttons upholstered like sofa arms
buttons that curve to a point like a shark's tooth,
like a crooked finger,
like the ribs wrapped around the rapid shallow breaths
of a very small animal, an animal
who may spend all its life tunneling through loose earth,
guided by smell, by scratches and thuds,
until it stumbles one day into the cavern beneath a tall tree
and loses itself in a forest of roots reaching like branches
into the dark.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Postcards from Civic Center

Every morning when I climb out of the Civic Center BART station out into UN Plaza, if I am not too deeply sunk in whatever book or article I was reading on the train, I look around.  The Plaza was built in the 1970s and named for the United Nations, whose charter was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945.  Now the plaza is filled with pigeons who gorge themselves on abandoned lunch containers and sandwich wrappers, except when there is an event, like the farmer's market or the food trucks -- then there is no room for the pigeons and they cluster around the edges, waiting.    

I try to take the stairs out of the station, unless someone is asleep or sitting on it with their legs sprawled out.  Then I take the escalator.

At the top of the stairs is the black woman whose name I don't know, who sells copies of Street Sheet.  Sometimes she stands off to the side, smoking a cigarette.  She wears oval glasses with metal frames and one of the black aprons that the vendors wear.  If I have cash, which is only about one day out of ten, I buy a copy.  We always greet each and sometimes we chat about the weather.  She used to ask more questions, like once she asked if the bag I was carrying had gym clothes.  She told me she had tried hot yoga once, which I have never done.  Recently, I bought one of the 25th anniversary posters, as a gift for a friend I said, and now she is waiting for an update.  Get cash, I think, and get an update.

Some days between the cars parked at an angle along Fulton someone will be tying a thick band around a bicep, flicking the needle end of a syringe.

Gregory is another Street Sheet vendor.  He stands at the corner of Fulton and Larkin, outside the Asian Art Museum, or sits on the ledge at the base of the statute of Simón Bolívar at the T-junction of Fulton and Hyde.  He has smooth skin and a little bit of gray stubble creeping up his dark cheeks, a dusting of close-cropped hair around the back of his head.  He always wears dark sunglasses and he is always smiling.  He talks in a sing-song voice, punctuated with small bursts of laughter.  He speaks quickly, like he thinks I am about to fly away.  It's true that I am always on my way somewhere, that is just the nature of things these days.  But I try to face him squarely with my shoulders and feet when we talk.  I bought a poster from him, too -- but that one was for me, and L. framed it for our kitchen wall.  Gregory is friendly and articulate, aware of boundaries, up on local news.  Sometimes he calls me Rachel. 

I was walking back through at Friday night around 6:00 and a pudgy middle-aged white man in what looked like an old Letterman jacket was eating a tub of Breyer's out of the carton, using only the lid and his hands.  Melted ice cream dribbled down the front of his jacket. 

Another night we went out for drinks and by the time I was heading to the BART, the wind was already on a tear, screeching through the Market Street traffic and flinging itself between the thick stone buildings that ring Civic Center Park.  A young man stopped me at the top of the escalator.  He was thin, the top of his body curved forward, his eyes enormous heavy-lidded, like the eggs of a small bird, ready to crack.  He spoke clearly, but without cease, each sentence fused to the next right at the point where the conclusion would have gone.  If he was telling a story, it was one without a beginning or end.  "I'm not asking for money," he said, and then he explained he had a meeting with his case-worker in ten minutes, and he wanted something to eat, specifically soup from a restaurant nearby.  He wanted me to go with him to buy soup, and already I was nervous about the time, ticking off the seconds in my mind as he spoke -- you only have ten minutes!  But then, he pointed out, I was in a rush.  I didn't have to come with him.  When I gave him $3, he explained again that he would use it to buy food, that he was getting a bed in a shelter, that he was depressed and depression could lay anyone low, don't doubt it for a minute.  I still see him in the BART station or around the Plaza, often in the morning.  He never recognizes me.  For a long time, I wished that I told him that I didn't care what he used the money for, that I wasn't buying a story, that lots of people I know spend money on things they don't need and that aren't good for them and still they are given more money.  But now I think maybe it was right to play the part he cast me in, not trying to be the star of my own show for once. 

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Self-Indulgent Writing About Nature

Friday afternoon hike through Heil Valley.  The rough trail lay like a spine holding together two broad wings of meadow, whose upward slope to the right and downward slope to the left suggested a great bird banking.  In support of this metaphor, which might seem rather overwrought for describing what was, after all, only a gentle trail through a tranquil valley, I offer a list of what we found along that trail:

-the femur of what was probably a cow, bleached clean
-a length of backbone joined to the sacrum of what was probably a deer
-two bluejay feathers
-an intact swallowtail butterfly

The butterfly and feathers we kept; the bones we left where we found them, the sacrum hanging from the branch of a tree.  We also saw two black squirrels and two deer, or possibly one black squirrel and one deer, two times each.  The deer had big round mouse ears and a twitching tail.  The squirrel might have been pregnant.  There were a number of hornets circling the little round holes they had punched in earth.  We saw many wildflowers, too, Aspen Daisies and Scotch Thistle and what I think was Hairy False Golden Aster, its ghostly white heads seeming to float above the grass, nodding at the inevitability of its decline from bright flower to feathery boll.  And along the side of the trail were mounds of dead branches and leaves, gathered and waiting to be burned.

It was impossible along that course to avoid considering the mechanical reality of the biological.  Just as it was impossible, later that night at a screening of the Wizard of Oz, to avoid revisiting all these thoughts of skeletons and wings and the thin veins that carry water from the foot of a flower to its face. I think I noticed for the first time during that show how deeply bizarre is the idea of a man stuffed only with straw and sewn so poorly he could be disassembled by an angry monkey or a strong breeze.

And there is another reason I was put in mind of a bird when describing the hike: I am still so in awe of the mountains that just walking among them lifts my stomach slightly -- not my real stomach, but the emotional stomach that hovers between my breastbone and my belly button, registering apprehension, foreboding, guilt, inadequacy, and, sometimes, elation.

What I'm saying is that walking through that valley felt a little like flying.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Everyone likes loops but
they're rare. Most of the time
when we set out for some distant point
we must retrace our steps
to see our home again.

But coming back along the same path is not
so dull as it sounds.

The sun, for one, will have shifted, dragging
its shadows along the dry winter grasses, turning the blue river violet.

The geese that were floating on their fat breasts
will have taken flight, the water that was still
will wrinkle with their stamping feet, the water
that was rushing will sit still as a sewn ribbon.

The clouds that were massing will be scattered in thin tufts,
too wispy to spin.

The muscles that felt strong will feel tired, the brutal climbs
will soften to a slow release, an endless whir, a long sighing descent.

The lazy timelessness of 2:00 in the afternoon
will stiffen by 4:30 to a race against the sinking sun.

Not everything is changed, though. The mountains, for one,
are still there, purple, silent, their broad shoulders hugging
the plains. And the men
are still playing chess
along the bank in their sweatshirts,
one more game, one more game, just one last game,
before the light goes.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

In Honor of the Asteroid

We sang a piece last semester by Georgy Sviridov -- it is pretty, tuneful, a little schmaltzy. Its plaintive suspensions are all followed by obliging glissandos that slide guiltily into the chord that everyone knows they want to hear, the way a spoon may seem to slip gratefully into a dish of chocolate pudding. It was nice. Introducing the piece, our conductor mentioned that there is an asteroid named for the composer, 4075 Sviridov, an interesting albeit not entirely crucial fact to know when listening to the piece.

After the concert, I encountered an astrophysicist in the audience. I think he studies the sun -- something like that. We were chatting, and I mentioned the asteroid since I thought he would be interested, and then realized that he thought composer had been named in honor of the asteroid and not the reverse. It's all a matter of perspective, I guess.

Bar Exam Questions I Have Not Loved

One of the hardest things about the multiple choice questions on the bar exam is that many of them seem to have been purposefully written to remind test takers of the devastating limitations of our legal system.

For example: "An industrial city in the Midwest had approximately 300,000 inhabitants, and about half of them were members of a recognized racial minority. The latest census figures indicated that 33,501 minority residents of the city could be classified as 'poor' under federal poverty guidelines. In contrast, only 7,328 of the approximately 150,000 nonminority residents of the city could be classified as 'poor.' To combat a budget deficit, the city's 10-member city council, including no minority members and no poor members, decided to raise bus fares during rush hour periods from 80 cents to 1 dollar. Because poor people and members of minority groups placed greater reliance on the city's bus lines than did the bulk of the nonpoor and nonminority population (many of whom drove to work), the effect of the transit fare increase was hardest on the poor and minority communities. Several activist groups representing the poor, various minority organizations, and some community action coalitions vowed to fight the fare increase in federal court.

Which of the following statements most accurately describes the constitutional status of the fare increase?"

The correct answer is: "The fare increase is constitutional, because there is no evidence that the city council acted irrationally or was motivated by an intent to discriminate on the basis of race."

This was question number 197 of 200 on a six-hour simulated practice exam. I read it with a sinking feeling of recognition and dejection. This is the world we live in. People of color are disproportionately poor and underrepresented in the political system. Since they are underrepresented, they are often the first to bear the costs of economic downturn. And it is not always obvious what we, as lawyers, can do about it. Just bubble in letter "C" and move on to the next question...
William Finnegan has a chilling piece in the July 2nd New Yorker about the drug-related violence eroding civil society in Mexico. This is the kind of climate that defies straightforward attempts at explanation, driving even journalists into the arms of a sort of magical realism: "In Mexico, it is often impossible to know who is behind something -- a massacre, a candidacy, an assassination, the capture of a crime boss, a 'discovery' of high-level corruption. Either the truth is too fluid and complex to define or it remains opaque to anyone not directly involved in manipulating events."

We are no strangers here, in the US, to the endless cycle of scandal and cover up, to political theater, sounds bites, and spin, and to the way that concentrated capital can hobble democratic institutions. But rarely do we find that the truth of a particular political event is "too fluid and complex to define." Either he is sleeping with her or he isn't. Either he took the money or he didn't. Either she leaked the story or she didn't. At bottom, something happened and that something can be found out and narrated, front to back.

What is happening in Mexico is different. What is happening in Mexico is not really for me to explain, since I barely understand it myself. People are disappearing, headless bodies are being dumped in public squares, some or most or maybe all government officials are on the cartel payrolls.

But this is our story, too, isn't it? What's happening in Mexico is not just happening in or to Mexico, and it is not just happening. It is not a storm rolling in but an effect being produced like night falling in a small town on a Hollywood soundstage.

Is there any way to understand this except as the direct consequence of the US drug policy that has radically increased the value of controlled substances without so much as denting demand? If drugs were legal then the cartels would be multi-national corporations and Mexico would have a new business class and the violence would finally subside. Meanwhile, all those bodies are piling up on the altar of our next fix.

Happy Independence Day.

Monday, May 21, 2012

We turned off the Panorama Trail in Andrew Molera State Park into a stand of stunted redwoods. They were thin trees, nothing like the redwoods you usually see, and their sparse leafy heads waved at the sky, creaking like a porch-row of rocking chairs. We looked up to see their leaves dissolving into sunlight, and listened to them lean this way and that in time to a silent song.

I had the same feeling sitting in rehearsal on Sunday evening while the basses and tenors sang an old Irish song -- the feeling that music itself was growing up out of the earth, slender stalks of sound deeply rooted and fragile and reaching for the light.


A secret is an object whose contents are under pressure, like carbonated liquid in a sealed container. The greater the pressure applied from one direction -- by, for example, strictly limiting the number of people who can be told or by heightening the sanctions for disclosure -- the more violent the inevitable eruption in another direction is liable to be.

A really juicy secret -- the kind that could land someone in federal prison or destroy a marriage or sink a business -- will practically be forced by the pressure of the situation into the minds of many people unknown to the secret's subject.

That's just basic physics.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Beginning?

I wrote this on a bench at Embarcadero, facing the Bay. I don't know what it is yet.

"For almost a full year after she died, Hilman left Jean's voice on the answering machine. At first, it didn't matter because the only people who called knew Hilman and understood what he was going through, and later because the only people who called -- selling auto insurance policies or subscriptions to the community theater's fall season -- didn't.

Hilman wasn't angry when his friends stopped calling. He didn't much want to talk to them, either. In fact, the first thing he felt when his birthday passed and the phone was silent was relief. Then he realized this was the first thing he had felt at all in over eight months and he felt a little sad, which made him feel more relieved, and then, exhausted from all that feeling, he retired to his room for the rest of the day where he read travel magazines and ate a small box of slightly stale saltines.

Hilman was not one given to self reflection with any kind of frequency. He had never kept a journal or seen a therapist. There had been a grief counselor, at the hospital that night, a thin woman in a purple shirt with crimped hair who arms jutted out from her body like a distended paper clip. He had talked to her a little bit. He wasn't sure if that counted."

If you have any ideas about where I should take this or if you would like to take i somewhere, let me know!

The Radical Power of the Hunger Games

I am drastically under-qualified to write this post as I have read neither all of The Hunger Games books nor all of the Harry Potter books. So consider this an invitation to a conversation and feel free to tell me why I'm wrong.

The basic point I want to make is that we should be excited about The Hunger Games because of its potential to create a productive political and class-based consciousness among its adolescent (and adult) readership. The moral landscape of Harry Potter is one where great and powerful men (Harry and Voldemort, both white) must face off in a battle to the death. Although one is supposedly ultimately evil and the other ultimately good, there is more that unites them (structurally) than divides them. They are equals, equivalents, mirror images, like Bush and bin Laden. Even the Golden Compass falls into this trap to a certain extent, by giving the face of evil, well, a face. Endowing that kind of agency on phenomena is dangerous because it inevitably distracts us from the real problem at hand, which is an unjust system.

As far as I can tell, The Hunger Games is unique among young adult fiction in presenting injustice as systemic, not individual. The Capitol (named to remind us of "capital"?) exploits the labor of those who live in the districts not because (or not only because) the President of the Capitol is personally evil but because the entire economy is built on exploitation of labor and extraction of resources. The brutal conditions in the districts are necessary to support a lavish lifestyle in the Capitol.

But individual citizens of the Capitol are not uniformly evil -- in fact, they are not uniformly anything. And the moral choices are anything but clear. Should Katniss kill the other participants so she can return to care for her family? Should she sacrifice herself to save the other participant from her district? Should she commit suicide in protest against the unfairness of it all? Each choice has its own particular and painful costs.

Why? Because that's how the system is set up: to divide the districts, to prohibit them from helping (or even communicating with) one another, to prevent them from recognizing their shared humanity, to obfuscate, to mystify, to terrify. It is the immorality of the system that makes Katniss' position untenable but knowing that does not set her free. She must make painful choices because that's what adulthood demands of us.

If I were a middle school teacher, I would be excited to bring this book into a classroom. To read it alongside accounts of colonial incursions into Africa and Asia, of sharecropping, of coal-mining, of the industrial revolution, of the World Bank and the IMF. To have a real discussion about power and poverty and the principles that could guide Katniss through the forest.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Three Reasons Why You Should See "The Artist"

In case you were wondering, you should definitely go see "The Artist," the new silent French film by Michel Hazanivicius. I know, I know -- I had you at "French."

But really.

Here's why:

1. Jokes in silent movies are funnier, the way jokes in foreign language are funnier -- because the little bit of extra effort it takes to decode them pulls you closer into the circle, makes you one of the in-crowd. That's just a fact.

2. It is a powerful, affecting silent movie about the limits of the silent movie as an art form. If there's one thing I learned in undergrad (and that is a not insignificant "if"), it is that you will always sound smart if you claim that a piece of artwork is really a commentary on art itself. But this time it's true. And what it says is that all forms are limited -- that "genre" is just another word for "limit" -- but that all forms are also infinite, or at least infinitely expressive. This is a point close to my heart because it provides the foundation for a theory of translation. Yes, all languages use a limited set of sounds and follow certain grammatical rules and developed to describe certain places and peoples. But you can translate any sentence into any language: if it can be said, it can be translated.

The first time I saw the movie, all I could talk about when I left the theater was the main character, George Valentin. I was distraught. He was so familiar -- someone who slid, and slid and would not stop himself from sliding, letting pieces of himself go until you could hardly recognize him. It was painful. It was moving. It wasn't just pantomime.

But then, the very last moment of the film -- don't worry, I won't give it away -- reminds you that there are some things you can only say with sound. It's sort of stunning.

3. It tells you how movies work and then it shows you by creating a movie that works. On you. What I mean is, in the first scene, you see George Valentin acting in a silent movie within the movie -- you see him captured by the Germans, you see a comically exaggerated torture scene, you see him left in his cell, and you see his little dog lick his face until he wakes up and lead him to safety. You see the audience within the movie caught up in the drama, you see their relief at the end. And you laugh at them. You can't help it. It's so contrived! And they're so captivated.

And then, late in the story, you see the main character of the movie you are watching nearly die only to be rescued by his little dog. And you are on the edge of your seat. I swear. All you can think is that he might die and how intolerable that would be because now you are attached to him and so are some of the other characters. You might even tear up when the policeman finally arrives to take him to the hospital. It's quite affecting.

But wait. Wasn't this the exact same device you were laughing at before? Well, yes and no.

There are different lessons to take away from this. The one I choose to hold onto is that a story is not like a magic trick -- it doesn't matter that you know how it's done, it still works. And maybe that's what's so magical -- that being caught up in a story means being subject to it, feeling what it leads you to feel without knowing why. It means losing perspective, forgetting the frame of the book or the screen.

Honestly, I don't know how it works. But I'm glad it does.

Why I Love My Chorus

Members of IOC often rally late in a season by quoting the group wisdom that things always "come together" in performance. This is not the most vivid phrase -- for me it evokes something casual, unanticipated, like a fifteen-minute meal of pasta and sauce, so basic that it seems to constitute itself without the intervention of any outside agent. This phrase does not really describe what happens in concert.

What happens in concert is that, for several hours each semester, all 30 or so of us active, over-scheduled, slightly frantic individuals set aside our usual concerns and simultaneously turn our minds to the music in our hands. These are not minds easily turned away from their usual concerns, of which we all have many. When it happens, it is quite a thing to watch. Phrases clipped clean as if with scissors; consonants arriving in lockstep at the back of the hall; chords stacked neatly beneath a tower of overtones. It makes my eyes water, like those movie scenes where the whole crowd cheers the underdog or jeers the oppressor -- something about many people moving all at once, together, that just gets me.

Because in those brief moments we get perhaps the best glimpse of what it is like to be in someone else's mind. If I am thinking about the awkward page-turn at page 30 and it goes off without a hitch, I know that everyone else was thinking about it, too, and not only do I know what they were thinking but I think I have an inkling of what it was like to be thinking it, right at that moment. All the time we spend in our own heads, our own bodies. It's nice to get out once in a while.

Still Looking for New Year's Resolutions?

How about becoming more like this description of Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall"?

"His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything." (p. 25)

Cromwell's greatest talent is his practicality, which comes from a deep understanding of how people more and are moved through the world. In her portrayal, his concern is for lived experience over and above more abstract ideals -- even when, as in this passage, his thoughts follow a more imaginative line:

"Under his clothes, it is well known, [Thomas] More wears a jerkin of horsehair. He beats himself with a small scourge, of the type used by some religious orders. What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell's, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture. Someone combs the horsehair into coarse tufts, knots them and chops the blunt ends, knowing that their purpose is to snap off under the skin and irritate it into weeping sores. Is it monks who make them, knotting and snipping in a fury of righteousness, chuckling at the thought of the pain they will cause to persons unknown? Are simple villagers paid -- how, by the dozens? -- for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farmworkers busy during the slow winter months? When the money for their honest labor is put into their hands, do the makers think of the hands that will pick up the product?

We don't have to invite pain in, he thinks. It's waiting for us: sooner or later. . . .

He thinks, also, that people ought to be found better jobs." (p. 72)

If only novelists wrote our inner monologues, maybe we would all be lucky enough to have these kinds of insights on a regular basis.

The scourge is a device of self-inflicted pain -- of religious devotion turned inward. But on the material plane, certainly in the marketplace (which is never far from Cromwell's mind -- how are the villagers paid, he wonders, "by the dozens?") nothing we do can be detached entirely from the communities we inhabit. We cannot inflict violence on ourselves without making others the instruments of that violence. And we cannot -- we should not -- forget that as consumers we do not just passively absorb the various objects that seem already to exist in the world around us. Instead, our desires drive the production of their own objects.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Although it was only a few weeks ago that I was first introduced to the particulars of antitrust law, I am not going to let that stop me from expressing my disappointment about the recent opinion in California v. Safeway, which I find disheartening in a bitterly familiar way.

Several of the major Southern California supermarket chains (Safeway, Ralphs, Vons, and Albertsons), together accounting for 60% - 70% of the market for groceries in that area, entered into a Mutual Strike Assistance Agreement (MSAA). This agreement included a "revenue sharing provision" according to which, in the event of a strike, any grocer earning more than their typical share of revenue would give 15% of those excess earnings to any grocers who were losing money relative to their typical share.

Let me run that by you one more time in case you missed it: the agreement provides that competing grocery stores will share profits for the duration of a strike in order to blunt its effects.

As I said above, I really only just started studying this whole antitrust deal, but this seems like a pretty blatant violation to me. Sadly, the 9th Circuit only sort of agrees. An en banc panel held that this might be an antitrust violation but that it's not per se illegal, placing a considerable burden on the state to jump through a lot of evidentiary hoops to win its case. Why? Because the agreement was not permanent (i.e. revenue would only be shared during a strike) and because the signatories only controlled some of the market -- not all of it. I have to say that I really don't understand this. Does this mean that it's OK to fix prices for one month out of the year? Or to fix the price of a single product? Can competitors who control a sizable share of the market but not the whole market effectively do whatever they want?

What I am left wondering about is whether there is a consumer protection angle here: after all, for many consumers the fact of a strike is a material aspect of their decision to purchase a particular product or patronize a particular business. (This seems similar to Kasky v. Nike -- a California Supreme Court case holding that lies Nike told about its labor practices in order to boost sales were not protected by the First Amendment.) It is certainly reasonable for a consumer to believe that the money she spends at one grocery store is being kept by that store and not being funneled to its competitors. If that isn't the case, then shouldn't there be signs in the windows -- "Up to 15% of your purchase will be donated to the store across the street for the until its workers are no longer on strike"?

As political and legal protections for labor, the environment, and general health and safety gradually erode, legislators offer us the same cold comfort over and over: that we can vote with our dollars, that by buying the right things we can become better people and make the world a better place, or, at the very least, avoid causing additional harm. This is, at best, a problematic notion -- there are all sorts of dignitary and social ills that might arise from viewing purchasing as our main form of political expression. But it seems to me that one of the biggest problems is that, when businesses are allowed to lie like this, it just isn't true.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Small Talk

The sense of betrayal San Franciscans feel at the hands of the weather heightens
with each whipping week of summer wind.
It doesn't matter that this happens every year.
Maybe it's because so many of us are from other parts
of the country where the summer heat soaks every layer
until there is nothing left to take off
and even the panes of glass in the windows warm foreheads laid in desperation against them.
Or maybe it's because we would like to believe that these words
-- June, July, August --
mean something more than the sounds of their syllables slinking together
like the thin bracelets Rose wears that clip and ring while she loads bags with the fruit I have bought
apples and peaches and mangos balanced
on top so their skin won't split on the walk home.

Mind Over Matter?

Taken together, several articles in the Ideas Issue of the Atlantic (July/August 2011) evidence a certain ambivalence about the relationship between our minds and our bodies. Or maybe ambivalence is not quite the right word -- maybe these stories only seem to contradict one another because they are starting from opposite ends of the spectrum, both trying to write the way back to a central point: mirror images about to converge.

In The Triumph of New Age Medicine, David Freedman argues that Western medicine is floundering in the face of chronic illnesses like diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and cancer because it is too focused on treating the mechanical failings of bodies in crisis and not attentive enough to teaching the minds in charge of those bodies how to best care for themselves. Mainstream medical practitioners wait until someone falls ill so that they can intervene with drugs or surgical procedures instead of sitting down early on with patients, listening to their troubles, and coming up with ways to help them improve their diet, get more exercise, and reduce their day-to-day stress.

"Medicine has long known what gets patients to make the lifestyle changes that appear to be so crucial for lowering the risk of serious disease: lavishing attention on them. That means longer, more frequent visits; more focus on what's going on in their lives; more effort spent easing anxieties, instilling healthy attitudes, and getting patients to take responsibility for their well-being; and concerted attempts to provide hope." (p. 96) In other words, the problem is that doctors see themselves as technicians or engineers rather than healers and caretakers. Freedman is not positing that positive thinking alone will cure you but instead pushing us to expand our concept of health beyond the body to include aspects of mind like awareness, patience, discipline, confidence, and self-care.

Contrast that with David Eagleman's The Brain on Trial, which argues that because biology -- especially biochemistry -- is so determinative of action and character, the criminal justice system should shift its emphasis away from blame and towards rehabilitation. The current model is premised on the idea that since free will is absolute the system can hold people absolutely accountable for their actions; Eagleman proposes a model in which we have far less control and therefore far less responsibility. I don't disagree that we need to spend more time rehabilitating those in prison -- helping them find jobs, build family connections, rejoin their communities -- and less time reviling, castigating, and excluding them. But what's surprising here is Eagleman's reasoning, skirting as it does all discussion of social issues like race, poverty, and the economy. It is more than somewhat disturbing to evoke the idea of biological determinism in the face of a prison population that is so demographically skewed.

"As we become more skilled at specifying how behavior results from the microscopic details of the brain, more defense lawyers will point to biological mitigators of guilt, and more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line. . . . The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask 'To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,' because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person's biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable."(p. 120) The gist is that we cannot locate "crime" or "criminal behavior" entirely on the mind side of the ledger -- that there is no mind side of the ledger -- and that instead we must consider how some people's physical designs may make it effectively impossible for them to accede to society's demands.

What is striking, I think, is that, placed side by side, these articles tell a larger story about how our institutions -- our laws, policies, and technologies -- divide us from ourselves and deprive us of a certain wholeness. There are books that have been and will be written about how these systems evolved (I think maybe Descartes was involved) and there are also arguments in favor of some level of reductiveness, mostly based on efficiency and administrative ease.

But perhaps the moral of this story belongs in the mouth of Christopher Hitchens who, reviewing a book about Gandhi in the same issue, says: "[Gandhi's suggestion that the British surrender their land to the Germans while rebelling in their souls] is revealing, not so much for its metaphysical amorality as for its demonstration of what was always latent in Gandhism: a highly dubious employment of the mind-body distinction. For him, the material and physical world was gross and polluting and selfish, while all that pertained to the 'soul' was axiomatically ideal and altruistic. . . . This false antithesis is the basis for all religious fundamentalism, even as its deliberate indifference permits and even encourages sharp deterioration in the world of 'real' conditions." (p. 142)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love

This blog post is not actually about "Eat, Pray, Love" the book or the movie or the cultural phenomenon -- I have many things to say about all three and all of those things would fall under the heading of "vile invective" and all of them have been sad much more artfully by Stephen Metcalf (@ minute 7:10).

This is, instead, a pure joyrant about my city, San Francisco. If I were with it enough to tag my blog entries, I would tag this one with words like "joy," "wonder," and, yes, "love." I will attempt to cut the sweetness of the subject matter with the cold, brittleness of bullet points by simply recounting the series of interactions I have had since leaving the office at 5:00 and arriving in the Mission to run errands on my way home.

-purchased plump triangular carrots (a kind I have never tried before), arugula, and three pints of strawberries at the Mission Community Market from a pure charmer
-while looking for asparagus, ran into someone from the SF Environment organization (I think this is a city organization -- not sure what part of government it fits into) who gave me a FREE TOTEBAG MADE OUT OF SCRAP CLOTH in exchange for MY IDEAS OF HOW TO MAKE THE CITY GREENER. really. this happened. to contribute your ideas, go to
-went to buy fish at the market where L buys fish every day; the man who works there asked why i wasn't getting what luke always gets and smiled -- because he knows us! this still amazes me.
-went to Mission Pie to buy bread from Josey who remembered me from when i bought bread yesterday (there are reasons i need a lot of bread, i'm not going into it) and he is ALSO a pure and total charmer
-went to Rose's market to buy asparagus; Rose told me, in confidence, that i should have a baby to keep L -- maybe not the best advice, but it came from a place of love
-in my stairway, ran into a neighbor who has lived in this building for THIRTY YEARS and had a lovely talk, really lovely, and i am going to go visit her to hear all about the history of the building

It is not about the amazing food, although, yes, the food is amazing. Food is a part of it, though, because we have to eat, every day, and so eating becomes part of our routine and eating is also about nourishment, sustenance -- one of the clearest ways to receive and express love. And so eating feeds connections between people and connected people reach out, radiate warmth, laugh with kindness, and wear the sunshine on their faces. I live somewhere, in a place, where people know me, and L, and we see them every day or every week and they make us smile. What else is there in this world other than that?

Facebook Fail

It is not unusual to complain that facebook profiles are disingenuous, boring, hip, preening, or vain. But what offends me about them is that they are wasteful -- in their current form, facebook profiles are a pure and effortful waste of clean, high-quality data. With scads of talented developers and more money than, if not God, certainly Saint Peter, why can't they take the information that we have so lovingly and trustingly offered up and do something interesting with it?

For example, why not plug people's work & school info into a timeline? The NY Times has amazing timelines with images that blow out when you scroll over them and detailed captions. Wouldn't that make it easier to understand the trajectories our friends have taken? Wouldn't that be more fun to look at?

Or, why not let people drop photos into some sort of e-scrapbook interface? Facebook has borrowed the "album" metaphor without using any of the visual benefits. Why not let people make digital collages, combining images and text?

Why not link up with the Amazon feature that lets you look inside books so that you could page through your friends' favorites? Why not play samples of people's favorite music? Why hide the quotations I have so lovingly chosen at the freaking bottom of all the other info? Why not let people put their favorites into some sort of hierarchy or flow chart or web, showing how their love of folk emerged from their love of classical guitar? Why an ugly, useless, flat, unimaginative list?

By presenting information this way, facebook deflates it. Facebook deflates us. We flatten and sadden into flat, paratactic screen-people, just collections of unaffiliated and disorganized likes and dislikes, wants and diswants, a shuffle of sheet-thin days. Facebook's cardinal sin is not sharing our information, but stripping so much of the meaning from it and taking from us the chance to make real connections.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Which Was the Son Of

One of my favorite choral text settings ever is Which Was the Son Of, an Arvo Part (pronounced pear-t) setting of the lineage of Christ. I love it for the strangeness of the words (all those names) and the brute repetition of it and the newness of it (not just another ave maria) and the stunning simplicity of the last phrase -- which was the Son of God -- that knocks the wind out of you a little bit. To be clear, this is not about faith for me, but about literature.

Although, is there anything clear at all about where one begins and the other ends?