- Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. - Thomas Edison
- Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats. - H.L. Mencken
- The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The next and most urgent counsel is to take stock of reality. - William Buckley
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
July, 2016: For Aunt Sally and Uncle John
You know about this day already, December 24, 1987.
You know about it as the corned beef fondue day. But it’s also noteworthy because it represented something unusual: two of the cousins and their cohorts met, not at Bristol Hills, Annapolis or Darien, but literally on the other side of the world. Manly Beach, New South Wales, Australia.
But while, like you, I look back on this day with humor and nostalgia, memories of it stir up certain other feelings in me, feelings about Jeff. Because this day changed me, and changed my relationship with Jeff.
It was Christmas Eve, and yet I was still working at the boatyard. I think they must have let me off early, because it was still broad daylight as I approached our spartan beach apartment. It was going to be a strange Christmas season, I supposed, alone with my friend Henry on the other side of the world.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to find Jeff, Ross and Mark lounging about. Newly in Australia, they’d gotten the address from my mother. Showing up, we were not home, and so they simply broke in. Boy, was I elated! Henry would be home soon, and we were going to have a party.
Parties were the order of the day in Australia. Henry and I had a three bedroom apartment, and probably could have used the rent from a third roommate. In the meantime, our third bedroom served as a giant trash can; we filled it up with empty cases of Foster’s and Victoria Bitter. Less trips to the curb.
But before the party, we spent some time catching up, filling in the months since we’d last seen each other. Then we set about planning our next few days. Dinner was to be Fondue Bourguignonne, a Christmas Eve family tradition for Jeff and me, to which everyone readily agreed. I was surprised to find that consensus for the next order of business was not a party, but rather Christmas Eve mass. They’d even found a church, if memory and Google serve, St. Matthew’s Anglican Church on Darly Road, not a mile down the beach. Then home for a nightcap. The next day, we’d find a soccer field and play a scrimmage. The following day, the three world travelers would continue on their way around Australia and then on to New Zealand.
I can’t remember who did the shopping but I’m sure you know how the fondue turned out. The fiasco ended just in time for us to get ready for church, a more somber and orderly affair.
Having only been to an Episcopal church, and knowing very little about the various Christian denominations, I was surprised and delighted to find the Anglican mass reassuringly familiar. The liturgy was the same, word for word, and I could sing every hymn by heart, or at least the first verse.
During which hymn exactly I can’t remember - it was probably Hark the Herald Angels Sing - but at some point I started to cry. And it wasn’t just any cry. Some crys are just tears and matters of the face and eyes. Others, more important ones, epic ones, start below your diaphragm, in your gut, and emanate up. They dominate your breathing, and, importantly, make singing impossible. This was an epic one.
I was confused and embarrassed. I couldn’t be crying - I was a man! A man on a manly trip to Australia! And yet here I was, standing in a pew with my big cousin and his two graduate friends, crying like a sissy. I stifled the sounds and fumbled with my hymnal, trying to make it seem that I’d lost my place and didn’t know the words. Someone leaned his hymnal toward me so I could see, but I bowed my head and shuffled through the pages of my own while I tried to get a hold of myself.
I don’t know how long it lasted, or whether anyone in the Church was aware of my struggle, but the rest of the service was a blur as I sat, stood, and kneeled in a red-faced stupor. Some complicated brew of emotions had gotten hold of me and would not let go. Mercifully, by the end of the service I’d mostly regained my composure, and I walked home with the others, each jolly in a strange, antipodean Christmas mood.
While my first, adolescent reaction to the situation that night was rejection and humiliation, I’ve thought deeply and more honestly about it many times since. The truth is that I was a very young man in a place far, far away who’d essentially been coddled since birth. But then I showed up in Sydney with no job, no college degree, very little money, and only my wits and gumption to make it through the year. While it was most certainly thrilling, it was probably more than a little stressful, whether I knew it then or not.
Today, I can almost feel the longing in my bones as I approached my apartment that day and pondered Christmas mostly alone and so far from my family. It was a longing for home, but also for comfort, for familiarity, for ease and for security, none of which I had.
So, let’s think, and be honest: if you had to be far, far away from home, what is it that might comfort you, be familiar to you, and give you a warm feeling of security?
Well, for starters, how about Hark the Herald Angels Sing? Or, Oh Come All Ye Faithful? Or Silent Night?
And, to continue the analogy, what else would you want to be happening as you were singing these hymns so far, far away? Would it matter what the church looked like, or what the people were wearing, or the accent of the preacher or the temperature outside? Probably not.
But it might make a difference who was in the pew with you. And if you craved home, comfort, security and familiarity, what kind of person would you want by your side?
If you had to build from scratch a person who was capable of providing a sense of home and comfort and security and familiarity, what would that person be like?
Well, there is nothing that you know so viscerally as home. So this person would have to know the very foundations of your soul, and you, his. He would have to have been witness to your wants, desires, pursuits, foibles, excesses and conceits, perhaps from as early as the day you began to walk.
He would be comfortable with all of these things, and refuse to judge them. This might be important, for instance, if your conceits sometimes exceeded your achievements. This person would nurture the admirable qualities in you, and forgive those which were less praiseworthy.
He would find humor in those small things in life which might make lesser men feel ignoble. He would take this humor, born from something inane, or gross, or simply silly, and expand it, so that it provided joy to everyone around him.
He would provide comfort to you by letting you know that he cared. When he asked you a question about your goings-on, he would listen, carefully, as if he were really interested in the answer, rather than just having a conversation. If he didn’t understand something you said, or didn’t understand your motivation, he would dig deeper and deeper until he got it. Then he would confirm that he understood, and implicitly give his consent to your desires.
He would provide familiarity by possessing in his brain an encyclopedic catalog of all the things which are most important to you: the stories, jokes, peculiarities and rhythms that make a family a family. He would discuss these things with reverence, and very rarely or perhaps never with a critical tone. Things unpleasant or malevolent would rarely merit a mention, and even then, usually only as a means to highlight other, more exemplary qualities of the person in question.
He may provide security by being older and wiser, perhaps only by a little bit, but enough to make a difference, even if it’s all relative. His sagacity would be only be heightened by the gentleness of his soul, because it’s harder to take advice from someone who bangs violently about life rather than someone who has made peace with the world.
This person, the one whom you’d built from scratch to provide home, comfort, security and familiarity, is Jeff. Jeff was everything good that day. He was a bowl of chili on a cold and snowy ski day. He was PB&J. He was mom. He was a favorite blanket. He was dad giving a piggy-back ride. He was everything gentle and good.
Combined with Hark the Herald Angels Sing, it was too much for me, and I cried. I’ve since learned that this kind of thing is normal and human, and I’m happy that I got to experience it, and glad that it shines in the memories of my times with Jeff.
When we got home after church that night, the party was more subdued than usual. There was no Quarters or Whales Tails or even a round of Oh Hell!. We just sat around drinking Foster’s, talking about life and travel and, as the night wore on, a few of the Really Big Questions.
Having known Jeff so intimately for so many years, I was surprised to learn that he and his friends were each reading the Bible as they traversed the world. I found it odd, and a little bit fascinating. At the time, I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - a profoundly silly book - and I realized that I’d always known Jeff as child, and I was now learning about him as a man.
We talked late into the night, and the more we talked, the more I learned that my cousin was truly a man of faith. Of course I’d known that Jeff and his family had been going to church all of our lives, as mine had from time to time. But his commitment was on another level compared to most people I knew. Again, I was fascinated, and even a little bit jealous.
Eventually, we went to sleep. We got up and played that soccer game, and then Jeff and his friends departed. I was sad to see them go, but knew that they had a busy itinerary before reaching Darien the following summer.
That was 1987. Since, I’ve gone on to complete my own Australian adventure, graduated from college and graduate school, saw the passing of my grandparents, met my life’s love and married, had four children, watched one of them die in my arms, watched three of them grow and flourish, attempted to instill in them the virtues I deem most important, and, along the way, tried to make sense of the world and my place in it.
In short, ever since, I have been presented with a steady stream of events which would cause me to reexamine the Really Big Questions. Questions like, “What’s It All About?”, and “At the End of the Day, Where Are We Really Going?”
And I have to admit that all along the way, the edge of my conscience has always been aware of, and a little bit jealous of, Jeff and his faith.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I have my own version of faith. It has been instrumental at times, particularly when our son Nicholas died. At that time and ever since, I have always been convinced that God’s greatest gift to mankind was the promise of eternal life.
But my version of faith has always been complicated and fickle. It relies on a definition of God which, while philosophically satisfying, is difficult and inaccessible. It’s hampered by caveats and requires the suspension of certain disbeliefs. It is fleeting, appearing sometimes when necessary, but requiring work to reinstate at other times.
But Jeff’s faith, the one I heard about that night in 1987, was simple and elegant. It relied on the familiar and the accessible. It proceeded from the God that we all know. And although I never spoke to him again like that night, by some twinkle in his eye or some other mysterious nonverbal communication, I have always known that Jeff’s faith was constant.
I received a call from Tom in the fall of 2011 after Jeff’s surgery had gone badly. What little hope we had seemed to be fading. Jeff was entering a fight of indeterminate length, but of certain outcome. After battling the shock and grief of this news which knocked the wind out of me, I was able to reflect a bit on Jeff and his circumstances. And over the coming weeks and months, a recurrent thought floated about in my conscience. It battled with fear and resentment and anger, but it kept coming back. In the end, this idea prevailed. It said: “Jeff is going to be OK.”
For who better to enter such a fight with grace, courage and strength, than a person who, for others, seems to be tailor-made to provide a sense of home, comfort, security and familiarity, and who, for himself, seems to possess a simple, elegant, accessible and constant faith?
Who better indeed?
Bon vent, Jeff!
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
· Nice Place: The Czech Republic is a clean, upbeat interesting country whose best days are probably ahead.
· The Best Kind of Tour Guide: If you visit a former Eastern bloc country, I recommend spending more than just a few minutes with a resident who is at least middle age. We visited a plant an hour north of Brno, which itself is a three-hour drive from the Prague airport. Our host was kind enough to pick us up and drive the entire way, giving us plenty of time to hear the Czech Republic’s history from his point of view. Within three generations, the Czech Republic went from being a happy and prosperous part of the Austro-Hungarian empire to being at the geographic center of World War I, then being sold out to Hitler by Chamberlain et al. in the Munich Agreement, invaded by the Nazis a short time later, consigned to totalitarianism with 1948’s Communist Party coup d’état, occupied by the Soviets in 1968, released from Soviet rule when the wall came down, finally achieving independence as the Czech Republic in 1993. It’s a fascinating history, and almost anyone with a reasonably-sized family will have incredible stories to tell.
· Capitalism = Colorful; Communism = Grey: We travelled for several hours through the countryside where tiny towns with a steeple in the center dotted emerald green rolling hills. On occasion, we’d spy a Soviet-era monolith, but for the most part the stone and brick houses were small, quaint and colorful. Our host admitted that if we’d made the same drive thirty years ago, everything would have been grey. People did not have enough money back then to take care of their homes. Now, people are repointing their mortar, painting exteriors and taking care of their property.
· Politics is Dirty: When speaking about politics in the Czech Republic (and perhaps any other former member of the Soviet Union) invariably the conversation turns to corruption. The good news is that corruption is on the wane in Czeckia (that’s the government’s new popular name for itself). But people are sorrowful about crooked pols.
· Sold!: During the Soviet era, everything (everything!) of substance was owned by the state. Farms, power and water companies, consumer products companies, everything. When the Soviets relinquished control and liberal democracy took hold, there was a great push to privatize everything. In the first years of its new power, the government undertook a clever but complicated scheme to sell all of these things to the public. Each resident received, for free, an equal amount of virtual currency which could only be used to purchase shares in the farms, companies and other enterprises up for auction. People could choose which shares to buy, including the farms upon which they toiled, or the companies for which they worked. Of course certain companies had greater prospects than others, so some shares shot up dramatically, and some shares floundered and eventually went to zero. If you picked well, you could end up a millionaire. If you chose badly, you could end up destitute. In fact, this is what happened. The plan, which sounded so fair, turned out to be not so equitable in the end. Further compounding the problem, the auction itself was compromised in various ways by those crooked pols. The people seem to be happy that the privatizations took place, but less sanguine about the way it was done.
· Empty Pews: There are beautiful old churches everywhere in the Czech Republic. But apparently they’re empty. Czeckia has the highest percentage of atheists in the world. Two generations of Soviet rule made it so. Most people during the Soviet era held jobs, in factories, farms, or as nurses or school teachers. The government would pay a modest stipend to these workers so they could eat. The government never declared churches off-limits or confiscated the chapels. But apparently, if the government ever caught wind that a family was taking its children to church on Sundays, they would simply stop paying the stipend. Church attendance plummeted. After thirty years, the pews were empty.
Friday, May 15, 2015
Sometime in the not-too-distant past, people must have used the phrase “smartest guy in the room” as a compliment -- to describe, for instance, a renaissance man. Today, of course, the phrase is used almost exclusively as an insult, and is usually preceded by the words “thinks he’s the…”
Maybe the phrase had its heyday back in the 50s or 60s, when renaissance men actually existed. Now, with Google mainlined directly into most people’s veins, there is no such thing. Information is free, so the possession of gobs and gobs of it is more annoying than impressive.
I’ve meant to read Dune for decades, having often heard about its otherworldly setting and epic political and military struggles. Finally, I picked it up last month and waded in. The further I got, the more I kept wondering to myself, who is this Frank Herbert guy? He’s kept me reading this far, so he’s obviously a reasonable spinner of tales. But, it seems, he’s also something of a physicist, a geologist, a conservationist, an architect and an expert on all major religions of the world. In addition, he’s experienced in civil planning, military hierarchies, common law and tribal customs too numerous to catalogue.
Every time I closed the book, I’d turn to the back cover and stare at the strange picture of the bearded author of our most celebrated science fiction novel. I mused about what it would have been like to run into him at a cocktail party back in 1965, the year he published Dune. Previously, I’d always thought of Herbert as somewhat of a dork: not the cocktail party type at all. But for some reason, as I started to understand Dune, I realized what an extraordinary man he must have been. He was describing ecosystems before anyone even knew what an ecosystem was. The man could talk to anyone about anything. And that’s a pretty good setup for a cocktail party.
Now, most of you know that I like cocktail parties, but that’s not the reason for this windbaggy introduction. This is my way of saying that Dune is a truly remarkable book. I’m not the first person to realize this, of course. Although the book had an inauspicious debut through auto repair publisher Chilton, by the end of the 1970s it had sold something like 10 million copies.
People don’t talk about Dune much anymore. Maybe Star Wars and its progeny were just as adept at capturing people’s imaginations in a more easily digestible format. Maybe time has taken its toll on the entire genre of science fiction itself – something which seemed so fresh and new in the 60s. Popular Mechanics -- with its frequent drawings of the personal flying pod of the future – was a top-selling magazine back then.
But Dune is so much more than just a science fiction tale. Herbert’s rendering of Arrakis, the water-starved planet which is the new home of protagonist Paul Atreides, is nothing short of astonishing. Unlike any other book I’ve known, the human story is driven by, and consistent with, the salient details of life on this harsh planet. It is deeply satisfying. To cut to the chase, if you might take pleasure in simultaneously contemplating natural ecology, the human condition and the butterfly effect, you will delight in Dune.
Now, to be clear, Dune is a difficult book. You will need to bookmark the glossary in back and make frequent forays there, at first. If you are the type who needs to understand everything you read when you read it, Dune is not for you. It is only after an understanding of Arrakis blossoms in your conscience that you will enjoy this book. But by then, the story will be cranked into high gear and you may feel adrenaline coursing through your veins as you turn pages. The story unfolds quickly, but I think Herbert did that on purpose, to shorten the already lengthy tome (500+ pages), and to set up sequels (there are many).
There are so many themes upon which to reflect that I can’t possibly do justice to any of them here. But there is one particular aspect of the book which deserves attention, because of the way that it subtly, and often probably unnoticeably, runs counter to the modern reader’s environmental sensibilities.
As I’ve mentioned, Mother Nature is a leading character in Dune (I’d call her Gaia if Dune were set on Earth). Those who do not both understand and respect her are destined for an ignominious and sometimes violent end. The primary feature of life on Arrakis which gives Mother Nature her domineering power is lack of water. The humans which are able to exist most comfortably in this desiccated landscape have developed sophisticated techniques for collecting, securing and storing water. They plant grasses on the leeward side of huge sand dunes which collect dew in the morning and provide a few drops of water each. They wear suits which trap the evaporation of their own sweat, process out the salts and deliver the remainder back to their mouths via a small tube. And they dig massive underground tunnels to store water in such a way that it cannot evaporate at all.
These methods work sufficiently well for a race of humans (the Fremen) to live on Arrakis without importing goods from other planets. But the Fremen are unsatisfied. Life, for generation after generation, has been an unrelenting struggle. A myth develops, and grows over these generations, that a savior will appear. This savior will be blessed with unprecedented mental powers which give him unmatched political capabilities and a scrappy but domineering military intuition. But more important than politics, might, or even water, is the savior’s plan.
The plan is not for some cataclysmic event, but rather for a slow progression, over millennia, to transform Arrakis from a parched, sand strewn hell hole into an abundant, nurturing Eden. The plan is based on hope: hope that humans, by effecting small, incremental changes over long periods of time, will be able to fundamentally change the ecology of Arrakis. To create water and clouds where none previously existed. Those grasses on the backside of dunes will beget ever larger vegetation, which will trap yet more precipitation, which can then be used to support yet more life and accelerate the cycle of water, and thus life.
The power of Paul Atreides was nothing less than the hope of transforming the ecology of Arrakis into one which would be hospitable to humans. And this hope was to be planned and carried out by humans, not Mother Nature.
And yet Dune is most often touted as an ecological masterpiece. How could a story of human intervention to fundamentally change the nature of existence ever be characterized as an ecological masterpiece? I would argue that Dune is more of a humanist masterpiece than an ecological one.
The short answer, for me, is that in 1965, mankind was just on the cusp of achieving real material prosperity in the United States. There weren’t yet washing machines and Cuisinarts in every household. People had to do such nasty things as wash their own clothes and cook meals from real food that was expensive to acquire and difficult to prepare into something tasty. Nature, in all its forms, was still something which required mastery by men. So it was still natural that mankind, when faced with hardship from Mother Nature, would seek to master her.
And yet today, our inclination is exactly the opposite. We cringe every time we impose a cost on mother earth, even as we do it. The themes for exploration and exposition here are limitless, and there is no way that I can even begin to describe them, much less resolve them on this lowly blog. So I simply leave you with a recommendation:
Read Dune. Then come over to our house, and let’s open a bottle of wine and attempt to figure out all the world’s problems.
PS: As I was about half-way through the drafting of this blog post, I happened to read the Afterword, written by Herbert’s only son Brian. Here is the opening:
“I knew Frank Herbert for more than thirty-eight years. He was a magnificent human being, a man of great honor and distinction, and the most interesting person at any gathering, drawing listeners around him like a magnet…”
Coincidence? Yes, but not really.
Friday, December 19, 2014
If you are not averse to suffering, both your own and another’s, I highly recommend The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. It is the story of a brilliant but impoverished son of an unwed mother and an incarcerated father near Newark, NJ who defies the odds to matriculate at Yale. After graduating with honors and a degree in Molecular Biology and Biophysics, he returns to Newark on a temporary way-stop to a new life. A series of unfortunate decisions sees him still in Newark ten years later, increasingly involved in the drug trade, where he meets an untimely but not wholly unsurprising end.
Perhaps because it is a true story, this is the most moving book that I’ve ever read. I wept. As much for Robert, I wept for Jackie, his mother, especially when it became clear that she was resolute in her grieving, as if she expected it all along; as if she knew that even a Yale degree could not protect a young man from the ravages of the ‘hood.
Robert Peace’s tragedy was so complete that it could not have been crafted more artfully by Shakespeare. And here I am talking about the story itself, not Hobbs’ rendering of it. The writing is only average. The prose is often clunky and overwrought, as if Hobbs is trying more to prove what a fine writer Hobbs is, rather than what a tragic character Peace was. When you read the story, you’ll understand why, as it is partly autobiographical: Hobbs was Peace’s roommate for four years at Yale. But while the prose’s averageness detracts from the story, it won’t make you stop reading. You can’t. You’ll be drawn inexorably toward its grim conclusion.
The book has spawned a plethora of blogposts, editorials and book reviews. They are all trying to figure out what the story means. Why did Robert Peace have to die a violent, drug-related death?
There are so many issues to tease out that it’s impossible to know where to begin. Peace’s tale is woven with issues of race, poverty, education, privilege, culture, family, friendship and loyalty. It transports us through an always interesting, sometimes confounding series of events, all of which seem to point toward a singular, desolate conclusion.
Some are tempted to conclude, as does Peace’s mother Jackie, that the ‘hood exerts too strong a hold on its inhabitants to allow escape. That, more specifically, the barriers which are placed at the edges of such a place - cultural, monetary, sartorial - are so great that they cannot be scaled. And once caught inside, young men are given only two options in the long-term: incarceration or violent death.
Others are tempted to conclude that our political and economic systems are to blame; that if only we could provide more education, more housing and food, more comfort to those unlucky enough to live in a place like Peace’s neighborhood, people would find their own way out or the neighborhood itself would be changed for the better.
For the first conclusion to be true, however, we must be shown that it cannot have been any other way. But the book refutes this conclusion by relating the story of Oswaldo Gutierrez, also a Newark-bred Yale graduate, and friend of Peace. By the end of the book, Gutierrez was at Harvard Medical School, firmly on his way to a comfortable life as a physician. Gutierrez finally spurns Peace when he learns of the completeness of Peace’s regression.
Perhaps there is some truth to the second theory. But in the case of Peace, this argument is insufficient. Because in reality, Peace found all the resources he needed: the monks at St. Benedict’s high school; his water polo coach; his mother and even his incarcerated father; and finally, a wealthy benefactor. The combination of these people and resources were enough to get him up and out to Yale. But then he came back, and ultimately forsook everything they had given him.
No, in my estimation the answer to the riddle of Robert Peace is much simpler. The answer has nothing to do with race or poverty or culture, although each of these things was a precondition to the tragedy. No, this is not so much a story about a race or culture as it is about a person.
Because people are different. For one, different people have different tolerances for risk. Not unimportantly, they also derive different amounts of pleasure from being high. They also tend to operate at different levels of competency while stoned. Robert Peace was a risk-tolerant young man who liked to smoke pot, and who operated at a very high level while stoned - high enough, apparently, to graduate with honors from Yale even though he was stoned a good part of his time there.
It is helpful, I think, to the ponder the question from the other direction. To what extent are Peace’s cultural opposites - white, wealthy, well-educated legacies from stable families in stable geographies - inclined toward the kinds of pursuits which ultimately got Peace into trouble? While it’s dangerous to generalize from personal experience, I must admit that I know more than one of these types who, pistol pointed at their heads while engaged in a drug buy in the ‘hood, were one wrong word away from a fate similar to Peace’s. And without resorting to any statistics, I think that we can all conclude that devastation wrought by substance abuse does not limit itself to the underclass.
Indeed there are plenty of instances where the wealthy are brought down by their various addictions. My grandmother used to call it "affluenza." She had some experience, as certain of her own male family relations suffered from it. Just like young men in the ‘hood have varying predilections (or not) for the seamier side of life there, so do the rest of us in our own sphere.
And in the end, that’s why this was a tragedy. All the most important elements of Peace’s demise were present inside him the whole time. We already know that Gutierrez made it out - why didn’t Peace? Well, because he wouldn’t let himself get out. The tragedy, in this case, was all the more compelling because of those preconditions I mentioned earlier. Throughout the story, we cheered for Robert and his unlikely successes. Like Gutierrez, we positively yearned for Peace to just get the hell out, to set up shop somewhere safe and comforting. Alas, he didn’t, and it breaks the heart.
Monday, May 5, 2014
“What are you doing this summer?”
“What?” I asked, somewhat confused by the question.
“What are you doing this summer?,” my advisor asked again, as he opened the door to the room. We didn’t have time to finish the conversation because we were late. He led me into a small chamber in Connecticut Hall, which was empty except for a long table. He sat me down on one side. The chair of the Yale philosophy department sat on the other. My advisor settled into a seat next to her.
I’d received an urgent message from him the day before saying that we had to meet about my senior essay. I figured he needed an extra copy or something. I was relaxed as I headed over to the philosophy department that spring morning.
The presence of the department chair, whom I’d never met, made me a little nervous. She didn’t say hello, just looked down at some papers stacked on the table. My advisor hurriedly thanked me for coming on such late notice. He said they just wanted to spend some time asking me about my senior essay.
That was odd. While quite an undertaking - my paper was 50 or 60 pages - the Yale senior essay was just that: an essay. It did not require a verbal defense they way a PhD thesis does. I was confused.
Very carefully, the department chair began to ask me questions about the essay: where did I come up with the idea; what sources did I consult; how did I develop certain premises; etc. I tried to maintain an air of confidence and answered as eloquently as I could. This was proving difficult, because I was increasingly becoming discomfited by the rank hatred that seemed to be emanating from the chair’s demeanor. While there wasn’t anything overtly accusatory in her questions, she spoke with such passive aggression that I felt like any moment she was going to bring out a club and start striking me with it.
Then it dawned on me what the question about summer meant. They were going to fail me. I started to sweat profusely, and I became quite upset. Well, yes - yes, I had plans for this summer! I planned to party! The thought of hanging around New Haven all summer, alone, rewriting a philosophy essay was simply too much to bear. Furthermore, my parents were scheduled to show up in a few days for parties and commencement. Was I supposed to call them and say don’t come, I’m not graduating?
In essence, my paper was about the very foundations of morality. In it, I questioned whether a tendency to engage in moral behavior is not innate. Indeed, I proposed that perhaps this tendency is so innate that it could be better described as genetic and heritable.
It was 1990, only 15 years after E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. I was enthralled by Wilson and his colleagues in the burgeoning field of sociobiology. They were subjecting all manner of odd behavior from the animal world to a series of tests based on fitness for a species, and coming up with all sorts of satisfactory answers about why creatures do various things.
For me, as a philosophy major, it was just a short step from the behaviors studied by biologists and sociologists to the moral behaviors studied by philosophers. If one of Wilson’s examples of quirky behavior could be explained as being beneficial to a species, then why not empathy, or even better, altruism - that behavior which has confounded philosophers for millennia? Both, it seemed to me, could be argued to be beneficial to the human species. So I set out to argue.
I tried to read up on the subject, but there really was no subject yet. I found an odd, little-published philosopher at a small school in Minnesota who’d written a few things on similar topics, and I found lots of biologists and sociologists who were making sweeping claims about their field’s ability to expound upon the human condition. But I found no moral philosophers who had previously trod this ground.
Undeterred, I set out to create the thesis on my own. I argued from Hobbes’s state of nature that there were indeed uncountable ways that empathy, altruism and the other moral guideposts could be beneficial to the human species. From that, I made the perhaps lofty leap to propose that such proclivities could be present in lesser or greater degrees within each human’s composition. Tying these doctrines all together, I proposed that a moral sensibility is now the birthright of every human being, as the rightful heir to millions of years of selection amongst these degrees.
I had an early indication that the topic was controversial. I’d completed a first draft before Christmas and submitted it to my advisor for commentary. We met for lunch early in January. Up until that point, I’d considered this professor to be both a friend and a trusted advisor. He sat down, looked over at me and said in a most unfriendly manner, “Well, you have two options: either you can pick a new topic, or you can get a new advisor.” I was a little stunned. I asked him if I could refer him to some material that might help make my case and he said “Umm….. no.” I was even more stunned.
But I wasn’t listening. The alternatives were too much work. I’d already poured my soul into this paper and I certainly wasn’t going to start over. I assured him that, whatever was causing him to dislike my paper, I’d fix it. I’d make it hum and shine. He needn’t worry.
I never called him again. I was fully engaged in senior spring. I spent the remaining five months trying to spruce up the essay, but at the end of the semester I turned it in looking a fair bit like the first draft.
The inquisition lasted about twenty minutes. At one point, the department chair turned to my advisor and sort of nodded her head. My advisor said that would be enough, please wait outside, they’d like some time alone to discuss.
I sat hyperventilating in the chamber’s entryway. I started to practice what I would say to my parents. I thought of my grandfather, oldest living progenitor of our Yale legacy, and how disappointed he would be. It felt like someone had opened up my stomach and placed a thirty pound hunk of iron in there.
The door opened and my advisor asked me to enter and sit. The table between the three of us was empty. He said “We’d like to give you an opportunity to summarize your paper. Do you have any final words you’d like to offer?” I did my best to summarize. Instinctually, I softened the thrust of my arguments, saying simply that humans had an innate tendency toward moral behavior. When I finished, they asked me to leave the room once again.
The next five minutes in the entryway felt like an hour. When I finally returned, the department chair was gone, presumably having left through another door. My paper sat on the table between me and my advisor. My heart thumped.
We sat in silence for a moment. Finally, he pushed the paper across the table and said “Congratulations, you passed.” I picked up the paper and saw a big, red C+ scratched on the title page.
“It was your closing statement that saved you. The department was going to fail you. When you said that humans tend toward moral behavior, that really helped,” he said. He thanked me again for coming to the meeting and said he was sorry it had to work out like this. We shook hands and I left.
I thumbed through the paper as I walked back to my room in Saybrook. It was curiously devoid of any red markings, as if the readers hadn’t really paid any attention to it. I got back to my room and tucked it away until after graduation. Some weeks later, late at night in a fit of pique, I burned it. I haven’t seen it since.
I think about the affair often. Age and wisdom have given me a number of insights into the process. At the time, the whole thing seemed unfair. Rather than analyze my paper on its merits, judging whether my arguments made sense and whether one followed from another, it seemed like my paper’s graders objected to it on principle. It might have been the finest philosophy paper the department had ever seen (unlikely), but since it didn’t comport with the professors’ views of the world, it never even merited consideration. That’s why there weren’t any markings on the paper.
Now, knowing more about the likely orientation of the Yale philosophy department of the time, I can see why such a paper might have been received so derisively. Those professors had probably spent entire careers constructing towers of moral theory based on first principles akin to Rawlsian Justice. If there was any truth to it, the thesis outlined in my paper would have utterly destroyed the foundation of all of those towers. They had every reason to be wary at least.
Still, they should have judged the paper on its merits. And the fervor of the department chair’s inquisition was also unfounded. Who was I? Just a lowly undergraduate... Surely I wasn’t any threat to anyone. Why treat me so harshly?
It is no secret that the Yale philosophy department of the late 80’s and early 90’s was a mess. It had been devastated by professional disagreements and there were rumors of infighting and mudslinging. There had been a raft of high-profile departures, and the department chair was relatively new. It’s possible that her claws had been sharpened over the prior few years and she’d learned to be aggressive if ever cornered, no matter how serious the threat. Still, I was an ignorant and naive 21 year old. The treatment was mean-spirited at best.
Now It is all a distant, hazy memory. I think of it whenever I see anyone present a link, however tenuous, between morality and biology, an increasingly frequent occurrence.
Imagine my surprise and delight last week when I received the following invitation from the Yale Club of Central New Jersey:
You are cordially invited to our Annual Meeting and Dinner to be held on
Thursday, May 15, 2014
6:15 pm cash bar - 7:00 pm dinner & speaker
Speaker: Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University
Topic: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
“A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.”
Admittedly, this is a psychology professor, not a philosophy professor. And certainly they have not passed judgment on my actual senior essay. But here, Yale itself is explicitly confirming at least the legitimacy of my thesis. It’s just 24 years too late.
And so, I have only a single comment: Redemption! Let the parties begin!
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
• Spoiled Brats?: In the first half of our trip, we travelled to and around Korea, generally flying on Korean Airlines. The flights were on-time and the people were quiet, friendly and polite. Lines, boardings, and customs and immigration dealings were efficient and agreeable. If not pleasant, travel was at least hassle-free. Except for the Kimchee, life was good. Halfway through the week we flew to Jeju (more on that later), and transferred to Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines. We were then surrounded by Chinese people on a Chinese airline. Immediately, I noticed a difference. The plane was late. Boarding was a nightmare. People hogged the armrest and left knees akimbo. You got knocked in the teeth by elbows as people wrestled their bags free, trying to beat you to deplane. If you missed your chance leave your row and walk down the aisle, you’d better wait until the plane was empty, lest you be trampled to death like a college kid at a Who concert. People ran over your toes with their luggage carts as they jockeyed to get through customs. We breathed a sigh of relief as we finally stepped into the van taking us to the plant.
I was travelling with five or six colleagues and everyone noted it after we’d arrived in Kunshan later that day. I chalked it up to Chinese air traveler’s recent emergence from the third world. Most of the people on that plane were less than one generation away from poverty – perhaps they were just used to fighting for everything they had. Later at dinner, I was assured by numerous colleagues, including several Chinese, that something else was at work. It was the One Child policy, they said. China had brought up two generations of spoiled brats. Every person under about forty years old had been coddled by their parents into thinking that everything was theirs for the taking. It’s an interesting theory, and one which I’d heard several times before. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between, plus a little bit of many other things.
• Who is that Speckled Man?: Long business trips merit careful packing. Clean clothing is a valuable commodity. You need to keep yourself tidy. Unfortunately, I’m still a bit of a novice with the chopsticks. I’m getting better with each trip, and most of the time, it’s not much of problem. But there are certain foods which like to skitter out of my grasp rather than cooperate all the way into my mouth. Kimchee, boiled peanuts, peas and fried rice present a particular challenge. Some of these are the less threatening of Asian foods, so often I really want to get them into my rumbling tummy. But they’re often coated with a sauce or film of some sort, so when they end up in my lap, they leave a little mark. Napkins don’t rest in one’s lap in Asia, they rest next to the plate. I end up with little dots on my pants.
My shirts fared even worse. Three weeks ago while performing some final Sandy tree clearing at home, I chainsawed through several flourishing poison ivy vines. I was wearing shorts and an old holy shirt, so the self-created urushiol froth had unfettered access to pretty much all of me. My left arm was devastated and required Prednisone to clear up the blistering, oozing mess. This was accomplished on vacation before I left. But the rest of my body was covered with hundreds of itchy little sores that persisted well into the Asia trip. I’d wake up at night to find myself scratching the skin off my body like a heroin addict. As a result, a good many of those sores turned into tiny little scabs. In the daytime, the combination of the ungodly heat, the insufferable humidity, and the binding business clothing turned my itchiness into an exquisite torture. Sometimes I had no choice but to scratch all over again. This made the tiny scabs bleed a tiny bit. My nice white shirts became speckled with blood. I’d like to think I matched at least, with polka dots on both the top and bottom.
We were in Korea and China for a multi-day board meeting for one of our companies with plants in several Asian cities. Sometimes I like to fantasize that I cut an imposing figure in the boardroom. Alas, it’s quite impossible to be imposing while speckled with blood and foodbits.
• The China Miracle: I continue to be awed by the continuing investment in China. I’ve always been impressed by the huge skyscrapers in Pudong and the edges of Beijing, but I’ve never before appreciated the breadth of modern development.
That said, evidence of a real estate bubble abounds. As one travels around China, particularly in smaller cities (2-10 million people), it is not uncommon to find real estate housing developments consisting of ten to twenty skyscrapers, all complete and ready to go, with nary a lighted window at night. The apartments are all empty. To make matters worse, just down the road is another development under construction, with twenty cranes piling up these monster buildings as fast as the steel can be transported to the site. And down the road, another, and then another. And while the new buildings in city centers were initially filled by locals who’d already acquired middle class status, these new projects are presumably to be filled with people imported from the countryside. But these people are still desperately poor, and it’s entirely unclear whether they could ever afford the apartments being built for them. It’s a vexing conundrum, and seems unlikely to end well. Something’s got to give. But given the monolithic nature of China, its politics and its economics, I’m not sure there’s an economist in the world who can honestly tell us what a real estate bubble would mean to China and the rest of the world. Perhaps they can manage through it.
• Holiday Fun: For some reason, the travel gods routed us through the island of Jeju on our way from Korea to China. Jeju is the Asian equivalent of our Hawaii: a mountainous, volcanic island in the middle of the sea, surrounded by crystal clear blue water and inviting beaches.
• Bicycles, China-Style: The General Manager of our plant in Kunshan somehow scored a private tour of the Giant Bicycle manufacturing plant for me.