Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Way NH Used To Be

Remembering No More Dead Dogs and A Dog Called Kitty reminded me of the Great Stone Face Award, NH's annual contest for best children's book, voted on by 4th-6th graders. My wife ran this for a few years in the 1980's, a labor-intensive task at the time. In that era, children voted on paper ballots for whatever they wished. The thousands of ballots were sent to our house, where we sorted through them by hand.

It was ultra-democratic, and quite charming. There would be the occasional vote for Moby Dick or Oliver Twist (rather doubtful), and confusing votes for "Narnia," "Babysitter's Club," or "Sweet Valley" that were difficult to assign. But every kid could vote for whatever he damn well pleased, unlike other states, which often gave their awards on the basis of committees of adults. Heck, you've got the Newbery for that. Hundreds of titles got a mention, having one last day of minor fame before gradually slipping beneath the waves.

Either one year or two after Tracy stopped doing it, the format changed to a short list of newer books that the children could choose from. This struck me as great loss for independence of thought.

New Hampshire is one of the few places that still has town meeting, though fewer every year. That also is ultra-democratic, in which any citizen can get up and address his fellow townspeople about issues of concern to them all.

The Hew Hampshire presidential primary every four years used to have all manner of candidates. When I was in high school, a Hawaiian king and his multiple wives (in odd-fitting grass skirts) came to speak at one of our assemblies, Harold Stassen had a perpetual candidacy, and all manner of crusaders, manics, and reformers came through. I think it is technically still true that a very low number of signatures and a nominal fee can get you on the ballot, but the change in media culture makes it less likely they will spend much time here. They can reach more people with a website and test the waters that way.

Are we seeing a common thread here? I have lauded this approach and my state's culture in the past, referencing it as one of the last places where democracy/independence/eccentricity still functions. Yet looking at the results, I'm not sure the old ways are the best ways. In the era that students could vote for whatever book they wanted, Judy Blume won eight years out of ten, with Superfudge winning five years in a row. Any system which creates that result should be scrapped - especially if it's Judy Blume we're talking about here. More choice has led to less choice. As for this year's winner, I have no doubt that the dog dies in the end. 

Considering town meeting, we always imagine it will be like this

and fear it will be like this.

Having been to my share, let me assure you that it's more like this.
Though there is at least some pointless ranting every year as well.

As for the primary, I'm not sure that seeing either the Hawaiian king or Harold Stassen provided much value-added. I suppose there was some advantage to the mere illustration Yes it's true. Anyone can run for president here. It's a good thought to know in the back of one's mind.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Throwing Things

Rapper 50 Cent did a terrible job of throwing a ceremonial first pitch for the Mets.  I have terrible accuracy throwing - baseballs, snowballs, darts, anything - but would not do this badly.  Most American girls, putting the wrong foot forward and not used to throwing overhand, would still do better than this.

It causes me to wonder if the baseball culture of America produces better throwers of small objects, so that even below-average Americans are far better than throwers of other nations.  I don't even want to get into spears and atlatls, thanks, though you can if something clever occurs to you.  It intrigues me because of hobbits, known for their ability to throw stones accurately.  Tolkien did not come from a baseball culture. But he did come from a cricket culture, another overhand-throwing sport.  Jamaica, where 50 Cent is from, does have cricket but has never been big in the sport, even on a local, West Indies level.

I wonder if Tollers, though not an especial cricket fan, just naturally thought that boys, and thus hobbits, grow up throwing hard objects and imputed that ability to his fictional race, even though it is an unusual ability historically and geographically.  It carried over into the D&D rules, where halflings continue to get a racial bonus in throwing.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Get A Grip

Reading the comments around Red Sox Nation.

Yes, it hurts that Josh Beckett pitches this no-hitter just as we are careening off into oblivion.  But get a grip.  He went 0-5 last year and cost a lot of money.  If we had had him, we wouldn't have won the WS.  Tip your hat, move on.

Lack of Editing

Today's sermon was "Does God Heal Today?"  The following song was "Never Once."  I love it when missteps like that invade our lives.

It was a good sermon and a good song, though.

BTW, my own personal observation is that healing seems to take place mostly in the context of community, not atomised, separated, individual events.  I know of exceptions, and I don't declare it as doctrine - it just seems to work that way more often.

"On Not Being CS Lewis" Link

I could embed the video, but prefer you see the interesting Mockingbird site it comes from.

Have I backed the wrong horse all along?

I took it personally and painfully at first, and still think there is much to it.  But second and third thoughts have caused me to question parts of it.  I'd rather the few folks who have the energy to catch the video in full do so before I comment.  I recommend skipping the Q & A section at the end, BTW.

HT:  Dubbahdee over at Necat Draco

Patriotism in Worship

Just mentioning again, apropos of Memorial Day, that I dislike any mix of patriotism with worship.  I think patriotism is great.  I am not one of those who believes that one-world or transnational philosophies are more Christian than nationalist ones.  They both stand mostly outside the faith, but I lean toward the nationalist ones for complicated reasons.

There is cultural overlap between the patriotic and Christian threads in American society.  This is mostly of the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend variety, however.  There are those who loudly hate both patriotism and Christian faith, driving the two idea groups together.  But that is a lack of clarity that must be resisted.  Worship is worship of a God beyond all our local, temporary attachments. That is orders of magnitude more important than any tribe or nation. I think America is the best grouping in the history of mankind.  (Its only competitors in greatness are its sister nations of Anglospheric colonies and perhaps, other groupings derived from NW European cultures.)

Yet there will be no America in heaven.  There may be little memory of it, or none.  Human beings are eternal; worldly arrangements are so insubstantial as to be mere mist.  Our time-bound perspective causes us to think of our poor selves as temporary and our nation and ideals as long-term.  The opposite is true.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Dog Called Kitty

To understand the family story about A Dog Called Kitty, one has to start with Korman's excellent mockery of the doggie genre, above.  A student is punished for writing a critical book report of the English teacher's favorite book, Old Shep, My Pal - which the drama club also has in rehearsal. "How did you know the dog dies in the end?"  "If you see a book with a dog on the cover and one of those medallions that shows it won an award, that dog is going down!"

True, that.

When Ben was a HS senior, he had a crush on a girl a few years younger.  She was less enamored of him, but friendly, at least.  They weren't hitting it off, weren't clicking, so Ben suggested that if each read each other's favorite childhood book, they might understand each other better.  He handed her Watership Down.  She thought it was okay.  She handed him A Dog Called Kitty.

Ben dutifully read it, then described it to us. After the usual poignancy of boy and dog not meshing at first but then becoming utterly devoted to each other (rather a precursor to rom-com movies, when you think of it) there is of course great danger, and the dog dies. Ben is now giggling as he tells it.

Here's the thing: the dog doesn't die in the heroic scene of great danger, during the rescue.  The dog lives through that.  Ben cannot go on, has to stop and compose himself. Kitty dies in the next chapter, by accident, when an oil pipeline piece falls off a truck randomly, killing him as he's running along the road (Those darn oil companies!). How can any writer misunderstand the genre so thoroughly as to do that?

"I sure loved Kitty. That's why it tore me up so much when he died."

We nodded at each other.  "I have to tell you, Ben.  This is not the girl for you."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Post 4400: 1493 by Charles C Mann

This has already joined Souls on Fire, Nine Nations of North America and Albion’s Seed as books which changed my entire framework for viewing things

Mann’s earlier book, 1491, upended much of what is commonly taught about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.  I had known some of it; there was more I should have put together from pieces I did know; much was entirely new.  Short version: the effect of European diseases on the Native Americans, particularly in the areas settled by the Spanish and Portuguese, was far more profound than anything we had been taught in school. They wiped out 90%, perhaps even 95%, of the population.  Secondly, we continue to discover entire civilisations that were unheard of even a few decades ago, in the Andes, in the Amazon, in Mexico.  I reviewed it a few years ago, and followed up on that last year.

But upending pre-Colombian understanding is a smallish thing.  Few of us speak much of that, or connect it to our own history, physical or intellectual. The history of the world after 1500, especially in Europe and North America, is part of our intellectual furniture. It includes much that we use to define ourselves, our culture, and our enemies.  We discuss ourselves in a world connected to Martin Luther, Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Jefferson, and Isaac Newton.  Battles, royal successions, great thinkers, scientific advances – these are the influences that made our world.


Mann would rate their influence far lower, seeing them as riding atop deep currents that drove the actions of leaders.  From the moment the Columbian Exchange started in 1492, it changed the world.  Silver – vast piles of it from Potosi, far and away the richest city in the world.  Had you heard of it?  Me neither. It was in in the Andes, and its hiccoughs brought down the Ming empire in  China and bankrupted Spain - the two most powerful entities in the world.  Now unremembered. Mosquitos – and the differences among them – may have fueled most of the African slave trade and drawn our Mason-Dixon line for us, as well as extending a one-year Civil War on for four years.  Potatoes and sweet potatoes, tobacco, guano, beer and wine, horses, epidemics – these were the main players on the stage, driving the human decisions in ways we still have difficulty understanding. Our actions did not mean nothing, but neither were individuals of much influence, save by accident.

It upends everything you thought you knew.  You will never read world history from 1500, including the parts you thought you knew well, in the same way again.  It does not contradict what was known before so much as swamps it in newer, larger concepts.  Time and again I nodded to myself “I knew that.  Why did I not make the connection?”  It is strong evidence of the ability of narrative (as well as counternarrative and amendments) to channel our thought. 

What you know is still there, just pushed a few rows back. Northwest Europe colonised the world and became rich because of a few crops which allowed it to eliminate years of complete famine. That changed trade, acquisition, science, mortality, weaponry. That may be most of history. Is that an oversimplification and a bit of a stretch?  Absolutely.  Does it make as least as much sense as my previous understanding?  Probably.

Mann himself says "...any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S tuberosum should be ignored." So there.

People interested in environmental issues will have much to consider as well.  Mann declares that both the catastrophists and the free marketers are right, and provides a lot of information either could use to advance their arguments.  He concludes that the unregulated exchange and the free movement of goods across the world has indeed made humanity much more prosperous.  But it has also caused famines, epidemics, wars, and other suffering.  For those who worry that intensive agricultural practices might cause ecological collapse, Mann would say it already has.  Lots of times.  Yet he also gives evidence that it has fed the world, brought huge swaths of humanity into comfortable existences undreamed of before, and improved our cooperation and goodwill.  Both are true.  We won’t be able to keep our old assurances quite intact, none of us.  Okay, lots of us will anyway, because we will only keep the parts we like.  Yet I think even the most stubborn and polarised will pause.

There is also a lot here for those who wish to understand how the Far Eastern trade 1500-1900, both with Europe and the west coast of South America, connects with events we are more familiar with.

Removing The Means Of Suicide

Training today on suicide prevention by removing means. Take away points: suicide is turning out to be much more impulsive than thought.  Even those who think about it for months describe decision-points of “less than an hour” (70%) including “less than 5 minutes” (27%) at the end.  Interrupting them during that time reduces suicides 90%.  Therefore, removing the means even temporarily – locking up the pills, getting the guns to an uncle’s house, taking the keys to the car, etc – has enormous effect. Somehow an interruption breaks the spell.

Bonus: sometimes the family is frozen and the suicidal person is the best one to make the move to remove the means.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Narcissistic, Also Racist

A police official in Wolfeboro recently made offensive racial remarks. It torqued people off more because the remarks were about Obama, but to my mind it would be about the same if he said the same about the kid next door. He used the word nigger, and would not apologise because “he meets or exceeds my definition of the word.” Everyone focussed on the racism, because that’s considered the worst sin to have currently, and we want to hit bad people with our top criticism. But I like paying attention to words and what they reveal about the thinking underneath. I believe that people reveal what they really mean eventually if you let them go on long enough.

 I wrote something similar about NFL-player Riley Cooper, who seemed to be using racial insult instrumentally to get his way and wound as much as possible. I saw that as different from racism, and probably worse. The police official’s comments may also be something worse than racism, though in yet another direction.

 Note to new readers: It’s important to try and wrap your head around the idea that racism isn’t the worst of sins, nor is homophobia, intolerance, sexism, or the other favored Top Sins of our era. I admit it is initially counterintuitive, because there are decent historical and cultural reasons for their prominence, and it’s the world you grew up in and absorbed. But racists are just the regular old garden-variety sinners that Jesus ate with all the time.* His anger was directed more at folks like the celebrities and politicians of our day who make a great show of supporting Good Causes – suspiciously, always the fashionable ones (see Matthew 6.) You know, folks who you and I usually applaud for caring so much, bringing attention to important issues, devoting their time, and providing leadership. Those folks tread on dangerous ground. We should be glad we don’t have to face their temptations to self-righteousness, because few come out unscathed.

 Back to Wolfeboro. The offending official claims he is not a racist, because he doesn’t think all black people are niggers, he likes some just fine. It’s not surprising that people don’t want to be thought of as having society’s worst sin, because that would make them one of society’s worst people. But the reasoning is always of that form. I’m not a bad driver, because I never drink and drive and I keep both hands on the wheel. Well, great about the sobriety and paying attention, Chumley, but you were driving 90mph through a school zone, so you’re a bad driver. But this having a personal definition of important words has a narcissism about it that’s worse than racism. It would be easy to dismiss word usage as a comically minor infraction, but if one expands the examples, I think you will take my point. Abusers often have idiosyncratic, troubling definitions of what love is; sexual perpetrators of what consent means; violent people of what justice is. I am not one who believes that bad definitions create bad behavior so much as that bad thinking reveals itself in bad definitions. Narcissists don’t get it. They don’t share in the general pool of knowledge, because at some level they choose to regard their own internal impressions as more important than our shared humanity.

 The individual in question might be reasonable, even humble or deferent, in other areas of interaction. That isn’t usually the case – general arrogance is more likely. But it does happen that people are narcissistic in few areas, or only one. I make no comment about him in any other opinions. He qualifies as racist because it is pretty generally known that black people dislike the word nigger coming out of the mouths of white people for any reason. (Yes one can find or imagine the occasional counterexample. Irrelevant.) If you haven’t picked that up yet, your claims of respecting some black people are just empty. You missed one of their big-ticket items.

But he’s not racist so much as Narcissistic, Also Racist. Much more worrisome.

Tangent: There may have been times and places years ago when the distinction the police official made was more common. I remember a person being shouted down in the 60’s who was trying to make that claim “I say there are two kinds of black people in the country. Some are niggers…” An occasional person spoke like that when I was in Virginia in the 70’s. I recall Senator Byrd, who was much older than I, talking about having known many “white niggers” as late as 2001, which seems a related distinction. But it’s not a distinction I have any understanding of, so I can’t shed any light on it. I’d be pretty suspicious of it no matter how far back we’re talking about. I wrote about nigger not long ago.

 *I know, the popular representation of those are people who like to party, and drink, and flirt, dance, gamble, dress sexy, and make jokes and have a good time – what prudes call “sinners,” but actually the best sort of people. It allows society to completely redraw Jesus in its own image. The theological version is to think that Jesus had some special affinity for outcasts, to import all that American mythology. Pure rubbish, but powerful rubbish, because we like to redraw Jesus in our own image that way as well. We can blame Hollywood or New York or Nashville, but it’s us.

Mere Cat

Thank you, Erin.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Social Justice

A Person Of Influence where I work has become increasingly fond of referring to our obligation to social justice in our hospital's ethical decisions. I dislike this on a number of grounds.  First, the preening, in a Matthew 6 manner, is increasingly obvious.  He is justifying the injection of some of his favorite political ideas into the discussion and attempting to secure the high moral ground with this. 

Some of us who are evangelicals develop a particular sensitivity to those tones of self-righteousness, having heard them both in church and out.  Celebrities and politicians engage in these displays for Causes all the time.  It's pretty irritating.  It's even more irritating when you are right in the room with it.

Second, I dislike all modifiers to simple moral words like justice.  Like the authors who needed to point out that they were True Patriots, or Christians who try to grab the inside rail in giving their brands of the faith particular titles*, much mischief gets smuggled in. What's wrong with simple justice, patriotism, or Christianity? If you have to dress it up, I immediately suspect a disguise. Modifiers tend to signal that we are actually going to be ignoring the basic model of justice in favor of something we like better. By focusing our attention on certain aspects of justice, it necessarily shoves others into the background. That is only one step away from allowing injustice at that point, because we have a supposedly higher justice overruling it.

Not that we noticed, of course.

Thirdly, this is especially true of that modifier social when applied to justice. It turns out to mean "fashionable" or "popular" justice. I don't say that to condemn everything that comes to us under the heading of Social Justice.  Well-meaning people, some good things, all that. But it is precisely the type of language we use to deceive ourselves, on the way to deceiving others.

The Person of Influence and one of his public references to social justice got put in his place, providing an example of how "social" justice can be used to disguise injustice.  I don't think he noticed how badly he got schooled, but others did. We were discussing at Schwartz Rounds a patient who had badly injured multiple staff members, some of whom were out for months.  He was inadequately medicated because his father, a physician, was convinced that the boy had shown symptoms of NMS on a previous admission, and refused to allow antipsychotics.  There was in fact no evidence for NMS, and psychiatry is not the physician's specialty.  His belief was in fact bizarre, tied into his denial of his own symptoms.

The discussion centered around the line staff's impression that the father/guardian/physician had the ear of hospital administration to an unhealthy degree.  The appearance was that he had unprecedented access and influence, while staff members of lesser rank continued to be assaulted, put out of work, and in two cases, permanently injured. 

Several physicians in the audience weighed in on the discussion, as they often do. Their comments were indeed valuable and intelligent.  Then the P of I brought up how important it was that we kept social justice in mind in discussing ethical matters.  No one was quite sure what he was referring to in this context, actually.  But it struck a chord in one of the nurses, who sweetly and firmly jumped in: "Yes, I'm glad you said that.  We had several discussions on the unit of whether this situation might have been different if it were a nurse's son, or a mental health worker's son."

Yeah, that actually does come under the heading of "social justice," dunnit? Be careful what you wish for.

There were no further comments, other than a wrap-up by a psychologist.

*Stott's Basic Christianity and Lewis's Mere Christianity are reversals of this - modifiers that accentuate the simplicity and orthodoxy rather than obscure it.