"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Friday, December 30, 2011

On Sunrises and New Years

The sun is quickly setting on the year.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are already enshrouded in darkness and the dawn will soon be before us with the birth of a new year- there needs to be a period of darkness between dusk and dawn, correct?

Perhaps you reject this metaphor altogether and confuse it for mistaken reasoning. The end of a year has naught to do with the completion of a rotation about the earth's axis- no, no, it is the completion of a revolution about the sun. To speak of dusk and dawn is foolishness.

But perhaps it is not so foolish when we pause to consider the flow of the seasons, not unlike the fluctuations of light and temperament which transpire in a day. Mild-climated Californians may often forget, but let us recall the rhythmic melding of cold, austere winter into the childlike wonder of bloom-laden spring, which then matures into bright, energized summer until slowly mellowing into twilight colors of reds and golds and preparing to sink into a wintry slumber.

No, perhaps the downscale imagery is not so misplaced.

I just envisioned a flash of the beautiful sinusoidal dance of Earth days revolving around the Sun. Smooth transitions of color on a rotating sphere which itself is carried through parallel shifts of hue on its path of revolution...
Is it a spacetime fractal with which we are dealing?

Strangely, I did not intend to dwell on images of a years' end- not literally- but how quickly one can be lost in contemplation of cosmic wonder!

I am afraid there are things that must be done in preparation for dawn.
To put it plainly, the drabness of housecleaning awaits me.
Perhaps I will transform it into a nymph-ish ritual of cleansing in anticipation of yearly rebirth... and sweeping and dusting will give way to contemplation of fractals and cosmic dances, and of years past and times to come.

Farewell... we should meet again at dusk, or dawn, or midnight to perform ritualistic dances and share the fruits of contemplation.

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Rape and the Temptation of Misguided Anger

*The idea of being raped and murdered- or just raped- terrifies me.

It’s terrible, terrible, terrible. It’s one of those things that makes me want to cry, “Why, God, why?” (But I don’t think there’s actually a god listening, unfortunately.) 
And it makes me hope that it never happens to me. (Or anyone I care about. Or anyone, ever.)

It’s difficult not to take issue with men. At least with the abstract concept of men. 
Throughout my life I've been informed of countless brutal rape-murders. 
All my life I’ve been warned not to listen to the emotional manipulations of men, because ‘he will say whatever needs to be said to get what he wants from you.’ I want to believe that it isn’t true, that I can trust people, that “men” could not be so cruel and that they must see me as more than… I’d rather not be crass. As more than a toy to be used. But it’s hard to hold on to that belief when your father and your uncles and most everyone you know tells you this. 
That’s the scary thing, really. I could shrug it off relatively easy coming from a hurt woman. Pain clouds personal judgment. Just because he did that to you doesn’t mean it happens all the time. 
But when it’s all of the men who are in a position to care about me that say it (with an unspoken, trust me, we do it all the time lurking in their eyes)… my faith in “man” falters despite my stubborn adherence to a belief in the goodness of people.

I have been instilled with a fear of walking alone. Anytime, anywhere. Especially at night (Of course. I mean it’s really out of the question).
Maybe I am too precautious, but given the stakes, I say better to be safe. 
But it does strike me as a bit unfair when I realize that my male friends have likely never hesitated at the thought of walking to the grocery store by themselves- for fear of the possibility of being kidnapped, raped, and discarded on the side of the road somewhere. And when I wonder whether I will be able to travel through Europe next fall, because I am not going with a group of people I know, and what if I don’t make friends with similar travel destinations while I am abroad? Is it safe to travel alone? I want to believe so… but…. I don’t know. Perhaps I’d better not. 
These are fears that ought not be necessary. But they’re there, and I can’t ignore them or shrug them off easily. Of course, travelling alone is also dangerous for a male, I suppose… but not nearly as dangerous as for a female. Men may have their wallet taken from them. Just about anyone who attacks me will make sure to seek other advantages. Even if they primarily just want the money, why not make the best of the situation and rape a lone female? And even if both scenarios (male victim and female victim) end in death, why must the murder of my counterpart almost always be preceded by rape? Perhaps it seems to make no difference, but it does to me. Why can’t we be spared that shred of dignity?

I know a large number of men-- in the same way that I know a large number of women-- whom I respect and who I firmly believe to be individuals if integrity. There are those whose esteem I prize, and a very few whom I would trust with my soul. It’s not a matter of male or female; it’s a matter of character. This I believe more deeply than any anti-male sentiment I may utter. I may be called a fool, and perhaps I am, but I refuse to let go of the belief in the goodness of individuals- not of men or women (or of Muslims or Christians or atheists or any ethnic group or just any group), but of individuals.   

So forgive me, fellow believers in justice, when I slip into anger toward the concept of “man” when I hear that “in a survey of college-aged men, 35% admitted that they would commit rape if they believed they could get away with it” (http://www.uic.edu/depts/owa/sa_rape_support.html). Or when I recall the confusion and sadness and incredulity that filled me when I expressed to a dear male friend- whose honor and decency I would pledge to in a heartbeat- that I could not understand how someone could rape someone, could take pleasure in the act despite the pain they were inflicting upon another, despite the screams and the struggles and the tears and all of that… and he shook his head and told me that no, he could see it… It makes sense… (And I wanted to scream that no! It can’t make sense! It doesn’t make sense! How could it ever make sense? I still want to deny that. There must have been some error, some misunderstanding, some discrepancy in terminology that prevented the clear communication of ideas.) Or when I think of women impregnated and abandoned to raise their child alone. (This seems unfair to the woman, but my real pain here is for the child, who deserves better.) I’ve never understood why responsibility for a child tends to be considered so disproportionately… but it’s another one of those warnings that haunted my girlhood. And then there’s that whole history of inequality between the sexes, which produces the occasional pang of disappointment.

I know this sounds ironic, but it actually isn’t. I mean it, and am only trying to provide you with my perspective, that you may understand the temptation. So please do forgive me when I slip into anger toward the concept of “man.” I ought not to name this character so. But I have yet to conjure a title for this beast. 
(A note: I should clarify. I do not put men who do not play in equal role in raising their children and that long line of men who played a role in the oppression of women “beasts.” They may be weak, but they are not beasts. The beast is the rapist, the murderer, the torturer.)

So reader... I trust that you are good. You may have your flaws and your weaknesses, but so do we all, and I believe that you will do the right thing when put in a sticky situation. You are strong.
I trust that you will keep an eye out for the weak and protect them if possible.
I know that you will support survivors. I know that you will remind the people around you that we are to treat people with dignity, and that you will teach by example.
I know that you do your best to live with integrity and honor- and for that, you have my utmost respect.
We are good, strong men and women… and we must do our utmost to keep the beast at bay.

*These thoughts, on this particular occasion, were provoked by the following sites:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Awkward Nerd Girl

Let us briefly consider a unique creature: the awkward nerd girl.

The awkward nerd girl subsists on a hearty diet of scientific articles, literary novels, and exercises in mathematical abstraction. This is often supplemented by strong doses of fine art and poetry, philosophical discussion, and close reading of historical texts.

The awkward nerd girl is not pretty. She is not gorgeous, she is not beautiful. She is definitely not "hot." 
At best, she is "kind-of-cute-in-an-awkward-way"-- but mostly she is overlooked. 
By and large, the awkward nerd girl rejects the 'shallow societal obsession with physical beauty' (the claim that something is fashionable is a strike against the item, more often than not)… but when the time for public procession actually comes around, she stands awkwardly in her less-than-fashionable selections, torn between loving and hating herself for the rebellion.
In her heart of hearts, the awkward nerd girl wishes she were beautiful.

The awkward nerd girl is appropriately situated in settings of a very particular nature: a library, a classroom, a coffee shop, and the confines of her own book-laden bedroom are prime examples. Other sites are nerd-girl-neutral: a grocery store, a public restroom, or a swing-set at the local park, perhaps. But certain sites are strictly forbidden: fashionable boutique stores, large parties, and, most certainly, steamy dance floors.
Let's face it: the image of the awkward nerd girl dancing (awkwardly) to music with a strong beat and highly questionable lyrics is offensive to the sensibilities of all parties.

My own role, unsurprisingly, is that of the awkward nerd girl. When placed on a dance floor pulsing with the latest tunes in pop culture, a large red exclamation mark quickly appears over my head.
 Does not belong! Warning! Awkward nerd girl has entered the dance floor!
I rigorously avoid eye contact. I grimace in understanding of the pain others must experience at beholding the taboo sight. My mind and body quickly cave under the torrential pressure of public disapproval, and I steadily crumble into a small pile of awkward self-consciousness.
Awkward nerd girl does not belong.

In the way of dance, this awkward nerd girl has turned to a sneaky refuge.

Ballroom dancing is beautiful. It is graceful. It is classic.
But the key point for the awkward nerd girl is another. Ballroom dancing is structured-- and therefore, it is safe.

My family expressed all sorts of surprise at the idea of my doing any sort of dancing.
I am stiff, terribly self-conscious, less-than-coordinated, and… awkward.
I am pretty sure they still don't buy it.

But what they don't understand is that ballroom offers a layer of protection for the awkward nerd girl.
Consider the following:
Waltz demands you trace out boxes. Cha calls for tetras shapes. Squares, line segments, circles… 
Geometric precision.
All in all, it seems like a perfect task for the awkward nerd girl.

It is only later that the stiffness melts away. We lose the simple  rigidity of basic geometric shapes and introduce more complex curves, rotating waltz boxes in ballroom frames evocative of ln(x).
It is geometry and vector calculus.
It is precise and fluid.
We are anchored by structure... and so we feel safe to introduce "Latin hip motion" under discussion of proper mechanics. After a while it's not too hard to sneak in flirtatious winks and intense passion and butterfly fragility. It's not too difficult to slip into lovely gowns (though sexy Latin skirts still defy us-- they are not fooled) , and to dream of personal beauty whilst tracing out elegant patterns with mathematical precision. The awkward nerd girl knows that it is for those elegant structures which the audience claps, not for her… but still. At that moment she is free to dream of beauty and sophistication and black-lace evening-dresses.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On J.K. Rowling, Success, and What-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?

Every now and then I am struck by a harrowing pang of bewilderment. 
(That is to say, I peek at the tangled mess which is the what-am-I-to-do-with-my-life question, and wonder how in the world I shall ever set about undoing the hideous knots and imposing an acceptable degree of order upon my "adult" life.)

Today I spent a good bit of time pursuing miscellaneous activities, and in the process I did manage to strike a bit of gold. Apparently J.K. Rowling gave Harvard's Commencement address two years ago.
I found her address delightful and inspiring and exceedingly relevant. I have always felt that Rowling must be a wonderful creature to be able to write the profound, life-shaping passages found in her books, and hearing her speak only reinforced this belief. I tend to credit Montgomery, Alcott, and Pierce for most of my childhood-shaping, but Rowling (and Hugo!) certainly deserve to be up there. The Harry Potter books brought me to tears of laughter and sorrow on many an occasion. (Yes, maybe Harry was a little dramatic in book five, but I'm certain I shed tears of rage and mourning right along with him, as he sent Dumbledore's possessions to a crashing end in a senseless effort to protest Sirius' death.) 

There are certain things that set my heart ablaze. 
One such thing is the pure friendship embodied in the Harry Potter books- having people of virtue and integrity willing to risk their lives for love of one another. There is something incredibly beautiful in the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione- but not just them. The Weasleys, Lupin, Hagrid, Sirius (to Wormtail, "You should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!"),  Dumbledore... there's so much of loyalty and love that permeates their actions.

Another (related) is Harry's realization in Half-Blood Prince that he is in control of his fate, despite the prophecy.
[Oh dang. Things just got serious. I strode to my bookshelf, pulled out book six, and turned to chapter 23.]  There are a good four pages worth of quote-worthy material at the end of that chapter, possibly my favorite conversation of the series. Yep, it's quote-time. (But not four pages' worth.)

(Dumbledore is trying to persuade Harry that the prophecy is virtually irrelevant. Harry isn't getting it.)
“It is essential that you understand this!” said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake…. “By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job! …And yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world…. You have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers!”
“Of course I haven’t!” said Harry indignantly. “He killed my mum and dad!”
“You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!” said Dumbledore loudly.
“But, sir… it all comes to the same thing doesn’t it? I’ve got to kill him, or- ”
“Got to?” said Dumbledore. “Of course you’ve got to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried! We both know it! Imagine, please, just for a moment, that you had never heard that prophecy. How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!”
Harry watched Dumbledore striding up and down in front of him, and thought. He thought of his mother, his father, and Sirius. He thought of Cedric Diggory. He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Lord Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat.
“I’d want him finished,” said Harry quietly. “And I’d want to do it.”
“Of course you would!” cried Dumbledore. “You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal… In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you… which makes it certain, really, that-"
“That one of us is going to end up killing the other,” said Harry. “Yes.”
But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew- and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents- that there was all the difference in the world.
Let us pause for a moment and allow that to soak in.

So, my point. My point is, Harry Potter invigorated my stubborn resolution to prize love as the most beautiful and empowering and noble of human actions.
The love of Anne Shirley (Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables) is light-hearted and uplifting (I dream of being an Anne-ish friend, teacher, and mother), but, though I do not doubt its resilience, it is unmarked by the suffering which is the unique product of gross injustice. Harry Potter adds so much in the way of silent strength and poignancy. The love of that world is love in the face of murder and torture, fear and anguish. It is daring to hold on to beauty and hope in the face of those who would rip all goodness from the world. It is what we would die for- but, more importantly,  it is the love that we live for.
Oh, Harry Potter! J.K. Rowling is a kindred spirit. Definitely.

What I was going to say... before delving into the Harry Potter portion of my soul... was that Rowling seems to understand my feelings concerning life/success/failure perfectly.
Coming from parents with an "impoverished" background with serious concerns about the practicality of their dreamy daughter's desires for life... Hmmm... I think that sounds a bit too familiar. [I also definitely appreciated the part where she said her parents may not have found out she was studying Classics until the day of her graduation. I have certainly been tempted to do just that (only with philosophy, of course).]
I always enjoy the rants which follow any mention of my latest philosophy class, complete with heated claims that philosophy is for those not good enough to do science or mathematics, bleak predictions of future joblessness and subsequent starvation, sour threats to retract all forms of parental support in the case that I nevertheless insist on pursuing such a foolish life-path, and other forms of, generally speaking, overwhelming support for the notion of a philosopher daughter. It's encouraging, really.

But, like Rowling, I understand my parents' perspective. Okay, maybe I don't fully understand their viewpoint, but when I can step back from the stinging sensation in my chest, it's evident that what they want is for me to move forward in life. They want me to be able to provide for myself, and, moreover, to flourish.

Now perhaps this is simply my trying to be philosophical, but that last statement seems to introduce a desperate need for a definition. What in the world does it mean to "flourish"? What is my standard for success?

For my parents, wealth is an obvious component in this calculation. [Points against philosophy.]
For myself... Don't get me wrong, it's tempting to adopt that as a criteria, but I'm not sure that riches really get to the heart of my desires. I don't care about flashy cars or mansions or pointless displays of opulence.

Current requirements for my "house of dreams" are a lovely garden, enough space for a happy family, general freshness/quaintness/cuteness, and an awesome library.
(Admittedly, I would be willing to put a good deal of money into that last one.)
I want a career that is intellectually demanding, rewarding, and conducive to forming meaningful relationships or human connections.
I want to do work that has a positive impact in terms of improving the lives of others or contributing to justice.
I want to contribute to the beauty of the world.
I want to be a confidante and mentor.
I want to be a loving (and beloved) wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.
I want to be a life-long lover of ideas.

The question is... how do I find the connection between my standard of success and selecting a clear career path? Would I do best in education or medicine? Should I teach, counsel, provide therapy, or practice general medicine? Is it justifiable to spend a life writing papers when I could help someone regain the ability to walk or speak, or help provide care to the millions dying of malaria, AIDS, or other diseases? But surely an educator plays a crucial role in the way of fortifying and enlightening minds!
What would I be best at? What would make me happiest? What would bring me the most success?

Nope, I still have no idea how to untangle the ugly mess. All of this...to no avail.
I find myself hoping that, slowly, things will be made clear and the knots will ease up a bit. Somewhat magically, relatively painlessly, and swiftly enough that I evade the failure I so greatly wish to avoid.

I'm reminded of when I complained to my friend that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
And she (Brynna) would have none of it. "You're going to be happy, that's what you're going to do."
But, but, but!- I wanted to protest.

...Somehow, I'm thinking she's right.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Kant Was Wrong About Beneficence: I don't need your help.

Lately, my mind has been reeling.

I seem to be suffering from a desire to do too many things at once. It is exhilarating- and a tad frustrating.
In the last two days I have gotten halfway through Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It (in case you're wondering: you do). I have gotten through the first part of, Stumbling on Happiness, a book dealing with the psychology of that elusive state which we all pursue- thus far, it is delightfully written. I have worked on crafting poetry. I have watched a live debate on the subject of capitalism. I have been pondering the ethics of being a rational, omnivorous creature, and questioning what it means to live out my values. I have watched TED talks on architecture, gratitude, "anonymous extraordinaries," and a host of other interesting and inspirational subjects. I have loaded my bedside table with more philosophy books, Russell's Principles of Mathematics (a perhaps foolish ambition), an introduction to game theory, and I become increasingly persuaded that I need  to investigate economics. It seems like every half hour I decide that I really, really want to learn about or think about something new and exciting- or pursue an idea to greater depth.
...What will I do with five weeks at home? I don't have enough time to think about half the things I want to think about!

Unsurprisingly, I suspect I lose a great deal of time fretting over the dilemma, rather than simply sitting down and actually doing some good thinking and reading. This can be a problem, but there's hope.

Fortunately, in the last half hour or so I managed to capture the latest intellectual whim "on paper"(actually, in a word document, but same thing, right?).

See, I was slowly eating teaspoons of peanut butter out of the peanut butter jar (a delicious but overall unwise idea). I believe I had just been mentally protesting the impossibility of fitting ten different subject into my next two college terms when I got sucked into renewed contemplation of the Kant paper I wrote for my ethics class. Whilst savoring the sweet peanut buttery-ness I returned to one of problems that kept bugging me. Is it, or is it not, plausible to say that an agent will necessarily require the assistance of others to achieve his end? Kant presumably believed that this made sense, but I went on to question that assumption. I began to wonder... what exactly does it mean to absolutely require the help of others?

The best I could come up with is being bitten by a poisonous snake and requiring someone else to fetch the antidote to save you. In that case, I willingly concede that self-help is not exactly an option.

But excluding cases of physical (or mental- but that is a big problem indeed!) debilitation... how much sense does it make to posit that, on the basis of self-interest, a rational agent cannot will the universalization of the maxim to neither help nor hurt others, because there exists a case in which the agent will require the help of others to obtain (one of) his end(s)?

I should perhaps clarify. It's more or less obvious what it means to not hurt others. What it means to help others is perhaps not so clear. I'm talking about "selfless charity"- assistance disconnected from any notion of rational self interest.

Let us envision a world where you are forced to solve your own problems. As humans, we are extraordinarily talented, capable creatures; we use our intellect to find creative solutions. Given this capacity, and given a free society- that is, a society where people are politically free (free from compulsion, free from abuse, free from violence), a society where people neither hurt nor help you... Given these things, it seems reasonable that when you find yourself in a strait... you are free to find your own solution. And you do so- without need of the help of others.

Imagine you're in a world where no one will offer you charity… You find yourself under stress. You find yourself in need of a solution to a major problem. What do you do?
 Well, here's something you don't do. You don't sit on a street corner and pout. That will get you nowhere.

So what do you do? 
Well, what can you do? Call upon those prodigious powers of intellect! 
You start to think. Hard. You figure out what tools you possess to get around the problem. You find a solution, and you get around your problem. 

Do I expect someone to help me by giving me a job I don't deserve? No. If I'm in need of employment, I start trying to think what jobs I can perform- moreover, what jobs I can perform well. What do I have of value that I can offer to someone?
 Do I expect someone to hand me a check in the belief that I can offer them nothing in return? No! No one invests in something they believe to be worthless. That is irrational, and I don't expect others, or myself, to be irrational.

To return to the question then...What sort of help would I, or could I, expect from others?

Certainly, I would expect people to treat me with respect- but that's not a question of charity. That's a part of freedom- respecting the rights of individuals.
I would expect others to deal with me in a mutual exchange of value- I would expect people to behave rationally, in a manner conducive to their rational self-interest.
If someone hands me a check, I expect it is because they believe I can offer them something valuable in return. And I accept their check because I believe it is fair compensation for what I provide them. Value for value. When dealing with others, I don't expect them to waste time or money on something that they believe to be worthless. That, fundamentally, makes no sense! 
I don't expect senseless, selfless charity.

So, again, does it even make sense to conceive of a world where people neither help nor hurt one another, where people leave each other to act freely, where people respect the rights of others… does it make any sense to say that in such a world, when you find yourself having a problem, the only thing you can do is rely on others solve your problems for you?

I would argue that, no. It doesn't.

And in case you were wondering- yes, I'm a capitalist.

Feel free to take issue with me on this. If you don't wish to go through the hassle of putting yourself in a position where you can leave a comment, address questions or comments to martina@carleton.edu

And look forward to more thoughts on Objectivism, Kantianism, or whatever else strikes my intellectual fancy!