The Ruthlessness Gap

No, he’s not in the mood to listen right now
(image by Nick Bolton, via Unsplash)

Angry men with lots of guns who believe they know exactly what god wants… that’s always worked out well, right? Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen. Are those our aspirational countries? Because that’s the track that a lot of us have chosen.

We’re going through a lot of turmoil as a nation right now. And for those of us who are afraid, well, we should be. But I think we should understand why.

When someone’s default position is to be inclusive, to consider alternatives, to be empathetic, that’s just not an attitude that leads toward immediate and decisive action. It’s a deliberative position, one that acknowledges that we will never have full and complete answers but need to act anyway, always amending our course and our destination alike, but always in the service of making life kinder and more merciful to more people.

When someone’s default position is to know exactly and eternally what the right answer must be, there’s an innate ruthlessness to that stance. They’ll cut your throat and not think twice about it, knowing that they’re doing holy work. So those of us on the side of inclusion and mercy will inherently face a ruthlessness deficit when it comes to political combat. See, for instance, the sidelining of Merrick Garland for Brett Kavanaugh. That was just a political car-bombing, violence for the sake of the win. Its ruthlessness took half of us by surprise… but not the other half. It was an act of terrorism, the political strategy that inherently flows from ruthlessness.

In 1996, the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff published a book called Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. Lakoff’s research was motivated by the idea that our behavior is governed (often invisibly) by the metaphors we use to make sense of what’s around us. And he argued in this book that we are torn between two unspoken models of parenthood—what he called at the time the “strict father” and the “nurturing mother.” Social conservatives emphasize moral strength and moral obedience; social liberals emphasize nurturing, empathy, fairness and protection. The strict father leans toward reward and punishment for individuals; the nurturing mother leans toward the idea that mistakes are inevitable but that the fallen can always be welcomed back to the family.

The strict parent acts fast, with a belt or with his fists, to correct your errors. The nurturing parent sits you down on the couch for a two-hour talk about your choices and the alternatives you might have considered. The first has two benefits for its practitioners: certainty and immediacy. The fact that it’s also cruel, and raises people who perpetuate that cruelty, is irrelevant.

As has been said way too many times, and far too accurately, in the past five or six years: the cruelty is the point.

The fundamental blessing of America, the thing that has made us great (and the thing that marks all of the advanced economies and free people of the world) is exactly that we are a secular nation, always amending our course toward “a more perfect union.” The Founding Fathers (to use a particularly loaded metaphor—we might instead call them the original Washington elites, enormously wealthy, more than half of them trained as lawyers) were among the most well educated and secular men in the Colonies. They knew that they did not want to replicate the Church and Crown of England, in which the King was not installed by his people but ordained by God. They went out of their way, over and over, to ensure that common people could be heard, that we had the right to autonomy over our selves and our homes, that we needn’t be subservient to any person or faith, that the power of leaders was always harnessed. They wrangled endlessly, and not one single one of them believed that the Constitution they had brought forth was either permanent nor perfect. It was an act of human relations, and thus by definition messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete.

If we believe that America will always be messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete—that in fact those are our highest strengths—then we’ll always be able to push forward.

The alternative to this openness is ruthlessness, aiming only for the victory regardless of cost. The alternative to this openness is theocracy, in which one specific reading of one specific book must be the ruling force for us all. The alternative to this openness is oligarchy, in which wealth is its own justification for power.

More tomorrow.

Tiny Billboards

You can ALWAYS get some more words in edgewise
(Image by Ashim D’Silva, via Unsplash)

So I might as well admit it. I have a spine fetish.

Book spines do SO MUCH WORK, and are so under-regarded. Everybody worries about the splashy book cover, and in the age of online book sales, cover art is indeed a big deal. But in the world of visual, material books—in bookstores, in libraries, even at home once you’ve bought them—that tiny little ribbon is doing almost all the work there is to be done.

And it is tiny. Even a giant, Song of Ice and Fire-sized brick has a spine that’s maybe nine inches by two in full hardcover expanse, a fifth of a sheet of notebook paper. Most of us get way less space even than that; most of the books that I’ve laid out for print are more like 8.5 inches by two-thirds, not even six square inches. By comparison, a standard business card is exactly seven square inches, so we can think of a book’s spine as a linear-format business card, offering both information and allure simultaneously. It’s an ingenious graphic design problem, and one that I wish we talked more about.

I’m not trained in graphic design, as you can probably tell. But I’ve hung around books for over sixty years, and I’ve learned to copy some things. Here’s the five spines of my five most recent books.

What’s going on here? Well, two things (at least). One is that the graphic language of the cover is carried onto the spine in some way, usually in color and typeface both and with some variant of the layout logic. So for my book Leopard, all of the cover text is doubled, in black and in red, rotated 180 degrees across an implied horizontal centerline, to suggest the idea of a table tennis table with two opponents across a net, and also to pick up on the fact that table tennis rackets have to be built with red rubber on one face and black rubber on the other so that your opponent can see what you’re hitting with. (Don’t even start… read the book if you want to know more than that.) The spine amends that idea while still adhering to it. The galvanized farm rust of & Sons is carried over; the single leaf of Trailing Spouse is carried over; even the gold accent line of the cover of The Abbot of Saginaw is carried over. If the cover is the first twelve lines of the sonnet, the spine is the last two, holding the same theme but in a new rhyming pattern.

The other thing that’s happening, and you can check this against the books on your own shelves, is that the title of the book is emphasized and the name of the author downplayed. Have a look at this image, from a “book spine poetry” contest entry that reads The Female Brain / Educated / GirlBoss / Yes Please:

There are four books here, and in three cases, you’re being asked to primarily consider the title; the author is more or less anonymous, not a brand name. In the fourth case, you’re being asked to consider the author, because Amy Poehler is famous and funny and we’ll read anything she writes. Go to the bookstore and look for whatever array of “big name authors” you can think of—Stephen King, Donna Leon, Louise Penny, John Grisham—and you’ll find that they’re quite literally “big names,” the authors whose name is bigger on the spine than the book titles. This is what agents and publishers talk about when they use the word platform: is your name big enough for the book to stand on and be visible in a crowd? Will people fundamentally buy you, and only secondarily care about the specifics of what you carry?

Look again at these four commercially-released spines. Visually, they aren’t doing anything especially flashy. They can’t, really: you risk illegibility when you’re too busy in a small space. They’re giving you information, about an interesting idea or an interesting person; they’re carrying over the colors and typefaces of the cover; and they’re hinting at a graphic feature (the frame around the text on the top book, the sharpened pencil point on the second, the hashtag/italics on the third and the illusion of a neon sign on the fourth). That’s it. That’s the vertical business card that people will use after their experience of the cover has faded.

These spines are also doing one other thing, which is vetting that the book has been sponsored by a legitimate publishing house. From the top down, we have the marks of Morgan Road Books, Random House, Penguin, and Harper Collins’ Dey Street. My professional books have those marks as well, but my novels do not, nor do they have ISBNs and barcodes on the back. That absence also does a little work, indicating that those stories inhabit the world of gift rather than the world of commerce.

I’ve looked at the edges of books for my whole life, mostly without thinking about it until twenty years ago when my own ideas started to be wrapped in covers. Book spines are compressed composition, remarkably ingenious when they’re done well, and deserve to be celebrated as an art form of their very own merit.

Lifetime Achievement Award

Good job, buddy!!!

[George Clooney’s wife] Amal Alamuddin is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person UN commission investigating rules-of-war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Tina Fey & Amy Pohler, Golden Globes 2015

We do love our round numbers. Whether it’s home runs in a career or the number of origami cranes we’ve folded this week, getting to 500 just feels like something different than having 496.

A couple of days ago, I got word that someone had mentioned The Adjunct Underclass in something they’d written, and in the roundabout way of hyperlinks, I ended up at my page on Google Scholar. And because we all want to verify that our lives have mattered, I counted the number of times that my work has collectively been cited by other scholars over the years.

If you’re in higher ed, by the way, this is not a trivial pastime. Citation count, and the various statistics drawn from it (H-index, G-index, I-10, and so on), are among the most central tools that scholars have to make their case when it comes time for tenure and promotion. Publish or perish, right? One of the things that serious scholars do is to contribute productively to the larger conversations of their field, and contribution (at least in part) means that your work has laid a path that others have pushed further. So looking at my body of work, I’ve written 13 books or articles that have collectively been cited in published scholarly literature 506 times. That means that at least five hundred times, my thinking has helped someone else move their intellectual work down the field or in a new direction altogether.

You’re welcome.

Now, is it the case that five hundred is a lot? Or is it like five hundred pieces of elbow macaroni, about half a box? I searched Google Scholar with the names of 25 people I know who’d had tenure-track jobs in the humanities and social sciences for twenty or more years, a meaningful comparison. And the answer is that I’m sixth out of those twenty-five in total citations.

And I’ve been that productive without access to academic libraries and databases, without paid memberships and annual travel to scholarly societies, without research assistants or grant support, without doctoral students and postdocs, without summers set aside for curiosity. Just imagine…

I was talking with a friend today about the end of my academic career twenty-five years ago.

School, from kindergarten to doctoral education, is carefully designed to offer you hurdles to cross, and feedback about how well you’ve cleared them. And because I never felt like I belonged anywhere when I was a kid, that need to belong got invested fully in school. I knew what my teachers wanted, and I did eight times that much so that they’d love me and want me to be with them. That worked in first grade, and sixth grade, and twelfth grade, and sixteenth grade, and twenty-first grade. I had found a community that valued me, that valued what I could do both as an individual and as a member of a larger body.

When that mechanism for challenge and feedback was removed, when I spent so many years sending letters to anonymous search committees whose first job was to remove as many candidates from consideration as possible and never let anyone know how they’d made their decisions, when I realized that there was nothing I could do that would let me continue to belong to the community that had once loved me, the word that came to mind for me today was terror.


I want that word to sink in. I want you to think about what it means to have your only social and emotional strategy suddenly be no longer successful, no longer welcomed. What it means to know that you will die alone in the wilderness, unable to speak, left to suffocate. What it means to go, literally overnight, from champion to discard.

And then think about knowing, twenty-five years later, that you’ve been so demonstrably productive for a community that didn’t want you. How other people’s real faculty careers have been furthered by the work you’ve done, even as you’ve been left to watch their safety from outside the airlock, as you hammer in panic on the impenetrable shell.

We all know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s not the definitive social science concept that it once was, but it’s still a pretty good tool for understanding emotional life.

First, we need to survive. We need to eat and breathe and not freeze or overheat.

Then we need to be safe, to be protected from harm and theft.

And once those two first bars have been passed (and I recognize that it’s a powerful privilege that I don’t have to personally worry about either), we need to belong. Way before self-esteem and self-actualization, we need to feel as though we’re part of a tribe, that we aren’t isolated. That other people want us to be there, value the work that we do.

We are social beings, and isolation is historically a social punishment: an exile, a shunning, an excommunication, an act of removal and exclusion. The epaulets torn from the shoulders, the buttons ripped from the tunic, the sword snapped and tossed out of the stockade gate.

I kept doing research and thinking in my field, publishing cited work regularly for over twenty years since my dissertation. I made plenty of money during my years in the wilderness. But I had no heart left in me. I had been broken.

I have since found other communities in which I belong. It took decades to do it, because I could only see the one.

We’re all taught to wrap up an essay with a summative statement, a moral lesson, a recommendation. I don’t really have one here, but I’ll lay out a few threads, one of which you might grasp.

First. If you’ve been exiled, from whatever community, please let go sooner than you think you want to. You can’t find a new community until you relinquish your futile grasp on the old one. You will never prove yourself worthy to them, so just stop, and walk away.

Second. You can be proud of the work you’ve done even if it hasn’t brought you the rewards you deserved. I mean, five hundred citations! That’s a marker of a lot of solid and beneficial thinking, from 1993 through 2019. And that’s enough. Give yourself your very own lifetime achievement award, sanctioned by no one and yet fully earned.

Third. If you’ve made it through the gates that have been closed to so many, take that opportunity you’ve been given and wring it dry. Don’t be the person with the sinecure who does well enough. Use all those resources at your disposal to be an all-star. That may not mean citations, but it does mean reaching every day for the very best of your own definition of scholar. (Or writer, or artist, or whatever competitive field you’ve entered that others have not.)

Fourth. Remember that word: terror. Remember that we are not talking about an objective status of hired or not hired, of economically safe or challenged. We are talking about the sudden and unexpected loss of our beloved community, of suddenly being rendered silent even as we try to speak. Try to exercise compassion for the exile, in whatever ways you can imagine.

Front-of-the-House Writer

Ten thousand decisions, all for you.
(image by Chris Liverani, via Unsplash)

In my very first novel, there’s a scene in which the pool player Robert Yoder and the bartender Charles Collignon are trying to decide whether they can partner to build a pool hall in Saginaw, Michigan. Robert has come to visit Charles in New Orleans, and Charles is taking Robert for an evening in town to teach him about hospitality. Here, he’s walked Robert through something as simple and as invisible as table-setting:

Under Charles’ tutelage, Robert worked his way through the entirety of the table: salt and pepper, napkin and tablecloth, flower arrangement, candle, the orientation and placement of plates as they arrived.  Along the way, they had their Julep and Sazerac, along with a Vieux Carre and a Ramos Gin Fizz, Charles instructing Robert on the fine points of mix and presentation for each.

After dinner, Robert said, “You know, I just look at a table and see a table. But now I’m seeing decisions, hundreds of decisions.”

Charles nodded, sipping water. “And one goal of all of those decisions is to be unnoticed, to simply be at hand. You don’t notice that the handle of the bread knife is to the right, but since most of us are right handed, we reach for the knife and come to the handle. We hold the bread in our left hand when we butter it, so the bread plate is above the left service. You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.” He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab.  “I knew that I didn’t want to be a chef like my father—kitchen work is hot and sweaty, people yell at one another constantly, always under pressure to move faster. The front of the house is what always interested me, the management of people’s happiness.”

My books are “about” a hundred different things. They’re “about” playing pool and darts and table tennis, “about” university life and failed careers, “about” corn farming and urban policy and industrial decline, “about” adoption and the social forces that normalize children. But those are all culinary decisions, choices about cuisine and menu-building. There’s an entire paired but unspoken body of choices about the experience of dining, about how—regardless of cuisine—we can build a pleasing, immersive, unified experience.

And that’s what a good restaurant, or a good book, really is. It’s the unification of the culinary interests of the chef and her staff with the hospitality interests of the dining floor team.

Let’s look at one specific decision that I made in that excerpt above, a decision that I understand right now reading it again in a way that I understood natively nine years ago but never could have named. And the decision I want to call your attention to is the sentence He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab. Let’s think about that sentence the way we’d think about the placement of the bread plate: what exactly is it doing?

The most obvious thing that it’s doing is breaking up Charles’ long soliloquy into two parts. My characters tend to be well-educated people, and here, Charles clearly has Robert’s permission to be the teacher—that’s why they’re at that table. So it’s no surprise that Charles is able to deliver, in that moment, an unbroken 152-word statement, something that would take a minute or a minute-fifteen of real-time to say. It’s not a simple conversation, which would have lots of interruptions and mutuality. It’s a lesson.

But let’s look at the placement of that breaking sentence within the soliloquy. All of the statement before represents the conclusion to Charles’ analysis of the objective world before them: the tableware, the glasses, the sequence and presentation of courses. The statement after the breaking sentence is subjective: it’s about Charles’ own history within the world of fine dining, and his decision to attend to the front of the house rather than the kitchen. Without you ever knowing it, I’ve divided that one unified piece of discourse into two related but not identical topics, and signaled the mutual importance of each.

It’s doing a second thing, too: it’s reminding us that we’re at a table in a restaurant. Lots of beginner writers recognize the importance of breaking long dialogue into chunks, but they don’t quite realize that it’s a positive tool rather than merely a defensive act. So they’ll drop in a sentence like, “She sighed heavily” or “He fidgeted in his chair” as a sort of typographic device that breaks a long statement. But those kinds of stage directions don’t accomplish much; they reinforce (or sometimes act in the absence) of the emotional life that ought to be carried in the dialogue itself. We oughtn’t to hear her sigh, we ought to feel her weariness in every sentence she says. We oughtn’t to see him fidget this one time, we ought to see him perpetually as a nervous man in constant motion.

So when Charles signs for the bill to be applied to his tab, it’s an action specific to this location—the end of a meal in a fine restaurant—but it also does a third thing. It hearkens back to the fact that the maitre d’ and Charles greeted one another by name at his arrival, back to the fact that Charles knows exactly how they make a Vieux Carre and a Sazerac here. Charles has chosen this restaurant for his lesson because he knows it intimately, he’s a regular enough patron that they’re happy to have him run a tab. This is the kind of restaurant at which he feels the power of hospitality himself, and has returned to it dozens or hundreds of times—of course it’s where he’ll take Robert for his lessons. This simple sentence highlights the familial love Charles holds for this place.

You never saw any of that, did you? But in the context of reading, I think you’d have felt it. “You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.”

For the past couple of months, I’ve been stuck about what my next novel might be. There’s lots of reasons for that. My wife and I both just recovered from Covid. I’ve been completely immersed in the work of a client college. I’ve just taught three months of short-story writing, and coached two friends into the editing of their own books. And there’s just the native emotional trough that comes with the completion of each book, a natural period of exhaustion and adjustment that must be endured before the next can begin.

But I find myself now eager to perform hospitality again. And rather than fret about starting from culinary choices, I’m ready to embrace my work as front-of-the-house manager, welcoming you again to a rich and engaging evening. Maybe it’ll be Thai food, maybe Kansas City barbecue. Doesn’t matter. I’m ready to be your host.

Architectural Narratives

This joy in imagined habitation will be driven out of her in studio courses.
(Image by Zhenzhong Liu, via Unsplash)

I’ve sat on a lot of design juries…

You know, I’m gonna stop right there. Juries. What the hell kind of an educational experience has a jury? Juries exist to deliver an unequivocal binary judgment. Guilty/not guilty. Pass/fail. Next round/off the show. Uphold the call on the field/reverse the call. Just the idea that design education relies so comfortably on the idea and the practice and the underlying horror of standing before a jury… Yikes. Complete pedagogical disaster.

Architecture is filled, in fact, with what feel to me to be pedagogical missteps. The sketch problem, in which students are rewarded for being glib and clever. The charette and the all-nighter, scattered thinking and procrastination and awful time management. The studio/atelier, with no place for the introvert to just sit and get work done. It’s an academic field that needs to be rethought right down to its bones.

Anyway, it’s common enough in design students’ early lives that when they present a project, they do it by walking the visitors through the floor plan on a tour. “So you come in through here, and then the bedrooms are over there and the kitchen in here…” Floor plans, in fact, are behavioral diagrams. They are a predictive record of navigation, of adjacencies, of roles. The rooms are named with labels conveying appropriate and inappropriate activities. So students reasonably give us a temporal and role-based tour.

This practice is seen as an immature first stage of design thinking, to be left behind as quickly as possible for a presentation of a design’s “concepts” and “intentions.” But I think that imagining a designed space as being inhabited—being lived in, by people in particular roles, for a particular purpose, at a particular time—ought to be the singular core function of a designer.

Imagine a courthouse, for instance, a building type that I know fairly well. Imagine all the people who will come into contact with that building. Just in criminal court alone, there will be:

  • judges and clerks and judicial staff. They have to be protected against threats, they have to look like the officiants they are, and they have to have the tools of their work.
  • attorneys for prosecution and for defense. They need to be protected as well, to be able to confer with their clients, to be called to quick conference with a scolding judge.
  • defendants, often arriving every day from jail in police custody. They need to be protected, too. (Courthouses are angry places.) They also can’t receive any contraband or messages from visitors.
  • jurors, who need to be protected and sequestered and have deliberative space after the presentations have ended.
  • “the public,” often divided into unspoken but opposed camps, each there to see their own definition of justice played out.
  • custodians and electricians and sound technicians and facilities staff of all sorts, who take care of the place after hours in ways larger and smaller.

Each of those players have work to do and safety to uphold, and that leads to a lot of technical requirements for separated zones and independent circulation, sallyports and magnetometers, conference rooms and segregated seating. But let’s go deeper than that. Each person who comes into contact with a place has their own desires for it, has a need to be held in love and respect as best we can define it. To be not merely efficient but to be honored, in whatever role they play.

Thinking of buildings as places that support innumerable and divergent desires leads toward a novelistic, ethnographic approach to design. Who ARE these people? What are their habits, their patterns? What do they carry? With whom do they speak, and with whom should they never speak? What parts of their lives should be public and visible, what parts private and protected? What would a productive and enriching day look like? How do we honor their work, and their lives?

The little designer’s impulse to lead us through the dollhouse is not an impulse to be set aside. It is a strategy to be celebrated, and enriched, and brought to vastly greater levels of sophistication. To move from a singular story about how Ms. Bunny goes up the stairs and makes her tea to a novelist’s understanding of multiplicity and intersection of characters and their desires.

It was my drive toward storytelling that made design studio courses such a miserable experience for me thirty-five years ago. I wasn’t all that interested in geometry and ordering patterns and the play of light across surfaces. I wanted to make homes and taverns and restaurants that were comforts at the end of a long and disrespectful day, and I wanted to make workplaces that reduced that disrespect in the first place.

Those things don’t photograph well, and they’re harder for jurors to read quickly in a drawing set or a model. They take a lot of time to parse well enough to be able to talk well about them. But just as so much about high school education is driven by things like bus schedules and sports practice sessions, too much of design education is a reflection of its visual biases and pedagogical conveniences that have little enough to do with the experiences of habitation. Architecture could be a storyteller’s art. I wish that it were more so.

Dedicated to the Ephemeral

Beauty needn’t last
(Image by Mulyadi, via Unsplash)

I just taught a writing course for a dozen neighbors here in Vermont. We spent about eight or nine weeks going from totally blank page to twelve credible, intriguing new short stories (fourteen stories, actually; I wrote a couple as well). During that time, I spent probably fifteen or twenty hours a week giving feedback to individual authors, writing the next week’s assignment, making mid-week recommendations to writers who felt stuck.

Yesterday, we had our event to celebrate that work. And I spent days doing the page layouts and cover designs and uploading files and managing the book printing experience; taking orders and managing payments for the books; making posters and writing press releases for the event; making name tags and orientation signs for the event; unfolding and setting out chairs; writing a script and recruiting members of our local community theater group to perform story excerpts; welcoming guests and chatting with folks I hadn’t met before.

The event itself, the performance and the conversations and the post-performance snacks and drinks, went from 5 to 7pm. And then it was done. Nora and I carried our gear out to the once-again-empty parking lot, shooed the neighbor’s chickens away from the cars, backed away and drove off.

I got an email from a friend last night, saying how much he’d enjoyed reading my most recent novel during a long beach weekend.

I spent some time this afternoon making a green-bean-and-potato casserole that we’ll take to a friend’s house, during this first week after her husband’s death.

I worked for six hours yesterday morning at our town’s transfer station, helping a couple hundred people manage their trash and recycling while the regular attendant was at another site managing our annual large-trash and scrap-metal collection. And I had two hundred greetings, eighty or a hundred brief conversations, fifty people who couldn’t lift something and let me do it instead.

My last big book, The Adjunct Underclass, sold thousands of copies in its first six months, probably two hundred in the three years since.

It’s easy to discount the value of the ephemeral things that we all do to bring pleasure and comfort and new ideas to the people around us. Our meals don’t last, our conversations don’t last, our classroom coaching doesn’t last, our favors that we do for friends when they’re in need don’t last. They evaporate as soon as they’re concluded. But their invisible traces do last, they change the course of the river in some tiny and unknowable way. They lend their grams to the scale of kindness and good will, tipping it a little more in our favor.

As Nora said last night, a whole bunch of people were celebrated yesterday, and their family members got to see them in a little richer and more complex way. The host organization got to build more interest in their larger arts mission, the partnering theater group got to shine once again on our makeshift stage. And yes, all that is done, gone forever. But its residue is not.

These twelve writers may never again write another short story (though one writer told me that the experience had given her the courage to go back to college and major in English). But even though they won’t become internationally famous authors, we won’t acquire any Pulitzers, they’re very slightly different people because of that experience.

We have to have faith in the durable effects of ephemeral acts. We have to believe that the accretion of goodness builds more good around us. Pleasure and kindness are the things we can create through whatever temporary medium presents itself to us. We can’t sign our work like a painting, but it’s unmistakably ours. It doesn’t endure like a wall, but in its own way, it lasts.

The Breeds of Shame

Shut up, I AM standing.
(Image by Peter Pryharski, via Unsplash)

This weekend in the New York Times Magazine, staff writer Sam Anderson wrote what I hope will become a foundational article in our understanding of men and their bodies. If you can’t get to it because it’s behind a paywall, I’ll pirate a PDF copy to you if you ask; it’s that important.

No matter what my body happens to look like at any particular moment, Fat Sam lives inside me. I recognize now, in fact, that Fat Sam represents some of my best qualities: curiosity, cheerful appetite, a hunger for life, satisfaction in the moment. Fat Sam’s mission is to consume the world in giant gulps of joy. It doesn’t even have to be food: It can be naps, or video games, or telling jokes at a party, or walking, or shooting free throws, or reading, or petting a dog. Whatever satisfies a need, whatever I am starving for. And in that transfer, in that passage from outside to inside, in that radical taking in, there is a validation of existence, a proof of being, that I refuse to reject. Fat Sam, in many ways, is precious and good. He is a funnel into which the universe pours, the pinch in the hourglass. He reminds me that all of life is, in a sense, appetite. Even restriction satisfies a hunger — the hunger to restrict. When I chose to deny myself something, it is Fat Sam who is feeding, greedily, on that denial.

A radical taking in. That is the nature of an ethnographer, of a writer, of a servant attentive to the needs of those around. That is the nature of a fat kid.

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I temporarily left that fat kid behind. I regularly weighed between 130 and 135 pounds, as low as 127 after a two-week bike trip through the mountains of Northern California. I ran a 5K or a 10K or a half-marathon more or less every month, two full marathons about five years apart. I can still recite you personal bests—18:51 5K, 39:25 10K, 1:37:15 half marathon—with religious fervor. I wasn’t an elite athlete, far from it, but I was solid and fit and steady.

What I wasn’t, not ever even once, was slim.

At just under 5’5″, I’m at about the fifth percentile of height for adult American men. About at the median for a 14-year-old boy. My dad was 5’11” and lean, my mom 4’11” and round. My three brothers are all 5’11 and 6’0″, but when I came along fourteen years later, there was no genetic material left in the bank.

Along with that general lack of height, though, I have a relatively long torso, and particularly short legs. Especially from the knees down; my tibia and fibula are especially short. When I sit in most chairs, I fit perfectly from backrest to end of seat, but my feet often don’t reach the floor. Even at my very most athletic, I have never once in my life had visible Achilles’ tendons. My calves are and have always been cylindrical, right down to the collars of my shoes.

And when I would get promotional photos back from races, races in which I’d again gone faster than I’d been previously able, running for miles and miles at 6:20 per mile pace, those photos would come in and just spoil all the pleasure I’d taken from that day. I didn’t recognize myself. I’d felt like a racehorse, but looked in the pictures like a Clydesdale.

The array of animal metaphors was kind of normal, in fact.

  • My ex-wife, with great affection (I think), once told me that my totem animal was the corgi. “Look at those short little legs go!” she said once, as I finished a race.
  • I was sitting with a group of student colleagues as we powered through a summer college design competition, spending hours a day together for three months. We were taking a dinner break, and discussing the ways in which people do and don’t look like their dogs. When it came my time to speak, it took five minutes for the group to recover its composure from the revelation that I’d grown up with daschunds.
  • A few years later, when I played racquetball three times a week with one of my grad school friends, I never lost a single best-of-three games set for three years. I just understood trajectory, could see where the ball was going. And once, when he’d pinned me with what he thought was an unreturnable shot that I again hit a winner from, he said in exasperation, “I can’t believe you can get to those balls, with those stubby little rhinoceros legs!”

Corgi people and daschund people and rhinoceros people don’t get a lot of praise for breed conformation. We’re just the second-rate entrants in the general show, up against the greyhounds and Australian shepherds that have a chance at the ribbons. The leopards, sleek and sudden, watch us rhinos from the trees as we plod across the savannah in search of a watering hole.

We are individuals, with individual intellect. We can come to rational understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, we are also members of a culture, which has its own stories, louder and more pervasive than the ones we can write for ourselves. I have lost decades of chances to make myself a better corgi because I could only see myself as an insufficient border collie. No amount of time in the gym or accumulated miles on the road could change my breed, or the varying rewards provided at the show.

I’m trying, now, belatedly, to be the best corgi that I can. But there are days when I can only look across at the Dalmatians and wish it were otherwise.

Every Note Has Its Consequence

No wrong notes
(image by Mpeha, via Wikimedia)

I’m often taken by the ways in which things are like other things, and therefore also notice the degree to which we limit our thinking by only comparing any phenomenon to “related” phenomena. That’s more a statement about our categories than it is about what we might learn.

I got a lovely email from a friend a few days ago, in which she copied her email newsletter from the author Louise Penny. It was full of quotes and ideas about “process,” an abstract word for how we do stuff. One quote was from Joyce Carol Oates, in which she said that “Getting a first draft done is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Well, far be it from me, right? But my experience of writing is different from hers. As one might expect. Here’s what I wrote my friend in response:

The thing about first drafts is that, for me, there isn’t one. There are several thousand. Each sentence is its own first draft, getting revised a couple of times before moving on to the next. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a paragraph. And then I have to go back and revise within that paragraph, too, so all that secured work gets modified again. Then, after a couple of hours, there might be a component of a scene or a stretch of dialogue. That’s also sketchy, and may not add up to a coherent whole without some new internal work.

Then I set it aside and go to bed. The next day when I start up, I re-read what I’d done over the past couple of days (what some writer once called “the snowplow method,” in which you hit the snowbank at ten miles an hour and shove it all forward another few feet). That requires its own post-fit trim work.

Eventually, there’s something that looks like a chapter or a section. Once I have that, reading it a few last times for minor finish flaws, I’ll set it aside and go on to the next. But after a while, I’ll see something that looks like an idea that I had while I was writing an earlier section. “AHA!!!” sez I, the trained analyst. “I’ve stumbled across a THEME!” So then I go back through what I’ve written to see how I can foreground that theme in earlier iterations, playing up some detail or moment of conversation to add a bit of that color to the mix.

So rewriting, as in eliminating whole sections of a story or cleaning up some hazardous waste site that I’ve let languish for months? I never do that. Revision happens every second of the writing day. Structurally, I write like readers read: “And THEN what happened?” Well, I’d like to know, too, but unlike the reader, I have to do more work to find out.

I love writing. I know that people find it agonizing, like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor. But for me, it’s more like a cat with a paper ball; every time I touch it, it’s going to do something cool and unpredictable, and I’ll chase it around all day.

So last night, I was immersing myself in music, and watching a little teaching video by the once-in-a-lifetime musical genius Jacob Collier, whose photo opens today’s post. In this brief clip, he talks about the idea of “wrong notes,” which he utterly rejects. As a composer and an improvisational performer, he’s completely invested in the idea of time and sequence: “If I do THIS, then I might do THAT or THAT next.” And he gives the example of a “bad chord,” an array of notes that sounds dissonant. He says, “well, rather than say I won’t put that in my textbook of sounds, you think, well, how can I justify that as a sound?” And sitting live at the piano, he says to himself, “so this can go up and this can go down… yeah.” And he plays a second chord that makes the first chord into a brilliant introductory move. He closes this way:

Rather than saying this note is good and this note is bad, it’s more “this note hasn’t found its consequence.”

And that helps me imagine that my writing “process” is akin to improvisation. I find people in places with problems, and I write my way into learning more about the people and the places and the problems. And without long-range planning, I try to discover what the consequence of all that first stuff is. What am I learning in later writing that makes the earlier writing come back to me, but in a new way?

It’s crucial to say here that I claim no special authority for this process. I do not suggest that it is correct, or superior in any way. Every writer, every musician, has her or his fans, and others for whom the work leaves them cold. What I can say is that it IS a process, and one that’s served me pretty well in the simple enjoyment of writing as a way of living.

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

Raymond Chandler, to his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, 1947

Two Stories, Conflated

Choose your cell wisely
(image by Giorgio Grani, via Unsplash)

News from Bloomberg: 46% of college graduates over age 25 surveyed reported that they worked in the field that they went to college for, a quarter of them make $30K per year or less, and about 15% don’t make the poverty line. All interesting facts, but it’s pretty sloppy thinking to put those things in the same article. It falls totally into the trap of crushing every version of college into the trade school model, and then accusing people of picking the wrong trade when they were 18.

Let’s take those two stories apart. The bad news is that college isn’t the infallible safety net that everyone claims it to be. Now that a third of all Americans have college degrees, it’s just not special the way it once was. Any employer at any level can require an irrelevant degree to qualify for a job that once would easily have been done by non-collegiate adults. And in our current economic model, in which labor is always a cost to be avoided, humane work at a humane wage is hard to come by. There are enough college grads that we’re no longer protected from the humiliations that we once would have simply visited upon others. When we insist upon low, low prices and 24-hour-automated service and free overnight delivery, we can’t be surprised when the plague of low wages and job insecurity eventually arrives at our household as well.

But the other half of that story can’t be surprising to anyone, and we can’t imagine that it’s bad news at all. More than half of all adults work in a field other than the one they majored in at college. Could we expect anything other? And what a tragedy it would be if we all set our course at the age of 18 and 19 and never, ever deviated from it! I did not have the same enthusiasms and the same sense of mission when I was a kid that I do now. I was smart and obedient, I did what people told me to do, and they gave me a pat on the head and a nice grade. I have indeed grown into my adult life, and thank god for that.

That’s been my favorite version of college all along, the one that sets riches at our feet and kind, intelligent adults to show us their wonders, and lets us fall in love with something we might never have expected. I thought I was going to be an architect, but I discovered architectural and landscape history, and then in my very last semester, took a course in journalism where we learned something about the craft of writing criticism. Those five courses set my career, not all the studio design courses or building technology courses or visual design/graphics courses. I never practiced the career that my major “prepared me for,” because I could discover the right path only by walking the path.

I was talking with a wise friend the other day, and I was talking about the ways in which suffering had prepared me to help alleviate suffering. I said that there was a way in which my history of traumas had become a tool that I could employ on behalf of others. And he said, “Does it have to be a tool? Can it be a toy?”

What an interesting idea, that something can be freed from our perpetual Puritan drive to productivity and can simply be playful. And as I mused on that, I realized that to play requires safety. We can’t play when we’re afraid, we can’t play when we’re being judged (or judging ourselves as a proxy for all the judgments we’ve internalized). We can only play when we feel safe, unselfconscious.

College can be that place of safety, the place where we can wander through the garden of intellect and choose the particular fruits that appeal to us. Where it’s okay to taste a plant and say, “Yuck! Never gonna eat THAT again!” Where we try on the enthusiasms of our friends to see how they fit us, and share our own with them as well, the roles of teacher and student becoming blurred and indistinct.

But we’ve engineered a version of college that can never, ever be that toy. That can only ever be a tool, employed for survival or defense against penury. That fear-filled way of thinking is imbedded in this Bloomberg article, and in the college model that it recognizes and upholds. That way of thinking is native to most non-college families who send their kids to college thinking that it’s a “leg up,” a “safety net,” a “first step,” a “foot in the door,” a “career path,” any of a hundred metaphors that make it clear that college is not a toy! How could college be a toy, when so many families are at the edge of danger even with decent jobs? How could college be a toy, when every commentator around us is shrieking be afraid be afraid be afraid?

We have built a fear-filled economics, and that economics has robbed college of its possibilities except for that handful of well-to-do families whose kids will always land on their feet no matter what. We hobble curiosity in favor of knowledge far too early, and leave ourselves to merely work.

Paired Test

It seems like A OUGHT to be like B…

Nora and I were at an event this weekend at the Bennington Museum, to celebrate friends who’d been important parts of that museum community as volunteers and donors. I’d never been to that museum before, so between snacks and drinks, I took a few minutes to see the exhibitions. And one of them, called Parks and Recreation, was interesting for several reasons, one of which was that I learned the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the clearing of ski trails for many of Vermont’s most popular resorts. Vast numbers of unemployed young men worked through the Depression to build roads, parks, fire safety infrastructure. To do the coarse work of clearing and grading land to make a road, and also to do the finer work of building benches, signs, cabins.

Vermont, like most of rural America, had been hit pretty hard by the Depression. And it was Federal funding that saved it… projects that were later monetized by venture capital and turned into private wealth.

We don’t often think about how much wealth has been appropriated through gaining private control over things that the public has paid for. Empires have been built on the back of Federally-subsidized railroads, and Federally-owned interstate highways. From Federally-built dams and power projects to the technological miracles of the Internet and GPS, our history is littered with men who were given a vast gift and then said “look upon what I have made!” Given our various panics over the last century, it’s a nice paradox that we now see that the native end state of capitalism is Russia, where a few dozen men own everything.

When you get to the top, don’t say we never did anything nice for you.

I raised this question in passing at one of my last live events, back in February 2020, but it’s bugging me more thoroughly today, so I’m going to place it upon you with more detail than I did before. You’re welcome.

Condition A: a moderately sized private college. (I have one in mind, but why embarrass anyone?) Annual budget: $350 million. Number of employees: 1,500. Number of constituents served: 3,000. President’s salary: $560,000, plus loads of travel money and an on-campus house, in a job that lasts as long as the Board of Trustees are happy—seven years and counting for the current occupant, ten to twenty years in historical average.

Condition B: a moderately sized city. (Okay: Burlington, Vermont.) Annual budget: about $100 million, a third of the college’s budget, and that includes running its own major police, fire, road, and airport divisions. Number of employees: 2,900, about double the college (on a third of the budget). Number of constituents served: 43,000. Mayor’s salary: $115,000, and he pays his own mortgage, and has to convince the majority of the community every three years that he should keep his job—not merely a board of a couple dozen people, but all of the adult residents, thirty thousand or more.

So explain to me again about the efficiencies of capitalism? Explain to me again about overpaid public servants feeding at the public trough? Explain to me why being the mayor of Vermont’s largest city, an enormously complex job answerable to a diverse population of over forty thousand, in the face of a vigorous independent media and an organized opposition party, should pay a fifth of the wage of a president of a comfy, well-to-do college serving three thousand children of privilege? I know absolutely and without a doubt which one of those two is harder and more complex work.

Explain to me why Jeff Bezos personally, individually made over five billion dollars last year, and fifty billion the year before. Yes, he’s smart. Yes, his business is successful, and profitable. But from the point of view of both the consumer and the worker, profit = tax. It’s as simple as that.

Actually, profit is worse than tax, because it’s a surcharge that doesn’t benefit either the consumer or the community in any way at all. It doesn’t get turned into public roads or parks, it doesn’t get turned into electrification projects or schools or bridges. Every dime that gets sucked out of a transaction and kept by the ownership is a tribute tax. It doesn’t benefit the actual worker or organization who provides the service, nor does it benefit the customer who uses the service. It’s just the emperor’s cut. Money is the only thing in the world that flows uphill.

There is no reason why the president of a major research university should make more than that state’s governor. (Don’t even start on college football and basketball coaches…) There is no reason why the president of a small state college or a private liberal arts college should make more more than the mayor of the city that hosts them. There is no reason why a CEO of anything should make more than a couple hundred dollars an hour. Think about that—think about you, personally, making $250 an hour. That’d be unimaginably fantastic, right? Now multiply that ridiculous sum by TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND and you’ve approaching the growth in Elon Musk’s net worth last year. That’s not the worth of work, that’s just a tribute to the emperor. We’ve just stopped paying attention to numbers and their meaning, and have invested ourselves fully in habit and mythology.