Friday, December 2, 2011

Breaking up with God

Any Good Books, December 2011

Breaking up with God: A Love Story
Sarah Sentilles (HarperCollins, 2011)

In her memoir Breaking up with God, Sarah Sentilles uses the extended metaphor of a love affair. She has some reservations, though: “Figuring it as a romance seems simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it makes me cringe. Ever worse, calling it a breakup means I have to come out: I have to admit to myself and to the rest of the world the kind of God I loved–namely, a man.” Yes, a man: loving, tender, and wise, but also jealous and moody, and sometimes a little scary.

Of course, he’s an old family friend, someone she’s known all her life. Sentilles was raised in Catholic schools and churches, though her mother brought an Episcopalian sensibility to her parenting. “Her ongoing critical commentary gave me an early theological education: People tell a lot of stories about God, but only some of them are true.” The prevailing story in the church where she was confirmed included a God who took attendance in church, but when Sentilles got to Yale, she was ready to leave that behind. She majored in literature, with a side helping of philosophy.

After college, she moved to southern California, working in Compton with Teach for America. She discovered a much warmer and more welcoming God at All Saints, Pasadena, where she became so enraptured that she decided to become a priest. “By the time I arrived at All Saints, I had lived most of my life trying to be the person I thought other people wanted me to be because I believed that was the only way I would ever be loved. ... All Saints offered me a way out of this. God loves you God loves you God loves you, I heard every single Sunday. The priests promised God loved me exactly as I was, with all my flaws and failings and shortcomings.” But, at twenty-three, Sentilles was far from free of the urge to be what others wanted her to be, and becoming a priest was a very good way to feel special.

The master of divinity program at Harvard can lead to the Episcopal priesthood, but the way is hardly straight. It leads through “Martin Luther’s belief that to fulfill the law you had to love the law, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s ‘ditch,’ Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Paul Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern,’ and Gordon Kaufman’s ‘serendipitous creativity.’” In the course of all this theologizing, Sentilles found that “a canyon began to open between the God I was in love with and the God I was studying.”
If God is fundamentally beyond our comprehension, Gordon Kaufman suggests, then everything we say about him is a construction of the human imagination. This is both a profoundly liberating idea and a dangerously disorienting one, which deepened the chasm between Sentilles’s head and her heart. If God is a fundamentally unknowable mystery, then what was the God who loves her so much but her own wish fulfilled?

The conceivable attributes and constructions of God multiplied on every hand. Feminist theology, liberation theology, and the Nag Hammadi texts all opened up worlds of conjecture and contention, and Sentilles was intoxicated by the possibilities. “I wanted to share what I had learned with a community–to show the kind of expansive thinking about God that was possible, to illustrate how God language could change the world, to work together to do good.”

Meanwhile, ominously (from the standpoint of the priesthood project) she had never found a church to worship with on Sundays. No church she visited held a candle to her beloved All Saints, and because she was not yet in the ordination process, she had nobody in a counseling role to force the issue. So it was something of a shock when Sentilles, after earning her degree, went to work in a suburban Boston church. “Theology, it seemed, was not the point of running a church. Being an institution was the point. Raising money, obeying the hierarchy, following rules, being right, counting the number of people in the pews, ... –that was church work.”

The congregation also disappointed her: “They came to figure out how to live a life with meaning, how to do go work in the world, how to give back, how to be better people. They came to church to be fed, with bread and wine during Communion. They craved connection, and church seemed like a place where this might happen. God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise–background noise.”

She sounds so young, doesn’t she? Those don’t sound like such terrible reasons for going to church, particularly since her own craving for connection had drawn her in at All Saints. Though she had a discernment committee at last, through the church she was working in, the fracture between what she had learned about God and what the church was prepared to entertain had widened beyond healing.
Her sense of fracture and confusion led her to be madly honest with the discernment committee, in the secret hope that they would turn down her application and let her off the hook, which is how it turned out. “I broke up with God that night. I broke up with the priesthood. I broke up with the river and the sky opening and the dove calling me beloved. I broke up with chosenness and salvation and belonging. And I imagined God held me while I cried.”

Her anguish notwithstanding, I see it as good news that Sentilles was not permitted to become a priest. And it’s not terribly surprising that her faith was also a casualty, though I can’t call that good news; it’s just the way of things, a natural consequence of misguided expectations and hopes. Her metaphor is apt: she was like a bride who was so taken with the role of bride that she never spared any thought for what being a wife would be like. Standing up at the bridal shower and calling the whole thing off was the hardest thing to do, except for going through with it. It was a healthy crisis.
Sentilles landed on her feet, partly by becoming attached to a flesh-and-blood man, and learning how not to give away all her power to him. She finished a doctorate in theology at Harvard, and then became a teacher and a (very good) writer. She moved on to engage with the world in a new way; I wonder if God is still waiting for her.

Email column, December 2012

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Belief Instinct

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life
Jesse Bering (2011, W.W. Norton)

There was no way I could resist a book called The Belief Instinct, even on discovering that it was intended to debunk the fallacies about God that make us religious. Jesse Bering’s stance is psychological and evolutionary, rather than philosophical, on the one hand, or neurobiological, on the other, and this is all to the good. I have other sources for MRI images of the parts of the brain that seem related to transcendent experience; for Bering’s purposes, I’m content with the brain as a wet Black Box.
I am a big fan of evolutionary stories, and the ingenious ways modern psychologists try to test them, whether by comparing humans with apes and monkeys, or by practicing elaborate deceptions on small children. As it turns out, evolution has provided us with very robust tools for dealing with the social world. We find it easier than not to imagine that other people reason the same way we do, or that events have causes. If we feel that we are being watched, or that a deceased loved one might be alive but out of town for a long stretch, it’s only natural. It’s but a small step to extending such imaginings to the supernatural realm, with or without a specifically religious apparatus in place.
After demonstrating all this, Bering continues, as a rationalist atheist, to rue it. He says, “We can squint our mind’s eye so that the glare of our subjective biases is reduced, but in general we’ve evolved a powerful set of cognitive illusions preventing us from sustained moments of clarity.” Many people won’t even go that far, because such moments of clarity are so much less satisfying than the comfort of the illusion.
In short, viewing these things as illusions dispels them only in very tough-minded people, (or people with Asperger’s syndrome, which may tell us something in itself.) Bering’s conclusion is that we are the first generation with the psychological insight to see the Man behind the Curtain of our evolutionary heritage, but he doubts we’ll do it, and he admits that it’s an open philosophical question whether we’d be better off for it. (His passing suggestion that today’s social-tracking technology, all those traffic-cams and closed-circuit video systems, could replace our natural sense of an all-seeing, all-judging Almighty, strikes me as distinctly dystopian.)
In the end, I was hoping for more philosophy than this book has room for. Yes, our sense of the presence of God may be an illusion, but what then? Bering’s work stops short of grappling with the experiential reasons people might have for finding his purely logical reflections somewhat beside the point.
The short answer, and one which Bering slightly too humorless to come up with, is the joke at the end of Woody Allen’s "Annie Hall", about the guy who goes to a psychiatrist.and says, 'Doc, uh, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken,' and the doctor says, 'well why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.’

E-mail edition, November 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Merry Recluse

The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays
Caroline Knapp (Counterpoint, 2004)

Gail Caldwell’s book about her friend Caroline Knapp, which I reviewed last month, has led me The Merry Recluse, a collection of Knapp’s columns and articles put together by her friends after her untimely death in 2002. I was curious to meet Knapp in her own words. Not surprisingly, I found her much as Caldwell describes her: bright, and a great writer; fragile, and a loner; self-absorbed, and deeply wise about the world.

Still, this doesn’t sound promising, does it? Like trying to read Anna Quindlen’s or Ellen Goodman’s old books; hasn’t the world moved on? Perhaps. But on the public side, her concerns are as real as ever. There’s a sexual harassment piece from the second anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearing, and an early reaction to 9/11: “The people I talk to feel an odd, almost adolescent yearning for leadership, craving and mistrusting it in the same breath. Some of us feel compelled to reach out–give blood, light candles, sign petitions, anything!–and simultaneously compelled to retreat, edges of paranoia leaking in, talk of terrorists in the backyard.”

And on the private side, there are fascinating paradoxes, like the public nature of her privacy itself. Of her own sexual harassment experiences as a recent college graduate: “I went out to lunch with him and got drunk with him and let him kiss and paw me. It’s disgusting to me in retrospect, and shameful, but I honestly didn’t know what else to do.” It takes considerable charm to complain about feeling unsophisticated without sounding phony; it takes plenty of courage to confess to fear.

Knapp’s resolute honesty is what saves all this from preciousness, for me. She quit drinking in February of 1994, in her early thirties, so she had, she says, a lot of growing up to do. There’s a lifetime of emotional work in the seven years covered by this collection: her parents’ death, her history of anorexia, her affair with alcohol, and her acceptance of her solitary state as a way of life, which grew to include friends, a boyfriend, and a dog.

Fortunately, Knapp is also funny, mining the rich lode of her own insecurities: “Last week, I had an I-suddenly-sense-my-lips-are-too-thin day. I also had a since-when-have-my-pores-been-so-cavernous? day, but not at exactly the same time as the bad-lip day. Whew! Can you imagine what that would have been like? It would have turned into an I-have-to-stay-home-and-hide-under-the-bed day, no question.”

I’m struck by how lucky it is that Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp became friends when they did. Here’s Knapp, shortly after they began taking their dogs for walks together: “I’ve tended to be the sort of person who believes that walking doesn’t really ‘count’ as a form of exercise, that you’re not really working out unless you hurt. But it occurs to me now, perhaps for the first time, that the heart is a muscle in many respects, and needs attending to beyond the gym.” This is hard-won wisdom, and I’m grateful for it.

Email, October 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: a memoir of friendship.
Gail Caldwell (2010, Random House)

The grief memoir can be a tricky matter, as Gail Caldwell acknowledges. On the one hand, she says, “Like most memories tinged with the final chapter, mine carry a physical weight of sadness.” At the same time, “...writing about a friendship that flourished within the realm of connection and routine has all the components of trying to capture air.” I think that’s all true, and that she has made a masterful job of it.
Caldwell met Caroline Knapp when she was in her early forties, and Knapp in her early thirties. Both were single, and both had active writing careers: Caldwell was a book reviewer for the Boston Globe, and Knapp was a columnist for the Boston Phoenix who had recently published a memoir about her struggles with alcoholism and anorexia. Caldwell, who had forsaken the glow of the bourbon bottle a dozen years earlier, felt she’d met a kindred spirit. “Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation.”
They were commended to each other by a woman who was helping them each with training a new dog. This meant hours of walking and talking around the Fresh Pond reservoir in Cambridge, and in wooded sanctuaries and on beaches all over eastern Massachusetts. As their friendship deepened, they vacationed together, and took up one another’s recreations: Knapp introduced Caldwell to rowing, and Caldwell taught Knapp to swim.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home encompasses several familiar kinds of memoir. Caldwell recapitulates her own history of drinking, which had been her shield against loneliness and boredom, certain though these were to be the long-term result of her continuing to drink. “I used to think this was an awful story–shameful and dramatic and sad. I don’t think that anymore. Now I just think it’s human, which is why I decided to tell it.”
It’s a wonderful dog story, too. Caldwell’s Samoyed, Clementine, and Knapp’s shepherd mix, Lucille, make demands for life’s real necessities that are a salutary check on their people’s tendency to hide out alone. Caldwell has no choice but to get outdoors in all weather, with Knapp and with other neighbors she might otherwise never get to talk to. She gets hooked on dog training, “reveling in the clarity of communication that training an independent sled dog entailed. Bullying revealed itself immediately for what it was; equally useless were mixed signals, irony, or indecision. Dogs craved and responded to straightforward instruction, recognition, and praise, all of it in the direct-arrow language of the heart.”
Rich as they are, these matters are just the context for the grief memoir at the heart of the book. In 2002 Caroline Knapp was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. She was forty-two. Caldwell captures the bad news:“ ...the obscene euphemism that telegraphs the end: ‘We can make her more comfortable.’“ She shows us the hospital room with a view of the river, which after a certain time Knapp doesn’t want to see; and the village that forms: “We were all circling her like heartbroken hens, while Caroline was simply trying to swallow a bagel or get through a phone call.” And she gets the way that life goes on–the dogs still have to be walked and fed. Knapp had reunited with a faithful old boyfriend, and they were married during an intermission in the cancer treatment.
Stage four, of course, is as bad as it gets, and within two months Knapp was gone. Caldwell writes, “The ravages of early grief are such a shock: wild, erratic, disconsolate. If only I could get to sorrow, I thought, I could do sorrow.” Some days she could hold it together in a way that was itself surprising; other days she was blindsided by some fresh loss, finding a habitation in the empty place that was left. “I lived in that house of absence, took solace in it, until sorrow became a stand-in for what was gone.”
In the years since then, Clementine has passed on, too, and so Caldwell has endured another season of pain, of talking to the departed to feel the bond alive. “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.” I’d say that Caldwell has been made wiser, as well, to write so movingly without being sentimental. The pain of loss is the price of love, she reminds us, and it’s a price well worth paying.

Email edition, 9/1/11

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) getting by in America
Barbara Ehrenreich (Henry Holt, 2001)

The financial page picture of economic life in America is dismal these days, but in a way that strikes me as abstract. The Dow Jones is down, the NASDAQ has crumbled, and IRA investors are nervous. A look at the fine print reveals rising personal debt, and the looming threat of corporate layoffs. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich dives right down past those abstractions, into the lives of people who may never be able to retire
at all, let alone in Wall-Street-supported comfort.
Ehrenreich went out and applied for jobs in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. She folded clothes at Wal-Mart, waited tables, washed dish, and cleaned houses, to see what it's like to live on what those jobs pay. No big news, in a sense--it stinks: "What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're actually selling is your life."
Ehrenreich allowed herself a safety net. She always had a car, a place to live, an ATM card. She came with the first month’s rent; the experiment was to see if she could legitimately earn another month’s rent in the best job (or jobs) that an ordinary person could get. “In addition to being mobile and unencumbered, I am probably in a lot better health than most members of the long-term low-wage workforce. I had everything going for me.” But nowhere does the equation work out.
This is a passionate, painful book. It could not have been done as a thought experiment. “There’s no way, for example, to pretend to be a waitress: the food either gets to the table or not.” Ehrenreich is really exhausted, her knees and back really hurt--and in the end she gets to go home, back across the divide into the world of people who can reach into their wallets to buy this book.
The last chapter of Nickel and Dimed treats the economic nuts and bolts of the experiment. Market rents go up; market wages do not; and the working poor go without lunch to make up the difference. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the lowest-paid have disappeared from the agenda of American politics and media. Our blindness is our shame.

September 2001

Broke, USA

Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business
Gary Rivlin (2010, HarperCollins)

Last summer I wrote about Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which told, from Wall Street’s point of view, the story of the past decade’s boom and bust in securities based on sub-prime-rate mortgages. Gary Rivlin’s Broke, USA is the complementary story about highly profitable predatory lending, from the streets and storefronts of Ohio and Georgia, where “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday, for a hamburger today” may carry an annual rate of interest of over three hundred per cent.

Sub-prime mortgages, it turns out, are just one of the reasons it’s so expensive to be poor. People living paycheck to paycheck, who owe more than they have, make use of a shadow banking system that makes every transaction cost more. They rely on storefront check-cashing and payday loan businesses, and pay a fee for every money order they use to pay a bill. What credit cards they can get carry interest rates of 25% and more. They may buy appliances and furniture through a rent-to-own deal, making weekly payments up to twice what the item is worth. They may pawn their guitars, their jewelry, or even the title to their car. “All those waitresses and store clerks and home health-care workers might not make much, but in the aggregate they can mean big bucks. Whereas the banker seeks 100 customers with $1 million, people inside the payday industry like to say they covet a million people who only have $100 to their name. Bad credit. No credit. No problem.” Rivlin estimates the annual revenues of the poverty industry at $150 billion dollars, which would amount to $3800 a year from every American household that brings in less than $30,000 a year.

The names over the doors in the broken-down city centers and suburban strip malls are Household Finance, Advance America, Check Into Cash, Liberty Tax Service;
but the profits of the poverty industry also flow to Citibank, the Bank of America, HSBC, and other heavy hitters from the banking world. Notwithstanding the embarrassment of the occasional successful lawsuit, the money is just too good to pass up. In the early aughts, spurred by the money flowing in from Wall Street, sub-prime mortgage lending spread from the original low-income borrowers up to the middle class. Mortgage brokers who made more money on the most expensive loans pushed the process along; bond rating agencies knew what was happening, but it was contrary to their interests to express that knowledge by issuing lower ratings. When, in 2006, house prices began to stop going higher, millions of people were left owing more than their houses were worth, and the consequences are still evident across America.

Rivlin’s view of these events is not encyclopedic, but it is comprehensive. He sharpens his story by choosing a matched pair of antagonists: W. Allen Jones, the big payday lender from Tennessee, is inherently less sympathetic than Martin Eakes, the head of the North-Carolina-based Center for Community Self-Help, but they are both so zealous about how they see the world, and so aware of each other as adversaries, that they make ideal vehicles for Rivlin’s narrative.

Broke, USA, is another visit to the worlds of Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and Joe Bageant (Deer Hunting with Jesus), both of which I will now revisit with a new perspective. Rivlin doesn’t really have an answer for the pawnbrokers and payday lenders who claim that their services are the only recourse the poor have. Plenty of people with more resources use credit for questionable purposes–how can we fault people who use it for survival? Of course, that’s no excuse for the kind of profiteering, and in many cases fraud, that this book lays bare; but the real solutions are going to require a whole new way of thinking, and the sooner the better.

Any Good Books
July 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Dirty Life

Any Good Books
July 2011

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love
Kristin Kimball (2011, Scribner)

In The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball satisfies us with a story even though we know the ending. It’s the ‘how’ of it that’s so compelling: how did she go from being a city girl, who eats no meat, and thinks she’s fit because she plays a vigorous game of pinball now and then, to a farm wife who makes her own scrapple and tills the fields behind a team of horses taller than she is? It’s easy, in a way: she fell in love with a farmer. She met the farmer in question when she drove out from Manhattan to Pennsylvania to interview him for an article about organic food and the young farmers who were growing it. As an interview, it was sort of a loss, because her subject was too busy farming to stop and chat, but he sent her home with a back seat full of farm food, and a head full of Mark.

She was a Harvard-educated travel writer; he grew vegetables and lived in a trailer on rented land. She enjoyed the night life and the Sunday New York Times; he aspired to a farmhouse built without nails, and home-made buckskin clothing. Right from the beginning, though, Mark’s vision included Kristin, and he’s the kind of person the universe conspires with. He was persistent (to the point of stubbornness), and generous (to the point of unworldliness), and he was not at all surprised when, within nine months of moving in with Kristin (in a suburb neither finds very fulfilling), he was offered a 500-acre farm near the western shore of Lake Champlain, on a year’s free lease.

Essex Farm had been out of production for twenty years or more when Mark and Kristin moved there; the rats in the grain bins, the leaky buildings, and the junk strewn around represented the early stages of a return to nature. But a mature stand of sugar maples stood on the rise to the west of the farmhouse, and the fields by the road were rich, silty loam. Mark could see the possibilities, and Kristin signed on.

The town of seven hundred souls had a wary and somewhat pessimistic attitude: “The people we met kept telling us, with varying degrees of tact, that we’d fail. They said nobody in the area was interested in local or organic food, or even if they were interested, they wouldn’t be able to afford it. And if we did find people to buy our food we’d still fail, because the farm was too wet and nothing would grow.” But, in their country way, they came by the farm to say it, with a little gift of food, and anything else they thought the newcomers could use. Maybe they had some of the equipment to hitch behind draft horses in the fields; some had spare pots and pans, or expertise about metal-working or dairy cows, all offered out of a courteous sense of community that begins to revise Kristin’s world view.

For one thing, farm life put book-learning in its place. She says, “I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. ... Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now.”

There’s also the relentlessness of the labor. “A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only the things that must be done now and things that can be done later.” Milking twice a day, keeping all the livestock in feed and water, and repairing what is endlessly breaking tended to drive out lesser notions of dusting and laundry (to say nothing of wedding planning.) But early on, Kristin and Mark figured out that they owed themselves at least one good meal from the farm every day, and some time away from farming on Sundays.

And, as the book’s title suggests, she had to embrace the filth, along with the dirt and the soil. “I had never in my life been so dirty. The work was always dirty, beyond what I’d previously defined as dirty, and it took too much energy to keep oneself out of it. I had daily intimacy not just with dirt dirt but with blood, manure, milk, pus, my own sweat and the sweat of other creatures, with the grease of engines and the grease of animals, with innards, with all the stages of decomposition. Slowly, the boundary of what I found disgusting pushed outward.” But food comes from dirt, and compost returns to it. I love the image of the compost pile, “which was seven feet tall and twelve feet wide, and snaked sixty feet across the farmyard.” Its interior was hot enough to kill weed seeds, and to burn Kristin’s hand when she probed a foot below the surface.

You’ll want to give this book to the farm-and-food-minded people you know. The descriptions of meals made from what was in season and at hand are gorgeous. “I watched Mark slice [a deer’s liver] thin, dust the slices with a little flour and salt and pepper, and lay them in a pan of sizzling butter, where a handful of minced shallots had already gone glassy and translucent. He ran out to the field and came back with a handful of fresh herbs...” and so on. Makes you never want to shop in a grocery store again.

The Dirty Life would also be a fine present to the newly engaged. Not that Kristin and Mark did such a bang-up job of wedding planning: early-arriving guests were treated like family and set to work, chopping vegetables or putting flowers in jars for the tables, and they barely had the lawn mowed. But she knows what marriage entails in the way of change, compromise, and loss. “What was I signing up for? Poverty, unmitigated hard work, and a man whom, for all his good points, no reasonable person would describe as easy to be with? Objectively, it wasn’t exactly a good bet.”

Kristin feels a reasonable-enough doubt on the part of her family, who’d never imagined a life so deep in dirt; and she feels the distance she’s come in the two years between meeting Mark and marrying him. “...There was something else, too, and I don't know why nobody talks about it. Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.”

What she said ‘hello’ to has prospered in the eight years since the time of this memoir. Kristin and Mark feed a hundred or so of their neighbors year round from Essex Farm; they have two small daughters; and perhaps best of all, their work crews include both neighbors and apprentice farmers, who come to learn, and move on to build farms of their own. Farming is not easy, not tidy, not simple, but compelling and fulfilling; God bless the people who do it, and who write about it so well.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bozo Sapiens

Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human

Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan (2009, Bloomsbury Press)

What a rich world of possibilities is embedded in that subtitle! Ellen Kaplan and her son, Michael, deploy a wide range of explanatory tools in their exploration of our human minds and cultures, from studies of non-human primates in the wild, through economics, engineering, and evolution, to high-tech laboratory studies of the workings of the brain. Better still, they write really well, presenting a mountain range of research as an afternoon’s hike over a well-marked trail.
The Kaplans open with a tour of the history of our awareness of error, from the Garden of Eden, by way of the Han Dynasty, to Aristotle, one of whose great gifts to the world was formalized logic, a system of spotting some kinds of errors of reason. But formal logic can’t save us from error. Not only is it too unwieldy for everyday use, it’s a little too abstract. Aristotle knew this; he also produced On Sophistical Refutations, which covers, the Kaplans say, “question-begging, weak analogies, false generalizations, ad hominem arguments, appeals to force–all the slippery faults that, in logical terms, are not even wrong.” It’s a comprehensive inventory, with modern examples available at every turn.
Humanity’s next step in error-proofing came in the seventeenth century, with the work of Sir Francis Bacon, who invented the scientific method to bring rigor to our knowledge of the world, enabling great strides in discovery and invention; yet science remains a resolutely human endeavor. “Although we publish and review the way Bacon said we should, we simply don’t discover the way Bacon assumed we would. Our inspirations remain intuitive–rigor only makes its appearance at the write-up stage.”
So what’s the nature of that intuition? As these examples show, our brains are not machines for logic. They are tools for the lives we live, based on the lives our early human ancestors lived. In computer terms, our brains are very powerful, and very slow. They achieve quickness by operating in parallel, processing the same information for several uses; and the interactions of chemistry and electricity are non-linear, and irreproducible. On top of that, the brain structures we share with lizards and those we share with other mammals have not ceased their contributions; we do not think by rationality alone, but by autonomic systems, instincts, and emotions long written in the genome.
The result is that our brains reach for conclusive certainty on which to base decisions, as opposed to abiding ambiguous information that leaves us up in the air: “to save on expensive resources, the brain puts things in categories and assigns likely explanations to sense-experience long before it reaches the conscious decision-making mind. The world we think we see is actually an executive summary, helpfully condensed and annotated by unseen cerebral assistants.” If, as we stroll through the jungle, one possible meaning of a twig-snapping noise is the footfall of a tiger, the other possibilities don’t matter much.
It’s intuitive that one way to make mistakes is to meddle in things we’re not good at yet; think of the first hundred or thousand miles driven by a rookie behind the wheel. It’s less obvious that expertise itself conveys new and more catastrophic powers for messing things up. Pilots and surgeons are the archetypes of people who may be so confident of their knowledge and skill that they fail to take heed of new circumstances; such assumption errors can also happen within teams of experts; no matter what our level of expertise, we absorb new safety devices and procedures into our treatment of risk.
Experts are also as subject as anyone to the bias of their preferences, known as motivated reasoning. Whether they know it or not, people see what they expect to see, and what they prefer to see, “...whether it’s a case of researchers ‘finding’ that the data fits the curve or taxpayers discovering that they magically owe the government less than they’d thought. These aren’t necessarily lies–just accurate reports from a parallel, more desirable universe, which suggests why people caught out in them are so often sincere in their protestations of innocence.”
Bozo Sapiens probes some ways of looking at the ways we are like early-human ancestors, even as our culture changes rapidly around us. We face many instances of the tragedy of the commons, such as the rapid decimation of popular kinds of fish, because it’s in no one party’s interest to stop hauling them in. “We inevitably overexploit our world because our character, our set of instinctive assumptions, is far too local for our current circumstances.” But it’s also in our nature to strive for solutions, and to do so in company with others: “We are not condemned to live as our physical mechanisms dictate; in the history of a people as in the lifetime of an individual, we welcome the chance to reshape our circumstances and our expectations–that is what culture is for.”
These are lofty thoughts; this book abounds in them, but they are well grounded, too. For just 250 pages of text, the authors needed nearly 400 end notes (several of which are worth the trip.) It’s good to be reminded of how long all this has been going on: the getting and spending, the eating and dieting, the living and dying. What’s different about the current moment is this: “Life doesn’t separate neatly: local and global are intermingled, and each is compounded of elements both deterministic (like technology, taxes, and the law) and essentially random (like politics, finance, sickness, and love). We are asked to respond to the world at every scale, and have to be as interested and informed about the widest matters as we are about our most personal expertise.”
Will we have the courage to be flexible, and live with the likelihood of error? Will we have the vision to create meaning and value, even without certainty? Storytellers like Michael and Ellen Kaplan give me hope.

email edition for June, 2011

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Music Instinct

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It.
Philip Ball (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Oddly enough, I can tell you exactly how long I’ve been waiting for this book: in 1997, when Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works came out, I was struck by his dismissal of music as “auditory cheesecake,” and his suggestion that “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” This seemed a deliberate slur, or at best, an error, but I’d have been hard put to prove it in Pinker’s terms.

Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct is a beautifully thorough response, (beginning with the title, presumably a reference to Pinker’s 1994 The Language Instinct). Music is part of our culture, he says, because it is part of our brains: “It might be genetically hard-wired, or it might not. Either way we can’t suppress it, let alone meaningfully talk of taking it away.” Music, like art and language, is an area where culture takes off from instinct, both making use of our intellectual capacity and irrevocably shaping that capacity. Moreover, Ball does not neglect to note, it enriches our social and emotional lives beyond measure.

He begins with a wide-ranging survey of the social uses of music, examining some hypotheses from ethnomusicology and related fields, gently skewering various just-so stories about the origins of music, (“Again, contemporary parallels offer themselves with treacherous alacrity:...”) while appreciating what grains of truth they may contain. Apparently, there’s nothing you could say about what music is, and how people use it, that you couldn’t also find exceptions to; but that simply points out how significant and universal the subject is.

Ball proceeds to the fascinating business of how “nature and culture interact to produce the diverse palettes of notes that most traditions draw on in creating their sonic art.” The biology of the ear and brain; the physics of the octave and the fifth; and the difference between Pythagorean tunings and the harmonic series are presented clearly but in enough detail to make sense of what follows, as Ball moves on to the musical implications of these matters.

Implications, of course, are what it’s all about. Whether we think of ourselves as musically sophisticated or not, music works on us by setting up expectations in our minds. There seems to be a sweet spot between predictability and chaos within which music is maximally interesting; it tickles our taste for ambiguity and suspense, but generally also offers resolution. As Ball says, “Experiencing music is an active affair, no matter how idly we are listening. If it wasn’t, we would not be hearing music at all.”

The Music Instinct covers a lot of ground. Ball delves into MRI studies of the brain as well as anthropological evidence; his musical examples include African drumming and the Rolling Stones as well as Mahler and Mozart. But he does not neglect the meat of music theory in the European tradition, exploring the inventive journeys through harmonic space made by composers like Chopin, much of whose art lies in inventive modulations. The cognitive psychologists are hard at work figuring out just how our brains map such matters, but it’s certain that they do, or try to.

The vagaries of rhythm receive in-depth study as well. Ball endears himself to me particularly with this note, about the famous syncopated note in the theme of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’: “The emotional effect of this rhythmic hiccup, with its early entry of the theme, is very clear: many people say it induces a thrill. (There must be something wrong with me -- I just find it irritating.)” I was sure I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

The book would be incomplete without consideration of emotional content and meaning in music, elusive as these turn out to be. At least, certainty about them is elusive; yet the various ambiguities and uncertainties Ball encounters are not faults or errors; they are part and parcel of the entire enterprise, in all its untranslatable, irreducible glory. “In the end we need to allow music to be music, with its own set of emotions and sensations that we have yet to name and perhaps do not need to.”

No doubt there is more research left to do, especially on the cognitive science front, but The Music Instinct delivers what it promises. It is full of questions worth asking, and answers worth hearing.

May 1, 2011

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Wallace Shawn (2009, Haymarket Books)

Wallace Shawn describes himself as divided; the table of contents of his volume of essays seems to confirm it. Under “Part One: Reality,” we find such titles as “After the Destruction of the World Trade Center,” “The Invasion of Iraq is Moments Away,” and “Up to Our Necks in War, ” a not-quite-unrelievedly grim portrait of the blindness of American exceptionalism. “Part Two, Dream World” takes up Shawn’s career as a playwright, and his experiences of theater and poetry.

On the face of it, the political essays from the Reality side have more bite, but they turn out to be deeply and usefully informed by Shawn’s theatrical experience. His awareness of how many other people he could be, given the right lines to say, and how many characters and characteristics his subconscious can disgorge, has led him, he says, “to a certain skepticism, a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling the evil and alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could the reviler.”

So you rather have to pity Shawn his awareness, in 2003, of the inexorable preparations for making war on Iraq, on both the military and propaganda fronts. He knows well that “the boys are going to be fighting this war with money from my taxes, and they’re going to bring me back the prize--my own life. Yes, I’m involved, to put it mildly.” When he calls out “the obvious truth that Bush and his colleagues are exhilarated and thrilled by the thought of war,” he’s not saying that those men are uniquely blood-thirsty by nature: any of us is capable of violence and cruelty, if conditions are right. But he can’t help seeing that those who brought that war about were possessed by an alarming sense of purpose and righteousness, which made it seem downright impolite to talk about all the lives that would be wrecked by war.

Shawn is compelled to talk about the people in the world whose lives are made harder by our lives being made easier, though as he says, he went through the first forty years of his comfortable, liberal life without that awareness. “When one hasn’t noticed that it’s one’s own boot that’s standing on the suffering person’s neck, one can be calmly sympathetic to the suffering person and hope that over time things will work out well for them.”

The path he hews for himself out of this ambivalent position is the hope that, through art, some forces besides power and aggression are at work in the world. “Beauty really is more enjoyable than power. A poem really is more enjoyable than an empire, because a poem doesn’t hate you. The defense of privilege, the center of our lives for such a long time, is grim, exhausting. We’re exhausted from holding on to things, exhausted from trying not to see those unobtrusive people we’re kicking away, whose suffering is actually unbearable to us.”

Shawn presents, as essays, interviews with the poet Mark Strand and the political philosopher Noam Chomsky. In a way, this marks the extreme of his divided nature, but it may also be the way that nature comes together. “Somehow poetry and the search for a more just order on earth are not contradictory, and rational thought and dreams are not contradictory, and there may be something necessary, as well as ridiculous, in the odd activity of racing back and forth on the bridge between reality and the world of dreams.”

Serious thinking, good writing. Recommended.

April 2011 email edition

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading Jesus

Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels
Mary Gordon (2009, Anchor Books)

It would hardly seem that we needed another book about the Bible: hundreds, of one sort or another, must be published every year. Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus is relatively modest in scope and ambition, but Gordon’s voice is lucid, and her point of view strikes me as trustworthy. She is marking out a path between the cut-and-paste Enlightenment gospel of Thomas Jefferson, who excised all that was miraculous in search of a perfect system of ethics, and the hellfire-and-brimstone certainties of contemporary Evangelical preachers.

She shows a fitting respect for the impulses that drive those preachers and their followers. “I am striving for a tone and diction that neither shouts nor threatens, a diction that neither promises falsely, nor underestimates the power of fear, or supposes that, with right thinking, it can be brought under control. Above all, I have no interest in making a doctrinal point, no desire to convert.” If her readers are interested in reading, that will be sufficient.

She confines her attention to the Gospels because, as a writer, she is more interested in narrative than the theological contentions of the Epistles; and because, as a Christian, she takes the life of Jesus to be the most compelling narrative. Calling the figure of Jesus elusive, ungraspable, yet irresistible, she selects stories that show just how inexplicable he is.

She is not weighing in as a scholar of religious or scriptural matters, but as a student and teacher of literature. She uses five English translations, discriminating among them by their power in English, rather than by any consideration of other translation issues. I think she’s justified in focusing instead on the experience that readers and listeners are having as they encounter these stories, “if only because most of the people in the world who have read the Bible have not had access to this scholarship.”

And what do you have, if you have only the texts? Stories of a strangeness that invites wrestling, at least. Contradictions, paradoxes, outrageous claims. Considering that these narratives were composed a generation or more after the events they describe, and were not solidly canonized for another three centuries, how did some of these details persist? Gordon inquires about details like the fig tree Jesus withers in a fit of pique (Matthew and Mark), or the young man who runs away without his clothes in the fourteenth chapter of Mark.

Inquiry at this level, of course, leaves us with more questions than answers. Gordon’s questions are passionate and honest, and, as I see it, they get to the heart of the difficulties, contradictions, and stumbling blocks we find all through the Gospels. Facing these, wrestling with them, she arrives at a place not of Truth, but of possibility.

I’m glad to go there with her. Thanks be to God.

March 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Not Even Wrong:

Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism
Paul Collins (2004, Bloomsbury)

In Paul Collins's latest book, Paul and Jennifer move back to Oregon (from Wales, where they were living in his Sixpence House) and take two-year-old Morgan for a check-up. He's a normal, healthy, toddler, they think, with a few unusual abilities--he can start up a computer and make it play games, and he can read books, the fatter and more abstruse the better. But, as the doctor notes, he never says, "Mommy" or "Can I have some popcorn?"; he doesn't make eye contact. To Collins, it's a bafflement: "How can it be that we left our house an hour ago with a healthy toddler, and returned with a disabled one?"

By trade a historian, Collins has a parallel story to tell. He has been nursing a fascination with Peter the Wild Boy, brought to England from the forests of Hanover by order of George I. Peter was smart enough to survive on wild foods, but had little use for language, or the ways of men. He was famous in his time, attracting the attention of Swift, Defoe, and Linnaeus; he was a prism for emerging ideas of what it was to be human.

If, as seems likely, Peter was what we would now term autistic, he represents a case study in how the disabilities of autism are, at the same time, hyperabilities. Collins investigates other strange but creative characters, including Alan Turing and the nerds of Microsoft. "Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result." Which still leaves the problem of communicating, of getting along in the social world. Imagine your whole life as a sort of Turing test, in which you have to use reason to process social information that most people can grasp without a second thought.

Paul and Jennifer, with some expert help, make overtures to Morgan using written language. There's a lovely Helen Keller moment when Morgan first answers a binary question from Paul, as he'd been doing with his computer games. It's a huge step in the right direction, as is the class Morgan is finally old enough for, at three and a half, with other kids like him. "There is no awkwardness among them: they are equals. It's as if we have brought a seal to the ocean and watched him shuffle awkwardly off the land to glide effortlessly through the waves, finally within the world he was made for all along."

Morgan's parents still have their work cut out figuring out what he needs, and how to keep him safe; they have to plan to have him living with them for the rest of their lives; but they know what they need to know about not pounding their square peg into a round hole, and it's going to be all right. Thanks be to God.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shakespeare Wrote for Money; A Visit from the Goon Squad; Juliet, Naked

Shakespeare Wrote for Money
Nick Hornby (2008, Believer Books)

A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan (2010, Alfred A. Knopf)

Juliet, Naked
Nick Hornby (2009, Riverhead Books)

I’m just catching up with Nick Hornby’s third collection of the book reviews he wrote for the Believer magazine. I was sad to learn that it would be the last for the time being, as he turned his attention to other projects, (including his own fiction, which is certainly some consolation.) Like the two earlier volumes, Shakespeare Wrote for Money is a pleasure on several levels.
One is his down-to-earth attitude, his transparency. As Sarah Vowell puts it in her introduction, “The fact that his Books Bought list is so often so different from his Books Read list makes his portrait of a real reader the most accurate I have ever seen. The hope! The guilt! The quest for shelving!” Sound like anybody you know?
By the same token, I like Hornby’s taste, and his stalwart rejection of boring books. He doesn’t care for pretension, literary or otherwise, and if he doesn’t want to read about people who drink wine and talk about Sartre, he reserves the right not to. “This is entirely unreasonable of me, I accept that. But prejudice has to be an important part of our decision-making process when it comes to reading; otherwise we would become overwhelmed.”

I have to wonder what Hornby would say about A Visit from the Goon Squad. My view of Jennifer Egan’s book is colored by my prejudice against books that don’t commit to being either novels or short stories. Sections (chapters?) of this book appeared in the New Yorker as short stories; they are reasonably successful as such. But the beauty of a short story is that if you don’t like the characters, you can put the book down and be finished with them, and here, they keep coming around again, with none of their flaws fixed. In fact, no, wait, here they are as teenagers, even more messed up than they will be a few pages ago.
All this cleverness is a risky undertaking. Should the reader really need to take notes and make charts to see if two characters have met yet? Am I meant to wonder if the chapter with the extended footnotes is an homage to Nicholson Baker or a ripoff of David Foster Wallace? Is the mother’s query – in the chapter consisting entirely of Powerpoint slides– “Why not try writing for a change?” meant to be self-referential?*

Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked is much more to my taste. Like Egan’s book, it concerns itself with popular music and modern electronic communications, but, because Hornby confines himself to a single story, I found it much easier to grasp and to enjoy.
It’s not hard to picture the characters: a singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe whose disappearance from performing and writing has become a provocative mystery, to a devoted few, including his biggest fan, Duncan, and Duncan’s disaffected girlfriend, Annie. For a few bucks, Crowe permits the re-release of pre-production versions of his greatest album, rousing a debate among his internet fanbase. When Annie, in England, puts up a review that counters Duncan’s, and Crowe replies to her from his seclusion in Pennsylvania, they’re both offered a way to move on in their lives.
Crowe isn’t actually invisible, but the old Tucker Crowe, the one who drank too much, fell in love too easily, and wrote agonizing songs about it, tends to render him mute: “The fact is, some of these myths are so colorful that they have deterred me from re-entering the world; it seems to me that people were having more fun with me gone than they could ever have if I was around.”
That doesn’t include his ex-wives and his first four children, who might have liked to have him around, but they also would have liked him to find something to do with himself. He’s redeemed himself, to a degree, by being the primary parent of his youngest son, Jackson, but Jackson’s mother, Cat, reasonably concludes that that isn’t enough.
“A few months back, he’d called Cat on the eye-rolling, asked her for some suggestions. After some deliberation, she announced that she thought he should be a singer-songwriter, but one who actually sang and wrote songs.” Or words to that effect, but it’s going to be a little difficult, after a career hiatus that makes Tucker feel like he’s been sitting around in airport lounges for about twenty years, somehow never getting on a plane.
Annie has begun to feel the same way about her own life, washed up in Gooleness, one of England’s less exciting seaside towns, playing second fiddle to Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe. She knows she can’t get the fifteen years back, but “...somehow Juliet, Naked – or her feelings about it, anyway – had woken her from a deep sleep: she wanted things.”
So Nick Hornby doesn’t have to tell Jennifer Egan that there’s a way to talk about what life in the internet age is like without disappearing completely down the rabbit hole: his book can show her.

Happy New Year, friends, in case I didn’t say so last month. I hope you’re taking good care of yourself amid the ice and snow. What with one thing and another, 2011 is shaping up to be Interesting Times.


* The slide show chapter appears here:

This version works much better (in color, and with a sound track) than the book’s 75-page black and white reproduction.
I’m told that the Kindle version of the book fails to reproduce it adequately--the irony gods are smiling.

Note, April 2011
A Visit from the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Any Good Books -- February 2011