Friday, December 30, 2011

On the Road

I'm blogging from afar this week, but I wanted to write something--anything--before the end of the year, and something tells me my New Year's Eve isn't going to be the time to do it.

I'm visiting my best friend and her family this week and having a wonderful time, as always. But missing Ezra, of course--as I know we all are. It's impossible not to wonder what he would have said and thought about all of the things we're saying and thinking and doing and to feel like, at any given moment, something very important is missing from our lives.

It still makes no sense to me. I know there's no reason why all of that had to happen to him--or to anyone, for that matter--but not a day goes by that I don't think about it and wonder, "Why?"

I know there will never be an answer, but to me, it seems better to wonder than to simply accept it. Something so wrong and so sad should never be acceptable.

But we're having fun, in spite of ourselves. We went bowling the other day, and ice skating today.

As we were about to step onto the ice, my best friend's mom announced, "I haven't been on skates since 1974."

I told her, "That makes two of us."

But it was wonderful and fun, and one of my New Year's resolutions is to go ice skating more often. And perhaps even bowling, although there's no question I kind of suck at it. But still, it was fun.

The highlight of my trip, though, was the look on Sam's face when I fixed the nose on his favorite stuffed animal. He had taken it on a sleep-over, and the family dog at his host's house had gotten ahold of it... I'm sure you can imagine the rest.

I'm surprised he was able to rescue it before more severe damage was done.

So we made a trek to the craft and fabric store, and I did my best, with frequent consultations with his mom to make sure that the facial reconstruction was accurate.

The operation was a success. Sam gave a huge smile and said, "YOU FIXED IT!!!"

That was my Christmas and New Year's present, all rolled into one.

Happy New Year, everyone. May 2012 bring us all peace and happiness.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Rose By Another Name

I've been thinking a lot over the past few weeks and months about forgiveness and its role in friendship. My thoughts are still a bit muddied and in-process, but I decided I'd like to try to articulate them as they are forming, instead of waiting until they settle into shape.

Sometimes the process is more important than the product.

My thinking started the other day when I heard "Sympathy" by The Goo Goo Dolls. I had always felt a strange sympathy for someone who was only in my life for a very short time and who hadn't really ever earned either my sympathy or my friendship. (Quite the contrary, actually.)

This song always makes me think of him.

In the end, it was my own strange sympathy for him that became the source of my sense of forgiveness and the clarity that accompanied it.
"And I wasn't all the things
I tried to make believe I was...
And all the talk and all the lies
Were all the empty things disguised as me.
Stranger than your sympathy..."
Mahatma Ghandi once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong."

The other day, I realized that the benefit of forgiveness is the clarity that accompanies the action.

The strength inherent in the act of forgiveness stems, I think, from a willingness to see things as they are and as they have been, and yet to agree to let go of the feelings of anger and resentment, no matter how well-deserved they might be.

I agree with Ghandi: the weak cling. They have to, perhaps, because they need a full sense of the ways in which they were wronged if they want to assert that they are--and presumably always were, in fact--right.

Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has said, "Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence." There's more to life than being right all the time, and in some ways, it takes a certain courage to realize that and to be willing to speak and act accordingly.

So I think that my current attitude is that forgiveness is a gesture--and an important one, obviously.

But I also think that linking forgiveness and friendship, as if one automatically entails the other, is like saying that a wave of one's hand is the same as the hand itself.

It's a disservice to friendship.

Szasz (rather cynically) claims, "The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget."

Despite the cynicism of Szasz's claim, I think he has a point. We can wipe the slate clean and forget what was once written on it, but should we simply forget that it was ever written upon at all?

I don't think so. I think there's a difference between the friends you've forgiven and the friends you've never had to forgive at all. To treat the former as if they are simply and seamlessly included among the latter is to devalue the latter.

They don't deserve that. And recognizing that distinction is essential to proving oneself to be a good friend in turn.

Almost every language in the world has some variation on the following proverb: "A friend to all is a friend to none."

Friendship is a choice and a fabric. We choose what it will consist of, we establish the warp and the weft, and then we mutually weave the result. It is textured and dyed by the nature and color of our experiences.

A friend of mine once told me about how it took her years to forgive her ex-husband. She said she remembered the relief she felt at finally being able to see him and listen to him and not feel anger--to be able to genuinely wish him well in the world.

She then immediately commented, "That doesn't mean I'd give him the chance to do it all again."

I was thinking of this the other day, as I was noticing that, for some people, friendship is all about tone and attitude and style, and not at all about content.

Friends talk with a sense of the content of the exchange. If I chat cheerfully with someone about things that don't matter to me at all, that's fine, but I'd never call us "friends." If I talk with someone for an hour and they never once ask, "So how are you? How have you been? What's been going on with you?" and wait for an answer, that's also fine, but I walk away knowing that this isn't really a friend.

That's why it's called "small talk." Because it's small.

Friendships are large, beautiful, cumbersome and occasionally inconvenient things.

Friends make distinctions, they know the nuances, they show up even when it isn't convenient. They do the work, day in and day out. When there's a problem, they pitch in and try to fix it.

They don't retreat to a safe distance and wait for the storm to pass: they weather the storm with you, and they try to make you laugh when there isn't much to laugh about. They don't show up when it's over and try to claim credit for thoughts and feelings and intentions that their actions never made manifest--for the work they just simply weren't ever really willing to do.

What I've realized this year, among other things, is that not everyone gets it. And that's okay. I have what I have and I know what I value and what I offer to others on a daily basis, and I know that not everyone will see it or know how to appreciate that in a way that works for me.

Forgiveness gave me the clarity to see that, and I'm grateful that I have that perspective and that I know how to implement it in my life on a daily basis. After months of spinning my wheels, I was suddenly able to move forward with a jolt and a rush and now I can look back and marvel at the distance I've come.

The 19th-century British novelist George Eliot once wrote, "It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses."

Monday, December 19, 2011


Between grading and the holidays, my blog has been sadly neglected for the past two weeks.  I'm hoping that will change in the next couple of weeks, when I have a little more time to think and a lot more time to write.

I've been busy getting the Christmas presents ready for the people, although I still have yet to get a tree.  And I have been cooking.  I found what looks like a wonderful recipe for pork loin wrapped in prosciutto, which I'm going to try to make tonight.

It's only "wonderful," of course, if you don't object to the idea of a slab of meat wrapped in meat and then stuffed with ... meat.  But it does use apples and kale, too.

I confess, I have a thing for prosciutto.  Whenever I see a recipe that uses it, I have to try it, come what may.

In terms of reading, it's mostly been student papers.  I'm actually taking a brief break from student papers right this very second, but I will return to them momentarily, I promise.

I did read an essay by Richard Preston about Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, and I really wish I hadn't.

If you don't know what Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome is, don't Google it.  I'll tell you and then you'll know why I'm telling you not to Google it.

Children who suffer from Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome have a rare genetic disorder that causes them to be developmentally disabled and to exhibit bizarre and truly horrifying behaviors.

They mutilate their own faces.  Children with Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome used to have their upper teeth removed to keep them from biting off their own lower lip.

They are often afraid of their own hands.  They are occasionally missing fingers or joints of their fingers because they have bitten them off.

It is as if their hands have a mind of their own and attack their face, inflicting horrific injuries.  They will remove their own eyes.  They will remove their noses.  They bite their fingers off, trying to protect themselves from ... themselves.

Because they experience pain exactly the way the rest of us do, they will often scream for help while doing this to themselves.

There was a picture included with the essay.

I didn't sleep all night.  It took me two days to recover from reading about this.  I kept waking up and thinking about the children's parents, to say nothing of the children themselves and the individuals they grow up to be.

They often die in adolescence, although there are a couple of individuals with Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome who are in their 30's and 40's.

There is no cure for Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, and no one is certain what causes the genetic disorder.  It is a recessive trait on the X-chromosome, so it only affects boys, although girls can be carriers of the mutation.

It apparently took Preston seven years to write the essay, because he was so disturbed by the subject.  He wanted to find a way to make something so bizarre and so horrifying human and understandable to the rest of us. 

He wanted us to see past the illness to the children themselves and the individuals that they become.

He did a good job.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Shut Up and Kiss Me"

Another one of my all-time favorite country songs.  Mary-Chapin's always so clever.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Intention, Paradox, Process

I'm finishing a semester of teaching Dostoevsky and getting ready to teach him again next semester, so I've been thinking a lot this week about an article I read by Gary Saul Morson, "Paradoxical Dostoevsky" (The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3 [Autumn, 1999], pp. 471-494).

Dostoevsky was consumed with the idea of intentionality and guilt and, as Morson argues, he often used paradoxes as a way of thinking through the idiosyncrasies of human psychology.

Drawing on the comments of the (generally repulsive) character of Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov, Morson notes that "we often hate people not because they have harmed us, as one might think, but because we have harmed them" (471).

They have become "the occasion of our guilt" and, paradoxically, we may prefer to see them take revenge on us (472). Their forgiveness may not actually make us feel any better, in fact--quite the contrary.

We feel this way, Morson suggests, even though we know that they aren't deliberately forgiving us as an elaborate act of revenge: they genuinely want to heal the breach and move on. The problem is, "those people have become the occasion for our feeling guilty or demeaned in our own eyes" (471).

What Morson identifies as "gratuitous ascriptions of agency" (472) or, to put it more simply, the tendency to hold people responsible for things they have no control over, is a paradox of human behavior.

We willfully ascribe will to "what cannot be willed" and react accordingly (472).

I have a slightly humorous example of this: a good friend of mine was once extremely angry at a woman who had treated me badly. Although my friend has since "gotten over it," so to speak, she still continues to privately vent her annoyance at this woman to me.

It takes the form of constantly commenting on... the size of her nose. When I once remarked that the woman was "kinda pretty, after all," my friend announced, "Oh, she looks like Jim Nabors."

Any time she sees anything involving this woman, she makes a derogatory comment about her nose: "I can't get over it, you can't even see her lips." "Look at the size of that thing." "God help us if she gets a head-cold."

Finally, I pointed out that, while the woman could definitely and reasonably be held accountable for her words and her actions, it wasn't really fair to hold her responsible for the size of her nose.

In my friend's case, it's a manifestation of (sincere) friendship and the demonstration of an emotional connection. I've done similar things myself. Everyone has.

As Morson suggests, "we typically invent deliberate insults the victim has inflicted in order to justify the otherwise unjustifiable feeling we have" (472).

We just don't want to like them. It may be unreasonable, it may be unfair, but on some level, we're just not willing to get over it and it's their fault if we don't.

As Morson recognizes, Dostoevsky thoroughly understands this irrational and paradoxical aspect of human behavior:
Law, poetics, and psychology typically imagine human intention as in principle locatable at a moment. Though it may take time for an intention to form, though it may be revised over and over again, at some point, if we are to act on it, it takes shape. We first intend and then we act, the common sense idea goes. (476-477)
By contrast, Morson argues, Dostoevsky's novels repeatedly suggest that "such a view of intention is naive. It applies only some of the time" (477).

Dostoevsky realizes that in some cases, we may really mean it when we say we really didn't mean it, because, on some level, we really didn't.

At some point in your past, your mom or some other authority-figure probably told you in no uncertain terms, in those heady minutes before you were totally grounded, "You knew what you were doing was wrong, and yet you went ahead and did it anyway."

Well, yes and no, actually. If you were caught forging checks or toilet-papering the trees in your neighbor's yard (to take two very different examples), then there is a good chance you knew that you shouldn't be doing what you were doing and yes, you went ahead and did it anyway.

But what if, like Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, you pick up a heavy, blunt object while on your way to yet another sordid episode in the ongoing, angry shouting matches you continually have with your emotionally abusive, alcoholic, spiteful, neglectful dad?

You know, the drunken father who's openly trying to use his money to steal your girlfriend? The one who won't give you your inheritance because he claims you spent it all already and that actually, you owe him?

When investigators ask Dmitri why, before heading off to visit dear old dad (after finding out that his girlfriend had snuck out of her house in the dead of night), he picked up a potential weapon, Dmitri insists, "What does one pick things up for at such moments? I don't know what for. I snatched it up and ran--that's all" (444).

As Morson points out, Dostoevsky was fascinated with such cases: in his journal, he commented extensively on a case involving a woman who bought a knife and went to her lover's house after finding out that he had gone back to his wife. She began stabbing the wife, but the couple awoke and stopped her.

Did she intend to kill the wife?

Oddly enough, Dostoevsky will argue that, as in the case of his character Dmitri, the answer is "No." As Morson argues, according to Dostoevsky, "She was fully aware of what she was doing at each moment, but she could not tell it advance what she would do at the next moment" (478).

Although not feasible as a legal standard, the idea of intentionality as a process rather than a fixed, motivating idea leads to an interesting conception of human responsibility. As Morson points out, Dostoevsky's work frequently suggests that, in any given moment, there are an infinite number of unrealized possibilities that stand an equal chance of being actualized.

Moral accountability, in Dostoevsky's conception, lies not only in acknowledging what we meant to do, what we did, and what occurred as a result, but also in contemplating what we might have done, but didn't. As Morson notes, "Dostoevsky even suggests that unactualized possibilities have their own kind of being, perhaps capable of affecting future generations of events" (482).

It is in this spirit that Dmitri Karamazov ultimately accepts responsibility for his father's murder, even though he didn't actually kill him. He wanted to kill him and he could have killed him and, were the same circumstances repeated, he might very well have killed him: for all of these things, he takes full responsibility.

He is willing to go to prison, in the end, not for what he did, but for what he didn't do--for the commission of a crime that was always within the realm of possibility.

Thursday, December 1, 2011