Presque Vu

teetering on the edge of potential

Time’s Running Out the Door I’m Running In

out of every nowhere / you never see it coming
“Rust” 1999, What Are You Going to Do with Your Life.

According to wikipedia: This album “received mixed reviews from the music press, being described as both flawless and having no appeal.”

Released the year Ian McCullough turned 40 (1999), What Are You Going to Do With Your Life was the second album after McCullough, guitarist Will Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson reunited to call themselves “Echo and the Bunnymen”. You may recall, McCullough left the Bunnymen in 1988 for solo artist work; their drummer died in 1989, and Sergeant and Pattinson got a new singer for the thoroughly dreadful Bunnymen album Reverberation. In 1996, Sergeant and McCullough put out an album as “Electrafixion”, after McCullough’s project with Johnny Marr fell apart (two tracks on the Electrafixion album have a Marr co-writing credit). Burned was at turns wicked, stompy and loud or jangly and kinetic. McCullough was unmistakably himself (Who’s been sleeping in my head? I know for sure it was not me) and Sergeant was playing the same guitar around him, only instead of the psychaedelia pedals in his set-up, he was hitting the fuzzy ones. I remember reading a lot of press at the time about how they were intentionally not mining the Bunnymen sound, as well as reading some schlocky stuff about mending fences. The former is evident in Electrafixion, but not the latter. I like that. It’s been a strength of the McCullough/Sergeant writing team: music and sentiments which feel immediately familiar, remaining vaguely obscure, without seeming to refer to a story you’re not part of.

you know you’re the one / tell me about my life
“Zephyr”, 1996, Burned

Immediately after the Electrifixion album, however, McCullough and Sergeant were working with Pattinson again. They dropped the wall of sound, brought back the full-time jangly and released Evergreen as Echo & the Bunnymen in 1997. Pattinson left again, but the releases remain Bunnymen albums. What Are You Going to Do with Your Life and Flowers followed in 1999 and 2001 (they’re still recording—I’m just slow to buy). These albums dug right in under my skin; all three struck me more than Ocean Rain or Porcupines had (1984 and 1983, respectively, probably 1987 or 1988 when I first heard them start to finish).

I’ve been catching my reflection / I’m still looking at someone / still perfecting imperfection / like everyone
“Flowers”, 2001, Flowers

The strength of these records is simple: these are just good songs. McCullough sounds weary, cynical, riddled by doubt and happy. He sounds, in short, 40. He hasn’t changed what he’s singing about, he’s changed his relationship to the angst. There’s definite chemistry here, as well, with the parts of the whole that were missing in McCullough’s solo work. Sergeant crafts post-Byrds, post-Harrison guitar lines that soar, pop into overdrive, and remain clean, even when they jangle unexpectedly left instead of right. His playing dovetaills tidily with what McCullough is singing.

The three albums have pianos, string sections, theremins, and horns–there’s a lot going on, but never too much. Unfortunately, the rhythm section sometimes doesn’t have the I’ve-known-you-since-1982 familiarity of our heroes; fortunately, that never sinks the songs.

How d’you wanna go / wanna go together / I don’t wanna go / gonna live forever
“Just a Touch Away”, 1997, Evergreen

There’s a lot to be said for getting to 40 with your melancholy intact without becoming a sad caricature.

A tiny little tiny pig that sing with all its might.

Seven years ago today, one of my youngest three cousins was born. Thirty years ago today, of course, John Lennon was murdered. Were it not for the former, I’d likely no longer remember the latter, except, of course, for the excessive displays of grief and woe which crop up in the less-useful corners of the media.

In high school—after Lennon had died—I was an excessive fan, myself. I called my best friend “John”; she called me “Paulie”. We went to Beatles Conventions; I recorded Breakfast with the Beatles on Sundays off the radio while she was in church. Other than the Siouxsie and the Banshees cassette given me by one of my sister’s friends, I only listened to the Beatles. I had them on cassette, on album, on 45. I recited their lyrics and Lennon’s poetry at speech tournaments. But I don’t–and never did–remember where I was, or when I learned John Lennon had been shot and killed.

These illustrations are not “I’m a bigger fan than you ever were, so my opinion is most legitimate.” They’re just illustrations of a time when I claimed ownership in things I had no real relationship to. I remain a fan of the albums, no matter that I’m no longer in love with the Beatles, or John Lennon, or fandom–really–of any kind. Hero-worship or ownership of someone else’s art, music or life is something I place in the I Corinthians 13 category: now I am grown, I have placed the ways of childhood behind me.

By most accounts that I have read Lennon was (like most of us in youth) often unadmirable. Unkind to his first wife and neglectful of their child. Self-centered, a bit of a bully. Arrogant and entitled in his talent and success. Of course I didn’t know him, but you can imagine him angry when privileges did not flow from those positions of talent and success. And in many public statements early in his life, before his retreat from the public, you see a man accustomed to deference in his priorities simply because he is capital-f famous. As I recall, his post-Beatle interviews seem to acknowledge this.

In the end, I suspect he was, ultimately, nicely human. By most accounts I have read that’s why he stepped back. That he was, at 40, trying to be a person worth loving. Trying to grown beyond that. He was, I guess, moving past the reasons of youth. Which fits with the excerpts of the Rolling Stone interviews (warning: this link resizes your window to something small and useless) to be released tomorrow. It seems antithetical to the excerpts from the interviews to have all this rending of garments, wailing and wallowing, thirty years later.

Yoko Ono’s editorial today takes the theme that they were a “couple who laughed”. A couple who laughed–that’s a wonderful thing.

Fandom’s wailing and wallowing has no business with a couple who laughs.

I sat belonely down a tree, humbled fat and small.
A little lady sing to me, I couldn’t see at all.
I’m looking up and at the sky, to find such a wondrous voice.
Puzzly puzzle, wonder why, I hear but have no choice.
“Come up! Come forth! You ravel me,” I potty menthol shout.
“I know you hidey by this tree!” but still she won’t come out.
Such softly singing lulled me sleep, an hour or two or so.
I wakeny slow and took a peep, but still no lady show.
Then suddy on a little twig, I thought I see a sight:
A tiny little tiny pig, that sing with all its might.
“I thought you were a lady!” I giggle–well, I may.
To my surprise the lady got up and flew a-way.

–John Lennon from “In His own Write” (as I remember it)

Every man’s memory is his private literature.

“Memory is about self-interest,” said Maxim Biller.

You probably don’t recall my great story about being stood up in the airport my sophomore year of college, during another school’s spring break, twenty-one years ago. My very best friend in all of high school–Michael–was supposed to come see me. I’d had one of those all-consuming crushes on him, and we spent all my spare time together my junior year of high school. The next year, he was out of the country on an exchange program and sent me audio tapes, long letters, his diary. Then, the next year, in a time before cell phones and email, I waited at the airport until several hours after the plane he had said he’d be on landed.

Michael and I exchanged a couple letters after that, I think. We must have talked on the phone about his not arriving as planned, but I don’t recall. It feels that we never spoke again. As far as I was concerned, he disappeared. I remembered him, keenly. I wrote stories based loosely on memories I had of him. In those very earnest conversations, you have late at night, in the early stages of relationships, in the late stages of college, I’d spin Michael out on a long spool as Something that Mattered in my Past.

I remained in infrequent contact with only one person from high school, and she always said that, aside from where he’d gone to college, she didn’t really know anything, no-one said. It wasn’t really out of character that he’d move on from the high school lot of us. I certainly had–moving several states away for college, visiting the old town only twice in four years, exchanging few letters, not returning phone calls. Eventually, this one friend married; I moved again; ten years passed and I had no contact at all with anyone I had known in high school.

I’d still think of Michael, at least a couple times a year. I’d wonder if he’d remained brilliant. I’d speculate how long he’d continue to get better looking before that tapered off. I’d look him up in various likely phone books–at the library at first, eventually on the internet. With a first name like “Michael” and a generally common last name (according to, it’s the 4th most common man’s name) and an only slight odd last name (it’s shared by 4,445 people in the U.S.), he wasn’t easy to google. Even knowing where he went to college, even guessing he hadn’t moved far after college, I never found a likely enough candidate. I’d spend a few minutes looking, a few minutes more remembering something about having been his friend that made me feel special. Sometimes I’d spend a few more minutes imagining what it would be like to talk again.

Usually, I was really glad I couldn’t reconnect with Michael. After all, I was a mess; my life littered with a schizophrenic ex, an odd, brief, failed marriage, the meandering higher education path. . . . Oh, yes, my stunted professional life, childish personal life, lack of children, lack of accomplishments. I’d remember how I felt, seventeen years old, on the hood of his car, looking out over the valley spread out before us, talking about philosophy. I’d remember the figure I felt I cut, heading to the airport, with a tape of my band in my bag, in my new boots, and a shard haircut. Most of the time, I wasn’t too sorry to be disappeared, myself because the uneven life I was living, careening from bad decision to intentionally-difficult path, was too ugly to share. It seemed preferable to remain a memory, hopefully one more impressive than reality.

But curiosity is an itch. At 40 years old, I still look for a handful of people, now and again, whom I haven’t spoke to since I was about half this age. Once, I was pretty sure I found the actual Michael, about a dozen miles from where he’d gone to college, with an address listing. Various details matched well enough, so I sent a postcard. I don’t recall what it said more than “Periodically, I think of you. Hope you’re well and I’m glad I have memories of you.” Once, as I walked through the airport within those dozen miles, I had a vague wouldn’t-it-be-a-lark thought about running into him. It was likely the only time that year he had entered my thoughts.

It had become a little odd, of course, not to have run into him virtually. Over the last five years, nearly every single person who was part of the old gang in high school has joined Facebook, but Michael had not been among them. At first, I just friended any of the old gang–extending my own offers to connect, accepting those offered me, as people joined and showed up in the friends list of high school folks. But then there got to be too many people, many of whom I hadn’t really considered more than acquaintances in high school.

Facebook got bigger and more full of people I’d known, or just met, or taken a class with once. Eventually, I got caught in an awkward friend purge by someone divorced from the woman I knew when she had been his wife–the last time I’d spoken to either of them.

Part in reaction to the defriending, and part in concert with other thoughts I was having, I stopped extending offers to connect. I still accepted requests, but fewer. It wasn’t conscious, but I had established a personal policy of not adding anyone who did not first request to be my friend. Around that time, I dropped a few people, too. Hid several who I wanted to drop, but didn’t purge in order to spare random feelings.

I recognized this unconscious policy for the first time today when Michael showed up, finally, as “someone you might know.” There he is. About a dozen miles from where he went to college. At that moment, when I could click “send friend request”, I realized that I was not going to. And I wondered why.

I come to the conclusion, at the end of writing it all down, that it’s complicated, and simple. Most simply, I’m still embarrassed by my behavior 20 years ago. Less simply, I haven’t actually reconnected with anyone via Facebook. They’re there, and I’m there, but I’m not more engaged their lives than I was when there wasn’t Facebook. No more connected than I was when I graduated, moved to Texas, and figured it was all she wrote.

But finally, fundamentally, and most complex, I lack the confidence to face such anti-climax. I’m old. Things that still felt exciting and unresolved as I approached 30 are not any longer. My stylized memories of adolescences and its thrills are better than the brief handshake and awkward, so, how’s life? I’ll get out of Facebook. I like my stylized memories. I like the contrast they make with my very wonderful, imperfect life now that I’m almost human.

Michael will, undoubtedly, have the ordinary feet of clay we all do. Seeing that will make me startlingly aware of my own banality. I don’t want him stealing my fancies, even if it would be nice to know someone is excited to–finally! after all these years!–know what I’ve been up to.

“In the comfort of this room, the challenge died. Remember? You and me? We laughed till we cried.”

For funsies, there are 59 people in the database at HowManyofMe with his first and last name; there is one with mine. My last name is shared by 153 people in the U.S., making it the 120,330th most common last name.

Where I Fail to Meet Success

About 18 months ago, I got serious about righting my off-the-rails career. The conventional wisdom, as well as the unconventional advice, all amounts to one thing: networking. The graduate degree programs emphasize the people you’ll meet, the places you’ll have an opportunity to intern, and the connections you’ll make. The career counselors talk to you about renewing old relationships, forging new ones, and practicing your elevator pitch. The gurus tell you to never eat lunch alone, to sell yourself to everyone you meet, to socialize your way into the career you want. It’s all the same thing. You’ll only get a job you want if someone you know gives it to you. I have no reason to doubt this. I’ve had three jobs I loved, wanted and was good at: two came from friends; the third imploded before I had a chance to make something of it.

The way into something new and exciting is through the people I already know and the people they know, which is why, for about eighteen months, I’ve been trying.

Of course, I’m not outgoing. Although I’ve no difficulty in social situations and although I love the lecturing aspect of being a professor and of being a lawyer, I prefer keeping my own counsel. At parties, I enjoy hearing what other people have to say more than I enjoy talking about me. C’mon, I go to movies alone by choice.

One could say, if one were fond of labels, that I am an introvert. Given the introversion, the truth that I will have to socialize my way back into work I value is often uncomfortable. Like today.

I was at the courthouse today, standing in the hallway, with a handful of files, my folio, holding my Dark Lord of the Sith overcoat, and making notes in my calendar. A good looking young man looked me right in the eyes and said “How’d they get you into court today?” with an emphasis of the familiar on the “you”, like he knew me, like he knew that covering the call is not a regular part of my job. Having absolutely no idea who he was, or if I knew him, or why he seemed to be in possession of a salient point about my job, I shrugged and answered “That is an excellent question.” He smiled and walked past me into the courtroom, “see ya.”

In the elevator, I realized the myriad of missteps I made with that interaction. It’s not that I did not know to say “Hi, forgive me, I’ve forgotten your name?” it’s that I hadn’t decided whether or not to say it before he had walked away.

So my plan for the last eighteen months has been hit or miss. When I finally hit send on an email to an acquaintance, it hits with an organization that very much interests me. But when someone at the courthouse speaks to me like a colleague, I miss out.

On the other hand, it’s hard to walk away from that conversation without smiling. Those daily vignettes–random, perplexing, with the feel of an expository scene in a movie–remind me that life in general, and my life in particular, is pretty cool, especially when you give it a few minutes of reflection in the calm of your own counsel.


I’ve been redrafting my teaching statement this week. My philosophy appears to be very meta. All about context and, dare I say it, the holisitic approach that the Fr. taught me in law school. Do not consider only how this course or skill fits into your educational or professional goals, but consider how this skill or knowledge will fit into your world. It comes back to my parents: Pay!Attention! and Think! Why do plastic storage bins from the Target have the “do not put a baby in the bin” red-circle-with-a-slash-through-it sticker on them? Why do people type “ONE THOUSAND, FIVE HUNDRED AND TEN DOLLARS AND NO CENTS ($1,500.00)” in contracts? Because some lawyer won a case and someone thought it would be the best way to keep from losing the same type of case in the future. Are either of those things necessary? Useful? Potentially harmful? Why or why not? How should you structure your own legal practice so that you are not contributing disutility to the world?

(I hope my statement of teaching philosophy reads more coherently than this entry. Guy is away for two straight weeks right now and, unrelatedly, I’ve been nonstop with the Philanthropy Board, the Pro Bono hotline, the catching drinks with people I don’t see as much as I’d like to. Also, work has been the typical “This case you’ve never heard about and didn’t know we were litigating has three major pleadings due tomorrow. So, forget about your 7th Circuit brief and do them”)

I was at lunch with a friend, and talking briefly about my statement of teaching philosophy, and then, talking about other things I’ve been doing, I mentioned the American Red Cross push to teach the Geneva Convention in schools. He asked what the ARC’s purpose in adding the Geneva Conventions to the school curriculum was. I could not answer that question but I was happy to tell him what I thought the value was. In a catch phrase, I think the value is ambient awareness (my other favorite pony). (Turns out, the ARC thinks the value is celebrating the historic milestone and to ensure that these humanitarian principles are widely understood and respected.)

My friend mentioned that he’s cynical about human nature in general and, specifically, about the impact of sending observers to prison camps or the utility of teaching everyone that there are basic human rights to be protected even in war. I agree that there is little, if anything at all, a person can do against atrocity and inhumanity and that raising awareness in American high schools is quite possibly the least to be done toward that end. I suspect that even large scale humanitarian interventions do little to change the inclination toward war and destruction. Even so, I do not believe that is an argument against humanitarian efforts (large scale or small scale) nor an argument against teaching about human rights conventions such as the Geneva Conventions.

After a short back and forth, my friend suggested that I was presenting a dispassionate approach to good works and I felt complimented, which quite likely was not his intent. I think the pragmatic approach to good is necessary.[fn1] The pragmatic approach to creating good recognizes that change is glacial and seeks to create good by acknowledging that a person will likely never see a significant change attributable to his own action. Therefore, the pragmatic approach sets a very low goal: the creation and valuation of infinitesimal good.[fn2] Again, it’s easy to create infinitesimal good; the challenge is valuing it. I believe that when you create ambient awareness of major good–when you teach the history of humanitarian change, for instance–you set a baseline value on interpersonal human good. You create a tangible value in infinitesimal good and encourage more of it. Then it piles up. When we are all walking around in little bubbles of good will, it becomes easier to find money and manpower for the hard jobs.

The pragmatic approach to creating good is easy, but I think it’s effective, both as an approach to convincing people to do good, as well as means for creating good. First, people cannot confront large problems. As human beings, we are small and ineffectual in the face of the universe and in the face of governments and human history. The problem of inhumanity is insurmountable. When you understand the means that do exist to protect a single person against those forces, you can imagine at least one person being shielded from inhumanity. It becomes part of your understanding of how people act, as much as horror is part of your understanding. You gain a baseline awareness of two critical things:

1) people try to stem the tide of inhumanity
2) individual people are saved, comforted, protected or otherwise improved by the effort to stem the tide of inhumanity, even if the tide will forever roll on.

If you know how to use that baseline information, if you let that ambient awareness inform your thinking, you make better decisions. That increases the pockets of good in the world.

Of course, learning about grand humanitarian efforts, and humanitarian successes, might also inspire you to join a humanitarian effort and that’s even better.

That is, of course, my life philosophy: to improve the space I inhabit. I believe you are best equipped to do that when you consider how your education, your profession, your hobbies and your habits fit into the world around you. Liberal Arts education, particularly, should prepare you to do that. Professional education, like law school, should show you how to do that.

Which brings it back to my teaching philosophy. Pay attention and think. The fact is but the means, the reasoning is the end.

Our chatting, again, into something also in the conversation at lunch. I attended the John Howard Association Annual Lunch this month and had a conversation with an ex-offender during the mingling stage of things. We discussed the obvious, classic problem of incarceration: People end up in prison because they have no skills for making good decisions, no compelling reason to value good decisions, no idea that they are smart enough to consider their decisions. Then, while they are in prison, they sit on their hands, stagnating, while the world outside changes and what little place they had in the world to begin with disappears. What skills they did have to cope with the world atrophy or become inapplicable. These people are released from prison, less able to cope than they were before they went in, and many of them go right back.

The Illinois Humanities Council gave John Howard a grant to establish the Stateville Book Club. The prisoners in the Book Club are exercising critical thinking skills they did not know they could have. An attorney involved in the program mentioned what a revelation to the prisoners it was when they realized their thoughts had value. We know this about human beings, right? Isn’t this a basic child development precept? Why don’t we apply it to adults when we know they were never given the chance to learn this as children?

It’s time, I suppose, at very long last to do more than a night or two a month on the legal aid hotline. My job search is not landing me a public interest position, which is not an excuse to not do it on my own time. My “own” time. Ha. It’s been a week since I last edited this; two or more since I first drafted it. It’s no nearer publication-ready, so I’m just tossing it up. Just to get it off the to-do list.

[fn1] “Pragmatic” as opposed to “Utilitarian”. The principle of utility (the “Greatest Happiness Principle”)—that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”—was the centerpiece of John Stuart Mill‘s ethical philosophy. I’m not looking for the greatest good for the greatest number, or the greatest good which brings the least attendant harm. It’s more in the Thaler-Sunstein paradigm of Nudge institutionalism. You create better decisions by changing the environment of the decisionmaker so that the default is the beneficial position and you use inertia in your favor.

[fn2] Good lord, that sounds very much like the Random Acts of Kindness BS I have always been hypercritical of. It’s not. What I’m talking about is a much more directed sort of behavior.

Is this the kind of work you’d like to do?

A friend of mine asks:

so, does anyone else occasionally think-up dream-team start-ups with various of their talented friends, like “normal” people might put together fantasy football leagues?

Not surprisingly, many of those talented friends responded with a passionate yes.

(Now comes the non sequitur, which I promise to tie back into the question)

When we moved into the new place, one of the very first things I unpacked and set aside was three framed photos that I have had grouped on the wall every place I’ve lived since I first lived alone. Two are mine, from my Photo II class in college. The third photo GWS3 had cut from a photography textbook. He, or ELC, had covered a wall in the group house with photos cut from that text book; somehow, I ended up with them, carrying them through each subsequent move. Most of them are now in a box in my mother’s garage, which each week I promise to clear out. Two of those three photos–one of mine and the one from the textbook–had been mislaid. I can’t find them anywhere. I am lonely without them. Last night, I set out looking for them again.

I did not find them; instead I uncovered a picture of me, my sister and a bunch of other ardent young friends, sitting in our backyard. We had spent the night fomenting one of those fantasy organizations. Ours was, strictly speaking, a cabal, complete with manifesto and a name for the era. So we took a picture for posterity. SJV, and my sister, of course, are the only people in the picture I still know and I don’t see or speak with SJV nearly as much as I’d like.

(And now for the loop back to the beginning)

SJV is the only person I know who has ever actually done this. Made a mental list of talented friends and their strength, then hatched a manic “wouldn’t it be awesome if. . .” and produced something out of it. Stevie did that, when he was dating a DJ who needed something to boost her show. He thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if and gathered up a couple of us to write, record and voice in a series of bumps for her show. They were quite popular. He’s still doing it. Not “writing bumps for his girlfriend’s radio show” but producing things out of his wouldn’t it be awesome if I put this talent of my friend’s to use thoughts. I admire SJV a great deal. I know firsthand how whipsmart he is, how weird, and how much time he puts into things. If I didn’t know all that, I’d be jealous, instead of just regretful that I keep myself from doing the same things.

I keep changing what I write as the next paragraph. I don’t have a wrap-up, a success story, a sob story, a pithy anecdote. I don’t have a “this is my wouldn’t it be awesome if. . . ” This is a failed little essay. I did, eventually, find the photographs, which are once again hanging on my walls, along with a fourth photograph, I took of the two and a half room apartment where I lived with GWS3 and SJV, of the room where we recorded those radio ads.

well-disciplined like a corpse

I don’t know where I get my theology from. I suspect, most of the time, it does not resemble any organized religion in the world and, at best, mimics a misunderstanding of the late 19th and the 20th century philosophers I love so much.

I pray, when I do so, reflexively, out of habit and cultural normalcy, without any faith at all. I pray like we all say “bless you” after a sneeze, for a reason that has nothing to do with the idea that I may be heard and answered.

I have, sometimes–although not lately–gone to Mass because it’s quiet there and calm. It is hard to find so peaceful a place, where you can react and participate (“i believe in god the father,almighty,creatorofheavenandearth”) without thinking, so you’re present and you’re not. Your mind elsewhere, worrying problems you’re not thinking about, while you sit in peace, very safe and very calm, autopilot shielding how absent you are, how absorbed in the tumult of your own self. Where no-one will talk to you. And no-one is startled if you’re crying. But at some point, everyone smiles at you, touches your hand, and wishes you well. Where at some point, you have no choice but to be reminded of the length and breadth of everything that has nothing to do with you and have no choice but to rise out of the self-absorption.

I believe–with no basis for believing this really, other than one Jesuit professor I once had and one former seminarian professor I once had, both who seemed to direct our thoughts this direction. I believe that my religion tells us it is not my place to judge the beliefs or morality or actions of another person and that it is not my job to change those beliefs, moralities and actions. That it is forbidden to me to know or say who is right. That is it my purpose, therefore, to treat everyone, even those who are “wrong”, “repugnant”, angry, ugly, mean, contrarian, with only love and kindness; I suppose in the understanding that surrounding all people with the love of mankind leads them to feel the love of God and then find the right morality. I don’t know. Catholicism–in the bizarre understanding of it that I have–does not want me to solve other people’s amorality and expects me not to shun anyone for any reason. Look after your own soul, it says, and then give what you have to bring people safety, food, shelter, freedom and the dignity necessary to look after their own.

I guess that’s my mother’s pragmatism; my father’s hierarchy of responsibilities. My own frustration, first at having no omnipotence, and now at simply having no control at all. I guess it’s those things: my upbringing and not religion at all.

So, I believe that I am obligated to use the gifts I have, to the best that I can, with the knowledge that my purpose in living is to leave the space I inhabit better for my having been there. That the most primal sin is squandering those gifts and failing to help. I have no idea where this notion comes from, why I ascribe it to religion, why I think it’s the result of having been raised nominally Catholic. I do remember, on more than one occassion, talking to Father Dr– at the Alma about why I wanted to study law and how I felt the purpose was that: improving the patch of life I inhabit, as well as redirecting myself. I ascribed his insistence on this particular purpose of “bettering” to his being a Jesuit. It may have been the other way around: he believed service was the meaning in life and so became a Jesuit.

And this is what I think, each day and each night.

I have, as I mentioned to some friends this week, been locked in the little black room in my head for a couple weeks and it neutralizes the thing I have always been told was my gift. And when I climb the stairwell to my Chicago-school office so many stories up, I know why I’m depressed, where the malaise forms, why it doesn’t lift. This can’t be my purpose, my function in the universe, the entire length of my only flash-in-the-life of everything: extracting blood from stones on behalf of faceless institutions or small entrepreneurs who plan their loans around the lawsuits.

quid agendum

A long time forgotten, the dreams that just fell by the way

Waylon Jennings’ Good Hearted Woman is the soundtrack in one of my seminal memories.

My father was sent to one of the war colleges when I was about 8. I liked the war college assignments, on the one hand, because there were lots of cocktail parties to spy on and the families went to a nearby rec beach for short vacations. The reasons I disliked them, on the other hand, are not really important here.

One of the officers in Dad’s class was one of the only single adult men my parents knew–as far as I knew anyway. He was handsome and young (probably not particularly younger than my dad, but I was still child enough to divide young from old as “nonparents” and “parents”), handsome and a helicopter pilot. I remember him snorkling on that trip, with a Korean officer, and catching octopus, which we ate. The pilot had a girlfriend with him. I suppose she was more than a girlfriend, as I had the impression she and her daughter took each reassignment with him. She had Jacklyn Smith hair and long legs.

I knew my parents loved each other–they were affectionate, went out and to parties together. They had private jokes. But they were my parents; I never thought about it. Parents were not couples, not like the Big Kids in high school or models in ads for two-album collections of the 70’s greatest love songs.

But the helicopter pilot and the young brunette? They were a couple; they were in love. You could tell. I remember around the camp fire one night, my father put The Outlaws” in the tape player and when “Good Hearted Woman” came on, the helicopter pilot dragged his girl out of the tent, laughing and protesting, and he made her dance with him, singing at her, until she swatted him and went away, with that peeved-affectionate-embarrassed-yet-pleased-by-the-display look on her face.

That was the kind of thing you saw on the teevee, not in life, what you’d never see your parents doing, even if they did do that right in front of you. I always remembered it.

Some years later, my parents learned that the helicopter pilot had died in a crash. I remember wondering about the brunette with the long legs and how she was being treated. Not with regard to things like CHAMPUS–I wondered how she was being treated socially. They were the first nonmarried, nontraditional family I was conscious of knowing. If she was unnamed, or named no higher than “girlfriend”, did she even get primacy of grief? Who was she now? What about her little girl? How sad was she allowed to be, if he wasn’t her father?

I suppose on some level I am overly concerned with markers, with status, with categories and definitions. Things need names to function; they need an identity just to be recognized. Ding-an-sich and all that. You can be whatever you are in your head; you can define your self and position in life any way you like; everyone around you is going to place you into the role your observable phenomena makes you.

Author’s note: Apologies to those of you who have heard this anecdote before, but framed with a different track from that record. My initial recollection was wrong–seminal memory or not.

From here we go nowhere again.

Hope is nothing but an inconstant joy which has arisen from the image of a future or past thing whose outcome we doubt; fear, on the other hand, is an inconstant sadness, which has also arisen from a doubtful thing.

–Spinoza, The Ethics, Book III, Proposition XVIII, note2.

Hope creates new habits.

–Ken Dunn, Founder, the Resource Center

A friend mentioned that he thought Spinoza is awfully bleak here, but I’m not sure it is so very bleak. Spinoza’s really talking about the wellspring and the quality of hope as an emotion, not about what we can or should do with it. You can look at Spinoza’s footnote as a descriptor of what hope is and take Dunn’s assessment as what hope can do. When Spinoza gets into what hope does, I don’t believe he ever says that hope creates habits, but he does write that hope (specifically that of an eternal afterlife) keeps us in line, ethically, and that the pain which is a necessary aspect of hope drives us to find motivators (rationality, for instance) which are free of pain and more likely to be sustainable.

Of course, you could say that that’s incompatible with Dunn’s axiom. Dunn mentions hope as the foundation of habit, which one hopes is sustained. Spinoza thinks hope gives rise to inconstant motivation because hope has an element of pain and we strive to find motivations which are free of pain. But I’m not sure it’s necessarily bleak.

It does not seem immediately connected, but it reminds me of something I’ve been tossing around in my head for months:

I disagree with the premise that there is, on the one hand, truth and, on the other, lies. I know this is the place where one would insert a lawyer joke, but I take issue with that. My belief in the non-binary position of truth well predates any legal training. It predates any philosophical training, probably even any formal schooling at all. It probably developed with the development of language; the fluidity of human discourse is, I think, its essence.

Assume a true statement is one in the On position and a lie is a statement in the Off position. “I am a girl” is On. “I am a doctor” is Off. In those respects, truth is binary. But what about the statement “I am happy”?

If I’m smiling when I say it, you’ll believe it. If I’m not, you won’t. It might be On, in the sense that I am generally pleased by my lot in life, my interpersonal relationships, my home, the way my brain works, that the flies in my ointment are small and for the most part inconsequential. But the existence of those flies, which I cannot deny, renders the statement “I am happy” less than true. How much less? At what point do you strike the balance between “happy” being a truthful description and “happy” being something you’re simply insisting you are? When is “happy” a fact and when is it merely a belief?

Truth is not even as simple as separating Facts (which are either true or false) from Beliefs (which supposedly are neither but our own unique snowflake ethos).

Our brains–as I am fond of saying–really do lie to us. Not just in reworking our own memories and our own egos, but in learning the facts which create our beliefs. Bear with me, please, I’m not saying that if I convince myself that it’s a fact that the sun revolves around the earth that it becomes Truth. I’m saying that if I remember becoming the person I am because of something I believe happened, isn’t it truth?

We’re made of our memories which cannot be trusted and so rarely be vetted, so our own selves are neither true nor false, and they are not constant. Then is it true that I’ve done my best? Is it a lie that this small thing does not bother me? When you speak a promise, as though it were a thing already done, have you really lied, or just moved closer to the person you are now?

Let me repeat myself:

We’re made of our memories which cannot be trusted and so rarely be vetted, so our own selves are neither true nor false, and they are not constant. Then is it true that I’ve done my best? Is it a lie that this small thing does not bother me? When you speak a promise, as though it were a thing already done, have you really lied, or just moved closer to the person you are now?

There is the connection to Spinoza and, for that matter, to Dunn.

My Letter to Hilary Clinton

Feel free to improve it, modify it, or copy it and send it yourself. There is such a real and frightening chance that Mr. McCain will win this election. There is a real and frightening chance that if Mr Obama wins this election, people–elected and not–who should support his administration will thwart it.  This is not a game; it is not a beauty contest. It is not a reality television show. It must not be treated as one.

Dear Mrs Clinton:

I did not support you in the primary. But I believed you. When you said that you were not in it for yourself. That you wanted to correct a course gone horribly wrong. That you wanted to leave this world better than it was before you got here. When you claimed it was about something more than making Hilary important, I believed you.

I suppose I were mistaken, for if that were truly so, you would have responded differently. You would now be bringing your considerable talents, acumen and the sheer weight and force of your drive to electing Mr. Obama, to moving us away from the failure of the current administration, to laying a foundation to fix the problems we have created for ourselves. You would, without the current possibility of that title, be in this for something other than yourself, in it to correct a course gone horribly wrong. You’d be trying to bring the nation back from this precipice by ensuring the ouster of any vestige of the current administration.

You are not and I no longer believe you meant it when you said you were not in it for yourself.

I have little doubt you’ll continue to pursue and win powerful, influential and prestigious roles in American government, but I am already disappointed in the mark you have left on history. The first woman with an actual chance at the presidency and she had no integrity in the face of postponement or defeat.


E– M–

Chicago, IL


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