Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sometimes things happen...

Once in a while there comes a time,
when I go a bit crazy from reading of crime,
and contract and tort and civil procedure
and if I read one more case I may have a seizure
Do you know me to ever break down and rhyme?
Or otherwise publicly moan, bitch and whine?
My pride does implore me my weakness not share,
but with newfound humility I find I don't care,
my ego in tatters, my mind in a haze,
I look forward to learning the rest of these days,
in a library so quiet, gloomy and still,
while outside the weather gets ever more chill,
but I trust and I hope that at some point, quite soon,
I'll have emerged from this mess a legal tycoon!
One last indulgence, I'll ask you to grant,
Forgive that last couplet, I just needed to rant.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frosty, the Ironic Man

Once again, a guest post from my good friend James.

Because of the propensity of commercials on the air, on my radio I have all six presets filled with stations that I listen to all the time, and those I only go to when I’m at my most desperate. Yesterday, I had slowly worked my way to six because for some reason, in the morning, radio stations think people want to hear other people talking more than music. Ironically, I was listening. On a show with predominately white listeners, and a predominately white staff, they had a time for people to call in and ask the black employees questions (they said black people, but it was only just the two) and the same applied for their black listeners. I think it was called Race Day or something else idiotic.

Before you jump all over me, let me just say that the focus of this diatribe is not to untangle the complex knot of race, the construct as it is perceived and how it has created vast differences in perception and understanding (at one point one of the black people cited slavery as a cause for some behavior of blacks and one of the white personalities shouted loudly that “that was so long ago, it doesn’t matter”). What I became interested in was one of the black employees explaining away several types of behaviors (leaning while driving, walking slowly) as “cool.” Of course, the listeners who called in, the people in studio who didn’t understand wanted to, so they asked “What is cool?” which of course isn’t nearly as complicated as “What does cool mean?”

This is a question that comes up a lot, and one that I’ve mulled over somewhat extensively in my comparatively short life. For a reference point, I analyze the lyrics of Andre Benjamin:

“All the fresh styles always start off as a good little hood thing,
Look at blues, rock, jazz… rap.
Not even talkin’ about music
Everything else, too
By the time it reach Hollywood, it’s over.
But it’s cool,
We just keep it goin and make new shit”

And I don’t think he was onto something; I think the man was right. Because in most cases, what is “cool” also looks sort of ridiculous. What sane person would wear a hat like that, after all, or their shirt sizes or their pants, or their jewelry? The answer is someone trying to desperately go against the norm. Cool can be anything so long as it’s counter, but what cool IS is a specific apathy and disregard for the status quo. And the status quo is the civil construct deriving from obedience and majority. Enough people get together and agree on the way a thing is done, anyone not doing it that way becomes outcast (to affect my pun), but CHOOSING not to do the thing that way gives the individual dissenter power, they carve out their own sense of being because they have created it; it is theirs, and theirs alone. And it originates, generally, where it does because it is a tool used by the misfortunate and the exploited to generate within themselves indelible worth where before they were told there was none. This strength (as most honest strength is) is an attractive phenomenon, because it’s brave, and exotic, thus people want it. And them getting it, taking it even, is what Andre’s lyrics spoke of.

But that isn’t really what people are talking about when they cite the unfortunate individual who has been brainwashed, either by the culture, or its counter. Because it all comes down to miss-education. The majority of individuals acting “cool” couldn’t tell their detractors why. They could guess at it, throw cognition in the vector of it, but not hit it. And that, ironically, makes their cool “un-cool;” it puts them in the same, unconscious majority the originators of such were departing from. And this danger is what Gwendolyn Brooks spoke of:


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

And it is this phenomenon that’s causing all the head scratching: people holding up walls that don’t plan on falling, and when asked, couldn’t hazard a guess at all as to why.

And that’s why cool can be applied to almost anything, but on much fewer things (and their specific candidates I’m sure would surprise you) would it actually have a good fit. But certainly, making up one’s own mind for the sake, only, of that mind to do good will objectively always be cool.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Unquiet Past

I've been meaning to write about this for a while.  It regards, generally, my fascination with the past and, specifically, my dead family.  If this sounds macabre or sad, please accept my assurances that it isn't (I think).  I hope someday to write more in detail about it, but for now, I'll settle for writing about the event that triggered it all in the first place.
Last Christmas I got to visit my mom's aunt whose son had recently passed away.  Since her sisters (my grandmother and grandaunts) live in the states and she's estranged from her daughter, my mom is really the last family that visits her with any regularity.  Reynaldo had died a few months before, so we weren't there to console her, per se.  I think this was more to remind her that she wasn't alone.
Though I though I was ready for the inevitable reminiscing, I was dead wrong.  It shouldn't have caught me by surprise, but I hadn't accounted for the fact that I'd have to confront the last material remnants of Reynaldo's existence.  For me, more than words and memories, things have the ability to bring the past and the dead back into the present.
Lucy's son used to live with her and most of his things were still laid out.  I couldn't help but reconstruct Reynaldo's life in my head using the bits and pieces he left behind.  His room was small and sparsely furnished, with just a bed, nightstand and writing desk.  It had a closet with some clothes and shoes and lots and lots of books.  There were a few pieces of art he had bought in the apartment and, nicely framed, his diplomas and award certificates.
The modesty of his room stood in contrast to the elegance of his old home.  I remembered visiting it a few times as a kid and even then I thought the place was nice.  It was a rowhome in Old San Juan, built on the cliffs that overlook the Atlantic.  Though small (as houses in the area tend to be), it was tastefully decorated and a residence befitting a successful engineer and college professor.  He lived there with his boyfriend of many years, that has since "recovered" and remarried.
His books spoke of a person all-too-familiar to me.  There were books on math and science, classics of literature and philosophy, poetry, essays.  My sister and I rummaged through them and each picked a few to take home.  She took poetry, while I took a copy of Walden and The Consolation of Philosophy.  I wondered if either of these was important to him, if he longed to escape into nature or sought solace in his learning as his life took a turn for the worst.
I considered his diplomas, from his undergraduate to doctoral degrees, as well as the commendations he received from the professional societies he belonged to.  It reminded me of my own desire for a higher degree and accolades.  What good did they do him?  What good would they do me, if I had to deal with depression and alcoholism like he did?
We talked with my mom's aunt some and she presented me with a gift, for my (then) upcoming wedding.  It was a brandy decanter that used to belong to Reynaldo.  It's a beautiful piece, made of crystal, that for me carries a lot of his story.  It was obviously expensive, bought during the good times, and obviously of fine taste.  At the same time, it's purpose was to contain what led to his death.  I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to drink from it, but I'm happy to own a piece of the past.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Every now and again I come across a w...

Every now and again I come across a writer that inspires me with new ideas or with better ways of looking at old problems.  For the most part, they aren't new writers, and sometimes the ideas and frames they present aren't even their own.  Regardless, it's useful to me, and as I appreciate that the experience is uniquely subjective, I don't often seek out the roots of the ideas I come across.  Sometimes I'll read and research further for perspective, but it isn't common for me to want to find the originator of an idea to sing their praises.  I owe more to the person that conveys it in a meaningful way than to the person that thinks it up in the first place, after all.  It's why I'm so grateful to my parents and friends: they're the ones I've learned the majority of stuff from.


That being said, the thought occured to me today that I should share some of the writers and books that have left a strong impression on me.


Arturito el Astuto ("Artie the Smartie" is the English title, though I prefer to translate it as "Little Arthur, the Wise") is the first book I remember.  It's about a little non-conformist fish that gets a kick out of making others laugh, fighting off cruel crabs, tricking mean fishermen and venturing out into the great unknown expanse of the deep blue sea to make a big splash.  My childhood copy was lost long ago, but I was fortunate enough to find a used copy online which I promptly paid good money for.  I feel others can learn a fair amount about me by reading it.  To this day, I aspire to be that fish.


In high school, I found myself able to relate to (unsurprisingly) The Catcher in the Rye, which summed up my 10th grade worldview fairly well: "this is bullshit and everyone is so phoney".  A nervous breakdown and a grade later I then read a book, and discovered an author, that more or less makes up for the rest of the time wasted in English class.  Crime and Punishment remains my favorite novel, Dostoyevsky one of my favorite authors.  Though I haven't made time for The Brothers Karamazov (something to fix before law school), I did finish The Idiot, and found it also to my liking.  Dostoyevsky's appeal is how he's able to delve into the minds of his characters, letting you feel every painful decision that drives the story towards its conclusion.  Not that they're all tragic; The Idiot ends with the hero having gone mad, but Crime and Punishment ends on a hopeful note.  The great part is how you get to see that the source of most of the characters' serious problems is just themselves.


In college, there was a dearth of good reading. Kant was interesting, but I didn't get too much out of him other than a sense of humility.  I've gone back since and made more sense of what he's saying, but I'll never forget how dumb I felt reading through some of his work the first time.  I also did most of my World War I reading (why do we use Roman numerals for that?) in college, which robbed me of the idea of the "good war".  I also read some revisionist history of the causes leading to World War II and became interested in reading The History of the Peloponessian War (which I did recently).  Those last two probably did the most to make me realize that writing history is, in fact, a political act.  Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States confirmed the fact.


So, that's just a few of my favorites.  I'll post again with some of the economists and philosophers that made a difference. 


Monday, October 26, 2009

I just found a use for...

Bourbon! Specifically, Bourbon Chicken. equal parts soy sauce and bourbon, mixed in with garlic, ginger and sugar, yield a marinade which is poured onto some chicken breasts. This mixture sits for several hours and is then placed into an oven and cooked, yielding a tender, sweet and savoury piece of meat and a thick sauce with which to coat it further and, perhaps, the rice you serve it with.

In theory.

In my case, the recipe lied and told me to put the chicken in the oven for an hour longer than necessary. I caught the mistake before the chicken was reduced to leather, but the sugar in the marinade seems to have...caught fire? It formed an unappealing burnt shell towards the edges of the cooking pan. Nonetheless, some scraping and reducing later, a viable sauce was had and added to the meal.

Indeed, its a great meal to whip up with 30 minutes of cooking, if you invest 10 minutes the day before. Other than rice, I imagine it would go well with some sort of sweet potato dish, given its saltiness. For sure, of all the things I make with chicken breast, its one of the most useful, keeping them moist while imparting a ton of flavor. All in all, I deem the experiment a success.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On abortion

A few weeks ago my friend Nick shared an item by Andrew Sullivan examining what the role of men is in the abortion debate. Abortion is often a thorny issue, so it wasn't too surprising to see commentary on the item get a little heated. I refrained from offering my own thoughts, then, realizing that they weren't particularly well-formed. Time and thinking have fixed that some but I'm sure this isn't the last I'll write on the subject.

The problem Mr. Sullivan wants to expand on is that right now, a father's role in the abortion decision isn't well defined. For the most part, he has no legal claim and there don't seem to be any norms emerging regarding whether he knows, is asked about it, is asked to pay for it, etc. Mr. Sullivan worries that if men are cut from the decision entirely then they'll develop an aversion to being saddled with responsibility for the outcome of the decision: the baby.

You might think that is callous. I'll even agree with you! It's also extremely easy to develop that feeling when discussing abortion in our society. I think it stems from the relationship rights and responsibilities enjoy with each other as well as the progress of a woman's rights to her body versus a man's right to his money. I'm sure I'll think of a better way of putting it, someday.

Sara, in response to Nick, shared an article from Jezebel about this topic. It more or less asserted that men have no right to infringe on a woman's autonomy over her own body. This is, as far as I can tell and as far as I'm concerned, the most salient argument in favor of abortion rights. There are, in truth, a variety of factors as to why women are justified in tenaciously safeguarding the right to their body, abortion rights inclusive; historically, they've been deprived of this autonomy.

Earlier I mentioned rights and responsibilities. I got this from my ethics classes in college, but essentially the argument goes that wherever there is a right (or privilege) of some sort, there is also a corresponding responsibility (or duty) of some sort. For example, if I say I have the right to work then someone has the responsibility to make sure I have the opportunity to do so. Or if I have the right to privacy someone has to enforce sanctions against anyone that infringes on that right. In the real world, of course, the institutions and arrangements that would guarantee a right by taking on or assigning the corresponding responsibility don't always work well. Perhaps the responsibility for securing my right to work lands on me. Perhaps the institution safeguarding my privacy has no incentive to do so. Sometimes, though, things change sufficiently where the old institutions and arrangements are no longer valid. I think legal, socially-acceptable abortion is such a case.

The ideal situation, where a married couple raises a number of children that they're able to devote material and emotional support to, likely corresponds best to the way we used to do it before civilization came around (I should and will look into that further). Regardless, we've acknowledged this doesn't always happen and have instituted laws and norms to compensate. Fathers have a financial obligation to support their children (and sometimes the mother of their children) outside of wedlock. This makes sense! The problem is that this makes sense if they're in a position of responsibility over the pregnancy , and nowadays it is becoming clearer that such isn't necessarily the case.

At some point in history, the man was the most responsible party of a pregnancy. It was (and is) highly unlikely that a woman could force a man to impregnate her and certainly is the case that males had the most options for not having children, up to and including avoiding sex altogether. This remains their biggest privilege, the reason we then assign them a corresponding responsibility to their kids.

The thing is that, now, women have a level of control over their pregnancy that we haven't dealt with before. If she's pregnant, that isn't the end of the story until the child is born; she could get an abortion. There's a lot behind such a decision, but we've decided that, really, the father doesn't have an enforceable claim to the outcome of it. And yet, it was decided that he is responsible for the child. That is to say, their earlier privelige has lost its relative value, but their responsibility remains the same. This is where the callousness kicks in and a father will claim that society has no right to force the baby onto him, especially given that he wasn't the last one to decide whether it would be born or not.

If you're angry at this point, I don't blame you. I, for one, can think of several reasons why responsibility can still be assigned to the father or why their autonomy in baby-making retains its value. Here's the rub, though: with the progress of technology and sociel norms, most of those reasons are going to vanish. It won't always be the case that the man can be assigned the overwhelming share of responsibility of a pregnancy. It will eventually be the case that women will enjoy the same autonomy over their bodies men do. After we get there, do we still feel comfortable having him bear the cost of raising a child he didn't want?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Vampires

Recently, the conversation amongst some of my friends turned to monsters. A certain comic joked about how monsters just represent exaggerated male archetypes. This is reasonable enough, but it got me to thinking about how monsters are also representative of fears people have. In general, it got me to thinking about how monsters are awesome elements of myth-building.

This usually then leads me to getting frothy-mouthed over seeing a monster utilized completely and utterly wrong.

Yes, yes, no such thing as a "wrong" use for a metaphor, that meaning is built around it in the context of the story, etc. Fuck you. Vampires aren't there to be teen idols.

I like vampire stories. I really do. These are the stories where vampires are vaguely human, but nonetheless monstrous. They feed on people. They prey on their fears and insecurities. They torture and they torment and they kill. They can be animalistic, obviously terrifying their victims, or they can be super-human, stronger, faster, smarter than regular people. Both interpretations work for me.

What doesn't work is when they're used for power fantasies. "Oh, come on," you say, "How is this different from using a mutant?" Because the X-men are there to show us how the future might be different and awesome, whereas vampires are there to show us how fucked up a human being can become. They're a cautionary tale. They're not anti-heroes, people conflicted by what they are. They're not just victims, people with an affliction they're trying to overcome. They're monsters, people that, for some reason or another, aren't people any longer, shouldn't participate in our society, do not deserve our pity and, finally, are trying to use our lives to sustain their own miserable existence.

Perhaps you've noticed I feel strongly about this. You may even suspect that, if they're a cautionary tale to me, it's a lesson I apply to other aspects of my life. You'd be right, too! That this is personal doesn't detract from the point, though. Building up cheap fantasies around the icons that used to represent the worst in us threatens to rob them of their original value. In it's place? At best, just another vessel to practice escapism in. At worst, people looking at the stories with these new monsters will walk away thinking they should become them rather than fight them.

There's a lesson in all this, I'm sure of it.