Category Archives: Uncategorized

Here I Stand, I Cannot Do Otherwise

“In captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive stress injury.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010)

92821459I’ve been getting these annoying leg cramps since my late twenties. They often make it hard for me to sleep. At their worst, they make it hard for me to even think straight. I’ve tried all sorts of things to fix the problem over the years—more stretching, more exercise, less coffee, massage, yoga, chiropractors, muscle relaxants, more walking, more water, more bananas—but none of it worked.

Although the source of the cramps remained a mystery, I recently noticed that they got better whenever I was on vacation and worse whenever I was at work, which led me to conclude that the cramps must be caused by something I do a great deal of when I’m working. And what do I do a lot of when I’m working? I sit.

I sit when I’m grading assignments. I sit when I’m preparing for class. I sit through office hours. I sit on the bus and metro, for three hours a day, commuting to and from work. I sit when I’m reading. I sit when I’m writing. And I sit when I’m wasting time on Facebook. In short, I sit, sit, sit, sit, sit.

But less so lately.

I converted my work-space into a standing desk about a week and a half ago. It was awkward for a day or two, but I quickly grew accustomed to it. As for the results, well, they’ve been nothing short of miraculous. Within three days, the cramps were noticeably better. After a week, they were gone. Completely gone.

Never ceases to amaze me, how much this sedentary civilized modern life of ours deforms us, and debilitates us.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2016)

Why I’m Sick of Friends of the Mountain

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”—Mark 2:27 (King James Version)

IMG_1879Visiting Frederick Law Olmsted’s house in Brookline (MA) today makes clear something Montreal’s Friends of the Mountain seems to have forgotten: man was not made for the park; the park was made for man. Olmsted, who designed Mount Royal Park, along with Central Park in New York City, wanted it to be a public park, a people’s park; but Friends of the Mountain seems to think it’s their park. They regularly harass citizens for trivial infractions of their petty rules; make life miserable for people enjoying a public park their taxes pay for; behave like a police force when they’re really nothing more than a self-appointed morality squad; and impose a draconian version of the invasive species doctrine on the flora and fauna who call the Mountain home. Look, if someone’s picking trilliums or shooting songbirds, by all means, give them shit; but if a mother is walking two meters off the path to show her daughter a beautiful red mushroom, for God’s sake, leave her alone!

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)

My Position in the Great Debate

My academic life revolves around posing answers to a family of related questions: how does education inform life? does it improve outcomes or cause unnecessary harm? how? when? what is the role of the sciences, and other forms of culture involving human concepts and percepts, in human life?

In my experience, the significant break in answers given comes down to different ways of structuring knowledge. Some people (who might be scientists, humanists, or artists) believe that knowledge should be universal, at the very least in theory, and that education consists in generalizing the particular to some kind of universal (e.g. “the scientific method” writ large across all historical sciences in their various fields of endeavor). Other people (as diverse as the first group in their education) believe that there is no such thing as universal knowledge, that knowledge is a particular byproduct of living mindfully in certain environments (physics labs, biology labs, the jungle, the desert, the artist’s studio, the university, the marketplace, the courtroom, etc.). For these folks, the quest for perfecting universal conceptual systems (e.g. creating a universal map of Platonic forms or Aristotelian categories) is hopeless–and a waste of time, definitely not the point of any education worth having.

For better or worse, I am a member of the second camp. I have more in common with physicists who denigrate universals than with humanists or philosophers who embrace them, even though I am accidentally a member of the humanist faction (with more serious reading logged in philosophy than in physics). I don’t think there is any solution to our conflict in sight: people who believe in universals will always struggle for them, as we who disbelieve will always struggle to escape the kind of thinking we regard as fundamentally imprisoning, stultifying, and illiberal (unfree, requiring definitive universal answers to questions that are beyond universal definition).

Pillow With a Pulse

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Señor Smartypants: “My flakiness never ceases to amaze me. As does my frequent inability to see the big picture. If I was on The Titanic when it began to sink, pretty sure I would’ve been one of those fools who polished the silverware and rearranged the furniture all the way down; or, as a friend once suggested, perhaps I would have been one of those silly men sitting at the ship’s bar—sipping whiskey, talking too much, laughing out loud, totally oblivious—even as a killer iceberg from hell tore chunks out of the mahogany wall, allowing ice-cold saltwater to pour into the smoky pub. Knowing this about yourself—as St. Paul well knew—is one thing; changing it is another. For instance, last night, Tabby brought me a dead mouse and I screamed like a little girl. Like a little girl, David!”

King David: “Look, Señor Smartypants, you don’t have to eat it: you don’t have to eat the dead mouse. But now’s not the time to tell Tabby the tabby that you’re a vegetarian. Now’s not the time to tell her that it wasn’t killed kosher. Now’s not the time to tell her that the mouse is forbidden to the faithful in Leviticus 11:29. Now’s not the time to tell her that her gift’s gross. When your cute little puddy-cat prances proudly onto the patio—with a spring in her step, and a furry thing in her mouth—when she plops that present down at your feet, magnanimously, triumphantly, altruistically, smile, pet her sweet head, and see the gift for what it is: an act of love—misguided love, perhaps, but love nonetheless.”

Señor Smartypants: “Still waterboarding Ibsen?”

King David: “Yeah.”

Señor Smartypants: “Think he’s gonna crack, tell you who he’s working for?”

King David: “Sooner or later, Señor, sooner or later. Vee have ways, vee have ways of making the kitty talk.”

Señor Smartypants: “He’s not a cat, David. He’s a pillow with a pulse.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

The Myth of the Happy Poor

happy-slavesI’ve encountered the myth of the happy poor most amongst elites and intellectuals from South Asia and South America. And I can’t help but suspect that it’s a way of rationalizing the extremes of wealth and poverty in those places. It brings to mind the way slave owners in the Old South used to go on and on about how happy their Negros were. Or the way that every annoying douchebag from Saudi Arabia goes on and on about how the women are actually running everything. Two heuristics: (1) The more the guys in a place—usually guys sitting around doing fuck all—tell you that the women really have all the power, the less power the women actually have. (2) The more a country’s elites tell you about how happy their poor folk are, the less happy they actually are. “Poverty,” as J. K. Rowling rightly observes, “entails a thousand petty humiliations and hardships; it is romanticized only by fools.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Mens Rea

A crime is committed.  Society perceives that something is wrong, somebody has done wrong, some reaction must occur.  What should we do?  How do we confront crime, including not just those crimes that have already occurred, but also the fear and expectation of future crimes?

At the end of the day, the problem we confront here must be one of action, not intention. The intentions of other people are always in some sense inscrutable, impossible to know in some particulars–even when we have the kind of intimate insight provided by good novelists or historians (who are more similar than different, generically speaking).

The mens rea is secondary, something we look for after a crime has already been committed. We don’t look for it primarily, before a crime has been committed, because crime occurs for many reasons, in situations that involve many mental states (too many to know, let alone understand, even when the action is over, let alone before it happens).

The worst kind of police-work involves flipping the process around, looking for guilty thoughts (mens rea) before guilty actions (crimes). Because anyone, nay everyone, is always having thoughts that are problematic (at least potentially). The parent’s love for a child, the child’s love for a sibling, the human’s love for affection, etc., all become criminal at some point (i.e. mens rea). My thoughts–my loves, hatreds, passions–are not magically good because as yet they are associated with no crimes (that I am aware of, that society has noticed). The same is true of yours, and of all people. We have different thoughts, of course, different iterations of the dangerous process that manifests somewhere as mens rea–which we will have differently. Your mens rea will not be mine, but that does not make either of us categorically less guilty than the other.

The only viable filter for separating acceptable human psychology from mens rea is action. What did you do? I don’t punish people for thinking, even when they think bad thoughts (in my judgment), until I find them acting badly (and then I try to make my reaction match the level of evil in their action: a sin is not necessarily a crime, and not all crimes or sins are created equal; sometimes a slap on the wrist is appropriate, other times you need something stronger). Having ambivalent thoughts about sex, or religion, or any such thing is not the same as beating, killing, or otherwise criminally damaging other people. Some of the best people I know have ambivalent thoughts about the human condition; they turn those thoughts into good actions (avoiding harm, helping where possible, cultivating compassion that does not overwhelm its object with unwanted attention). Others use the same kind of thoughts to become criminals. When the Dalai Lama suggests that sexual or political or even human identity is unreal or in some sense unimportant, is he committing a crime, stirring the fire of human passion in an attempt to cause mayhem? Not in my book. I am still Christian enough to believe the dictum “by their fruits ye shall know them”–and I identify those fruits with actions, particular actions of motivated individuals, not nebulous social trends (“cultures” like Christianity or Buddhism or Islam) that lack coherent moral agency (everything under the sun is historically Christian or Buddhist or Muslim, including murder and mayhem, naturally, as these are permanent parts of the human condition).

Am I a horrible person for this stance I take, that action must matter primarily in judging and responding to crime? I don’t think so, obviously, but that does not mean that I am right (particularly right, unable to go wrong as I make individual judgments about how to behave in specific circumstances). My reason for refraining from criminalizing thoughts is fundamentally about compassion: I want to believe that you have the best motivations for whatever choices you make, and I will not interfere with those choices or judge them (in a particular sense) harshly, until you make that necessary by some action (e.g. walking into my neighborhood with drawn weapons). Even then, my most severe judgment is of your behavior, not your thoughts. I don’t condemn Christian culture, Buddhist culture, Muslim culture, etc. I don’t condemn Christian rape, Buddhist rape, Muslim rape, etc. I condemn rape, and I fight against rapists (individuals with agency that they use to become rapists). The broader social trends that criminals draw from to inform and color their criminality, the broader social trends that we draw from to explain it–these to me are always secondary (and doubtful). When I sit on a jury to determine guilt, I don’t want to judge the culture of the criminal. I want to know what s/he did, and only then to consider how the particular culture or circumstances might mitigate (or not) whatever reaction I make.

Everything I Needed to Know About Kicking Junk, I Learned From Trainspotting

2ee2f574e2d4971c3e5a224d86f78b98A few months after the events described in “My Near-Death Fentanyl Experience”, I left Montreal. New town, new job, I had to decide what to take with me and what to leave behind. One of the things I decided to leave behind was a multi-gram a day heroin habit. Two grams a day, minimum, just to maintain an even strain and three or more if I actually wanted to get high. I bet most people, once they found out their smack habit dwarfed their smack dealer’s habit, they might think that was cause for concern. I’m not most people. I didn’t get it until my dealer expressed that concern, clearly, directly and to my face. When my own smack dealer tells me I’m overdoing it, I have to allow for the possibility she might be right.

OK, so decision made. I am going to quit. But how to do it? No shortage of God and group therapy where I was going, but that ain’t me. There’s methadone clinics too but that ain’t me either. I’m from the generation that was taught methadone was the instrument of the Devil. It only prolonged the agony and made the problem worse. There’s this new stuff, buprenorphine, supposed to be a one-shot cure. There’s like a hundred doctors in all of the United States allowed to prescribe it and they’re only allowed to have like a hundred patients each. The waiting list is a million years long. What am I gonna do? And then it hit me. I’ve seen Trainspotting (1996). I know EXACTLY what to do. I know Ewan MacGregor’s speech from that scene almost by heart.

“Relinquishing junk. Stage one, preparation. For this you will need: One room which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. Paracetamol, mouthwash, vitamins. Mineral water, Lucozade, pornography. One mattress. One bucket for urine, one for feces and one for vomitus. One television and one bottle of Valium.” Every item on that list serves a purpose.

In other words, mostly what I was going to need was time. I looked up the figures in a quick consultation with Doctor Google and understood that I needed to give myself a minimum of a week before I’d be anywhere near capable of showing up for a job. And out of that week, I could expect the first three days to be the worst. In the end, that was the key. Knowing the timeline and knowing to the hour exactly where I was on it. It is a quirk of human psychology that a man can endure quite a lot if he knows exactly when it’s going to end. The sharpest stomach pains, the inability to keep even water down, the constant vomiting of yellow-green bile—that ends after 72 hours, give-or-take. In that time, dope has to be impossible or at least very hard to get. I do not advise trying to do this part with dope in the house, chances are you’re going to reach for it. The next bit, the inability to take solid food (this is where you’ll be glad you laid in the ice cream), the desire to claw yourself out of your own skin and the generally being too weak to get up out of bed and do shit, that ends in another three days, four at the most. Non-narcotic tranquilizers and sedatives won’t help you to sleep, don’t hope for that, but enough of them can put you in enough of a fog the hours go by a bit faster. I’m not going to say how many heavy-duty tranks I took or how much whiskey I washed them down with to buy six hours of almost-not-misery on the last day. Some fool will try to replicate it and die in the process and I’m not having that on my conscience.

Distractions are the meaning of life in those last three or four days. Binge-watch that eight season TV series you were always meaning to check out. Play an audiobook or better yet, a whole series of audiobooks, the cheesier the better. Anything to knock out one painful hour after another after another.

After that, the last two lingering effects—and these last a month—are that during the day my brain and body were running at a fraction of normal clock speed. By taking lots of amphetamines, I was able to boost that to a higher fraction. Half. On a good day three-quarters. Never full speed. And at night, I was never able to sleep, not one minute, not for a month. The morning I opened my eyes, realized I’d slept four whole hours for the first time in a month, I shit you not, I got up and did the dance of joy around my bedroom.

The Good Dinosaur

Watched The Good Dinosaur (2015) on Netflix with Anna-Liisa and the boys last night. It may be the single worst movie I’ll see this year. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t bother, I can summarize it for you. Imagine if the Young Earth Creationists who brought us the Creation Museum kidnapped John Lasseter in Strawberry Shortcake costumes and forced him, at gunpoint, to have Pixar make a movie written by some hack from Petersberg, Kentucky, who hasn’t had a paying gig since the director of The Care Bears Movie (1985) fired him for incompetence.

There are movies that you consume like a guilty pleasure: like candy or junk-food. You know they’re garbage but you like them regardless. This is NOT one of those movies. It’s the kind of movie that leads you to do crazy things that worry the neighbors: like run out your front door barefoot shaking your first at the sky and screaming: “I WANT THAT TIME BACK! Please, LORD, give me that hour and forty-one minutes back! Erase my memory! Something! Anything! Make it go away, LORD; please, make it go away! It burns.”

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2016)

Make America Small

A great problem with America these days is the fact that we are not one nation (even as the Romans, in late antiquity, were not). We do different things, in different places, with different culture, and when we do meet one another, our public square is virtual, dominated by the worst kind of entertainment and entertainers–the kind necessarily divorced from the particular circumstances of everyone and anyone as it attempts to bridge incredible geographic and cultural gaps (urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, majority vs. minority, educated vs. uneducated, etc.).

Some of our differences are intractable: I cannot know what it is to live in Miami, and I have no interest in finding out. Making me vote on the problems of Miami is a disservice to me and the people of Miami (who actually live there: they are invested in their city as I am not). Even if I am ‘educated’ (as it happens I am), this will not magically make me aware of Miami in the same way as though I were a citizen. Until I live in Miami, I don’t really deserve a stake in its fate (positive or negative: I should be divorced from praise and blame, tax hikes and tax breaks, etc., that signal for an environment where I do not exist).

Modern America is like a gigantic dysfunctional city in which the garbagemen, the policemen, the administration, the schools, and the rest of us live so far removed from the consequences our actions that we cannot behave well, even when we mean to. Education has not lived up to its promise as capable of making me understand how my behavior affects stuff I cannot perceive: witness the wars in the Middle East, the collapse of Wall Street, the death of Eric Garner. Did any of these events arise because citizens understood risks and acted intelligently? No. Has society learned anything from these events (about the consequences of outsourcing the military to mercenaries, the market to pirates, or the making of law to morons with no police experience)? No. The same stupid incentives remain in place, incentives for me to take an advantage for which you pay the penalty–and I don’t care, because I cannot see you. I don’t even know you exist, more often than not. We have become the living embodiment of everything Plato hated about democracy: a bunch of idiots voting on shit that most don’t remotely understand. They don’t even misunderstand it: that requires an expert, somebody competent to sit down and spin a rational narrative about politics, economics, and the various kinds of culture we use to make our lives. They are completely clueless, hanging upon the latest word of someone else. Here Plato steps in and says that we might hope for education to provide us with infallible experts. Unfortunately, that hope has proven historically naive. Most of our experts are wrong quite often, more often as they attempt to work with larger groups of people spread over more geography. Academic worship of Socrates just makes more of us live like Alcibiades.

Where to go from here? I don’t know, but I suspect the solution lies in becoming smaller rather than bigger, in building alternative politics and economics that don’t attempt to solve all problems with alliances “too big to fail” (since such alliances are also too big to be accountable, too big to render individuals capable of becoming cognizant of the consequences of their actions). Make America small, ungreat, fractured, disjointed, again! (One nation, disunited under God? E pluribus plures!)