As a child and teenager, I attended one of those New York City magnet schools that you read about from time to time, such as when an alum tentatively proposes to shut them all down. Accordingly, I share an alma mater with some notable individuals. The year I graduated, our commencement ceremony attracted a moderate crowd of local paparazzi on account of our guest speaker: Cynthia Nixon, class of ’84. In terms of pure star power, we had outdone the class of 2002, whose distinguished alumnus had been Elena Kagan, at the time merely the first female dean of Harvard Law School. Yeah, that kind of high school.
But celebrity aside, Nixon’s address to our class was actually more insightful than I, at 17, had expected. After the customary platitudes about lifelong friendships and school pride, she got to the point, which she summed up in four words: “Get out of here.”
Now what she meant by this was that if we lived our entire lives in New York, we’d limit the expansion of our minds much more than we realized. Growing up in an international megacity, it’s easy for native New Yorkers to fool ourselves into thinking that we are citizens of the world simply because the world has moved in down the block. The thrust of Nixon’s address to us was that this was a fallacy, and that if we really wanted to get some perspective on how unusual our metropolitan upbringings had been, we ought to spend some time not just traveling but living outside the city, and if we had the chance, outside the country as well.
Four years later, after finishing college in the opening act of the Great Recession with no prospects or plans for the future, I took advantage of a random opportunity and got out of here. Specifically, I moved to Jordan, where I lived for the better part of the next several years. For those who say you can’t learn anything from Hollywood, let me tell you something: Cynthia Nixon was right.
At Burning Man in the desert, where the proprietor of this blog, and Grover Norquist, and a lot of other people are gathered this week, they had a rare heavy rainfall, which “intensified the misery of people waiting in the will call lines” at the box office. That A similar soaking in the Mojave Desert meant that the area of California under severe drought conditions fell last week from 97.5 to 95.4%, but the effect of the ongoing record aridity keeps magnifying. On the grossest scale, the region has now lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, which weighs about 240 billion tons, which has caused the state’s mountains to grow half an inch taller.
But the drought in California is probably not the worst such crisis underway on the planet at the moment, in part because California is rich. In Central America last week Guatemala became the latest country to declare a state of emergency, as the worst drought in decades wreaks havoc with bean and corn crops. According to the AP:
A reader writes to complain that fossil fuel divestment is a pointless waste of time:
What divestment does do is make people feel good. That they’re “doing something”, without having to do the thing that they actually need to do: use much less fossil fuel. It’s like a room full of chain smokers advocating tobacco divestment.
This is a reasonable complaint, or at least it would be if having individual people decide to use less fossil fuel could actually cure global warming in the time that physics allows us. But it can’t, because the problem is structural: given that the fossil fuel industry is allowed to pour carbon into the atmosphere for free, they have a huge incentive to keep us on the current path. And since they’re the richest industry on earth, they have the means as well as the motive. (Chevron, for instance, offered the largest corporate campaign contribution post-Citizens United two weeks before the last federal election). If we’re going to do anything about carbon, we’re going to have to break the power of the fossil fuel industry first, which is why divestment from high-profile places is so important (just as it was in the South Africa fight). Nelson Mandela journeyed to the University of California shortly after his release to thank students and faculty there, and by extension at 155 other campuses, for pressing the case so effectively.
Here’s an example from the days news of why oil companies are rogues. You’ll recall that on Monday a leaked draft of a new report from the world’s climate scientists stated that
I’ve been reading various reports (like this one) of the success of a research group at MIT in taking the sting out of bad memories by switching the bad ones with good ones:
“In our day to day lives we encounter a variety of events and episodes that give positive or negative impact to our emotions,” said Susuma Tonegawa, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at the Riken-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics.
“If you are mugged late at night in a dark alley you are terrified and have a strong fear memory and never want to go back to that alley.
“On the other hand if you have a great vacation, say on a Caribbean island, you also remember it for your lifetime and repeatedly recall that memory to enjoy the experience.
“So emotions are intimately associated with memory of past events. And yet the emotional value of the memory is malleable. Recalling a memory is not like playing a tape recorder. Rather it is like a creative process.
Granted, the experiments are on mice, but mouse models tend to transfer well-enough to humans that the scientists are hopeful that they are on to something useful. But will it be?
I realize this sounds crazy. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to erase or in some way circumvent the memory of being mugged? And what about PTSD? The MIT group is hopeful that their technique, when applied to humans, will counter the effects of post traumatic stress.
If the MIT group fails, there still may be hope, courtesy of DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, which is developing an implantable chip that intended to lessen the effects of post traumatic stress. According to the Washington Post:
As a good Dish reader, I know I’m supposed to take libertarianism seriously, and so I try, even if every time I contemplate Ayn Rand I find myself wishing I’d been born to a different species. It’s possible that my trouble stems from the fact that dealing with climate change is notoriously difficult for libertarians: if you burning the coal in your coal mine raises the sea level around my continent, something’s amiss. So too many theoretically rational and science-minded libertarians have tended towards denying the physics of global warming, just to avoid dealing with the implications for the philosophy. (There are of course honorable exceptions, like Ronald Bailey at Reason).
But this is really rich. Writing from his perch at the Cato Institute, Charles “Chip” Knappenberger explains why the U.S. should avoid taking a leadership role in any climate negotiation: because others have more at stake:
I may have mentioned that most of this week is being spent cleaning. That means I’ve had my earbuds in for several hours at a time. And that means, in turn, I’ve been reflecting on just what a golden age of radio, or at least of words spoken magically through the ether, we are lucky enough to live in.
Almost no one ever covers radio, though its reach is astonishing: All Things Considered beats the network tv newscasts (in more ways than one). But ATC and Morning Edition are smooth and dependable but rarely intriguing, provocative, sublime. Those adjectives are better reserved for the various podcasts that have grown up in the wake of This American Life. There’s only one Ira Glass, but there are other wonderful and quirky voices, many of them at the moment allied together in the Radiotopia collective, a kind of Justice League for smart documentarians and sound artists sponsored by the wonderful Public Radio Exchange, one more brainchild of Jay Allison who is the man behind much of the great radio that ever gets made. All seven of the podcasts in the series will draw you in and make you forget you’re washing windows; one of the newest and most intriguing voices belongs to Benjamen Walker, whose Theory of Everything evolved from a show he did on WFMU for years. He specializes in a kind of shaggy dog storytelling that lingers in one’s ear.
Over the past few years we’ve read debate after debate about the value of a college degree, about the value of studying the humanities, about the value–not!–of an Ivy League education. We’ve learned that it still pays to go to college since college grads earn more than those who without a degree. We’ve learned that English majors do better than promoters of STEM education might have us believe. We’ve learned that this bit of information has not been shared with some university administrators and legislators, who would like to eliminate such “useless” degree programs. We’ve learned that there aren’t as many STEM jobs as we’ve been lead to think there are, but we’ve also learned that math and computer science graduates make more money than, say, psych majors. We’ve learned from a former Yale professor (though we’ve heard it before) that his colleagues at big, fancy research institutions don’t really value interacting with students. We’ve learned, from students and alumnae at some of those places, that that’s not always the case. (As I learned yesterday from a video posted on this site, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”)
But what may be the most pertinent piece of information has emerged this summer comes from a pair of government studies, reported yesterday in The New York Times, that show that despite all efforts at “diversity,” American colleges and universities have made essentially no gains in opening their doors to the poor and less-well-off. And this despite the fact that the number of high achieving students from poor families has substantially increased.
Every day there’s something more immediately important happening in the world: ISIS is seizing an airbase this morning, and California is recovering from an earthquake, and Michael Brown is being buried.
But there’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend. Though on a geological time scale it’s proceeding at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be mainly invisible. It’s only when a new study emerges, or a shocking new data set, that we pay momentary attention, until the Next New Thing distracts us.
Here’s one installment in this ongoing saga, released this morning by Environmental Health News and National Geographic. It’s about birds, and the fact that across the planet they’re in serious trouble:
Oh how I remember those heady days when everyone was writing about and discussing Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian famous for books like The Nature and Destiny of Manand The Irony of American History, the preacher who taught us how to think about the Cold War. As a graduate student immersed in Niebuhr’s work around this time – the “Niebuhr moment” probably peaked in 2007 or 2008, but his specter loomed over many of the arguments about the invasion and occupation of Iraq – I had the rare pleasure of feeling like my labors in the stacks really connected to contemporary debates. For once, a preoccupation with theology was cool. In his 2007 Atlantic essay, “A Man for All Reasons,” Paul Eli aptly summarized the Niebuhr-love that seemed to be everywhere:
[T]he Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”
Seven years after Elie could compare him to Bono, we seem to be hearing much less about Reinhold Niebuhr, a fact that I was reminded of while reading Dale Coulter’s short essay this week marking sixty years since the publication of Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Coulter lays out the book’s basics, but there’s no real attempt to connect Niebuhr to present days concerns. That’s not a criticism, but it was telling, given all the previous attempts, noted above, to make Niebuhr a sage for our times. And even more, this was the first time in quite awhile I had read anything at all about Niebuhr aimed at a general audience.
I have a theory about why the Niebuhr moment has passed – and why it matters.
I did not have a lonely childhood, although sometimes I remember myself as having one, in that way that you make your own childhood more like a story than it was. I had three siblings and lots of friends. But I also had books, and books were a kind of chosen loneliness– an exciting loneliness, sometimes almost an illicit loneliness. Because when I was reading, I was probably reading about magic. Magic was, for me, all the things I wanted and did not believe. It was the vehicle through which I would gain the control that all young people long for, the adventure I yearned for and knew I would never achieve, and in time, religion, the traditional family, and America. I poured all of these superstitions into my belief in magic, and I would clutch books about magic to my chest on the bus to school, counting syllables and thinking about the places I would go if I only had the power. And I believed it all willfully until I found that expenditure of will too much to give, and then one day I didn’t believe anymore.
But before that were my books, and the ones I loved more than any others were by Diana Wynne Jones. Jones should be more well known than she is. She was a favorite and personal friend of fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman; one of her best known books was made into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki; and her stories, filled with wizards and spells and schools, would seem a perfect fit in the post-Harry Potter world. And yet I find she’s still somewhat unknown, even among fans of fantasy and Young Adult. Google lovingly celebrated her 80th birthday just a couple weeks ago, and yet I think many people responded with confusion. That’s a shame. All these years later, she’s my favorite.
Certainly, the things that are great about Jones’s work are things you might look for in any fantasy author. Her imagination is expansive and individual. With fantasy, it’s not just about the degree of someone’s imagination, but the style, and Jones imagined unlike anyone else. It’s a well-worn notion that the trick in fantasy lies in how to describe the mundane, and at that task, Jones had few peers. Her worlds are lived-in and worn, never terrifying but never quite comfortable, filled with details as familiar as your grandmother’s house but as disconcerting and alien as a dream. Her settings are frequently cold and foreboding, but her characters are warm and familiar, her books filled with knowing, kind, distracted, difficult, smart, flawed, headstrong, clumsy, misunderstanding people. People in Jones’s books are forever hurting each other through their distraction, or through their misunderstanding, or very often, through their genuine desire to help. There is warmth and friendliness in her world, but there is also the real-life condition of the endless harms we pile up on the people we love and do not understand.
I truly believe Jones is one of the greatest chroniclers of childhood we’ve ever had, and it’s because of nothing so much as her utter rejection of romanticizing being a child. The world she describes, for kids, is strange, rule-bound, fickle, and unknowable. Children are hurt, mostly by other children, and they all grow up too fast. I don’t mean to make her work sound impossibly depressing or grim; in fact her books are frequently joyous affairs. But there is an absolute and unwavering commitment to reckoning with the disappointment and confusion of being young, in her work, an honesty that is wonderfully supportive simply in its willingness to confront the way things are when you are young and your life is not yet yours. It’s a rare and valuable message to get as a kid, the recognition of loss by an adult who understands. Throughout all of it, there’s possibility, teeming and inventive, a world of magic and adventure that most children want beyond wanting. Some children, in her books, get that magic and that adventure. But never without a price.