Friday, August 31, 2007

Emma (11-13)--Miss Bates and Mrs. Goddard

Chapter three begins with yet another justification of Mr. Woodhouse. He likes company "in his own way" and to have friends "come and see him" (11). His horror of late nights means he is limited to company who would visit him "on his own terms," but fortunately he can "command" visits due, in large part to "his fortune, his house, and his daughter" (11).

That Emma is treated rhetorically here as another of Woodhouse's possessions is apparent. Lest we miss the point, we are told in the next paragraph that while "real, long-standing regard brought the Westons and Mr. Knightley" to visit, Mr. Elton came largely to enjoy Woodhouse's drawing room and "the smiles of his lovely daughter" (11).

Once again, though, potential criticism of Woodhouse is defrayed by and placed onto his daughter.

The company of Elton, Knightley, and the Westons is not sufficient to meet Woodhouse's desire for fellowship "on his own terms" and so a "second set" of acquaintances is cultivated. This set includes Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mrs. Godard, acquaintances whose company Emma "fearfully anticipate[s]" (13). Their "quiet posings" make for a long, dull evening. Why then does she cultivate them? "Happy she was, for her father's sake [...] she was delighted to see her father look comfortable [....]" (12). Knightley has suggested that by marrying, Miss Taylor went from having to please two people (Emma and Mr. Woodhouse) to having to please only one (Mr. Woodhouse). This chapter, however, suggests that pleasing Mr. Woodhouse means that Emma must please a much larger circle. Her environment is starting to look a little more constricting than it might appear at first glance.

Miss Bates, like Emma, is taking care of an elderly parent, but she has none of Emma's advantages. She was "neither young, handsome, rich, nor married" (11). She is, however, "happy" (12). We are told this astonishing fact point blank by the narrator, but it is slipped into the middle of the paragraph and hence easy to dismiss. "She loved everybody, was interested in every body's happiness [...] thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings..." (12). Even the language here echoes the opening paragraph, inviting us to see her as a foil for Emma. The word "blessings" here harkens back to Chapter 1 where we are told Emma seemed to unite some of the "best blessings" of existence. There is no "seemed" here. Or is there? We are not told, actually, that Miss Bates was a fortunate creature but only that she "thought herself" one and that conjunction also suggests that she "thought herself" surrounded with blessings.

One could perhaps read this as saying one's frame of mind is more important than one's circumstances. Anything can be a blessing if one can only see it as one. I tend to think, however, that the narrator is being non-definitive here because she wants to place a choice before us. Do we accept them as blessings? Do we think of Miss Bates as fortunate? We have as much trouble thinking of Miss Bates as fortunate as we do thinking of Emma as unfortunate. Might we suspect, on some level, that an orthodox Christian valuation of blessings and evils is just rhetoric, that "blessed are the meek" is a bone thrown to those who missed out on the blessings we would choose for ourselves?

No one names Miss Bates "without good will," which is not quite the same thing as saying everyone felt good will towards her. Is there, in this subtle distinction, a hint that everyone knows they are supposed to like her more than they do? Later Emma will confess that she can't quite figure out why she doesn't feel more affinity for Jane Fairfax. Miss Bates's chattering tongue provides an easy peg on which to hang the dislike Emma feels for her. And she is tedious. But might some of Emma's dislike of Bates be explained in the same way Knightley characterizes her motivation for disliking Jane? Might Emma see in Miss Bates's felicity an accomplishment she herself, with more advantages, cannot attain?

We are told twice in her description that Miss Bates is "harmless." If part of noblesse oblige, reaching back to the age of chivalry is to treat the weak with the respect they (unlike Mr Woodhouse) cannot command, then Miss Bates's harmless nature marks her almost immediately as a person, like Harriet, whose acquaintance places greater moral demands on Emma than does that of a self-sufficient friend or powerful adversary. Miss Bates and Mrs. Goddard are described as ladies of a type that Emma "found herself very frequently able to collect" (12). The word "collect" suggests a patronizing, impersonal attitude. The phrase "found herself" suggests that the exercise of her own power is not something Emma has yet examined, even if she has cultivated and refined it. Once again we get a glimpse that Emma's social development and manners are fairly keen, but morally and intellectually she is still in a formative stage.

For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

T(oronto) Minus 6 Days and Counting...

I filled in my advance order book today for the Toronto International Film Festival. Wow. I'm so excited.

Here's what I requested:

September 6 (Thursday)

Fados (Carlos Saura)
The Brave One (Neil Jordan)

September 7 (Friday)

Les Amours d' Astree et de Celadon (Rohmer)
L'Advocate de la Terreur (Barbet Schroeder)
Vikaren/The Substitute (Bornedal)

September 8 (Saturday)

Rendition (Gavin Hood)
My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev)
Battle in Seattle (Stuart Townsend)
Centochiodi/100 Nails (Olmi)
Nothing is Private (Alan Ball)

September 9 (Sunday)

XXY (Lucia Puenzo)
Bucking Broadway (John Ford)
In memoria di me/In Memory of Myself (Saverio Costanzo)
Buda as Sharm Foru Rikht/Buddha Collapsed Out a Sense of Shame (Hana Makhmalbaf)
The Passage (Mark Heller)

Septebmer 10 (Monday)
No Country for Old Men (Coens)
When Did You Last See Your Father? (Anand Tucker)
Honeydripper (John Sayles)
Wavelengths/Pour vos beaux yeux

September 11 (Tuesday)
Love Comes Lately (Jan Schutte)

And that didn't even leave time for Starting out in the Evening; The Pope's Toilet; A Man From London; The Dictator Hunter; Iron Ladies from Liberia; Edge of Heaven; Eastern Promises; In Bloom; American Venus: My Enemy's Enemy; Darfur Now!; Shake Hands With the Devil; Nightwatching; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Obscene; Night; The Passage; 1000 Years of Good Prayers; Encounters at the End of the World, Trumbo, The Girl in the Park; Into the Wild...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

Some brief comments about Jennifer Baichwal's "Manufactured Landscapes" are available at The Cary News.

Here is the link.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Emma (7-11): Mr. Weston's History

The first half of Chapter Two introduces Frank Churchill indirectly through the story of Mr. Weston's first marriage. The second half of the chapter repeats some of the information about Mr. Woodhouse's idiosyncracies, particularly his response to the Weston-Taylor marriage.

Mr. Weston's family had "been rising into gentility and property" (7). Austen's novel belongs to a place and time where the class system is becoming more fluid but still retains the resistance to class change characteristic of earlier periods. The idea of "rising" into gentility and property is a relatively new idea.

Emma is a book of contrasts, and this chapter introduces the first part of another contrast. The Churchills (the family of Weston's first wife) believe that Weston and his family are too far below them to marry their daughter. Their concern will mirror that of Emma when she doesn't wish Harriet to be married to Robert Martin. The birth of a grandson, as it often does, paves the way to a bit of a reconciliation with the in-laws, and when the first Mrs. Weston dies young, the Churchills adopt Frank and he takes their name.

The surface of this chapter's narrative lays the groundwork for a condemnation of Frank. To be sure, his failure to visit his step-mother is a breach of manners that can only be partially mitigated by the fact that his adpoted parents are apparently asserting some sort of negative influence on them. 1 In describing the adoption process, the narrator says of the biological father, "Some scruples and some reluctance the widower-father may be supposed to have felt; but as they were overcome by other considerations, the child was given up to the care and wealth of the Churchills, and he had only his own comfort to seek and his own situation to improve as he could" (8).

Does "may be supposed to have felt" provide a hint that, perhaps, Mr. Weston didn't actually feel much scruples or reluctance to give up his son? When I ask most students about Mr. Weston, they will usually describe him as a good guy who, rightly or wrongly, honestly thinks that it is in the child's best interest to be brought up in wealth. There is a more than a slight hint of resentment in the narrator's language, here, though. Weston was worse off than before the marriage, but he isn't destitute by any means, and that he is left to seek his own "comfort" might suggest that his choice is one of expedience rather than necessity.

Subsequent to giving up his son to his in-laws, Weston quits the militia entering into "trade" (8). 2 We are told he had brothers who provided him a "favorable opening" and thus he was able to make enough money to spend "leisure" days and allow the next eighteen to twenty years to pass "cheerfully" away. When he marries Miss Taylor, it is not as though he has finally erased a hole or deficit that his marriage placed him in. He has achieved a comfortable station in life and has enough to marry a "portionless" woman while still maintaining a "life according to the wishes of his own friendly and social disposition" (8).

Might it be possible to read this chapter as saying that Frank is not so much the spoiled child as the child sacrificed to the comfort of the older generation? Nowhere in this paragraph does it indicate that Weston, once he got on more solid footing (assuming that his motivations for giving up the child were fiduciary to begin with) sought out Frank and tried to be an active presence in his life. Perhaps this was mitigated by the Churchills sending a message that he had to give up claims on Frank once and for all, and he could be honoring their wishes. I'm merely stating from a certain point of few, this relationship could be described not so much as that of an ungrateful child who baffingly refuses to honor his parents as that of an abandoned child who is suddenly called on to show filial devotion to a parent who has never expressed much interest in him to begin with and who then acts hurt and bewildered when that child cares more about his own comfort than making up for lost time. One can almost hear Harry Chapin's "The Cat's in the Cradle" playing in the background: "He'd grown up just like me..."

The odd thing is how few readers and friends of the family see it that way. The last line of Weston's description talks of his "friendly and social disposition" and I think we are back to where we were when we spoke of Mr. Woodhouse's "amiability." Their is a superficial friendliness that passes for manners but isn't an adequate substitute for it. Weston is a "good guy" if by "good guy" we mean "pleasant to be around."

Of the first Mrs. Weston we are told that she had "one sort of spirit" but "not the best" (8). She has "resolution enough to pursue her own will" (8) but "not enough to refrain from unreasonable regrets" (8). The phrase "unreasonable regrets" reminds me of the "gentle selfishness" that was mentioned earlier. Our attitudes towards people can be shaded by the way in which they are described. What is "unreasonable" about her regrets? The implication is that because she knew going into the marriage that her family disapproved that it is unreasonable for her to regret their response. Regrets are, for the most part, emotional responses, and controlling them is the hallmark of a maturity far beyond that demonstrated by most of the characters in the novel who are described with less censure. To be sure, she apparently feeds these emotions and manifests them to a degree that pressures Weston to live beyond their means and she should learn to be content. I'm not saying the first Mrs. Weston is without fault, rather that her story (brief as it is) provides another contrast between those who are slammed for their faults and those who have their faults excused or rationalized. Thus far it seems women are described more severely for their faults than men and youth more severely than the middle-aged or elderly.

1 I say "apparently" because unlike, say, Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Churchill never makes an appearance in person in the novel. Her unreasonableness is taken at second hand and, we must suppose, primarily communicated through Frank. That Frank proves to be not the most reliable source of information will become apparent, but it is odd how few readers ever question whether or not the characterization of Mrs. Churchill might be among his many half truths or a convenient excuse for other, less excusable reasons for procrastinating about consummating decisions he might be insecure about.

2 It is curious that Emma views the Martins (yeoman farmers) as beneath her notice but has no scruple maintaing a relationship with Miss Taylor who marries into a family whose wealth is made in trade.

For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.

Internet Euchre Hall of Fame (Part IV)

Letters...I get letters.

We have an apparently humble bunch in Cases. My Google Analytics tell me people are reading these posts, and people are sending me (private) messages about them, but nobody wants to put in his or her two cents publically--except for dlf to let me know that, yes, he is a real person. One funny thing about the responses I've got is that while there has been no shortage of reasons why the people on the list shouldn't be there, nobody wants to say who should be on the list instead.

I want to follow up with a couple of comments or considerations about the nature of (ladder) euchre and how it affects my reading the stats.

First off, I don't believe that Yahoo! games are programmed or engineered to be more lop sided or give more loners than anywhere else. I don't believe tables 1 or 2 are any different from any other tables. I don't believe the red seats or the blue seats are good or bad nor that odd or even tables follow certain patterns. I don't believe that players can improve their stats by manipulating trends on the tables any more than I believe that people can be successful in Las Vegas by selecting the right slot machine. My attitude is, if someone could crack the code, he or she would have done it already and would be winning at more than a 55% clip.

I'm not a programmer. I wrote some very small programs in Basic in like 8th grade. I would think it is always easier to program true randomness than some pattern. From a sociological or anthropological perspective, superstitions (which these are, I think) are usually about people feeling helpless or powerless and doing something to make themselves feel better by making them feel like they are doing SOMETHING.

I have seen players who will ditch tables because they lose two games in a row. (I've even partnered a few.) To me, it's always just as logical to think that the law of averages, such as it is, meant that it was just as likely to turn on that table. (And besides, if you believe tables are streaky, you just move to another table that is at the beginning of a losing streak.) My one superstition is that if I'm number 2 and challenging number 1, I would prefer to do it after the people I'm challenging have just won a game. This is, however, I will repeat a SUPERSTITION. It is the same logic in slots that the slots will be "loose" or "tight."

Euchre is a team game. Some people are selective about who they partner and others will play a lot of tournaments on auto-locater or have friends or family (or even kids) who they like to play with. I have mixed feelings about this argument. On the one hand, people who are only successful with one partner raise the suspicion level (having one main partner is not defacto evidence of cheating, but the ability to succeed with multiple partners is a factor in my thinking). My counter thinking is that picking the right partner (and knowing how to pick a partner) is part of what makes a good player. This issue is further complicated in ladder play where sometimes the person of a higher rank can stick with a good partner all night and someone who is trying to play up may have to play with whoever is there. I certainly know that in the busy years when I was trying to move up in rank, I got a lot of up games by having a reputation as a good player and being willing to partner people who had more patience to wait in line for up games than I did. Sometimes that meant I wasn't always sitting across from the person who gave me the best chance to win...but I guess volume of up games for ladder (when pursuing rank) is an important consideration. Two games with a 52% chance of winning might be a better bet than one with a 56% chance of winning. These days if Breebrat2005 is around, I will partner her if that's an option. But I've played 1 v 2 matches while partnering tdeem1, klykey2, debs301, peachesin, thenamelessbard8, quiet_quiver, colby2570, and others.

One letter brought up the pertinent question of how many games a player has to play for us to have a decent sense of whether he or she is good. If, as I've been saying, 53% is damn good in straight euchre play and 54-55% is positively elite, is, say, 100 games enough? Can one rain storm that knocks you out or one partner who gets set going alone at 7-8 skew your statistics if the sample is small enough? This is a legitimate question and one reason why players who have purged and rejoined (either because they joined after the lifetime gold option was no longer available or because they had a bad start and wanted to reset) are suspect. Cases now allows players with some accounts to "reset" their stats without withdrawing. There are some players who are better players now than when they started. (I was under 50% my first 100 games.)

If one uses a gold account to break down one's statistics by opponent, I've never quite figured out why the numbers don't add up the same as one's flat win-loss record. There are people I know I've played more than what the "by opponent" record indicates. (It says, for example, that I've only played poohize six times and never won, and I have notebooks from my first run up ladder with every game, my partner and score.) But, for what it's worth, I thought I would take a different approach than raw, bulk, numbers. Since I fancy myself an elite player, I thought I would see which players have a winning record against me over more than 10 games. Yes, 10 is a ridiculously small sample size for a game like euchre, but it's another piece in a puzzle. Here are players who are 50% or better against me over 10 or more games recorded by my Gold profile (I have not included players who are 50% with one profile but under 50% with another):

bergholzoh (8-5)
bluegrassman (8-4)
cashmeer (10-5)
codemanjoe (11-9)
colby2570 (9-5)
curtsinthezone (5-5)
hudie62 (8-4)
jaw1582 (7-6)
kitty710 (6-5)
marmin3 (5-5)
mcmezcal (6-4)
mn_of_mstry (8-7)
quiet_quiver (15-13)
shhaggman (7-5)
whapemback_22 (7-7)

That's an odd list. I'm assuming colby2570 and mn_of_mstry were partners for most of those games, and I remember bluegrassman was ranked #1 when I came back to ladder room after several years absence and I had to wait awhile before people got to know me as a good player, so I was playing with a lot of different people, blah, blah, blah, excuses, excuses. I consider bergholzoh, quiet_quiver, and shaggman to be solid players against whom I would expect to have a lot of close games and I've always thought hudie62 was underrated. Why Cashmeer apparently has my number I know not, but I will say she was about the nicest person on the ladder that one could get trounced by (and she even let me hold her wand once).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

TIFF 2007 Lineup

Well, it looks like we have a lineup for the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

I will be there from September 6-11, so there is no guarantee that I won't miss some of these. At first glance (I reserve the right to change my mind based on the catalog and friends' recommendations), here's what I'm most interested in trying to screen:

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (this will come to Raleigh, I suppose, and it's a gala, so may have to wait).

Battle in Seattle (Stuart Townsend)
The Brave One (Neal Jordan directs Jodie Foster and Terence Howard)
Death Defying Acts (Gillian Anderson's Houdini pic)
La Grand Illusion (Renoir's 1937 classic on the big screen. Yummy)
Honeydripper (John Sayles! John Sayles!)
Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach's follow up to his premiere film The Squid & the Whale)
No Country for Old Men (Coens do Cormac; like Elizabeth, I'm anxious to see it but know it will come to my town eventually)
Nothing is Private (would be interesting to see what Alan Ball's been up to since Six Feet Under)
Shake Hands with the Devil
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
Darfur Now
My Kid Could Paint That
Terror's Advocate (Barbet Schroeder)
Bucking Broadwy (John Ford on the big screen...double yummy)

This is a first glance and nothing more. I'm sure I'll see a few more international films once I have the catalog.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Internet Euchre Hall of Fame (Part III)

One regular at in the Advanced Lounge Five told me he thought my last post was "off" because the statistics for straight winning percentage were skewed by tournament participation in the case of some players.

Initially I thought, well, tournaments might be marginally harder to cheat at (because partners are sometimes randomly assigned and can change in some formats), so what's the big deal. A couple points do need to be considered, though:

--Tournament teams are often ranked by skill rating, so players get their easiest games first. Thus successful players will play a higher percentage of their tournament games against weaker opponents than might players who play straight ladder games.

--Tournaments can be small. If they are played at odd hours, a team might play 2-3 tournies in an hour against the same 5-7 opponents. Multiply this by a couple times a week, and the diversity of opponents might be less.

--Ladder stats for tournaments include participation in gimmick tournaments such as "no loners"; "call black only"; "reverse," etc. Generally speaking, the more variable you eliminate, the less strategy is involved.

Let's look at a view examples:

_95crownvic's ladder stats are: 6282-5081. (Winning perecentage: 55.285). I mentioned in the last post that this player has one of the highest winning percentages for any player over 1,000 games. When we factor in tournaments, however, something interesting happens.

Tourny Record (2850-1672) (Winning Percentage: 63.02)
Non-Tourny Record (3432-3409)(Winning Percentage: (50.16)

So this player's winning percentage is almost 15% higher in tournaments than in ladder play. That is an astounding differential for a game like euchre. Now I'm of the opinion you still have to win those games, but perhaps tourny records might function like the imbalanced schedule in baseball or college football. Not all wins are created equal. Looking at it this way, I'm thinking _95crownvic may have to be moved from the "in" category back to the proverbial bubble.

Some other records adjusted for tourny participation:

donotgothere14: Tourny Record (3376-1921)(63%); non-Tourny Record (4950-5235)(48.6%)

dlf416: Tourny Record (263-131)(66%); non-Tourny Record (56.39%)
kenmorefield: Tourny Record (180-77)(70.03%); non-Tourny Record (55.57%)

The interesting thing here is that dlf416, like most players, has a 10-15% higher percentage in tournies than in regular games, but the relatively few number of tournies played in means that number doesn't skew his/her overall percentage that much. (Overall: 56.87; non-tourny 56.39)

On the other hand, sgtpaw2003 has an 0-2 tourny record, making his/her overall 54.6 winning percentage all the more impressive. Hunsbun and yoo_flung_poo_2/Cinbad have remarkably similar 52.6% wins in non-tourny games. Enough to keep their names in the conversation but perhaps not the slam dunks they originally appeared. Moderndaycowboy02 has a 63% tournament winning record but only a 51.5% ratio in straight ladder games. Pimp_mama_frog has a 60% win reocrd over roughly 1800 tourny games, and a 52.98 percentage in straight ladder games that is suddenly looking both better and worse than it might at first glance. (I will point out that this player has a high% of total games played against a smaller pool of opponents, a consideration that may or may not affect one's opinion of many prolific players, who, by nature, play each other more than they play the people who drop by from time to time.)

One could, I suppose, make the counter argument that one can cherry pick one's opponents in non-tourny play whereas it is harder to duck certain players that give you fits in a tourny format. I'm reluctant to say tournies don't matter at all. Maybe it's like tennis where a player might be phenomenal on clay but only average on other surfaces. I guess that is one reason why arguments like this can never be totally by the numbers.

Revised List (in no particular order): tdeem1, klykey2, taco46, breebrat2005, jacmajor, kenmorefield, thorne_4845, sgtpaw2003, yoo_flung_poo_2/Cinbad

Deserve Consideration/On the Cusp: hunsbun, dlf416 (really only reason not in is because I don't know this player and/or don't recall seeing him/her play).

Others? You tell me.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Internet Euchre Hall of Fame Part II

My earlier post on my thoughts about Euchre Hall of Fame got me thinking that it was a little thin. Like in baseball, it may be hard to compare euchre players from different eras, but I thought it interesting to look at Cases Ladder Stats for winning percentage of players with over 1,000 games. Recorded here are the top 3-4 players in terms of percentage of games won at increments:

Top Win Percents (1,000-4,999 games)
kenmorefield (56.7)
Sodacherrypop (54.951)
sgtpaw2003 (54.651)
breebrat2005 (53.96)

5,000-9,999 Games
dlf416 (56.87)
thorne_4845 (54.125)
debst102 (52.943)
candybard (52.02)

10,000-19,9999 Games
_95Crownvic_ (55.285)
donotgothere14 (53.77)
the_tee_train (53.66)

20,000+ Games
pimp_mama_frog (53.56)
Moderndaycowboy02 (53.02)
yoo_flung_poo_2 (53.10)
hunsbun (53.088) this demonstrates that the BEST euchre players lose 45 out of a 100 games. The most shocking thing about these lists is how quickly you get down to 52% or less, showing players averaging 52-48 over a 100 games. In baseball, that's not so good. In euchre, that means you are a legend.

Based on this list, I would definitely bump Hunsbun from the "on the fence" to "definitely should be in" a hypothetical Hall of Fame. I would also add _95crownvic who I have seen play and has the numbers to back up the perception that he is an elite player. Unfortunately (fortunately?) he apparently never really played frequently enough to advance in rank during the busy time. Ditto Cinbad (now named yoo_flung_poo_2), who has the longevity to go with the win percentage and who I have seen play. I think you also have to put sgtpaw, moderndaycowboy02, donotgothere, and the_tee_train on the "deserves serious consideration" list.

dlf416 looks like he/she should be in, but I confess I don't know this player and have never seen him/her play. (Is this one of those deceased players who had a bunch of memorial losses posted? If not, then I think he/she must be a great player.) I have played with or against thorne_4845, and I think these numbers are good at getting attention to some seriously good players whose names aren't always dropped as all time greats. I think I'd have to say thorne_4845 should be in if I'm making the final decision...and since this is my blog, well, I am.

Revised List:
tdeem1, klykey2, taco46, breebrat2005, kenmorefield, jacmajor, _95crownvic, yoo_flung_poo_2/Cinbad, hunsbun, thorne_4845,

Deserves serious consideration/can make a serious case they belong in "Hall of Fame": moderndaycowboy02, donotgothere, the_tee_train, dlf416, pimp_mama_frog, sgtpaw2003

P.S. As I look over this list and these figures, another thing jumps out at me. There are players (we all know who they are) who play "rank hounding" games. Who refuse to play rank challenging games while waiting for "up" games, who won't play or log on unless a higher ranked player comes on, who show up 5 minutes after a tournament has started and leave right after it ends, who don't exactly break the rules but who, when they get within sniffing distance of a high rank themselves show how much the "I don't care about rank" mantra is a posture.

Take a good look at the list of highest winning percentages, and it is interesting to me to see how many of the "any time, any place, anywhere" players there are.

"Maybe it's Not About You"

When I was attending my undergraduate university, our Inter-Varsity chapter had an expression that began, I think, with our chapter president (now my spouse) and became an unofficial motto of sorts: "Maybe it's not about you."

This phrase was an expression for those of us who grew up in the "me generation" and "greed is good" 1980s to remind ourselves that even though God made us and loved us, no, we were not the center of the universe.

Jesus said that whoever would follow him must pick up a cross and follow daily. I seem to recall passages in the Old Testament saying that the purpose of some prophecy was not for the people hearing it (who would be long dead at its fulfillment) but for those who came later, that they might know God was sovereign.

Today, the marketing/customer-service model is encroaching (if it hasn't already taken over) not just traditional capitalist businesses but churches, schools, and other groups that once focused on character and leadership formation by recognizing that participation in some communities required the subordination of the individual desires in some part to the good of the whole and to support a shared vision or mission.

In my university's faculty preplanning session we had a guest lecture and workshop on service-learning. It was encouraging to see some recognize that the integration of faith and learning can still recognize that not everything is about "me"--whether the me be the teacher, student, prophet, or lay person.

Baby Songs Needed

My wife and I are trying to come up with an IPOD playlist with songs about babies (no, it's not for us). So far we have:

"The Greatest Discovery"--Elton John
"Stay Up Late"--The Talking Heads
"Wonderful Baby"--Don MacLean
"My Baby"--The Pretenders
"Cats in the Cradle"--Harry Chapin
"My Baby Needs a Shepherd"--Emmylou Harris

We had others, but I keep forgetting to write them down. If you can think of any, please leave them in the comments section.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Emma (4-7) "A very old and intimate friend..."

Mr. Knightley makes his appearance at the end of Chapter 1, which strikes me as pretty early for a love interest to show up, especially in a Jane Austen novel.

It is a convention of the romantic comedy, that descendant of the comedy of manners, that the love interests "meet cute," a phrase meaning that they cross paths through some carefully articulated set of circumstances designed to show that Fate wants them to be together if only they can see that THIS IS THE MOMENT OF DESTINY!

Mr. Knightley, on the other hand is "a very old and intimate friend of the family" (4). The word "friend" is clearly an important one in this work. It (or some variation such as "friendly" is used twelve times in the first chapter alone. Some key examples include:

--Miss Taylor is called "a friend and companion such as few possessed" (2).
--Knightley is called "a very old and intimate friend" (4)
--Knightley opines that "every friend of Miss Taylor must be glad to have her so happily married" (5).

At Box Hill, the emotional and moral turning point of the novel, Knightley will profess his friendship to Emma. Indeed his words will suggest that it may be harder to be a true friend than a devoted lover. Much of Book I deals with Emma's befriending of Harriet Smith, and the question of whether or not Emma is acting the true friend when she recommends Harriet refuse Robert Martin is the source of disagreement between her and Knightley that permeates the first third of the novel.

The reason every friend of Miss Taylor "must" be glad, as Knightley explains, is that her marriage is so clearly to her advantage--both economically and emotionally. The true friend, then, is the one who rejoices in the good to her friend even if that good comes at the expense of hardship to herself. What is interesting about this concept of love and friendship is how much contemporary mores have reversed it. Love is putting the other first. Friendship is enjoying another's company. [Okay, yes, there are a number today who think that's all love is as well, but really that's another story.]

In Christian circles, C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves has alerted many readers to the fact that in New Testament Greek "love" can mean different things. "Eros" is erotic love, "philia" is brotherly love/friendship (hence the nickname for Philadelphia), while "agape" is the selfless, Christian love that most approximates the love of God.

That being a friend is something more than being an amiable companion is a lesson Emma has not yet learned. It may very well be THE lesson she has not yet learned, since learning it leads to the realization that friendship and love are built on the same foundation. Emma says of Knightley: "Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me you know--in a joke--it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another" (5).1This is not entirely true. In fact, really, no part of it is true. Knightley does find fault with Emma but he doesn't "love" to do so. Knightley never jokes about moral faults or instruction. And while Emma may say whatever she likes to Knightley, he apparently has a great deal of difficulty saying exactly what he would like to say to her. 2

I digress from my main point, however, which is that attentive readers ought to pick up on the fact that Emma is using words differently not only from Knightley but also from the narrator. When the narrator says that Knightley was an old friend of the family, her (I always think of the narrator as a she, so sue me) use of the word, unless we think it duplicitous or inaccurate, is closer to Knightley's than Emma's. Emma's father is, too be sure, beloved for "the friendliness of his heart" (2) but it is Miss Taylor who acts in the office of friend by promoting Emma's welfare: "Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse's family, less as a governess than a friend" (1).

The office of a friend is something different from, and requires something different than, friendliness (or amiability).Mr. Woodhouse is beloved for his friendliness, but to whom is he a friend and who is a friend to him? (Knightley, we might note, is a friend of the "family," suggesting that his service to Woodhouse is service that promotes the good of all members of the family--for example it relieves Emma of some of her tedious duties--more so than it challenges Woodhouse to grow personally.)

The other thing we are told about Knightley is that he is a "sensible" man. The contrast between Knightley's "sensible" nature and Emma's "clever"ness comprises one of the the thematic foundations of the novel. When Emma boasts she made the match between Taylor and Weston, her response to Knightley's claim that it was a lucky guess is telling: "And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess?--I pity you.--I thought you cleverer--for depend upon it, a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it" (6). Maybe, maybe not. But it is telling that the "clever" party here speaks primarily of "pleasure" and "triumph" wrought by "talents" while the man of sense speaks primarily of "merit" demonstrated by "worthy employment" and culminating in "success."

Emma and Knightley are speaking the same language, but they have very different working vocabularies. For Emma, making matches is "the greatest amusement in the world" (6). It may be too easy, though, to read Knightley as always right. Usually there is a germ of truth in what Emma says, and here I see it in her claim that Weston was "comfortable" as a widower and may not have pursued Taylor had not Emma given "many little encouragements" (6). Already in Chapter 1 we see a gender pattern emerging. Each of the men described, Weston, Woodhouse, Elton (and, so, perhaps it is hinted, Knightley) are comfortable. Perhaps it is not out of sense or virtue that they withdrawn but simply by temperament and, perhaps, Emma does do the office of a friend by drawing out Weston, making him momentarily less comfortable but in the long term more happy. That she may not be always or completely motivated by altruism doesn't make actions any less that of a friend. Certainly promoting another's success at some cost to ourselves might be more virtuous than promoting it at no cost to ourselves, but that doesn't mean there is no virtue or sense or friendship in helping another when our interests coincide.

Where Emma will begin to get in trouble is when she will be unable to distinguish her interests from those of another. Her guess has, in fact, been "lucky." But lucky in the sense that she wields power and influence and the exercise of those qualities can injure others as well as help them, so they must be used judiciously. Still, as her friendship with Harriet (I think) will demonstrate, it isn't so much that Emma is unwilling to learn this lesson as that she has never had to do so. It's not that she can't ever put others before herself, only that she is careless in her assumptions about what others want or need.

1Is this yet more foreshadowing of Box Hill? There, too, Emma will insist that her words are just a joke. Knightley, however, will finally correct her.

2The most obvious example of Knightley's difficulty to say what he wants is at the end of Book III where Emma must--against her misperceived self-interest--encourage him to say what he wants. Because Emma's misperception here is so early and because the reader doesn't have any contradicting evidence, it is easy to be lulled into treating her characterizations as facts. Part of Austen's richness is how much of the text opens itself to different nuances on repeated readings. This is one reason why it is difficult to do a meaningful commentary without reference to plot spoilers. So much of a first reading is getting our bearings, and most of our initial bearings are tied to Emma's perceptions since she is both the character who is most open (we'll say more about that when she meets Jane Fairfax) and the character with whom the narrator is semi-omniscient. The narrator does say, "Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma..." (5). The use of "in fact" constitutes the second time in the first chapter (along with the previously mentioned use of "real" to describe the evils of Emma's situation) the narrator has seen fit to contradict something Emma says or believes with an assertion of fact from that omniscient point of view. We may have to wait awhile before we get contrary evidence, but attentive readers should be alert from the get go to hints the narrator is dropping not to take Emma's perceptions as gospel.

For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I Agonized Over This Post

My friend Russ will occasionally use his blog, Attorney-Wastrel, to cite rhetorical phrases or moves that he would like to see permanently retired.

If I may nominate a phrase, I'm pretty tired of anyone using the verb "agonize" to describe his or her mixed or ambivalent feelings about some decision.

Recently I finished listening to Erik Larson's "The Devil and the White City" on CD. I mostly appreciated and enjoyed the book, though I have my own misgivings about reading true-crime books or seeing true-crime films. Larson writes an epilogue in which he cites his sources, which is good. He then proceeds to tell us how he "agonized" over whether or not to include two descriptions of actual murders for which his subject was convicted.

His agony apparently had little to do with whether or not such descriptions pandered to the prurient interests of his readers and less with whether or not it was exploitative of those who genuinely suffered horrific torture and death. No, apparently the agony is that someone might accuse him of being a less than fastidious fact checker and lower their opinion of him as a careful researcher.

On the whole, I think that trying to keep the fuzzy line between history and imaginative fiction even somewhat present is a good thing, so I don't fault Larson for explaining himself. But I do think his rhetoric is a bit inflated. "Agony" is defined as "extreme and generally prolonged pain; intense physical or mental suffering."

The problem with inflationary rhetoric--as I've mentioned before and many others have said--is that it tends to cheapen comparative and superlative words. If Larson suffered agony over trying to decide whether to describe a gruesome murder, what word is left to describe that which is suffered by, say, someone who is the victim of a gruesome murder?

More often than not, when someone tells me he or she "agonized" over a decision, I usually interpret this as the person saying, "This was a tough decision, so in an effort to preemptively answer critics of it, I will say how difficult it was and how much it hurt me to make it." I'm not likely to respect someone's decision because he used this phrase any more than I would the person who said, "It was a borderline call that I thought about carefully." In fact, I may be more suspicious of the former. What this phrase really tells me more often than not is that the person who made the decision himself has some misgivings or doubts--that he feels intensely self-conscious about it.

The phrase also bugs me because I think it carries a fallacious assumption that there is any logical connection between the amount of effort that went into a decision and its correctness. I've known people who "agonized" over decisions not because they didn't know what to do (or what was right) but because they didn't want to do what they felt they should. Rhetorically this phrase can mean, then, "Hey, I know I sold out my conscience, but at least I troubled over the decision before I did it." [I'm not saying this is the case with Larson; I don't know him.]

Monday, August 13, 2007

New Best Score at Buckhorn

I feel like I've been improving my game marginally over the last few months, which is gratifying. It's nice to think that I'm on the plus side of forty and I haven't peaked yet. Of course, part of that is my being such a short thrower to begin with that I'm not losing distance. I've also been putting better since I moved to putting mostly with an XD instead of an Aviar. I just get more glide.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to translate that into improved tourney results. I still get nervous, which affects putting. But I'm getting there. I managed to stop the bleeding on a messed up round at Sanford this weekend, and I did get six birdies in my other round (to go with my five bogeys), so I feel like I'm getting marginally better there, too.

Buckhorn 8-12-07

2-3-4 3-2-3 2-2-3 (24) Out
2-2-3 3-3-3 2-3-4 (25) In 49

I see that I didn't even play a perfect round. I made some tough putts on 8 and 10, but I missed a makeable putt on 15 (from bottom of the hill) and 18 (overshot the hole on approach). I also need to remind myself that getting 3s on holes 4, 12, and 17 are as big (for me) as deuces on some other holes.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Emma (2-4) "She dearly loved her father, but..."

The first encounter in the book is not between Emma and Knightley nor between Emma and Harriet, but rather between Emma and her father.

The relationship between Emma and her father affords us our first real opportunity to weigh the narrator's characterization of things against an actual encounter; it should cause attentive readers to continue to wonder about the narrator's reliability.

The first thing we are told about Emma's father was that he was "affectionate and indulgent" (1). The first thing we are told about Emma's attitude towards her father is, "She dearly loved her father, but..." (2)

The rhetorical force of that "but" may not be as strong at negating what comes before it as does the previously mentioned "seemed," but it does (or should) heighten our attention to what comes after. What follows is "...but he was no companion for her" (2). We are told, indeed, that "he could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful" (2). We are told that they have an "evil" (there's that word again) disparity of age, caused in part by his not having married young (2).[1] Her father is a bit of a hypochondriac (the narrator uses the word "valetudinarian"), and while he is amiable (and, hence, loved), "his talents could not have recommended him at any time" (2). The description of Mr. Woodhouse's qualities is interrupted by two paragraphs describing the supremacy of the family in Highbury, and then we are told that Emma could not sigh over her sadness at losing Miss Taylor as a companion because "her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful" (2-3). In case we haven't gotten the point, the narrator repeats:

His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of everybody that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter's marrying, nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself... (3)

Here's a question I pose to the readers who think I might be too hard on Mr. Woodhouse: what is "gentle selfishness"? As near as I can tell, this paragraph says that Mr. Woodhouse is used to getting his own way, and when he doesn't he is "easily depressed." He has trouble reconciling himself to his children growing old and having marriages of their own. Is selfishness ever gentle--or experienced as gentle by those who must submit to it?

Mr. Woodhouse is an interesting foil to two characters we have not yet met--Mrs. Churchill and Miss Bates. With the former he shares a bossy attachment to his children and desire that they forestall marriages of their own to make their parent's life comfortable. With the latter he shares an amiable disposition combined with a tiresome lack of conversational ability (rational or playful). He differs from them both in that: a) he is male; and, b) everyone seems to like him. The question that jumps to my mind, of course, is "why"?

We are told he is "amiable"--that amorphous quality that is hard, exactly to pin down. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "amiable" as "friendly and agreeable in disposition; good-natured and likable." We are told this right before we are told that "his spirits required support," that he found change "disagreeable," and that he was "selfish" (albeit, gently so).

Were I to give in to my inner feminist critic, I'd probably suggest that what we get in these pages looks suspiciously like a daughter who has internalized the cultural and/or familial expectations placed on her to the extent that she lacks the voice or means to question the divine right of the status quo. She loves him because....well, because he is which she means if you look past all that selfish behavior (as she must), you will find a man that genuinely likes those people who cater to his every whim and arrange their lives around making his as pleasant as possible.

It is equally possible to take our narrator at face value and decide that Mr. Woodhouse has some quality of personal charm or charisma that Miss Bates and Mrs. Churchill lack. Putting aside momentarily the question of when and to what degree the narrator's perceptions are that of a neutral observer and when they are descriptive of Emma's inner thoughts or feelings, we are forced to concede that Emma's love for her father and his amiability are presented to us as facts by the narrator and not protestations of the moment from Emma. Why then is he this charming character whereas the two women who are most like him are held up to scorn and derision?

One reason is purely formal. For reasons we may discuss more later (but which can be easily guessed or deduced), Miss Bates's passages will go on and on, inviting the reader to share Emma's boredom and frustration with her. By contrast, Mr. Woodhouse's more tedious practices tend to be described quickly and abstractly rather than chronicled at length. We are to understand that the exchange between Emma and her father (page 3)--in which she parries his lamenting that getting the carriage to go a half mile is too much of a bother with a reminder that he has a coachman who will welcome the chance to see his daughter (in service at their destination)--is a snippet of a much longer, more tedious evening, but it is charmingly eccentric when doled out in small doses, and the effect it is likely to have on the reader is to provide some comic relief to contrast with Emma's sadness. This effect is much different than what the same exchange might get at the end of a long evening filled with such exchanges.

What are we to make of all this? When I go over this passage with students, I'm often surprised how different our attitudes are towards Emma and her situation. Whereas some readers will immediately see her handsomeness, cleverness, money, and social prestige as qualities for which she is to be justly envied, others may very well see her isolation, boredom, and preternatural responsibility to care for an aged and difficult parent as a situation for which she might engender sympathy. As for the narrator's claims that Emma dearly loved her father, I remind myself that love is acts of love as well as feelings of love, so the evidence that she loved him is found as much in nights of tedious conversation and backgammon endured cheerfully rather than sullenly than it is in any illusions about another's character. She doesn't even seem to resent her sister, Isabella, for breaking away and making a family of her own, leaving Emma to bear the brunt of the work of caring for their father.

Emma has her flaws, no doubt. But if we can get past first impressions and not be too influenced by what others (particularly, in this case, the narrator) are saying about people, we sometimes see their behavior or actions in a different light. Much of Austen's work is about going beyond initial impressions or looking past people's reputations in order to come to your own judgments.

"Emma smiled and chatted as cheerfully as she could..." (3)
"Emma spared no exertions to maintain the happier flow of ideas..." (4).

These are throw-away lines, easy to read over and read past, easy to forget or dismiss when faced with bolder descriptions of Emma's grievous social offenses or failures. Like the work of many extroverted, hospitable, amiable people, Emma's work is seldom appreciated because, like the mortar that holds buildings or relationships together, its constancy makes it appear more plain and less important than it really is. If you've ever been around someone, however, who does the hard work of keeping the depressive person's spirits up or attending to the fussy and demanding person's needs, you know just how much you miss their work when it is gone.

[1]I can't help but think of Patricia Rozema's film adaptation of Mansfield Park here--specifically the line from Fanny's mother to take heed of the fact that she married for love. Knightley is sixteen years older than Emma (64), making him 36, by my calculation. He has not exactly "married early." Apparently in Austen's universe, one of the largest mistakes one can make is to extrapolate some sort of life lesson from another's marriage and use it as a model in selecting one's own mate.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Silence of the Sea

My comments about Jean-Pierre Melville's classic are now up at The Matthew's House Project. To read them, click here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

New Movie Review--"The List"

I got an opportunity to attend a sneak preview of a Christian film called "The List." My review is now available here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Euchre Ladder Hall of Fame

I dropped by the Advanced Lounge Five yesterday to catch up on a Euchre gaming ladder that I hadn't played in for some time. In between my college graduation and my first teaching job, I burned a summer climbing to #1 on the ladder. Back then there were thousands of active participants (there appear to be about 200 now), the rooms were always full, and anyone in the top 20 or so could play all day.

I'm always sad to see that the "Hall of Fame" feature really only tabulates longevity rather than making any attempt to identify the best players from different eras. Also, as various people have passed on, it has apparently become customary for people to post losses to them in "tribute," skewing the statistical records.

So here's one man's totally subjective opinion about who would be in my Internet Euchre Hall of Fame.

Tdeem1--A lot of people hated this guy, but he made it to #1 something like four or five times back when cracking the top ten was still a big deal. He was one of the first to break down the strategy of the LADDER (as opposed to just the card game) and articulated such simple premises as "defend during the day and rise at night" (realizing that it was harder for people to jump you if they had already played their up games and that you had to maximize your chances of playing up games twice in succession if you weren't simply going to lose the ground you gained waiting for players to show up. Never cheated around me (nor asked me to cheat) at the tables, but I did know him to have multiple accounts at one point. If he had a flaw, it was that he could sometimes be stubborn about his strategy and would rarely make adjustments based on score or opposition. One of the first (and only) to scout opposition, he was one of a handful of players who could tell you another player's tendencies.

Klykey2--I think I partnered with him my first best of three match to make it to number one. That's how much I thought of him. He was a model of consistency; I never saw him make a misclick or mistake. He had an inherent understanding of position, and a knack for giving his partner an opportunity to take a trick if he had a sure stopper in order to increase the likelihood of a set.

Taco46--I don't claim that Taco46 was the best player, but if one mark of a hall of famer is legacy, Taco introduced innovations to the way the game was played. Taco was one of the first players to go loner crazy, helping to institute the hyper-aggressive style that came to characterize the venue for awhile and is still practice by many at that site. It was a rare game that Taco46 didn't attempt at lest two loners (sometimes more) and if that occasionally cost him points for missed marches, it often had the same effect as a vertical passing game in football--putting people on the defensive.

Breebrat2005--I didn't meet this player, I think, until my second stint in the Euchre rooms, but she is, hands down, the best partner I've ever played with. Combining a rock solid grasp of strategy with a Malcolm Gladwellesque ability to "thin slice" (intuitively factor in multiple variables to know when to deviate from the standard textbook play), she consistently makes decisions based on what will give the team the best opportunity to win. Most good Euchre players will win 53-54% of their games. The best might win 55%. When Breebrat2005 is your partner you'll probably win 57-60. That doesn't sound like alot, one or two games out of a 100, but in any collection of 100 games there are going to be maybe 80 that are pretty much determined by the cards that are dealt (assuming roughly even competition).

Jacmajor--Yea, he could be brutal with a partner (I've sat across from him a few times), but he can flat out play. Another model of consistency, Jacmajor's only real weakness was an inability to find and keep a partner. Perhaps because of that, he was one of the best at adjusting his game to fit his partner.

kenmorefield--went to #1 without a steady partner in what was an age primarily monopolized by cheating and Survivor-like coalitions. Lacks the absolute consistency of a Jacmajor or Klykey2 but will see a line that others miss because of a chess like ability to think three tricks ahead or anticipate where cards lay based on what was (or wasn't) bid. Like Breebrat2005, a master at adjustments based on score, position, and opposition. 56% winning percentage speaks for itself and is tough to equal over the course of over 3000 games. Oh and a 172-72 tournament record doesn't hurt, either. [Dontcha love people who talk about themselves in the third person?] Yeah, it's vain to vote for yourself, but if I had a vote, I'd put me in on this very short list...

Honorable mention/also deserving consideration: hudie62, jaw1582, thenamelessbard8, debs301, GoWingz, lshep_, ldywldkat,

Alright, so I know I'm forgetting someone....sorry about that, like I say, one man's opinion...


I have little doubt that some graduate film student somewhere is doing a dissertation on this film and leaning heavily on Said's Orientalism to do it. It may even be an interesting dissertation...more interesting than the film.

Oh, the film's alright, I guess, if blood porn is your thing (I couldn't help think of Clinton Portis talking about Michael Vick's alleged involvement in dog fighting for some reason). It's just that I'm suspicious of films that are more interesting to talk about than to watch because they reference interesting ideas rather than develop them.

Much like Children of Men there are dishes in this smörgåsbord (thank you, spell check) that are directed at different audiences and ideologies, some of them directly opposed to one another. That makes it nice because it becomes a film that can be grafted onto your ideology of the moment to illustrate whatever point you want--pro war, anti-war, it's a glorious death, it's a pointless death. The film is whatever you want it to be.

The art design captures the comic book look, which allows it to be more graphic than your average R rated movie because it is so stylized. I imagine it will have passionate defenders and passionate detractors, but it doesn't really strike me as the sort of film anyone would ever go back to other than for nostalgia's sake. It reminds me of The Matrix in many ways, only a bit more bloody rather than using explosions and bullets.

Can't really say I "enjoyed" it, but as an exercise in art-design, it was pretty to look at.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Not too much different here from what I said about the last film in this franchise, so just some comments rather than a review:

I didn't hate the film, but almost all the political subtexts from the last two films are yet more blatant and yet more explicitly stated. "This is not what I signed up for" says Joan Allen, followed, I think by the requisite,"This is not who we are."

That's all well and good. Always nice to see RNC warmongering philosophy get a public spanking to a full house. But at some point all the political preaching gilded onto an action film creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that distances me from the very questions I'm having my face rubbed in because any relation between the world inhabited by the film and that I live in is purely cosmetic. Just once I'd like to see Jason drive a car off the third floor of a parking garage and land on a pregnant mother walking her two year old instead of hobbling away with his moral superiority intact because he didn't kill the person who was trying to kill him.

These films claim to be anti-totalitarian in their violence, yet they end up implying that if you are sufficiently skilled (like Bourne) that violence can be contained and directed only at those who deserve it--the very lie that propagated by the sorts of people who create the policies that Bourne (and we) are supposed to reject.

It was entertaining, though.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Culture of Fear

I thought for the umpteenth time about this book the other day. Glassner's subtitle is: "Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things."

I mention this because I bought my plane tickets for The Toronto International Film Festival. I don't like to fly. Never have. Since 9/11 I've liked it even less. And my return ticket from Toronto has me flying guessed it...September 11th.

I flew of September 11th last year so that I could attend TIFF. I'd prefer not to fly....but if it means missing the cool films, well, you gotta go sometime. On the one hand, I'm one of those Americans who is letting the terrorists win by....well, you know, being terrorized. When I think about flying, I think that one of the most sucky ways to die might be knowing you were going to die in like an hour. This is irrational, and I know it, which is why I go ahead and fly when I have to (or where the alternative is not going to The Toronto International Film Festival). And, I suppose, if I thought about it, I shouldn't go to work, since the plane might fly into my building....but I digress.

Last month I went on my vacation, which included disc golf in six or seven new states, including two rounds in Minnesota, and yeah, I took a bridge over the river to get into St. Paul. Now, I like bridges. I think they are way cool. Driving through that mountain tunnel in West Virginia gives me the willies, and driving through the harbor tunnel the one time I drove into New York City gave me serious creeps. Bridges, though, just always LOOKED cool to me, so I liked driving over them and marvel at their engineering.

I suppose I ought to marvel at the engineering of flight instead of thinking about where I am and how unnatural it is that I am there (and how horrific my death will be if the laws of physics are temporarily suspended or if some air traffic controller has a bad day. I suppose I should think that I've had two near misses with bridges, relatively speaking (that one that got hit in Oklahoma happened the same month the Truffins and Morefields were driving through that state), but, well, familiarity breeds false security.

Now, I'd be the last to suggest we should just all stop going over substandard bridges (because then the terrorists win), nor would I suggest it is our duty to keep going over substandard bridges (lest the terrorist wins). I'm only saying that I've learned--SURPRISE--that fear is not a rational thing. How much of our lives our spent in fear of the exotic thing rather than the likely thing? Why do we not spend some of the energy we put into avoiding flying (or going over bridges or whatever phobia we cater to) into avoiding unhealthy foods or other things that might increase our chances of an unpleasant death?

Emma (1-3): The Evils of Emma's situation.

The fourth paragraph of the first chapter reads as follows:

"The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were disadvantages which threatened to alloy her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her." (1)

If the opening sentence is filled with resonant and charged words, this paragraph has one that jumps out at me: "evils." In a paragraph and indeed a novel that tends towards descriptors such as "misfortunes," "alloy her many enjoyments," and "disadvantages," the word "evils" stands in stark contrast.

One way we can approach this paragraph is to look at it as helping to solidify the distinction between Emma's thoughts and sensibilities and those of the narrator. It's hard to miss the point. The use of the word "real" to modify evils creates a necessary object of contrast--the "unreal" or imagined evils.

It is interesting to note that when thinking about the realm of power, the narrator insists that the power to have one's own way is a "disadvantage."

One significance of the word "evils" is that it practically forces the reader to approach the themes of the book, the conflicts and questions it depicts and raises, from a moral rather than (merely) ethical perspective. It is one thing to talk about getting your one's way as something that creates difficulties for a person within a particular social context; it is quite another to talk about it as something that disadvantages a person and is, hence, evil.

How, precisely, is Emma disadvantaged by having too much her own way? Or, maybe the better question might be: disadvantages in what? The only conceivable answer I can come up with is "character formation"-- and the assumption that having within one's power to have one's own way is a disadvantage pretty much carries with it the baseline assumptions that one's own will is corrupt and/or fallen and that the way to form character is through the experience of self-denial and/or submission.

These assumptions are generally prevalent (though sometimes more or less explicitly stated) in various systems of thought that advocated women's subordination. Is the narrator a complemantarian, then? It's probably important to point out that the word "evil," while applied to Emma's situation in this instance, is much harder to gender than some other words that would imply Emma's situation would be fine for a man. I'm also convinced that--harkening back to the word "unite" in the first paragraph, that Emma's problems are the combination of several things rather than the fault of any one attribute or mistake. Just as it is the uniting (or appearance of it) of the best blessings that sets Emma apart from those who are only handsome, clever, or rich, so too it is the combination of having her own way and thinking too highly of herself that places Emma in danger.

This explanation might go some ways to explaining why someone such as Knightley can wield power without it being to his detriment (and hence evil). He has somehow managed to avoid thinking too highly of himself in spite of the fact that he is practically perfect in every way. (Knightley's relative flatness in comparison to Darcy's more prickly and nuanced characterization probably goes a long way towards explaining the consistently greater popularity of Pride and Prejudice over Emma. Certainly he is Emma's superior in manners, sense, and [perhaps] morality, but her character is so much more richly and fully revealed to us over the course of the novel that it is hard for us to delight in the match as much as Emma does.)

Like so much in the novel, the simplest explanations of this passage are undercut or complicated by Emma herself. In the next two paragraphs we are told that Emma has exercised "self-denying, generous friendship" in promoting the match. Yes, this is Emma congratulating herself on matchmaking and patting herself on the back for being a good friend. And yes, the narrator is laughing and allowing us to laugh at Emma for taking credit for things she may not have been responsible for--in this case the match. Is no credit due to Emma here, though? Whatever joys she may feel in predicting the match, Emma would have to know that the culmination of such an exercise would be in some personal pain or disappointment as her friend moves on to another life stage and, necessarily, a lesser level of intimacy with Emma. Emma's action here foreshadow's her treatment of Harriet in book three, and it shows that however evil it might be to have too much one's own way, Emma is capable of putting others before herself to a degree often missing in adolescents of "nearly twenty-one years" who have labored under strict discipline all their lives.

Part of what I'm suggesting here is that Emma gets the brunt of a double standard. When she fails, she is the spoiled brat. But when she exercises virtue, she is often complimented for it in backhanded or reserved ways. She is called amiable and described as having a cheerful disposition as though such qualities--particularly in the face of sacrifice or suffering--were negligible or easy to come by.

Weil, "School Studies"

[Originally posted to a now defunct Yahoo! Group.]

The second half of _Waiting for God_ consists of essays rather than
letters, and the first two prompted differing reactions. The
essay "School Studies" was brief and thought provoking, suggesting
that "attention" was the key discipline of the student and that the
role of school was to train us to give systematic attention to
whatever we were studying.

While it sounds a bit simple in summary (as does much meditative
stuff), it rang true to me. The ability to turn our minds to
something is a true gift, and it is the essence of the Golden Rule,
which suggests we must imagine what it is like to be in another's
shoes. For that reason, and because of the intense egoism that is
fed by sin, I think "attention" to anything is difficult.

Weil's second letter, on "The Love of God and Affliction" was less
helpful for me; it seemed a bit more abstract and repetitive. That
said, I've had that reaction to devotional literature before, so I'm
not totally surprised. Her descriptions of affliction were poignant
and induced one to compassion.

Weil; Letters 3-6

Letters 3-6 are densely packed and hard to summarize, but they have
provided ample material on which to chew. These letters
include "Spiritual Autobiography" and "Last Thoughts."

Much of Weil's thoughts cover her correspondence with a priest who
has counseled her about why she will not be baptized. Her
explanation about a calling to remain outside the church as a
reminder that the church is not analogous to God's acceptance is
quite challenging, as is her discussion of the effects of dogma.

Here is a quote that encapsulates much of this section:

"Christianity being catholic by right but not in fact, I regard it
as legitimate on my part to be a member of the Church by right but
not in fact, not only for a time, but for my whole life if need be."

Weil; Letter 2

In her second letter concerning hesitations regarding baptism, Weil

"I think that with very important things we do not overcome our
obstacles. We look at them fixedly for as long as is necessary
until, if they are due to the powers of illusion, they disappear.
What I call an obstacle is quite a different thing from the kind of
inertia we have to overcome at every step we take in the direction
of what is good. I have experience of this inertia. Obstacles are
quite another matter. If we want to get over them before they have
disappeared, we are in danger of those phenomena of compensation,
referred to I think by the Gospel passage about the man from whom
one devil had gone out and into whom seven others entered forthwith"

This was a powerful way of describing a tendency that I have both
seen and experienced; the assumption that we must "do something" in
the face of any problem or obstacle. Sometimes God calls on us to
wait, and the illusion is that the problem is of a nature that what
is called for is not necessarily activity. There are times when a
conflict or problem can SEEM unbearable, and we think that we must
do something not because we think it will be effectual but b/c we
want the illusion of progress that comes with activity.

A good letter with much to ponder.

Spiritual Classics:

[Originally posted to a now defunct Yahoo! Group]

From Letter I "Hesitations Concerning Baptism"

This was an interesting passage from Weil:

"The third domain is that of the things, which, without being under
the empire of the will, without being released to natural duties, are yet not enitrely independent of us. In this domain we experience the compulsion of God's pressure, on the condition that we deserve to experience it and exactly to the extent that we deserve to do so. God rewards the soul that thinks of him with attention and love, and he rewards it by exercising a compulsion
upon it strictly and mathematically proportionate to this attention and this love. We have to abandon ourselves to the pressure, to run to the exact spot whither it impels us and
not go one step farther, even in the direction of what is good. At the same time we must go on thinking about God with ever increasing love and attentiveness, in this way gaining the favor of pressure that possesses itself of an ever growing proportion of the whole soul."

I find this an interesting passage in relation to the contemplative tradition--that thinking about God is spiritual work, or can be. I'm so conditioned by the J.I. Packer quote that knowing about
God is not the same as knowing God, that I tend to think that the contemplative has to be prayer or meditation. I hear Weil saying that if we think about God, he becomes more real to us and the desire to act in his will becomes a compunction rather than a discipline that we try to manufacture.

I'm also interested in her claim that we should not go beyond the compunction, even in the direction of the good. In one sense I see a truth in this. In another, I worry about how easy it becomes to never take ourselves in hand, so to speak, and do what we don't feel like doing. Plus, isn't thinking about GoI'd a movement beyond where we are at? That being said, it suggests
to me that one thing that might help me in the Spring is thinking about God rather than trying to think of something to DO. The latter, if it is selected arbitrarily, will drain rather than train
or energize.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dog Fighting

I've been working my way through The Waltons on DVD--a show I never saw as a kid and one which I think is quite good. Sometime in my copious amounts of free time, I'd like to right a paper comparing the representation of fatherhood, power, and authority in The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.

There was an odd little aside in one episode in Season 3, though, that got my attention. Mary Ellen has been given a fancy dress by a rich neighbor, and as she is showing it off to her family, someone says that there is no place around Walton mountain for her to wear such a dress. One of her brothers (I forget if it is Jason or Ben) says, "Maybe she could wear it to a dog fight."

I certainly didn't take from that exchange that dog fighting was something the Waltons approved of or even attended, but it was interesting to note that it was a practice common enough around rural Virginia for the kids to know it went on.

The recent events surrounding the indictment of Michael Vick for his participation in a dog fighting ring have created a spotlight into a subculture that many of us did not know existed. Some athletes, such as Clinton Portis, have expressed a difficulty in understanding the level of shock at these charges, a difficulty that I attribute not necessarily to their own affinity for the practice but from what seems to be a genuine surprise that people are only now professing to have learned that such practices exist.

I'm not condoning or defending dog fighting here. I am suggesting that the degree of repulsion or outrage we feel over practices might be affected by how familiar they are to us. One politician was recently quoted at SI.COM as saying he hoped there was a "special room in hell" for those who abused animals. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether or not "special" can mean particular (in which case one wonders if every room in hell isn't special in a Dantean sense), one wonders, from an anthropological perspective, what practices we disapprove of but don't stir us to outrage that members of a community that knows of dog-fighting might think warrant out own special rooms in hell.