What are you afraid of? Giacomo Giammatteo on writing afraid

I just finished the excellent Murder Takes Time by Giacomo Giammatteo, and I read through his biography at the back of the book. How wonderful: he and his wife rescue animals as well. So I fired up his website and, of course, checked out his blog. He is a charming man, obviously fond of teasing his wife and everybody else he knows on his blog. One post that caught my eye concerned a lesson he learned about writing from watching his gigantic great dane defer to tiny, but bold, terriers and drool her way through thunder storms:

It was then that it hit me. I have always had a problem letting my “tough guys” have faults or weaknesses. Seeing Brie like this made me realize that it was okay to be afraid. It didn’t take away from the fact that she could pummel any dog on the property, or chase off a coyote or two, or even stand up to some of the wild pigs. She was simply afraid of thunder—and Rat Terriers.

So how is that different than one of my tough, nasty, characters being afraid of heights, or driving fast, or drowning? It isn’t. It’s all in my mind. Maybe I’m afraid to be afraid?

It always seems to me that you know you are writing good stuff, either fiction or nonfiction, when you yourself are a little afraid. It means you are on the cutting-edge where you, at least, have never gone before.

Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler and what they teach us about judging your own work

One of the mentors I try to emulate is Lois Takahashi, without whom I would not have succeeded in getting my PhD at UCLA. Lois is one of those immensely gifted mentors who never misled you, but she was always, always on your side, trying to help you. It is an uncommonly generous thing to do, as PhD students can take up a great deal of time.

Of the many brilliant things she said to me (one of many brilliant things): “We are never the best judges of our own work.” It made sense at the time, and it’s one of those bits of advice you get that you never forget, and it makes more and more sense as time goes on. The review process makes a lot more sense when you look at it that way, combined with a gladiatorial commitment to getting your stuff out there.

For fun I have been reading Michael Dirda’s, On Conan Doyle, a lovely book that discusses Conan Doyle’s entire corpus. Neil Gaiman’s blurb says it so well: “Imagine having an unbelievably well-read friend, who likes the same stuff that you do but is able to articulate why he loves it so much better than you can.” Spot on. It’s been a delightful read.

But, sure enough, Dirda reports that Conan Doyle’s favorite novel of his own was the deservedly obscure The White Company, a tedious book that I gave up on years ago. Like many of his Victorian contemporaries, he believed that that moral instruction could build society for the better–a necessity for the republic. In The White Company, his intention is good, but he doesn’t have Joseph Conrad’s gifts that allow for the making of A Heart of Darkness. His Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Conan Doyle thought, were mere pastimes.

They are nothing of the sort. Many crime novels have a strong moral core of wrongdoing and justice, obviously, but in Holmes and Watson both you can see the embodiment of the Victorian virtues of manliness (Watson–service to country, loyalty, physical dynamism) and modern Enlightenment thought (Holmes–rationality, scientific observation, deductive reasoning). In A Scandal in Bohemia–which Dirda rightly calls a masterpiece–Holmes shows us, like Dickens, the corruption of the aristocracy in the thoughtless, self-deceiving privilege demonstrated by the King of Bohemia in believing the magnificent Irene Adler is beneath him.

It’s apparent that Conan Doyle was such an essential story-teller at his core that his sense of moral order and decency came through even when he thought he was simply entertaining. Intention perhaps matters less than just doing the work; your essential vision shows through in the work.

Goodbye Senator Inouye

Here’s Senator Reid discussing Senator Inouye.

Here’s the obituary from the WashPo.

A methodical behind-the-scenes operator who rarely sought the media spotlight, he was little known outside Hawaii and the halls of the Capitol. But his wartime record, for which he received the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor — coupled with his reputation for a bipartisan approach to politics — helped him gain respect from and influence with colleagues of both parties.


What moral standing do you need to have to feel bad about the Sandy Hook shootings?

How much are you allowed to grieve for the kids at Sandy Hook?

There are people who feel the need to police emotions surrounding public events because, they argue, people feeling things aren’t feeling the right things in the right way: people who are having feelings must selectively grieve for white kids and not children of color; people don’t follow the right policy prescriptions that would have could have should have prevented the tragedy over which people are now grieving; and/or you don’t actually know the people involved so your pain must be phoney baloney mass hysteria, like English people after the death of Princess Diana.**

I’ve been thinking about this. Surely, there is a “cheap grace” aspect to public mourning relating to policy failures. But policy is not nearly as deterministic as people like to believe, and I’m less willing to pass judgment on public displays of emotion than I was when I was younger.

Here’s a selection:

Thai Noodle House Restaurant Owner in Hot Water After Racist Sandy Hook Shooting Comments:

I have trouble labeling his comments as racism because the many, many classes I’ve taken discussing the nature of racism (you need more power and privilege in order to be racist), but the fact that I’m willing to quibble about the term ‘racist’ over his comments doesn’t mean he’s not being a jerk. Here’s the quote:

“I don’t care if a bunch of white kids got killed. F**k Post-Racial bullshit. When kids from minority groups get shot, nobody cares. When Israel launched missiles at the school on Gaza, everybody was too busy jerking off. Why should i care about people who dont give a damn about me? Personal responsibility, right?”

1) Not all of the victims at Sandy Hook were white (only in his imagination: it’s Connecticut, they must be white; people are worried, those kids must be white. Yes, most of them were, but that hardly excuses the impulse to erase the children who aren’t white so you can air your grievance),

2) I saw a great deal of concern expressed over children in Gaza, and I’m not entirely sure how schilling noodles qualifies as “leading the revolution to save children in Gaza while others jerked off” and

3) it’s not clear from an ethical standpoint that you’re a bad person if you show people who are closer to you, both geographically and chronologically, more care and concern than people remote to you. See the work of global cosmopolitan ethicists like Kwame Appiah or many of the feminist ethicists who have challenged abstract notions of “future generations” being more worthy of care than children who are in need now.

All of that said, it’s true that white kids get more of everything, including media and social care, from a racist system than children of color. That is despicable. The question becomes: would people be somehow “better” if they showed 100 percent strict alignment with some race-ethic around children in this particular tragedy: since I show little empathy or care about children in black families who face gun violence, I should show little empathy or care about children in white families who fall victim to gun violence. I don’t know them, thus I don’t care. Yay me, let’s celebrate my equality towards the races. Woo!

Empathy and care are not like a cake where, if I give some to you or to an animal, that means there’s less for everybody else. It’s entirely possible that the people sickened by the murders at Sandy Hook are also worried about children in Gaza. It isn’t that nobody cares. It may be the right people who are positions of power don’t care enough to undertake the work of preventing the deaths of children in Gaza, but acting like people don’t care at all is probably wrong.Read More »

Planners and Love from this edition of Planning Theory and Practice

This is free for the taking from Taylor and Francis Online: What’s Love Got to Do With It: Loving Attachment in Planning from a roundtable in 2009 sponsored by the Planners of Color Interest Group. It’s got a great line-up of writers including–and I’m going to sound ageist as all hell here–older and younger planning scholars. I say this with a reason, despite my desire to be both inclusive and respectful of the many wonderful scholars who are older and making great contributions. In addition to being very white, the planning academy is dominated by baby boomer full professors who seldom invite anybody but their buddies onto round-tables with them; there is a great deal of sameness in that kind of set-up.

The organizers of this roundtable didn’t make that mistake here. We have some of the field’s established scholars (Leonie Sandercock and Robert Lake, who are always worth reading) and some junior stars (Aftab Erfan, Michelle Kondo, Marisa Zapata, Lisa Bates, and Andrew Zitcer). The result is very readable mix of theory writing and riffs on personal reflections that should get you thinking.

Zitcer and Lake take up some thinking that we just explored in my justice class, on agape and eros. Our exploration was slightly different: we were using Anders Nygren’s construction of eros and agape; Zitcer and Lake examine philia while we (naturally) took up nomos–justice. I love (har! see what I did there? I slay me) Nygren’s definition of agape: “gratuitous benevolence.” Gratuitous benevolence. What would a world governed by gratuitous benevolence look like?

Love and care ethics have been around for a bit, and it’s refreshing to see planners articulating their own understanding of it.

Which bad guys can’t be stopped?

Steve Lopez’s column made me wonder this morning. Here’s a quote from one of his interviewees:

“Whether a gun is legal or not, if bad guys want to get it, they’ll get it,” said the shopper. “You can legislate all you want, and it’s not going to stop the bad guys.”

I think this is silly. As regular readers know, I’m not a great fan of legislation, but when we are talking about spree shooters, we’re generally not talking about professional bad guys–the sort of gun-trading black marketeers who trade in everything from humans to drugs to military grade weapons. We’re talking about either a) long-term military gun nuts and b) callow, mentally ill young men. I doubt you’ll stop (a) no matter what. But (b) strike me as much easier to thwart.

With (b) we’re generally talking about severely mentally ill people who, in a state of anguish or delusion, go into their parents’ or uncles’ or grandfathers’ stash of military-grade weapons, or who amass them from online sellers.

I can’t buy wine online in many states. Come on.

Now, I’m pretty sure that raising the bar for access to military grade weapons would probably put a severe dent in one’s ability to act during a schizophrenic episode. Those weapons wouldn’t be sitting at your mom’s gun closet. They’d be harder to get. No, not impossible. But harder. The shooter in Connecticut would have had to have had connections, made a trip out of his little podunk town, amass some serious coin, and do business with pretty scary people. Instead, woohooo! Everything he needed to make his bad mental health day into the worst thing that ever happened to 20 families was right there waiting for him.

I keep hearing the Fox News types say that the shooter’s mother was ‘a responsible gun owner.’ This does not help me. Because if a ‘responsible gun owner’ has a son who can take her guns and kill her and 27 people at a nearby school, then it’s pretty clear that even ‘responsible gun owners’ too easily become part of a very serious problem.

With 300 million guns already in circulation, I have no idea what to do, but making it harder for mentally ill people to act on their illness strikes me as a place to start.

One final note: people who rag on teachers should stop and think about this shooting and just about every single school shooting we’ve ever had from Columbine to Virginia Tech to this one: educators died trying to help their students. Think about it: these people love your kids enough to die for them. It’s always been obvious they love them enough to work at a job with lousy pay and, as far as I can see, absolutely zero respect from a spoiled-brat American population who worship at the feet of the Gordon Geckos of this world and spit on the people who help build the human capital to make markets run. But educators take bullets. It’s not a straightforward job even on the good days. That’s worth honoring.

Quinn Norton’s excellent piece on Occupy in Wired

via Crooked Timber and bunch of other places, Quinn Norton’s amazing piece on the good and the bad of Occupy.

I am still trying to make sense of Occupy. I do know that for me, it did expose a shrill hypocrisy among many in the US who give lip service to freedom but who chortled with glee while riot cops bashed young people’s heads because members of occupy dared disrupt the precious social order by using their freedom of assembly. Does freedom mean merely the freedom to earn and buy? But not, I guess, the freedom to band together if I don’t agree with you, or if you represent a class of urban young people I don’t like, or whatever. In that case, shut up, be invisible, and Obey. That struck me as sad throughout, and it still strikes me as sad and as a fundamental inability to understand that liberty entails the obligation to make space for people and ideas you do not like.

Why libraries are so necessary to the city

I have no idea where and how it became a rule that the library is a quiet place, but a million thanks to whoever that first librarian was for shushing conversation. Museums and libraries are one of the few places you can go in the city where people will shut up. Go to a bar, there’s music blaring. Go to a restaurant, there’s music blaring and other peoples’ conversation. Public gardens, to the extent there are any anymore, are full of people having cell phone conversations.

You step into a library from the street in a big city, and into the reading room, and you have found quiet. As much as I love the books, and their endless possibilities, I love the quiet and its possibilities more.

My alma mater (the University of Iowa) does something interesting

Reading through Jezebel this morning I happened upon this story about the University of Iowa asking students to voluntarily disclose their LGBTQ status as a means to get information about what level of services they may need to provide for support. The comments are enlightening (for a change!), ranging from people who are nervous about the prospect of disclosing, notes that LGBTQ kids may not have much clarity about their status yet, and support.

Exit, Albert Hirschman, one of the greats

I couldn’t help the play on his most famous title.

Albert Hirschman died yesterday at the age of 91. What a pleasant age, for a man whom, when I did chance to see him at conferences, struck me as very pleasant indeed. A wanderer myself in academic topics, he was one of my role models, his books meandering between institutional, development, and monetary economics and political economy. His most famous work is Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which I believe appeared in 1970. The idea behind the book: when organizations begin to change in ways that members don’t like, they can can leave (exit), resist the changes (voice), or they can stay (loyalty).

My favorite is National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade, a book that nobody seems to talk about anymore. I read it when very young–when I was in my 20s–a professor of mine mentioned it–Dierdre McCloskey, who taught our economic history class roughly 100 years ago at the University of Iowa. Hirschman’s in National Power traced how the Nazis used their military strength to structure trade with its partners. It’s a short book–only about 200 pages or so–and it was published in 1945. No matter. In the early 1990s as a student of economics, the book struck me as remarkably contemporary, and ever since I’ve had the the book’s argument echo again and again with Saddam Hussein, post-socialist transitions, and my own country’s often confused reactions to those. The book’s brevity was a testimony to Hirschman’s capacity for language. He was among the best writers in economics.

After reading that book, I went on a bit of Hirschman binge, reading Exit and others. One book and one article really stand out of his wonderful corpus. The book was The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy. This book looks at reactionary conservative thought response to successive waves of full court press progressivism: the French Revolution, the expansion of voting rights, and the development of the 20th century welfare state. From the writings on these subjects, he identifies three tropes as attitudes that reactionaries employ in response. Perversity tropes say that the policy/development will make the issue worse. Futility tropes imply that whatever the policy is, it’s a waste of resources because you can’t change the status quo. Jeopardy tropes say that the investment in the new way doing things will destroy or damage the existing good things we have. He makes a stab at discussing the progressive tropes–probably at the insistence of some annoying reviewer–but that chapter is less effective, as it is less well-researched. Still, a book I would have killed to have written, for all the errors and flaws in it.

Rajiv Sethi has a written up a lovely remembrance as well.