Neil Gaiman says goodbye to his friend, Cabal, and shows us that it is right to care

I recently read a book by Laura Lippmann that had a snide comment in it about a narcissistic pastor who ‘did that horrible thing pet owners do of equating their cats with your kids,’ and I wondered, precisely, how often that really happens. I routinely am lectured by people who wish to impress upon me that they are mommy/daddy of the year by informing me of how, once they had kids, they understood that dogs are ‘just dogs.’ Yippee skippee for you, for finally understanding all of life’s heteronormatively approved priorities, I wish to say, but you rather miss the point: companion animals exist for those who have them in an interstitial emotional space between friends and children. No, they are not children. No, they are not human friends. But they are friends, and they require nurturing and stewarding, and it can emotionally wrenching to lose them no matter what their relative importance is. Being unable to understand that connection or that loss strikes me as a misunderstanding on the part of the person who feels the need to create categories of import that really serve no practical purpose save to limit what one is permitted to care about, and how much one is allowed to care about them.  Zeno would proud, but let’s say the Stoics were wrong, and the goal of life is not your own comfort and tranquility that derives from refusing to care about or attach to things. When you suspend that notion, you find you are allowed to let animals matter.

I’m thinking about this stuff this morning because I read the obituary that Neil Gaiman just wrote for his friend, Cabal, named after King Arthur’s dog. Gaiman is an effortlessly graceful writer, and that shows through here. I kept it together until I read about how his second dog, Lola, was dealing with Cabal’s death:

I cried. Amanda came and held me, and I cried some more. Holly called and I told her what had happened, and she cried too. It was so sudden and unexpected and I wasn’t there with him when he went. And I’d lost my friend.

I thought I was all cried out, and then I heard that Lola had taken his collar from the counter top and slept with it all night, and I cried again.

It’s hard to lose a friend, no matter what shape they take.

The public versus the private and the urban versus rural in gun laws and control

Weeks before the Sandy Hook shootings, my students and I explored the case of Stand Your Ground Laws versus castle laws. The former are the laws under question with Trayvon Martin case; the latter appear to be a fairly well-established part of law coming from the English tradition. This was a seminar on social justice, so it’s not like we had a big showing on the pro-gun side, but my planning students distinguished between the STG laws and castle law mainly based on the public sphere component in the first made most of my planning students very uncomfortable. For them, the communitarian, public sphere question meant that people in the public realm should be unarmed, while most could understand individuals wanting to own a gun for home use.

Andrew Sabl and I were chatting via email about the difference between that idea and the civic republican tradition, which holds that people have a duty to protect not just their homes, but their ‘public’ space as well.

Both my planners and the civic republicans come from similar, communitarian goals of public safety, but they arrive at completely opposite conclusions for policy.

It strikes me that public space-private space distinction is somewhat relevant here, but I am not sure what to do with it. I do know that gun control, like transit policy, is one of those areas which begs for urban-rural distinctions in policy context, and those differences are getting largely ignored in the discussion with the various sides shouting past each other. Guns make much more sense in rural areas than they do in cities–most people in the country do keep guns for a variety of purposes, including hunting, but also to help deal with predators and sick animals like rabid skunks and raccoons, etc, where people can not rely on animal control or police to help. In those contexts, it’s tough finding 40 people in one spot, let alone shooting them. Sure, you can do it, but it probably involves a special occasion, school, or church. But cities are different, with their densities of people in buildings, trains, and sidewalks. My BoA on a normal day has 40 people in the lobby, let alone post office or DMV, which has lines out the door. The possibilities for human harm in short time become greater.

The Ajax Dilemma, desert, and the professor’s job

My friend Jesse Richardson from Virginia Tech and one of my graduate students alerted me to the kerfuffle surrounding this piece from Susan Adams on Forbes, which caused a bit of a firestorm. The awesome quote:

Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.

Oh boy.  Some of the ire directed at this piece is deserved, but some is not. First off, I think all jobs are stressful to some degree.  Going up for tenure is a miserable process–it’s like having your performance evaluation last for five years.  No, you aren’t picking lettuce in 100 degree heat, nor are you shooting screaming animals in the head at a meat-packing plant or risking getting sucked overboard while pulling in crab traps.  If you like to teach and you like to write, being a professor is a wonderful job.

I also have to wonder about the entire set-up: why would being stressful versus not stressful itself be an indicator of quality of life? There are people out there bungee jumping. Surely the notion that one does better or more work when one is stressed is silly.  Why should we want people who write and think and work with learners to be stressed in the first place?

Here’s the reason why everybody’s all up in Adams’ face and she’s getting some heat that perhaps is overwrought:  Professors are just sick to death of people like her deciding they know how to do our jobs, and that those are jobs are cake.  There is so much misinformation out there about what professors do, it’s hard to know where to start.  The academy is a unique context.  Incentives are different here than in Adams’ world.   For instance, one thing that needs to get said right now to absolutely all writers of TV crime dramas:

No professor ever has committed murder so that he or she could become department chair. 


Now, somebody might commit murder to AVOID becoming department chair, but that’s harder to fit in a 45 minute drama format.

Furthermore,  all you people in private business:  get over tenure. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you live in the hard, cold world where people have to work or get fired.  Um, yeah, right.  That’s why we can all identify with why Wally in Dilbert is always in danger of  getting fired…..wait. Yep. In my experience, it’s actually way easier to get rid of professors at tenure time, even though it’s a one-shot deal, than it is to get rid of incompetent staff at universities because the tenure process is a formal, if very high stakes, evaluation process with lots of oversight.

People from the private sector in conversation will carp at me about tenure and then, two sentences later, blather on about how their company put them up at the Ritz/paid for first class/gave them a fat bonus for their last junket–things professors seldom get, if ever.  I get it: your perks are all *earned*, but mine are all unearned, and we all think we know what other people deserve to get and what they don’t.  Only, like Adams writing in Forbes, most of us have no idea what other people do or how difficult it is.

Why this behavior is anything other than simple bad manners and hubris is a bit beyond me. We live in world of tremendous complexity. That’s why we let labor markets do their thing.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called the Ajax Dilemma by Paul Woodruff. Ajax, if you recall, lost to the big cheater Odysseus a priceless set of armor, and then went on a rampage and killed himself. The Greeks thus lost a wonderful asset because they failed to reward him.   Ajax represents the loyal rank and file worker;  Odysseus the strategist who knows how to play the system. It’s really hard to know how to reward different types of performers in such a way that faith in social life and systems remains intact. I’m not far into the book yet, but I’m far enough along to know that assigning desert, like most professions, is much harder than it looks.

Joseph Anton, the price of fame, and the price of religious fanaticism

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children struck me, when I read it years ago, as a masterpiece. None of his other books measured up, although Satanic Verses was well worth reading. I’ve read the other Rushdie books as they come out, always disappointed. Sometimes I find that my first experience with a good writer is so powerful that it overshadows anything else I might read. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Instead, it’s not my imagination: most other critics think he’s declined as a storyteller as well.

Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of his fatwa years, however, is a mess, and I wish I hadn’t read it. As floundering as his recent novels have been, nothing equals the narcissism and entitlement apparent in Joseph Anton. I feel bad judging the man: after all, I can’t imagine being the target of such a serious threat or what it would do to your life and psyche. And yet, I can’t help but think that somebody at his publishers should have told him to tone down the entitlement. The best two reviews of the book have appeared in The Atlantic by Isaac Chotiner and The New York Review of Books by Zoe Heller. Both are extremely good, and you should read them both (no paywall!).

Here’s the pith from Chotiner:

Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any. Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization. Before the fatwa, Rushdie lived a relatively modest life in London. Now, as Joseph Anton drearily attests, Rushdie has become a New York socialite obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer.

He reminds us of a quote from the late John Updike, whose reviews were always works of art, that Rushdie’s work since gaining international superstardom with the fatwa was plagued by a “distracting glitter.” No glitter here: Rushdie reveals himself to be a petty little narcissist incapable of a) understanding how others have paid the price for his freedom as an artiste and b) having the self-control not to dish. In the resulting ish, Rushdie comes off as man utterly without compassion or empathy for others.Read More »

Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers

We read Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee for my class on social justice this fall–it was the last book of the course, and it was a nice way to personalize some of the very abstract ideas we had been working with throughout the course. The memoir format gave us a lot to work with because it allowed us to take a look at how she viewed the events of her life along with our own intuition and theories. Gbowee was a young Liberian woman from the middle class whose parents were successful rural tribespeople–not the elite in Liberia who were the descendants of American-born slaves who established Liberia. The descent into civil war begins for her right about the time she is graduating from high school, and she goes from being a pretty, hopeful high school girl with her eyes on college to having to run her parent’s house as refuge against the fighting. She goes from the terrors there to the terrors of a violent marriage and motherhood, very young, in a place that continues to be ravaged by war. As time goes on, she finds the ability to move out of the marriage and try to go back to school, which prompts her to take an internship at a social justice/advocacy organization where she begins to work with women who need to speak about their experiences in war-torn Liberia. From this work, the Liberian’s women’s peace movement emerged.

There are parts of the story that I marked as particularly interesting:

  • She notes the uselessness of the global media who, when she attempted to speak with them, lost interest in her when she said she hadn’t been a rape victim. If true, that’s a terrible indictment of the way journalists further abuse rape victims in global conflicts. Also interesting is that she does not consider herself to be a rape victim even though her husband violently forces her to have sex. A construct of marriage: it can’t be rape if it’s your husband. Yes, it can.
  • The United States is both entirely there, yet entirely not there, in its corporate presence throughout conflicts, but there is no support to protect civilians throughout the process.
  • There are hard and bright hierarchies in her family between the “rich, urban” and the “poor, rural” parts of it, including the notion that in order to live with the “rich, urban” family, members of the “poor, rural” family can just be expected to act as servants in order to “earn” their keep in the city.
  • The daughters in the marriage have unequal access to their father, who is unequivocally a difficult man, setting up his daughters to see their worth entirely related to via male valuations.
  • One daughter becomes married to a Lebanese man. During the first round of fighting, when the soldiers are coming through and the family is taking the children into the house, the rural grandmother (her paternal grandmother, I believe) shoves the four year-old child of the Lebanese/Liberian parents back out into the street, into the danger, and shuts the door in her face. That’s some cold, considering this is her great-grandchild. The other oddness: Gbowee never tells us what happens. We don’t know what happens to the child, whether she makes it through the attack, and we never find out if there are family repercussions for this action for her grandmother.
  • The major sacrifices made for Gwobee’s activism are granted by her children and her sister, Geneva, whose own life becomes dedicated to being Gwobee’s helpmeet and parent to Gwobee’s children.
  • By far, the most harrowing parts of the book concern how to heal child soldiers, and what happens you valorize evil among young teenage boys who are screaming for their own power and independence, who resent maternal control, and who see girls as capriciously withholding sexual gratification.
  • Shared faith plays a pivotal role in the women’s movement, which has its benefits and costs. Faith is a major part of Gbowee’s life, a source of strength and inspiration. However, relying on faith means that there are going to be barriers organizing across faith. (There are ways to work across difference, and the women’s movement does so.)
  • Being a celebrity advocate and western media darling, too, has its costs and benefits. On the plus side, you get grants from international aid organizations. On the minus side, others resent the credit you are taking for the scarifices and work of an entire network, and that can drive a wedge in the effort. Leadership is difficult in a world where you are allowed only madonna/whore or bitch/mother roles.
  • There is the persistent question of what should happen with war criminals. Gwobee resents the Hague and its trial of Charles Taylor, maintaining that Liberians should have been able to meet their own justice to the deposed dictator–entirely understandable. The trial was another example to her of the violations of Liberian sovereignty of European and American institutions. Nontheless, many of these wars have ethnic tensions at their bases, Liberia’s was no exception, and putting the leader of one ethnic group on trial at the ends of another is fraught prospect which can easily go wrong in its meaning and symbolism surrounding justice. It’s possible Liberians could have managed that process brilliantly–we will never know. But there is also some value to letting everybody resent Americans here instead of risking further divides within the country on what should happen Taylor. (After all; he still has supporters there.)