Apropos of California

To the right is my new favorite-ever picture of myself, snapped whilst hovering over cheesecake as described in the previous post. It captures everything I like about me: sweater-vests and coffee.

Our trip home was uneventful in a good way. We stopped off in Oregon City and visited B's older brother and his clan (which involved the usual amount of me carting around little kids on my back) and had a painless flight back to the San Jose airport.

This morning, while working on the best-ever dissertation, I felt the tell-tale shaking of the chair I was sitting in. Sure enough, there was a magnitude 4.3 quake right over the hill from SC. I still haven't experienced a quake that involves anything dramatic (like, glasses falling off a shelf or the roof collapsing on me), which is good.

And, the sky is entirely blue and sunny and the banal old sun is glaring down. Welcome home, me.


Pruning for Growth

That's the phrase used at the big software company our homie E works at for layoffs. Happily, said company did most of its pruning for growth before the financial crisis reached crisis status, meaning she's still cooking along and getting paid.

The visit to the moms and co. has gone well so far. We had cake at Sweet Life (I'd walk a mile for raspberry cheesecake), we tromped about town, I made risotto for dinner, we played Ticket to Ride, and we watched yet another French movie with Audrey Tautou.

A note on that: why are the male leads in so many French movies unconvincingly good-looking, by which I mean, they aren't good-looking enough to justify their status as the objects of lust? It makes the willing suspension of disbelief that much more difficult. See also L'Auberge Espagnol and its follow-up, Russian Dolls (which was stupid, BTW.)

Just found an article praising clickity-clackity keyboards, of which I am a relentless partisan. Once B and I move to a place larger than a dresser, I might get to get a new clackity keyboard. In the meantime, there is a unilateral ban, in the name of her sanity.

I just submitted my first-ever panel proposal to a real-deal academic conference. Fingers crossed.

On the docket for the next little while: a walk around the old Alma Mater, then dinner with family friends. Somewhere in there I'm supposed to really start the endless Dostoevsky novel assigned in the class I'm TA'ing next term. Groan.


The Hard Part

I'm at the point in my dissertation in which I no longer to get to write a bunch of summary and have to switch to chronology. Gorz wrote two autobiographies, which are the things I'm working from to situated where he was and what he was doing while he churned out articles and books. The first one, The Traitor, is really autobiography by way of gut-wrenching self-analysis, an earnest attempt to understand every aspect of his own personality and motivations. The other one he wrote in tribute to his wife of 40+ years, right before they committed suicide together in 2007. Neither are particularly easy to work from and I've been dreading this part of the project.

On a happier note, B and I had fun yesterday executing a lightning raid on Novato to take part in our homie S's surprise 30th birthday party (she was surprised about the party, possibly surprised about being 30.) It was incredibly satisfying getting to shout "surprise!" It was like a good sitcom. B drove the morning shift, so I got to hang out in the car and take pictures. It's neat living so close to SF.

Tomorrow evening we depart for Eugene to see the family for a few days. Our trips to Oregon are always a pain in the ass in that we have way too many people to see and never enough time, so we've been trying this new "focusing" technique in which we specify who we're going to visit and who we're going to not visit (much to our chagrin) ahead of time. This time is a me-fam thing. Hopefully we'll get to see our PDX homies again in June.

Right. Dissertation. Right. Write.


Keep On Truckin', Tough Guy

I attached the self-portrait to the right to reassure everyone that I am healthier and happier than ever as the term winds down and I submit grades for my students. Despite getting Guizot, Thiers, and Gambetta confused on the final, most of them did a reasonably good job in the class and I had fun TA'ing it. Next term: Russian intellectual history. About which I know slightly more than I do about, say, eighteenth-century Chinese social history.

On the agenda over the next little while: a meeting of the minds tonight to watch Flight of the Conchords and drink vino, a super-secret trip for a super-secret event (too secret to specify here in a public forum), and then a trip up to Oregon to see the moms and co. Clearly, I still know how to party.

Present state of mind: I am confused about how as you get older life gets faster. This last term has gone by like one of those flip-books in which the pictures seem to move for the three seconds it takes to get through the book, at which point the book is over and (extending the analogy), you're dead.


The Structural Integrity of my PBJ

Warning: this post will ramble and, let's face it, suck.

Item 1! It turns out my tax issues have to do with garden-variety not-enough-going-to-the-feds from each paycheck, not a sinister bureaucratic conspiracy to make me cry like a little girl. As a student, even one employed by the university to teach, I do not pay in to social security, so that wasn't the issue.

The whole debacle found B and I sort of floundering and getting a bit testy. I've always hated the kind of simplistic knee-jerk libertarianism of the American right (particularly its would-be cowboy wing), but when something like this happens it's hard not to get indignant. After all, B and I didn't "do anything wrong" - we weren't trying to commit tax fraud, nor did we make some egregious error on our W4s when we started working here. But we still got stung in our collective financial ass to the tune of over a grand.

That said, the important thing is to keep it in perspective. Now we know more about tax withholding and its discontents. Yay for us.

Item 2! Does anyone else feel pretty much the same emotionally as they did when they were, say, 20? I'm 30 and change now and I still find it really easy to relate to my undergrad students, I still find the notion of networking and careerism makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit, and I still eat PBJs for lunch about 4/7 days a week.

Item 3! My dissertation is now 107 pages of single-spaced ugly draft. I was hoping the final version would be about 250 double-spaced, max, but there's no way that's going to happen now. Sorry, committee.

Item 4! I don't really give a shit about St. Paddy's here in California, but it sure makes me nostalgic for the Blitzhaus, the Rude House, Fort Awesome, and the other places my core gang of nerd-punks used to do it up back in the day. The weight - beer ratio of that elite cadre was nuts. Take a pack of scrawny dorks, add PBR and Guinness, and laissez les bons temps rouler.

Thanks for listening. I'm all done now.


Note to Taxpayers on the Go

On sitting down here at the inlaws to do my taxes, I discovered that B and I owe a lot to the feds, because the good people at the payroll office haven't been withholding anything on my paychecks for social security.

SO: if you have some weird semi-job at a university like I do, consider reading your pay stubs very carefully and contact the appropriate staff members if anything looks out of whack. I'm going to go drink a very high-alcohol-percentage beer now.



Tinhorn Nihilism

I read this article in the NYTimes the other day and it got me to thinkin'.

The short version of the article is the author's skepticism about "mindfulness," the practice of elevating your consciousness in such a way that you try to be at peace with everything around you. She notes that it's boring and kind of annoying to deal with in other people, since they're "elevating" themselves right out of the social context in which we relate to one another. In other words, it's precisely because we're all stuck on this spinning rock together, dealing with life's essential pathos, that we can be friends. If one of us levitates away into a self-contained imaginary Eden, it's less inspiring than it is irritating.

I have two points about this:

1. It reminds me of (surprise!) what the existentialists had to say about Buddhism, that it represented a kind of peaceful life-denying nihilism. According to Sartre and co., it is precisely in "engagement" that we live and form values, and thus a whole religion/philosophy based on disengaging is antithetical to what it means to be alive.

2. Either way, it's through a kind of life-hating but not life-denying nihilism that I feel like I'm able to relate to people. I buy the article, in other words. It's because everyone else is tired and drunk and poor and bitter that I feel like I have a context and I feel like I'm not alone. When I encounter people who are trying too hard to use the power of positive thinking to turn things around I want to shock them with an exposed wire and scream "Look around you! Things are terrible! Now come join me for a cocktail!" It's not that we shouldn't try to improve things, it's that there's a kind of banal willed ignorance in going to your happy place instead of trying to confront things in their ugly reality.

Along these lines, I would totally start smoking at 30 if that wasn't the stupidest idea anyone has ever had (a) and B wouldn't save me some time by killing me if I did that (b), because I have come to admire the philosophical project implied in the practice of smoking. Also, people look cool when they smoke.

P.S. This sentence made it into the draft of my dissertation today and I laughed a LOT: "Without a political program, workers were beggars at capital's door, whereas with one, they were potential home invaders." Can I keep it? It followed me home!


Marx Was Not A Dumbass and Other Things to Tell Your Students

It's too easy to be a smart-ass in historical hindsight. If you teach European history, you invariably get students who can't be bothered to learn how to properly use a semicolon or, for that matter, to ever read an assigned book, who still think they're smarter than Marx was.

Let me make this as simple as I can: Marx was wrong about the inevitability of proletarian revolution. He was not wrong about how capitalism works, though, nor were his predictions unrealistic given the state of the European economy in the 1840s - 1870s. Mmm K?

Marx on Capitalism: The classes of workers in the pre-modern era generally had rights to their livelihood: a small parcel of land, access to the common lands, the tools of their trade in the case of artisans. They had some kind of protected access to "the means of production." In the modern era, those rights and those things were systemtically taken away from them. The commons were closed off and replaced with the legal ownership of all land. Artisans were forced out by the growth of industry. Peasants were pushed off the land or owned plots so small their children had to look for work in the cities. The net effect was, generally, that the class of workers who had "nothing to sell but their labor," the proletariat, grew.

At the same time, the people who did own things, "the bourgeoisie," were under pressure themselves. In the climate of absolute competition, of unregulated markets and the triumph of liberal economic theories by the 1860s or so, it was terribly easy to fall behind and go out of business. Thus, former members of the bourgeoisie lost out and became proletarians themselves. The net effect was that the proletariat grew and every other conceivable "class" shrank.

At the same time, industry produced more and more stuff. Eventually, there was simply too much out there and not enough people who could afford to buy it, as one of the things about the proletariat, one of their forms of "alienation," was their inability to buy the very things they made. This resulted in a "crisis of overproduction" and a massive economic collapse.

In the midst of one of these collapses, Marx wrote, the proletariat could realize its common interests in seizing the unprecedented wealth that industrialism had made possible and put it to the common good. Instead of a handful of super-rich expropriators, everyone could share in the material comfort and freedom of freedom from scarcity, something that had never been possible before.

What Actually Happened: Marx was really writing about what would happen if capitalism was allowed to run completely rampant, as it did at various times in the 19th century. The hellish mills, the starving workers, the destitution and disease and anguish, that was all part of 19th century European capitalism. Everything that could check those factors, primarily in the form of concessions to workers, state intervention in the economy, and so on, hadn't happened on a large scale when Marx was writing. And none of those factors are financially beneficial to any individual capitalist (think of the present-day resistance to regulation by your average republican free-market enthusiast; his taxes and the legal restraints on his business are perceived by him as a hindrance, even though their net effect is to make his business possible), so Marx thought that they'd never come about on a large scale.

In short, what actually happened, historically, is that states gradually came around to trying to prevent capitalism from eating itself and the socialist movement convinced people that the living conditions of the citizens of a nation matter, not least of which because people who genuinely have "nothing to lose but their chains" may very well stage a bloody revolution.

The history of communism, socialism, and Marxist theory in the twentieth century is a whole other barrel of monkeys (one that I happen to be getting a PHD in), but the point I want to make here is that it's incredibly short-sighted and ignorant to pass judgement on Marx himself from the vantage point of 2009. He was indeed wrong about all kinds of things, but what he wrote about the logics of capitalism itself, what my guy Andre Gorz called "economic rationality," were and are dead fucking on.


Media Day: Karate Chop

Just wanted to get your attention; I have no karate chops to offer.

What I do have are brief notes on media!

1. The new season of Flight of the Conchords is just as wonderful as one would hope. Thanks to the power of the interwebs, I now have several episodes to enjoy. May I direct your attention to the music video for "My Sugar Lumps":

2. My new homie FY did a fine job taking buttloads of pictures of C's post-QE pre-going-back-to-Japan party the other night at the Red. Based on that evening's festivities, I have now decided that The Red doesn't suck and that I actually like it there.

3. B and I are almost finished watching The Long Way Down, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's motorcycle trip from Scotland to South Africa. I'd say it's equally fun to watch as their original trip, from England to NY via Kazakhstan.

4. I have a new video game for the first time in freakin' ever.

Also, sneak peeks. This week on kungfuramone:
  • Marx wasn't a dumbass and other things to talk to your students about before they turn in their essays.
  • Iceland is populated by grunting morons, according to this one article.
  • People shouldn't be too "mindful," according to this other article.
Ok. A few paragraphs to go on today's attempt to write five pages of dissertation. Off I go.


Being Nice to the Kiddos

Thinking about teaching.

When you start teaching, you're probably pretty nervous about it. You think "I am not that much older than these kids, I lack authority, I am not 100% sure about the stuff I'm teaching, I am in short unqualified." Now, rather than making you softer, it probably makes you harder on them - you overcompensate by dressing up for class,* running lots of quizzes and what-not to try to force them to do the reading, and being a harsh grader.

As the years pass, you mellow out. You joke around more with the students and learn how to deflect questions on things you don't have answers to (or just baldly admit to having no idea.) More importantly, you learn to distinguish between bad essays that are bad because the kid is trying but missed the mark and bad essays that are bad because the kid is a lazy, entitled idiot. You pull punches on the former and bring the hammer down on the latter.

My current state of mind: I like being a fourth-year TA. I find the little squirrely punks I teach (mostly) adorable. I really, sincerely hope that whatever happens to me, I get a job in which teaching is the heart of my career, not a resented imposition on my precious "research" time. That is all.

* Note on dressing up: I never really got the whole concept of white male privilege until I had some very on-point conversations with non-white and/or non-male TAs here. I can show up with tats showing in my usual weird outfits and still expect my students to take me seriously and regard my authority in the class. That has a lot to do, in turns out, with being a six-foot white guy. My friends/colleagues who are not six-foot white guys face an uphill battle in demanding the equivalent respect from their students, and part of that is having to conduct themselves more professionally than I probably do. So when I call dressing up "overcompensating," that's very context-sensitive.


Holy Routine, Batman

A moment of pause and reflection. There are a few kinds of blogs:
  1. The expositional. You know a lot about music or movies or whatever and you share your findings and your critique with the world.
  2. The internet variation of the expositional. You find lots of funny and interesting things online because you have an office job and you post them.
  3. The thematic. You have a craft, a hobby, or an absorbing interest and you use the blog to showcase it.
  4. The confessional. You use your blog to share your thoughts and feelings.
The good press goes to the first three categories, while the vast majority of blogs are of the last. I like all of them - it's entirely possible to do a confessional blog with wit, grace, humor and solid prose. The problem with category four, however, is that one must have original thoughts or experiences to generate interesting entries, and my life at the moment consists of the following probably six out of seven days a week:
  • Up, coffee.
  • 5 pages of dissertation.
  • Hang out with B.
  • Sleep.
Thus, I am going to make a conscious effort to shift to the other categories for the next few weeks, along the lines of the effervescent Count Fosco. We'll see how it goes.

P.S. The good magazine I liked from my last post is Ready Made. Sorry about that, C.


Big Ups for Small Living

So the Dow is below 7000 for the first time since 1987. It's raining buckets in SC right now and I wore hi-top chucks instead of my big scary steel-toe Docs. Rush Limbaugh is still alive. I'm out of coffee in my thermos.

BUT! That's okay. B got a pile of fun magazines from her homie S when she went up to San Francisco to hang out yesterday. Among them is this funny sort of hipster-living one for semi-broke kids in their 20s who still aspire to live with style. It was heartening to look through it last night while watching Cat Cora get her ass kicked again on Iron Chef.* One of the side effects of consumer culture inundation is that awful feeling that you're somehow an asshole for not being able to live in a spacious loft with bamboo flooring, and/or to eat out two or three times a week rather than cooking at home every night. Antidotes to that feeling in the form of counter-examples are all too rare, and it was nice to see an actual commercial magazine whose raison d'etre is to provide clever tips on living well while being mostly broke.

Right now, as the HMS Neoliberal Capitalism goes down with all hands, I'm reminded of the thing B and I don't have: debt. I'd like to think that my lifestyle is in its own way a tiny counter-example unto itself, one populated with tasty brie pizzas from scratch, bottles of entirely decent 3.50 wine, and riding the bus with headphones on.**

I will concede, however, that I'd be lost without the internet. But hey, that applies to rich people, too.

* It's pretty sad, you guys. Cat Cora was recruited to be the first female Iron Chef, but she always loses.
** Riding the bus in SC is usually pretty painless. It can actually be kind of fun, as long as you've got a sweet guitar solo going on the iPod.