Some Parental Wisdom, Easily Dispensed

I’ve been a parent now for some 1281 days. In that time, I’ve learned a few things and been disabused of many misconceptions. Here is a potted summary:

  1. Parents are important, but they aren’t the only game in town. Your child is being exposed to a great deal else: other children (the dread ‘peer group’); non-family caretakers (daycare workers, school teachers); the sights and sounds of your neighborhood; the rhythms of your household and the relationships it contains. Your child takes all of this in, and her reactions to it all help construct her self and her experience of her life. Do not fall for the bullshit notion that your relationship with your child is the most important of its life or yours; it’s one among many. This can be both frightening and empowering; keep these in balance. If you can.
  2. Your child will always remain a mystery to you; and you, in turn, will remain a mystery to your child. Do not try to know more or possess more; recognize and respect the limits of this relationship. Think iceberg; think how much happens away from view, hidden in inaccessible recesses of body and mind. Deal with this epistemic barrier.
  3. Remember your own childhood; remember that you had a sense of your life that was quite independent of your parent’s conception of it. Remember the distance between your life and your parent’s; that same distance exists now.  Do not try to make your child learn everything about you; do not try to learn everything about your child.
  4. For fathers: mothers have a distinctive relationship with their children. Respect its specialness, its distinctiveness, derived from a very particular physical bond, further cemented in some cases, by extended, intimate, nurturance.  Do not be grasping; do not be envious; do not strive for that relationship. It is what it is; leave it alone. You have your own relationship with your child; find out what about it is peculiar and particular in its own way, and help develop that aspect on an ongoing basis.
  5. Human beings are difficult; relationships with them are challenging and prickly. Your child is a human being; and it is all too easy to imagine you have some special understanding of its needs by virtue of some special talent. You do not; you have to work as hard as anyone else. Recognize that you will often be left floundering for help as you deal with your child, trapped in morasses of your own making, unable to safely navigate treacherous shoals of misunderstanding, resentment, and emotional confusion.
  6. You will always compare your child to other children; no matter how much you are told to accept your child as it is, you won’t. But that’s because you don’t accept yourself for what you are either; so understand that acceptance of your child will become a little easier if you are a little more accepting of yourself. Otherwise you will project your failures onto your child. Don’t go there. Leave your child out of it.

I don’t have a top ten list. Six of the best is good enough for now.

Punjab, Palestine, Israel: Refugee Resonances

The way I first heard the story of the Jews from my mother it was about refugees, endlessly wandering from expulsion to expulsion, who had finally found a home. The first history of the creation of Israel I read introduced me to the Palestinians; they were refugees too. And I had learned, long before, that I was a Punjabi, from a land which had been divided during the Great Partition of India in 1947, that my ethnic demographic included many who had become refugees during that bloody and violent movement of peoples, that I lived in a city–New Delhi–whose population had grown to accommodate many who had moved there from the former West Punjab, now part of the newly created nation of Pakistan. My father’s family had moved from their older home too, not quite in the dramatic way that refugees moved during the Partition, fleeing murderous mobs: my grandfather had found employment in Central India and moved, calmly and sedately, in 1930; his brothers followed. They were all safely across the border well before 1947. My mother’s family was from the East Punjab; they did not have to move, but they lived through bloody riots in the city of Amritsar on the eastern side. But my father’s family still lost lands–agricultural and residential–in our old home; and so as I grew up, moved around India, and then later, migrated to the US, I could still say with some fidelity to the facts, “My family is from the part of the Punjab now in Pakistan; we were displaced.’ It granted my otherwise rather humdrum biography a little frisson. (There was one refugee story I was told about a pair of my father’s cousins, a boy and a girl, a sister and a brother, who had traveled back by train together but alone during the Partition. The train was stopped by mobs before it could cross the border; the girl, just older than a toddler, hid below the seats, while dead bodies piled up around her. She was pulled out, covered with blood and barely breathing, at the next station. Her brother was beaten and left for dead; so many bones were broken in his body that he never regained the full use of his limbs and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.)

So I found, at some level, the story of Israel and Palestine lay particularly close by; I did not need to move too far in the space of my affective responses to find one that lined up for Israel and Palestine. I was primed to read the story; one part of it–of seeking home–is universal, but other parts are only available to those who have traveled and lost, who can speak of another place other than ‘this one’ as being ‘home.’ Later, I exiled myself voluntarily to another land, losing one home and beginning the hunt to find another. I became another kind of refugee–seeking refuge in an ‘outside’ into which I had cast myself. Stories of refugees were always more meaningful to me than those of other kinds. But not all came to me in the same way.

When I first encountered the story of the Palestinians in the history of the creation of Israel, I skipped past it. I did not want to face up to the grim reality of their refugee camps, of the story that lay behind the black and white photographs of a grimy-faced boy and girl, clad in rags, visible through the barbed wire of the new homes created after 1948. Somehow, I felt overburdened by their tragedy; could it really be possible that the creation of a homeland for a people I knew as refugees would have turned another people into refugees? Israel and the Jews made a powerful claim on my attention and sympathy, drowning out the call of the Palestinian displaced; it left no space for them. The history of the Jews, the Holocaust, the stories of their suffering–they seemed to demand all the empathy I could muster.

But the Palestinians would not go away; they were refugees after all. I heard their stories–at some only dimly perceived level–in my descriptions of myself, in my invocation of a village, and its waters and food and peoples and summers, endlessly and glowingly talked about by my grandfather and my grand-uncles, in the way I would and could claim ethnic solidarity with Punjabi Pakistanis, who now, thanks to a geopolitical tactic, bore a different nationality than me; they all reminded me there was, in my family and life, the touch of the displaced. I had left home too to move to this land of people from elsewhere, who could all, in the right circumstances, dream nostalgically and wistfully of places other than this one. If the Palestinians could not find sympathy in me, living here, in this land, soaked with the tales of the dispossessed and their searches for a place of rest of repose, then where else would they find it?

 

Margaret Sullivan Won’t Miss Five Things About The NYT; Here Are Two More

Margaret Sullivan–“the media columnist for The Washington Post….former Public Editor of The New York Times“–lists the five things she won’t miss about the New York Times:

1. The inherent tension of the job. The whole concept of coming to work every day to handle complaints, and maybe to criticize work done at the next desk over, well . . .

2. New York Times Exceptionalism: The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing. In editorial matters, this manifests itself as, “It’s news when we say it’s news.” Examples: Initially underplaying the Panama Papers; not covering much of the early days of Chelsea Manning’s trial (she was then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning); assigning a reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election; not digging in early on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Excellent as it is, The Times is too often self-satisfied. If there’s a fatal flaw – as in Greek tragedy – this may be it.

This is a pretty damning indictment; one that is correct. Nothing else has made the Times look ‘out of touch,’ ‘not with it,’ than its slow-footed response to some of these times’ most important stories–too often, it is left chasing the leaders.

3. Defensiveness. Although The Times runs many corrections and has two staff people, including a senior editor, whose main job is correcting errors, it’s safe to say that many Times journalists find it hard to admit they got something wrong. In fact, what’s much more likely than any such admission is the tendency to double down.

Moreover, it’d be nice if the Times could be better at responding to correspondence that points out factual errors or conflicts of interest.

4. Articles that celebrate the excesses of the 1 percent

This could also have been titled ‘Articles That Provoke A Toxic Brew Of Uncontrolled Mirth And Homicidal Rage.’ Write on the rich and fatuous all you want; just read your copy back to yourself before you publish.

5. Articles or projects that seem to have “Prize Bait” stamped on them. The telltale signs: These pieces are very long, very elaborate, and clearly the product of many months of work. So far, so good. But they seem overwrought.

I can live with this last one.

Now, to add to Sullivan’s list, here are a pair of grouses:

  1. An appalling Op-Ed page, which continues to underwrite a cottage industry of satire and parody and just plain straight-up ridicule. Cluelessness, banality, sophistry, bromides; they are all here. It still remains unbelievable that the Times–with the platform and resources at its disposal–cannot put together a better crew here. (The Times grants ample space on its Op-Ed pages to ‘experts;’ it has no plans to be a Vox Pop even as it seems to work toward that standing through its comments sections.)
  2. Despite the pride the Times takes in its area staff, readers with a background in the regions being reported on often find the Times’ coverage superficial and uncritical. In some areas of coverage–like the Palestinian crisis in Israel or the fraught India-Pakistan relationship–the resultant skewed analysis is damnably poor.

Neera Tanden And A Cultural ‘Obsession With Hierarchy’

Over at his blog, Corey Robin details an interesting Twitter spat with Neera Tanden–“the person who many think will be Hillary Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff….the head of the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party think tank that works closely with the Clintons.” Tanden is an arch-defender of Hillary Clinton–which is unsurprising given the passions political allegiances can inspire. But as I’ve observed her interactions on Twitter with those she considers foes, something about her defenses of HRC, the Democratic Party and its many shenanigans during the primary season, her own brand of ‘progressivism,’ her obsequious fawning over heads of state as contrasted with her snappy, brusque, interactions with journalists and bloggers, struck me as familiar, possessed of a distinctive and recognizable style. I finally realized where I had seen it before–in the Indian manifestations of the universal phenomenon termed ‘sycophancy.’ That in turn is rooted in a particular and peculiar Indian understanding of, and relationship with, social and political hierarchies.

In Being Indian (Penguin, 2004, pp. 7-21) Pavan K. Varma writes:

Indians are exceptionally hierarchical in outlook, bending more than required before those who are perceived to be ‘superior,’ and dismissive or contemptuous of those perceived to be ‘inferior.’ Understandably, notions of self-esteem and personal image, in conformity with perceived ‘status,’ are of great importance to them….the obsession with hierarchy, and the symbols that project it, is not a monopoly of officialdom….The structure of hierarchies may be changing, but ‘for an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative–(and the) automatic reverence for superiors is a nearly universal psycho-social fact.’¹  This acceptance of the hierarchy of power gives a particularly Indian colouring to the meaning and operation of modern concepts like democracy and equality.

To an Indian, the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. In order to preserve status, one has to be seen to be above those below, and below those above. There can be no ambivalence in these equations.

Tanden is Indian-American, the child of immigrant parents, and in her political identity–which like good anti-essentialists, we would expect to be a hybrid of sorts–she seems to have found a pitch-perfect blend of stylistic elements that are most relevant to the achievement of her personal and career objectives. In particular, from the Indian cultural predilection for deference to power and hierarchy–one reinforced by the Indian family structure with its overbearing emphasis on respect for ‘elders’ and essential conservativeness–Tanden has drawn on, and found, a fecund reservoir of political behavioral patterns.  Those–defer to superiors, defend your position in the hierarchy at all costs, smack those down below you–should help her in her steady ascent through these lower orders of being. The ruling class will settle for nothing less.

Note #1: Here Varma cites the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar‘s The Indian Psyche: The Inner World; Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors; Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p. 138.

Brexit, Shmexit: Schadenfreude And How The Old Eat The Young

Old habits die hard. I like watching England lose: in soccer and in cricket mainly, but I’ll admit to cheering for Napoleon too. (I morbidly continue to study the Battle of Waterloo, hoping again and again that that damn fool Grouchy will show up.) English self-destructiveness–think David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup, and the national self-flagellation that follows, has always provided great entertainment for distant observers.

And so it has been with some truly ghastly interest that I’ve followed the epic meltdown of the European dream’s English chapter: first, the Trumpish silliness of the Leavers’ rhetoric, which became remarkably unfunny once Jo Cox was murdered, and then, the apoplectic fury unleashed by the insanity of the final referendum results: fifty-two percent of the English population voted to turn their backs on Europe–perhaps to stand facing, all the more resolutely, an America which threatens to emulate their xenophobic, racist, nativist, populism.

But I stopped chuckling soon enough, for as in the US, it turns out the old will eat the young:

57 percent of Britons between ages 18 and 34 who intended to vote in Thursday’s referendum on the European Union wished to remain in the bloc….In contrast, an identical proportion — 57 percent — of Britons over 55 who intended to take part in the referendum signaled that they wanted to leave, Survation found.

European labor markets will now become more inaccessible to English workers, a fact which will not bother those who voted to leave, because the majority of those who did so had few years left in the workforce; in general, the economic and political costs of this vote–a stock market crash, a decline in the value of the pound–will be felt more acutely by those who have more years left to live with it.

Equally damaging is the signal that England sends to the rest of the world: that its politics has been captured by the mean and the narrow-minded, by the spiteful and the vicious. This morning, on Facebook, I quoted that old man, John of Gaunt, and his epic complaint:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Lamentations over the fall of England are, as can be seen, not new. But this paranoid pulling up of the drawbridge is especially astonishing when witnessed in its historic context: in an ever-more connected world, England, frightened by strange accents and brown faces, has voted for pathetic isolation, all the better to rummage about in corners, muttering vaingloriously about days of empire and exclusive Englishness.

Flood the Chunnel; form squares. The good old days are back.

Hiking The Devil’s Path In One Day: Because It’s There

The Catskills’ Devil’s Path is considered one of the Northeast’s toughest hiking trails–thanks to its 24.2 mile end-to-end length, elevation gain of nine thousand feet, its steep sections which require scrambling up rocks and tree trunks, and in the summer, its devilish lack of water.  Hiking it it one-day remains a serious challenge; yesterday my friends, Erik German and Steven Weinberg (the artist, not the Nobel Prize-winning physicist), and I hiked it in 17 hours and 30 minutes. Needless to say, I’m sore and tired. (So are they.)

We began on the hike on Wednesday morning after spending the night at Weinberg’s Spruceton Inn, which is conveniently located a short drive from the terminus point of the trail. Erik and I drove up the night before from Brooklyn, crashed at the Inn, and then awoke at 3:30AM to get organized. (We carried headlamps for the start and end of the hike, lots of snacks to keep ourselves fueled and to avoid the dreaded ‘bonk,’ some extra layers in case it got chilly, three liters of water each; I packed a pair of hiking poles as well.) We parked Steve’s truck at the Spruceton Road terminus, then drove in Erik’s car to the Prediger Road trailhead, which marks the starting point of the traverse. We began hiking at 4:45AM.

The Eastern section of the path (which runs into Route 214) is steeper, craggier, longer, and harder than the Western section. But the Western section is more hearbreaking because when you get to it, you have already done thirteen miles of hiking, which is a good day’s work by itself.  The long, steep, ascents have burst your lungs and loaded your quads; the breakneck descents into the notches have banged up your knees. (My hiking poles were of great help in the second half of the trail, by which time my left knee had started to complain.) And you’ve sweated several gallons of sweat.

Hiking the Devil’s Path in the summer means you get long hours of daylight; you also get warm afternoons and drenched shirts. We finished the hike at 10:15 PM, back at Steve’s truck, which we then drove in back to the Inn. (I can highly recommend using the Spruceton Inn in this fashion to facilitate your hiking of the Devil’s Path; the multi-talented Steven and Casey are wonderful hosts.)

Hiking the Devil’s Path in one day requires explanation. This is a trail that is most often done in two or three days. Hiking it in one day turns it into a test of endurance and patience; the body hurts, the mind grows a little numb. But when it’s over, what sweet joy. That sounds perverse, but it’s the same sentiment that underwrites most activities like this: you do them to see if you can, and then you bask in the glow of having done so. Food and drink tastes incomparably better; the world’s intractable tasks seem a little easier.

It does help, that in hiking the Devil’s Path with friends, you enjoy:  climbing five of the Catskill’s highest peaks, long walks on ridgelines and pine forest, many epic views from rocky overlooks, and best of all, their company and camaraderie on a strenuous task. I wouldn’t do the hike again–once is more than enough–but I’ll happily hang with this crew again.

Note: Steven Weinberg made a little ‘story’ about our hike. Check it out.

Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins

In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and The French Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. 121), Tony Judt writes of Albert Camus:

One of the things that he had to come to dislike the most about Parisian intellectuals was their conviction that they had something to say about everything, and that everything could be reduced to the kind of thing they liked to say.

Of the two intellectual sins made note of here, the former seems more forgivable than the latter. Moreover, it is not a specifically ‘intellectual’ failing (and certainly not restricted to only those that live within Parisian precincts); the desire to make our opinions heard on every topic imaginable seems a rather more universal striving. We are a loquacious species, prone to issuing a series of rich, detailed, reports on what we observe in both the inner and outer dimensions. We thrive on communication and theorizing, on seemingly endless chatter; even our silences are understood to be pregnant with meanings and are instantly analyzed as such. We valorize the novel and the personal essay–perhaps even the tweet and the ‘status’–and esteem their creators as among our finest. So long as this incentive scheme remains in place, those who speak and write will continue to hold forth, and with ever greater ambition.  When history and philosophy and autobiography cannot contain these strivings, they spill over into fiction. Or vice-versa.

The sin of indiscriminate reduction is another matter altogether. It insists on an unimaginative pigeonholing of our experiences into rigid, unbending templates; the rich multiplicity of possible perspectives vanishes into a monochromatic view.  Discourse–the supposedly unending stream alluded to above–narrows. The bit about the lack of imagination is crucial; it is reductionism’s greatest sin. It lazily insists on returning all conversations to the same terminus. Again, intellectuals are not the only ones to stand indicted of this failing, but their sin is greater. For they are supposed beneficiaries of education, that great ‘broadening’ of the mind; the ignorant’s failure to move beyond the confines of their illiteracy is more comprehensible.

If we had to extend our tolerance to these failings let us err on the side of generosity and encourage the possibilities of the former. Richer rewards await us there.

Note: The supposedly old saw about hammers and nails is, according to Wikipedia, possessed of a relatively recent academic etymology:

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966, page 15 and his earlier book Abraham H. Maslow (1962), Toward a Psychology of BeingI suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Similar concept by Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, 1964, page 28: I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

Labeled “Baruch’s Observation” (after Bernard Baruch) in The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection (1991) by Arthur Bloch.