Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone: A Climbing Lesson

This past Saturday, after falling, for the proverbially umpteenth time, off a climbing route at The Cliffs in Long Island City, I walked off, wondering yet again, this time loudly enough for gym staff members to hear me, whether it was worse to have never climbed a route in the first place or to keep failing at a route that you have climbed once before. (In case you were wondering, this was a route I had climbed once but have not been able to top out on since then; clearly, the stars had aligned on the day I had climbed it for the first time.) A young man who works at the gym yelled back at me, “The second one!”

He was right. As Cinderella pointed out a long time ago, all the way back in the long-gone eighties, don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And things get worse when you set off in pursuit again of ‘it,’ all the while possessed by a peculiar sort of anxiety: What if the good news I had allowed myself to believe turns out to have just been a beguiling lie? What if the clouds had merely temporarily lifted, allowing for a glimpse of the promised land, and then closed again, cruelly tantalizing and mocking? As my note about the possibility of the stars aligning on the first ascent indicates, maybe my first ascent was just me ‘getting lucky,’ a ‘fluke’ of sorts that said nothing whatsoever my climbing ability or skills. These repeated failures were confirmation instead, of my true incompetence in climbing, my ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ status; they were exposures of this impostor who had dared venture out and up on these climbing walls with their frustratingly distant, slippery, and small holds.  I was a fool to have ever imagined I could be any good at this; shame on me for having let myself believe such a falsehood.

When climbing a route that has remained elusive, I sense a virtuous effort at play; I can easily ascribe nobility to my striving; I have never succeeded here, but I think I can, so I must keep trying; again and again and again. My perseverance and its accompanying failure acquires its own particular grace. But when I’m climbing a difficult route I have climbed before I am beset, quite easily, by the doubts and anxieties noted above.

A task that is potentially repeatable, and yet non-trivial–like a climb–thus allows us to inspect this interesting variant of anxiety and self-doubt. The positive counterpart to these worries is well-known: if you’ve done it once before, you can do it again. But we all know that not to be true; sometimes we grow slower, less adept, less skilled; we can’t always do it again.

Such anxieties and the variants I make note of here, are not easily conquered. They do, however, confirm the wisdom of the adage of staying in the moment: enjoy each moment (each success on each route) while it lasts; it might not be yours again.

The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page Is An Intellectual Dark Web

The New York Times Op-Ed page has been an intellectual dark web for a long time. Few corners of the Internet can lay claim to both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, two of the most widely ridiculed, mocked, and parodied ‘thought leaders’ ever to have deigned to grace us swine with their pearls of wisdom; so extensive and ubiquitous is the scorn sent their way and so, correspondingly, entirely self-unaware is this pair that they continue to write on as before, unaware that they are now parodying themselves. The Times’ Op-Ed page also includes Maureen Dowd, who slipped into irrelevance during the Bush years, and only makes periodic, pitiful attempts to show up on readers’ radars–sometimes by penning unhinged rants about clueless consumption of marijuana edibles in legal jurisdictions. Then there is Sophist-in-Chief-And-Apologist-For-Religion Ross Douthat, whose rambling, self-pitying pieces about the marginalization of conservative thought by remorseless liberals have also settled into their own familiar and head-scratching template: see, liberalism, you so mean, you just shot yourself in your own foot while you thought you was picking out distant conservative targets.

And then, we have Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

I must confess to knowing little about these two writers before they were promoted to their own space on one of the nation’s most prominent media platforms; the former apparently distinguished herself by attacking the academic freedom of Arab scholars to criticize Israel, the latter by cheerleading for the Iraq War. But their settling down into the boring, predictable output emanating from the New York Times Op-Ed page was rapid enough, and Weiss’ latest offering cements her own particular corner in that outpost: a paean to those intellectuals who have thrown their toys out of the pram because they are not being recognized–it remains entirely unclear by whom–for the intellectual revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be. Here they are: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan etc. They have giant book deals, extensive media presence and connections, YouTube channels and podcasts whose audience runs into the millions; indeed, you might even imagine them ‘thought leaders’ of a kind. Their ideas are, sadly enough, disappointingly familiar: sexism and racism and the wonders of the free market find scientific grounding here, as do dark imprecations about the conceptual connections between particular religions and social dysfunction, and so on. No matter: what really unites the intellectuals is that they imagine themselves iconoclasts and pioneers and brave outsiders. And those writing on them imagine themselves to be similar intellectual heroes: they are, after all, speaking up on behalf of the rebels and outsiders and outliers.

A more depressing display of intellectual cluelessness cannot be imagined; the essay’s astonishing photo-spread, which showcases the various profiled ‘intellectuals’ in the act of getting caught peeing in the bushes confirms this assessment. The ‘intellectuals’ profiled by Weiss are not on the margins; they are right at the center, and they aren’t keen to share the spotlight with anyone; an elementary examination of their cultural placement would reveal this fact rather quickly. It is hard to know how this pitch was first made by Weiss; it is equally hard to fathom the editorial reasoning that led to its approval and to the final finished form.

Before Weiss is alarmed by the scornful response to her piece, she should remember that she is not being ‘silenced,’ that her ‘essay’ was published at the New York Times, and that, despite the writerly incompetence on display, she is not being sacked. She’s right where she belongs: on the intellectual dark web.

Academia As Pie-Eating Contest

Some wag once said that academia was a pie-eating contest in which the prize was more pie. The reason this evokes rueful chuckles from academics is that, like all good jokes, there is truth in this hyperbolic description. (The more gloomily inclined among us will recognize a deeper existential truth in here: life can all too easily feel like a treadmill.) You read, you write, you teach, you ‘conference’; if you are lucky, you get a job. Then you read and write and teach and ‘conference’ some more. If all goes well, you secure tenure and promotions. You’ve ‘made it.’ Then you continue reading and writing and teaching and conferencing–this last part can be especially pleasant if it involves travel to salubrious destinations. Some folks are considered ‘lucky’ if they can stop teaching and concentrate on reading and writing. (I’m leaving out, for the time being, all the gruesome administrative tasks that most academics find themselves saddled with.) This, I think, is where the bit about ‘more pie’ comes in.

If the reading and writing is going well–that is, if you are getting published in the ‘right’ places–you can count on more publishing opportunities: invitations to contribute to edited collections; proposals are read with more alacrity; journal acceptances magically become easier. Moreover, if there is one feeling an academic is extremely familiar with, it is the horrifying sensation of realizing that the moment a written work is ‘done’ another ‘must’ be commenced. Even those who have moved on beyond the supposed ‘publish or perish’ phase of tenure and promotion acquisition sense the ‘what have you done for us lately’ question directed at them. If you have ‘produced,’ you must keep ‘producing.’ Or run the risk of being condemned as ‘useless’ or sinking into a slough of self-loathing. Small wonder that most academics continue to feel unaccomplished even as they rack up impressive publication and research records.

Writing is hard, good quality research is hard. So whatever relief one might feel on having ‘turned in’ some substantial piece of written work, it is all too easily replaced by the sinking feeling that this whole grinding, excruciating, process must be repeated if one has a ‘rep to protect.’ A good piece of writing is a very tough act to follow and the academic might be excused for feeling some resentment at being expected to ‘perform’ all over again. (The suspicion arises that it might have been better to not have ‘performed’ in the first place.) The unfinished creative task is always a terrifying space; anxiety and self-doubt lurk among its environs and must be confronted time and again as we traverse it. Weariness is experienced all too often, all too easily. Why not just lay down the pen and call it a day? What if you have no more to say? Whence the expectation that a ‘seeker of knowledge’ must continue to seek his entire life?

Note: Similar considerations apply, I’m sure, in some variant or the other , to all other professions,

Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.

Robert Mueller And The Cruise Missile: Ready To Be Fired

All–especially my fellow American citizens–praise the cruise missile. This marvelous weapon, “a guided missile used against terrestrial targets…remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight path at approximately constant speed.” It is “designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high precision.” It can be launched off-shore from a ship, or from aircraft, obviating the need for the infamous ‘boots on the ground.’ The cruise missile allows foreign policy to be conducted from afar; no messy ‘contact’ with the ‘enemy’ is required. Launchings from ships typically take place at night, making for pleasing visuals tailor-made for display on the nightly news. There is something of the robot in the cruise missile; think of it as a self-driving car that likes to blow up other things. It is the modern saber; those who rattle it know its pleasing features all too well.  Patriotism and war-mongering might be last refuge of the scoundrel, but it is hard to resist the temptation to make war in the way that the cruise missile permits. US presidents are not the only ones seduced by cruise missiles; military planners the world over, going back perhaps to Adolf Hitler, whose fantasies most definitely included the legends V-1 and V-2, have long dreamed about winning wars by merely showering their enemies with enough cruise missiles to make other kinds of military intervention unnecessary.

Most crucially, a cruise missile only costs a paltry couple of million dollars, thus making it the ideal weapon for any US president looking to bolster sagging approval ratings, unite the country around a surge of patriotism and xenophobia directed at unnamed external enemies, or, if needed, divert attention from an ongoing special investigation that is starting to look inquiringly in the direction of hush payments made to a pornographic movie actress during an election season.

The coincidence of an FBI raid on Donald Trump’s lawyer’s office and a chemical attack in Syria offers the best chance for the President to have his turn at firing a few of these cruise missiles again. An American destroyer–one with approximately five dozen Tomahawk missiles on board–has moved into position off the coast of Syria, and the president himself, in acknowledgement of the Very Serious Situation in Syria, has postponed his official trip to Latin AmericaThe Trump administration fired cruise missiles at Syria last April; a year has gone by, and the president’s fingers must be twitching by now. A considerable privilege of the president’s office is the chance to play with expensive, high-precision weaponry, and for a man with the sensibility of an eleven-year old, firing cruise missiles only once a year must seem like slim pickings for such an exalted office.

The firings of these cruise missiles might, for good measure, be accompanied by the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News, that feeder of talking points, and indeed, entire scripts, to the Republican Party, has been beating the ‘fire Mueller’ drum for a while now. The Republican Party is well aware their base has been fed this line and is well prepared for the Mother of All Firings. So, I think, should be the American nation.

On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.