Sunday, December 25, 2011

Carol and me

Part 3/3 of Lady's story. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Carol and I could not stand there long, and we moved inside to lie down in her old bedroom and cry in each other's arms. At thirty-four years old, I am very old for this to have been my first real experience with death, which in part explains the strength of my own reaction. I knew Lady when she was healthy, when she got sick, and when she died. I knew her life story and all her relevant details. I couldn't say all these things for any person that I can recall, unfortunately. I had spent some time with my paternal grandparents when I was young, but I was living far away when they died, I had not seen them for years, and I was not able to travel for the funerals.

So it was a strange new sensation to realize there is tension at such a time, between caring for the living and the dead, or more properly, between caring for the bereaved and seeing that other people's needs are still met. Carol's father was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery, Lady needed to be put to rest, and Carol's brother and grandmother needed lunch. Carol is hit hardest, but it hurts me as well. I need to care for Carol, and Carol needs to care for others. I can help her, but I can not take over all her duties; she is the only one in her family fluent in English.

We took Johnson out for lunch, brought food home to Grandma, and took Johnson to visit Allen in the hospital, before returning to Lady. She had to be wrapped up for delivery to the humane society, but Carol and I were exhausted from the combination of grief and the tedium of having to continue caring for everyone else. Part of me could not bear to walk away from her bedroom and take care of business, but I was able to recall a pertinent phrase we have all come to recognize from novels and films: "We must care for the living." I suppose it is a good thing that such a phrase cannot be insistently and callously delivered, in the manner of Spock. My voice caught when I said it, but such reticence makes us human.

I wrapped Lady in a pair of towels and laid her in the back of my car. I was for the first time able to develop some sense of why we feel fear in connection with corpses. Perhaps it is merely an evolutionary advantage, as corpses carry disease, but that only explains selection, not how such a fear is constructed in the first place. I realized that for all my philosophical materialism, a mammal, a person, a pet, is still more than a thing to me, while it is alive. But I looked down at Lady as I struggled to wrap up her unyielding body, as I retched from the smell of her last messy bowel movement, and shook the drops of urine off the sheet I had temporarily wrapped her in, I realized that Lady was not in there any more, which meant that this thing was not Lady's body, it wasn't Lady at all. It was just a thing. And that was horrifying.

Her eyes, permanently fixed open, were unhelpful. They did not stare, they did not accuse me, but I realized that there is a practical reason I see people in movies quickly close the eyes of corpses the moment the anima is gone: you'll want it done eventually, for your own comfort, but if you wait for rigor mortis then it will be too late. And in my horror I realized the open eyes must have meant that Lady was awake when she died.

Oh, how I wish I had spent more time with her, that last night! How I wish I had just brought her to our house for the first time, on her last night alive, so she would not die alone in the cold. But how can you know? How can anyone ever know?

Beyond my inexperience with death, and my object lesson in it from having to care for Lady's remains, the other source of the intensity of my grief was seeing the effect of the loss on Carol, who I love. By the time we had finished all our duties to everyone besides Lady, and prepared her to be moved, it was 5 PM. The nearest humane society closed at 6, and had asked that we show up no later than 5:30 to fill out paperwork. As we rode in the car, Carol suddenly cried out: "I'll get you there in time, Lady! I'll do this one last thing for you! I won't let you down!" It is this least rational thing that she could say that has been the most moving moment of the past three days, and tears flooded my eyes, momentarily obscuring the other cars and the road from view. I do not think I can adequately explain it. Perhaps it is how such a loss can take away a person's reason. I do not know. I do not mean to say that I thought Carol foolish or stupid. Not at all - even if she actually believed on some level that Lady could hear her or that Lady could feel anything, such as the need to show up on time, that made no difference to me. It was simply a strangely eloquent and impassioned outpouring of her grief.

Carol spends her life making sure she doesn't let anyone down. She has organization, responsibility, punctuality, all those qualities I sneer at. But I confess I have been unkind to her in my thoughts. I have thought of her as not being very good at compassion, caring, human decency. I now realize how foolish I was. Carol didn't only take Lady on over one thousand walks in fifteen years because Lady was a comfort to her. Carol also genuinely cared about her pet's needs and wants and desires, and wanted to make her happy. Whatever her faults, she is a decent human being after all and I should have seen it all along.

The humane society was very busy and while the staff were clearly harried, they were still kind and helpful. Carol said her good-byes, they took Lady away, and we sat in the car for a moment. In the car in the space facing us, were two middle-aged women. One of them was holding a pamphlet. Please, no. As Carol and I sat there, one of them approached her window and knocked on it. I rolled down the window and the woman began speaking, saying she had lost her dog, too. I was pretty sure I could see where this was going, but I prefer not to assume the worst about people; I like to give them a chance.

Carol normally hates being approached by strangers, but she was telling the woman about Lady, so I made no objection and made a few polite noises. An awkward pause arrived, and to help prevent the woman from being a jerk, I said "well, we have to go." But she couldn't resist, and she produced the pamphlet, which made mention of a "virgin birth" on the cover. (Despite the fact that the virgin birth is a meme Christianity plagiarized from many previous religions and legendary figures, I don't think any other group has worked to hard so make it quite such a selling point. Not that I cared which particular superstitious nonsense this loathsome woman was peddling.) "You're being very rude. Taking advantage of a time like this to try to push your religion on someone," I admonished her. "I'm not... I wasn't..." she sputtered. "Good-bye," I helpfully offered, and she mercifully made an exit. She is, and she was. Should it have to take someone pointing it out for evangelicals to realize what a despicable thing they do, preying on the vulnerable? I recalled the words of Christopher Hitchens, who had left us less than a week before Lady. Religion, again, had poisoned everything.

The likelihood that all this comes off as a whiny tale of an overprivileged pair of Americans who have the luxury to lavish so much time and energy and emotion on a mere pet is not lost on me. In the Congo, in Syria, in Palestine, in Bangladesh, today, people are suffering. My girlfriend lost a dog, while human beings are living without freedoms I take for granted and they may lose their lives or the lives of their loved ones to violence and oppression. I know this. In this very country, blacks, women, gays, and transgender people face violence, and institutionalized discrimination; immigrants from the countries to the south face economic oppression, and white privileged guys like me and wealthy Taiwanese immigrants are blissfully unaffected. And yes, the beagle lived a long life. I don't mean to frame Lady's tale as a personal tragedy for me. What I mean to have said is that Lady helped me understand both life and death, and she helped avert Carol from thoughts of suicide and made her a better person.

I have not yet read Martin Rowson's humorously titled The Dog Allusion (referencing Dawkins' seminal The God Delusion), which argues, in part, that people should not keep pets, but it is no longer merely in the abstract that I see that Rowson is wrong - it is good for people to keep pets. It helps prepare us to be good parents, and it helps us understand death. I have come late to this experience, yet I benefit from it, and children surely benefit from it even more.

And now I understand grief better. Carol has repeated several times in the last few days: "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do..." This inspired me to realize, even as I was pointing it out, that "You are doing exactly what you are supposed to do. You don't have to do anything. You have to grieve. There would be something wrong with you if you didn't. I will take care of you."

I have had several very real opportunities in the past three days to play the part of Ricky Gervais in The Invention of Lying. Carol has made comments to the effect that she hopes that one day when she dies, she can see Lady again, and it breaks my heart. I never realized that the scene where heaven is invented could translate into real life so literally. Mostly I have been gracious enough not to respond to these entreaties, but I have gently said, at opportune moments, words like "I believe that Lady is gone, but she lives on in your memories. That is where Lady is now." For the past three days, Carol has mostly referred to Lady in the present tense, but finally, while she was falling asleep for the night, she made some fond comment in the past tense. I think she is beginning to heal, and I do not begrudge her intentions to keep Lady's ashes in an urn in the parlor, and to keep the shades in that front room always open. She will finally be inside, and she will like the sunlight. I understand that Carol merely wishes to be comforted.

I hope I have done well.

Lady and Me

Lady's story, Part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here.

On a Saturday this past September, the three of us all set out for a walk. Holding the leash, I started briskly, encouraging Lady to run, but before a couple dozen paces I realized her heart was not in it; she was barely keeping up with me, instead of the usual reverse. I slowed to a walk. Carol caught up with us and I remarked with surprise on the beagle's unusual restraint. I mused that Lady must finally be feeling her years - fifteen of them by now, and Carol agreed sadly. It turns out it had been a few weeks since she had last wanted to run.

At some point, past the halfway mark, and on the return trip, I noticed what appeared to be something odd on the side of Lady's neck. Carol removed the collar and we took a closer look. Something dry, fleshy and pink was protruding a full centimeter from the fur, but seemed to be part of Lady herself. I had no idea what it could be (in retrospect, it should have been fairly obvious, but who willingly summons such an explanation to mind?), but I thought that we should call a veterinarian without delay. She didn't seem to be in pain, so she didn't need to be rushed to emergency care, but we should probably call, get some information, and make an appointment. Carol called Allen and he agreed; a vet was contacted, and Lady was to come in Sunday, the following day. Lady's body was scanned and her blood sampled and whisked off to the lab for testing. On Monday, the tests came back: it was definitively cancer. On Tuesday, she had surgery and the tumor was excised.

Apparently, the scan had not revealed any other tumors, but Carol related that the vets had told her Lady might require chemotherapy in addition to surgery. Despite it not being my decision in any way, I said I thought that didn't sound like a good idea. Chemotherapy is an unpleasant experience, I opined, and a dog is not able to have the process or the reasons for it explained for them. I reasoned that Lady had lived long past the median life expectancy for beagles, and probably only had a year or two left even if she beat the cancer, so it didn't seem rational to make her suffer only to get a little extra time, whereas if she were, say, two years old, the tradeoff would have been worth it.

Most of this turned out to be officious, mansplaining blather. Chemotherapy was indeed recommended: five treatments over a few months. But, it turns out, animals receive a much lower dose than humans do. It is much less strenuous, and their hair does not fall out. She was out of the animal hospital within a couple days, and soon started her chemo regimen and resumed her walks with Carol. The vets said that Lady was "responding well" to the treatment.

Yet her running days appeared to be over. The new Lady was still enthusiastic about walking, digging, and sniffing, but she was more subdued. The vet said that she could be expected to live up to another year and a half. Somehow I didn't really think about how the distribution of probabilities was likely to look given such a low maximum life expectancy. Again, who likes to think about such things? (Randall Munroe is one statistics geek who has had to. Stephen Jay Gould was another.)

I went to an evening concert this past Monday, not far away in Altadena. I turned my phone on to check my messages at intermission, and received an unusual kind of message from my girlfriend. We had not had any recent discussion of Lady's condition, but the message abruptly and curtly stated:

 Taking doggie to the vet now. 1412 Huntington dr. Meet me there.

Carol rarely asks me for anything outright, and almost never simply issues a command. I am used to an elaborate dance around a subject before she asks for anything, and even then indirectly. For her to be so direct, and without any precursors, was a sign that this was an unusual circumstance and I should comply without question. I said my good-byes and sped to the emergency clinic. Lady could not walk; she refused to go anywhere, and she was being kept overnight to be diagnosed by a vet in the morning. On Tuesday, tests were done, and on Wednesday, the verdict was returned she had damaged the radial nerve in her right front leg.

Carol brought Lady back to her parent's on Wednesday night; apparently the job of diagnosing and delivering instructions on aftercare had been done, without anyone bothering to give an estimate on the chance of recovery, or the cause of the nerve damage. If it was trauma, it would be good to know that she could then recover, and advice on how to prevent any more injuries would have been helpful. If it was a degenerative nerve condition, then she'd never recover and euthanasia should be at least discussed. The relative merits of for-profit health care of any kind are worth considering here - I can only surmise that no one took initiative to discuss these things with the responsible party, because no one was being paid to, and it was easier not to.

Because Lady was still unable to walk, Carol made plans to move her in with us. Although she would have to sleep in the yard, neither of us minded that - our backyard is enclosed with a brick wall that an old dog cannot jump, and naturally we cared more about the Lady's recuperation than some torn up grass, if she even had the strength to dig. Staff at the clinic had said that a pet of her age and in her condition should be fed several times a day instead of once in the morning; I agreed to take on these duties.

Her cage was old and damaged, and we needed a lot of supplies for her recovery, so she was returned to Carol's parents' house for one more night; we would shop for supplies and a new cage the following day and transport her. She was not eating, perhaps due to nausea, so we were to administer an antacid. She was being kept close to the house now, in her transport cage for the night, with blankets draped over the top for the cold, and soft blankets and toys inside as well. As I opened the cage and called her name, she turned her head to me, but did not move. Even given her deterioration in the fall, this was a startling change from the dog I had known. Her fur was matted and dirty. I pulled her out and held her in my arms; she struggled a bit as Carol pried her jaws open, but relented after I tilted her head back and put the pill in her mouth, and she resignedly chewed and swallowed her medicine. Oh well, if you must. Not much I can do about it, is there? Despite this rather unpleasant treatment at my hands, after I replaced her in her cage, Lady looked at me and thumped her tail against the floor several times, and I felt a little less guilty as I replaced the sheet on top of the cage. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.

Carol's shopping list:
Sheets, Blankets
Pill Pockets
Pill Poppers
Protective Booties?
Dog Bath Shampoo

In the morning, we ate breakfast and returned to Carol's parents' house, hoping to get her to eat. As I approached the cage, I called out "Lady, the Tramp is here!" I did worry that she might be gone. I was whistling in the dark, a bit, as if my lame joke could make things better. I leaned down to pull back the sheet and opened the door to the cage. At the same moment that I reached for her, Carol burst out "Oh, no! Look, her leg!" Lady was not moving and did not react to us. I reached out and touched her belly; it was rigid, and I knew the worst. Her leg was pushed out the side of the cage, unmoving - surely if she had been alive it would have caused great discomfort to her and she would have tried to adjust her position. I give all these details because I could not bring myself to check her pulse or her breath.

I turned to Carol and shook my head slowly, stricken. At first her reaction was mild. "She could just go, like that, in her cage?" she said in disbelief. "Her belly is rigid," I said. Before long it fully sank in and Carol was wailing. "Lady, wake up! Lady, wake up!" she kept repeating, as we both cried and I held her.

Part 3 of 3: Carol and me

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lady and Carol

Carol and I began dating at the end of summer in 2009.  It was not long before I was introduced to her thirteen year old beagle, Lady, who lived behind Carol's family's house.  The decision had been made early on in Lady's puppyhood that it was not worth the effort to attempt to housetrain her - Carol's parents had their hands full with their business, Carol had her hands full with her junior year of high school, and the house's only other resident at the time was Carol's younger brother Johnson, who has Down Syndrome.  So an outdoors life for the beagle it was.  It may seem odd, then, that a decision would be made to acquire a pet at such a time, but Carol was battling depression, and her parents hoped that a faithful companion would be of some comfort.

They moved several times over the years, as the family business grew and prospered.  Despite an uncontrollable itching which Carol would experience whenever she spent time with her new pet, she walked her faithfully two or three times a week, quite willing to accept the inconvenience of needing a shower after every walk.  Allen, Carol's father, was responsible for feeding the dog every morning, and he would regularly take her for walks as well, although after he broke his leg in 2001, he scaled back his walking a duties a bit, out of concerns that the energetic animal's pulling on the leash might possibly trip him up and cause some recurrence of his injury.  Still, he walked her about once a week.  The rest of the household displayed little interest in the canine addition to the family, so Carol and Allen were the principal objects of Lady's affection.

As for Carol, she graduated from high school and briefly attended UNC Chapel Hill, but returned home and finished her studies at PCC and UCLA.  She hung around the house, depressed, playing video games as a distraction, not knowing how to find a feeling that her life was worth something, until she gradually became more and more absorbed in the family business.  She became quite good at it, eventually becoming accepted as an integral part of it, and offered an equal share of ownership.  She lost sixty pounds, delighting in her new figure.  The weight loss revealed the clear lines of a delicate jaw and elegant cheekbones.  Boyfriends came and went, one hanging around for six years.  Lady was with her for it all, their regular walks being the only constant of Carol's own choosing in her life.  Never one to connect much with her peers, or retain close friends, Carol instead confided in her digging, sniffing, leash-tugging companion, retelling her struggles, hopes and fears in Taiwanese to her British dog as they walked the local roads of the San Gabriel Valley together.

Carol and I met after the family had finally settled in Arcadia, where Lady's domain - oddly - was an unused, fenced-in tennis court in the backyard; I suppose the hard court prevented the wholesale uprooting of the lawn. (I recently inquired about this digging compulsion - "Did she ever find anything?"  But apparently her habit was merely to dig a deep enough hole to create a little shade for her to lie in.) A doghouse was set up inside, to protect her from the elements when necessary.  Clearly, the mild southern California climate made such an arrangement workable.

Early on I realized that Lady was not what I normally expected from a dog.  While not hostile or standoffish, neither was she particularly keen on being petted or played with.  She loved for her favorite people to take her for a walk - if you so much as picked up her leash, kept next to the house, she would immediately wake from dozing in her doghouse a hundred feet away, and come bounding across the court to pant eagerly by the gate.  But like an autistic child (I would know), she didn't feel a strong urge to interact directly with the people she loved, preferring simply to have them nearby while she was doing her favorite things: the aforementioned running, digging, and sniffing.  And she displayed interest in neither the friendly overtures nor the aggressive provocation from other dogs she'd meet at the dog parks or in yards she passed on her walks.  The running did get her in trouble a few times, once breaking loose from the median on Huntington Drive - running through traffic, fortunately unharmed, until a passerby rounded her up - and at other times, getting separated from Carol completely, but finding her way back home on her own, or wandering the neighborhood until being rescued by an impromptu search party.  For this reason, Carol would choose among a very short list of paths for their walks, knowing that the monotony might bore the dog a little, but reasoning that it gave her the best chance of finding her way home after one of these inevitable escapes.

This introverted beagle, more than just loving her walks, also experienced an indescribable anguish at the prospect of being deprived of them, as well.  I learned, after a couple harrowing experiences, that upon returning her from a walk, I could never walk back out through the gate; somehow this signified to the dog that I was going for a walk, but without her, and she would howl disconsolately for what seemed like an eternity.  If I re-entered the house through the back door, as Carol pointed out, the crisis could be averted.

Part 2: Lady and me
Part 3: Carol and me

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How Bethany Church helped me become an atheist

I have, on many occasions, been asked questions that carry a pile of false assumptions, and it is much more interesting to try to address the underlying misconceptions than to attempt to answer.  For example, "Why did you stop being a Christian?"  An important error there is the assumption that the rationale I gave when I decided I was no longer a believer is the same as the reasons I would give today.  "Why are you not a Christian?" is a better question, but I think there is an important issue that still needs to be addressed before launching into a discussion of this topic - and a discussion it must be.  There can be no short answer, because the question "Why are you a Christian?" rarely admits of a concise response, either.   I think religious people in general do have a wide variety of reasons they believe.  To stop believing requires much more than just one of these foundations of belief being challenged or even overturned.

As a side note, this is partly why I disagree with those atheists who say that arguments with the religious can never bear fruit, just because no one changes their mind just as a result of one conversation.  No, it takes many conversations, with many other thinking beings than yourself.  The general reluctance of nonbelievers to respond to proud, public affirmation of belief in absurdities surely must help to prop up the faith culture.

So, because I, like most Christians, was a believer for many reasons, not just one, it was also not for only one reason that I one day found I was no longer able to believe.  It can be a difficult process for the apostate to deconstruct after the fact.  The thinking person's loss of faith, by necessity, is not a conscious process.  It is no secret that religious belief, the more detailed and counterintuitive it is (American Christians may read that as "the more fundamental and evangelical it is"), requires active maintenance.  Because worship and prayer and church groups are all part of this act of rationalization and reinforcement via groupthink, a critical mind can find its path away from belief through immersion in the very culture that is designed to prop it up.  I am lucky in that my wariness of self-deception and desire for rationality served me well in this regard.  I do not claim credit, for I did not choose these traits - perhaps I am merely fortunate that there were books in my home and my preference for solitude and lack of access to video games led to enough reading to cultivate my mind.  (Ironically, C.S. Lewis and other apologetics featured prominently in this reading.)

I hardly intend to enumerate here my objections to faith, as more eloquent writers than I have tackled the subject at length in recent years, and they succeed in filling such tomes as "God: The Failed Hypothesis" and "God Is Not Great", which for all their concise language and clarity of expression, fail to be nearly as short as a blog post.  While my most mature and most central complaint, I think, would be over the lack of a valid epistemology for generating any beliefs about the supernatural, it recently occurred to me that part of my gradual process of rejecting Christianity was a most generous and unintentional gift from a speaker at a youth group meeting.

"God answers prayers," the speaker said with conviction.  Slowly and deliberately, ostensibly to denote profundity, he continued: "Either 'yes', 'no', or 'not yet'."  (I mean no offense to any particular youth pastor or guest, as I have forgotten who delivered this platitude.)  In retrospect, I am struck with horror at how such appalling stupidity was so frequently and solemnly inflicted on me at such meetings.  My reaction at the time was not nearly so severe.  I was simply made very uncomfortable by this pronouncement, as it did not take any great mental acuity to note that if this man's claim were true, then the world we live in would be, in that regard, indistinguishable from one ruled by a god completely indifferent to prayer.  I decided the speaker was wrong, but I was as of yet unaware that my faith was diminished.  The wall did not, and never did, fall at the sound of a trumpet - it took the work of many to tear it down.

Friday, January 21, 2011

a little gig

In my piano studies, both independent and formal, I have struggled a great deal with choosing repertoire. There are so many factors to consider - It is important to play to your own strengths as well as to your weaknesses. It is good to play music in a style that you do not excel in, as well as playing music in a style you know and love. It must not be too easy, and it must not all be too hard. And, as a relatively mature musician who performs from time to time, I consider it important that the the pieces can cohere as a program. This consideration, how a program, both in its individual selections and as a whole, appeals to an audience, how it must take them on a journey through different moods and styles, is the one I give the greatest weight, and the other considerations, while essential, have to fit into a scheme of programming a recital. Other factors such as preparing auditions, working on an etude, having a "party" piece as my teacher calls it, I think all fall under this heading of programming.

I played a gig today for the Pasadena Women's Club, with my excellent violist friend Camille. (Unclear? No worries, she is both an excellent violist and an excellent friend.) In choosing what to play, and the order in which to play it, I was inspired by the French composer Alkan's opus 76 - three etudes, the first for the left hand alone, the second for the right hand alone, and a grand finale for the hands united. We each would play a solo piece before delivering the coup de grace together. I got more inspiration from attending an LA Phil concert conducted by Salonen - a program of Hindemith and Wagner. The second to last piece on the program was the Magic Fire Music, which is grandiose and deeply moving to the point of leaving the listener feeling quite spent. By the time singer Bryn Terfel returned to the stage for the third round of applause and the audience began to stand in appreciation, Salonen realized he had to reign us in, and launched into his clever preparation of an entr'acte from Lohengrin, which was delightfully light, but being Wagner, not a complete non sequitur. It was a very pleasant way to come down from the emotional heights of the Fire Music.

So that experience helped me develop the form of today's thirty minutes of music: Camille opened with the first two movements of Bach's G major cello suite (transposed up an octave for the viola, of course), I then played the Impressionistic "Jeux d'Eau" by Ravel, then we joined forces in the centerpiece of our performance, Telemann's viola concerto in four movements. After the rousing, joyful Presto finale, we closed the concert by bringing them down with Saint-Saen's The Swan. Then we were treated to one of those pleasant moments when the applause continues longer than you, as an performer, were expecting, and the realization dawns that your listeners feel they've been treated to something special, and we bowed a second time. It was a brief moment, lasting less than the time I took to write this paragraph, but it felt good.

Now what remains will surely be a fulfilling weekend - Pasadena Symphony tomorrow afternoon, LACO tomorrow night, and chamber music at Caltech on Sunday!  I'm starting to think Los Angeles might be an acceptable place to live after all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It finally happened

It was bound to happen eventually, as I've already tried, and been foiled by the locked door. Saturday night I got into the wrong Prius, belonging to a stranger. "Hey, the seat is farther forward than I left it... Huh! Did I leave the car unlocked? Let me check and see if my stuff is missing. Oh cool, not only is my stuff not missing, I have extra stuff! Oh."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Psychosis and the problem of metaphorical violence

This weekend, a young man opened fire at a public event hosted by Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords at a Safeway in Tuscon. Giffords was shot and is in intensive care. Six are confirmed dead, including a federal judge who just happened to be stopping by, and a nine year old girl who had just been elected to her student council and wanted to meet Giffords.

The shooter, Jared Loughner, is clearly mentally deranged, as evidenced by the weak grasp of basic reasoning he displayed in five text-only youtube videos, mostly consisting of syllogisms with weird axioms. Many on the right wish to insist that this disturbing ad has nothing to do with Saturday's events. Same for this.

I think that there is evidence supporting a connection between them. It is at least clear that he wanted to target Giffords, as it was a "Congress on Your Corner" event she was running, and he was aware of the number of his Congressional district, unlike most Americans, so he probably knew who his representative was, unlike most Americans.

I think it is also clear he identified more with the American political right than with the left. He clearly picked up several words from the media, using them frequently without displaying any understanding of their actual meanings, in particular I note "currency" and "unconstitutional". He complained that people in his district did not know "English grammar". He declared that he would not use a currency that was "not backed by gold and silver". These are conservative positions on the gold standard and apparently on immigration.

Objectively, it appears that he was unsuccessful in life and did not know who to blame. He made a cryptic remark about being "unable to find the subject" - in light of his disdain for his non-English speaking neighbors, it seems he was bitter about his own inability to understand grammar at the technical level; he quickly followed it up with an observation that "most students can't find the subject". He was upset about paying fees at a community college, and insisted that charging fees to students at a public college was unconstitutional. Perhaps he thought that by changing money, he could somehow fix his money problems. He seemed to have a cognitive error which many if not most people fall prey to - seeing agency in self-organized, bottom-up systems. It's an error magnified by the conspiracy theorist, and running rampant in a schizophrenic.

How his station in life, which he perceived to be imposed on him from outside, rather than due to his mental illness and how it hampered his ability to benefit from his education, led him to the attempted assassination of his representative in Congress, I doubt can ever be fully explained. But the behavior of psychotic people doesn't admit of consistent rational explanation. Reportedly he is being "uncooperative" in custody, i.e., he is not talking. Perhaps he was satisfied that his act would draw attention to his videos, which are barely comprehensible, but which are, in his mind, revolutionary.

I do not claim that his political views and SarahPAC's ad constitute a smoking gun that should legally implicate Sarah Palin in Saturday's shootings. But I do claim that the rhetoric of violence as metaphor is a problem. People like Jared Loughner do have access to guns, as libertarians and political right want to ensure that they do. The ability to read violence as metaphor is something that a sane person with a grasp of cultural and social norms brings to the advertisement; it is not found in the advertisement itself. For this reason, different metaphors must be used, and I am concerned that we accept the imagery and language of violence as a norm, and that lobbyists and lawmakers as of yet see no need for a legislative solution.

If Sarah Palin and her PAC see no connection between their actions and Loughner's, why was it necessary to quickly remove the ad from their site after the shootings? Why do they suddenly feel the need to expedite the disappearance of violence-inciting tweets into the memory hole?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

top ten?

Camerata Pacifica's Facebook page recently drew to its followers attention an - ostensibly incomplete - article by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, concerning how one might tabulate a list of the top ten greatest composers of classical music. While I do see the point of such an endeavor, it is one which I would be neither qualified for, nor particularly interested in attempting. Surely Bach and Beethoven would be near the top of the list. But to make such a list I'd have to set aside personal taste, and approach the matter from a purely academic perspective. And the primary reason I listen to music is for emotional stimulation. Certainly, greater understanding of style, form, and theory has informed and enhanced that enjoyment, but I would be terribly bored to spend much time trying to use that angle to share my love of music with a fellow human. (And if the goal of such a process, undertaken by a connoiseur, isn't to share, what would be the point at all?)

But I could make a list of roughly ten composers I most enjoy listening to, which is quite another thing than a scholarly perspective. I love music from the Romantic period, and I mostly like solo piano, chamber, and orchestral music. So, something like Chopin, Schumann, Sibelius, Brahms, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky. That's nine. Bach and Beethoven can fight it out for the tenth spot, but the places of the other nine are secure.

I note that I love art song in English and I like a lot of 20th century music that I've heard, but I'm not well-versed enough in these areas to include an important composer of either among my favorites, besides Ravel. This must be remedied.