Midway Along the Journey (on Growing Up with Dante)

It’s always fun to revisit an old copy of a great book – the snarky notes and shaky underlines function sort of like a photo album or journal, providing interesting insight on a younger self’s heart and mind. It’s also interesting to ask, “how has this changed me?” As with friends and experiences, I have been changed by certain books.  

Most recently, the great book that’s been on my mind is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Rod Dreher, one of my favorite contemporary writers, speak at my alma mater on the topic of his latest book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. Naturally, this got me in the mood to crack open my copy of the Divine Comedy, which I originally read as a freshman in college. I’ve been reading a couple of cantos before going to bed each night for the past week or so, and obviously I’m reading it through a much different lens than I did when I was in college. Eventually, there could be a blog post about that, but for now, I’d like to think about all of the ways that Dante has changed me, and the things in this text that have stuck these past five-ish years.  Continue reading →

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The Keurig, the Chemex, and Dietary Gnosticism

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There’s no way that anyone could be that happy while drinking instant coffee.

 

Over this past holiday season, I found myself in the coffee-machine sections of several retailers, in search of an espresso maker to give my mom. None of these stores had what I was looking for, instead, their shelves were well-stocked with assorted variations of Keurigs, Nespressos, and the accompanying accessories.

For those who may be unaware, a Keurig is a coffee-making device that is designed for convenience. There’s a small reservoir which users fill with water every couple of days, and coffee – which comes in pre-measured little pods (“K-cups”) – is dispensed in seconds through a small valve. Clean-up is a breeze – when you’re done, all you need to do is throw away the used plastic pod.

If the Keurig is at one end of the coffee-making-device spectrum, then the Chemex is at the other. For those who may be unaware, a Chemex is a glass vessel that is designed for making pour-over coffee. The coffee itself needs to be ground a certain way, and carefully measured (usually with a scale). The water needs to be heated separately, and brought to a specific temperature. When it’s just hot enough, it’s carefully poured in concentric circles over the coffee. The water-to-coffee ratio is important, and varies depending on the coffee itself; one coffee shop I frequent keeps their Chemexes on little digital scales, so they know exactly how much water they’ve added. The coffee slowly drips into a glass basin, and is served immediately. Continue reading →

LOL

B6wLoAvIEAAMZED

French designer Jean Jullien’s tribute to those lost in the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

 

Last week, people died because of some jokes: five cartoonists, defending their work, and over a dozen others, collateral damage in a grotesque war. Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, in a bit of bravery that has been quoted dozens of times in the past several days, once said that “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

A lot of people have trumped what has happened in France up to freedom of expression. That’s not not true, but at the end of the day, Charlie Hebdo is satire, and the cartoonists and their colleagues were murdered over punchlines.

Jokes could be vain, extraneous to society’s real work, a mere luxury or distraction. Or, as Charbonnier seemed to believe, they could be worth dying for. Continue reading →

Reading Writing for Men

I recently enjoyed a long, relaxing weekend down the shore. At some point over the course of that weekend, I exhausted my supply of reading materials, and turned to our household’s collection of magazines. After reading through all of the People Real Simples, I found myself perusing a stack of Men’s Journals. I swear, I was reading them just for the articles – most of which weren’t particularly relevant to me. However, I did enjoy the recipes and a riveting and helpful article about riptides.

What I found most interesting during this trip into a subculture of which I am not a part was the style of writing. In general, it was very macho, even brutal (barbaric?). The articles largely had to do with body image and other ways to live up to a certain kind of masculinity. At times, I was left a little stunned and offended.

What a guy.

What a guy. (The July 2014 issue is available on newsstands!)

For the most part, the media that I consume, even if it is geared toward a particular gender demographic, is not so blunt. The articles, blogs, magazines, and TV shows that I enjoy hardly ever talk about what it means to be a “real man” or “real woman.” To the contrary, it seems that most media created by and for millennials seeks to ignore or even undermine traditional gender roles. So it was a little jarring for me to encounter something that claimed to be for “men,” but was clearly meant for those who had a very specific set of interests (mainly meat, dark liquor, and working out – all of which are fine pastimes for all who wish to enjoy them, male or female).

And to open up a can of gender-worms (ew, what?), it was helpful for me to think about the modern conception of masculinity. Our society talks a lot about gender roles as they apply to women, in an effort to empower us, I think. We think and talk about what women can and can’t do, where women do and do not belong, what true beauty looks like, etc. That’s all fine and good, and I largely appreciate it. But as much as we talk about femininity, what about masculinity? Reading through that Men’s Journal, I thought about the guys I know and how most of them probably wouldn’t find most those articles very interesting. That doesn’t make them less masculine or more feminine or whatever, it just means that their interests lie beyond meat, dark liquor, and working out.

What does it mean to be a man in this day and age? What does it mean to be a woman? I don’t know, and I don’t think there is, or should be, a clear answer here. I think our culture is realizing that it’s much more interesting and important to think about what it means to be a (good) person, and that’s encouraging.

It’s totally fine for media agencies to produce content for specific demographics (obviously). But maybe we could take those really general terms out of the titles. Rename it Meat Journal, perhaps.

Learning to Love the World’s Favorite Pastime

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This was the moment that I realized soccer players are basically superhuman.

Last week Ann Coulter wrote a grotesque and loosely humorous column bashing soccer (not going to hyperlink it because I don’t want to associate with her more than necessary. Google it if you want). I read it over once or twice, and realized that, if her reasons were rephrased a little bit and with a better and very different attitude, her column could actually serve as an argument in favor of soccer. And after watching snippets of a few World Cup games – including our unfortunate loss to Belgium yesterday – I’ve come to appreciate the sport quite a bit. So, I thought I’d try to rewrite Ms. Coulter’s essay, and reflect on why America is joining the rest of the world in being obsessed with the sport.

Here we go:

1. Soccer is communal. It’s a team sport where players are constantly aware of everyone on the field. One of the things that I’ve been really impressed and intrigued by while watching the World Cup is how teammates relate to one another and their opponents during the game. These guys are able to pass the ball back and forth to one another across a field, while avoiding opponents, without looking – all in the course of literally a second or two. During gameplay, it’s like team is operating under some sort of collective over-mind. And, rightly so, teams rise and fall together. During those 90+ minutes, it’s not about any individual’s career of failures, but the team’s.

2. Everyone plays soccer. To play, all you need is a ball, some land, and something to mark the goal posts. For the billions of people in the world that don’t have access to lacrosse sticks, football pads, baseball gloves, swimming pools, and other various athletic paraphernalia, it’s the ideal sport. I assume this is why soccer is so wildly popular abroad, and why it has managed to transcend so many borders (geographic, socioeconomic, racial, etc.). I can’t think of any other cultural phenomenon that gets so many different people as riled up as soccer does, and it’s amazing to see them come together in recognition of this diversity.

3. Soccer is fast-paced and exciting to watch. Even in a low scoring or tie game, the ball hardly stops moving. And unlike in football or baseball, the clock rarely stops. Players don’t really pause between plays and regroup, they just keep going. Once a game gains momentum, it just keeps building.

4. America lost. In the Olympics, the economy, and most wars, it’s typically assumed that the U.S. is going to come out on top. Not so in the World Cup. It’s nice to be the underdog for a little bit, in part because it’s fun to root for the underdog, and also because it’s good to be reminded that despite our confidence and patriotism, we’re not actually the best.

5. Players can’t use their hands, which means that they need to engage the rest of their bodies in ways that I find astounding. The level of coordination and bodily awareness that these guys have is incredible, and their ability to make split-second decisions is something that you don’t see very often in any other sport, industry, etc. (at least not to this extent).

I’m looking forward to continuing to catch snippets of World Cup games over the next couple of weeks, and I’m even more excited to cheer on Team USA again in 2018. In the meantime, I hope that America’s enthusiasm for soccer outlives the hype of the World Cup. Caring about this sport brings us into the rest of the world, keeps us humble, and enables us to encounter a truly amazing kind of athleticism.

Viral Justice

STJfvaeEIf you’ve been pretty much anywhere on the internet in the past week or two, then you’ve probably seen something about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, or the similarly significant #RealMenDontBuyGirls. Maybe you’ve read about how Ann Coulter tried to troll the former hashtag but failed, or how the latter was really a campaign started by Ashton Kutcher years ago. Maybe you’ve even read a little bit about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, or learned something new about human trafficking.

What I haven’t seen out there is anything questioning whether or not this is the best way to go about bringing back these girls or preventing men from buying them. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to use these hashtags or that people shouldn’t do it – I’m just kind of amazed how everyone seems to be using them, without question (except Ann Coulter, but that’s different). And yeah, I’m a little skeptical. If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that I haven’t used either of these hashtags, even though I fully support everything they stand for.

I guess I’m processing this a little bit – that is, the role that social media plays in solving deeply nuanced problems of justice. I like to call what’s taken place over the past couple over the past couple of weeks “viral justice.” Here, a significant social problem has gone viral the same way that a meme or a video of a funny cat might. This isn’t the first time that this has happened, and I think the assumption is that taking to social media to write about (or, hashtag about – is hashtag even a verb? Did I just make it one?) social justice will raise awareness of issues and ultimately help in solving them. Last year I attended The Justice Conference here in Philly, and there were multiple seminars about how nonprofits and activists can use Twitter in their efforts. So this is serious business, and now is as good a time as any for me to think through this a little bit, and what it means for us as individuals and a society. For the sake of organization, I’ve made a pro-con list (classic).

Things that are great about this kind of viral justice:

It’s raising awareness of huge social problems. Through this crisis in Nigeria and the resurfacing of the #RealMenDontBuyGirls campaign, I hope that tens of thousands of people now know a little more about human trafficking – namely, that it exists, and it exists everywhere. I don’t think I knew about this issue until I got to college, and even then it was only because I attended a school that cares a ton about justice issues. For those that aren’t in the loop about such problems, I hope Twitter and all this media hype is shedding some light on one of the world’s darkest secrets.

It’s bringing people together in an unprecedented way. Leave it to social media to shrink our big, diverse world. It seems like every decent person with access to a smartphone is demanding that Boko Haram #BringBackOurGirls, regardless of where they’re from, who they pray to, and how much power they have. I can’t think of another time – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a global crisis – where this many people have united so smoothly, with hardly any controversy or debate. I love that celebrities, politicians, and normal people all over the world have a way to come together during this sad and scary time. It demonstrates that at the end of the day, we’re all ontologically good and want good things for our world.

Things that make me second guess this kind of viral justice:

Is it really activism? Maybe this is what justice-work looks like in 2014, but I’m not convinced that using a particular hashtag will convince terrorists to release their victims, or world leaders to go after those terrorists (but if it does – wonderful!). And – here’s a predictable critique – it’s really easy to press “send” on a tweet when the people who are really suffering here are on the other side of the world. I don’t know what better or more tangible activism would look like here – I’m not about to go after Boko Haram myself, so maybe tweeting is better than nothing.

What about all those other justice issues that don’t go viral? To be sure, 276 kidnapped children is a really big deal, and this justice issue should probably get a little bit more media attention than others, at least for now. But aside from this, it seems like certain issues of justice have a fad-like appeal to them – they become trendy, or in season. When they’re no longer trendy, it’s rarely because the issue just went away. And in the meantime, what about all of the other problems that are happening in this broken world?

Is social media distracting us from empathy? 276 kidnaped children are in the hands of terrorists – some, if not all of them (God forbid), have probably been sold as sex slaves. How should one react to this chilling fact, and the kind of evil underlying it? It’s really easy to post a (public) tweet or status rallying folks to #BringBackOurGirls and then move on with our days, without much thought or empathy. But 276 children are missing, and we should be mourning, praying, and feebly trying to imagine what they and their families are going through. We can’t fight terrorists, but we can empathize with victims and try to recognize evil for what it really is. And we should let this – the brokenness of our world – affect us deeply, in a way that a hashtag doesn’t satisfy.

So, I’m leaning towards thinking that tweeting about social justice issues might not be the best way to solve them. But if everyone’s going to do it anyway, then I sincerely hope that something good becomes of it. Maybe I’ll even join them. Whatever it takes to #BringBackOurGirls.

Reflektor & The Present Age

Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, dropped in October 2013 – yes, it’s a little late in the game to be writing a commentary on it. Sorry. But I ended up at one of their concerts a while back and I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since then.

On our way home from that concert, my brother informed me that Reflektor has been called something along the lines of “a love story in the digital age.” Intriguing, yes, but I think that there’s actually a little more going on here than just that. The particular lyric behind all this speculation, and the album’s name, is “we fell in love in the reflective age” (from the title track, “Reflektor,” emphasis mine). This phrase felt familiar, and that’s because Arcade Fire didn’t coin it – nineteenth century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did.

In his essay/book review Two Ages, Kierkegaard contrasts what he calls “The Age of Revolution” and “The Present Age.” Compared to the action-packed age of revolution, Kierkegaard laments the present age’s excessive introspection and lack of passion, calling it “a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence” (68). People in the present age are constantly – possibly cyclically – reflecting, calculating, critiquing, and deciding, but rarely doing. “Everyone is well informed,” he says, “we all know everything, every course to take and the alternative courses, but no one is willing to take it” (104).

In the present age, public life is largely superficial. Fearing silence, people gossip and analyze, and individuals avoid standing out as to not become the subject of reflection and chatter. No longer a part of the public, the individual intentionally becomes a “nobody.” Kierkegaard considers the ways that the present age affects the individual, society, truth, and knowledge in a way that is profound and prophetic.

But Kierkegaard doesn’t say much about love. As interesting as his commentary is, I wonder what he would say about interpersonal romantic relationships in the present age. This is where Arcade Fire comes in, because I think Reflektor touches upon this in an important way. The problematic patterns that Kierkegaard originally described have only intensified in the centuries since he wrote Two Ages. Technology allows us to spend less time attending to meeting basic needs, freeing us up to be more reflective than ever before (24-hour news cycles, social media, personal blogs, and the like are simultaneously catalysts for and products of this reflection). This is why I find Reflektor so compelling and important.

So what is it to be in love in the reflective age? Throughout this album, we encounter two lovers who are just trying to hold on. But will they? Can they?

Questions pierce the quiet moments of the present age, resulting in uncertainty and instability. The two lovers are unsure about who they are and where they stand, and their questions speak to this.

Oh, when love is gone, Where does it go?
“Afterlife”

Will I see you on the other side?
“Reflektor”

She said, “Well how do I know, When I know, When I know?” You already know.
“You Already Know”

They are extremely conscious of themselves and their relationship, and how unstable it really is.

Our song escapes on little silver discs,
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits.

“Reflektor”

We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age,
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age, 

“Awful Sound”

The album culminates with a duet of songs – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – which retell a tragic myth in the present age. Like the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice, these reflective lovers are now anxiously and desperately trying to restore what they had.

He says to her:

 You were born in the little town
Before the awful sound started coming down
There’s so much inside you that you won’t let me see
You fly away from me, but it’s an awful sound when you hit the ground
It’s an awful sound when you hit the ground.
“Awful Sound”

And assures him:

We’ll wait until it’s over
Wait until it’s through
You say it’s not me, it’s you
“It’s Never Over”

And then together, we hear them descend into a cyclical conversation of assurance and uncertainty, assuring each other that “you will get over,” even though “it’s never over.” Ultimately, they reminisce and lament:

We stood beside
A frozen sea
I saw you out
In front of me
Reflected light
A hollow moon
Oh Orpheus, Eurydice
Its over too soon.
“It’s Never Over”

The remainder of the album, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry,” shows them trying to work things out, but ultimately wondering about what happens when love is lost wonders about what happens when love is lost. The album ends with the chilling lyrics:

It’s been a while since I’ve been to see you
I don’t know where, but you’re not with me
Heard a voice, like an echo
But it came from you.
“Supersymmetry”

I’m not sure that Reflektor is trying to teach us how to maintain or restore love in the present age. Instead, it gives us a glimpse of that reflective anxiety and how it affects individuals and those closest to them. We see what happens when love is simply abstract and breakable, and insecurity is consuming. It’s tragic, and it’s over too soon.

What do these two have in common?

Barbie + Doryphorus

Barbie and her Greek friend.

One is a renowned piece of ancient art, the other, an increasingly controversial children’s toy.

First released in 1959 by Mattel Inc., the Barbie doll is now a ubiquitous part of American culture. Available in over 2,000 different editions, over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries. The Barbie is typically made of synthetic plastic, and is primarily found on the shelves of toy stores and in little girls’ playrooms.

Around 440 BC, the Greek sculptor Polyclitus crafted Doryphorus (“spear carrier”). The original sculpture has since been destroyed; the one pictured above is a Roman copy. Originally made of bronze, this ancient copy is in marble. It is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Coming from opposite ends of history, these artifacts share one central value – they are depicting the ideal human body.

Polyclitus was an expert in human proportion, however, this work was (intentionally) disproportional. He probably was not depicting a particular spear carrier that he knew. Instead, he was imagining what the body of the perfect spear carrier might look like – the best shoulder width, height, arm length, and (for aesthetic reasons) head size. Everything about Doryphorus is a bit off, on purpose, and consequently we see a very handsome man. He looks capable. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the left arm and leg are being held up by extraneous bits on marble – the limbs don’t support the weight of the rest of the body.

The Barbie doll’s inaccurate proportions has been a great source of criticism for the toy. The dolls certainly don’t stand on their own, and, if she were a full-grown living person, her slender extremities would not support her long torso and oversized head. She would also be dangerously – perhaps, fatally – underweight, given her above-average height.

People care a lot about how Barbie dolls can and do negatively affect young girls‘ perception of themselves and their body image – this is a really good thing. And it’s a really good thing that our society is having this conversation now.

However, I’m really fascinated by the fact that basically as long as we as a human race have been portraying ourselves, we have been portraying ourselves inaccurately and ideally. It makes me wonder if, just like little American girls might wish they had blonde hair and blue eyes, little Greek boys wished that they had bigger heads and longer legs. Furthermore, it makes me think that no matter how much we criticize Barbie, or how many average-looking dolls we buy, the human race will still always portray ourselves as “better” than what we ever can actually be. Maybe it’s in our nature.

What do you think? Is the desire to see ourselves as something we’re not just in our DNA? If so, is fighting it a losing battle?

What I Will Never Ask My Future Children

When I was about six years old, I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to have all of the jobs, expect whatever it was that my mom did, because her job seemed boring and sometimes she didn’t come home until after dinner. This career ambition was, of course, ridiculous and childish (I was six), but I remember feeling pressure (I was six) from teachers, books, Sesame Street, etc., to settle on a plan for my distant future, so I decided to go with something that covered all my bases.

Looking back on this, I’ve decided to make one of those funny declarations that people without children make so easily: I will never ask my future children what they want to be when they grow up.

To be sure, I certainly want my unborn children to have dreams and ambitions. I just don’t think we have any business expecting someone who was recently potty trained to articulate how they wish to spend their adult life.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because we live in a culture where discontentment is the norm. Boredom comes easily to us and we need constant change and stimulation. One of the ways that this manifests itself is in the prevalent need to have something to look forward to – an event, milestone, accomplishment, whatever. In constantly looking toward the future, sometimes we lose interest in the present. Children might be the exception to this: they’re not really thinking long term, and they shouldn’t be. I want to form my children in such a way that they are comfortable being content with the present.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because their teachers, books, and Sesame Street will already have already nagged them about this, and I know that they will continue to get that question a lot once they’re teenagers and young adults. We spend our entire youth dreaming about adulthood and when we finally get there we discover that it’s not a dream come true – it’s real life, and it’s actually kind of mundane. In our twenties and thirties, we probably won’t be working at our dream jobs or making a huge difference in the world. Objectively, that’s totally fine, but it’s hard to avoid disappointment – this is what I’ve been looking forward to since I was six?

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because I want them to know that there is so much more to life that one’s career. If they never get their dream job, or never even figure out what their dream job is, I don’t want them to feel that existential anxiety that millennials are so prone to. While I won’t ask them what they want to be when they grow up, I might ask them what kind of house they want to live in, or what kind of pets they want to own, or where they might go on vacation, or what kind of Christmas traditions they’d like to have with their future families. Because all of these things are important too, and in a culture where jobs often dictate lives, we rarely encourage kids to dream about domesticity.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because while I don’t care very much about which college they go to (if any) or which career path they follow, I am extremely interested in what kind of people they turn out to be. I want them to be the kind of people who invest in their communities, love well, and do everything – at work, at home, at the grocery store, everywhere – with excellence, because these things are far more important than what is listed on their resumes.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because I am not working at my dream job, I’m totally okay with that, and it’s way more fun to think about what kind of crazy ambitions I have for my future family than it is to think about the next step in my career.

Coca Cola and American Exceptionalism

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Some happy Americans partaking in a favorite American pastime – drinking Coke out of a glass bottle.

Every once in a while, an embarrassing controversy arises on America’s airwaves. It usually starts on social media, makes its way into the headlines, and soon enough, commentators and politicians are adding to the noise. This time around, the controversy was sparked by Coca Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, which premiered during the Superbowl and by now probably has tens of millions of views across the internet. For those of you who haven’t yet seen this touching piece of marketing, the controversy is that the ad features “America the Beautiful” being sung in seven different languages.

But here I am, contributing to this controversy by having and voicing an opinion about it. Don’t worry: I have no interest in trying to get you to either boycott Coke or go out and buy a few cases of it. This post has nothing to do with America’s favorite soft drink, and everything to do with a popular cultural myth. (For the record, I prefer Coke over Pepsi and beer over Coke).

The root of this controversy is the widely held belief in American Exceptionalism – that the United States is set apart from all other nations, superior to them all, and on a global scale, viewed as an example of political and cultural righteousness. The language of Exceptionalism pervades our political rhetoric, but most serious academics scoff at it as a kind of American mythology. Both sides of the Coke controversy are representing two aspects of Exceptionalism – which is why no one is right here. Except Coke, who is getting all of this free publicity.

One of the tweets that surfaced after the ad premiered, criticizing it, said something along the lines of “Being an American is an honor.” I actually laughed out loud at this one. While being an American could be considered a privilege, it is certainly not an honor, especially for those of us who just happened to be born here. Native born, English-speaking Americans did nothing to earn their citizenship. The United States, like many other countries, is a place where some people are born and others move to. It is not an accomplishment.

But the other side of American exceptionalism, which is also the other side of this controversy, is also problematic. Coke’s sentiment here is really tempting – I’m proud to be an American, and I’d rather live in a country that’s diverse than one that’s not. But just because people speak a variety of languages, honor their ethnic customs, and drink Coke doesn’t mean that the United States is inherently better than any other country. Our nation’s diversity is just one of those things that makes us different from others, just like another country’s ethnic homogeneity makes them different from us. Like people, every nation is unique, and, as with people, uniqueness does not indicate superiority.

America is different, just like Somalia, India, and the Philippines. And America is beautiful, just like Somalia, India, and the Philippines. We have neither right nor reason to think that we’re somehow inherently better than them.