Wednesday, October 20, 2021

K-Drama: One day at a time, forever

I just finished re-watching The King: Eternal Monarch (TKEM). One has to pause to say that Lee Min-ho and Kim Go-eun are mesmerizing as individuals and as a powerful partnership. OK, that out of the way, what I asked myself was, "Given that K-drama is all metaphor, what was this really about?" There are deep threads throughout, helping us think about fate and destiny, both about the paths our lives take. I am giving a talk as a "model scholar," which has caused me think about my own life and work. Influenced by TKEM, I would have to acknowledge how overdetermined my work has been by the set of family, community and world issues into which I was born. 

Yet the path is also determined by the steps we take, and in that regard, we can choose to accept our destiny -- we can work with circumstance. In TKEM, the lovers can only have a long-distance relationship. They commit to this, and adopt the strategy that they will live one day at a time, forever.  They fill their time together with small dreams and adventures, so that every day is what it can be. They part without dramatics. Michael Lally, faced with a difficult situation, will always suggest, "Don't make a big deal about it." This is useful because it helps the brain move on from the intense experience. 

We are in a situation that has some of that tension. A note from Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster puts our larger situation in context:

Less than a decade ago there was a virulent debate on the left on the question of “catastrophism.” A number of influential socialist thinkers, including friends of ours, charged Monthly Review with having exaggerated the dangers to humanity arising from the accelerating planetary ecological crisis induced by capitalism. Fast-forward a few years to the present, in which we are increasingly confronted in our daily lives with a chain of catastrophes, including record heat waves, persistent droughts, out-of-control wildfires, megastorms, unprecedented floods, torrential rainfall, glacier melts, and sea level rise, combining in myriads of ways to threaten every region and ecosystem on earth—with the prospect that under present conditions this will only get worse. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has alerted the world to the dangers of the spread of zoonotic diseases across the globe, resulting from the economic destruction of critical ecosystems and the interface of this with agribusiness monocultures and global commodity chains.

We are in a long-distance relationship with peace and tranquility. So the question becomes, "What's there to be GLAD about?" It's a good question, and so thoughtful of TKEM to be so concrete about finding joy in circumstances that might defeat one.  More to follow on this question!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

K-drama: Hong Du-sik and the crack in everything

I am watching Hometown Cha Cha Cha whose "new episodes every week!" have kept me on the edge of my seat for some weeks now.  When we first meet our hero, Hong Du-sik, he comes across as arrogant, competent and devoted to the residents of his small seaside town.  We quickly learn that he has PTSD, but the source of his night terrors is a closely-guarded secret.  It's possible that Grandmother Gam-ri knows, but no one else. The village respects his privacy -- per Robert Frost, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." But as the heroine arrives and falls in love with him, we see that he is profoundly stuck.  He is deeply ashamed of the events that precipitated the PTSD and so vacillates between pulling her close and pushing her away.  He can't help but love her and she can't help but think he should tell her what's up.  His defense is crumbling quickly, and then people arrive who know the story.  In a very public attack, his shame is exposed.  

Happily, we're coming to the end of the new-episodes-every-week.  A great thing about K-Drama as an art form is that stories end.  It is often referred to as soap opera and a common question when one googles a K-Drama is, "Will there be a second season?"  Netflix creates this problem by labeling the shows "Season 1." But as far as I can tell, the situation story has been finished, and it's on to the next.  It's a very satisfying form, which avoids the neurotic repetition compulsion so beloved in American TV.  God forbid anybody work through their issues and get on with their lives!  K-Drama is just profoundly interesting because it focuses on the crack in the brittle defenses that have worked for a while, but are insufficient for getting through the crisis at hand, whatever that is.  As Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." So we must be joyous to see our hero disintegrate, held as he is by a loving girlfriend and devoted community.  We have great hopes that he will make it to the other side, with a new lease on life, the PTSD behind him.  

This happened to me. My own version of the patched-over crack was the very brittle resolution of the trauma of changing schools when I was 7 years old. It never worked very well, but fell apart with a one-two-three punch of illness, divorce, and displacement from my beloved office.  I was lucky to have the care of a community that reminded me that I was loved, not because -- to borrow from Leonard Cohen -- I had a "perfect offering," but rather because I was. They were not afraid of the crack and welcomed the light that shone through. While Du-sik (lucky guy!) is going to be a new man in two episodes, it took me a couple of years to get through that. Those years were not so fun -- on one of the worst days, I totaled my car driving through a stop sign. Metaphors abound. 

What made my situation so brittle was the lack of faith in the world -- I thought I had to keep going by drawing on my unaided will. That was not enough to overcome my fears. What would be enough? I needed a deeper source of strength -- I had to find my faith -- as one friend explained to me, "Gratitude is the way forward from trauma." That strikes me as totally paradoxical and totally true. On the other side of the upheaval and re-working was that thing that had eluded me since I was 7: a sense of belonging -- belonging to a family, a house, a job, a congregation, a neighborhood, a troubled world. 

It's the troubled world that can learn from Hong Du-sik's crash. We can't keep the secrets or hide our shame. We are loved by God and other people -- and even the elephants, my friend Dominic Moulden assures me. As another K-Drama put it, "It's OK not to be OK." We can face the reckoning that has arrived.   

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Zoom can't give you Vitamin P... Or can it?

 I have been writing about the new vitamin I discovered, Vitamin P.  You might not have heard about it yet, but lack of this vitamin might be EXACTLY what's troubling you!  Vitamin P (for people!) is needed to keep our energy rolling and our ideas flowing.  In its absence, we fall into a state of lassitude.  

At the beginning of lockdown, back in March 2020, we were all glad that "at lease we have Zoom." By now, we're over Zoom, and all I hear is "I want things to go back to normal -- Zoom isn't cutting it for me!" 

I say that this is a moment for deeper reflection.  On the one hand, the desire to rush around -- which is what "normal" was for most of us -- is winning the day.  On the other hand, the Delta variant is still out there -- tragically we just passed the mark of 1 in 500 Americans having died of Covid.  

The rational response is to take it a bit slow -- let's accumulate some data and slowly add activities, rather than opening everything at once.  (Not that Americans are rational.) 

Part of the rational response is to reflect on what we've learned about Zoom, including posing the question, "Can Zoom give us Vitamin P?" If Vitamin P is a pheromone that we have to smell, then the answer is "no." But if Vitamin P is new ideas that get our minds working, then the answer is "Yes, if we use it creatively."

Some of the things I've seen make Zoom fun and invigorating are:

  • Keeping the segments short.  I love it when people use the Pomodoro Technique to work in 25 minute segments, punctuated by 5 minute breaks.  Doctors are saying that we shouldn't sit for more than 20 minutes, so the Pomodoro Technique is a natural for standing up and moving a bit -- helps butt and brain!  
  • Having fun check-in questions.  Questions can cover a huge gamut of options, from silly to tragic. These small sharings build connection and add humanity.  Check-ins are not good for groups larger than 15 though, so this as limits.  
  • Using break-out rooms.  I asked a group of doctors to reflect on my model of Main Street as a metaphor for the organization of a hospital.  I was actually shocked at what a great job they did in the breakout rooms, using this metaphor and identifying lots of areas of social organization that might need attention.  They were attentive to my lecture, but they made something of it in the breakout part. 
  • Having people turn their cameras on.  Not everyone can have cameras on all the time, but the more the merrier is a real thing in a Zoom room. 
  • Accepting that Zoom is what it is.  It's not a walk in the park.  But it is a great tool for connection, and one we are just learning how to use.  Like many other parts of life that not all we want, we have to learn to accept and even have gratitude.  Every time you want to complain about Zoom, take a moment to imagine this: we went into lockdown and there was NO videoconferencing.  
While we are in this "GO SLOW" period, I suggest that we re-connect with the utility of Zoom, and explore the ways in which it can help us get our daily does of Vitamin P.  

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Are "new ideas" the real "Vitamin P"???

In an earlier post, I announced my discovery of "vitamin P[eople]" -- the essential nature of seeing other people in person.  Of course, the exact nature of vitamin P is not yet known -- it could be a chemical, like pheromones, that is smelled.  But an interesting article in New York Times opens another suggestion.  Claire Cain Miller, in an article on the utility of casual conversations at work, reports that casual, cross-fertilizing conversations have their most important utility in getting projects started.  Once started, individuals workers can bring projects to fruition. One example she offers of this is a water-cooler  conversation between Professor Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman, which laid the groundwork for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against SARS Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. 

In our shelter-in-place life, our networks contracted. Not only didn't we see the people we would have seen at the water cooler, but also we didn't see all the people we used to see at big meetings, like faculty meetings or church services. For many people, Zoom was not a substitute, on the one hand, and, on the other, a great it was a great excuse for skipping a meeting. "It doesn't work me" became the "dog ate my paper" equivalent to a getting-out-of-meetings free card.  As someone who has been absent from many meetings that "didn't work me," I have lived this experience. 

But in my shrunken network, new ideas and experiences are hard to come by. I had a face-to-face encounter with exactly one entirely new person over the past year or so.  The well from which I drew inspiration has dried up, and I was languishing, as many people were.  My daughter moved in for a bit, in-person classes resumed, I got sent to physical therapy (punishment for being too sedentary during Covid), my storage unit got flooded by Hurricane Ida and suddenly my life and networks have opened up again.  And along with all that, new encounters have sparked new ideas. It is like an expansion of the old adage, "Move a muscle, change a thought," which we might rewrite as, "Encounter a person outside your close circle, and spark a new idea."

Can it be that "having a new idea" is what defeats languishing? That the encounter outside the small circle of our intimate lives is Vitamin P? As they say in science, "More research is needed." 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Aesthetics of Equity

In Root Shock, the first volume of my urban restoration trilogy, I proposed that the key to a just and sustainable future was an "aesthetics of equity." In such an aesthetics, we would find the signs of inequality to be unattractive. For example, we would not celebrate the beauty of something because it was gilded. Nor would we love a statue that paid homage to someone who violated our values. 

We have taken many steps in the direction of this aesthetics in recent years. One that I read about in the New Yorker -- "Britain's Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker Narrative" -- was particularly shocking. It gave details of the ways in which slavery created the wealth to build fabulous mansions.  The article made the case that seeing the story behind the wealth made the oohing and aahing over its trappings a new experience. The illustration that accompanied the article said it all, juxtaposing the iconic drawing of ship packed with people to be sold into bondage with a father and son traipsing through a mansion to see its splendors.  

In a somewhat similar vein, an article by Roberta Smith in today's New York Times about the painter Chuck Close explored how we might think about his work in light of the revelations of sexual harassment. Are we to stop looking at his paintings because of those revelations?  She argues perhaps not, though we should know his story.

I have thought about this issue a lot because it was revealed that my most beloved college professor -- Dr. Herbert Aptheker -- had molested his daughter Bettina. Dr. Aptheker's work is of monumental importance, but we can't just brush aside his crimes. Had he been convicted in his lifetime, he might have gone to prison, served time, and re-entered society, as millions of people are now doing. Are we to never forgive any of them? Will we discount whatever they do because of their crimes?

This is why we need an aesthetics of equity. I do think that the question of forgiveness for crime will find a place in this philosophical endeavor. There is much to be explored. In the meantime, we can look skeptically at the houses of the rich and famous and wonder where the filthy lucre came from.  

Just as yin and yang are opposites, but always in relationship to one another, might we have an aesthetics that is non-dualistic, which sees good and evil as parts of the whole?

Thursday, August 12, 2021

What is Vitamin P and how do we treat Vitamin P deficiency when the Covid numbers are shooting up?

I have discovered a new vitamin: Vitamin P.  Two observations led to this discovery. 

First, my daughter came to stay at my house. I am on a tight timeline of summer work [yuck!] so at first I thought this would throw me off course. I was shocked to discover that the simple presence of another person around the house increased my efficiency one thousand percent. This was completely counter to my predictions. 

Second, a friend of mine was in tears, saying she couldn't get off her couch and was in a serious depression. I asked about her trip to Arizona the previous weekend,  "Oh I had a great time," she replied.  Now, in my book, serious depression does not let up for trips even to great places: it's socked in.  So my mind started scrolling through the reasons one might be tied to the sofa, thinking life is meaningless.  I was reminded that I was in a similar state on Monday when my daughter was gone, but got out of it on Tuesday, when she dropped by again.

That is when I made the historic discovery of Vitamin P and I don't mean Flavonoids, which will have to move to F or Fl, I mean Vitamin People.  I am a person with a Masters in Nutrition. I love the stories of the discoveries of the vitamins. I am very proud to be adding one to the list.  The point here is that the discovery of a vitamin depends on several factors. A vitamin, by definition, is a chemical that our bodies can't produce, but need to function.  We discover a vitamin by recognizing the deficiency and by "curing" the deficiency by supplying the nutrient. Vitamins have been discovered long before there was mastery of the chemistry to isolate the chemical, as with the discovery that limes prevented scurvy. In this case, I don't know what the chemical is that is supplied by People. I am convinced that there is one. 

Back in BC--Before Covid--when people were around all the time, we only had glimpses of the power of this vitamin. Eric Klinenberg's study of deaths in the 1995 Chicago heat wave pinpointed social isolation as in the pathway to demise. Other studies have said that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking. 

But the removal of normal social exchange from all our lives -- this is the kind of "natural experiment" that scientists find reveals much about the hidden workings of the world, including the myriad ways in which we are hive beings, unable to function well absent the buzzing of our hivemates.  

The question of how to supply Vitamin P is a difficult one. We know that, despite the downsides of isolation, people have made some adjustments to it, and are hesitant to re-emerge into society. We also know that, thanks to our gross mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, we are now a new wave of illness caused by the highly infectious Delta variant.  

The steep sweep at the end is a very big problem, compounded by the incredibly stupid decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to monitor "breakthrough" infections, among others.

So what are we to do for a nation with Vitamin P deficiency, on the one hand, and risk of Covid infection, on the other?

This is where Klinenberg's observation about social networks becomes crucial. Not everyone is as isolated as everyone else. People who are in motion--and getting more or less enough Vitamin P--need to reach out to the people at home alone and get them out of the house: take them for a walk, for openers, to an outdoor restaurant for coffee, and eventually, as they build tolerance, to an outdoor concert. Take it slow. An hour a day with one person will be great at the beginning. And encourage that person to reach out to another isolee for the walks-coffee-concert series.  

I just want to be clear: we have to have our vitamins EVERY DAY.  This includes our Vitamin P.  I believe that the chemical is transmitted in person--think pheromones--so Zoom is no use for treating this problem. Getting a nation off the sofa is a challenge, but I think we can do it. Outdoors, slow re-acclimation to the Vitamin P, and daily dosage are the key.  

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A cup of coffee on the dock

Molly Kaufman and I are visiting friends in Lodi, New York, which is on Seneca Lake.  We are staying in a small cabin with a deck that hangs over the lake.  This morning I made a rather perfect cup of Peets coffee and sat on the deck with my laptop.  Molly brought her laptop and coffee to the deck and we did some work, while also scrolling the New York Times, and answering a few emails.  It was the kind of summer moment that one remembers all winter.  The dock -- like a hotel balcony in Johannesburg overlooking Grant Street -- struck me as the perfect place to sit and write a book.