Friday, February 24, 2006

The Paradox of Choice

The book "Pardox of Choice" by Barry Schwarz is starting to get some attention in the media. The thesis of the book is that in this day and age, when we are confronted with so many options, the end result of having so many choices is that we are actually unhappier for them. Having so many choices, he argues, 1) makes us stressed out in the process of making them and 2) Leves us with buyer's regret, as we are always anxious that we didn't make the right choice. Just one example: an ice cream parlor with over 200 flavors vs. one with 20. The one with 20 actually had higher customer satisfaction.

I think I was way ahead of this trend and actually beat it years ago. I have always been a bit compulsive in my decision making, particularly over the types of mundane decisions that usually require little thought. I have worked out a complicated formula for when to quit watching a basketball game based on the size of lead. I have developed a complicated formula (since jettisoned because it didn't work) for calling plays in football video games. I have a daily routine that I follow slavishly.

In restaurants, I have used different tactics over the years to defer decison making. I have ordered the exact same thing as others, I have ordered based on what is first on the menu, I have ordered based on what someone in line before me gets, I have ordered burgers and fries everywhere I go. My current strategy is to associate what menu item most closely approximates the overall ethos of the restaurant (a bit subjective, I know, but it works pretty well for me).

I used to think all of this was somewhat unhealthy, but I am now becoming more at peace with myself. By insisting on surrendering to fate and allowing my self-determination to be surrendered to randomness, I am cutting off the paradox of choice before it can insidiously wrap its arms around me. The only drawback is that I felt weird for taking such an approach to life. Now I think I am normal and everyone else is weird for thinking that choice creates happiness.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dylan is the New Nostradamus

Nostradamus was a mystic French dude who lived a long time ago (16th Century) and wrote a bunch of vague prophecies that people have claimed predicted events before they happened, such as World Wars, the rise of Hitler, the atom bomb, even 9/11. He wrote his prophecies as poetic quatrains, so they are not unlike song lyrics.

I don't think Nostradamus was a prophet, nor, as much as I admire Bob Dylan, do I think he can forecast the future. But some of Dylan's lyrics are so freaky in hindsight that one wonders if we even need a cult of Nostradamus anymore. Dylan could be the new Nostradamus.

Take for example, his last studio album, "Love and Theft," which came out on, oddly enough, September 11, 2001. Here are some lyrics from the song "Honest With Me":

"I'm stranded in the city that never sleeps..."
"The Siamese twins are comin' to town/People Can't Wait, They're gathered around/
When I left my home the sky split open wide/I never wanted to go back there-I'd rather have died"
"Some things are too terrible to be true/I won't come here no more if it bothers you"
"I'm here to create the new imperial empire/I'm going to do whatever circumstances require"

Out of context, these lines don't necessarily mean anything, but anyone who listened to this the week it came out would have immediately thought of New York in the opening line, thought of the twin towers with the line about Siamese twins, and thought of violence and terrorism in some of the other lines. There is even a line in the song about "crashin' my car trunk first into the boards" that hits a little too close to home given the context.

On the same album, a couple songs eerily deal with flooding in the south, such as "High Water": "High Water risin', the shacks are slidin' down/Folks lose their possessions--folks are leaving town" and "High Water Risin, six inches above my head/Coffins droppin' in the street/Like baloons made out of lead/Water pourin into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm going to do/'Don't reach out for me' she said/'Can't you see I'm drowning too?'/It's rough out there/High water everywhere"

He also has a song called "Mississippi" in which he sings:
"Every step of the way we walk the line/Your days are numbered so are mine/time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape/We're all boxed in nowhere to escape"
"Got nothing for you, I had nothing before/Don't even have anything for myself anymore/Sky full of fire, pain pourin down"
and the refrain is: "Only one thing, I did wrong/Stayed in Mississippi a Day Too Long"

If that wasn't all weird enough, comes his eery lyrics that presage the Dick Cheney shooting incident by over 30 years. It was revealed today that the land that Cheney was hunting on was called the "Armstrong property." The original Armstrong was a Texas law enforcement official who bought the property in the late 19th Century with reward money he got after capturing the notrious outlaw John Wesley Hardin.

That name might not mean a lot to many people, but a Dylan fan recongizes it immediately. Dylan slightly changed Hardin's name, mythologized the facts of his life a little bit, and wrote a song called "John Wesley Harding" which also become an album title.

The song opens with the line: "John Wesley Harding/Was a friend to the poor. He trav'led with a gun in ev'ry hand." O.K. quite a bit of a stretch to say this predicted the Cheney incident. But listen to this unbelievable second stanza:

"'Twas down in Chaynee County/A time they talk about/With his lady by his side/he took a stand/And soon the situation there/Was all but straightened out/For he was always known/To lend a helping hand"

Weird huh? Now listen to this final stanza, which a cynic would say describes Cheney's ability to get away with whatever he wants to get away with:

"All across the telegraph/His name it did resound/But no charge against him/Could they prove/And there was no man around/Who could track or chain him down/He was never known/To make a foolish move"

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Here's a Paper I Wrote This Week

The Wicked Son in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

In Afrocentricity and Multiculturalism, Ali Mazrui makes the claim on behalf of Africans that “we invented the family” (qtd. in Henry 207). Whatever the merits of this boast, it is true that the family unit is central in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Ultimately, it is the disintegration of the protagonist Okonkwo’s family that stands as an indicator, but perhaps also the actual cause of the cultural disintegration referenced in the title. And though the Africans may have invented the family, it is beneficial to look at another culture’s tradition of family to get a better sense of how this disintegration occurred. Specifically, the Jewish tradition of the “Wicked Son” is applicable to the relationship in Okonkwo’s family structure.
A Passover midrash at least one thousand years old tells the story of four sons. The “son who does not know how to ask” is unable to enquire about the celebration, and is therefore given direct instruction by his father. The simple son can at least recognize that something out of the ordinary is occurring and can ask what is happening. The wise son quotes Deuteronomy: “What mean the testimonies and the statues and the ordinances, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?” The wicked son quotes Exodus: “What mean you by this service?” (Gallagher and Greenblatt 243).
The difference between the questions of the wise and wicked sons are subtle but wide. By using the term “you” the Wicked Son distances himself from the tradition. According to Gallagher and Greenblatt, this is a fundamental rupture in the Jewish individual’s duty to the community and family: “The issue here and throughout the Seder is a Jew’s relation to historical memory. The Haggadah enjoins a continual renewal of the ancient experience. . . The wicked child refuses to incorporate the memory of enslavement and the Exodus from Egypt; he refuses to swallow the story as his own (qtd. in Lentriccia 244).
Ironically, Things Fall Apart represents a reversal of this Jewish tradition. The implicit message in the story of the Wicked Son is that by not re-enacting the previous generation’s escape from slavery, the current generation risks at the very least a symbolic cultural, if not physical, enslavement. In Achebe’s story, the inability of Wicked Sons to pay homage to the free generations of the past results in an enslavement, both physical and cultural. There is even a geographical reversal in the stories, as the Jews escape from African enslavement to a freedom outside of that continent, while the Umuofians regress into an enslavement that originates outside of Africa but arrives on their (heretofore unbloodied) doorsteps.
Significant to the Passover story is the event that leads to the Jews finally receiving permission to leave Egypt. After all the plagues visited on the Egyptians, it is the deaths of the firstborn that is the one that finally inspires the Pharaoh to briefly open the gates of freedom. The first born are significant because they will one day inherit from their fathers. Receiving an unearned inheritance mandates a show of gratitude, a responsibility to pay honor to one’s ancestors. By cutting off the future inheritors, the threat to the society is that the living will not receive their due honors after their life has passed by.
Again, we get an ironic reversal of this model in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo receives no inheritance from his father, and therefore pays him no homage. In fact, he goes so far as to repress his father’s very existence, excising him from his thoughts whenever possible: “Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success” (46). Later, in his one moment of sympathy with his father, when he fears the same symbolic patricide that he has inflicted upon his father will befall him, he simultaneously severs their link, while also severing the link slowly forming in his mind between his father and his son: “But Nwoye resembled his grandfather, Unoka, who was Oknokwo’s father. He pushed the thought out of his mind” (108).
Of course, repressing his feelings about his father does not mean they are not there. In fact, we know from our omniscient narrator that Okonkwo’s unconscious disposition toward his father is what drives his every decision: “…Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” (10). Significant here is that Okonkwo is ruled by a “passion.” Not only are his feelings buried in the realm of the unconscious, but they are safely buried there because there are not articulated in language. Oknokwo is a creature of passion throughout the novel, and his moments of clearest insight come about in visual images, whether it is of he and his father in the afterlife “crowding round their ancestral shrine,” (108) or of being in “sympathy [with a] smouldering log” (109). Not having the language with which to achieve true insight into his nature, he is an amalgamation of the Wicked Son (who does not respect his ancestor) and the “son who does not know how to ask.”
It is the latter distinction that leads him to his ruin. Although Okonkwo and his oldest son had never formed a bond, there was a time when Nwoye showed him veneration. Their relationship was irrevocably altered when Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna, an event that could have been altered had Okonkwo simply listened to the most respected elder in the village. However, when Ezeudu warns against Okonkwo taking part in Ikemufuna’s execution, Okonkwo says nothing in response. He does not argue, agree, or question. Unable to work through the decision in the verbal realm, he is forced to rely on his instinctive desire to separate himself from his father, and perhaps in doing so, he projects his Oedipal desires to kill his father unto his adopted son. Indeed we are told that in the crucial moment of Ikemufuna’s murder, Okonwko was “dazed with fear” (43). Again, his passion (in this case fear) gets the upper hand over a cognitive working through of his desires and motivations.
Okonkwo’s psyche’s repressive instinct is not limited to his relationship with his father. In the days after he killed Ikemufuna, Okonkwo spends three days struggling with his guilt, before finally being able to repress it. After three days “He began to wonder why he had felt uneasy at all. It was like a man wondering in broad daylight why a dream had appeared so terrible to him at night” (53). Of course, the psychoanalytic implications of this are obvious. The dream is the means by which the repressed returns, and in the daytime loses its power. Okonkwo’s guilt is now buried in the unconscious.
However, it has its return in the form of the “accidental” death of Ezeudu’s son, a convenient target given the father’s role as a gadfly on Okonkwo’s conscience. The effect of Okonkwo’s shooting of Ezeudu’s son is banishment and the loss of everything he had worked for, an appropriate self-punishment that Okonkwo’s unconscious administers to its subject. However, even this punishment pales to the agony that Okonkwo has yet to endure—the desertion of his eldest son.
It may be that all along Okonkwo’s unconscious was working toward a rupture between father and son, as evidenced by an early threat he made against Nwoye: “I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan. I would sooner strangle him with my own hands” (24). Just as he rejected and symbolically killed his father by refusing to acknowledge his memory, he has a (perhaps unconscious) fear that his oldest son will do the same to him. This is even better articulated later: “He saw himself and his father crowding round the ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god. If such a thing were ever to happen, he, Okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth” (108).
The shift in intensity between the above two passages can be attributed to Okonkwo’s growth from a vague uneasiness about his progeny’s ability to fulfill their duty to him (in the first) to an outright realization (in the second) that his son is, in the Jewish sense, wicked. The seeds of Nowoye’s “wickedness” can be seen as far back as his duplicity toward his father’s storytelling: “And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women’s stories” (38). The death of Ikemufuna is the turning point in their relationship. Like his father, Nwoye lacks the language to describe his unease, but our narrator tells us that he felt “a snapping inside him” (43). Later, he still lacks a language to describe his dissatisfaction, but the Christian church provides him with an emotional dimension that his home life lacked: “It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow…He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (104). This new sensation gives him the ability to say for the first time of Okonkwo “He is not my father” (101).
Nwoye’s external sign of his transformation is to change his name to Isaac. In this, he has committed the sin of the Wicked Son; through nomenclature he has chosen to end his identification with the line of his ancestors and enter into a new tradition, ironically the same tradition which gives us the concept of the Wicked Son. Perhaps room must be made for a fifth son at the Passover table—the adopted son. For though it is Christianity which makes its claim upon Nwoye, he chooses a name more common to Judaism—a faith that doesn’t have “the mad logic of the Trinity.” Also unlike Christianity, it is a faith that still calls for filial obligation. Notably, when Mr. Kiaga tells him “Blessed is he who forsakes his father and mother for my sake” (108), Nwoye “did not fully understand” (108). It is likely that the lack of understanding comes about because Nwoye/Isaac like Okonkwo, wants to reject his father, but also like Okonkwo, doesn’t want to reject the cultural standard of ancestral respect that is shared in both the African and Jewish traditions—an ancestral respect that gives rise to claims such as “we invented the family.”

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Pro Bowl Really is Awesome

I didn't watch the Pro Bowl yesterday, as I've got too much going on to watch the Olympics, much less one football game. However, I have watched it in past years and am annoyed that it is so often denigrated in the media as an irrelevant, boring game. I think the people saying this (and I heard it again on a sports radio show this morning) are just parroting a prejudice without even giving the game a chance.

What I like about the Pro Bowl is that with the rules in place, coaching schemes are basically non-existant. We hear so much about Bill Belicheck's defense, Mike Martz's offensive scheme, Dick LeBeau's defense, etc... It's to the point now where quarterbacks may or may not succeed not on the strength of their talent alone, but on what scheme they are in. Heck, as late as the 80s quarterbacks used to actually call their own plays in the huddle. Now they've got an electronic receiver in their helmet where a coach gives them the play.

The problem with all these coaching geniuses today is it takes away from what makes football great on the playground-- the one-on-one battles between linemen, between ball carrier and tackler, between receiver and cover man. With the strict rules in the Pro Bowl, for one day a year we are back to the playground. And the great thing is that the players on this playground are the best in the world.

People criticize yesterday's Pro Bowl for being too mistake-filled. Could it be that this is what happens when defenders are allowed to make plays? They gamble and come up with interceptions. Or, they gamble and are burned. Either way, it makes for an entertaining game. Hopefully next year at least ONE Packer will be in it and I'll have motivation to watch it no matter how busy I am.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Heavy Stuff

I read an article in USA Today that is really touching. It's about the lone survivor of the West Virginia mine accident last month, his recovery, and his family's devotion to each other. If you've got a few minutes it is worth a read:

The miner's wife shares part of the good-bye note that he wrote when he thought that he was going to die. Very few of us will ever get the chance to compose a note for our loved ones in our last moments. The only other comparable situation I can think of is that of the passengers of Flight 93 on 9/11. They didn't compose notes, but I know several of them made calls to loved ones to say goodbye.

It's incomprehensible to me what must go through someone's mind in such a situation. How do you sum up a lifetime's worth of thought and feeling into a single note or a single phone call? I may be a writing teacher, but that's one lesson I wouldn't want to attempt.

Friday, February 03, 2006

More Weird Stuff

I ran across a site today that reprinted newspaper articles from the paper in Lubbock, Texas that had to do with the late rock music pioneer, Buddy Holley. For those, like me, who come from a small town, you know that it is no great accomplishment to get your name and picture in the local paper. It might even be easier than getting your name in the U of L student paper.

Lubbock can't be a real small town, since it has a university, but it is or was small enough that it carries birth announcements, such as the one announcing Buddy Holley's entrace to the world in 1936. Unfortunately, the paper claimed that he was a baby girl.

Anyway, there was an article from around 1956 which talked about how Buddy and group of his friends detained a knife-wielding shoplifter until police arrived. Buddy was the driver of a car that chased after the shoplifter, who was on foot. One of Buddy's friends told the paper "We believe in justice." While I think there is way too much of a tendency to romantacize the past, and the 1950s were far from perfect, I can't imagine that today a young person would make a statement like "We believe in justice" completely devoid of any irony. Its not that I think young people today don't believe in justice, but that we are in a culture that is skeptical (which is often healthy) of the notion of justice, hence the unliklihood of anyone making such a grandiose claim. Unfortunately, I think our language, as much at is acted on by cultural conditions, also acts on our culture. So my fear is that since neither real people or even fictional heroes make statements like this, it may lead to an actual erosion of the sentiment, and future rock stars will make no effort to stop knife-wielding shoplifters.

In other weird news, I read that Stalin once tried to get Soviet scientists to make human/chimp hybrids to be super soldiers. I've verified this from a couple sources, as the documents were just recently uncovered. I wonder why this story hasn't caught on more. Is it just to bizarre for people to comprehend? Is it because the Soviets aren't a threat anymore? I would think if one of our former presidents had a project like this it would be a big media story. I guess that's what blogs are for.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Weird Things that Don't Get Enough Credit

A pretty random post, but here are my top three weird things that don't get enough credit for being weird:

1) Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, former guitarist for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan is now a U.S. Defense Department Consultant on weapons technologies. Here is the first sentence of Wikipedia's entry on him:

"Jeff (Skunk) Baxter (b. December 13, 1948 in Washington, D.C.) is an unusual hybrid---a well-respected American rock guitarist and an equally respected consultant to his country's government on how to apply theoretically unrelated technologies to understanding terrorist thinking and planning."

Unusual hybrid seems an understatement, since this would imply that there are others of the similiar ilk. Though Ted Nugent would like to claim to be a weapons and guitar expert, Skunk Baxter deals with more than conventional hunting weapons.

2) Mickey Jones. A rock n roll drummer in the mid-60s, he toured with Bob Dylan during Dylan's famous 1966 tour, in which audiences would scream at him for being a sell-out of folk music. Many rock critics regard the "Royal Albert Hall" concert, offically released as "The Bootleg Series Volume 4" as the best concert ever, and Mickey Jones was the drummer.

He got pretty stressed out after this tour and gave up music. He resurfaced almost thrity years later playing a stereotypical biker on "Home Improvement." He played almost the same role on Mentos commercials.

3) Osama and Bert. This to me is the real proof that human history has jumped the shark. We've always had wars, and we've always had animosity between people of different cultures. In this sense, the aftermath of 9/11 was no different, with many Americans unfairly casting all Arabs or Muslims as evil, and many people of other nations commending the terrorist's actions. In Bangladesh, there was a rally against America, in which people held up signs of Osama bin Laden. Here is where it gets weird though.

Many of the bin Laden pictures also had pictures of Bert. Yes, Bert as in Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Turns out a lazy print shop owner googled "Osama bin Laden" and downloaded a picture that was photoshopped by someone who had a gag sight implying that Bert was responsible for all the evil in the world (the site also had pictures of Bert with Hitler, for example). The photo was run off and distributed to a bunch of protesters, and pictures of protestors with signs showing Osama and Bert were distributed all over the world. I suppose there is a lot you can make of this as a synthesis of ideology and irony. Maybe I'll write about that in my next blog.