Bruce Fleming's Blog

American military brass are up to mischief. A lot of it. The Petraeus scandal from fall of 2012 that featured his affair with his biographer, another West Point graduate in sleeveless tops led not only to the retired four-star general’s retirement as head of the CIA but also to serious re-consideration of whether he was in fact as good a general as he was committed to appearing [“A Phony Hero for a Phony War,” by Lucian K. Trescott IV, New York Times 16 Nov 2012]. The Petreaus scandal also led to a greater public awareness of the “imperial trappings that come with a senior general’s lifestyle” such as a personal chef, military escorts on personal business, and house, “an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire” provided at taxpayer expense. [“The Four-Star Lifestyle,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe, Wash Post Nov 18, 2012.]
Indeed these taxpayer-supported perks are offered well below the top ranks, such as to the Navy 0-5s and 0-6s who live rent-free with groundskeepers and house staff in well-manicured government-owned mansions on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, where I have taught for over a quarter of a century. One recent scandal at the Naval Academy involved putting up an enlisted person instrumental to the then-administration’s affirmative action in such a mansion, which in any case was usually meant for a Navy Captain, four pay grades below that of an admiral or four-star general [“CMC paid as an E-9, lived as an O-6,” by Philip Ewing and Andrew Tilghman, Navy Times July 13, 2010]. Other recent cases of visible Navy malfeasance in the fleet, at far less than the four-star level, include topless (and bottomless) pool parties put on by a Navy Captain in Bahrain, numerous skippers relieved for improper sexual relations with subordinates or drunkenness, and perhaps most notably, the ongoing “cruelty” (in the word of the official report) of Capt. Holly Graf, the skipper of the U.S.S. Cowpens, that led to her dismissal in 2010. Most recently, the commanding officer of Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest raining base, was suspended in May 2013 because allegations of sexual misconduct.
While 2003 holds the last decade’s record for Navy commanding officer firings at 26 (compared to about a dozen a year for the decade previous), 2010 and 2011 clocked in at a near-record 22 each; 2012 was 25. Of the Navy commanding officers relieved in 2012, eight were Naval Academy graduates. Col. James H. Johnson III, commander of the 173 Airborne Brigade, was fired for “inappropriate conduct”; he graduated from USMA in 1986. Both of the two most recent past heads of the Norfolk Navy Shipyard, who were removed after each had had less than a year in post, Capt William Kiestler and Capt Greg Thomas, are Naval Academy graduates.
It isn’t just the Navy that’s having problems. According to the Washington Post in 2011, “A major US Army survey of leadership and morale found that more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants had directly observed a ‘toxic’ leader in the last year and that about 20 percent of the respondents said they had worked directly for one. . . . The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making.”
More recently in a remarkable one-two sequence, Maj. Gen. Ralph Baker, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, became the second holder of that post to be fired from his command. Baker was fired for offenses related to alcohol and sexual misconduct; his predecessor Maj. General William Ward, was demoted and forced to retire for using federal funds to bankroll lavish travel for his family. Meanwhile there is the ongoing court-martial of Brig. General Jeffrey A. Sinclair, charged with sexual misconduct, who is reported as saying “I’m a general, I do whatever the **** I want.” As then-Secretary Panetta observed in November, such incidents “have the potential to erode public confidence in our leadership.”
The result of these goings-on has been a new set of standards for commanders in the Navy, including a written test for all, as outlined by the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Jonathan Greenert. The Admiral says he is “concerned” by the firings, but “does not know why they’re misbehaving” [“CNO on Skipper firings: ‘I’m concerned’” by Sam Fellman, Navy Times, Nov 16, 2012]. Nor can he see a pattern: “of the 1% approximately that we do have to relieve, there is no one specific issue that we’re finding. It varies.” .
And in April 2013, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, announced that admirals and generals will be “evaluated by their peers and the people they command on qualities including personal character”. The new element here is evaluation by anyone but superiors, what seems to be a departure from the military’s hierarchical top-down authority structure. The General is quoted as saying that someone who “doesn’t live a life of character” doesn’t “do [him] any good.”
The question on the table is not whether there are more problems—almost everyone seems to agree there are, with the exception of those who argue that there isn’t more bad behavior, just reduced tolerance for it—but why, and hence what to do. Stabs at why range from puzzled shrugs from ADM Greenert to suggestions that the perks of senior officers have gone to their head. As for whether the problem is real or merely one of public relations, General Dempsey seems to want both. According to The Times, Dempsey “had found that the number of senior officers investigated by the Defense Department inspector general was not at an unusually high level. But the central role in national life played by the military since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — a time in which some general officers attained the stature, and entourages, of rock stars — put them in the spotlight. ‘We’ve been living with unconstrained resources for 10 years and, frankly, we’ve developed some bad habits,’ Dempsey said.” .” (“Conduct at Issue as Subordinates Review Officers,” Thom Shankar, New York Times April 14, 2013, A1). Just bad habits? Or real problems? Are the bad habits new? Or are they just more evident? In any case, his statement seems disingenuous, as many of the commanding officers were removed without recourse to investigations by the Defense Department Inspector General. What is clear is that for Dempsey, it’s all about “character,” and that character can be corrected or created by classroom instruction, something amenable to training.
But what is this “character”? The military waves it around as if it were a real entity, something that can be trained in an academic gym—a notion that I as a professor ought to find flattering, but instead see as deeply problematic. “Character” as the military understands it goes far beyond the soft layperson’s view of it as the tendency of a person, what she has done in the past and is likely to do in the future: it’s something that’s real, and that furthermore they can produce or strengthen. It functions like advertisers’ claims that their products make the user “happier” or “healthier”: if they made a claim that could be disproven they can be forced to show their product actually does this. Keeping things to metaphysical relatives keeps them out of the courts. The military can’t produce “character” or show that it is more than a sum total of what someone has done until now—but if they claim they are building character, the world is likely to leave them alone to do it. And that, apparently, is what the military wants: it’s deeply resistant to outside control, and wants always to claim that whatever the problem—which it typically denies for as long as possible—it’s addressing it. Now go away.
In the view of a substantial article on this subject in the US Navy War College Journal by Navy Captain Mark F. Light, the problems are real, not just apparent. And Light too proposes they can be addressed by beefing up the “character” of officers, once again through classroom training. The article begins by stating flatly that “[t]he US Navy has an integrity problem in the ranks of its commanding officers (COs)”; Light notes that “the premise of [his] article is that this is a systemic problem.” [“The Navy’s Moral Compass: Commanding Officers and Personal Misconduct” Naval War College Review, Summer 2012, p. 136].
Light’s article considers the range of explanations offered for this phenomenon, including increased technology that trips people up, a conflict between what is expected nowadays and the messier “cowboy” culture of days gone by where womanizing and boozing were not only tolerated but encouraged, and the fact of mixed-gender crews. He finds some more contributory than others (culture clash more, mixed crews less), but concludes that the real culprit is a failure to emphasize or exercise “character” on the part of the individuals involved. Captain Light’s solution to the problem is expressed as “Elevating the Character of Naval Leadership” (p. 146). Of course “character flaws” can “become evident” as Capt Light acknowledges (p. 148)—he has no proposals for determining whose “character” has “flaws” until they misbehave. And his solution involves a continuous process of testing and guiding (teaching “ethical behavior”) to see who exhibits “integrity.” And if we can train this, we have it under control. The problem is, there’s no evidence “character” is a substantial thing, or that we can train it. It’s a view in consonance with that of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The apparent belief is that the person has been shown to possess good character and integrity has a certain something which is larger than the sum of the parts of his/her actions which, once identified, indicates that all future actions will be of the same sort, guided by the same “moral compass.” Yet we can never see the compass, or the character, or the integrity—only a series of actions that may be no more than the sum of their parts, which mean only that until now and under these circumstances, the person has made good choices. Literature has long suggested the possibility, completely ignored by both ADM Dempsey and CAPT Light, that people who act morally simply lack the opportunity to be immoral; this is the suggestion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example. Who could be sure that, faced with a flattering young woman in a halter top, as General Petraus was, he’d continue to make good decisions? Shakespeare’s Othello was a successful admiral who, suddenly placed for the first time in his long life among civilians in Venice, falls into what all agree to be bad decisions.
Captain Light considers corruption by great power as a contributing factor to the current troubles, citing Lord Acton’s well-known aperçu that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “The absolute authority bestowed on commanding officers by regulation could conceivably breed toxic leadership traits and cruelty.” But Light sets the bar so high, at “cruelty,” that he concludes that “abuse of power falls well short of fully explaining the broader trend of increasing misconduct” (p. 143). In fact, all officer positions in the military are cloaked in the mantle of power. The possibility for malfeasance is strong at every level. The more we sing the praises of “character” in military officers, as CAPT Light ends up doing, the more people are going to be encouraged to confuse their subjective reactions with the expression of their (of course sterling) character.
The alternative to invoking “character” or a “moral compass” is administration based on rationality rather than metaphysics: it’s not an alternative the military has ever particularly liked, and that nowadays seems particularly unattractive to it as the point of American military action becomes more and more ungraspable. Yet replacing a “character”-based conception of what it means to be an officer by a rationality-based one is the only way that the wave of military misbehavior can be calmed.
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For most of us most of the time, life seems very sad, a real chump’s game. We typically fritter away our daily lives dreaming of getting what by definition we will never have, save (at most) as a fleeting exception to the norm: the exciting, the exceptional, and the exotic. This is so because these things are by definition exceptions, not the norm. The quest for things that transcend the norm involves selling short what we actually have. It also means we spend our time competing with all the other people who also want these things—exotic and exceptional are concepts defined by the group. And if we get the fabulous exception to the norm, what do we do then? Let’s say we actually get a movie star’s autograph. How exciting, but what now? Or we go to Bora-Bora: it can’t be for too long. Going there to live is something else entirely. By definition the exciting doesn’t remain so, the exceptional is the exception, and the exotic is found only in places that are elsewhere than where we normally are. We no sooner achieve them, if we do, but we usually leave them—and a good thing it is, because we can’t spend all of our time excited, exceptions become the average if they go on too long, and the exotic isn’t so to those who live there.
So we never actually get for longer than a brief moment these things that determine our actions and that seem so desirable: what we rarely get has the greatest value. They aren’t our lives, but alternatives to our lives. Yet these alternatives to our own lives draw us on, because they seem like pulse-pounding alternatives to the monotony of the everyday. We have to choose, it seems, between the gray norm we can have just by breathing, or the brief brilliant fireworks so difficult to behold (if we ever do) that light up the sky and then fizzle out, leaving another interval of grayness that has to be gotten through before we can have another momentary thrill. The norm is, it seems, banal; the exception fleeting and all but unachievable. And that’s our life, the careening between the two: what we have, we don’t want. What we want, we can’t get. And if we do it’s not for very long, and rarely satisfying.
If that’s not sad, it’s difficult to say what would be.
This situation is what I would like to change. And it can be changed: as the either/or is posed, it is simply depressing; if we assume that the world need be understood in these terms, we will never the vise of this lose/lose situation. So we have to reconceive it, cut the Gordian knot. Our lives need not be this way, and we can change this situation simply by accurately understanding the natures both of the everyday and of the exceptional: the everyday is far more active a situation than we usually see, and the exceptional we run after is a thing of our own creation that therefore is no alternative to our normal lives, but part of it. We need not see the everyday as merely gray drudgery, and we need not lust after the things we ourselves have given value to precisely because they are so hard to achieve.
We should in fact value the everyday for the simple fact that we work so hard to achieve it. Currently, we are unaware that we are doing so. It’s my goal here to show just how active our lives are at the level of the everyday, and how much we value them. If we become aware of the complexity of the everyday and the work we invest to achieve it, we may appreciate it more than we currently do. We expend energy achieving the exceptional, even if briefly, but in fact we expend vastly more energy keeping the rest of our life on track to be ordinary—and certainly we act as if it has value for us even while we are bad-mouthing it.
The ordinary is always something achieved, and more to the point, something we want achieved. It doesn’t happen by itself. We should be aware of the lengths we go to to achieve the ordinary, and celebrate these. Why should only the dangerous seem exciting for us? In fact, we construct our everyday existence to be as free of danger as possible. We are careful crossing the street, we know we shouldn’t text when we drive, and we get insurance on the house. Certainly we want people to respond in expected ways and for errands to take the time they generally take; that’s the way we’ve planned it, after all. We love predictability, and our victory is getting the expected, the ordinary. We should celebrate it.
Yet, paradoxically, we say it’s boring. We work all year to go or do for a week or two something different when and where, it seems, anything can happen, and go to see or be around people who are extraordinary in some way. Still, this doesn’t show we really want to leave our so carefully constructed everyday world. We make sure the vacation is tempered by being tethered to the everyday; our contact with things that transcend the ordinary is kept within bounds. In fact though we say we want to transcend the everyday, we want things that only appear to threaten our so carefully constructed everyday, without actually doing so.
We like to look at lions but they have to be in a cage, or us in a Land Rover with a professional guide. We go on roller coasters, but only because we know we will come out the end and that the tracks are bolted down. We read books about people faced with familial and societal crises we hope we will never experience ourselves. We go to strange and unfamiliar places, but we get an all-inclusive package in a resort, and go during the period free of hurricanes. Once there, we throw off the yoke of the office by donning a swim suit, and drink a mai tai by the pool (at 9 a.m.). Like as not, this is all on a tropical sugar cane island whose year-round inhabitants dream only of emigrating to the places in North America or Europe that we’ve come from, dream of making our everyday theirs. And woe betide us if we leave the gates of the resort: we are met not by fawning wait staff bearing alcohol and wreathed with smiles and sometimes flowers, but instead the reality of the children playing before dirt floor shacks. We want the exceptional, but not too exceptional: controlled danger is what we seek. These escape valves are part of our everyday: they’re not really exceptions, they’re programmed in as “exceptions.” Ultimately we’re wedded to the everyday. And we like it, no matter what we say. We might as well enjoy it too.
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Dec 18 2013 | 11 comments

My brother died of AIDS in the third great wave of AIDS deaths, back in the early l990s. By then they knew what AIDS was. Not, however, during the first wave, the mystery sickness attacking gay men in San Francisco. And even during the second wave, the epidemic of the late 1980s, the “thin disease” of Ugandans that took out entire villages, many things were unclear. Keith was diagnosed after a disastrous week-end with us in New York to see shows (he couldn’t walk the three blocks to City Center and made us call a cab; I didn’t understand)—and in the Jerome Robbins Revue he coughed so loudly and incessantly all the people in front of us turned around to glare. On Monday he gave up and went to the hospital to receive his death sentence.
Why was I so slow to catch on? It’s not as if I didn’t know he was gay. And I knew far more about AIDS than most straight boys because I’d been in Rwanda for two years, when that was considered the epicenter of the epidemic (an ape bit a person and the virus changed form—so they said), and back when it wasn’t even clear you couldn’t get it from mosquitoes. Absolutely no prostitutes, even with a condom, that part was clear; they had a 99% infection rate, I’d read. I thought about that all one weekend in Kampala, still (in the mid-80s) full of bullet holes and bombed-out shops, and swarming with hookers.
Plus I’d been tested twice, just because, by a researcher at the embassy. I had a Tutsi girlfriend; once the condom had slipped. I remember being convinced I had it; I spent one nightmarish week until the test came back negative, and a slightly unsettled six months until it came back negative again. And because a French friend had read there was a correlation between Hepatitis B and AIDS, I went immediately to get the first two of a series of three vaccines in Germany; the third I carried with me on ice in the Air France to Kigali.
So why, knowing all this, did it take me so long to figure things out with Keith? Perhaps unwillingness to think the worst could befall me and mine? Still, it did. When he was diagnosed, he was told he had two years to live. He thought he was dying right then and there: he held up his once-beefy leg (Keith was built like a fire hydrant, and for a time was all muscle, but then went to seed via chocolate and Big Macs) and announced, somewhat melodramatically (but if you can’t be melodramatic when you’ve been told you have a soon-to-be fatal disease, then when?): “I am wasting away!”
“No,” I said. “At least, not now. The doctor told me you had two years.” He looked at me unconvinced, and I went and got the doctor from the hallway, a young good-looking guy with whom, I realized, Keith was a bit in love, the way women are in love with the OB-GYN who delivers their baby, to repeat what he had told me.
Under the circumstances, two years seemed a long time. They were off by two months in Keith’s favor: he ended up dying a month after his 40th birthday.
During these two years, Keith turned into a vampire, perhaps a fitting state for someone whose sickness was in every one of his body products, but mostly in his blood. When he was diagnosed, they gave him massive transfusions of blood full of T-cells and white blood corpuscles, and he came out of the hospital full of energy. There followed six months or so of his old life of cello playing, Gregorian chant, and sex. He re-constituted the dungeon in the cellar whose contents my mother had carted away while he was gone, all without comment in either direction—the leather slings, the chains, the metal balls. Now, after the transfusion, it all came back, bought and installed anew. And when Keith was finally dying for real two years later, it was carted away again (this time I did it), in black plastic garbage bags, to the dump.
Six months after his first transfusion, he began to flag: voilà, a visit to the hospital, more blood, and rejuvenation. And so it went, over and over, for the remainder of his time on Earth: the gradual slowing and graying, the visit to the hospital, fresh blood, his exit with the spring back in his step and the bloom in his cheeks.
The terminology of all this had its strange poetry. His drugs sounded like pesticides: AZT is the one I remember. And he was vulnerable to strange growths in his throat—one sounded like a bird: thrush—and of course plain old pneumonia, already a rather mellifluous word. They’d send down a tube to clip out part of his lungs to test things out. But all the drugs were ultimately themselves lethal, so the question was not whether he would succumb, but when, and to what: the illness itself? An opportunistic infection? The cure?
Nous sommes tous les morts en permission, as Lenin is supposed to have said, via the French of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless: We are all on temporary leave from death. When you know the drugs you’re taking to prolong your life is itself lethal, this phrase takes on new meaning.
And later he began to hallucinate. But that is another story, and this too was all long ago, though in the same country.
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After more than thirty years as an academic, including stints at the University of Freiburg in Germany and the National University of Rwanda (not counting the courses I taught as a graduate teaching fellow at Vanderbilt), yet with the lion’s share at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, I’m prepared to say that virtually all of us academics are somewhat autistic, or at least give strong indications of being so.
The “absent-minded professor” is a caricature, but one with deep roots.
We live the life of the mind, after all—enclosed in ourselves, following topics of little interest to others. This is a problem given that, paradoxically, we’re almost always required to be actors too—presenters of information we think is interesting but most others don’t. The two sides of what we do don’t mix. Austistic people can be mainstreamed by explaining to them social situations they don’t grasp intuitively. We too need to be much more aware of the social situations implicit in our jobs.
One of the most striking signs of autism is what is called, revealingly, the “little professor” syndrome—the child who knows all there is to know about, say, trains, and carries on about them—and only them—incessantly. I knew a scholar of Gregorian chant, now sadly descended into dementia, who in her better days would respond to small talk about children’s school issues at the dinner table with a lecture on paleographic variations in specific chant manuscripts. Little professors may grow up to be big ones.
Big professors typically labor under the misapprehension that what is coming out of their mouth or the readings they assign are the most fundamental facts of the course. Wrong. A classroom is most fundamentally a strange combination of performance and coercion. Many students have to take the course, and all are subject to the power of the grade. In any case what we decide to talk about is what is considered, what we say is what the Professor says: it’s not a democracy. The room can be as small as a seminar table with a handful of students, it can be a lecture hall with hundreds of busy note-takers, or now increasingly it can be the moving image of a person on a screen with many individuals unseen to each other able only to ingest what is said, not talk back—unless they can do so online by typing to a tutor. The students all have to play the game the professors sets for them, and please him or her in order to get a good grade—life or death for some.
This power can be exercised bluntly. All of us probably have stories of the professor we disliked. Me, I’ll never forget the course I took as an undergraduate in the 70s that was divided into thirds: one third was taught by a visiting academic from Tanzania, who was a fervent advocate of the now-discredited collectivist agricultural theories of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and which formed the subject matter of this part of the course. My paper was critical. I got an F, and, pragmatism kicking in a bit late, realized I had to go to the man and convince him I’d “misunderstood” and could he please give me another chance, which he graciously deigned to do. Even Western academics, with perhaps thicker skins than a visiting small fish from a Third World country, have their fetish-authors, the Positions No Student May Take on Pain of Flunking. All of us have squirmed under the professorial whip, yet how many of us fail to realize that we have it in our own hands?
I know what real autism looks like: my daughter is officially diagnosed as PDD-NOS, Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Not Otherwise Specified, which is to say, somewhere close to the normal end of the autism spectrum. For a time she was labelled Asperger’s, to indicate high-functioning autism (she’s a long way away from rocking wordlessly in the corner, as in Rain Man, the film with Dustin Hoffman)—but now that diagnosis has been retired, leaving only people somewhere on the “autism spectrum.” There’s high-functioning and less high-functioning. The spectrum this has a place for geniuses who are mildly asocial, a category that an increasing number of Great Women and Great Men are said to have belonged to, such as Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, as well as a place for the severely impaired at the extreme end, as well as for everybody in the middle, those people who seem strange to you because they drop their gaze or just don’t seem to get the point of the joke.
You don’t think we have to be educated to maintain eye contact? The MLA job list tells candidates at interviews (who want to be professors) to:
• Silence cell phone.
• Be aware of body language (your own and interviewer's).
• Project interest and enthusiasm, speak up clearly, listen attentively, and avoid using terms such as "you know," "like," and so on.

• Maintain eye contact with interviewer.
How many professors acknowledge that they are the object of a lot of eyes and ought to try and look as if they knew they were? My 27 years working for the military have made me conscious of what the military is explicit about and what the civilian world dances around, when they address it at all: what you look like in clothing, demeanor, and style of speech determines to a large degree the effect you have on the people you’re talking to. What you say is usually far less important than how you say it and what you look like when you say it. How are people who believe in the primacy of their discipline to understand this?
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Gertrude Stein is the source of a number of quotable quotes. Her best-known line may be the phrase that, by the time her self-hagiographic reputation-sealing memoir “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” came out in 1933 was well known enough that it is embossed on the cover of the first edition: Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose—usually used to mean that things are as they are—that’s just the way it is; nowadays we say “it is what it is” and make a grimace of acceptance. This line comes from “Sacred Emily,” in 1913, but later iterations and echoes in others of her works dropped what seems to be an initial proper name, and in fact the line is usually quoted as “A rose is a rose is a rose,” which makes it more amenable to interpretation as a rueful if clever shrug.
In fact, Stein was right—assuming this is what she meant. Life is as it is. Things are the way they are. In fact this is the most startling thing about life: that while startling exists as an exception, as do exciting, harrowing, pulse-racing and exotic, all of them are exceptions with fairly short half-lives that damp down to the flatness of the everyday. All are exceptions to the norm, which is simply the non-exceptional. Exceptional is the exception.
It’s as if all of us float on different bodies of water. The size and depth can vary but not the fact of floating on the surface: that feels the same wherever we are. If more water is added under is we feel a swell, and a sense of drop of water is removed. But then it’s back to floating on the surface.
Those who live in Timbuktu take Timbuktu for granted—though in 2012-2013 Tumbuktu was subjected to many changes as Tuareg separatists, Islamic militants, and then French and African Union forces took control. As I write the town is reportedly all but deserted, bereft of the Western tourists who were a major source of income as well as of the Tuareg from the north, the Sahel sand being blown along the streets like tumbleweed in a Texas ghost town where the doors with ripped panes of screening clatter and flap. Each of these changes required a change of water level but eventually things will find their equilibrium: if the tourists do not return, the people will stop looking for them and establish a new normal.
For the Western tourists, of course, it is all different. No Western tourists stayed in Timbuktu, but enough stay in other out-of-the-way places: the New York Times the week I am writing profiled the small expatriate community in an also-ran town in Morocco: their reality is different than that of the Moroccans, but it too has its own rhythm—rather similar, it seems, to my life for the two years I lived in the heart of central Africa. For the French in Morocco, news travels by “arab telephone”—for us it was “bush telegraph.” Expats invite expats, and the rare educated/Westernized local; we can descend into the market but let our houseboy do the bargaining, and live the life expected of us (American backpackers in India never “get” that as Westerners they aren’t supposed to want to live like sadhus or peasants but rather like Westerners, eat in restaurants and stay in hotels).
Those who live in New York get used to it; those who live in Washington get used to it; those who live in Moscow or Mogadischu, Mauritius or Madagascar or Monaco, get used to it. Ultimately it “feels like home.” New Yorkers are not stunned by the looming tall buildings, take the rattling subway for granted, and think the width of a building between two streets that is planted as a park with benches is raw nature itself—right next to the over-populated predictable greenness of Central Park. In Washington I complain about the traffic lights and the tourists rather than being stunned by the welter of world-class museums (I am not stunned, but grateful, and I visit them frequently and intensively), just the way foodies are out of sorts of a single dish in the hot new restaurant fails to please their palates rather than being glad they aren’t starving. Everything returns to normal and we notice only the exceptional: the one time there are difficulties with the washing machine, not the countless times it works correctly. The internet problems, not their normal speed. We can’t imagine going back to dialup and are furious at airlines charging for checked baggage, but don’t say a prayer of gratitude for email with far-off friends or the possibility of getting on a flight to Paris. Youth, they say, is wasted on the young: of course it is, because they are young.
Numerous thinkers have pointed out that we take ourselves wherever we go—as if to say that we can’t ever have a vacation. But this is turned around. Of course we can have a vacation, a place where we are not in the same ruts as always—usually in places where we pay to have others fulfill our whims, for which we pay with money we’ve budgeted in advance and so which we don’t miss. But sooner or later the place will begin to have its own monotony, as we no longer notice every little thing there any more than we do at home, are used to the things that once seemed so devastatingly charming when we arrived. To be in a strange place that is no longer strange, and without the comfort of what we are used to, is scary.
We can get used to anything, it seems. Life in New York or Venice is certainly strange by most people’s standards—but New Yorkers or Venetians (all there are of them any more, at any rate) think those who don’t know how to hail a cab or which subway line to take, where the vaporetto stop is or how to cope with the aqua alta, are backwards: if you ask nicely they are glad to share, but it’s knowledge that for the most part they think is standard. Even life under the Blitz had its normalcy: when the sirens sounded, people headed for the shelters. Life undergoing chemo has its normalcy. Life in a concentration camp had its pattern of regularity, and its outliers.
Of course we can remember another life, another place, or another set of givens, so that we look up and wonder, What am I doing here? Or How can people allow this to be? Or How does God allow this? Or even How did I get so lucky? The everyday of running kids and going to the grocery store can be punctuated by moments of felicity where we think, It really is worth it. We see our child, the sun shining on his hair, in a loping gate across the soccer field who pauses to wave: we are stabbed with perfect felicity. There is a moment of quiet with the whole family in bed on Sunday morning; momentarily the kids are not fighting, we reach over and kiss our partner’s shoulder. The rest of the time is the logistical jungle of homework, traffic jams, sports, dinners, cleanups and laundry—and arguments.
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            During a snowstorm last winter the electricity went out. Put like this it seems completely normal, like saying: I got up this morning and brushed my teeth. Why not say this? But that wasn’t the way it felt: that’s the simple version, after the fact, when you’ve established causality.I’ve learned to say this because I do know some of the fundamental facts about houses and the lives we live in them. I know that electricity comes to the house and all that’s in it over wires I see strung by the sides of the roads. Most adults are aware of this, but children aren’t. If I were a child I would no sooner be able to give this short version from the outside than I would be able to diagnose as illness X or Y an unexplained feeling of tiredness, or internal bleeding.Alternately, I might live in a place that’s so frequently subject to power outages that this is something I take for granted as part of the fabric of life, as I take for granted the fact that periodically the car has to be filled up with gas to make it run, or its oil changed, or my teeth brushed. I drove my father’s car out of gas when I was a teen-ager, because I didn’t know that the tank was empty when the gauge showed 1/8 full: that too came as a surprise to me, but he had long since built this knowledge—fill the tank when it gets to the ¼ mark—into his daily routine.

            In retrospect, in fact, it seemed not so much surprise that the electricity had gone out that was the appropriate response, but a weary feeling of “of course”: we should almost have expected it. After the fact, it seemed logical that this snow would have caused the problems. We live in a wooded area that hadn’t had a big snowstorm in a while; it stood to reason the branches had grown back up since the last time anyone had had to be aware of them. It was wet snow that began as rain, perhaps this froze on branches and the weight of the snow took them down.

            But all this was after the fact, as after an accident that happens so fast you have no idea what hit you, or what you hit: only in the aftermath of things can you untangle the skein that didn’t seem tangled, and figure out what happened. Indeed, had the neighbor with the four-wheel drive not been obliged to go out and had he not phoned back the report of branches down, I might not have known exactly what had caused the problem for days. As it was, general knowledge enabled me to say “the electricity is out,” and blame the snow; I could go no further.

            Like all changes that affect routine, the electricity being out was something I only articulated slowly. I awoke that morning to a sense that I was colder than usual; I pulled the blankets up and went back to sleep. Later, when the sun had come up I got out of bed and tried to turn on a light in the bathroom: nothing. Then I understood. Still, it didn’t seem to me like a major disruption in routine. The few times when we’d had power outages they had been quite temporary. I figured that by the time the rest of the family was up we’d be back in business. In the meantime making do was more a game than anything else.

            Absolutely nothing worked except the human beings in the house. We have no backups for power outages in the form of propane stove or non-electric heater; our house is on a well with a pump, so that no water came from the faucets and, past the first flush, none went down the toilets. I knew enough not to open the freezer, but as it was cold outside I figured that things in the refrigerator could be put out on the porch, if need were. So I got milk and a bowl of cereal. At least the fireplace burned wood, I reflected. I made and lit a fire, though as I consumed the cereal didn’t think that much of the heat was reaching to the other side of the room.

            As for the tropical fish, their life or death would be determined by how long the electricity stayed off, something I couldn’t control. At that point, however, I was still being optimistic: surely this wouldn’t last for long.I tried to go through the things we normally did, categorizing them into “can do” and “can’t do.” We could breathe, dress, eat, and use the toilets. We couldn’t get water, flush the toilets, stay warm without getting dressed in multiple layers or cook complicated food past left-overs. It was like looking at things from the outside, as if a Martian, all actions spread on the table and re-classified rather than merely being things in one path or another we didn’t think about—rather like packing for a trip, where it’s necessary to visualize all the things one will do and get the pajamas, bathrobe, swim suit, and multiple socks that ordinarily we wouldn’t have to think about as either we don’t use them in our normal lives or they’re ready to hand and don’t have to be thought about.

            And then the family awoke.

            We discussed the situation, dressed the children warmly, determined that we weren’t getting out of our driveway that sloped up to the road, told the children not to flush the toilet—which they chose to understand as saying to flush the toilet. We hadn’t stored water to flush the toilets, and it was only later that someone told us we could drain the hot water heater to get water for such things. For now, we knew we could continue to use the toilets without flushing them.  And then we got on with our lives, knowing that we could at least dress them in their multi-layered snow clothes and go out to play: this was a first large snowfall that Owen, 3, remembered, and certainly it was so for his younger brother. We would be fine.

            At this point we still didn’t know why the electricity was off, though we remembered seeing what had looked like lightning in the middle of the night, when we had both been awakened by strange noises outside: later we heard that a “transformer had blown up,” though we did not know what this meant. To say that it was “the snow” was the closest we could come, the way you decide that that tired feeling is “something going around,” or “something you caught from the children, who were coughing last week.”

            There were some victories: I realized I could heat leftovers for lunch in the fireplace: we had a pot that could be put directly in the fire, and I found a way to remove its rubber handle-guard, which otherwise would have melted and gone up in stinking smoke. We finally got the telephone to act normally. The alarm system had begun to hemorrhage in some odd way; there was a high-pitched ringing we almost thought was imaginary until we left the room it was strongest in and suddenly the world was mercifully silent. We managed to get through to the alarm people, who informed us it was the backup battery, and told us how to disconnect it.

            We did go out to play in the snow; this was a moderate success, as our snowman was at best rudimentary and the children’s hands got cold despite their gloves, little blocks of red ice protruding from multiple layers of puffed clothing.

            And the day wore on. We had several gallons of water in the basement, which though it tasted funny we were using. Of course bathing was out of the question; this early in the day in any case it wasn’t an issue. We established contact with the neighbors, heard about the branches, discussed the extent of the outage—extensive, so we concluded that the electric company had to know about things. But what if everyone thinks that way? We asked. I called the number in the telephone book (this was all on a Sunday) and got a recorded message saying to call back during business hours. Clearly nothing was going to happen today.

            During this period, automatic actions had become problematic, things we had taken for granted had come to the foreground and become challenges by themselves, many of which we simply lost. Getting clean was no longer the automatic background action that served as a means to other things; it had become the main thing. How to get hot water? I figured out I could remove the rubber cover from the pan’s handle and put it in the corner of the fireplace next to the burning wood. In a few minutes the water was boiling; I diluted it with some of the stored water we still had—only a few gallons—and took a sponge bath with a cup, squatting in the tub. Were there sources of food beyond the left-overs? Perhaps the boxes of protein bars in the cellar? But we weren’t that desperate, yet. Others had food; we could go out to eat once the roads were cleared.

            It was the coming to the fore of background that had suddenly become foreground that was so unnerving about this.

            Several years before I had stepped off a curb and, within 24 hours, developed a leg cramp so severe it took me literally five minutes to ease myself out of bed. I could barely drive. I dragged myself to the doctor and was misdiagnosed as having a pulled something. But as an added insurance, the doctor gave me a prescription for some physical therapy.  Within hours I had dragged myself to the therapist, who told me I had pulled nothing. He worked on me and after a single session I was considerably better. After three sessions it seemed like a bad dream, evaporating into the morning.

            That, I thought, must be what it feels like to be old, where even normal motion becomes problematic. Or infirm, or ill—all words we use to describe this strange inversion of background and foreground.

            Yet inversion isn’t the right word either. The strangest thing was to realize that until it comes to the fore, background does not in a sense even exist: that’s the taken-for-granted part. The ability to brush teeth, flush the toilet, get food out of the refrigerator—all these aren’t the main show, only things that allow the main show.

            What it suggested is that nothing we say about life can be held to be true, since it’s always possible we’re simply not seeing the things we take for granted that an abrupt alteration will bring to the fore. Wittgenstein says, “The world of the happy man is not the same as the world of the unhappy man.” This suggests the troubling possibility that each person has a different view of things—a discovery much exploited in early twentieth-century art forms. Yet the lesson of the snowstorm is far more unsettling. We can at least seem to see, simultaneously, the world-views of the happy and unhappy men, or the four views of the same robbery in Rashomon: we stand outside all four.

            But the realization that we’re never aware of background until it becomes foreground, which is something we can’t predict—that is beyond our ability to line things up and see the whole thing. We don’t know what we’re not seeing while we’re not seeing it.


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I am down to a single machine that plays videocassettes, which for a time in the l980s after my return to the States from Rwanda I bought voraciously, thinking I was stockpiling my own personal movie theater. For a while I will be able to watch them, should I be so moved, because a few machines that play them will be manufactured somewhere in the world, and someone, somewhere, will still fix them for a while—as I found the one man in town who could fix the IBM typewriters I typed my PhD dissertation on 30 years ago. Progress has begotten progress, and moved on, making the last cat’s meow faint indeed, and then inaudible.

But the saddest thing is that I didn’t end up ever looking at most of these videotapes even when I had machines to play them. I watched several handfuls at first; some I’ve used later for film classes at the US Naval Academy, where I have taught for a quarter century—and a few others I’ve watched more recently on rainy Saturday afternoons, the rare times when the family was gone. But the fact is that videocassettes didn’t turn out to offer the brave new world I had thought they would. Too much intervened, for one thing. How to move from feeding the baby to watching Eisenstein’s October or Bergman’s Persona again? How about Da Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis after the boys’ soccer game?  The ability to leave our own world for the intense alternative reality of a great film seemed to have been taken for me, immersed in my family life, where once it was as effortless as diving off the shore into the stream.

More deleterious to my interest in these frozen worlds on my shelf, however, was the very quality that had made them seem so vital: their availability to me. Because they were lined up on my shelves, there was no urgency in playing any single one, if not for the external motivation of a course I had to teach. Being my possessions rather than part of the world external to me, and fixed in time—waiting to be played; they never went away and I never left—they lacked the urgency that the “see them now before the trip back to Rwanda” films in Paris had.  Someday, I told myself, I’d watch them; for most of them “some day” never came.

Thus the problem with the videocassette turned out to be precisely what made them progress. Of course videocassettes made films available, but precisely as a result, no individual one could have the degree of urgency that the more laboriously found and more evanescent films in Parisian Left Bank cinemas had for me: all have now been downgraded from “have to see” to “on the shelf for someday.” I may have thought each videocassette would retain the pull of its cinematic big brother, but in the end there were too many of them. So I catalogued them, and forgot them: too many of a thing we enjoy individually inevitably, I discovered, results in our demoting them to a lower, background, level of interest.

This is turning out too to be the problem with the equally evanescent “progress” of the Internet—indeed, of any technological change that initially seems to give us more that turns out to be less: we can’t pay this higher level of attention we’re used to giving to more data, so we downgrade the increased data we have to the merely existent. It loses its hold on us. After all it’s here, under our control: we can look at them any time. And so, like New Yorkers who go to their graves without ever having been to the Statue of Liberty (we’ll go some day), we never do. It’s what East Germans after the fall of the Wall called “die Qual der Wahl”—the pain of choice. Things were easier when car choices were limited to two, Trabant and Wartburg. The wait list was longer for Wartburg, but what a long time looking forward to it that gave!

The rapid loss of interest on our part in things that once seemed the bee’s knees is clearest with gizmos. On one hand, the shrillness with which the newest toy (or, as it’s sold to us, necessity) of the season is shilled is intended to make us think we’ll be left behind if we don’t have it: indeed, newness itself is the commodity being sold, with people lining up the night before at stores or ordering online (itself another novelty quickly growing passé) months in advance. Yet how long does a gizmo seem indispensable? Frequently we find that they have too steep a learning curve to be worth it, entail a whole other set of problems of their own that nobody foresaw or at least talked about, or are in turn supplanted by other steps in our technological “progress” before they make much of an impact. And if Moore’s law is correct, that holds that technology alters at an ever-increasing rate, we’ll soon find that the level of “gotta have it” we can afford to offer each new gizmo will diminish too like my boredom with the too-readily-accessible videotapes, the gadget version of “donor’s fatigue,” the fact that the milk of human kindness dries up the more often it’s pulled from the teat.

Books have long ago also reached this stage of being so numerous and so available they’re just background noise.  The only books people pay attention to, if they pay attention to any, are new releases touted by celebrities, course books for students, or the book club’s selection: the rest are catalogued in libraries. They exist, but not for many people. This is of course fabulous if you have a reason for wanting one particular book, because there it usually is—or inter-library loan can get it. But the fact that there are so many means we can’t pay attention to all. Plus we can get them any time we want to. So typically we never do. The world itself no longer gives us a reason to care: this is the nature of progress.

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