Month: October 2008

Best Costume

I love Highland Falls on Halloween. I love the little kids with their parents who come early, while it’s still light out, including the absolute tiniest witch I’ve ever seen, with her even littler brother the spider.

(Halloween etiquette question, perhaps related to an implicit writing-teacher-etiquette question for those who work in computer labs: when you distribute candy and talk to the shorter kids, do you stoop, squat, or neither?)

And I love the big families and groups who come later, after the parade, sometimes with not-quite-finished or uncertain costumes, and how watchful and careful they are of their family members and friends, and how friendly. How connected.

And I love the last few after-eight waves of various diehards (including the no-costume dad who always asks for candy too, but I was a little worried that he was drunk this year: not cool) and teenage goths.

But this year’s absolute best, and most mystifying: at about 6:50, a skinny eight- or nine-year old boy, all in black, with a black felt western-style hat (think Stetson), black domino, and a big scythe.


You win, kid. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to ask.

Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.


Here’s something that’s happened with lots of sleep and medication:

The first book — the one, mine, to be written — introduced itself, forcefully. Came right in and sat down in one of the wing chairs and helped itself to tea and wouldn’t go away. Tells me about structure when I feed the cats. Drops idle remarks about past and present, snarks about my inadequacies with Marx as a primary source, makes threatening remarks about exactly when the first intellectual model of the information economy broke, rolls its eyes and shuts up when I ask the (damn) classroom question. Roundly mocks chapters 1, 2, and 5 of the dissertation, and proposes they’re best left behind, especially with all the old stuff on class, and I’ve got a new focus anyway.

And it’s there, in something different from what might have been its old shape and rhythms, but insistent:

Write me, it says.

The Weight

Started coughing September 19. Saw the doc September 24: tentative diagnosis of pneumonia. Chest x-ray confirmed it September 26. Medicated, slept, sick leave. Back to work October 6. Out of breath, easily winded. I’m moving like John McCain. Can’t take stairs. Saw the doc again today: second x-ray October 8 showed the gunk in my left lung had shrunk from the size of a fist to the size of a walnut.

So all this week, people at work have been saying, “Wow, Mike. You look like you lost 20 pounds.” Sure, I say to myself: I know my eyes and cheeks are a little sunken, but I’ve been eating. Soup and fruit, mostly, but hearty stuff too. Eating regularly, three a day. So I get on the scale.

Yeah. Holy shit. I’m down 22 pounds in two weeks.

Palin’s Resemblance

Slate culture editor Meghan O’Rourke nails it, in as apt an analogy as I’ve seen: Sarah Palin is a character from a George Saunders short story. If you’ve read Saunders’ fiction, you know exactly what O’Rourke’s talking about; if you haven’t, Saunders writes a world shaped by the brand-name overconsumption, with its inhabitants tragicomically resigned and adapted to the dictatorial regime of consumerism. In O’Rourke’s words, Palin “buys into a whole vocabulary of signifiers that often don’t signify very much, and she scaffolds that lexicon with winks, smiles, and carefully mimed gestural reinforcement.”

It’s an attractive, pleasant, carefully calibrated empty clockwork face. That’s what I’d say I saw last night.