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Swift and the Butler

Leo Damrosch reports the following anecdote about Jonathan Swift when he had fallen from power and had moved to Dublin to “die in a rage like a poisoned rat in a hole.”

Swift called his butler to bring ale to himself and his guests.  He observed through looking at a mirror that the butler first drank a glass of ale himself before serving them.  He said “Aha, don’t be so sharp, friend!  I saw you do that and am docking you two shillings from your board wages.”

Damrosch suggests three possible interpretations of the incident:

  1. Swift was a creepy jerk who enjoyed spying on his servants and punished them for minor infractions.
  2. Swift was generous — he didn’t have to pay them board wages at all because he gave them free food.  The butler was very well compensated.  Damrosch doesn’t draw this out but you could almost believe that Swift only gave board wages as a way of giving his servants feedback.
  3. Swift and the butler planned the whole thing to impress his guests.  Damrosch argues that the butler would have known that his employer observed him through the mirror, and would not have done something so presumptuous as to drink a glass of ale when he could be observed.

We don’t know which of these is true.  I believe though that (3) is either true or false, although we will never know.   My argument is that I could do something similar today, and even if three hundred years from now people don’t know that I did it, I still did it. (Or didn’t do it.)

(1) and (2) seem more like matters of interpretation but are not entirely subjective.  We could for example discover a diary entry from Swift where he revealed that he was or wasn’t a creepy jerk who enjoyed spying.  We could learn that his servants felt well (or ill) compensated by their board wages.

History happened. It’s not up to us if Swift connived with his butler or didn’t, lthough we may never know the truth.

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Rational Hope for Life After Death

JOANNA

Hello, Maria.

MARIA

Hello, Joanne.  It is pleasant to go for a walk on a sunny day in Studio City, California.  How much more pleasant is it to share a walk with someone such as yourself, namely, a friend who combines a sound character with a lovely face.

JOANNA

I can only agree with your sentiment, Maria, and return the kind words.  What topic shall we choose to discuss on our walk?

MARIA

It is fitting for two free women to discuss topics that pertain to the lives of the free, do you not agree?

JOANNE

I do.  Let us then eschew base concerns — the obtaining of money and boyfriends and jobs, and like matters.

MARIA

Let us.  I propose a topic which is of concern to all free mortals, being perhaps only not of concern to immortal beings, should there be any such.  I propose we discuss a thought that has occured to me and has in fact provided me comfort through many an anxious night.  Namely, I believe it is possible there may be life after death.

JOANNE

Maria, you surprise me.

MARIA

How so, Joanne?

JOANNE

You have always struck me as a woman of sound intellect and of a courageous disposition and this is one of the reasons that I value your friendship.  I can make no sense of the idea that life can continue after death, since life is the action of a material being which upon death dissolves.  What meaning can there be in the notion of life continuing after death?

MARIA

It occurs to me that I do not understand how it is that I exist now.  Each moment seems to me a precious gift vouchsafed upon me by I do not know what.  If it is nonetheless true that I do exist now, how can it be any harder to understand that at some future time I will exist as well.

JOANNE

Allow me to re-state your point so I am be assured of understanding it.  Are you saying that just as at some time you did not exist and now you do, so you believe in some future state you will exist in a different fashion than you currently do, although not one that you can currently make sense of.

MARIA

You restate my point better than I am able to state it myself, as an experienced musician is able to take up a tune hummed by one less skilled at the musical art and work it up into a pleasing theme.

JOANNE

But although I have restated it more clearly to my limited comprehension, nevertheless I find I am unable to understand it.    I can understand an analogy between two things that exist.  I can understand an analogy between a tennis ball and the Earth for example as both resemble each other in some respects, namely sphericality, while at the same time they are dissimilar in other respects such as size and composition.  But how can I understand an analogy between our current state of life, including as it does everything we have ever experienced, and some supposed other state?  The other state seems to be dissimilar in all ways that can be conceived.

MARIA

Your point hits a mark, but perhaps not the mark you intend.

JOANNE

How so?  If I have failed to think clearly as a friend I believe your responsibility to correct me, and if you, out of a misplaced kindness, failed to apply a fittingly astringent punishment to as it were the bare back of my mind, I would count you as no better than an enemy.

MARIA

Then I will apply these scourges quickly in the manner of a physician rather than slowly in the manner of a masseuse, achieving my result emphasizing effectiveness rather than pleasure.  Although you cannot conceive of the analogy that I present it is in no way correct that those analogies that cannot be conceived cannot nevertheless be apropos.  For example if I discuss to a child how he will feel when he achieves romantic feelings — i speak of a child who has not reached puberty —

JOANNE

I understand–

MARIA

I can state that his love for his mate in the future will be like his love for his mother.   This analogy will be entirely beyond him.  It is nevertheless true.  Just as dinosaurs when subjected to the weight of the Earth over millions of years become the petroleum that fuels our cars…

-END OF FRAGMENT

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Adam’s Sin Was Not Disobedience to God, it was Blaming Eve

I heard this explanation from R. Weinberg and it seems correct because disobedience to authorities is not always a bad thing , but blaming others for our mistakes and avoiding our own responsibility for them always is.   One can read the whole Bible as a consequence of this mistake; a series of generations projecting their mistakes on people outside themselves to blame rather than taking steps to diagnose their problems and rectify them.   Blame takes our awareness of a problem and blinds us to  its real cause and what we can do to solve it.  It replaces psychology with perpetual war.

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Don’t Try to Convince People of Anything

  1. If they don’t believe it already, there is no reason your telling them to believe it will make them believe it
  2. If they believe it because you say so then they are going to be dependent upon you in an unhealthy way
  3. You might encourage them to lie to you about what they believe
  4. You might encourage them to lie to themselves about what they believe
  5. You might be wrong and you will have misleading them on your conscience.

It might be okay to convince people about factual matters, or matters in which they can check for themselves easily.  But the “no convincing” rule definitely applies to questions of religious, artistic, or political opinion.

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The Things I Don’t Know Yet

  1. The things I know already include the things that have worked for me.
  2. They also include the configuration of things that make me what I am.
  3. The sort of thing that you know when you know me includes the things I know.
  4. The flow that makes me is interrupted by the rocks of what I know.  These rocks have formed eddies and currents and these eddies and currents and little riptides and whorls are what makes me the thing you know when you step into my stream.
  5. But the things I don’t know yet.  Do I know that they will be like the things I already know?
  6. For me to say that means that my next step will be like my previous steps.
  7. And of course my next step will be like my previous step, because if my last step was at the bottom of the sea then my next step is not on the top of the mountain.  If it were would it be my step rather than someone else’s?
  8. Nevertheless what I don’t know yet might be completely different from what I already know.  It might also change me and expose gaps, lacks, and ignorance which I don’t yet know either.  In the metaphor developed above in (4) the flow of life will actually move the rocks, dislodging some downstream, and changing the pattern of whorls and eddies and turbulence that defines me.  Perhaps even creating large pools of still water or moving water with a smooth surface.
  9. For you to know me you might have to know what I don’t know yet.
  10. For me to know you I have to not know you but I have to be willing to take a step with you into the unknown.
  11. I am unknown to you and you are unknown to me but the way you are unknown to me is your way of being unknown, and my way of being unknown to you is my way of being unknown.
  12. Just as there are as many ways not to say words as there are to say them. Yours mine and the ways we will discover together, if we are granted the chance.
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Where Death is, I Am Not

These are some things that happened in the 90s when I was a temp typist for a re-insurance firm.     The re-insurance firm was headed up by two guys, a Swiss guy whose name escapes me and a corpulent guy with a beefsteak charlie mustache named Mr. Banfer.  The Swiss guy would travel the country and write down insurance quotes on little slips of paper which I would type up, but ninety per cent of my job was dealing with Mr. Banfer.

Mr. Banfer said “gumption” “Moxie” and “Doggone it.”  I discussed this with Michaela who was some kind of support staff down the hall and she said it was because he was old-timey.  She was Russian.  I said no, the time table doesn’t work out.  Mr. Banfer was not old enough to actually hail from a time when people said “moxie” and doggone it.  I said it was because he wanted to have a jokey persona so he can put the support staff at our ease without actually having to learn anything about us as real human beings. We both agreed he was an asshole.

But look.  Let me be honest.

Just because Mr. Banfer is an asshole is no reason for me to go into his office and read the notes he takes when he talks to his troubled son, T.L. Why is he called T.L.? There are 26 squared number of two initial names young people can have. Some are pretty common –A.J., D.J. – some are rare – MK – but nobody is known as T.L. As far as I know other than Mr. Banfer’s troubled son. If I tell you what is in the notes about his troubled son I will draw you into a circle of guilt, like people who witnessed a murder and didn’t do anything about it, like people who share secrets they have no right to know but listened anyway. I’m comparing something to itself, which is like comparing something to itself. Believe me, I know.

In the secret notes about the troubled son there is a discussion, a brief one but memorable about a weird civilization where the people don’t have skin and instead have something analogous to sex where they overlap with each other and experience something a bit like pain and a bit like pleasure. There is a lot of discussion as to whether pain and pleasure are different experiences – like if you have an orgasm is that the same sort of thing as when you have a really bad pain in your foot and it goes away. And T.L. Explored these issues by creating a world where creatures without skin overlap and they have a feeling of vulnerable connection that is so intense it is difficult to know whether or not to use our words pleasure or pain to describe it.

I ran my fingers across Michaela’s lip and I realized what an intense thing it is to be a woman. I realized that compared to them we are ephemeral, ephemeridae, walking ideas, while they are the people entertaining the ideas, deciding whether or not to think us from potential into being.

Because honestly almost any woman fertile could become pregnant in the next five minutes.  Put your hand on the shoulder of that drifter and invite him into a private space — behind a hedge or in a bathroom, and there is no question that she will be able to achieve a limited physical immortality.  The question is — with whom?   Can you do better than that drifter?

But for men the possibility of complete erasure of the genome is very real.  Life is a perpetual audition and if you fail it you are extinguished for good.

For good!

Michaela!

You select us from the pool of possibilities and when you do that they decide which of us will have descendants in the next generation and which of us will extinguish our lines (going back to the first hominid) in us. Who will live and who will die. No wonder they pretend to be what they pretend to be, when they have the weight of gods upon their shoulders, deciding as they do each new creation, each new generation.

Michaela no wonder we are so needy!  No wonder we are so desparate, Michaela, michaela, michaela, michaela, michaela!

When they fired me I walked out to find that snow was falling and melting above where the subways made the sidewalks warm. I really made such a brief impression upon the world for a moment I realized what they had all been trying to tell me. “Eric, it’s okay. You don’t impinge upon us enough for good or bad for pleasure or pain for us to be very angry at you at all.”

At least not for long.

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Learning About Crying By Reading a Book

I once read a book about teenage boys who would share pornographic novels and I thought that was weird.  I thought nobody would do that — it’s really personal to share your erotic fantasies with some guy sitting next to you in social studies class.  Even if you play dungeons and dragons together it stuck me as implausible.  “I achieved erotic transports with this.  Maybe you would enjoy it.”  Nobody does that, I thought, but then I talked to my friend Dan and he said that he and his friends had maintained a small lending library of pornographic books and called themselves “The Horny Porno Club”.

Maybe a similar situation, maybe not, is that when I was a child and young teenager I couldn’t cry, so I tried to learn how to cry by reading books.  The best books were the ones that made me cry a little.  Sometimes they made me cry a little by describing people who could cry, or things that made the author cry.  They didn’t make me cry but I would cry about the fact that they couldn’t make me cry.  A little.

Looking back on it I think if I had been willing to have an analogy to Dan’s horny porno club but for crying, my life would have turned out very differently.  I would have been able to say to my friends “I had an incredible cry last night, reading this. It was awesome dude!  Want to borrow it?”

But I never did anything remotely like that with my male friends.  I needed to find a girlfriend and then lose her to cry.  I think I was, perhaps unfairly, asking her to do that for me, to be a person who would do the job of a book that would teach me how to cry.

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