Is it just me, or when people use words like Baroque or Gothic do you wonder whether or not if the words are used to indicate a specific historical style or if they’re used in a more vernacular way.

Now that Halloween is over, I’m back on my castle kick. I will probably, sometime in the near future, take a trip to Europe with a particular interest in Medieval structures. My particular interest is in the early Middle Ages, but since there’s less from that time period, I will probably wind up including sites that are a little bit later in time. When I was at that late childhood age that kids develop a fascination with knights in shining armor, I happened to go to the library and find the relevant King Arthur books checked out. Instead, I wound up reading the Song of Roland. My romantic knight fascination therefore has a decidedly French feel to it. It’s also a little bit more historical, and very much rooted in the early Middle Ages. I think it’s something in my fastidious brain (as opposed to body – remember, I’m the sexy sloth) that mixing up different historical eras has always bugged me a bit. I guess that’s why I’m always asking, “Do you mean Gothic or gothic?”

If anyone has any historical sites worth seeing, I’d love to hear about them. My main direction is France, but that’s mainly because I’m comfortable enough with the language that I feel at ease going places that might not be a main destination for foreign travelers. My first trip to Europe was to Austria and Italy and it was very poorly planned and was very stressful. Later I went to France and there’s such a dramatic difference when you can ask complicated questions – and understand the answers! If I go places outside of a Francophone or Anglophone area, it needs to be well planned. For France, I could just get on a plane and worry about what happens when I get there.

It’s funny, when I was younger, I didn’t have that strong an interest in traveling. I did a little bit. That trip to Italy and Austria I mentioned was my first opportunity to go overseas and I jumped on it. I wanted to go places earlier, but finding a traveling companion was always a bit of a problem. Now, I’ve got three trips in mind. One is a hiking trip to Utah. Another is this early Medieval Europe trip. I’ve been looking at the cost of flights to Nairobi. Oh, yeah, I have a trip to Florida planned as well. So that’s four. I feel that as I get older and know more about the world, there’s more that I want to see. I also have gotten a better idea of what is really good to see in person as opposed to reading about or looking at pictures. I still think the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen was Venice. The thing that was so impressive about Venice is that it’s 360° beauty. It’s not one picture or one sight. You really do get more from being there than from seeing a picture. That’s why people say things like the Eiffel Tower is a disappointment. It’s not really any more impressive than it is in photos. In fact, it’s exactly like it is in photos. Now, there are lots of great things about Paris. I think it’s a wonderful city, but the big monuments that you see on post cards are not really what makes it enjoyable. One convenient thing about Paris is that the big monuments are located at major crossroads and you can almost plan your trip and see them by accident. But I don’t really care to see the major monuments. It’s the smaller revelations, like: “Golly, the Seine is a lot smaller than I thought.” Or standing along the Cap Gris Nez, looking out towards the water as the sun is setting and saying, “What’s that white line out there? Is that… no, it can’t be. Can you see England from here?” (Yes, you can.) It’s almost hard to predict what will strike you, but you probably haven’t seen it on a postcard.

Oh, right, speaking of Venice, the Venice Carnival is something I’d really love to go to. Of course I’ll make a costume. There are days I think I should have learned Italian. You may be thinking that, if I know French, Italian should be easy. However, I once tried taking a Spanish class and it was almost like there was a short-circuit in my head. Everything came out French. The teacher actually thought I was French because of the sorts of mistakes I was making.

It reminds me of the time I had an Anglophone Canadian compliment me on my English. Since I was living in Quebec at the time, he assumed I was a French speaker. Yeah, my English is so good I sound as if I come from New Jersey. I still can’t help wondering what he was assuming about my accent.

Getting back to where I started, it seems that the large portions of the Český Krumlov Castle are indeed Baroque, which is just as well since the Czech Republic is not currently on my itinerary. I mean that as no disrespect for the country. It’s just that I already have four trips planned and haven’t yet figure out how to pay for those!

Although I say that my interest is in the early Medieval period, I confess a special fascination for those towns whose roots go far back enough to disappear into prehistory.

Enough rambling for one day!

So, my man cave has a sewing machine in it. You want to make something of it?

Right now, my living room has been turned into a temporary man cave as I desperately try to get something entirely fabulous and over-the-top done for Halloween. Obviously, blogging has fallen by the wayside. Housekeeping? Coding? My never ending novel? Dead armadillos one and all.

I’ve been reading a bit in various places and had some off-web discussions about the whole “cultural appropriation” brouhaha and with Halloween coming it seems like the perfect time to write a couple of posts about it. Unfortunately, Halloween is the closest I come to having a religious holiday, so I’m up to my neck in fabric and led lights. I’m hoping to have animatronic flappy wings this year, but the skeletal framework bent when force was applied. Last night, I glued some reinforcement to the frame, but I’m not feeling hopeful that it will work. The concept is sound. The problem is always in how to fabricate it. I know one day I’m going to wake up and find the hidden door that leads to the real man cave, the suburban garage fully outfitted as a workshop that is attached to my itty bitty Manhattan apartment. Ooh, the fabulous things I will make!

Please pardon me it this post is a little disjointed. I’m writing it during costume making breaks. Personally, the only costumes I find offensive are store bought ones. There’s a side of me that I don’t want to entirely deprive the overworked and undercreative of any fun whatsoever, but, to me, Halloween costumes are a little bit like Christmas cookies. A large part of the point lies in the making, not the wearing or eating.

I’m not a big fan of the sexy whatever costumes. Halloween is supposed to be about dressing up as something you’re not, so, obviously me dressing up as sexy totally undermines that point. 😉

My most humiliating costume is when my sister forced me to dress up as one of the members of Kiss. She and her friends liked Kiss (And you wonder why I insist on writing anonymously. It’s not so I can insult people. It’s so I don’t get beat up by my big sister.) but they were only three. They needed a fourth. Somewhere, my mother as a photo of me with my face painted like Ace Freely. Now you all know my deepest, darkest secret. I have nothing left to hide.

Do you remember a few years ago when the big Halloween panic wasn’t over cultural appropriation but over costumes that were too sexy? Suddenly they look like such innocent times.

Well, I hate to say it, but I think the wings aren’t going to flap. I’m having a little too much difficulty simply physically making the object. I think it would work if I could physically make it. Since I don’t have a man cave, I try to make things that can be fabricated with exacto knives and small hand tools. I seem to have mislaid my Dremel during my last move, so I don’t even have that at the moment.

Since Halloween is only a few days away, and according to my schedule the flappy wings had to work today or not at all, I’m going to have to regroup and just try to make it look good. It will have wings, but they won’t flap. I throw a few leds on it and call it a day.

For now, I need to sit with my coffee and relax. You know how when you’re working on something small and you’re whole body gets hunched over and all your muscles tighten up… well, that’s how I am at the moment.

I think it was Erika Christakis, ironically, who wrote something a number of years ago about how our societies anxieties get projected onto Halloween. When I was a kid, it was neighbors who might try to poison you with tainted candy. For a long time there were stories about people putting razor blades in apples, although I don’t know that that had ever happened. (I looked it up, and there were no cases of poisoning, but there have been a few cases of people putting pins or needles in candy.)

Since Halloween, with its ghouls and ghosts, is obviously about confronting anxieties, it’s not really surprising that it becomes a vehicle of society’s other anxieties as well. A few years ago, it was overly sexy Halloween costumes. An obsession of 2011, by 2012 we were getting think pieces about how criticizing women for sexy costumes was also bad. Last year, seemed to be a high point of hysteria over culturally appropriative costumes.

From an article from Psychology Today by Kit Yarrow:

Costumes are a way to explore who you aren’t. For example, it’s unlikely a waitress will dress up as a sexy waitress – or any other type of waitress for that matter. Okay, yes, there has to be at least a tiny bud of interest in the persona and character behind the costume chosen, but that doesn’t mean there is a secret wish to become that character.

“Young adults are in the stage of psychological development where trying on different roles has strong allure – it’s their job to figure out who they are. Halloween is the ultimate role play day, so it’s no wonder nearly three-quarters of 18-24 year olds plan to wear a costume. The percentage of adults dressing up dwindles a bit with every age cohort. It slides to half of 35-44 year-olds and down to one-quarter of 55-64 year-olds. By that age people know who they are and role play feels less exciting.

The writer goes on to say:

Choosing and crafting a costume takes imagination and creativity. It’s strutting around your mental assets and interests rather than your abs or cleavage – though it’s possible to do both.

I confess, that’s a big part of my motivation. It’s why I wanted wings that flap in the first place.

According to another article about the psychology behind Halloween costumes,

They reveal hidden personality traits, reflecting our inner urges on the one day it’s okay to abandon societal rules and regulations.

“It’s an opportunity to express things we’re normally not allowed to express,” says G. Dennis Rains, a psychology professor at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pa. “It’s permission to let your underside or dark side come out. We can release what we normally keep under wraps.”

The writer, Angela Haupt, continues:

Sally Foster, a recently retired psychology professor and dean, organizes a Halloween party each year at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, Calif. More fun than the requisite trick-or-treating? Analyzing student and faculty costumes. “The adults who wear really sexy costumes are usually the ones who are mild-mannered in their daily life—modest people who aren’t overtly sexual,” Foster says. She recalls one such woman who dressed as a black cat, purring her way through the night in a body-hugging costume. “Everyone wanted to touch her. Her costume was just so luscious,” Foster says. “She got to live out an aspect of herself that she ordinarily wouldn’t show.”

Which might explain why I’ve never gone as a sexy sloth – a tad too close to home, I suspect.

She also quotes J. Buzz Von Ornsteiner, “We can finally unleash them—incognito. It makes us feel like we can do whatever we want, without any consequences or repercussions.” However, she adds, “Cautionary note: Halloween isn’t always repercussion-free. Photos of controversial costumes have made their way onto Facebook, costing the wearers their jobs.”

It’s not surprising that Puritans of all eras dislike Halloween. Another holiday the Puritans didn’t like was Christmas. Maybe I can figure out how to make flappy wings on an angel by the end of the year.

So, what am I thinking about today? Halloween!

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my favorite holiday is Halloween. In my teens and twenties, I was something of a flamboyant dresser. Everyday was Halloween. When did I get so respectable?

The village Halloween parade finally announced their theme. This year, it’s reverie – which pretty much leaves it wide open. Of course there’s no reason that you have to dress according to the theme. For me, it’s just a starting off point to try to think of something inventive. I have a few different ideas kicking around in my head. I haven’t quite decided what to do yet, but I’m starting to narrow it down.

As it happens, I was looking to make some molds for another project.

As an aside: If you didn’t know. I love projects. The messier the better. The only thing that gets in my way is living in a small Manhattan apartment. Even then, I usually just go ahead and make a big mess all over my coffee table. I want to live in another dimension in which my apartment is a small, modern, sleek thing, but inside it, somehow, there is a big garage or basement with a slop sink, a work bench, all sorts of tools for when I’m feeling macho. It’s kind of like my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By day, or rather by weekday evening, I’m a nice, respectable, mild-mannered, sophisticated urban woman. Weekends, I want to retreat to my man cave.

Where the hell did that “man cave” thing come from anyway? Why don’t we have woman caves? (Besides the obvious joke that we carry one with us. But it’s too small for power tools!) How did a “room of her own” become a “room of his own?” Many of the companies from which I’ve bought my supplies tend to have projects for “man caves.” It sort of irritates me a little. I really hate the fact that so many people think that because I was born with a vagina I’m supposed to have a very definite set of likes and dislikes. Lately, as in the past few years, the damned thing has seen remarkably little use anyway. And not for lack of trying. That guy I gave my phone number to never called. I’ve given up trying online dating, although I toy with the idea once every couple of months. The truth is, I’m too old for men to want to have anything to do with. Guys a few years older than I am drop not so subtle hints that they would like someone even younger. Worse yet, if they can’t get someone younger, they’d rather masturbate to pictures than sleep with someone near their own age.

Eh, I don’t want to go there. It’s all a bunch of whining and it never changes. I could put up the same damned post about my sexual frustrations at least once a month. My last few attempts were such humiliating failures, I’m not sure I want to try again unless a man seems genuinely interested. I thought about writing about my last several attempts at sex. I had a pretty good sex life when I was younger. My recent experiences, however, were awful. I found myself asking, has something in the culture changed or have I reached a different stage of life and now people behave differently? They were awful in weird ways. As I said before, they were oddly humiliating. That’s sort of a new experience for me and to have that happen three times in a row with three different men is odd. Actually, since then there has been some fairly routine sex that was okay. So, I guess I should count that. Of course, to explain the bad sex and what happened would involve a pretty extreme level of self-exposure. I’m not sure anyone really wants to hear it.

Then maybe it was just bad luck. We all have a bad streak now and again, don’t we?

It was easier when I was young and attractive. It probably shouldn’t be that way, but when you know you’re the sort of woman men want you can behave with a certain level of confidence. Also, men treat you with respect. You’re a valuable commodity. They’re afraid to blow it. When you’re older and commensurately less attractive, men take you for granted. The don’t really care if you walk away. What makes it so annoying is that they’ll still go out on a date with you, but they won’t treat you well. They’ll be very critical. And sex is suddenly all about their needs. Suck their cock and leave. Or worse yet, take it up the ass. So, what’s in it for me? Where’s my pleasure?

You’d think something or someone triggered that outburst, but not really. This goes through my head on a regular basis. I just keep it to myself because to whine about the same thing over and over is just boring.

How did we get from Halloween to here? Oh, right, projects.

I used to feel like I could make my own way in life. Be my own person. Define myself the way I want to be defined. Now, everything is identity, identity, identity. But they don’t mean identity and any sense of the word as I used to understand it. Identity is just a code word for the little box they want to shove you in. It’s the ultimate result of commodification of everything. We’ve let the way advertisers and marketers view the world seep into the way we see ourselves.

So, I don’t like being forced to do things that are defined as women’s things because of my genitalia. Does that mean that I’m not “cis-gendered?” I don’t think so. When I read that Facebook had a huge number of gender options, my first reaction was to think that was good. Then I thought about it more. There are a few options that might describe me more accurately than cisgender woman, androgynous, bigender, gender fluid. (Gender questioning might fit, but it reminds me too much of the “bi-curious” thing which has always irritated the hell out of me. That’s a rant for another day, I suppose. But it’s probably outdated these days anyway.) You know, I don’t want a damned flag. I want a life. All the options might make it seem as if our perceptions are being refined, and maybe that’s good, but there’s a down side. (If you haven’t gotten used to the fact that I don’t see the world in black and white… I don’t have a conclusion for that if. I guess you’ll be disappointed.) When we only had two big boxes, male and female, it meant non-conformists (gender non-conforming and otherwise) had to slip out of the boxes. We found ourselves in a great big territory with no maps and no markings. We defined ourselves however we wanted to be defined. Now, the “straights,” for lack of a better term,” have just made better boxes. I don’t feel like any of those terms actually improve my life. I don’t want to be trapped in a ready-made identity, confined in a thing like an iron maiden. I don’t need or want other people to validate me. I can validate myself. My identity is who I am inside and it’s okay if you don’t have a word for it. I don’t need a name, or a flag.

We need to make lives that we want to live everyday as a subject, and how we portray that to other people as an object is a consequence. All these words put that order in reverse.

A couple of weeks ago, I started with the idea of writing down whatever comes into my head for about an hour each day in order to improve my fluency with writing. I’ve let it drop a bit since my trip to New Jersey, so now I’m going to try to pick it back up.

This has coincided with several other similar efforts. I am also cleaning the apartment for one hour each day. That includes laundry and dishes. I’ve fallen behind… Actually, can you even say that you’ve fallen behind when that is your permanent state. Anyway, my place is a mess and the idea of cleaning it all in one fell swoop is overwhelming, so I’ve been doing it bit by bit, one hour every day. I’ve been more dutiful in that regard than I have been with the writing. Still, sometimes at forty-five minutes I find my attention wavering. Housecleaning is so difficult. I think it has the wrong level of mental engagement for my taste. Too engaging for your mind to totally wander without affecting your ability to clean well, but not absorbing enough for the time to pass without noticing. I find that I keep checking the clock. “Am I done yet?” “Am I done yet?”

The other thing I’ve been doing, and pardon me if I’ve already mentioned it, is programming for one hour a day. I realized that I hadn’t done any programming in a while. I wanted to make a little tool to make my sister’s life easier, and it was like pulling teeth. I’d become terribly rusty. So, I decided that I would program for at least one hour a day. This has, of course, just the opposite problem as the housecleaning. I find it very absorbing and I usually do it for as long as I can, meaning until my eyes are crossing and I need to go to bed. I’m still terribly rusty, however. Far from improving my skills, I’m reclaiming skills I lost.

I’ve set myself about the little task of make a half a dozen games. These are casual games, and they’re basically copies of things I’ve seen elsewhere. If I get any brilliant ideas, I’ll be glad to do them, but right now the point isn’t to come up with a clever game so much as it is to start programming again. So far, I’ve made two little ones, a memory game… and something else I am forgetting. Oh, yes, a code breaking game.

So, now I’m working on little game number three. It seemed just as simple as the other two games… actually, I realized it was slightly more difficult, but, still, it’s not a difficult game. I should be able to knock it out in a couple of days. Well, needless to say, that has not been the case. What’s bothering me though is not the time it’s taking. What I’ve done is really ugly.

First of all, I cobbled together something that I thought would work. It was really good practice. I haven’t had to do a traversal of a graph in a long time. It’s one of those things you think you know, then you try typing it out. You look at what you’ve typed and say to yourself, “What’s to prevent me from revisiting that node a million times.”

“Well, nothing.”

“Okay, let’s think this through again.”

I know people have solved these problems before and I can just look at a reference, but I find that I remember it better if I try to hammer it out myself first.

So, I did that, and I was happy enough with it. I did look at other people’s work. There’s a happy medium between trying to work it out yourself so that you understand and not reinventing the wheel.

The next stage was to cobble together some sort of GUI (Graphical User Interface) to see if it worked. I believe most of my readers don’t program, so let me say that I was doing it according to a pattern called “Model-View-Controller.” The “view”, in this case is the GUI, which allows the user to interact with the program. What I had done thus far was mostly the model. Now, you know that parts of it aren’t going to work, but you assume some, hopefully most, of it will work. Unfortunately, nothing was displaying at all. I was having a hard time finding, in everything I’d already written, where the problem was.

So, I did an absurdly simple version. Since then, I’ve been adding pieces back into it. Now, it is all messy and ugly. I add a bit of the functionality back, and then I need to be able to show it to the user. Then I add something onto the GUI. I have a whole bunch of nested “if… else” statements. I’m not done, but the part I’ve done is working as expected. I guess I can try to clean it up and make it more elegant afterwards. Still, I feel slightly dissatisfied. I’m not sure I’d want to show anyone the source code as it is. It’s about as messy as my apartment. Somehow, that seems fitting.

Beyond one hour cleaning and one hour writing, there are other things in my life I’d like to improve. I think I should add one hour exercising and an hour playing the piano. That’s five hours already and I haven’t even done any work yet! I want more hours in my day. Life is not fair, is it?

Maybe that’s why I don’t like to go to bed. Sometimes I joke that I’m on a thirty hour a day schedule. Unfortunately, that’s not really a joke. My sleep schedule slowly shifts. Each day, I go to bed a little later and each day I wake up a little later. The worst days are when my schedule is completely backward from the rest of the world. It’s no problem at all as long as I have no appointments, but if I have to interact with the rest of the world during this time period I can get a little stressed out.

Last week, we went to go see Mark Morris’ dance company and a couple of days before I started making an effort to get my sleep schedule set so I’d be wide awake between seven-thirty in the evening and ten o’clock. I didn’t entirely succeed. Normally, I like Mark Morris a lot. They were performing three new dances all set to the music of Mozart. It started seeming repetitive sometime during the third dance and I struggled to pay attention.

I was hoping to get my sister to do a dance review as a guest post, but I guess that’s not going to happen.

Do any of you have favorite, living, choreographers?

That’s New Jersey, the state on the Atlantic coast of North America, not the island in the English Channel.

Okay, that was quite a lot of work. My apologies for any errors.

Last week, I went to take some photos in Riverside Park. Unfortunately, I forgot my equipment which would allow me to take extreme close-ups, so I went back a couple of days ago. Normally, for the sake of download speeds, I put up optimized photos, frequently in smaller sizes. Since some of the bug pictures are fun to see at a larger scale, I’ve decided to put up larger versions of a few of them. For that reason, I’m putting most of them “below the fold.” Here’s a flower teaser.


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Yesterday, I brought up the subject of social class. One interesting thing about the internet is that when you have people reading what you write in other parts of the world, it makes you stop and define what you are saying a little bit more precisely sometimes.

Many societies have had hierarchies. In Europe in the Middle Ages there were Royalty, Hereditary Nobility, Non-Hereditary Nobility, Freemen and Serfs. Social class was baked into the laws. The word privilege comes from the Latin word privilegium, meaning a law pertaining to an individual that gives some advantage. In the Middle Ages, privileges were laws that applied to a particular strata of society, variously called ranks or estates. Sumptuary laws decreed that people couldn’t wear articles of clothing above their station. People in the lower classes could not own land. Some groups were exempted from some taxes. Different groups were allowed or disallowed roles in governing, and so on. It was not directly related to wealth. Some peasants could become quite wealthy.

With the rise of cities, a new class began to emerge, the bourgeoisie.

In the 17th and 18th cent., the bourgeoisie supported principles of constitutionality and natural right, against the claims of divine right and against the privileges held by nobles and prelates. The English, American, and French revolutions derived partly from the desire of the bourgeoisie to rid itself of feudal trammels and royal encroachments on personal liberty and on the rights of trade and property. In the 19th cent., the bourgeoisie, triumphantly propounding liberalism, gained political rights as well as religious and civil liberties. Thus modern Western society, in its political and also in its cultural aspects, owes much to bourgeois activities and philosophy.

A bit of free association… Boy, do I ever love Ingres!

So, to some extent, today’s social classes in Europe and her legacy cultures outside of Europe proper are derived from those older European ranks.

Most famously, Karl Marx took a look at that history and derived his notions about history and class struggle, which I won’t go into here because other people have explained it so much better than I could in a short paragraph.

I’m brought back to the book I mentioned the other day, The Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch. Lasch points out that nineteenth century perceptions of social stratification were not the same as we have today. Robert Rantoul was a lawyer and politician who lived from 1805 to 1852.

Robert Rantoul thought he was stating the obvious when he told an audience of working men that “society, as you very well know, is divided into two classes – those who do something for their living, and those who do not.” These terms, staples of nineteenth-century political discourse, did not necessarily refer to the privileged classes at the top of the social scale and the hardworking but impoverished masses at the bottom. The class of “idlers” included vagabonds and beggars as well as bankers and speculators, while the category of productive workers, as Rantoul defined it, was broad enough to include not only those who worked with their hands but anyone who “superintends the employment of capital which diligence and prudence have enable him to acquire.” In the language of nineteenth -century producerism, “labor” and “capital” did not mean what they mean to us. The term “capitalist” was reserved for those who, producing nothing, lived off speculative profits, while the “laboring class,” as a Democratic party broadside explained, referred to “the producers of wealth; the yeomanry who till the soil; mechanics, manufacturers, operatives, traders, whose labor sustains the state.” Whigs no less than Jacksonian Democrats took an expansive view of the “working classes,” defined by Levi Lincoln as the “practical agriculturist and husbandman, the manufacturer, and the mechanic.” Rufus Choate considered it appropriate to speak of the “laborious, trading, and business portions of the community” in the same breath. Daniel Webster claimed that “nine tenths of the whole people belong to the laborious, industrious, and productive classes.” They typically owned a little capital, he said, but no so much “as to render them independent without personal labor.” Those who “combine capital with their labor” were referred to interchangeably as working-class and middle-class.

Levi Lincoln, Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster were all politicians during the first half of the nineteenth century. There were two Levi Lincolns, father and son. I’m not sure which one Lasch has in mind.

In Lasch’s book, it is the upper middle class that is highly criticized.

The upper middle class, the heart of the new professional and managerial elites, is defined, apart from its rapidly rising income, not so much by its ideology as by a way of life that distinguishes it, more and more unmistakably, from the rest of the population.

Since this discussion of class was started with yesterday’s post about Aaron M. Renn’s essay about J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, it is worth noting here that the upper middle class is the one to which Vance migrated.

Class is a difficult subject to pin down and people disagree quite a bit about how many classes there are and who belongs to which, but I’m going to have to leave it here for today.

To coffee or not to coffee? That’s always the question when I wake up at an odd hour and I look at the clock and I’ve had less than my usual amount of sleep. Do I resign myself to being awake for the day and get myself some coffee, or do I hope that I will fall back asleep soon. I woke up about an hour ago. I managed to fall back to sleep for about forty-five minutes, so I guess it’s coffee now.

There was an interesting article on the City Journal website the other day. I like reading the City Journal because it’s one of the few outlets truly interested in making life in the cities work well that leans towards being conservative. It’s not healthy that much of the interest in our cities comes only from the left. When that happens, assumptions can calcify into truisms and approaches that have failed to work continue to be repeated. So, even when I disagree with it, I find the City Journal to be a breath of fresh air. It’s also healthy for conservatism because the people writing for it take seriously issues and populations that conservatives often dismiss.

So the article in mind is “Culture, Circumstance and Agency: Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy” by Aaron M. Renn. It touches on several of the themes that often swirl around in my head regularly.

I hesitated to read the article because I thought it was going to be another empathy challenged, morally superior strutting self-aggrandizement like David French’s defense of Kevin Williamson. In fact, I was quite wrong.

Hillbilly Elegy, the book Renn reviews, is a memoir. The New York Times calls it “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass.” The Times continues:

“Hillbilly Elegy,” in my mind, divides into two components: the family stories Mr. Vance tells — most of which are no doubt better experienced on the page than they were in real life — and the questions he raises. Chief among them: How much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortunes?

In Mr. Vance’s estimation, the answer is: a lot. Economic insecurity, he’s convinced, accounts for only a small part of his community’s problems; the much larger issue is hillbilly culture itself.

Renn makes more than a few excellent points in the discussion, or at least I like them because they echo thoughts I’ve had. Often, when I ramble about these subjects to my mother, she asks me where I get my ideas and if anyone else has them. That always leads me to feel as if there is something perhaps a bit wrong with my thoughts. If I’m the only one who’s seeing something, I’m either extremely insightful or terribly wrong. So, it’s always with a bit of a relief that I find echos of my own thoughts elsewhere.

The Times’ review describes the author of the memoir, J. D. Vance, as a conservative. Renn writes:

He comes down firmly on the side of individual agency and the ability of people to overcome obstacles through hard work and adopting the cultural habits of successful groups.

Hillbillies are descended from the Scottish/Northern English. The best description of the origins of this cultural group was written by David Hackett Fischer in his highly influential book Albion’s Seed. The former senator Jim Webb, who ran for the Democratic nomination during these last primaries, has written about this group as well. They moved to the mountainous region of Appalachia and formed a distinct subculture within the United States. They have generally been despised by the larger culture, exemplified by the movie Deliverance.

Vance grew up in a horribly dysfunctional family. Regrading his maternal grandparents, Renn summarizes:

They were poor money managers, with Papaw buying new cars on impulse. He was also a violent drunkard. Mamaw, with her own reputation for violence, once threatened to kill him if he ever came home drunk again, and, after he promptly transgressed, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire….

His mother, if it can be believed, was even more dysfunctional;

He told conservative writer Rod Dreher that his mother had 15 husbands and boyfriends. None of his many brothers and sisters was full-blooded. Indeed, Vance’s family relationships boggle the mind…

He did not know how many siblings he had or how to count them since many were half-siblings and step-siblings. Making matters worse, his mother is a drug addict.

He then applies to and is accepted at Yale Law School, where the cultural gulf between his hillbilly upbringing and the American elite first comes into full relief. He discovers the role that social capital, mentors, and connections play in success.

Renn takes a look the appeal of the book:

Another aspect of the book that appeals to non-Trumpian conservatives is also what powerfully attracts it to the Left: its placing of the locus of responsibility for white working-class malaise in its own culture. Intellectuals on the left and right have been aghast at support for Trump from the white working class. Vance tells them what they want to hear: that the travails of this class stem in large part from their dysfunctional and self-destructive culture. Vance acknowledges that the white working class faces legitimate hurdles, such as the decline of union manufacturing jobs, an analysis that resonates with the Left. But ultimately he sees this demographic’s failure to overcome obstacles… as stemming from personal and cultural flaws, notably a lack of a sense of agency….


Rather than seeing the working class as victims of, say, current economic policies, which would require addressing underlying structural inequities, Vance says that these people are in large part the authors of their own demise. Their predicament thus requires no fundamental change of course economically—a great relief to those prospering under the current regime. This flattering of audience sensibilities, combined with Vance’s immensely compelling life story, helps explain why Hillbilly Elegy has received so much praise and so little substantive criticism, despite some limitations.

I mentioned that Renn echoes thoughts I’ve had myself. One of these is the way arguments about cultural dysfunction take one segment of society and make it stand in for many other segments. U.S. society gets divided into two groups, one symbolized by the uppermost level of the upper middle class, and the other by the lowest end of the Appalachian working class, or, in other versions, ghettos.*

Renn points out that he had a very different working class experience growing up.

Vance’s culture has no living memory of anything else, so it’s natural for him to see the culture of his people as overwhelmingly influential in their fate. But this is not the case for the majority of the white working class. For example, sociologist Robert Putnam had a different experience in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. The Port Clinton of his 1950s upbringing, as related in his book Our Kids, certainly had its share of working class poverty, but it was socially intact and functional—a world away from that experienced by Vance’s family.

I grew up in white, working-class, rural Southern Indiana during the 1970s and 1980s. While it had some Appalachian cultural influence, its demographic and social conditions were different. German was the dominant ethnic background of the area. My family is of mostly German Catholic stock, with one Sicilian grandfather added to the mix. … I was a classic case of “poor but didn’t know it.” There was certainly a lot of poverty around. Yet I, too, recall a functional and socially intact, if hardly idyllic, community.

Sometimes, our wealthy feel like it’s a good idea for their children to see “how the other half lives.” They encourage them to go to an impoverished area and do some volunteer work. This is usually lauded as a good thing. However, it’s often occurred to me that it can give the rich children who will become the majority of our ruling class a mistaken impression of our society being made up of two types. I think, to get a better idea of how society really works, they would do well to embed themselves in a struggling lower middle class community.

Renn goes on the note that many of the social ills that plagued Vance’s childhood have crept into the more functional working class communities as well.

Today, however, both Putnam’s Port Clinton and my Southern Indiana are a lot more like Vance’s Appalachian world than Putnam or I would have believed possible, even after allowing for nostalgia. We face a different question from the ones that confront Vance. We must ask what changed in only a generation or two to damage communities that once did broadly sustain healthy working-class marriages, families, and community life. It’s harder to blame culture entirely here when that same culture was producing respectable if unglamorous success as recently as 30 years ago.

This is an excellent point and I’m so glad that Renn brought it up. He mentions drugs as one factor, although I am tempted to as if that is a symptom or a cause since mind altering substances have always existed. Renn said he never had to face the dangers of drugs growing up, but he’s a few years younger than I was and I recall drugs as having been rampant during my adolescence. Statics have shown that my age cohort have had among the highest reported consumption of drugs. Of course my age cohorts are the dysfunction parents of the last couple of decades, so I wouldn’t dismiss a relationship out of hand.

Renn calls on the right to face unpleasant truths about the changing economy.

“Creative destruction” is not so great when you’re on the receiving end of the destruction, and when it’s human lives rather than widgets or corporate profits at stake.

He then suggest that the left needs to acknowledge that the sexual revolution has been a disaster for the working class. I’m running out of time, so I’m going to put a quote here that I might want to deal with another day:

No-fault divorce and the diminishment of the stigmas attached to casual sex and single or divorced motherhood have been a liberating dream—or at least a manageable reality—for educated urbanites. But these changes have been a nightmare for the children growing up in a white working-class world, where broken homes and a string of romantic and sexual partners for Mom is the new normal. “Of all the things that I hated about my childhood,” Vance writes, “nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.”

This is an important subject, but I don’t think it needs much more time than I have today. I both agree and disagree. Or I agree with the statement that this has been a problem for the working class, but the conservative response, that we just reimpose our former values, strikes me as wishful thinking.

Then Renn tackles a subject that I would really like to touch on, Vance’s innate abilities.

Vance also lacks self-awareness in some areas, especially in his rejection of the idea that talent—that is to say, good fortune—played a major role in his success. He instead attributes it to the character and work ethic he developed in the Marines, and explicitly rejects innate talent as a factor. “Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today,” he writes. “With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit.”

But undoubtedly Vance won the genetic lottery for IQ. He got into Yale Law School. Based on the LSAT scores needed for admission there, his IQ is likely north of 140—probably genius-level. No wonder he didn’t think that the people there were any smarter than he was. No amount of hard work can substitute for this. Untold numbers of people have worked extraordinarily hard and yet failed to gain admission to the Ivy League.

As someone who won the “genetic lottery” myself, let me say that Renn is entirely on the mark here. Renn acknowledges the value of hard work and I do too. However, I’ve seen people with less aptitude struggle. I recall helping less intelligent friends with their school work in high school. In fact, they often worked harder than I did. To be successful academically, you need both hard work and intelligence. To parlay that into a successful career requires other things as well. Renn aptly points out why this error (and it’s too bad that this is winding up at the bottom of a long post because it was my real interest):

Thus, Vance falls into the trap of too many of today’s winners in a “meritocratic” (his term) system: he believes, in effect, that he morally merits his outsize success because he earned it through hard work. This is the flip side of his cultural condemnation. He understands that he benefitted from encouragement from Mamaw and others, which many kids in his milieu don’t receive: “Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.” But he fails to recognize the role that unearned merit, in the form of those talent endowments, played in his success. This position is deeply unfair to the half of the population with below-average intelligence—tens of millions of them with significantly below-average intelligence—in a knowledge economy that greatly privileges brainpower over brawn. Someone born into a poor, chaotic community with an IQ below 100 can’t just solve his problems by bootstrapping himself into Yale, not even after a tour in the Marines.

I want to highlight the phrase “morally merits.” The following is another important point:

The larger problems come less from the book itself than from the way in which educated readers have seized on it to confirm their own negative impressions of the white working class—and, by extension, to flatter the superiority of their own cultural values and their sense of moral entitlement to the success they enjoy.

Again, “moral entitlement.”

Finally, there is the question of agency:

The poor and working class do face challenging, sometimes horrific circumstances. They also have agency in choosing how to respond. Too often, their culture produces bad responses, even when the opportunity exists to choose otherwise. This culture itself may be an inheritance that individuals did not choose. But people can have disabilities for which they are not to blame. That doesn’t change their real-world effect. Unless both the external circumstances and the culture of the working class, of all races, are ameliorated, broad-based change is unlikely.

Well, I’m out of time and I’ve barely scratched the surface, only highlighting the parts of Renn’s article that interested me without having much of a chance to respond or elaborate my own ideas.

The same themes keep arising in my head. I wish I could build them up into a more coherent statement.

*I just wanted to add a quick comment. I should have said “Appalachian underclass,” not “working class.” Our fixation on the exotic habits of the underclass allows us to turn a blind eye to the real struggles of the working class.

Now that I’m back online, I need to get back into my habit of writing.

Even before my little break, my stats on this site were in the basement, leading me to believe that “Free Association” is not the best title for a post. I guess that makes sense. I write about so many different things people might very well look a the title before deciding if it’s something that interests them. I’m never sure how I feel about “stats,” though. This blog is just a hobby. I think we’re all vaguely aware (meaning people with a blog) that if we shade our writing a little this way or a little that way we might have more readers. However, I started this blog for myself. It’s interesting to think how it would be different if I was hoping somehow to segue into a writing career. Would I look at my most popular posts and try to write more like that?

I’m surprised, in retrospect, that I haven’t written about sex more. Believe it or not, I have a lot to say on that subject!

Politics. Right now, I feel like I just want to keep my head down until everything blows over. Still, I’m not worried about the election itself so much as I’m terribly worried about the aftermath.

I mentioned a few months ago an article by David Frum explaining why Donal Trump had gained traction. Of course, for even trying to understand he was accused of supporting Trump and in his subsequent articles he’s stopped even trying to understand, or at least trying to explain that understanding to other Republicans who clearly don’t want to listen.

I sometimes think that I have a strange view of politics because I have a strange view of human nature. Now, I call my view “strange” not because I think it’s wrong, just because I don’t see it reflected in the usual discussions about politics and society.

It is often said that political theories are based on notions of human nature. The simplistic way of putting it is that the left thinks human beings are inherently good and the right thinks human beings are inherently bad. Off the top of my head, that sounds like it corresponds to different notions of child rearing, one that thinks children need encouragement to explore and do what they want and another that thinks children need discipline and instruction. I think most people in fact fall in the middle. Phrasing it that way makes it seem as if the two points of view are mutually exclusive, and for some people they are. However, when I look at reality, most people are, as I said, in the middle. Kids need discipline and instruction sometimes and need encouragement to explore at other times. Different children might need them in different degrees. One might be tempted at that point to say that the center is “non-ideological,” however I don’t think that’s true.

Ideologies are useful because we are constantly confronted with situations in which we cannot know from past experience what will be the best path to take. When confronted with a new situation, we take what we know of the world and, from that, try to extrapolate what the best course of action will be. To do that, we try to determine what our options are and make an educated guess about what outcome each option might yield. That educated guess is based on how we think the world works, in short, on our ideology. For instance, people on the religious right who say that allowing marriages to be contracted between people of the same sex will lead to bestiality really believe that a belief in a deity with consequences in the afterlife is necessary for people to behave in what they consider a moral manner.

Giving that as an example, it is easy to see the divide that I described a minute ago as “simplistic.” The compliment on the left to the religious right point of view is that expanding the definition of marriage won’t lead to other, unpalatable, expansions. Why do they think that? Because not enough people are immoral enough to want bestiality to be legal. It hinges on the notion that people are, at least mostly, good.

I have a problem with both these positions largely because I don’t believe that an objective morality exists. That might on the surface look as if I am embracing moral relativism, but I am not. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.  It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.

The very short summary gives two reasons for moral relativism:

A common, albeit negative, reason for embracing moral relativism is simply the perceived untenability of moral objectivism: every attempt to establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles runs up against formidable objections.  A more positive argument sometimes advanced in defense of moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance since it encourages us to understand other cultures on their own terms.

I tend to agree with the first position, that it thus far has proved impossible to “establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles.” The second part, regarding tolerance is something I don’t especially agree with. I don’t agree that “tolerance” is a virtue in and of itself without reference to a particular situation. Secondly, it would imply that “tolerance” itself is a universal value. I’m not sure who the “us” is in the phrase “it encourages us.”

The summary of the critics of moral relativism is as follows:

Critics claim that relativists typically exaggerate the degree of diversity among cultures since superficial differences often mask underlying shared agreements.  In fact, some say that  there is a core set of universal values that any human culture must endorse if it is to flourish.  Moral relativists are also accused of inconsistently claiming that there are no universal moral norms while appealing to a principle of tolerance as a universal norm.  In the eyes of many critics, though, the most serious objection to moral relativism is that it implies the pernicious consequence that “anything goes”: slavery is just according to the norms of a slave society; sexist practices are right according to the values of a sexist culture. Without some sort of non-relative standard to appeal to, the critics argue, we have no basis for critical moral appraisals of our own culture’s conventions, or for judging one society to be better than another.  Naturally, most moral relativists typically reject the assumption that such judgments require a non-relativistic foundation.

Regarding the criticisms (as summarized here): I am insufficiently familiar with anthropology to know if the first statement it true, if the differences among cultures truly are substantial or not. I tend to agree quite a bit with the second statement and, if I get into this subject again, I will develop this idea further. I’ve already mentioned the third. The last part, however, is something I disagree with substantially. In short, I reject some aspects of both moral relativism and moral objectivism.

Now, here we are at one hour later, so I will happily stop. This is something I tend to mull over a lot in my head while going about other things, so I will probably come back to it again.