Grad Lyfe

Since Autumn, I’ve been gradually applying to my top grad school choices. Since last month, I’ve been gradually rejected from my top grad school choices. That changed this week, when I got accepted into an exciting program that I had no hope of getting into. I’ve made it through the apparently capricious process of graduate admissions. From what I can gather based on my experience and that of others, graduate admissions seem to be a massive experiment in creating a large-scale Skinner Box to elicit random, irrational behavior from human adults. Now I’m left to wallow in agonizing trepidation for several months while I contemplate a move and the prospect of learning two dead languages in a year.

The latter issue is terrifying me the most, though. After reading the thoughts of a number of a number grad students, I understand that it’s pretty common to suffer from Impostor Syndrome, in which accomplished people feel that their successes are the result of external factors, other than their own efforts, often disregarding efforts the contrary. This is a demoralizing sort of stress that grinds down people in already stressful situations. However, just because this is common, it doesn’t mean people who feel they are lucky frauds are always wrong, and I’d be a lot warier of falling victim to the equal but opposite Dunning-Kruger Effect. Impostor Syndrome seems to be sort of a cliche that some lean on as a sort of crutch, as reassurance. In all honesty, I embrace personal insecurity as a sort self-help technique. Self-doubt always drives me to improve myself, because I never feel that I am sufficiently prepared for anything. I feel that now, in a frighteningly intense way. Too much can be crippling, but this is just enough to drive me to study my brain apart from now until September.

The rejection letters I received were then powerful motivators, not setbacks. They are the stick driving me forward, for want of a carrot. And I welcome the lessons that failure and doubt bring, for they are greater instructors than success and certainty. I just hope this strategy works. Maybe I should reexamine it.

A Benevolent Princeps

As violence escalates in Afghanistan after the accidental destruction of copies of the Quran by American forces, the two governments are left with the frustrating task of trying to defuse the crisis. To President Obama’s credit, he immediately sent a letter of apology to President Karzai with the explanation that the event was an accident but that the matter would be investigated. Some have criticized President Karzai for not reciprocating the apology in the wake of Americans’ deaths at the hands of Afghan troops, which seems understandable, but I’d rather focus on the more inexplicable criticism that President Obama has received for apologizing.

Newt Gingrich said that the apology indicated that there “seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way,” which seems to be rather flawed argument. This isn’t about anything radical Islamists did; it’s about what American forces did, even if accidentally. That is what the apology addresses, and figuring reactions to the event in whether or not to apologize for it seems like putting the cart before the horse. Even from a more pragmatic perspective, it only stands to reason that a mea culpa would take at least some of the steam out of anti-American sentiments, which could save lives in a time of increasing violence. Even if that’s only supposition, what would silence or belligerence gain? Still, aside from that bizarre comment, Gingrich’s statements seem to mostly focus on his expectations for an apology from President Karzai. Senator Rick Santorum’s comments have been much stranger. Apparently, he seems to think that apologizing for a mistake “shows weakness.” Is malice required for contrition? Does that mean the US is off the hook for all the Afghan civilians killed in the chaos of conflict? Sure, people are dead at Americans’ hands, but it was an accident! No hard feelings, right? This kind of thinking ignores how important public opinion is to counterinsurgency in particular and how important responsibility is to being a decent human being in general. Since they are candidates, Mr. Gingrich and Senator Santorum can safely make these sorts of jingoistic pronouncement to their base while never having to worry about writing a letter home to families that their loved ones died because the president wanted to be an arrogant prick.

This all reminds me of an event from imperial Roman history. In 48, Emperor Tiberius appointed Ventidius Cumanus the new procurator of Judaea. The province had grown more unstable in recent years and had churned through a few Roman and Roman-collaborating governors in that relatively short time. Cumanus was tasked with restoring some order to the region, but he began with a blunder when he recruited his auxiliary troops from the pagan towns of the Levant. The consequences became apparent when, among other insensitivites, one of his soldiers destroyed the Torah of a village synagogue. In such a tense climate, this offense was the largest spark to set alight a sudden uproar. Cumanus could not simply abide open riot in his province, so he had to show Roman power to regain control.

Which he did, when he apologized by beheading the offending soldier before his accusers. An uneasy peace resumed for a time.

I’m obviously not proposing beheading anyone who burned a Quran. Rather, I want to emphasize that being apologetic is not the same as being weak. For an empire that flexed its might with almost wild abandon across swaths of three continents at the time, this was an extreme act of contrition, but the most important thing to remember is that it was still insufficient. In the reign of the very next emperor, Rome and Judaea would descend into a brutal war that would leave Jerusalem in ruins. Rome never understood the concerns of the Jews under their rule, and lacking that knowledge in meant that even the most dramatic apologies would still be reactions, attempts to cure symptoms predicated on hamfisted mismanagement rather than simply operating with greater sensitivity to prevent the lethal sickness in the first place.

It is a cautionary tale of the importance of diligently seeking understanding between people and cultures and what bloody results may befall those who do not.

The Right Hand of Fellowship

Late last month I stopped into a Brooks Brothers and picked up a new oxford shirt as part of their end of year sale (since I am unemployed and must buy clothes cheaply). All I got was the shirt and a pair of socks, both of which were deeply discounted. Given my meager purchase, I was especially surprised when I found this in the mail.

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And even more so when I opened it to find that it was handwritten.

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Maybe I’m outing myself as a sentimental rube, but opening my mailbox to randomly find a handwritten card from a store I visited once to buy something on sale was a welcome surprise. I understand intellectually that this was likely prompted by the fact that since it was my first visit to the store, they added me to their system and were likely required by policy to write me a missive as a result. I understand intellectually that this is not based on their role as a “lifelong family friend” but on pragmatic business calculation. Still, the fact that the salesperson actually set pen to card stock on my behalf still seems very personal, given how impractical, time-consuming, and downright antiquated the format is in the modern era. That she spelled my name correctly was also a rare treat.

Now naturally I don’t mean to spend a blog post promoting Brooks Brothers, especially since they’re doing fine without me. Rather, I intend to promote physical, written correspondence.

Obviously I’m not trying to impugn more convenient forms of communication. There’s no sense in throwing telephones, text messages, email, social networks, video chat, or telegraph out with the bathwater. They serve an excellent purpose and even provide an intimate sort of social fellowship all their own; I sincerely hope that doesn’t sound snide or condescending, because that’s not how I intend it. There are few means of remote communication that demonstrate more personal effort and intimate attention than a handwritten letter. Specifically, handwriting requires a great deal more forethought and planning for obvious reasons inherent to the format, and just putting something into an envelope, paying for postage, and walking it to the mailbox simply inconveniences a person. It’s a small sacrifice but greater than most other means of long distance communication.

With the ubiquity of social networking, I keep in fairly regular contact with a larger number of people than before, but it’s all so oblique and distant, obviously in the case of those who are geographically distant but even in the case of those in the same city. I wanted to bridge that gap with these friends of mine, so I’ve been trying to send letters more often, with mixed success. To that end, I did something I’d never really done before: I sent out Christmas cards, which made me realize how few of my friends’ physical addresses I have on hand. I made an effort to write awful little poems in many of the cards in an effort to personalize them as much as possible. It felt a bit awkward for me, the act of collecting addresses and writing notes in my awful chicken scratch. Still, I enjoyed it doing it, so I wanted to keep it up.

Around the same time, a friend of mine went to basic (whose graduation I’ll be driving down to see in the morning), which, as we all know, is a perfect excuse to write letters to someone. Naturally, I sent him one of my Christmas cards, and in his response, he commented on my childlike scrawl. In the next letter I sent him, out of embarrassment dressed up as altruism, I broke down and typed my next letter to him, thus ending my experiment with handwritten letters.

I do want to pursue old fashioned communication though, so maybe I’ll have to get my manual typewriter fixed up and use that instead to writer letters. I think, however, that’s a topic for another blog post. In the meantime, feel free to send me an epistle in the comments.

Senatus Populusque Urbanus

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Photo: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

I’m always struck by how people react with such vitriol to men dressed like the gentleman pictured above, as if the fact that his jeans hang below his buttocks somehow threatens to sunder the very fabric of American society. Concerned citizens and legislatures all over the country periodically introduce efforts to criminalize this fashion statement scourge, and while most of them ultimately fail or are struck down, the very efforts themselves represent the level of concern with which some view sagging. Where legislative efforts fail, however, cultural warfare often seeks to succeed, as in the case of the untrue rumor that this style originated in prison as a symbol of the wearer’s sexual availability, a falsehood which seeks to lampoon this fashion while apparently piggybacking on and abetting the persistent stigma surrounding homosexuality.

I feel the same way about sagging that I do about skinny jeans: They’re not for me, but I don’t find them offensive or indecent. At first I saw this as one of the many efforts to reject and ostracize sartorial trends pioneered by and associated with minorities, not unlike the sometimes violent attacks on zoot suits in the 1940s, but that fails to take into account a key difference.

Sagging is the American toga.

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Cato the Elder, famous for wearing his toga without a tunic and calling for the destruction of Carthage in a series of grudge raps.

The above mentioned origin story of this trend is partially correct, since it did originate in prison. As one might expect, prison clothes are not made bespoke and thus often fit poorly. Combined with the necessary lack of belts for safety and suicide concerns, this leads to pants which sag and require a specialized gait and the aid of hands to keep them up at all, though this still hang off one’s bottom, nonetheless. In the dawning era of gangster rap, many artists either emphasized their own experiences in criminality and incarceration or simply effected a similar style in the absence of such experience, so this fashion of sagging and grabbing came loping to the fore, representing a life spent in part behind bars for a life spent in part in conflict with the law. How does this elementary history relate to the style of Roman citizens?

Martial prowess. The toga was a large, heavy, elaborately wound bolt of cloth that draped over the body and rested on the arms and, by the time of the empire, was worn exclusively by male citizens. As such, it was a highly impractical garment used as a status symbol and ceremonial garment for peacetime. Few things in Rome were without the influence of Janus, however, and the toga was no exception. To properly wear it in most instances required supporting it on the forearms, and given that it was so large and usually made of heavy wool, this meant one would carry a significant weight in one’s arms all day in a position not unlike that of a Roman legionary bearing a scutum. All Roman men trained for military service, so this was merely a natural extension of that martially inclined life. It took that kind of training to bear the awkward toga effectively, and it signified that even in peace, Romans stood ready to do battle, preparing even in the way they dressed.

Sagging then bears much of the same symbolism. When donned outside of the walls of a prison, it is a status symbol, not of citizenship to an empire but of street cred. In its most originalist and sincere context, one might wear it to boast a history of conflict with the law and a dedication to the same in the present and future, while the impracticality of the style necessitates a particular gait and use of the hands to remain dressed, similar to the toga. This communicates no need for practical movement, that the wearer is comfortable being hobbled in this way because they feel no immediate threats, a powerful status symbol that conveys power and confidence. Even when the more aggressive undertones of sagging’s prison origins are divorced from it, this self-assured air remains.

Stop Editing; Relax

I hope all of you managed to consume the assignment for this blog post. No? That’s fine, I’ll just leave it right here. Enjoy it at your leisure before we continue. I’ll wait for you.

Wasn’t that great? Let’s discuss these guys a bit.

 

Like many people, my introduction to the rap group Das Racist was, unfortunately, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, at which point I unwisely wrote them off on the basis of a single song. Luckily, a friend of mine linked me to a video from their most recent album, and I quickly became an enthusiastic fan as I listened to more and more of their music. Though it’s not strictly the point of this particular post, the fact that I almost summarily dismissed Das Racist as a jocular stoner rap group, like too many people, and nearly missed out on a talented trio with subtle but powerful social messages illustrates the very purpose of my whole blog.

 

I’m going pretty far afield, though. Let’s get back to this track and take a look at a very specific excerpt at the very end.

 

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Photo: TimeOut

papa need his medicine

reticent to let them in

hesitant bedouin

-Himanshu “Heems” Suri

 

No doubt those lines and their rhymes are particularly impressive, but I mostly want to take a look at the usage of “reticent” there. Most dictionaries will distinguish between “reticent” and “reluctant” by stipulating that the former involves holding one’s tongue while the latter involves not wanting to take action more generally. When I initially heard the line, it caught my ear. Obviously not wanting to let someone in seems to be a prime candidate for “reluctant” and makes little apparent sense if we’re just talking about someone laconic. “Reluctant” would through the meter and excellent rhyming off, but I thought it would have been easy enough to swap “reticent” with “hesitant” in the next line and all words would fit with proper standard usage. Such a simple solution! Why didn’t they think of that?

 

That’s sort of where my solution falls apart. These gentlemen are three well-educated, word-savvy artists who’ve released multiple rap albums, a musical genre most famous in my mind for literary technicality. That’s not to say that their judgment shouldn’t be questioned, but maybe I ought to delve a bit deeper than the “simple solution.”

 

While “reticent” seems to work well enough with “Bedouin” in the freedom of a vacuum, when “hesitant” is contrasted with “reticent” here, it highlights the forgone action. In such a context, this usage evokes the nomadic tradition of Bedouin culture, one both embraced by emigration and left behind by living in a home (into which the subject is so reluctant to let people). Hesitance is thus more than reluctance; it is dichotomy, the ambiguity of an immigrant’s life. Through the lens of immigration, reticence is about more than being unwilling to say, “Come in.” Rather, it communicates the fear of language and accent barriers. Keeping mum obscures that perceived cultural handicap while simultaneously excluding people from his situation. The picture here is suddenly not of a man reluctant to open the door but of a man caught between two worlds, afraid to leave himself vulnerable and available in the face of both unfamiliarity and opportunity.

 

All I had to do to see it was stop trying to proofread their rap song and listen.

Be Whose of You

Years ago, a gunner in my platoon addressed us from the front of the formation, lecturing us on some mundane task which we’d need to complete after work. He told us that it would be in our best interest. He told us we would regret neglecting this task. Then, slowly, a self-satisfied smile played across his face, and after preparing us by saying he was bringing out one of the only big words he knew, he told us, “It would be whose of you to get this done.”

 

I physically recoiled. He smirked.

 

I understood that he meant “it would behoove you,” a phrase non-commissioned officers throw around like a dagger in a doily all the time, but my body seemed to be literally rejecting the mangled parody of language he had cobbled together in an attempt to parrot his colleagues. The platoon leader, standing at the back of the formation, must have noticed my turmoil because he asked, only half joking, “Dill, are you okay?” I lied and told him I was fine, even though I wanted to call for a medic or a court martial or some kind of justice, for god’s sake.

 

But I was fine. Just as importantly, I understood what he meant.

 

That gunner died a year or so later, victim to a triple-stacked anti-tank mine in Iraq.

 

I tell this anecdote not to point out what an uneducated rube he was but to point out what poor priorities I had. This was a man who had sworn to my family that he would keep me safe and had selflessly passed on any knowledge he had to me and the rest of the platoon. I may, to put it mildly, not see eye-to-eye with the military anymore, but to nitpick a man’s admittedly bizarre but still completely intelligible pronunciation in the face of literal self-sacrifice seems rather crass.

 

I hope to make this blog a chronicle of my attempts to avoid searching for errors and instead search for why those interesting oddities exist. An effort toward description and explanation rather than prescription and judgment. Embracing the way things are.

 

Please join me, won’t you?