obl

My thoughts on this feel quite derivative and much-echoed right now — it seems every other post on Twitter has a twist or insight more worthy of dissemination than what’s rattling in my head. But I think I’ll want to know what I thought today, maybe in a few years when I’m explaining to my kids what it was like to live my third decade in the middle of the War on Terror. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

Osama Bin Laden was a mass murderer of my countrymen, and if anyone can deserve to die, he did. I think the world is a better place without him in it. I don’t feel joy at his death, as many don’t, but I don’t think I can begrudge those who do. I have two hopes right now, and I don’t know which is greater or more likely: That the families of the men and women killed on 9/11 and in the Middle East derive some comfort from Bin Laden’s death, and that it signals the beginning of our withdrawal from the deserts and cities that have eaten away at our armed forces for so long that no one any longer bothers to post body counts. I hope my children will grow up in a world where young people are not sacrificed far from home for gains no one can verify or understand. And I hope that, once we’ve healed a bit from our Middle Eastern adventures, we as a country can seriously assess the virtues of a “volunteer” military drawn disproportionately from the poor, and so taxed by the efforts demanded by our politicians that it can no longer maintain basic standards of education and good conduct for those it hires to kill our enemies.

I can’t help but feel that Bin Laden’s slaying was too convenient. Not in the sense that he was killed for political gain, or that the soldiers who killed him should have held back — those are things I’ll never know. Too convenient in the sense that we can now say, and truly, that we slew the dragon in his den. And I simply don’t think we’ve earned that kind of simplicity, that catharsis. I exclude from this the soldiers who performed the mission, and just about all others; they deserve all the experience points, gold, and magical items the world has to offer. But not the rest of us. The rest of us are not warriors; we fear death too much to risk death. Our understanding of violence is denatured, and we should not exult in it as we do in lighter contests. Recent electoral politics, the mortgage crisis, and the rapidly expanding bubble in higher education point toward the same thing, an America addicted to simple answers. Simple stories. Knights and dragons.

And perhaps I’ve mined something useful from this exegesis after all, or even exposed its hidden engine. My novel — Christ, I hate to say that when it isn’t published, but that’s what it is — THE DANDELION KNIGHT, is very much about terrorism; it was conceived in the later years of the Bush presidency and concerns the relationship between an isolationist police state and a terrorist organization constructed around the image of a Robin-Hood-like folk hero. And it’s also written very much in reaction to genre tropes in fantasy and science fiction — too much so, arguably; it rears away from them with all the forethought of a horse shying from a snake, or so an uncharitable reading might reasonably say. And I never really took seriously the idea that these political and literary concerns might be related. I like China Miéville’s contra-Tolkienist writings as much as anyone else, but I read them mostly as entertainment; I’m a neuroscientist, and all this political stuff seems rather a priori to me, and quite separate from how stories do and don’t satisfy their readers. And I guess what I’m suggesting here is, maybe not. Which would come as a surprise to no one else, or at least not to most writers, but I do tend to insist on learning things on my own. I wrote a post a few months back, a word-by-word workshop on the first two sentences in Naomi Novik’s first novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, and one of the things that rang wrong was her invocation of “the numbing haze of battle-fever,” as though geeks like her and me had any idea what that was. I suppose there’s politics in that — less in the image than the shared understanding with which it wrongly credits us. (There’s a book-length hedge that ought to follow this, which I will summarize thus: I do not endorse the dictum of writing “what you know” except in the loosest sense. I am, when I have time, a fantasist. The point is just that image should convey experience, not presuppose it. This is wrong in the limit, of course, but basically right.)

Anyway, I’ll return briefly from this narcissistic digression to issue the following qualification: I know I’m not the person to declare whether America, whatever that is, has earned catharsis. I have been housed, employed, and in the black since Osama Bin Laden became infamous; I have gone on vacations, eaten good food, published stories and papers, earned my bachelor’s and Ph.D., and married the woman I love surrounded by my friends and family. I don’t need this narrative. But maybe some people do. That’s for them to decide. For myself, I will continue to wish, faintly and with diminishing conviction as the weeks pass, that Bin Laden had been captured instead of killed. That we had found ourselves forced to treat him, not like the dragon we have made him, but like the human he had — to all our shame — been all along.

Should my unborn daughter come to avow a preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate: An imagined conversation

STATEMENT OF THE PARABLE

“What color do you think vanilla is?” I dream of asking. This will be a lesson, if it is a lesson, in fact as metaphor, metonymy through field glasses.

“White,” I dream she answers. The color of vanilla ice cream.

In my sage’s dream, I am in the kitchen, or perhaps the dramaturgy admits a period of silent mystery: We are going to the supermarket, I can say, if we are closer to a supermarket than the kitchen, or we can go to the kitchen and I can spend longer than necessary rooting around in the cabinet that holds the spices. In any event, in due time I produce a bottle of vanilla extract. We know what color it is.

“The bottle is dark,” my observant daughter dreamishly protests. At this juncture, the lesson gains texture if we are in the supermarket: I perform a transgressive act, opening the bottle to pour a drop on the floor or on my fingertip (my skin is pale). There may be a digression at this point about the absolutism of values; a pimply-faced minimum-wage employee (“pimply-faced” is lazy shorthand; teenagers take very good care of their skin these days, I think) may bring chastisements only to be brushed off with assurances that the befouled product will be purchased; my daughter may be horrified at my breach of law and protocol, and of course she will be insensitive to the fine pedagogy of it all, her deep skin receptors as yet untuned to the dominant frequencies of the inference that has begun its heavy-footed slouch toward us.

“The vanilla bean is dark too,” I dream of elaborating, “not just the extract. The only additive is alcohol, which is clear.” (The class issue raised here cannot be ignored; inexpensive brands of vanilla extract contain corn syrup, which can be dark, and imitation vanilla, yet cheaper, has nothing to do with the vanilla bean at all. The sage must hold court in the organic aisle.) “Cacao and vanilla both originated in the Americas. They are both derived from beans that grow in fibrous pods; both are difficult to cultivate outside their native territory, although we have found ways. We use them both mostly in sweet foods. Both were imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who killed something like 260,000 Aztecs and Tlaxcalans in the siege of Tenochtitlan.” I have brushed up on my Wikipedia for this dream-lesson. I imagine myself leaning back, spent, against a wall of spices, or of randomly collocated organic items, depending on exactly which store I have chosen as my impromptu lyceum.

What next unfurls is hard to imagine, not because there are too few possibilities but the opposite; every ensuing conversation seems to foreclose the others, and yet they all seem worthy, but to enumerate them would be to transmute this charming object lesson into lecture. We are not slaves to metaphor, begins (or ends) one conversation, but we heed its counsel. (Negative portrayals of Spanish imperialism are known as the Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend.) Or, The fantasy books were wrong: Naming is the lowest form of knowledge. (Personally, I couldn’t tell an Aztec from a Tlaxcalan if one or the other embedded a macuahuitl in my culo.) Or, Of course they taste different. They aren’t the same thing, but they aren’t opposites either. (Cortes’ victory in the siege of Tenochtitlan may have depended on his indigenous allies, dominated by Tlaxcalans but including Huexotzinco, Atlixco, Tliliuhqui-Tepecs, Tetzcocans, Chalca, Alcohua and Tepanecs, all of whom had once been conquered by Aztecs — and this alliance may account for the carnage and rapine thereafter.) Or — and perhaps this is most appropriate for my nonexistent daughter, as the entire premise of this didactic dream rests on her being too young to know the color of a basic baking ingredient — Even chocolate ice cream has vanilla in it. (This may not be true of all ice cream, but it is true of Alton Brown’s Google-topping recipe, and so it is true enough for me.)

The reverse is, of course, not true. And after all that, I still feel guilty for observing this asymmetry.

So much for racial politics. What next?

FAILURE MODES

“Vanilla is the color of maple syrup.”

Close enough; I doubt I could do better. What then? There is nothing to correct. But, of course, the lesson was never about vanilla. Is this whole exercise the didactic equivalent of baking spinach into brownies? I want nothing but the best for my daughter, and if Socrates isn’t there to show her that the slave boy always knew the diagonal of a unit square was sqrt(2), I will do my damnedest with what is at hand. But Socrates had a good editor, and I am working ex tempore. (Maple syrup was first collected by the Algonquins, whose relationship with French conquerors and other Native American tribes would seem to be just as complicated as the Aztecs’ with Cortes and other local civilizations. Perhaps all is not lost.)

“Who cares?”

The gurus of the Internet economy claim that attention is a person’s most precious commodity; my daughter would be more than within her rights to deny the importance of the question. If a blight struck all vanilla beans with a true-breeding albinism tomorrow, her ice cream would taste just as good. In the meantime, her concern with the color of a flavoring agent whose name has become a synonym for mundanity competes with such pressing questions as how to amass resources, find love, forge happiness, and face death well. One must pick one’s battles.

“Why do you care?”

This is not the same as the previous question. This is the one that I would hope and fear the most to hear. It is good if she knows the fact; it is better if she knows what she needs to know, or at least is thinking about it; but it is best, it is critical, if she knows when someone is trying to manipulate her. Socrates’ slave boy, to our knowledge, did not profit from his lesson.

But this is not a question children ask, nor is it one whose answer they should credit. If adults are not to be trusted with the best interests of children, still less are children. There is an irreducible conflict at the heart of this relationship, which we maintain even through its nadirs is based on love.

And so I leave the question. Why do I care to force this cunning little parable down the throat of a girl with thoughts and passions of her own? What change am I trying to work in her, and who will benefit the most from it? I could speculate, I could defend, and so I do, in the chambers of my own mind; but, if she should not trust my answer, why should you?

H.M., RIP

Henry Molaison, the famous but pseudonymous amnesic patient H.M., died earlier this week.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact this one man had on cognitive neuroscience — at the cost of the total destruction of his life.

One thing I learned from the article is that Scoville, who was an author on at least one early H.M. paper, is the surgeon who took out his medial temporal lobes. It’s hard to know how to feel about this. I feel certain that, if it had happened two or three decades later, he would have been sued out of existence. There’s a part of me that thinks he should have been. But this is one of those areas of ethics that resist satisfactory analysis. The utility gained from the leap in our understanding about memory is just incomparable to the destruction of H.M.’s ability to lead a normal life. Apples and aircraft carriers.

This is the sort of thing I think about a lot. Cognitive neuroscience is expensive, and I’m now proposing to do TMS, which can have — is designed to have — somewhat long-term effects on the brain (on the order of an hour). For that matter, I’m not exactly cheap; I made $90,000 from the NSF over three years, for what returns? I’ll emit a few publications in modest-to-medium journals; I’ll have added a small, noisy contribution to the edifice of cognitive neuroscience; I’ve gotten good training for further work. It’s hard to know how to rank those benefits in relation to the good $90,000 could have done in some other capacity. Forgetting the fellowships, how much does the GRFP program cost in overhead every year? How much is that compared to the useful work that wouldn’t have gotten done if NSF fellows didn’t get their fellowships? How big is that set of useful work, anyway?

These questions are useful, even if they are unanswerable. It’s good to keep in mind how much other people do for you.