Sometimes a sprinkle of crazy is just the spice that makes the music nice

Austin City Limits aired a James Taylor concert last night.  While his lilting voice crooned the familiar hits and a few new songs I’d not heard before, I looked him up on Wikipedia for a quick look at his biography.  I realized that I’ve been enjoying his music for over a quarter century and, except that he was at one time married to Carly Simon, I knew really nothing of him personally.

Taylor graduated high school as a mental patient (the mental health institution had its own school) after suffering an episode of depression in his senior year of boarding school in Massachusetts so severe that he literally couldn’t get out of bed, sleeping for twenty hours a day.   Later in life, after having become a bona fide recording star and while he was dad to a couple of young children, he’d gotten addicted to heroin and was on a methadone maintenance program when he finally turned things around through a concert he played in Brazil to 300,000 adoring fans who knew every word of every song.

It occurred to me that mental illness often accompanies the spark of genius that yields great success, and particularly so in the music world.  Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse are just a few examples of musicians driven to succeed who succumbed to their mental demons once achieving it.  Without the demons, I doubt they’d have been nearly as successful.  That’s not to say the mental demons were the catalyst for their success, only that mental issues accompanied it.  It could be a correlation without causation.  It could be that the same something within them that drove them to succeed also afflicted them with mental issues.  James Taylor said he wouldn’t have been the same person without his issues.  I think he’s got things right.  Thank God for a little bit of crazy.  The world would be an utterly bland and boring place without a dollop, but not too much, of crazy.

But a little bit of crazy doesn’t foretell success.  People can be a bit off kilter and still not enjoy great success.  Like I told my wife while we enjoyed the show, I’m a little bit crazy, but without the balm of great success (like Taylor’s) to make putting up with it worthwhile.

How’s this capitalism thing working out?

Greed, sloth and gluttony:  The three deadly sins that fuel Western, particularly American, capitalism.  We believe ourselves to be alchemists, capable of turning the lead of human vice into the gold of social virtue.  So, more is never enough when it comes to money.  Barely is never too little when it comes to physical exertion.  And too much is never quite satiating when it comes to food.

How’s that working out for us?  Unrestrained greed has driven income inequality to levels not seen since the start of the Great Depression.  Labor-saving technologies kill more people for lack of exercise than pretty much everything else combined.  And our waistlines have never been bigger.  Appears the capitalist alchemists are about as good at turning vice into virtue as the medieval alchemists were at turning lead to gold.

Logic is not the life of life

Harvard Law recently ditched the requirement that prospective students take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).  Harvard fancies itself the incubator of kings.  The previous two presidents before Trump had degrees, one from the business school (Bush), the other from the law school (Obama).   Harvard is so big and so powerful an institution, it could demand its applications be completed in purple crayon and the quantity and quality of its applicants would not suffer in the least.  Eliminating the LSAT is mostly a symbolic gesture for the law school.  And it doesn’t mean prospective applicants won’t anyway have to take the LSAT.  Nobody seriously contemplating law school applies only to Harvard, and for now, Harvard is alone among its peers (to which Harvard would object it has none) in eliminating the requirement.

The LSAT is hard.  It is not amenable to preparation, being more of an aptitude test than anything.  And the aptitude it is designed most to test is logic.  At least a couple of its sections are solely devoted to what would otherwise be considered logical brain teasers, where conditions are given for a specific set of circumstances and the student is required to determine which outcomes are possible given the parameters.  It happens that I have a quite capable logical cypher down there in the core processer of my brain somewhere.  I did well on the LSAT, scoring in the 93rd percentile.  But the law is not about logic.  My mind was a quite deficient legal mind.  I learned rather quickly in practice that I don’t think like a lawyer.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Harvard Law alumnus, said it best, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience”.  And by ‘experience’, he could have said politics, at least in so far as Supreme Court rulings are concerned (and, frankly, at all levels of the law—it’s always better to know the judge than to know the law).  For example, attempt to logically explain how Affirmative Action arose out of an act (the 1964 Civil Rights Act) that specifically prohibited it.  Indeed, the logical mind would explode, as mine nearly did in law school when reading the cases upholding Affirmative Action.  The ‘logic’ of the arguments in the cases are utterly impossible to follow.  The only hope for understanding is to know the politics of the judge writing the opinion.  In other words, just as Holmes said, experience, not logic, animates the rulings.  But here’s the kicker:  the opinion writers feel obligated to at least appear to be making decisions that logically apply the law as it’s written.  The mental gymnastics required to do so is often so convoluted, with words taking on an Alice in Wonderland quality, that it is utterly and fruitlessly exhausting to even try.  Just follow the politics.

Explaining that logic helps very little in understanding how the law determines outcomes does not indict any particular political impulse.  Just that logical minds would do well to find other lines of work than the law.

There was little logic to any of the several-days congressional grilling that Neil Gorsuch endured for suffering the misfortune of being Trump’s first nomination to the Supreme Court.  Except if he had slipped and said something outrageously true (e.g., “Affirmative Action is prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act”), none of the Senator’s questions and none of Gorsuch’s answers matter. He can vote in whatever way he wants when he gets on the Court.

The grilling was a dog and pony show.  For the hearings, like the law that Gorsuch will be interpreting, it was a matter of understanding the politics.  Gorsuch’s legal abilities matter not a whit.  Nobody wants to know what he made on the LSAT.  They want to know how he leans politically.  Which is not all that hard to figure.  He’s a Republican.  He leans right.  But it’s his job as a nominee to pretend he’s apolitical.  As long as he can pull that off in front of Congress, he ought be able to disguise his political impulses in the legal justifications for his rulings, so in that sense, the hearings might have been useful for determining his qualification level.  But ascension to the Court means he won’t issue any rulings.  He’ll be just one out of nine, each with an equal vote, in the super legislature known as the Supreme Court.


Which Roman Emperor does Trump’s Presidency most recall?

My pick is Julian (or, as Christians like to refer to him, “Julian the Apostate”), who succeeded Constantine the Great (with a few years’ rule by Constantine’s sons in between).

According to legend, Constantine saw a cross in the sky before a major battle in 312 AD, the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which secured for him the Western Empire’s throne.  He saw the cross as a sign, and was converted then and there, telling his legions to paint crosses on their shields.  His army proved victorious, and he adopted Christianity for himself and as the favorite of the Empire.  He did not outlaw the pagan gods to which Rome had officially paid homage during its long history, but discouraged the continuation of ritual and sacrifices, and deprived paganism of resources by redirecting the Empire’s bounty to building the Christian church.

Contrary perhaps to today’s understanding that Rome relentlessly persecuted the tiny sect, Christianity in the Roman Empire had by the time of Constantine become a powerful social force, growing in a manner that we would today call “viral”.   It was spreading like wildfire.  And Christians refused, like those stiff-necked Jews from which the religion arose, to pay homage to Rome’s pagan gods, the main cause for their persecution.  What Constantine really saw in the sky that day nobody knows, but he certainly saw the writing on the wall—either coopt the religion or have the conflagration of Christianity sweep away Roman religious traditions in a socially destructive way.  So he coopted the religion, essentially making it the new temple religion for the Empire, supplanting the many gods of paganism for the one god (or three, if you are a Trinitarian) of Christianity. Constantine’s conversion, subsequent decree outlawing Christian persecution, and overt support of the church are thus less remarkable than it might otherwise seem.

Julian, who succeeded Constantine’s sons, revivified the ancient pagan religions, and while not specifically targeting Christians for persecution, eliminated the official favor that Christianity had enjoyed under Constantine.  He attempted to reform paganism whilst reinvigorating it.

His reforms were not to last.  As soon as he died, subsequent emperors continued what Constantine started, so that by 380 AD, Theodosius finally made it official, formally adopting Christianity as the temple religion of the Roman Empire.  All the pagan temples were closed and pagan worship forbidden.

I think Trump’s election represents a similar situation as that faced by Julian.  The Roman Empire had already reached the limits of its expansion and was declining by Julian’s ascension.  The people recalled a glorious past of unrivaled military might and unimaginable wealth that was slowly slipping from their grasp.  Barbarians were infiltrating the northern borders and along the Danube, while Persia was a constant menace in the east.  Julian was going to make Rome great again by retracing its steps, starting by dispensing with this absurd new religion and adopting a new and improved version of paganism.  Much as Trump plans to make America great again by retracing its steps, returning it to the place of its former glory by reasserting its dominant white culture.  But like paganism was corrupt and sclerotic and unable to salve the individual soul in the manner of Christianity, so America’s past is filled with xenophobia, racism, oppression and exploitation.  Christianity was an improvement over paganism, if for no other reason than one god (or three) is more efficiently worshiped than a seemingly endless multitude.  And for America, finally abiding the words of the Declaration through a pluralistic society is an improvement over a white male patriarchy.  Julian failed to turn back the arrow of history.  So too will Trump.

But it doesn’t matter in which political direction the American Empire goes.  Its decline is inevitable.  The Roman Empire was gasping at last straws by the time of Christianity’s formal adoption as its temple religion.  A leading Christian bishop of the late 4th and early 5th century grew dismayed that so many people were indeed blaming Christianity’s adoption for Alaric the Visigoth’s sack of Rome in 410 AD (a sentiment that Julian had undoubtedly exploited in the early 4th century) that he wrote an impassioned, encyclopedic defense of Christianity.  In City of God, Saint Augustine compared the fallen and corrupted city of man, as represented by Rome, with the pristine, eternal city of God, as represented by the kingdom of heaven in Christ.

America is lurching toward its inevitable fall.  It reached the apogee of its power in 1945; declined for three decades until the early eighties, then gradually recovered some of its lost hegemony with the end of the Cold War and the advent of globalization.  But it will never again be as powerful as it was at the end of the Second World War.  Whether it retraces its patriarchal, lily-white steps, or pushes forward with a progressive social agenda that Trump’s election at least temporarily thwarted, it still will decline.  No doubt there will be some American philosopher, when the barbarians are confronting the Empire on its every side, when Washington or New York finally falls, who will pen an impassioned, encyclopedic defense of the secular, progressive humanism that now seems the inevitable path.  It won’t be necessary, as secular, progressive humanism won’t have caused its fall.  It would have fallen anyway.  It didn’t take another half-century after Augustine’s death that the Western Roman Empire was finished for good.  But the City of God never faltered, never failed.

How to be a bad patient

It’s very simple.  Whatever is bad for your condition, do it.  Whatever might ameliorate your condition, refuse to do it.

Say, for instance, you’ve got ulcerative colitis, or collagenous colitis, or Crohn’s disease–in other words some sort of disease that causes an inflamed colon, often lumped together under the rubric of ‘irritable bowel syndrome’–what should you do to ensure you won’t recover?

First, if your condition causes you to have diarrhea shortly after eating and drinking, then don’t eat or drink.  You don’t need all those calories and nutrients found in food.  Your body doesn’t require replenishment of all those fluids it is losing to the toilet bowl.  You’ll be just fine if you quit eating and drinking.  Because very obviously it is the food that you eat that immediately causes your colon to spasm, notwithstanding the colon is over twenty feet or so of small intestine away from the stomach into which the food is initially delivered.  If B always follows A, then it is a simple matter to eliminate A to ensure you get no more B.  Never mind that food and water are essential to life.  You’ll get better by not eating or drinking.  Really, you will.

Second, when you do eat or drink, be sure to eat and drink things that are generally considered irritating to the bowels.  Eat Panera Bread Tomato Basil Soup for your first meal after a week-long hospital stay.  Drink lots of milk, especially chocolate milk.  Get plenty of fiber in your diet, because fiber is good for preventing constipation, and you have the opposite of constipation.  Don’t eat foods like hamburgers and steaks, rich in the iron and vitamin B12 that your irritated bowels are likely not absorbing well, because everyone knows that eating healthy means eating fewer hamburgers and steaks.  Don’t limit your amount of fresh, acidic vegetables like tomatoes and orange juice, because tomatoes and orange juice are good for you.  Everyone knows that.  You’ve read it on the internet.  Several times.  Even though nothing of what you read mentioned how people with your condition should eat.  Because you’ve never tried to ascertain what might or might not be good for someone with your condition.  You figure that what you don’t know can’t make you feel guilty for doing what you want to do instead of doing what you should.

Worry.  Be very worried, all the time, particularly over things you can’t control, like how bad it is to have to go to the bathroom every time you eat, so much so that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, except that you’ve decided to quit eating so you don’t have to deal with the indignity of making a mess in the bathroom.   Worry like this even while at the hospital, where you don’t have to clean the bathroom, and where you know you will get all the fluids you need through an IV.

Whatever you do, don’t try to calmly accept the reality of your condition.  Don’t let go and let God.  Abandon your faith, if ever you had any.  Don’t find ways to be thankful for your condition.  Don’t take time to be quiet and listen to God so that you might at least dimly understand that this is all a part of His plan somehow, so it must be good.  And by all means, don’t try to figure out what you might change to improve your condition.  Don’t ask God for strength to change what you can; for serenity to accept what you can’t, or wisdom to know the difference.

Blame it all on the doctors.  Don’t believe in God. Believe in medicine.  Never waiver in your steadfast belief that all it will take to cure you of this is some magic pill or procedure.  Keep diligently searching for the right magician, er, doctor, who can cure your affliction without the inconvenience of you changing your lifestyle or outlook one iota.  Because that’s the point of modern medicine, no?  To keep postponing the inevitable consequences of choices.  To quell existential angst by encouraging you to believe you may just well live forever.

Once the episode has passed, refuse to even inquire as to what lifestyle choices may have contributed to its onset.  Go back to living just as before.  It’s your right to be ignorant of your own physiological processes.  You’re a baby boomer.  Modern medicine has relieved you of that burden.  And you don’t owe the people around you, who catch you every time you fall, anything.  That’s what it means to be a member of the Entitled Generation.

Do all that, and you’ll be a very bad patient.  Or, my mother-in-law.