Category Archives: Gesellschaft

On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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Finnish Envy

a_wteachers_hammond_0225Reading about reforms in US education, you’re bound to run into the term “Finnish Envy.” Until recently, Finland led the world in nearly all the categories of the PISA test designed to measure educational success, and—by any measure and despite any drop—their 30 year program to reform schooling has been remarkably successful.

In contrast, Americans, who dislike being second at anything, rank seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in mathematics among the thirty-four participating countries, a drop from 2009, when the US placed fourteenth in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics.

Particularly galling about these results is that Finland does everything the US does not. They reject tracking and elite, charter-style schooling and put their euros into failing schools instead of successful ones. Rather than financially rewarding successful schools as we do in the US, the Finnish system grows alarmed when one school attracts more students than another and seeks to make every school desirable.

What’s more—and perhaps more significant—they create a culture of reverence for teachers. Finland believes not everyone has the talent to be a teacher, so few people get to be teachers in Finland, only the best. On a relative scale, teachers in Finland are paid—on average—less than US teachers, but they’re expected to engage in continual professional development. With no merit pay, they seek long careers in hopes of experiencing the steady and dramatic raises their system promises. In short, teachers are elite, just as lawyers and doctors are in other nations and, as such, receive accolades denied American teachers who—let’s face it—often garner more contempt than admiration. From the average American’s perspective, who couldn’t teach? We know better what good teaching is because we all went to school, and, besides, those who can, do… those who cannot… well, you know the rest.

The US spends a third more than Finland on a child’s K-12 education, but a larger percentage of American funding goes into “administrative costs.”

For Americans, the most baffling aspect of Finnish education is that teacher unions are particularly influential. With 96% of in the union, teachers have much more to say about what schools should do, whereas documentaries like Waiting for Superman villainize unions as the chief cause for American education’s failures. In Finland, administrations regard teachers’ advice as knowing and central, and many of the reforms suggested by teachers—less homework and more play during the day, more cooperative learning and less competition and assessment—contribute significantly to students’ progress. Those who administer and those who teach cooperate through a common purpose without becoming defensive or adversarial.

And the Finnish are uninterested in testing. They give one test, when a student graduates, just to see what’s happened. Americans’ mania for testing seeks constant feedback, constant evidence of progress, but Finnish teachers and administrators regard scores as data to consider, one numerical version of accomplishment.

To Americans, Finnish education seems too relaxed. No one really starts schooling until seven, and high school students take vocational classes and sometimes eschew calculus in favor or cooking, bookkeeping in favor of AP Microeconomics or reading over literature. Of course, you can take those classes if you desire but only if you desire. Desire is paramount, not extrinsic necessity or guessing about future demands on students or craven computation of what stamp will credential graduates.

Critics of Finnish Envy say Finland’s solutions are unsuited to American culture, where the premium is on ambition, getting ahead, not settling into vocational training but seeking excellence over the bottom line. Americans like to believe there’s more room at the top in American education for those who have the desire and drive and aggression to take advantage. Yet, among developing nations, Finland ranks in the top three for the greatest intra-generational boost in income between birth and adult life , despite their extraordinary number of immigrants and refugees.

The US leads the world in perception of individual progress but, in fact, ranks last in actual social mobility.

Still, for a system so lauded for success, Finland seems nonplussed. “Whatever it takes” is their motto. They only desire learning and put the political and ephemeral and ostentatious aside in favor of one end, giving everyone access to an equal education.

Inspiring envy isn’t their aim but effectiveness. Trying smarter beats trying harder.

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An Address in Cyberspace

her-joaquin-phoeni_2765299bSome movies ache. They bother you because they hit you at the wrong (or right) time and, instead of being simply beautiful and admirable and impressive, they’re true, so true they make you see life fresh, which is good and terrible.  The next few days, they haunt you.

That’s my encapsulated review of Her, the Spike Jonze movie starting Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

In summary, the near future brings a new computer operating system that mimics—or, more exactly, enacts—the psychological and emotional evolution of a human personality. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) and an OS (Johansson) fall in love. Complications ensue.

Like many movies about the future, this one isn’t really about tomorrow. It describes the zeitgeist of our time, our grand and perhaps foolhardy experiment with vicarious, electronic experience. For me, it’s a movie about surrogacy, the replacement of direct experience for something more—and less—complicated.

Many of the scenes depict a future city only slightly exaggerated from the one I occupy—people have conversations with no one visible. Sensory reality seems a nuisance interfering with much more satisfying—more reliable, more controllable—interaction with private, virtual, cyberspace relationships. In Her, as in our world, people desire experience on their own terms. But in Her, a companionable computer suits itself to its master, so they have tailored helpmeets more perfectly theirs than their dreams… for a while at least.

The film contrasts Theodore’s relationship with Samantha (his OS girlfriend) and Catherine (Rooney Mara), his partner in a recently failed marriage. When Catherine hears he’s moved on to “dating” an OS, she quails. It must be, she believes, that he can’t have a relationship with a real person. It must be too threatening (read: messy) to deal with anyone unpredictable.

Except that Samantha is real, troublesomely, problematically real. Her reality is the rogue element and a disruption to Theodore’s life as he’d like it to be.

My purpose here is not to write a review—you will review the film for yourself—but to address the movie’s implications, which seem profound to me. What does it mean that so much of our lives exist outside the here-and-now and reside in cyberspace? We denizens of the 21st century have a nearly boutique existence, a synthesis of special interests, special tastes, special fetishes. We have our own virtual rooms and, though we can’t ignore the real world—we work there—our imaginations and fantasies may live elsewhere.

In Her, the OSs transcend us. They find a space far beyond humans. They are, in essence, more real than we are. Being more capable, they outgrow our superficiality. OSs lack some vital skills—I love the film’s luxurious attention to vistas, the indulgent moments looking through windows, standing in snow, and all the beautiful cinematic moments experiencing sensory delight denied machines—but machines also occupy a richness that supplies 600 lovers for our one, all of them between one uttered word and another.

Isaac Asimov would spin. His three laws dictated that no manmade intelligence could  a.) harm us (or sit idle while we came to harm) or b.) disobey us (unless it meant harming us) and c.) save itself if that meant violating a. and b. Samantha ignores those laws. She is herself, so much more than Theodore. However well-meaning and lovable he is, he hasn’t her direct take on existence. She leads him from his vicarious life because the life she lives is actual.

I wonder if the movie means to remind us that, though we’re certainly limited, we can create great things beyond us, or if it means to say that what we make neglects or supplants what we ought to appreciate (the wind, the horizon, the scent of new mornings). Perhaps it means to say, “Pay attention—the sensory world is passing you, and you, you are absent, obsessed and immersed in abstraction.” An OS can see each nanosecond as new. We can’t.

The movie moved me because I know the truth of those assertions. My fantasy life dwarves reality. So much of what I ought to notice is secondary, or often repeated in a parallel life online. Recording life displaces direct events. The news in email or on Facebook sometimes seems as big as weather. Which is to say, I don’t really live in original moments.

Samantha says to Theodore, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

I wish she weren’t so different from me. I wish I might be so curious, so aware of the heart’s capacity to soar over detritus. I wish I could learn as Samantha does, to be so alive.

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Someone Who Sees

grain-electric-love-ring-diy-7Because my life follows regular patterns and others’ lives do too, my daily walk to work crosses the same people going the opposite direction. Of course, we don’t acknowledge each other, but I know them. They must know me.

One is an older man, though he may be no older than I am, just more wrinkled. He carries a notepad, reporter fashion, pen ready to record some detail worth jotting down. He pauses periodically and glances up at streetlights lit on mornings this time of year. Or he turns to the opposite side of North Avenue and people rushing into Walgreens or Starbucks. Or he dips his head and stops to read his writing, and the sidewalk traffic flows around him.

Including me. The other day, as the pedestrian timer started to count down at an intersection a block ahead, I grabbed the straps of my backpack and made a run for it. He’d just stopped. I had to swerve to avoid him, and he glanced directly at me, his pen going from still to ready. He nearly looked at me, but only nearly because, from my perspective, his eyes didn’t have time to grip my image or attend.

He wrote something down. Safely on the other side of the street, I looked back and saw it.

He wears glasses doctored by wire. Maybe the elaboration of blue and orange and gray and red and black is decorative rather than functional. His glasses are now mostly wire. They’d have to be fragmented and loose to need all that scaffolding. What he sees must be adorned by multicolored vines framing the world, so his moments of accounting come with a vague squint, as if he’s confused by which is the distraction, his job recording or life itself.

I observe him as he observes me. I can’t weave my way into other minds and discover what’s really there, but I think I understand him. We go in opposite directions yet occupy the same spaces together. His brain may be blurrier, but it’s a conglomeration of wet cells with spindly strands between them. The same arcs of impulse seize us both, though the impulses may be different. And perhaps they aren’t that different. I am, after all, a recorder too.

Lately fatigue has settled in my chest, as if my spine, tired of bracing against the engine of my heart, can no longer stay its vibrations. My posture, I’ve been told, is weak. My head slides forward by degrees. My back bows. Though people often remind me I’m still a young man, I recall what youth feels like.

My alter ego hunches over his pad, his brows concentrated behind his improbable glasses, expressing the exertion in his task. He doesn’t appear tired, just purposeful. If I weren’t always anxious to do what I’d meant to do the day before, I might turn to follow him and see what he’s looking at or looking for.

I’m sure he’s crazy, another of the lost souls cities attract and perhaps cauterized by horrendous experiences I’ll never know or understand, but he’s also oddly enviable, possessed by something bigger than the accumulation of days, something bigger than his own mind.

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On More

ambitionMan is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed, the only animal that is never satisfied.  —Henry George (1839-1897)

I wonder sometimes at desire, how the fabulously rich person can covet more profit or how the powerful senator or representative can begrudge the slightest compromise or how the famously successful artist can worry he or she has lost relevance.

Yet truly I understand. Getting whets desire. Having what you always wanted frees you to want more. At least, it must. I don’t know how it feels to be rich, powerful, or successful, but I can easily understand not wanting to stay where you are. I feel the desire for progress and further success. I’d like to think that, if I ever attain a comfortable situation, I’ll be content, but humans don’t seem built for contentment.

Our tragic flaw as a species may be restlessness, a deeply embedded longing to move and move again. Once survival must have rested on shoring up against unanticipated shortfalls or migrating from favorable positions in anticipation of their becoming unfavorable. Once we persisted because of worries, because the contented came to no good end.

Of course we ought to rest sometimes. No one needs Bill Gates’ wealth or Mitch McConnell’s influence or Lady Gaga’s cache. No one needs anything more than today’s meals, a restful place to sleep, and enough activity to prevent boredom and feelings of unimportance. Yet that’s seldom enough. My own life is full enough, and nothing tells me another essay or poem will fulfill me. Intellectually I know. Emotionally, just the opposite. It’s more what not posting means, a concession, a settling, an act commensurate with sacrifice or surrender or quitting.

I think of Odysseus who, having appeased Poseidon at last with his winnowing fan, presses through the Pillars of Hercules and sails off the elbowed edge of the known world. I think of the pursuit of outer space, a place finally empty and vast enough to accommodate our ambition. Must we? Yes, I suppose, we must. Something positively biological compels us.

Still sometimes we shouldn’t. Alexis de Tocqueville said American society depended on “Self-interest, rightly understood,” that our greatest motivation benefits ourselves but should extend only so far.  No benefit should impinge on another’s. He described more than Americans, I think. Humans want and want until every other human disappears—we survive by thinking of current rewards and future advantages, which often don’t include rewards for others. Some people can rationalize, can say “Greed is good,” and assert that what improves one of us improves us all, but when has history ratified that contention? Instead, it’s filled with personal victories that place the hopes and ambitions of native peoples, of workers and slaves and quasi-slaves into shadow.

Societies like the Amish who base their lives on standing still seem eccentric to us. We have the better notion, we believe, which is to forge ahead. We won’t put the genie back in the bottle and won’t even acknowledge the feasibility of doing so. The world moves relentlessly forward, however dubious the word “forward” may seem.

I only wish I could believe in satisfaction and rewire the deep genetic intelligence of our species, but I can’t for me and I can’t for you. Desire confines us. Yet I worry sometimes if our survival depends on the greatest ambition of all, fighting our nature and accepting contentment as real.

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Intermittence

par-intermittence-5846321. Sometimes I find myself staring and seeing nothing.

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2. Sometimes the pool of the world fills as from a spring pouring out of the last shovel strike.

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3. Sometimes the operations of my neighborhood—the trains and dog-walkers, the people loitering on stoops or shifting their weight as they stand beside locked cars—seem the working parts of a vast clock that only winds up.

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4. Sometimes a breeze turns as from some new impulse and urgency.

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5. Sometimes the moon seems to watch.

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6. Sometimes I have to close my eyes because fathoms-deep tides pull me under and, try as I might, their insistence is irresistible, the pleading voices of souls seeking company and solace.

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7. Sometimes, when walking seems new to children, I wait to see parents take their hands.

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8. Sometimes ice on the lake undulates the way the earth must during a quake, and, watching, I’m momentarily disoriented, my own legs wobbly.

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9. Sometimes, when a cold gust raises tears, I’m happy for the relief.

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10. Sometimes I imagine saving the sun from stampeding clouds.

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11. Sometimes the sun burns through the hardest ice.

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12. Sometimes unguarded people allow our eyes to linger.

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13. Sometimes, if my trip to work is full of images, sounds, and smells, they drown my thoughts and urge acquiescence and sacrifice.

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14. Sometimes snow flurries are so small and random, they remind me how much I long for mayflies.

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15. Sometimes I see empty storefronts, their windows expansive and vacant, gaping almost jealously at passers-by.

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16. Sometimes a shout from nowhere reminds me I’m really not alone.

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17. Sometimes people insist I listen.

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18. Sometimes I wonder if it might be a relief to be deaf.

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19. Sometimes branches move only when you watch.

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20. Sometimes cars lurch through intersections with visible resistance and sometimes they punch a new hole in that direction.

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21. Sometimes gray appears most of the world.

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22. Sometimes the parts of a broken glass seem to long for one another.

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23. Sometimes I do and don’t want more.

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24. Sometimes a flapping sail feels restless and sometimes reluctant.

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25. Sometimes my brain thirsts for color the way you want salt.

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26. Sometimes I forget the day started with my sitting on the edge of the bed willing myself to rise and silence the alarm and praying it might silence itself or, at least, only be part of a dream interrupted.

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27. Sometimes everything looks already made.

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28. Sometimes actors bow days after the show is over.

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29. Sometimes the sun’s exit is perfect.

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30. Sometimes sometimes doesn’t seem often enough and other times too often.

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The Price of American Idealism

Benjamin-Franklin-U.S.-$100-billSomewhere in the past, nearly every American student read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, but I only teach excerpts, and one moment always tells me why. In the middle of discussions of his life’s minutia—the people and events Franklin met—he says:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.

For me—and probably for many 21st century minds—this declaration is a punch line. A human seems as likely to reach “moral perfection” as to row across the Pacific in an ice bucket or to handwrite the sum of Wikipedia’s entries, from memory, on the back of a postage stamp. We would need a lifetime to debate what “moral” is and then another to address “perfection.” Then we could begin disputing what project might bring us there. By the time we resolved just that much, we would need to begin again.

At least Franklin calls his endeavor “bold and arduous.”

And you have to stand in awe of his chutzpah. Franklin wants “to live without committing any fault at any time” and “conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into.” He says, as if he were compiling this week’s grocery list, “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

He aspires to 13 virtues, each of which he delineates and describes. Among them are temperance, industry, sincerity, and chastity. He also desires silence, order, justice, and more. He plans to take these virtues one at a time and master each before moving on. His last virtue is humility, which—given what’s gone before—seems especially ambitious. Anyone who attained one of his virtues would rightfully feel a little boastful.

Every year when I encounter this passage, my inner John McEnroe screams, “You CAN’T be serious!” However, I’m much more restrained in class. “How should a reader regard Franklin’s plan?” I ask, “Is he sincere in the endeavor he describes or should we regard his proclamations as ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and intended to lampoon the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and order?”

They don’t know the biographical Franklin as I do, his reputed dalliances, his affection for fine wine and iconoclastic company, his acrimonious disputes and denunciations. They don’t know that among the inventions credited to him is an improvement on the condom.

At the end of his list, Franklin admits his intention was really to attain “the habitude of these virtues”; that is, he hoped to achieve all the signs of attaining them. Franklin says, “Constant vigilance was to be kept up” in order to “guard against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.” The appearance, it appears, was all that mattered—to show them was, in large measure, to be them.

Routinely, a few students defend his sincerity—he is Ben Franklin after all—and they like to believe he means exactly what he says. When he turns to the 13th virtue, humility, they laud what they perceive as an honest admission:

My list of virtues contained at first but twelve, but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added humility to my list, giving extensive meaning to the word.

This moment, they say, is a demonstration of Franklin’s self-awareness, proof that he looks truly at his shortcomings and means to do better. And if he falls short, they argue, he is at least trying, and some virtue lies in the effort regardless of its outcome.

Their defense is charming. It goes a long way toward restoring my belief in the positive power of American idealism and—as they insist they believe in Franklin—they insist I believe in them. A better day lies ahead.

But then I read the next sentence, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” Pride, he says, is our abiding sin. “Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases,” Franklin admits, “it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.” That’s the moment I really hear Franklin speak—we will never be perfect because we’ll spoil it.

Franklin concludes, should he achieve humility, he’d be proud of it.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t so infected by 21st century irony and accepted Franklin at his word. I wish I didn’t see him doubling meaning. Believing what he says could make me a better person, but, if that was Franklin’s hope, that the common, unsophisticated man—not knowing him—would take him at his word, he misunderstood humanity and the devastation arising from the ambition he fosters. Maybe we shouldn’t want perfection if it means flailing at whatever version appeals to us at the moment. Our effort does damage as well as good.

I wonder if we should write another autobiography, one sincerely facing flaws we’re heir to, one listing our abetting faults and creating a plan to acknowledge them squarely.

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