Skip to content

Retirement Plan

Yesterday I wrote that Vetinari is one of the two characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series I consider my favorites. It’s also the only fictional character who fits into a recurrent daydream of mine.

I like to imagine an hour with some historical notable, a chance to gauge his reaction to news of the future. An hour to reassure Lincoln in some hour of despair on the progress of the American Civil War that the Union survives and does indeed export representative democracy back to Europe and to many corners of the world, and to learn what he thinks as well of future successes like WWII and failures like the red scare. An hour to chat with Bach, who realized that his music was going out of fashion, to let him know it is now recognized as a cornerstone of western music, and to see what he thinks of a few samples of Benny Goodman or the Beatles. An hour with Archimedes, to test how quickly he can absorb Cartesian geometry, calculus, or special relativity. What would they say? Could they even relate to their legacies?

Lord Havelock Vetinari, patrician of Ankh-Morpork, is the quintessential enlightened despot. He has his citizens imprisoned or executed; he suspends the law; he has spies everywhere and meddles in foreign a well as domestic affairs. And yet, he also governs with as light a hand as possible. He shrugs off unflattering political jokes; he builds up rather than tearing down emergent (and threatening) technologies; he installs a police chief who can and does arrest Vetinari himself. Vetinari explains that he does so out of self-interest: tyrants who simply seize and terrorize, he observes, don’t last long. (Apparently, the Discworld has no equivalent of Fidel Castro…) But is this really so? Whatever self-interest Vetinari indulges isn’t very self-indulgent. Altough he lives in a palace, he works incessantly, eats meagerly, wears simple black—and probably would wear black even without an assassin’s training.

In a few of the more recent books, he claims to seek above all not power but influence. To-may-to, to-mah-to. And influence to what purpose? Racial equality, no mean feat in a city now populated by dwarves and trolls and myriad others in addition to humans. Free market ideals, which includes tearing down businesses which make taxable profits but prey on competition to the consumer’s detriment. A free press. International peace. An honest gendarmerie. All that power focused perpetually on maintaining something very close indeed to a democratic ideal—except for the complete absence of democracy. “One man, one vote,” as Pratchett observes. “And he is the Man, so he has the vote.”

And it all depends on his preternatural political acumen. This being a work of fiction, he can always be absolutely correct in every decision, steering every event to its perfect conclusion within plausible limits set by the fundamental imperfections of humanity (and other fantasy races). Even other master politicians, risen to the tops of their respective states, openly hold Vetinari in awe. Without this unique union of exquisite skill and enlightenment in the broadest theoretical terms possible, Ankh-Morkpork would descend quickly into what it was before the Patrician’s arrival: a cesspit of squabbling cutthroats.

So in my reveries, I wonder: if this autocratic utopia designed by and perhaps for Vetinari depends on this singular person himself, what plans has he for a successor? No such successor or plan is even hinted at in the books. What would he say if I were allowed to interview him for an hour on the subject?

Probably not much. Vetinari plays everything close to the chest, if only to maintain some dramatic tension for Pratchett’s readers. He wouldn’t share his plans with some random yutz like me, anyway. Maybe, just maybe Drumknott, but certainly not me. Or if he did discuss the issue, it would surely be with a casual dismissal, a claim to let the future take care of itself. Some combination of “I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter to me” and “people choose their own course, regardless of their supposed leaders’ wishes.” And both elements of that response would be lies. A man who cares for nothing but influence must surely care about influence beyond his death, because it can be had. And Ankh-Morkpork manifestly dances to Vetinari’s tune.

So if I could get an honest answer out of him or his authorial creator, what plans, if any, has Vetinari for a successor?

The question takes a more pressing tone with Raising Steam, in which Vetinari shows his first signs of failure: a failure of his faculties in an inability to finish the daily crossword, and a failure of ideals as he delights in that crossword designer’s destruction. If Vetinari deliberately left plans for a successor to a nebulous and unpredictable future, to be improvised, as he so characteristically improves, when the time came and variables could be minimized…well, the time has come. I’m invested in his vision for Ankh-Morkpork. I would dearly like to know he has arranged matters to ensure its continued vitality.

Neither plans nor future will ever be known, of course. Pratchett’s widely-mourned death guarantees that, just as we will never know what Lincoln might think of America’s future or Archimedes’s thoughts on the microchip. Which helps makes the question so interesting. We’ll never know how it all turns out. But I hope somewhere, in the infinite universe, it does all work out, as it does in Pratchett’s novels.

Mortal

Farewell, Terry Pratchett.

Pushing Steam is his final book, discounting the somewhat ghoulish practice of co-authoring from his notes, as others have done with Tolkien and Asimov. I found it very sad. Not so much because of its explicit content, but as an expression of the approaching end of Pratchett’s life and literary career.

Things were simply too easy for all involved. Pratchett’s better stories thrived on challenge, a competent but outnumbered and outgunned character tackling a corrupt system, often from the awkward position of an outsider forced to work within the system. Pushing Steam features too many old characters who have overcome their foes and risen to their respective peaks of influence—in finance, in law, in news media, etc., etc.—and they share a great deal of world view and mutual respect. There’s no challenge in this story, and thus no drama; rather, we’re given a chance to see old friends ensconced in power and privilege. A chance to say good-bye to them. But it’s not all friendly farewells.

More painfully, Lord Vetinari at last shows the first signs of failing capacities, as he proves unequal to the toughest challenges of the daily crossword. A trivial failing, but in the perfectly competent Vetinari, who depends on his perfect competence to keep all the balls in the air, a powerful indicator. Especially given Vetinari’s exaggerated frustration to his own crossword difficulties, a crack in his perfectly implacable self-control. As Vetinari relishes petty vengeance on the puzzle’s author, we see the first stirrings of the tyrants he replaced, the beginning of the end for the delicate balance, absolutely dependent on Vetinari, that makes Ankh-Morpork anything but a murderous hellhole.

We saw something similar from Commander Vimes in the previous Stiff, which concludes with Vimes sanctioning the assassination of a violent criminal. Not execution after a trial. Not death in the course of apprehension. Assassination, at the hands of Vimes’s personal manservant. A terrible moment for a character who spent several novels leashing his own rage to service of the law, who recognizes that the iron discipline of that service is all that separates himself from the entitled lords he so despises. An appeal to “higher justice” is no avail; Vimes’s internal monologue elsewhere repeatedly acknowledges that a good excuse to take the law into his own hands is the start of a slippery slope that only ends at the bottom. Like Vimes’s alcoholism. Happily, Stiff ends on a note strongly suggestive of retirement. Vimes ends the story setting duty aside, puttering around on a riverboat, playing with his kid, and deciding that this life, a life outside the precinct office, is pretty good too. Okay, Vimes took it too far, albeit for good reason, and now he’ll retire. I was disappointed, then, to see Vimes still in office for Pushing Steam. Still in office, that is, after going bad. Realistic, perhaps, that the chief of police wouldn’t simply vanish from police work after a single, very private lapse, but so what? Plausibility never had any place in the Discworld.

Vimes and Vetinari are my favorite Discworld characters, and I could never quite choose between them. Vimes I identified with; Vetinari I most liked to see in action. Seeing both at long last fail in their defining characteristics hurt. An admission of mortality, coming from a beloved author facing his own mortality.

Ask a Silly Question…

There’s a small book, practically a booklet, titled F for Effort. It’s sort of a case study in stupid test answers.

Or is it? To be sure, some of the answers betray ignorance, or are simply lazy. Doodling over the cylinder illustrated on your geometry test to make it resemble a section of a sushi roll and answering “Sushi!” instead of reporting the cylinder’s volume and surface area is the work of a student who hadn’t bothered learning the correct formulae. But such answers aren’t very entertaining, and so are relatively rare in the book. Here’s some other entries:

Asked to name a pair of vertical angles in a geometric diagram, one student wrote “Lucy” and “Evan” (or something like that) in the wedges of two angles. But mark you: he did indeed label vertical angles.

Asked to name one advantage of sexual over asexual reproduction, one student replied, “It feels good.”

The classic “Magellan circumcised the globe with a big clipper” was probably apocryphal in the first place, and almost certainly didn’t start here.

The sushi answer above is a kid entertaining himself by doodling because he doesn’t know enough for the test to keep him busy. The others seem more likely cases of kids entertaining themselves with playful answers because (1) the material is boringly simple, and (2) they know full well their grades for the semester are safe. In which case, these are smart test answers. Smart-ass answers, yes, but also smart. I was guilty of a few of my own in my school days, and I assure you it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to identify a non-convex polygon. More likely, it was because I knew grammar well enough to find humor in poorly-worded test questions.

Son, be a Dentist!

1/29/13

We have a new dentist. Over the course of a few visits, it became clear that our old one was… unexacting, to put it kindly. As in, twice failing to observe cavities large enough for me to feel with my tongue. More recently and far more seriously, it seems Eileene’s been building up a dangerous and painful crust of something just under the gum line, something we learned upon her referral to an oral surgeon with complaints of headaches. And now that that’s been stripped away, she’s in need of serious treatment to protect her now-exposed dentin, including the need to clamp her teeth in a gel-filled mouthguard. Every night, for the rest of her life.

Naturally enough, our new dentist found a lot to correct. A lot a lot. Ten procedures or so apiece. Some of that—my popped filling, for example—may just be newly developed conditions, but I doubt that much of it is. Rather, we are now probably about to receive treatment for conditions that have festered well over the half year since our last dental check-up, and are probably worse for not being detected and treated early. More expensive, too.

Mom observed that we might have the basis for a lawsuit, though she also observed that hiring a lawyer would likely cost us more than we’ll recoup. (She’s right.) All we can do to register our dissatisfaction is to change dentists. It hardly seems sufficient.

Dear Pen Pal

Charlie Brown, from the Peanuts comic, had a pen pal. It became a running joke that hadn’t really been funny the first time. Every so often, he would sit at a table, tongue industriously poking from one corner of his mouth, and explain to his pen pal that he would doggedly continue to use a fountain pen despite his inability to master the thing because, after all, he didn’t have a “pencil pal.” The writing appeared, complete with smudges, over his head for the reader to enjoy, and the strip always ended with a disastrous blot over everything, Charlie Brown included.

After a long sabbatical, I feel like Charlie Brown looked, taking up a habit more out of a sense of duty than pleasure. I stopped writing back then because I was cutting corners, writing out of date, repeating myself intentionally or unintentionally or uncontrollably, all because I’d run out of things to say. Things to say on a daily basis, anyway.

Now, like Charlie Brown, I’m again opening a conversation with a nameless, faceless audience, to find whether I again have something to say. Oh, I can for a while discuss the highlights of the past few weeks, but that’s not the same thing as having something to say. Oh, and also again to test whether I can master the fountain pen. Or, this being the 21st century, basic internet protocol. The latter is not a safe bet, honestly.

For the sake of my audience, I hope my blotches, at least, are more entertaining than the antiquated Peanuts strip.

Failing the Midterms

The election results are in, and, though individual races broke in surprising ways, the overall trend was about what po predicted, though perhaps not quite as hard on the Democrats as most of the polls expected. (Kudos again to fivethirtyeight.com’s Nate Silver, who nailed it despite admitting up front that the margin of error was high.) Republicans took the House but not the Senate, and the big question is what does their gain mean?

Conservatives like to call this a mandate, even as they admit it’s not a mandate. It’s coming from the leaders: Mitch McConnell, warning that this election was not an embrace of Republicans but a rejection of Democrats and ineffective governance, went on to declare that voters wanted Republicans not to compromise, that the party’s priority was ousting Obama (as opposed to, say, jobs legislation or other policies to, you know, help people), and that people really wanted a return to “core Republican values,” which are identical to the allegedly wayward Bush-era policies that so damaged our country and got conservatives kicked out of power in the first place. It’s coming from right-wing nutjob challengers like Christine O’Donnell, who in her concession speech argued that the people had spoken, and, since she’d lost, it is now up to Chris Cooms to govern by the platform she ran on, and he ran against. Yes. So expect more obstructionism and sabotage and outright denial of reality from the empowered right.

Liberals like to point out that Democratic losses were overwhelmingly among the conservative blue dogs, and not among genuine progressives; Dems lost seats, but didn’t lose any votes. We’ve also seen some pointed rejections of government-for-and-by-billionaires in Fiorina’s and Whitman’s defeat, and pointed rejections of teabagger darlings like O’Donnell and Angle. All true, but it’s hard to ignore the advantage of the majority in occupying the Speaker’s seat and heading committees. If Democrats held to their convictions, and the blue dogs (and Obama, for that matter) had governed like proper Democrats instead of groping blindly toward a bipartisan compromise the Republicans would never offer, goes the argument, they’d still be in office. Well, maybe, though Russ Feingold’s loss suggests otherwise. It’s not clear that the youth and racial minority vote, so energized by Obama’s campaign, would return to the polls now that the novelty’s worn off. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, had Democrats held to their convictions, they would be laying the groundwork for the next generation’s victories, looking like crusaders rather than chumps. Hard as it is to admit, however, it’s getting harder to see that happening now that news services have abdicated their role of asking hard questions and challenging outright lies in favor of merely reporting each party’s claims, and perpetuating the chump myth.

So what does it all mean? More obstructionism and sabotage and corruption and outright denial of reality from the recently more-empowered right. More defeatism and cowardice from the left, increasingly convinced that they can only win by mimicking the right. Another cycle of conservatives breaking the system, spending a couple years out of power, sabotaging all attempts to clean up their mess, and blaming it all—dishonestly yet successfully—on liberals. A continuing concentration of power and privilege.

Business as usual.

Cat Out of the Bag

William Kristol, over at the conservative Weekly Standard, summarized the staff’s reaction to the Republican presidential primary debates as: “Yikes.” He quotes a “bright young conservative” who puts it less succinctly but more eloquently: “I’m watching my first GOP debate…and WE SOUND LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE!!!”

Indeed.

Liberals have known this for decades. Too many democratic candidates have been too polite to put it so bluntly, but honest liberals have been saying so for a long, long time. There’s a reason for this. Two, really.

The Republican party has enjoyed the ascendancy for a generation, thirty years of policy by and for big money. Thirty years of financial deregulation, increasingly regressive tax structure, dismantling of social programs, and deficit spending to fund military adventures that benefit big corporate donors. The multiple, interlocking crises we face are largely a product of this big money policy. Yet the Republican line remains that we can only fix the problems with more deregulation, more regressive taxes, more dismantling of social programs, and, of course, even in this massive debt crisis, more war. More war on terrorism, more war on drugs, more war on immigration… If the Republican platform sounds crazy, that’s because it is crazy.

Not by coincidence, then, has the Republican party embraced faith-based politics—by which I don’t mean religious politics, although that has played a large role as well, but policy rooted in faith and not thoughtful reflection. (Faith, for example, that private enterprise is more efficient than government program.) Much of any party’s base pursues politics by faith, but the Republican party has made it the core of their strategy for thirty years or more: packing appointive offices with loyalists like “heckuva job Brownie” instead of effective administrators, embracing a bunker mentality like the war on terror, campaigning on fear and hate and wedge issues like homosexual marriage, equating dissent with treason, replacing journalism with editorial commentary like Fox “news,” playing to fringe elements like the birthers, jeering at expert knowledge like scientific evidence of global warming…anything to replace critical examination with gut reaction, usually mislabeled “common sense.” In an environment where doctrinal purity is more important than truth, cynical, self-serving bastards rise to the top…but so do genuine crazies. If the candidates sound crazy, then, in at least a couple cases, it’s because they are crazy.

What bothers me, then, about complaints like “yikes” and “we sound like crazy people” is not that they’re wrong; they are quite correct. What bothers me is that they don’t recognize the problem. The rest of Kristol’s article, including an endorsement of Chris Christie, makes it clear that he’s still behind the union-busting, tax-cutting, corporate welfare agenda of Republicans. If this is the first Republican debate for the “bright young conservative,” Republicans have been pushing this same agenda literally all his life. No, the complaints only center on concerns that none of the available candidates will successfully carry this dangerous, destructive agenda yet again to the general public. They should instead be pausing to realize that when a speaker sounds like crazy people, it’s probably because (1) he’s defending the indefensible, or (2) he is crazy people.

The Continuing Story

Eileene and I have been watching Downton Abbey together. It’s very much in the spirit of Upstairs, Downstairs or Gosford Park (which latter shares writer Julian Fellowes with Downton Abbey): an ensemble casts portrays the trials of gentry and their servants on the eve of WWI. It’s good but not great. It stretches the limits of plausibility at times, and ultimately fails to rise above the herd of endless British series fascinated with the manners, class structure, and amateur sleuths of the Edwardian era. Still, it’s well-acted and fairly entertaining, so we finished the series this week.

The seventh and final episode of the season may have lost me as an audience, however. I was surprised to discover it was merely the first season of three (?), but that’s all right—my fault, not the show’s. What isn’t all right is the launching of several explosive new plot lines on top of the old without resolving anything. I understand the need to offer the audience tantalizing promises for the next season: to insure there is an audience for the next season. But the end of a season should also provide dramatic resolution to at least some of the old plot lines; story arcs are so called because the tension is supposed to rise and then fall, settling into a new state of affairs.

There was none of that here. The tension between Thomas and Bates wasn’t resolved, but merely left dangling as Thomas takes his leave to become an army medic. Neither of the marriageable young ladies has been either married or conclusively refused, but merely left in a limbo of weeping over misunderstandings and uncertain prospects. Bates and Anna are likewise in romantic limbo. Matthew, who struggled both for acceptance as inconvenient heir and to adjust to his new role, was abruptly threatened in that position by a pregnancy, which was equally abruptly cut short—within the space of an episode—and pointlessly returned to a state of reluctant inheritance. All the major issues unsettled at the start of the series remain unsettled now.

Suddenly I discover I’ve been watching a soap opera. Not merely a drama with tragic elements—I signed on for that—but an endless, aimless drama wherein everyone takes turns being piteously noble and viciously villainous, wherein stories last while they’re popular and abandoned because writing them to a conclusion wastes a perfectly good chance to dredge it all up again later. That, I didn’t sign up for.

Pork Couture

While shopping for groceries today, I again received a compliment on my Spam shirt. This is easily my most popular article of clothing. I receive more compliments on it than on the entire rest of my wardrobe combined. (My fedora comes in a close second, with nothing else receiving much attention at all.)

WHY?!?

I mean, there’s nothing much to it. It’s a pale, white-ish t-shirt. With a picture of a can of Spam on it. None of the finery of more expensive clothing. None of the wit one can see on other t-shirts. Nothing that makes a fashion statement, apart from “I’m not going to the effort of making a fashion statement; I just threw this on because it was clean and I’m going grocery shopping.”

So what’s the big deal? Is it the humor value of the very word “Spam,” as captured by Monty Python and Weird Al Yankovic? Is it nostalgia for the food of an impoverished youth? (A nostalgia I don’t share, but Eileene could be said to Filipinos love them some Spam.) Is it some subtle post-modern ironic comment on the modern zeitgeist? Or is it just that a lot more people like Spam than anyone realizes?

Until Morale Improves

My classes at MSU included some perfunctory discussion of morale in the school. Bad morale is an insidious problem; it moves easily from teachers to students, or from students to teachers, or from the general community to the school. Because it can start at and spread from any level of a working school community, it’s everybody’s problem—teachers, students, parents, everybody—but usually treated as a responsibility primarily for administrators.

Lots of things affect morale: violence in and out of school, pay scale, the likelihood of students moving on to college, intrusion of political concerns upon the classroom, and especially the interference of political ideology with effective teaching methods, pay scale, proper teacher training, student tracking, a principal’s competence…lots more. Money plays a big role: rich communities tend to have good schools, poor communities failing schools—but not always, not by a long shot. The interaction of all these elements is very complex in their effects on whether a school becomes a good or bad learning environment, which simultaneously explains why an education curriculum with other things to cover might deal with them hastily and makes a hasty treatment a shame. The upshot of all of this is, I haven’t any idea what makes morale in a school what it is. But I know it when I see it.

This week, I was called in to sub at East Side High. It’s in Newark, a city notorious for borderline and failing schools. Yet East Side—or at least those students and teachers I met in the course of two days—were alert and dedicated. A world of difference from Barringer, where I did my student teaching, a school hanging under a cloud of failure, struggling with NCLB standards and demoralized by that knowledge. Yet both schools are in the same district, same educational system, same budgets. Again, I don’t know what makes the difference, but I know it when I see it.

I think I can identify at least one element at play here: the self-reinforcing cycle of morale. Good schools know it and get better: they attract better teachers, students with a sense of accomplishment apply themselves more eagerly, and in the very long run academic success creates a larger community that values its schools. Bad schools get caught in the opposite spiral: teachers burning out from too much caring and too little return, kids that give up as their teachers fail them, and a community that just lets standards slide—in the very long run, descending into poverty because uneducated workers attract no business. The difference between high and low morale, while difficult to explain, is easy to spot because morale gravitates to the extremes.