Having consumed my entire life in procrastination…

My 9th grade class

My 9th grade class

We’ve been at site for 6 months today. Lent starts Sunday.

Kosova is very seasonal, especially in the villages, and we’re all waiting out winter. The weather keeps taunting us with spring, but doesn’t actually thaw anything. The snow thats been sitting in the shadows for the past two weeks. The unheated bedrooms. The blocked water pipes, which we forgot to leave running a few days ago.

Reports of pre-industrial Europe are basically Game of Thrones without the dragons. While the warrior class killed one another, peasants hibernated through the winter, sleeping together under heaps of blankets on floor pads, and eating pickled cabbage and stale bread. Not much happened in the winter. Ladies might spin, knit, and bake. Men might drink hot ale and fight. Post-industrial Europe is still like that is in poor rural areas, only with electricity, running water, and television. So much television. And much less spinning. Only the machines spin, which is convenient, but also something of an impoverishment. When I made a seasonal schedule back in pre-service training, January and February had “school” and a picture of a cup of macchiato. That was it. In villages without cafes, there aren’t even macchiatos.

When I went to one of the big tourist cafes downtown, I was surprised and perplexed to encounter a colony of rabbits, hopping about under the tables and in the planters. They were a sorry lot, all damp, greasy, probably living off of leftovers too rich for them, kicked and dropped, held by their ears and given to clumsy children. Still, there they were, coming up to and under tables, foraging for treats. I had just bought some oatmeal, which was tucked into my bag, and at one point there were ten little bunnies nosing the bag to see if there was anything for them. I tried asking the waiter, but he either didn’t hear, or chose not to. So it remains a mystery. Last time I was at the restaurant, drinking a macchiato and writing, the waiter traded pens with me because he liked the translucent blue on my credit union pen, and has a whole collection of pens at home.

Today our school had a little three dog circus, where the showman juggled (rather poorly), and got the dogs to jump through hoops, roll cylinders, ride a tricycle, walk on their hind legs, and jump over or push children and one another around.

Last Sunday was the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and it was pretty festive. There was a choir and some others visiting from Belgrade, singing beautiful Slavic harmonies during Liturgy. The church was a little heated, and my feet didn’t go numb, even though we were in the spacious cathedral. The bishop of Prizren was there for the first time since I’ve been going. Afterwards, we all went to the giant new guesthouse at the old Archangels Monastery just outside of town, and had a festive meal featuring, among other things, wine, rakia, and pork. The choir sang hymns, and some of the boys played folk songs on accordion, drums, and violin, and people danced in the isle. They found me an air traffic controller to sit across from and speak English with. It was lovely.

We had another Peace Corps training last week. It was nice to see the other volunteers, but I otherwise didn’t get what I had hoped out of it.

Social life is hard. Not so much in the cities. There we can have mixed groups of Americans and Albanians, sometimes Serbians, speaking mostly in English, with some Shqip mixed in. It’s hard in the village, where every visit is an inter-generational house visit, entirely in Shqip. The most unexpectedly difficult thing about social interaction is how difficult it is to even want to hang out with people when the TV is on all the time. And it’s on pretty much all the time, in every house I’ve been in.

After several years of meaning to, I finally finished reading The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway. Mostly it just made me even more tired and apathetic than I already was. Outside the context of the communities in which they are celebrated, fiestas and cafe hopping are, as it turns out, much less interesting than one would hope. Meet some people, get drunk with some other people, get in a fight, make a short term friend, drink some more, make some poor relationship decisions, drink a lot more, run out of money, pretend like you haven’t. There’s so little context for any of what’s happening, aside from the fact that none of it matters very much. I can’t imagine from what context this book would be a good one. If you’re already living this cycle of superficial friendship out, it’s depressingly familiar, and if not, it’s a rather dull story about directionless people.

At the recommendation of a friend, I also read Foreign to Familiar, a short book about the general distinctions between “hot climate” and “cold climate” cultures, terms which are a little misleading, since Northern tribes are “hot climate,” whereas large cities anywhere tend to be more “cold climate,” regardless of the climate they live in. It’s pretty good for what it is, though not so revelatory as the author sometimes makes it out to be. It covers some of the basics: in some cultures politeness might require you to defer a few times on invitations, while in others you won’t be asked a second time. In some cultures you’re expected to get right to work on projects or meetings, and in others you’re expected to socialize and create positive feelings first. In some, you should get to events right on time, where in others, you should start getting ready at the announced time. The relational/time flexible values tend to clump together in “hot climate” cultures, whereas the task oriented/time specific values tend to clump together on “cold climate” cultures. It’s a good generalized guide to some of the different cultural styles in the world.

If you’re wondering about the post title, it’s from the lovely Triodion hymn, Open to me the doors of repentance.

Reading the Internet

We have a lot of time in the winter for reading, crafting, and generally being homebodies. I spend a lot of that time reading articles online, and do not approve of my reading choices most of the time. I’m only on page 20 of Jane Eyre, page 0 of Plaku dhe Deti, but probably page 2,800 of io9.

Also not on the reading list, but read anyway:

Lifehacker, because it’s somehow reassuring to know that someone, somewhere (probably in California) is getting up at 5 am to the soothing artificial sunlight of his alarm, practices some yoga, and reviews his super mindful daily activities with intentionality, while I poke my nose out from beneath my three blankets and wish I were in Africa.

Watchmen is arguably the best graphic novel ever produced, in its own weird, distressing way.

Darcy, a homeschool graduate, who’s family was heavily involved in some of the more problematic parts of conservative homeschooling culture, has some beautiful reflections on her experiences growing up, and eventually away from that sub-culture. I grew up somewhere between mainstream America and Darcy’s homeschooling “cohort,” and probably knew some girls like her. I remember some of the same things, but presented much more mildly. It’s interesting hearing her perspective as an “insider” on some of the stricter manifestations of gender essentialism, “clean romances” of dubious quality, practical but frumpy clothing, and so on. Moderately conservative Muslims may actually have better clothing options than many very conservative protestants, because their hijabs and long fitted coats are mostly pretty beautiful. I hope it’s presented that way to teenage girls, and not primarily as a defense against the lustfulness of men. Perhaps I have some of those girls in my classes even now, since I’m living in a conservative village where fewer than half the girls graduate from high school.

I was recently lured back to Donald Miller’s blog with an email and attractive e-booklet of things he has learned about living better these past few years. It was predictably mediocre. At one point he recounted an exchange with someone who “missed the old Don,” the one who wrote Blue Like Jazz. I’m assuming this was a reader, not a personal friend. Don used this to make some point about how change is good, and it’s good that things are better for him personally now than they were back then. Now he’s happily married, a successful businessman and conference organizer, has some employees, and so on. He seemed to think there was some contradiction there. There isn’t. He really was a better writer when he was less successful and more confused. He rocks naive confusion. Self help, not so much. Not that he’s exceptionally bad at self-help. That would almost (almost) be better, because at least it would give the reader something to latch onto. There are no latches in saying generic stuff like that it’s helpful to think of life as a story, people change throughout their lives, and if your friend is a bad influence, perhaps you oughtn’t spend so much time with that friend. I wish I could say his nicely maintained website and attractive PDF are fooling no one, but obviously people keep taking the bait even when we should know better.

Through some progression of links I ended up reading this, and enjoyed Glennon’s cheerleader attitude, and how she flirts with over cutsiness, while still remaining mostly fresh and charming. Perspecticles. Hehe. Her TEDx talk is also quite good in its way. And posts like this. She has a very distinct authorial voice. In fact, her writing is almost entirely voice. I can’t read or listen to her too much, or all her idiosyncrasies kind of overwhelm me (and I really don’t care very much how she’s raising her children, which is 2/3 of her posts). The most interesting thing about Glennon’s writing, for me, is getting a window into someone with a completely different temperament than I have, and what it might be like to go through life as a sensitive feeler. When I was a teen I would regularly go to Christian events where people were invited to get up in front of the group, and tell us what they were thinking, and — mostly — feeling. There were some little Glennons at most of them, with their tumultuous feelings, spiritual/emotional highs and lows, experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sex, tears, attention seeking, and whatever else. Because it’s not hard to find messages from both sides, while she was trying to pretend she felt less than she did, I was frustrated because I felt like I was supposed to be much more emotional than I was. I would have found her threatening, like her problems and feelings were this huge thing that was taking up all the emotional space, and I should become as small as possible to make room. There’s one point in the video where she’s talking about how in high school it seemed impossible to think about ancient Romans or geometry when it was so overwhelming just to make a friend or deal with feeling oily and vulnerable all the time. Meanwhile, I relied on those Romans and other dead white guys to provide something to talk about, so that I could try making some friends, with mixed success.

Speaking of people who absorb all the emotional energy they can, The Depressed Person is an excellent, insightful, and… depressing… essay by David Foster Wallace.

Winter Festivities

Winter is tough. We don’t have a cafe in town. Even if we did, only men go to the village cafes. So I can go into Prizren and meet an English speaking friend there, or I can stay in the village browsing the internet and feeling guilty for not being more social, scholarly, and industrious. It’s mostly been pretty cold and icy for the past month, but we had one gloriously sunny day last week, when everyone in Prizren walked about on the path by the river and basked in the sunlight at outdoor cafes.

Winter break was nice — I went to Kotor, Montenegro with some other volunteers, where we climbed up to a ruined fortress, walked along the sea, and explored the lovely little walled city. Montenegrins had nature on their side in building impregnable fortifications.

What I’ve been reading:

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, by Paula Bowlin Huntly (2003), is adapted from the author’s journals while she taught a private English course in Prishtina shortly after the end of the war in 1999. It keeps the format of dated journal entries, and is fine for what it is. She captures a lovely relationship with and appreciation of her students, and their gladness to finally have a teacher with time and desire to invest in their education to the best of her ability. Her descriptions of bleak, trash filled, bombed-out, yet lively, post-war Prishtina, and the contrasts between her privileged upper middle class American life, and life in a country in the midst of being rebuilt are also observant and sometimes poignant. At the same time, Hemingway Book Club didn’t resonate with me. It’s not Mrs. Huntly’s fault that I tend to feel ashamed and jealous in the face of educational gushing, or that her students look down on my students. But it does make this book not very helpful to me.

In Why Kosovo Still Matters (2011), British politician Denis MacShane draws on his experience as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with responsibility for the Balkans from 2001 to 2005. He is a lively, opinionated writer, who helped shape the actions that he describes on the part of the United Kingdom and NATO. At the same time, he’s so opinionated as to come across as an unreliable reporter, which is not helped by his conviction of fraud in 2012 and had to resign from Parliament.

Sworn Virgin (Elvira Dones, 2007; translated 2014). follows the story of Hana, who chose to become a man socially after the death of her closest family members, because it was unsafe and socially unacceptable to act as head of her household as a woman, and she didn’t want to get married and be a housewife. Fourteen years later, she moves to America to live with her cousin, and reclaim her female identity. Hana came of age during Enver Hoxha’s disastrous regime, and was a bright, interested student at the university of Tirana, when her uncle’s illness forced her to return to their small mountain village in Northern Albania. Dones bases Hana’s story on an old Albanian custom dictating that a woman can choose to “become a man” in the eyes of the community, dressing, smoking, and drinking with the men, and taking on male roles and responsibilities. There isn’t a place for a strong, single woman in village society, so everyone agrees to pretend she isn’t a woman at all. Life is lonely and difficult for Hana, but she doesn’t regret her choice. She does, however, want to go back to life as a woman (slowly) when she emigrates to America, and her cousin is there to guide her through that.

It was an interesting read, and brings up a lot of themes that are promising, but never satisfactorily explored. Dones is a solid writer, but not fantastic, and I was left wishing she had spent more time on descriptions of the tough, violent, pragmatic villagers, and less time on Hana removing her underwear and gazing at her female body in a mirror, or her odd, charged relationship with a man she met on the plane and then didn’t call for most of a year. I appreciate the way it handles gender inequity without being too preachy, along with providing some insights into the roughness of rural Albanian life will into the modern era. It would be a good book club book.

IST

We had an In Service Training last week, and it may be my favorite educational IST of all time. Usually I’m vehemently anti teacher trainings. The thing they did right was to give us enough time to just talk about our experiences and compare notes without necessarily forcing them into the paradigm de jour. It certainly didn’t hurt that they put us up in a nice hotel with good food, either. It’s also easier to be charitable with presenters one already knows, and they had volunteers lead several of the sessions. There was a good “we’re all in this together” quality to it.

My father is right that when I try to go into details about educational things I’m usually no fun to read, talk to, or even be around. There’s something unpleasant that happens in taking a deeply ingrained, complex, implicit skill that’s bound up with personal identity, such as reading or writing, and making it explicit. It doesn’t happen so much with weaker skills like art or website making, unless it becomes completely overloaded with meaning, like my lesson plans did in college. In that case, it’s usually because I’m working at the edge of my own understanding, so that I can hardly communicate what I mean to anybody, in any form, and it completely disintegrates when I have to try hammering at it day after day, as one does in the classroom.

Language is a difficult subject to get a grip on, at least of me — both to learn and to teach. You’ve got some bit of text that’s easy to read and clear. For instance: “Tino Martinoli works every day at his father’s restaurant. He’s very friendly and smiles at all the customers. Tino’s friends often come and see him at the restaurant. They usually talk about sports. At the moment Tino is playing tennis with Jeta and he’s losing.” So you read it, try to understand it — the words, the grammar, the meaning of the whole. Then, if you’re me, you should probably write or say a little introduction to someone else, perhaps a friend or family member, with a similar structure, so you can rely on the patterns you just read, and also express something about yourself and those you know. But composition is its own skill, and needs a lot of time to teach. If I don’t have a strategy ready, or if I’m not willing to fight for that time and space, inertia will have us rolling through the chapter, altering tenses here, choosing pronouns there. There’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff. It’s just boring and a rather poor use of class time. Those are the exercises I skip when I’m studying Shqip, but we spend most of our class time on it. Because it’s easy to manage, and when you’re teaching 40 minute classes at 7 different grade levels easy is important. We can’t do anything that relies on me remembering and communicating a complex plan that changes from one class to the next.

I’m actually beginning to appreciate some of the things they teach in Education courses in the US, even if I haven’t managed to use many of them yet. Objectives, for instance. It’s all very well, if you know that everyone is a good reader, and will get something out of the text simply by running their eyes over the page, to go ahead and let things take their course — but if you’ve got limited time and words or grammar, if uncaught, will disappear into an irretrievable void, it’s better to have some idea what everyone’s supposed to know, and how you’re going to know that they know. Especially in language, where it’s extremely difficult to express what you know or don’t know out of context. Where the question isn’t so much what you know about your subject, as what you can express through it.

It’s been drizzling rain for the past two weeks, so it’s cloudy, misty, and dark all day, then the sun disappears behind the mountain at about 3:30. We have tinted windows, so even though school ends at noon, I haven’t been experiencing much in the way of visible daylight.

Decani monastery’s feast day was a couple of weeks ago, commemorating their founder, King Stefan, and I got to stay there for vigil and Liturgy. It’s one of the best known Serbian Orthodox monasteries, and they had around 1,000 visitors there to celebrate. I stayed in a gable room of the Patriarchate of Pec, about 45 minutes away, with some Serbian ladies. It’s also a very beautiful medieval monastery, with an interesting church layout, where three churches were built side by side, and later connected with a single narthex. Like Georgians, medieval Serbians built tall, solid stone churches, which means that many of the folks with no liturgical role end up standing behind a pillar for most of the service, getting jostled by people trying to get by. They are not so enthusiastic about mounds of little candles, though, which caught down on the milling and dodging somewhat.

A vigil is a combination of vespers, midnight hours, and matins, which in this case had an additional section where we all flowed into the (fortunately rather spacious) narthex to chant and await the Serbian patriarch for 20 minutes or so. It’s also a service where I stand behind a pillar for 3 hours looking at the feet of an unknown saint, listing to lovely and unintelligible chanting, and try to remember God. They’re beautiful, full of incense, candles, shadows, and mystery. They’re also difficult.

Sitting About

Nikolaj Vilimirovich was a beautiful writer. He was almost certainly a beautiful speaker as well, going by the lovely collection of addresses he made to wartime England, Serbia in Light and Darkness. It makes me uncomfortable, because all Serbian nationalism encountered after the terrible reign of President Milosevic is likely to make me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t prevent it from being beautiful. He was also a poet, and it shows. He is very gracious, in a way that I’ve sometimes seen in good bishops when speaking to guests or hosts in a different community. If this is the kind of thing you like to read, go ahead and do so — it’s free in HTML or on Kindle.

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, with the other local volunteers elsewhere in the country, and the Orthodox academy in Belgrade. For the weekend I spent late mornings sitting in a beautiful field on a mountain and appreciating how pretty it was, and came back to cabbage rolls and kittens. It’s been one of those weeks where I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of the living room, because it’s just cool enough to be uncomfortable sitting too long outside, or in an unheated oom. I’ve also gone walking most days — not very far, but it’s just warm enough to be able to walk up a little hill and then down into a little meadow, and sit there enjoying the rust red trees, green grass, and the faint sound of the stream below me. Every now and ten a horse or two comes down the hill covered in hay, looking adorable.

I made a pumpkin pie and banana bread with some success, and a pumpkin ginger soup that tasted very healthy, but was too spicy with ginger.

After reading Getting Better at Getting Better, by New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, I walked around fuming to myself for a while. It pushed all the wrong “philosophy of education” buttons for me. Poor comparisons (between professional athletes and teachers), and the pervading thought that if all children don’t perform to the best of their ability in every school, it must be because something is wrong with the teachers. Let’s compare them to world class musicians, NBA players, and machines, and talk about how they’re falling short.

In contrast to the dissatisfaction that permeates Education, here’s a sweet blog post. Glennon has a very distinctive authorial voice, and is ever so much more emotional than I, but I like it. In fairly small doses. Favorite overly cute fake word: “perspecticles.”

Self-consciously “vulnerable” blogs are appealing, in a slightly unhealthy sort of way, and I’ve been reading too many of them in my abundant free time. It’s easy to appreciate their “finding myself as a cultural outsider” narratives. A young woman grows up in a counter-cultural enclave somewhere in America, but then begins to question, to doubt, to struggle. It’s dramatic, because she didn’t have the ghosts of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky in her house playing atheist, elder, and struggling believer for her. She may not even have had CS Lewis, because he included parties with Bacchus. So she is Shocked to go out into the world and see that the world is not as she had expected it to be, and spends a long time thereafter processing that realization, then sharing her experience with anyone who will listen.

Apparently I’m not very sophisticated, either. It would be better — I would, in fact, prefer — to read about someone who actually succeeded at learning to appreciate village people of another culture. I would get a much more helpful “I know what you’re talking about!” buzz to hear the account of someone who went to live in the hills with the farmers, and found that the most consistent annoyances were… music videos. And three hours a day of Candid Camera knock-offs. Also, oil. And the lack of structured social encounters. The sorts of things that educated, snobby people complain about when living with many normal Americans. These are the people that even the Kosovar students in The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo are snobby about (she makes a point to mentioning it), because they are city people. But I don’t know who I’m trying to find, and like most actually helpful articles, it hasn’t shown up in my Facebook feed yet.

Briefly Noted — Localism

Holy Trinity held their (semi)annual Parish Retreat a couple of weeks ago, with Fr Andrew Damick. He gave several good lectures, one of which I have actually listened to, and can therefore comment on. It’s basically about being an Orthodox localist, with small town habits, like walking everywhere, getting to know the neighbors, planting gardens, sitting on front porches, forming relationships with people based on proximity, rather than shared interests, and so on. I have mixed feelings about it. Many of his recommendations are things that Peace Corps actually requires of volunteers, such as living in the community where we work, no driving, and most of us live next to rather extensive vegetable gardens and food producing animals. Which is good, and I’m glad we’re doing it.

My main question is actually practical. As someone living in a postindustrial, highly technological society. One where our rugs and clothes are woven on industrial looks, our dishes, utensils, chairs, and appliances are made in factories, and so on — what do we do all winter? This is a question in America as well. It certainly was in Tuluksak. Rural places are largely not academic — we mostly aren’t spending the winter researching. I think of George MacDonald’s wise woman, and of the beautiful and productive ladies of ancient Greece, with their spindle and loom, making textiles all winter. In my experience of villages, we generally spend a lot of time in the main room together — perhaps 5 – 10 people — and a TV on. A TV showing random annoying junk, as un-hobbit-like as that may be. Because if there are 10 people in the room, and one of them wants the TV on, it will certainly be on. So I’ve had headphones on all week. In Gori I would walk to the local expat cafe and sit there for three or four hours with a plate of fried potatoes and a computer. And I wasn’t just a particularly slothful exception, but more like the norm. And I’d like to do better, partly because that is not even enjoyable, but am really not sure how this is supposed to work in villages with wi-fi and TVs in the only warm room in the house.

Also, sitting out on the street all day, in addition to being normal for men but strange for women, is pretty boring, even if people wave and laugh every few minutes.

On the other end of the spectrum are women who feel in constant danger both from actual catcalls, and also from strangers simply greeting them in public places.  Apparently a number of women, especially in East Coast cities, have had such a wretched experience of creeps outnumbering normal friendly people, they are worried at the sound of “hi.” “It started when I was 12 and creepy old men would come up and start stroking my waist-length hair without my permission.” Seriously? More than once? How sad. Apparently the woman who made the video got unwanted attention every 6 minutes of her walk, on average. Of course, I don’t generally feel that way — I wouldn’t be volunteering to be the resident American in various places if I hated people laughing and calling as I walk past. In Eastern Europe, this is mostly children, and sometimes men. What’s interesting, both about the post and the comments, is how the experience of unwanted attention has hardened into the feeling that any acknowledgment at all is wrong, so we should just keep our heads down, our eyes front, and ignore each other completely. As one commenter says “I see cat-calling as a violation of space. By cat-calling, the man forces me (or attempts to) into an interaction with him regardless of whether or not I’m up for it.”

Speaking of people fed up with random street attention, I read The Peace Corpse, by Andy Christofferson, because even a rather poorly written e-book is easier to read than a much better written blog, of you’re going for narrative. I’m saying this as someone writing a blog and not a narrative e-book, of course. And if you want to hear my experience as a coherent story, you will probably be disappointed if you start reading blog archives to get that. Andy was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania in the 00s, and not a very good one. Nor is he a very good writer — he’s insecure, judgmental, and likes to emphasize his juvenile sense of humor. What I thought most interesting about it is the window into the mind of such a person — since someone like that usually doesn’t say what he’s thinking to me. I wish that there were a) other characters who were actual people, and not just foils for Andy, and b) that Andy had a better character arc, and came out of his self absorption more by the end. Of course, the difficulty with non-fiction if that Andy the character won’t grow or observe much beyond Andy the person, who apparently still isn’t there yet. Also, his crush on a local girl who moved away to England was certainly important to his experience, but since he tells us precious little about her, his reader has no reason to care, and it becomes tedious.

The Soft Exile, by Eric Kiefer, is the partly fictionalized memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia at some point before the internet had reached every corner of the earth. He is  much better writer than Andy, with a wryer sense of himself, and is more aware of his isolation and quest for personal fulfillment. He declares on the first page that he “was taught to appreciate Hemmingway, Kafka, Orwell, and Kerouac,” and joined the Peace Corps after freaking out about Sausage McMuffins and the whole American industrialist machine and threatening to kill himself. So they sent him to a remote village on the edge of the Gobi, where he spent months with a used radio looking for signals, before finally finding the one hill in town that got a signal. Because he was that remote. He write about it well — the cold, the silence, the sandstorms, the loneliness, the staring. The main problem I ended up having with his story was that, after building up to a grand vision quest at the end, it just sort of puts out some vaguely zen platitudes and just stops. It sort of falls flat, like he hadn’t really found something to hold onto by the time he finished the book — and it’s possible that he couldn’t, given the kind of buildup he had about it. I would recommend this book if you want to read about life as an outsider and angsty young man in the Gobi desert.

In The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford asks his readers to imagine a future where automation continues to advance and swallow up traditional work, while the new jobs we assume will replace them fail to do so at nearly the rate and accessibility needed to keep the economy going in it’s present form. The book’s title is based on his main metaphor. Imagine the modern economy as a giant tunnel, filled with floating lights. Each light represents a consumer, and glows brightly or dimly depending on the purchasing power of that person. The walls are lined with a mosaic of panels, also glowing, which represent businesses. The lights go up to the panels, and an exchange takes place, making the panel slightly brighter, and the consumer slightly dimmer. However, these corporations are also employing workers, who are consumers as well, and some of the light is returned to those employees. It’s a somewhat clumsy metaphor, but works better in the book where he has more room to explain why he’s using it this way. His main point is that at a certain level of automation the mechanism whereby the buying power of transactions is returned to employees breaks down, and there’s reason to expect that jobs that cannot be automated cannot keep up with those being automated, or that the vast majority people can continue to keep up with the entry requirements of those machine-resistant fields.

The question driving most of the book is: what if jobs are automated to the point where as much as half the population either have no work to do, or are unable to do the work that continues to need humans to do it — including that which requires a large amount of manual dexterity or creativity? He argues at some length why it’s likely that might happen, and in a system bent on maximizing the efficiency of corporations there’s no reason to employ people if they aren’t needed for the work itself.

In Eastern Europe is not an abstract question. Kosovo has a 45% unemployment rate. The only reason it isn’t even worse (my colleague estimated 60%) is because so many people are working in Germany and Switzerland. In Greece and Spain a quarter of their potential workers are unemployed. “Unemployed” in the village (like in Kosovo, Georgia, or Alaska) does not mean not doing anything at all, of course. They may be farming, fishing, hunting, and so on. Most have excellent vegetable gardens. But it does mean that there isn’t a really a way for them to participate in the larger economic system, and to the extent they do, it’s because of government programs or employed family members.

Mr Ford concedes that capitalism has worked the best of any system tried by a modern nation, and his solution looks something like capitalism on the side of the producers and socialism on the side of the consumers. Businesses are free, even encouraged to compete in the same way they do now, but would be taxed mostly on their actual cash flow, with no payroll taxes, to avoid putting labor intensive fields at a disadvantage. The various welfare and unemployment programs would be restructured into a kind of baseline sum for ordinary citizens, and then he has a scheme where people are rewarded for doing desirable things, such as furthering their education or volunteering in their communities.

Of course, this faces the normal criticisms against socialism, starting with the fact that it’s difficult to impose the requisite taxes on anyone — rich people, successful businesses, whoever — without damaging their ability and incentive to operate well. He has thoughts on that, but they mostly amount to: if the scenario plays out as he thinks it will, we either have to make something like socialism work, or live with a massive disconnect between production capacity and buying power. I appreciate about this book that Mr Ford is a thoughtful, reasonable liberal, not an angry blaming liberal, and would recommend his book.

Briefly Noted — Culture and Religion

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately, but mostly not stuff I’ve had strong feelings about, so I haven’t felt compelled to write entire posts about them. But they do deserve quick mentions, which is what this post is about.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe takes place in Nigeria as colonialism and missionaries are spreading through the continent. It focuses on Okonkwo, a respected warrior and hardworking yam farmer in a small village, along with his three wives and children. He’s deeply flawed, especially in how he routinely equates violence with manhood and mercy with effeminacy, but has the skills and determination needed to thrive and gain honor in tribal society. Until, of course, things start falling apart, both for him and the traditions of his community. It presents a good look into the daily life of a pre-colonial African tribe, as well how thoroughly intertwined that life was with the rituals and beliefs they held, so that giving up the beliefs ultimately meant giving up much of the culture and stability as well. I read it because in the post The Books I Didn’t Read I wrote about a few weeks ago, Samantha said “Things Fall Apart would have upended everything I thought I knew about missionaries and nationalism”, and I was curious what would have been upended. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure what she meant by that. I suppose it had something to do with the thought that pagan tribes had no internally reasonable (though deficient) Tao behind their laws and beliefs. Or that British missionaries and colonists didn’t do violent and harmful things? I’m not sure why she would have thought that. The book was worth reading — an interesting window into a very different culture.

If I Should Speak, by Umm Zakiyyah, is about an American college girl discovering Islam. It belongs to the genre of theological parlor novels wherein the characters spend a lot of time sitting around talking about theology. In their dorm rooms, the car, their parents’ houses, and so on, while their minds are opened to new possibilities — of The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, and There & Back by George MacDonald. If you’re plagued by the Calvinism of your youth, I would tepidly recommend either — the latter more than the former.

It’s not a genre I love, and is very difficult to pull off well. The main difficulty is that most of the content is taken up in dialogues, usually between one or several jejune youths, and someone older and wiser, or at least better informed. In general, this person is not Socrates, with his flare for irony and trapping his opponents in their own logic. If I Should Speak centers around Tamika, Aminah, and Dee, roommates studying near Atlanta. Tamika plays the part of the callow youth — she was raised Christian and tried evangelizing her fellow students in high school, but is basically ignorant of Christian traditions. Aminah is the knowledgeable, devout guide, the daughter of Islamic converts of mixed heritage. Dee comes from a similar background as Aminah, but has strayed from the path, uncovering her head and shoulders, and competing in talent competitions. Aminah is so piously smug, and Tamika so ignorant and un-resourceful, their conversations are sort of painful to read. The writing is fairly good (but they need to stop “sucking their teeth” once was already too much, and they just keep doing it, whenever they’re in the least perturbed), but the characters fit far too tidily into their preordained roles. I can’t really recommend this book.

I can, however, recommend Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary. It’s just what it claims to be — a popular history of the Islamic world, from it’s founding in the time of Mohammad to the early Twenty-first Century, told more as a narrative of how people have perceived their cultural history than a balanced and impartial historical text, but since he says so upfront, I think that’s alright.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus , by Nabeel Qureshi is the converse of If I Should Speak, being about a young Islamic man sitting around talking about theology in college, until he eventually becomes Christian. It’s easier to excuse creative non-fiction for the tedium of placing all its scenes in someone’s living room or lecture hall, because it has to work with what actually happened, and cannot simply invent drama. Interestingly, I also like the kind of Islam practiced by Nabeel’s family more sympathetic than Zakiyyah’s rather anemic presentation. Since Nabeel, unlike Tamika, spends most of the book as an “insider,” he brings much more depth, meaning, and, yes, affection to the faith he eventually leaves than Tamika can. His parents are moderate but deeply committed Pakistani Muslims living in the West — first in England, and then in the US.  Also, Nabeel is simply a better writer than Zakiyyah. Nevertheless, any creative work where the protagonist spends a lot of time reading Lee Strobel is unlikely to be altogether satisfying. Actually, I found Nabeel’s account of Christianity less emotionally compelling than his touching memories of Islam. He was an analytically minded medical student, and reminds me of all the apologetics treatises that I failed to appreciate as a teen. The advantage is that he, while a youth, does not come across as callow: he does research and investigate the claims of the theologians, historians, and so on on both sides of the question. Good for him — I just wish he had picked some more interesting theologians. And perhaps some poets and liturgists as well. Nevertheless, I would (tepidly) recommend this book.