The Void and the Self

There’s no atheist in a foxhole,” the old saying goes. Death forces anyone to acknowledge their mortality, and any beliefs about an afterlife, but does that saying hold water today? What happens when we’re confronted with death?

The expression conjures up an image of the soldier with hands pressed together and eyes clenched shut, huddled in the foxhole. The expression seems to imply that everyone close to death makes their peace with God. That everyone confronts the reality that is God.

Certainly a century ago, the guilt of missing too many masses or dying without having confessed would be unbearable for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. But the church no longer has such a firm grip on our subconscious and metaphysical beliefs. Prayer as a reflex to death probably doesn’t happen for many 21st century Americans.

Yet there may still be something to that phrase, even if the soldier remains steadfastly atheist.

The nature of war is random, taking life from civilians and soldiers who are mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. No one can dodge a bullet. But if you are a soldier and you are to survive, survival depends on you, and on your realization of this fact. I mean, if God were in the business of saving, God would not want you to be sitting on your ass praying for the shell to miss with your eyes closed. You better be ready to jump out of the foxhole.

Human phobias and pathos are part of what make us human. Violence, fear, and trauma can be crippling. But even as hands shake and legs quiver, another part of us know what needs to be done – to call an ambulance, to pull out the rusty nail, to look away from the cliff, to keep running, to soldier on.

Sometimes we feel very intense things – horror, terror, pain, extreme boredom – that make us want to do nothing more than curl into a fetal ball, but in the same moment another part of us coldly and rationally knows what must be done. And we have the ability to choose to do the latter.

This all brings me to Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void1, an amazing story of survival under the most unlikely circumstances. Survival after Simpson believed death to be an inevitability.

 

Big-ass Crevasse

The movie, with narration provided by the actual climbers and reenactments by actors, tells one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard. Simpson and his friend Simon Yates, with a friend waiting in base camp, are attempting to become the first climbers to scale the west face of Siula Grande in the Andes. They make it to the summit, but at the beginning of the descent, Simpson falls and suffers a severe break of his right leg, with the knee joint entirely destroyed and tibia coming up into the thigh.

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Farewell, Friday Night Lights

Reposted here, without permission, is my article from The Student Life at Pomona College. A few names redacted. The Season 5 finale of Friday Night Lights aired on NBC last Friday after being broadcasted a few months prior on DirecTV.

With its five seasons finally concluded after last week’s finale, it is safe to say that Friday Night Lights (“FNL”) is about much more than football. Case in point from the finale: as the quarterback launches a long, spiraling, slow-motion pass into the brisk Texas night, the camera cuts to all the characters in attendance, lingering on each of their faces in turn —first friends and families, then players and coaches. The outcome of the game hangs in the balance, but suddenly it doesn’t matter. It’s the people that matter: the residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.

FNL paints a portrait of a contemporary American small town where football is king. The show revolves around Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), principal/guidance counselor, and her husband Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Both were nominated for Emmys in 2010. Their relationship has been consistently hailed as the “best portrayal of a marriage on TV,” and their conflicts make a perfect target for armchair feminist analysis. The pair shepherd two crops of high schoolers from adolescence to adulthood. Among the students are the strong, convention-breaking blond Tyra Colette (Adrianne Palicki), the stuttering, lovable replacement QB Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the Taylors’ sexually rebellious daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), ex-juvie recruit Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan, a talent from “The Wire”), and of course, the brooding heartbreaker Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch).

The show also features Esquire magazine’s 2010 Sexiest Woman Alive (Minka Kelly), a successful abortion (a rarity in TV), a Christian speed-metal band, a teenage girl football coach, and the best parent-teen sex talk you’ll ever see (record it and show it to your kids). There are a few gay characters, and a lot of half-time speeches and “Texas Forever” too. Enough of them for Slate magazine’s Meghan O’Rourke to call the show “singularly designed to make men cry.”

Derek Jeter's future wedding party?

Despite critical acclaim and a cult following, FNL never achieved widespread success, and it only survived past the second season because of a last second co-production agreement with DirecTV. FNL’s inability to make it mainstream may be a product of its lack of a core demographic audience—it was first marketed to men for the football and then to women for the drama. Yet I see this as more of an asset than a detriment: it’s masculine and feminine, teen and family, blue and red state.

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Organics need help

What bothers me most, however, is that both sides of the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution. Organic supporters tend to vilify new technologies, while conventional supporters insist that chemicals and massive production monocultures are the only way to go. This simply strikes me as absurd. Synthetic doesn’t necessarily mean bad for the environment. Just look at technological advances in creating biodegradable products; sometimes, we can use our knowledge and intelligence to create things that are both useful, cheap enough and ecologically responsible, as crazy as that idea may sound.

I also firmly believe that increasing the chemicals used in agriculture to support insanely over-harvested monocultures will never lead to ecological improvement. In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally.

via Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture | Science Sushi, Scientific American Blog Network.

As far as I’m concerned, Christie Wilcox’s Scientific American blog posting on the myths of organic agriculture is one of the more complete analyses of organic’s strengths and weaknesses I have seen in a mainstream publication in years1. But it misses the mark more than a few times. I read all the literature I could get my hands on for my senior thesis (“Policies to Improve Organic Agriculture: Prospects to Meet an Agrarian, Ecological, or Resource Vision” – yep, I ran out of creative juices for a title…) and found very few pieces that holistically and neutrally evaluated organic agriculture. Wilcox gets top marks for effort.

Many arguments for and against organics rest on just a handful of scholarly articles, in addition to a wealth of anecdotal accounts. Like her peers, Wilcox does not present a comprehensive review of the literature. However, she is right to question many of the “myths” surrounding organic agriculture,  and her overall point about the black and white conversation around organics is spot on.

It’s refreshing that Wilcox critiques organics while sharing its goals. We need more of these kinds of conversations and a whole lot more scientific research of sustainable agriculture if we really are serious about an environmentally-sensitive agriculture for more than just the privileged few.

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The Long Summer, Addendum

This post is an addendum to “The Long Summer,” June 30th.

Today, July 9th, Derek Jeter gained his 3,000th career hit with a shot into the left field bleachers in Yankee Stadium, on his way to a 5 for 5 Saturday afternoon, which also included the game-winning hit in the 8th. Up in a private suite, Minka Kelly cheered him on, looking like the hottest woman in the world. It was a historic moment for one of the greats of our era, whom I have hated with a vengeance since “the Flip” (relive at the end of this clip – also note how full the Coliseum is).

In Texas, Josh Hamilton hit a towering walk-off homerun into the second deck of the Ballpark in Arlington, capping off a 4 for 5 campaign that came just two days after Hamilton flipped a ball to a fireman in the stands, who lunged across the railing over the out-of-town scoreboard in left field and fell 30 feet, suffering injuries that led to his death. He left behind a young son in the bleachers, and was heard to be inquiring after him as he was carted to the hospital.

The A’s were up 6-5 going into the ninth, with their shutdown closer Andrew Bailey on the mound, who had not given up a homerun this year. They have now lost 5 of their last 6 games, and almost all their games out of however many games you want to go back.

The baseball gods have spoken. As a baseball fan, you watch the game for moments like Jeter’s and Hamilton’s. They are perfect. They draw tears of joy. 50,000 people go mad with you in the stands.

 

This man knows he is blessed by the baseball gods

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Knoxville: Summer 1915

On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there…They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

– James Agee, A Death in the Family


The Long Summer

Since my graduation more than a month and a half ago, I’ve been closely following my hometown baseball team, the Oakland A’s. With that great liberation and the end of scholarly burdens (“homework”), possibly forever, I finally have the time to watch/listen to important sporting events (the NBA Finals!) and catch enough A’s games to know all the players’ names and whether they’re good or sucky.

My love of baseball dates to the pre-conscious years, and that’s reason enough to follow the A’s. But this year feels different for a franchise that has seen tremendous highs and lows, at least in my twenty-three years of memory. The A’s are mired in a state of losing and limbo, with their dismal performance on the field – including an 11 game losing streak and last place in the standings – providing little distraction from the fact that the team has no idea where it will be in 2014 (see Howard Bryant’s ESPN piece). This story has strangely attracted me to the team. Call it a morbid fascination.

They’re a nobody team in nowhere land, facing the prospect of homelessness or another decade in the “O.co” Coliseum, the most decrepit 1 sporting venue east of St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Rays are wrapping up their final seasons at Tropicana Field before moving to new digs. There is no guarantee the A’s will play in a new stadium anytime soon, with the ownership gunning for an essentially suburban ballpark for San José, which happens to be territory they legally ceded to the Giants in the 90’s.

I too am in a state of limbo, facing the prospect of homelessness, having no idea where I’ll be in the fall. Unfortunately I have no corollary for Bud Selig, who is the main villain in the Athletics’ chronicle; I can only blame the lousy economy. This is the first time in my life I’ve wanted my summer “break” to end in June – probably because it isn’t a vacation at all. It’s hard to take a break from doing nothing, celebrate a hard week of not working, or even have a great conversation about all the nothing happening in my life.

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