Sunday, February 13, 2011

Friendship and Justice

Recently, I was listening to The C-Realm Podcast, specifically to an interview with Gary Borjesson. And though the conversation was actually about dogs, the following came up (and, yes, it was tied into dogs too). Borjesson said:

I had this very interesting conversation with students in an introduction to philosophy class, and ... we were talking about Aristotle's understanding of friendship ... and he says at one point that if friends don't treat you justly, you can and eventually should end the friendship. And almost to a one, my students just completely dug in their heels and they really objected to Aristotle's idea that friends owe each other justice, that part of remaining friends was not only being just, but of course this is what really bothered them, was judging each other. Because of course this presumes that you're paying attention to whether you're getting what you think you deserve and that your friend's also paying attention to this. And this just didn't mesh with their notion of friendship being unconditional, so that when your friend screws up, you overlook it if you're a true friend. And only if you're small-minded, if you have the mind of an accountant, would you sort of, say, keep score and cut your friend loose because they haven't paid their share of the tip when they should or other minor infractions. And what struck me about it was that I asked them during this conversation "well, but what do you actually do? Do you remember when you're the one who's always calling your friend, and they never call back, they never invite you back? Do you remember somebody who doesn't pay their fair share?" And of course they do. On the one hand, they're keeping score all the time ... on the other hand, they're completely in denial about it. 
What struck me was not so much the idea of "keeping score" and how that affects friendship (though I supposed I do have some thoughts about that) but rather I was struck by the opposition between the ideals of judging one's friends vs. unconditional acceptance. Even if your friend's bad behavior is not directly affecting you, how do you react to it?

I'm reminded of a former student of mine who made a very difficult decision when he found that his roommate was plagiarizing wholesale the essays of others. He first confronted his roommate with the wrongdoing and tried to convince him that it was wrong and that he should not cheat. The roommate agreed, though it should be noted that there was also a threat involved: stop cheating, or I will be forced to report it. And, when he persisted in plagiarizing, that's exactly what he did. It was costly to both of them: the cheater lost the top student leadership position at the school and his roommate was harassed by many of his fellow students who lived by a "no snitches" code of ethics.

In this case, the boy in question chose his principles over his friendship (and, for that matter, over the peer pressure that he would presumably have felt not to "snitch"). He didn't do so in an absolutist way, but instead tried to convince his roommate to do the right thing first. But when push came to shove, he lived the Aristotelian view of friendship. So, what do we think of that? Did he make the right choice? Are there instances where we would be willing to choose friendship over a moral principle, and others where we would feel compelled to "do the right thing" even if it puts us at odds with our friend? Where do you draw the line?

If we accept that it is the right thing, to judge our friend and hold him or her accountable for actions that are wrong, I think there are a few different ways to approach this. On the one level, there's the idea of "doing the right thing," of course. But apart from one's own conscience, might it not be the case that you owe this to your friend for his or her own good? I know that this can walk a thin line when, on any particular issue, friends may not agree about what is right and wrong, but in a case where they basically do but one friend is failing to live up to his or her own ideals, would you then owe it to your friend to hold him or her accountable for that failure, even though it might be uncomfortable for you both? I can't say this for certain, but my sense in the case of the boys I mentioned earlier is that in the end the one cheating acknowledged his fault and the right action of his roommate; I can say with certainty that they are, at least, Facebook friends, and I don't think this would be an unlikely ending to the story, right, even if I can't say for sure?

There's another side to this. Is it not the case that the person who is committing the wrong action is, in addition to the action itself, committing a further wrong by putting his or her friend in the position of having to choose between principles and friendship? In other words, does not the friend owe the friend just action because to do otherwise would put a burden on the friend, to either have to choose a difficult right or live with choosing something that is wrong? Let's say I drive drunk and strike and kill a pedestrian. I go and ask my friend (isn't there a saying that a good friend will help you move but a true friend will help you move the bodies?) to help me cover it up. Not only have done a terrible thing by driving drunk and killing someone, but now I've also done a terrible thing to my friend, forcing him to choose between me and his own conscience. The example doesn't have to be so extreme, nor even something that is morally wrong. Say I feel that I need money for something--let's say it's not something that's vitally important, but it would really help. So I ask my friend to loan me some not-inconsequential sum of money. While it's certainly possible to imagine that one might have a friendship where something like that is fine, it's also easy to imagine that I may have put my friend in a position where he has to either loan me money--which for good reasons he may not want to do--or he may have to tell me no, which he also may not want to do. In other words, I've thrown a dilemma in his lap, and it's probably fair to say that that's not something a friend should do, at least not lightly.

Your thoughts on any of these topics are, as always, greatly appreciated.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Being respected vs. being liked

At the military school where I work, we have periodic "makes" for the cadets to be promoted in rank and/or changed in position. This can be a tough time for the boys who don't get the position they had hoped to get, because there are more boys than there are positions. Although we try to move people around to different positions, we also try to run something of a meritocracy, putting boys in positions that are not just good for them but also for the unit.

Without going into the details of it, one of the issues that came up is that some boys in the unit are well liked by their peers but not well respected. That is to say, the cadet in question may make them laugh or be "a good guy," but for one reason or another, they don't respect him. And when I look around, I see a number of guys like that.

This dichotomy came up again recently in a meeting with my fellow counselors. We had been asked to read an article about how peer pressure affected teens, causing them to take more risky behavior--and an important point here was that the pressure wasn't even of the "hey, you should do this" variety, it was the sort of pressure that exerts itself merely by the subject being watched by his or her peers. In other words, they are trying to conform to what they think will make their peers like them. In a more anecdotal bit, the article noted that "some real-world driving data suggests that teenage boys take more risks behind the wheel when one or more boys are in the car, but drive more carefully if they are with a girlfriend." In other words, it's not so much that teens automatically influence each other negatively but that the perceived expectations of what will impress one's peers has an effect.

What I see at my school is that we have competing ideas of cool, and I think what it boils down to is the difference between being liked and being respected. Some kids are desperate to be liked, to be "cool," and they tend to express that through making jokes (sometimes when they should be more serious), through putting others down, through risky behavior, etc. At the same time, our military system puts an emphasis on character and virtue, and so there exists as well a competing set of values that amount to respect, and this is based on showing good character, on doing one's job, on showing respect to others, and the like. These aren't completely separate, of course: kids may well try to have it both ways and may find a way to succeed.

In a sense, perhaps they always are. Depending on who they're around or how broadly they're thinking at any given moment, aren't most kids trying to please multiple constituencies: their friends, their teachers, their parents, their minister or priest, etc? They may weight different people differently and not even try to impress some of them at all, but I think it's fairly common. That's why, of course, parents don't see their children the same way that their peers do or they way their teachers do: because the kids are not showing everyone the same thing. It's not just kids, of course: we all show different sides of ourselves in different situations.

Given this, perhaps my dichotomy of being liked vs. being respected is too simplistic, but it still seems like a valid distinction, and I want to take it further to suggest that a mark of maturity is that we become more concerned with being respected than with being liked. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it's important to recognize that, well, sometimes they are. Putting it in the context of teaching, one might be very well liked by a class if one were to assign very little homework, give high grades, and do very little real work in class, but the teacher would not be well respected. Not all students make the distinction, I realize, but enough do. In fact, many students are pretty discerning: respect is also not conferred just for being difficult. In the case of teaching, things like fairness, accessibility and helpfulness, clarity of explanations and expectations, knowledge of content, not giving mere busy work: all of these things and more go into whether a teacher is respected. My point, though, is not to go into the particulars but just to note that a mature person in teaching or any other profession will be more concerned with being respected than with being liked.

Even as I type this, however, I know there are fields where this is not necessarily true: where being liked, being chummy with one's superiors, is actually more important than doing a good job, of striving for respect. But the fact that some institutions are broken and allow people with under-developed character into powerful positions does not change the greater importance that a mature person of character will place on respect over mere likability, and those of us who are involved in the education of children either as teachers or as parents should be working to help them move toward that more mature basis for judging themselves and their peers. The more we do so, the greater the extent to which they will form subcultures that push their members in exactly that direction. Which, of course, makes our jobs a lot easier.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Food Friday: Tex-Mex Casserole

One of my first successes of vegetarian cooking was the "Black Bean Chilaquile" from the Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites cookbook. I've never had an authentic chilaquile, but this recipe--modified in various was to make it low-fat and vegetarian--was quite good, authentic or not. However, I wasn't a huge fan of the tortilla chips that were used, regardless of whether they were the low-fat baked version or the regular chips, and my beef with them was purely health-based: empty carbs. So, as I set about re-thinking this casserole, it ceased to be a chilaquile but ended up, I think, even better.

Vegetarian Tex-Mex Casserole

2 sweet potatoes
butter and/or olive oil
2-3 cups cooked brown rice
2-3 cups cooked or canned black beans
1 large or 2 medium onions
2-4 cloves garlic
2 T lime juice
salt, pepper, oregano
1 10-oz bag spinach
1 large jar salsa
2 cups shredded cheese (Cheddar or a Mexican cheese blend)

Slice 2 sweet potatoes into slices 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Make sure they are well-coated in butter and/or olive oil (you can use spray oil, but using at least some butter is a good thing) and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Prepare two to three cups each of brown rice and black beans (you can, of course, use canned).

Chop one large or two small onions and saute in oil until softened. Add 2-4 cloves diced garlic, 2 T. lime juice and the beans. Heat through. When the sweet potatoes are cooked, use your flipper to to quarter the sweet potato medallions and mix in with the onion and bean mixture. Add some salt, pepper, and oregano. Cook a little longer and set aside.

Wash a bag of spinach and cook the spinach in the water that clings to the leaves (or, alternately, put a bit of water in a pan and cook the spinach). The spinach should be thoroughly wilted but still green.

Now it's time to assemble the casserole. In a lasagna pan or casserole dish, cover the bottom with half to two-thirds of the brown rice. Spoon the bean/sweet potato/onion mixture over top of this, then spread approximately 1 cup shredded cheddar or Mexican cheese blend over this. Drain the spinach and layer it over top of the cheese. Spread half of a large jar of salsa over the spinach, then add the rest of the brown rice, the rest of the salsa, and top with another cup of cheese.

Bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until the cheese is melted and starting to brown.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hospitals and Books

When Mom was being prepped for surgery on Monday, I noticed that one of the nurses was carrying around a hardcover book. It turned out to be Orson Scott Card’s The Lost Gate, one of the books Lauren and I considered getting from Audible before getting Card’s Pathfinder instead. We chatted a bit about that book and Card’s work more generally, and she closed by assuring me that she didn’t read while she was on duty, just on her breaks. 

It seemed a bit odd, then, that she’d be carrying it around—do the nurses have no place to put their things? But perhaps it’s not that important, especially since I have a soft spot for any of my fellow book lovers. Granted that no one’s life or well-being was on the line, but when I worked at Border’s, I routinely hunkered down and read books while I was on the clock, either tucked away in the stock room or, what the heck, out in my section where I was “shelving” books. I would hasten to add that I routinely got good reviews from my supervisors, who said I got more done than anyone they’d ever had shelving literature. Seriously? What were those slackers up to?

But I’ve digressed from where I meant to go. I was thinking instead of the link in my personal history between books and hospitals. I’ve been a book lover more or less all my life. I started to love fantasy when I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 5th grade. Late in 6th grade, though, this love was really confirmed as something like an emotional necessity. That spring, my father had the first seizure that marked his battle with brain tumors. After the ambulance came, my mother rode with dad to the hospital and I went to the neighbor’s, where for comfort I wrapped up in the quilt my Grannie had made for me and read a novel by Piers Anthony until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. That sort of thing would be my coping mechanism through the next several years as my father slowly lost that battle.

Fantasy was in some ways the perfect companion, as it allowed an escape not just from my own life but from the real world. At the same time, it gave me strength to deal with the problems I had, in a way that I'm not sure I can adequately describe. I remember my freshman year of college, writing some sort of essay about Achilles as "hero" and getting completely shot down for my skewed view of what a "hero" is: because in so much fantasy literature, the hero is idealized and always triumphant, and in some ways those heroes gave me a model, I guess.

Or at any rate, they gave me a better way to pass the time than sitting around a hospital thinking about how my father was dying.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Conversion, Conversation, Disagreement, Disagreeableness

Recently on Facebook, a friend of mine posted this article: "Catholic Church Issues Guide on How to Convert Witches." She is, herself, Wiccan, so it wasn't exactly a favorable notice she was giving it. To be fair, this pamphlet appears to be largely talking points and about how to have a conversation about faith with someone who believes something different from what you do--as the article notes, the booklet says "it's important to recognize that 'Wiccans are on a genuine spiritual quest,' providing 'the starting point for dialog that may lead to their conversion.'" This is genuine progress from "Burn her! She's a witch!" or even building a bridge out of her.

The comments from her friends were largely about tolerance and how the Catholic church should leave people alone, except for one mutual friend of ours who--while being respectful about it--basically said that everyone needs to accept Jesus. This got some push back initially, and though I commented there, the issues involved have continued to percolate.

We all have a right to our own beliefs and to be free from coercion. The Inquisition, burning "witches" (I put that in quotes since most of them probably weren't), a state-enforced or supported religion--all of those things are, to my mind, wrong. This pamphlet or the exchange of viewpoints such as we have in this comment thread? That's okay with me. As far as I'm concerned, S___ or the Catholic Church or whoever is welcome to tell me or P___ or anyone else that we're going to hell (or "not going to heaven") for our beliefs. I'm secure enough in my beliefs that I can handle the implied criticism of that belief system.

Fair's fair, of course, and they should be ready to get as good as they give (or perhaps get even better, if I'm right).

When it comes down to it, I can understand why the True Believers aren't, typically, laissez-faire about the whole thing. If you believe that, as the New Testament says, that the only way to get to Heaven is through belief in Jesus, then conversion of people you like and care about (or don't like, but through some ideal of universal love care about anyway) just makes sense. If I see you with a gun that I know is loaded and you believe is not loaded, and you're about to shoot yourself in the head, I should try to stop you from doing so. For such people, there's a lot at stake.

For those who either don't believe in God or gods--or those who believe that there are many paths to a happy afterlife--the stakes aren't so high. If such people are right, then all that belief in Jesus as the only path to salvation, well, it's probably not hurting you. You'll either by just as dead and decomposing and not going anywhere as the rest of us or just as likely to be on your way to Heaven for the sake of being a good person as the rest of us, so why fight about it? As long as you're not impinging upon my rights (for instance, by pushing legislation that enshrines religious doctrine as law), then you're welcome to be wrong, no skin off my back, no reason for me to convert you.

And so I have rather mixed feelings on the whole thing. Ultimately, we're all on our own path through life, we're all more or less competent to make our own decisions, and so it comes back to me championing the right for people to express their beliefs, even if I don't like their beliefs, and to argue about their beliefs, as long as they do so with relative civility (I say "relative" because I have, myself, called a colleague a fascist in the course of heated political debate--these things happen when spirits are raised). As I said in the comment thread:

it's also the case that we will all, naturally enough, judge one another. From the judgment that someone else is wrong or misguided or what have you to the judgment that someone is a real asshole or a very nice, civil person for the way that they express their disagreement, we will all naturally make those judgments.
I've lived long enough to know that good, intelligent, thoughtful people believe all sorts of things and that, much as I would like to think otherwise, I'm not infallible, so there's certainly room for disagreement without being disagreeable.

Friday, February 4, 2011


It's been nice to get back to my family and to work, however briefly.

My cadets seemed to be doing well enough without me: while I was gone, they went and won the Military Banner competition over all the other units, for the first time all year. I guess they hardly need me! Still, they all seemed glad enough to see me, and virtually all of them asked how my mom was doing. They're a bunch of good eggs, my boys. And, of course, I'll be heading back to Ohio on Sunday and so will be away from them probably another couple days. So it goes. They've been good in my absence and so many of my colleagues have stepped up to help out, from my bosses who told me to take the time I needed and that family comes first down to my peers who have stepped in to do the actual work that I can't be there to do (more or less constant access to e-mail doesn't hurt either!).

It has also, of course, been great to be back with the females in my life. When I walked up to the door yesterday around noon, the door had gotten locked, so I had to dig out my key. Before I'd even done that, though, I could hear Beaker expressing her joy at my return. Our daughter also seemed glad to see me and to show off how much she'd grown up in the four days since I'd seen her: I swear, she's suddenly walking all the time, where before she had to be cajoled with a spotlight to do so. My baby's getting so big! And, of course, it's been good to get back to my wife as well. Although she didn't wag her tail quite as much as Beaker did, she was clearly glad to see me, though I have a sneaking suspicion that's as much about child and dog care as it is any merits inherent to myself....

We will, as a family (well, sorry Beaker, as most of a family) be heading back to Ohio Sunday to be present for a dual surgery to do a heart bypass and clear out the carotid arteries. It's not risk-free, but the odds are in our favor. I'm not sure how long I'll be up there this time around, though my girls are pretty much committed to come back to Indiana Monday evening while I'll probably stay at least until Tuesday. Here we go again, but for now I'll just enjoy the call in the eye of the storm that's passing through our lives.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Opportunities for Growth

I'm going to draw heavily (read: more or less cut and paste) from a blog entry I wrote almost a year ago on my other blog, because I think it fits in with what I've been writing about and thinking about the past few days. Anyway, I see the connection and, anyway, Lauren and I have a low-tech night scheduled for tonight, so I have to get off the computer ASAP!

This entry started from my vague sense of resentment throughout my 20s at the way that I seemed to be classified by society as less of an adult than someone else the same age if that person was married, and even more so if they had kids. This seemed ludicrous to me–how many examples of utterly immature married and child-bearing people would I have to enumerate to tear down this cultural prejudice? 

Yet, as I’ve approached and passed both of those milestones in my life, I’ve been unable to help feeling that, in fact, they have matured me in some fundamental way. Not, I should say, our wedding itself, but the process of living with someone and working on a relationship in such a serious way--and it's surely an on-going process. Likewise, although being part of Thea's birth was pretty profound, it's the process over the past 7 week of caring for a child that's pushed me toward greater maturity.

At the same time, my earlier intuition did not seem altogether wrong. I still know people who aren’t all that mature, weren’t all that put together, just because they were married, and no number of offspring seemed to do the trick with these individuals either. So?

So it seems to me that there are certain experiences, be they singular events or on-going processes, that give us the opportunity to grow, to mature, to become better than we were. Our first relationship. Our second one. Etc. Struggling in a class. Trying a new activity. Going off to college. Living on your own. First real job. Changing jobs. Sharing an apartment with people not in your family. The death of [insert family member or friend or whoever here]. Facing your own mortality. A crisis–or crises–of faith. Dealing with a serious illness, either yours or someone close to you. Dealing with depression. And on and on.

Some are universal or nearly so. Some are particular to a culture or class. Some are unique, personal. In some cases they are cultural rites of passage, in some cases they are things we seek out, in other cases they are things that happen to us even though we would have wished to avoid them.

And in every case, these are not just opportunities to grow, they are also opportunities to fail. Either to fail to grow or to fail more profoundly: to suffer a setback or even to be broken in some way by the experience. Both of which, I suppose, are in themselves opportunities.

Often, we face these challenges in a rather unselfconscious manner–we don’t see them in the light I’m suggesting, they’re just “what I’m doing, what I’m going through,” except perhaps retrospectively, when we realize how we've grown. Perhaps, however, we can approach them differently? Although religions have sometimes asserted that God redeems suffering--and make no mistake, many of what I've tried to frame as "opportunities" can be quite painful--either with an eternal reward or in some way by serving as a point of growth. The saying that God never gives us more than we can handle is typical of this way of thinking. I don't buy it, of course. Some suffering seems clearly pointless, clearly unredeemable in this life. I'm suggesting, though, that much of it can be redeemed. 

I've written here before about my father's death from complications resulting from cancer when I was a freshman in high school. No doubt about it: awful experience. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that I grew immeasurably from living coping with that experience. I doubt I could enumerate every point of growth that stemmed from it, but I have no doubt that it played a large part in who I became, and I rather like that guy. I wouldn't have chosen the experience, but I can't regret it either. And I think it points to the sometimes-value of difficult experiences.

And getting back to the original point, people can be quite mature without being married, without having children, because there are many experiences that force us to grow. People can be immature despite a wealth of experience because they fail to change, to grow, to learn. How we deal with our experiences is the critical thing.

I suppose I need to keep all this in mind now, as we go through our own difficult time. Opportunity--right, that's what it is; and opportunity to grow and mature.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Problems and Dilemmas

For a month or two now, I've been giving a good deal of thought to problems and dilemmas. The way I've been thinking about them is this: a problem in your life, like a math problem, has a solution, perhaps even multiple solutions, but in any case, a problem can be solved; a dilemma, on the other hand, is a situation in which there really isn't a good solution, just a weighing of bad options. Problems, even when difficult, have a certain straightforwardness to them; dilemmas, by contrast, are laden with complexity.

It seems to me that as we get older, we have a higher ratio of dilemmas to problems then we did at a younger age. Perhaps this is because the adults in our lives shielded us from the really thorny problems, taking that angst on themselves. But perhaps it's also a matter of perception: perhaps as we get older, we become better able to see the real complexity, to see the ramifications that are both long-term and wider than ourselves, and suddenly situations that in our younger days would have seemed like straightforward problems with good answers turn out to have been only good answers in the short run or for ourselves without consideration of those around us (which, ultimately, may come back to bite us in the long run).

In any case, I have a sense, too, that the higher ratio of dilemmas to problems is in some ways actually more difficult the better you were at solving problems, or the smarter you are. Why? Because, on the one hand, you've gotten used to being able to solve problems and now you're running into things that are actually unsolvable; on the other hand, the more clearly you can see the complexities of the situation, the more likely you are to fall into what we call in the board game world "analysis paralysis." In other words, you spend your time thinking about all the angles on the problem and can't move forward to choosing one of the horns of the dilemma.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Closer to my own ideals

A friend of mine, commenting on just a fraction of her dislike of January, observed that she hates "the pressure of New Year's resolutions and the general feelings of deprivation based on self-hatred that always seem to accompany a resolution." That hasn't been my experience this year, but it's a reminder that the end of the first month is as good of a time as any to reflect on how my own resolution.

To refresh your memory, I resolved to only eat meat that I feel good about: meat that I believe to have been raised in a humane way and that is healthful. Largely, that means for me grass-fed beef, pastured chickens and hogs, and wild-caught fish of varieties that are not over-fished.

So how's it going? Without thinking about it, I ate some meat that didn't fit my parameters--there was meaton a free sample of a breakfast pizza at the local coffee shop--but I didn't beat myself up over it, I just resolved to be more attentive. When I'm away from home, I've become functionally a vegetarian, or a pescetarian, anyway, and that's been a challenge sometimes, but overall not that bad.

In fact, being at the hospital it's been pretty darned good, because they have a bar filled with Middle Eastern vegetarian fare as well as food from a local Indian restaurant, many of whose options are vegetarian. It's been really good food, and living under those self-imposed strictures has made it easy to eat healthier here, because I don't even go look at the hot food line.

That brings me back to my friend's idea of "feelings of deprivation." Although there have been times where I've felt a bit like that, it's really been a nice thing to feel like I'm living closer to my own ideals. I'll admit that I'm not there yet, but this is a fairly significant move in that direction. Isn't that really what New Year's resolutions are, or should be: behaviors that bring us closer to our own ideals? Not giving something up so much as bring who you want to be? Giving something up might be part of it, but the important thing is to replace it with something that is good in its own right and also makes you more satisfied. As Emerson asserted, "Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."