Dynamist Blog

Recommended Reading

I've been steadily working my way through the books of Yi-Fu Tuan, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin and a fine, insightful essayist. Although widely respected and occasionally reviewed, he was aptly described in this 2001 profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education as "the most influential scholar you've never heard of." I can't speak to his scholarly influence, but he's certainly a much more interesting and insightful essayist than his relatively modest fame would suggest. His textured works on the relations between place, identity, and human longings don't get the attention they deserve, perhaps because they're not easily summarized or because they don't fit reviewers' pre-existing political and intellectual categories.

Here are some sample passages from Cosmos & Hearth: A Cosmopolite's Viewpoint, published in 1996.

Consider the expression "cosmopolitan hearth." The emphasis is on "hearth" rather than on "cosmopolitan" in recognition of a fundamental fact about human beings, which is that free spirits--true cosmopolites--whose emotional center or home is a mystical religion or philosophy, an all-consuming art or science, are few in number and always will be. The binding powers of culture are nearly inexorable: note that even the most highly educated people (the Bloomsbury literati, for example) can be as narrowly bound to a particular culture (English country house and afternoon teas), as xenophobic and intolerant of what they don't know, as the provincials and primitive folks they disdain. So we are all more or less hearth-bound. We can, however, make a virtue of necessity. We can learn to appreciate intelligently our culture and landscape.

"Intelligently" is the word to underline. What does it mean in practice? A modest beginning would be to know the local geography, but this should include lived experience and not just impersonal facts. We need to remember how it is to wake up in the middle of the night to the crash of hail on the roof and feel, because the blanket has migrated up to our shoulders, the chill of exposed feet. Knowing places other than our own is a necessary component of the concept of "cosmopolitan hearth." The unique personality of our small part of the earth is all the more real and precious when we can compare it with other climes, other topographies. Perhaps this is another way of saying that exploration (moving out of the cosmos) enables us to know our own hearth better--indeed, "for the first time." Difference contributes to self-awareness, and that is one reason why high modernism is in favor of difference. But, curiously, awareness of commonality, rather than destroying local distinction, can subtly add to it by giving it greater weight. In a rowboat on Lake Mendota, in Madison, Wisconsin, I look at the moon. The same moon will one night enthrall someone in a rowboat on Lake Como, Italy. I do not feel diminished by sharing the moon with an Italian, nor does Lake Mendota seem less unique.

The next step is to get a firm grip on our own culture--the custom or habit that, stamped on habitat, produces a homeplace. If it is difficult to appraise habitat with the fresh and eager eyes of a visitor, it is more difficult to appraise--or even be aware of--habits, especially those that we repeat daily. I think here not only of such larger acts as getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, preparing and eating breakfast, and so on through the day, but also the infinite number of miniacts within them, such as how one squeezes the toothpaste tube, eats peas, pats the dog, smells the evening air. Miniacts (habits) have their own minihabitats, and these are even more likely to escape our conscious awareness. The recognition that living as such, in all its detail and density, is a terra incognita that eludes scientific probing is an instance of high-modern sensibility. One consequence is the wish to protect the warm core of living, so vulnerable in its inarticulateness, from aggressive rationality and modernism.

Distinct from habits and routines are celebrations and rituals that, although they are recurrent, recur after a sufficient lapse of time to seem new; in any case, they are intended to be occasions of heightened awareness. Such special occasions may be either personal-familial or public. In the first category are births, weddings, funerals; in the second are rituals that punctuate the agri-cultural calendar or memorialize historic events. They are all supported by an appropriate stage, special costumes, decorations, artworks, perhaps music. Each event is thus a large chunk of culture on display. For this reason, when people want to rehabilitate their culture, they often think of resurrecting a traditional festival or ritual. Many communities in the United States, fighting the homogenizing forces of modernization, turn to ethnic roots for significant markers of difference. some communal leaders take this returning to roots with great seriousness, for in their minds it is also a way of regaining a lost sense of collective self and authenticity. Nevertheless, in at least the well-to-do American communities (as distinct from Buber's communities of toil and tribulation), what actually happens is that people at play or engaged in display act our their "pasts" with varying degrees of self-consciousness and irony.

Without modernism, there cannot be high modernism. Modernism provides the necessary security, which includes material sufficiency, social-institutional safety nets such as insurance and government subsidies, and, thanks to science, substantial freedom from the vagaries of nature and almost total exemption from the dread of dark magic, ghosts, witches, and demons. Against this background of security, communities can separately re-create the past. None seeks to resurrect the old insecurities and fears. If an old custom is re-created, it is more likely to be a birthday or wedding than a funeral. As for agricultural rites, late-twentieth-century versions, even if they are correct in every historical-factual detail, cannot recapture the mood of helplessness and dread that drove people to practice animal and even (if one goes back far enough) human sacrifice. Another major difference is this. In the past, festivals and rituals were conducted primarily for local consumption, to establish some sort of harmony between people and nature. By contrast, in the late twentieth century, although festivals continue to promote communality and a sense of place, as much or even more are they set up to attract benign strangers. The local place in our time, far from being indifferent or hostile to the big world, welcomes it. One might say, perhaps a touch cynically, that today's reconstituted festivals are intended to propitiate another kind of god (tourists) and induce another kind of blessing (money).

I should note that in these passages, Tuan uses "high modernism" not as I would--to indicate the mid-century high point of modernist rationalism, exemplified by International Style architecture--but, crediting Anthony Giddens, to signify a scientifically informed universalism that takes account of complexity and local attachments. His work fits comfortably into the dynamist school described in The Future and Its Enemies, making Tuan another example (to answer a common question) of a dynamist who is not a libertarian.

Here's a passage that reinforces some of the ideas toward the end of my Atlantic column on chain stores:

"Cosmopolitan hearth" is a contradiction in terms and this fact, perhaps, defines our dilemma--a human dilemma that has always existed but that becomes more evident as we move from traditional to modern, then high modern. The dilemma is captured by the observation, which George Steiner and others have made, that whereas plants have roots, human beings have feet. Feet make us mobile, but of course we also have minds, a far greater source of instability and uprooting. Consider such utterly commonplace experiences: while we are "here," we can always imagine being "there," and while we live in the present, we can recall the past and envisage the future. Stay in the same place, and we will still have moved inexorably, for the place of adulthood is not the place of childhood even if nothing in it has materially changed. Stages of life are sometimes called a "journey," a figure of speech that again vividly captures the condition of human homelessness. A paradox peculiar to our time and to Americans especially is that "searching for roots," which is intended to make us (Americans) feel more rooted, can itself be uprooting, that is, done at the expense of intimate involvement with place. Rather than immersion in the locality where we now live, our mind and emotion are ever ready to shift to other localities and times, across the Atlantic or Pacific, to ancestral lands remote from direct experience. We can be dismissive of what is right before our eyes--the local McDonald's where our young children wolf down their hamburgers, the city cemetery where our parents were recently buried — in favor of some place at the other end of the globe where distant forebears lived, toiled, and danced.

The book concludes with the following:

Singing together, working together against tangible adversaries, melds us into one whole: we become members of the community, embedded in place. By contrast, thinking--especially thinking of the reflective, ironic, quizzical mode, which is a luxury of affluent societies--threatens to isolate us from our immediate group and home. As vulnerable beings who yearn at times for total immersion, to sing in unison (eyes closed) with others of our kind, this sense of isolation--of being a unique individual--can be felt as a deep loss. Thinking, however, yields a twofold gain: although it isolates us from our immediate group it can link us both seriously and playfully to the cosmos--to strangers in other places and times; and it enables us to accept a human condition that we have always been tempted by fear and anxiety to deny, namely, the impermanence of our state wherever we are, our ultimate homelessness. A cosmopolite is one who considers the gain greater than the loss. Having seen something of the splendid spaces, he or she (like Mole [in The Wind in the Willows]) will not want to return, permanently, to the ambiguous safeness of the hearth.

Here's a lecture Tuan gave about his intellectual development. Here are a recent, very brief essay on science and magic and his archive of such "Dear Colleague" letters. In addition to Cosmos & Hearth, I would recommend Escapism and Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience .

Kidney Chronicles

Tom Simon has posted a timeline of his kidney donation. It illustrates something Sally and I know very well: There's a huge disparity between transplant centers. Some, like Northwestern and Washington Hospital Center (where our transplant took place), have can-do attitudes and terrific transplant coordinators. Others just don't feel the urgency.

Remember When "Network" Became a Verb?

From business advice to immigrant resettlement, my latest Forbes article, a short feature in the magazine's 90th-anniversary issue, looks at how self-help networks work and when they fall apart. There's even something about (surprise!) kidneys.

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Kidney Update

Less than a day after the kidney transplant, Tom Simon (see below) emails to say that he and Brenda are both doing well.

UPDATE: A day after the surgery, Tom is home and blogging. Amazing.

Art, Technology, and Commerce

fire.jpgI'm in Amsterdam, where I spoke this morning at a corporate conference on experience design. My schedule and jet lag haven't allowed much time for tourism, but I did spend a little time museum-hopping yesterday. At the Rijksmuseum, I enjoyed this special exhibit on the work of Jan van der Heyden, a 17th-century artist who specialized in painting views of cities and buildings, the genre of Dutch painting I tend to like best.

What particularly fascinated me about van der Heyden, whose work I didn't know at all, was the way he combined his art with work as an inventor and entrepreneur. His most important invention was a fire-fighting system that combined an engine for pumping water with a long leather fire hose. The pump was an improvement on existing technology, the long hose a new idea that allowed firemen to get water to the heart of a fire rather than simply spraying the facade of a burning building. Van der Heyden not only invented this system but built and sold it, promoting it with a book of prints showing the devastation of urban fires and the advantages of the pump system in fighting them. He's a great example of the mingling of art, commerce, and technology, each complementing the others.

The exhibition, which runs through April 30, includes the prints, including some of Van der Heyden's preliminary sketches, and a later version of his fire engine, which was in operation from 1724 to 1928. One of the prints is shown above; click for a larger version. For more, visit the exhibit's website.

Kidney Blogging, Cont'd

041807kidney.jpg_20070417_19_36_13_1663-Over the past few months, I've been correspnding with Tom Simon, an FBI agent in Chicago who decided he wanted to give someone a kidney. He now has a blog with a great explanation of how he came to make the decision and why he decided to choose a specific person, Brenda Lagrimas, through MatchingDonors.com, rather than simply donate to the next person on his local transplant center's list. The transplant surgeries are tomorrow, April 19.

Tom is well known to the local press from his FBI work, and his donation has gotten coverage in the Sun Times, the Tribune, and the local Fox affiliate. The articles do a good job of capturing his basic thought process and his important point that donating a kidney is not an especially risky procedure or unthinkable sacrifice. That doesn't mean everyone should run out and give someone a kidney--any more than everyone should take a job in law enforcement. But we need to start thinking of kidney donors as normal people taking reasonable risks for great benefits, not as crazy or heroic.

That giving up a kidney is an inconceivable sacrifice is one of several false assumptions behind Will Saletan's recent article on organ markets in Slate and the WaPost Outlook section. Consider his lead:

If you lose your job, you can sell your home. If you lose your home, you can sell your possessions. If you lose your possessions, you can prostitute yourself. And if you lose everything else, you can sell one more thing: your organs.

I guess that makes Tom Simon and me kidney sluts, since we didn't even charge. Having gone through the process, I can in fact imagine that selling a kidney would be for many people, especially the young and healthy, a far more desirable option than, say, giving up a home and certainly better than becoming a hooker. Within the U.S. transplant system, where laparoscopic surgery is the norm and malpractice and financial protections are in place, paying for organs would not mean exploitation of donors--any more than paying firefighters means exploitation of desperate men with a taste for danger and doing good.

Saletan is right that "transplant tourism" is a growing problem, but not because there's something inherently wrong with paying people money for their organs. The problem is that--thanks to gray or black markets--kidney vendors receive only a fraction of the market value of their organs and have few, if any, legal or financial protections. And that's not to mention the dubious sources of the cadaver organs China is offering.

But Saletan is wrong that paying for organs discourages donation. Nephrologist Ben Hippen, who has a forthcoming piece in Transplantation on the subject, notes in an email that the claim is "empirically false in the only country (Iran) where commercialization is legal. From 2000 - 2005, deceased organ donation increased from < 1% of all transplants to 10% of all transplants. The obstacle, it turns out (a la Kieran Healy) was that no procurement organizations for deceased donors were up and running until about 5 years ago." (Ben has also written a letter to the editor of the Post.)

The worst part of Saletan's article is the well-meaning but dangerously ignorant conclusion: "The surest way to stop him from selling his kidney is to make it worthless, by flooding the market with free organs. If you haven't filled out a donor card, do it now. Because if the dying can't get organs from the dead, they'll buy them from the living."

As advice, this is fine. Sign your donor card. Maybe it will do some good. As policy analysis, it is complete b.s. It might make a little more sense if Saletan added, "Then make sure you do a lot of helmetless motorcycle riding in the rain around lots of drunk drivers." Signing a card is not enough, even if your family honors your wishes. You have to die in just the right circumstances, usually from some head trauma that preserves the blood supply to your organs. Cadaver organs are great, and certainly essential for people who need, say, hearts. But not enough people die in the right circumstances to supply the need for kidneys. Any serious policy must focus on living donors.

Just to rehearse the statistics once again: As of this moment, there are 71,181 Americans on the waiting list for kidneys--a number that is bigger every time I look at the statistics. In January alone, 319 people died waiting for kidneys and 138 became too sick for transplantation. [Note: This has been corrected. The post previously attributed the numbers to the year so far.] Every year about 4,000 people die on the list, more than the number of U.S. military personnel who have been killed since the beginning of the Iraq war. On or off the list, living with kidney disease requires devoting your life to dialysis treatments--the kidney equivalent of the iron lung. It's a debilitating and disruptive way to live. As Bill "Epoman" Halcomb, the founder of I Hate Dialysis.com, wrote:

I understand HATE is a strong word, and I understand some people will be turned off from this site just because this site is named I Hate Dialysis.com, but I ask those of you who are reading this to have an open mind and realize that living with kidney failure is a terrible thing and it takes its toll on a person's physical and emotional well-being. There is a saying that goes around, "A person will NOT die from kidney failure, however, he or she will die from complications of kidney failure.

He died last month at the age of 34.

UPDATE: Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Tom Simon and Brenda Lagrimas are having their transplant surgeries, has a terrific video on its living donation program.

A Logical Thinker With a Messy Desk

You Are 55% Left Brained, 45% Right Brained
The left side of your brain controls verbal ability, attention to detail, and reasoning.
Left brained people are good at communication and persuading others.
If you're left brained, you are likely good at math and logic.
Your left brain prefers dogs, reading, and quiet.

The right side of your brain is all about creativity and flexibility.
Daring and intuitive, right brained people see the world in their unique way.
If you're right brained, you likely have a talent for creative writing and art.
Your right brain prefers day dreaming, philosophy, and sports.

Are You Right or Left Brained?

Actually, I don't like dogs or sports--but I guess that just shows I'm balanced. Via Pat Matthews, who sent me a comment about Nancy Pelosi's scarves:

I noticed Nancy Pelosi's headscarf was tied exactly the way schoolgirls of the 1940s tied theirs, so I knew at once she'd supplied herself with the sort of square scarves that fold into a triangle.

And even better solution is the sort of long, narrow rectangular scarf that looks good around the neck but unfolds into a headscarf you don't have to tie. You just flip the left end over your right shoulder and vice versa, tweakl a little, and - instant hijab. I own several which have served me well in everything from SCA events to a visit to a gurudwara and they can be beautiful.

Pelosi's Seven (or so) Veils

PH2007040600561.jpgThere is nothing intrinsically degrading or unattractive about a headscarf. Selected and tied properly, a scarf can be quite glamorous, adding just the right amount of mystery. (I've seen some Muslim women on the streets of L.A. who should do ads for hijab.) But I agree with the wise Manolo's advice "for the future...the Speaker Nancy should tie the scarf behind the head, instead of under the chin, and push it back slightly from the forehead so that she does not look so much like the tiny little Sicilian peasant woman out for the afternoon of grape-stomping." Robin Givhan is right about being prepared but too kind about the photos. (A Republican wearing the same outfits wouldn't have fared as well under her scrutiny.) It's not enough to bring Hermes. You have to tie it right.

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