Category: Life


Happy To Be Here

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The first thing you need to know about secure psychiatric facilities is that their bathrooms smell strongly of pee.

That may not seem remarkable to you. Many bathrooms smell of pee. But the facility in which I was a guest this time last year was notably immaculate in every other way. A lot of time and attention went towards making it clean and welcoming. Yet the private bathrooms — one to a two-person dorm room, no lock — always smelled of pee. That's because there's an elaborate metal cage built around the workings of the toilet, like one of those Hannibal Lecter masks. This makes the toilets very difficult to clean. Hence, the constant smell of pee.

The people who run the facility protect the toilets like that so that you won't disassemble them and use the pieces to hurt yourself. My wife would tell them that this concern dramatically overestimates my home improvement skills, but I guess they want to be careful. It seems to me that if you take the time and effort to disassemble a toilet with your bare hands, you're committed enough to be allowed to do to yourself as you see fit. To date my view has not prevailed in the psychiatric community.


The Allure Of Unquestioned Premises: "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz"

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Smart people are a-dime-a-dozen. Very smart people are common. Though geniuses are statistically uncommon, humanity's surging tide produces tens of thousands of them in every generation.

But even geniuses are people, and people tend to play the hand that is dealt to them, or else discard just a few cards to draw new ones. Few question the rules of the game or why they should play it at all.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz depicts a rare genius who questioned the premise of the game. It's terrific and moving. I bought it, downloaded it, and watched it on my iPad on a plane trip, all of which seemed very appropriate. It was well worth the time and attention and money.


A Story About Low-Key Policing and Corduroy

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A couple of people have asked me to explain an odd corduroy reference I made on Twitter last night.

Yes, arguably corduroy references are inherently odd. But this one involved blood, and police officers, so it caused some inquiry.

The facts were these: one evening in the late 1980s I was at a friend's house in my home town. Were were on the low roof of his garage. Alcohol was present. We were singing. Neither of us had very good singing voices. That may be why I felt obligated to accompany us on my friend's mother's accordion. That is what we had back then, instead of autotune. If you want to be unpleasantly technical I am not familiar with how an accordion is operated, at least as narrowly defined by uncharitable social convention. However, I believe that unbridled enthusiasm can make up for lack of formal training in many pursuits. There is evidently a difference of popular opinion on this point as it pertains to playing the accordion on a roof at one in the morning.

Eventually a neighbor called the cops, and a police cruiser drove up the street. The officer directed his spotlight on us. We did not stop singing, and I did not stop playing the accordion. Wikipedia explains that intertia is the resistance of a physical object to a change in its state of motion; inertia applies to playing the accordion on a roof. I was committed to it is what I am trying to convey. I remember the officer stood there motionless for several moments, as if evaluating the course of his life that had brought him to this particular circumstance. Eventually he used his car-mounted loudspeaker to say, firmly and slowly,


I did: not because I had lost inertia or enthusiasm, but because this struck me as so very funny at the time that I doubled over in laughter, dropped the accordion, and rolled off the low, sloped roof into a patch of cacti in my friend's yard. My friend's mother was well before her time with respect to sustainable, drought-resistant landscaping.

The police offer turned off his spotlight, climbed slowly into his car, and drove away. He had accomplished his mission — the neighbors were no longer bothered by someone on a roof playing the accordion — and no further exercise of law enforcement power was warranted.

It took a while for my friend to find me; he was somewhat confused when I abruptly vanished from view on the roof, and for a brief moment he was not certain whether I had fled or possibly been arrested. Eventually, though, he helped me into his kitchen. I was wearing corduroy pants. The cactus needles had driven many durable corduroy threads into my leg, and we sat in the dim light of the kitchen, me in my underwear, picking threads out of my leg, each leaving a disappointing trickle of blood and a puff of corduroy fuzz. This sounds more traumatic that it was; bear in mind that it was the 1980s.

In the years since, I have thought about the police officer. I'm pretty sure he's the same one who used to ticket my late mother occasionally as she veered down Descanso Drive, engine racing in second gear, bringing home take-out to an impatient family. These days, I would likely be arrested, or at least put in the back of the police car for a while. There are formalities to respect and care to be taken and safety to be enforced and there might be an inquiry or a lawsuit if a police officer doesn't fully investigate in such circumstances. But back then, the officer was content to stop the noise, and having stopped it, drive away into a cool evening scented of skunk and honeysuckle.

I have not played the accordion again, although I am not ruling it out.

Popehat Parenting Poll: Monitoring Texting and Email By Middle Schooler?

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My eldest is about to start seventh grade at my old school. He now has his mother's used iPhone, and texts quite a bit.

We monitor internet use on the phone (we have a program that sends a weekly email — he's gotten busted for watching YouTube after lights out, but not for content), and reserve a right to review his email and texts. My wife exercises this right — the boy ducks his head and rushes from the room, embarrassed, probably because he's texting a few girls and has started to realize they're flirting with him.

So: how much do you monitor tech usage by that age group? After this question, I will go back to decrying the NSA.

A Family Research Project

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Years ago, my aunt found a picture of my grandfather's Harvard baseball team.


This picture is probably from 1937 or 1938. That's my grandfather, Paul K. Doyle, in the middle row on the far left. I look a bit like him; I got the Doyle nose and lip.

Recently my aunt digitized the picture, and here it is.

I've started to research the team. I wrote to the Harvard Archives to see if they have a roster so I can put names to faces. I wonder — what happened to these young men? How many went to war like my grandfather? How many didn't come back? How many yet live? How many of us are walking about, descended from these men and trying to live by their example?

I'll look into it, and write it up.

Edit: as usual, our readers are awesome. Grifter points out the guy in the middle is Tony Lupien.

Hippity Hoppity

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So I'm sitting in the overflow chapel for Easter services. Evan and Abby are ungracefully with me, halfheartedly drawing on children's bulletins.

ABBY: Daddy: there's nothing to draw.

[Older couple in front of us smiles at her fondly]

ME: Why don't you draw the Easter Bunny?

ABBY: The Easter Bunny is creepy.

ME: Then why don't you draw the Easter Bunny menacing a village?

ABBY: [With an unsettling degree of enthusiasm]: Yeeaaahhhhhhhh.

[Older couple turns back towards the front, looking alarmed.]

Some minutes later, Abby has produced a drawing of a Godzilla-sized Easter Bunny credibly menacing a rustic village, with some visibly alarmed villagers.

ME: Oh, very nice, sweetie. Look at the villagers fleeing!

[Older couple is now staring ramrod-straight ahead not looking not looking not looking]

ABBY: I know, right?

ME: Look, Evan. Didn't she do a good job on the villagers?

EVAN: [newly turned 12, and suffused with ennui regarding each and every aspect of human existence] Eeeeuuurrrrggggghhhhhhh.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter

Part of the Conversations With Kids series.

Dogged determination

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I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that's so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed "solo Goya".

Seems like something's going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does "may be regarded as absolutely right" and to whom Ruskin ascribed "the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art."

Why wouldn't Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn't matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya's monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the 1650s, Velázquez had created an unprecedented and beloved portrait of his king's young daughter surrounded by her ladies in waiting and some courtiers on the entertainment staff: Las Meninas, as it has come to be called. There she stands, head turned charmingly to one side, while the universe plays out in orbit around her. Off to the side, the painter himself stands facing us, brush and palette in hand, and applies his wizardry to an enormous canvas– one identical in size to Las Meninas itself, the only painting of such a size in his oeuvre.

In the background, a silvery mirror reflects the King and Queen, implying that they're standing just about where we stand when we behold this picture. Is Velázquez painting a double-portrait of them? Is he painting Las Meninas? The puzzle, typically Baroque, dissolves into play as the small fellow in the corner kicks the resting dog. His foot has made contact, but the dog has not yet responded; we're trapped in hang time between the moment of order and the predictable chaos about to ensue. The painter waves his laden brush and weighs his options.

How could Goya, a deeply gifted critic of his world and times, not want the liberty to play such games, and in such style? Called upon in 1800 to portray the extended family of Charles IV, he creates this:


Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800, Museo del Prado

In a knowing and telling play on the earlier artist's work, Goya presents a travesty of Las Meninas. In place of that gloriously wonderful child, the Infanta Margarita, Goya installs the doltish King's draconian wife, Maria Luisa; the turn of her head is the same, but hardly charming. The ignoble royals mill about unharmoniously, a senseless cluster. The woman who failed to show up for her sitting? Goya includes her anyhow, but turns her head away toward the darkness! The King, all decked out in regalia, medals, lace, and velvet? Nothing but periwig and prattle. That child nestled between the king and his bride? People say he looks a lot like the Prime Minister, Godoy.

In the shadows off to the side, behind an enormous canvas, stands Goya himself, just like Velázquez. He seems to sigh.

Like Beethoven, Goya went stone deaf; he lived another 40 years or so in silence as he watched the world tear itself apart. In his 70s, he holed up in a little two story house near Madrid, pondered his failures of nerve and will and fate, and nursed his unsurprising depression. For his eyes only, he filled the plaster walls of this house with oil paintings– dark, brooding, sinister paintings. Saturn (Time) Devouring His Children. The Fight With Cudgels. The Fates.

Quinta del Sordo, diagram, Wikimedia

Perhaps they speak of a heart unfulfilled, these paintings. Perhaps of a Goya who only ever wanted two things. Goya was able to project virtual worlds of his own design, to paint anything his imagination might offer. Looking back on a life that didn't go as he had planned and considering a broken world teeming with corruption, why did Goya surround himself with vivid, symbolic depictions of that same chaos, that old night?

It's something to ponder. It's something to pity.

Francisco Goya, The Dog, one of The Black Paintings. Wikimedia.

Knowledge Is Power

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Clients — whether they are criminal defendants or civil litigants — rarely get immediate gratification from the American justice system. It's not set up for that. In fact it's not set up to gratify anyone other than, perhaps, the more extreme masochists and irrationality-fetishists.

So when I can give my clients something that empowers them in an immediately apparent way, I jump at it. That's why one of my favorite things to do with a client before a deposition (or before the very rare interview with government officials, something I almost never permit) is to train them how to recognize and then ignore interrogation techniques. The results are immediate and gratifying. I've had clients burst into delighted laughter when an opposing attorney uses a deposition technique I've taught them to spot. (This has the side benefit of eviscerating the opposing counsel's self-confidence, especially if they are the blustering type.) It's immediately useful knowledge, and knowledge is powerful, and clients love to feel they have a little power in the brutal legal process. Very few things I do increase client's confidence in themselves (and in me) as quickly.

This works in areas other than law. A couple of weeks ago, whilst vacationing in Sedona, I lost my temper rather abruptly and explicitly with a time-share salesman who accosted us on the main street. I was reminded of this incident by today's interesting story on NPR about the science behind sales techniques. If I had been able to put names to the manipulative techniques the time-share dude was using on us, I might have felt more powerful, and therefore reacted in a more becoming manner. There are a number of sites out there that document and name such techniques — some pro, some anti-, some neutral. Here's one I found. Perhaps readers can suggest others. Remember: knowledge is power. Recognizing manipulative techniques others are trained to use upon you empowers you to think critically about them.

Point of order

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Concerning the higher education bubble and employability, John Leo writes:

Employers, because they realize that many college graduates aren’t really educated, now routinely quiz job seekers on what they majored in and what courses they took, a practice virtually unknown a generation ago. Good luck if you majored in gender studies, communications, art history, pop culture, or (really) the history of dancing in Montana in the 1850s.

He implies that those who major in the five disciplines he mentions, or in kindred areas, will need luck since their training and capabilities will not be adequate to pass muster. In short, they "aren't really educated." Well, maybe. But one of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong here….

Art history isn't one of the fashionable new disciplines, along the lines of <noun>-studies, that arose in the academic turmoil of the 20th century's latter half. As an academic endeavor, it has historical roots similar to those of psychology and economics: rumblings of inquiry and analysis in the late 1700s, disciplinary differentiation on the continent in the later 1800s, and finally a blossoming between the wars. Even in the United States, the PhD in art history (to say nothing of the undergraduate major) has been around since the 1940s. On a broad definition, art history as a systematic learned endeavor traces back to the monumental 16th-century labors of Giorgio Vasari.

Art history requires facility with languages, engagement with intellectual history, an understanding of evolving technologies of representation and communication, and a grasp of the rich interaction among methodologies and social forces underlying creation, distribution, consumption, and analysis. Maybe some who choose art history desire to look at and laud the pretty pictures — a practice better understood as art appreciation — but many who pursue it do so because doing art history well is hard, and there's pleasure in doing hard things well.

Perhaps the foregoing is true, too, of "gender studies, communications, …pop culture, or …the history of dancing" but I can't speak to that question with authority. (As for the broader anti-humanistic trend, I've called it out before). This much seems true: thinking that the study of art history doesn't provide a "real education" (including, but not limited to, skills valuable to employers) betrays not just ignorance of the particulars but a contempt for the humanistic endeavor in general.

John Leo isn't alone in his trench; it's not hard in excavating the word hoard of today's techno-intellectual cultural backlash to find other examples of sneering disdain. Standing with one foot in the humanities and the other in STEM, I'm disappointed to see complex, mature, and deeply rooted disciplines trashed alongside academic novelties and questionable latecomers, all in the service of a monolithic, pragmatic vision of education as mere job training.

Good luck if your pedagogical vision is limited to empirical and procedural questions of what and how. Why and whether and what to do with paradox and gray– these also matter.

So I've Been Thinking . . .

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I've wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. I made little books with construction paper and paste as a kid. I said I wanted to be a writer when I grew up if asked. I thought about the types of books I could write.

But I've never had what it takes to really do it. I've started a chapter or two here or there, but never persevered.

Part of it is being lazy. Part of it is being afraid. Part of it, at least for the last 14 years, is the cyclically appearing black dog, who sits and stares for a while before he clambers noisily to his feet and ambles away.

But other people do it. Other people have challenged themselves and set a goal and met it, and even have written about the process.

I've been telling myself that it would take too long, that I'm too busy, that I couldn't commit to meeting output goals.

But this morning it occurred to me that when you exclude quotes and hmtl stuff, I've written around 8,000-9,000 words on this site this week. The quality varied, and heaven above knows that I'd benefit from a patient editor. But I kind of liked the Bigfoot thing.

The average novel, I'm told, is around 70,000 – 100,000 words.

So how, exactly, is output volume an excuse I can fall back upon?

I'm under no illusions that writing something remotely publishable is as easy as writing one-off blog posts. I don't think that sustaining a coherent narrative is as easy as writing isolated snark that relies heavily on words like "twatwaffle."

But I've been dreaming about this my whole life. I tell my kids that they can do anything they want. Shouldn't I give it a real try?

So — I'm going to give it some thought. If I move forward, maybe I will write about the process occasionally. I've always thought that I'd like to write a legal caper novel — something in a style inspired by some odd combination of Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Dave Barry.

We'll see.