At Wendy’s Near an Interstate

He sits slumped over with a Where’s Waldo scarf

Slowly sucking down salty Wendy’s fries.

Slowly drooping over like an overladen branch

Slowly shutting down his eyes like a sun eclipsed.

His limp wrist dangles his five purple thumbs

Suspended by an elbow planted firmly on the table.

By that planted elbow a notepad sits with some ink.

The booth is overflowing with his girth, with his mass. 

“Is he breathing?” question the people as they pass.

I return to that notepad, which somber makes me think

A suicide note, or manifesto of a dream gone down the sink,

Or it could be a wish that’s at last been fulfilled.

Is that body breathing? Has he been killed?

His alarm beeps every five, for some meds or is it work?

He doesn’t stir or answer, but his fingers twitch and jerk.

It could be diabetes, a seizure, or a stroke.

Perhaps Lazarus is sleeping, the normal weary folk.

I creep to observe, as the alarm goes off again.

And sure enough he’s breathing, his life goes on and then,

My thought return to that notepad. Alack! What does it say?

Perhaps he’s dying very slowly, and the notepad points the way

To save him from this process of very slow decay.

Closer yet I get and entitled on the page.

3/15/21 it reads, a journal entry of a sage!

Do I dare read on, this man’s soul which laid bare?

I dare not, I dare not, for fear of what lies there.

I get my Wendy’s order. And awake the sleeping man.

“We thought it was a heart attack.”

He wakes, “Long week. Pretty sucky.

“No, not a heart attack – I’m not that lucky.”

The Child of Generations Responds to W. H. Auden’s “Under which Lyre”

‘Productivity Cult’ maligned
“A tumor on the consciousness of modern man defined
To drudgery to dredge away retail, data, ‘sembly lines.”

Proclaims my pastor poetaster
Hopped up on Hopkinisms, calling congregants to master
Shelley’s shoaly Naples verse: et al. Romantic disasters

In their cosmic solipsisms
Steering clear of beneficence, blessing with rarest chrisms
One gaudy bird. Lost in endless aphorisms.

I deserted Mercury?
I saw a city, heavenly yes, and amidst the endless artifice,
Sat the child of generations who told me this:

“Quicksilver cures our shaking knees, 
Of syphilis, but rots the teeth, like Eve’s hollow candies.
Banned in Plato is he, because Aristophanes.

“Although his wit is clever,
He can dodge Apollo, and is caught nigh-never,
He lives a bitter retreat in a container lost forever.

“Apollo, as Auden alleged in school,
Is rude, base, vulgar, a fraud through and through.
Teaches technai, forsakes Truth. Only mundanity for him will do.

“Smash these idols! This idle chatter
Odious dichotomy between form and matter
Obscuring the obvious with vain plather.”

Thus, “Produce!” I shout. “Propagate!
Ensoul matter, ye rites rational!” For in utility’s gallant gait
Truth is put to use of soul and matter transubstantiates.

The productivity cult is mine.
Raising up to consciousness of modern man the fine,
Raising all the goods of man toward the One sublime.

Hybrid Resilience

At JPII our snow days are work from home days. The work is a little lighter than a normal at-home work day, and teachers have to make sure a little new content with practice still gets presented. However, the occasional snow day gives teachers, parents, and students practice at remote learning. Having a system in place for remote learning is another way in which the hybrid model proves flexible and resilient.

Even when separated by distance our community hangs together and keeps learning and growing.

Tiny Book Reviews for 2019

2019 has been my best year for reading yet.

    1. The Craft of Intelligence by Allen Dulles. Former CIA director talks about spy-craft. His biases were readily apparent, but nonetheless detracted from the work. Many of the stories were amusing and harrowing. Sometimes Dulles gets annoyingly preachy. But the book was still useful.
    2. Looking for Alaska by John Green. Not similar at all to my boarding school experience, except for the lack of competent counseling and supervision and an uninspiring campus culture. Decent book, still managed to stir some nostalgia for me. Moral: don’t send you child to boarding school.
    3. The Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling. The first half of this book was quite a drag to read, but the second half was brilliantly constructed and beautifully done. A good journey.
    4. The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II Book 1 by Fernand Braudel. A most dense and awe-inspiring work of history, breathtaking views of a wide and diverse Mediterranean world. His grand sweep is informed by thousands of little details. Unlike some authors who write “Big History” like Sapiens which always turns out to be a monist view of some single or few aspects of history and humanity, Braudel tries to capture the whole, not just a model of the whole. Recommended for the right reader.
    5. Politics by Aristotle. The most surprising and delightful thing about Politics is how many different genres it spans. How did I not know there was a discussion of collective ownership in here or urban planning? The breadth of examples poleis is surprising also: Carthage, Thurii, Syracuse, Sparta. Highly Recommended.
    6. Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb. A highly entertaining read and intellectually therapeutic. Though I abhor Taleb’s vendetta slinging persona, I also can enjoy his honest aggression from a safe distance. It’s a guilty pleasure. The book offers countless insights into optionality and nonlinear systems. Highly Recommended.
    7. Gulag Archipelago Abridged (some) by Alexsandr Solzhenitzen. This book was awesome and awful and depressing. Eventually, I couldn’t read any more, because I became inured to the horror. “Yeah, wow, that’s awful” spoken 10,000 times. I read part of the unabridged book 1, and I liked that a bit more because it had more history in it. Part of Solzhenitzen’s project is to show that the violence of communism was not some unfortunate accident that could have gone differently, but to show that the regime depended upon injustice and violence as part of its very survival. Connecting ideology to outcomes is always extremely hard to show. If it can’t be done in the USSR case, it can’t be done at all. Recommended for the right reader.
    8. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. I strongly agree with her critiques of high stakes testing, but her arguments against voucher systems, school choice programs, and charter schools is much weaker and overly relies upon arguing against the politics of people in favor, as opposed to the policies and outcomes themselves. She tries to connect political ideology to outcomes, and as Gulag shows, this can be quite difficult. This book half-ends up being a political action piece more than a popular, but well-researched document, from which to learn new things about American schooling. I recommend her other book below instead.
    9. The Transformation of the School by Lawrence Cunningham. It’s the history of the progressive education movement from 1856 – 1957. This book about the history of education reform was amazingly helpful and insightful. I loved it and want to follow up on a lot of its footnotes.. Recommended for the right reader.
    10. The Troubled Crusade by Diane Ravitch (To be Continued). I started this but had to return it to the library. It was awesome and illuminating. I will finish it this year.
    11. Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card. Not nearly as good as Ender’s Game. Speaker for the Dead stands head and shoulders above the rest of the books here. Still a fun read.
    12. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock. Amazing and interesting insights into decision-making and prediction. I use some these insights in grading and predicting outcomes in my day job. Highly recommended.
    13. Starting from Paumonok by Walt Whitman. Beautiful poems in honor of America. Highly recommended.
    14. Iron Curtain (some) by Anne Applebaum. I started this around the same time as Gulag for context. It’s also quite grim.
    15. Euler’s Gem (in progress) by David Richeson. This book about networks
    16. The Waste Lands by Stephen King. The third book in the Dark Tower Trilogy doesn’t fail to disappoint. Unfortunately, it ends on a cliff hanger. But Charlie was worth it.
    17. Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can We Know? By Philip Tetlock. The progenitor of Superforecasting, this book reveals how awful political analysts generally are at predicting political events, even though their assessment direct billions of dollars of defense spending. If we even became 5% better at political risk assessment, we could save hundreds of millions of dollars.
    18. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Stunningly poignant depiction of some of America’s characters and personalities. Highly relatable, deeply subtle. I can’t believe 8th graders read this book. The pain lurking just below the surface is paralyzing to this adult. But “deep pain below the surface?” That’s the story of America.
    19. The Book of Why: The New Science of Causes by Judea Pearl. Horribly written, and obviously the work of two authors who didn’t work the product into a fine final form, but important and engaging ideas nonetheless. It’s probably better to read Pearl’s book Causality instead which I haven’t read, or Causal Diagrams in Social Sciences, which I have. Still, if one is serious about forecasting, prediction, or rational thinking, this is a good pickup.
    20. How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. When I was in college I couldn’t read this book because I was not humble enough. Today, it provides many insights to make reading more pleasurable, useful, and intensely enjoyable.
    21. The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. This was my first time reading it. I wasn’t knocked away. But I appreciate the Rowling universe and think it is criminally underrated by the detractors.
    22. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. An actually good book about business strategy. The anecdotes are also original and interesting. Highly recommended.
    23. Pedro Paramo by Luis Rulfo. A kind of ghost story in a Mexican village. It’s literary fiction in both a good way and a bad way. Oddly satisfying.
    24. Insight by Bernard Lonergan (in progress). Still plugging away at this magnificent tome. Unfortunately, I have been taken in by the Lonergan fever and am already indebted to his metaphysics. This book works out in detail philosophical problems I have been contemplating for three years. Love it.
    25. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. A decent biography of an excellent person, from whom there are many lessons worth taking.
    26. De Anima by Aristotle. When people think about Aristotle, they think boring proto-science person who believed wrong things. But when you read Aristotle, it’s more like reading the blog of a deeply intelligent freelance scientist. De Anima is extremely thought-provoking and concerns issues for which consensus answers still don’t exist.
    27. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. An amazing novel. The character of Porfiry Petrovich is horribly delicious. Reading this book while having a fever would be insane.
    28. The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre (in progress). Never have I sat on the edge of my seat for the fate of a train of caterpillars or dropped my jaw at evolutionary brilliance of wasps. Here it is though. An amazing book so far.
    29. The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (some). Appointed ambassador in ’08 this memoir gave some helpful insight into the processes and attitudes of a highly effective lady I respect.

Podcasts of honorable mention:

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps by Peter Adamson. Always good.

Revolutions by Mike Duncan. Along the lines of Braudel in its effect. Listen to the details of historical revolutions and come to understand the nature of political discontent across time. My favorite revolutions have been the English, Haitian, and the 1848 year of revolution. The currently ongoing Russian Revolution is amazing, but I might be noticing a decline in primary text and telling details which is a pity.

80000 Hours by Rob Wiblin. Amazingly long interviews, some of which are amazing, and all of which have extremely useful, detailed transcripts.

Conversation with Tyler by Tyler Cowen, the best and most efficient interviewer, managed to get Jordan Peterson to sound fresh and allowed himself to be owned time and again by the august Margaret Atwood. Transcripts are available for power users.

Books Read 2018

1. Order of the Phoenix by Rowling.
2. Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel
3. A Very Short Introduction to Microeconomics by Avinash Dixit
4. Tribe by Sebastian Junger
5. Sunset in a Spider Web by Korean Poets
6. Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson
7. Demopolis by Josiah Ober
8. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
9. LLibre Dels Fets by James I of Aragon
10. Medieval Omnibus by Clifford Backman
11. A Mediterranean Emporium by David Abulafia
12. Inadequate Equilibrium by Eliezer Yudkowsky
13. Unsong by Scott Alexander
14. The Dark Tower 2 by Stephen King
15. A Very Short Introduction to Military Strategy by Antulio J. Echevarria

About About 2014

[In 2014, my about page read as follows.]

Hello, my name is Sebastian Garren. At the beginning of March I was awarded a Fulbright Grant to do research in Finland. My project is to complete a Masters Degree in Education at the University of Turku. The official line of my research prospectus asks: what do administrators, teachers, and students tell each other about their goals and rationales, what goals and rationales require no justification and are simply understood through social cues, and how does this differ from American educational discourse?

A little about my intellectual history. I graduated high school with strong literary leanings. My high school English teacher cracked opened the world of ideas for me through literature. I attended Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana with the intention of becoming an English major. In the end, I became a Latin major – writing my senior thesis on the poetry of Horace – and a philosophy minor. I molded an area of concentration in Medieval Studies, studied some ancient Greek, and took other worthwhile classes outside of these fields. I studied ancient art and archaeology in Rome for one whole semester in my junior year. That fantastic experience left on me an indelible mark, something akin to a renewed awareness of the world, a re-enchantment.

How did this lead to Finland, education, and beyond? I suspect to an outside observer there is an incongruity. Where, you might ask, is the intersection of English literature, classical civilization, philosophy, education, empirical research, and ourselves (readers and learners)? I think these all do have some thing in common: they are important. They tell us where we are going, where we have been, and what we could do next. These disparate fields provide unique ways to approach the world. Finland, I believe, can do the same.

—–

So I was ready for the above research and academic practice when my boat capsized, so to speak. The University of Turku did not accept me into the program and the Finland Fulbright people threw me overboard. The American Fulbright people think I’m still on the boat, despite my protests. Illigimiti non carborundum.

So what does one do, when one adventure turns into another? I woke one day with a ticket to Finland and few prospects. A friend reminded me of an important lesson, “In chess, the failure of one plan is a dangerous moment, because the player feels like momentum has shifted, and he may lose morale or become rash, even if he is actually still ahead and well-positioned. Your path may have been turned, but has not led over a cliff.”

The narrative of a life is not always what we expect and every twist must be incorporated gracefully. Now I will venture to Finland to practice the language and write as I will.

Candy and Cream

Teemu anchors me now. He is a young jazz musician and composer who just finished his studies at the Helsinki conservatory. He just started taxi driving this week to pay his bills. He suggested immediately that we drop my stuff off and go swimming. His apartment is situated near the harbor. Like most apartment complexes there are a few benches and a firepit outside. The apartment has a kitchen and bathroom that are shared between the two electronically locked bedrooms. One room is his roommate’s whom he has not seen in a month or so. The other is his. He warned me that if I leave the bedroom and shut the door behind me without the key, there will be no way to get back in. Everything required the swipe key. If I didn’t keep it with me at all times, I could lock myself into a bad situation. But the accommodation was great. I had a desk.

His girlfriend Valpuri picked us up and we went to a remote beach outside of town. On our way in the car, her dad chanced to pull up next to us at an intersection. He was on a motorcycle, sported a short grey beard, and exchanged some quick words and a snorted laugh before speeding off. “My dad is like the bohemian of the family; and my mom is the academic. I’m surprised they are together,” Valpuri said. I enjoyed the thought of her mom’s mind finding respite in a bit of an eccentric, who collects instruments without playing them and sets them around the living room like art pieces against his wife’s wishes. Teemu bewailed that her dad never let anyone else talk in conversation. But his barley beer gut and story-telling persona I later found to be good companions in the sauna.

We relived childhood pool games, holding our breaths and skipping stones and such. The water was warm when in it, but out of it there is only one choice: dry off quickly. We drove back to the city and went to Sampo Muikkuravintola for traditional Savo food. I ate muikkut, which are little white fishes from the nearby lakes, served with potatoes, cucumber, tomatoes, and catsup. We sat and talked. I gave an introduction to Plato’s Apology. Teemu told about his musical work. Valpuri presented some interesting facts about the region and the local dialect. For example, in this region people add syllables instead of taking them away. That type of development adds character, flavor, and sometimes even meaning. The slang and faster style of Helsinki she finds monumentally boring.

Later we entered the forest, found some blueberries. At first there was brush and trees of different types. The air was fair and open as the trees turned to tall spruces. Then our path ran into a deep line of heavy pine trees. The density of the pine forest and smell was Grimm, but we came out upon one of the thousand, thousand wind shelters that pepper the forests of the northland. They overlook good spots, have a firepit, and sometimes split wood left by the previous people out of courtesy. We sat quietly.

Everything becomes different

A day later when Teemu was out at work. Valpuri suggested that I become more sophisticated and learn about Finnish candy and chocolate. “You can tell a lot about a people by their candy.” I agreed on the condition that we give fun reviews to each piece. With candy and a coffee we sat out. I gave reviews, “This is one is like a young pony. Like licorice that wants to grow up to be caramel. This one was born an old lady – the Benjamin Button of candy. Here, a mint in metamorphosis.” The Karl Fazer Raspberry Yoghurt with Milk Chocolate reigned Lord of Tasty Town. Very rich, something to take one bite of every 15 minutes. I ate more candy, than I had in many years. I don’t know what I learned about Finland through candy. All my analogies involve age, so it follows that Finland is young and energetic, and has the fear of growing old, or becoming something hän (gender inclusive) is not, or not liking who hän is; namely, all the feelings of potential and anxiety that we feel when young, energetic, and slightly cynical are found in their candy. Or is it as simple as saying that licorice is popular?

The next day Teemu had to teach me about ice cream. He demanded, quite against my inclinations, that I try licorice ice cream. I expressed concern that no one on earth truly likes licorice. They like that it is a different flavor; they come to prefer it or crave it because of its uniqueness on the palette, but they deceive themselves to say they actually like it.

Aino Double Cream Licorice Ice Cream makes most other ice cream look like freezer burned sherbet. A type of soft licorice is blended into the thick fatty ice cream. It is really something else. It transcends all expectations and has altered my ice cream outlook permanently.

The Household Gods

What books did I bring with me you ask? Well, that’s a very good question. The non-Finnish related materials I have are:

Selections from Catullus, a little brown book of Latin poetry

The Little Prince, better than Machievelli’s

Eliot, my pocket edition of essays and poems by T.S. Eliot.

Catullus was a good choice. He is down to earth, humorous, and straightforward. I can always enjoy a Catullus poem. I would have brought Horace, who strikes with more beauty and subtlety, but my edition was too big. Besides, Catullus is a lot of fun.

The Little Prince is great. I have never read it before and now I am reading it very slowly and chewing on the words. My previous host Jennifer saw me reading in the morning and asked, “Is that The Prince?!” and smiled. Such an international hit can create familiarity between people who hardly know each other. Also, the incident with the fox is so wonderful. The prince learns how a relationship between oneself and another builds a connection that is beyond simple knowledge and material connection. Immaterial things, like the distant flower which he loves, keeps him going. Friendship with the fox makes the fox no longer a fox like a hundred other foxes. The same goes for cities. I want to have a relationship with a town or city before leaving it.

Eliot was perhaps not a good choice. I had brought him with me to Rome and the rest of Italy. But that was a different time. I was still in college then. Eliot writes with constant reference to the older English poets, Dante, the past, that is, the old culture in old Europe. Finnish is younger than English. English literary history as we know it today begins with Chaucer, 600 years ago. But Finnish literary history began only 200 years ago with Suomen kansan vanhat runot and the Kalevala. And it does so without the huge influx of Latin, Greek, French, and Saxon vocabulary. Had I to choose again, now seeing the lakes and pines and little isles, now having picked wild berries, and having been picked apart by mosquitoes, now meeting new people along the winding road to who-knows-where, I would have brought Evangeline over Eliot.