I Have No Grandparents

Last Thursday morning, my grandmother died.

I got to see her a couple of weeks prior, together with my mom, my sister, and my girlfriend, over Thanksgiving weekend. She was in a hospice, at her request, so we knew we might not have much more time with her, but by the end of our time there it was clear that the hospice wanted to discharge her on the grounds that she was not dying, just old. Her doctors agreed. Oops?

I have some minor regrets: that I didn’t bring her chocolates (one thing we c could always relate about), that I never really had a conversation with her as one adult to another. She always related to me as my grandmother and nothing else, and I related to her as her grandson, as soon as I was old enough to understand what that meant. So in that sense I always felt like we wrote masks when we were together. Also, most of the time I spent with her was before I left Stamford (where my parents and grandparents lived) for college, when my grandfather was still alive, with his big festive personality overshadowing hers.

In an unguarded moment at the hospice she spoke of some lifelong regrets if never heard before, and at the time I felt like that could be the beginning of a new level of communication and understanding. I figured I’d call her when she was feeling better and ask her about that and more. Oops.

I remember that it literally never occurred to me when I was a child that I was allowed to ask for more time with my grandparents (our really, allowed to ask for much of anything without explicit prompting). I wish someone had told me that this was allowed.

But I don’t really regret spending the time I spent with her in the way that I did, just being present and enjoying life next to each other. That was my main duty as a grandson, and I discharged it well. I was also glad to have been able to report accomplishments that made her proud; it was always important to her to see the family do well.

It feels like a duty to be a mourner as well. I know how I grieve: slowly. My emotional temperature is low. There will be no dramatic upwelling if grief, no moment when I break down sobbing uncontrollably. There will instead be the slow drip of moments when I notice that some part of my mind still expects her to be alive. When I have a piece of news she would have liked to hear about myself or the family. When I see a chocolate confection she would have liked. And when I think back to the sum of things I need to tell her since the last time we talked. I miss my grandfather more now than I did the year after he died. I’ll miss my grandmother more five years from now too. But nobody will be able to give me a call at the right time, and more importantly, nobody can our will be able to fix the fact that she is permanently, irrevocably dead.

Now is when people want to let me know that they’re here for me, for whatever I need. Those are the correct things for the friends of the bereaved to say and to offer: not to impose what would comfort oneself, but to offer whatever the mourner needs. But how would I know what I need? I don’t really need anything. The one who needed something was my grandmother, but she said she was ready to go, and she’s dead now anyway.

Here are some ways in which I was helped:

Several friends just listened to me talk about her. It was especially helpful to talk online with one before I had to have in person conversations. I am grateful for that.

Several friends and family members expressed their condolences once, and then permitted me to let the subject drop. This minimized the amountof energy I had to put into performing the rule of a mourner, and I am grateful for that.

A few who live near where the funeral will be, in Stamford, plan to be at the funeral or come by afterwards, and possibly to hang out the day before and have fun that has nothing to do with my grandmother in any way. I am grateful for that.

Another wanted to come to the funeral, but the time and airfare commitment was too much. He felt badly about this because I’d come to his grandparents’ funerals in Stamford. I pointed out that while he lives a five hour plane flight from the funeral, I live in DC, a five hour train ride away, so he was comparing something very easy to something very hard. But I appreciated the thought, and the fact that he felt I was family and it was his obligation to come to these things when possible. After I tried to reassure him, he apologized again, which was not helpful – but reminded me that I had done the exact same thing to him recently when I had behaved in a way that I did not feel did him justice. I am grateful for the reminder that if I seek reassurance or forgiveness, and it is granted, I should not bring up the subject again.

One pointed out that in my Thursday Facebook post I had mentioned the time but not the day of the funeral, thus falsely implying that it was on Friday. I am grateful for the correction.

One reminded me that he’d never really known his grandparents, and wished he had. I am grateful for the reminder that what I did have was valuable and precious, and I will always have had it.

One called my girlfriend instead of me, worried that perhaps I was overloaded right now and might prefer to be left alone. That was such a wonderfully thoughtful and considerate gesture that I’m not quite sure how to properly explain what it meant to me, except that here was someone who clearly was concerned not with how to comfort a generic mourner, but how to comfort me in particular, a person she knows, a fellow introvert. She was right to think that I might need some time alone, and she is in that way an uniquely true friend.

Thank you. All of you. Those who called, those who wrote, and those who left me alone. Those who listened without judging, and those who challenged me to see things from another angle. Those who tried to make me better and those who accepted me as I am, or as I used to be.

Yours in life,



PS I’m probably going to clean this up a bit to make it more readable and spare done feelings, then post in on my regular blog.

My Body

My Body

Over at the eclectic web magazine, there’s a discussion about how women’s body size is policed and judged by others. So I shared a story about my own weight:

I get concerned comments when I lose weight.

Like, when I started college I was 5′ 7.5″ tall and weighed 190 pounds. Not super fat but definitely doughy and in the overweight BMI range. I lost 15 pounds freshman year (that’s what the Freshman 15 is about, right?), mostly fat I think, because I was getting stronger, and when I came home for break, my mom blurted out, “You look gaunt!” I was still firmly in the “overweight” BMI category and had noticeable extra body fat. I was annoyed at not receiving, if not encouragement, at least silence.

When I lost another 15 recently, a coworker accused me of being anorexic. In jest, I think. He is also a pretty big guy so maybe he was anchoring on that. But it was kind of annoying, because it was literally the first time I’ve been in the “normal” BMI band.

I’m around 165 now, just at the BMI overweight/normal boundary, and I still have a noticeable amount of extra belly fat. (And again I haven’t lost strength.) I do have a thin face, so if you met me you might think I was skinny, until I took my clothes off.

Someone said it was refreshing to hear that kind of story from a man, so I figured I’d share it on the blog. There was more to this post before, but it was mostly kind of ill thought out, so I got rid of it.

Pride is the Enemy of Reason

Over in the Discussion section of Less Wrong, nyan_sandwich posts about using Beeminder to track negative, rather than positive, behavior. Specifically, using the Seven Mortal Sins as a template, tracking how many days per week are free of each sin.

However, this sentence sticks out a little:

I’m too much of a cheapskate to have trouble with material excess (Greed), and haven’t been burned by Pride yet, so I wouldn’t know what to avoid. Maybe I’ll figure these out soon.

I’m going to leave aside the irony of, of all the sins to brag about being free of, picking pride, and instead write a little about what I think Pride actually is.

Pride is what makes you defend and argue for your opinions long after the evidence has turned against you. Pride is what makes you reluctant to give up on sunk costs. Pride is why you keep doing the same thing, even when it obviously doesn’t work. Because you have an image of yourself in your mind, with all your current opinions and behaviors, and the belief that this person is good, effective, and virtuous – or at least you are attached enough to the idea that you are exactly this person, that it is unbearable to think that something this person is doing might be wrong, wrong, wrong. Pride is why you can’t keep your identity small.

The process of becoming more rational is in large part the process of disassembling your pride, and replacing it with the willingness to dance with the evidence.

Pride is behind failures in instrumental rationality as well. Pride is why it took me forever to stop beating myself up for not being punctual in the mornings, or not getting to sleep early enough, or not finishing the personal projects I start, and start troubleshooting, and notice when a plan that ought to work (because all it requires is that I be good and virtuous and self-disciplined) doesn’t, and try something else instead. Pride is why it was so hard for me to give myself small goals that I would actually do (e.g. write 500 words most days, good or bad), instead of big goals that sounded worth doing (e.g. write a novel).

Exercises for pretending you have been cured of your pride – since pretension is the path toward virtue:

1) Admit that the overdue letter or phone call is overdue, and give yourself permission to become the sort of person who is late sometimes (which you already are), and write or call anyway. If you’re writing, do it right now. Don’t worry if the words aren’t quite right – or if you don’t know how to apologize for the lateness of the letter – better crappy and late than never.

2) Give yourself permission to just plain not like something you’ve been working really hard on and telling everyone you love. Even though that means admitting failure. Past failures are okay! Just don’t compound them! I don’t know whether you hate your job, or a relationship, or a hobby – but until you give yourself permission to hate it (which you might already do), you’ll never find out whether you really love it or not.

3) Throw or give away those old magazines or books you’re never going to read, or the stuff you’re never going to use, or the broken stuff you were going to repair but never got around to. Maybe you’ll never have the time, and that’s okay! You made a mistake and bought too much, and held onto it. Just don’t compound that mistake by holding onto your stuff – and the illusion that you will use all of it – any longer.

Zeugma and Syllepsis

I did a little research and think I finally understand what zeugma and syllepsis are, and how they relate to each other.

Zeugma is any case where a single mention of a word is treated as a part of more than one clause of a sentence. Syllepsis is a type of zeugma where the word in question is used in contexts that require it to do different things.

So “He prefers dogs, she cats” is zeugma because “prefers” gets re-used, but it is not syllepsis because “prefers” is doing the exact same thing in “He prefers dogs” and the implied “She prefers cats.”

There are two types of syllepsis.

Grammatical syllepsis is where the difference is in verb form. So “I prefer dogs, she cats” would be grammatical syllepsis, because “she prefer cats” is ungrammatical – the implicit extra verb is “prefers”, a different form of the same word.

Semantic syllepsis is where the difference is in meaning. So in “And he said as he hastened to put out the cat, the wine, his cigar and the lamps”, “put out” can mean to expel, to retrieve from storage, to extinguish, and possibly to turn off (I am not sure whether that last sense would be anachronistic).

You can’t have a syllepsis without a Zeugma because the different usages have to be attributed to the same single mention, which is the definition of zeugma. So if the line from the old song went, “And he said as he hastened to put out the cat, put out the wine, put out his cigar and put out the lamps”, we would have a weird phrasing, but nothing disorienting – the casual listener might not even notice the repetition, instead hearing “put out [X]” as a whole phrase. It is where we have to attribute to each clause the same mention of the verb that our attention is called to its different meanings.

Zeugma in itself may be nothing more than parsimonious phrasing, and asylleptic zeugma may easily pass unnoticed. Syllepsis is a distinct type of zeugma because it is unexpected, and draws attention to itself.

Eating Our Words – or, What does a “Jalapeño pepper” taste like, other than a Jalapeño pepper?

Over at Unfogged, Heebie-Geebie links to this article by Keith930 over at Daily Kos about commercial efforts to breed a spiceless Jalapeño pepper.

The linked article is a rant about foods are getting blander. The story goes something like this. A Mexican restaurant somewhere in the central US makes and serves a salsa using the original, spicy Jalapeño pepper. A lot of people try it. Many of these people do not like spicy food at all. Maybe they are unusually sensitive to capsaicin. Maybe their bodies do not release the usual endorphins in response to spice. Maybe they just aren’t used to it. Regardless, there are people who do not like it, who ask for something milder. But they still want a salsa made with Jalapeños. This is the thing that puzzles me, and I’ll come back to it later, but for now we’ll accept this as a given: they do not like spicy food, but they want to eat a salsa – a mild, unspicy salsa – with Jalapeños.

So the restaurant has a few options. They can refuse to accommodate their customers, and either teach them to appreciate spice, or lose their business. They can make the salsa milder by putting less Jalapeño in it. They can try to sell the customers something different than what they asked for. Or, they can do the least convenient possible thing, and try to change the constitution of the Jalapeño pepper itself. Naturally, they do the least convenient possible thing, and demand a hot pepper that is not hot.

If I try to put myself in the shoes of this Mexican-American restauranteur, it becomes clear to me that the first approach has severe disadvantages. If I refuse to modify the salsa at all, I am not giving the customers what they want. Since they are free to leave and not come back, I am unlikely to see them or their money again. It would be one thing if I were teaching a semester-long course in salsa-appreciation, in which case I might have the power to make them sit the and sweat through it, so that at the end of the semester I will give them a good grade. But I have no such power. Restaurants do not give diners grades, there are no semester-long courses, only one meal at a time. If they don’t like this one, they will not stick around long enough to learn how to appreciate it. They will just go somewhere else. So not only is this approach costly in money and time, but it does not even do what I want it to do.

Then there’s trying to sell the customer a milder sauce by reducing the amount of Jalapeño in it. Why don’t people just do that? Make a salsa with little or no Jalapeño in it? If you want the color and texture, dice up a green bell pepper. Well, the trouble there is that you are not telling the truth.

Is that a good reason not to do it? That it involves telling the customer something that is not strictly literally 100% true? This might seem a little hokey – after all, there are a lot of ways in which we accept being misled about what we put into our bodies. That pasta is “handmade” in a factory halfway around the world. That salad is full of “seasonal” (they were in season wherever they were grown – and in a hydroponic greenhouse everything is always in season) “fresh-picked” (they were fresh when they were picked) vegetables.  The nationality of the food may have little to do with the nationality of the servers, the chef, the restauranteur, or even the country in which the food was invented. (I don’t think it’s too uncommon to, for example, be served a Caesar salad – invented in Mexico – by Albanians in an “Italian” restaurant. And of course in the US many of the kitchen staff will be immigrants from south of the border as well – not from Italy.) “Mexican” food seems a little more likely to be authentically Mexican in some ill-defined way, but even so we are not walking into a place run by Mexicans for Mexicans and sampling a genuine indigenous experience as strangers in a strange land – as non-Hispanic Americans have gotten used to Mexican food, the Mexican food has gotten used to us too – the portion sizes, the amounts of cheese and sour cream, the balance of flavors, the expected customer. When Taco Bell tried to expand into Mexico, their plan was to market their food as “American.”

But these heat-averse midwestern diners have a hang-up about changing the nominal ingredient list, and eating a mild “green pepper” salsa when their fellow diners are eating a “Jalapeño” salsa. And lying about what goes into the food is out of the question (although somehow it’s become okay to lie about what kind of white fish you are serving, or omit the butter from the ingredient list, so again, why the scruples when it comes to hot peppers?). So if you want to change what “Jalapeño salsa” refers to, and you can’t lie and you can’t just redefine “Jalapeño,” you have to make the hardest possible change and modify the Jalapeño itself.

We’ve tied ourselves up into such a knot that the easiest way out of our disappointed expectations is to alter the very natures of the substances we are disappointed about. It is like something out of a Borges story:

After ten long years laying siege to Troy, Agamemnon finally accepts that he is unlikely to ever take this city, the one he has encamped around with his thousands of ships and tens of thousands of Achaeans. But he is unwilling to break his pledge to take Troy, the city where Alexandros is living with Helen, Menelaos’s wife whom Alexandros has stolen away.

So instead of sailing back to Troy in defeat, Agamemnon orders a third of his soldiers to found a new city, here, on the bank of the river Scamandros, and call it Troy. They build this city without walls, to make it easy to conquer. He finds a woman from among the many prisoners of war, renames her Helen, and marries her to Menelaos. He arranges for a boy in the new city of Troy to be named Alexandros, and prepared from youth to reenact the seizure of Helen. Tens of years later, the new unwalled Troy is a prosperous city, a center of trade, at peace with its neighbors, and its inhabitants consider themselves Trojans every bit as much as do the inhabitants of the old Troy, perhaps still ruled by Priam, perhaps now ruled by Alexandros, who is living with Helen, Menelaos’s wife whom Alexandros has stolen away.

Menelaos invites the second Alexandros from the second Troy into his home. The second Alexandros is able to seduce and sneak away with the second Helen, bringing her back to the second Troy. Menelaos demands that his brother finally fulfill his promise. Agamemnon reassembles his army and is easily able to take this new, peaceable, unwalled Troy, destroy its buildings, loot its treasures, enslave its inhabitants, in accordance with his his pledge to take Troy, the city where Alexandros is living with Helen, Menelaos’s wife whom Alexandros has stolen away, thus preserving his integrity in a perversely literal way that could not possibly satisfy anyone

Except that it does.
Modern food technology allows us to purchase food satisfying almost any desire. (Although there are still differences in quality between the “best” which you need either a lot of time or a lot of money to get, and mediocre versions of something recognizable similar.) We can have any or almost any arbitrary combination of tastes, textures and smells, not limited by the things we find in nature (much less the things we find in our particular part of the world) and a limited set of labor-intensive transformations using a limited set of available tools. It is confusing and disorienting to have so many choices. We get anxious deciding what to eat. It is nearly impossible to figure out what we most prefer. If anything is possible, what should we be impressed by? What should we turn up our noses at? What is it “better” to like, and what is vulgar? Is it like fashion, changing what we put into our bodies at the same time and for the same reason we change what we put on them?

But you’re supposed to know what kind of food you “like.” So we have at times retreated into the realm of admiring things made under constraints – wines of wildly different flavors made with only grapes, yeast, and wood-barrel-aging. Beers produced according to the constraints of the 17th-century German cheap-bread policy known as the Reinheitsgebot. If we don’t know whether we like it, at least we can recognize and respect the obvious skill required to make “authentic” “ethnic” cuisines produced with the same set of ingredients and techniques that would have been available and in common use in certain areas at certain times. Dining out as a period piece. The upscale version of this is dinner theater like Grant Achatz’s Next. The downscale version of this is the Mexican restaurant that uses “real” “Jalapeños” in their “Jalapeño salsa.” Using green bell peppers instead isn’t just a problem because it involves telling the customer that they don’t know what they want – it’s a problem because it contradicts the whole point of having a “Mexican” restaurant instead of just a 24-hour “Greek” “Diner” where one of the frozen, reheatable meals from Sysco is labeled “enchiladas” instead of “stuffed cabbage,” “quesadilla” instead of “grilled cheese,” “salsa” instead of “tomato sauce.”

And just as upscale “Molecular Gastronomy” (because unlike any previous type of cooking, modernist cuisine involves food made of molecules) can delight (or at least momentarily distract) diners paying $200 a seat with kumquats that taste like grapes, and steak with the texture of ice cream (or vice versa), middlebrow Mexican food flatters its customers with “Jalapeño salsa” that tastes like a chopped salad. Presumably they are also breeding a Cilantro that tastes like parsley, to avoid offending those who think that “real” Cilantro tastes like soap.

The truth is, a lot of people don’t really care whether they’re getting a Jalapeño salsa. But they very badly need to be sure that they are getting a “Jalapeño salsa.” Because in a world in which food comes from a can or ready to eat at a table, where you’ve produced your food only in the most abstract possible way, mediated not even by little green pieces of paper with pictures of old Presidents anymore, but by numbers you may not even look at being notionally reattributed from one account to another, where it can taste salty without being from the ocean, sweet without fruit or honey, fresh and green in the winter, ice-cold in the summer, fizzy or alcoholic without being fermented, smoky without touching a fire, where the “natural flavors” are what artifically makes your sugar water taste like a different type of sugar water, we don’t know which way to come up for air, but at least we can know which way is “up.” In a world where the things obey our every command, we can’t let ourselves use words with equal freedom.


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