Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bub Logic

At Bub's IEP meeting last week, his kindergarten teacher remarked that he's a boy who speaks his mind. "He's very logical," she observed.

Naturally, I was delighted by this statement of the obvious. I adore logical men, and since that meeting I've been newly aware of the logic of Bub's thought processes. He employs deductive rather than inductive reasoning: instead of observing particulars and then establishing general principles based on his observations, he makes categorical statements and then applies them to particular situations. There is a certain freedom in this approach: Bub's reasoning usually works to his advantage since he's the one making up the rules. But there's also a startling verisimilitude in many of his broad, absolute statements.

"Moms don't have privacy," he observed yesterday when my ability to get him a glass of milk was impeded by the fact that I was on the potty. "No privacy for moms!"

I've been listening more carefully to his words as he's recovered from the uncanny silence produced by the flu bug that swept through our house last week. Both children succumbed within a few hours of each other, and for two days the only sound in the house was the murmur of countless TV cartoons. Awake or asleep, feverish or not, the children simply sat limply on the couch. Only when they began to recover did I realize how much their presence in the house is normally signalled by sound: Pie began to sing tuneless melodies under her breath, and Bub resumed his habitual commentary.

"I'm not sick!" he insisted, even though the milk he drank had made a prompt and unwelcome reappearance. "Sometimes I barf when I'm sick, but sometimes I'm not sick, and I still barf!" His conclusion was false, but, as hubby observed, his argument displays a remarkable ability to resist syllogistic reasoning: sickness leads to barfing, but barfing may or may not indicate sickness. A causes B, but the presence of B may or may not indicate A. (In reality, of course, the reverse is true: You can be sick with or without barfing, but if you barf, you're definitely sick.)

I have vivid memories of arguing with my parents when I was growing up - usually about whether or not my best friend should be allowed to sleep over. My parents made the cardinal error of reversing their position in response to my nagging compelling arguments, so I was both inventive and tenacious in my attempts to argue my way out of whatever unpleasant demands they happened to place upon me. I was aware at the time that giving in to a child's arguments was not widely considered to be an effective parenting tactic, a position that infuriated me. How was I supposed to learn how to develop airtight, convincing arguments if not by practising on my parents?

Those memories have shaped my own parenting: once I commit myself to a position I don't back down, knowing just how determined a child who scents weakness can become. But I'm delighted to see in Bub that fledgling instinct that the best way to get one's way is not through tantrums or deviousness but rather through head-on argument.

Friday, February 20, 2009

And I Am Being Facetious

Here's my theory: when we talk about developing a personal style in our blog-writing, what we really mean is establishing an exact ratio of facetious:serious content. And when drive-by commenters misinterpret our writing, it's usually because they get that ratio wrong. Perhaps we should include a warning right under our profile pics: the content of this blog is 87% facetious.

"Facetious" is a word that has many opposites. Its opposite could be "literal" or "sincere" or "precisely accurate." If I say, "I'm going to strangle my husband," my words are not literally true, but they are probably sincerely heartfelt. That remark is true on an emotional level; it is facetious only because it is not to be taken literally.

If, on the other hand, I say, "Children are a practical demonstration of the doctrine of Original Sin," (not that I would ever say something like that at, say, a small-group Bible study and then have to face down the shocked stares from everyone else in the room), my words do not represent my sincere emotions: they are facetious in that fuzzier sense of being true, but only kind of true.

I once had someone link to a post in which I made the following remark: "After a year of practising family law, hubby says that divorces always happen for the same reason: one partner is crazy, and the other is controlling." The linker commented - probably facetiously - that she had always assumed her ex-husband was both crazy and controlling, but now she had to rethink. Her commenters responded with a chorus of sincere and literal outrage. How could anyone make so offensive and untrue a statement? How disturbing that someone holding such beliefs was practising family law!

Regular readers of my blog seemed to take that remark in the spirit in which it was meant: when I say "always," what I usually mean is "maybe about fifty percent of the time." (This is why it's my husband who's the lawyer and not me: he naturally loads his remarks with qualifications to ensure technical accuracy. So not only was his remark not to be taken in an absolute or literal sense, but it was also probably misquoted.)

Facetiousness is a lot easier to recognize when it's funny. According to Dictionary.com, the word has the following meanings:

1. not meant to be taken seriously or literally: a facetious remark.
2. amusing; humorous.
3. lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential, amusing, or frivolous: a facetious person.

The third definition, I think, has always been characteristic of my personal writing style, dating back to Grade Seven when Mr. Steers criticized my school diary for being overly concerned with trivialities. The second definition is trickier. Not all amusing or humorous remarks are facetious; to be considered facetious, a remark must be funny precisely because we know the speaker doesn't sincerely or literally consider it to be true.

A great example of humorous facetious writing is this recap of Heroes:
Sylar and his new padawan Luke are on a road trip in the Griswald family truckster, and Sylar totally made a mixed tape with such staples as Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild- the extended cut. Luke doesn't understand the word "skanky" as he uses it to describe a diner, which is unlike every diner I've ever been in but exactly like the one I'd like to go to.

This is exactly what facetious humour is supposed to look like. The first part is funny merely because of the Star Wars/Vacation movie references; the facetious part kicks in in the second half of the first sentence. Sylar did not make a mix tape; Sylar would never make a mix tape because he's too busy stalking people with superpowers so he can cut their heads open with his finger. The writer knows this and readers familiar with the show know this, so the remark is funny precisely because it's not true (and because the weird emphasis in the show on the road-trip music makes it seem kind of plausible). The second sentence is facetious humour for the rest of us: whether or not we watch the show, we can recognize that expressing a desire to visit a skanky diner is the kind of thing that is both sarcastic and sincere at the same time.

Mostly true but kind of not true. (Or, alternatively, clearly untrue but kind of true anyway.) The Heroes review works because it deploys this kind of facetiousness in every single paragraph. My blog, on the other hand, uses facetiousness only in emergencies, and thus alienates readers unaccustomed to my writing style who don't know when and to what extent I'm being sincere.

Perhaps a good user's guide to this blog would go something like this:

The following blog may contain vast overgeneralizations. These statements are not usually made sarcastically, and may well contain a nugget of truth. It is the reader's responsibility to supply the omitted qualifications: phrases such as "in most cases" and "with some exceptions" are not included. Use at your own risk.

Does your blog need a user's guide? What would it say?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Trouble With Cylons

When it comes to Battlestar Galactica, I've always been in it for the ontology. When machines develop the ability to think for themselves, where do we draw the line between humanity and everything else? This is not a question that arises with any particular insistence in The Terminator; there, the machines can think, and what they think about is how much they like killing people. T2 did make Arnold Schwarzenegger into a rather lovable killing machine, but still - his destiny was always to sacrifice himself in order to save humanity and prevent his own kind from coming into being, thus preserving the supremacy of the maker over the made.

In the Battlestar version of this myth, the question is considerably more complicated. The first-generation metal "centurion" Cylons have given way to "skin jobs" - Cylons who are physically indistinguishable from humans. At first it appears that these human replicas are the perfect secret agents: they infiltrate human society and disable the twelve colonies' defense systems. These Cylons look human, but their agenda and loyalties are always pure Cylon. More intriguing are the Cylons represented by Boomer: "sleeper" Cylons who are totally unaware of their true identity. Boomer has human experiences and human loyalties, but in her essence she is a machine: when she is activated, she will do whatever her programming dictates.

Or maybe not. There are signs that Boomer can resist her programming (as indeed the first generation of centurions had done), that her human emotional connections might override her machine origins. Later, another model from the same line, Athena, will throw her lot in with the humans. Athena falls in love, bears a child, and appears able to make free decisions based on these very person-like emotions.

Cylons like Athena pose a question that has both a political and philosophical edge. What confers personhood - one's origin or one's nature? Emotion and freedom emerge as the defining traits of personhood; if someone can form genuine emotional bonds and make choices based on those loyalties, then the word "toaster" no longer seems like an apt description.

The Cylons have always been intriguing because their nature seems so at odds with their origins. They are machines, invented by humans only a few decades ago. They have acquired the ability to think for themselves and they seem bent not only on destroying the human race but also on imitating it. The "skin-jobs," as it turns out, are not merely a line of spy-robots, but rather the dominant species of Cylon; the centurions who - presumably - invented them are now obedient servants, a subordinate race of manual labourers. (Perhaps this is the natural way of things for technological beings; the most recent generation will always be the most technologically advanced.) Each decision the Cylons make seems designed to allow them to approximate human life more closely. They are trying to unlock the secret to biological reproduction; they have destroyed their resurrection ship so that they can experience the quintessentially human trait of mortality. Humanity, it would appear, is not something one is but something one does.

Unless, of course, it turns out that the Cylons originated on Earth 2000 years ago. Human prejudice against the Cylons has always been based not only on vengeance but also on a kind of xenophobia: Cylons are hated not for what they have done, but for what they are. But what does the word "machine" mean in reference to a thinking, breathing, organic creature? Terms like "toaster" are reminders of the Cylons' origins: we invented you, they say; you are a thing created, not begotten.

This, then, is my beef with the fifth season of Battlestar. It began with a huge revelation: the origins of the Cylons are not at all what we had supposed. And having dropped that little bombshell, the writers have simply left it alone. No one is asking where the Cylons came from or what it means that their history precedes that of the twelve colonies. It reminds me of the first season of 24, when the writers, with a blithe disregard for probability or continuity, decided that Nina was working with the terrorists. A big "twist" isn't worth it if it's purchased at the price of the very thing that made the show worth watching in the first place.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Ode to Ikea

An article in last week's business section announced, to readers' unanimous dismay, that once again London will not be getting an Ikea store. The rumour that Ikea is coming to London is so widespread and long-standing that it amounts to an urban legend. Within hours of reading the article I was overhearing staff-room conversations in which less experienced Londoners expressed their surprise and disappointment. They had heard London was getting an Ikea. We all have. It's not.

I can imagine, if I try, how amazing it would be to have an Ikea location closer than the current 90 minutes' drive (barring traffic). I could pop by on my lunch hour and pick up some frog-shaped bowls and 99-cent dishcloths. Swedish meatballs would be mine for the asking (complete with lingonberry sauce). On the weekend my children could play in the ball pit while I scoured the showrooms for decorating tips.

Such Ikea nirvana will never be mine. But I'm not wholly disappointed. If Ikea were closer it wouldn't be quite the same. There would be no more church buses heading up to the Toronto area for an Ikea-themed getaway. There would be no more need for people to go in together on a van and make a day of it. Would we really value Ikea in the same way if it were just around the corner? Would I exclaim, "Hey, that's a Leksvik five-drawer dresser!" with quite so much enthusiasm when I visited friends' homes if the language of Ikea simply entered into the local dialect?

On a local radio station there is a morning-show call-in game called "Ikea furniture? Or Lord of the Rings character?" Callers have to guess whether "Grima," "Faramir" and "Krokshult" are orcs, elves, or end tables. The names are, clearly, part of the Ikea fun. I still know the names of most of my Ikea furniture: I have Detolf display cases, a Timmerman end table, and a pair of crummy Ivar bookshelves that I've always planned to replace, but no other bookshelf on the market holds quite so many books as those old Ivars.

If Ikea opened up a location five minutes away from my workplace, I would go. Indeed, I would celebrate, just as I have celebrated the sudden influx of Bath and Body Works products into Canadian stores. But I would also mourn the end of an era. The fun of shopping has always had something to do with the lure of scarcity: there's nothing better than the sensation of stumbling upon a rare item or stepping into the warm Swedish glow of a store you get to visit only once a year. If Ikea came to my neighbourhood, I'd have more access to some-assembly-required furniture, but less access to that particular shiver of delight, and my shopping holy grail would have to move across the border into Michigan, where I'll soon need a passport to get to the nearest location of Target.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Secret to Happiness (And The Cure for Insomnia)

On House this week, the team treated a woman who had recently left her career as a pediatric cancer researcher to devote her life to being happy. Somebody else can cure the dying children, she explained, but a health scare had taught her that she couldn't postpone her happiness any longer. Instead of pursuing meaning, as House's diagnosticians were doing, she pursued pleasure, working in her garden and studying cookery under a top chef.

It was an odd storyline. The woman said the word "happy" so many times that it started to sound like a word from Dr. Seuss. Since when, I wondered, have we had to choose between meaningful work and personal happiness?

Since high school I've known that happiness is detectable only to the peripheral vision. Look at it head-on and it vanishes. You can set the stage for happiness by getting lots of sleep and keeping an optimal balance between work and leisure, but you can't just sit on the pitcher's mound of your personal field of dreams, waiting for happiness to show up - instead you just get on with things and hope that happiness will sneak into the bleacher seats sometime before the seventh-inning stretch.

To House, the cynic, all decisions ultimately boil down to a single motive: the search for happiness. His patient pursues happiness by taking up hobbies; he and his team pursue happiness by doing their jobs. "I don't do my job to be happy," Kutner objects. "I do it to help people."

"No," House retorts. "You do it because helping people makes you happy."

It's an old argument, that idea that all actions are morally equivalent because all are selfishly motivated. So Mother Teresa finds that working with the poor makes her happy - bully for her. If House finds that harassing people and making sarcastic remarks is what makes him happy, that's just as good. The big joke, of course, is that the grim, misanthropistic Dr. House is hardly a poster-boy for happiness. As Sheryl Crow would say, "If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?"

Happiness is a lot more important than some of the things people pursue instead: money, prestige, fame. But both House and his patient seem to overlook the fact that happiness just doesn't work very well as a motive or a goal. It's too sneaky, too slippery, a master criminal that always manages to escape just before he gets caught.

When I awaken during the night, jolted out of my sleep by a child's nightmare or just to anxiously check the clock to make sure it's not yet 6:45, my best cure for insomnia is to meditate upon how happy I am. When I start imagining how exhausted I'll be in the morning, how unsafe it will be for me to drive my car if I'm functioning on only 90 minutes of sleep, I switch mental tracks and start focusing on how soft my flannel sheets are, how lucky I am to be warm and cozy, to have hours stretching before me in which I won't be required to get up and pack lunches or grade papers - just hours of dark, blissful nothingness.

It doesn't always work, this attempt to enjoy the conscious experience of sleeplessness. But when it does work, when a dull happiness creeps in and takes the place of frustration and panic, I only find out about it hours later when the daylight comes to remind me that those dark moments of conscious happiness were replaced, almost immediately, by sweet oblivion.