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Archive for the ‘innerspeckshun’ Category

The 4th of July is a holiday in Rwanda, too. There they celebrate Liberation Day, which commemorates the symbolic end of the genocide in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by now-president Kagame captured Kigali. As the name attests, they were patriots, too, fighting for the freedom of their people. You might even say they were fighting, as were we, against colonial oppression, which had lingered long after most of the colonials had left in the form of a deeply inculcated mindset which emphasized differences among man more arbitrary than man can usually tolerate. But blood and violence changed that, and a new mindset prevails.  A “liberated” one, Kagame called it today.

Who knows what being liberated means to Kagame, but my year in his country did give me a better sense of what being liberated meant to me.

Americans, especially on days like these, fancy themselves the freest of the free (we’re at least in the top ten, anyway). But this emphasizes a loud fife-and-drum conception of liberty from some tyrannical control, when the real beauty of it is found in a quiet evolved respect for the individual prerogative. The more I jaunt around the globe–itself a wonderful benefit of liberty–the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability to act alone.

In Rwanda, for instance, as in many places around the world, an individual never stops being accountable to and responsible for the family from whence he came. His decisions may not be coerced with the threat of violence, but they aren’t made freely because of the powerful cultural forces at play. He may prefer to live the life of a penniless artist, but can’t because he’s expected to support some lazy cousin and his wife. Liberation from the repression of a culture isn’t even an option, because it may well never occur to the person he’s being repressed. Minorities everywhere are victimless victims.

Wonderfully, liberty does not embrace tradition, though that is the conceit of conservatives. To be liberated is to question always and to be suspicious of settled ways. Decisions are inevitably framed by biases both cognitive and cultural, a fact I understand well coming from a childhood thoroughly saturated with religion. But even in this relatively (for America) repressive environment, I was able to leave it without too much distress. Cultural values were strong, but not omnipotent.

And I could have returned from my rumspringa rather than stayed astray. Though I doubt many Rwandans are liberated by my definition, I may be mistaken. And if nothing else, what provides me the most comfort about liberty is it recognizes confusion, complexity, and all the rest, and makes the most provision for being wholly wrong.

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When I awake each morning, cheerful is my disposition. Travails belong to yesterday, while today owns the promise of productivity. Charity and magnanimity are felt in good measure. If I had on a cap, I would surely tip it to passersby on the street, and should a man ask for change, I’d not begrudge him a sou.

Others are not like me. They wake to a bleary dissatisfaction with the state of things. Forehead blood vessels are engorged, changing the face’s topography into the mask of the malcontent. Before they even arrive at the bathroom for their morning evacuation, the morning has filled with bemoaning. Maybe it’s a general lament about the corruption of youth. Or perhaps, if you’re Rwanda Youth Minister Protais Mitali for instance, it’s something more specific, like just how irksome are those ghastly grass-thatched huts poor people like to live in:

Speaking during a provincial coordination committee meeting on Tuesday, Mitali urged mayors in the province to prioritise the issue of eradicating grass thatched houses in the country so as to beat the June 2010 deadline set by the Cabinet.

A survey conducted by the Ministry of Local Government indicates that the Eastern and Southern Provinces as leading in having the biggest number of people still living in huts, with the latter having over 27,000 such houses.

“You have to tackle the issue of eradicating grass-thatched houses as a matter of urgency.

We do not expect to see such houses anywhere in the country by mid 2010,” said the Youth Minister.

These days I find myself thinking that this type of thing, while of a flavor more flagrant, is the same cold dish served up by most political action. People and politicians just can’t seem to get enough of using the full-auto AK of government to impose their preferences onto other people. Why someone would think they’re so well endowed to play the position of pater, and further, why they get so worked up about the affairs of others in the first place confounds me. I may wake up with happiness, but there’s certainly not such a surfeit of it that I feel called to coerce others to my enlightened ways.

As Smith said long ago:

Examine the records of history, recollect what has happened within the circle of your own experience, consider with attention what has been the conduct of almost all the greatly unfortunate, either in private or public life, whom you may have either read of, or heard of, or remember; and you will find that the misfortunes of by far the greater part of them have arisen from their not knowing when they were well, when it was proper for them to sit still and to be contented

Maybe my mornings are happy precisely because I’m not bothered much when someone’s preferences conflict with my own–that I can, in spite of the jarring diversity in how people all around me live, sit still and be contented.

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Typing in “John Galt” as a write-in for about ten state and local races made my 45-minute wait at the polls worth it yesterday morning. There were also three constitutional amendments for my consideration. Two were about allowing state funds to be invested in equities, and I voted with assurance. The third was about the age of consent in South Carolina, and had nebulous implications. I was ambivalent, but I voted anyway. That was probably a mistake.

When I reviewed and submitted my ballot, the machine beeped at me, alerting me that I had not voted in the presidential race–did I really want to leave that blank?

Yes, Mr. Diebold. Yes I do.

Explaining my vote, or lack thereof, was something I thought might be enjoyable, but it became tiresome and unproductive. A non-vote is ambiguous and slippery. A vote for something says more than a vote against. It offers no tags, categories, or any other meta-data with which my peers can quickly sort me. Staying unaffiliated helps one think better, but I wonder if I’m a staunch individualist merely because I like being an unknown quantity or a contrarian.

I spent a fun evening with a politically homogeneous crowd. When CNN called the election, there were shouts of joy, hugs, and in one case, a near hyperventilation. There was boasting when a certain place, whether precinct or state, was called. People pointed with pride at vote counts reflecting their individual contributions. I peered at the shiny graphics, but my contribution did not reflect back. One cannot count what is not there. I had cast a ballot, but I had not voted.

So great was the room’s joy that it could not be contained by the limits of physical nearness. Calls were made, texts received, statuses updated. We could, we did, we can. The world was alight. The world was paying attention. The world cared.

I drove home and read the thoughts of others. I had trouble putting my own into order. I came upon Camus:

And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.

I slept well.

Addendum: I liked this piece very much.

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For 6-10, click here. For the first five, click here.

11. I am sooner deliberate than spontaneous
12. Bread, cheese, and cold cuts are a dietary staple
13. Approachable is something I am often not
14. In some particular areas, I am risk-averse
15. Being punctual is a matter of personal honor

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For the first five, click here:

6. My predilection is for bluntness and candor
7. Dinner should always be a five-hour affair
8. I have a strong respect for rules and authority
9. All relationships are viewed through the prism of pragmatism
10. Blending in is usually preferred to standing out

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First of a continuing series:

  1. A gemütlich milieu is important
  2. I think systematically
  3. A Kaffeeklatsch warms my soul
  4. I lust to wander
  5. Most times I’d rather keep the door closed

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Some say that olfaction is the sense most closely associated with memory, and two experiences I’ve had in the past year or so give some credence to that notion.

The first experience happened many months ago when I came down with a bad cold. I don’t get seriously sick very often, so the last time I’d suffered from a similar malady was just before and during the first few days of my study abroad in Germany my freshman year of college. It sounds paradoxical, but the smells associated with having my nose completely stopped up again caused vivid memories of Wittenberg, specifically of the house I lived in, to flash in mind for the duration of the cold.

The second experience is still ongoing. As I walk around Cologne, a city 400 kilometers from Wittenberg, I nonetheless notice a common odor that causes me to remember little things about my experiences three years ago I had long since forgotten. As I’ve traveled throughout many countries between then and now, it seems that this smell is indeed peculiar to Germany. It’s odd because I didn’t notice the smell before–I had to return for it to stick out it my mind. This is completely unlike an experience I had many years ago in Edinburgh, where the smell of the city was immediately noticeable and I was sure I’d never forget it.

Perhaps one reason olfaction has such a powerful link to memory is because smells are the hardest to capture and thus unusually distinctive. One can take pictures and videos to remind one of the sights, make a recording or listen to specific music for sounds, take along some object or souvenir for touch, bring along or cook a dish for the taste, but how does one capture a scent? Some would come naturally with the other senses, such as when one cooks a particular dish, but there doesn’t seem to be a good way to capture the street scents of a city, so to speak. Thus, unlike with sight or sound, one can only experience smell under specific and rare conditions, and when finally exposed to it, the effects are powerful.

At least for now, I have a Cologne not packaged in any bottle to serve as my olfactory reminder.

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