The Tragedy of the Unsaid

One of the few luxuries and small indulgences my wife and I treat ourselves to is eating out every now and then. Like every week. It forces us to twist away from bright screens and talk to one another. Someone else handles the cutting and dicing of the foodstuff and brings it out all arrayed nicely and places it before us on a real table. We can then walk home overstuffed and feel like we accomplished something more than the usual. We went out into the world and ate things.

Our neighborhood, Inwood, is “up and coming,” it seems. There’s a snazzy row of trendy restaurants with seating ringside to the intermittent spewing of A-train riders coming home and motorcyclists gratuitously revving their engines and too-loud music and look-at-me-looking-at-you patrons along Dyckman. There’s a new Starbucks on the corner. But the options for a consistently pleasurable dining experience remain few. For some reason, even in places that charge upwards of $20 a plate, the service tends to be lackluster and the food sometimes good but mostly uninspired.

We have a few spots we like to attend, but even in those joints we rarely stray far from the two or three dishes we know we enjoy. When we do, we regret it.

Tonight we opted to try an old place we had stopped going to again (we’d forgotten why we’d stopped. Oh, yeah, know we remember). It started off right. Outdoor open area with a cool breeze, early evening, only one other person. An IPA delivered promptly by the waiter, our order swiftly decided and taken. A waft of fresh pesto from the kitchen as we walked in caused me to spontaneously order the pesto chicken linguini. What could go wrong?

I’m not the type of person to send a dish back. I hate confrontation and challenging conversations when roles aren’t clear. I can have them at work, but not in situations where I am the customer. I don’t feel like it’s my place. I’ve served a lot of people and I’ve always hated customers who are entitled a-holes, and I never want to give even the slightest hint of being one of them. I always tip 20% (still did tonight, BTW).

But as soon as the dish came out 30 minutes later, something was off. I’m sensitive to smell, and there was a faint off-odor to the linguini, hidden beneath the pesto. Something like dirty water or spoiled food. Maybe the dish hadn’t been cleaned well. I don’t know. But as soon as I smelled it, I could taste it underlying the pasta. And the chicken was overcooked. And it was already lukewarm. And it was $16.50. And my wife’s dish was similarly weak, and her fries were cold.

I agonized about what to do. Should I send it back? But what if I was just imagining things? My wife tried it and said it seemed fine. Was I just inventing the offending smell and taste? Had I been primed by the loogie we could hear being hacked by a kitchen worker right before the dish came out?

I asked for another beer and didn’t say anything to the waiter when he delivered it. I looked around for a hot sauce and grabbed a Tabasco from the other table and dunked it all over it. I thought, maybe I can work with this. I took several more bites. I stopped eating and sat back. I couldn’t do it. I had completely lost my appetite, and it was 6:00 after a long day of work. I get up at 5:00 in the morning and had only had a sandwich and a granola bar.

But I could keep smelling it and tasting it. The slight eau de rancidness. Even beyond that fundamental evil, there was nothing redemptive about the dish in any way. It was bland.

“I’ll just box it up and take it home,” I informed my wife. I envisioned myself dunking the meal in the extremely hot hot sauce I had at home, the kind where merely a drop was sufficient to completely overwhelm a dish with burning.

“Are you really going to eat it?” she asked. I took another meek bite and smelled sewage. I realized I wasn’t. That I had no desire to ever smell or taste it ever again. That I wanted to get up and walk away from this place of quiet torture and never look back.

A dark pool of negativity settled around my shoulders. My wife and I stopped conversating, and the only things that arose between us were dark noticings. We realized there had been warning signs since the moment we’d arrived. The unswept leaves. The extended length of time between waitery visits. The holes in the plastic windows of the awning.

Finally, my wife caught the waiter’s attention after he eventually ventured back to the back area another half hour later.

I apologized profusely and told him I couldn’t possibly fathom eating my dish. He took it away with vagueness, then I heard words between the kitchen staff and him. Then another guy came back out, ostensibly some form of manager. He didn’t look me in the eye. He hovered near and awkwardly gestured at his managerial duty, but didn’t seem to know what to say. He seemed to want us to simply go away.

I apologized again. Told him I never do this sort of thing. I wasn’t this sort of person. But something was off. I couldn’t really say what it was. But I felt really bad.

He walked away. Brought back the bill with the offending dish stricken.

I realized that I had missed an opportunity to level with him. That instead of saying what was on my heart to say, I white lied and pretended it was kind of my fault.

What I should have done is laid into him, like I was his manager. What kind of place are you running here, this managerial me would have said, quietly fuming, sweeping my hand magisterially. We come here. This looks less inviting than my parents’ front yard. Why isn’t this swept? We made a choice to attend your establishment. Why doesn’t your wait staff come out to check on your all of 3 patrons? My dish sucked. It wasn’t just that something undefinable was off. It was simply bad. There was nothing good about it, other than its existence as food. Why would anyone pay $16.50 for this? I could go home and microwave a better meal. Her fries were cold. Why did it take so long for uninspired food to arrive on my table? Why am I hearing your kitchen staff loogeying while I’m sitting here waiting for my food?

The experience of calculating the check, then finishing my beer, was agonizing. The manager guy kept coming out and passively aggressively half-approaching our table, then walking away. I could hear the kitchen staff complaining. The burden of negative unsaid energy was tearing my soul apart.

It took 2 hours at home to dispel. It weighed upon my heart. So much I now write about it. This is ridiculous.

The moral of the story is, sometimes it’s better to be an asshole. Sometimes it’s better to say what you fucking feel directly to people you don’t know because they need to hear your honest opinion. The agony of leaving what I really needed to say unsaid wears upon me. My mealy-mouthed inability to be an asshole in that moment delimited my usefulness to humanity right then. That restaurant won’t know what it did wrong. That cook won’t know why he’s getting in trouble. And I will never go back to that restaurant again.

To Make It Here

To make it here means to push the soul

to the side, be buried alive,

willingly enslaved to something future.


We’ve made it, you and I,

we’re so fortunate to be able to put away

our lives somewhere to never be used

except in the case of a dream

or a nightmare.


This fear we have is of

each other, our own skin

surrounding us, not quite there

where we need it to be,

away and safe, secured against


Mind Spaces

I’m in the middle of my 5th year of teaching special education in the Bronx. Each year I’ve taught, I take on increasing responsibilities, which leaves me little time nor space to devote to extracurricular hobbies or pursuits, such as writing blog posts, either here or on my other one, or on any other site I’ve posted on.

On my run today, I was thinking about how I explain this to people when I apologize for not having written anything recently. I typically say something like, I haven’t the time this year to write, as I am engaged in two different leadership programs. Yet this excuse is not wholly accurate, for I DO sometimes have time, such as when I’ve completed my curriculum planning for my classes, and finished completing any other professional demands. So it isn’t a lack of time, precisely. I seem to have time to scan my newsfeeds and tweet out links, for example.

Another way I sometimes I explain this is as a lack of “cognitive capacity” for pursuing additional tasks, suggesting that at the end of a long day or week, I lack some mental capacity for engaging in complex thinking outside the immediate realm of my professional tasks. This explanation gets somewhat closer at the truth, I think.

I thought today of a better way of explaining this, with a term I call “mindspaces.” For any given life pursuit, there’s a certain dedication of mindspace to it, in which I have to be able to switch off other areas of my mind and thus devote my full attention to that pursuit.

In my professional life, the mindspaces I shuttle between have expanded. This year, one mindspace that occupies much of my life is a curricular one, as I process and plan an entirely new and complex ELA curriculum, for 3 different classes–my 6th grade ICT (co-taught) class, my 8th grade ICT class, and my 8th grade 12:1 class. I then have to shift each day into my special education coordinator mind space, in which I schedule IEP meetings, conduct short-term or long-term visioning and planning for improving the implementation of services, or engage with parents, teachers, staff, and students around the process of implementation of services. Those are two of the biggest mindspaces for me, but I also have the mindspace dedicated to planning with my 8th grade team around an end of year performance assessment for students, which is a complex and difficult undertaking for us. I have the two different mind spaces of leadership programs I’m undertaking, and how they apply to my work life and beyond.

Those are just a few examples. My engagement in multiple mindspaces can delimit my ability to engage beyond those realms in additional pursuits, such as continuing my expositions here on The Federalist Papers, exploring the concept of schools as ecosystems on my other blog, or even simply pushing myself to go back down the stairs to go on a run at the end of the day.

I’ve gotten better at shifting between these spaces, such as by seeking and chunking connections between spaces, learning to sit back and await opportunities to arise rather than constantly pursuing them, and being OK with not being able to read or engage with every single newsletter or tweet that comes my way.

But for now, I’m learning to negotiate and transition between multiple mindspaces such that I increase my effectiveness, productivity, and wellbeing, rather than the reverse.

Hamilton on the Militia and the Limits of Legislation

Due to my workload during the school year, I’ve had to drop blogging except for occasional instances on my other blog, but due to the lovely three day weekend bestowed by our observance of Veteran’s Day, I have a chance to return to The Federalist Papers. Appropriately enough, in this one, Federalist No. 25, Alexander Hamilton discusses the limitations and dangers of maintaining local militias.

However, the most interesting point Hamilton makes here is a broader appeal to the limitation of legislation. I may be misreading this a bit, as I am pulling it out of context, but I’ll leave that up to wiser readers to decide:

Here I expect we shall be told that the militia of the country is its natural bulwark, and would be at all times equal to the national defense. This doctrine, in substance, had like to have lost us our independence. It cost millions to the United States that might have been saved.. . . the bravest of [militiamen] feel and know that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.

All violent policy, as it is contrary to the natural and experienced course of human affairs, defeats itself. . . .

. . . nations pay little regard to rules and maxims calculated in their very nature to run counter to the necessities of society. Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed, because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable. [bold added]

This point of caution about the limitations of legislation made me think of a passage I just read in a short book called The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

What’s lost is the willingness of people to make judgments in situations that are not formulaic but are messy and human, and then to trust each other to make the best calls we can. As Philip Howard has argued powerfully, in a society that over-relies on laws and rules to govern everyday interactions—one where much is prescribed and proscribed and “what is not prohibited is permitted”—people forget how to exercise both rights and responsibilities.
What’s lost, in short, is citizenship.
Hamilton’s point about militias has faded with relevance, but his point about the limitations of legislation remains salient to our time.

The Decline of Wikipedia

“As commercial websites have risen to prominence, online life has moved away from open, self-governed crowdsourcing communities like the one that runs Wikipedia, says Clay Shirky, a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Shirky was one of the biggest boosters of an idea, popular during the previous decade, that the Web encouraged strangers to come together and achieve things impossible for a conventional organization. Wikipedia is proof there was some truth to that notion. But today’s Web is dominated by sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where people maintain personal, egocentric feeds. Outside specific settings like massive multiplayer games, relatively few people mingle in shared virtual space. Instead, they use mobile devices that are unsuited to complex creative work and favor neatly self-­contained apps over messier, interconnected Web pages. Shirky, who is an advisor to the Wikimedia Foundation, says people steeped in that model will struggle to understand how and why they should contribute to Wikipedia or any project like it. “Facebook is the largest participatory culture today, but their mode of participation is different,” he says. “It’s aggregating rather than collaborating.”

Gardner agrees that today’s Web is hostile to self-organized collective efforts, likening it to a city that has lost its public parks. “Our time is spent on an increasingly small number of increasingly large corporate sites,” she says. “We need more public space online.” In fact, Gardner is leaving the foundation at the end of the year in search of new projects to work on that very problem. She contends that even with all its troubles, Wikipedia is one of the Web’s few public parks that won’t disappear.”

What Modern Writers Mean When They Say, “Keep It Simple,” Dude

Desperate ScribblingSpeaking of bullshit and Alexander Hamilton. . . When I commenced exploring the Federalist Papers, I noted that the language can be at times dense and opaque. In #23, Hamilton must have shifted back into bullshit mode, as he squeezed out the following bollocks. In addition, note the frequent insertion of breathy commas:

Every view we may take of the subject, as candid inquirers after truth, will serve to convince us, that it is both unwise and dangerous to deny the federal government an unconfined authority, as to all those objects which are intrusted to its management. It will indeed deserve the most vigilant and careful attention of the people, to see that it be modeled in such a manner as to admit of its being safely vested with the requisite powers. If any plan which has been, or may be, offered to our consideration, should not, upon a dispassionate inspection, be found to answer this description, it ought to be rejected. A government, the constitution of which renders it unfit to be trusted with all the powers which a free people OUGHT TO DELEGATE TO ANY GOVERNMENT, would be an unsafe and improper depositary of the NATIONAL INTERESTS. Wherever THESE can with propriety be confided, the coincident powers may safely accompany them. This is the true result of all just reasoning upon the subject. And the adversaries of the plan promulgated by the convention ought to have confined themselves to showing, that the internal structure of the proposed government was such as to render it unworthy of the confidence of the people. They ought not to have wandered into inflammatory declamations and unmeaning cavils about the extent of the powers. The POWERS are not too extensive for the OBJECTS of federal administration, or, in other words, for the management of our NATIONAL INTERESTS; nor can any satisfactory argument be framed to show that they are chargeable with such an excess. If it be true, as has been insinuated by some of the writers on the other side, that the difficulty arises from the nature of the thing, and that the extent of the country will not permit us to form a government in which such ample powers can safely be reposed, it would prove that we ought to contract our views, and resort to the expedient of separate confederacies, which will move within more practicable spheres. For the absurdity must continually stare us in the face of confiding to a government the direction of the most essential national interests, without daring to trust it to the authorities which are indispensible to their proper and efficient management. Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions, but firmly embrace a rational alternative.

I trust, however, that the impracticability of one general system cannot be shown. I am greatly mistaken, if any thing of weight has yet been advanced of this tendency; and I flatter myself, that the observations which have been made in the course of these papers have served to place the reverse of that position in as clear a light as any matter still in the womb of time and experience can be susceptible of. This, at all events, must be evident, that the very difficulty itself, drawn from the extent of the country, is the strongest argument in favor of an energetic government; for any other can certainly never preserve the Union of so large an empire. If we embrace the tenets of those who oppose the adoption of the proposed Constitution, as the standard of our political creed, we cannot fail to verify the gloomy doctrines which predict the impracticability of a national system pervading entire limits of the present Confederacy.


Majority vs. Minority Rule, B.S. vs. Passion

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

Let’s move on to Federalist #22, again by Alexander Hamilton. While I sometimes find Hamilton tedious, as I mentioned earlier, he can also display a ferocious command of logic, political acuity, historical example, and rhetoric. These passages serve as a demonstration of this. Here he discusses how the Constitution addresses majority vs. minority power of the states, as opposed the idea of equality amongst the states, which had been an operating principle of the Articles of Confederation. At that time, the approval of all nine states was required in order to approve a bill, treaty, or other legislation:

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. . .

Great rhetoric there, while also demonstrating the frequent insertion of breathy commas–a grammatical oddity throughout the Papers and a reflection, no doubt, of the stylistic conventions of the time.

It may be objected to this, that not seven but nine States, or two thirds of the whole number, must consent to the most important resolutions; and it may be thence inferred that nine States would always comprehend a majority of the Union. But this does not obviate the impropriety of an equal vote between States of the most unequal dimensions and populousness; nor is the inference accurate in point of fact; for we can enumerate nine States which contain less than a majority of the people; and it is constitutionally possible that these nine may give the vote. Besides, there are matters of considerable moment determinable by a bare majority; and there are others, concerning which doubts have been entertained, which, if interpreted in favor of the sufficiency of a vote of seven States, would extend its operation to interests of the first magnitude. In addition to this, it is to be observed that there is a probability of an increase in the number of States, and no provision for a proportional augmentation of the ratio of votes.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. . .

Again, great use of rhetoric and logic. He furthermore demonstrates political acuity in acknowledging that the republic would not be static, and was likely to expand. The principle of a majority rule is so commonplace in governance dynamics that we now seem to take it for granted. “Majority rules”: a flippant phrase we throw off while electing which movie to see. Yet at this time, the young states, newly independent, were protective of their rights and demanded equality. As Hamilton notes, though this seems like a just principle, in reality, it provides obstruction to even routine governance processes.

Now these next few passages get interesting, when you read it through the lens of our current perspective. All we see our government doing now is obstruct, delay, and filibuster:

This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. . .

The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods. . .

What could better describe the overuse of filibuster we witness today, and the consistent impasse that arises now at what should be navigable issues of governance?

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. . .

No, Alexander, we most definitely now know them not to be imaginary. They have become our political reality. Does this suggest that we need to further reduce the minority party’s “negative upon the majority,” as Hamilton put it?

What’s interesting about that last line above is how we can spin the meaning of “foreign corruption.” Hamilton meant it in the literal sense, but today, we could read it in the sense of any entity operating outside of the government, such as corporations, lobbyist groups, and other special interests, which have an out-sized influence on the operations of our government.

In an article in The New Yorker, there’s a bit more on viewing this as a screed against the filibuster, as well as some interesting caution against viewing The Federalist Papers as “secular scripture.” To quote:

The Federalist Papers—so often quoted to rationalize governmental stasis and congressional gridlock—are almost always treated as secular scripture. They’re not. They’re newspaper op-ed pieces, written in haste to sell a particular set of compromises, some of which their authors had adamantly opposed and accepted only with the greatest reluctance.

This is interesting, and it may explain in part why I’ve found some of Hamilton’s contributions to the papers tedious: he really may be bullshitting when he sounds like he’s bullshitting. The passages above, however, reflect real passion, and this stood out as I read them.