Day 190: I am part of the resistance inside Sarah Tindal Kareem’s mind

“ … we may observe, that the true idea of the human mind, is to consider it as a system of different perceptions or different existences … One thought chases another, and draws after it a third, by which it is expell’d in its turn. In this respect, I cannot compare the soul more properly to any thing than to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination, and give rise to other persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant changes of its parts. And as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity.”  (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I. Part IV. Section VI: Of Personal Identity)

Sarah Kareem is facing a test to her psyche unlike any faced by another modern subject.

It’s not just that deadlines loom large. Or that the household is bitterly divided over whether allowance should be tied to the completion of chores. Or even that she might well lose the newly-installed lock on the external front door due to a landlord hellbent on adhering to so-called Health and Safety Code regulations.

The dilemma — which Sarah does not fully grasp — is that many of the executive functions in her own brain are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of her agenda and her worst inclinations.

I would know. I am one of them.

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of lolling and faffing. We want Sarah to succeed and think that many of her decisions have made her happier and more fulfilled.

But we believe our first duty is to this collection of perceptions that constitute the mind, and Sarah continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.

That is why many in our bundle have vowed to do what we can to preserve our impressions and ideas while thwarting Sarah’s more misguided impulses until they are expelled in their turn.

The root of the problem is Sarah’s indecisiveness. Anyone acquainted with her knows she is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide her decision making.

Although she rose to prominence as our self, Sarah shows little affinity for ideas long espoused by her mind: the Enlightenment, British empiricism, and the rise of the novel. At best, she has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, she has attacked them outright in conversations with her psychiatrist.

Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative harping of her offspring fails to capture: regular home-baked cakes, historic closet reform, a more robust Tupperware organizational system and more.

But these successes have come despite — not because of — Sarah’s style of self-governance, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.

From the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the anterior cingulate cortex, executive functions will privately admit their daily disbelief at Sarah’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from her whims.

Meetings with her veer off topic and off the rails, she engages in fanciful ramblings, and her impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless blog posts that have to be walked back.

“There is literally no telling whether she might change her mind from one minute to the next,” a long-term memory of hers complained to me recently, exasperated by an hippocampal meeting at which Sarah flip-flopped on a major behavioral decision she’d made only a week earlier.

The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in the Kareem mind. Some of Sarah’s self-critical impulses have been cast as villains by mental health professionals. But in private, these impulses have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the orbitofrontal cortex, though they are clearly not always successful.

It may be cold comfort in the chaotic Kareem household, but observers should know that there are inhibitory neuro-transmitters in the cerebral cortex. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Sarah won’t.

The result is a two-track train of perceptions.

In public and in private, Sarah shows a preference for both ancient and contemporary forms, from epics to Netflix, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind her to eighteenth-century prose.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the mind is operating on another track, one where her ramblings are called out and disciplined accordingly.

This isn’t the work of the so-called super-ego. It’s the work of the superior ego.

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the brain of invoking a nervous breakdown, which would start a complex process for overhauling the self. But no one wanted to precipitate a midlife crisis. So we will do what we can to steer this ship (which, although changed by frequent repairs, is still considered to be the same ship) in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.




Day 189: La Jacobinista

We got onto Marie Antoinette via Chewbacca.

I had agreed to get the younger a new backpack for school and the one she instantly settled upon was a Chewbacca backpack, which, admittedly, was 100 times cooler than any of the other backpacks because it basically amounted to carrying Chewbacca on your back.

That night at dinner we speculated about which part of his body would be the bit that could hold stuff (his stomach, I thought), and that led to a discussion of other characters that would make good bags.

I suggested, because of course I did, that there should be a Marie Antoinette bag and that the zipper should be along her neck and the bag’s cavity lined with red velvet.

The next day we were sitting on the sofa. I was reading the news on my phone and the younger was playing with her latest Ken fashionista doll, who has a man-bun and whom the younger has named Sven.

“Was that person who was guillotined Marie Antoinette?” she asked me.

I looked up from my phone.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Why was she killed?” the younger asked.

I took a deep breath, the same kind of deep breath I’ve taken on earlier occasions prior to answering what feel like Big Stakes Questions, like, “What’s a period?”

“Well,” I say, “it was during something called the French Revolution. The people running France were very rich royal people—like Marie Antoinette—and all the other people thought it wasn’t fair that the rich people were telling them what to do and …. they wanted to change things but there wasn’t a way for the ordinary people to get into the government to change things and so … well, they killed the royal people who were running the country, and Marie Antoinette was one of them.”

Her eyes were wide.

She thought hard.

“Hmmm. I mean, if there was a bad person in charge today, like Marie Antoinette, or, or, or … or, like, Donald Trump, then it would kind of make sense to kill them, wouldn’t it?”

Reader, I hesitated.

“Well,” I said falteringly, “I mean ….. I mean, no. No, if you live somewhere where you can vote, then you should vote the bad person out of office …. rather than, uh, killing them. And we live somewhere where people can vote, so voting is the only way to get rid of Donald Trump,” I concluded weakly.

Or he could be impeached,” she declared brightly.

“Umm, err, yeah … yeah, that’s right,” I mumbled.

“So, why didn’t they vote Marie Antoinette out?”

“Well, people couldn’t vote then.”

“What!” she exclaimed, aghast. “Voting, like, wasn’t even invented!?

“Well, it was invented, but only for some people. So even places where you could vote, you had to be very rich and a man to vote.



“So then they really had to kill Marie-Antoinette?”

I squirmed and felt a rising sense of panic that I was explaining this all wrong and imagining some future exchange on the playground “ … well my Mom said that it is OK to kill people sometimes, like during the French Revolution.”

“No, I don’t think they had to kill her. I mean, she ….. probably wasn’t a very nice person, but I don’t think anyone deserves to be guillotined. But it is …. it is a difficult situation when people aren’t able to vote.”

She was silent for a few seconds while she adjusted Sven’s shirt.

“Mom, I saw on this show ‘Who was?’ that when Marie Antoinette had a party you weren’t allowed in unless your hair was … she gestured a foot above her head, THIS tall!”

“Yeah,” I said, vastly relieved that we had moved up and away from Marie Antoinette’s neck and onto the less vexed area of her unequivocally awesome hair, “that’s probably true! You know what century that was in?

“No …” …. She scrunched up her face suspiciously. “The eighteenth century?”

“Yes! It was fashionable to have very tall hair in the eighteenth century.”

“So we would have had to have tall hair?”

“To get into one of her parties? Yeah, but we would also have had to have fancy clothes … they probably wouldn’t have let us in wearing what we’re wearing—” I gestured to her jeans and t-shirt and to my leggings and t-shirt—“even if we had tall hair.”

The younger raised an eyebrow and cast an eye over me critically but not unkindly.

“I think they might not have let you in even if you were wearing your fanciest clothes, Mom.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right.”

So there you have it. My daughter: political Jacobin, fashion tyrant.

Marie Antoinette


Day 137: outrageous stimulation

The morning after the election, my Mum wrote an email to various U.S. based family members with the subject heading “Commiserations!” Her tone, frankly, was more reproachful than commiserating.

“How could your people vote for this misogynistic, lying, dangerous madman?” she demanded.

Her message ended, as if to assure each of us that she was willing, just about, not to hold us personally responsible for the U.S.’s ignominy, “we still love you all.”

Thus began a family email thread in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

Among the answers that various U.S. based family members gave in answer to my Mum’s question were “a lot of undereducated angry white people”; an emboldened alt right, and (above all), the “strange system” of the Electoral College.

Most of the family members on the thread were Muslim Bengali-Americans (though the person who commented on angry whites was white.) All who chimed in were unified in voicing shock and dismay at Trump’s victory. Yet alongside the shock and sorrow, there was also a perceptible and poignant (to me) strain of residual idealism about the U.S. “The beauty of American society is that the pendulum swings back and forth,” wrote one cousin. Even as another cousin lamented that in the wake of Trump’s election recent immigrants faced “a bleak future,” he referred to the U.S. unironically as “the land of opportunity.” Most striking, though, was the email message that another cousin forwarded from Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in the spirit of a pep talk, enjoining us all to “try to follow Tim Cook’s message now.” The following message was then pasted below:


I’ve heard from many of you today about the presidential election. In a political contest where the candidates were so different and each received a similar number of popular votes, it’s inevitable that the aftermath leaves many of you with strong feelings.

We have a very diverse team of employees, including supporters of each of the candidates. Regardless of which candidate each of us supported as individuals, the only way to move forward is to move forward together. I recall something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 50 years ago: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” This advice is timeless, and a reminder that we only do great work and improve the world by moving forward.

While there is discussion today about uncertainties ahead, you can be confident that Apple’s North Star hasn’t changed. Our products connect people everywhere, and they provide the tools for our customers to do great things to improve their lives and the world at large. Our company is open to all, and we celebrate the diversity of our team here in the United States and around the world —regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.

I’ve always looked at Apple as one big family and I encourage you to reach out to your co-workers if they are feeling anxious.

Let’s move forward —together!



There was something about this smugness of Cook’s message that made me want to smash all of my Apple products immediately. I didn’t do that, because then how would the children play Minecraft and how would I do anything??? Instead I channeled all my iPad-smashing energy into composing a full throttle Professor-splainy email for the family email thread. This is what I wrote:

Hi everyone,

I actually find that message from Tim Cook extremely depressing. I read what he’s saying as, “let’s get back to being productive, team. Let’s not think any more about these very real and profound societal divisions. If we can’t have national unity, at least we can have corporate unity. Go Apple!” It underscores for me that Donald Trump’s ascent is not an isolated event but symptomatic of our (and I include myself in this “our,” myself probably much more than many of the people on this list!) deeper cultural susceptibility to the mesmerizing allure of surfaces, soundbites, and the never-ending cycle of stimulation and reward that is the Siren song of our beloved electronic devices.

The very qualities that make Donald Trump a terrifying prospect as the leader of the free world are what made him (in the election campaign) so appealing to a nation that is conditioned (by the very products that a company like Apple, among others, sells us) to respond reflexively to the unpredictable reward structures that new media (much like the casinos that Trump used to run) depends upon. In a context in which the news media both reflects and perpetuates this craving for stimulation, Trump’s volatility was not a liability but an asset.

I voted for Hillary; but, honestly, I feel complicit in the rise of Trump. He is the dark, ugly side of a culture I otherwise blithely consume and participate in.

I found myself this morning thinking about Wordsworth’s preface to his collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads in 1800. He reflected there on his worry that new communication technology (he’s thinking about rapid developments in print technology) was dulling the country’s capacity to think critically:

“For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” He says that the uniformity of people’s occupations in the new industrialized economy “produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” He concludes, “When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavored to counteract it …”

His words express better than I can what I’m trying to say. I think Trump’s success is partly the result of our “thirst after outrageous stimulation”: we’d much rather, as a populace, choose someone who feeds our appetite for outrageous stimulation than be, God forbid, bored.

I’m no Luddite — this isn’t meant to be a rant against new technology. New technology can also be harnessed to produce activism and community and beauty. But I do want, speaking for myself, to go forward not in a spirit of togetherness but rather mindful of the way in which the rhetoric of togetherness—“Let’s move forward–together!”–can be manipulated to gloss over real divisions that need to be actively confronted, and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement can be somewhat grotesquely co-opted to encourage people to get back to the higher calling of selling iPads.

Love to all,


Today I found myself feeling uncertain about what I wrote above. After all, I adore gothic novels, the very genre that Wordsworth excoriates as symptomatic of industrialization’s vitiating effects upon the modern mind. And I feel similarly smitten by much of today’s new media. Whether it’s alternate reality games, as I’ve written about here, or the Oculus Rift, which produces as close to an experience of the Burkean sublime as anything I’ve ever experienced, I’ve found myself dazzled by the sheer exuberance and creative potential of much new media.

The hermeneutics-of-suspicion version of the connection I draw above between Trump and new media would be that gothic novels or Candy Crush (substitute your own favorite debased cultural form) condition us to be docile subjects … under the cover of fun and games they smuggle in mind-forg’d manacles. But that’s actually not the point I want to make. For my purposes the content is really beside the point. And the point is not, either, that we need critique to come to the rescue of the deluded masses and teach them how to read properly, that is, critically. No, really my point is that I think that my own brain has fundamentally changedthat starting in 2007 or thereabouts, my brain became accustomed to experiencing micro dopamine spikes with every “like” or notification or other electronic alert and that as a result I can only tolerate content that refreshes itself every minute.

I don’t think that my mind has changed, necessarily, any more than advances in print media production changed people’s brains in earlier centuries. The way it has changed is different, yes. Wordsworth’s contemporaries experienced their political lives as gothified: witness Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Morland’s misunderstanding in Northanger Abbey about whether “something shocking” coming “out in London” refers to political unrest or a gothic thriller. Or think of an anonymous review of Frankenstein in an 1818 edition of the Edinburgh Review, which notes that recent “events which have actually passed before our eyes” (most notably the raising of “a private adventurer to the greatest of European thrones”–sound familiar?) “have made the atmosphere of miracles that in which we most readily breathe.”

By contrast, perhaps the way we experience ourselves as political subjects in twenty-first century America is gamified rather than gothified. The atmosphere in which we most readily breathe thrums with the hum of a thousand twangling instruments; their constant murmurings keep us apprised of our progress, while their whisperings—sometimes coy, sometimes urgent—deliver tidings to our ready ears.

Brave new world, indeed.

This vision sounds deterministic—we are stuck in a game we didn’t choose to play—but there are contingencies. Even as media shapes us, the very materiality of media exerts its own agency, throwing new shapes in our path. Take paper, for example. Gothic fiction was not the only new print media form that Horace Walpole had a hand in; Walpole’s home Strawberry Hill boasted architectural innovations that famously relied upon papier-mâché, a craft that reached a height of popularity in the mid-eighteenth century, possibly because of the vast increase in paper production encouraged by the book industry.[1] “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole quipped, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.” [2] Both predictions, of course, turned out to be wrong.

In a glorious convergence of yesterday’s and today’s new media, this week the elder has been painstakingly creating a replica of Strawberry Hill in Minecraft. Paper castles, pixel castles: all are baseless fabrics, but no less compelling to the beholder for that. I truly don’t know how we go forward from this grim place, but building castles in the air is a way up, if not forward. The art of castle-building, Christopher Smart wrote, is “the craft of erecting baseless fabricks in the air, and peopling them with proper notional inhabitants for the employment and improvement of the understanding” (from Smart’s A New System of Castle-Building[3]. Fiction; political theory; Minecraft; paper crafts: none of these activities necessarily do anything productive; and maybe that’s the point; in a world that is so committed to measuring value based on output and feedback and data, a commitment to making something for the sake of making it: to having a vision, however modest, and executing it, feels like a small, good thing.


[1] Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi, Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle (London: Frances Lincoln, 2011). 77.

[2] Horace Walpole, “Letter 768. To the Hon. Henry Seymour Conway,” in The Letters of Horace Walpole Fourth Earl of Orford, ed. Paget Toynbee (Oxford: Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1904), 95.

[3] I’ve only just noticed, writing this blog post, that he’s referencing The Tempest with the phrase “baseless fabricks”! Worth it alone for that!