In Defense of History

Let’s face it: everybody hates math. Most people would rather have an in-depth discussion about genital warts than even hear the word “mathematics.” Because we are outnumbered, math people have to stick together. Most of us have tried to explain math at some point, but our words fall on deaf ears, largely because mathematicians aren’t good with words. It usually sounds forced and trite, without any real bearing on reality.

Although I understand why most people never liked math, I do. In order to really explore the concept, I’d rather look at something I hate: history. What follows is my thoughts about history and how I have tried to resolve them. Keep in mind that I am not really an expert in this field, but I did what I could.

History is just names and dates.

If I just recited a list of names and dates to you, I doubt you would think I had learned any history. At its heart, history is about people and events. Anyone who fails to make the distinction has also missed the point. Some teachers treat history like a timeline, where events are just dates and people are just the names of those present. Those teachers don’t manage to teach much of anything.

If you treat history like something that is dead and gone, then you will inevitably confine it to a mental graveyard. On the other hand, if you see it as something active and ongoing, you might find a place in your life for it.

There’s no need to know history.

Really, can you describe anything that you “need to know”? Walking? Speaking? Flushing the toilet? What part of education is truly necessary? You could sit somewhere and breathe, with a feeding tube in your gut, shitting your pants, never thinking or moving, and you wouldn’t “need to know” anything.

All education is essentially optional; you do it for your own reasons. If you can’t find a reason to learn history, feel free to stay ignorant. However, if you want to be an educated person, remember that history is the context through which all other knowledge has emerged. No knowledge is independent from its historical context, no matter how objective it seems. Furthermore, history shows us the reasons why we should learn in the first place.

But history is completely useless.

“Useless” is a word with no meaning. There are many things worth knowing that you may never “need to use.” For instance, CPR, self-defense, swimming, fire safety, defensive driving, and the Heimlich maneuver are all things many people never use. Besides, if you only learn those things that are “useful,” you’ll turn out to be a real bore.

It’s cliche but true to say those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santanaya), although the cynic might argue that history repeats itself no matter what you know. In any case, there is nothing new under the sun (Solomon). Throughout the past are perfect examples of human behavior with endless applications. If you want to know how people will act, look at how they have always acted.

I just don’t get it.

History is not really a “thing,” but a complex process. No event is independent; events do not emerge out of nowhere. The names represent real people with flaws and strengths. But history is often oversimplified. Causes are reduced to broad strokes. People become stock characters with fixed behavior. The process is treated as a natural progression with a specific direction. Most significantly, it becomes something that is in the past. Again, history is not over, nor will it end any time soon.

Well, I’m just not enthusiastic about it.

Of course not. Nothing can force you to be enthusiastic about anything, because passion comes from within. Just give it a bit of a chance, but not by reading a textbook. Talk to someone who does have passion about history, or approach it from the angle of something you are passionate about. I doubt you’ll decide to become an historical expert, but if you discover an interest in history, pursue it. If not, you can always learn what you feel you need to know or want to use. If you don’t want to do that, give up on it. Just don’t pester the people who know what history really is.

A Brief Story About No One

A Brief Story About No One or: A Practical Guide to Moving On

Once, several years ago, I had a friend. She had a friend, too. In fact, she had several. She dated one, for a while. I think they got along. I don’t really know, because I didn’t know him. I met him, but I didn’t know him. No one did.

In my entire tenure of being around this person, he has probably spoken fewer than four dozen words in my presence. I always assumed he was just reserved, but there was more to it than that. He was removed. He didn’t interact. He wasn’t there. In short, he did not exist.

He stayed at my home once, with his girlfriend. I knew her at the time. I even liked her. As for her boyfriend, he was there. After the weekend they visited, my mother reflected on the experience. “It was like meeting nobody,” she said.

He had one positive attribute, though: he had read and enjoyed House of Leaves, my favorite book. I am always eager to discuss that book and similar works when I get the chance. He said he liked it, so I made a decision. I lent him another book by the same author, The Fifty Year Sword.

The Fifty Year Sword is a limited-edition book by Mark Z. Danielewski. It was released in the Netherlands in 2006. 1000 English and 1000 Dutch copies were printed, first editions. The English copies sold quickly because of the popularity of Danielewski’s first book. 1000 additional copies were printed. Those second editions were much easier to find and purchase (on the Internet). I found a Netherlands-based site that sold books in English. They had The Fifty Year Sword, so I bought it. It cost €39.90, which came to about $60 after shipping.

When it arrived after several weeks later, it was a bit warped. Other than that, the book was fine. I read through it and found that it was a fantastic short story presented in a bizarre and interesting fashion. Despite the expense, I was convinced then (and now) that it was a worthwhile purchase.

After my suicide attempt in 2009, I had to leave Lincoln in a hurry, but he still had the book. I had several higher priorities at the time, so I kept forgetting to get in touch and ask for it back. Every attempt at contacting him since then has failed, and there have been several. Each time I get in touch with him, he responds once, halfheartedly, and never again. I have been unable to arrange even the simplest conversation, even to get the book returned in the mail at my expense.

After a couple of years, I finally decided to replace the book, from yet another Dutch website, for the same price as before. The exchange rate had improved, so it only came to $50 that time. I still have that copy of the book, but I will never lend it out.

So if the book was so expensive and important, why did I lend it out? Because I wanted him to read it. Because no one I know has ever read it. Unfortunately, that’s still true. He never read the book. No one has.

Recently, another friend who has read House of Leaves expressed interested in reading this rare book. I wanted to lend out my copy, but I won’t do it again at that price, even though I trust this person. I have been forced to learn my lesson.

Of course, I could buy another one. I could get it on a Dutch website for €42. I could get it on an American website for $275. I could get a signed copy on ebay for $500.

The problem is, I don’t really want the fucking book back. I want it to be read. I want to know that somewhere, it’s being read by real people. Not under a stack of nerdy books and shitty manga in no one’s apartment.

Looking back on this experience, I’m forced to acknowledge my own stupidity. Why lend out a significant book to someone you don’t know? He might not even read it.

But I can always be consoled by the fact that I didn’t really lend it out to anyone. Just no one.

A Candid Letter to a Nameless Individual

Mark and I were talking today about unshakable faith in the context of religious doubt and baseless arguments. Naturally, you were the first person who came to mind. I thought briefly about the past and came to a few conclusions.

I met you through your former boyfriend. I was never a huge fan of his, but we were casual acquaintances. Between your stories about the relationship and his frenzied, uncontrolled approach to sparring in Taekwondo, it was clear that he was a lot more fucked up than he appeared to be. Yet you decided that the relationship was more important than your religion. Thereafter, you had to decide between the two each month. I suggested you flip a coin and commit, but you didn’t.

I was there. I talked with you. I supported you as much as I could. I got sick of hearing about it. In fact, I intended to write a poem about your recurrent emotional breakdowns (break-ups?). Honestly, I couldn’t get past the first and last lines: “How many times has it ended this way? … and finding the world’s not the bright place you think it is.” My patience for poetry lasted about as long as my patience for your perennial discontent. Each time, it seemed your conclusion was the same: get closer to Jesus.

I have to be honest, though. You were a friend then and you would still be a friend now. The reason you aren’t has something to do with you. I’m sure of it. Apparently I wasn’t grateful enough for your efforts to help me after my suicide attempt. It seems that on those days, it was difficult to be my friend. I can’t imagine what that is like.

It turns out, friendship is not so simple. Some days, it’s downright difficult to be friends with someone. Never mind that it’s easy on other days, those aren’t the problem. Anyway, the word for people like you is “sunny day friends.” See, those beatiful, sunny days where I was around were easy, but it turns out that a suicide attempt is a fairly long storm. As I predicted, the world’s not the bright place you think it is. Or thought it was. I even understand you might have finally flipped a coin and come up tails. Or heads, whichever is the opposite of Christian.

So we don’t talk. We don’t chat online. You don’t interact with me. What’s the point of this letter? I just wanted to say it, because I’ve been thinking about it. After all, I really doubt you’ve read this. If you did, congratulations. Now go and cry about it.

Love from Leavenworth,
-Steven Motherfucking Davis.

Practical Problems of Memory Loss

As I mentioned in a previous note, I am undergoing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which causes rather serious short-term memory loss. I have yet to find out if I will recover the memories I have lost as a part of the treatment, and I won’t know for sure until a few weeks after I finish my final treatment. Right now my psychiatrist has reduced me to one treatment a week (from three), and I will start seeing my regular psychiatrist again for medication management. I have noticed some improvement in my mood, and I hope to keep things stable with meds and psychotherapy after I finish ECT.

Plans for the future include taking more classes from KCKCC in the spring in order to finish an AS degree by next fall, then looking at transferring to another school (likely Park University) to finish a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and possibly one in psychology. It’s quite possible I could get a full ride provided I keep my GPA up, and that’s good news.

Anyway, due to my heightened sense of emotion, some of my regrets have been popping into my head frequently, and I will have to take some action eventually. I need to make contact with a few people about things I have done or said that should have gone differently. I’m trying hard to make notes on my computer so I won’t forget what I need to do in the future.

In less important news, I am growing a beard and joining the local gym. I need to be in better shape and I think the beard looks pretty badass.

Finally, as a result of the memory loss, I am playing games with myself. Although I have forgotten many significant and memorable things and I cannot be trusted to be left alone, I can still have fun. I plan on buying Christmas gifts for everyone in my immediate family, including myself, that I will not remember but can still take credit for. It’s the perfect plan. I only wish I had thought of it sooner. Then again, maybe I did…

Regret

I’ve been thinking today mostly about the concept of regret, for some reason. I realized that for me, regret is not about past actions. I actually am somewhat at ease with my past, and am reasonably certain that it will lead to a decent future as well. For me, regret is a little like worry that’s too stupid to die. I regret things that happened three days ago, and feel perfectly fine about similar things that may have happened 18 months ago.

Like right now, for instance. I’m sitting here at the end of the weekend, and I have accomplished absolutely nothing. Not that I had anything to do anyway, of course. But I basically sat around and watched videos online and on DVD for two straight days, sniffling and coughing (I’m a bit sick. On a related note, NyQuil gives you terrific dreams). It’s not that I particularly think that’s bad, but I wish I had something better to do with my free time. I spend so much of it just doing nothing, I’m not even sure I’d know what to do if I actually accomplished something.

The only time I left campus this weekend was just now, when I went to McDonald’s for two McRibs. They were pretty good, but the whole experience was kind of depressing. For one thing, I had Fast Food Nation facts and stories going through my head the whole time, and I was also sort of “drafting” my FFN form of the visit in my head. In fact, here’s a vague recollection, for your enjoyment:

“On the way in, I followed a Hispanic woman and her obese child, both of whom had trouble understanding the cashier taking their order. After the son got his drink the first time, he spilled it all over the counter and floor, and tried to get me to tell the cashier, who had already noticed and took care of it shortly afterwards. I had to avoid the spill as I got my own drink and napkins. As I ate my McRibs alone in the corner, a feeling of bleakness sank over me, and I couldn’t help but be a bit depressed. Things of note: I asked for no pickles on my sandwiches, but got no onions instead; a sign on a temple across the street which reads ‘Jesus Only,’ a phrase that only confuses me more every time I see it; and a McDonald’s worker taking a nap while sitting in a booth in another corner. When he’s awake, he often looks either at me or something behind me. I can’t tell which.”

et cetera. I can’t help but wonder what else I could be doing with my time, and why on earth I haven’t tried to do it yet. And so, I regret my present, but in a few scant months, I won’t mind anymore.