Paradoxically, Culture Is Preserved By Impurity

I seldom speak Bangla around other Bangla speakers.

The reason for this is quite simple. I've been exposed to the Bengali language for more than a decade now. I know far more Bangla than people realize, and more importantly, when I choose to use a word, I know I'm using the right word and pronouncing it accurately enough that a reasonable person should be able to understand despite my accent. Despite this, however, every time I use a Bangla word with a Bengali speaker, they make a big production of saying, "Whaaaaat???"

At first, I thought it was my problem. Perhaps I used the wrong word, or pronounced the correct word very badly. As time went on, though, I realized that I was doing just fine. So, I tried a new approach: when people ask me, "Whaaaaat???" I now say nothing and simply wait. Invariably, without my even so much as hinting at what I had just said, my interlocutors suddenly, magically decide they know what I said.

How can I interpret this? One interpretation is that they're just being hard on me in an effort to get me to improve my Bangla. If so, their approach isn't working; rather than improving my Bangla, I'm simply discouraged from speaking. This brings me to a second interpretation: they don't really want me to speak Bangla.

Whatever the true interpretation might be, the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh is a small country, the greater Bengal region is not all that much bigger, and no one outside of Bengalis themselves speak Bangla. As the world's languages consolidate to only a handful, Bangla is becoming an increasingly irrelevant language on the international stage. When the language goes, so too will important Bengali cultural artifacts like poetry, music, and art; to say nothing of Bengali history and philosophy. Language is the doorway to culture. If that doorway remains tightly shut, outsiders will never be able to experience Bengali culture.

This closed-door approach to language might seem protective from an insider's perspective. Bangladeshis did, after all, fight a literal war to protect their language. I can understand how important the language is from a cultural perspective. Thus, I see why Bangla is a language worth saving from extinction.

The only question is: Is this the right way to save a language?

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English is, for all intents and purposes, the language of the world. Everyone knows English. Where business is to be conducted, it is conducted in English. Where politics is to be done, it is done in English. Peppering one's speech with English words and phrases is very much a status symbol or a power play in many cultures today. All the best music and movies are English-language music and films. How did English, of all languages, become the de facto language of the world?

While I'm sure the British Empire and the 20th Century rise of the United States as an economic power had a hand in this, it's not sufficient to explain the whole story. There must be a better explanation. Well, here's a theory...

Although English does have rules, everyone breaks those rules and nobody cares. For many, breaking the rules of the English language is expressive of their individual cultures. Every part of the English-speaking world has some unintelligible version of English, and for the most part, English speakers don't care. Nobody gets upset at a Southerner speaking like a Southerner. Nobody cares when a Newfie says Newfie things. Nobody bursts a vein upon hearing Caribbeans speak like Caribbeans. For the most part, we English speakers find such regionalisms charming or quaint.

Likewise, when immigrants speak English poorly, nobody really cares. It's true that some people get mad about the fact that some immigrants don't bother to learn English, but nobody gets mad when an immigrant makes a good, solid effort at speaking the language, no matter how poorly they speak it. I just saw an old European lady make conversation with the cashier in the grocery store yesterday. Was she Russian? Hungarian? I don't know. I couldn't hardly make out what she was saying. But, between the two of them, the cashier and the old lady made themselves understood and had a pleasant exchange. This is emblematic of all such exchanges I've ever encountered.

In short, English-speakers cut each other serious slack when it comes to speaking English. Only a real jerk corrects someone else's speech in the middle of talking to them. The rest of us just let things slide.

The impact of this is that it enables new English-speakers to learn the language in the context of safety. They can screw up, because no one bites their head off for screwing up. It's not like France, where people will stop talking to you if you botch your French. In the English-speaking world, people are allowed to make mistakes with the language. It's fine.

This encourages people to learn and practice English.

Does it come at a cost? Yes. The cost is that English isn't a very pure language. We get our vocabulary from virtually every other language on Earth, we add new slang terms to the dictionary every year, most of us have really noticeably bad grammar, and our best cultural output tends to be pop music and pop film, rather than, you know, LITERATURE.

In short, we give up the purity of our language, but what we get is pervasiveness. English is everywhere precisely because we don't invest a lot of energy gatekeeping people about what's allowed in the language. We overlook people's mistakes and we readily allow outside influence into our mother tongue.

Not so with Bangla.

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Interestingly enough, there are aspects of English-speaking culture that are incredibly closed. The two that come most readily to mind are: (1) British aristocracy and (2) American conservative, white, male-centric culture. Is it any surprise that these are the two cultural artifacts of the English-speaking world that are dying off the quickest and most completely in today's world?

Both of these micro-cultures are closed to outsiders. Both fiercely protect their special in-group language. Both have steep barriers to entry. And both are quickly becoming culturally irrelevant.

Now, whether you think this irrelevance is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion, and quite beside the point. The real point is simply that it is no surprise that the most closed aspects of any culture are the ones that eventually disappear from the face of the Earth. If you want to preserve your culture, you have to open it up to outside influence. This definitely means that your culture will change noticeably; and maybe you don't want that. But what's worse -- a culture that changes over time, but lasts forever; or a culture that remains perfectly pristine, but disappears?

Those who wish for their culture to be preserved should take notice of the fact that only by accepting outside influence can a culture persist. Otherwise, it simply disappears. This is natural, isn't it? Those who want to shut outsiders out of the culture must accept that the culture will only appeal to an increasingly small number of people, all the way to oblivion. You may have wanted the outsiders to stay out, but if you don't let them in, there will be nothing left to  preserve.

Funnily enough, the Hutterites learned this lesson very well. Their numbers and gene pools shrunk so drastically that they were forced to recruit outsiders, famously offering them lucrative land deals in order to join the colonies. As far as I know, that practice is still going on. It has to, otherwise Hutterites, too, will disappear.

Cultures only survive if they indiscriminately accept outsiders.


Training Changes: Start Small

As I wrote last time, I'm in need of some changes to my exercise regimen.

One thing that has helped me a lot in other aspects of my life is, once having identified a problem, to make small and incremental changes, one by one, until I arrive at a desired result. I find it easier to adjust to new things if I don't have a lot to adjust to. That is, it's much easier to turn your life around one step at a time than it is to become a completely different person overnight. At least, it's easier for me.

With that in mind, I started thinking about what kind of changes I wanted to make to my exercise regimen, and what kind of goals I wanted to pursue. Regarding goals, I arrived at the following:

  • I want to condition my body to run at faster paces. Over the past three months or so, it's become obvious that running under 6:00/mile pace during interval training -- and probably also shorter races -- is not just feasible, but entirely appropriate. I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back to cranking out 400's in 75 seconds maximum again, but doing so in under 90 seconds has not been that big a deal for me lately. So, I should embrace that. And, in time, I should seek to dial it down to as fast as possible. With fitness, it's use-it-or-lose-it, and I'm not ready to accept an average pace of 7:00/mile for the rest of my life. I still have a little speed left in me.
  • I do not want to fixate on long races. Marathons and half marathons are fun, no doubt about it. But they also involve a lot of running-for-the-sake-of-running (during training runs) that starts to feel a little mindless to me after a while. I want all of my workouts to serve a productive purpose, I want to dedicate my concentration to that purpose, and I want to achieve that purpose as I run. Then I want to take a shower and go on about my day. Realistically speaking, it's not hard for me to go out and run 13.1 miles whenever I want to. So I don't really need to train for that.
  • I want enough flexibility in my training that I don't feel FOMO for missing a day of running. As I've started to ramp-up my miles, I've noticed a tendency to feel really bad if I miss a day. Not guilty, just... bad. Bad, as though if I don't do at least 8 miles in a day, then I'm going to lose all of my fitness. That's obviously nonsense, but it's hard not to feel that way when you run 8 miles or more every single day and then have to miss a day or two because you're traveling. I can fix this problem by planning a training regimen that is less tied to daily mileage and more focused on -- as I mentioned about -- purpose.
With these goals in mind, I think I am going to return to a training plan that worked well for me during my last year or so in Ottawa. Lately I've been running two fast days per week (T and Th), a long run (S), and a lot of long, slow miles. Instead of that, I'll run two fast days per week (M and W), plus one plyometric workout per week (F), plus recovery days and a long day if I feel like it.

This arrangement will satisfy my first goal by maintaining my current speed workout regimen, while adding a day dedicated to explosive power, which is also a way to increase footspeed.

I'll satisfy my second goal by giving the long, slow miles a bit of a rest. I anticipate that I'll still be doing a lot of those 8-9 mile recovery runs, but with an added plyometrics day, that will be at least one fewer of these runs, and may require a shorter recovery run on Saturday.

I'll satisfy my third goal by dedicating one day per week to a non-running workout, plus potentially allowing myself to cross-train on the various recovery days. I'd rather run than do something else, but by formally giving myself permission to not run, I'll hopefully avoid the pitfalls of feeling as though my fitness is decreasing if my recovery run is 6 miles instead of 8 or, god forbid, it's a bicycle workout instead of a run.

It's a small change, but one that I think will make a good difference for me as I head into the last two months of winter training. Wish me luck.


A Year In Training

This past year, I have trained harder as a runner than I have in years. Part of this was because I wanted to try out the training features of my GPS watch, but once I started training as hard as the schedule was asking me to, I found that I wanted to keep up with it. I started hitting sub-6:00/mile pace work, got back to running long-runs in distances exceeding 15 miles, and easily achieved my mileage goal for the year (1,600 miles) with months to spare.

When December rolled around, as I was trying to push my mileage ever-upward and perhaps do a 20-mile long run for the first time in over a decade, I started feeling some aches and pains in my legs and feet that wouldn't go away. So, I made the decision to rest for a full week. No running, minimal anything else. I did do some strength training to manage my blood sugar, but I concentrated solely on my upper body to ensure that my leg muscles were fully rested.

When I got back to running the following week, I still felt good, but my desire to keep driving myself so hard started to wane. Part of this is natural -- it's getting cold out there, and I hate running in very cold weather. But most of it is, I suspect, a challenge associated with training hard. Unless you have a reason (e.g. a professional reason) to train like a college athlete, it's hard to keep yourself motivated to do that kind of training for twelve solid months (or more).

I love to train. I love it more than racing. I like doing challenging interval workouts, I like pushing myself to see how hard I can go. Training is "my jam." Training is also repetitive, difficult, and physically uncomfortable. It's natural that, after a solid year of pushing, one would start to lose some intrinsic motivation to push, push, push.

Usually, this calls for something new. Time to take on another round of P90X? Time to train for a different kind of race? Time to try to do X, Y, or Z? I definitely need to freshen up my fitness routine, but none of the usual options seem very appealing to me right now. I've enjoyed become a lot more of a runner again. I've enjoyed slimming down, doing form exercises and speed work, hitting fast paces, and looking and feeling like my old distance-running self. I've also enjoyed the increased blood sugar control that comes with that.

It's hard to keep pushing toward the same thing, but I also have a low level of interest in the other stuff. I need something new, something interesting, something motivating.

Suggestions welcome.


Book Review: The Proper Care And Feeding Of Husbands

"Dr. Laura" Schlessinger rose to fame during what one might call a golden age of conservative talk radio, in the 1990s. Compared to today, this was a very different time. Angry talking heads had not yet been completely discredited, and traditional media still ruled the roost. Everyone got all of their information from major, corporate news conglomerates. Conservative radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh represented a sort of "underground," where overtly conservative viewpoints could be discussed. Perhaps best of all, every-day listeners could call in and interact with those ideas in a way that didn't happen on, say, CBS Nightly News.

Dr. Laura, of course, was not a conservative political commentator. She was a practicing marriage and family therapist who ran a call-in radio program to help people sort through their ethical dilemmas. But her traditional approach to organizing the family, coupled with her firm take on human morality, found a ready audience among the listeners of conservative talk radio, who then fueled her fame.

As tends to happen with famous conservatives, mainstream media found plenty of offensive-sounding quotes and private scandals in Dr. Laura's past, and amplified them. There is nothing the liberal media likes more than a conservative hypocrite they can parade around and lampoon. Dr. Laura's core fanbase was able to accept her explanations at face-value and her apologies as genuine, but I definitely have the sense that media attacks prevented Schlessinger from rising quite as high as similar 90s talk icons, like Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil.

Published in 2006, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands hit bookstore shelves at a time when Dr. Laura was still quite popular, before she moved her website to a subscription-based model, and before she moved her radio show to Sirius XM. While I believe it is a successful book (in terms of book sales), it has a terrible reputation for being "anti-feminist propaganda."

To be sure, some women who read the book will end up feeling attacked. These women have probably never heard Dr. Laura's radio program, or if they have, find it to be highly offensive for its non-feminist bent. Also to be sure, there are plenty of passages in the book that directly criticize the prevailing views of feminism circa-2006. Anyone who sympathizes with those feminist views will probably object to the book from start to finish.

I, however, committed to reading the book with an open mind. I'm tolerant of people with so-called "black-and-white" moral views, mostly because I, too, lean toward the belief that there is a mostly objective moral right and a mostly objective moral wrong. I believe that it is right and important to "judge" in the sense that judging human behavior helps clarify one's own moral beliefs. Consequently, reading or listening to someone else's view of concrete right and wrong serves the same purpose for me -- it helps me better understand my own moral philosophy.

What I found from reading The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is that its ideas -- even the non-feminist ones -- have aged remarkably well.

For one thing, Dr. Laura's view of marriage is founded on the belief that men and women simply think and act differently. This was a stark and unpopular contrast to the 2006 feminist view that sex is a social construct. Even so, subsequent research has proven increasingly clear and robust; there are unambiguous cognitive and psychological differences between the sexes, and those differences are precisely the ones that common sense would suggest. Dr. Laura was right.

For another thing, the central principle that permeates the entirety of the book, if only openly stated a time or two, is that people can derive great and profound meaning in their lives from the act of tirelessly dedicating oneself to one's marriage. That dedication, in Dr. Laura's view, should come first and foremost, ahead of all other things. One's commitment to marriage should come before career; it should come before good times, before girls-only weekends, before fatigue, before one's commitment to one's parents, and sometimes even before the children. Such a commitment is obviously difficult, but Dr. Laura's position is that it is worth it. When one commits to the marriage ahead of all other relationships, then that enables people to better raise their children, draw better boundaries between themselves and their friends and family, and most importantly, find profound joy in the bedrock relationship of our adult lives: our marriage.

This notion of meaning found in living a better life at home certainly presages the ideas of Jordan Peterson, although the target demographic is obviously quite different.

Another aspect of the book that might raise liberal hackles is Dr. Laura's approach to sex. Her belief is that men only really find a meaningful bond with their wives through the act of sex. This idea rings true to me, and anyone who has bothered to listen to Schlessinger's radio program can attest to the vast number of men who have thanked her profusely for saying so. The truth is, Schlessinger has a keen understanding of what physical intimacy means to a man, and she incorporates it into her marriage philosophy. Where others might object is when she advises women to try to please their husbands even if they're "tired" or otherwise not in the mood. While a feminist objector could protest quite loudly at that, it's important to understand it in context. Dr. Laura's advice is for wives who are married to loving husbands; it's for wives who have good lives, but who have let their relationships deteriorate through the inertia of a hectic, modern life. So, when she writes that women can often find themselves in the mood if they just get started with their husbands, she's pointing out that two people who love each other can ultimately have a lot of fun, and grow closer together, if the "tired" wife can simply get herself started, even if grudgingly.

I hasten to add, as Schlessinger herself adds at the outset of the book, that her advice is not intended for women who are genuinely abused. In fact, she refers to what she calls "the three A's" throughout the book: adultery, addiction, and abuse. Any of these three A's are, in her view, grounds for divorce.

What's left is a book full of practical tips for wives in less-than-perfect marriages on how to improve the quality of their marital bond. That is, Dr. Laura wants women to take responsibility for and control of their lives, and argues that in doing so, they will be happier and have more profoundly meaningful lives than they ever imagined. Despite its conservative bent, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is a manual for empowering married women.

This brings me to my main point: The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands occupies a very unique space in the world of ideas, because it articulates a philosophy of conservative sex-positive feminism. Conservatives, as you know, are not typically known to be either feminist or sex-positive. The fact that Dr. Laura seems to be all three things highlights the fact that concepts have far more potential for overlap than our polarized world would like to believe.

If today's feminists could manage to do so with an open mind, I believe reading this book would greatly expand their understanding of what feminism could be. Meanwhile, conservatives have their own lessons to learn from this book, lessons about practicing what they preach, lessons about the importance of sex in a committed relationship, and lessons about putting one's spouse ahead of one's meddling extended family.

It's an excellent book, a very short read, and I highly recommend it.



As I've previously blogged, I follow some pretty awesome runners on Strava, and I try to pay attention to fast people in hopes of learning new tricks and gaining some of their wisdom.

The other day, I noticed an athlete who did a very interesting workout. In it, he ran out to a particular location, ran around the block repeatedly, then ran back to his starting point. When I looked at his pacing information, I noticed that he was doing intervals as he ran around the block. I thought it was really interesting to do a series of short, fast intervals in the middle of an eight-mile run.

So, I thought I'd give it a try. Here's the workout I did, which is a slight modification of the original.

  • Warm up: 3 miles at an easy pace
  • Intervals: 10 repetitions of 1 minute at 5:00/mile pace or so, followed by 1 minute at recovery pace (about 3 miles)
  • Cool down: 3 miles at an easy pace
Here's my pace graph:

It was really interesting to do these shorter intervals after 3 miles of steady running, and then to finish off with another 3 miles. The intervals are short enough that it feels pretty easy to crank through them. (I can run pretty much any pace for just sixty seconds, right??) Ten seems to be just the right number of repetitions, too. By the end, my muscles were full of acid and my pace was starting to suffer -- but only just. It seems that the workout takes an athlete right up to the saturation point.

Give it a try!