Monday, January 30, 2012

Past your eyes

The writer as researcher

I can't help myself. I read prefaces and acknowledgments in books. It fascinates me when the author thanks the people who helped him dredge up the arcana that enriched his writing or when he cites source material that might reward further reading. I want to know where the amazing detail or fascinating inside information came from.

Of course, sometimes it's fake. One of my old college chums pointed out a passage in a bestselling novel that described in loving detail the wardroom of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. The minutiae gave weight and verisimilitude to the scene set therein. But my friend scoffed.

“I've been there. It's nothing like that! The author just made it up.”

I guess it was even more a work of fiction than I realized at the time.

On another occasion I asked a bestselling author about his use of apparently real California neighborhoods. I asked him if he was depicting real-world venues or products of his imagination. He stated that every scene was set in a place he knew personally, and that he either scouted out locales in person or used neighborhoods in which he had lived or often visited.

This question came up as my publisher obtained pre-publication reviews of my manuscript. One reviewer sent in a single-spaced three-page commentary that warmed the cockles of my heart with its praise. Of course, the reviewer also suggested some judicious cuts in the manuscript, which I dutifully embraced, but most of my attention was focused on his more positive observations:
One suspects the author's encyclopedic knowledge of dairy farming comes not only from personal experience, but even more of it must come from serious research.
Um ... no. Research? What's that?

I lived on a dairy farm for twenty years. All of the utterly (udderly?) persuasive detail that so impressed my reviewer was based on simple experience—stuff that passed before my eyes. I would have known even more good stuff had I not been so willing to defer to my eager younger brother when there was work to be done. If he was willing to volunteer, then I was willing to sit behind the haystack with a book.
Every tool or machine employed in the sowing, raising or harvesting of crops is described in loving, complex detail, as is the nurture, handling and transportation of the cows themselves. One chapter entitled “Green Cotton,” for example, could be used as a primer for anyone interested in the cultivation of that particular crop.
This may astonish you, but my editors and I did not choose to quote this on the cover of the book. Nor did we use the line where he praised my “abstruse knowledge.” Hey, bookstore browsers! Want to read a rapturous ode to farm equipment, crop rotation, and animal husbandry?

The movie rights are as good as sold!

Still, the reviewer was exceedingly kind in his comments about my grasp of farm arcana, which I tell you in all honesty is nothing remarkable. Here's the “abstruse knowledge” comment in context, where you can see the reviewer's generous and kind appraisal:
The author’s abstruse knowledge, however, is never employed gratuitously, but invariably to establish some point of character (as in the above instance, the incompetent Candido’s attempts to “cut corners” which invariably end in disaster) or to advance the plot, as is the case of the elaborate description of the marvelously complicated—and dangerous—machine used to harvest alfalfa which causes the young Trey’s life-changing accident. This information is presented with such consummate authority the reader never for an instance questions its accuracy.
So there! I is an expert!

The reviewer shares my Portuguese heritage, which is certainly one of the reasons he was asked to review my novel in manuscript form. He appreciated my efforts to capture and convey the cultural tangles that arose as the novel's immigrant protagonists put down new roots in the New World and are gradually transformed into Americans. He also thought that I was mostly successful in presenting the travails of the main characters.
The plot is long and complex, the cast of characters large, and since one of the joys of reading is to meet them on one’s own terms, they are best left for readers themselves to discover. They are a lively and varied bunch and the author delineates them with considerable verve, humor and intelligence. You will enjoy getting to know them.
The reviewer also gave me some fatherly advice about improving the novel's dialogue. I tend to use direct address quite often, with the use of proper names intended to avoid any ambiguity about who is speaking to whom. In real life, however, people seldom do this, so my conversations were a bit “wooden” in places. (On the other hand, no one ever had to go back several lines to go even-odd-even-odd to figure out who is talking.) I performed the reviewer's recommended excisions and similarly smoothed my dialogue. Of course, I didn't feel obligated to take all of his advice:
Your style is generally clean, straightforward, simple and direct, not much given to metaphor, which, unless it comes naturally, should generally be avoided. Nor do you, fortunately, attempt to wax lyrical. [You are, however, occasionally given to showing off your vocabulary.]
Yep, no waxing lyrical here! But as for showing off vocabulary? Indubitably!

And he finished by calling my book “excellent”! Coming to a bookstore near you this summer.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I've half a mind

Bad teacher!

When it's early in the semester, I tend to cut my students a little more slack. Of course, I expect them to pay attention when I explain why I take off points for some calculations that manage to produce correct answers. For example, how many minutes does it take you to travel 12 miles at 18 miles per hour? Here's what one student told me:

Yeah. Well, I'm really not happy with that. Sorry, but 12/18 is simply not equal to 40. Equality is supposed to be a transitive property, folks! Of course, this could be redeemed with the appropriate use of unit conversion:

This I like. Careful use of units is a powerful way to keep one's calculations in order and to make sense of the results. Full marks! But then you get the woefully calculator-dependent student who presents this travesty:

Heck, you can keep your puny old leap-seconds! My students can conjure up a dozen seconds out of the thin air of feckless rounding. This is a particular gripe of mine. You actually need to grab for a calculator to compute two-thirds of sixty? Good grief!

Thoughtless calculations like these were sprinkled throughout the early semester quizzes and exams. But the pièce de résistance came in a different problem. One that had nothing to do with rounding. I gave my students (gave them, mind you) some volume formulas. All of the most popular shapes were there: cone, cylinder, sphere, box (ahem! Sorry. I mean rectangular parallelepiped, of course). The formulas were actually written out on the assignment sheet. I then asked my students to use the formulas to compute the volumes of some specified shapes. One of the shapes was a hemisphere.

Sure enough, several students decided the formula for a sphere was the best match they could make, computed the result, and ended up with an answer that was two times too big. Arrggh! Naturally, I took off points for that mistake. One of my students waxed indignant when he got his paper back and issued a two-part complaint: (a) I had not given them the formula for the volume of a hemisphere and (b) I had not done an example in class where we had to divide a result by 2 to get the correct answer.

I offered a plea of “no contest” to both charges. They were irrelevant. I patiently explained: “I have higher expectations of my students than merely plugging mindlessly into formulas. I want my students to think about what they're doing. This is not just a plug-in and grind class. Sorry.”

But not very.

Hey, Stupid!

Have I got a deal for you!

No competent marketer would miss an opportunity to sell product to a broad new demographic. I don't think I noticed, however, when the "total idiot" demographic became a hot new target. Perhaps it's been there all along, but only more recently came into high profile. After all, I'm sure you can think of instances where, after watching a commercial, you said to yourself, “Who would be stupid enough to pay good money for that?” The entire Home Shopping Network was based on the existence of people with minimal discernment and taste.

Still, I've noticed a rash of television commercials that I find peculiarly disturbing. It's like the sponsor of the advertisement is saying, “Are you stupid? A total idiot? Well, have we got a product for you!” For example, who is the Xfinity commercial supposed to appeal to?

Hurray! If you're ignorant enough to demand (non-negotiably!) that Comcast give you Xfinity service with those features that already come standard, then come on down! You're the boss! You'll get a wonderful false sense of power and we'll send you the bill! Yay.

Then there's Yoplait. Are you a skinny woman who saves money by wearing your late grandmother's good-condition, novelty-print, mail-order dress from the 1958 Sears Roebuck catalog? Do you need just one more push to cross the line into wannabe model anorexia? Then pick Yoplait for your noon nosh!

“A swap a day adds up to something amazing!” Like, malnutrition?

I never thought I'd learn to appreciate the subtle wit and humor of the old Shake 'n Bake commercials from the seventies. Today's commercials are making me nostalgic. (Or just dyspeptic. Hey, where is Speedy Alka-Seltzer these days?)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tastes like chicken

I, Ofnewt, take you, frog

The toadlike Newt Gingrich has been refreshingly open about his reasons for abandoning Wife No. 1:
You know and I know that she’s not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a president.
Like other right-wing epitomes of perfect manhood, Gingrich feels that it is all right to engage in a bit of “lookism.” As we all know, a woman's true value can be discerned by a cursory inspection of her exterior. By his lights, therefore, the former Speaker of the House was doing exactly the right thing when he eventually recruited the blonde and plastic Callista as First-Lady-in-waiting. Newt and his third wife have been buffed up to a high gloss as representatives of faithful till-death-do-us-part Catholic marriage. Now that Gingrich has rolled up a stunning victory in South Carolina's primary election, the probability of his eventually becoming president has risen to something slightly above zero. It could happen.

In that case, we should take more seriously Callista's qualifications to be First Lady—relative, of course, to Newt's superficial measuring stick. This is Callista:

This is Mark McKinney of The Kids in the Hall as Chicken Lady:

I'm sure we'd all have a lot more fun with Mark McKinney in feathered drag in the White House, but—frankly—I'd have to call it a tie.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oh, no! Not again!

Déjà vu all over again

Most of us in the teaching profession like to get to know our students and try to find ways to kickstart the process at the beginning of each new school term. One of my colleagues hands out a questionnaire. Another has the students take turns introducing themselves to the class. I usually give an e-mail assignment, which I call a quiz. The instructions are simple: send me a message that (a) includes the name of the class on the subject line (no blank subjects, please!), (b) tells me why you're taking the class in question, and (c) includes your full name (in case I can't tell who you are from the e-mail address). Since it's a “quiz,” they get points for it.

Like I said, it's simple. I get some useful contact data and a perspective on what my students are looking for (although I can't be much help to those who are taking the class “because the voices in my head told me to”). I also find out which of my students are capable of following instructions, which happens to be an extremely important survival skill in any college class, but perhaps to an even greater degree in math.

Every semester, of course, there's a few students who just can't be bothered to earn a few easy points by sending their instructor a short e-mail message. I presume their lives are full of fun, excitement, and distractions. (I'm envious.) I reply to each message individually and then, after the submission deadline, send out a global message to the entire class roster: “If you didn't get an individual response from me with your quiz score, that means I didn't get an e-mail from you!”

I repeated that message in one of my classes this week. One of my students raised his hand. It was “Stan,” an apparently smart but disorganized student who was repeating the class, having flunked out the previous semester. He had earnestly assured me that this semester would be different.

“Dr. Z, I didn't get an e-mail from you.”

“Right, Stan. That's because I didn't get a message from you. Did you follow the quiz instructions and send me an e-mail message with the requested information?”

Stan paused for a moment before giving me a tentative answer.

“Yeah, I did. I sent you a message.”

“Okay, Stan. When did you send it? Before the deadline? It's possible it got sidetracked by the spam filter and I can search for it in my trash bin.”

“Um, last time. I sent it last time.”

I was confused for a moment, then figured out what he meant.

“Oh, you mean last semester?”

Stan nodded his head. I bit my lip.

“I think we have a problem, Stan. Doing it last semester doesn't exempt you from doing the assignment again this semester. You also took exams last semester, right?”

I let that sink in. Stan achieved enlightenment.

“Oh, so I should do all the assignments this semester even if I already did them before?”

Oh, yeah.

Friday, January 20, 2012

God is bread

Dough, ducats, shekels, moolah, ...

It was mostly a mistake. The new semester had just begun and I was adjusting to a new early-rising regimen. I clicked on the television as I dug bleary-eyed into my cereal. The screen lit up with what seemed to be a news broadcast, with a talking head reading off a sequence of headlines. I looked up from the morning newspaper and realized why the television broadcast sounded a little strange. The talking head belonged to Terry Meeuwsen, a pioneer in the now-common practice of former beauty queens becoming spokespersons in right-wing media.

The television station was broadcasting The 700 Club in this early morning time-slot. My hand reached out for the remote control, but then I paused. I had not seen Pat Robertson's program in many years—with the exception of certain choice excerpts featured on the YouTube channel of Right Wing Watch—and I was curious what would pop up next. The program had already caught my attention with its sudden segue from headline news to a hand-wringing statement that the sad state of the world was due to insufficient devotion to the message of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (You can always hear the capital letters.)

I was rewarded with a teaser for a segment on financial success. Not exactly a grabber at the hour of dark o' clock, but no waiting was required. A woman appeared to give her testimony that God had showered her family with success. Her husband appeared, looking a bit chastened, as he admitted that he had initially resisted his wife's God-inspired counsel. He was now, however, a firm believer in the magical power of tithing.

Yes. The happy couple had successfully bribed God with a tenth of their income. In return, God had given them financial security for their retirement. I guess it was supposed to be a miracle. The details, however, were less than fully compelling. They had been struggling to make ends meet when the wife suggested to her husband that they were not meeting their obligation to give the Lord ten percent of all they earned. As the husband admitted, he had argued that it made no sense to try to live on ninety percent of an income that was already marginal, but his wife had argued forcefully that ten percent was God's by right. She smiled for the camera, looking smug.

The husband picked up the story by recounting their first windfall after he and his wife began to send more money to The 700 Club. Their insurance company contacted them to report an error in the computation of their premiums; it had resulted in a significant overcharge and the company was giving them a big refund check. God is great! (He can even create an honest insurance company.)

The next miracle was the husband's promotion at work. His new position and salary brought them a level of income and security they had never experienced before. Good work, Jesus! Also, they could now send even more money to The 700 Club.

A pitchwoman came on camera to exhort viewers to join The 700 Club for only twenty dollars a month—“only sixty-six cents a day!”—and to reassure indigents in the television audience that making a sacrificial offering would be more than offset by God's future blessings. The most important thing was to scrape up some dough and ship it off to Pat Robertson's money-handlers. Amen!

I punched the button on the remote control and the television winked off, sparing me any further nauseating exposure to the conscienceless money-grubbing of Robertson's minions. To be sure, there have been more overt examples of televangelist cupidity (like Robert Tilton or Mike Murdock), but the smooth come-on from The 700 Club is particularly noisome. Given the program's reach, I'm sure they have very little difficulty combing through their correspondence for testimonial letters from folks with strokes of luck that can be conveniently attributed to divine intervention—even in the case of such mundane examples as a promotion at work. I'm certain they ignore the letters and e-mails from those sinking ever deeper into poverty. Or, worse, they reply to those people with faux concern and suggestions that they aren't sending in enough money.

Televangelism is a transparent con, but it still hooks those too blind to see. My brief exposure to The 700 Club reminded me what a disgusting spectacle it is. I had mercifully forgotten just how much.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

An angelic experience

Learning on the wing

Like a moth to a flame (or an archangel to a young Jewish virgin), I was drawn irresistibly to the opportunity to attend a faculty training event on the existence of angels. When it first came to my attention, I was initially struck by how inappropriate it seemed as a topic for a professional development activity. While not quite as bad as giving nurses continuing education credit for attending a Catholic indoctrination session, the angel seminar simply seemed irrelevant and beside the point. Where was scholarship in this? What useful lessons might I learn?

The presenter was TM, a young woman who holds a doctorate from the California Institute of Integrated Studies. She is an alumna of the CIIS program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness, but I suspect “cosmology” in this context has very little to do with what science-types consider to be cosmology. That's just a guess, of course. You can visit the program webpage and consider the course content for yourself.

To give credit where it's due, Dr. TM declared in her opening remarks that she did not expect attendees to change their opinion about the existence (or non-existence) of angels as a result of her 90-minute presentation. That demonstrated TM's connection to reality, recognizing that the material she would present lacked the evidentiary weight necessary to persuade non-believers. Among the two dozen attendees were several who nodded their heads in sad acknowledgment that some people just aren't open-minded enough to embrace the reality of God's messengers. Others, like me, sat still, resisting the impulse to roll our eyes. It was prudent of TM to allow for our skeptical presence. We were, however, very well behaved throughout the event.

TM was much enamored of Carl Jung's notion of synchronicity, a concept I have never been able to take seriously. As TM explained, a synchronicity occurs when a strong interior impulse, condition, or sensation is reinforced by an exterior manifestation that generates a transformative moment of understanding. Jung's own favorite example, according to TM, was the appearance of a beetle at the window during a psychotherapy session with a female patient who was telling him about a dream about a golden Egyptian scarab. Since the beetle at the window was the nearest local analog to Egypt's golden scarab, Jung deemed it a synchronicity—an acausal simultaneity between his patient's inner life and the external world. (J. B. S. Haldane might have preferred to regard it as a manifestation of God's inordinate fondness for beetles, having scattered hundreds of thousands of species of beetle throughout the world.)

As TM hastened to explain, “Synchronicities are not just happy coincidences!” In response, one of my neighbors muttered, “No. Synchronicities are happy coincidences which people invest with heavy significance.” Only the closest people heard the riposte, but a couple of us nodded. (I was one of them.)

So, where were angels in all of this? As you might suspect, angels are implicated in synchronicities, especially when they manifest as exterior confirmations (i.e., as if they exist in the physical world) of interior emotions or yearnings. The archetypal example is The Annunciation. TM asked the attendees if anyone recognized this special event. I helpfully raised my hand and offered a description: “That's the event reported in the Bible of the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing that she was to bear a son who would be the savior.” TM beamed at me and added some details. First of all, the yearning of the Jews for the coming of their messiah would be manifested in the hopes of young Jewish maidens to become the savior's bearer. Second, it didn't matter whether Mary was pregnant or not when Gabriel made his announcement. Either way, Mary would have a deep interior desire or anticipation that was acausally linked with the archangel's appearance.

TM was particularly interested in the parallels between synchronicities and annunciations. The incident with Mary and Gabriel is the most famous, but angels were also reported to have advised Joseph not to divorce Mary and later to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod's slaughter of the innocents. In her dissertation research, TM made the case that annunciations in religious history (by no means limited to Judeo-Christian sources) were anticipations of Jung's theory of synchronicity and fit well into the Jungian model. Furthermore, the parallels remain even if the angels did not actually exist. (Surprise!) That's because it's not strictly required that the coincidental confirmation of the interior sensation be an actual event in the physical world. The angels could, in fact, be confirmatory figments of the imagination.

At this point, I got to learn something—and by this I do not mean that I learned there's a lot of silliness in this field. After all, who should be surprised that there are parallels between supposedly different forms of delusion? No, in this case I learned a bit of Bible lore that I had not heard before, and which I found interesting and intriguing. According to TM, Gabriel does not appear in the earliest Bible texts. His role is magnified by redactors who found fault with Mary's inner conviction that she was indeed fated to become the mother of the messiah. If this is correct, then Mary's synchronicity was a progression from “I want to bear the messiah” to “I will bear the messiah.” That's pretty thin gruel. Having an archangel with a name showing up to put his stamp of approval on Mary's inner yearning makes the story much more satisfying.

A few of us got fidgety near the end of the event as some of the attendees hastened to offer personal examples of synchronicities. My inner yearning for it all to end was confirmed by the external manifestation of a yawn, but I'm afraid it lacked the acausal quality that would have classified it as a synchronicity.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teenage sex fiend!

Dear Abby says, “Flee!”

Jeanne Phillips received an urgent query from a distraught teenage girl. What will Dear Abby advise a 14-year-old who discovers that her boyfriend is an addict? In this case, the boy is an addict to ... Internet pornography!
Dear Abby: I have been dating “Kyle” for more than six months, but I have loved him for more than two years. I always thought we had a wonderful relationship and that Kyle was a sweet, innocent guy. Well, he just confided to me that he has an Internet porn addiction! I'm very hurt by this and don't want to lose him. What should I do? (By the way, we're both 14.) —Innocent Teen in Michigan

Dear Innocent Teen: You should urge Kyle to get help for his addiction. Addiction, by definition, is behavior that is compulsive and out of control.

The problem with teenage boys getting involved with Internet porn is it gives them an unrealistic expectation of how regular, normal women look and act. Although you don't want to lose him, becoming more involved could lead to his wanting to try out his sexual fantasies with you—and if you go along with it, it will land you in a world of trouble. The smart thing to do is end this relationship now.
(The emphasis is Abby's own.) Okay, perhaps Dear Abby has more information than we do, but the evidence she provides us is scanty. All we really know is that a 14-year-old girl reports that her 14-year-old boyfriend admitted to being an “addict” to Internet porn. What does that actually mean? Even assuming that Innocent's report is accurate, what did her boyfriend Kyle mean by his confession? What constitutes “addiction”? Does he spend twelve hours a day sitting in front of a computer monitor with his pants down around his ankles? That seems rather unlikely.

We can fairly safely conclude (again, assuming Innocent isn't exaggerating) that her boyfriend confessed to masturbating to on-line images or videos. However, I have heard—and vaguely recall—that masturbation is a common—and damned-near universal—hobby among teenage boys. In fact, Seinfeld would go further, omitting the age qualification: “We have to do it. It's part of our lifestyle.”

Unless Kyle's “addiction” has (shall we say) gotten out of hand, it's really a non-issue. Nevertheless, Dear Abby goes off half-cocked and advised Innocent to drop her boyfriend now. In the absence of more substantive information, this is clearly an example of premature consultation.

Demon sheep haunt Romney

The ghost of Fiorina past

Marty Wilson was a strategist for Carly Fiorina's ill-fated attempt to oust Barbara Boxer from the U.S. Senate in 2010. He was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle by staff writer Joe Garofoli in an article on the current presidential race. Wilson is concerned that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is about to run afoul of the same problem that dogged Fiorina's candidacy:
“You've got to adequately answer the questions that voters may have about your business record,” said Marty Wilson, a chief strategist for Fiorina's campaign. “We didn't have the resources to do that, and the Boxer campaign did a good job of exploiting that.”
That can be a problem when your corporate career consisted of raising profits by stripping companies of assets and firing employees. It also doesn't help when a tin-eared Romney tells voters that “corporations are people” and “I just like being able to fire people.” (Make all the arguments you like about context, Mitt, but producing sound-bites like that suggests you lack a certain self-awareness.)

Reporter Garofoli's choice of Fiorina as a cautionary example for Romney is a good one in most ways. Her supposed business acumen did not recommend itself to a California electorate hoping for better economic times. Instead Fiorina was viewed as the modern incarnation of the robber baron—someone who reaps benefits for herself and her associates, but at the expense of the poor wage earners—many of whom no longer earned wages after she got through with them. It also helped that Fiorina made stupid campaign decisions while Boxer did not. Fiorina approved the ridiculous “demon sheep” political spots that drew mocking reactions during the primary campaign. In some respects, Fiorina never recovered from that initial appearance of goofiness.

I do, however, take issue with one of the points stressed by Garofoli in his article:
Boxer, a three-term incumbent who at one time held a 9-1 edge in fundraising, got TV commercials on the air early enough to define Fiorina as an out-of-touch CEO and defeated her by 10 percentage points.
That makes it sound entirely too much as if Fiorina was swept away in a tsunami of Democratic campaign cash. Garofoli's one-point datum misses the big picture. In aggregate, Boxer spent $28 million and Fiorina spent $22.6 million. Even if you subtract the $5.5 million that Fiorina spent in the contested Republican primary (while Boxer won renomination without real opposition), the net tally is still only $28 million to $17.1 million. That's a lot closer to 5 to 3 than 9 to 1. It also doesn't take into account Fiorina's big edge in “independent” money, which involved millions of dollars of GOP campaign funds spent on TV ads attacking Sen. Boxer.

The bottom line—as business-types would say—is that Fiorina was a lackluster product in the political market. When Romney looks in the mirror, he might see Fiorina looking back at him, demon eyes and all.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Religion is bliss

Because of the ignorance thing
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. (Gen. 3:7)
It must help to lack self-awareness. Surely self-awareness is a trait that would severely handicap the helpful god-botherers who manage to peer past the beams in their eyes while seeking motes in their neighbors'. A perfect example of this blinkered perspective showed up in an anti-abortion flier that came into my possession. It contained an account of its diligent distributor's efforts to paper high school and college campuses with her “pro-life” literature. It also contained an example of her poetry. Her rhyming isn't particularly bad (of course it rhymes; poetry has to rhyme!) and the message isn't especially insipid for a composition of this kind. Not especially. No, just the usual level of insipidity: an anti-Obama rant that equates him to a “king.” This is nothing more than your typical modern-day right-wing hand-wringing.

But read to the end. That's where the pay-off is:

Humpty Obama sat on a wall;
Humpty Obama had a great fall;
All the “king's” media and all the “king's” men
Can't put Obama together again.

Polls in the thirties predict his demise;
People now see through the maze of his lies;
All broken promises—Obama's schemes
Fell on a people to shatter their dreams.

God will be with us to keep us from fear:
Let's look at a hero of yesteryear!
Washington crossing the Delaware—
Hope to a people in dark despair.

Crossing the Delaware of broken schemes,
Someone will rescue our broken dreams;
Humpty Obama in November will lose;
Out by a people with power to choose.
Read that last line again. The anti-abortion activist is singing the praises of people having the “power to choose.”

I swear. No self-awareness at all.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

A seraphic school seminar

Guardian angel

John Vasconcellos was a well-known figure around the State Capitol. A big teddy bear of a man, his rumpled figure had all the debonair flair of an unmade bed. He briefly achieved national fame when his “self-esteem” initiative drew mocking attention from the Doonesbury comic strip. John himself, however, was unfazed, even if his more substantive contributions to the state of California passed unremarked.

Anyone who serves in a California community college tends to associate the name of John Vasconcellos with his landmark education reform bill, AB 1725, which in 1988 rewrote the sections of the state education code dealing with our schools. One legacy of that legislation is a greater emphasis on professional development for faculty members. On most community college campuses, professional development opportunities are embodied in various seminars and training programs, especially on “flex days” when faculty assemble in the absence of students to rack up their required hours. The flex days, how ever many there are, are ordinarily scheduled at the beginning of each semester. We hear talks, participate in meetings, attend panel discussions, enroll in training sessions, or watch subject-specific demonstrations.

Some flex sessions are great. Most are okay. A few have been dreadful enough to be entertaining. (I recall one in which a colleague quipped—but was it a quip?—that he was thinking of killing himself and several people in the room offered to help. Now that is supportive!) In other words, flex is like any other activity, with its ups and downs, successes and failures. In general, though, we all give it the good old college try and make the most of it.

However, sometimes you run into professional development opportunities that strain credulity just a teensy-tiny little bit. In looking at the flex program books posted on various California community college websites, I have encountered seminars that strike me as, well, odd. Do teachers really need an introduction to “qigong breathing techniques”? I suppose it could be lumped in with those other activities involving movement and health activities, although yoga and various stretching routines seem to be more popular options. No doubt the “Happy Fanny” workshop announced at one school is one of those feel-good PE-type sessions—especially with that Middle Eastern dance component.

But qigong and fannies cannot compete with my favorite among all of the spring sessions I perused. The angel seminar wins it going away:
An Inquiry into the Existence of Angels

There are many who claim that any lingering belief in angels is merely the residue of imaginary wishful thinking. There are others who hold that angels (wings, halos, harps) literally exist. How is one to reconcile such contradictory beliefs? In this session, you will discover how C.G. Jung’s theory of synchronicity provides a vehicle for the exploration and possible reconciliation of this question. Rather than echoing the skeptic who says angels cannot exist or the religious enthusiast who affirms their immanence, this study asserts that by expanding our understanding of both synchronicity and angels, we might be able to resolve the conflict.
It may well be that you are having an uncharitable reaction to the description of this 90-minute program, indicating that you are one of those anti-angel skeptics. If so, how close-minded of you! Are you not open to the possibility of a synchronicitic reconciliation of (A) angels don't exist and (B) sure they do! (Synthesis: Angels maybe exist!)

I confess that I am one of those cynics who has been known to remark that a good course in probability is the best cure for folks who cannot stop seeing significance in random occurrences and coincidences. Still, I must admit that it behooves one to examine carefully the credentials of the seminar leader. Perhaps there might be some substance here:
The faciliator earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religion from the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program at California Institute for Integral Studies.
Whoa! “Cosmology”? (Of course, angels are indeed reputed to hang out in the heavens.) What exactly is this peculiar doctoral program? Here's the on-line description:
Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness (PCC) graduate programs in San Francisco are dedicated to re-imagining the human species as a mutually enhancing member of the Earth community.

They attract intellectually engaged individuals who are in varying degrees dismayed by what they see happening in industrial societies and who are striving to find meaningful ways to develop their gifts to serve the future of the world.

We support those called to meet the Earth community's unprecedented evolutionary challenge by offering students a challenging and supportive learning community in which to find their voice and vision as leaders.

Please return to the links on the upper left of the screen to explore the PCC mission, faculty, curriculum (including our Integral Ecology track), current students, alumni and community, as well as how to apply to the program.
Okay! That's clear enough, isn't it? Well, I don't know about you, but my doubts are completely assuaged. Perhaps I should write the angel-seminar school and suggest a topic for a follow-up seminar next year. I hear that business about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin is still outstanding.

Broken engagement

Pining after the “old” atheists

The National Catholic Register is a century-old newspaper that was recently acquired by the Eternal Word Broadcasting Network (EWTN): “The acquisition of the Register is the latest in EWTN's efforts to expand its news presence in the global Catholic digital and multimedia market.” As a result, EWTN Radio has added Register Radio to its broadcast schedule, a weekly program hosted by Thom Price and Tim Drake. On January 6, 2012, Register Radio featured the observations of Father Robert Barron on its “Media Watch” segment, wherein mass media treatment of the Roman Catholic Church is examined (and usually found wanting).

Father Barron and his hosts focused their particular disdain on an editorial column penned by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. Back in August of last year, Keller considered the religious beliefs of the Republican presidential candidates. His words did not please the Register Radio commentators:
Tim Drake: In this August 25 editorial—it was titled “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith”— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller scrutinized the religious beliefs of the different GOP presidential candidates and he touched on Mormonism, evangelical Christianity, and Catholicism. And in the editorial he likened Catholics' belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to belief in aliens. He wrote, “If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?” And he later wrote, “Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” And so we thought we would bring on Father Robert Barron with us today to kind of tackle this. Father Barron heads up the “Word on Fire” ministry of the archdiocese of Chicago and is also the creative director behind the new “Catholicism” series, which will be airing on PBS starting September 22. So, Father Barron, thanks for being with us.

Father Barron: Gentlemen, good morning. Thanks for having me on this morning.

Tim Drake: So, first of all, Fr. Barron, what was your reaction to Keller's comments, specifically his description of the Catholic belief in the real presence as baggage?

Father Barron: Yeah, well, it was sadly typical, as you were saying, not just of the New York Times but a lot of the mainstream media. Something I've noticed—you know, I've been following media for a long time—and there's this extraordinary uptick after September 11, I would argue, in anti-religious rhetoric, a tendency to mock religion rather than seriously engage it. I mean, go back to the early twentieth century, and you have the great atheists like Sartre and Camus and company. Well, they engaged religion seriously. They knew they were up against a serious opponent and they disbelieved in God and they didn't like the Church particularly, but they didn't mock it. But now you see after September 11, and the rise of the Hitchens and Dawkins and Bill Mahers and Sam Harrises, you find a shift in tactics. Not even an attempt to understand what the Church means by its teaching, but simply to mock it in the most sort of juvenile way. Sadly, you see it in all the comment boxes and all that on the Internet. People have taken their cues from Hitchens and Dawkins and company and they just sort of dismiss religion with the back of the hand. It's really sad that it's come into, you know, much of the leading mainstream media in the same way. So I'm not really surprised by it. I see it all the time. But it's still, you know, dispiriting and discouraging.

Tim Drake: Yeah, you know, it's interesting. I had never thought, you know, of the sort of the treatment of religion pre-9/11 and post-9/11, but with the rise of the “new atheists” it almost seems like we need a “new apologetics” to kind of respond, don't we?

Father Barron: Absolutely, and I think—I've been thinking about it for a long time—there is a clear watershed at September 11, because what it did, it stirred up in the minds of a lot of people that old Enlightenment Era critique, namely, religion is irrational, therefore it's violent. You go back to Kant and to Schleiermacher and to Spinoza and the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, that was exactly the argument. Religion is irrational. Therefore you can't really have an argument about it, all you can do is fight about it, which is why religious people tend toward violence. And that old argument from the eighteenth century was stirred up after September 11. People say, well, look, there's these irrational—therefore violent—religious people knocking down the World Trade Center. All religion is like that, you know. So I saw a revival of that. And that's why I think it's no accident that Hitchens and company emerged so strongly after September 11. The difference, of course, is you want people who'll be willing to engage religion seriously, to try to find out what serious religious people actually mean when they use language like, a wafer of bread is transubstantiated into the body of Jesus.
What serious religious people believe about transubstantiation? Why does Fr. Barron think anyone, in the media or otherwise, is puzzled by that? “Serious” Catholics believe that magic happens. It's no big mystery what they believe because the Church doctrine of transubstantiation is very clear: the wafer of bread truly, really, literally becomes the genuine, actual flesh of Jesus Christ himself—except without changing any of its physical aspects. The bread retains its previous appearance, form, and tastelessness. In brief: a miracle without evidence. As I said: magic. And, lacking the least particle of physical evidence, it must be taken entirely on faith. If you're not a believing Catholic, then it's just so much superstitious baggage—to borrow an apt term from Keller.
Father Barron: But I find that there's just an unwillingness on the part of much of the mainstream media even to understand what we mean. It's simply a back-of-the-hand dismissal. That's a problem. And then to your point: Yes, indeed, we need a new apologetics. When I was coming of age, apologetics had a bad flavor. You know, it was seen to be defensive, and it was non-ecumenical, and it was Tridentine and all this, but, you know, what's happened is my generation—I'm fifty—my generation ran out to meet the culture. The culture's good, embrace the culture. Well, I mean, now a large part of the culture has turned against us, with hostility. And so there we are, without any weapons. And so I think, yes, indeed we have to recover the intellectual tradition of Catholicism, which is very strong, and will enable us to meet some of these attacks.

Tim Drake: Yeah, it certainly seems as if the Catholic Church does not receive the same degree of respect that other faith traditions receive. And don't you think that much of that hostility and hatred that is directed at the Church comes from the fact that the Church is one of the only institutions that kind of actually stands for something.

Father Barron: Yeah, Oh, quite right. In some ways it's a back-handed compliment that we get so much attention, you know, so much opprobrium, it's because we're the biggest kid around and, as you say, we actually stand for something. So it is a back-handed compliment that we're still seen as a threat. And it's something I find fascinating, to go back to what I said a few minutes ago, from the Enlightenment on, who is perceived as the great enemy of modernity but the Catholic Church? And so you've seen a revival of that argument. Now as with Vatican II, there were elements of modernity that we can and should reach out to, we should try to engage the modern culture as much as we can, but there are elements of the modern culture that are antipathetic to our program. And it's wrong for us simply to, you know, embrace it all in an uncritical spirit. They've recognized in us an opposition. Okay, good. I'm glad. We are opposed to modernity. In some ways. I think one of the primary ways is modernity loves the mythology of self-creation, you know, that we make ourselves by sovereign acts of the free will. That's a great modern myth: Here I am, an individual with rights, privileges, responsibilities, and I can even create the meaning of my own life. Well, I'm glad the Catholic Church stands against that and I'm furthermore glad that the modern culture recognizes that. They know that we're the enemy of that view. I think we should boldly enter the lists and say, yeah, let's get it on. Let's have a good argument about this.
Fr. Barron fails to recognize that the “ good argument” actually began a long time ago and has been going against his side. His attack on “modernism” is an instructive echo of the Church's long and losing struggle against humanity's slow progress toward rationality. In the Church's formulation, “modernism” is a heresy, much abhorred by popes. Barron joins them in condemning the notion that the meaning in one's life can come from one's own conscious will. In Barron's world, the Church is in charge of doling out meaning. If you don't like it, that's just too bad. Amen?

I don't think so.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Wherein I fail

The Impostor Fantasy

My friends and acquaintances are very helpful in keeping my ego in check. They are ever ready to assure me, especially recently, that I am no good at false modesty. As someone who strives to excel in every endeavor he undertakes, it is understandably greatly disappointing that my self-deprecations are so unsuccessful. For some reason, friends and family do not accept my frank admission that I am a dilettante and poseur. It is a puzzlement. I ponder wearily how to remedy the situation, but inspiration fails me. I confess that I do not know what to do.
I felt like a fraud.
So I learned to fly an airplane.
When did this all begin? I am not certain. Perhaps the most recent spate of failures began when I told some friends I had stumbled into writing a novel. It was a purgative event, rendering the pent-up demons of old family feuds into a fictional form, exorcising ancient controversies by reducing them to narrative form. Much-told tales had been written down where others could see them and smile. Tragedy had been tamed into a tragi-comic story, which I shared with several friends.
At 50,000 feet I thought:
“A fraud is flying an airplane.”
I explained to people that I wasn't “really” a novelist—just someone who had written a novel-length manuscript. After all, I'm just a math teacher and not a littérateur. People scoffed. One particularly sly friend pointed out that using a word like “littérateur” was a dead giveaway. Clearly I fancied myself an author. In response, I confessed that I was an author: an author in the field of expository mathematics, with contributions enshrined in a number of texts and supplements and magazines—and a couple of writing awards to my credit—but not really a fiction writer.
So I crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat.
I docked at Cherbourg and thought: “A fraud has crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat.”
This was deemed evasive. Did I not intend to seek a publisher for my quasi-memoir? I confessed that I was interested in shopping it around. The first readers had been extravagant in their praise (of course, they were friends), raising my expectations and causing me to dare to think the story had commercial prospects. I had even sought an agent. This was, clearly, proof positive that I was now a fiction writer—and my biggest fiction was my pose that I was not.
So I took a space shot to the moon.
On the trip home I thought: “A fraud has circled the moon.”
I failed at finding an agent interested in my manuscript, but instead I found a university press that was eager to look at it. Several months passed while their reviewers read it, but eventually my novel was accepted for publication. When I met the professor who was the editor-in-chief, I ever-so-modestly mentioned that it was an extraordinary stroke of good fortune for a non-novelist—a math-teaching non-writer—like me to get his manuscript accepted. The good professor scoffed at my characterization: “You wrote a novel. It's being published. You are, by definition, a novelist. In fact, you should be thinking about future writing projects.”

I had to grin. A professor of foreign languages was lecturing a professor of mathematics about what is true “by definition.” He had me there.
So I took a full page ad in the newspaper and confessed to the world that I was a fraud!
One of my colleagues dimpled when I recounted my recent failures at modesty. “Oh, Zee,” she said. “Don't you know about ‘fishing for compliments’? You're just trying to get people to tell you how wonderful you are.” I would, of course, have denounced this vile calumny, but it seemed to hit pretty close to home. Yes, perhaps I protest just a little too much. If I'm really anxious about being a dilettante in foreign fields of endeavor (and risking embarrassing pratfalls), wouldn't it make more sense to stop drawing attention to it? If only I were a naturally taciturn person—
I read the ad and I thought: “A fraud is pretending to be honest.”
During the late seventies, I had a Jules Feiffer cartoon posted in my graduate student office. The “impostor fantasy” amused me greatly, as well as speaking to deep-seated fears. Naturally I was reminded of it and was pleasantly surprised to discover it still resided in my decades-old files. It gave me renewed inspiration:

I felt like a fraud, so I wrote a blog post...

Dumping on Fresno

Trashing your allies

Like anyone else, the stars of entertainment and news media want to go on vacation during the holidays. Thus the interval comprising Christmas and New Year's is chock-full of opportunities for the B team. Wingnut radio is no exception. On Saturday, December 31, the semi-sane Barbara Simpson (“The Babe in the Bunker”) was missing from her KSFO talk program. In her place was the fully certifiable Mark Williams, reliving the glory days when he used to have a radio program of his own.

During the 4 o'clock hour, Williams lit into John Boehner, the one-term Speaker of the House. He was wroth that Boehner had been so ineffective a leader in congress and condemned the speaker as complicit in the political machinations of the Obama administration. While floundering around for a metaphor sufficiently negative to exemplify his disdain for Washington politicians, Williams picked a peculiar target:
You know, the government's acting like they're from Fresno, you know, meth-heads. They're acting like they've got teeth made out of Styrofoam, like you lived in Fresno or something.
Fresno? Williams homes in on Fresno, the epicenter of California's bright-red Central Valley. The home of raisins and Freepers and Republican votes is the most contemptible example that Williams can conjure up. Talk about clueless. Talk about slapping your own allies up alongside the head.

Nice work, if you can get it. No wonder he no longer gets it very often.