Monday, April 27, 2009

"The important thing is never to stop questioning."

- Albert Einstein

Today was the first class of a new quarter at the school where I teach. I love starting over every three months. I know a little more and can respond to questions more quickly and with greater authority. I anticipate problems and address them before they come up. But even though this is my seventh or eighth time teaching the same class (I've changed books and assignments as necessary), I still find myself impressed and surprised by each group of students.

It's easy to stereotype. In fact, according to the New York Times, it's evolutionary:

Eons ago, this capability [to stereotype based on appearance] was of life-and-death importance, and humans developed the ability to gauge other people within seconds.

Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, said that traditionally, most stereotypes break down into two broad dimensions: whether a person appears to have malignant or benign intent and whether a person appears dangerous. “In ancestral times, it was important to stay away from people who looked angry and dominant,” she said.

But I can't tell anything about my students by looking at them. Each new group of students is full of quirky individuals with 18 - 30 years of experience informing their attitudes, and those attitudes only begin to reveal themselves on the first day. I ask them about previous writing experiences, I ask them to respond to an essay we read in class, and I even ask them about the last book they read. 

Granted: I'm a bit of a softie. I just love playing a part in their education. (One student graduated from my high school four years before I did!)  I'm much harder on myself than I am on others, and sometimes I think that I and my students alike would benefit from a shift in that regard (be less of a softie, more of a hard ass); regardless, as my friend told me back when I was teaching a summer school class to 3rd graders and questioning my skills, "Everyone can use some positive encouragement."

People do have the capacity to change. I go back and forth on this, at least in regard to my own capacity, but it has to be true. I think back to all those "first days" in grade school and even junior and senior high, where I would throw up out of nervousness. Or those second, third, and fiftieth days, curling up in the corner of the playground because I was too shy to find someone to play with or talk to. So when I wasn't sitting there, obsessing over my inability to MOVE, I was watching people - their behavior, their interactions, how they spoke to one another. I still dream of being invisible, moving ghost-like among people and seeing how they really  are, returning to my observant past; but it's much better now. Being among the living. Still slightly neurotic, but physically present.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

- Henry David Thoreau

I can write awesome emails (or, as I think they used to be called, "letters"). Give me time to percolate on a subject or dilemma, and I can be thoughtful and poignant and, at times, helpful. If life were an exchange of emails, I would kick life's butt. If all life required was to sit back, think, analyze, and respond to it in word form, it would be easy to suck the marrow out of that. 

But obviously, this isn't all that life requires. Real life is messy and wonderful and at times incredibly unfair. A friend of friends, close in age to my brothers, was recently diagnosed with leukemia. This person has an incredible amount of support from friends and family alike; this person will fight and win.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tortured Logic

Some time in the middle of the quarter, we talk about identifying bias, logical fallacies, and the use of language to obfuscate and manipulate truth. There isn't a better example than torture, and the "tortured logic" used to justify its use.
  • "Mistakes were made." Using the passive voice disguises the main actor; mistakes were made by whom?  We don't know, but they were made, it's time to move on!
  • "We don't torture." President Bush said this in 2003, and President Obama said this in 2009. When Bush said it, we believed him. That lie, then, puts a cloud over everything that follows. Regardless of whether you think President Obama should prosecute torturers and the justifiers of torture from the previous administration, he is definitely doing the right thing by bringing this to light; transparency is the only act that will remove the cloud.
  • "Enhanced interrogation methods." That's so less ugly than torture, right? 
Andrew Sullivan wrote a brilliant post about power, conservatism, torture, and Western civilization. The whole piece is worth reading--it's only four paragraphs--but here is its first one:
The assertion of total power through unchecked violence - outside the Constitution, beyond the reach of the law (apart from legal memos from hired hacks instructed to retroactively redefine torture into 'legality') - will be seen in retrospect as the key defining theory of Bush conservatism. It ended with torture. Why? Because reality may differ from ideology; and when it does, it is vital to create reality to support ideology. And so torture creates reality by coercing "facts" from broken bodies and minds.

God, it's ironic that Bush -- the cowboy, the "you're with me or against me" president -- became the postmodern president, using power to shape and define "truth." And President Obama, with his ability to look at people, countries, policies, etc, from different points of view, seeing the gray between "us" and "them" and the compromise between "with me" and "against me," appears to be the modern president - searching for truth, using methodology and science and dialogue to find the best solutions and policies. 

Waiting at the airport Sunday and Monday night, I watched more cable television news than I'd seen in the previous two months. A panel of talking heads were discussing "enhanced interrogation methods." What disgusted me was the fact that these "news analysts" were treating it as a partisan issue, with republicans excusing it. This is a clip from yesterday, but it reflects the tenor of these ongoing conversations:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Correlation does not imply causation

In today's New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope writes about the benefits of friendships when it comes to an individual's long-term health. She says, 
In 2006, a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. And notably, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective.

There are a number of statistical relationships that she cites between friendships and survival. In fact, a stronger relationship exists between health and having a support system of friends than health and family. I don't doubt that there's some truth. But I also think back to my Research and Statistics course where it was drummed into us: Correlation does not equal causation. 

As soon as a statistical link is demonstrated, we have to look at the confounds, the alternative explanations. If someone has a strong network of friends, non-related support, then that tells us about that person. The same things that cause an individual to have many friends may be the same things that cause that person to fight cancer.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Whatever happened, happened

Not only is that the past tense of Jordan Catalano's "philosophy," it's also the title of a recent episode of Lost, a brilliant but NOT canceled television show. On Lost, characters have found themselves traveling through time, leaving a handful of them stuck in 1977. Miles has come into contact with his baby self. Anyway, the idea of "whatever happened, happened" is that the future can't be altered. The past is the past, and anything before "now" cannot be changed.

This is all very vague terminology. As it applies to "Lost," the vagueness adds to the mystery of the show and gives its writers some wiggle room. But really, the past is constantly being altered by the present and the future. We revisit the past, and we revise the past based on our current understandings and beliefs. Yes, we continue to learn more through research and scholarship, and that alters our understandings, but we also reinterpret the past to fit our narratives.
I could pull this out more, but my head is fried after two straight days of hanging out at the airport and trying to go overseas, only to have the planes fill with just enough people to lock me and my brother out. It hasn't been bad, really - the uncertainty was the hardest part - and we'll try again another time. Besides, a full, arching rainbow stretched over the terminal so that we could see where it began and where it ended. Paris en ete!

In the words of the lovely Jordan Catalano,

Whatever happens, happens. How some people are about Star Wars, I am about My So-Called Life.  Go to, about, 1 min. 30 sec. (Or watch all 8 minutes of the wonderful awkwardness and angst).

I try to maintain a balance between going with the flow, riding with the tide, being unsalmon-like, and being more proactive - making plans, setting expectations, etc.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dilettantes and dabblers

Pamela Sims wonders in today's New York Times, "Is this the Time to Chase a Career Dream?" She describes a little of her own career as a business coach, helping clients discover and realize their dreams: Surgeons who want to be musicians, program managers who want to build churches. Sims suggests that the chaos and instability of today's job market may lead to more people following their dreams, indulging their creative passions.

She writes that "if [people] are going to live with uncertainty, and work like crazy to secure their livelihood, ... they might as well pursue something they care about deeply."  Last month I wrote about another New York Times article, Generation OMG. The article described a business major going into teaching because "the economic contraction... can give people more room to be creative." 

I don't know that I'd say going into teaching is "being creative" (not that it doesn't require oodles of creativity!)  I'd more likely say that teaching--like nursing--is a recession-proof career. There may be reductions in benefits and even positions, but on the whole, there will always be a need for education and health care. 

Will there be a need for dilettantes and dabblers?  I can do both of those jobs quite well. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

C'est bon

My brother and I are set to spend a few days in Paris next week. I'm excited to show him around, revisiting the must-see places, and also going to some of the places I haven't seen (Versailles! Jim Morrison's grave!)  He joked that it's going to suck, because I'm going to drag him to all these museums - I said no, only three. (Four, if we make it to the Picasso Museum:)

That's all for tonight. Tomorrow I plan to stop by my old library, pick up a DVD I had ordered. I haven't been back since I left (three or four months), so it will be good. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

This whole tea party thing...

From my perspective, it's a bit nutty. I think, "What exactly are they protesting against? A tax rate lower than Reagans? A bailout rendered necessary by a Republican president?" It's been interesting watching the coverage of these tax-day protests; the numbers are miniscule compared to antiwar protests and immigration protests.

What's also funny is how derisive a lot of the media (non-FOX) is being towards the protests. Belittling the teabaggers (haha). It's kind of how much of the media treated the Left during Bush's years.

Anyway. It's been a good day. Gave some tests, graded some tests, and finally did my dishes (minus the silverware; I have enough spoons that I can wait some more). Ate some skyline, watched some Lost, and drank some wine. Can't ask for more on a Wednesday evening.

For your viewing pleasure:

(It does feel slightly wrong to have Bush's head on my blog, but it's a nice reminder of what we've left behind!)

Pictures of pictures

Remembering dreams is not a regular occurrence for me. Maybe I'll remember two in a week, or perhaps I'll remember two in a month. Usually they're mundane, but occasionally I'll have a long dream with a beginning, middle, and end. These ones are harder to figure out. Last fall I dreamt that it was the fourth of July and terrorists were striking all the buildings in the city.

Last night's dream reminds me of something out of a sitcom. Something really dramatic happens, and then the character suddenly wakes up; something's still amiss, and the main character wakes up again - he was having a dream within a dream. That's what I did last night. I was having a dream, and in the dream I woke up from it and thought, "Hmm." 

(If I were critiquing this post, I'd say it was vague and needed more specific details; but I've got lots of grading to do:)

I used to dream about smurfs and rainbows and (at age six) driving my mom's station wagon. Now I dream about dreaming and terrorists.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Best Show You Didn't Watch

One of my favorite shows, canceled too soon, was Everwood. Great acting, compelling characters, and intriguing situations added up to a show that only a handful of people watched and loved. It tackled abortion, drugs, relationships -- typical teen fare -- in a way that admitted how complicated that teen fare really was and is. Things aren't so clearly right and wrong.

There were these two doctors: Treat Williams played Dr. Brown, and Tom Amandes played Dr. Abbott. They were great foils and great friends. Dr. Brown moved from NYC to Everwood, a small town in Colorado (filmed in Utah, I think), after his wife died.  

In somewhere around the second or third season, I think, Dr. Abbott gave a speech about marriage  (not a stand-in-front-of-crowd-and-speak speech, just one like a friend would give to another friend, or a father to a son). People get married, he said, in order to bear witness to each other's life. (I've been scouring the internet looking for the exact quote, but haven't been able to find it; but the "bear witness" part was it in a nutshell).

Anyway, what I'm getting at [warning, two heavy IPAs in my system] is that, regardless of our desire to marry and couple off legally, we all want witnesses to our lives. Proof that we existed. Evidence that our efforts weren't for naught.  I want that witness, but I haven't decided if husband and marriage is the answer. We shall see. But I wonder if my generation (and, ugh, later ones) think of facebook, twitter, etc, the same way that Dr. Abbott thought about marrriage - something that's proof of your existence; proof that you were there, that you contributed, that you were part of something, that people cared.

I don't mind my stutter step, stutter step. As long as I'm not alone in it, I'm ok. It's ok.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Importance of Childhood Memories - II

Every Easter until a few years ago, my grandmother put out the "Money Tree." She took a small tree (or maybe it was a small branch), nestled it in a pot, and then decorated it with colorful plastic Easter Eggs. Inside each egg she put one, two, or three quarters, and in a few eggs she hid dollar bills.  My brothers and I took turns selecting an egg, opening it, and hoping for a dollar. By the end, we each had somewhere in the range of $4.75 - $7.50. 

Now we get cards with $20 bills inside. More money, less fun.

(This is me, hoping for a dollar; this is probably about thirteen years ago, the last year we did it. I've since learned that "money trees" aren't typical Easter fare).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Logical Fallacies

Edited, 1/20/10 - for those of you googling "sequitarian" and getting this post, I apologize. It really had nothing to do with sequitarianism... "Sequitur" is a logical consequence. "Sequitarian" is a made-up word, but we could define it as someone who follows logic, or who always does what logic dictates. A "non sequitur" is something that doesn't follow (e.g. "I love cheese; let's go get ice cream"). Perhaps a "non sequitarian" (again, a made-up word) would be someone who doesn't do what logic dictates. I'd say a non-sequitarian is rather random.

I think most people think of themselves as slightly abnormal. Everyone else, they think, has things figured out, or easier, or simpler. Everyone else knows what to do. At least, that's what I choose to believe - we all think that we're weird, we all feel awkward and lost and are just faking it.

The action of Othello starts in the hustling, bustling city of Venice. The major characters then go to the island of Cyprus to fight the Turks. Once the Turks are defeated, they're all just kind of there, on this island, with nothing to do but get into each other's business. Idle hands and all.

Speaking of non sequiturs, I googled to see if "non sequitarian" was a real word, and I found this quote in an article, "How to Find the Right School for Your Child":

"There are of course plenty of religious based schools but there are also non-sequitarian private schools to choose from."

Edited to add: this is funny because the writer meant "non-sectarian" private schools.

Quick post

It's nice when we can get out of our own ways. Stop defeating ourselves with doubt and tiny acts of sabotage. Do what we can and be happy, and let enough be enough.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Fluff: Adam Lambert's performance from last night's American Idol. He sang "Mad World," originally by Tears for Fears, but I was only familiar with it from the version (much like Adam's) in Donnie Darko.  

I'm listening to the Reds, waiting for Lost and Idol to come on.  

Thinking about motivation, or lack thereof, as I sit in my chair and be unproductive. That's better than being destructive. Inductive? Reductive? Constructive? Deconstructive? Reproductive?

Reds up 4-2 in the second. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

"For sale: baby shoes, never used."

The title is a six-word short story by Ernest Hemingway.

Writing a story a week is a much harder task than I anticipated. In a rare moment of extreme self-confidence, I assumed that once I sat down to write and really focus on characterization, dialogue, etc, that I would be able to flesh out my story idea into something worth reading. But then again, if it were easy, I would have done it months ago.

A.O. Scott wrote about the short story in a recent New York Times article, Brevity's Pull - In Praise of the American Short Story. He cited Raymond Carver (my literary namesake), Flannery O'Connor, and John Cheever as examples of excellent writers known for short stories, not novels. While the article seemed incomplete - he mentioned few female writers (where was Alice Munro? Jhumpa Lahiri? Joyce Carol Oates?) - it did have some interesting things to say the form's place in today's portable society:

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate

The book I'm currently reading (and have been for a couple months - it isn't that long, but I wait until I'm in bed to start reading, and after 10 or so pages, I stop to sleep) takes place in two settings. The first is the near-future, a world devastated by a man-made virus that has rapidly spread to kill most of the population. The second is a city, neither heaven nor earth but somewhere in between. People go there after they have died and "crossed over," and they stay there only as long as someone on Earth still has memories of them. In other words, once everyone who knew you is gone, you move on from this in-between world.

Before the virus, most people would stay in the city for 30-70 years, depending on how old they were when they died. But once the virus started wiping out whole families and cities and countries, people might stay in the city for a month or a day. 

As someone who tends to picture herself as worm meat, post death, this is a very attractive idea, one that I can somewhat reconcile with my depressing notions of mortality. That is, we live on in the memories of those we leave behind, and those memories are what sustain us.

From Othello's soliloquy in Act 5, just before he stabs himself:

... I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well.

I get hung up on connections between things, whether they're real or perceived. Othello, here, is about to kill himself. He's just killed his wife and belatedly realized that his wife wasn't unfaithful. And he's worried about how he'll be spoken of, how he'll live on in the memories of others. This contrasts with Desdemona's acceptance of her fate. She knows that she is going to be unjustly killed. But still, in response to Emilia's question of who "hath done this deed," Desdemona says
Nobody; I myself. Farewell
Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!

She dies believing that she'll go on to heaven. Enough Shakespeare for tonight.

Late night musing

The joy and pain of being a student (and a teenager, and a child) is that someone is telling you what to do. Write a paper by this date. Be home by this time. Don't stick your finger in the light socket.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My Advice Column

I read an internet article (can't find the link, sorry) that applied the rules from Meg Cabot's book, How to Be Popular, to the internet. The article defined popularity in terms of followers on a blog or twitter or anything else that is quantifiable. For blogs, the article suggested, write "how-to" posts. Give advice. That's what people want, and that's what makes people popular.

This is understandable. When I seek out blogs, it's for ones that give advice on teaching or language. I avoid ones like mine. If I want links to news articles, I'll visit Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Atlantic, The Daily Dish. If I want book recommendations, I'll visit Goodreads or Turning the Page. If I want petty complaints, I'll revisit my ninth-grade journal (except in a bout of sophomore paranoia, I locked it in a tackle box and lost the key, and forever it remains!)

I'm horrible at giving advice. I have strong opinions and ideas of what people should do and think, but I always picture myself in the other person's shoes and know that I refuse the advice of others to an unhealthy degree. 

But, for the sake of popularity and advice for advice's sake, here's one of my strong opinions (to borrow the language of Coetzee): Be the same to everyone. Be honest - not hurtful or, necessarily, blunt - to everyone. Be yourself. Working at the library, I hold this principle close. Treat everyone the same, whether they have no fine or owe $9.99 and have ten notes on their card. Similarly, don't say anything about anyone that you wouldn't say to their face. Easier said than done, but I promise, living each day with that idea in mind makes life better.

Happy birthday to my mom - 35, is it? ;)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Not quite Friday

My days feel especially long lately. Between my two jobs, I'm working much fewer scheduled hours. The time I spend planning, preparing, etc, has remained the same (or increased) but I haven't quite figured out how to arrange my time most efficiently. Sometimes I think that's a gift people have--the ability to be organized and neat and on schedule. But, more likely, I think that's just my excuse for laziness. "I can't control it, that's just the way I am, blah blah blah." And that bothers me, but not enough to really change: I haven't quite reached that critical point.

I still have my story idea sketched out. It's there, waiting for me to fill it in. But sleep shouts for me a little more loudly, and to Sleep I answer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April fools

I was probably eight or nine years old, my brothers four and six.  We were living in a two-story house on a busy street. The yard was small and fenced in the front and back, but my mom took good care of it. She kept the lawn mowed and neat, and she always planted flowers. It wasn't uncommon for her to be digging around in the front yard.

She called my brothers and I out front - we were inside, probably watching TV. She held out a small, earring-sized box. Her voice soft and shaky, she said, "I found this."

She uncovered the box to reveal a human finger, covered in dirt. I remember one of my brothers being very disturbed, but I was fascinated. I asked questions like, "Whose was it?" and "Was it buried in the ground?"

I think that's when the finger moved and we all screamed.

"April Fools!" she said. She had poked a hole through the bottom of the box, stuck her finger through, and then filled it with dirt. It was very Cosby Show.

No good pranks, first-hand, today. I thought that Obama's Ipod gift to the Queen was an April Fool's day prank, but it wasn't. Click and Clack took over GM, but that was clearly a joke (and if it wasn't, cool!) 

Anyway, I decided that I would aim to write a story a week. Nothing to share, nothing to publish, but just a desire to keep up with it. They'll probably be bad, but that's ok. I've got #1 sketched out, woo hoo!