Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tale of Two Worlds

I like to think that I came to my politics on my own, that I studied all sides and points of view and came to the conclusion that, yes, I am a democrat, I believe in a strong federal government, and I believe that government has a responsibility to help the least among us.

But my politics were formed long before I could study the issues and articulate my own ideology. Some of my earliest memories are of protests. I never heard the word "Reagan" or "Republican" without some disparaging remark from my mother. The second wedding I ever attended was between two women. It wasn't one thing; it was lots of things. I don't know how I could have been brought up how I was and become anything but a bleeding-heart liberal.

While Bush was president (for all but a couple years of my adult life), I got used to being a minority party. I could make fun of the president (haha "nuke-yoo-ler") and go to protests (boo "No Child Left Behind," boo Anti-Choice, boo Iraq invasion) and relish the frustration and freedom that comes from not being in charge. As I've said before, it's much easier to tear something apart than it is to solve or build.

But now we're in charge. We have an intellectual, progressive president who reads and writes for pleasure. We swept the house and senate to have majorities in both. We have a public who, despite the noise on cable, supports meaningful health care reform. And yet there seems to be two entirely different conversations going on, neither of which involves most Americans. The first is among the faction that has decided that President Obama is either illegitimate or a stone's throw away from a fascist, communist dictator. This group is talking about death panels and rationing and ACORN. Another conversation is going on more privately between lawmakers and the insurance industry. Democrats and Republicans alike seem to be holding legislation hostage at the request of lobbyists.

But most of us, we're not part of this conversation. We are seeing budgets slashed, our friends laid off, and others struggling to get by. We are educated, we're engaged, but the more shut out of the process we are--candidate Obama wanted these health care debates to be broadcast in the open, live, on C-Span--the more disenfranchised we feel.

Winning cures all ills, though; the Bengals have won two in a row, so no one is going to complain about lack of throws his way. Once health care goes through, unemployment drops, and tangible signs of an economic recovery appear, the loony fringe may recede.

I think of a quote I read from one of Al Gore's books: "The opposite of reason is fear." So many people are (wrongfully, in my opinion) fearful, today. They seem to see no common ground. While I'd love for Obama to dictate what should (and should not) be done to reform health care, I think that might only increase fear and resentment as well as decrease reason and engagement. Slow as this is, process is important.

And so here I am again, faced with the task of grading revisions and thinking of new and better ways to make Othello interesting and relevant to nursing students, instead doing my own writing. It's a breath of fresh air to me, sitting here on my couch, my laptop in front of me and my space heater aimed directly at me, typing my own words instead of figuring out numerical scores for creative pieces. (This late in the quarter, I'm tempted to use smilies and "Way to Go!" stickers.) And with that, back to work I go.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rise of Nutritionism

Weekends go by far too fast. And given that I work just about every single Saturday, they often feel non-existent.

Now, as I push myself to finish grading all 36 essays, I'm torn between going to bed (I need sleep), finishing grading (I work until 8pm tomorrow, and class meets Tuesday morning), and reading more descriptions of the BENGALS' WIN OVER THE STEELERS!!!

(Clearly, I've shoved all three options aside and chosen instead to update my blog: Priorities.)

This afternoon I went to see Michael Pollan speak at Xavier University. Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan lectured on nutrition--nutritionism was his term--and agriculture in American society. He rightly asked why America, so obsessed with health and nutrition, is so unhealthy. We think of food, he said, as nutrition delivery instruments. They carry vitamin C, protein, and cholesterol. But food is much more mysterious. He described a group in Australia, Aborigines, who had moved to the city and ate "Western-style" meals -- a meat and two vegetables; processed food; fast food--and developed heart disease and type-II diabetes. They went back to the land, getting their food by hunting and gathering, and the symptoms went away. While food packagers seek ways to tinker around the edges -- get rid of trans fast, replace sugar with Splenda -- Pollan notes that the whole way Americans approach food is broken; tinkering won't do.

The most important thing he said applied to the amount of money we spend on preventable chronic illnesses (heart disease, type II diabetes). By changing the way we consume food, we could significantly alter how much is spent treating these. He said: "'Health care crisis' is just a synonym for the catastrophe that is the American diet."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Quick hits

It's another rainy day in Cincinnati. I'm rather enjoying the gloominess and mild temperatures as well as the legitimate excuse to avoid running. (And I can wear my Kenya scarves).

I'm off to work in a few minutes, but here's a quick update:
  • No movement on the MFA front; the end of the quarter is kicking my butt, and I haven't had time to focus on researching schools, putting together portfolios, and gathering references.
  • There are still not enough hours in the day. Supposedly sleep helps keep colds at bay. I decided a while ago that a full-night's sleep was key to my mental stability, and now there's evidence that I have that sleep to thank for my relatively good health these past few years.
  • The Reds have been winning a lot lately; why couldn't they have done that in June and August???
  • I'm psyched that the Bengals are 1-1. This city, as pessimistic as we get about the Bengals, will absolutely explode with joy and excitement if the Bengals make a playoff run.
Bye for now :)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cured in 150 minutes!

For two and a half hours today, I had cancer. It was palpable; I felt it. I stood in that shower, suddenly jolted from whatever minor annoyance I'd been thinking about, dried off, and then sat down at my computer wondering, "What do I do now?"

My primary care physician reduced her client-load a couple years ago, so I was doctorless. I looked up urgent care, but their services didn't seem appropriate. I thought about calling nana but didn't want to worry her. I didn't have a clue what I should do next, and so I thought about my family history of cancer and got uncharacteristically emotional.

But I can also be cold and calculating. I imagine people dying; I picture really bad things happening. I observe them, detached, in my mind, and watch how events transpire. By the time I managed to get a referral and appointment for a mere 90 minutes later, I was already seeing myself leaving one of my jobs and my apartment. I had some perverse pleasure in imagining my world and priorities shifted.

Two and a half hours after I had diagnosed myself, my new doctor (friendly, grandfatherly; reminded me of my pediatrician) assured me there was no cancer. I'd have felt silly getting so worked up about it if not for my family history or my string of good health these past few years: I'd thought, "I'm due for this."

I may whine and complain and obsess over small things, but life is remarkably good; I'm remarkably lucky. If nothing else, today's experience reminded me of that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"What is love anyway, and sorrow, and light?"

~ Natalie Goldberg

At my dad's suggestion, I've started reading "Long Quiet Highway," by Natalie Goldberg. She writes about her childhood, about becoming a writer, and about Zen. I'm especially drawn to her voice, the way each sentence has purpose and flows to the next:

Writing became the tool I used to digest my life and to understand, finally, the grace, the gratitude I could feel, not because everything was hunky-dory, but because we can use everything we are. Actually we have no choice. We can't use what someone else had--a great teacher, a terrific childhood. That is outside ourselves. And we can't avoid an inch of our own experience; if we do it causes a blur, a bleep, a puffy unreality. Our job is to wake up to everything, because if we slow down enough, we see we are everything.

Goldberg balances grand statements about writing and life with stories about teachers (her favorite was Mr. Clemente, from whom she took English all four years of high school, and who never knew she cared), family, and others.

I love books about writing, writers on writing--not writers on craft: not style, dialogue, or characterization--but the process and struggle that comes with writing and being a writer. She stresses the importance of practice and discipline, of not giving in to that voice that says, "I'm tired" or "I'm hungry" or "I'm sick." Face that blank page, stare it down, and cover it with my words.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Better late than never...

As I've mentioned, I go to my grandma's every Sunday. I do laundry, eat my one actual meal for the week, and watch old movies or sports, depending what time of year it is. This past Sunday was emotionally exhausting for both of us as we cheered on the Bengals, only to have victory ripped from their hands (or rather, deflected by Leon Hall into the hands of Brandon Stokely).

Ugh. Anyway, Nana always asks about the wine tasting: What did I eat? Who was there?

This past Friday's had a Spanish theme:

Station One:
  • Pepper Soup with Lemon and Lime - this cold soup was rather hot, but would make a good salsa.
  • Domino De Eguren Protocolo Blanco - a nice white wine that went nicely with the hot (spicy) soup.
Station Two:
  • Black Bean Dip with Tortilla Chips - Just what the name describes, but very yummy!
  • Vega Sindoa 2008 Rosado - a decent rose
Station Three:
  • Pollo Con Salsa Fresca - Boneless chicken with white onion, garlic cloves, bay leaves, ground cumin, and ancho chili. Very tasty!
  • Campos Reales 2006 - Nice, balanced red
Station Four:
  • Carne Fajita Burrito - Skirt steak and all kinds of flavorful goodness wrapped up in a tortilla. Mmm.
  • Atalaya Almansa 2007 - As far as I remember, this was a dry red. Went nicely with the fajita.
Station Five:
  • Three Latin-themed cheeses:
  1. Queso Asadero - soft, almost like mozzerella. It would be good for melting, but bland by itself.
  2. Queso Cotija - tasted like parmesan.
  3. Queso de Mano - this raw goat's milk cheese was very flavorful and easily everyone's favorite. According to the notes, it is aged for a minimum of four months, and it's generally produced on a small scale.
  • Txomin Etxaniz 2007 Txakoli De Getaria - I think this was a light white, but usually station five is something sparkly.
Afterward we went to Lemon Grass for Thai Food. Mmm... Thai.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Going barefoot

Today knocked my socks off a bit.

I was challenged--in the middle of class--in such a manner that it was all I could do to keep standing up or not cry. But I recovered, they recovered, and we all talked it out. In total, it wasn't a bad thing. Sometimes we need our socks knocked off every once in a while to jar us out of complacency.
Next week, we'll try again; in six weeks I'll start over again. Get just a little closer; have that answer a little more polished.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Anything other than what I've been trying to be lately...

I had gotten into one of my little reflection ruts. I started thinking about myself--life, the big picture, identity, gender roles, blah blah blah--to the point where I had to find a youtube video with the "I Don't Wanna Be" theme. Haha! This task, this task! How do we know what we want to be? I feel privileged to be part of a family and community that allows me to explore (to succeed and to fail), and I wonder if some of the craziness that's going on in our society recently (birthers, 9/12ers, tea partiers) is the result of people buckling down, their own identities and roles being challenged by this Other.

Here's what's awesome: Instead of a straightforward production of the theme song, I could only find fan videos. And one baby. This knocked me right out of my momentary rut. Simplify, Rachel. Simplify and enjoy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Funky and Clunky APA

I met today with a student who received a low grade on a paper. She's allowed to revise it, but because of the subject matter, she didn't want to spend more time on it; she just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. We ended up talking for about 45 minutes, not just about organization and coherency (the main problems with the paper) but about the death penalty, Vegas, and non-biased language.

APA style recommends using non-biased language when referring to individuals with disabilities. That is, use language to "maintain the integrity of individuals as whole human beings." The idea is to identify the person first and the disability second. Instead of "disabled person," we refer to a "person with a disability." Instead of "schizophrenic," we say, "an individual with schizophrenia."

When I introduced this in class Tuesday, I got a rise out of more than a few students who said it seemed like overkill, or it contradicted my earlier pleas for conciseness. One of the guidelines is to see "people with disabilities as a resource and as contributing community members, not as a burden or problem," preferring the clunky "responsibilities of the community for inclusion and support" over "community support needs of individuals." No one is "confined" to a wheelchair; rather, he or she "uses" a wheelchair.

The same student I met with today had asked, "Does anyone ask the people what they want to be called?" She went on to describe her husband, paralyzed from the waist down years earlier after an accident. "He's a paraplegic," she said. "He wouldn't want anyone to tell him he couldn't call himself a 'paraplegic.'" She said he had to suffer through months of therapy to get into that wheelchair. "Now," she had said, "he's a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He owns that"

I couldn't and didn't argue. We talked a little about how members of any group have earned the right to refer to themselves however they choose. APA is simply a standard; it's neutral to the point of blandness. But throughout history we've seen language used to denigrate and marginalize in ways both obvious and not. APA is used to write scientific reports, articles on research studies. The neutrality will enable facts to speak for themselves.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It was a dark and stormy night...

When I set off on foot to return an overdue video to Blockbuster this evening, a part of me must have known that the sky was going to break open some time during the next 30 minutes. I was halfway there -- about half a mile from my house -- when it started to sprinkle, and I had just dropped off the video when it started to pour. So what began as a leisurely walk through the neighborhood to return a DVD turned into a mad sprint: if I get violently ill tomorrow, this is why.

This past Sunday I participated in the 30th annual Cheetah Run at the Cincinnati Zoo. Along with 1100 other runners - including moms with strollers, amazingly fit marathoners, and people of all shapes and sizes - I followed a very hilly path inside of and around the zoo. I managed to run for the first mile (a very hilly mile, I must say) and then alternated walking and jogging the rest of the 5k.

I was surprised by how much I was able to run, given that I've only run sporadically this summer. But having so many people around, including friends wanted to walk when I did and run when I did, provided a lot of motivation. Were I by myself, I wouldn't have gone as far. The rain this evening provided me a different motivation, but it worked just as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice..."

"...Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind." ~Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

After college -- my four, glorious years inside the bubble! -- I knew I wasn't ready to commit myself to writing. It would be too insular. The words might have been there, but the experience to give them weight was not.

I was away at school when the twin towers were struck and, while deeply affected, I can't help but remember a short essay I wrote a couple weeks later. Responding to an article that suggested "postmodernism is dead" because the attack crystallized the notion of good/evil, right/wrong, I countered that postmodernism is more important than ever. The attacks, while clearly wrong and evil, were a part of a larger story. In the larger story, the roles aren't as clearly defined. At least, that's what I had argued at the time.

Generally speaking, my views haven't changed. My politics and my values are the same. But now those views, politics, and values are much more grounded in my experience. They are worth more to me, and I'm better able to articulate them.

Part of the process of applying to MFA programs is selecting 20-25 pages of work. I'm rereading these stories, so close to my heart, that I completed my senior year at college. They're all set in the neighborhood in which I grew up (and in which my mom and stepfather continue to live), and while the characters and situations are fictional, the backdrop is not. They visit the same corner deli that I did; they walk to the same park that I did. They look at the same polluted, muddy sky that I did.

But as I reread them, adding and removing commas when necessary, I think again of the bubble: that narrow, dome-shaped lens through which I viewed, analyzed, and came to understand (or so I thought) the world.

Maybe I would have succeeded, getting my MFA immediately after college. Maybe, by now, I'd have a book published or, at least, a few short stories. Maybe my world view would have expanded just through that process of growing older.

I doubt it though.

I wouldn't have worked in an inner-city Catholic School and learned how to keep score in volleyball.

I wouldn't have student-taught in an inner-city public school and learned that "Don and Marge" (our euphemism for happy hour at Don Pablo's) can be a girl's best friends after a really long day.

I wouldn't have taught preschool students in Kentucky, caught lice, and witnessed the death of a hermit crab at the hands of a sweet, troubled boy, helping me to realize my own limitations.

And I wouldn't have worked at the public library while teaching nursing students the art of writing APA-style. Both of these settings have allowed me to encounter people and perspectives so different from those that I would otherwise encounter.

All of these experiences, all of these pieces, are a part of me now. My 9/11 essay, today, might have the same central argument, but it would be grounded more in reality than academics. My stories, today, might still have an 8-year old protagonist, but her mother would have more dimension because, now, I've met that mother.

Writing is a process that involves getting our ideas out and coming up with a plan. If we try to get everything out at once, that's when we experience writer's block. Ideas are too big to get out in one push (in class, I draw a giant head with a big brick inside: "It's impossible to get it out at once; break it apart and then reform it into something even better.") So I've been getting this idea out, piece by piece, ever since college.

It's just taken me a while because I usually see the forest before the trees, and this forest wasn't ready until now.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

September 4th's Five After Five

We were well represented last night, and I was anxious to redeem myself following last week's Wild Turkey incident.

I accidentally tossed out the menu, but my favorite (besides the cheese) was station four: pulled pork barbecue. Mmm, mmm!

The library was rather peaceful, just how I like it. I printed off some full-text articles about August Wilson's Fences - we're discussing this play on Thursday. Even though I've read the play multiple times, and have twice used it in class, the articles gave me new insight. No matter how closely you've looked at something, you can always find something else.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Reading is the basics for all learning."

~ George W. Bush

When you study early childhood education, you learn all about "reading readiness." It sounds almost like a buzz phrase, empty. But research suggests that children who are read to, who come from homes in which books are available, have significant advantages over children who are not read to; who do not have books that are easily accessible. The former children will be ready to read whereas the latter children will not be, without interventions.

You learn that a lot of factors have a role in a child's ability to read, from environment to IQ. But the only causal relationship is that child's phonemic awareness - his or her recognition that words are made up of sounds. The greater a child's phonemic awareness, the more likely he or she is to be a successful reader. So how do parents increase their child's phonemic awareness? Play word games. Sing nursery rhymes. Toss words around, flip them, rhyme them, and toy with them.

I watched an old episode of Fareed Zakaria: GPS a couple weeks ago. Malcolm Gladwell appeared on the show to talk about his book, "Outliers." The part of their conversation that most struck me centered on the effect that small, early advantages had on future success. That is, early encouragement at a young age reaped huge rewards at later ages.

Gladwell used the example of reading. The difference between a six-year old who reads "a lot" and a six-year old who reads "a little" is very small. But the boy who reads a lot will read better; he will appreciate reading more; he will receive positive encouragement and thus rewards. By the time he's in junior high, he is an avid reader who enjoys more challenging works. He will be in accelerated classes and, later, in the advanged placement classes. The boy who reads a little, on the other hand, will not receive the same kind of encouragement. Because he does not read a lot, he will not improve as quickly; he certainly won't excel. When he gets to junior high, he will not join the accelerated classes. Even if the two boys have the same motivation, one has a leg up.

It's a combination of opportunity and personal motivation that predicts success. Think of Tiger Woods. Obviously, he is very talented. But he is also extremely motivated and was encouraged from a very young age.

Laziness pervades our culture. Laziness of thought, laziness of action, laziness of personal responsibility. As I sit and look at the piles of ungraded papers and dirty coffee mugs that surround me, I don't exclude myself. In the movie Idiocracy, an average guy from 2005 is put into hibernation only to wake up, 500 years later, to discover that he's the smartest guy on the planet. Society has devolved to the point where farms are watered with gatorade, the Oscar-winning film that year is called Ass, and patients at hospitals play slot machines in order to win a chance for treatment. The movie is extremely exaggerated. But parts of it still ring true.

Is it hyperbolic to suggest that we seem to reward the loudest only to devalue the most decent and sensical? I feel like we're sliding toward idiocracy. When a majority of people support a public option in spite of the media's misinformation and overrepresentation of insane, noisy protests, why the hell is our government capitulating? I want to believe that Obama's going to draw a line in the sand during his speech next week. That he'll make the case for clear and substantial reform. But all signs lately are suggesting the opposite: giving things up even though republicans won't vote yes, regardless. Rewarding insurance companies when their profits are through the roof, when they are the ones responsible for denying fair, affordable coverage.

We'll see. Anyway, tonight is five after five, followed by an encore viewing of the wonderful Dr. Horrible.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

“The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers”

~ Carl Jung

One of the Daily Dish's guest bloggers, Jonah Lehrer, writes about the man, likely innocent, who was recently executed in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for a supposed arson that killed his two children. Exhaustive reviews suggest that mistakes were made by investigators from day one and that the evidence should not have been enough to convict this man.

In A Just World, Lehrer describes an experiment done in the sixties that resulted in the development of the Just World Hypothesis. Different groups of volunteers watch a woman tortured:

One group of volunteers is now given a choice: they can transfer the shocked subject to a different learning paradigm, where she is given positive reinforcements instead of painful punishments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people choose to end the torture. They quickly act to rectify the injustice. When asked what they thought of the "learner," they described her as an innocent victim who didn't deserve to be shocked. That's why they saved her.

The other group of subjects, however, isn't allowed to rescue the volunteer undergoing the test. Instead, they are told a variety of different stories about the victim. Some were told that she would receive nothing in return for being tortured; others were told that she would be paid for her participation. And a final group was given the martyr scenario, in which the victim submits to a second round of torture so that the other volunteers might benefit from her pain. She is literally sacrificing herself for the group.

Lehrer goes on to describe how each of the groups made judgments about the victim based on the type of compensation she was receiving. Here was the conclusion:

the less money the volunteer received in compensation for her suffering the more the subjects disliked her. The people explained the woeful injustice by assuming that it was her own fault: she was shocked because she wasn't paying attention, or was incapable of learning, or that the pain would help her perform better. The martyrs fared even worse. Even though this victim was supposedly performing an act of altruism - she was suffering for the sake of others - the witnesses thought she was the most culpable of all. Her pain was proof of her guilt.
In other words, the observerers altered their judgment in order to reconcile their sense of moral justice. The results suggest that participants believe that if a woman is being tortured, surely she must deserve it. If a man is wrongly executed, ultimately it doesn't matter because he was probably a scummy person.

This discussion reminds me of a post by Marc Ambider not too long ago. He asks, does it matter if torture works? When we have a chrystalized sense of justice - what is right, what is wrong - and that justice is rooted not in moral consistency of individuals but rather the morality of institutions, whether the military or government, then we make the necessary cognitive adjustments to make all actions fit within that moral framework. Torture is wrong except when sponsored by our government.

It's certainly created some dissonance in my own mind. I've always believed, no matter what else is going on in my life or in the world, that people are good at heart and that ultimately we all want the same things: a chance for happiness for ourselves, those we love, and fellow man. But seeing how disingenuine politicians are and watching the mainstream media perpetuate falsehoods have been incredibly disturbing and disheartening.