Monday, November 30, 2009

Season of Good

I don't have to look long and hard to find stories about decline here in the U.S. or abroad. From the couple that crashed the White House State Dinner and the attention given to this attention-seeking pair (I won't even link to them - take that!), to Switzerland banning the construction of new Minarets, there's plenty to worry about. But if I look a little longer and harder, I can confirm my suspicions: we're naturally good, naturally caring, and naturally altruistic.

In an article published yesterday, We May Be Born With an Urge to Help, author Nicholas Wade describes the helpful behavior of infants:
From the age of 12 months [infants] will point at objects that an adult pretends to have lost. Chimpanzees, by contrast, never point at things for each other, and when they point for people, it seems to be as a command to go fetch something rather than to share information.
A biologist quoted in the article, Frans de Waal, likewise says that humans are "preprogrammed to reach out":
Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”
(And here I digress to note that so many Americans still reject science!)

Another article from the times, The Biology Behind the Milk of Human Kindness, explains how new research suggests that the hormone Oxytocin "underlies the twin emotional pillars of civilized life, our capacity to feel empathy and trust."

Imagine: we're born kind and capable of empathy and trust. We care and help. That we are taught and conditioned from an early age to distrust, to reject, to (in some cases) hate - this is heartbreaking to me. But again, this moral universe of ours, slowly bends toward justice. As more of us grow up in a multicultural society with different races, sexual orientations, and genders holding a variety of positions of power, so too will our society grow.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Good intentions

Okay, I'm working on a story. My protagonist is a little creepy, but his intentions are good. I've had the basic plot sketched out for quite some time; what better time to start fleshing it out than Thanksgiving morning?

I love that moment when an idea turns into sentences and characters and dialog, and before long, those characters are telling me what to write or how they should behave. That doesn't mean those sentences are any good or that the characters are engaging, only that it's pretty cool that they have their own power.

Here's a picture of my brother Jonah, from last Thanksgiving. I forgot how unseasonably warm it had been last year, too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gratitude on Thanksgiving Eve

Oh, things to be grateful for:
  • both my brothers calling me yesterday, checking our Thanksgiving plans, making sure there wasn't anything else each could bring;
  • my 87 year-old grandmother, insistent, relishing the chance to prepare another turkey dinner;
  • my mom, hating parades, but enjoying getting her house ready for the Christmas season more than anything else;
  • my dad, in Kenya, helping me to keep things in perspective, and technology, for allowing us to stay in such close contact;
  • and my friends, near and far, showing me such kindness and warmth.
And can I be grateful for the Muppets, too? At a time when entertainment is often vulgar and based on the denigration of others, the Muppets are simply joyful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Dream More than Others Think Practical"

~ Howard Schultz

Warren Wilson's MFA program looks promising, at least as far as their course design and faculty are concerned. I need to schedule a visit. Tour the campus, talk to teachers. The interesting part about starting this journey later (as opposed to right after undergrad) is that I'm more concerned with finding a program that fits me and my needs, rather than fitting myself to a program.

So far, I haven't found an advertised technology component to these programs. Sure, much of the coursework is done online, and most of the resources will be on the internet, but I want more information about publishing in this new-media environment. How does one make money on the written word, when there's so much writing available for free? It's already impractical enough for me to consider going further into debt...

...Then again, I'm hardly on the look out for "practical." I want to go on sabbatical, simplify. Not have the money to buy yet another pair of brown boots. I want to use and demonstrate my resourcefulness, financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

I got up at 6 this morning to finish grading papers. I think I'm all finished. Out of 37 papers, a few really stood out. My favorite was about a parrot named "Sinbad."

Ashville, NC

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Then they swarm around me

Week four of the quarter, we tackle poetry and literary devices. Across the various campuses of my school, English teachers use the same syllabus; week four, we're all tackling poetry and literary devices. Last quarter, on here, I talked about the poems we discuss. I still used the same four poems--I've almost got them all memorized, dammit!--but I approached the lesson differently today.

I had asked each student to choose one poem out of the four and then to write a response to it in preparation for today's class. Then students got together with the other students who had chosen the same poem. Interestingly, twelve chose "Phenomenal Woman," ten chose "Dream Deferred," and a few each chose "Do Not Go Gently" and "Road Less Traveled." Within their groups (and I divided the larger groups into smaller ones), students identified literary devices within the poem, how those devices contributed to their understanding and/or appreciation, and why this particular poem resonated with their group. They also had to choose someone to recite the poem for the class.

(Something interesting: in my class of 37, I have 7 male students--the most guys I've had in one single class--but still less than twenty percent of the class. Out of the four poems, three were read by males, and I have a few boring theories as to why this is so. I bit my cheeks to keep from smiling when a fifty-something male read Angelou's anthem: "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies..." )

Anyway, this went well; however, I had trouble regrouping afterward. Students were talking over me - not loudly, but it was distracting nonetheless. My usual tactics for halting those discussions didn't work. I have a week to think about it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Moral Universe

The library levy in Cincinnati passed a couple weeks ago by a 3-1 margin; in fact, levies for the Museum Center, MRDD, and Cincinnati Public Schools all passed by significant margins. As trying as these times are, people voted with their hearts and minds and not with their pocket books.

I remember reading a poll this summer, right as the health care debate was gaining steam, and two facts stood out to me: 1. Most people were for reform, and 2. Most people didn't think reform would help them, personally. In other words, they wanted reform because they thought it would benefit society as a whole.

Most of our leaders have shied away from appealing to our better angels (our sense of decency, fairness, and justice) and instead marketed health care reform in terms of something for ourselves only. They tell us to ask: How can I, personally, have better choices? How can I save a buck or two? Or, on the flip side, demand: How is this reform going to take away my choices? With the help of the news media, it's no surprise that this debate has descended into hyperbole.

It's hard not to become disheartened. Just this morning, an article appeared in the New York Times described how
statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.
Twenty-two Republicans and twenty Democrats (look! bipartisanship!) included lobbyists' language, from Genentech and other companies, in "statements for publication in the Congressional Record." It should be no surprise that lobbyists conduct "outreach" to members of congress. But there's something almost nefarious about the repetition of lobbyists' language across party aisles. As I tell my students, clarity of thought and clarity of writing are interconnected; you don't have one without the other.

Where do I find heart? A well-turned phrase goes a long way with me, and when I first read "Dreams From My Father" in 2006 or 2007, I knew this Obama person was someone special. He wrote with such poetry and compassion about his life and the world around him. From that first book to his speech on race during the primary season, Barack Obama has continued to demonstrate clarity of thought and clarity of writing.

Quoted by President Obama and Martin Luther King, preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker said
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I can calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.*
Parker died before slavery was abolished, but his words and writing suggest that he knew it was coming, whether in 1865 or 1965. His words and ideas persist.

This health care debate, the coming debates about global warming and financial reform, the ongoing debate about Afghanistan: there will continue be noise from all sides, amplified and regurgitated on cable tv, but I have to hope and believe that truth and decency will emerge at some point, quieting the noise.

* Thanks to for the unedited Parker quote

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

No Worries, Mate

When I was a child, my favorite phrase was "I'm bored." I used it to signal my dissatisfaction with whatever activity or people surrounded me. And I usually uttered to my mother, who always, no matter how many times I'd said it, had a new suggestion: call a friend, read a book, draw a picture, etc. If I'd had the word then, I probably would have said, "I'm experiencing ennui," just to be extra annoying. Despite myriad options, I always had trouble filling empty space.

I don't have trouble filling that space anymore. This is mostly a good thing. More Sydney pictures here. Skyrail pics from Kuranda (near Cairns) here. A few pics from the Blue Mountains here. I've been keeping up with the developments on health care, but it's been moving so quickly that any comment I make about it seems moot within a couple days.

President Obama spoke at Fort Hood yesterday, giving, I think, his best speech since inauguration. It was a moving tribute to those that lost their lives on American soil last week, as well as to those who continue to serve and sacrifice in wars for which "there is not always a simple ceremony that signals our troops' success -- no surrender papers to be signed, or capital to be claimed." I'll surely think of them today, Veterans Day.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"You know, Bush really f*%ked things up for everyone."

~ Intoxicated Sydneysider

While riding the skyrail in Kuranda, Megan and I shared a gondola with a couple from Western Australia. We learned a bit about the politics of the country. In WA, they don't like those "East Coast elites" (i.e., Sydney, Canberra, etc.) telling them what to do or how to live. One of the hot-button issues was daylight savings - the east coast cities preferred them, according to this couple, while working citizens from their area opposed it. They alluded to the fact that citizens are required to vote or else they face a fine.

But what interested me was how similar the arguments there are to the arguments here. The details may differ, but the ideas are the same. What role should the government play in our lives? What responsibilities belong to the government, and what belong to us alone? (We had another conversation about politics our last night in Sydney with a young person, drunk, who stole Megan's olives without asking; this drunk woman's main point: "You know, Bush really f*%ked things up for everyone.")

I uploaded more pictures to flickr. I wasn't very discriminating as I took picture after picture.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quick hits

That post-trip/new quarter anxiety is subsiding. I'm keeping up with emails and reducing the amount of assignments I collect to grade after asking myself, "Is this benefiting the student?" I'm not eliminating all assessment of non-essay writing, but I'm increasing the amount of low-pressure (non-graded) writing that we do in class. One of the things I try to convey is that writing is a process - the first draft should never be your best and final draft, regardless of how good it seems. And if students are graded on that first draft, what kind of message am I sending?

Tomorrow we'll discuss "A Rose for Emily" - I like this story better each time I read it. I just love the moment where Miss Emily goes to the pharmacist and asks for rat poison - arsenic. The sweet, unknowing pharmacist says that he's required to ask her what it's for, and
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up. ... When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: "For Rats."
Because of Faulkner's narrative structure, the reader doesn't know (unless he or she is more perceptive than I) who the rat is. But after I've read it a few times, I crack up when she opens the poison "for rats."

The library levy passed here in Cincinnati, and Issue 9 (the proposal that would have made it harder for the city to develop any rail system, whether street cars or light rail) failed. In all it was a good election night. But I couldn't help but think about last year and the excitement coursing through the nation. It would be impossible for all Obama's supporters, those thousands of volunteers who canvassed and donated money and phone banked, to sustain that energy through his presidency; unfortunately, I think that kind of energy would be necessary for him to carry out his ambitious agenda. As it stands, I think he's doing the best he can. One year later, the sounds and images from that night--and what it meant to so many of us--still resonate.

Edited to fix the quote from "A Rose for Emily," which--despite multiple readings--I had misquoted. D'oh!