Thursday, September 18, 2014

Role Modeling and Its Absurdities — A Follow Up

In case you were wondering about some of my observations in yesterday's post concerning role models in our culture, please read the following insight about the role of women in the home by the chief marketing officer of the NFL.   Apart from the obviously antediluvian attitudes he expresses, please notice the convoluted syntax leading to vacuous content, which, I suppose, is the whole point of this form of articulation by an obviously extremely overpaid person.  I realize that marketers are rarely concerned with meaning, but this patch truly underlines the absurdity of those who play with any concept of role modeling.
“The matriarch of the family predetermines an awful lot that goes on, from what sport you play to what media you watch to what products get bought,” Mark Waller, the N.F.L.’s chief marketing officer, said in explaining why women were important to the league. “The role of the female in the household is huge. On the emotional side, the role that the female builds that a family can gather around is fundamental. That sort of communal aspect, which is such a part of the game in America.”  Five years ago… [the] N.F.L. set out to court women, “listening to their needs much more aggressively and really trying to get under the skin of what needs they have and what can we do better,” Mr. Waller said." (NYTimes, 9/18/14)

So the communal aspect of the female built role in a family is such a part of the game (professional football) in America.   I think that's a fair untying of  Mr. Waller's linguistic knot.  (Don't wince too much at the "trying to get under the skin of what needs they have" reference; sometimes linguistic cuteness gets one tangled up in Freud.).   The bottom line, as Mr. Waller might say, in all this jumbled context, strongly implies that professional football, and by extension, the entire NFL is grounded in the principles of matriarchy.  

So now, I hope you see why it is so foolish and sometimes dangerous to blather about role models.  Let's all just shut up and try to be as kind and supportive to one another as we can, even though that can be very trying at times.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Role Modeling

"Role model"  Really?  Any phrase that can be used with equal papering to express fawning adulation or contemptuous aspersion is meaningless.  Why do people use it then?  People use it because it has self-aggrandizing meaning to the user who has no concern that it has no meaning to his or her audience.  That's why practitioners in so-called information media use it so cavalierly.

For those of us who do care about actualities, why don't we begin with the word "role."  Merriam-Webster's first definition is "a character assigned or assumed."  In the politically correcting jargon that means at best it has socially constructed meaning, which, in their point of view, means it is mendacious in origin as well as application.  But let's consider it at that level for purposes of discussion.

In our lives we "play" different roles.  That is, we assume the characteristics that have been assigned to us, either through life choices or the authority of the assigner.  Parents are great assigners.  And to assure peace in their homes, most children are compliant assumers.  That gets us through the fledgling stage of life.  Once we reach (assume?) the role of adulthood, our choices begin to form our multitude of roles.  For example, all the professions (attorney, physician, teacher, nurse, etc.) have certain role identifiers associated with them; that is, people inside and outside a particular role have expectations (call them parameters if you like) regarding attributes and behaviors associated with that role.  Unfortunately, these expectations may or may not be accurate by anyone's standards.  You should now be getting the idea behind the opening paragraph.  In the US society, especially, with its mounting diversity of cultures, whatever cultural standards associated with roles that once existed (mainly according to Euro-centric practices) have long since been diluted to being non-existent.

But does that mean we have decided to cast aside the phrase "role model"?  No.  We need it to continue in our delusion of our high morality, our capacity for salvation.  That is where the word "model" comes in.  We want the word to represent (whether it does or not) the highest standard, the epitome, as it were, of our various roles.   The attorney is the model of uncompromising adherence to the principles of balanced justice; the teacher is the paragon of the dedication to learning; the physician is morally concerned with the health of her patients and so on.  So that, no matter where these people appear and under what circumstances, they are the model of behavior for all others in that profession.

But this applies not only to professions but also to life roles.  So we have role models for fathers, for mothers, for grandparents, and for siblings.  Lots of models for lots of roles.  And we all play in many roles.  But issues can arise for those of us who are not so conscious of our obligations to our roles.  The fact is that we are continually being judged from the outside by those observing us according to a role set of standards that we probably are not thoroughly aware of.  For example, I challenge anyone to delineate the role standards for fatherhood.  It does not come naturally, it is learned and it requires almost daily regeneration of consciousness.  In many ways it grates against the natural male proclivity for selfishness.

Now to the point of this ramble.  As I discussed in my post of 9/14/14, "In Bounds and Out of Bounds", lots of people speaking about professional athletes' outrageous behavior pontificate about how the athletes must be conscious of and accept their lives as "role models."  Even if that were true, the question immediately arises:  Which role?  And, by the way, while they are "in bounds", if they are to be role models in that context, their behavior needs to be outrageous by "out of bounds" standards.  Turning it on and off is the sticking point.  Just as a role model mother's nipping at the vodka, or the attorney's boosting his billing time, or the nurse's filching some uppers to get her through the 15 hour day—all of them are turning the modeling on or off because they are human, because they are not acting.

I would say that to identify a person as a role model is in this sense a way of condemning the person to a false life, a life of play acting in a permanent, fabricated role, not a human role.  It could even become a devastating tragedy.  All of us might spend some good time considering the roles we live and identifying how we feel about our adherence to the cultural expectations of those roles.  This could be what makes the adulthood role so terrifying.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In Bounds and Out of Bounds

The other night as I watched the Ravens-Steelers game, I witnessed a defensive lineman (I think it was Haloti Ngata) tackle Ben Roethlisberger with a force so brutal it knocked the very sizeable quarterback off his feet.  The tackler was penalized because he neglected to move his helmet to one side or the other in the execution of the tackle.  That thought never entered his mind.  Because, from the moment he saw Roethlisberger unprotected, he was in “blowin’ out” mode.  I’ll return to what that is later.

We hear lots of blather these days about professional athletes and their seeming hair-trigger propensity for violence.  I was never a professional athlete, but I did play college football and lettered in basketball, football and baseball in high school.  I mention this not only to establish a modicum of credibility but also to provide an insight into what I’ll call an athlete’s frame of mind, especially an athlete involved in a violent or quasi-violent sport (sports not thought of as particularly violent; e.g., baseball, soccer, basketball, etc.).

Let’s call this frame of mind the "in bounds attitude."  Most sports enthusiasts don’t think of the metaphorical significance of the boundary lines of a sport’s playing surface, whether it’s a “pitch,” a “court,” a “gridiron,” a “ring,” or a “cage.”  They think of them specifically only in terms of association with violations of their explicit meaning: the athlete or ball is cited for being “out of bounds.”  The corollary of that consciousness and its unconscious significance for the player, however, are not so top-of-mind to the enthusiast.  The athlete is keenly aware when he or she has in bounds mode.

When an athlete steps onto the playing surface, the world on the other side of the boundaries dissolves into blurred sounds and colors.  The athlete’s mind and body are sharplyly focused on conditioned and repeated nano-second actions and reactions, as reflexive as the blink of an eye.  Whatever behaviors and strategies govern the other side of the boundaries simply do not apply inside the boundaries.  To be effective inside the boundaries, one behaves according to very specific and simple concepts: Perform efficiently by whatever means necessary and prevail.  To accomplish this might involve putting physical hurt on the opposition, and so it does.  The risk of penalty is worth the advantage, and many more penalties go unnoticed than noticed.

A reasonable person might contend that the athlete, like all of us who accept the civilizing principles of social interaction, must adapt his or her behavior to those principles when he or she is “out of bounds” from the playing surface.  Fair enough, but if or when the out-of-bounds context is hostile or threatening, the place becomes merely a circumstance for trained synaptic connections.  The athlete, unlike all of us, becomes reflexive in an effort to prevail.  The thought of pausing and considering literally is not an option.

The generation, exertion and expression of physical force comprise what athleticism means.  As one witnesses the best of athleticism, one is awe struck by the combination of grace and sheer, blunt force.  What external witnesses do not comprehend is the internal sensation of the experience.  I tried to capture this internal sensation once in a soliloquy I wrote for a character in a play I never finished.  I called it “blowin’ out.”

“When I was on the field, I was free.  I was free because I knew I could trust the violence.  The more violent I could be, the better I performed and the better I felt about myself.  And then I was free.(pause)   I don't know when I first heard it...probably sometime junior high...the coach would get us pissed off at him...worked us to a hatred...and then he'd tell us to blow out.  BLOW OUT!  He'd scream down into the mud and sweat where we lived.  (long pause, walks back to center)   I can remember believing in that.  Believing in that more than I believed in the Presbyterian God I was told to cherish.  I could believe in that mud gritty force because it belonged to me because I could do it.  I became the only one there, the only one pushing the blocking sled.  I could pop that sled and steer it anywhere I chose, far beyond the strength I actually had and the strength of those around me.  I blew out so well I snapped the quarter inch steel plate that formed the dummy.  (pause)  Twice.  I snapped it twice and it felt good.  I had no pain.”

This is part of a dialogue with a listener (maybe a therapist, maybe a cleric, maybe a detective who actually never responds) as part of a recollection of a beating the character gave a fellow student in college.  What he realizes is that the experience with the blocking sled created a self-transcendence that he knew he could not experience in his life off the field, a transcendence anathema to his out-of-bounds life.  He was free and essential during those moments of extraordinary physical exertion.

When we conjure the painful and outrageous images of athletes beating people, intimate partners, children, even casual acquaintances, we ought to try to fit these images into the rest of the picture.  These same behaviors mimic the behaviors we admire most in these athletes when they are “in bounds.”  I am not in any way attempting to justify or especially to condone these behaviors.  My intention, sadly, is to provide an insight into the fact that these individuals have been created to do these actions extraordinarily under exigent circumstances that those of us on the outside can only wonder about.  What we should wonder about even more so are the individuals, created to do the same things in bounds, working in the same situations, on the same playing surfaces, who deliberately and apparently consciously do not behave violently when they are out of bounds.  We should admire and celebrate those people.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cultural Symbols That Bind

A recent op-ed in the NYtimes about how ISIS/ISIL parlays looted Syrian antiquities into a complicated system of taxation and blackmarketeering which enables a lucrative revenue stream.  This partially explains where they get mega-funding from places other than Saudia Arabia and Qatar, et al (our "allies in the region").  The article provides valuable information and explanations for how and why things got this far.

But that's only one of the reasons I'm citing this piece.  Deep within the article, almost at the end, the authors placed a comment that I couldn't shake, because it resonated with things I've been thinking and writing for some time.

"In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. Syrians live in ancient cities and neighborhoods, pray in historic mosques and churches and shop in centuries-old bazaars. If and when the fighting stops, this heritage will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines." (emphasis added)

As I read that last, emphasized section, I began wondering.  What would be the cultural symbols that would unite U.S. citizens "across religious and cultural lines"?  Would it be the American flag?  If waving it made any difference.  Would it be democracy?  Have you checked the voting tallies lately?  A cynic might ask, would it be MacDolnalds?  For many perhaps, but would they unite with the Burger Kingers, Starbuckers, ad nauseam?  

No I think these candidates and others would fail to muster the uniting numbers that good old Number One would muster:  $  It's the overriding symbol we all unite under.  Most of us can't say what a cultural heritage is much less name one.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A "New Monastic Individual"

Occasionally, when I review the account for this blog, I'll notice a visitor who has gone to my first post, "What Is A New Monastic Individual" here.   This seems to me to be a good idea.  The title is a bit strange, and an intelligent and curious person would want to know what he or she is getting into.

I went back to that post today and noticed that at the end I wrote that I would post more about the title "next time."  And I did (although "next time" was taken liberally").  In subsequent discussions of the meaning, I simply used the initials NMI.

So for those seeking more insight into the meaning, I suggest the following posts: here and here.

You will find that I stretch the meaning considerably, but I think I've tried to sustain my original purpose (I almost wrote mission, which would create more confusion than already exists.).  Sometimes I think this blog feels like a lamentation.  At other times it feels like a scolding, a very angry scolding.  I try not to lapse into bad language and gutter brawling, but I must admit I've been tempted.

If you're a newcomer, welcome and thanks for trying my out.  If you're an occasional or regular visitor, maybe this post has been helpful.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kickin' Up To The Catcher; or, A Trashy And Worthy Hierarchy

This post's title is deliberately a la 19th century popular literature to suggest the antiquity of the subject matter.  I'll be discussing trash collecting 1950s style as it was in Upper Darby Township, PA.  I do this, I suppose, for a few reasons.  First, I want to clarify what "trash" meant in that place in those days.  Second, and the main body of the post, is the manner and personnel (the hierarchy) involved in the collection.  And, perhaps as a kind of assessment, finally a comment on how we think of "waste removal" these days and the difference it has made in how we view our place in our culture.

I got this summer job on the trash collection detail in my home township quite luckily, believe it or not.  I was in high school, needed the cash and the physical nature of the job was good conditioning for football.  Somehow a connection was made (probably my father).  But never mind that. Let's talk (and clarify) "trash."  The easiest way to explain that is to tell what it wasn't—"garbage."  Two very distinct, if-you-mix-garbage-in-your-trash-we-trash-your-can terms.  Garbage was what today we call biodegradable waste, which in those days was mostly kitchen waste.  The garbage was kept in a small can and was collected at the curb by the garbage truck on a different day.  And, rather than being taken somewhere to biodegrade, the trucks traveled across the Franklin bridge to various hog farms in southern NJ where the garbage became hog slop. I suppose it was a kind of biodegrading.  In any case,  it kept the garbage off my feet as I stood in the bay.   Incidentally,  you would definitely not have any grass clippings in your trash either.  The smell of week-old, wet grass clippings that have been mouldering in a closed can will stay in your nostrils all day, and your can would suffer crushing consequences.  The reasons for these distinctions are in the manner of the collection.

In those days, back-end loaders (which are ubiquitous today) were just beginning to appear.  In our group only the most favored personnel got to work on them.  Those of us newcomers and less-favored drones worked on the kickup trucks.  These utility behemoths were 10 feet high, top of bay to road surface.  The bays were about 16'x10' and each held whole neighborhoods of trash.  When empty, where the "catcher stood," a gate near the front swung down.  The catcher grabbed or caught (as the bay filled with trash) bags and cans of trash thrown to him by the "kickup" guy on the road.  As the load increased in depth (or height), the gate was closed, and the actual kickin' up began.

Kickin' up involves a continuous motion, beginning with tilting the container on its edge, tucking the foot under and kicking the leg up as high as possible to grab the can underneath and on top. That's what most of us newcomers did as we walked along.  As the load reached the upper edge of the bay, in order to maximize the load, the catcher would stack bags of trash to increase the load size.    Incidentally, the the weight of a curb-side container could easily reach 50 or 60 pounds, and some people used 50 gallon drums as trash containers. We did not like those people.  Chief honcho in this truck hierarchy was the driver, who earned his position by virtue of time served, fealty to the job and an innate sense of when the load was ready for the dump (along with a sense of being hungry and thirsty).

This procedure seems perfunctory, to say the least, I'm sure.  But the catcher, the guy standing knee deep in the public's leavings (allow your imaginations to run wild on "leavings"), needed a keen eye and quick reflexes.  And the kickup guy needed to be certain to shout out the nature and weight of what was being kicked up (he needed, for example to remember to check the contents of the can or bag either to leave it at the curb or to let the catcher know what was coming his way...especially regarding weight).  As the truck moved to a new location the catcher would dig through the leavings looking for exchangeable metals, jewelry and—especially!—gold dentures (yes they do get tossed).  These exchangeables were tucked carefully in a spot near the driver's cab.  When the driver got to the dump, he checked in at the exchange (it wasn't actually called that, but that's what it was, like a pawn shop), and collected whatever the stuff was worth.  The entire crew benefitted from the haul, according to the hierarchy: The guys in the street got the least, then the catchers, and finally the driver...not unlike the shares distribution on a whaling ship.

The procedure was exhausting, but I've always felt it was one of the most satisfying jobs I've ever had (being young, healthy and in good physical shape at the time).  Get to the headquarters—"the yard"—at 6:30, wait for the yard boss to distribute the crews for the first loads (the crews shifted trucks usually after each run to the dump, as loaded trucks left, empty trucks arrived, etc.).  The money was fair, and the extra cash from the exchanges always felt good and was a good motivator.  A person was wise to keep his conversation to a minimum, unless the driver felt like chatting.  I liked it because it was simple:  Do the work and get compensated.  I can't say that about all the jobs I had over the years.

If you got this far you're probably struggling to figure a reason for this casual history.  On the surface what you've read through is not ground breaking information.  But beyond the surface, perhaps there is a pathetic discovery.  Garbage collection as I experienced it involved a communal awareness, aboard the trucks and among the crews, and also within the community being serviced.  Everyone had a sense of being a part of a procedure, and everyone had a sense that the procedure was more than the removal of waste; it was the collection of leavings. Was this conscious?  I doubt it—especially for some of the full timers in the crew.  But when I think back on the conversations and the commentary among the crew about the neighborhoods and the personally directed cursing when they found garbage or grass clippings in the leavings, I have this feeling that the job was something more than a mechanical removing.  When you stood knee-deep in the leavings you got to know the neighborhoods in ways that the mechanized procedures of today can't.

I'm not sure that we have experienced progress with waste removal.  Something very human is missing without the kickup guy and the catcher and the driver.  It was much more than a mechanical arm swinging down to grab a container.  It was called a crew for a reason

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gray Matters

When he and I are in the same company, my nephew—who seems to need an audience to feel whole—entertains himself and sometimes others by taking comic jabs at me.  I smile, sometimes offer a retort, but mostly wonder how he feels when he is alone at 3:00 a.m.

But on one significant occasion, while a few of us usually scattered family members were gathered in the hospital during his mother’s, my sister’s final hours, in a context of optimism v. pessimism, my nephew uttered what I feel is the most accurate summary of my personality I’ve ever heard:  “Some people see the glass half-full, and some see it half-empty.  Uncle Rog sees the glass half-gray.”  Everyone, especially me, roared with laughter.  It was a compellingly cathartic interlude.

I think most in the group associated the description with my crêpe-hanging, Eeyorish attitude.  And I accepted that.  Why not?  But today, from a letter to the editor of the Times, I discovered what is probably my reason for focusing on the gray.

We live in a time when we crave black-and-white certainty, as reflected in the obsession with quantification. The humanities teach us how to live, thrive and find meaning in a world that is painted in multiple shades of gray.  BEATRICE REHL
New York, Aug. 16, 2014”  (emphasis added to this excerpt)
And there it was, glowing like a red-hot branding iron, a summary of my personal perspective, testifying to why the humanities have played such a central role in my life.  They guided me through my academic career, during which I eschewed the majority theories, and explored, applied and wrote of the source evidence that contradicted the majority theories.
I take comfort in my idea that questioning the accepted ideas is what makes us become better, more human, less accepting and ultimately, as Ms Rehl indicates, thriving as we find meaning in our lives.  In short, the humanities provide us with access to rise from quantitative certainty into qualitative ambiguity, to experience self-transcendence in our world of separation into nodes of self-absorption.
Unfortunately, this praise of the humanities also serves as its eulogy.  The forces driving our society and our culture see little value in the quality of ambiguity.  Ambiguity, in its nature, offers no opportunity for metrics.