Monday, May 25, 2015

The Prescience of “Wall E”

On Sunday’s I go to the Times’ “Sunday Review” section right after I’ve grazed over the TV schedule for the day’s sporting events.  So-called hard news can wait for the hard weekdays.
So this Sunday I flipped over some hipster baiting titles (“Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes,” “Shoes That Put Women in Their Place” etc.) and decided to read Maureen Dowd first, probably because the title piqued my curiosity.  “Driving Uber Mad” is about the vagaries of the Uber system, but toward the end Ms. Dowd inserted some information that triggered my favorite knee jerk response—our lives “going forward” (of course!) to dystopia.  Let’s start with her text:
“As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, ‘There’s an Uber for everything now.  Washio is for having someone do your laundry, Sprig and Spoonrocket cook your dinner and Shyp will mail things out so you don’t have to brave the post office.  Zeel delivers a massage therapist (complete with table).  Heal sends a doctor on a house call, while Saucey will rush over alcohol.  And by Jeeves—cutesy names are part of the schtick—Dufl will pack your suitcase and Eaze will reup a medical marijuana supply.’  There is also Luxe, which uses GPS to offer a personal parking valet dressed in a blue uniform who will meet you at your destination and park your car for you."
My first response was:  I’ve seen this movie, but I can’t remember the title.  So I went to my resident research expert, my wife, my favorite librarian, who knows exactly how to phrase a Google search.  In about 30 seconds, I had my title, and I had my idea.
"Wall E" is a dystopian vision  (I know, oxymoron), having to do with Earth in the distant future, buried in its own refuse and having to transport its salvaged humanity via Axiom, a super space ship to…wherever they can survive.  Wall E, a robot with all the diligence and cuteness of our idealized selves (remember, it’s Pixar), is the story’s hero, because he is diligent and because he has good old American common sense.  What’s missing is a companion, a love interest, if you will.  This happens, sort of deus ex machina, in the entity of EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator…really), who, as the plot and story develop, provides sufficient impetus (motivation?) for Wall E to become a hero.  But so far, notice that this has nothing to do with Uber, et al.  Not until we look at the passengers aboard Axiom.
The passengers are actual humans, what’s left after their predecessors despoiled the planet Earth.  And what we see and learn of their behavior tells us everything.  They have all their needs provided by various forms of technology, including and especially robots. And, because they lead lives of continual gourmandizing, they are morbidly obese.  They actually can’t move.
Although I’ll guess that Ms. Dowd did not have “Wall E” in mind while she wrote the piece, her final paragraph strongly implies a dystopian itch.  “I’m hoping Uber’s self-driving cars will like me more.  But somehow I think the robots will be even more judgy.”  I suppose like most of us she accepts the momentum of the inevitability of our relentless appetites and technology’s determination to over-supply us.  Somewhere, sometime, someone told us that we should always be stress free and that our physical comfort and satiation are what we live for.  I wish I knew who it was.  I’m pretty certain, at least, that it wasn’t the Puritans.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Op. Re-Post: "The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame"

The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame               (FFT, December 23, 2004)

American military deaths in Iraq: 1,323
American military wounded in Iraq: 9,981
Iraqi body count (minimum): 14,880

The full quotation from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 129” (among the so-called “dark sonnets”) is “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action”.  Actually, the entire sonnet is worth your time, and this is a fitting text to frame today’s discourse.

Let’s assume Tom Friedman is right today: The “insurgents” are actually “a Sunni-Bathist minority…the real fascists, the real colonialists [in their own country?]…a tiny minority who want to rule Iraq by force…people who are killing and intimidating and trying to destroy a better future for Iraq”.  Let’s also assume that the majority of the people are eager, compassionate, innocent “democrats” yearning to breathe free.

Can it truly be that simple?  Can tribal integrity and conflict as well as sectarian fealty have nothing to do with this?  Can this be about anything other than oppression vs. “free government”?  Besides, if one looks at a petrochemical map of Iraq, one can see what the urge for “democracy” is truly all about. 

It’s about the same thing the establishment of our democracy was all about, what our young people call piles of Benjamins and bling.  Are there still those among US who know so little about US that they don’t know our country was born from the mating of the Enlightenment (sorry Christian Coalition, thinking, not believing was the seminal force behind US) and burgeoning capitalism (a.k.a. mercantilism in those days)?  During the struggle to establish US under a binding Constitution, the people actually experienced several civil wars (insurgent uprisings and “evil” murders).  These wars were between those people (generally agrarians) who had little to gain from a reconstitution of their governance and those people drooling for the “freedom” to exploit this potentially dynamic and history shifting economy (generally the mercantilists of the Middle Colonies and New England).  You might want to take a look at Simon Schama's Rough Crossings to get a visceral feel for exactly how un-together the colonists were and how without a clue the Brits were (sound familiar?…it's what empire is all about).

Europeans in those days saw North America as the place where the Benjamins and bling could be gathered ad infinidum.  Do we really think the venerable Ben Franklin, the same guy who drove the Moravian farmers from western Pennsylvania in the name of “progress”, traveled to Europe solely to facilitate his dalliances?  If we believe that, then we’ll believe we’re now shredding human bodies and billions of dollars in Iraq to provide them with our full measure of devotion to the ideals of democracy.

Stop being children, America!  The American and Iraqi people being slaughtered today and the money being flushed today all represent your needs to have more stuff and to think less.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Op. Re-post: ADD/FDA

ADD/FDA (CGH, 11/19/08)

My blogging usually begins with a greater than usual reaction in me to something I’ve read in a newspaper or online. It immediately zips through my synapses, linking it with all manner of significant human or personal grievances.

And that’s what happened this morning. As I roamed through the newspaper, I got stuck on this article about the over prescribing and overuse of antipsychotic drugs in children and their serious consequences, including death. I think the lead sentence nailed it; these drugs are being used “far too cavalierly.” And apparently, Risperdal, is the drug of choice to quell symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD, ADHD), especially among elementary age boys—more on that in a minute.

The medical expert community is alarmed and says more must be done to alert physicians and parents as to the dangers in overuse of the drugs. The FDA says the use restrictions written on the labels should be made clearer. The drug companies say they can’t be made clearer than they are. Wait! What happened to the word “cavalier”? Yes, what about the psychiatrists and physicians who write the scripts to ease the parents and patients out of their offices? As the article indicates, this is not some minor glitch among medical professionals. This is life and death, and for far too many male children, social stigmatizing that can last for a lifetime. This gets me to another matter that needs clarifying.

Guess what folks! Young males and for that matter old males do not learn, do not communicate and do not “share” the same way young and old females do. Watch the boys in your care and in your classrooms. They squirm or “fidget” almost all day. And when they communicate with each other, they start by making silent physical contact. It’s bump-and-run everyday, all day. When they discover something they think is worthwhile to communicate, they will tell it and do it. They won’t share it and thoroughly contemplate it. Tell it, do it, done. That’s boys for ya. It doesn’t make them cute or beguiling. It just makes them who they are.

Maybe the old system of segregating boys and girls in the school building was not such a bad idea (although I wouldn’t have been able to fall in love at age 10 if my school had that rule). Boys are hyperactive by virtue of their gender. That’s not meant to be an excuse. It’s meant to indicate the actual world. Most boys would like to learn by walking around doing something, even if they’re writing an essay or learning geography. Sitting in rows or at tables or in movable desk-chairs contradicts the how of their learning. We who have taught would prefer that they sit down and be quiet. Yes. But that is no reason to create this false positive we flag around called ADD/ADHD.

People who push kids into further reliance on prescription drugs because those kids don’t fit snuggly into an arbitrary learning paradigm ought to be denied access to anyone’s children. Parents who give up on their kids ought to stop fretting and start observing and listening to their kids. We all should stop worrying about where these kids must be 10 years from now and worry more about where they are now.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Op. Re-post: "The Public Psyche"

"The Public Psyche”                                     (FFT, August 5, 2004)

The news media occasionally use the phrase ‘the public psyche’ in reference to the American demos, as though it had some kind of coherent, unified meaning.  A typical example recently appeared in a discussion of the Bush administration’s concern with how ‘the public psyche’ would react to the news of stale and fresh ‘streamings’ of terrorist plans.

Compare that reference to ‘the public psyche’ with a local newspaper’s survey about Teresa Heinz Kerry.  The survey concluded that she is a shrewish, opinionated, unlady-like, not-nice person who always has a sour puss.  In other words, this is what ‘the public psyche’ is really worked up about.  This is what motivates them to speak up and rush to judgment sufficiently to write something to a newspaper.

Regarding the terrorist warnings, on the other hand, the person-in-the-street interviews I saw were mostly shrugs.  “I can’t let something like that interfere with my work, my daily life,” most of them said.  I suppose that’s pragmatic or good old American common sense.  I wonder if it means they’re too busy to think about the cause/effect matrix surrounding this terrorism, too busy to read about the modern history of the Middle East, the wrangling among Islamic scholars regarding new interpretations of the Koran.  I don’t really wonder.  I just look around me.

The press seems to think ‘psyche’ refers to the deepest feelings of Americans (like fear, for example).  Actually, the word has a sort of dynamic etymology, not at all singular or static.  In the original Greek, it was female in nature, and represented either the soul, the spirit or the mind (in descending order of significance).  Psychologists and psychoanalysts like to think of it as the mental structure of a person, especially insofar as it comprises a person’s motives.  So it can be something very mysterious and heavily ensconced (as in the Greeks) or something very apparent and measurable (as in your therapist).

I think the American ‘public psyche’ is about as mysterious as an amoeba.  It will conform to any shape it encounters or is directed to conform to so long as the shape doesn’t interfere with its appetites or mythology.  Our ‘public psyche’ would much rather believe than think.  We are very industrious when it comes to hard work, and we don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to hard thinking.  If a problem can be solved with a cliché, an aphorism or a slogan, our ‘public psyche’ goes to it like flies to a dung heap.

And why do I continually use the single quotation marks around ‘public psyche’?  I do it, because I don’t think a ‘public psyche’ exists, and I don’t think the majority of us care to begin to understand the first thing about the meaning of the phrase.  I used to agree with people who said Americans are anti-intellectual (my attitude was sort of: So be it, that’s who we are).  I don’t think so any more.  I think most of us are a-intellectual.  Most of us don’t have a clue, and we think it’s unimportant even to understand that a clue might exist.  We have clearly outdone H.L. Mencken’s ‘booboisie’.  We’ve morphed to an entirely new level.  We’ve descended to what a friend once called “the arrogance of ignorance”, and we regard it as our crowning achievement.  We’ve turned the world’s scorn into our red badge of indifference.

And this is the most terrifying weapon in the terrorist arsenal.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Op. Re-post: "The Real World?"

The Real World?                                    (FFT, June 21, 2004)
I’m working on some more political/social postings, but I just had to post this one while it’s fresh in my mind.  We were celebrating my son Drew’s graduation from college, a big lawn party, etc.  It was a cool, still night, so conversations were easily overheard. One comment seemed to persist: “Well, now you’re entering the real world!”  It was usually accompanied by an ominous tone; something really bad is coming your way!  And, of course, the assumption is that schooling is somehow not ‘the real world’ and that it’s certainly not as difficult as ‘the real world’.

Until December 31, 2003, I had been an educator for 47.5 years.  In ninth grade through graduate school classrooms and lecture halls, I did my thing (I would say ‘worked’ but people from ‘the real world’ are reluctant to call it work.) from the inner city to the suburbs to a state university.  In the public schools I did 5 performances daily; in college it would average 12 performances a week.  Why do I call them performances?  They are performances because they involve an audience with expectations concerning the personality, information, presentation and concern of the person with authority in the room (sometimes in front, sometimes elsewhere).  Each audience is different even though the subject matter might be the same.  This means apart from all the other traits, the performer must have highly honed adaptive skills that target each audience and each of its individuals.  And each member of the audience is a passive participant; this means you need to be aware of the need to ‘bring’ them to you and what you have to offer.

People who have the misfortune of being axed from ‘the real world’ while they’re in their prime often think they might take a stab at being an educator.  After all, six-hour days, two months vacation, all major holidays, and the possibility of lifetime job security…what’s not to like?  Sounds like a pretty good cure for ‘the real world’ blues.  Of course, the pay’s not great.  And no matter how great your job performance the pay’s the same at each ‘step’ for each qualified person.  I’ve noticed how disappointed people from ‘the real world’ are when they get slapped by life in…what shall I call it?  …the unreal world?...the surreal world?  It’s not what they expected.  The audience couldn’t care less about their efforts to perform.  In fact, the neophyte educators quickly discover that some of those audiences are daring them to have any learning occur.  But there are those two months.  That’s just enough time to find some work in ‘the real world’ to provide the necessary finances to pay the bills.  And if you’re ambitious enough you can also get a part time job during the school year.

People in ‘the real world’ often mention how cutthroat it is.  And that’s true, of course.  But life in ‘the unreal world’ is in many ways more cutthroat.  Ask someone in higher education some time about the promotion and tenure process.  As President Clinton said in his “60 Minute” interview, they deny promotion because they can. 

Did you ever notice how people often say to a teacher, “What time do you have to be at school?”  Not at work.  School is not a work place for them.  People in ‘the real world’ think of school as what it was for them as a student, an unreal place where they experienced unreal things (like exams).  But for educators the learning place, the school, the college is ‘the real world’.  It is the is (cf. Galway Kinnell, “The Prayer”) that they have and want to do well in.  Next time, ask the educator how her or his day at work was.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Op. Re-Post: "Stability"

Stability                (CGH, 2008)

Maybe the thing I like most about conservative columnist David Brooks is that he never stops trying to understand contemporary American life. He's obviously well-read and well-learned, but his daily vision has this gaussian blur of assumptions about the culture that really don't stand the test of tighter focus and really don't apply anymore.

Today he offered yet another archetype American human to be added to the current growing pile (all the Joes and the pro-Americans, etc.) whom he calls Patio Man. You can read the details, but he's generally talking about the 30-40 year old married guy with family who bought into the post-modern suburbs seeking sanctuary from the swirling disarray and cacophony of this p-m life. But unfortunately that disarray and cacophony have re-emerged, especially now in this election year, so that this decent Patio Man seeks only quiet succor in stability.

David put it this way: "But the shift in public opinion is not from right to left, or from anti-government to pro-government, it's from risk to caution, from disorder to consolidation...against anything that threatens to undermine the stability of the established order." So what's the problem?

David overlooks the singular issue of our culture, especially in our post-modern era. We have no established order. We have ensconced institutional structures put in place during our agricultural and industrial past. But we are learning quickly and to our dismay (the current economic crisis, our increasing irrelevance in the ways of the 21st century international world, etc.) that our former structures do not suffice and we have no established order to stabilize us. We do have four fundamental core values: a belief in in the sacredness of the individual, the encouragement of everyone to aspire to social ascent (democracy), success as the ultimate measure of a person’s value or personal worth, and the accumulation of money as the signifier of success. The problem now is that these core values have been fuzzied by the experience of our actual lives. The sacredness of the individual has become the drift of the lonely dingy seeking safety from the storm.

These former core values provide the opposite of stability. Achievement is now grounded in greed. Social ascent runs into economic barricades. Success has more to do with celebrity than with community. If we were to go into the street and ask people what the American established order is we would first face head scratching and then the familiar shibboleths—freedom, democracy, common man, etc. that have become the tedious media mantra we can't escape.

This is why Colin Powell's statement that his endorsement of Obama as a transformational president can be troubling to Americans. In fact what that means is that Obama represents the very stability creation Patio Man desires. Obama as the transformative force will establish a new and probably different order, an order prepared to channel the disarray and cacophony into unifying principles that will stabilize our culture. Lots of Americans are very anxious about this.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Op. Re-post: "Poetry"

Poetry                                    (CGH, 2008)

“Death is often a good career move in poetry.” (William Logan reviewing SELECTED POEMS by Frank O’Hara, NYTimes “Book Review”, 6.29.08)

Even if it’s only that one in one thousandth time you get it right—not the poem, but the line or phrase; the poem is never right—that singular moment can lift you to where nothing besides music can.  This, I guess, explains Logan’s comment.

I used to write poetry.  First, I did it for romantic notions of fame.  That was before I awoke to the fact that no one reads poetry anymore.   Then I did it when I learned that it was easier and mostly more satisfying than my inability to write a good story.  I finally decided that I did it, because it was fundamentally defiant—it challenges language to be more than prosaic.  Or, perhaps, less than prosaic.

People who ask what a poem means should not read poetry.  The best poems use language so that whatever meaning might be in the language is essentially trite or absurd.  The best poems seek to feel rather than mean.  One of my favorite American poets is Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize winner who maybe one-fiftieth of the population have ever heard of.  Many of his poems (“St. Francis and The Sow”, for example) are simple observations of nature that soar beyond the meaning of their words.  His best poems, like the best of all poetry, are about the simplest moments and things and about how our appreciation of them is finally beyond language.

This might be what Logan meant when he concluded his review, saying “giddiness in the face of despair…animal pleasure in gossip…false bravado…frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies…give us as much of life as poetry can.”  It might be.

Instead, I prefer to think that poetry can move us to much more of life, call it our internal life.  The best efforts in poetry push harder against the restraints of language to get us to where we experience the potential human nobility that has been too long dormant in our times.