Friday, February 29, 2008

Open Letters to DC

Dear riders on packed metro cars during rush hour,

Imagine this scenario: You have stepped onto a rush hour train to begin your commute to work, and you notice all the seats are occupied and you're in one of the new cars that has lots of standing space but no vertical posts near the doors. Oh no, what to do? Maybe, you think, with so much space, I will sit down on the floor in the Lotus Position. Well, guess what, riders? Bad idea!

Because when you sit down, someone else (perhaps a tourist) will take a cue from you and sit down opposite. And then the train will grow increasingly crowded and you two assholes will be taking up enough floor space for six standing passengers while those passengers have to occupy alternative uncomfortable positions, like the Tote Bag In My Stomach Position or the Face In The Back of My Head Position or the No More Space On the Post For My Hand So Maybe I Will Just Use Your Arm To Balance Myself Position.

I understand that the new car design bears an ill-conceived bias against short people who can't reach the ceiling poles to hold on, and that is a problem. But you know what is NOT the solution? Sitting on the floor of a crowded car! If you need to sit, just ask for someone else's seat.

If we all work together, riders, we can minimize the amount of time spent pressed between the guy who sneezes incessantly and the homeless man who smells like urine.

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Dear Firehook Bakery,

You are the best bakery/coffeshop chain ever. Now all you need is some free wifi, and I am all yours.

Miss Self-Important

Dear Washington, D.C.,

I take back all the mean things I said about you before. I was foolish. Where else would it happen that I would get a flower bouquet with the following explanation: "I didn't actually buy these, but I did have to meet with the florists' lobby and listen to them explain why it was necessary for us to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants in order to get them for free." Nowhere. You are an excellent city.

Miss Self-Important

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Athens in Dixie, part 2

In addition to previously mentioned country songs whose roots clearly lie in ancient Athens, there is also Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Gun to Town," a song which bears uncanny similarity to this passage in Thucydides:
The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. And the fact that the people in these parts of Hellas are still living in the old way points to a time when the same mode of life was once equally common to all. The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life...
An unwritten dissertation lies in these observations, I assure you.

Monday, February 25, 2008

In which controversy is stirred

Heather Mac Donald's much-maligned campus rape article raises, I think, some interesting contradictions. For one thing, is sex important, or is it not? On one end of campus, the argument is made that sex should be pleasant and fun for women, just another form of entertainment, and certainly not a heavy Moral Matter requiring all kinds of limitations and prohibitions like the patriarchy would have us believe. All sex toys and "surprise-triple-orgasm-moan", no guilt, remorse, or heartbreak. Nothing more serious than eating breakfast, though probably more stimulating.

On the other side, the argument is that whenever such inconsequential entertainment becomes unpleasant for whatever reason, the result is a serious crime--expulsion at least for the perpetrator (and technically a felony charge, if such cases get to court), and horrible psychological trauma for the victim. But if sex were truly of no more consequence than eating breakfast, then one can't reasonably believe that the person who chooses cereal and then realizes he actually wanted a bagel requires years of therapy to help him cope with the trauma. Nor would we suggest that the person who urged the cereal on him is a criminal, even if that person didn't give our breakfast eater any other options, even if when he went back to ask for the bagel, the server dumped the entire bowl of cereal on the unfortunate indecisive's head. That's mean, but he'll get over it. It's just a breakfast, after all.

But if he (more likely she, to return to the point here) is scarred for life by what happened, as date rape victims claim to be, than sex can't just be a casual entertainment; it must really be a matter of the utmost consequence. If a situation in which a girl gets drunk, calls up a guy, comes over to his apartment, makes out with him, undresses, and then decides while she's giving him oral sex to stop consenting to all this is not even ambiguous, but is clearly rape, then imagine how many girls who think they're just in for a fun night are going to be traumatized by its end. Unless they should just lighten up and get over it. So which is it, is sex so consequential than even a miscommunication can be a criminal matter, or is date rape no big deal? And if we take the position that rape is a big deal, then how responsible is it for universities to be promoting no-strings sex when the campus is full of devious men who want to assault their female students?

Phoebe suggests that this argument is a way of blaming the victim by suggesting that drunk, libidinous women are "asking for it." But Mac Donald points out the contradiction in the suggestion that a female victim can bear no responsibility for the events:
Now perhaps the male willfully exploited the narrator’s self-inflicted incapacitation; if so, he deserves censure for taking advantage of a female in distress. But to hold the narrator completely without responsibility requires stripping women of volition and moral agency. Though the Harvard victim does not remember her actions, it’s highly unlikely that she passed out upon arriving at the party and was dragged away like roadkill while other students looked on. Rather, she probably participated voluntarily in the usual prelude to intercourse, and probably even in intercourse itself, however woozily.

Even if the Harvard victim’s drunkenness cancels any responsibility that she might share for the interaction’s finale, is she equally without responsibility for all of her behavior up to that point, including getting so drunk that she can’t remember anything? Campus rape ideology holds that inebriation strips women of responsibility for their actions but preserves male responsibility not only for their own actions but for their partners’ as well. Thus do men again become the guardians of female well-being.
Men, when they are inebriated, are still responsible for not letting sexual appetite interfere with civility, but women, strangely, are not presumed to be so capable. Earlier, it might have been argued that such a double standard speaks to inherent gender differences--men are more sexually aggressive by nature, and women less likely to seek out intercourse, so women must be protected from men. But Phoebe has suggested earlier that there is insufficient evidence to back up these claims, and many people now argue that it's sexist, or at best, speculative, to assume that college women do or should seek out sexual gratification less than men. Since most of these situations do not involve the use of overwhelming force (or roofies) against women, here too there seems to be a clash of ideologies--is the woman an equal to the extent of being as responsible for her imprudent behavior as the man? Or do men's actions simply hold more weight, and are they morally charged with protecting damsels in distress who cannot protect themselves?

Edit: Responses here and here.

Edit II: Newsweek looks, inconclusively, at the phenomenon of internet shaming (a topic considered earlier on this blog) using the timely example of the Lewis and Clark "rapist."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

American dreaming

Did anyone else find this article confusing and troubling? Like these kids, I had some sort of multicultural English curriculum in high school whose effect was primarily to convince me that all novels were like all other novels in quality and context and purpose, and they were created in order to be arranged arbitrarily in high school curricula. The Great Gatsby was the first distinctly American book I encountered, which is to say, a year after I read it in an American literature class in which it was never suggested that anything on the syllabus was distinctly American, it occurred to me that this book probably would never have been written in France or China. The passage about the Dutch sailors--that's about the idea of the frontier! Frontier is a recurring theme in American literature! Frontier is American! This was a monumental revelation. America is different from other countries, and not just because it is culturally diverse.

At the time, I was studying the French Revolution in history, and completely failing to see its significance because I assumed that all revolutions are American Revolutions, so they should mean pretty much the same thing in every country. They happened when nations wanted to throw off unjust kings and be free, which is precisely what happened in France in 1789. All countries were basically like America in quality, context, and purpose. They all even have the same basic beliefs, as we learned when we read all the "founding myths" of different cultures. America is just an arbitrary set of borders. We are One World, people. Except, no! Look, Huck Finn--it is also an American book! America is not just France located in a different part of the world! These thoughts resulted in a very inspired blog post during my senior year of high school in which I called the Mississippi River the "aorta of America" (almost poetry, no?).

And you think this article is almost going in the direction of my high school epiphany, but then we discover that the American Dream is a horrible unachievable thing (although working hard for it is very noble). More concretely for these kids, it consists in going to college, and then going back to China. Putting aside that (significant) aspect of the Great Gatsby which is actually an admonition against striving and social climbing, and the bizarre distortions that the phrase "American Dream" has undergone in schools, in what universe is that a coherent reading of either the book or the American idea?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Are you smarter than a sixth grader?

Recent delusions of my students:
1) Men can get pregnant (they know this because their male principal has a huge belly)
2) George Bush wants the terrorists to win
3) Obama is not really black because "I heard it on Oprah"
4) Lil' Wayne is an example of the word "prestige"
5) France is a US state bordering the Gulf of Mexico

Random knowledge of my students:
1) The "HW" in the first George Bush's name stands for Herbert Walker
2) The names of most of the common brands of beer

Friday, February 08, 2008

Counterinsurgency lessons from middle school

I was charmed this morning by this story about the Hasidic principal of a Bronx middle school whose educational philosophy apparently consists of some mixture of counterinsurgency strategy and etiquette training. But I am curious, what is the point of throwing frozen eggs at people? Doesn't that diminish their splattering effect, and wouldn't it be more cost-effective in this situation to use rocks?

Sebastian was also impressed. He writes, "I read this article. It was excellent. I would like to meet this person."

Athens in Dixie

Has it occurred to anyone else that the Alan Jackson song "Small Town Southern Man" is basically an updated retelling of Solon's story of Tellus the Athenian? Or that the Sugarland song "Happy Ending" is really just a hokey reiteration of the opening of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics? On the whole, of course, the Greeks were less oppressively sentimental about these things.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Wait, so it doesn't snow in Florida? Really?

I've been teaching poetry (I know, the world is full of cruel ironies) to sixth graders for two weeks now, and I'd say my efforts have so far fallen somewhere between moderate and total failure. I don't remember anymore what sixth graders are capable of knowing. Can they understand how poetry expresses political or historical arguments? How it compresses language? How one word could mean two things at once, both of which are applicable?

I don't know what my kids are doing in school, or how well they're doing for that matter, so that's not a good starting point. They seem capable enough at identifying literary devices, though less good at understanding why a poet would use them or what effect they have on the reader. I have lesson plans to follow with the skills I'm supposed to have them practice with the poems, but they're pretty simple. Find an example of a metaphor, a simile, what is the rhyme scheme here--that kind of stuff. Not enough for 40 minutes of discussion, and not enough to convince them that poems (may) have any purpose beyond providing fodder for classroom drills.

So I've been trying to drag them through interpretation to show them that poems are complete works, and model/teach them to see how there can symbolic and literal meanings at the same time, and how that is cool. Last night, for example, we had Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues" and Langston Hughes's "Po' Boy Blues." It took about 15 minutes to convince them that when Johnson says crossroad, he doesn't primarily mean a traffic intersection, and no, he's not about to be run over by a car, and no, he's not actually praying in the middle of the street. And NO, this is not like that Will Smith movie where... When it was finally understood that a crossroad is like a difficult decision, we moved to the next stanza, and they immediately forgot that the road was not literal, and launched into a debate about how they would get home if no one would give them a ride someplace. Sigh. Eventually, we got through that one and moved to Hughes.

Hughes went better (one of my kids had "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" memorized!), although again, when it came to understanding that the North is both literally colder than the South, and also socially colder--total confusion. It doesn't help that, despite the overwhelming emphasis of the program (and I assume their regular school curricula) on black history, they actually know very little of it, so the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the difference between legal and social racism was news to them. (Social studies in general is not my kids' strongest subject--last week, one of them expressed great surprise at discovering that other countries also have governments, and that indeed, there are more countries in the world than America, Jamaica, and Africa--which is one country, btw.) They did get the general gist of the poem, and even understood how the past tense worked in the second stanza to negate Hughes' claim without forcing him to be explicit. Still, the figurative/literal double meaning? Not possible at age 12?

In other news, one of the kids writes screenplays in her free time. I thought that was pretty impressive.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

On Super Tuesday, our correspondent in Madrid weighs in

Last week, I interviewed Alex for the blog, in what might become a recurring feature in which I fill up space by interviewing friends who are unhappy with the state of my blog because it has become less Reg-oriented and more about postmodern babies. Anyway, it took a long time to capitalize all the first person singular pronouns that we used, but it's now ready for publication, just in time for today's important events.

1) What do you think about the current state of the presidential election?

Alexandra: I think I am tired of Spaniards asking me if I support Obama cause he is the only one who can change things.
me: Do you support Obama though?
Alexandra: Support like I want him to win? Maybe. I like him. I don't think McCain's bad either.
me: Ok, so basically, you're annoyed that Spaniards are right about your political leanings?
Alexandra: No, I'm annoyed that they think they can presume to tell me who to vote for. Like I said, I don't think he is the only good candidate. Is this all going to be about politics???

2) What do you think of people who have no actual talent or insight who become successful on the internet for their purported talent and insight?

Alexandra: It's unfortunate. But a lot of famous people have no talent and are famous regardless of the internet.
me: Are you concerned when people predict that the participatory culture of the internet will be a model for politics in the future, that what this actually means is that obsessive fans of lame crap will be our future governors?
Alexandra: Not at the moment, no.

3) Facebook: teh evil or important social networking tool?

Alexandra: Why do you always spell the teh now? Is it 'cause of the cats?
me: Yes, the cats.
Alexandra: Ah. I might go with teh evil. It wastes so much time and is unproductive
me: Do you feel it reinforces your weak ties at all?
Alexandra: Yes.
me: Isn't that good?
Alexandra: Yes. It has lots of good points.
me: So basically, you're undecided?
Alexandra: Basically, yes. Aren't you?
me: Sort of, though I lean towards evil.
Alexandra: I think I do too.
me: Good.

4) What's better, Spain or America?

Alexandra: AMERICA, but I'm happier living in Spain right now. I can travel more easily, I am learning a language, I am becoming more globally aware, my few skills are in high demand (english), I am in a program with a small group of intelligent people and it will give me something to talk about at dinner parties for the next few years.

5) What do you think of me?

Alexandra: I like you. Sometimes I think you are crazy.
me: Please elaborate.
Alexandra: No. What do you think of me?
me: Psssh, this is my interview. I don't answer the questions.
Alexandra: The best interviews are conversations. I know this from reading Glamour.
me: No, the best conversations are conversations. Besides, we always talk about what I think of you, whenever you are angsty and ask about yourself. Then I answer and you get mad and we discuss.
Alexandra: I am NEVER angsty. Oh god! Do you think I'm self-involved???
me: See! I will not be conned into this.
Alexandra: I seeeeeeeeee
me: What do you think of my blog?
Alexandra: You have been a very serious cat lately, but I think it might be the basis of all your future success. And I would like to be invited to your dinner parties.

6) What should I serve at my dinner parties?

Alexandra: Oh! I was thinking about the perfect food for you. You should get toast things and spread goat cheese on them and top it with caramelized onions.
me: I am! For tomorrow's party! Well, not the onions.
Alexandra: Put the onions!
me: I will consider the onions. Are they good with goat cheese?
Alexandra: YES of course! Are onions bad on some things?
me: Maybe on cupcakes? But I'm sure there can be savory cupcakes.

7) Por que no te callas?

Alexandra: Aww, I am so proud of you! Appreciating other cultures.
me: No, I just appreciate that moment.
Alexandra: You can be a beacon for other conservatives.
me: I think other conservatives have beaten me to disliking Chavez.
Alexandra: Es verdad.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The overcheese

From last weekend's party:

Mozzarella, goat cheese, cheese ravioli, prosciutto and parmesan tortillas, and loose cheese. The day after, I learned that it was unfortunately possible to overdose on cheese.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I'm so much cooler online

In light of some less than stellar education documentaries recently (study engineering or betray America!), Frontline's Growing Up Online is commendably only a little bit overblown. A lot of it is old news rehashed--pro-ana sites, Goths-in-panties MySpace pages, etc--but it does at least make a compelling argument that the danger of the internet is being misperceived by adults.

While parents are busy worrying about extremely unlikely prospect of online predators raping their beautiful golden-haired daughters, the local technologically deterministic school is capitulating to their children's acquired ADD by installing LCD screens and computers into every classroom and turning education into a series of games, and countering student plagiarism by declaring cheating to be merely the newest skill required for the "media literate" work force (reading, however, has diminished significantly in importance). Parents who have evidently bought their children Sidekicks, laptops for their bedrooms, 15 different game consoles, and every other electronic gadget marketed between 1995 and the present express befuddled surprise when their children become immersed in the technologies and ignore them. And what happens online is largely a reflection of what happens offline in a children's culture from which adults are for the most part absent, and few activities seem to exist aside from re-enacting Lord of the Flies on a daily basis. (And who didn't love the precious and totally ineffectual anti-cyber-bullying mantra "stop, block, and tell"?)

It's kind of surprising how much of the documentary is adults just giving in to the exhortations of their children because they "know more" about technology, they're wiser or more clever than we give them credit for, or because it's just futile to stand in the way of the steamroller. More likely, most kids' knowledge of technology is fairly superficial--they can manipulate devices, but the hardware and most of the programming is a total mystery to them. Try asking someone what the internet actually is, and the chances are almost nil that you'll find someone who knows about servers and packet-switching (including yours truly). The Cafeteria Beatdown kids should demonstrate pretty clearly that they're barely wiser than a can of peas.

As for the steamroller of social change and social pressure, well, for one thing, the rapid pace of technological change doesn't prevent kids from sitting down and paying attention as much as these people seem to think. I was also immersed in the internet in high school, but when I discovered college required you to sit still for long periods of time, reading, writing, and listening to technological dinosaurs lecture with a piece of chalk, I didn't immediately die of boredom and flunk out of school. Even in high school, the best teachers were the ones with the best classroom presence (which usually meant the best lecturers), not the ones most submissive to the Will of the Technological Future. Social pressure is understandably harder to counter; if everyone spends all evening on MySpace, it's probably tough to convince one kid to relent. But they're your children and your students, aren't they? If all the pressure from adults can't counter all the pressure of their peers, what is the point of treating children as adults-in-training in the first place?

PS: You should appreciate my country song reference in the title of this post.