Well over a month without a post

26 08 2011

I am so sorry. Time’s just been so hard to come by lately and I’m still getting in the groove. Things are, however, going great and I expect I’ll be back at it soon enough. The interest to continue blogging is definitely there even if the resources aren’t. In fact, I was just considering a post the other day and even recorded a few thoughts on my phone as I drove to work. Perhaps I should take to podcasting my commute? I can only imagine that’d be the most boring thing ever.

Anyhow, I feel a bit out of the loop lately, but I’m hoping to get totally back into the groove in the next couple weeks.


7 06 2011

Welcome to summer, everyone! 🙂

I’ve been in summer mode now for about a month, which means that I’ve basically screwed up my day-to-day routine (or had it screwed up or something like that) and I’m still wandering around the house mostly aimless. It’s good and bad. There are days, not many, but more than a few, where I’m on the computer for about an hour in the morning and that’s it for the whole rest of the day. Some days, I veg in front of the thing all day long. Others I’m running around with the kids all day. I’m busy, having fun, confused and bored all the same time. Aimless. Like I said, it’s good and bad. Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me. That is summer. (No, I haven’t killed…. yet.)

I’ve also been trying, sometimes more successfully than others, to unplug from the internet and clear my head from reading the news all the time and being a complete slave to my RSS reader. When there’s nothing keeping you busy, it’s pretty easy to get outraged by every little thing. Like, this one time, I was reading a blog, and there was this guy there and he was totally wrong about something. On the internet. The nerve of it. Yeah, so it was time for me to shut ‘er down for a bit and find something more constructive to do with my time.

Meanwhile, real life continues apace and we’ve bought a house and haven’t yet closed on it, which is a source of much excitement and stress and worry. They make it look like so much more fun on TV. I hope to live in the house now for another 60 years or so (that’d make me 97, which I think would be a respectable showing in the longevity game), just so we don’t have to go through moving again. Although, I will say that I’m looking forward to having an office with a door on it, my own personal man-cave of higher learning, and to unpacking all my books again and putting them on bookshelves and being home again. My first post on this blog had to do with packing my books up, so I’m stoked at undoing that. Unfortunately, it won’t be happening until late in July.

One more really bad thing that I have to confess: I haven’t been reading anything. Nothing at all. I’ve been on a complete reading break. I finished reading Freedom about a month ago and I was completely blown away. It’s as good as everyone says, no question. It seriously is. The consequence is that I’ve let it work itself out in the back of my head for a few weeks and haven’t really felt like following it up with anything. Meanwhile, some books are stacking up because I don’t stop collecting things to read ever, even if my output goes to crap. I imagine a lot of that will change soon, though and I’ll get back in the swing. I’d like to write up my review of Freedom at some point, and I sketched out some notes, but I don’t know if I’ll get to it and, realistically speaking, does the world really need another review of it? Feel free to pick from the other billion or, better yet, just go get your hands on a copy and read it. Time well spent.

I have, however, started another new project: a new blog devoted to all things German. I mostly intend for the blog to be a place for me to consolidate materials and ideas that I’d like to discuss with anyone who is interested in German culture or language in a way that’s simple enough for a learner. Mainly, it’s a way for me to consolidate in my mind anything that I find of interest or any thoughts I might have that are related to German studies, German language, theater, art, music, food, culture, news, teaching, teaching materials and the like. I am a German teacher, I need to devote a good chunk of mental energy that direction and keep myself honest, and that’s going to be my place to share ideas and advocate for the study of German in all of its beautiful, sexy and apparently completely unfunny glory. I’ve decided to call this blog: Deutsch Schmeutsch. Still working on links and on an about page, but that’s all coming soon.

Otherwise, this weekend and for the next week we’re off on vacation! It’s very exciting and I’m looking forward to a little bit over a week of sunshine, beach, screaming children, good food, drinking beer in the afternoon and just not stressing about anything for a time. So, completely unshockingly, I’m just going to come right out and say that there probably won’t be a blog update between this Friday and about June 22 or so. Try not to cry.

Oh, Dunning-Kruger, you’re everywhere

12 04 2011

I think the internet has ruined us. Newsflash, right? Maybe I’m being nostalgic for a time that never was, but it just seems to me like there used to be a time in my life when most discussions developed into something larger, when there was a back and forth and endless clarifications and adjustments and analysis (often self-critical, like, HOLY SHIT, you can question yourself!) rather than just a snarky cheap shot across the bow and a reluctance to really engage another person intellectually. It’s not just anonymity. It’s a fear of losing something. It’s defensive. There’s an absence of trust.

If you study literature or film or, really, if you’re in the liberal arts and you go to grad school, you’re going to get hit in the face with a lot of Theory (capital T). There’s good reason that most undergraduates are spared this (I was) and it’s not because they’re too young or immature or even stupid to understand it, but because doing it requires a leap of faith and a buying-in that most aren’t quite ready to do just yet. They’re still taking courses outside their major and they’ve got a million things going on. When you’re in grad school, you think everyone in the world goes to college and it’s grad school that’s rare – I mention that as an aside because everyone everywhere sees the world as a fishbowl sometimes – but because of that perceived rarity, you’re willing to accept and be open to more ideas.

That first hit with Theory is huge, let me tell you. All of a sudden, you’re expected in short span to read Althusser, Marx, Freud, Lacan, de Saussure, Said, Bhabha, Butler, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin, Adorno… this list could go on for quite a while and even conjuring these names up now, names I’ve not thought about in a long time, is engaging in nostalgia and feels like I’m just touching the edge of something immense. Anyway, the first criticism you always here at this time, and I’m pretty sure I said it myself so I’m not excusing anyone here, is that these writers are just masturbating. It’s said with a sense of self-assurance that is at once cocky and fearful. Because, after all, you’re the first person to have ever thought such a thing and boy aren’t you clever and if you’re standoffish enough, cross your arms hard enough and put your head back and look down the nose a little maybe nobody will notice how worried you are and my God! it just sucks being this awesome all the time, what a burden.

Anyhow, their writing is hard to read. Really, really hard. Deliberately hard and you sit there wondering why they’re such bad writers, as if that’s the right thing to be concentrating on. If you’ve never read deeply into philosophy, there’s a very steep barrier to entry. So, naturally, rather than take that climb, it’s a whole lot easier to diss the climb itself as unworthy. I’m not going to stroke their long dead white egos by seriously reading them. I’m going to just go ahead and point and declare that the emperor has no clothes on. I’m rebelling and I’m doing it by making the laziest argument of all.

Fortunately for me, I had a teacher who didn’t let me off the hook that easily and I’m very grateful to her and always will be. I ended up taking the leap of faith and decided that I wasn’t fit to judge until I had immersed myself in it. If you think about it, it’s a big risk to take. I most certainly did not enjoy myself at all when starting to read these critical works and they were just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an entire language and mode of thought there that, until you’re already in the middle of it, makes no sense. To get to that center, you spend a lot of time reading the same page over and over again for 30 minutes at a time, rubbing your eyes, wishing you could just skip to the end, but parataxis makes it impossible to skip at all. Your legs are broken and you drag yourself through it.

It’s hard to say if it’s worth it. It was for me. I think that once I began to understand how ideas were interrelated and how they described a different, sometimes much deeper understanding of everything in reality and in fiction at the same time, it opened up many directions of thought that I probably would otherwise never have. Mostly, I learned to apply a different mode of thinking to what I read and saw. I was good at interpreting literature before, but it did make me much better at it, especially once I learned to put down the theoretical lens again (it’s an occupational hazard that once you pick Theory up, you can’t put it down again – resisted, though, it can be enriching to remember the fundamentals of close readings and not let your favorites lead you by the nose).

The most important thing I learned, though, was to get past that cheap rejection of the entire enterprise. I learned that sometimes you do have to admit that you know too little to judge. That’s not always easy to accept or even recognize. And, unfortunately, I see that happening so often in conversations I have, not just on the internet, but everywhere.

In his essay “The Triumph of Stupidity,” Bertrand Russell once wrote that “the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” I came to learn recently, in the light of various discussions, that this is also referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In the study, the lowest performers always overestimate their ability and understanding, while the top performers never realize that they’re actually on top. In essence, the stupid people are too stupid to realize how stupid they are, while the smart folks are so critical of themselves, that they fail to see that they understand as much as they do. I’d say that sums up a lot of my experience: they more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s just so much I do not know. So, I tend to waffle more than I should.

So, when I came across a recent article about the provost-elect at Kennesaw State in Georgia who drew fire for having cited Marx in an academic paper, it frightened me more than a little. Citing Marx isn’t at all uncommon and it doesn’t mean that you’re a communist or that you’re anti-capitalist or anything of that sort. Personally, I cite Freud a lot. It doesn’t mean that I’d consider it current practice in psychology; it means that his ideas might provide a model for understanding something else. Reading Marx and applying a Marxist reading to something sociological makes a person no more a Marxist rebel than applying Freud makes me a psychologist. Not that the public is going to understand that, though. The reason the Red Scare is scary is because it’s fueled by a great many people who don’t understand that they don’t understand. As an aside, there are many other things that might be questionable about this particular hire, in my view, including a few very shoddy articles that make too many broad, sweeping generalizations, and it might be a ham-handed application of theory to the criticism he’s attempting to level, but the truth is that the public saw the name Marx cited in a favorable context and that’s all they chose (or were able) to focus on. I’m all for public opinion, but not when it becomes a mob. Sometimes, the public just isn’t informed enough really to make the judgment it’s making, but there’s no telling them that.

And yet again, my point here has diverged from what I originally intended. I had meant to say that if we can get over that initial reluctance to engage and the easy, lazy dismissal of opinions different from our own, we can sometimes come to a better understanding and sometimes just have some really great interactions. I was fortunate enough to have had just one such conversation last night with my brother-in-law (Thanks, Dax!). There were a number of times when either one of us could (or even actually did) dismiss a perspective as unworthy too early, but every time, we recovered from that and, for my part, I came to several realizations I would not otherwise have had. It pays to stick to it and buy into the idea that there’s very likely something to be gained just for going through the process of discussion. There’s a reward that can come from understanding that there are all sorts of things we don’t understand.

A minor update

28 03 2011

I’m very aware that I’ve taken a few weeks off from posting here and, for no reason other than my own desire to make a goal and stick to it, it’s no small source of guilt for me. Without going into too much detail, as I think there are some things best kept to myself and away from those nasty Internetses, but I’ve found work and I’ll soon be back to teaching in a very exciting environment and I’m extremely happy about it. This all happened pretty fast, so as my mind placed all available mental and emotional resources towards the good of the one opportunity, my thinking here suffered. Rightly so, I’ll add, but it doesn’t mean I don’t also miss thinking about books and find that, after a while, I’m drawn back to them.

Blogging hasn’t been the only thing to have suffered somewhat during this time. I’ve not been writing or even reading much, though that’s already changing.

My current pleasure geek read is A Feast for Crows, the last book in the Game of Thrones series and I plan on having that finished before the series airs on HBO on April 17. I’m extremely excited about that. My wife and I have been dying for a good show to watch since Boardwalk Empire ended and while Being Human on Syfy has temporarily fit the bill, I’m really just not feeling it just yet.

On the development side, I’ve just started reading Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki. I forget where I came across the title at all, to be honest and was surprised when I got the email from the library that my hold request was waiting for pick-up. It must’ve been from Seth Godin’s blog. This past year has had me reading so many things outside my standard areas of history and fiction. That’s a good thing.

Writing is, well, slow and intermittent.

Where did January go?

1 02 2011

I’ve misplaced a month. Has anyone seen it?

You know, for someone who started off the month and the new year with a couple posts about resolutions, fresh starts and plans, I failed to accomplish much during January. I’d like to attribute it to the multiple snow days and delays we had in the middle of the month, but that can’t account for all of it. For much of the month, I simply came off track and had a hard time getting back on. I did moderately good work for about 2 of the last 4 weeks, I’d say.

So, time to kick it back into gear. Since I have nothing planned for today, I’ll spend today planning for the rest of the week and set aside time to accomplish some modest goals. Anything beyond that’s just gravy, but nothing would help more than feeling like I’ve gotten something productive done.

Double Windsor

13 01 2011

One skill I think every guy should develop is the ability to tie a double windsor necktie. There is no better knot for a necktie, period. It is the knot of royalty, of the classiest of class, and is totally James Bond.

Back in my retail days, I had to wear one of these every day and even though I was fairly proficient at it, it still took me on average at least 3 tries to get the knot and the length just right. Having that perfect little indentation in the middle of the tie is everything. The last thing you want is to have one side tucked halfway around the back so the tie feels like it’s going to flip around on you all day long. And, of course, you can try and try to adjust it, but from my personal experience, whatever adjustments you make are largely wasted. By noon, the adjustments and quick fixes had long fallen out and you’re back to the sloppy tie.

Working in retail had its ups and downs and I had my fair share of bad days. I had developed a ritual around having the perfect tie, though. If I nailed the knot and length on the first try, I always took it as a good omen for the day. It was Fate’s way of telling me that the universe was on my side. This morning, despite being very out of practice with tying neckties since the last one I put on was in October, I nailed the knot and length right out of the gate. I’m hoping, then, that my old superstitions hold true.

Two quotes on anger and violence

10 01 2011

Two quotes have stuck out in my mind both this morning and this weekend, as I’ve been thinking about the shooting in Tucson. The internet is what the internet is, so there’s a lot of outrageous statements being made everywhere by just about everyone, so I don’t want any piece of that. The internet loses its head over one thing and then proceeds to lose its head over that just as well. At the end of the day, it’s just that it takes work to be calm. It takes an effort to speak in moderate, reasoned tones. Any path you have to take is the harder one when you have to rely on your self-control and discipline, on the process of slowing things down and remembering to breathe, reflect and not react immediately to everything, but to take it in and use your god-given intelligence. I don’t do yoga nor have I really studied much about yoga, but the focus on process is key there. That’s the appeal and not simply forsaking your gifts:

“From anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory, after forgetfulness of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence and losing spiritual intelligence one perishes.” (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 62)

or my personal favorite, from Asimov:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” (Foundation)

I am equating all violence to anger and vice-versa and I’m aware of the flaw of doing that, but it does seem to me that anytime we engage in anger, we lose part of our senses, which is in turn a form of violence unto ourselves. And it’s very easy to get angry before you’ve really had much of a chance to set up any resistance against it.

And it’s also very easy for me to think like this, in these excessively calm tones, when my plans for the day have been mostly negated by the snowstorm that’s hit the South. I’m fortunate to be able to adjust and make the most of the day, but looking out the window at the falling snow does give me a feeling of serenity.