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Archive for September, 2009

Bathroom Pass

with 6 comments

So, a few notes–

First, I thank Mike for worrying about my computer, but my guess is that it’s less my computer that’s at issue than my Internet connection, because I’m probably the last person on earth to have dial-up.  Yeah, yeah.   I know.   I get that argument whenever my son goes to college.  But it’s a long story.

For John–my place calls itself a university, although it grants master’s degrees but not doctorates.  But then, practically every place in the US calls itself a university these days.

For the rest of you–I agree with Gail, that every teacher has horror stories about students, but I wasn’t complaining about the students in the last post.

I was complaining about the administration.

I would have complained if the new disciplinary rules had applied only to my kids, who are after all in special remedial programs and very possibly in need of a lot more structure than the average student.

But the new rules apply to everybody, even in honors classes. 

They’re very like the rules in elementary and high schools which assume that every student is a delinquent until proven otherwise–no going to the bathroom without a pass, and all the rest of it.

There’s a teacher in my place who will ock a student out of the classroom if he leaves to go to the bathroom, even with permission. 

Now, I fully agree that the felt need for all this is a function of the fact that my place is not exactly first tier–it’s barely fourth tier–and that therefore the quality of the students we get is generally low.

But what low quality consists of is more complicated than you think. 

Yes, we get plenty of students who don’t have much in the way of intellectual ability, who in any sane world would never go to college at all–not because there’s something wrong with them, or because they’re in some way inferior, but because their talents lie elsewhere.

And yes, virtually all the students we get, even the very best ones, lack the cultural context to do real university level work. 

But lately, the big issues have been…well, discipline.

“Pass your papers in, ” I say, and a horde pf people stampedes towards my desk.  It seems they’ve never simply sat at their desks and passed papers forward before.

It’s a little thing, but it astes an enormous amount of time.  I used to not bother to ask, assuming that they’d know that papers were due today and they should leave them on my desk before the end of class, but that resulted in howls of protest–but you didn’t collect them!  so it doesn’t count that I don’t have my paper in!

Then there is the simple problem of classroom noise, the constant talking at high volume–no need to whisper or pretend, you’re just talking. 

Again, it’s the kind of thing I expect from my kids, because of who they are, but I get the same reports from other teachers who have honors students or kids in regular classes.  They waste a third of every class period just trying to keep order, and sometimes it does’t work.

I think Gail has a point, too, when she notes that many of them come from schools where “getting an education” meant just showing up, or maybe not even that.  It didn’t matter wht they did.  They passed.

I still don’t think we should have instituted the new rules we have.  Granted, nobody can teach anything in a classroom that has been reduced to chaos by students who won’t shut up, and no course goes very well when half the students aren’t doing any of the homework.

Hell, in the kind of course I teach, which is workshop-oriented, the course is literally impossible when half the kids don’t do their homework.  If you haven’t done the paper, you can’t bring it in and have somebody else critique it.

But I don’t think the answer to any of this is the kind of rules we’ve n ow instituted.  It’s not treating these kids like they’re four year olds.

My optinum solution would be to end this incredible idiocy of insisting that “everybody” has to go to college.

Barring that, I’d say let’s go back to the old system–if you didn’t show up or do your work, you failed; if you disrupted the classroom, you got kicked out of the course.

I generally lost half my class before the end of any term.

But I think the body count was only so low because I was really far too lenient about deadlines.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2009 at 5:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Kindergarten Cop

with 11 comments

So I was going to access a good computer today, so I decided to wait to post this.  I like it when I can just sort of do it and not have to struggle with the one I’ve got a home.

Instead, I’m struggling with something else, and it’s more and more an issue in the places where I teach.

Traditionally, college students are considered to be–at least in regard to their academics–all grown up. 

Teachers took attendance, of course, and collected homework, but it was up to the students how they handled their academic life.  If they handled it badly, they flunked out–and too bad, but it was past the time of handholding, and that was that.

Increasingly, in the places I teach and in the programs I teach, policies are being changed to resemble something like high school–teachers take attendance and report it to the administration, who contacts students who are cutting class a lot and tries to “intervene” to “help” them “stay on track,” all in the name of “retention.”

Sorry about all the scare quotes, but this situation is making me fairly nuts.

So far, it’snot compulsory for students to attend college.  One has to assume that if they’re there, it’s because they want to be there.

And that assumption, of course, is false.  Most of the students who show up in my classrooms don’t like school, and never have.  They would have dropped out at fifteen or sixteen of the state still let them, except that they’ve been told they have to go to “college,” because without “college” they won’t get a job.

And they won’t, because high school no longer guarantees the skill set that employers want, not because that skill set couldn’t be learned in high school, but because nobody teaches it. 

The kids I teach have no idea what an education would really look like–in fact, they have no idea what actual training would really look like.  Their experience has taught them that being made to sit still in classrooms for five hours a day most of the months of the year and then to be made to feel like idiots and failures over what goes on there are the dues necessary to”get a good job.”

So, of course, they try to get away with doing the least work possible. 

So, of course, lots of them just stop working altogether, just stop coming to class, and either drop out or flunk out.

The universities want to “retain” these students because retention is an economic issue–a student who drops out stops paying tuition.  In the publicly funded places, lots of student drop-0uts lead to questions about whether the institutions are doing a good job or whether we should halt their funding.

The legislatures want to “retain” them because–well, it’s hard to know why.  They assumption that “education is good” seems to be without content. 

But what’s bugging me today is  not the students, but the methods we have begun to use to keep them students.  It’s beyond my comprehension what value a “college” program has when it’s run like this–when we track and map and cajole as if these were four year olds instead of eighteen and twenty year olds. 

When I get really pessimistic, I think this is one more example of our burgeoning inability to accept that other people know what’s in their own best interests–that we should be able to force people to act for what we’ve decided is “their own good.”

Mostly, though, I think it’s just a symptom of the fact that we’ve stopped thinking, period.

I can’t imagine that we honestly think we’re preparing them to get and hold better jobs.  There isn’t a job on the planet where your supervisor is going to call you up at home and chivvy you along because you didn’t make your deadline this week, then hold your hand until you get the work done.   If you miss a few deadlines, you get fired, and that’s the end of it.

Most of all, I think, my real problem this year is that I hate being a cop.  I spend so much of my time taking attendance, doubling checking homework, and chasing people around for deadlines, I do about half the teaching I used to.  And the worse the situation gets systemwide, the narrower are the limits I have to work in.

I used to tell kids at the start of the term that I was not a deadline Nazi.  They could hand things in when they wanted, be as late as they wanted, I didn’t care–but they didn’t have the right to complain that they would have done better if I’d been more of a Martinet.  People pay me to write, I told them, and I couldn’t write ten papers in two weeks and do it well.  If they wanted to try, they were welcome.

I had more than one student over the years who did try it, and failed the course (inevitably) and then came back in subsequent terms to retake the thing and get it right.

These days, though, that’s more and more not an option–no, no, we must help them to succeed.

So I’m not feeling very successful.

Written by janeh

September 15th, 2009 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

I need to start this post today with a clarification.

I thank all of you for your condolences, and they are very much appreciated, but I wasn’t actually depressed or despairing. 

I do get depressed and despairing, but not usually off this kind of thing.   For better or worse, what really gets me depressed is failing to do something I think I should have been able to do.  I did go through a period, when Bill was sick, of thinking (subconsciously) that I should be able to cure cancer, but that passed, and I didn’t think that this time.

What was bothering me the other day, what is bothering me now, what bothers me on and off as it comes up, is this incredible, pounding need we all seem to have to convince ourselves that “it will be all right.”

If it was just the secular people who were doing it, this would make a certain amount of sense,  but religious people do it just as often, and what’s odder, they do it in exactly the same way.

We not only put an enormous amount of effort into denying that really bad things  happen and there’s nothing we can do about them, but into “managing” the “experience” once it happens.

And the “management” is always the same.  An entire “grief counseling” industry has grown up in this country (and, for all I  know, outside it) whose purpose is to provide “guidance” to make the pain not so bad, or the utter wreck of hopes and dreams palatable enough to let us go on living.

If you read any of these books–and I have read several, usually recommended by people I like and who have been good friends to me, and whom I know mean well–you’ll find a tone of advice about how to “work through” pain, but the “working through” tends to be a kind of deflection.  Feel the pain–wall in it, even–because eventually you will get tired of it, or inured to it, and then you can get on with building your life back up, or justifying it to yourself, so that you can accept it, or even embrace it.   The idea that accepting some of the realities of life might be wrong–and embracing them something worse than wrong–seems not to have occurred to the grief counselors.

The idea that either of those things might actually be impossible is, as a matter of dogman, ruled out of hand.

To a degree, but only to a degree, modern grief counseling is sort of like ancient Stoicism.  Stoicism recommended a kind of apathy–learn not to care much for the things of this world, it told us, and you will not feel pain when you inevitably lose them.  Stoics cultivated a deliberate emotional alienation from every part of life.  They strove to be as indifferent to pleasure as they strove to be indifferent to pain.

Grief counseling is more like the afterthought of Epicureanism than it is of this, in spite of all the calls to “embrace” and “accept” loss and pain.  The Epicureans believed that the meaning of life was to be found in the pleasure we got out of it.  Unlike a lot of modern  people who pretend to take up their philosophy,  the Epicureans didn’t define pleasure as “as much sensation as you can cram into every waking minute, no matter what that sensation is.”  They sent a lot of time talking bout the “pleasures proper to man” rather than the ones “proper to beasts.” 

Even with a more sensible definition of “pleasure” than that common to the denizens of Studio 54, Epicureanism ended up hitting the same brick wall all attempts to ground the meaning of life in “pleasure”(or “experience”) do–the fact not only that we all die, but that almost all of us die only after a long period in which life diminishes.  It is not just death that is in the future of all of us.  It is pain and decline.

Okay, I know, I know.  I’m sounding enormously depressing again.  But this is the reality for all of us.  And this is the single issue that every human philosophy and religion must try to solve.  If we cannot confront this honestly, if we cannot explain it adequately, then no matter what else we can find that is good in our philosophy, that philosophy is essentially trivial. 

Grief counseling, it seems to me, is a declaration of surrender on the part of modern secular philosophy.  The ultimate question, having een met, is incapable of answers.

The problem is, grief counseling also seems to be a declaration of surrender on the part of religion these days.  Go into any Catholic parish or theoretically “conservative” megachurch these days, and you will find pastors and ministers “trained” in grief counseling techniques. 

On one level, of course, this makes perfect sense.  It’s human nature, and common sense, to want to avoid pain.  That’s why the Bible contains the book of Job with its decades-later, tacked-on happy ending, instead of the original version, which left Job devastated and destroyed with no recourse but to a kind of radical trust:  if  God wants this for me, then I have to accept that it is good, even if I can understand none of it. 

The religious connection notwithstanding, though, I can’t help thinking that grief counseling is one of the worst examples of the scientification of everything.  John Donne understood more about death and dying, grief and loss, than any grief counseling book anybody has ever given me.  Start with Meditation 17, and go from there.

But while I’m in the middle of recommending things to read, try Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book.

It’s not a self help book.

It’s usually filed under fiction in bookstores, but it isn’t a novel in the usual sense, either. 

I don’t know how to explain what it is.

But it’s Walker Percy, the guy who wrote The Thanatos Syndrimne.

So it’s interesting.

And it addresses these questions exactly.

Written by janeh

September 13th, 2009 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Time Heals

with 7 comments

So, I’m at that part of the week where I’m so tired I could just fall over, and I’ve got to get through today before I can just relax.

And I must admit that I admire the hell out of the restraint of some of the posters here, who did not jump all over Mab as to whether the list of things she said were “based on fact” actually were (I’d say half of them were, and half of them were interpretations.)

But Mab’s post proved my point, in a way–sitting half a world away, she’s heard of the crazy Republicans but not the crazy Democrats.  The people who say that the  Bush administration caused 9/11 on its own, that the  Bush administration was going to suspend the Constitution to make W. President for Life, that the  Bush administration was busy installing a “theocracy” on the United States via secret D.C. organizations that brainwashed Congressmen into a religious cult…

We used to call it “Bush derangement syndrome,” and Mique is surely right.  There are as many of those on the left as there are on the right. 

The difference is that MSNBC has not given any of the left wing nutjobs his own hour-long television show, that the partisan left shows (like, say, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow) don’t give air time to these people, and so far none of the nuttiness seems to be emanating from the elected officials of the Democratic Party.

Which means that the public perception of who is actively crazy is different, and public perception is everything.

That said, and in spite of the fact that it’s the anniversary of 9/11–is there something wrong with me, that I don’t get caught up in anniversaries?  I didn’t even get caught up in my own–

Anyway, in spite of all that, something has been bugging me.

On the day we buried Joann,  I put a note to that effect up on Facebook.  I don’t think I understand Facebook ye, or I don’t use it right, or I just don’t have the time, or something.  But I put the note up there and then I went around and did stuff.

Some of the people who responded did so with some version of “this too shall pass.” 

I tend to have a lot of respect fo ancient wisdom, and this is very ancient wisdome indeed.  You can find it in the  Bible and in the pre-Socratic Greeks and in Shakespeare and on Hallmark cards.

But every time I hear it, it occurs to me that it isn’t actually true.

Or rather, that it’s only half true. 

It is certainly not the case that grief or even bad luck passes for everybody.   Some people simply undergo a series of really bad things and then die, nd I’ve known a few of those. 

It’s no use saying, either, that there is no such thing as “luck” or that we make our own, because we don’t, always.  Bill and Joann died from a type of cancer so rare that the number of cases in the US each year is in single digits and the number of cases worldwide isn’t large enoug, o coherent enough, to provide risk factors.  What’s more, they’re the only siblings on record with the disease.  It isn’t thought to have a genetic component.

Well, okay, everything has a genetic component.  But you know what I mean.

One of the things about the last few years with Joann was the way in which the course of her disease followed Bill’s so that I tended to have a clearer idea of what the doctors were saying than most of the people around her. 

And, of course, I couldn’t say anything about it.  The news was all bad, and I knew it, but I couldn’t say anything about it to my brother in law or my other sister in law or my mother in law.  I suppose doctors put things in the terms in which Joann’s doctors put them (and Bill’s) in order to give patients and their families hope, but once you hear the spiel you never forget it.   I knew it was all over but the shouting (and the pain, and the deterioration) when the doctors started talking about how they were going to treat this as a chronic condition and help Joann live with it.  There are actually cancers you can do that with, sometimes for decades at a time, but this is not one of them.

Aside from the obvious here–things did not get better in time for Joann, after all–I think I can sa with some certainty that things are not likely to get better in time for my mother in law.  She’s in her eighties.  She’s buried three of the four children she gave birth to.  She’s got diabetes among a dozen other ailments.  She’s not holding up.

The other thing that occurs to me is that, in the end, we all reach a point where things do not get better with time. 

Nothing is certain except death and taxes, the man said, but the important part of that observation is that death is certain.  No matter how many wounds it may heal along the way, time eventually plows us under

Maybe I’ll go look up Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy if I can wok up the energey to shift through the piles in my office.

Or maybe I’ll just drink tea and watch Harry Potter movies until my eyes fall out.

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2009 at 6:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Loose Ends

with 3 comments

Joann is being buried today, and I find I’ve got neither the time nor the inclination to write anything comprehensive, never mind oherent.

But there are a couple of things.

First, somethinig from a blog or two back–you can say a lot about Joel  Osteen and the prosperity gospel, but you can’t say that he’s raking in cash because he gets people to send it to him when he preaches on television.

I’ve never seen  Osteen ask for money even once.  There’s no part of his televised sermons in which he gives an address for you to send contributions to.  He does publicize his latest book, but it’s published by, I think, Simon and Shuster, and he suggests you go get itat your local bookstore. 

I presume he charges admission when he speaks, but so do all the other motivational speakers, and next to the juggernaut sales machines most of them are, Osteen is refreshingly without hucksterism.

Second, Obama’s speech may or may not have been “appropriate”–have I gone into my rant about how I hate that word?–but it wasn’t something new.  Other presidents have done it, most recently George  H.W. Bush.  Reagan went around to schools personally and gave talks, including taking questions and answering them on very controversial political subjects in some cases, without even the American left having vapors.

Which brings us to the lesson plan–Obama may or may not have had a different speech in mind in the beginning, but we can’t festablish that from the lesson plan, which seems to have been based on the one they used for H.W.’s talk. 

And that lesson plan included the infamous “write a letter explaining how you can help the President” activity that has so many of the right wing energized. 

Personally, I think it’s too bad Obama didn’t talk about public policy and political ideas.  It might have helped students like my kid of last year, who wrote a paper explaining that “McCain is a Republican, which means he’s a Liberalist.”  Last week, I put Sonia Sotomayor’s name on the board and asked them to write for fifteen minutes telling me who she was.  Better than half of them identified her as the “octomom.”

Third, I don’t know if Robert is right about 35% of Democrats being “truthers”–that is, people who think the Bush administration planned and carried out 9/11 on its own–but it’s certainly true that there is a nutcase fringe on both sides.

Everything Mab says about the conventional street wisdom about the US in Russia is spouted here by our left wing nutjobs–in fact, most of it was invented here, in our own left-of-center little magazines, and only exported to Europe and Asia. 

The difference, to me, is that MSNBC is not giving any of these people their own television show, and nobody seems to be electing them to Congress. 

The public face of the Democratic Party has not become identified with these people in the way that the public face of the Republican Party has become identified with their fringe.

And it’s not because the “liberal media” is engaging in biased reporting here.

It’s because the conservative media is giving these people a platform.  Whatever possessed FoxNews to give Glenn Beck an hour in prime time–or to feature the likes of Michelle Malkin and Michelle Bachmann on virtually every single show they do? 

Mab can be reassured, total up the nutcases on both sides, and you’ve got a minority.  Which means that a party that caters to the nutjobs is going to end up driving away everybody else.

Which was my point yesterday.

Finally, as to the artists being asked to write things in favor of the health care plan–I don’t see that as any more sinister, or less clunky and stupid, than the Bush administration’s paying conservative journalists to pump for the war in Iraq, which they did.

The chief difference here seems to be that whereas at least some of the artists complained about Obama’s project, the conservative journalists either took the money and ran, or refused it an kept their mouths shut.

When that broke, a number of journalists lost their jobs and one, Maggie Gallagher, seems to have mostly lost her career. 

This is not a situation any of us, left or right, should be happy with.  And although, unlike Mab, I don’t think that the journalists involved are cynical–I think both Beck and Malkin believe every word they write–I also don’t think the Republican Party can survive for long if this is what they seem to be about. 

I think we’re headed back to the days when no respectably intelligent person will be willing to call himself a conservative. 

What William F. Buckley took fifty years to build up, Glenn Beck seems capable of taking down in one.

Written by janeh

September 9th, 2009 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cold 2

with 8 comments

A few days ago, I published a post on this blog called “Cold,” and then forgot to explain why I was calling it that.  More interesting, nobody bothered to point out that the title was senseless given what came after it.

This one is called Cold 2 for the same reason the last one was called Cold–it is cold, where I sit.  It’s barely September and I need a sweater in the mornings. 

Well, okay, a cotton sweater.   But you know what I mean.

At any rate,  I probably should have called this post “Crazy,” or something similar.

Some of the people who comment here see Arts and Letters Daily, but for those of you who don’t, go here:


And I am at pains to point out, before you start, that this is an editorial on the Forbes website, whose parent publication (Forbes magazine) calls itself “the capitalist tool.”

In other words, this is not a lefty magazine hosting an Obama supporter.  

Which makes me happy, really, because it means that WFB Republicans re still out there somewhere.

That said, let me get to the point–which is the absolutely lunancy that has erupted on the right–and especially on right-leaning major media, like FoxNews–since the election.

Now, let me pause for a second to point out–before Robert yells at me–that the left can be just as lunatic in its own way.  God only knows there was enough silly screaming about Bush being a “fascist” and his administration being an exercise in “theocracy”–apparently by people who didn’t know the definitions of either word.

And there were apparently large hunks of Europe that bought this nonsense, so that mainstream presses, magazines and television stations gave credence to the “Bush engineered 9/11 himself to have an excuse to invade Iraq” idocies.

But that’s there.  Here, that kind of thing was relegated to the more breathlessly hyperventilating left wing magazines, and the Internet, where crazy is a time of day.

What’s going on on the right at the moment is definitely being given credence by mainstream news outlets, which is what FoxNews is, but it isn’t just a matter of FoxNews or talk radio.  We’ve had the spectacle of several United States Congresspersons and state elected leaders going right off the deep end, too.

I don’t really care that much about the people who call Obama a Communist.  They need dictionaries as badly as the people who called Bush a fascist, but in a way that’s tit for tat.   We can discuss, at some other time, what it means that Americans now behave this way to each other, but that’s a different issue from the one I’m going on about now.

What absolutely floors me is the sort of paranoid lunacy that has become the staple of nearly all the discourse about what the Obama admiistration is or is not doing.

Screaming that a public option in the health care reform bill amounts to a socialist takeover of America at the same time that you’re trumpeting your desire to preserve Medicare is sloppy thinking.

Screaming that the President of the United States addressing American schoolchildren via satellite television hook-up on any subject at all constitutes “brainwashing” and “indoctrination” is a medical condition requiring Thorazine. 

I won’t bother to go into some of the more astonishing things I’ve seen lately–Glenn  Beck, now with his own hour-long show on Fox, eating up air time to analyze the artwork at Rockefeller Center and point out how it’s all coded support for Communism; calls from state legislators and even one United States Congresswoman that parents keep their kids home from school so they don’t have to hear Obama speak; state legislators in Texas saying it’s about time they seceded from the Union.

Yeah.  Like that worked out really well for the least people who tried it.  And that was before the United States Army had tanks..

Unlike the conventional wisdom Mab reported in Russia, I don’t think the country is going to fall apart.  The nutcases are relatively rare, they’re just loud.

What does worry me is that we’re going to come out of the Obama administration with the American right wing in about the place it was when William F. Buckley, jr, set out to revive it.

Richard Hofstadter could say quite confidently in 1960 that there was no such thing s a conservative intellectual tradition in America.  He missed what Buckley was doing in spite of the fact that it was right in front of his face, but he was responding to a reality.nonetheless.

The right had itself a spectacular crack-up during the Roosevelt administration, and a crack-up of precisely this kind–a descent into kookiness, paranoia, and recreational hyperventilation.  For twenty years, there was no intellectually or politically respectable opposition to New Deal ideas, and for twenty years after that–

Well, if you want to know how the Sxties happened, forty years of lopsided leftism might be a good place to start.

Written by janeh

September 8th, 2009 at 7:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Reality Based Communities

with 3 comments

I lost all interest in Survivor when I found out that it was not a show about who could survive longest in primitive conditions, but one in which staying on the island or leaving was dependent on being voted off or not. 

Call me cynical, but I was fairly sure I knew what that meant–no middle aged woman would ever win the thing, because the middle aged woman would be the first one voted off. 

And, in the first couple of seasons, from what little I could see, I was absolutely right.

Mostly, I don’t understand reality TV, in spite of the fact that I just spent nearly a year watching as much of it as I could, because next year’s  Gregor will be set at a reality TV show.

Okay, it’s a great set-up for a fair play mystery. You’ve got a bunch of people stuck together in a house…

The one show I liked at all is called America’s Next Top Model, which seemed to be mostly like a game show with extras.  It also intrigued me that people who came out of that show actually managed to get careers, as do people who come out of American Idol–and big ones, too. 

These seems to be something incredibly right about that–that there should be some avenue through which people who are not born connected to the entertainment professions can get their work seen and heard by people who probably are anxious to hire them. 

But I think the whole reality show phenomenon is a case of “something else.”  For whatever reason, television seems to always be stuck in a rut–the endless parade of detective shows and doctor shows is almost mind numbing.  The West Wing was a good enough show, but I think it benefited from the fact that it was simply something else.  I’m fairly sure that Dallas benefited from the same thing in its time.

Surely, this has got to hold for books, too–that after hundreds of versions of the same thing, over and over again, people just get hungry for something else. 

Anything else.

I know a lot of fans of mysteries who never read anything else, don’t want to read anything else, and will go on reading what they read until they die, but the general public can’t be that dedicated.

Eventually, a diet of all one thing gets boring for anybody–not because the  books (or shows) are bad, just because they’re what we’ve been doing for a really long time.

And I think, as well, that the something else doesn’t have to be all that good, as long as it constitutes a change of pace.

I’ve become totally fascinated with one called Megan Wants a Millionaire.

At first, my interest was mostly of the train wreck kind.  The idea of this was that Megan  Houseman, who had been on two Rock of Love cycles, was now going to have a cycle of her own, finding herself a man to marry who had at least a million dollars. 

The concept by itself was staggering, but the level of stupid was really something like a kind of genius–if this woman and her two best friends (who appeared to help her at one point) pooled their IQs, they couldn’t have come up with a three digit number.

What Megan seems to have going for her that is supposed to make some millionaire want to marry her is really blonde hair, a lot of perkiness, and breast implants the size of Lake Michigan.

What really got my attention, though, was what put a stop to the show, at least for the moment.  One of the millionaires involved, an investment banker named Ryan Jenkins, is being “sought by the police” in the murder of a swimsuit model named Jasmine Fiore, whose body was found in a suticase in a trash bin.

Okay, by now, they may have picked him up.  But Megan Wans a Millionaire wasn’t his only show for VH1.  Jenkins also appeared on I Love Money–except “appeared” may be the wrong word, since the season (season 3) he filmed hasn’t aired yet.  Now people are saying that it may never air at all, because Jenkins is supposed to have told his friends that he won that season.

I wonder, continually, who volunteers to go on these things–not the quasi-game shows, like American Idol or ANTM, but the dating shows, the humiliation shows (which is what Money seems to be), the get-everybody-in-a-house-and-film-them-24/7.

I don’t think  I know the answer to that yet, but maybe next year somebody could run an America’s Next Great Detective show, and investigate all the conestants on the rest of them.

Written by janeh

September 7th, 2009 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Accentuate the Positive

with 7 comments

A few years ago, there was this really terrible movie called Drop Dead Gorgeous, about a teen-aged beauty pageant in a small town in Wisconsin.  It had Kirstie Alley in it, and Kirsten Dunst, and a number of other people you’d recognize on sight if not by name–including Amy Adams in what must have been one of her first major film roles; if you’d told me she was going on from that to a solid career, I’d have been astonished.

I don’t like this movie very much.  I like a lot of really bad movies–Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion comes to mind–and I  have nothing in principle against hatchett jobs.  I just want my hatchett jobs to be within screaming distance of accurate, and this was not.

What it was was a two hour (or somewhat less) venture into making fun of the Midwest, and in just the way you’d expect–look at all the stupid shallo religious people!

Okay, I did sort of like the Lutheran Ladies Gun Club.  But that’s an aside.

The thing is that, dislike this movie or not, I own a copy, and I watch it on ocasion, in spite of the muttering under my breath about how they got it wrong.  I own it because they got something absolutely right, and that’s what’s wrong with the entire Motiviational Aspirational  Think  Positive mantra of whole whacking segments of American society.

The movie is filmed as if it was raw interview footage for a documentary about thie small town pageant, and at one point–one of my favorite points–a thickset, masculine-looking farm girl on a tractor gives a vigorous speech about how, even though most people would think she couldn’t win a beauty contest, she’s going to do it, because, as  Tony Robbins says, the “only thing that make me a loser is me.”

And then the tractor blows up and kills her.

Later on, there’s a scene in the hospital room of last year’s pageant winner, who is close to killing herself with anorexia nervosa, graced by a perky blonde candy striper who talks as if she’s addressing mentally disabled two year olds (turn those frown lines upside down!), done so beautifully that you want to reach through the screen and ring her neck.

I do know, of course, that a lot of this is just reaction formation–the way people behave when they know they don’t have any control over their lives, and it scares them.

And I know that some of it is just sensible policy–if you go into something believing it’s impossible, you won’t do it.  If you go in convinced you’re going to win, you may give yourself a psychological edge that gets you where you want to go.

But a fair amount of it seems to be a kind of modern mental illness, born of the illusion of control that is so much a part of being a Western person in the twenty-first century.

After all, compared to the Middle Ages, or even the period of the American Civil War, we can control a lot of things.  Dying young, as I’ve noted before on this blog, is now anomaly.  My children had only ever heard of polio beecause we had reissued copies of Superman comics from the Thirties.

I think this may be where our very odd legal culture comes from–that legal culture where not only do people sue over things that would have been considered idiotic even in the Fifties, but juries award them huge packets of money when they do.

I think a lot of people, although they don’t understand how “xcience” can fix things, do think it fixes things, everything–that there is no material barrier to everything going right, so that when something goes wrong, it must be either malice or negligance.

But what really gets to me about all this is how much of it is now being channeled as a religious message. 

We preach Christ and Him Crucified, St. Paul said, but Joel Osteen preaches Christ as a sort of all-encompassing sugar daddy.  God–he actually rarely says Christ; it’s almost always just God–wants you to be happy and  prosperous. 

We’re coming to another of those places where I really have no idea how to solve the problem I’ve identified.   Fatalism doesn’t seem to me to be a very good idea, and there’s nothing I’d like less than to  adopt that sort of Western European/strangely adolescent attitude of “oh, yes, it’s all so terrible and boring.”

There’s got to be a middle ground  in here somewhere.

Written by janeh

September 6th, 2009 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Local News Update

with 4 comments

So, Joann died the morning before yesterday.  She was probably already dead when I  was writing the blog, but I didn’t hear about it until later, when I was wandering around in the supermarket not doing much of anything, and my phone did that thing where it refuses to ring, but the voicemail and the voicemail tone come through fine. 

I checked to see who called, and I knew as soon as I saw the caller ID what had happened.  And it wasn’t as if it was unexpected.  It made me feel sort of aimless and floaty anyway.

And I wonder how much of what goes through my mind a lot when I’m not watching it is the result of simple old age–okay, not so old, but you know what I mean–and what is the result of all the deaths in my family over the last few years. 

And not just in my family, either.   There have been two friends and a student, as well. 

And lots of these people, including Joann, have been younger than I am.

In fact, looking back over the course of time I’ve spent on tis earth, two things strike me as very odd:  the number of people I’ve known who’ve died, and the number of women I’ve known who have never married.

In the people I’ve known who’ve died category, I’m not talking about the poeple of my parents’ generation, who got old and “passed away,” as they liked to put it, at around the time you’d expect.  My mother got very upset when my aunt Loretta died, because she was seventy-nine, so young (my mother was in her eighties)–but the woman had been smoking two packs a day for fifty years.  I thought she had a constitution of iron.

But of the kids I went to elementary school with, there are a few who died in Vietnam, but also four who were killed together in one of those drearily regular car crashes on Clapboard Ridge, and one who died when the small plane he was flying crashed near an airfield in Danbury.  That was Billy, and the one thing he’d wanted to do since he was small was fly.  He got his license at about the time we were  all juniors in high school.  He was killed when we were all about twenty-six.

Then there were the people I knew in college, some of whom died of AIDS in the early days of the disease, before there were effective treatments for it.  One woman was murdered a few years ago in a case fmmous enough to have become the subject of a few of those half-hour true crime cable shows.  One of my closest college friends died o a brain aneurism when we were all not quite thirty.  Renu Narang died last December as I reported here before.  A couple of others died of breast cancer, one just last year. 

But the business with the women not marrying is just as odd, in a way.  Statistically, something like 96% of all Americans marry at least once.  But in my mother’s family, out of ten girls, only four of us ever married, and one of those was married for exactly four days when she was seventeen.  That was how long it took her father to find out where she’d run away to, catch up with her, and get the marriage annulled.

Among my women friends from college, the marriage count is just as dismal–although a woman  I knew slightly actually made the television news with her wedding, which she held at the bus stop where she met her new husband, in Manhattan.  Then they rode away on a bus, leased somehow from the Transit  Authority for the occasion. 

I have no idea where I’m going with any of this, or what it is supposed to mean, it’s just been on my mind lately.  I also can’t stop thinking of how many people I know who seem to have done not much of anything–never married, never finished college, never travelled extensively, never–well, never. 

My father used to tell me not to assume that because someone hadn’t done the kind of thing I found important, they hadn’t done anything, but there really is a state of not having done anything. 

I’m blithering.  Maybe I only think I know what I mean. 

I promise to be more cheerful tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 5th, 2009 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

Which is what it is today.  I’ve got a rather odd week-end planned, assuming that the status of everthing and everybody stays as it is–that is, that nobody dies.  I’ve got some stuff to do tomorrow, and then I’m going to reread a couple of Harry Potter novels that I have hanging around–the first, and the seventh.  Actually, I’m not rereading the seventh.  When we first got it, my sons took it and spirited it away, and I’ve only just come across it again.

Just as an aside–the book of Shadia Drury’s that has me held in a state of morbid fascination is called something like Aquinas and Modernity.  I looked it up, too, and it’s cheaper than the one you guys found, but it’s still expensive for a paperback.  I assume the price tags are the result of the books being classified as “scholarly.”  And, yeah, I know.  If the articles in  Free Inquiry are any indication, her pretentions to scholarship, especially in the Middle Ages, are, well, what can we say?   Weak.

And as to a book in the library saying that angels are pushing the planets around:  I see nothing wrong with the book being there, but something wrong with announcements about it made in science classes in such a way as to imply that that theory is equally scientific.

Which is what was being done in Dover–in spite of the fact that there is no (none.  zero.  zilch) actual scientific work in Intelligent Desin, no refereed papers, no experiments, nothing, in spite of the fact that none of the people pushing ID is trained in the field (the only biologist is not an evolutinary biologist, and his claims have already been refuted, he’s just not listening), what the school board in Dover wanted to do was to present the situation as “evolution is a theory that not all scientiests agree about and there’s equally convicning scientific evidence for Intelligent Design.”

Which is not true.  

But today I want to get to a smaller and much more practical issue, because right now I’m in the midst of mapping out two new Gregor Demarkian mysteries in my head.  

I’ve said that I nearly always start books with a character and let the character take the lead, and that’s ninety nine percent.  It’s even half true in this case. 

But for the last couple of months,  I’ve been considering a situation that intrigues me both with its logistical possibilities and with the nature of the character that would have to be at the center of it.

And it’s a very interesting situation, even though the main “fair play” clue would be a literary reference not everybody would get.

But what’s become very clear to me is that this particular idea would not work with  Gregor Demarkian as the detective.  He’s got the wrong kind of mind for it, and the wrong set of references to really understand it. 

I wonder about that sometimes, the fact that all of us come equipped with sets of references we don’t even realize are references, that we think of as just “normal.”  And those references determine not only a lot of what we think about the world, but a lot of what we notice.  Father Tibor sees God everywhere.  Bennis tends to see class.

One of the things you can do with an idea that is outside your detective’s ken is to start a new series, which has occured to me.  I don’t want to give up writing Gregor, but the idea of another series, with a different set of characters, is intriquing, and when  I suggest it people sometimes actually seem interested. By people here, I mean, people in a position to know whether somebody would pay me for it.

This particular idea, however, would fit very well into Gregor’s universe, it just couldn’t be satisfyingly investigated by Gregor himself. 

And that leaves me with a set of possibilities, none of which I know much about. 

Why do people read series, for isntance?   It’s obvious that lots of people read them in order to follow the lives of the main core of characters from one book to the next.   It’s also obvious that a lot of people have a lot of trouble reading third person multiple viewpoint, and my guess is would have even more with first person multiple viewpoint.

Would a series be just as satisfying to a reader if the main character changed from one person to the next in a small set of continuing characters?  Would it be possible–after twenty-two Gregor Demarkian novels–to produce one where Bennis was the detective, or Tibor was?  Or one written in first person rather than in third?  What about one from the point of view of one of the more minor continuing characters–say, Russ Donahue or Hannah Krekorian?

Or, take it in another direction–how about a series in which each book was written in the first person point of view of a different character in the main core set? 

Or maybe I’m just getting more literary here than I ought to.

But here we come to one of my other problems with genre.  Genre determines not only narrative arc, or at least underlying narrative arc, but also reader expectations about muc m ore than that arc.  Mickey Spillane was once quoted as saying that if a book got boring, the best thing to do was shoot somebody–but he’d have said something different if the books he’d been writing were romances.

In a world of people who read for entertainment and escape, I don’t know the answers to questions like these.  To me, any of these experiments would be inherently interesting, but the fact is that they all represent much more work on the reader’s part than just doing the normal thing with a series. 

But then, I also tend to think that a book that makes me work is a good thing. I get the impression, more and more, that I’m in a minority there.

Okay, this is not the kind of problem any of you could be expected to solve,and I’m not going to solve it either.

But I’m thinking.

Written by janeh

September 3rd, 2009 at 6:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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