Friday, February 29, 2008

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season Six: best yet?

Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the greatest sitcoms ever in part because Larry David allows us to laugh at the things we're not allowed to laugh about. He's the best.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Do economists wish to ruin everything?

Tim Harford on Robert Frost:

"Frost's famous The Road Not Taken is as good an exploration of the economist's idea of opportunity cost as you might wish for. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening touches on the same subject and, for me, is a far more haunting poem. Then there's Mending Wall, an inquiry into whether property rights make for a civilised society - do good fences really make good neighbours?"

When you see beautiful poetry reduced to economic terms, does your soul crack just a little bit?

Torrential Downpour: just some links

Svend White at Religion Dispatches writes about "Martin Luther & the Mass Media."

The Reading Experience writes about poetry moving online, suggesting we'll be just fine without the "gatekeepers."

In the Middle suggests a moratorium on setting MacBeth in "in a militarized Europe c. 1925-1955."

Very few people read this blog that don't read my other blogs, but for those very few, I don't want you to miss out on Garfield minus Garfield, possibly the greatest bit of post-modern comedy ever (via Bookslut). So far, my favorite is this one.

Smurov at The Valve praises Chinua Achebe while criticizing "faint praise."

I'm a vegetarian having a love affair with cheese, but I think about going vegan again. Martha Rosenberg writes about dairy cows, giving me a push a little closer back to that total step.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On parenthood (and more)

Via bookforum, Ronald Bailey writes about why people are having fewer kids, and the relationship between happiness and having kids. Bailey finds data to suggest raising children doesn't increase one's "happiness."

Certainly, raising children is difficult and often boring. And yet I find it deeply fulfilling. I don't say that because I think it's what I'm expected to say: I say that because when I think about my son I feel deeply fulfilled, and feel horror at imagining life without him.

But that brings us to the definition of "happiness." If my primary focus in life was "happiness," I probably wouldn't do much all day besides watch TV shows on DVD. But I live with the belief that there is greater meaning than my own temporary pleasure. I read--because it fulfills and challenges me. I don't eat meat--because I believe an animal's life is worth more than my instant pleasure or "happiness."

Raising children is not about fulfilling my momentary pleasure, and to a certain extent it's not about fulfilling any empty concept like "happiness." It requires sacrifices (I've been to one movie in a theater in the past year). It requires a lot of additional work. Instant gratification doesn't take to concepts like "sacrifice," but with sacrifice can come a deeper sense of happiness, a deeper sense of joy, a deeper sense of meaning.

Bailey includes one passage that of course my very being rails against:

"So, modernity essentially transforms children from capital goods that produce family income into consumption items to be enjoyed for their own sakes, more akin to sculptures, paintings, or theatre."

Human beings are not commodities, to be defined entirely in terms of their usefulness. We're not "capital goods" or "consumption items." We have a dignity that goes beyond our usefulness, and even when used ironically, I bristle at such a reduction of human beings.

This is one way in which I recognize myself as a "Christian Humanist." Much of my religious feeling focuses on how we treat and consider other human beings. I wish to recognize the inherent dignity and holiness of every living creature, and to treat each living creature accordingly. My inspirations in my religious feelings are people like Milton, like Dostoevsky, like Yoder. When human beings are reduced to commodities and defined according to their usefulness (to whom?), the Christian Humanist in me balks in frustration.

Another note: in writing about this article, Ann at Feministing distorts an episode of The Simpsons, and as this blog is as much about TV as anything else, I can't let that pass. It is not accurate to say that in that episode, "Marge starts a crusade against 'Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays.'" Actually, it was Lindsey Naegle that started a crusade to remove children from public life, and Marge was just responding to it.

I'm not writing this with judgment of people who choose not to have children. It is your choice (of course!), it's not for everybody, and I'm certainly not trying to imply the only way to find deeper fulfillment in life is through parenthood. I'm mostly questioning how we define "happiness" and and the assumption that "happiness" is the primary goal.

Is happiness defined as "pleasure"? As "fulfillment"? Because those are often two different things.

Consider a monk that finds fulfillment in the denial of pleasure--is he "happy"?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I recommend...

...Carol Ann Duffy's poetry. The World's Wife is utterly brilliant; my wife recently asked me to re-read "Queen Herod," and it is jaw dropping, tingly good.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reading for breadth or depth

In the last eight months, among other things I've read Demons, The Idiot, The Adolescent, and re-read Notes from the Underground, all by Dostoevsky. Of my "choice" reading, approximately 2,000 pages was devoted to just one writer. I intend to re-read The Brothers Karamamozov and Crime and Punishment sometime in the next few years, too.

If I had chosen, I probably could have read between five and 10 contemporary novels by five to 10 different novelists. I would not have experienced one writer with such depth, but I would have exposed myself to several writers, and learned something of several different writers' work.

What's better? Is it good that I'm so immersed in Dostoevsky's work, or am I better off taking short swims in several writers' work? Let's shift the metaphor: do I want to find a plot of land and dig down to see what's there, or am I better off wandering about the desert just scraping at the surface of different plots of land?

Of course as readers we do both. But there are many, many critically acclaimed and discussed contemporary writers of which I have little to no familiarity. I sometimes feel ignorant of the discussion of contemporary literature (though not entirely).

And there's also an argument for choosing older literature over contemporary literature. It has stood the proverbial "test of time:" it's the stuff that many have agreed is good, and thus to devote yourself to it is to devote yourself to art. To know contemporary literature and discourse about it, may be to know a fashionable trend that will later be dismissed from the canon. If experiencing literature is a spiritual quest (as I believe it is), I don't want to waste my time tinkering with the stuff that's not going to feed my soul--I want the good stuff, the prose, poetry, and drama that is going to reach to my spiritual being.

This also gets at another issue of experiencing one writer. I started reading Dostoevsky with The Brothers Karamazov; if I had known that I'd wish to go further with him, I would have started with Notes from the Underground and read his novels chronologically to The Brothers Karamazov. Now, admittedly, I was assigned The Brothers Karamazov in grad school, and that affected my own chronology. But if we're going to experience a writer, we'll often choose his or her best (or most popular, or most famous, or whatever) work. Sometimes this is by choice: if we're going to expose ourselves to a particular writer, we often wish to start with the best, not knowing we'll get to anything else. Sometimes it isn't by choice: when teachers assign a writer, they'll often choose his or her best (or most popular, or most famous, or whatever) work to expose students to. That makes sense. So as readers, we often start with a writer's best work (even if it's a work he or she progressed to), then scatter around to read the rest (if we want). We don't necessarily progress with the writer's ideas or style (combined, his or her "art").

We can take this all to cliche: is it better to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot? Again, of course we try to do both: having a specialty does not require ignorance of everything outside one's specialty. But as readers, keenly aware of our time limitations, and keenly aware of our own mortality, we make choices. If you bring up a well-respected contemporary writer that I haven't read, I may have to listen (or read) silently, learning without contributing. But I don't regret immersing myself in Dostoevsky, one of those artists who is touching at my soul. For while a life of reading should bring much discourse about the stuff we're reading, a life of reading is also largely an inner life.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Merv Griffin Show and The Slicer

"The Merv Griffin Show"

Kramer: El Paso. I spent a month there one night.

Kramer: Well we've officially bottomed out.

Comment: Funny plots. Kramer has the Merv Griffin set in his apartment, and he's carrying on conversations as if he's hosting a talk show (without cameras). Jerry is taking advantage of his girlfriend: he keeps getting her to fall asleep so he can play with her collectible toys. Funny stuff.

"The Slicer"

Jerry: So you've done this?
George: Almost. I couldn't get the girl to go out with me a second time.

Kramer: I've cut slices so thin I couldn't even see them.

Comment: This episode marks the introduction to Mr. Kruger, George's incompetent and indifferent boss with the catch phrase "I'm not too worried about it." There were a lot of fun shenanigans in season nine when George worked for Kruger Industrial Smoothing. George really does go "hog wild" working there, and Kruger is excellent as the boss that just doesn't care.

Overall, some good dialogue in this episode.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Torrential Downpour: a lot of really stupid stuff

My image of Dostoevsky
When I think of Dostoevsky, I don't picture the slight, refined man you see on the right. I picture a big, burly fellow, with long wild hair, an unkempt beard, and mad, crazy eyes. The sort of man who stands up to roar. The sort of man who moves with heavy, powerful motions, whose passion and energy exudes from his very being. It's the only way I can picture a man who writes characters so consumed with passion and ideas.

But as a reader, do I really need a real Dostoevsky? Oh, I know of the mock execution, of Siberia, of conversion. But for the creator of the characters that burst across his novels, do I need the real man, or do I only need the metaphoric image of his soul I've created in my head?

So the creators of Across the Universe make a musical using Beatles' songs. And they have a character named Sadie. But..."Sexy Sadie" is nowhere to be found in the film.

The Stupid Thing I Believe (about Animal Rights)
I believe that by committing to animal rights, one stands further to the left. As a vegetarian, I'm more left-wing than my liberal but meat-eating friends.

Now, I'm guessing most left-wing folks see animal rights as a completely separate point from progressive attitudes on human issues. I think I'm taking the principles of a progressive worldview further and applying them to animals. What do you think? This is the stupid thing I believe: is it really stupid?

For more, see my two posts on a moral link between pacifism and vegetarianism (1 and 2).

The sort of conversations that occasionally occur in my house
PV: I don't need therapy. Dostoevsky is my therapist. Shakespeare is my therapist. Milton is my therapist.
C-FM: How delightfully pretentious of you.

PV: You spilled there too.
C-FM: No, that was the work of one rogue olive.

PV: What did people do in the Middle Ages?
(this is my response to just about anything that I don't want to do. Usually the answer is something bad).

Another victory for the way of all flesh
I heard a reporter refer to Fidel Castro's resignation as a "symbolic victory." Victory for whom? Time? Age? Illness? No individual or group resistance and no government policy was able to force Castro from power for nearly 50 years--I'm not entirely sure whom we're supposed to assign "victory" to, even a symbolic one.

Timothy Egan in "Book Lust:"

"For most of my lifetime, I’ve heard that reading is dead. In that time, disco has died, drive-in movies have nearly died, and something called The Clapper has come and gone through bedrooms across the nation.

"But reading? This year, about 400 million books will be sold in the United States."

Scott McLemee and Kim Paffenroth in "Zombie Nation:"

"Q: In the New Testament, Jesus dies, then comes back to life. His followers gather to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I am probably going to hell for this, but .... Is Christianity a zombie religion?

"A: I think zombie movies want to portray the state of zombification as a monstrous perversion of the idea of Christian resurrection. Christians believe in a resurrection to a new, perfect state where there will be no pain or disease or violence. Zombies, on the other hand, are risen, but exist in a state where only the basest, most destructive human drive is left — the insatiable urge to consume, both as voracious gluttons of their fellow humans, and as mindless shoppers after petty, useless, meaningless objects. It’s both a profoundly cynical look at human nature, and a sobering indictment of modern, American consumer culture."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Junk Mail

Jerry: So you never saw Last Tango in Paris?
George: No.
Jerry: Too bad. It was erotic.

George: Why is the mailman wearing a bucket?
Kramer: Hah? Well, it symbolizes our persecution.
George: Then shouldn't you be wearing the bucket?

Comment: a lot of the plotlines in this episode work out pretty well. Kramer's resistance to the U.S. Postal Service because he's annoyed at getting Pottery Barn catalogs is just the sort of think Kramer does, just as George's plan to "date" his cousin to get his parents' attention is the sort of scheme George would come up with: devious, deceitful, and depraved (though this is the only episode in which he seems to want anything to do with his parents). We also get to meet "The Wiz." Here's the thing about the Wiz: nobody beats him.

But just a note: Last Tango in Paris really isn't that erotic.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Well...I suppose.

After reading this NY Times article about high school students finding inspiration in The Great Gatsby, I was slightly vexed. Was it really an inspirational tale of the American Dream?

We might also teach those students that if they walk into a jungle at 17, they might walk out at 21 and by God, they'll be rich! The greatest things can happen!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On History and Healing

In Earnest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men (a novel that appears more brilliant each time I teach it), each of the men can share a heartbreaking story from his family history that explains why he is standing up today. The stories are deeply scarring incidents of racial violence and injustice, and they are both personal and historic. And these stories must not be forgotten, but should be remembered by all.

At the end of the novel, though, we have healing. "Salt and Pepper" play together and LSU wins. Charlie is killed, but so is Luke Will. The judge gives everybody the same sentence without punishment. Lou Dimes and Candy hold hands.

A common lament I hear is that Americans are woefully ignorant of history. As a teacher in the humanities, as a history minor, as a pacifist who wonders when the lesson of the folly of war will be learned, I can join that lament. It's particularly frustrating too how some people, when discussing race in America, speak as if there is no historical context whatsoever, as if a history of racial injustice and inequality is irrelevant to current race relations.

However, I also don't think we need look for our model those peoples around the world who have nursed centuries of grudges and hatreds (as a practical matter, that appears too often to be a source and justification of violence). We must confront our history, but I believe we must do so with an effort toward healing. Ignoring or even downplaying history will not bring healing--the wounds and scars are too deep. But when we engage in history with social purpose, when we acknowledge the atrocities and injustices of the past, it should be with the intent of moving forward positively. Perhaps we can look to what Australia is doing now as an example: confronting the horror of history to move forward to a better contemporary reality.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eccentricity is not a bad thing

At Inside Higher Ed, Erik M. Jensen has an amusing piece called "A Call for Professional Attire." It's a mildly humorous and mildly serious plea for college professors to dress more formally.

I'll go ahead and bypass the "I'll dress better when you pay me better" response (quite frankly, I'm not sure I can afford to dress the way Jensen would want me to--are adjuncts perhaps exempt from his standards?). I'll even bypass the socio-economic class considerations (why, exactly, do I not even know what a crease in pants means, why don't I know whether it's a good or a bad thing, and why would I not be able to identify a crease or lack of crease anyway?).

If I wanted to dress like a businessman, I could have become a businessman. I would have to cut my hair, shave my beard, and wear a suit and tie to work every day. But I didn't become a businessman. I thought freedom of attire and appearance to be one of the perks of teaching in college; I'm allowed to look a bit eccentric.

Now, I generally wear khakis or corduroys (very rarely jeans), and either a sweater or a sports coat of some sort (over a button up shirt or polo shirt, which is not always or even usually tucked in). I'm always hunting for cheap clearance suit coats, mostly corduroy but not always. In general, I've taken some concern to look relatively professional, even if it is often casual. As my sister and mother would attest, I don't precisely have the keenest fashion sense anyway, so I guess you could say I'm doing my best.

But I also understand the desire to look professional, and I do know that dressing professional can make one feel professional. That's why I've bypassed the desire to go the full hippie prof route by wearing a peace sign t-shirt shirt under my corduroy jacket. So perhaps I'll take up Jensen's advice: tomorrow, in my fourth year teaching, I will wear a tie to work for the first time.

I'm a bit concerned it will look like I'm playing grown-up.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Torrential Downpour

HBO shows currently on DVD at the PV household
We're halfway through season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and it may be the funniest season yet. The extra time off really gave Larry David ideas: his character is more obnoxious than ever.

I don't quite get Big Love yet. The other HBO dramas we've watched (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Rome) were dripping with theme. Through four episodes, Cruelty-Free Mommy and I have ideas on what sorts of commentary could emerge from this show, but as of yet it's not quite reaching me.

Currently reading: The Adolescent, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I'm finished with Parts One and Two. It's interesting how they parallel each other: they start with Arkady requesting money from a prince (in very different situations), they both involve incidents of eavesdropping at Tatyana Pavlovna's apartment (with the participants switching roles), and they both involve Arkady discovering that all along he was mistaken about a good many things and other things altogether are going on.

We'll see how Part Three finishes things up. Notes from the Underground, Demons, and The Brothers Karamozov were alive with ideas and people consumed with ideas. The Idiot and Crime and Punishment offered us fascinating explorations of the inner and outer lives of eccentric figures in our world. As of yet, I'm still unsure what The Adolescent is getting at, though it makes for good reading.

Teaching is fresh and lively
This semester I'm teaching three sections of English 200, a course I've taught only twice and that two years ago. It really excites me. I get to read material that isn't so stale to me (our current unit is on Fairy Tales and different variants of "Cinderella"), and class discussions have been lively and exciting.

Of course, teaching the same material repeatedly need not get stale, either. I'm also teaching a lit class, and so far we've covered material that I've taught every semester I've taught a lit class (The Metamorphosis, "Death of a Salesman," some Sharon Olds poetry). As always, students keep the material alive, sharing new perspectives, interpretations, and ideas on the works.

Roger Sandall in "Religion and Violence:"

"In the story Paul Stenhouse tells, the 463 years between the death of Muhammed in 632 AD, and the First Crusade in 1095, were extremely dangerous for Christian Europe. Instead of peace there were unrelenting Islamic wars and incursions; Muslim invasions of Spain, Italy, Sicily and Sardinia; raids, seizures, looting of treasure, military occupations that lasted until Saracen forces were forcibly dislodged, sackings of Christian cities including Rome, and desecrations of Christian shrines. And be it noted: all this went on for 463 years before any Christian Crusade in response to these murderous provocations took place."

(via Arts & Letters Daily)

William Grimes reviews Richard Thompson Ford's The Race Card in "Colorblind Conclusions on Racism:"

"Racism, Mr. Ford argues, has not disappeared, but the civil rights movement has made it contemptible in the eyes of most Americans. Changes in the law have introduced penalties for overt discrimination. Consequently, current racial conflicts tend to involve 'ambiguous facts and inscrutable motives.' They also encourage playing the race card to achieve emotional satisfaction or tactical advantage."

Let me note: I hate the phrase "the race card." Too often, people use "the race card" card to dismiss legitimate discussion about race--instead of thinking critically or responding, opponents just accuse a person of "playing the race card." Still I'm interested in Ford's discussion of "racism without racists:" with so much media focus on racist words of individual celebrities rather than institutional inequality, Ford's ideas may be useful.

Katrina Onstad in "Horror Auteur is Unfinished with the Undead:"

"Over five films and four decades the director George A. Romero’s slack-jawed undead have been our tour guides through a brainless, barbaric America that seems barely hospitable to the living. They lurch across a bigoted civil-rights-era countryside (“Night of the Living Dead,” 1968), claw at a suburban shopping mall (“Dawn of the Dead,” 1978) and wander dazed in an anxious post-9/11 world (“Land of the Dead,” 2005)."

Roger McGovern's "Waterboarding for God, With Decency and Compassion"

We need to see more Christian institutions and authorities firmly declaring that torture is utterly immoral. Christians worship Jesus, who was unjustly tortured and executed. This same Jesus preached non-violence and compassion for the suffering. If Christians cannot firmly denounce torture, we betrayed the moral meaning of Christianity. We must not have silence.

And finally
At my sports blog, I often use literature to make sense of sports. Most recently, I compared being a Viking fan to being a resident of Argos in Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Flies."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Blood

Elaine: You just left? What did you tell her?
George: I told her I had a bus transfer that was only good for another hour.

George: I got greedy. I flew too close to the sun on the wings of pastrami.
Jerry: Yeah, that's what you did.

Comment: this episode is characteristic of much of the final two seasons of Seinfeld (without Larry David): silly, far-fetched, caricaturish situations and characters. I've always found this episode in particular somewhat annoying and corny. Still, there is a lot of genuinely funny stuff here. It's nice to find out that Kramer calls Jerry's parents weekly, tapes Canadian parliament, and watches videos on how to make your own sausage, then makes his own sausage.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Elephants at the Circus

As an animal rights advocate, I know there is a lot of opposition to my point of view, and I should probably save my energy for those willing to wage real intellectual arguments. I also don't want to be another Minnesota blogger taking the easy pleasure of shredding the horror show that is a Katherine Kersten column. But here we are.

Katherine Kersten tells us that members of the Minneapolis City Council who are concerned about the treatment of elephants in circuses are uninformed. Their objections are pointless. How does she know this?

She talked to one person who has worked with elephants, that's how! And he says the elephants aren't abused.

She doesn't address any of the evidence that elephants do face abuse in circuses. And she doesn't address those concerned that wild animals shouldn't be exploited for human entertainment at all (whether or not there is "abuse," however you want to define that). The "proof" that the council is "clueless" is that the kids want to ride the elephants.

No word on whether or not the elephants want the kids riding them.

She ends by telling us it's good that kids get to ride the elephants at the circus. Maybe someday, those kids will grow up to love elephants as much as the person she spoke to loves elephants.

I see things differently. I, too, hope kids grow up to love elephants. I hope, though, they love them enough to want them free in their natural habitat, not held captive to be used for our amusement.

For more, see PETA's site devoted to circus animals.

Let me add a note on my attitude about animals used for human entertainment. I see zoos as a necessary reality: if humans are going to encroach on animal habitats all over the world, there need to be safe, humane places to protect animals. I hope the zoos make efforts to make the animals' home a sanctuary similar to their own habitat. Traveling around with animals, training them to perform tricks for human amusement, is quite another matter. I don't quite see the necessity in that.

See also:

PV's Sports Toothache "animal rights" posts

"Pretty things didn't work."

Christian hypocricy

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Pacing Myself

In the past, when I got a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I devoured it quickly, watching episode after episode. Watching new episodes within a few days sucks you up entirely into Larry David's world, and it's very funny, but you're immersed, and that world becomes normalized. Later, when I re-watch episodes, I'm of course already familiar with the situations and actions.

With season six, I'm watching one episode per day. In this way, I'm not just sucked into the world of Larry David, taking for granted his obnoxiousness and deviousness. Watching one episode, I'm much more aware of the eccentricity of Larry David's behavior and personality. Instead of getting immersed, each episode seems to burst out into my world, surprising me, and still leaving me soaking wet (I think I've carried this metaphor a bit far).

Larry David (the character) is still my favorite of television's anti-heroes.

I'm really having fun: in particular, the second episode ("The Anonymous Donor") and third episode ("The Ida Funkhouser Roadside Memorial") had my wife and I rolling with laughter.

Stupid Summer Project: The Serenity Now

Jerry: One percent? They can kiss one percent of my ass!

Elaine: I'm not buying a computer from you.
George: There's porn.
Elaine: (thinking a moment) Even so.

Comment: a mediocre and gimmicky episode.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hum Ding

Today I got season three of The Sopranos and season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which I rank fourth for TV comedies, behind Arrested Development, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld).

I am pleased. This is how I stay relatively out of touch with contemporary culture: keep the smallest cable package available, listen only to NPR, read Dostoevsky's novels, and watch great TV shows on DVD. Of course the internet is how I stay relatively in touch. With culture.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Sometimes, "The Metamorphosis" teaches itself

Today I started discussion of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" with a brain-storming exercise before even touching on the text. I asked a simple question: "What can make a person feel like a bug?" Students responded, and we had all sorts of possibilities written on one side of the board.

My second exercise was as simple: I read the first sentence of the story, and then asked students to give me all their impressions or observations of this sentence (though I asked some questions about the sentence, and included some observations of my own). I wrote these thoughts on the other side of the board.

At this point, most (though not all) of the story's main issues are written on the board. Now we'll be discussing some of these issues with close attention to the text.

Teaching isn't always this easy, but sometimes it works out that way.

I will probably do the same sentence exercise for the last (amazing) sentence that I did for the first. That last sentence is loaded with knockout power.

We come not to bury Western Civilization

For weeks, my wife and I have been appalled by commercials for Meet the Spartans. We're appalled that the non-jokes in the commercial were the non-jokes they were actually trying to use to get people to see it. And we were appalled that we knew far too many people would go see it (my wife banned her students from taking about it in class). Slate's Josh Levin calls it the worst movie he's ever seen. The key point: merely referencing something does not constitute satire!