Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Chinese Restaurant

George: For fifty buck? I'd put my face in their soup and blow.

George: You know we're living in a society! We're supposed to act in a civilized way!

Comment: what more can be said about this classic, real time episode that is the closest the show got to being about nothing? It has so much of the show's heart: the attention to minute detail, the anxiety, the social obligations, misunderstandings, awkwardnesses, formalities, the bathroom and sex humor, the focus on the mundane.

George has a wonderful moment of cheapness (He thinks $20 is too much to bribe, and then says they can split it 7-7-6).

This episode really does miss Kramer: he brings a chaotic zaniness to show that really helps balance the attention to the tedious that Elaine, Jerry, and George bring to the early episodes. This may even work as a case lesson for aspiring writers. What does Kramer add to the show, but more importantly, what is missing when he's not there? What does his presence bring attention to? How does his presence change the tone of a scene, the perception of a character? He is a necessary character to make the show work consistent.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christian Humanism: peace, equality, animal rights

"...with the Christian sense of human dignity and equality permeating us soul and body..."
--Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

Peace and Equality
Pacifism is rooted in a sense of equality. To use violence against a person is to deny his/her inherent dignity, and to assert that one person's well-being is less valuable than your own (or another's). Religious people may understand this in a spiritual sense (we are all equal before God), though it has political meaning as well. Gwyn, Hunsinger, Roop, and Yoder state in "A Declaration on Peace" that

"The Dismantling of racist and patriarchal norms and structures subverts one of the traditional foundations of militarism in history."

And that

"The royal servant people is politically engaged and partisan, working with and for movements that embody more just and equitable economic relations, more peaceful resolutions to conflict, and the broader distribution of authority and decision-making in society."

It is thus that for me pacifism and equality are important elements of Christian Humanism. I despair of the history of racism, misogyny, and bigotry in our world, of the institutional and individual bigotry still existing, of the continuing anger and conflict over these issues, of the violence ensconced in it all. And I can come back to Tolstoy's words, that in this complex world, in which we are all complicit in (even if not individually responsible for) inequalities of society, I can still treat all people I encounter with "human dignity and equality." I must, and it may be all I can do.

Animal Rights
Since making the choice to become a vegetarian almost two years ago, animal rights has been a major part of my life (a personal note: since going mostly vegan less than five months ago, I've lost 46 pounds). Vegetarianism is a daily action for me, a repeated choice, and issues of animal rights often take up my thoughts.

My view on animal rights does not spring from Christian tradition; it comes from a separate area of knowledge. It may be occasionally informed by Christianity, but I do not use Christianity to center my vegetarianism in the same way Christianity can center my pacifism. I did not become a vegetarian because of my understanding of Christianity. And yet, I don't think I would be a vegetarian if I not for my own religious journey.

It is a background in Christianity that instilled in me the importance of integrity in action and in conscience. It is not so much that religion provided me with a sense of what is right (though I'm sure it did), but more that religion taught me I must seek what is right and act according to conscience. If it had not been for the religious formation of my mind, it might not matter to me that animals would die for my pleasure. Religion did not teach me that it is wrong to eat animals, but it did teach me that if I believe it is wrong to eat animals, then I must not eat animals.

And to some extent, compassion for humanity and compassion for animals are grounded together. My behavior toward humans and animals is grounded in the belief that my actions toward others should be peaceful, compassionate, and good. Christianity taught me that I must treat all people with dignity, even sacrificing myself for others, so in some way my view of animal rights is merely an extension of what Christianity taught me. I must treat humans with compassion, even sacrificing myself, and so I can also treat other living creatures with compassion, even sacrificing myself.

The reasons I'm a vegetarian are not religious (in fact they are based on science and reason). And yet it is a religious sense that permeates my actions, a religious sense that guides me to seek truth and act accordingly, a religious sense that teaches me to follow my conscience. And so I too consider animal rights a part of what I call Christian Humanism.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The school year

This is a chance to ramble about various things on my mind as I prepare for the academic semester. It's disordered, narcissistic, but probably boring. But writing it out sort of mellows me out about it, and it's a blog, so it should be therapeutic, eh? There's a theory on dreams that you dream about whatever is on your mind a lot at the time, and it's just sort of the leftover stuff your brain is working through (at least this is my memory of something I learned in high school that really stuck with me). I think a post like this is like that sort of dream (goodness, what an atrociously dull dream though!): it's the extra stuff my mind works through around this time. By now you should know sufficiently well that you can ignore this.

Two fear usually get to me at the beginning of fall semester. First, I worry that after a long layoff, I've entirely forgotten how to teach. Second, after the complete openness of summer, I sometimes envision the academic semester as a time with zero free time as I'm consumed by work. But this year I don't feel terribly bothered by either fear. Perhaps entering my fifth year teaching, I'm confident enough to know I remember how to (at the very least) stand in front of the class, talk, and write on the board. And I know that during an academic semester, there is still plenty of time away to do what one enjoys, even including grading papers (I've found as an adjunct professor I have more free time than I had when I was a graduate student). So basically, I'll devote a lot of time and energy to my work, but I'll still watch heaps and heaps of football.

And frankly, I like my job. It's fun. I find it mentally stimulating and generally fulfilling. I look forward to teaching classes, and I enjoy interactions with students. So the beginning of a semester offers a lot to look forward to.

So then I worry about the technical details (I am Obsessive-Compulsive--it seems I must have something to worry about). Get copies of syllabi. Get new keys for the building. Get some texts scanned. Pull out documents from a folder. Pretty basic stuff that always gets done without a fuss, but I'll vex over it.

I've already started making a weekly list of tasks. It makes me feel good: I've got a fixed list of what I actually need to do, and I get to cross things off to feel accomplishment. Today I did something that I hadn't already put on the list (wrote a Vikings column for a Minnesota sports blog I've started contributing to in addition to my own sports blog), and after completing it, I wrote it on the list just so I could cross it off and look at it crossed off. I did a lot of these lists in grad school, and it's a good habit, I think. It helps me relax: I don't have to worry about what I might have to do, because I can look at the list. This somehow allows me to enjoy my free time more.

This semester I'm experimenting with some of my courses, trying something new (I never want it to get stale). In comp class, I used to have a unit in the middle of the semester that ended in a midterm. I've dropped that (shifting many of the readings for that unit to the fourth paper unit, a Public Policy Proposal paper), and will be just bulking up each existing unit. There will be challenges in stretching the same content out, each unit lasting a few more class periods. I think it will work better, and it will give me more time in class to focus on technical writing issues.

But the bigger change comes in a lit course I'm teaching. It's a general education literature course titled "Types of Literature." I get to teach a wide assortment of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. In the past, I've arranged the syllabus not by literary genre, but by theme (meaning it was organized almost randomly--the thematic complexities of most of the works don't easily fit into one thematic unit, and could almost be interchangeable). This semester I'm teaching it by genre, so we'll start with all the short stories we'll read, then read all the plays, then read some novels, and finish with some weeks of poetry. I really don't know how that will go, how the students will handle it. I'm also worried I didn't leave enough time for poetry (can one ever?), because sometimes the poetry takes 2-3 times longer to cover in class than I expect (such is life when the class is guided by student discussion).

But the time is almost near to stop throwing on shorts and a polo shirt in the morning; soon, I'll have to throw on pants and a polo shirt.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Puerto Rican Day

George: Look at me! I am man! I am you!

Jerry: I'm glad I cut you off, because black Saab rules! So long, jackass!

Kramer: Jerry, that's in Sweden.

Comment: So many of these episodes are familiar--I laugh, but I laugh at the joy I already know. But I haven't seen this episode since it first aired in 1998. I remembered the plot, but I didn't remember the dialogue or many of the jokes. It's almost--but not quite--like seeing a new episode. Perhaps I should wait ten years to watch it again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reflections on Summer

Going into the summer, I had rather high hopes for how much reading I would do. Now as summer comes to a close, I feel rather like William Wordsworth in The Prelude:

"Not that I slighted books,--that were to lack
All sense,--but other passions in me ruled,
Passions more fervent, making me less prompt
To in-door study than was wise or well."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

If forced to play the partisan...

There is much I can say, both good and bad, about John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, but I'll sum it up with this: I want art to be what Gardner wants it to be, and I want to read the sort of book Gardner wants to read.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Continuing away...

I'm currently reading John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, with an odd result: I don't think I can quite view Jean-Paul Sartre the same. Put another way, I can't quite take Sartre so seriously. Gardner's critiques of Sartre are incisive, and I think they'll stick with me in further considerations of Sartre's ideas.

Another step toward being a former existentialist.

Science and Literature

I found this passage of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction rather interesting:

"Good science normally makes hypotheses based on observation or probability; art deals, at its best, with what has never been observed, or observed only peripherally--darts from what is to what might have been--asking with total interest and sobriety such questions as 'What if apple trees could talk?' or 'What if the haughty old woman next door should fall in love with Mr. Powers, our mailman?' The artists' imagination, or the world it builds, is the laboratory of the unexperienced, both the heroic and the unspeakable."

Perhaps this articulates my feeling at the suggestion that literary criticism needs to incorporate more science. I say, thanks but no thanks. The methods science uses to make sense of our universe, and the conclusions it reaches, while valid and important, are simply not the same as the methods and conclusions of literature, which are also valid and important.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Rereading "The French Lieutenant's Woman"

Something new stands out for me in my rereading of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. In the metafiction of the novel, Fowles may seem to explore the limitations of the omnipotent narrator. But that is hardly the case: Fowles is in fact asserting, reclaiming, and celebrating the omnipotent power of the author. To Fowles, some 20th century theorists and artists were denying the place or significance of the author to the work of literature. The French Lieutenant's Woman is written in the third person, and Fowles has injected himself into the text as fully as one can imagine a third person narrator possibly could. There are the obvious points: the 13th chapter when Fowles says he doesn't know what Sarah is thinking, the inauthentic dream ending in which Fowles parodies the ending of a novel, later in the book when he first enters the scene as a physical character, in the contrived double-ending, in the final philosophical commentary that concludes the novel. But even beyond those brilliant and enjoyable bits of metafiction, Fowles' voice powerfully controls the text. He injects his own comments and opinions, frequently compares the 1860s to his own era, talks about literature and the conventions of fiction, and seems to stop to chat with the reader while telling the story. Fowles critically examines Victorian England with the 20th century reader, but he's also speaking to the reader a bit like a teacher (or preacher).

The book is a rich and expansive exploration of Victorian England (the ideas, the culture, and the material conditions), and the conventions of the Victorian novel. It is also very, very funny. Fowles' tone is often hilarious, as he comments on characters, conventions, and eras. And there are many other interesting things about the book (the way Fowles forces readers to consider the ways they read or fictionalize, the theme of existential freedom). But in all that and above all that, in The French Lieutenant's Woman Fowles is showing the enduring significance and importance of the omnipotent author.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Maid

George: Once she pinched my ass, but I don't know what that was.

Kramer: I'm on the corner of 1st and 1st. How can the same street intersect itself? I must be at the nexus of the universe!

Comment: This is really a dark episode. The maid plot line parallels the exploitative nature of prostitution, and Elaine is on the phone with a boy that doesn't know his grandma is dead ("Do you hate me because of my lazy eye?"), Elaine speculates whether she could get away with killing the phone guy, Jerry asks George if he's giving the suicide talk or the nickname talk, Elaine complains about how horrible it must be to havea real family. It just goes on--you can start to forget that you're watching a really cynical sitcom.

There are some great facial expressions and line deliveries in this episode, and I really love Kruger. What would happen if Mr. Kruger, David Brent, and Michael Scott all got together? Thse are the sort of questions that keep me up at night.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Frogger

Jerry: You sure have a lot of friends. How come I never see any of these people?
Kramer: They want to know why they never see you.

Jerry: Well I'm sorry. I'm not Brad. I'm me! Nice to meet you!

Comment: In some ways this episode is typical of the series: Jerry dates a woman with an annoying social and conversational habit (finishing his sentences) and Elaine complains about the "forced socialization" of cake parties at work. But it's also typical of the later Seinfeld seasons, in that the plotlines just get too contrived and corny (like George playing frogger with the game).

Pederman calls somebody a "glorious tit-willow." What is the hell is that?