Tuesday, September 30

Financial forest fire

The US and world economies have been in varying degrees of turmoil for the past several days, especially as the US Congress has been discussing the merits of a proposed $700B bailout plan (in between sessions of haranguing each other across the aisle while suggesting this will be a bipartisan effort).

Treasury Secretary Paulson said there would be dire consequences if Congress didn't pass the bailout bill as soon as possible. Economists lined up to talk about their perspectives of the foolhardiness or wisdom behind the plan. Congressional members lined up to talk about their respective party stand and stump a bit to make sure the "Main Street" Americans they serve are aware of their position on the plan. There was a great deal of posturing, a great deal of rhetoric, but apparently there was a great deal of conversation that led to a proposed bill. Unfortunately, that bill was defeated on Monday by the House--Democrats blaming the Republicans and vise versa--and the Dow plunged 778 points.

Come Tuesday, Wall Street was doing brisk business as the bargain hunters sniffed around for opportunities. NYSE traders suggest there is still the potential for dire consequences if something doesn't happen soon. But all through this exercise in posturing, politicking, and planning, a certain kind of herd mentality has settled in.

I've talked with friends who believed the bailout plan was the best option ever until economists began to suggest there might be other options and then pundits started yammering. Then they shifted gears to follow some other lead dog, but many of them are simply dazed, confused, and very uncertain. John K. Galbraith, writing in the Washington Post, was one of those who suggested the bailout isn't necessary.

There has been some recent discussion about how the mortgage crisis through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is being handled. Essentially all activity was put on hold until the regulators could evaluate the status of mortgages to determine who could be eligible for a modify loan, perhaps extended years on the mortgage, etc. In other words, rather than crash through the foreclosure process, the regulators took a long hard look to determine what might be the best course of action. It's got to be a grueling process because they need to review each case individually, but it seems to serve all of the parties reasonably fairly.

This whole teetering of the financial system seems to me to be much like a financial forest fire. The end result of a forest fire is an ugly thing with ground and trees charred and blackened, no apparent signs of life. The consequences of a forest fire can be devastating: lost homes, lost livelihoods, even lost lives. It is not a small thing. But a contained forest fire, one that doesn't roar down a canyon and gobble up buildings in its way--is also a cleansing process. Overgrown underbrush, dead trees, dying trees, and more are cleaned out in a forest fire. Where it looks as though there is no life, new life is soon beginning.

The rebirth of a forest is a slow thing; Mother Nature takes her time. Though I do not wish any further loss of homes or loss of livelihoods, I think a rush to a solution is not the best alternative. Though I think plenty of our congressional leaders have been and are being petty, I think there is a great deal of perhaps unintentioned wisdom in spending a bit more time to think through the root causes of the financial straits in which we find ourselves.

It's easy to toss hedge fund or short traders or any other Wall Street insider to the wolves; they are, after all, the worst of the worst greedy, risk-taking capitalists, or so some like to say. Does Wall Street need more regulation? Probably. Is it ridiculous that an executive who has run a company into the ground or let it fail gets a multimillion dollar exit package? Absolutely. Is it a slippery slope to continue bailouts? Absolutely. Does it make more sense to put regulations in place recognizing there will always be scalawags and snake oil salesmen who will find away around the rules? You bet. Does it make more sense to make sure that the consequences of messing with other peoples' money and livelihoods are truly dire, even uncomfortable? You bet. Does it make sense to stop giving lip service to bipartisan efforts and actually be bipartisan? to stop campaigning for election or re-election and do the right thing for the people? No doubt about it.

Too bad we don't have financial firemen who can calmly and diligently "contain and control" this financial wildfire while others methodically draft a rebuilding plan with a clear vision of trying to do the best thing for as many people as possible. And then get buy-in from the people who matter, helping them understand that every niche constituency is not going to get served first or best.

It's a tough place we're in, but I sort of think we have to let it finishing burning to the ground. I just hope the rebirth and regeneration makes it all worth while and we don't botch it.

Sunday, September 28

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week began on Saturday, September 27 and runs through Saturday, October 4. (Let's ignore, just for the moment, that the duration is longer than an actual week.)

The American Library Assocation regularly promotes and celebrates Banned Books Week. As the ALA notes on its site, Banned Books Week (BBW) "celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met."

When I teach Children's Literature and Adolescent, I do talk about Banned Books Week, but also what seems to be the premises or thinking behind challenging books or banning books. I ask my students to investigate the censorship policies at the public libraries and the school libraries because I want them capable of making their own decisions about censorship, about challening books, about banning books. I don't want them to accept anyone else's thinking, including mine.

The 10 most challenged books in 2007 have been listed numerous times, and I'll list them again:
  1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
  4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
  10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The ALA keeps track of challenged and banned books, but also the reason books have been challenged. The reasons for the 2007 books can be found here.

There is a difference between a book being challenged and a book being banned, but not much. A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict a book from public access. When a book has been banned, you might assume the challenge has been successful.

But I believe readers must be careful about saying anyone should have any access to any book though that takes me down a slightly different road of what might be appropriate or accessible to readers. Classroom teachers seem to give a lot of credence to what is "age appropriate." They have reasons for that, of course, but the parameters often seem arbitrary or without any latitude. Reading teachers, for example, focus on age appropriate vocabulary, which is one of the reasons Doreen Cronin's delightful Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type is not always encouraged as a book for young or emerging readers. It's got a few big words in it that might not be "age appropriate." But that's a diatribe for a different time.

Having said that, however, I do believe that some books are not appropriate for some readers. I think anyone recommending books to children or young readers have to be discerning about the reader to whom the book is being recommended. I'm cautious with some of my recommendations for some of my adult friends; why would I be less careful with students and kids? So here's my taken on this top 10 list:

  • I've not read And Tango Makes Three. I wouldn't use it for my Children's Lit class because I teach at Wheaton College and it could be problematic. I'll mention it and let my students decide for themselves. As for the premise: there are gay couples in the real world; there are gay couples in the real world who have real children and are excellent parents. It's entirely possible this book will help someone think through their own preconceptions, ideas, whatever about whatever bugs them about this book. There's another blog post in that, too.
  • I hated The Chocolate War. I thought it was a terrible book and not just because of the conclusion, though that played a key part in my dislike of the book. I taught it a few semesters in Adolescent Literature because I thought I was being too narrow-minded about the book, but none of my students liked it and none of my friends liked it so I'd challenge it simply because I think it's a stupid book.
  • I haven't read Olive's Ocean book, nor have I read The Golden Compass so I can't comment.
  • Poor Huck. Twain's classic has been tagged with racism for a very long time. I wonder how many of the people who have tried to ban this book have actually read this book or paid any attention to the context of the writing or know anything about the author.
  • The Color Purple is an extraordinary book. I do remember one incident when I used it in an African-American Literature class. One of my students something to this effect, "I do wish you'd warned us about the self-love parts." I almost laughed but she was earnest. The students went on to tell me they just liked to be warned that there may be some elements that might make them uncomfortable. For all of their apparent worldliness, it's important to remember that college kids are just college kids. I appreciated her comment and, from then on, gave students a heads up. I developed my own sort of warning system by telling them there is "earthy" language (a colleague used that term to describe Anne Lamott's writing) and there are elements of sexuality. Depending on the students and the book, I might give them a rating of 1 to 5 on the sexual elements.
  • TTYL. This is abook that should never have been published. The worst thing is that there are others: TTFN and l8r, g8r. The first was quaint using text messaging as it's motif, but the characters are shallow and insipid, the plot is dorky, and the whole book is just dreck. I went to her web site and was horrified to learn she's written a lot of book. Sheesh. Really? Someone keeps publishing that junk? Wow. Scary. I think her books should be banned because they are an affront to anything remotely literary.
  • I love I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and this is another book I think people reacted to without considering its context or purpose.
  • I haven't read Robie's book, but it looks like a non-fiction book about growing into adolescence, but based on what I've seen of it, I can imagine why some people have challenged it. I'm going to guess that those are the same folks who cannot bring themselves to say "penis" or "vagina," who claim to want their children to think of their bodies and the functions of the body as something normal, but who cannot talk about any of those functions without gettting embarrassed. I might not agree with Robie's take on some of what he says, but I can see how such a book might be helpful for the conversation that far too many parents are reluctant to have with their kids. And if their kids don't learn something remotely close to the truth about their bodies and sex from their parents, they're going to find out from their friends and through experimentation. That, as we all know, is too often a recipe for disaster.
  • I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I've blogged about it (freestylebooks.blogspot.com). The reasons it has been challenged are: "Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group." I get why some folks get all nervous about real life intruding in their fiction, but I don't understand why this book is considered unsuitable for the age group. Charlie, the protagonist, is in high school. High school is a tough place these days, even in towns that believe themselves to be idyllic and immune. Maybe it's because Charlie reads The Catcher in the Rye and becomes friends with a group involved in productions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There could be a lot of reasons to be concerned about this book, but I love the fact that it enables kids to talk about high school and how hard it can be just to get through a day, never mind attend class and actually learn something.

I'm not a fan of banning books. I am a fan of using discernment in making recommendations and making sure that all readers know what they like and why they like it. The inverse is also true. I want my students to know why they don't like something and I ask them for concrete reasons.

If the sex makes them uncomfortable, fine. I can respect that. If the theme or topic makes them uncomfortable and they can tell me why, I can respect that too. But having them figure out why they don't like a particular book makes them more informed about themselves as readers and as citizens of the world.

Informed readers are welcome to ban books from their own shelves and their own reading for their own reasons. Just don't tell me what I can't read and why I can't read it.

Sunday, September 21

Relevant? What does that mean?

It's been a while since I last posted, though I often wonder if it makes any difference. There are millions of bloggers and it seems only a few are read regularly if at all. So there is an odd sensibility about writing to cyberspace and wondering if and where and how one's words might be heard.

I've changed the name of my blog from "Freestyle Pen" to "Peripatetic Pen." I like the word "peripatetic," but then, I like words in general. What prompted this particular stream of consciousness thinking is an entry I saw in someone's Facebook profile. Something about getalife church. There is so much going on in that phrase "get a life" and the way it has been used and is often used. Too often, I think, it's intended as a sort of slur: "Aw man, you need to get a life." So of course I had to go to the link to investigate the church that urges people to get a life.

That's kind of profound when you think about it. Christianity, without its frills and excesses, thinking in context of 1st century Christianity without overlays of interpretation and any other intellectual, political, or philosophical baggage, is about people getting a new life. There are scores of Bible verses I could reference here, such as Romans 6:4. Because I've not been to church in a few years though I've been thinking about finding a new church (a different blog post required), I wanted to learn more about this new church. The goals are straightforward, no frills, Biblical: fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and obey the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). Simple, yet very complex.

So then I checked out the church values and this is where I got stuck. I like the notes in italics and wish they had used only those instead of the cutesy one-liners. The one that really got to me is this one: "If it's not relevant, it's not God." What does that mean? You value "relevance." That's another one of those abstract and amorphous words like "tolerance."

But then I thought I should double-check the meaning of the word "relevant": "1 a: having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand b: affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion ." Revisiting the value of the Life Church, I had to wonder, again, what they mean, but then I started thinking about the way people use the word "relevant."

When I'm in a meeting and someone raises an issue that takes us down some rabbit trail, I know the issue is not relevant; it's not significant or pertinent to the matter at hand or under discussion. How does that apply to God and a value of the church, that one values relevance? In relation to what?

While I was looking up "relevant" to find what might be significant to that particular matter, I learned (or relearned) there is a magazine titled Relevant. I had to check that out, too. The first paragraph of the "What We Believe" section reads: "RELEVANT is a multimedia company looking to impact culture with the message that even though religion may be seen as irrelevant, a personal relationship with God is a relevant -- and vital -- aspect of a fulfilled life. We want to engage people in a conversation about faith. We want to challenge worldviews and cause people to see God outside the box they've put Him in."

Okay, so some people think religion is irrelevant; insignificant to the matter at hand. What is that matter at hand? Life? The magazine folks believe that a personal relationship with God is a relevant aspect of a fulfilled life. Which suggests to me that people are using "relevant" as a synonym for "significant" or "important."

I can't think about the people who want to be "relevant," who talk about education needing to be "relevant," who talk about students wanting what they learn to be "relevant." But no one talks about the matter at hand. I think when people talk about wanting to be relevant, they mean they want to be significant to someone; they don't want to be unimportant or insignificant. I think people are often afraid of being ignored or overlooked, maybe just unappreciated. When people talk about wanting their lives to be relevant, I think they mean they want to leave some sort of a mark on the world, no matter how small; they don't want to feel as though they have not touched another's soul.

When we talk about education needing to be relevant, I think what we really mean is that we want to make sure that kids learn stuff of value, though I think we also struggle over what valuable education really is and how to figure out if kids have learned enough of value. When students talk about wanting their education to be relevant, I think they really mean they don't want to be bored, they don't want to be lost, and they really do want to understand how they are going to be able to use their learning in the future. I think they really do want to understand how their learning connects to help them be and become significant in their worlds.

In that sense, they do want to be relevant and the matter at hand is much larger as it's life. They don't want to be irrelevant to their families, their friends, their communities, their worlds. In that sense, we all want to be relevant: we all want to matter to someone, to something. That's one of the reasons people love It's a Wonderful Life. George got to see what life would have been like without him; he got to see that he was important, significant, relevant to the lives of the people he loved, to his community. That was his "matter at hand."

We don't get the opportunity to see what life would have been like without us, but I believe we like to think that we have made and are making a difference. I still don't know what Life Church means or intends by that relevance value statement. I think they should revisit it (and most of their value statements, to be honest). One of their later value statements refers to the Nicene Creed: "In the essentials we have unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity." Combined with their relevance statement, I think what they really mean is "Don't sweat the small stuff. " And that's actually very biblical, too.

So what's my point? Good question. I started this because I was thinking about language and the way we use words, how those words get hijacked or morphed for different purposes and intentions, but how the root intention might still be the same. As I said earlier, I think the word "relevance" has become very popular and is being used when people really mean "significant" or "important." But I wonder if those words sound too self-centered so the word "relevant" seems safer and more egalitarian. At root, however, we are talking about a sensibility of not wanting to be lost in this great big world, that has gotten both larger and smaller through technology. But that's the stuff of a different post.

Friday, September 5

Just Ramblin, No 18. Same Ole, Same Ole

I am weary of political rhetoric. I am weary of people twisting words and meanings. I am weary of people seeming to try to want to see the worst in anyone who does not agree with them on everything. I am weary of people try to dredge up old remarks and situations as though comments or decisions made 10 or 15 years ago, or even a few years ago, reflect what one thinks or believes now. Please God that we're all wiser now with more experience and information. I triple dog dare anyone to say that they have exactly all of the same positions, impressions, opinions on everything they had 10 or 15 years ago, or even a few years ago.

But, like a moth to a flame, I cannot resist what others are saying and thinking. I read yesterday's editorials in my local newspaper. They're editorials so people can say whatever they want to say. I wish they'd tone down the righteous histrionics but I'm guilty of that myself on occasion, so never mind. Anyway, one guy wrote as his "fact" that Bush "has been president for nearly eight years and Republicans controlled Congress for most of that period. Only since 2007 have Democrats held Capitol Hill." I got stuck on the word "controlled" and spent a little too much time deconstructing the text. But I'm not sure having the majority necessarily means being in control, especially of Congress and in the absence of bipartisanship.

I'd love to blame party politics for the general muck up in Congress, but I think lobbyists and special interests of the politicians as well as the groups that court them are at root of much of the problems in Congress.

I've been thinking a lot about convention speeches of both Obama and McCain. I am a Republican with Independent and Democrat leanings. I am undecided. I abhor Illinois politics and am revolted by Chicago and Cook County politicking. I've decided, for better or worse, that the campaign rhetoric is simply that: rhetoric. They can stand up there and recite poetry for all I care because the promises are empty. None of these individuals has any inkling of what they will really be able to do once in office because they don't know nearly enough about what's really going on. So I'm stuck with character, record, and gut instinct.

Then someone on Plurk shared something her students sent her. Two sites differentiating between liberals and conservatives. One is at StudentDailyNews.com and the other is American Thinker. What I like about these sites is that they provide a good starting point for discussion and exploration. I don't like there are no citations, no way to determine where either site gathered its information or how. I also don't like that the sites seem to suggest there are complexities and nuances to those terms "conservative" and "liberal" or, as American Thinker states, "progressive."

Someone else on Plurk shared her blog in which she commented on an issue with Palin and an alleged attempt to ban books. What is striking about the resources she referenced is that two of the sources are blogs and one is the School Library Journal. The SLJ article notes that some of the information in the blogs is speculative, but all note that the incident occurred in 1996 when Palin was mayor of Wasilla. At the end, no books were actually banned and no one really seems to know if Palin had actual titles in mind. So this might be another tempest in a teapot.

Now, I like Sarah Palin. I'm not over the moon about her, but I think she is delightfully refreshing. I have no idea if she is equipped to be VP, but I have no idea if Obama is really equipped to be president just as I don't really know if McCain is really equipped to be president. Let's set that aside for the moment. I was never a Hillary fan. Never. I felt no guilt in not supporting her just because she's a woman of a certain age. I've known men who were better feminists, so it wasn't a gender issue.

What I'm getting at is that those who run for office do their best, we hope, to represent themselves as they are: their core beliefs, values, and positions; their experience with all of its warts and how they have come to believe what they believe now. I don't care if people change their minds. I do it all the time. What I do care about is why they change their minds, what has influenced their decisions over time and, perhaps, how much time has passed.

If in 1996 Sarah Palin talked to the librarian and the possibility of banning some books, well, she had her reasons which, apparently, weren't very strong because it seems no books were banned. It seems to me the greater concern would be about the intimation that Governor Palin tried to fire a librarian for disagreeing with her. Because of the more recent alleged brother-in-law incident, I'd be more concerned about a possible pattern of getting rid of people who don't agree with her.

But I'd also have to say that before we jump on any bandwagons or start stringing up any scapegoats, we need to make sure we have gathered as much information as possible. All of us have read or known of too many reputations that have been damaged because of hints and allegations based on supposition and speculation.

If we don't make those very basic kinds of changes for common decency and civility, well, we are destined to continue to exist in the same sort of toxic political atmosphere in which we've barely managed to survive for a lot longer than anyone really cares to remember.

Tuesday, September 2

Just Ramblin, No. 17: Changin' Politics

So people were reveling in the afterglow of Obama's speech and the DNC when McCain made his incredible announcement about Sarah Palin. I wonder what was the land speed record for getting to Google and looking up something, anything on her. Goodness knows the media was incredibly cranky that it knew nothing about her.

I have to say that I was most impressed that the story didn't break until McCain was ready to announce it. Caught everyone by surprise. I was on Plurk with some of my Plurk buddies and some of the Obama supporters threw up their virtual hands almost immediately and suggested the best course of action was to move to Canada. Now THAT surprised me. I was completely taken aback by the response of well-educated folks, black and white, male and female, who with minutes believed that McCain would be elected because he had selected a female VP. And that was without knowing a thing about her!

So now we know a little bit about her. I loved some of the editorial cartoons. One showing Palin dressed for hunting and holding a rifle; the tag line stating she'll be a better VP because she's a better shot than Cheney. We know now that her husband was arrested for DUI when he was in his 20s. Todd Palin and a few million Americans. That morsel didn't interest the media hounds as it got dropped right away. But they are gnawing feverishly on the fact that Bristol Palin, age 17, is pregnant and not married though she and her sweetheart plan to marry. I'm not sure what the media is hoping to wrest from this other than Sarah Palin is a mother who is having to cope with a daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock. We also know that Sarah Palin is a mother of 5 and her youngest has Down's, so we know she is a working mom who knows family hardship and heartbreak. What storm of controversy can the media hope to create?

They've moved on to the whole vetting thing. Did McCain know enough about her before he chose her? After all, they only met in February. Seems like a whirlwind courtship. Maybe he jumped too fast for what seems like the most attractive candidate choice? Shouldn't he have picked someone with a more solid background, even Lieberman. But then the media would have been casting greater aspersions on the man who ran for president as a Democrat and then became a Republican. I thought people could change parties in this country, so what's the point of chasing that down? Again. The media has been strangely quiet about Biden and the plagiarism event that forced him to step down from his own presidential bid in 1987. Surely the Obama folks knew about that in their vetting process but seemed to believe it was sufficiently past tense not to make a difference.

What I found most noteworthy about the media coverage is the need to focus on Hurricane Gustav, especially with a truncated Republican National Convention, and the need to read between all sorts of lines that probably weren't present. But they had air time to fill, so they had to pontificate about something. But I was also bemused by the fact that Obama, somewhat belatedly, suggested he could appeal to his vast Internet network, to raise money for folks in the southeast. Meanwhile, John McCain and Sarah Palin were in the thick of things. Being presidential-like and having a perfect opportunity to reinforce his message that he will put the country first.

I have no idea who will make the better president or the better vice president. Right now I'm way too entertained by the righteous indignation on both sides of the media aisle who are busy dismissing the platforms and the capabilities of the opposition and coming as close as possible excoriating the opposition for the lack or presence of whatever is the offensive topic du jour.

I know I'm not the voice of reason is the blogosphere and media melee, but I would like to remind everyone that the president can do precious little without the support of Congress. So unless Congress changes, not much will change regardless of who is president. And, if I may, Congress had an approval rating of only 18% in May 2008. One of the lowest on record. But then that rating dropped to 14% in July 2008, a record low. What is even more striking to me is that, reported by Gallup with that 14% approval rating is this: "The most recent decline comes almost exclusively from Democrats, whose approval of Congress fell from 23% in June to 11% in July, while independents' and Republicans' views of Congress did not change much. As a result, Republicans are now slightly more likely than Democrats to approve of the job the Democratic-controlled Congress is doing (19% vs. 11%)."

I just wonder why no one in the media is talking about what a crappy job Congress is doing. Is it because 3 of 4 nominees for president and vice president are Senators? And then the media would have to focus specifically on what the candidates have or have not done as politicians, leaders, members of the government? Just askin'.