Wednesday, November 25

Word Matters

Words of the Year
Just recently the folks at the Oxford University Press (OUP) announced that the word of the year for 2009 is (drum roll, please): “unfriend.” Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program, states that “[i]n the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year” (Oxford WOTY).

Another word bandied about this year is “admonish,” which was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2009. Roland Burris, the Blagojevich-appointed senator of Illinois, was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee (I’m sure there’s an oxymoron in there) for “providing “incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information to the public and the Senate.’” Representative Joe Wilson was admonished by the House leadership for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama. In fact, Peter A. Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, states that “[a]dmonish shot to the top of the list three days after Representative Joe Wilson's outburst during a speech made by President Obama, and it remained among our top lookups for weeks.” Sokolowski went on to say that “[w]hen the House announced plans to ‘admonish’ Representative Wilson, the word was understood to be technical or official, and it has been repeated often in coverage of recent contentious political issues. While this particular story wasn't very important in the context of a year's worth of news, it triggered enormous interest in this word.”

For the OUP folks, other words considered for word of the year (and in no particular order) included “hashtag,” “birther,” “intexticated,” “sexting,” “teabagger,” “brown state,” and “green state.” For the Merriam folks, alternative words included “emaciated,” “nugatory,” “pandemic,” “furlough,” and “philanderer.”

What interests me is that the OUP list of words includes a number of created words while the Merriam Webster folks seem to have settled for more commonplace words already in our vocabulary. This process of creating words seems to have increased over the past several years and, I think, technology helped lead the way.

I am old enough to remember when certain words were hyphenated and it took some time for them to become those hyphen-less compound words. I remember when currently non-hyphenated words were hyphenated; words such as “antismoking,” “coworker,” “interoffice,” and “nonemergency.” A bit of a digression to explain that pesky hyphen.

The digression
Fundamentally, the use of the hyphen has to do with rules of grammar and parts of speech. For example, you might say “This was a low-budget job.” That hyphenated word “low-budget” describes the kind of job it was, so we have taken two separate words and combined them to create an adjective describing the job.

“Anti” is a prefix used to modify a variety of words: smoking, abortion, union, etc. Its counterpart is “pro,” so folks might be anti-abortion or pro-abortion, or anti-union or pro-union, but in current writing, if you support the no-smoking legislation in some states, you are “antismoking” rather than “anti-smoking.” You will, no doubt, see an inconsistency because rules of hyphenation do not seem to be fixed by any one grammar guru. Instead, you see a gradual emergence and acceptance over time. For example, teachers, who may give in-class assignments, used to give “home-work” but now give “homework.”

Another good example of hyphenated words that become combined over time is email or, if you prefer, e-mail. Once upon time we began using this thing called “electronic mail” to differentiate it from the mail we received via the U.S. Postal Service. “Electronic mail” is a mouthful so folks started using “e-mail” and that hyphen reminded us it was a compound word as we joined the words “electronic” and “mail.” I long ago dropped the hyphen in favor of “email,” though I know that is not a universal usage. . . yet. More on hyphens and other such things in some other post.

Newly created words
What prompted this thinking about created words was not the words of the year, but some words I came across in my reading, specifically “advergaming,” “nocebo,” and “scientainment.”

Nocebo is defined as “the worsening of a patient’s healthy due to the expectation that a drug will cause adverse side effects,” so it’s a play on the placebo effect. It’s a horrifying concept of people being able to convince themselves of adverse side effects not actually caused by a medication simply because they believe they will experience such side effects. I can’t imagine the diagnostic complications caused by the nocebo effect.

We have scientainment thanks Richard Heene and the Balloon Boy story. In the aftermath of the balloon chase, we learned that the Heene family had been on Wife Swap not once, but twice (which seems to speak volumes about this group), and that because Heene seems to fancy himself some sort of a science guy, he was trying to pitch a new reality show that would combine science and entertainment.

And finally there is advergaming which is the use of video games to advertise something. Apparently the concept has been around since the 1980s when companies created games to promote their products. I remember CDs accompanying various products, but never thought too much about them as I simply threw away the CDs. But the term advergames has been around since 2001, coined by Wired! magazine because of the free online games available to advertise products. It’s quite an impressive approach to advertising and takes the concept of product placement to an entirely different level.

I remain intrigued by the development of new words. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems we have more such words created these days as a variety of worlds—technology, medicine, business, education—not just collide, but seem to coalesce in a variety of ways. Is that good for us in the long run? I’ll get back to you on that.

Tuesday, August 18

Is handwriting really dead?

If handwriting is dead, I missed the funeral. I read an article by Claire Suddath published in the August 3 issue of TIME in which she declared that we are "witnessing the death of handwriting" (p. 48). Before I got too far in the article, I did a quick Google search, as one tends to do when encountering something that triggers the skepticism-meter.

Suddath asserts that cursive "started to lose its clout back in the 1920s" which came as a surprise to me. But then she talked more about handwriting so it occurred to me that perhaps cursive is perhaps on life support, but the necessity of handwriting seems to have a different place. Suddath states that 1990 was the "year of the great alphabet change" and that her class was "one of the last to learn the loops and squibbles" (p. 48). Wow. I missed that, too. Back to Google.

I'm old enough to remember practicing the Palmer method using that newsprint with the light blue lines that carefully demarcated where loops and tops and bottoms of letters should be. We practiced both printing and cursive. I don't use cursive any more except for my signature; I didn't get on board with the cool scribble style so I still have to write out my whole name for certain things. My handwriting has evolved, perhaps devolved, to a smooshed cursive/printing style ages ago. Somewhat surprisingly, I get compliments on my handwriting. But it is legible and I think that's what Suddath is really trying to emphasize; it's not so much that handwriting is dead or dying, but that there is less emphasis on teaching children to write legibly.

Lots of folks point to technology as the culprit. After all, typing on a laptop or a smartphone or in IM means I don't have to write by hand. Students may be taking more standardized tests, especially in earlier grades. I can't imagine that to be true, but I can imagine that teachers would find it harder and harder to find time to help students practice their handwriting.

Suddath included a puzzling observation by Linda Garcia, an elementary teacher who had taught Ms. Suddath. Garcia worries that eventually students will not be able to read cursive and I have to assume it's because they won't recognize it. I'm not sure about that, though. But Suddath also includes a statement by 15-year-old Alex McCarter who is allowed to use a computer for standardized tests because his handwriting is so bad. He's planning to keep his handwriting bad in spite of his mother's attempts to help him improve his penmanship.

Okay, so let me get back to my Google searches on the new alphabet of 1990 and cursive's loss of clout. A 2006 Washington Post article by Margaret Webb Pressler doesn't confirm Suddath's assertion about the disintegration of the importance of cursive in the 1920s, but does confirm my thinking that teachers have found it harder to include handwriting instruction and/or practice in their teaching time. There were also two other interesting points.

First, Jim Mohr, a history professor at the University of Oregon, has found that students appreciate handwritten documents. "There's a kind of personal authenticity to individual writing that's hard to capture any other way."

Second, it may be that handwriting contributes to certain cognitive skills. "The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one" (¶ 16). Steve Graham at Vanderbilt University did a study with a group of first-graders who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. "The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex" (¶ 17).

Okay, so there is at least one good reason for kids to learn and to practice at least some fundamental handwriting skills. Legibility is probably not optional, though. As for the so-called great alphabet change, I did find a few scholarly articles on the shift in handwriting instruction, so that confirmed my impression that Suddath wasn't quite sure what she was talking about and just wanted to write a piece about penmanship and handwriting and had a certain number of space she had to fill (and how did she get away with stating that the poor penmanship of physicians results in "thousands of deaths a year" without offering an iota of support?). None of the articles made it seem like handwriting was dead or even in danger of imminent death. I did find a 1998 article about the important relationship between handwriting and cognitive skills, and a presentation that suggests that having kids learn basics of handwriting will make a difference with their fine motor skills.

So I don't think handwriting is dead. I'm not even sure it's mostly dead. Cursive might be, but I'm not going to mourn its passing. We may need Miracle Max to help change our perceptions about the importance of handwriting and we may need to work a bit harder to convince the digikids that writing has some value, but handwriting seems to be with us for a little while longer.

Monday, July 6

The Gutenberg Elegies

In 1994, Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Let me just say that Mr. Birkerts was not prescient. While he groused about the computer, he never could have imagined instant messaging, text messaging, Twitter, or Facebook.

It's important to note the Mr. Birkerts was concerned about the fate of "reading," not the fate of text. Early in his book he speaks of American Short Story class he taught to undergraduates during which he wanted to introduce the students to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and others. He was surprised that his students struggled with these writers and their styles. Birkerts did spend some time with his students discussing their apparent lack of interest or ability and observes that "they were not, with a few exceptions--readers--never had been" (p. 19). He learned they "occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density" (p. 19), but the students also struggled with the language, the structure of the works, etc. From this and like observations, Birkerts believes that we are fated to be incapable of reading. I oversimply, of course, but that seems to be the general direction of his concerns.

Of course, he does not tell us how he framed the questions or how he moderated the conversation. And he does not seem to contemplate the possibility of using more contemporary American short stories to engage his students before moving on to some of the more classic short stories.

After spending an inordinate amount of time telling the story of his life so the reader has some sense of why he became a critic, he moves to the chapter dramatically titled "The Death of Literature." He does, however, differentiate between what we generally call "fiction" and once we deemed "Literature." He has a point. There was once a time that books were a form of art, that they played an important and significant role in examining society and history, generally doing so with a Purpose. Somewhere in the midst of the rise and evolution of literary criticism, academia appropriated Literature and became to formalize it, deconstruct it, and otherwise examine it through a host of critical lenses. Even books that people once enjoyed reading for the sake of reading became Literature and if the books didn't seem to contribute Something to Society, they were scarcely worth reading.

But authors, bless 'em, kept writing. Yes, there has been a transformation, but it's not as though the technology/TV generation ruined literature. There was romance long before Danielle Steele; there was pulp long before there was Danielle Steele.

Birkerts asserts that "[l]iterature--serious fiction and poetry and the discourse that has always accompanied them and helped make them a way of talking about important and difficult aspects of our universal experience. . ." (p. 191) seems to have slipped to the margins of public and even scholarly interest.

I suspect that Mr. Birkerts is a literary elitist and would argue that reading popular fiction doesn't count even though many of us who have taught literature have used so called "popular fiction" in our classes if for no other reason than it exposes students to a variety of works. I'm not sure how Birkerts would classify Morrison's The Bluest Eye or Potok's The Chosen or Allende's The House of the Spirits or Achebe's Things Fall Apart. But these are all books students read in literature classes along with some of the so-called classics.

Mr. Birkerts goes on to say that technology is

antithetical to inwardness. . . . inward experience, including all aesthetic experience, unfolds in one kind of time; electronic communications, of their very nature, depend upon--indeed create--another. The time of the self is deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it. To the degree that we immerse ourselves in a book. . . to that degree we surrender our awareness of the present as a coordinate on a grid (p. 193).
In one sense, Mr. Birkerts was prescient. In the chapter titled "Coda: The Faustian Pact," he states that he foresees the "wholesale wiring of America" (p. 215) and "ever more complex and efficient technological systems being interposed between the individual and the harsh constraints of nature" (p. 215). He believed, in 1994, that our face-to-face time would diminish and we would spend more time interacting with others via our computer screens. Birkerts quotes Mitchell Kapor's "Democracy and the New Information Highway", which was originally published in 1993 in the Boston Review. Kapor wrote about the expanding information highway that would make available movies, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, courses, and more through a few clicks "of a remote control" (p. 217). Kapor also states that "[t]wo-way video conferencing will revolutionize business meetings, visits to the doctor, and heart-to-heart talks" (p. 217). And this was long before Skype!

It is clear to me, however, that Birkerts is most concerned about time. He asserts that duration is "deep time, time experienced without the awareness of time passing" (p. 219). And believes that "[w]e have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities" (p. 219).

Birkerts does speak some truths as he notes that we are expected to be able to multitask, but I think he overstates the demise of civilization when he suggests we have lost or are losing our sense of distance, that we cannot imagine traveling several miles to visit someone when we can do it instanteously over the wires.

It probably comes as no surprise that Mr. Birkerts finds the Kindle a complete anathema. I suppose that having found that the ensuing years have not proven him right about the demise of reading--the popularity of the Harry Potter series must have been a nasty shock--he had to find some other target to bemoan the disintegraton of the literary.

Dr. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College (IL) quotes Birkerts in a blog post. Apparently Birkerts was afraid that the Kindle will become a "one-stop outlet, a speedy and irrestibly efficient leveler of context" (¶ 4). Apparently Birkerts also gets a little miffed that someone uses a Blackberry to look up a word. Really?

Dr. Jacobs is not the only who thinks Birkerts was and is a little off the mark. You might also find entertaining the exchange between Wen Stephenson and Mr. Birkerts published in 1996. And then there is Edward Champion who begins his blog (2007) with this phrase: "The reputedly intelligent Sven Birkerts. . ."; it doesn't get much better after that. Mr. Champion's blog post is in response to Birkerts' 2007 article published in the Boston Globe. The title of the article? "Lost in the blogosphere: Why literary blogging won't save our literary culture."

Birkerts seems not to like the fluidity of the blogosphere and that one can lost in the labyrinth of links, though he does admit that to being immersed at depth. However, he also says:

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.
I think it's that highlighted phrase that really bugs Mr. Birkerts. It's not the electronic medium; it's the fact that anyone and everyone can be a writer which also means that anyone and everyone can be a reader and that anyone and everyone can be a critic.

What we have seen is that reading has not died. Yes, how kids and adults read and what we read may have changed. I occasionally mourn how difficult it is to get kids to read more classic texts, but there are so many great books out there, the real difficulty is choosing which painfully small microcosm of books to choose for a 15-week semester. Perhaps the books I select for my students are not what Mr. Birkerts might call Literature, but there are some texts that the so-called experts have called Literature that just don't seem that good to me.

One more observation, though I could make several more. Birkerts worried about the collapse of the duration, but also of our view of the world--that perhaps we would be more constrained because of electronic communications. I cannot help but think of the work of Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis and the Flat Classroom Project. Or the work of Sharon Peters and Teachers Without Borders. Or so many others I've met only through electronic medium and yet with whom I know I have an affinity, perhaps even a relationship.

If anything, teachers are using Web 2.0 technologies not only to expand their students' educational horizons, but to expand their ways of thinking about learning, about reading, and about writing.

One of the absolute best kickers, though, is the NCTE National Gallery of Writing project. This is an incredibly ambitious project through which the NCTE hopes to get every single person in the world to contribute at least one piece of writing. With all of that writing, someone's got to be reading!

Read on!

Monday, June 15

Contemplating Patriotism

I don't really think of myself as a patriot in the way that many of those who serve this country do. But the definition of "patriot" is fairly broad and, therefore, forgiving. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "patriot" means "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests."

This is a big country and I've been privileged to see a lot of it. When I think of myself in the context of patriotism, I don't think of loving America, the physical country and its geography. While there is a whole bunch of it of which I'm extremely fond, there are parts I can do without.

But I love the general idea of the United States of America, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the efforts of those who first came to this country and those who carved out the idea of these United States of America and those who worked and died to make these United States of America a reality.

I think about this every once in a while when I'm in a place where a diversity of cultures and languages are co-existing, even collaborating, when there are no divides based on race, creed, or anything else. I love seeing people really behaving as though skin color doesn't matter; when that happens, I'm proud of what this country represents and can represent.

Heaven knows we are not remotely close to perfect, though I fear there are a few too many in various positions of power and influence who seem to think so. But even the challenge of those discussions and arguments reinforce the powerful opportunity for speech we have in this country.

A lot of this came home to me yesterday for a few reasons. First, I was reviewing the what happened on June 14 in history and learned that in 1777, Congress adopted the Stars & Stripes as the national flag. And June 14, 1877 was the first Flag Day and marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the national flag. I thought about what had had to happen to get to June 14, 1777 to be able to select a national flag and then what had transpired in the intervening 100 years before my country marked its first official Flag Day.

Second, I was following the story of Iranian election. The story is even more compelling today as I read and heard about the thousands of young people who ignored that they had been forbidden to gather and that through word-of-mouth they are planning to gather and protest again tomorrow. The government has, apparently, shut down cell phone access as well as online access, but the word is spreading and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked for an investigation into possible voter fraud, even after he certified the election results with what seemed like exceptional response. I am awed by the energy and passion of the Iranian people. I loved the sign that read, "I want my vote back." If only we could find a way to counteract the electoral numbness in this country; if only we could find a way to help the American people feel as though their votes actually matter.

Third, I went to the grocery store. That in itself isn't a particularly patriotic event, though I'm often acutely aware that as I stand in a aisle complaining that my brand of something seems to have been discontinued that I have a ridiculous amount of choice. What did inexplicably reduce me to tears as I wandered some of the aisles was a group of family members collecting goods for members of a Marine Expeditionary Force. I was moved by the number of people in the store who were, like me, looking first at the list on a piece of paper and then checking the aisles and shelves to get what they had said could be shipped. I'd set aside one of my recyclable bags so I could fill it with sunscreen, cough drops, lip balm, wet wipes, yo yos (they wanted fun stuff, too), and a bunch of other stuff somehow feeling that this contribution was paltry.

I'm not a fan of the Iraq War. While I think we did a good thing in toppling Saddam Hussein, I think we did a bad thing in not being prepared for such a quick turn of events and for certainly not being prepared for the condition of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. We seemed to make a lot of stupid and arrogant mistakes and have been paying for that hubris for the past 6 years. Even still, men and women are in Iraq for a reason and they are serving my country so that I can wander around a grocery story and buy whatever I want whenever I want. While there are an unconscionable number of people in this country who cannot do as I do, the fact is that there are opportunities and possibilities here that exist nowhere else and precisely because of those men and women who have served this country in a variety of ways.

And so, as I handed my stuff over to the young boy who said "Thank you" so politely, and as I nodded to the young woman who asked me if I wanted a "Support our Troops" bracelet because I was unable to speak and very grateful for my sunglasses, I thought about patriotism and what it means to me.

I vote, but I don't do much else to promote the interests of this country. I'm informed, I pay taxes, I support the USO, there's an American flag that always flies in the front of my house, and now I have a yellow "Support our Troops" bracelet. But I'm just a short step away from those who don't bother to vote. I'm too old to fight in the military and never would have pursued that option anyway for a number of reasons. I don't suppose there's a category for uncoordinated people who are accident-prone, but I'd have to be in that category. But there are things I can do to support my country's authority and its interests and it doesn't have to be big like run for office. Now I just have to identify what that thing might be and do it well.

Sunday, March 1

The Art of Writing

I confess that I have not read any of the Twilight book by Stephanie Meyer and I'm not sure that I will. My stack of books I really want to read grows higher and higher, so I'm being selective.

Ms. Meyer moved a little lower on my list after the recent smackdown by Stephen King, an author who has produced quite a number of books, though I think I've read only a couple by him. Mark Flanagan reported on Stephen King calling out Stephanie Meyer as did The Guardian, but quite likely because King seems to admire the writing abilities of one J.K. Rowling. The blogosphere rumbled a bit with the Meyer loyalists lining up to call King petty and jealous, which I found quite amusing, and suggesting King can't write very well either. So very junior high, but then the audience for which Meyer writes is of the pre-teen/teen demographic.

There was another Meyer smackdown by someone who posted to a blog. The writer basically said that Meyer fans shouldn't get too excited because Meyer writes books for teens that are written at a 5th grade level. I'd heard that before and I'm not surprised, but I'll follow-up on the reading level crisis in my other blog. But I also read that Meyer has stopped work on her current manuscript because someone leaked a draft to the 'net; that seems a little pouty to me, but perhaps she's feeling wounded because Stephen King essentially called her a hack. A fairly successful hack, of course, given that her book was made into a movie and the movie seemed to do well and kids can't seem to get enough of her books.

I was thinking about that as I settled into English Creek by Ivan Doig. I love the work of Ivan Doig. Every once in a while I just have to stop and re-read a sentence, sometimes read it out loud to really hear how it sounds and get a clearer sense of the images in the words. I recently found one such paragraph is in English Creek and one such sentence is the last one in the paragraph. Enjoy.
My brother and my father. I am hard put to know how to describe them as they seemed to me then, in that time when I was looking up at them from fourteen years of age. How to lay each onto paper, for a map is never the country itself, only some ink suggesting the way to get there (p. 30).

Wednesday, January 7

7 things you don't need to know about me

Folks in my Plurk PLN (search for "peregrinator" to find me) have been involved in this 7 things meme. I was tagged by Mindelei Wouri (US) and encouraged by Jo McLeay (Australia) to do the same. Be sure to check out their blogs, but also visit the 7 Things wiki to learn more about all of those who are participating in this meme.

How it works:
  • Link your original tagger(s), and list these rules on your blog.
  • Share seven facts about yourself in the post - some random, some weird.
  • Tag people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.
  • Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs and/or Twitter, Plurk, etc.

The focus of this meme is to reveal unusual things that others, virtual and tangible, may not know (or really need to know) about you.

  1. I tried skydiving when I was in college. A friend of mine (Anne, I think; we'll go with that) and I walked into the Student Union and there was a parachute on display. Over a couple of beers we talked about skydiving and the jumpmaster, someone Anne knew, talked us into it. She and I were both freshman orientation leaders that summer so could only do our training after hours, which meant starting around 9P and finishing around midnight. Those were the days! On the day of the jump we took some test and the next thing I knew I was reaching out to grab a strut and getting ready to throw myself out of the plane. This was a static line and before the current practice of jumping with the jumpmaster. Oh my, though, it was incredible!!
  2. Because of my skydiving escapade, two items on my life "to do" list are hot air ballooning (I have a ticket and will go this spring as soon as weather and timing conspire on my behalf) and learning to fly a small plane. The former is more likely sooner than the latter.
  3. I LOVE TV, movies, and the theater. I watch a lot of stuff on TV but refuse to watch "reality" TV, though I have watched a couple of seasons of The Amazing Race. Somehow that feels less contrived. I watch all kinds of films except horror flicks: indies, arthouse, musicals, classics, etc. I'd go to plays all the time if I had the time and the money, especially in Chicago. There are so many small and amazing repertory companies in the area. I wouldn't want to be a critic, per se, because I think those folks are paid to critique on things mere mortals don't notice or care about. We want the story. Granted it's got to be a good story, but I've rarely read a review with which I've agreed.
  4. I love to travel and hate being a tourist. Some of the tourist phobia probably comes from growing up in Orlando, FL and spending way too much time working at the Mouse House (aka, to the cynics, the Tragic Kingdom). When I go some place, I want to see more than the gussied up tourist attractions. I want to go the restaurants the locals love and see and do the things the locals enjoy. I love to immerse myself in the culture and try to learn some of the language; that's true even in the US! ;) I try to go with no preconceived notions and the expectation that I'll be moved to my core. I've been privileged to visit Vancouver (did a 7-day sea kayaking trip from Vancouver Island) and Toronto in Canada, the San Juan Islands (I know that's the US, but it's soooo cool!), Nova Scotia, Scotland, Germany, Austria, Greece, Kazakhstan, and South Africa. On my more immediate list are Ireland, Iceland, Labrador/Newfoundland (I have a thing for such places), but also Australia, New Zealand, Spain (The Prado in Madrid!), Italy (Tuscany at the very least), the Czech Republic (Prague), and Russia (The Hermitage). There are few places I don't want to go, which is part of the problem.
  5. I worked at Walt Disney World (Orlando, FL) in its early days. I started working on the monorail (:Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Elaine and I'll be your pilot to the Magic Kingdom. No smoking, eating, or drinking while on board." There's more, but that's enough.) back when people could ride in the front and there were actual drivers. Then I worked in the Emporium in the stuffed toys department on Main Street. My then best friend worked in the Confectionary and the oddest thing would happen now and then. She'd call me to tell me someone had accidentally dropped a box of fudge! Of course, I had to go help. I loved walking down Main Street after hours when it was just the lights and the music. That made me believe in the possibility of pixie dust. I also loved going to work in a T-shirt, cut-offs, and flip flops because we would pick up our costumes for the day at Wardrobe.
  6. My undergraduate and Master's degrees are in English. I'd planned to go to law school after undergrad, but got derailed (money and energy) and ended up in the computer industry. It was quite serendipitous. A career "plan" is a foreign concept to me. I was a programmer/analyst for a number of years, learning how to code in assembly language and then C, when it was developed, but also worked in FORTRAN and Pascal. When I worked for a small company in Tarrytown, NY, I was privileged to go to Durban, South Africa to install a newspaper system there. The Durban Daily News went from hot metal type to a computerized system in a mere 8 months. Should have taken longer, but there were, of course, complications. I did some work on the Johannesburg Star, but also did some training for some of the Durban personnel. I was there in the early 80s before the end of apartheid. It was a remarkable experience that has marked and shaped me in many ways. I LOVED working with the Indians and was so honored to be invited into their private lives. That meant I was shunned by some of the whites which was fine because they were the sort I didn't want to be with anyway. One of the Scottish women at the paper invited me to the Durban Tattoo. It was amazing to be in these huge grounds and see all of those drummers and pipers! That was an exhilirating day as was the day I stumbled into a gathering of Zulu dancers. I was so taken by the dancers, I climbed up in the stands without realizing I was the only white person. I spoke to a woman next to me so she could hear my accent--distinctively NOT Afrikaans--and everyone relaxed. The kids delighted in touching my hair and skin and telling me about what I was seeing. That, too, was remarkable. As for Kazakhstan, I spent 10 days there as a guest lecturer. That's a long story itself, but the coolest story is about the girls who volunteered to give me a tour of the area. We were in a little town in the northeast corner of Kazakhstan called Ust-Kamenogorsk. We did the town and then we took a long bus ride so they could take me to an old Russian Orthodox church. They talked to me a lot on the bus, mostly, I think, so the other riders would know they were with an American. I desperately wanted to buy some icons at the church, but it was forbidden to remove them from the country.
  7. If time and money were no object, I would teach the occasional college-level freshman writing or literature course, I would write, and I would have a used bookstore. I imagine big comfy chairs in my bookstore with lots of reading lamps. I'd have a couple of coffee pots (decaf and regular; no fancy latte machines and all that but I'd be near a Starbucks or some other place so folks could get the fancier beverages) and a few bottles of wine for those who might prefer a glass of wine to sip (after a certain hour, of course, and provided they're of age) as they linger over books. I'd host book talks and discussions led by me and others. I'd probably have wifi and a little computer section so I could do a little tutoring on the side of the side.

So that's my story. In addition to Mindelei and Jo, you'll want to check out any of the amazing people who are listed in the wiki. You can just go to the wiki and follow the link to any one of several people who have shared at seven things you don't need to know about them.


Tuesday, January 6

Tragic implications for a new year: rugged individualism gone further awry

I was flipping through my current issue of Newsweek this morning and read a quote by Russian academic Igor Panarin that the United States is likely to disintegrate by 2010. I'd missed this when this article when it first came out on or around December 30. I was being blissfully unaware as the old year shuffled to a close. Idris Mootee blogged about this by mostly including the WSJ article and included some notations. I've some thoughts on this intriguing form of potential plagiarism, but that's too much of a digression just now. Aftermath News included the story as a blog post, but also included a delightful map that illustrates Panarin's view of the Disintegrated or Divided States.

Quite honestly, I don't think we're going to disintegrate quite that soon, but I'm not so sure the Republic will continue to endure if we don't see a lot of changes, and not just those the new president may theoretically implement.

A headline that caught my eye today reads "Angry Ohio boy, 4, shoots babysitter." Say what? A four-year-old boy got miffed with his babysitter and shot him? Seriously? (I don't know how to express the incredulousness in my voice and how many octaves it might have climbed.) The babysitter is fine; the shotgun attack was not fatal. Now you might read the story and get all righteous because they're living in a trailer and you have certain impressions of the kind of people who live in trailer parks, especially in Jerry Springer's state. Come on, you know you went there. And why did the 4-year-old shoot his babysitter? Because he got angry because the babysitter "accidentally stepped on his foot."

It's this kind of thing that makes me fear for my country. It's not the Clinton administration redux we see happening in DC right now. It's not the excessive amount of money that's being spent for the Obama Inauguration (Yes, I know it's an historic event, but so is this recession. LOTS and LOTS of people without jobs. Businesses crashing like buildings in the path of a rampaging economic Godzilla. Is this really a good message to the American people?). It's not the proposed tax cuts that may be forthcoming (intended for spending stimulus, I get that, but states are going bankrupt; can we really afford more tax cuts?).

What this story represents to me is rugged individualism gone further awry. We've certainly seen plenty of evidence of the danger of individualism or unilateral decisions, rugged or otherwise. The concept of "rugged individualism" has certainly been disparaged over time, but elements of that sense of individualism and all the rights we imagine appointed thereunto are biting us in the collective ass, I think.

Cultural historians refer to those born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as the "me" generation. Classroom teachers bemoan the sense of entitlement that some of these kids seem to have. An article in the New York Times (oddly dated January 17, 2008; did I miss something?) reports on this as a narcissitic generation. If we're objective, we'll see that many of these characteristics can be applied to nearly any generation and we do all a disservice by generalizing the behavior of an entire generation. Even so, when we look back on the 1980s and the 1990s, we do see certain cultural behaviors. Parents spending a great deal of time raising their children to feel good about themselves and getting huffy with teachers for giving kids the grades their learning deserved because the child might feel bad about himself. Parents spending way too much trying to make their children's lives easier and more palatable rather than requiring them to do their homework or holding them accountable for their behavior and actions. Not all parents and not all kids, but perhaps too many of them.

I think much of what we see today in attitudes and sensibilities about "rights" has been fueled by these last 30 years of behavior and perceptions. We need to get a handle on our attitudes and be more willing to think about something larger than ourselves. This is one of the dissonances of our more global world. Many of us are thinking more globally and are very aware of situations in which the world is being and has been flattened. But an enormous part of the population hasn't experienced either flattening or globalization. Because of television and movies, they are very much aware of the distorted and insidiously creeping definition of "personal rights."

While the whole United States might not disintegrate in 2010, I would say we have some serious fractures in our cultural, moral, emotional, psychological and behavioral infrastructures if the response of a 4-year-old is to pull out a shotgun because someone accidentally stepped on his foot.