Saturday, October 15

Literature and Spirituality: Boethius, Donne, and Asimov

It's been about a month since my last post. It's been a crazy month for many reasons, and only one of which is this course. When I last wrote, we were about to get started with Boethius.

I keep going back to the spirituality religion Venn diagram though I've distilled our focus to these four questions: 1) Where and how does the writer find meaning, and how do we know?; 2) What makes the writer feel connected, and with whom or what does the writer want a connection, and how do we know?; 3) What does the writer value, and how do we know?; and 4) How does where and how the writer find meaning, with whom and/or what the writer wants connection, and what the writer values inform how that writer chooses to live?

We started trying to answer some of those questions with Boethius, which was a challenge since so few of the students actually read the text. The discussion the students claimed they preferred becomes a discussion between me and a few students, which is fine for me. They make some great observations, I get to ask some follow-up questions, and we go from there.

Boethius was a bit of a challenge even for the students who read the text. Fortunately, they've started asking questions to clarify the text as they're finally learning that reading such texts often means they have to discuss what they think it could mean. Many are finally learning I'm not asking for the answer because there might not be, probably isn't, a single answer.

I am slowly realizing (again) that I have to unteach what many have been taught their entire academic careers--that a teacher, a professor is looking for one right answer, whatever might be in that professor's head.

What was a gratifying moment was when a student slapped her hand on the table and said, "Oh, I've got it!" and she shared a really illuminating idea and could back it up from her reading of the text. It was near the end of class so was, for me, a good way to end.

What they all struggle with is trying to read these texts through whatever they understand to be a "Christian" lens. They don't have the same denominational background and I have a student who comes from a Buddhist family and why he is at Judson seems as much a puzzle to him as it is to me. And I think many want to try to give me what they think is a biblical response even though I've often said I don't think that's possible, and that we have to remember that Boethius's experience with Christianity has been suspect for centuries and that even if he was a Christian, what he understood as Christianity would be unrecognizable to us.

For those who haven't delved into Consolation of Philosophy (and there are some very good translations available that make the text quite readable), Boethius did all the "right" things and live a comfortable life in a lovely villa in Rome. He rose in positions of leadership and power, and got involved in politics. He was tasked with rooting out corruption by the ruler in Italy, Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoth. But then his fortune ran out and he was charged, quite falsely, with treason. He wrote Consolation of Philosophy while in his prison cell awaiting execution.

Now, a few things occurred to me before we got into the text itself and I raised those as I gave students some background before they started reading. I suggested they might think about some historical political prisoners: Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and, of course, Peter, Paul, and Silas. What I should have done is assigned some of those individuals to students so they could have done research to better understand the potential correlation of the thinking and reactions of those prisoners.

Why? Because Boethius found himself trying to understand how what happened to him happened. And so in the first book he is visited by Lady Philosophy who reminds him of the importance of philosophy and reason and suggests that thinking through these things will help bring about the healing of his mind. Lady Fortune visits him in Book II and reminds him that she is not to be trusted and that she sees everything as a game. As Boethius works through these two books, he compares the value of reason vs. emotion or passion and why only reason can be trusted.

Dr StClaire from pixabay.com
As he progresses in his thinking, he has a dialogue (in his writing) with Lady Philosophy about good and evil and why those who are evil get away with evil. He believes that there were those he was trying to expose who went to Theodoric and spun some other story that led the king to believe it was Boethius who was corrupt. Again, questions humanity is still trying to answer and one we see in books, movies,  and TV shows all the time. At the end of most stories, the "good guy" wins, but there are some, like The Matrix trilogy that leave us to wonder who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

I made a mental observation that we live in difficult times when students in a Christian college are unwilling to speak their minds about some things. And when I said that there are some who might believe there are strong correlations to the world today, no one said a thing. It was as though they were afraid to even acknowledge that such might be true. 

And so we moved on through Boethius as he addressed God's foreknowledge vs man's free will, and I pondered aloud how that has been a question asked throughout time just as the question about how evil people get away with things while the good seem to be punished. And then I pontificated about how we each see evil. That Boethius saw the corrupt men who told lies to an "increasingly paranoid and vengeful king" (https://www.theschooloflife.com/article/boethius-and-the-consolation-of-philosophy/), and that some of us might not see lying about someone as "evil" compared to other acts or behavior. Then I looped back to Augustine and his behaviors and his attitudes towards his sin as well as how Augustine saw God's hand in his life. I noted some of the differences in language and then went back to the four questions. There were nods. I didn't and don't know what that means.

I've not yet read the Boethius papers. I'm anxious for a couple of reasons. Oh, I should also note that I gave students links to five YouTube videos, each a summary of a book in Consolation of Philosophy. None of the videos is more than five minutes. None of the students watched the videos on their own.

www.flickr.com/photos/60212761@N00/
Then we moved on to John Donne because I really like John Donne and I think his story is a powerful one. We read mostly from the holy sonnets and "Hymne to God the Father," but I talked about the other elements of his life and why those might inform how we might answer the four questions with regard to Donne. 

They had not read the four sonnets I'd assigned, but I brought hard copies for students. Then I read a sonnet aloud and attempted to elicit discussion. We finished with Donne by revisiting "Holy Sonnet X" because I'd found a great video of someone reading the sonnet and he did a much better job than I, and then a lovely musical rendition of the sonnet by a young woman. When a student asked why she put the sonnet to music, I was a bit dumbfounded, but just shrugged and said she must have been moved by the sonnet and so decided to create that music. I also showed an excerpt from Wit, but I know they weren't interested. 

They weren't much interested in "Hymne to God the Father" either although one student did see a connection to Augustine. I wondered aloud if some people aren't interested in such poems because they are old and hard to read in the original or if the poems somehow speak too loudly to their own hearts. I say such things because I believe some are listening even if they aren't speaking.

And so we are taking a giant step in a very different direction by reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. We start that work on Tuesday, October 18. My hope is that they have read the two articles, they have watched the interview, and they have read the first four stories. The stories may take less time to read than the other stuff. And because we did not have class last week, they should have had time even though it was midterms. 

I don't give a midterm for many reasons. I canceled class on Tuesday because I had to be out of town and then had to cancel class on Thursday because I had return flight challenges.

Anyway, Asimov takes us far away from anything "Christian" to a writer who believes in rationality and humanism. How we might discuss the four questions with Asimov could be more lively than past discussions.

One of the things that is so interesting to me about this book is that Asimov wrote it in 1950. He coined the word "robotics," developed his Three Laws of Robotics, and added a whole new vocabulary through his robots including "positronic." The first story, "Robbie," takes place in 1998. The robot is huge and cannot speak. The next few stories take place over a period of time but begin in 2015 and by then robots are quite advanced and continue to become more, well, lifelike.

"Liar!" is like a story out of The Twilight Zone, for those of us old enough to remember the original television show. That story takes place in 2021 and what is so intriguing to me is how chatbots are not yet like Herbie, on many levels, and yet Asimov imagined a sort of empathy, but also the limitations of coding. Those are the sorts of ideas in later stories: that robots must obey the Three Laws of Robotics,  human beings have to be careful how they issue commands--think how often Alexa or Siri "misunderstand" what you're saying, and there are limits to what human beings can code a robot or robotic form to do. Or can they?

The last story set in 2052 poses that very question about the Machines.

i300.photobucket.com/albums/nn13/etmassey/star-trek-cast.jpg
It will be important for me to remind students when these stories were written and to think about what Asimov might have been trying to convey in these stories given how he valued rational thinking and humanism, and also how we might think about what we experience today through AI and have seen in movies and television since these stories were published. Think not only The Matrix trilogy, but Star Wars and Star Trek (first air date of the original in 1966), The Minority Report, The Twilight Zone (1959), and dozens of others including the Will Smith version of I. Robot (2004), loosely based on the stories in the book.

It will be more important for me to toss questions for them to think about and give them time to process and respond, although it will all be moot if they haven't read the stories. And therein lies the big challenge.

Sunday, September 18

Literature and Spirituality: Wrapping Up Augustine and Unwrapping Boethius

In my last post, We've been in class for a few weeks and I have to say conversation has been, well, let's go with muted. There are three or four students who are willing to speak up. I'm not convinced all of them have read the texts even when they speak up, but one step at a time.

One of the things I said in my last blog post was that maybe students needed a bit more time to warm up. I was thinking they needed to warm up to me, to the class, and to each other. After all, I know that the majority of the students are taking the class because it fits in their schedule and meets the upper-level literature course they have to take.

I've battled that mindset before and it won't be the last, so I'll deal and try to whine less.

Last week I tried a different kind of activity. I'd given students questions to consider for many of the books. I created four overall topics from those questions and each topic was on its own piece of chart paper. Students created their own groups, each group had a marker, and each group started at a different piece of chart paper. They discussed and wrote whatever they thought applicable to that very broad topic. Then they rotated to another piece of chart paper, and so on. Then they revisited the chart paper to see what others had written after them, and then we did a debrief.

The next class period I tried a variation of that theme with a sort of Jeopardy-like question approach, but that wasn't quite as successful. We had several students missing that day, and that change in dynamic matters.

This week we'll be wrapping up Augustine and I'm going to ask them to start a spiritual "map," and I use the word "map" very loosely. I had shared this image with them early on in the semester. I refer to it periodically to help them be mindful of how others might think of spirituality as well as how others might view religion and faith as, perhaps, an expression of their religion and/or spirituality. This speaks, I think, to those who believe themselves spiritual, but not religious.

I've also reiterated what Augustine wrote in Book I, Chapter 5: "Why do you mean so much to me? Help me to find words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you, that you should command me to love you?" (24).

I've reminded my students that those two questions could be at the root of anyone's spiritual journey even if they are rephrased. "What is my purpose?" "Why am I here?" "Why do I matter?" "Do I matter?" I might add the question "To whom do I matter other than my family and friends, and how do I know that?"

For those who are seeking a life of meaning and purpose, regardless of what they believe to be true about God or gods or a Supreme Being, these are important questions.

This, for me, is so powerfully important to the consideration of spirituality, especially if I'm looking for a life of meaning and purpose. As I've said before, we have the opportunity, and perhaps even the privilege, to read how others have wrestled with these questions and with their understanding of sin or what it could mean to fall short or believe they fall short of whatever their god or gods expect or might want. 

So as we wrap up Augustine and turn towards Boethius, I want them to somehow map or document what they've learned using this image as a starting point. How would they adapt it and why? In wrapping up Augustine, we're going to focus on 1) his key relationships: his mother, Bishop Ambrose, and Alypius, a friend of conflicting influences; 2) Book VIII and what pulls him toward evil and what pulls him toward good; and 3) those spiritual journey signposts in Book VI that might translate, if you will, to anyone's spiritual journey.

Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy as he awaited execution for treason and other things, such as magic and sacrilege. The text is a dialogue between Boethius, as Prisoner, and Philosophy, personified as a beautiful woman. The work is a logical argument. Is it consolation or comfort as we might surmise? Hmmm. Probably not to many readers, but the questions Boethius asks have startling relevance.

Is Boethius's Consolation specifically Christian, even as Christianity was understood in his time? No, and that is significant. The work also challenges us to think about the role of reason and the senses in grappling with reality as well as how we understand however we perceive God.

How each student creates his or her "map" will be up to them, and they will revise and update it as we continue to read other classical texts (Donne, Bunyan) and then more contemporary texts (Tolstoy, Achebe, Tan, O'Connor, Sepetys, Lewis).

Tuesday, September 13

"Getting Away With" Abortion and What's Wrong With That Thinking

In the September issue of Christianity Today is an article about Dallas Willard and the genesis of what has become the spiritual formation movement. I was looking forward to reading that article but was sidetracked by this article title:

Go ahead and feel whatever you want and need to feel. Note what I've circled. I'll get back to that.

I will say this about my position on choice, life, and abortion. I am pro-choice and by that I mean that it is none of my business what another woman chooses to do with her body. 

I am also pro-life and by that I mean that I believe we have an obligation to try to take care of one another. Use The Golden Rule or Bible verses or any other texts. It's a fairly universal sensibility that it takes a village. And it takes a village from birth to death. So if we insist on taking care of the unborn, we have to take care of the born. Period. But if you need Bible verses: John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:17-18, 1 Timothy 5:8; Galatians 6:9-10; Matthew 25:40; James 1:27; James 2:14-17; Deuteronomy 15:11; Romans 15:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:24; Romans 12:10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Galatians 5:14. There are more, but you get the idea.

I am anti-abortion in that I would prefer women not have to get an abortion, but I also recognize it is a medical procedure in some cases and that there can be other extenuating circumstances that are none of my business if the womb isn't mine.

While I identify as a Christian, not everyone does and I have no business trying to legislate my beliefs to force anyone to live as I do. That is hardly a good witness, in my opinion. Screaming at someone and calling them a murderer seems unbiblical and certainly not particularly charitable nor even pro-life. James 3.

So I was angry when I read the title and really struggled to read the article because of my fury. But the paragraph that tipped me right over the edge--and keep the article title in mind--was this one:
I'm sorry, what? Use pictures to show the humanity of unborn children? (I may have been screaming at my monitor at this point.)

And so I wrote an email. And sent it angry. And then sent a follow-up email about two weeks later because I was still angry. The content of the first email follows and remember what I circled in the title about changing cultural attitudes.

Got away with? My oh my. That title was designed to raise some ire. Oh my goodness yes. Got away with. Sure, that's easy for Marvin to say because he's probably never been raped and he's probably not been sexually abused and ended up pregnant by a father or brother or uncle. I bet he's never had a miscarriage either. Or suffered an ectopic pregnancy. He's probably never carried a dead fetus in his womb and had to carry that until his body expels it, which is now considered an abortion in some states. So, yea, let's not let any women get away with that one.

Let's take away the capability of any girl or woman to protect herself against unwanted pregnancy by self-righteously refusing to allow the woman to take birth control pills. Or let's refuse those birth control pills as a form of abortion because, you know, it's better to be righteously right than know why that female is taking those birth control pills that might be for something that actually protects the female's life.

You want to change cultural attitudes? Then make sure that rapists don't get away with rapes. Make sure that women aren't accused of "asking for it" or dressing inappropriately if they get raped. Make sure that young men learn they have a responsibility, too, because a female cannot get pregnant by herself. Talk to the incel men who think women somehow owe them and can get violent if a woman doesn't put out. Talk to the men who think it's cool and fun to drug women before having sex with them while they're passed out.

You want to change cultural attitudes? Then make it easier for sexual predators to be identified and brought to justice without shaming the female, regardless of her age. Yes, SBC, I'm looking at you and your 205-PAGE list of names of sexual abusers. Yes, I'm looking at the Indiana pastor who resigned after confessing adultery with a 16-year-old and how the congregation prayed for him even after she made it clear the relationship was much different than he claimed. I'm sure that pastor would have been delighted to pay child support and take care of that baby if that 16-year-old MINOR had gotten pregnant.

So let's talk more about how men get away with being predators and sexual abusers. 

So let's talk more about how men get to use their power to use young girls and women in their congregations or in their businesses or in their offices or in their homes.

So let's talk more about how schools and churches shame young women but are more than willing to let "boys be boys."

Sure, let's talk about cultural changes but let's be clear the changes aren't all the responsibility of the women and girls. And let's be clear that not all abortions are about pro-choice, but often about medical conditions. And let's also be clear that Judaism and Islam have different beliefs about abortion and that self-righteous Christians who want to use pictures "to show the humanity of unborn children" when they might, at the very same time, fail to show any compassion or humanity to the individual facing this terrible decision.

The follow-up email was about an incident about which I had no direct knowledge, so my on-going outrage was based on someone else's account of an incident. I trusted and trust the speaker and believe that the incident actually happened, but my information is hearsay. That a high school boy convinced a middle school girl, both of whom attended the same Christian school, to have sex with him and recorded it, then shared the video with his buddies. As you can well imagine, she and her family bore the brunt of the shame. 

The boy? Nothing. Nothing happened. 

So let's just hope that middle school girl didn't get pregnant because, you know, we don't want her to get away with anything she shouldn't.

Saturday, September 10

Literature and Spirituality: Examining St. Augustine's Confessions

 We've been in class for a few weeks and I have to say conversation has been, well, let's go with muted. There are three or four students who are willing to speak up. I'm not convinced all of them have read the texts even when they speak up, but one step at a time.

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/rig-veda

We spent the first two weeks with the Vedic Texts and flood myths. Students were to have read some texts about Pandora as well as a wonderful summary version of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

There seemed to be no curiosity about the antiquity or longevity of the ideas. There seemed to be no wonder about the approaches to the story of a flood, even though there may be over 200 versions of that story. So no one else who seemed to say, "Huh. Potentially hundreds of versions of the story that tell us there was a flood. All of the stories say humanity was destroyed. All of them have versions about how the Earth was repopulated. What does that suggest to us?"

Sure, that may become more of a theological question than a literary one except for the fact there are texts--literature--that relate the history (also humanities) of a flood. Different versions, yes, and with significant cultural details (also humanities). Also insights into how culture was and has been influenced by those very same stories.

Nothing. Maybe they were busily wondering and being curious in their heads.

And so, to Augustine and his Confessions. We had a rough slog through the first two books. I went slowly through Book I to highlight key ideas because, you know, literature. I pointed out figurative language. I pointed out other literary devices, but mostly I paused at certain moments to ask how current Augustine's thinking seems to be. Crickets.

So before we started Book II, I asked students if they would prefer lecture to discussion. I told them it doesn't matter to me because I'm happy to try to facilitate discussion. However, if they chose discussion, they had to actually discuss. All of them. Not just the three or four students who seem to speak up.

They chose discussion. Maybe they need to warm up more.

So I've really been having fun reading Confessions. Sure, there are some things that seem dated and yet others that are powerful and current. I'll mention two things.

The first was humorous to me because I teach writing. In Book I Augustine complains about his education, even as he expresses how much he values learning. There were some things he wasn't too excited about having to read, and I laughed when I realized he was reading Homer's Iliad. In Greek. And probably Homer's actual version. He didn't much care for some of his school masters just as many students don't much care for how their teachers teach today. At least in Illinois they don't have to worry about corporal punishment, which isn't the case in all states.

In Chapter 13 of Book I, Augustine writes "The first lessons in Latin were reading, writing, and counting, and they were as much of an irksome imposition as any studies in Greek" (34). He goes on to say the lessons were practical and valuable. "They gave me the power, which I still have, of reading whatever is set before me and writing whatever I wish to write" (34). Then he mentioned he wasn't overly fond of Aeneas, something students in 2022 might say though for different reasons. At least today's students aren't reading it in Latin.

The second thing I found in Book I, Chapter 5; it set the tone for the spiritual philosophy of this text. Augustine wrote "Why do you mean so much to me? Help me to find words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you, that you should command me to love you?" (24).

I told my students that those two questions could be at the root of anyone's spiritual journey even if they are rephrased. "What is my purpose?" "Why am I here?" "Why do I matter?" "Do I matter?" Those are questions many of us have asked and some ask in pain or wonder.

Any believer of any faith could ask why they mean so much to their god? Or if they actually mean anything to their god?

This, for me, is so powerfully important to the consideration of spirituality, especially if I'm looking for a life of meaning and purpose.

We have the opportunity, and perhaps even the privilege, to read how others have wrestled with these questions and with their understanding of sin or what it could mean to fall short or believe they fall short of whatever their god or gods expect or might want. 

We saw that in the excerpt we read of Hymn CXXI. The line repeated throughout this hymn is "What God shall we adore with our oblation?"

In Book II, in which Augustine focuses on the theft in the pear orchard, Augustine writes ". . .yet no one is to be feared by God alone, from whose power nothing can be snatched away or stolen by any man at any time or place or by any means" (Ch. 6, 49).

The last three lines of that book are powerful; it is possible to see the arc of Augustine's thinking in Chapters 8 and 9, at least. The last three lines read: "In him [God] that is goodness itself he [anyone] shall find his own best way of life. But I deserted you, my God. In my youth I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste" (53).

The imagery alone of the creation of one's self a barren waste is powerful. The connection, to me anyway, to those questions of mattering to God and wondering why God matters to any of us, is present in these observations about choices and their consequences.

In class? Thoughtful nods. Maybe they need more time to process.

So students were given questions to consider for Books III and IV. I'll post questions to consider for Books V through IX. And I'm working on some strategies that will require students to discuss their thoughts. I don't think they believe me that there are no right answers about what they think about these texts, provided they are reading them.

And so it goes.





An Adventure with Comcast Xfinity, or How to Ensure Your Customers Hate You and Other Lessons Learned

It started as a lovely Thursday evening. It had been a challenging technology day with nearly every class I taught at the university, but we figured it out and got through it. My intent was to sit outside in the cool early evening and enjoy a glass of wine.

 All was well until I tried to scroll through some news stories on my phone and noticed the load time was excessive. I switched to data because I was too comfortable and lazy to go inside to check the cable modem. When at last irritation overrode laziness, I realized my cable modem was indeed offline although the router was fine. And so I did was any reasonable person would do, I reset and rebooted everything. 

Still no joy. Okay, well, let’s try the power cycle. Powered down everything. Checked the coax coming into the house, checked all of the cables to make sure they hadn’t somehow loosened during the day. And rebooted. The cable modem still did not come online. 

Although I do know the definition of insanity and truly tested it over the next several hours, I went through the process once again in case I missed a step. I’ve been in technology long enough to know how easy that is to do.

Still no cable modem. Well, okay, it’s possible the cable modem, which is only a little over a year old, bricked. Anything is possible. And it had now been nearly two hours so maybe a new modem is in order. Yes, Target was still open and had modems in stock, so off to Target.

Except Target didn’t have the model I wanted but had something that looked it might work. Purchase made. Receipt safely tucked away and back home.

I was still not yet adept at navigating the absurdly user-unfriendly Comcast Xfinity app to get to the link I needed to activate a new modem. So once I got to that link, with a great deal of muttering and probably a smattering of swear words, I tried to activate the replacement modem. 

Nope. That did not work. But then I found where I needed to scroll through to find compatible modems and the one I’d bought was not on the list. At that point it was late, so I logged into Amazon to order the overnight delivery of the same model as the original modem and settled in to have another glass of wine and read my book.

I was up early on Friday morning and the modem was already on my front deck. So as soon as I could, I set that up and managed to get to the activation page with less difficulty, squinting to get the CM MAC and started that 11-minute process. Yet again. 

Nope. Then I checked the packaging and yes, the CM MAC was there and easier to read, so tried again in case I’d keyed in the wrong information. Another 11 minutes went by and nothing.

By now I’d reached out to the chat assistant and a customer service connection through Messenger. The Messenger connection sent me a link so I then had two chat conversations going. 

I shared the same things with both and reported what each was saying because, big surprise, their solutions were not the same.

A brief aside here for the brilliant empathy training the Comcast Xfinity people have received. Having done a smidge of customer service work, I appreciate that training and heard it and saw it consistently. Even as my frustration and anger increased along with my heart rate and probably my blood pressure. However, they are not trained to actually read the words or hear the tone of voice, apparently. And when a customer says at 3P on an afternoon that said customer has been trying to fix a problem since 7:30 the night before, excessive perkiness and empathy (yes, I’ve been a customer too) are not helpful. It’s just aggravating because said customer service person has not heard my tone of voice nor my words.  

Back to the story. I was at the point I really needed to get to some place with internet to take care of some business things, so took a 3-hour “break” to go to the library so I could get to some internet.

Another brief aside. I had a very clear moment of illumination of how very fortunate I am. One, I take internet access for granted. Yes, I pay for it but I also assume it will be there. Two, I am aware that many do not have internet access and this brief experience brought home the significance of that lack.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash
Once I was back home, I again took up my chat threads to try to solve my modem problem. One person told me it was because my modem, apparently without warning and some time in the afternoon, was not compatible with my home phone service. Well, I’d wanted to get rid of that anyway, so I girded my emotions and placed a phone call.

 Getting through the menu system is its own challenge because if you don’t wait until the voice has gone through the entire menu, your choice isn’t recognized. And if you enter the choice too often or too fast, it’s entirely possible you will get reprimanded for too many tries and then disconnected. So once again into the phone fray and I was at least connected with someone who thought I wanted to cancel my home service (don’t tempt me) because the stupid menu system processes only certain words and isn’t that “smart.”

I took a deep breath and said something like, “Please understand I’ve been trying to solve a cable modem problem since 7:30 last night so my frustration level is very, very high.” I get the chirpy “Yes, I understand and appreciate your frustration.” Oh no, no precious you do not, but carry on. I explained about canceling the home phone service, and she wants to go through my TV service to ask about every. single. channel to make sure I want to keep those and if I want to add any others. I interrupted her. Rudely. I told her I just want to cancel the home phone service and I’ll make other changes later if I want to make other changes. The purpose of this call is to cancel the home phone service. Another chirpy response and “Okay, I just want to ask about. . .”

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash
At that point I interrupted her again because I’d lost my temper and I shouted, “If this question isn’t related to the home phone service cancellation, do not ask it.” Long pause. Silence because I’d been muted or put on hold.

When she returned to the call, she told me she was processing the order. We finished that. I apologized for getting angry and yelling at her. I asked how soon the process should take effect. She stammered a little and gave me an answer I didn’t believe, and we hung up. 

I waited an hour. Just because.

I did a power cycle again. Just because. Did the modem work? Of course not.

Back to the chats. Oh no, I was told. It may take up to three days because of some blah blah blah about porting to new numbers of some other crap. And that’s what I told him. That’s crap. And then gave him a much more eloquent and emotionally tightly controlled response about there not being any number porting required and it was absurd to say it would take a service that purports to be high-traffic and high-speed to take that long for my account to recognize a removed service. And, oh, by the way, my app already indicated the service was gone so, in theory, it shouldn’t be an issue.

I should also point out that nearly every time I did the power cycle, I used the old modem and then the new modem because I couldn’t tell which modem was in the account because the app won’t let me see that.

Back in the chats and I was told I needed to call someone to activate the modem even though I’d just been told to use the /activate option in the app. (By the way, Verizon thanks you for all of the minutes I used.)

Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash
So I called. With trepidation. An hour later after the young man had said with such confidence that he’d be able to solve my problem (and kept mispronouncing my name but I was beyond caring about that) and he had tried to manually set the new modem and then the old modem, and then told me I’d have to take the modem to a store to get something widget done to it, and then tried again to reset the old modem without success. That was when he said, “It must be the wiring in the house.”

Except the TV downstairs works fine. It’s only the stuff connected to streaming that did not work. So I did scream at him and then hung up. I felt bad later. I still feel bad because I did not get to apologize to him. Yes, we had hit the 23-hour mark, but even so. It wasn’t his fault.

And so, I had a glass of wine and read my book and could watch tennis on the small downstairs TV. I figured I would take both modems to the Xfinity store in the morning and get the widgety thing done and check which modem is actually in my account.

This morning I was having breakfast and the doorbell rang. A young man wearing a Comcast shirt asked me if I’d been having trouble with my internet. Yes, I said, with perhaps too much enthusiasm. He said my neighbor had also been without service. Since Thursday night.

Oh wait, I thought. You mean all those times I asked if there was a service problem in the area and was told there were intermittent outages but they were confident the problem would be solved soon they actually didn’t know there was an internet outage that affected several homes in the area? Huh.

So the young man climbed a ladder to check the pole, which is in my yard or I might never have known about this, and then came down and told my neighbor that he couldn’t fix the problem. I wouldn’t have known that either had I not gone outside to ask.

Less than an hour later I heard another ladder going up in the backyard. This technician had taken a different route to get to the pole, but I went outside to ask because I was channeling my inner Mrs. Kravitch (old Bewitched reference; just think nosy neighbor). Apparently the neighbor behind me had also reported a problem.

The technician said he’d check in with folks when he was done, which he didn’t do with me but I wasn't the customer on the order. But, after about an hour of drilling and whatever else he was doing up there, we had service.

I’d shut down everything, but was working on my laptop and noticed the internet indicator change on the tool bar. I went upstairs and recycled everything and, yes, hallelujah, everything worked.

I’d heard from Xfinity asking me for feedback about my call last night. I gave them a 0. They asked why. I gave them a very lengthy response that also noted the quality of their CSR empathy response but the fact that their CSR systems are apparently not synced is ridiculous and the fact that the CSRs really don’t have accurate information about the state of access, it’s no wonder they have to tap dance around answers.

So here’s the final tally:

  • The cancellation of the home phone service I didn’t want anyway, but wasn’t an issue for the modem. Draw.
  • The purchase of an incompatible modem at Target that I might not be able to return as it was on sale. Probable loss.
  • The purchase of a compatible modem that I should be able to return. Win.
  • Several hours’ worth of Verizon minutes used to solve an Xfinity problem. Another moment of illumination that I had the minutes to try to solve the problem. Draw because I learned another valuable lesson.
  • Access to the internet. Win.
  • Loss of most of a day’s worth of work. Clearly, a loss.
  • Incredible frustration and yet insight into how horrible Comcast Xfinity systems are for their CSRs. Draw.
  • Realization that Comcast Xfinity systems practically ensure some degree of failure on the part of the customer service representatives. Draw.

Monday, August 22

Quiet quitting: Boundary protection not anti-work

 When I was growing up in the 70s into something some might call adulthood, I knew that it was my responsibility to work as hard as I could to try to "get ahead." Getting ahead meant having a "good" job with a title, preferably an expense account, and maybe even some people who reported to me. It also seemed to mean working long hours and rarely saying "no" when asked to do something that might not have been in my job description. Because, well, it kind of was in that catch-all statement "And other duties as assigned." Even if that other duty meant working later than I'd planned or having to give up some personal plans. There was always the threat of being fired, of being shamed for not being a team player, and even more so because I was a woman in a mostly male-dominated business. Although, let's be honest, in the 70s and 80s, and even now, many businesses are still male-dominated.

So when I heard and read about "quiet quitting," I gave a quiet shout and fist pump.

What my generation learned much too late is that once we said "yes" to that extra thing, with whatever enticement that was offered, we could never say "no" to that one small thing, that little extra project, that wonderful opportunity for growth. (There's a woman on TikTok who does vocabulary "pronunciation" satire videos to point out that words like "opportunity" really just mean more work.)

I think in the year 2022 PE (Pandemic Era) we're finding that people are tired on multiple fronts, and not just old people like me. We're tired of all the social media buzzing and trolling; we're tired of incivility in the grocery store and coffee shops and grown-ups screaming like toddlers when they don't get their way. We're tired of the weaponization and politicization (sometimes those terms are synonymous, which is also exhausting) of pretty much everything. We have been suffering from outrage fatigue for a number of years now, and some of us for longer than others. And many of us are so very tired of the work it takes to manage our imposter syndrome.

A lot of pundits express shock and yet celebrate that Gen Zers want their work to be meaningful. Hello! That's not new. I would imagine that most people want the work they do to be meaningful OR to be something that is constrained to specific hours so they can go do the things that are meaningful to them outside of work.

There are a lot of TikTok videos about workers responding to bosses who want employees to work a few extra hours after regular work hours or to work over the weekend. And I've done that. I've worked the 14 hours or more a day and done so 6 or 7 days a week. We can do that only for so long and then collapse from exhaustion and frustration because there is always more. Always more. And always more with less resources or fewer people.

When everyone says, "Enough!", perhaps there will be change. Perhaps employers and managers and Wall Street brokers and venture capitalists will realize that ALL of us would like to be paid a fair wage and paid for all of the hours we work.

Now I also understand the small businesses that are struggling and that are asking employees to work double shifts. Or the various service industries that are asking, expecting, and even demanding the same of their employees. I know the pandemic has eroded the bottom line of many organizations so they take drastic actions to halt the falling bottom line.

But I don't think it takes a genius to figure out that organizations have to reset a lot of expectations: their own expectations first; their stockholders, if they have them; their investors, if they have them; and their customers. For sure their customers. 

"We have reduced hours now because we are going to manage best for our employees so they are less exhausted so they can better serve you." is not the worst thing to say. 

Is it easy with rents going up? With employees pushing harder for unionization? With supply chain issues? Nope. But putting some sort of a band-aid or quick fix in place is like putting a finger in the proverbial dam. That will solve that problem for a minute or two and then several others will become evident and the problems will get worse and more severe.

The fact is that none of this is easy and none of it is simple. However, if more employees are finally willing to say "Enough!", then, again, perhaps there will be change. Of course, there will be some bosses who will try to change the work day hours, and that will get ugly. 

Here's the thing: Many of us do find fulfillment and meaning in our work, and many of us do not. Those of us who do not find meaning and fulfillment in our work do our jobs so we can afford to do the things that give us that fulfillment. And if we are allowed to do that, perhaps our attitudes doing the day-to-day work will improve because we know our managers and bosses and employers respect boundaries and prefer employees who are committed to their work during their work hours. And employees who are committed to their work while they are at work will do a better job which could mean happier and maybe even more polite customers (a girl can dream) so fewer negative reviews, etc., etc., etc.

So most definitely not anti-work. Just pro better awareness that people are not cogs in a corporate or business wheel.

Thursday, August 18

On Being Woke and What That Might Mean

I’ve read a lot about the disdain of many conservatives about the concept or actuality of being woke. Governors, council members, school board members, and plenty of others eschew the wokeness. And I cannot help but wonder what they mean by that because I think many use it as a synonym for being liberal or a leftist, or something perhaps more ominous.

Because I like words and I like to research stuff, I did some research.

Before I go any further, I’ll note that I am a moderate Republican and I am a believer in the person and work of Jesus Christ though not inclined to call myself an evangelical. If any of that offends or triggers you, well, stop reading and go find something else to do, please.

I started with an article I found on Fox News, which is not a source I would typically use. The author noted the word “woke” was first published in an essay by William Melvin Kelley in The New York Times in 1962, so I had to go find that. I found it and took one glance at the title of Kelley’s essay and knew I had to learn more about him before I could read his essay.

This is what I learned about William Melvin Kelley starting with an article in The New Yorker from which I got the image to the left. The title of the 2018 article reads "The Lost Giant of American Literature" and its subtitle is "A major black novelist made a remarkable debut. How did he disappear?" And in this article, writer Kathryn Schutz referred to the 1962 essay. I also found a lengthy obituary in The New York Times in which Kelley is described as a writer "who brought a fresh, experimental voice to black fiction in novels and stories that used recurring characters to explore race relations and racial identity in the United States." Kelley was 79 when he died in February 2017. I had never heard of him and I feel that gap in my knowledge and know I will soon have to find some of his work to remedy that situation.

Based, however, on Schulz's work, I feel a better sense of Kelley and what he might have been trying to say in the early 1960s, a time of tumultuous social and civil discord and political upheaval. Sound familiar?

https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1962/05/20/140720532.pdf?pdf
The title of the 1962 essay is "If You're Woke You Dig It." A brief aside: I'm no longer surprised by the number of people who have a complete misunderstanding of American English, of the English language and its Latin roots and numerous borrowed words, and how very little of what we think is "American" or specifically of the United States (because there is more to the continents of North and South America than the United States and all of those other places are also "American" is actually of the United States. I mean, everything that is of our United States version of English came first from somewhere else, and then developed or evolved. Everything. And this essay is a delicious reminder of that fact and the cultural signifiers that are found in idioms.

In Kelley's context, being woke seemed to mean being with it or hip and, in today's context, knowing the latest emojis and that "no cap" means "no lie," or did last year. I am reluctantly resisting the digression that is Kelley to return to why a writer for Fox News referred to his work.

Writer Michael Ruiz reports that "for decades, it meant conscious and aware--but the slang word has come to represent an embrace of progressive activism, as well." He does also refer to Merriam-Webster and The Oxford Dictionary, although I had to do a bit more digger to determine if that was the OED, for those of us who can be dictionary snobs. It wasn't although I did find some interesting definitions in OED. I'll come back to those in a moment.

What does Merriam-Webster offer? Herewith in situ (Latin). It is, as you can see, a very modern definition, although Merriam-Webster also notes the word was first used in 1948 and with this very definition. I found it was used in 1942 in Negro Digest when J. Saunders Redding used it in his "article about labor unions." And then I learned that Jay Saunders Redding was an English professor, a visiting professor at Brown University (1949-50), among other things. Another gap in my knowledge that I must rectify.

At the end of his article, Michael Ruiz states "Now it's not so much a racial term as an ideological one." Well, Mr. Ruiz, it was not a racial term. It was an African American cultural term. There is a substantial difference in the understanding of many of the word "racial."

Grazia, a U.K.-based publication, seems to be mostly about fashion, celebrity, and such, yet there was an interesting article about "woke" and what it really means. The writer mentions much of the history I'd already learned referring as well to the 1972 Barry Beckham play Garvey Lives! with its focus on Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.

This article also notes that #staywoke started trending in 2009, but it took a couple of years before the phrase became more noticeably mainstream. The writer states that "[s]taying woke was a way for people of all races to use shorthand in calling out society's racial ills, but also served as a one-word way of encouraging people to pay political attention." I think there is clear pique (from French with a very interesting etymological history) when the writer says

There’s something galling about well-meaning white people and (mosty-white) media organisations using ‘woke’ as a catch-all term to refer to fellow white people, and the word’s widespread use has consequently led to it feeling fairly meaningless. Middle class white people around the world call themselves ‘woke’ because they send out the occasional tweet calling for peace and love, not because they’re trying to make any concrete effort to change the racist status quo. Calling yourself woke simply isn’t enough—you need to act. But a word that’s been diluted to the extent this one has is not necessarily going to get you there.

 My last source is also based in the U.K., National World. Rhona Shennan states that being woke "nowadays refers to being aware or well informed in a political or cultural sense, especially regarding issues surrounding marginalised communities--it describes someone who has 'woken up' to issues of social injustice."

Shennan quotes Afua Hirsch, so I went directly to Hirsch's 2019 article in which she wrote:

Today, the person using the word is likely to be a rightwing culture warrior angry at a phenonemenon that lives mainly in their imagination. . . .In reality, the only thing that unites the woke is an intellectual curiosity about identity and how complex, how nuances, how rooted in disparate histories it can be. The real groupthink, the genuinely cohesive crowd. . .is that of the anti-woke, the most weaponised identity of all.

The explanatory subtitle of Hirsch's article reads: "How ironic that the rightwing culture warriors claim to support free speech. They seem to want minorities to shut up and stop complaining." Given the state of things today in the United States, I would say they seem to want anyone who disagrees with their ideological viewpoint--when they can agree on that--to shut up. That's it; just shut up.

That was a lot of time perusing British publications, so I went back to my search to see what else might be published on this side of the pond. So to an article published by KPBS in San Diego (I saw that eye roll). The article was written by Cristina Kim, Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter, and is an edited transcript of an interview. You can watch/hear the interview here. The first question for her series "Let's Talk About It" was posed by Mike Milton who asked for a definition of "woke" or "wokeness." Kim talked with Dr. DamariyƩ Smith, Assistant Professor of Contemporary Black/African American Rhetoric and Media Studies at San Diego State University.

There is some reiteration of the history of the word, of course, and some other social observations regarding the evolution of the word and how it became appropriated by white people, how it reflected and reflects increasing racial awareness through Obama's administration and the Black Lives Matter movement, and how it has become weaponized.

Then to The Palm Beach Post with its fittingly titled April 2022 article, "What does it mean to be 'woke,' and why does Florida Governor Ron DeSantis want to stop it?" Writer C.A. Bridges notes early in his piece that "[s]ome conservatives fight against wokeness because they see it as performative and liberal indoctrination." Florida's HB7, often called the Stop WOKE Act, states

Provides that subjecting individuals to specified concepts under certain circumstances constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin; revising requirements for required instruction on the history of African Americans; requiring the department to prepare and offer certain standards and curriculum; authorizing the department to seek input from a specified organization for certain purposes; prohibits instructional materials reviewers from recommending instructional materials that contain any matter that contradicts certain principles; requires DOE to review school district professional development systems for compliance with certain provisions of law.
Or, as restated in The Palm Beach Post, the bill "prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs for their race, color, sex or national origin."

Bridges does an excellent job of recounting a thorough history of the word "woke" including a wide range of politicians and their, mmm, "observations" of what it means to be woke. Interestingly, Bridges quoted Michael Ruiz of Fox News: "So in addition to meaning aware and progressive, many people now interpret woke to be a way to describe people who would rather silence their critics than listen to them," which seemed to be what Hirsch said of conservatives.

And so, at the end of the day, as it were, I explored what Slate's Rachelle Hampton had to say; she was cited by Bridges. Hampton points out how social media and others have made the term essentially meaningless, although I think it remains a dog whistle for many conservatives. Hampton states
. . .What you get from this constant divorcing and decontextualizing of the word woke is this idea that wokeness is a thing that you can aspire towards. Not only aspire towards, but achieve.
You get this kind of gross performance of racial consciousness that’s all posture. In this way, wokebasically becomes empty on both sides of the white people aisle: You get white Liberals who think by doing a Pepsi commercial that appropriates protest imagery that they are “woke,” and that there’s this way to acquire woke points. This side is annoying and actively harmful in a few different ways, but the other side smells a little bit like fascism. Around 2017 or 2018, this is when we start to get white people turning against the word. And not just turning against it, but turning against the idea of it. Because, again, there is no coherent political ideology behind the word woke and there never has been.
But also, the people who are using “wokeness” to capture all these disparate political things happening are mostly writers who should have the ability to tease out what exactly they’re talking about. But it is extremely convenient from a culture-war perspective, to be able to use a word like woke to signal at approximately seven different things. Then, there’s also just the disingenuousness of it all. When you say that “wokeness” is a political ideology, you’re not talking about anything. You’re talking about people who talk about race. And that just immediately brands them as a member of the wokerati.

I had only one more source to explore and that was the online urban dictionary, which is crowd-sourced, and then I didn't know anything any more and that sent me scurrying back to my beloved OED and this definition:

"To bring into being, raise, stir up (war, strife, woe, etc.); to arouse, excite (an activity, feeling, emotion): to evoke (a sound, echo, etc.). A 1793 instance of the word refers to the awakening of "dormant passion." An 1862 reference is to a controversy awakened by a publication. A 1655 entry refers to the awakening of someone's curiosity. Other entries refer to the awakening of rivalry, dissent, ambition, and despair. In other words, being woke meant that emotions, feelings, passions, and interests were awakened. That seems a bit obvious. 

If that awakening means being more aware of and informed about the world in which I live and to which I hope to contribute, I'm all in. But my hope is that conscious awakening brings with it conscientiousness and civility to also learn about why I'm experiencing those emotions, feelings, passions, and interests and to be aware of the existence and reason for the emotionas, feelings, passions, and interests of others. Even if we don't agree. I think we used to call that civility.

Monday, August 15

Literature and Spirituality: Some of the First Texts

 As I've mentioned before, one of my predecessors who taught this course had mostly older texts and I see value in some of those. So we will begin with a couple of the Vedic texts, about which I knew nothing a couple of months ago.

The Vedas, as they are known, are ancient Hindu texts (c. 1500 BCE - c. 500 BCE). In class, we'll spend a bit of time becoming familiar with the history of these texts before reading two samples, one from the Rig Veda and an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita, which is Sanskrit for "Song of God." It is an epic poem that made me think of Milton's Paradise Lost, only because of its scope and scale.

You may ask why Hindu texts at a Christian college. Good question. Well, I've learned that Hindu is the oldest known living religion and the timeline has become important to me.

Why is Hinudism (c. 2300-1500 BCE) the oldest known living religion? Why was it one of the first? I'm not an expert so my answer is sheer speculation but I suspect it has to do with location. We think about all that we've learned from archaelogists about civilizations and cultures and those early civilizations for which archaelogists and historians have found and recorded information is situated in what was known as the Indus Valley and the Far East. Six of the oldest known religions originated in India, modern Pakistan, modern Nepal, China, and Japan.

If we're able to step back to do any sort of comparative analysis on different religions, we can see that gods were created to explain the mysteries of the universe. Why rain? Why drought? How does humanity appease the gods so the crops grow? so game is plentiful? so children are healthy? so a tribe or community or people can defend itself from its enemies?

And most religions seem to have something that is the basis for the faith, the means by which believers and adherents can understand and try to perfect, if you will, a relationship with that god or those gods.

One of the key criteria for being a Hindu today is accepting the Vedic and Upanishad texts as the basis of the faith — similar to how Christianity is inseparable from the bible.

What is clear is that most organized religions have some sort of text(s). How those texts are used might depend on the religious leaders and the adherents of the religion themselves.

So we will begin with some context of the Vedic texts and then read two Hindu texts that I think students will find interesting, and I mean that in the "Huh. How about that?" way of interesting. The first texts we'll read are Hymn CXXI (121) from the Rig Veda and Chapter 1 from The Bhagavad Gita. Again, some of what I've read of The Bhagavad Gita reminds me of John Milton's Paradise Lost. I could not find any clear evidence that Milton was influenced by the text or that he had ever read it. but the sweep of both epic texts is profound and thought-provoking.

From Hinduism we'll proceed to Greek myths. It took me some time to wrap my head around this timeline. What we seem to know is that the ancient Greek civilization emerged around 1200 BCE, and what we might think of as the Classical Age probably began around 500 BCE.

There were significant events that informed what we know as a timeline for Greek mythology Herodutus's version of the events of the Trojan War (c. 1250 BCE) and  Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (c. 750 BCE). It is in this time frame of the 8th century BCE that we see the emergence of Zeus and his fellow gods, though new evidence emerged in 2009 that suggests reference to and worship of what we know as the Greek gods as early as the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. If that's true, the overlap between Hinduism and Greek mythology is a bit closer.

This is when it's important to understand both history and geography, the existence and reach of ancient empires, the travels and conquests of Alexander the Great who contributed to if not caused the fall of the Persian Empire.

When we see the lands Alexander the Great traveled (see the map below), the civilizations he touched and the civilizations that influenced him, we might begin to have a sense of the import of those ancient cross-cultural and cross-religious influences.
Alexander the Great is known for spreading his own culture, of course, but he is also known for adopting some local cultural practices. Because he understood the need for stability in any region and because he did not have the military force to try to sustain and maintain order, he took other approaches that allowed for economic and developmental growth in the hybrid civilizations he left behind.

With the Greeks in mind, we will spend some time with Pandora and Noah. I know that seems like an odd mix, but I found some fascinating information in my research. 

I love the myth of Pandora. It is one with which many of us are familiar as an explanation of how evil entered the world but that the last remaining shining thing in the bottom of the box was Hope. At least that's how many of us learned the myth. There is more to the story than that, of course, and it is filled with intrigue. I'll give you a somewhat abbreviated version.

Pandora, which means "all endowed," was the first mortal woman. Zeus was angry at Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans, and Zeus wanted Pandora to have "numerous and beguiling gifts" that would plague humanity. Pandora was then molded by Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths (and other craftsmen) and fire although Athena, Aphrodite, and others got involved. Think fairy godmothers bestowing gifts on she who became Sleeping Beauty.  because Zeus wanted to punish Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods to give to human. One of the gifts the gods and goddesses gave to Pandora was a jar--not a box--filled with all of the evils and diseases of the world. And then Pandora was given in marriage to Epimetheus, brother of, yep, you guessed it, Prometheus.

This is where it gets really interesting and the Noah connection occurs. It seems that Pandora and Epimetheus had a daughter they named Pyrrha who was given to Prometheus' son, Deucalion, who was mortal. It seems that Deucalion and Pyrrha were the only two mortals who survived the Great Flood sent by Zeus. And then, "Pyrrha and Deucalion repopulated the earth by fashioning men and women out of stones." 
The Gigantomachy (Battle of the Giants), Francisco Bayeu, 1764

We will then read about these myths and these people including an article about Noah and Deucalion as well as a summary version of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

As we get closer, I'll craft some questions for us to be thinking about although I already have some floating around in my head. I hope my students will have some thoughtful questions of their own.

In Paradise Lost, Milton notes his goal is to "justify the ways of God to men" (PL I.25-26). It's a big reach to try to reconcile some of the paradoxes with which humanity has wrestled since the beginning of Christianity, perhaps the beginning of most religions. How do we begin to try to understand human suffering and God's goodness? Maybe that's why Hope was part of Pandora's jar and not just all of the evils and illnesses of the world. How do Christians begin to understand the paradox of free will and divine foreknowledge? This is something over and through which denominations have battled and argued for centuries.

I think these questions are part of the fundamentals of spirituality. We want answers to the big "why" and "how" questions. Too often we want to package God rather than acknowledge, from a Christian perspective, that God's ways are not our ways. That God's ways are higher than ours, and maybe only higher because we struggle to comprehend an infinite being, or even to articulate a view of what it might mean that God is infinite. Check out Isaiah 55 and 1 John 3.