Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Quiet rhymes for quiet times

Getting published has long been a challenge for many emerging writers, a sad situation made worse by the recent economy.  Even before 2008, the re-trenchment in the world of publishing houses has been prompted by the surge in electronic book production and the supposed decline in printed book sales.

And so Lynn Schiffhorst, my wife, has struggled to get her stories and poems published--until this week, when she was able to launch her collection of 50 poems "for children 8-12" on Kindle.

She calls these poems "quiet rhymes for quiet times."  They are whimsical and old-fashioned and will appeal to readers of any age who have a taste for English villages and whimsy.

As her chief publicist, I take pleasure in recommending them to my readers. The book is The Green Road to the Stars, available at $2.99 on Amazon as a download.  Those without Kindle can still peek inside the book by visiting and typing in the title of the book.

In this world where speed seems to rule, it is refreshing to find writing like Lynn's that takes us back to simpler, quieter times.  She sees this new Kindle book as the first in a series of her work, which has been going nowhere for some years in terms of reaching readers.  Amazon makes publishing easy. So I welcome the new technology even though I wish the book were available in print as well.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The addiction of bad language

Great novels, it is often said, produce bad movies whereas weak novels can result in great films.

So it is with reviews of movies, as I can attest from my part-time experience many years ago as a film critic (the first one) for the Orlando Sentinel. I suffered through quite a number of mind-numbing movies but invariably found that I had fun in creating critical reviews of these duds. 

As I reader, I enjoy the work of Anthony Lane in the New Yorker in whose hands a piece of tripe can be skewered with wit and style.  In the most recent issue, in reviewing This is the End, he gives the usual extended coverage to a movie I would not ordinarily want to read about (or certainly to see) except that an expert writer is at work.

One remark in particular stood out (not witty but insightful) in Lane's discussing of the young people in this movie who deal in drugs, alcohol, and "more addictive still, a heap of dirty words."  He is too tasteful to specify what these words are--the ones singled out years ago by George Carlin--but he puts his finger, in that phrase, on a cultural issue that bothers me: the obligatory ugliness in language that fills so many screenplays.

This type of unimaginative verbal trash comes irrespective of what the viewer may want to hear for ninety minutes. Hollywood and its various tributaries, catering to the tastes of teenage boys, feel that it is essential in nearly every movie they make to create a masculinity defined both by violent action and violent, ugly speech.

I know that men, young ones especially, when they are out having fun together, use a certain amount of street language and should not be expected to sound like seminarians or Victorian scholars. But it's the addictive nature of vulgar and obscene words that Lane points to that is worth considering. Once you start, you keep finding more ways to place F-words in various grammatical positions in every sentence as you keep trying, desperately, to demonstrate your manhood (or so the assumption seems to be).

If one guy goes profane, the others follow with re-doubled effort.  It reminds me of the type of masculinity Frank Pittman analyzes in his book, Man Enough: some men never stop trying to prove they are tough and manly in an effort that never ends; often one guy never feels man enough in the eyes of other men.

If masculinity can be addictive, so can language, especially in movies.
That's why when one comes along with opportunities for heaping up dirty words that are not taken, as is the case with Two Brothers and a Bride, I rejoice.  There is not even an obligatory sex scene or nude scene in this off-beat comedy about the search of two U.S. farm boys for a bride in Russia.
How amazing. And original.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Brain and Mind: Beyond Science

A recent (6-17-13) piece by David Brooks in the NYTimes captures some of the reductive thinking among leading scientists as well as the reservations many observers have about the prominence of neuroscience.

Here's the rub: laypeople like me (and Brooks) find something disturbing in what we pick up in our reading: the belief of many scientists that understanding the brain is the key to all wisdom about who we are as people.  Exciting and important as neuroscience is, it, too, has its limits.

Extremism pops up in every field.  In the world of neuroscience, apparently, it is commonplace to conclude that human beings are nothing but neurons and that, once we understand the brain fully, we will see that all behaviors like addictions are merely brain diseases. We will, as Brooks says, deny that human beings have free will: our actions are caused by material processes, and so neurobiology will replace psychology and philosophy. (He is reacting to a recent book by Satel and Lilienfeld, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, a title that suggests its own agenda.)

The key point, as Brooks wisely responds, is that the brain is not the mind. Can we understand our desires, hopes, dreams and feelings by studying brain activity?  I don't think so.  The mind, according to my dictionary, is hard to define: it is a combination of "cognitive faculties," i.e., consciousness, perception, reason, memory, and judgment; it is what allows us to have self-awareness. Its depths are immeasurable, as anyone who has explored poetry, art or music knows.  The brain is the physical driving force of something that involves the non-material, and the connection between mind and body may never be fully understood.

This indeterminacy makes many nervous, but it need not if you have a broad, spiritual perspective that is open, as Einstein ways, to mystery.

Brooks objects, rightly, to those scientists who reduce the complexity of human existence to measurable, quantifiable elements.  No wonder there have been books by Richard Dawkins and others attacking the idea of God as idiotic since, as the Victorians thought they had discovered, science has all the answers.  Freedom is an illusion; everything has a material explanation.

This is an old battle that was fought throughout the 20th century; yet many battles, like civil wars, never really end.

I recall a statement by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner more than thirty years ago: "The goal of science is the destruction of mystery."  How sad, I thought, to want to destroy the mystery and wonder of nature and the cosmos. The point that Teilhard de Chardin and others since his time have tried to do is reconcile the mystical and the scientific while holding on to the essential mystery in creation.

This brings me back to God.  Mark O'Connell in Slate (6-7-13) goes after  Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and the approach of other New Atheists in having the narrowest understanding of religious experience, as if they never read William James, much less Thomas Aquinas; they have such a mindset because they follow an ideology that says that science is the only legitimate approach to the truth.

O'Connell discusses the work of Curtis White, not a theist, but a thinker opposed to "scientism."  He believes that the demotion of the humanities (now less and less popular in many universities) is a demotion of humanity. Students can bypass philosophy, poetry, fiction, art--all those "soft" fields that can't produce quantifiable data.

White is correct is being concerned by the approach of neuroscience, which sees personhood and consciousness as things that can be mapped, explained in terms of "wiring."  The mind is not a computer. It will always be, in the words of Hopkins, "no-man-fathomed."  This is not to say that we have no more to learn from neuroscience or any other science, only that extremism in intellectual circles is as dangerous as fundamentalism in religion.

And to those who say, simplistically, that religion has been the cause of more harm in history than good, White counters by reminding readers not to ignore the role that rationality has played in human suffering.

It does not seem that the New Atheists have anything new to say except that religion and spirituality are for dummies since science has all the answers. It sad to see in the academic world that this kind of fundamentalism in science, or scientism, has taken the place of philosophy, theology, and the humanities.

(I have noted with pleasure in recent weeks, in reading the biographies of several prominent younger judges and government officials, how many of them majored in English, which remains at the core of a liberal education.)

Let us hope that some of our liberal arts colleges live up to their mission and feed the souls of their students as well as their minds, reminding them of the limits of scientific facts and the role of wonder at the mystery of life.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Music is Useless??

I found on the Internet a statement by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that astounded me: music "as far as biological cause and effect are concerned is useless."  I don't know the context of his argument, but I suspect many experts will sharply disagree.

Everything in my experience and reading shows that, as Shakespeare said, "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" (or beast; we' not sure).

Just yesterday, feeling wound up, I listened to K.D. Lang and Tony Bennett in a wonderful duet of the old pop song, "Because of You."  It is done with the slowness of a classical adagio (think Barber, Mahler, Beethoven...) or the piano nocturnes of Chopin or Satie.  The effect was, of course, calming.
I have no doubt that a loud march or bit of heavy metal would have the opposite effect if I wanted to increase my productivity.

I did a quick check on Google to see if I was going crazy or if Pinker could be right. An article in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing concludes that music therapy reduces pain and anxiety in patients recovering from heart surgery.  A non-scholarly article listed a whole list of physiological benefits of music, from decreasing blood pressure, improving sleep, reducing headaches, helping memory and brain functions, boosting immunity, etc.

The psychological effects of music, like those of meditation and prayer, have been shown to increase inner peace, reduce stress, anxiety and depression, among others. What type of music is involved in such studies?

Not only Mozart but many other forms of music, including chant.  It seems to me the slower and softer the better because relaxation as well as meditation involves reducing the fast pace of daily life. The Slow Movement that began with food in Italy now includes many other aspect of practical wisdom, based on the fact that the fundamental human restlessness and the speed of our lives causes stress that harms body and mind.

As I write this, I have a quiet string quartet by Mozart playing. A day without music would be a day without light or air; all are essential for life in our anxious age. I cannot argue on a scientific basis with Pinker's quoted statement, but I know that my experience with music "soothing the savage breast" is universal.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Good Man

This week, June 3 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, a man of remarkable humor and humility who once remarked, "Anyone can be pope. I am the best proof of that." Despite the honors heaped upon him, he never took himself too seriously or forgot that he was the son of a poor sharecropper.

"I am not a good looking pope--just look at my ears--but you will get along with me."  He was old and fat and unpromising at the time of his election in 1958 at age 78; yet, in barely five years, the changed the Catholic church and the relation of the church with the world. He began the Second Vatican Council, which came as surprise to many who expected the former Angelo Cardinal Roncalli to be a caretaker until someone better came along.  And he endeared himself to millions.

Like Pope Francis, he loved people and shunned pomp--not easy at the Vatican with its entrenched traditions. He walked the city streets, picking up the nickname Johnny Walker, and visited a Rome jail because the inmates could not come to see him. 

About ancient traditions, he said: "Tradition means 'protect the fire,' not 'preserve the ashes'."  About reform, he believed in taking things step by step: "See everything. Overlook much.  Correct a little."

He had a positive rather than judgmental attitude toward people and was a good pastor in Venice. Before that, in Paris as the nuncio after the war, he encountered a workman who had just hit his thumb and was cursing, calling upon God to damn everyone imaginable.  Roncalli stopped him, smiled and said: "Why don't you just say 'shit' like everyone else?"

That anecdote speaks volumes about the man.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Distance Learning

When I taught at the University of Central Florida, I kept my distance from distance learning, as online instruction was sometimes called.  I told the administrators (who urged us to teach online to generate more "productivity" at cheaper cost than hiring new faculty) that I did not become a teacher to remain isolated in my office behind my screen or to be an impersonal "presence."  I said that it was bad for education. I could not imagine not seeing, knowing, interacting with my students.

Today, my university--like many others--enrolls students world-wide in a variety of online courses including what are called MOOCs (massive open online courses). The high school boy I tutor is signing up this week for a summer of online Spanish to make up for a bad grade in a regular class. I wish him well. I don't think he will learn much Spanish, however dutifully he performs the assignments.

In the May 20 issue of the New Yorker, Nathan Heller discussed the push by elite universities to introduce MOOCs presumably to further education beyond the Ivy League and to contribute to democracy; in fact, their motive is money: saving faculty salaries and generating more income.

In this week's issue of the magazine, three letters to the editor address the issue intelligently.  One, an English teacher, says what I have long known: that remedial students and many others poorly prepared for college do not do well with technology.  It is an obstacle. They need what has always been basic to education: interaction with a live person, the exchange of ideas, the chance to ask questions (which I know can be done remotely, but it is not the same).

Another writer mentions that one of the main benefits of his elite education was the social network that is made impossible by distance learning. He would, he says, be leading a much emptier life without his college friends. He concludes that, as MOOCs develop, the rich (and the fortunate) will be given the time and space to learn conventionally and make lifelong ties while everyone else will be alone in front of a screen: a chilling picture of isolation far removed from education as a human enterprise.

Perhaps distance learning has its place in certain areas, as when specialized courses are not available in remote areas; but in general I would advise anyone who seeks higher education to avoid courses by computer.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Who are we? (Part II)

I want to follow up with a brief addition to my last post (May 26) in which I tried once again to raise an impossible question, this time about the mystery of the self in a lengthy, meandering essay.

What I neglected to ask is: Who am I talking to when I talk to myself?  Many others must have thought of this basic question, and thinkers in various disciplines have given many answers. It seems to me that the restless, developing part of the self talks to and questions the more permanent self.

Perhaps some of the comments of film director-producer Joss Whedon at the recent Wesleyan University commencement would shed some light on this topic from a totally different perspective.  I summarize what I read on the Internet.

Identity is something you are constantly learning, Whedon told the graduates, because it is always an area of tension and ambiguity. There is always an element of dissent in each of us; so, he said, you must be active in "understanding yourself so you can become yourself."

"If you think happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of that part of you that can never be at peace." If you accept this element of conflict at the heart of our self-understanding, things get a lot better.

An uncommonly intelligent commencement address. Whedon does not raise the issue of the true self or permanent identity, as I was trying to do, but captures the essential element of restlessness at the center of our beings. That center can be imaged as a many-faceted "immortal diamond," in the phrase used by G. M. Hopkins.