Sunday, March 30, 2014

Stumbling with the Cross

Lent is about half over, and what have I done? Nothing special. The Pope has gone to confession in full public view, like an ordinary mortal (good for him!).

Instead of confessing my sins, I have been preoccupied with growing old and being aware of a number of frail people older than I who face death. There is considerable suffering all around me. And fear.  I try to turn this awareness into a Lenten prayer.

Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who has done much wonderful work in promoting contemplative prayer, writes out of his own physical frailty that we who endure pain and aging are stumbling along with Christ as he carries the cross: all who suffer are united with him in "the oneness of the human    family." We are not alone, and suffering is not pointless.

Jesus, who faced the fear of death that haunts all of us, showed (James Alison writes) that we need not be afraid of the shame and disgrace of dying. He did so willingly, in the full flowering of his manhood, not in old age; he did so without being embittered or resentful.  He put his suffering and death in the context of love.

Now, as I contemplate the fate of my friends and family who undergo the pain of growing old, I can join with them in union with the cosmic Christ and see that  there is strength in the love that connects us.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What is Humor?

The joke died c. 1961, according to Scott Weems in his new book on why people laugh: Ha!   Or at least it got permanently injured. This news will come as a surprise to many, including my friends who email me funny anecdotes regularly, things they call jokes.

What Weems and others who have written obituaries for the joke have in mind is the emergence of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior and other stand-up comics in the sixties who veered from the standard one-liners to amusing stories, many based on their own experiences.

Weems, a neuroscientist, writes engagingly for the general audience about his theory of humor, a subject that has intrigued major thinkers from Aristotle to Freud and Bergson. For Weems, interested in the surprise element in humor, what is funny arises from an inner conflict in the brain, part of a desire to understand the complexities of the world. 

When we take pleasure in the confusion of a complex question, he says, we find the joy of humor. A bored mind is humorless. And, as most people know, humor and wit are related to intelligence.

He finds that the brain relies on conflict and that the rigorous exercise of the mind involved in sorting out a world filled with turmoil is healthy for the mind just as laughter is healthy for the body.

I sense in this book another example of an author who has one dominant idea and who could have written a long, entertaining article in The New Yorker, for example; instead, like most authors, he wants the prestige and possible income of the book, even if most of the chapters that follow the introduction mainly provide examples of his thesis.

There are times when Weems' emphasis on humor as a natural response to complexity sounds familiar, like the old theory of absurdity or incongruity that I presented to my students more than thirty years ago.

Still his book has great appeal because of its topic. Most people wonder about the relation between humor and human nature, why humans laugh and animals do not. What's more, April Fools' Day is just around the corner.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Time Travel

How often I wish I had lived in an earlier time, the period depicted in certain films and books. George F. Kennan, the distinguished statesman and ambassador to Russia, is one of those who wished he had lived 50 or 100 years sooner.

"Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them. . . .too many friends to have an real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem more like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them."

This elegantly phrased reflection was written, believe it or not, in 1927 yet is especially apt today, when many of us long for silence, solitude, a time away from busyness and hurry. We cannot easily take in the big picture of the present age, with all its many competing narratives. We want to slow down the pace of life.

Those who celebrate Lent at this time of year are reminded to put some time aside for contemplation, closing the door to noise and the endless distractions that prevent us from finding either insight or peace.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Future of Textbooks

I should know something more than I do about the future of the college textbook is, having co-authored one that was published last month: The Practical Handbook for Writers, the 7th edition of a book by Donald Pharr, Ph.D. and myself and available from  This new publisher of a book that goes back to the first edition I did in 1979 has an online version, a printed version, and even an iphone version.

As a conventional teacher, I have always avoided online teaching and use as few online resources as I can--at least for serious work. I benefit greatly from articles and reviews on the Internet, but for a textbook, I could not recommend that students merely download chapters of our book, cheaper though this is.

Why? Because having a spiral-bound source of reference as the student writes is simply handy. But I'm old fashioned.

Just recently I found a piece (online) by Meredith Broussard, who doesn't allow e-books in her journalism class.  She has tried them and found them more trouble than they're worth, with students needing charging cords and outlets and complaining about tech issues.

All the two-minute interruptions were adding up, she writes, and she did not want to spend her time in tech support.  She finds e-texts "disruptive technology," and I can see why.

Still, for those who are working online exclusively or who write independently, I am glad that our handbook in its new edition is available in a way that can be downloaded. End of commercial.

Whether printed textbooks will soon (ten years?) be a thing of the past in U.S. education is possible, though regrettable. Options are desirable just as the reading of any printed text must remain an option. Much has been written on this topic.

When I read about a college library that has gone digital, eliminating all the books, I cringe in horror. I do not want to live in such a world.