Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being violated

A week ago, at 5:30 in the morning, I was awakened by sounds from the kitchen. Surely the fridge, I thought, making ice. No, I realized, the sounds were something else, but somehow I did not get alarmed in the panicky sense.

I looked out the open door of the bedroom and there, down the hall, in our living room, was a burglar with a flashlight, opening drawers. The sight will be burned forever in my memory: a kid of 19, I later learned, who lives not far away, looking for drug money who was able to climb in through a kitchen window.

How I got to the phone I don't remember since the scene was like something from a movie, but, having called 911, the police were soon there, with dogs and helicopter and four cars with flashing lights. By then, my wife was awake and incredulous. They caught the guy within minutes nearby and retrieved what he had stolen from us (our car keys, jewelry, purse).

Having lived in this house, in this quiet neighborhood, for many years, having never been the victim of a crime, I was stunned that this invasion of my sanctuary could occur. I now find it hard to relax at night and often have trouble sleeping, even though more locks have been added, even though I know this is not likely to happen again.

But logic has little effect on primal fear. I now know what women feel around predatory men, or maybe even after a sexual assault: the feeling of being violated. My house, after all, is an extension of me.  The fact that our valuables were returned and no one was hurt does not alter the emotional impact of what occurred.

The fact that I handled the situation calmly cannot erase the memory of what happened. The space I had long counted on as safely ours has been altered. The world is not safe, not even where I live.

The reactions of friends has been interesting; most men hearing my story have tended to talk about what electronic protection I need; most women are horrified since they tune in at once to the trauma of being invaded.  One suggested I write a story about it, but, for now, writing this post and talking about it is enough.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Orwell: alive and well

In saying that George Orwell is alive and well, I don't refer to the dark element of Trumpism (Steve Bannon, et al.) today or the fears it has unleashed; I am not thinking of the novel 1984 with its theme of a totalitarian future with Big Brother watching us. It's too late for that.

Rather, I'm thinking of the classic essay from 1946, "Politics and the English Language," which once was required reading in my writing courses, even if some of the examples are, by now, dated and obscure.

No one has better captured the modern tendency toward abstraction and pretentious jargon than this essay.  And I am sorry to say my colleagues in the academic world of the humanities, especially English, are still committing the sins Orwell singled out.

Consider this sentence from a book recently published by the University of Michigan Press (its subject is Middlemarch, the classic novel by George Eliot, who would be appalled or amused by what passes here as literary criticism):

"The grammatical concatenation of subject and action is straightforward, even in the self-constitutive modality of the middle voice; but is the subject that is effected in the middle voice in any way phenomenalizable?"

This may mean something to a fellow academic forced to read such pretentious writing in order for the author (whose name I omit) to get promoted or tenured: who else would bother to read such prose, which is all too typical of academic writing with its abstract, jargon-filled language designed to impress one's colleagues?

And that was Orwell's point: too often words are chosen not for their meaning but writing is made from ready-made phrases, made fashionable by someone else.  The result is unclear, unoriginal, and often meaningless.  Concrete terms melt into the abstract, he said, and writers rely on clich├ęs, vagueness, and jargon that fails to do what language is meant to do: communicate clearly to another human being.

If you don't know Orwell's essay, which shows how careless thought corrupts language and how careless language corrupts thought, you might find it on line. It remains timeless as an indictment of what passes for a great deal of literary criticism today, which I find impossible to read.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Men reading women

Do men who read widely (fiction, especially) bypass female authors and consciously seek out male writers?

The question hit me yesterday when I found an article by Lorraine Berry in Signature (3-15-17), "The Man Who Doesn't Read Women."  She is surprised and upset that her doctor, who likes to read, confessed that he has never read a female author. I assume this means other than a poet like Emily Dickinson assigned in school.

He prefers masculine prose, whatever that is, something unsentimental, full of action and tough-guy prose.  I wonder if the doctor has read Annie Proulx, whose prose style comes out of the American West; but, then, she is author of "Brokeback Mountain."

A friend of mine, also a doctor, read Middlemarch last year, the huge Victorian novel by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and was interested in Edna St. Vincent Millay. Is this unusual?

I can't imagine a sensitive man not wanting to get the feminine perspective on life, love, and other areas provided by such women writers as Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Hilary Mantell, P.D. James, and so many other contemporary writers.  I can't imagine a literate man consciously avoiding the female voice in prose or poetry.

A remarkable American poet who has challenged the stereotype of the manly man who reads only Hemingway-esque writers is Paul David Adkins. He served in the U.S. Army for 21 years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. He then began writing poetry, mainly by women, and he found the 1989 collection of verse by Lynn Butler, my wife. As he indicates in his new collection of poems, "Flying over Bagdad with Sylvia Plath," he was inspired by Lynn's "Planting the Voice" and other poets, whose work inspires his own.

Mr. Adkins, who teaches at SUNY, is a remarkable man, a fine poet whose manly credentials are unquestioned, whose emotional and spiritual self has been wisely nurtured by the female muse.  In the heat of combat, he has turned not to pornography for escape or pulp fiction but to women poets. I'm sure he would have a fascinating conversation with Lorraine Berry's doctor.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The failure of Pope Francis

As he begins his fifth year in office, Pope Francis has deservedly received much praise for his pastoral openness, his major encyclicals, his candid remarks and, above all, for reviving the spirit of reform begun under John XXIII and long sidelined.

In the final analysis, though, he disappoints many like me for failing to address the central issue of the priesthood. Francis has boldly attacked the issue of clerical careerism as the root of the sexual abuse crisis, yet he is unwilling to take any action. His Curia remains defensive and, as Marie Collins in her letter today to Cardinal Muller indicates, more concerned with defending and protecting bishops than vulnerable children. Why, she asks, have no bishops been officially sanctioned or removed from office for their negligence in protecting children from pedophilia in the church?

Francis has been unable to reform the Curia or substantially address the clerical abuse crisis despite his honest efforts to do so. Four years should be enough time to see more progress than we have had.

Disturbing, too, were the Pope's off-the-cuff comments this week about seeing no need to change optional celibacy for priests: it has served us well for more than a thousand years, he said. Has it? And is not mandatory celibacy at the heart of the clerical, all-boys' network that runs the church and maintains an atmosphere of suspicion about human sexuality?

Debatable questions, perhaps, but I submit that until Pope Francis does something serious to rehabilitate the Catholic priesthood, which has long been on life support, with thousands of men each year leaving the active ministry to get married or live in an honest relationship, the future of the church, and of his pontificate, remain dubious.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The fate of truth in America today

I am always glad when two good writers come my way, each saying something important on a similar theme. This week it was an interview with George Saunders, the noted author, and an article by Andrew Sullivan (

Sullivan is reacting to the violent student protest recently at Middlebury College when a conservative (and controversial) speaker, Charles Murray, was invited to speak. More and more on liberal arts campuses, where one expects a respect for free speech and the open exchange of ideas, there is an ideological move to prevent a speaker whose views are politically incorrect, according to the prevailing culture.

Those who saw the video of students shutting down the talk by Murray, whose work I don't know, called it frightening. Sullivan compared the event to the shunning of heretics in 17th century Puritan New England. He finds the academic orthodoxy on such campuses alarming because it insists that all experience must conform to the prevailing ideology of gender, race, class, and sexuality; if a view differs, it is to be banned.  "Shut it down!" the students at Middlebury chanted. "We see this talk as hate speech."  Yet they didn't want to listen to what the man had to say!

As I read about this latest event in campus un-freedom of thought and expression, I wonder, Why not listen to an opponent's views and try to respond to  them intelligently? If they are factually wrong, offer a reasoned response that corrects them.  Why not respect an invited speaker's right to speak on a campus where ideas are meant to be aired and challenged?
Isn't that what an education is all about?

The irony, as Sullivan notes, is the bizarre similarity of this episode to the Trumpists among us who insist on discounting facts, and truth, if they do not correspond to the ideology of the ruling party.  Donald Trump and his followers show hostility and contempt for facts that don't fit their view of reality. A judge who challenges him is called a "so-called judge."  Experts in intelligence gathering at the CIA are ignored or maligned as politically motivated. This notion that orthodoxy of any kind is superior to facts and reason is dangerous and alarming.

It is one thing for him to try to distract the American public from his problems by making wild allegations (Obama bugged his phones?); it is quite another to undermine truth by scoffing at facts and at those who uphold them. Or to have his appointees to high office hold views on the environment contrary to that of established science. It would all be laughable if it were not so serious.

This is where George Saunders comes in: He sees America today as fragile, for the first time; the American experiment could actually fail, he says, because of "the horrible degradation of our notions of truth, decency, and civility have undergone." Notice, our traditional notions: the received wisdom of our laws and traditions are being questioned, along with common sense.

He, like Sullivan, and many others refer to the present situation as Orwellian.  This is especially frightening when this also applies to what happens at a prominent liberal arts college.

Saunders has the final word: "Writing and reading and speaking with specificity and skill has never seemed more important to me than it does at this moment.  It's what's between us and chaos."

Monday, March 6, 2017

Football and University Priorities

If you are a student at a large state university paying a student activity fee, or a loyal alumnus donating annually to alma mater, you might think you are contributing something of importance to higher education. Something you or someone in your family might benefit from.  Think again.

According an article in the Orlando Sentinel (3-3-17) by David Whitley, lavish spending on athletic facilities, with fancy waterfalls and Italian lounge chairs, to attract potential players has been on the increase. Scholarships are, apparently, not enough, or a new stadium.

At the $138 million sportsplex at Oregon, the ventilated lockers come from Germany, the wood floors from Brazil, and the lounge chairs  in the barber shop from Italy.  Alabama has four waterfalls in its hydrotherapy room. Florida is about to build a $60 million manor for football players (who are being treated like professional athletes), not for the average students who pay the student activity fee.

My own University of Central Florida wants to raise $25 million for an athletic village featuring a "lazy river" of meandering pools, the kind we associate with luxury resorts. Why?  Because schools like UCF are trying their best to outbid each other in the effort to attract future players and to keep their present star athletes suitably pampered.

Whitley says that, in 2014 alone, the top-tier, Power Five schools spent $772 million on such facilities, and that was double what was spent a decade earlier.

Much has been written about the vast expense of trying to please alumni and friends of the university with huge salaries and perks for football programs, but these figures blew me away.

And what fundraising is being done to help faculty salaries or anything related to education, the actual business of these schools?  What is being done to pay adjunct (part-time) instructors a living wage so they don't have to take on six or more classes to make a minimal ($20,000 annually) salary, with no benefits?  Very little, if anything.  There is no glamour there.

As I saw each year I spent at UCF, state money is available each year for more administrators with inflated salaries as the university has come to resemble a huge corporation rather than a place of learning.  And for football, which supposedly brings wide publicity and major donations that help the school, the sky is the limit, as these figures indicate.  The problem keeps getting worse, with a sense of priorities a lost cause.

My alma mater wisely dropped its college football program more than 60 years ago because it was too distracting, too expensive. The focus at St. Louis University has been on quality education for the students as well as its proud, but a reasonably priced, basketball program that keeps SLU out of the big-league world of mega-sports competitive madness.