Saturday, December 31, 2005

What exactly is a new year, anyway?

In just over fifteen minutes, and in fact less by the time I'll have completed this entry, it'll be "the new year," 2006. I suppose we need these arbitrary measures of the passage of time, and as far as that goes, calling a year by any particular number would be as good as any other, as long as enough of us use the same number to make it a convenient common measure. But really, how is January 1st in any way a rational time, seasonally speaking, or in any other way, to declare it the new year? It's not the beginning of Winter, nor the end of Winter. It's not the beginning of any season. It's not the beginning of anything, except the so-called new year. Call me contrarian, but I frankly just don't get it.

Lauren's folks call New Year's Eve "Amateur Night," which I think needs no explanation. I had a phone call from my friend Annie around 10 (she's back East, so for her it was already 2006 and 1/8,760th). During our hour-long conversation, I saw three cars careen through the parking lot here in Speedbumpville, one of them turning sharply and too quickly into a parking spot and not stopping until it hit the curb. I'm glad we opted for an evening of game-playing, music, George Carlin, and of course the traditional New Year's Eve chicken tacos.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Slowly, the food paper progresses

Today I finished reading Carlo Petrini's Slow Food, which gives a history and account of the principles of the Slow Food movement. It has an unearned reputation of being conservative, in part because it emphasizes restoring cultural traditions. But the originators of the movement were far-lefties, and their program might best be described as anarcho-hedonic consumer protection. It's an odd mix, but tied extremely well to the centrality of taste and of the pleasures of the table.

Here's Petrini's account of the supermarket:
Whether it is the season for them or not, there you will find strawberries in winter, pears in the springtime, apples at midsummer, and currants in the autumn. Somewhere in the world, less than twenty-four hours away by air, it is always the right season. Along with these eternal first fruits, we find cheeses and cured meats that seem to come from every corner of the earth (whether they really do or not) on the shelves of small stores and supermarkets. (p. 55)

Our eating habits are both reflected and shaped by grocery stores. What they present to us is an "El Dorado" (Petrini again) of what seems like the greatest possible variety of foods, of consistent quality, healthfulness, color, etc. Shopping in a grocery store trains us to think of food as nothing but a commodity, and its place of origin as nowhere other than the store. A reasonable and expected answer to a question like "where did you get these apples?" is something like "Safeway." Not Washington, or Oregon, or Alberta, or New Zealand, or Timbuktu. The availability of these commodities safely hides their place of origin (which, I suppose in response to some legal requirement, grocery chains now do print on labels in the produce aisle, often in tiny print). We're given little chance, and no reason, to question their origin. Nor their actual quality, healthfulness, nutritive value, or anything else. And we also accept, through the implicit acquiescence of our purchases, the bald-faced lies told to us in the grocery store - for instance, that the wax coating every goddamn piece of fruit or vegetable is to "protect freshness."

We frequent farmer's markets and fruit stands, but we also live in the Central Valley. There's simply no way to compare the fruits and veggies from the stands to what comes from the grocery store, even the "organic" stuff.

In my mind, there's a clear political and moral issue here. We're a society that feeds ourselves crap, to the great benefit of large and multinational corporations. We've become tricked somehow into accepting this as normal, and many of us are stuck with no other options. When I realize I have to consider myself lucky to be able to get good produce, locally grown, in season (at all, let alone for seven months of the year), and when I realize how few Americans eat fresh fruit and vegetables in the first place, I'm disgusted by what Big Food has done to us, and I'm saddened that the lovely tastes I routinely enjoy are out of reach for so many, especially when that's by choice or habit.

Somebody (maybe John Rawls?) once said that a good way to measure the justice of a society is to look at how it treats its poorest and most wanting members. Perhaps a better way is to look at how it feeds itself.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"Your car is from the future!"

I bought a Jetta!

It's silver, which is one of the colors I had forsworn. However, I got it around $1500 under the asking price. I got the car I wanted, for the price I wanted, just in a color I didn't want (I wanted the "blue graphite"). I'm financing it through VW at 4.5%, which seems decent.

I've never owned a new car before. I've also never owed this much on a car before. The first of these facts thrills me; the second disconcerts.

So after I take the car to a few live music shows, everything should be fine.

(Oh dear, I seem to have caused grievous injury to my loveliest Lauren with that last pun. However, the quotation that serves as this entry's title was her joke, seeing as the Jetta is a 2006. See, it's December 27, 2005? It's not 2006 yet? So the car, a 2006 Jetta, is a car whose official date is not this year but the next year, being the one proximately following this? To wit: 2006, being not 2005, but in point of fact a year further ahead than 2005, is in fact, from the point of view of those living in 2005, a date in the future, being that time which has not yet transpired. Hence, the 2006 Jetta, dated 2006, not 2005, is not a 2005. It is, if you follow, thus a car whose model year is 2006, not 2005, ergo a date in the future.)

(I could clarify this further upon request. But I should warn that there's all kinds of astronomical facts and theories involved. It's really quite complicated. A background in Einstein's General and Special Theories of Relativity would be advisable.)

What she said, to be technical, was "Your car is a 2006. But it's not 2006 yet...! Your car is from the future!" (She said it in italics.)

More later, possibly the beast's name, if that occurs to me, and maybe including pictures, although you've seen a silver Jetta before if you're not living under a rock. And if you're living under a rock, what the hell are you doing with Internet access?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Report from Mickey D's

I survived, but only barely. I did in fact become ill after consuming a Quarter Pounder Meal (TM). I've written up some of our observations, to begin the phenomenological account of taste. A couple characteristics really struck us.

First, the Quarter Pounder, and indeed the fries, dissolved more than needed to be chewed. As Lauren put it, the füd can't be masticated. Plus, it dissolves into little fine particles, of more or less identical size and shape, which, while not dry, aren't exactly textured the way whole food or cooked meat is. When you really pay attention to that, it's rather disconcerting.

Second, every bite, and every element of every bite, has the same, even, uniform flavor. It's as though every part of the sandwich, including the bun and the chopped onion, has taken on the overall flavor of the whole thing. Of course, you learn, as a cook, to "marry" flavors, for instance in beouf bourguignonne, where the mushrooms, the beef, the little onions, all take on the flavors of one another and of the wine and stock. But this is something different - the burger doesn't taste like a burger, onions, pickle, etc., married together, but like a McDonald's burger, which is a taste all its own, and not one clearly related to the constituent part of which the thing is supposedly made. (It doesn't taste like beef, for example. Nor does it smell like beef.)

These experiences probably hit me harder than they would most observers, because I so rarely eat any pre-made food of any kind, other than bread. Some would say it makes me a snob, but I don't really see it that way. I don't like pre-made food, and regard it as in general less healthy (and the 1440 mg of salt in the Quarter Pounder meal, to say nothing of the cholesterol and trans fats, back me up on that). But it truly is a matter of my sense of a good life and good health. I feel healthier when I eat food cooked at home; I like to cook my own food; I think it's cheaper, even when I get fine ingredients; I don't use much salt; I produce food that I like, to my own tastes.

After reading most of another chapter of Henri Lefevbre's Everyday Life in the Modern World, it's tempting to go into the notions of "satisfaction" and "pleasure," and perhaps in the paper I'll do that, to discuss Slow Food. I don't know to what extent I'd accept any of this as grounds of serious claims of superior enjoyableness for one kind of food or another. I'm not meaning to say anyone who enjoys a Quarter Pounder is a barbarian and incapable of gastronomic judgment. After all, my pal Imj ("The Most Optimistic Man in a McDonald's, Ever") Williams does Mickey D's, with gusto, and is also, among my friends and acquaintances, the one whose capacities for taste pleasure, discernment, distinction, and all the other arts of gourmandism most closely rivals mine. (See, now that's a snobbish thing to say.)

I realize that in part it's a matter of what you put into the experience. But that's the real point I think I want to get at: not that McDonald's füd is bad, or that my food is necessarily better (according to my tastes, it is, I'll cop to that), but that McDonald's füd attenuates experience. Don't call it bad or good, call it standarized. That has fairly important implications for developing aesthetic and gastronomic judgments, or for being able to take pleasure in food.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We're going to McDonald's today - ugh.

A couple years ago I committed to putting together an anthology on food and philosophy with my Finnish pal Matti Itkonen. That time has arrived. Unfortunately, my plan for a paper involves a comparative phenomenological account of two meals - one fast food, another slow food. I'll get to the slow food stuff another day. As for today, the plan is to go to a McDonald's, maybe around 2, and order and eat some manner of food (or, as we call such fare, "food with an umlaut," or "füd"). The things I do for art.

Maybe, instead, we'll go to a VW dealer so I can test drive a Jetta, the car I've just recently become obsessed with buying. I can't actually buy anything at the moment, but the 1999 Neon which doesn't make that high-pitched whining sound (dealers and repair shops have steadfastly sworn to this) now consists of nothing but high-pitched whining sounds. Now, I'm as weird as the next guy, but even I have a limit of tolerance. Plus, frankly, I suspect that high-pitched whining sounds have rotten side-impact collision ratings.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dinner report

It turned out to be six courses. I didn't take any pictures, but I'll describe a coupla things.

The first courses were two hors-d'oeuvres: a grilled tomato with mozzarella browned on top of it, and little tartlets with fennel, raddichio, feta, green onions, and a savory custard. There then followed the soup course, a light consomme made with lamb and beef stock (the beef stock, I confess, was store-bought; when I make beef stock, it's with the intention of making demi-glace, so it doesn't stay beef stock for long).

Then the entree - sauteed shrimp with beurre blanc. The beurre blanc came out wonderfully, and the shrimp loved it. Lauren had had the idea, and didn't quite insist on it at the grocery store. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do otherwise, so we bought 9 big shrimp and I went for the beurre blanc. (Beurre blanc is what happens when you take shallots, simmer them in vinegar and wine until there's just a couple tablespoons of liquid left, then whisk in about a stick of butter. That probably sounds like a heart attack in convenient sauce form to lots of people, but if you only spoon out a dram of it onto shrimp, the cardiac effects aren't that great a consideration compared to what you get to eat. Life is always full of compromises like this. Get used to it.) I had also tossed a little saffron onto the shrimp, but I'm not sure what impact that had other than to be cute red threads.

Then the salad course, a simple one: romaine and arugula, a little more raddichio, and pine nuts, dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. When you're eating six courses, simple salads and soups seem like a great idea. I mean, I'm not trying to kill anybody.

Finally, the main course, roast leg of lamb, mashed blue potatoes (they come out periwinkle colored, very amusing), and roasted vegetables. The lamb was overdone, by which I mean it was cooked through, which we tend not to like around here.

Lauren ground some decaf coffee with a bunch of spices, which is delicious even to someone like me who prefers coffee black and spoon-dissolving. We drank that, I played a couple songs fairly badly, we talked of the traumas of the semester past and our hopes for semesters yet to come (or, in Lauren's case, possibly not to come, at least, not at Cow State Santa Claus).

I think the shrimp was the best thing.

Now, we're going to Lopez Imports. I'm not sure how you can make money importing Lopezes, but I don't have much of a head for business anyway.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

That strange feeling

I'm not enitrely sure I'm well. You know the feeling - I don't exactly fit together properly, I'm drifting through the day, etc. Personally, I blame grading.

And yes, I'm grading. I'm grading like there's no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow, and tomorrow is the absolute end of it. We're leaving when Lauren's final is over, to acquire foodstuffs to cook up a whiz-bang supper for Valerie, with all of the potential food-porn ramifications that entails. Gonna try to do something frou-frou.

That's about as in-depth as my consciousness can get at the moment. Just a few more tonight, please, brain?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My new laptop

I got a new laptop. I'll give a brief account of it in convenient, E-Z-2-read Q&A format:

Q: What kind of laptop did you get?
A: I gots me a G4 iBook.

Q: What?? A friggin' Mac?
A: Yep. Call me weird, -

Q: You're weird!
A: Stop that. I say, call me weird, but my three-year-old laptop running Windows XP and freezing up every hour, especially when I'm trying to do something especially taxing to it, like print a document, was getting pretty damn boring.

Q: Why not one of them super-cool titanium PowerBooks?
A: Because they're $600 more, and the extra power is probably not something I need.

Q: Oh, you think so?
A: Yes, I do. Isn't that obvious?

Q: Who's asking the questions here?
A: That wasn't a question, it was more of a rhetorical threat.

Q: Oh yeah?
A: Look, I've had it with you. I have papers to grade.

Q: Are you going to continue using the E-Z-2-Read Q&A format in your blog?
A: Heck no. You've cured me of that particular impulse. Jerk.

Q: Neener-neener-neener!
A: Grow up, man.


Q: Hey! Come back here!

Q: Wuss! Come on and fight me, if you don't like it!


Q: Huh. He really left. Oh well. Dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum... Crap, no more orange juice! He left the empty carton in the fridge!

Friday, December 09, 2005

United States of Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is objecting to a campaign, apparently funded by unions, which raises the theological question of whether Jesus would approve of Wal-Mart's policies.

I do enjoy the effort of some to suggest that profiteering isn't exactly Christian, but I think it never goes far enough. I know I heard and read dozens of times that a rich person has as much chance of reaching heaven as a camel has of passing through the eye of a needle. Whatever it means in terms of commerce as a fundamental means of organizing production and consumption, it's a fascinating notion for thinking about the nature of happiness and salvation (even for someone like me who doesn't believe in salvation).

So, while I chuckle whenever anyone makes fun of Wal-Mart, it seems to me the real message is to ask the reflective question of my own complicity. I didn't spend Thursday picketing in front of retail outlets; I spent Thursday roaming around inside them, buying goodies for Christmas. I'm involved.

Still, in all, hee-hee.

A brief note on December 7

I realize this is a couple days late, but I didn't get around to posting it on December 7th.

That afternoon I spent some time in my office, hitting the "next blog" button on the top of Blogger pages, to get an unscientific survey of what's out there. I kept coming across references to Pearl Harbor, since, of course, it was December 7th, the anniversary of the attack in 1941. But I didn't come across any references to December 7, 1975, which is the date of the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, and the start of a campaign that killed, conservatively, over a hundred thousand East Timorese. The invasion is subject of media criticism controversy, since the story was barely covered in US news media, while the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia were covered extensively. The key difference in the two stories, according to many media critics, was that Indonesia was a client nation of the US, and incidentally a major trading partner, and Cambodia was a communist bloc nation.

Anyway, here's a piece from Democracy Now about December 7.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Mainly relief

Yesterday I got divorced. It was messy; it was ugly; it was all a divorce should be, I suppose. So I'm relieved it's over, and I can get on with my life. There's plenty to say about how this is going to be perceived, who will say what about it or about me. The fact of the matter is that I walked away with a chunk less share of community property than was my legal right.

And what did I go and do, the very next morning, completely unable to restrain myself? I went and bought a new car! And here it is:

I've been wanting to make a joke like that for a looooong time.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Now we're getting somewhere!

Here's an interesting story on the government's lack of real measures of success in the so-called war on terrorism. Raphael Perl makes two vital points in the report discussed in the story.

First, any raw number presented as a measure of success doesn't have the context to explain its meaning. The number indicates something is being done, but that gives a potentially misleading picture, since "we measure progress retrospectively against what we've done. And of course since we've done some stuff, we've made progress."

That reminds me of a great Max Frisch story I read in an elementary German class in college, where a bureaucrat's day is detailed. The maxim of the man's action is "etwas muss geschehen" - something must be done. If that's your motto, then anything you do is an achievement, regardless of its effect.

But Perl makes another, more subtle point: what counts as a measure of success to the US government may count as a measure of failure to someone else - for instance, to an adversary. Is increasing defense spending a success? Is removing Saddam Hussein from power and reducing Iraq from tyranny to chaos a success?

What this points out, on a deeper level, is the unexamined, unquestioned perspective of US media presentations of the events called "the war on terrorism" (or, in Bushspeak, "the war on terror"). Reporting on "insurgency" in Iraq, for instance, as part of the ongoing "war on terrorism," only makes coherent sense under the assumption of the same set of beliefs about US motivations and interests that are presented by officials. The Iraq-terrorism connection is presumed, not demonstrated, and the constellation of these notions, repeated in media, cloaks them in "objectivity" and all the other virtues of contemporary journalism. It's a currency without credit.


Another item: Rep. Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. Cunningham said he was sorry, and that he was resigning because he "compromised the trust of [his] constituents." I hate to be picky, but since he had proclaimed his innnocence as recently as July, what Cunningham really means here is that he's resigning because he got caught compromising the trust of his constituents.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

How can I tell whether the President is lying?

As George Carlin put it in one of his HBO specials, some people need practical advice. So, here's some practical advice concerning when to believe what President Bush says about Iraq: never. This will save you time and energy you might otherwise spend in vain, attempting to sort out what tiny germ of truth there might be in some dimly-lit subparagraph of a subsection of one of his statements; or trying to work out what, if anything, the President actually believes.

The current case: Not two days after raising doubts about John Murtha's honor and credibility, President Bush made protestations of his respect for Murtha. It turns out that calling Democratic critics of the Iraq war names didn't help calm anyone down. Go figure. But of course, this is the same President Bush who kept coming up with different rationales for attacking Iraq before finally just bulling his way forward, the same President Bush who declared that "you're either with us or against us" as a way of casting aspersions on the patriotism of anyone who criticized the Iraq war, the same President Bush who announced in May of 2003 that we'd won in Iraq. If there's anyone with less credibility in the US government, I think it might be Dick Cheney.

In fact, even in lying about his respect for Murtha, the President couldn't stop himself from lying about what he was lying about. Murtha called last week for a 6-month schedule to withdraw from Iraq. Republicans in Congress pushed for a vote on an immediate troop withdrawal, basically as a political stunt to force Democrats to vote against withdrawing troops, since an immediate withdrawal would be rather chaotic. In saying he respects Murtha on Sunday, President Bush imputed to Murtha the proposal for immediate troop withdrawal, as though Murtha supported it.

There's a principle of scientific reasoning called parsimony, which says that the simplest explanations of phenomena are the best. Its ancient precedent is called Occam's razor, named after the philosopher who gave us the idea that explanations of phenomena that posit the fewest causes or origins are the best. Applying this to the President's statements about Iraq, one would assume everything the President says is untrue, because it's simplest to explain his statements this way. And not only is it the simplest explanation, it's also most prudent: If what the President says (consistent with his pattern of five years) is a lie, then we are not tricked by it. If it is the truth, then there will be evidence that demonstrates its truth, and we are not harmed by disbelieving it. If we were faced with the still more logically vexing problem of what we might call "modal lies" (not direct lies, but lies concerning what the President actually believes to be true -- that is, lies about his state of belief rather than lies about the world or the facts), our vexation would be dispelled by our simply regarding everything that the President says to be untrue.

An utterly unrelated news item of note: Iran says it will not accept nuclear checks. Yes, but will Iran continue to accept nuclear Visa or nuclear MasterCard?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Two stories in the last couple days related to the ways the Bush administration has inserted a heavily partisan political agenda into federal agencies. This isn't news: it was clear from the very beginning of Bush's first term that he intended to use federal agencies as political pressure groups. After all, he made Gale Norton head of the Environmental Protection Agency - a clear sign that EPA would be protected the environment for extracting industries - oil, natural gas, and mining. (She had been sued by the EPA when she was head of Colorado's bureaucracy overseeing mining there, because she had simply refused to apply pollution control laws on mining companies. Putting her in charge of EPA is like hiring a methhead to keep watch on the Sudafed.)

First, there's the story of the FDA having decided to prohibit over-the counter sales of the "morning after" pill before hearing scientific evidence. This isn't news. The administration's position on scientific questions is consistently the same: don't confuse them with the facts, they've made up their minds. The world is flat.

Then, there's this morning's news that Bush's appointee to be head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting used the post to attempt to interfere politically in the way public radio and television operated. Again, this isn't news: remember the GOP operative inserted into the White House media corps to ask softball questions? This is part of a long-standing pattern.

I suppose what bugs me about this is the notion that suddenly this pattern is worth paying attention to, now that Bush is a lame duck, and we're stuck with him for another three years and two months.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Now that that's over

It was a long night. We stayed up way past late, watching voting returns tabluate on the Secretary of State's web site. It looked like Propositions 76 through 80 would be defeated by midnight. But Proposition 75, the big one in my opinion, didn't settle into the "No" column until about 1:30. I was able, at that point, to go to bed, comfortable in the knowledge that I wouldn't be spending countless hours every fall gathering signatures on union cards granting permission to CFA to use members' dues for political action.

CFA is probably in a stronger position to bargain for a contract as a result. The solidarity built by the election effort has to help. Plus, we've proven again that we won't be pushed around, and that those who try are in for a fight.

I'm exhausted, but today is also the last day of my official working week. The election has me in a good mood, helped further along by the bright autumn sky, the kaleidoscope of leaves, and new strings on Bennett Cerf, my office guitar. I can handle a little exhaustion today.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I'm home sick today. I did drag myself out of bed this morning, to find something even more sick, but frankly not surprising. If I'm well enough I'll write about it later. I'm referring, of course, to my government's detaining, torturing, and killing suspects (and non-suspects) in a kind of spree of twisted, panicked reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Porn in convenient mint form

From a package of Velamints:

Go ahead, enjoy a special moment

Indulge yourself with rich, smooth chocolate, kissed by a refreshing breath of cool mint. Its unique square shape fits perfectly in your mouth. Feel it glide across your tongue and glide back again. Now, just sit back, relax and enjoy your smooth, chocolate mint experience.

Welcome to Velamints. Experience a world of smoothness in a little chocolate mint.

And don't forget to experience a world of smoothness in a cool and refreshing Velamints Peppermint.



I still think I'm missing something about Velamints. I try, but somehow, I dunno, I just can't seem to get turned-on.

Anyway, one quick Google search later, the phrase "glide across your tongue" appears on numerous wine-tasting humor sites, where the joke is the same - wine-tasting as porn. There were also a few other blogs whose auteurs felt the Velamints box wrapper merited digital posterity.

Grousing about daylight saving time

Allegedly, daylight saving time (and it is daylight saving, not daylight savings time) serves the purpose of preserving hours of daylight around workday clock time, and a modicum of energy, at least in the summer. But I don't believe it, and I especially disbelieve claims that a majority of Americans like daylight saving time.

I don't know of a single person who likes daylight saving time. It's a nuisance to have to remember, more of a nuisance if you forget, and losing the hour of sleep every Spring is terrible.

Alternative sources of information suggest that daylight saving time was always the sick underworld conspiracy most clear-minded individuals believe it is. A cursory Google effort yielded no online source to cite here, but what I understand the theory to be is that manipulating clock time permitted a timing advantage for commodity brokers. I would also be inclined to believe it's a conspiracy to keep working people off-kilter. It's hard enough to organize, let alone when we keep having to change our clocks.

Oh, and by the way, the Bush adminstration has apparently decided to extend daylight saving time. Soon, we'll spend less of the year in "standard" time than in daylight saving time. Doesn't that mean we've just decided to make daylight the standard?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

One of the great paradoxes about students

Tonight I've been reading 1-2 page responses I had students in my Philosophical Inquiry class write to Book III of Plato's Republic. Not every student wrote a response (a chronic problem in this class, which may be another student paradox to discuss later), but of the 15 or so I did get, every one of them had an interestingly different take on the reading.

Book III is where Socrates discusses the "myth of the metals," which is the "necessary lie" told to the people of the ideally just city in order to let get the people to accept the system. Socrates further explains the social status and role the ruling "guardian" class will have, and the communal focus of the entire effort. The ideal city is ideal in its overall justice, in Socrates' argument, and every group must play its appropriate role. There's a discussion of natural predisposition to certain tasks or traits, and the development of those traits, but this is only the beginning of Plato's long discussion of proper education for just leadership.

The papers have challenged the lie, challenged the restrictive class system, questioned the communal conception of justice. They've delved into the strange minutiae of Socrates' argument, asking why it would be necessary to exert such firm control over musical rhythm, for instance, or why only telling stories where the gods are good helps the guardians understand justice.

Now, here's the paradox. These engaged, interesting, provocative, thoughtful response papers have so far not corresponded to engaged, interesting, provocative, thoughtful class discussions. Unless I'm horribly mistaken, I don't behave in a way that discourages contributing to class discussion. In fact, I encourage it. I ask at the beginning of class what surprised them about the reading, what their impressions were, what they found important, but with few exceptions, despite their evidently having found something surprising, impressive, and important, they don't tend to speak up.

So I need to develop a further element to the response paper technique, and move from those papers into finding ways those papers can structure class discussion. Partly, I am absolutely sure, this is a matter of experience: students in my upper-division general ed classes, particularly Professional Ethics, make this connection and jump into discussion on this basis.

Friday, October 21, 2005


It seems like I do a lot of stuff - all that teaching, university service, and union activity seems like a lot to do. I feel busy. Yet from one standpoint, I'm not working at all, because I don't have a lot of scholarly and academic writing coming out. This is a complex matter, for me.

I know what I value in teaching, university citizenship, and union activism. They are intrinsically rewarding to me, and I think they're important contributions to the university and the community. I try to teach well; I'm certainly motivated by a firm conviction in the value of the classes I teach and the validity of the curriculum and methods. I think universities are vital social and cultural institutions, far beyond their purely economic purposes of producing new tax payers and generating commerce, and so I place a high value on being an active member of the university community. Being involved in faculty governance and policy-making is for me an expression of commitment to the democratic ideal of education. As far as union activism goes, I don't see any substitute for it to protect the rights and interests of faculty from an administration that most often confronts the faculty as an adversary, instead of honoring faculty as knowledgeable and concerned experts.

The situation is different when it comes to scholarly and academic work. I spent a few years trying to fit into the academic philosophy world; I presented papers at conferences, published articles, pursued the most remote arcana, and above all else, maintained a continuous presence in what some people in my field call "the discussion." It was fun for a while, but the more deeply I got involved, the more removed from the everyday, the more I felt that there wasn't much point to a great deal of "the discussion," other than the rather arbitrary value placed on it by academics. I saw and heard a lot of weird behavior, from shrill denouncements of others as idiots, to the widespread problem of general social dysfunction. I watched what academia turned some acquaintances into, and how unrecognizable they became as the people I used to know, after, say, spending a year as a research fellow, or while they pitched their manuscripts to publishers.

This might seem like sour grapes, but I have to confess, I cooled to academic philosophy before it cooled to me. I had never had the most positive attitude toward it in the first place (ironically, I can at least partially blame a philosophy professor I had for that attitude, for it was he who convinced me that academics use jargon as a weapon and as a barrier). Not all of it, but more than I'm comfortable with, strikes as fiddling while the city is in flames.

I've been wondering lately if I shouldn't return to that kind of work to some degree. I do sometimes miss getting highly charged email, from people I don't really know, arguing forcefully on one side or another of some ongoing debate, and being part of it. For all their dysfunctions, academics do tend to care deeply about their fields, and jump into them with gusto. It's good for renewal.

The practical problem, for now, is that I can no longer leap into it as a purely intellectual and academic exercise. It has to be integrated into my life, which means into the everyday reality of being a teacher of general education classes, of being a citizen of the university, of being a union activist, and of course a private person. I want to find a way that the academic, scholarly work remains within the sphere of relevance of my daily life, and of the lives I come into contact with daily. I think that means, in part, that I don't want to get involved in writing something if I can't see why what I'm writing about would make a difference to my neighbor Marty, or would be significant to someone cooking risotto with morel mushrooms, or would reflectively inform my teaching practice, etc., etc. This is not easy, because the academic philosophy world tends on the whole to neglect, if not actually to dismiss, everyday life. In fact, academia tends to reward people for performances that require them to be neglectful of everyday life, or of teaching, or of being good citizens of the university. (This is something bell hooks wrote eloquently about in Teaching to Transgress.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


The Senate Energy Committee tacked an amendment onto a budget bill that would open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. This is after the Senate as a whole failed to pass a bill to do that, and it seems to be amended to a budget bill only for the sake of avoiding debate - the budget bill can't be filibustered. If that's not charming enough, consider this:

Under the drilling plan, ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain would be opened for energy exploration. As much as 10.4 billion barrels of crude could be recovered from the refuge's coastal plain, according to government estimates.

10.4 billion barrels of oil is nothing. Domestic use of oil was over 20 million barrels per day in 2002. (See the chart from the department of energy.) At 2002 levels of use, we'd burn up all the oil in 520 days. This isn't a terribly far-sighted policy, even if environmental damage is ignored. But there remains a large sector of US policymakers, and I suppose of ordinary folks, who have yet to accept the notion that there is a limited amount of oil, and that we're running out of the stuff we can get cheaply. If we factored in all costs related to preserving access to oil, it wouldn't seem that cheap, either.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

News from the rear

Somebody hit my car. It happened over a week ago, overnight, in the parking lot outside the Apartment of Earthly Delights. We were walking off to campus, and passed Mr. Car, with his left tail-light broken and the bumper out of skew. It's nothing terribly serious; the turn signal and backing lights still work, the bumper sticks out by the left wheel about half an inch. But this morning at 9 we had an estimate done. 1200 bucks.

My collision deductible is $500, and since this was a hit-and-run situation, I doubt they'll let me out of that. What bugs me is it's somebody who lives right near me who did it.

So I don't know whether to get it fixed. Pending some fascinating litigation, I might be in the market for new wheels, and it makes little sense to me to put money into this repair. It's just a Neon, for crying out loud.

The 9 am start time for the estimate - half an hour away in Modesto - is significant because I taught in Stockton last night, after getting back from the CFA Assembly Sunday at 2 pm. Since Friday afternoon, I've been unrelentingly busy, or asleep. That used to be normal for me, but not in a while, and I've gotten used to treating myself better than that.

Anyhow, the Assembly was a good gig. I met with the subcommittee on faculty governance and lecturer recognition, chaired a productive meeting, and got some good ideas for the next moves in that biz. Saturday Lauren came to the Lecturers' Council meeting, which was interesting. Sunday she came to the Assembly general session, at which I was elected to the elections committee (they run the union's elections, which seems like a fun gig).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here!

My friend Jim "Pericles Was A Schmuck" Williams will remember, since I won't, the origin of the running gag between us (running gag #308, I believe) of calling one another on the phone to announce "The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here!"

As a rule, I recall nothing. Life's easier for me that way. It's not a very useful interpersonal skill, but it provides terrific plausible deniability and is sometimes the source of a nice cheap joke in class. But I have vestiges of memory, and as far as that goes, I think the "The new phone book's here!" gag began when a new phone book actually arrived at someone's premises - and here I'm already hazy, but I think it was after moving in.

In any case, it's actually true: the new phone book's here. This is auspicious, we're hoping, because for 15 months Lauren and I have fielded approximately 5 calls on an average week asking for the Hilmar Portugese Fish Market, or its apparent proprietor, Carmen. It seems our number used to be theirs. Lauren went so far as to look up their new number, and we've both memorized it, so when the inevitable call comes, we can helpfully provide the proper info. It's a public service we provide at absolutely no charge.

Once, someone informed Lauren that she had found the number (our number) in a current edition of a phone directory for Turlock and vicinity (it's about an inch thick), including Hilmar. On another occasion, the phone company called us to see if we were interested in adding new business services to our account.

(Way back in Pittsburgh days, I had a problem with calls asking for a woman who apparently owed a number of people a significant enough amount of money that they pursued her for it. This has been less unpleasant, but more persistent.)

In any case, the new phone book, indeed, 's here, and we're hoping that the corrected number will reduce the hours we spend trying to explain the switcheroo.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Here, chickies chickies chickies!

I roasted our first chicken of the fall season last night. We've gotten into a habit of buying only organic and/or free range chickens to roast. The fowl processing industry is notoriously - well, foul, and for this reason I avoid birds from the major processors. I don't know if there's any guarantee that a free-range or organic chicken hasn't been left to soak in a vat of chicken blood, guts, feathers, and excrement, as is apparently often true at large processing plants. On the other hand, I do feel confident that an organic chicken hasn't been fed in a way that is likely to lead me to have, say, an extra beak.

I should make chicken stock this evening. I should be doing that now, instead of wasting my time writing this. But I should also be preparing for classes tomorrow, too. I've got Plato to teach in my Philosophical Inquiry class, and we all know how difficult he is. He never listens. It's so tediously typical of the dead.

I've read all my Pro Ethics students' response papers, which were uniformly good. I should, if anything, be writing about what's going on in class. But no: chicken.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Brain like oatmeal!

It started on Saturday morning. I woke feeling lightheaded and slightly feverish. By the time we left for the campus unions picnic in the afternoon, I just about pulled over so Lauren could drive. But the picnic seemed to restore me, and I felt like all would be well...

until Sunday, when I felt much worse. I spent most of Sunday with my head lolling around on my neck like it was on a slinky, and my consciousness barely connected to my head. But I didn't decide to cancel classes Monday until Monday morning, and I didn't decide to cancel Monday night's class until Monday afternoon. Thus I probably inconvenienced all my students to the maximum extent possible.

They could hardly have been more discomfitted that I, however, because throughout this spell I've had the weirdest dreams. Last night it was trying to get off a plane in Pittsburgh, but somehow leaving behind all our stuff, then heading to a cheap hotel that had no bathroom, just the facilities right there in the room, in the kitchenette. Almost every dream I remember had to do with travel or performing, and several of them were lucid. Perhaps I've gone mad. How could I tell?

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Fridayest of All Possible Fridays

There's a guitar in my office now. I've just been playing a tune I call "A Piece of Pie" while reading my pal Jim "The Most Optimistic Man In America" Williams' non-blog of today.

In the non-blog, Jim (aka "Imj") accuses Al Franken of losing his edge, turning away from his oath of satire and toward rather pedantic and ego-invested demonstrations that Franken=smart and Bush=dumb. I haven't heard the Franken radio schtick, so I can't judge that. But obviously, you can't remain funny very long if your act consists of telling people how dumb George Bush is.

But the main thing I got from reading the non-blog this morning was that Jim (aka "Mij") has found a way to turn his deficit as a speller into a font of gags. Throughout the non-blog, he variously mis-spells the name of Bill O'Reilly, plugugly of Fox News - on purpose, of course, to humorous effect.

Possibly coming soon to this space: Fresh ranting about rude shop clerks. Lauren was trying to order a book at our local Borders yesterday, and received rather snotty attention from the book info chick. I may have been overreacting, since I had been getting an overwhelming hard sell at a guitar shop earlier that day. Perhaps this is the American commercial world's response to declining economic prospects: make consuming actually painful.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Knowing right from wrong

Returning to my office from a class discussing the link between autonomy and understanding, I found a news item about whether Lynndie England, the Army clerk photographed abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, was competent (Jury asks if Lynndie England knows right from wrong). A little sample:

England's lawyers are arguing that because of these traits, she simply complied when abuse ringleader Charles Graner, 37, her boyfriend with whom she has a child, told her to pose with the leash and in other photos that caused worldwide outrage.

Graner, now serving a 10-year sentence for his leading role in the abuses, said on Thursday that he was acting properly to control prisoners by stacking them into a naked pyramid and by putting a leash on one mentally ill Iraqi.

The judge declined initially to ask the question, which stirred up a legal's hornet's nest, because the defense is not arguing that England was criminally insane and thus could not tell right from wrong.

"She had the ability to know right from wrong," military defense attorney Jonathan Crisp told the judge outside of the presence of the jury. But "she did not believe it was wrong because of the trust she placed in Spc. Graner."

England had originally pleaded guilty to seven counts of abuse during a trial in May. But the trial's judge negated the plea deal after hearing evidence suggesting that she thought she was following orders from a superior and thus may not have known she was acting wrongly.

I am especially intrigued at the suggestion, implicit in the ruling of the trial judge in May, that following orders is sufficient reason to doubt that England could distinguish right from wrong. It would seem that not only is "just following orders" a valid and exonerating excuse for misdeeds, but that following orders is an act that cannot be judged by standards of right and wrong. The argument can be restated: If one intends one's action to follow an order, that action is neither right nor wrong. It is simply order-following.

Her defense argument rests on nearly the same principle. She could distinguish right from wrong - and hence could not excuse her actions by claiming to be criminally insane. However, she may not have been able correctly to distinguish right from wrong because she was following orders.

A general rule in the morality of responsibility is that any person with the rational capacity to distinguish right from wrong bears responsibility for right and wrong action. The excuse of "only following orders" has been rejected on the grounds that an order does not cancel out the responsibility to judge independently whether the order is right or wrong. War crimes prosecution following WWII hinged on this, for instance.

Here, the arguments are working in a new direction. It's not her responsibility to act rightly that's in question. Nor is it her rational capacity in general that's in question. Somehow, it seems, the act of following an order cancels out judgment. The reports coming out of this trial suggest a legal/moral move to excuse her, not from her actions, but from making judgments. It's rather mind-boggling.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bob Dylan - Positively 4th Street

Just lyrics today. This song has been coming to mind a lot lately.

Positively 4th Street - Bob Dylan

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning

You say I let you down
You know it's not like that
If you're so hurt
Why then don't you show it

You say you lost your faith
But that's not where it's at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You're in with

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I'd make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don't know to begin with

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"
But you don't mean it

When you know as well as me
You'd rather see me paralyzed
Why don't you just come out once
And scream it

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I'd rob them

And now I know you're dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don't you understand
It's not my problem

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you

Monday, September 19, 2005

The personal is political

In my Professional Ethics class this morning, I had my students brainstorm proposals for restoring trust in professions. Three groups of students emphasized the need for personal "connections" or "relationships" between professionals and clients. This was interesting, because the question as I raised it was a social, political question - at least, I thought it was.

Their responses reminded me of heated graduate school discussions of the role of intellectuals in public life. I remember Leigh Clasby (as she was at the time) citing Plato's "Seventh Letter" as a convincing argument that political change could only be effected by changing persons' hearts and minds. I've gone back and forth on this. I am pretty sure that I couldn't make an argument in what passes for the public dialogue nowadays that would change anyone's mind. For one thing, that so-called dialogue consists mainly of people shouting at each other (this was part of Leigh's case against public politics, as I recall). Additionally, a public is a half-step away from being a mob, and mobs can't be rationally convinced of anything. But most significantly, only in personal or private dialogue can assent be authentic, since only in those circumstances are peculiar social pressures to conform absent.

I doubt any of my students had all that in mind when they were talking about this this morning, because they didn't seem to have a rationale in mind for connecting the personal relationship to building trust in the profession (I pressed them for reasons to think a personal connection would instill trust, and I think that threw them for a loop. Sometimes playing the Devil's Advocate hits a dead end. Ah well). I'm not sure I get it, either. I'm not sure whether we have to buy the personal political angle to believe that the personal connection of a client to a professional will enhance trust.

Perhaps we should be suspicious of this as a move toward subjectivizing political questions. Perhaps this personal connection notion improperly narrows our attention to individual experiences, even preferences, as though what makes a trustworthy profession (as a whole) is beyond our capacity to understand or to promote. I mean, my having a good working relationship with my lawyer doesn't in any obvious way improve the status of the profession of law. I might spread his good reputation, but that pertains only to him.

It's largely on the basis of those personal experiences that we judge professions and professionals. That strikes me as wrong. When I think of how different, even diametrically opposed, two students' stated experiences of my classes can be, I hate to think that their opinions form the public perception of higher education.

(A footnote to this: The second section of Professional Ethics, in the afternoon, the students focused very differently, on the need for public education. Some interestingly diverse discussions today.)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Learning from the fine folks at Safeway

This is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but it's bugging me, so here 'tis.

We just went out to buy flowers and some other items, and brought with us an accumulation of plastic grocery bags to drop off at one of those convenient recycling bins stores have out front these days. But we ended up at Safeway, which has apparently taken there grocery bag recycling bin away. We brought the bags in, and at the checkout stand asked if they still recycled. The clerk (one of the Safeway regulars, who recognizes us even though we have gotten out of the habit of going there) said they'll take them, and had me set them on the bagging spot. The bagger then took them, got sort of vague directions where to take them, and ended up bringing them to a cart and setting them in there before finding more explicit directions. As we walked out, we overheard another clerk asking where they came from, and when the bagger said we had, the clerk said, in sarcastic tones, "oh, thanks. This isn't our garbage!"

One reaction: bitch!

But another: Why was this such a problem for these Safeway employees? It seemed that they couldn't deal with our wanting to recycle. It really struck me as though they couldn't be bothered with it, and couldn't imagine why anyone would bring bags to a place that claims to recycle them.

So, I need to find a way to achieve a more charitable outlook on my fellow human beings, my fellow Californians, and especially my fellow Central Valleyites before classes tomorrow. It won't do for me to walk in with this kind of attitude.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

We know the semester has begun

We know the semester has begun because we have already been exhausted by our paces. What I can't figure is who these people think they are to interrupt our relatively calm and sedate existences with these "requirements" and "work" and "meetings."

Dan Bratten and I held a CFA chapter lecturer meeting today, and I would call the results encouraging. The lecturers who came were upset about being overlooked in the new campus president's raise, and had their own concerns to add. We easily filled our two hours with useful discussion. I think we did a decent job of explaining where things were, and how we're dealing with the issues. I hope this is the beginning of more involvement from the rank-and-file.

Towards the end I made the difficult request that those present bring two more lecturers each to the next meeting. This is hard for me, because I'm actually a shy person (appearances to the contrary notwithstanding). But I realize, especially tonight, that I can't help lecturers on my campus unless they're willing to commit themselves to the idea that as a group we can change things. They may be shy, too, but we have to set that aside, because there's something more important than our moment-to-moment comfort.

Lauren is making beef stock for beef-veggie soup tonight. I want to sit in the appropriate chair and play my guitars. But duty calls, I suppose. Who are these people?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

To blog and blog not

I'm contemplating another go at this form, while I wait for my savory gorgonzola-fennel-olive tart to bake. I quit writing this way a couple months ago, partly out of boredom, but mainly tiring of the blog being used behind my back in ridiculous ad hominem assaults.

I never felt good about that decision. Why should I let anybody else spoil my fun, when fun it is? Screw them.

Lauren and I had a good evening and day in Sacramento, at the CFA meeting for lecturers. I had to run a session with my co-chair about the work of the Faculty Governance and Lecturer Recognition Subcommittee, which was a stressful prospect, but went well. Lauren is getting more informed, enthused - though maybe righteously indignant is a better word for it - , and is contemplating getting more involved.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I'm raising a little hell with the chapter concerning a proposal by our new campus president to raise tenure-track faculty salaries. My co-rep Dan Bratten put it well in an email message to the chapter folks, saying that leaving us out effectively puts lecturers in a secondary pay schedule, something CFA has steadfastly opposed because it would undermine the contractual provisions for salary for everybody.

Sic transit hoi polloi, to mix metaphors as well as dead languages.

Notice anything? I'll give you a hint: I haven't said anything about it being September freaking 11th.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Supreme Court prediction

The obvious thing to predict is that President Bush will whine incessantly about Senate Democrats not being fair to his nominee. This is his way of handling any and all criticism or question. You're either with him or against him.

But I'm willing to put good money on this: Bush will nominate someone relatively uncontroversial. He won't dare give anyone obviously good reasons to object, so the nominee will not be Alberto Gonzalez. Nor will it be Paul Wolfowitz, nor John Bolton. I don't think he'll play a shell game with the nominee either, because that backfired on his dad. It'll be someone the Bush people consider a safe bet.

Now, of course, they'll name Eichmann.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

How can it be the end of June already?

I figure it's because June has 30 days, which in turn is because of that rhyme, you know the one, April showers bring May flowers, but what do May flowers bring? No, that's not the one. It's the one that goes "A, B, C, D, E,..." No, it's not that one, either.

I think it's the end of June already because I've spent the last three weeks with a hematoma, and haven't done as much hiking or otherwise moving about as I'd intended. Nor have I done as much reading and philosophizing. We've been reading together, just nothing in the philosophy genre.

I've been playing Maggie, my Seagull 12-string guitar, a great deal. Lauren continues on her home beautification quest, and is, as of present writing, organizing a closet. She has already hung a wall with drapes, and we've put up a couple shelves, one of which I regard as precariously lashed to the living room wall with anchor bolts. I don't trust those things.

In all, then, I'd characterize my state of being as in a holding pattern. This must be incredibly thrilling and insightful for the throngs who have begun now to - well, to throng, I suppose - to my blog from the Modesto Bee web site.

I don't subscribe to the Bee. I used to. I started every morning with the miserable habit of drinking my first cup of ridiculously strong coffee while reading the Bee and listening to music. The reason this was a miserable habit had a lot to do with my life in general at the time, but also had something to do with the Bee. Like many newspapers of the day, the Bee is a cut-and-paste job composed of wire service reports and press releases from various official sources. There is scarce little actual journalism going on in the US any more. Very few papers maintain a staff of reporters who go out and track down stories, content instead to let the news come to them, in the form of whatever official line someone wants the public to swallow. (By "line" here I mean, mainly, lies.)

On the few occasions something has actually happened on Stan State's campus, for instance, I've found the Bee's coverage profoundly lacking, often in facts, but always in substance. I don't blame the reporters covering the university specifically, because they've always simply done their jobs - and their jobs, like most in the newz industry, are not to investigate and report what's going on.

But the predominant reason I came to loathe the Bee so much is the editorial page, especially the letters to the editor. It's been a while, and I'm out of the habit, so I might as well tell this story, which some people have found amusing. I got so fed up with the Bee's habit of printing the worst-argued letters that I decided to send them a few gag letters. The first one I wrote under the name "Donald Anatidae." I forget what Donald was upset about - I think it was the right-wing slant of most of what gets printed in the editorial page (and that's true, by the way - the whole "liberal media bias" charge is in fact nonsense, carefully crafted and effective nonsense). They printed the letter despite the fact - or perhaps because of the fact - that it was poorly written, just one step above gibberish. Plus, anatidae is the scientific name for ducks.

So after they printed Donald Duck raving incoherently about right-wing media bias, I decided to get bolder. I wrote a letter complaining about the damage done throughout history, and in the present day, by Christians and Christianity. I signed the letter "Fred Nietzsche." This should probably have been a give-away: someone somewhere at the Bee should have noticed the name, connected the dots, and realized I was using the name of the notable anti-Christian German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

After that, I became more emboldened, but they never printed another letter from me, whether I was writing sensibly or not, under any name, even my own. And now, I'm on their list of bloggers in the area. I get the sneaking feeling they identified me without checking out what was in my blog, and now the first stuff anybody could read is all about my vasectomy, my hematoma, my guitar, my apartment, and my brief stint spoofing the Bee.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Haven't blogged in a while

The Modesto Bee emailed me today to ask permission to link from their site to my blog. I can't imagine why.

I've been out of commission to varying degrees for three weeks now, because I'm suffering complications from a vasectomy. I've got a hematoma. It hurts, it's uncomfortable, and it has put what is sometimes known as a cramp in my style, or a wrench in my works, or a kink in my armor, or some other such phrase (pick yer favorite, or collect the whole set!).

I did buy a 12-string guitar, a lovely pink-twany Seagull, who so far is called Maggie. I even brought it down to Harbor City this weekend, where we were for Lauren's mom Allison's party celebrating getting her teaching credential.

Life goes on, in short. And while I have a screed in the works, I think I'll wait, it being 6 o'clock, my loveliest Lauren about to sew, the evening crawling in. I'm working on a tune I'll probably call "As the Dust Settles" or "Once the Dust Settles," something like that.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Guitar and medical news

I've pretty much decided to buy a 12-string guitar. Today we went out briefly, looking for a game (failing at that), Augustine blacks for the Takamine (which we found), and to play a couple 12-strings at a local music shop, just for the sheer hell of it, and to relax and get my mind off my post-op condition (of which more below).

At the local music shop, where we did find my beloved Augustine blacks, there were a handful of 12-strings, including a battered, somewhat repaired Alvarez, a trio of Greg Bennett specials, and a Takamine. The Bennetts had a brassy, big sound, but not a warm and sweet sound, which I'm a sucker for, especially in 12-strings, ever since college, when I would swoon to my pal Jim ("The Most Optimistic 12-String Player in America") Williams' old Seagull. The Alvarez had that, and so, to an extent, had the Tak. But the Alvarez had been glued together after who-knows-what had befallen the poor thing. Lauren adored it. I played a couple of the songs I've written for her, and the one I wrote for Lance, and they just sounded lovely. They sounded plenty good, and a great deal crisper, on the Tak. But I didn't like the cut-away body or the pickup on the Tak, and the Alvarez... well, I just felt foolish about plunking down good money on a wreck of a machine. But I am now officially on the market.

I did get the strings home and restrung the old Tak. The key for the G-string tuning machine broke in my fingers as I tightened it. So I'm bereft of guitars at the moment, which is a shame. As has been unreported, playing music has become much more important to me again since Lauren has been in my life. I miss it when I can't play every day.

All this, really, by way of getting my mind off my pain. I had an outpatient procedure a week ago, and was not advised, I swear, that it would be over a week that walking, sitting, standing, bending, or in any way moving from one long-fought-for comfortable position would be so strongly contraindicated. (It's a common outpatient procedure. It causes discomfort.)

So who knows? Tomorrow night I may be reporting I've brought home an instrument. We should at least (if we remember) bring home strings for the violin.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Bad Plus

Last night, we got a chance to hear the contemporary jazz trio The Bad Plus, on a double-bill with a classical pianist named Christopher O'Riley, whose claim to fame in the not-so-classical world is his transcriptions of Radiohead for solo piano. Whoever put the show together obviously thought that since The Bad Plus plays hot jazz versions of rock tunes (notably Iron Man, Heart of Glass, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and a song by the Pixies called Velouria - none of which did they perform), that it would work together on that basis. Eh. O'Riley is a classical pianist in style and performance, and never mind that he was playing Radiohead. It was transcribed for solo piano, and it wasn't, in that regard, anything like what The Bad Plus was up to. So the crowd was sparser than it might have been, and less hip than it might have been.

We had a blast, especially during The Bad Plus. Because of the light audience, we moved from our $20 nosebleed seats into gallery seats (I think they wanted $45 for them) right above the stage, above drummer Dave King. That was the right choice, because we got to see King toy (literally) with his drums all night. He used a penguin jangly toy, a cooking pot, and for their cover of Radiohead (from an upcoming Brit anthology of others doing Radiohead), E.T. dolls that made electronic whining sounds.

One thing had bothered me about The Bad Plus, which last night I decided was a reason to like them all the more. I was imagining jazz critics trying to write about them, and wondering if they're charlatans or serious. What I mean is that they choose music, and perform in a style, that is more like a rock band, and since jazz critics and audiences tend to be snooty (it's America's Classical Music [TM] after all), I wondered how they take to the raucous beat-down performances of Iverson, Anderson, and King. When King pets the side of his drums with a cooking pot, is he just screwing around, or is he doing something musically important? Last night, I decided, whether or not he's screwing around, he and the rest of the band are playing music they are enormously passionate about, and that's what counts. King attacks furiously, Iverson moves between what looks like deep self-critical introspection and effusion, and, as Lauren observed, Anderson looks like he's in love with his bass.

We got home before midnight from San Francisco, and today we've handled some basic work and school fiddly bits, before a planned trek to Yosemite tomorrow for a day trip, tromping around up there. The rest of the week promises - absolutely promises - lack of movement.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Difficulty relaxing

So this is Wednesday, June 1, 2005. I see; I get the picture.

I've been having the most bizarre difficulty getting out of the mindset and posture of the semester, specifically of the end of the semester, specifically of the stress and strain of the end of the semester. It reached a culmination point last night, I hope, when I scrubbed the living beejeezus out of the reflectors from the stove burners. This after spending the largest measure of the afternoon baking and cooking.

Meanwhile, Lauren was sewing. Her attempt to relax is being organized around taking up new projects, and to that end we've bought the stuff for her to make a dress and a shirt (both for herself), a duvet cover for both of us, and a scarf for me.

Why it should be hard to relax is easy to figure. It has been the longest, strangest, most delightful year of our lives. We're tired, and we're tired of the creeping feeling of being watched - that is, by people we haven't specifically invited to watch - and that means precisely what I mean it to mean, and nothing else, and put that right back where you found it, mister! Bad dog! Bad, bad dog! No no no!

In other news,
Every time I see him explain away the actions of the Admin with that stupid goddamned smirk on his face, it becomes more apparent that he is, at heart, a four-year-old who enjoys saying "poopy."

So says my pal Jim ("The Most Optimistic Man in America") Williams, and he's on to something. Occasionally, Imj (as I call him sometimes) can be quite eloquent, can give voice to the unspoken, can impose order in the chaos of contemporary social life.

My other friend (yes! I have at least 2 friends!) Bob has started a blog, which I haven't explored in depth as yet.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Evidence that I'm still grading, or something

It came up in the car on the drive up to Sacramento. It was one of those moments of kizmet that pop up in the non-sequitir stream of commentary on long drives, between curses directed at aggressive drivers and asides pointing out the beautiful, the strange, and the silly. I can't quite remember precisely how it came to this point, but it did: The terrorists may already have won.

I don't mean that in any political sense. I mean that when the new TV Guide sweepstakes comes out, it will inevitably be mailed to a Mr. Al Qaeda, in a big gawdy quasi-official envelope declaring in big red letters: "GRAND PRIZE WINNER!" Underneath, of course, it will bear the usual disclaimer, "If the code number on your official entry form is selected at random."

So yes, indeed, the terrorists may already have won.

All of which leads me to think that somebody in Homeland Security (Heimatssicherheit in the original German) should be identifying an address to begin a massive campaign to undermine funding for terrorist operations, by sending a constant barrage of unrequested magazine subscriptions and other junk mail offers to them. Imagine the time and energy it will take away from planning attacks, if they're constantly on the phone to Wine Spectator, or Hustler, or Field and Stream, trying to stop a subscription. ("No, no, you don't understand. We are not hunting and fishing enthusiasts! We do not want your decadent magazine!")


Lauren and I took time out of finals week to go up to Sacramento to join a few thousand of our closest friends to protest Governor Schwarzenegger's continuing campaign against education, nursing, and public safety. The news stories from papers across the state all resemble The San Francisco Chronicle story (a fact which holds its own lesson): all understate the crowd size considerably, all tell a story of conflict between the Governor and a group of vocal protestors. This discourse decontextualizes, for instance, by referring to competing claims about whether the Governor promised to fully fund schools according to Prop. 98, and competing claims about whether his budget does fully fund schools (he did make the promise, he did reneg on the promise).

Standing in the heat, yelling, chanting, hearing the speeches making our case, all felt very good, but it was also terribly exhausting. And today, back into the fray.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Grading papers forces me to confront anew the difficulties of a semester. This term, I decided to push for open dialogue as much as possible, and did everything I could to make that happen. Of course, it didn't work all the time. When it did work, notably in Professional Ethics, the students took initiative, thought things through, brought their own ideas and experiences to bear, and respected differences of opinion and the dialogue itself. When it didn't work, I am fairly convinced, the students didn't find a way into the dialogue, or the spirit of the dialogue. I am at a loss why, because I do believe my approach didn't vary all that much between classes.

And I don't say this to single any class out or to assign blame to any group of students, nor to assume blame myself. bell hooks desribes a class that didn't work in Teaching to Transgress. She concludes that teachers can't create dialogue all by themselves, that it takes the response of students to make it work. Obviously true, but hooks seems to evade the issues of (a) whether that means it's the students' fault when a class doesn't become dialogical, and (b) to what extent a teacher can, after all, make it work. She also isn't terribly specific about how to make it work.

What I tried to do this semester is threefold. First, I tried to take as much grade-pursuing pressure and behavior out of the courses as possible, basically by making them easy to pass, and frankly, easy to ace. The goal there is to turn attention away from the need to produce a pleasing performance and toward the material under consideration itself. Second, I tried to show myself to be an interested dialogical partner pursuing knowledge along with them, rather than as a possessor of knowledge monologically presenting it to them. This is an attempt to be honest about the nature of philosophical inquiry, specifically its openness to revision, reflective reconsideration, etc. It was also an expression of my changing attitudes, beliefs, and understanding of life, the universe, and everything. It was also an attempt to invite students to be part of the dialogue, not to assume they will be fed the answer I'm expecting back from them, and to take responsibility for contributing to class discussion. Third, I tried to keep the tone light, which is something I usually have done anyway. Even when the course material gets into dark areas - issues of death and dying in Pro Ethics, for instance, or the existential dread of choosing in the Intro class - I attempt to inject levity of some sort. Mainly, this is because I am funny. But it's also a deliberate and conscious technique.

Anyway, these don't always work. Sometimes people don't get the jokes. Sometimes people don't get the point. Sometimes people seem to deliberately obstruct me, or others, or even themselves - which is mystifying. The most mystifying thing is when I'm taken absolutely wrongly: when I'm taken to be lording knowledge or power over my students, or something like that. This is deeply weird given my demeanor in class. I believe I make the classroom open to saying just about anything. The only limit I impose is that you should take philosophical points of view seriously, not be dismissive.

But that's what it appears to boil down to in many cases of abiding resistance to dialogue: an absolute refusal to consider that philosophy may be relevant, that something other than one's own point of view and habit of thought may be significant. That may be the point at which bell hooks' account is most pertinent.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Last night we went to the annual reading and celebration of the release of Penumbra, Stan State's literary and art mag. Lauren has two poems in this year's issue, and decided she would read.

She absolutely stole the show. It turned out that Lauren was the last one to read, luckily for everybody else. She read "A Letter to My Lover, while waiting for a Northbound to pass," complete with rhythm, complete with sway and swing, complete with line breaks that she used to give herself a backbeat. Hubba hubba. It was a very sexy reading of a very sexy poem. I think five people stopped her on our way to the parking lot, after two or three came up to her at our seats, all glowing with praise, richly deserved.
I think that was the poem that my pal Jim ("The Most Optimistic Man in America, in a Miata") Williams responded to by asking me, basically, if I was going to be able to deal with Lauren being a poet, and a better one. Well, yeah!

On the way home, Lauren wondered how inspiring her performance might have been. She was hopeful that everyone went home in right randy states.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Judges and filibusters

Far be it from me to accuse Senate Republicans of being over-aggressive. I don't really need to accuse them of anything, because moves like banning filibusters in order to get 10 crazed judges appointed aptly demonstrate it. The news as reported lately (see, for instance, Heated senate showdown opens on judges) completely de-contextualizes the situation. For instance, it's not reported in this story, nor, I'll bet, in 90% of the stories on front pages of newspapers today, that while Senate Democrats are filibustering to stop 10 Bush appointments from being approved, Senate Republicans, controlling the Judiciary Committee, stopped numerous Clinton appointments to federal judgeships, simply by not considering the nominees. (See Senate Rules Meltdown for more context.) The stories also fail to point out that close to 170 of Bush's appointees have been approved, and that the federal bench has its lowest level of vacancy since 1990.

It almost sounds like Republicans are seeking absolute authority to do anything they want, in Congress, in the judiciary, in the executive branch. Checks and balances? Not for them, not when they hold the majority.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Impervious to irony

Courtesy of my pal Owen Kelly, who shared this at the Society for Phenomenology and Media conference (Owen teaches in Finland): America We Stand As One. Owen claims that this says something deeply meaningful about American social reality. And maybe it does.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

How to go to conferences

I actually wrote this yesterday, but since getting in last night at 11:20, I let it wait.

Often the best things that happen at conferences don't happen at the conferences. I've only learned how to enjoy the setting of a conference over the last few years. I've learned that the way to get the most out of conferences is to do two main things: (1) find the right bar, go there, and stay there as long as everyone else does, and (2) spend some time with another conference-goer or two checking out the locale.

Obvious, I know now. But I had had such an angst-ridden posture, really a defensive one, that I didn't get into the right frame of mind.

One thing missing at the Helsinki conference was the right bar. For one thing, Helsinki was so incredibly expensive, but also a difficult city to be a tourist in, I'd say - at least, to be a typical American tourist, or at least me. But Oregon's coastal towns boast a generous helping of good pubs, and the one we found served local brew on tap, including a dynamite stout that the conference probably bought a keg of over the days. The wait staff were ridiculously nice, which threw me. (That became sort of a theme - everywhere we went, the clerks, cashiers, waitresses, etc. were all terribly, not to say suspiciously, nice. Dave finally asked at the Malt Shop in Manzanita, Oregon for an order of whatever medication the waitress was taking. Myself, I looked around the place, and thought, well, why wouldn't you be nice in a place like this?)

When SPM went to Helsinki in 2003, I ended up spending my last day wandering the city on foot with my friend Paul. Along the way we checked out an international fair at a park in the middle of town; found a store selling odd decorative and art items, mainly from Russia; and ran into Lars, who had hosted the conference, because we had blundered into his neighborhood. This year's conference ended Friday evening, and today I spent the afternoon on the Oregon coast with Dave and Owen, wandering along the beaches, checking out caves and such (at low tide, since they're inaccessible other times).

So now I'm in the Portland airport, waiting out my flight to Sacramento, to be followed by the long drive home. I'm exhausted, but mostly eager to be home.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Stuff going on


Lauren and I went to see the university's production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead last Friday - one of my favorite plays. This was her first time seeing it, my second. It was well done, especially Roque Berlanga's Rosencrantz. I thought the last half of the second act and beginning of the third lagged a bit, but that can happen. As Lauren pointed out, it's gotta be hard to inject a lot of energy into dialogue about inevitable doom.

Saturday I tried writing more on the paper I'm presenting to the Society for Phenomenology and Media on Thursday of this week. I'm nowhere near satisfied with the paper. I leave tomorrow for the conference, up in Oregon, which I face largely with dread, to be perfectly honest.

After that, there's only one more week of classes, a disturbing number of papers to read, and then the school year will be over. I would like to spend a week going for walks every day, whenever we feel like it, to wherever we feel like going, for however long we like, alternating walking with cooking, playing games, reading, and a generous amount of blissing out (which is not a euphemism per se).

Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy flick

Some context: I don't go to movies often. I don't enjoy the experience, and I tend to be hyper-critical of movies. I'm also a big fan of Douglas Adams, especially, as I suppose would go without saying, of the Hitchhhiker's trilogy.

Lauren and I had read the first four books in the trilogy together just recently. I hadn't read them in years, and it was wonderful to get back into them. At his best, Adams' writing tickles my brain in a very particular way that pleases me tremendously.

So we were sure to go see the movie when it came out, and yesterday, opening day, there we were, at the matinee. Lauren was guardedly optimistic; I was prepared for it to be bad. You see, we'd been reading reviews of the thing days before. The balance was on the negative side, but it was clear that some of the reviewers who panned it either didn't understand science fiction or didn't understand Adams. One actually criticized the film's plot for not making any sense - clearly this person hadn't read the book. Those who had were often upset that good lines were omitted or rewritten, with the effect of making them less funny. The positive reviews were often odd, too. Some of them were just enthused that it got made (there's a long history of failed attempts to get the project off the ground, beginning in the early 80s). Others seemed to be speaking in opposition to the harsh criticisms, offering that Mos Def wasn't too bad as Ford Prefect, for instance, or that the way they handled Zaphod Beeblebrox's having two heads could have been worse.

So we went to see it. It was pretty bad. Almost none of it retained Adams' sense of the strange, almost none of it retained his sense of humor. The best bits were the sections from the book and the visual effects of the Vogon constructor fleet and of Magrathea. The opening credit sequence, featuring a song-and-dance number that many critics decried vehemently, was actually kind of fun.

The two main problems are these. First, nothing that happens in the movie seems motivated by anything. Adams' stuff relies on exposition - provided humorously by the book's narration in the original radio series, by that and additional text in the books. His jokes are not generally one-offs. Adams' versions of the events sketched in the movie are driven in a particular direction, arbitrary or disjointed as that sometimes is. All that is missing.
If you didn't know the book, you wouldn't understand what was going on, basically from the beginning. If you did know the book, you wouldn't understand why they did what they did with it.

But above all, the very worst thing about it, is that it just wasn't funny. There were bits that were amusing, but I think I laughed once, quietly.