Thursday, May 31, 2007

received: a letter, and numerous papers

I got a letter from my friend Bob the other day. Bob gave up on blogs a little while ago, and I'll be removing the link to his in a moment. He doesn't want to spend time that way, because, in his view, it's not a very rewarding way to communicate. He wrote me a letter instead.

We've written a lot of letters to one another. For a while, I was a quite avid letter writer, sending missives out to him, to Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer, to my high school friend Anne, to my friend Nancy. I generally typed them on my old manual machines, for a long time on an early 60s Hermes 2000, pages and pages of stuff about my life as a grad student, but mainly trying to capture a mood and lived experience.

Compared to email, a letter is a very different thing, especially written out longhand in fountain pen (as Bob's was, in virtually the same nearly illegible hadnwriting he's had since we were kids). It's tangible. It has a feint smell to it. The very good paper it's written on has a definite feel, with an affective dimension. I'm writing him back, in my nearly illegible handwriting.

Partly this is contextual: Bob has been my friend for more than 30 years. We grew up together in Ohio, and when I moved away at 13, writing letters was the way to communicate. Regrettably, perhaps, I don't have any of those any more. A flood in Pittsburgh lost me several boxes of my writing, including about 1000 poems, a couple plays, a dozen or more journals, and almost all my letters. I stopped saving correspondence, and finally have become so much more comfortable with electronic versions of things that I don't particularly like printing out any of my own papers any more.

For one reason or another, for many people, email doesn't have the same feel to it. The medium, or the genre, or the format, or the phenomenon, feels quasi-personal, somewhat institutional. Everything in email looks like a memo.

Bobo and I turned that into a source of amusement, by way of using the memo format inappropriately. You wouldn't write email within an institutional context beginning with something like "Dear Unmitigated Bastard." At least, you wouldn't if you're a fan of employment. In any case, this carried forward a tradition of ironic mutual abuse that began in college and continued through grad school correspondence (and beyond).

I'm a fan of all of it. Each medium has its best uses, I suppose, and each medium has its own way of habituating language and expression. It's a great source of fun to be able to pick them up in turns, to undergo the different ways media shape language and thought, affect, address, tone, all of it.

I'm gonna keep blogging, too, I figure, though as blog this has little "bloggy" about it, and I definitely regard it as a publicly kept journal more than anything else.

As such, let me make one final personal note on the day, most of which I've spent grading final papers. That note is:

Why oh why oh why does grading hurt? I mean, these aren't terrible papers. There've only been a couple duds, which is a very low duddism rate. They've been fine, some even quite good, and a couple wonderful ones. Still, ow.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

bird or bourbon attack?

I always make the same joke about this kind of thing, so perhaps if I put this stupid joke before public (more or less) scrutiny, I'll be free from the demon pun. The joke is, of course, that a bus driver in Connecticut reported being the victim of a wild turkey attack.

My favorite version of this lame pun was a gag signature to an email message to my pal Jim "The Most Optimistic Man in America" Williams, based on a Rolling Stones song: "Wild Turkeys? Couldn't drag me away!"

(The salutation/signature line gag has been a feature of our correspondence forever. I can't count the number of times I wrote to Jim for no reason other than to use a gag salutation or signature I'd come up with. The object of this game seems to be to generate complex multi-level allusive puns, or to abuse one another, which in some people's estimation amounts to the same thing. We do enjoy ourselves.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

fruit and music

As might be expected, the opinion pages of the Modesto Bee have been full of denials, rebuttals, confessions, challenges, and lamentations in response to the "news" from last week that Modesto (a.k.a. Motown, or in the very local parlance of the House About Town, Funkytown, or, especially in transit away from it, a place named by the phrase "No me Modesto") is the worst city to live in in the US.

So far, none that I've read (admittedly a random and unscientifically small sample) have mentioned the single most obvious thing Modesto has going for it: fruit. This is probably because you could live just about anywhere in California, including, say, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Napa, Tiburon, Santa Cruz, etc., etc., and still get fantastic fruit. In that sense, fruit isn't a reason to live in Modesto.

However, the fruit is gorgeous. We're two weeks into cherry season, a week into apricot season, and we've had strawberries for quite a while already. Peaches and plums are around the corner. We'll pick the first cherry tomatoes soon. We've already had pounds of lettuce and Swiss chard, all from the little piece of yard my loveliest has tended so - er, tenderly.

I have no point. I have two more class days left this semester, and I have no point. I'm out.

Also in the Bee this morning was a review of the Modesto Symphony chorus performances of Friday and Saturday nights. I went Saturday and enjoyed it tremendously, although, like the reviewer in the Bee (none other than CSU Stanislaus' own Stephen Thomas), I was bothered at first by the lousy acoustics in the hall, and also thought there was something fishy going on among the violins in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The Haydn Dm Mass was tumultuous, as its name implies. Good stuff.

Yesterday we found ourselves fruitlessly searching for a second-hand bicycle, but fruitfully finding fruit, of which I shall now consume.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

pasta, music

On Sunday (I know; this is belated) I made a pasta dish:

1/2 pound pasta (shells in this case)
14 ounces cannelini beans (white kidney beans; I used canned, cuz)
14 ounces diced tomatoes (also canned, without salt)
4 leaves of Swiss chard
3 cloves of garlic
1/8 tsp or so crushed red pepper flakes
a few gratings of nutmeg
herbs of one's choice (basil, oregano, parsley)
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil, add garlic, then tomatoes and chard, salt (keeps the chard green), then other stuff except pasta. Boil pasta separately. Stick these together. If you like, add some grated parmesan or some crumbled feta or sump'n. 'sgood.

Music: Tonight we went to hear the CSU Stanislaus Chamber Singers, or as I refer to them in a jaunty mood, (chorus director) Daniel Afonso's Elite Republican Guard. They were, as always, impressive. Especially impressive were pieces by J. Aaron McDermid and Morten Lauridsen, both featuring generous helpings of dissonance. McDermid's was based on a religious-themed text by St. Ambrose, and knocked my socks off. The Lauridsen stuff was based on Italian poems about fiery passion, and featured a weirded-up minor chord, which Lauren thinks was weirded up by adding a second to it (thinking about this in guitar terms, to me, that means they added a ninth). I'm a sucker for dissonance, I am. Holy jumpin'.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

funkytown worst of all

Apparently, a book detailing life and livability of a few hundred US cities has ranked Modesto last. The Modesto Bee article focuses on local reactions to the news, and of course Modestans interviewed by the Bee didn't see anything so terrible. Even the author of the book seemed to tell the Bee that the situation was not all that dire.

And really, if you take away the disgusting hot summer, the pollution, low level of educational achievement, minimal cultural scene, lack of good jobs, lack of affordable housing, poor urban planning, poor health care, high crime rate, lousy traffic, and the fact that despite all this thousands of people commute 2.5 hours each way to good jobs in the San Francisco Bay area (thus contributing to the pollution and lousy traffic), really, it's not too bad.

If you ask one of those commuters why he or she lives here, I imagine the likely answers are (1) the housing market, as inflated as it is, is more affordable than the Bay Area, and (2) it's a safer, more wholesome environment in which to raise kids. The latter of these rationales is easily understood, because it's entirely false. People who believe that are, simply, wrong. They do not want to know, and in many cases would flatly reject, the facts. As for the former rationale, it is certainly true that the housing market here has been better lately: a mere $289,000 can get you a 1100 square foot bungalow in some less desirable areas. So people who commute 5+ hours a day in order to buy a house are, clearly, more interested in achieving the American dream (to wit: mortgage) than in health, well-being, and so on.

To set the record straight on at least one point, there is no truth to the rumors that Modesto city planners intend to embark on a major urban renewal project involving razing all structures in the county.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

wackiness, in the form of academic senate debate

I've had a fascinating day taking Lauren for a crown (for her tooth, not for giving airs of royalty), chasing down antibiotics for another tooth of hers, reading Intro to Philosophy response papers on W.E.B. DuBois (and contemplating what they mean pedagogically), and attending a rollicking Academic Senate meeting.

I've been on the Cow State Santa Claus academic senate since - geez, since spring of 2000, I think. First I was the philosophy department senator, and, since the institution of the academic senate lecturer rep a couple years ago, I've been the lecturer senator. For a brief time, my life pretty much revolved around academic senate, as sad a comment as that is about my life at that time. I still really enjoy it, because I like policy arguments and the flow of discussion surrounding them, and because I want to be as much a part of the university as I can - full citizenship, as it were, even though in the minds of many around there I'm "only a lecturer."

Today we had second readings on the last resolutions of the academic year, and ran headlong into serious controversy about student attendance in classes. Right now, our university attendance policy is vague, to say the least. Reportedly, there have been difficulties, especially for student athletes, who have had faculty be completely unwilling to accomodate them when they have to miss classes for games. I don't know how widespread the problem is, and I've always been open to accomodating any student with what I regard as a legitimate absence, but since there is no policy about this, students have no recourse when faculty aren't willing to be accomodating.

It's a complex issue, and ultimately I jumped on a motion to refer the whole thing to the educational policies committee. The faculty at senate had too many questions about the rewritten policy we were considering, and even if they weren't all well-founded, or sometimes based on confused readings, it seemed like faculty wouldn't buy into the policy if we passed this one. A bunch of students came to the meeting, and I know they were disappointed with what happened, but I think it's for the best. An unclear or toothless policy wouldn't have helped them, and a policy the faculty regard as suspect or illegitimate wouldn't have helped them either.

The meeting threatened to get very nasty and personal, but the speaker of the faculty averted that. Lauren and I came home in a somewhat heated mood over it, and we hashed it out for a while. It annoys her when I defend the faculty privilege/right of making their own academic and pedagogical decisions, including classroom policies. Her argument is that this doesn't recognize students' academic rights, but I counter that with regard to pedagogy, students don't have rights. It's funny, because I don't know if I seriously believe that. I say things as though I have complete confidence in my beliefs, but there aren't many that aren't negotiable, especially about these kinds of things. I think more than anything I look for reasonably practicable principles, even if these are at some basic level arbitrarily determined - if we erect some concept, even if it's incomplete, not sufficiently inclusive, etc., we have at least something to continue arguing about. It's folly to think any of these concepts, principles, policies, or anything else will reach a final form or fit all instances. But you won't notice the instances until you've picked a background to contrast them with.

That's the essence of rational argument, isn't it?

Friday, May 04, 2007


Aside from being a relatively crappy sci-fi series, alienation is also an important concept in Marx's critique of capitalism in the early manuscripts. It's also an important part of my Intro to Philosophy class, at least today. (It's also an important part of a complete breakfast, but that's as may be.)

I mention it because Marx is a challenge to teach. Over the years, I've taught this passage from the 1844 Manuscripts 2.7 million times, give or take, and just about every time, there's a handful of students who dismiss his analysis out of hand. They tend to make one of two arguments that I find baseless.

One is that since the Soviet Union collapsed, we know that communism failed, therefore Marx was wrong. That could be true, if communism had actually been practiced in the USSR, and if communism "failing" meant that Marx's account of alienation was wrong. The first premise is false, the second begs the question.

The other dismissal is based on a rejection of Marx's implicit account of human nature. The argument is that Marx assumes (falsely) that human beings are naturally cooperative rather than naturally competitive; that is, that the basic tenet of capitalist and proto-capitalist political economy, the naturalness of acquisitiveness and Hobbes' war of all against all, are the true state of nature. This is much trickier, but I think dismissing Marx on this basis overrates the significance of the objection. Even if Marx has too optimistic a view of human cooperation, this argument ultimately fails as a dismissal of the account of alienation. For one thing, in that period Marx's fundamental theory of human nature focused on our being creative, consuming beings who are social. He attacks the presumption in capitalist political economy that greed and competition are natural, but he does not claim that we are naturally either greedy or altruistic. In any case, it's probably not a valid objection to the main line of the analysis of alienation.

My problem in class today will be compounded by the fact that the course is nominally about the good life, and here's Marx telling us about alienation. It's a sort of negative of the good life, and I'll have to not only explain alienation but try to tease out how it points to what the good life does consist of.

I'll probably end up talking about cooking.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

happy landings

I'm less neurotic than other people I know. I'm not afraid of heights. I'm not xenophobic, nor claustrophobic. I do not fear abandonment or machines. When a plane is flying low over a highway, however, I do often contemplate that it could suddenly, either in an emergency or because the pilot chooses that precise moment to snap, land in front of me. So I'm pleased to report not having been on Highway 4 when a plane landed there yesterday.

The wonderfully ironic background to the story is as follows.

It was a traffic reporter's plane.
The reason it was flying over Highway 4 is because, over the weekend, a tanker truck hauling gasoline burned and caused a major interchange between Interstates 80 and 580 to collapse - an interchange used by hundreds of thousands of commuters daily, all of whom now have to find ways around it, "ways," I should hasten to add, with fewer than the 5 lanes in and out of town offered by 580.

In other news, now crystal meth comes in delicious fruity flavors!

Let me randomly add that Lancelot's tests indicate a probable kidney infection, and he's on antibiotics. Prognosis is good.