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Staying Loyal to Losers

Yesterday, March 31, was opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  And it was quite an opener for the Pirates: a 1-0, extra-innings triumph over the Chicago Cubs.  I only caught one at-bat, but it was the one that counted most: Neil Walker’s walk-off solo shot over the right-field fence.  Here’s the play-call from MLB.com:

It was a dramatic ending to a game between two teams who, historically speaking, are not known for winning.  In fact, in my cultural memory, both clubs are the epitome of doormats.  So let’s talk about that.

The Cubs haven’t even been to World Series since 1945, and the Pirates hold the record for the most consecutive losing seasons in MLB history with 20 (1993-2012).  But despite their lack of success, both the Cubs and the Pirates have maintained loyal fanbases.  Maybe it’s their beloved home stadiums (Wrigley Field and PNC Park, respectively), or maybe it’s that both teams are woven into their cities’ cultures.  Whatever the cause, their fans have held out hope and keep buying tickets.

This loyalty is not something to just brush aside.  Following a baseball team is hard work: 162 games per year, with games practically every day from April through September.  Even when rooting for a pennant contender, it can be a slog.  Hell, watching the highlight reel on ESPN takes effort.  Now try staying involved when the losses pile up and the “games back” number increases.  There must be better things to do with your time.

And when the losing stretches out over years, the effort becomes harder to justify.  Someone my age can’t have many positive memories of the Pirates.  How many events can a young Pirates fan look back on and say with pride, “Yep, that’s my team, all right.”  At a certain point, I’d expect a fan to ask, “Why do I bother?” and look for another team.  Or just tune out entirely.

I’m not completely foreign to supporting losers.  Not in baseball, mind.  Though I’ve been living in Pittsburgh, I’m still a Yankees fan.  (Okay, yes, they’re not nearly as good as they were a decade ago, but at worst they’ve been “decent”).

I’m talking about the NFL here, because I root for the St. Louis Rams.

I really have just one good memory as a Rams’ fan: Super XXXIV, their 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans.  Granted, that one game has multiple good memories: Kurt Warner’s go-ahead TD to Isaac Bruce, Mike Jones’ tackle at the 1-yard line, etc.  But that was also my first year watching football.  It’s all been downhill from there.  Following that Super Bowl win came a steady slide to the basement.  They haven’t finished over .500 since 2003, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004.

If you pressed me for all my memories of the St. Louis Rams, I’d wager 95% of them would be negative–and even the positive ones would be positive only in a relative sense.  I think I better remember Az-Zahir’s muffed punt against the New Orleans Saints in the 2000 NFC Wild Card Game than Super Bowl XXXIV.  The entire Scott Linehan / Steve Spagnuolo era is a blur of utter ineptitude.  Simply winning back-to-back games in 2008 counted as a legitimate achievement.

But I keep watching.  (Well, listening on the radio, but the point stands.)  And I don’t have the possible explanations that Pirates and Cubs fans might have.  I’m not from anywhere near St. Louis, so it’s not woven into my cultural DNA.  I’m surrounded by teams that have accomplished much more, more recently.  They just don’t attract me the way that the now-mediocre Rams do.

I have no rational explanation for why I or anyone else remains loyal to that kind of loser.  Sure, there’s the expected joy when things finally turn around, but habit causes us to believe what was true in the past will be true in the future.  In others words, why not believe the Cubs will always be pathetic and the Rams will be tedious-if-not-pathetic?

There may be ethical reasons at play.  Our society holds loyalty to a cause as a virtue, and switching team allegiances–especially to a winning team–is often framed in terms of treason.  But what I call “loyalty”, someone else may call “stubbornness.”  And the choice of favorite sports team is so minor that framing the choice in terms of a moral imperative sound ludicrous.

We fans of losing sides could just be mad.  But who knows?  Maybe this is the year…

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Tossing the Red Pen

I’ve long had an interest in education.  I don’t know if I’m prime material for an educator, but the idea grabs me nonetheless.  This semester, I’ve been presented with an opportunity which places me on the outskirts of the educational complex.  I’ve been working as a grader for a course on modern philosophy, as part of the department’s experiment with undergraduate graders.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding this engagement, both for brevity and to respect students’ privacy.  I will, however, discuss what I’ve discovered about my attitudes towards grading, and what I’ve done about them.

To put it bluntly: I’m a mean grader.  Some people are mean drunks, some people are mean drivers, but I’m a mean grader.  By that I don’t mean I give out arbitrarily poor marks (I don’t), but that my internal monologue turns nasty when I sit down to grade something.

I remember opening the Blue Books for the first modern philosophy exam, and thinking not-very-nice things about the student whose work I was grading: Stay on topic, God damn it!  That’s not what Descartes was arguing!  Enough with the cutesy margin comments!  It took some restraint to not transcribe this internal frustration onto their responses.

Honestly, this should not have surprised me.  Last semester I read poetry submissions for the campus literary magazine, The Oakland Review.  Most submissions were, well, not very good, and it eventually got to the point where a giant “X” through the text proved sufficient commentary.  And that’s when I had the resolve to even write something down, instead of just saying, “That sucked,” and moving on.

The thing is: this meanness is just not productive.  (Or professional, but that goes without saying.)  Sure, it feels great in the moment, but once anger takes over, actual analysis just doesn’t happen.  After all, if a poem or essay drives you to hair-pulling with just a cursory glance, what rational person would want to find out exactly what’s wrong with it?  That sure as hell doesn’t work when the objective is to finely grade student work.

How does one overcome this impulse?  The first step, I found, was to think of the context in which the student wrote.  Students had 80 minutes to answer 4 questions, which comes out to 20 minutes per question.  That’s not very much time at all, when you get down to it.  For comparison’s sake, the (soon-to-be-optional) SAT Essay section gives test-takers 25 minutes.  

I’ve always said that no one has ever written a good essay on the SAT, and those are general, easy-to-understand prompts.  Why should I expect anyone to write something intelligent about Locke’s account of primary and secondary qualities when given 20% less time?  It’s just unrealistic.

The second step, after considering the context of the writing, is to remember the context of the student.  I’m a creative writing major, and I have a bad tendency to view all writing through that prism.  But not everyone has my mindset or priorities.  Hell, when I took a class with this professor last semester, I was the token English major.  Most of the students are from scientific backgrounds, and so don’t write many humanities-style essays.  Why should I expect to spontaneously master that format?

I don’t mean to say that writing quality, either in terms of argument or style, shouldn’t factor into grading.  Given equal content quality, a better written exam will get a better grade–but not drastically so.  It’s just more important that the students show an understanding of the material.  If students can explain Descartes’ argument in the first meditation, that’s great.  If they can do that and write well, that’s a bonus.  No reason to get angry.

Except for cutesy margin comments.  Those are inexcusable.

Did You Have to Be There?: “Our Gang” and Dated Satire

For years, my grandmother has been recommending that I read Philip Roth’s 1971 novel Our Gang, on the grounds that it was outrageously funny.  I knew nothing of the subject matter when I checked it out of the library last week.  Not until I saw the subtitle did I have some clue.  The full title is Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends).

“Tricky” refers to former U.S. president Richard M. Nixon–excuse me, “Trick E. Dixon”–and “his friends” would be his advisers and administration members.  Yep, Our Gang is a political satire.

Once I learned that I was dealing with a 40-odd year-old satire, I quickly became skeptical.  Not of its quality, mind, because Roth’s a good writer, but that I’d personally find much value in it.  One of the problems that a satirist faces is that, to have the desired effect, the audience has to have some background knowledge.  In some cases, such as The Onion and The Colbert Report, the background knowledge is the understanding that the source is not actual newspaper or broadcast.  Other times, a satire may require the audience to know the actual views of the author to realize a work should not be taken at face value.

Our Gang, as a novel, doesn’t face either of those problems.  It’s clearly a work of fiction, and the dialogue does its best to emulate the voices of the various political figures and caricatures.  No, Our Gang faces a different barrier to audience understanding: time.

Roth references a wide swath of contemporary figures and events in his satire: Jackie Kennedy’s re-marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Curt Flood’s fight against baseball’s reserve clause, the Cambodia Campaign, George Wallace’s 1968 run for president, and so forth.  Surely a reader in 1971 would be at least passingly familiar with most of these stories.  But cultural memory is porous; what was significant forty years ago becomes trivia today.

For example, let’s take Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Jacqueline Charisma Colossus.  As part of a convoluted plot, Tricky’s legal coach advises him implicate Jackie in a scandal by highlighting her re-marriage to a “foreigner” (just don’t mention he’s Greek).  Now, maybe at the time, her re-marriage to a Greek shipping magnate was a story, and could even be cast as, shall we say, “light treason”.  But as a reader in 2014, I don’t laugh or feel enlightened.  I just nod and say, “Sure.”

This isn’t limited to Our Gang, either.  I’m sure that in ten years–or hell, even now–people watching Arrested Development will see the Iraq War critiques and Atkins Diet jokes and “George Bush does not care about black puppets” and have my reaction to much of Our Gang.  And I’m pretty sure countless high-school students have this very reaction to “A Modest Proposal”. They might get the joke, as it were, but it won’t necessarily be meaningful.

These example would suggest that a satire has a very limited shelf-life.  In a sense, this is inevitable: if satire is supposed to provoke dissatisfaction with or action against the status quo, its usefulness is largely tied to that particular status quo.  But the world inevitably changes.  Presidents and fad diets come and go, and when that happens, a satire risks losing its punch.

This problem of passed time, however, does not render a satire worthless to future readers, or even unfunny to them.  I laughed quite a bit while reading Our Gang, because when lampooning politicians one cannot help but hit upon universal truths: incompetent or uncritical news media, duplicitous public relations, and electioneering shenanigans.  These topics will be relevant for the foreseeable future, even if the specifics become obscure.  Also, Roth has a great sense of the absurd.  The inciting incident in Our Gang is speech to real-life Nixon gave in support of “the rights of the unborn”.  This causes the in-novel Boy Scouts to protest, because by implication Tricky has come out in support of fornication.  That still gets me as I write this.

Finally, sometimes satire can improve with age.  Events which post-date the work can cast the satire in a new light.  There was one moment in Our Gang when I had to recheck the date of publication.  Context: in cooking up the grand scheme which makes up the meat of the novel, Tricky and his team digress into discussing baseball statistics (emphasis mine):

Well, just let me say one thing as regards my so-called “tactics”: if in any of the averages I have just quoted to you, I have altered Ted Williams’ record by so much as one hundredth of one percentage point, I will submit my resignation to Congress tomorrow.  Now that would be an unprecedented act in American history, but I would do it, if I had dared to play party politics with the American public on a matter as serious as this one.

This came out three years before Nixon resigned in 1974.  The Watergate break-in had not even happened yet.  It’s just one instant, but it shows sometimes satire can be funnier in retrospect.  So go ahead and find an old satire.  Maybe you’ll find an oddly prophetic moment like that.

Classical Music and Barriers to Entry

Even though I write about cultural products a lot on this blog, there are many areas of culture I know very little about.  Seriously, my socks have fewer holes than my cultural knowledge base.  This is especially true of music.  Sure, I do my best to keep up with new releases in popular music, but I can’t speak intelligently on production or composition, and I sure as hell can’t play any instruments.  My jazz collection is limited to Kind of Blue and Sunday at the Village Vanguard.  And, relevant to today’s topic, I hardly listen to any classical music.

This morning I read an article on Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker entitled “Requiem”, which talks about America’s declining interest in classical music.  Commercial classical radio is practically dead, symphonies are in financial hot water, and record sales have sharply fallen.  While there are certainly exceptions–I know quite a few personally–my generation as a whole has not embraced classical music as previous generations have.

As a self-fashioned cultural omnivore, this is especially shameful for me.  I can recognize some bits of Beethoven and Mozart, and there is this one piece my Tchaikovsky that I really like, but that’s about the breadth of my knowledge base.  Don’t even try asking me the name of a contemporary classical composer or instrumentalist; you’ll get a blank stare in response.  Hell, I am literally a five-minute walk from the public classical station (WQED-FM 89.3), and I can’t remember the last time I consciously listened to it.

So, why don’t I listen to more classical music?  Vanhoenacker offers up a handful of possible reasons: the financial crisis, cuts to school-based music education, etc.  But one I want to focus on in particular:

Classical music does retain overtones of, well, classiness.  But in contemporary America, that’s arguably its biggest problem.

Citing episodes of Modern Family as evidence, Vanhoenacker hints at a cultural bias against classical music, and perhaps “highbrow” culture in general.  Watching your daughter play cello in a classical music context is pulling teeth; doing the same in an alternative rock context is pleasant.  Vanhoenacker is onto something, but stopping where he does, one gets images of unwashed, ignorant masses instinctively rejecting true art.  I’d like to offer a slightly different take.

I don’t have the source on me, but back in freshman year I had to read a commentary on Pierre Bourdieu, and one idea of his has stuck with me to this day: “barriers to entry”.  People don’t engage with certain “highbrow” cultural products because they are intimidated or put-off by the complex rituals or technical aspects of the works.  There is whole field of prerequisite knowledge which one must have to appreciate a work, and unless that knowledge is easy to access, the work itself becomes inaccessible.

That piece by Tchaikovsky I mentioned is Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35.  I wouldn’t bring it up in conversation, however, because I have no idea what any of that means.  (Well, okay, I know “violin” is involved, but c’mon).  I have no functional vocabulary for classical music, so I cannot really have conversations about it.  And since conversation is such an important part of enjoying art, how can I truly be engaged with the piece at all?

Or, how about this: imagine that you’re an alien visiting Earth–and, like in the old movies, you know how to speak English.  You ask to see a great work of English literature, and I hand you my copy of Paradise Lost.  You might be able to understand the words, much like I can understand the “feeling” of a classical music piece.  But would Milton’s use of iambic pentameter, or the theological questions addressed in the text, or the possible political subtext, mean anything?  Would you be able to understand why English professors say it’s a big deal?  Or would you hand it back to me, say, “That’s nice,” and move on?

I don’t know how rectify the problem, how to break down the barriers to entry.  Perhaps stopping the cuts to music education is a start.  Or, as Vanhoenacker jokingly suggests, maybe Jeff Bezos can buy a symphony.  (There’s a promotional campaign: classical music delivered via drones).  Just, something to make a work less unduly imposing, that’s all I’m asking.

A Trip Back to High School English

While browsing through Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I stumbled upon a short post called “Kids Can’t Handle the Fiction?” (semi-permeable paywall), which brought me to two articles about teaching novels to high school students.  The first, from Natasha Vargas-Cooper, argues that high school English classes ought to focus more on nonfiction, which teenagers would better be able to understand.  The second, a response from Margaret Eby, sympathizes with Vargas-Cooper’s position but suggests that the point of novels is the confusion or ambiguity which they present.

I can see it both ways.  I do wish I’d been exposed to more nonfiction before I got to college.  When I took a class devoted to reading nonfiction I didn’t have much of a vocabulary for discussing it.  On the other hand, I believe the ambiguities which Eby highlights provide fertile ground for conversations, and I’d hate to see that lost.  But I’m not an expert in pedagogy, so maybe I’m off-base on that count.

I can, however, tap back into my high school student mindset, and from that perspective I don’t see how a change from novels to nonfiction would really change anything.

Ninth-grade English did its best to kill my love of reading.  This was not intentional, of course, but despite being avid reader for all my life, that class made me seriously reconsider that relationship.  The way the material was presented sucked all the fun out of the works.  Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” were only significant for being structurally similar stories.  Long Day’s Journey into Night was merely a source of alcohol-related vocabulary words.  Great Expectations existed.

Worst of all was Shakespeare.  Nowadays, Shakespeare is my absolute favorite writer.  Even his bad plays fascinate me (looking at you, Pericles), and a thunderstorm doesn’t pass with some quote from King Lear.  But after ninth-grade English, I held the stereotypical high school student view of Shakespeare: old writer dude who wrote incomprehensibly and who teachers liked for some odd reason.  That year we read Julius Caesar, and none of the political drama or personal relationships shone through.  Nope, it was just a random assemblage of metaphors and similes and puns which are no longer funny.  No wonder I hated it so much.

So far, it just sounds like bad teaching.  Try hard enough and you can make any subject boring.  But if I go forward in time just one year, I start doubting that’s the case.  In middle school, I read The Grapes of Wrath for fun, and despite being unable to quite relate to the plight of the Dust Bowl farmer, I still enjoyed the book.  But then it was assigned as summer reading for tenth-grade English.  Second time around and going through it was like pulling teeth.  And I can’t blame teaching there, because my teacher that year was great and energetic and almost made me care about Hawthorne.

In fact, what happened with me and The Grapes of Wrath repeated itself quite a bit in high school English classes.  Nineteen Eighty-FourBrave New WorldLord of the Flies: all books I loved when read for pleasure but semi-loathed when assigned for class.  And this is what I’m trying to get at: high school reading is homework.  What high school student enjoys doing homework?  Even if it’s a subject they like, they will feel some bit of resentment for being required to do it.

Why would a change to nonfiction appeal more to high school students?  Sure they could more easily relate, as Vargas-Cooper might say, to literal mounting-climbing than metaphorical mountain-climbing, but that doesn’t change the school setting.  Dickens or Didion, Brontë or Baldwin, homework is homework.  It’s still a time-suck, something keeping me from watching dumb videos on the Internet.

I’m certainly not arguing to eliminate assigned reading, nor am I saying that nonfiction shouldn’t be in high school English classes.  But unless high school students magically have changed since I graduated, I can’t imagine a curriculum change will make classes more appealing.

Cat Vacuuming

“Cat vacuuming” is one of my favorite expressions.  Briefly, it means work which is done to avoid actual work.  “Oh, I can’t write that short story today.  I have to…vacuum the cat, that’s the ticket.”  It’a procrastination or avoidance that feels like productivity.  Unfortunately, I’m a master at cat vacuuming.

Right now, I ought to be writing poetry (aka, what I’m going to school for).  I love writing poetry; I love the intellectual exercise of placing words, the best words, beside each other, the challenge of finding the right sound or line break.  But, alas, I’ve not been doing very much of that this break.  I’ve taken some notes, some lines, even whole stanzas, but it’s been a fractured process.

I think I’ve hit a form of writer’s block–not in the sense that I’m out of ideas, but rather that I’m afraid to write them down.  The mental image of vigorously drawn X’s and strikethrough lines keeps me from the page.  So instead, I’ve been reading.  A lot.  Since finals ended I’ve finished nine books, and I’m working through three more now.  Even when school’s in session I don’t read that much.

Sure, I can say that I’ve accomplished some things.  I’d never read any Isaac Asimov, and my knowledge of modern Latino poetry was nonexistent.  But, subconsciously, all this reading has been a distraction from writing.  As I came to this conclusion, I started feeling guilty–guilty!–about starting The Red Badge of Courage a few hours ago.  “I shouldn’t be reading Stephen Crane.  I should be being Stephen Crane.  (Except not in prose, and contemporary, and–this train of thought is getting away from me).”

Perhaps a similar type of cat vacuuming mentality kept me from blogging for much the past semester.  I mean, yeah, the broken laptop broke my routine pretty hard.  But even when the opportunity presented itself I found something else that needed doing.  “Oh, I can’t blog now, because…well, I still haven’t finished reading On the Nature of Things.

I realize a lot of writers consider blogging a form of cat vacuuming, but…actually I’ve got no rebuttal.  But I want to start this thing up again.  Maybe writing in one form will spur me to action in another.

Sorry that this post was not particularly insightful, but sometimes one must write three incoherent and poorly thought out stanzas before the poem’s actual topic presents itself.

To Fly, or to Be Invisible?

The most recent episode of This American Life dealt with superpowers, and why the idea of superpowers attracts our attention.  I was especially drawn to the show’s first segment, “Invisible Man vs. Hawkman”.  John Hodgman conducts an informal survey, based on one simple question: If you could have one of two superpowers, which would you pick: invisibility or flight?  I thought I’d take a crack at answering this.

First, invisibility strikes me as the more interesting power to analyze.  Philosophers and writers have been using the power of invisibility to explore human ethics for a long time.  In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon uses the Ring of Gyges to argue that man would not be moral if he were free from the threat of punishment; H. G. Wells explores similar themes in The Invisible Man.  The way it’s used in ethical thought experiments, it’s a wonder that any superheroes would be given invisibility as a power.  Invisible Man could of course sneak up on muggers, but he could also sneak off with the old lady’s purse.

Now, flying is, of course, a power that humans have wanted for ages.  We’ve wanted to join the birds and soar above the towns below.  And rising up to the sky has a sort of spiritual connotation.  You are ascending to a higher plane, joining the gods or what have you.  But it also resists ethical analysis.  While invisibility is ethically ambiguous, flying is ethically neutral.  It’s like breathing–it suggests nothing about the person who possesses the power.

That’s probably the reason that many people in the This American Life segment ultimately pick flying.  (Actually, that’s the reason Hodgman gives.)  Invisibility raises too many personal questions: are you sneaky, deceitful, cowardly, voyeuristic?  Picking invisibility in that scenario forces the subject to confront their inner demons.  Even if the subject does not believe they possess those vices, they may worry that invisibility would corrupt their morals.  Better to pick the neutral superpower.

For my part, though, I’d stick with my guns and pick invisibility.  I think it better suits my personality: quiet and introverted, wary of conversation.  I’m not sure I’d even do anything with invisibility; it would just be nice to fade out for a bit.  (Besides, I’d probably use flying for the same purpose–I would just burn more calories in the process.)  If I’m being more practical, it would be great for poetry–much easier to people-watch when others aren’t watching.

Ah, see, I’ve fallen into the voyeuristic trap.  Should I back out?  Embrace the clarity of flight.  Nah.  At the very least, if I’m invisible I can soundtrack my life with Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”.  A great song, so that’s something, right?  Actually, no, wait, that’s also really depressing.

Hmm, this question is a lot harder than I’d anticipated.  Now why wasn’t fire breath an option?