Saturday, March 01, 2008

"Duma Key" to King Success? Book Review


Hard to believe that I've been reading Stephen King for twenty-five years, but there it is. I started with "Pet Sematary" and have read 90% of what he's written since. Does that make me a King "expert"? A dubious distinction . . .
Characterization is King's strong suit. Horror or fantasy or straight fiction -- it doesn't matter. His characters stick with you. King's ability to make us identify with his stock every-day-sort-of-guy main character represents his greatest strength as a writer. You'll like Freemantle and Wireman. You could have a beer with them. (You'll recognize Freemantle from Mike Noonan in "Bag of bones." Twins separated at birth, maybe?)

You'll also recognize King's typical build-up. Normal guy in unusual circumstances finds himself confronted with ambiguous monster out to get him (and his family) for unknown reasons. The foreplay is always more exciting that the actual act. Just like in "Dreamcatcher", King has trouble in this book moving from the heavily foreshadowed bogeyman to the real-life campaign to kill it. (Where do his monsters ever come from anyway? Do they ever have a history?) The exposition is quality, like something out of "The Stand" or "Hearts in Atlantis", but the ending melts into cheesiness, like a chapter from "Salem's Lot."

As an English teacher, I have a running row with my colleagues about whether King writes literature or trash. My argument has always been that he writes both. Most people don't realize that he's behind "The Shawshank Redemption" or "Stand by Me", or that his story "The Man in Black" won 1st place a few years back in "The Best American Short Story." (Ok, maybe that was a marketing ploy. But any guy who churns out a book a year, at least, is using the "win sometimes lose sometimes" strategy.) In this book he wins and loses. Great characterization and build up, unsatisfying hackneyed ending.

P.S., Mr. King. Enough with the ad placement. While reading this book, I found my mouth watering for a Pepsi, and I had an unconscious desire to buy a Ram truck. My guess is that you're already rich. Do you need to belittle your work with constant references to consumer items?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ramblings on Schooliness and Forrest Gump


Ah, so many thoughts came to mind when I read Clay's article over his own high school experience . . . I thought about all the things that I learned from all the stuff associated with those years besides the classes – the track meets, chasing girls, trying to decide which hairstyle was best (something I still haven't figured out), the musicals, the parties, the breakups, the hundreds of fantasy and sci-fi works that I devoured at home (I'm sure that I learned more about life and honor and suffering from Thomas Covenant, Belgarion, and Frodo than all my other experiences put together).


But what did I actually learn from high school? Well, I'm sure that there was something. Actually, I know that there was. The truth is that I always felt pretty smart. There was a click around my sophomore year when I saw that doing well in classes was really pretty easy. I could wedge good grades between my outside reading and all the other stuff that I mentioned before. By the time I reached my junior year, I was getting A's in almost everything. I wrote the game Pente for the computer (in Basic, no less), I balanced equations and computed sin and cosine like I was born to it, I wrote essays and research papers, I conjugated verbs in French, and Voila! I became the model, well-rounded high school student. I guess that I could list the specific skills and content that stuck with me, but what would be the point? Will I be tested over it? Aren't we all just products of the stuff that is thrown at us over the years? Isn't high school just a chaos where everything is stirred together to mix and stew and react and where we hope that there will be that cosmic “click” when students will become, so to speak, “self-aware” about there own educations?


The kernel that I find in all of these arguments about “schooliness” versus self-directed education lies in application and identity. In my mind, a better word for “application” is “gumption.” And by “identity” I mean that moment when a person decides who he is, independent of what society or others want him to be. Yes, Forrest “Gump” is the perfect example. (e.g. “Gump.” I like to tell my literature students that nothing in literature is accidental – “Author's purpose! Author's purpose!”, the IB teacher's mantra . . .) Mr. “Gump” succeeded in life because he defined himself early, albeit in the most simple terms (like Siddhartha's final incarnation staring into the river) and based on that solidity of identity acted, acted I say, without too much thought or hesitation. He applied his knowledge, his identity, to life and became, voila!, great.


I would have liked to have jogged alongside Mr. Gump on his way back and forth across the country (staying busy is, after all, the best way to overcome grief) or danced with him and Elvis (why is dancing so meaningless and powerful at the same time?) or gone shrimping with him and Sgt. Dan (hope and persistence pay off, don't they?)


But while Forrest was acting, I was “learning.” And there's the rub. That's the key component missing from education today and the point at which my ideas converge with Clay's. “Schooliness” undermines application. It serves as a distraction from gumption and identity. The reason that so many of us become self-aware only after high school is that only then are we asked to put those skills, skills, skills to work to actually do something. Maybe that's why those extra-curricular activities are the ones that stick with us . . . We put on a musical, we compete against others in track or basketball, or science projects, we produce a newspaper or yearbook, we climb the social ladder based on what we “do”; in short, our actions become manifest and are hailed or heckled by those around us.


So the real question is how to change those passive classrooms into productive studios where students are asked to do something rather than just learn how to do it. We should focus on helping them make themselves into journalists, or computer-programmers, or marketers, rather than trying to teach them the skills to be future journalists, or future computer-programmers, or future marketers. Forrest Gump never took a running class. I'm pretty sure that Benjamin Franklin never formally studied journalism or physics and that Mohatma Ghandi never sat for a class on political relations.


So did I learn a lot in high school? Definitely. Did I do a lot in high school? Not much. Do I see a need for reflection concerning curriculum and a move away from skills-based, high-stakes testing? Well, stupid is as stupid does.

See Clay Burell's open thread, "On the value of your own high school learning"

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Education: More Than an Individual Endeavor


Submitted to Munity-East, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006

The value in education is obvious for most international school kids. You go to school to get your learning, and then you go on to become doctors, or lawyers, or artists, or diplomats. The schooling that you receive is an enabler. It allows you to plan for and to meet your goals . . . those goals most likely include the attainment of health, happiness, and prosperity.

Some of you who have stopped to think about it see other benefits in education. Maybe you see learning as an end in itself. You read a great novel or master a new mathematical concept, and this accomplishment gives you a sense of satisfaction and edification. You see that education has added to your understanding of the world and your quality of life. You see that you’ve been exposed to things that many people in the world may never understand or appreciate – the joy of travel, the sense of wonder that you experience at a museum or an opera, or the simple pleasure of a conversation that challenges your intellect and sharpens your opinions.

So, education is a means of achieving one’s goals and improving one’s quality of life. But what about education as a means for solving world problems? Can the value of education be extended beyond the individual? After having been a student for a score of years and a teacher for another decade, I would argue that education as a concept will have a huge impact on the future – just as it has had on the past. Our efforts to educate not only ourselves, but to extend that education to impoverished or strife-ridden areas of the world will dramatically influence the course of events during the 21st century.

The fact is that the world is becoming smaller. Cliché, yes, but true nonetheless. As people of different nationalities, races, and beliefs begin more and more to rub elbows, it will become more and more apparent that one’s neighbor’s level of education is as important – or sometimes more important – than one’s own.

A case in point today is the level of xenophobia between many countries of the world. As educated individuals, we know that the large majority of people, no matter what their nationalities, share many common values: family, prosperity, a desire to live in peace and happiness. When knowledge and history are controlled or repressed by the state, it’s easy for the masses to come to see outsiders as monsters. There are numerous uneducated or unthinking individuals among us who see others as barbaric, cruel, or “out-to-get-them.”

Tyrants, maybe more than anyone else, understand the power of education, or more precisely, the lack thereof. That is why they work so hard to keep their subjects in the dark. Their Orwellian demonization of other cultures through manipulation of knowledge and the media diminishes the humanity of those peoples, thereby twisting reality so that repression and genocide are a moral obligation. So “un”education is also an enabler. It allows the few to control the many by playing upon their fears and prejudices. Education is the means of toppling these ideas. It is impossible for people to maintain the same levels of prejudice and hatred after having been exposed to the similarities of those so-called opposing cultures.

The deteriorating environment represents another educational dilemma. Ultimately, we all breathe the same air, we drink the same water, and we walk on the same ground. We can’t allow ourselves to forever maintain our dependence on polluting energy sources which corrupt our life’s medium. It is important that we educate ourselves in the use of alternative and renewable energy sources and that we then look to their proliferation. We also cannot allow many societies of the world to continue to experience the ravages of preventable diseases. Who will educate the children if the parents are dead? Besides the fact that no one will be there to teach them not to hate us, there may also be no one to explain the consequences of cutting down their forests, or that poverty is a cycle fueled by lack of family and financial planning, or about how mining or clear-cutting can lead to erosion and dangerous metal seepage, thereby diminishing food supplies and further deteriorating the population’s already sub-standard levels of health.

It’s not enough to view education as a means to an end for the individual. While working to become a doctor, lawyer, artist, or a diplomat is a noble goal, it is fundamental that we also work to become teachers in the sense that we support and participate in the efforts to spread the same value for learning that has so positively affected our own lives. Be a doctor who teaches cleanliness and sanitation. As a lawyer, help those with little understanding of the government to avoid becoming the victim of it. Put your artistic talents to work to show that a mountain is more beautiful than as strip mine. As a diplomat, work to understand other cultures and ensure that they understand your own. Because, as all learned people must understand, education is more than a personal endeavor; it is a responsibility. Empowering others through teaching will broaden the pool of responsible global citizens. It is the factor that will determine whether we will progress toward a more promising future or continue to wallow in the mistakes and poor practices of the past and present.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hodgepodge 10-30-2006


When I was a kid at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood, I and every other reader in the school were in a race to check out Where the Sidewalk Ends. That was before Barnes and Nobles or Borders when books were still something to be checked out of the library. The book was so popular because the internet wasn't around and Atari was still something that most people couldn't afford or rejected on principle, and because it was full of poems like "Sister for Sale" and "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too" (who, incidentally, went for a ride in a flying shoe . . .). But many was the time that our weekly library hour came and I rushed to the "S" section of the poetry section to find it already gone.
Right next the vacancy that Silverstein should have occupied was a book called Hodgepodge which means, if you don't know, "a little bit of everything." It had a little poetry (the funny, kid kind), some riddles, and even some short stories. I found that, all-around, it was a pretty good substitute for other book, and better yet, it was always waiting patiently for me on the shelf. Here is a "Hodgepodge" of some of my thinking over the last couple of weeks.

Starbucks is sweet.
I guess that I should be one of those people who rejects corporate coolness, and in general, I am. When in Austin, I much prefer Mojo's on Guadalupe or -- better yet --Joe's on South Congress where I can sit outside with my dog and watch the real Austinites pass by.
But when in Taichung, I prefer Starbucks -- even if I did just pay $80 NT for a cup of tea. Walking my dog to the shop from my apartment, I pass a lot of betle nut shops, a lot of crazy drivers pass me in their beaters, on their scooters, or in their BMWs. I smell stinky dofu, I pass Tai Chi people in the park, and look in the window at a bunch of nice looking restaurants where I can't read the menu.
So when I get to Starbucks, I don't scoff. I sit myself down outside in the familiar faux wicker chair, listen to the familiar canned jazz, look around at the Taiwanese version of American Starbucks customers, and enjoy a little respite from my otherwise off-kilter world.

Higher Abortion Rates Equal Less Crime.
This is not an argument for abortion; rather, it's just an acknowledgement of the hypothesis that more the increase in abortions soon after Roe vs. Wade probably had a lot to do with the declining crime rates in the 1990s. I recently read Levitt's Freakonomics and found this to be one of the more interesting points. (Other interesting topics included cheating Sumo wrestlers and a man who was able to relate honesty to bagel consumption.) In a nutshell, the 1990s were supposed to go to hell in a hand basket. All the experts foresaw skyrocketing numbers of robberies, rapes, and murderers. But somehow they all ended up with egg on their faces.
So what was the driving force behind this falling of? Was it better parenting skills? Was it better law enforcement or CSI techniques? Was it the rising economy? Well, maybe . . .
But according to the statistics, it had a lot more to do with the number of future criminals who never got the chance. The women most likely to have abortions were those in difficult circumstance -- poor, abused, uneducated, alone. Their children were likely to have grown up in impoverished circumstances with little supervision and too many opportunities to get in trouble. At risk, you might say. Their coming of age corresponded with the drop in crime rates in the 90s.
While advocating abortions to prevent crime is, in my opinion, far too Swiftian, there are a host of arguments surrounding the issue. For example, the ready availability of birth control or real sex education in schools. Choices other than abortion that could still allow women to avoid unwanted pregnancies, because someone -- whether it be mom, sister, grandma, adoption agencies, or the criminal justice system -- will have to deal with the consequences.

Denial: It's Not Just a River in Libya.
That's Bill Maher's line, not mine, and of course refers to the intelligence of President Bush. I like Bill. He's funny.
Bush isn't stupid, however -- just stubborn and a little crazy. At least that's the impression that I got of him after reading the new Woodward book, State of Denial. Mostly, the book just blamed everything on Rummsfield. It didn't say anything that I didn't already know (Shouldn't have gotten into the war, great takeover, no plan for how what to do next, everything seriously ‘effed’ up now.)
I think that it's much too easy to just view things as Rummsfield's fault. He smells like a scapegoat. No, I think that the buck has got to stop with Bush. And I even admire the President a little bit for sticking by his man when the chips are down.
But it's just another illustration of why Bush shouldn't be there in the first place. He's not dumb, but he's not the right man for the job. So much of the bad that has happened in the last 6 years is directly attributable not to his malice, but to his mistakes. Iraq, Kyoto, New Orleans . . .
Emerson said, "Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. " It's OK if you were on Bush's side to begin with. He was an attractive candidate. It's also OK now if you realize that it's time for a change. (Not that the democrats look that much better . . .)
On a side note, I watched Gore's movie over the weekend and thought to myself: Where was that guy during the election? He was so calm, so inspiring, so not-stiff. What a time to pull it out -- 6 years later.
Poor timing, in my opinion.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Aristocracy Rising -- Phil's View


Fairness, hm? When was that ever a right. Moderated by the have's and desired by the havent's. Fairness is merely a virtue that we aspire to teach our kids despite never having experienced it, thus not really knowing how to relate it, either. Fairness compares only to other concepts such as infinity or perfection. Reality, however, is life. It is what you make it. This contrasts to fairness in that you have more control over it. You can change your reality by applying your virtues to your desires. Are you, yes you sitting there behind your lcd screen, going to change how a university accepts its student body or how a president is cultivated? Well, you have more power here than you realize. But don't kid yourself. It will not be in your lifetime. Or perhaps even your daughter's. But your altruism will be of benefit to a few generations below you that you will never meet. They may not realize you were the Butterfly in Beijing but it will be other bloggers 200 years from now seeking fairness from your very descendants. It's a signature of stable government that power and influence are slow to change from one constituency to another. By contrast, a regime that fluctuates in extremes over short periods stands no chance of longevity.Not that fluctuation isn't normal. Or necessary. All in life fluctuates. It is intrinsic to reality and has not been contradicted. From the electron vibrating about a proton, to the galaxies in the universe. To the hand of power among humans. History is abundant with examples. So what if your kid has a lesser chance to enter Harvard. Just as the northern Atlantic is rebuffed by the Norwegian coast, the advancing fjord suddenly does strike deeply into her mainland, albeit in a craggily and twisted path. Your only hope of approaching fairness lies in your desire to provide her the chance to reach a little farther than you could.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Real Fear



When I got married everyone said that I was going to get fat. I didn’t. Then, when I hit 30, everybody said that I was going to get fat. I didn’t. Now that we’ve got a baby on the way everybody is making a new prediction: “Your lifestyle is going to totally change!” Well . . . maybe.
There are things about my life that will almost certainly change. In fact, they’re already changing. I don’t ride the scooter as much, for example. Not that I think that it’s inherently all that much more dangerous that driving the car, but as I don’t have life insurance yet, I try to minimize my two wheel excursions. That’s another thing: I’m looking in to some life insurance. I like the idea of Gisella and the baby and Zelda getting a pile of cash if I get crunched by a bus or fall off a cliff or have a heart attack or buy it in one of the other billion ways to go.
I think that that’s my main point. There are a billion and one or two ways to go. Maybe you live in the safest town on the planet. Maybe you’ve got a nice new house and a reinforced, top of the line crash tested Volvo that you drive 2 miles to work through no traffic. Unfortunately, you like to eat and keel over at 45 from a heart attack. So it goes. Or maybe you work out every day, weigh ten pounds less that average, and eat nothing but tofu and carrots. Unfortunately, you eat some bad spinach and die from e. coli. So it goes. Or maybe you avoid bacteria-laden vegetables but like to smoke. Unfortunately, you’re dumb , and die of lung cancer. (S.I.G) Maybe you’re a healthy non-smoking, non-motorcycle riding, spinach avoiding guy, but you happen to live on the West Coast and get nuked by the North Koreans. (And the little bird sings "Pooteeweet.")
So when you think about it, there’s really nothing to be scared about because we’re all going to die. It’s just a matter of when. (Better later than sooner, you’re probably thinking. Good point.) Death, while sucky, shouldn’t be something that we’re constantly worried about.
There are a lot of things that do really scare me. I don’t want to go into the obvious ones like being completely paralyzed or being buried alive. Those are easy. It’s the less obvious things that we really have to watch out for – the things that, while they might not actually lead to our deaths, might lead to a loss of life.
I used to work for an expedition company. Every summer, we would take teenagers on these extended camping trips in Washington state. I worked with a lot of interesting people. Most of them worked the job seasonally and lived out of their cars. In the winter they were ski instructors, and in the spring waiters and waitresses. Or maybe they used the few thousand dollars a year that they made to travel around the world (It’s amazing where you can go when you don’t have a house or a car payment). Anyway, there was one young lady who worked with us who didn’t come from the restaurants or the ski resorts; rather, she was an investment banker. I always admired the fact that she was willing to spend the few days of vacation that she got each year with a bunch of kids camping out in the woods. Still, I couldn’t understand why she was so interested in working so many hours just to make money. When I asked her about it, out conversation went something like this:
“So, why do you spend so much time working and making money?”
“Well, I think that it’s so important to provide for your family.”
“But you don’t have a family . . . “
“But I will one day.”
“But wouldn’t it be better to have less money but more time to spend with your kids?”
“Well, maybe. But what are you going to do if one of them gets sick and only a certain kind of operation will save them, but you can’t afford it?”
“Good point . . .”
For a while, I couldn’t find a good answer to her remark. It bothered me. Here I was going around and saying that having a lot of money didn’t matter when, in fact, if I didn’t earn a lot of money, my family would die of some rare, but operable illnesses that I couldn’t afford to get treated. It sort of makes sense if you think about it only from a caregiver’s point of view. Then I started thinking about my own father. I appreciated the fact that he was around a lot, even though he didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, as a kid, I would have been horrified to know that he had wasted his whole life just to earn enough money to try to save me from every possible means of buying it – something that I now know is impossible anyway.
So while I have to admit that the idea of death holds a modicum of fear for me, my real fear consists not of dying, but of not really living. That's real fear. I'm not going to spend my time trying to live forever. I'm going to enjoy myself and try to keep my head above water. It's the balance that counts. A little money, a little time. A little scooter a little car. A little life, and eventually, hopefully somewhere far down the line, a little death.
So it goes.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Aristocracy Rising


Thomas Jefferson said that “There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” Apparently, he had it all wrong. Apparently, our aristocracy is one based on wealth and privilege, at least concerning our nation’s most prestigious universities.

In an article entitled “Poison Ivy”, this month’s Economist reports that “No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra ‘hook’, from rich parents to ‘sporting prowess’. Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared to 11% of general applicants. About 25% of students in Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Apparently, it means that if you come from a rich family, or your parents went there, or you’re above average in fencing or polo, or your parents work there, then you’re a shoe in. So much for the level playing field. Moreover, since salaries are more and more based on the quality of post-secondary education, it means that the rich are more likely to stay rich, and the poor are more likely to stay poor.

You might be asking yourself, “So what? Shouldn’t people be able to help their kids get into the best university possible? Wouldn’t Jefferson, himself, have used whatever means necessary to get his son accepted to the university of choice?” Well, sure. It’s natural to want the best for your children. That’s just it: Everybody wants the best for their children. That’s why it’s important to have a fair system for university admissions – one based on “virtue and talents” rather than money and influence. It's the job of the parents to get their children into the best university possible; it's the job of the universities to ensure that the admittance procedures are based who-they-are rather than who-they-know.

Admissions at colleges of this level can have real-world implications. Think about a kid that you knew from high school. A kid with a nice personality, but not a great GPA – someplace in the “C” range. He’s a fine boy, but not especially dedicated. You both apply to Yale, but although your grades are better, you don’t quite make it, while he rides in on the “legacy” admission standard because his father was a graduate. You go on to become a successful business man, doctor, lawyer, teacher, rocket scientist, . . . whatever. Congratulations! He goes on to become president of the United States. That's right. Your president, Dubya formerly George Bush, was a "C" student admitted because his father was a VIP alumnus.

It just doesn’t seem fair, does it?