Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The KFC Maneuver

I was thinking about the Self Knowledge Symposium starting up programs again this fall at UNC, and I started wondering what other student organizations were looking and sounding like this year. So I started by checking out the biggest and most market-saavy of student organizations: Campus Crusade for Christ. So, if you're interested in marketing and messaging and such, click on the link and check it out, and see what your first impressions are. I'll wait for you.

* * *

So, what strikes you?
  • Check out that super-strong emphasis on the school affiliation: the big UNC logo in their cheesecake photo, the Carolina colors . . . versus the group name, "c a m p u s c r u s a d e" in tiny letters at the top of the page. That shouldn't be too surprising: if you're looking for a hook to get people to identify with your organization, you can't really go wrong by appealing to the identification they already feel with the school. It also screams "mainstream"; we're normal, we're just like you, we're just another part of the university experience. We are not Jesus-freaks.
  • "Mars . . . needs . . . women." I couldn't find a single male face until I went three pages deep into the site. Maybe it's coincidence, but I doubt it. The fact is that images of women are good for selling to both men and women. I also recently heard that women buy 80% of the spiritual books in the U.S.
  • Notice how the full name, "Campus Crusade for Christ," only appears in the finest of print, and completely outside the main content of the site. In their text, they refer to themselves as "Cru"; they reference the larger national movement as "CCC". Now, when you've got a long clunky name, it's only natural that it gets abbreviated in casual use. (Hardly anyone says "Self Knowledge Symposium," either. It's been "Es-Kay-Es" since the second year it existed.) But I think there is more going on here. For years and years, Kentucky Fried Chicken used it's full name in ads, jingles and packaging. Then, it became clear that the name was more of a liability than a help; in an increasingly health-conscious world, it didn't really help to scream "Fried!" at the top of your lungs. So they switched to "KFC". Same colors, same Colonel, same brand, but now with a name that softened the connotations. I think Campus Crusade is in a similar situation. With an increased sensitivity to Islam in the media, "Crusade" conjures up the darker side of Christianity's past. But "Cru" seems so much cleaner; if it has any connotations, it makes one think of sculling (i.e. "crew") or bubbly (e.g. "Premier Brut Cru Champagne"). And Federal Express proved that the best sign of one's popularity is to be better known by one's nickname: "FedEx". Hence, "United Parcel Service" decided to follow suite and adopt its industry nickname, "Brown." And the tabloids minted abbreviations galore: "J-Lo", "Branjolina", etc.
  • I'm very impressed with the clean structure of the site. There is very little text. They explain their mission in one tight page. They have hyperlinks to the more extensive treatments (e.g. "See God Rightly") but they keep the noise level to an absolute minimum on the main site.

We could learn a lot from these people. Bill Bright, the founder of the movement, received the Templeton Award for Progress in Religion, primarily because he was a genius for organizing people and building a lasting legacy. I think the SKS could get there, too.

Revisionist Lear

We watched A Thousand Acres, a modern retelling of King Lear on an Iowa farm. I think, on the whole, that I liked this film, though when I try to write about it I find myself focusing on its shortcomings instead of its merits. It's solidly in the drama category, revolving 100% around the relationships of all the characters, and it does that very, very well. Among some people, drama also means "something that will leave you vaguely disturbed for several hours", which also applies here. Michelle Pfeiffer is the perfect Regan, full of cold hate, while Jessica Lange is a Goneril of a different color, a self-described "ninny" who's capacity for repression seems unbounded.

Warning: spoilers follow.

So, if the acting is great, and you've got a great play to read from, why doesn't it come together? My reaction is similar to the one I had to Gregory McGuire's Wicked, or John Gardner's Grendel: radical reinterpretations of classics are invariable doomed to be very self-conscious works. Instead of just surrending to the story, you find yourself playing literary critic and armchair psychologist at the same time: "Oh, there's the Edward character! Or is it Edgar? Gee, I'm finding myself more identifed with the Goneril figure than I anticipated. Is that right? What are we saying here?" That can offer its own fun, but when the story unwinds as slowly as this one does, the mental commentary becomes the focus, a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000," only dark in tone instead of light.

Also, I kinda feel like a reinterpreted classic needs to stay "in bounds," meaning that if it's going to make good guys into bad, or bad into good, it has to stay roughly true to the "facts" of the case: it's cool to show me things from the other person's side of the story, but very uncool to stack the deck. And that's where I felt cheated in A Thousand Acres. Through the first half of the movie, I felt a lot of complexity in the situation, and found myself identifying with everyone: sad for Lear, sad for Cordelia, but also feeling sympathy for Regan and Goneril, too. I found myself saying, "Gee, there really is more to this story than I first thought."

I could even live with the first initial rumblings to physical and sexual abuse; that seemed plausible and fair. But that's also the point at which the balanced portrayal suddenly becomes heavy-handed and lopsided. Now the movie is all about the incest: Lear is a bastard, and Regan's hatred is heroic, case closed. The feminism becomes progressively overpowering: farm wives are ninnies, men are dogs. And Lear's madness gets a complete downgrade: he isn't a mighty monarch struggling with existential angst, he's just lost in dementia. Goneril is supposed to be the mitigating factor -- the one who's love is stronger than her hate -- but that comes across feeling more like a sign of her weakness than a sign of her strength. In the end, it feels very messy . . . which is how life is, so I suppose that just heightens the drama. But I felt unsatisfied.

We also have a "recovered memory" of abuse, which is a phenomena so thoroughly questioned now that its seems either naive or irresponsible to include it. (Although I guess this film was made ten years ago, so I have to forgive some of that.)


Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Charlie Brown formula

It’s 1 am in the morning, and I can’t sleep. This is rarity for me, because normally I operate on a level of perpetual sleep deprivation that I can sleep anytime, anywhere, at the drop of a hat, as soon as I stop moving. Must be some free-floating anxiety about school starting up soon at UNC. A tagline popped into my head as I was lying bed: “The Self Knowledge Symposium: transforming vague anxity into actionable guilt since 1989.”

My boss told me today: “You need to take a really extravagant vacation. Go somewhere, do something. I know you have your SKS and everything, but you can’t just work all the time. You need something to look forward to, a reward for the work you’ve done.” My immediate gut-level reaction was, “Yeah, but I don’t feel like myself when I’m not working.”

He may be on to something, though. The truth is that, at 1 am, I don’t always know what is motivating me. I experience brief highs (like, 15 seconds of happiness) when I solve a problem at work; I do a little happy-dance when the code does what it should. But then I’m moving on to the next fire. Daily victories breaking up a sea of dread . . . it’s hard to connect the day-to-day trials to the big picture, which isn’t a good sign.

Charlie Brown said: “Happiness is three things to look forward to and nothing to dread.” I always thought that was a pretty good functional definition of happiness. It showed some special self-knowledge on the part of Charlie Brown, since, by that definition, he was rarely if ever happy. Charlie Brown was the poster-child of dread; 90% of the humor in the Peanuts cartoon hovered around his impending sense of doom, interspersed with brief respites of joy and love. It’s also why, in spite of him being such a sadsack, so many people connected with him. Charlie Brown was Everyman; we all felt the same way.

So what am I looking forward to?

Let me get back to you on that . . . because, man, am I slammed with work right now.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Tantrumland for Number 2

My younger son Malcolm is two and a half and has entered a stage of near-perpetual tantrums. He's still cute enough that his tantrums would be endearing, were it not for his dedicated persistence in asking for really inconvenient things. Yesterday there was a pair of extra socks that he carried with him throughout the day -- in the car, to the pool, into the pool -- and he would not relinquish them. Then when he got home, he wanted to wear said socks (now soaking wet) through the house. When denied, he laid himself out on the floor in classic tantrum pose, ams and legs flailing. His tone is less angry than Aidan ever was, a sort of inconsolable hysteria.

When you're constantly dealing with someone who's losing their shit, you look for any way to lighten the tone. It's not really fair to the kids to make fun of their tantrums, since you want to acknowledge their emotions and guide them to acceptable ways of expressing it. But we can't help ourselves; Janet and I start improvising on songs to describe the situation:

(sung to the tune of "How can I keep from singing")

My soul is lost in endless wants
And calming words are useless
I want it so, but you say "No"
My parents are so clueless.

The tears flow down my flush-ed cheeks
And from my eyes are streaming.
Since all conspire 'gainst my desire
How can I keep from screaming?

My hope is that most of it is going over their heads.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Do more, know less

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is all about the "adaptive unconscious," the processes in our brain that are reaching conclusions and making decisions without our conscious knowledge. I think reading the book has had an impact on me at that level, because I have found myself making some bold decisions without a lot of hand-wringing lately.

I took complete charge of the UNC SKS student group, something I would have utterly dreaded a year ago but now I feel oddly comfortable about. I found that waiting around for someone else to take charge was ultimately more stressful than just jumping in and taking the responsibility I didn't want. I still have significant concerns about growing the organization; I have lots of empirical evidence from the last fifteen years to show that I'm not the worst leader the group has ever had, but far from the best. But once I made the decision (and I didn't even realize I had made the decision until I heard myself telling my colleagues on the phone) I felt to the psychic release, as if a weight had been lifted, and I knew that I had been repressing my concern for the group for a long time.

I stopped playing Scrabble, pretty much cold turkey. In retrospect, I think it was one of my repression tools; I kept my brain occupied so it wouldn't think about all the things I ought to be doing instead. It's not that I don't enjoy playing, anymore . . . but the compulsion has lifted. It stopped seemingly like a good idea. (There is a scene in Melville's Moby-Dick in which Captain Ahab realizes that smoking his pipe is distracting him from quest to find the white whale, and he tosses his pipe into the sea. It wasn't a frantic committment; it's just that once he saw clearly what it was doing to him, he didn't want it anymore.)

All of this has felt rather like the decision to start blogging at the beginning of the year. I didn't know what was going to become of it; I didn't know how I would find the time, or whether it was realistic, or what technology I needed, or anything. I just went and did it. I've knownfor a while that I needed to live more of my life that way, and I think this book has given me permission to do so. Sometimes self-knowledge means knowing what you don't need to know.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A back-handed justification for affirmative action

I've been reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a wonderful book, smart and funny and insightful, with ideas of significance and the most engaging stories. I want to be Malcolm Gladwell when I grow up.

The basic premise of Blink is that people are constantly making snap judgements with apparently very little information, sometimes for ill (like racial prejudice) but often better than you'd ever expect (like soldiers under fire, or doctors in an ER, or traders on a stock floor). He makes the rather remarkable claim that often less information is better than more information when it comes to making decisions.

For all the many years that we've heard about unconscious racial bias, Gladwell is the first person I've ever read who forwarded really solid scientific evidence to measure it in individuals. He describes how the Implicit Assumption Test (IAT) can measure associations we have between two ideas (such as "African-American" and "bad") simply by measuring how long it takes to sort lists of words. The measures are consistant and repeatable, and very difficult to fudge even when you know what's at stake. People with very progressive and tolerant philosophies (including Gladwell himself, by his own admission) find that they have measurable biases against blacks. (You can take it yourself on the link, above; try it out for yourself.)

What's even more remarkable, though, is the studies on what can change one's implicit biases. If a person has lots of experiences that directly contradict their prejudices, their unconscious associations will change. One track-and-field competitor found that his prejudice against blacks measurably reversed after watching Olympic competitions in which black runners were dominating all the events.

You would think that this would provide a good theoretical underpinning for policies of affirmative action. After all, the explicit purpose of putting more minorities into positions they historically did not occupy (like elite universities, or officer positions in the military, or executive business positions) was to change people's attitudes about those minorities, by giving them direct exposure to those people to counteract their prejudice.

The only problem is, that rationale only works if the people installed in those positions are consistently and noticeably better than their peers. But the way most affirmative action programs operate guarantees that won't happen, because they effectively lower the standards for the minorities they serve, in order to get a predetermined number of minority applicants through the door. So, instead of people thinking better of the minorities they meet, they think worse of them, because the people they are exposed to, on average, only confirm their prejudices. Such affirmative action programs would do better to activitely recruit a smaller number of truly superior minorities, so that everyone's impressions were consistently positive.

If you're skeptical of whether this would really work, you should realize that it's already happened in our culture, with a different minority: Asians. Most people in America have positive associations with Asians, at least as far as intelligence. We generally think Asians are smart. The sight of young Japanese students conjures up images of progedies playing violin concertos, or acing the SAT. Is it because Asians really are smart? I didn't think about it much, until I was working with an Chinese colleague to help her daughter apply to a prep school I had attended. She told me at one point, exasperated, "You people think Asians are all brilliant . . . but that's just because only very, very best managed to make it out of China and come to United States. There plenty of stupid people in China! But in United States, if you are really good, everyone say, 'Of course. She's Chinese.' "

Only witnessing real excellence will create associations with excellence. I got my own taste of it, as I was happily reading along, and Gladwell dropped the fact that he was half-black -- his mother is Jamaican. I felt a sudden jerk in my thinking: really? him? There is was, the prejudice exposed, and Gladwell's own living example shrivelling it up.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ecce Wikipedio

Pardon my bad Latin grammar. I made my first contribution to the Wikipedia this morning. I understand that among Wikipedians it is considered bad form to take public credit for one's contributions, and that most make their edits under the anonymity of their Wiki username. But since I'm largely unidentified in this blog, I think I'm in-bounds.

No sooner had I posted my lament that I had nothing to contribute to the Wikipedia than I saw an opportunity, right in the very article I cited. The article on eternal return did not include any discussion of whether the rationale for eternal recurrence was sound . . . which seemed like a big hole for a discussion of a philosophic concept. I vaguely remembered that Walter Kaufmann had described a mathematical refutation of eternal return in one of his books. So I spent about ten minutes flipping through Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist until I found the passage. Then I had to write up the edit, being careful to use neutral point of view, and including the citation for the passage.

So . . . do I feel better? Is my life more meaningful now that I have contributed to the world's biggest storehouse of knowledge? Well . . . kinda. I had forgotten what a pain in the butt real scholarship is like. I've spent a total of an hour and a half making a minor change to an obscure topic. It would be more reassuring if I knew how many hits the article actually got, so I could know how many people might be affected. And, for all I know, the original author might be a big fan of eternal return, a true believer, and I could get into an edit war . . . not to mention that its time away from every other damn thing I need to be doing.

But yeah . . . it feels good.