Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

My previous entry on this topic is found here. The quintessential question asked with regard to education (often levied against educators) is “Why can’t Johnnie read?” I believe we now have several answers.

Why Bother With Basics?

A resurrected method of teaching readin’ and writin’ (from the 1930s as it happens) is “freewriting.” The idea is that students who experience writer’s block should dispense with basic elements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, organization, and style to simply get something on the page, coming back later to revise and correct. I can appreciate the thinking, namely, that students so paralyzed from an inability to produce finished work extemporaneously should focus first on vomiting blasting something onto the page. Whether those who use freewriting actually go back to edit (as I do) is unclear, but it’s not a high hurdle to begin with proper rudiments.

Why Bother Learning Math?

At Michigan State University, the algebra requirement has been dropped from its general education requirements. Considering that algebra is a basic part of most high school curricula, jettisoning algebra from the university core curriculum is astonishing. Again, it’s not a terrible high bar to clear, but for someone granted a degree from an institution of higher learning to fail to do so is remarkable. Though the rationalization offered at the link above is fairly sophisticated, it sounds more like Michigan State is just giving up asking its students to bother learning. The California State University system has adopted a similar approach. Wayne State University also dropped its math requirement and upped the ante by recommending a new diversity requirement (all the buzz with social justice warriors).

Why Bother Learning Music?

The Harvard Crimson reports changes to the music curriculum, lowering required courses for the music concentration from 13 to 10. Notably, most of the quotes in the article are from students relieved to have fewer requirements to satisfy. The sole professor quoted makes a bland, meaningless statement about flexibility. So if you want a Harvard degree with a music concentration, the bar has been lowered. But this isn’t educational limbo, where the difficulty is increased as the bar goes down; it’s a change from higher education to not-so-high-anymore education. Not learning very much about music has never been prohibition to success, BTW. Lots of successful musicians don’t even read music.

Why Bother Learning History?

According to some conservatives, U.S. history curricula, in particular this course is offered by The College Board, teach what’s bad about America and undermine American exceptionalism. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 for emergency House Bill 1380 (authored by Rep. Dan Fisher) “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” This naked attempt to sanitize U.S. history and substitute preferred (patriotic) narratives is hardly a new phenomenon in education.

Takeaway

So why can’t Johnnie read, write, know, understand, or think? Simply put, because we’re not bothering to teach him to read, write, know, understand, or think. Johnnie has instead become a consumer of educational services and political football. Has lowering standards ever been a solution to the struggle to getting a worthwhile education? Passing students through just to be rid of them (while collecting tuition) has only produced a mass of miseducated graduates. Similarly, does a certificate, diploma, or granted degree mean anything as a marker of achievement if students can’t be bothered to learn time-honored elements of a core curriculum? The real shocker, of course, is massaging the curriculum itself (U.S. history in this instance) to produce citizens ignorant of their own past and compliant with the jingoism of the present.

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I picked up a copy of Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017) to read and supplement my ongoing preoccupation with human consciousness. Siegel’s writing is the source of considerable frustration. Now about 90 pp. into the book (I am considering putting it aside), he has committed several grammatical errors (where are book editors these days?), doesn’t really know how to use a comma properly, and doesn’t write in recognizable paragraph form. He has a bad habit of posing questions to suggest the answers he wants to give and drops constant hints of something soon to be explored like news broadcasts that tease the next segment. He also deploys a tired, worn metaphor that readers are on a journey of discovery with him, embarked on a path, exploring a subject, etc. Yecch. (A couple Amazon reviews also note that grayish type on parchment (cream) paper poses a legibility problem due to poor contrast even in good light — undoubtedly not really Siegel’s fault.)

Siegel’s writing is also irritatingly circular, casting and recasting the same sentences in repetitious series of assertions that have me wondering frequently, “Haven’t I already read this?” Here are a couple examples:

When energy flows inside your body, can you sense its movement, how it changes moment by moment?

then only three sentences later

Energy, and energy-as-information, can be felt in your mental experience as it emerges moment by moment. [p. 52]

Another example:

Seeing these many facets of mind as emergent properties of energy and information flow helps link the inner and inter aspect of mind seamlessly.

then later in the same paragraph

In other words, mind seen this way could be in what seems like two places at once as inner and inter are part of one interconnected, undivided system. [p. 53]

This is definitely a bug, not a feature. I suspect the book could easily be condensed from 330 pp. to less than 200 pp. if the writing weren’t so self-indulgent of the author. Indeed, while I recognize a healthy dose of repetition is an integral part of narrative form (especially in music), Siegel’s relentless repetition feels like propaganda 101, where guileless insistence (of lies or merely the preferred story one seeks to plant in the public sphere) wears down the reader rather than convinces him or her. This is also marketing 101 (e.g., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, etc. continuing to advertise what are by now exceedingly well-established brands).

(more…)

Nick Carr has an interesting blog post (late getting to it as usual) highlighting a problem with our current information environment. In short, the constant information feed to which many of us subscribe and read on smartphones, which I’ve frequently called a fire hose pointed indiscriminately at everyone, has become the new normal. And when it’s absent, people feel anxiety:

The near-universal compulsion of the present day is, as we all know and as behavioral studies prove, the incessant checking of the smartphone. As Begley notes, with a little poetic hyperbole, we all “feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO — the fear of missing out — fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.” With its perpetually updating, tightly personalized messaging, networking, searching, and shopping apps, the smartphone creates the anxiety that it salves. It’s a machine almost perfectly designed to turn its owner into a compulsive … from a commercial standpoint, the smartphone is to compulsion what the cigarette pack was to addiction

I’ve written about this phenomenon plenty of times (see here for instance) and recommended that wizened folks might adopt a practiced media ecology by regularly turning one’s attention away from the feed (e.g., no mobile media). Obviously, that’s easier for some of us than others. Although my innate curiosity (shared by almost everyone, I might add) prompts me to gather quite a lot of information in the course of the day/week, I’ve learned to be restrictive and highly judgmental about what sources I read, printed text being far superior in most respects to audio or video. No social media at all, very little mainstream media, and very limited “fast media” of the type that rushes to publication before enough is known. Rather, periodicals (monthly or quarterly) and books, which have longer paths to publication, tend to be more thoughtful and reliable. If I could never again be exposed to noise newsbits with, say, the word “Kardashian,” that would be an improvement.

Also, being aware that the basic economic structure underlying media from the advent of radio and television is to provide content for free (interesting, entertaining, and hyperpalatable perhaps, but simultaneously pointless ephemera) in order to capture the attention of a large audience and then load up the channel with advertisements at regular intervals, I now use ad blockers and streaming media to avoid being swayed by the manufactured desire that flows from advertising. If a site won’t display its content without disabling the ad blocker, which is becoming more commonplace, then I don’t give it my attention. I can’t avoid all advertising, much like I can’t avoid my consumer behaviors being tracked and aggregated by retailers (and others), but I do better than most. For instance, I never saw any Super Bowl commercials this year, which have become a major part of the spectacle. Sure, I’m missing out, but I have no anxiety about it. I prefer to avoid colonization of my mind by advertisers in exchange for cheap titillation.

In the political news media, Rachel Maddow has caught on that it’s advantageous to ignore a good portion of the messages flung at the masses like so much monkey shit. A further suggestion is that because of the pathological narcissism of the new U.S. president, denial of the rapt attention he craves by reinforcing only the most reasonable conduct of the office might be worth a try. Such an experiment would be like the apocryphal story of students conditioning their professor to lecture with his/her back to the class by using positive/negative reinforcement, paying attention and being quiet only when his/her back was to them. Considering how much attention is trained on the Oval Office and its utterances, I doubt such an approach would be feasible even if it were only journalists attempting to channel behavior, but it’s a curious thought experiment.

All of this is to say that there are alternatives to being harried and harassed by insatiable desire for more information at all times. There is no actual peril to boredom, though we behave as though an idle mind is either wasteful or fearsome. Perhaps we aren’t well adapted — cognitively or culturally — to the deluge of information pressing on us in modern life, which could explain (partially) this age of anxiety when our safety, security, and material comforts are as good as they’ve ever been. I have other thoughts about what’s really missing in modern life, which I’ll save for another post.

Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

Lingua Nova 02

Posted: August 20, 2016 in Idle Nonsense, Nomenclature, Writing
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From time to time, I indulge my predilection for nomenclature and neologism. Those collected below are not novel so much as repurposed.

code blue: the closing of ranks and circling of wagons undertaken by police departments in the wake of an officer (or officers) killing an unarmed citizen, usually black, accompanied by the insistence that the officer(s) by definition can do no wrong.

Christian fiction: an alternative narrative promulgated by Christian fundamentalists in a field of inquiry not based on faith and belief.

STEAM: the addition of Arts to STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) to acknowledge the fundamental source of creativity and innovation.

nostalgia mining: the creation of entertainments that guilelessly seek to exploit the resource of fond remembrance of days past.

That’s a short list, to be sure. If you feel cheated, here’s an additional list of words sure to confound any interlocutors: espial, telic, desuetude, fubbed, girandoles, catarrh, avulse, gobbet, diaphanouspipping, panicles, cark, cantilene, fisc, phylactery, princox, and funest. I knew only a few of them before stealing most from something I read and can’t imagine using any in speech unless I’m trying not to communicate.

Over at Gin and Tacos, the blogger has an interesting take on perverse incentives that function to inflate grades (and undermine learning), partly by encouraging teachers to give higher grades than deserved at the first hint of pushback from consumers students, parents, or administration. The blog post is more specifically about Why Johnny Can’t Write and references a churlish article in Salon. All well and good. The blog author provides consistently good analysis as a college professor intimate with the rigors of higher education and the often unprepared students deposited in his classroom. However, this comment got my attention in particular. The commentator is obviously a troll, and I generally don’t feed trolls, so I made only one modest comment in the comments section. Because almost no one reads The Spiral Staircase, certainly no one from the estimable Gin and Tacos crowd, I’ll indulge myself, not the troll, by examining briefly the main contention, which is that quality of writing, including correct grammar, doesn’t matter most of the time.

Here’s most of the comment (no link to the commentator’s blog, sorry):

1. Who gives a flying fuck about where the commas go? About 99.999999999999999% of the time, it makes NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER in terms of understanding somebody’s point if they’ve used a comma splice. Is it a technical error? Sure. Just like my unclear pronoun reference in the last sentence. Did you understand what I meant? Unless you were actively trying not to, yes, you did.

2. There’s are hundreds of well-conducted peer-reviewed studies by those of us who actually specialize in writing pedagogy documenting the pointlessness of teaching grammar skills *unless students give a fuck about what they’re writing.* We’ve known this since the early 1980s. So when the guy from the high school English department in the article says they can’t teach grammar because students think it’s boring, he’s unwittingly almost making the right argument. It’s not that it’s boring–it’s that it’s irrelevant until the students have something they want to say. THEN we can talk about how to say it well.

Point one is that people manage to get their points across adequately without proper punctuation, and point two is that teaching grammar is accordingly a pedagogical dead end. Together, they assert that structure, rules, syntax, and accuracy make no difference so long as communication occurs. Whether one takes the hyperbole “99.999999999999999% of the time” as the equivalent of all the time, almost all the time, most of the time, etc. is not of much interest to me. Red herring served by a troll.

/rant on

As I’ve written before, communication divides neatly into receptive and expressive categories: what we can understand when communicated to us and what we can in turn communicate effectively to others. The first category is the larger of the two and is greatly enhanced by concerted study of the second. Thus, reading comprehension isn’t merely a matter of looking up words in the dictionary but learning how it’s customary and correct to express oneself within the rules and guidelines of Standard American English (SAE). As others’ writing and communication becomes more complex, competent reception is more nearly an act of deciphering. Being able to parse sentences, grasp paragraph structure, and follow the logical thread (assuming those elements are handled well) is essential. That’s what being literate means, as opposed to being semi-literate — the fate of lots of adults who never bothered to study.

To state flatly that “good enough” is good enough is to accept two unnecessary limitations: (1) that only a portion of someone’s full, intended message is received and (2) that one’s own message is expressed with no better than adolescent sophistication, if that. Because humans are not mind readers, loss of fidelity between communicated intent and receipt is acknowledged. By further limiting oneself to lazy and unsophisticated usage is, by way of analogy, to reduce the full color spectrum to black and white. Further, the suggestion that students can learn to express themselves properly once they have something to say misses the whole point of education, which is to prepare them with adult skills in advance of need.

As I understand it, modern American schools have shifted their English curricula away from the structural, prescriptive approach toward licentious usage just to get something onto the page, or in a classroom discussion, just to choke something out of students between the hemming ums, ers, uhs, ya knows, and I dunnos. I’d like to say that I’m astonished that researchers could provide cover for not bothering to learn, relieving both teachers and students of the arduous work needed to develop competence, if not mastery. That devaluation tracks directly from teachers and administrators to students and parents, the latter of whom would rather argue for their grades than earn them. Pity the fools who grub for grades without actually learning and are left holding worthless diplomas and degrees — certificates of nonachievement. In all likelihood, they simply won’t understand their own incompetence because they’ve been told all their lives what special flowers they are.

/rant off

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the opening of this blog. As a result, there is a pretty sizeable backblog should anyone decide to wade in. As mentioned in my first post, I only opened this blog to get posting privileges at a group blog I admired because it functioned more like a discussion than a broadcast. The group blog died of attrition years ago, yet here I am 10 years later still writing my personal blog (which isn’t really about me).

Social media lives and dies by the numbers, and mine are deplorable. Annual traffic has ranged from about 6,800 to about 12,500 hits, much of which I’m convinced is mere background noise and bot traffic. Cumulative hits number about 90,140, and unique visitors are about 19,350, neither of which is anything to crow about for a blog of this duration. My subscriber count continues to climb pointlessly, now resting at 745. However, I judge I might have only a half dozen regular readers and perhaps half again as many commentators. I’ve never earned a cent for my effort, nor am I likely to ever put up a Patreon link or similar goad for donations. All of which only demonstrate that almost no one cares what I have to write about. C’est la vie. I don’t write for that purpose and frankly wouldn’t know what to write about if I were trying to drive numbers.

So if you have read my blog, what are some of the thing you might have gathered from me? Here’s an incomplete synopsis:

  • Torture is unspeakably bad. History is full of devices, methodologies, and torturers, but we learned sometime in the course of two 20th-century world wars that nothing justifies it. Nevertheless, it continues to occur with surprising relish, and those who still torture (or want to) are criminally insane.
  • Skyscrapers are awesomely tall examples of technical brilliance, exuberance, audacity, and hubris. Better expressions of techno-utopian, look-mom-no-hands, self-defeating narcissism can scarcely be found. Yet they continue to be built at a feverish pace. The 2008 financial collapse stalled and/or doomed a few projects, but we’re back to game on.
  • Classical music, despite record budgets for performing ensembles, has lost its bid for anything resembling cultural and artistic relevance by turning itself into a museum (performing primarily works of long-dead composers) and abandoning emotional expression in favor of technical perfection, which is probably an accurate embodiment of the spirit of the times. There is arguably not a single living composer who has become a household name since Aaron Copland, who died in 1990 but was really well-known in the 1940s and 50s.
  • We’re doomed — not in any routine sense of the word having to do with individual mortality but in the sense of Near-Term (Human) Extinction (NTE). The idea is not widely accepted in the least, and the arguments are too lengthy to repeat (and unlikely to convince). However, for those few able to decipher it, the writing is on the wall.
  • American culture is a constantly moving target, difficult to define and describe, but its principal features are only getting uglier as time wears on. Resurgent racism, nationalism, and misogyny make clear that while some strides have been made, these attitudes were only driven underground for a while. Similarly, colonialism never really died but morphed into a new version (globalization) that escapes criticism from the masses, because, well, goodies.
  • Human consciousness — another moving target — is cratering (again) after 3,000–5,000 years. We have become hollow men, play actors, projecting false consciousness without core identity or meaning. This cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electronic media makes us tools. The gleaming attractions of sterile perfection and pseudo-sociability have hoodwinked most of the public into relinquishing privacy and intellectual autonomy in exchange for the equivalent of Huxley’s soma. This also cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electoral politics is a game played by the oligarchy for chumps. Although the end results are not always foreseeable (Jeb!), the narrow range of options voters are given (lesser of evils, the devil you know …) guarantees that fundamental change in our dysfunctional style of government will not occur without first burning the house down. After a long period of abstention, I voted in the last few elections, but my heart isn’t really in it.
  • Cinema’s infatuation with superheros and bankable franchises (large overlap there) signals that, like other institutions mentioned above, it has grown aged and sclerotic. Despite large budgets and impressive receipts (the former often over $100 million and the latter now in the billions for blockbusters) and considerable technical prowess, cinema has lost its ability to be anything more than popcorn entertainment for adolescent fanboys (of all ages).

This is admittedly a pretty sour list. Positive, worthwhile manifestations of the human experience are still out there, but they tend to be private, modest, and infrequent. I still enjoy a successful meal cooked in my own kitchen. I still train for and race in triathlons. I still perform music. I still make new friends. But each of these examples is also marred by corruptions that penetrate everything we do. Perhaps it’s always been so, and as I, too, age, I become increasingly aware of inescapable distortions that can no longer be overcome with innocence, ambition, energy, and doublethink. My plan is to continue writing the blog until it feels like a burden, at which point I’ll stop. But for now, there’s too much to think and write about, albeit at my own leisurely pace.

My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.

I picked up and read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (2009), which achieved immense popularity after publication but only came into view for me quite recently. I can’t help but to project onto the book or draw from it considerable resonance with themes I have been developing on this blog over the years. By my reading, the book is fundamentally about resolving the mind-body disconnect commonplace in modern, post-industrial society. (The author may not see it that way at all.) The point of entry is the conflict between what our bodies are evolved to do — running long distances in persistent hunts (which I blogged about here) — and what modern medicine insists is highly destructive to the body if not impossible, namely, ultrarunning. However, running is merely the context in which the larger goal to reconnect mind-body occurs. One might even say that the mechanics of our bodies make running something elemental, undeniable, so a natural bridge. Though we (post-)moderns have often lost touch with the sense of our bodies as our selves, locating identity instead in the brain/mind, runners sometimes regain that connection, albeit temporarily, and in the case of the Tarahumara people from the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a people characterized by their running ability, they may never have lost the connection.

If you don’t recognize the notion of mind-body duality, you’re hardly alone. My contention for some years now is that we live too much in our heads and mental noise is increasingly drowning out what the body supplies in day-to-day life with respect to self-knowledge, contentment, and serenity. Think of the Zen of the cat. There may be spiritual aspect, too, but that lies beyond my sensibilities and does not seem to be within the scope of the book, either. Sensitive folks, or sometimes those who have simply been left behind by the incessant struggle of getting and having, may reach toward an unknown horizon in search of something otherwise fulfilling; running is a natural candidate. McDougall tells what amounts to an underground history of the second and third incarnations of U.S. running crazes, not unlike cyclical religious and political awakenings and reawakenings. One can argue whether such fads are part of our deep culture (if often feels that way), responsive to social turmoil, or merely more surface noise. There is nothing conspiratorial about it, but McDougall revels in the lost secrets and unheeded goings-on that constitute the subculture of ultrarunning. Runners’ athletic prowess is hard not to admire, but their compulsive pursuit often feels more than a little unhinged, not at all Zen.

The author employs a whole bag of writerly tricks to engage the reader, as though he distrusts his own subject matter and must resort to storytelling clichés to keep readers teased and entrained. Irritatingly, he starts one story but smash cuts to other tangential stories repeatedly within the larger structure. The stories all tie together, but the thread is interrupted so often that I felt my chain being yanked, which ejected me from the flow to contemplate the seams and joints within the narrative. That style probably works for dull readers, much like the TV news constantly strings viewers from segment to segment with rapid-fire disorientation and discontinuity mixed with flashes of what news is about to be reported, but first … this (typically, a word from sponsors). The best aspect of McDougall’s many diversions from the main story arc are what amount to detective stories behind body mechanics, running shoe design, persistence hunting, etc. Although they suggest we have arrived at a final understanding of such topics, handily turning conventional wisdom on its head in most cases, I rather suspect that further refinements are inevitable, especially if the real story is mind-body rather than running.

Most of the people profiled in the book suffer from mild to severe character distortion (by modern, post-industrial standards). Perhaps it’s exactly those who abandon or rebel against the dominant paradigm who are redeemed by what they (re)discover beyond. More than a couple of them are just assholes, though. Having done a little additional Internet research on some of the characters, it’s difficult to decide whether ultrarunning is indeed for them redemption or merely the fruitless chasing of lost souls. The unifying character (besides the author), Caballo Blanco or Micah True, died while running wilderness trails, though his autopsy revealed he died from heart disease. Others achieved of a mixture of notoriety and infamy both before and after the publication of the book. McDougall appears to have become a running guru and inspirational speaker, with numerous YouTube videos promoting his books and findings.

In summary, I’m glad to have read the book. Its potboiler style aside, the book has fascinating content and fairly good storytelling. The denouement felt a little incomplete, but then, many detours from the main story were left hanging, so finishing with a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyons may be as good a finale as anything. Being a (lousy) endurance athlete myself, I was encouraged to learn that there is still some opportunity for me to improve my athletic ability. According to the book, the human body doesn’t have to slow down appreciably until the middle 60s. So I’m encouraged that, unlike the steep drop-off in participation in the late fifties typical of endurance athletes, I can keep going a while longer. However, I am seeking elsewhere for mind-body connection.

The English language has words for everything, and whenever something new comes along, we coin a new word. The latest neologism I heard is bolthole, which refers to the the location one bolts to when collapse and civil unrest reach intolerable proportions. At present, New Zealand is reputed to be the location of boltholes purchased and kept by the ultrarich, which has the advantage of being located in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning remote from the hoi polloi yet reachable by private plane or oceangoing yacht. Actually, bolthole is an older term now being repurposed, but it seems hip and current enough to be new coin.

Banned words are the inverse of neologisms, not in the normal sense that they simply fall out of use but in their use being actively discouraged. Every kid learns this early on when a parent or older sibling slips and lets an “adult” word pass his or her lips that the kid isn’t (yet) allowed to use. (“Mom, you said fuck!”) George Carlin made a whole routine out of dirty words (formerly) banned from TV. Standards have been liberalized since the 1970s, and now people routinely swear or refer to genitalia on TV and in public. Sit in a restaurant or ride public transportation (as I do), eavesdrop a little speech within easy earshot (especially private cellphone conversations), and just count the casual F-bombs.

The worst field of banned-words nonsense is political correctness, which is intertwined with identity politics. All the slurs and epithets directed at, say, racial groups ought to be disused, no doubt, but we overcompensate by renaming everyone (“____-American”) to avoid terms that have little or no derogation. Even more ridiculous, at least one egregiously insulting term has been reclaimed as an badge of honor unbanned banned word by the very group it oppresses. It takes Orwellian doublethink to hear that term — you all know what it is — used legitimately exclusively by those allowed to use it. (I find it wholly bizarre yet fear to wade in with my own prescriptions.) Self-disparaging language, typically in a comedic context, gets an unwholesome pass, but only if one is within the identity group. (Women disparage women, gays trade on gay stereotypes, Jews indulge in jokey anti-Semitism, etc.) We all laugh and accept it as safe, harmless, and normal. President Obama is continuously mixed up appearances (“optics”), or what to call things — or not call them, as the case may be. For instance, his apparent refusal to call terrorism originating in the Middle East “Muslim terrorism” has been met with controversy.

I’m all for calling a thing what it is, but the term terrorism is too loosely applied to any violent act committed against (gasp!) innocent Americans. Recent events in Charleston, SC, garnered the terrorism label, though other terms would be more apt. Further, there is nothing intrinsically Muslim about violence and terrorism. Yeah, sure, Muslims have a word or doctrine — jihad — but it doesn’t mean what most think or are led to believe it means. Every religion across human history has some convenient justification for the use of force, mayhem, and nastiness to promulgate its agenda. Sometimes it’s softer and inviting, others time harder and more militant. Unlike Bill Maher, however, circumspect thinkers recognize that violence used to advance an agenda, like words used to shape narratives, are not the province of any particular hateful or hate-filled group. Literally everyone does it to some extent. Indeed, the passion with which anyone pursues an agenda is paradoxically celebrated and reviled depending on content and context, and it’s a long, slow, ugly process of sorting to arrive as some sort of Rightthink®, which then becomes conventional wisdom before crossing over into political correctness.