Resolving to Remain Unresolved


Click to see the comic

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I get the basic premise: new year/new you. We can reflect and re-dedicate ourselves to perfection. It’s not a bad concept.

But New Year’s resolutions always struck me as a bit like my Lenten promises as a child. All you Catholics out there know what I’m talking about. There’s an art to choosing what you will give up during Lent. On one side of the scale, you have God giving up His son and Jesus giving up his earthly life. I’m not sure vowing to skip chocolate for a month quite measures up. Honestly, even at 8 and 9 years old, I knew there weren’t just a whole lot of things I could do to match such sacrifice.

I get the concept, of course. Our sacrifice is supposed to symbolically mirror the biblical one. We punish ourselves both in recognition of God’s sacrifice and to show our fidelity. Most importantly, we choose to sacrifice, and, for a good Catholic, we recognize our culpability in Christ’s death. It’s a token of both our fallibility and our possibility for eternal life.

But as a kid, the goal was to strike the grand bargain. What can I give up that sounds sufficiently “sacrificial” yet won’t make me totally miserable? (I know, I know. Before any of you crucify me—pun intended—I was already a pretty cynical kid in junior high so please don’t send long theological arguments explaining Lent and sacrifice.)

Chocolate was always my go to sacrifice, with qualifications. Candy was out; ice cream and milk by-products were okay because they were just chocolate-flavored. I could give up talking on the phone, but only if Lent coincided with either a lull in my social life (most of the time) or a time I was already grounded (or thought a grounding was imminent). One year, I gave up watching tv, but that was during baseball season when I was never home and we lived in a cable free home.

Blasphemous? Sacrilegious, you say? Probably. I’ve been called both before. Realistic? Definitely. I’ll not feel guilty for my humanity. (I’m not sure I’m always proud of my humanity, either, but it’s the only humanity I have.) Cut me some slack—like many of us, I’m just holding things together with bailing wire and duct tape.

New Year’s resolutions do differ a bit from Lenten promises. Whereas Lent requires sacrifice and reflection, a good resolution calls for proactive behavior that improves: eat less, lose weight, attend church more often (probably what some of think I should resolve to do), hug, love, exercise, start a blog, write a novel, clean the bathrooms more often (that one sounds like a Lenten sacrifice if you have kids at home), play more golf, play less golf, spend more time with the family (because you gave up golf), save more money, spend less money, drink less, be more positive (which might mean you can’t also vow to drink less), friend more, etc. The list can go on and on (and on).

But our resolutions, or at least the ones I hear people make (which might say a lot about the people I’m friends with), don’t require a new year as an impetus to completion. Certainly, if your resolution is to pay more taxes this fiscal year, you do have to start January 1st (and you get your wish this year!) but who in besides Warren Buffet wants to make that resolution?

Depending on January 1st to make improvements to our lives, though, is yet another attempt at the grand bargain. I’ll do X, but only after Y happens. We’re hedging our bets, setting ourselves up for a false resolution and, likely, a failed resolution (and a treadmill collecting dust in the living room).

I know, of course, that there are plenty of people out there who make resolutions and stick to them. I applaud the sentiment and the desire for change but self-improvement can’t be dependent on a particular time of year. We should be dedicating ourselves daily to continuous improvement, daily self-reflection, and our sense of purpose in this life. Tomorrow, as the cliché tells us, never comes. A new year, flipping the calendar, won’t make us different, more disciplined, or any more capable of change than we were yesterday.

Simply put—being different isn’t apropos of what day it is and, it seems to me, focusing on a series of resolutions simply encourages us make pledges we find either too unrealistic or too simplistic. So this year, in my grand attempt at self-improvement, I resolve to remain unresolved. I think I’ll start today and I’ll let you all know how that goes next year at this time.

Buffy the Kitty Slayer: An Obituary Before the Fact

001After our second child was born, my wife insisted that we get a pet. A pet, she argued, would help teach the kids responsibility, empathy for those things that depend on us, the value of unconditional love, and, eventually, about sadness and death. Having a pet would give them joy and be fun. Losing a pet, she noted, would help them deal with loss later in life.

Good arguments all, but I resisted. I’m no pet person and I had my doubts about any of those arguments. We’ll have the kids take out they trash and make their beds (responsibility), work the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving (empathy), hug and kiss them even when they drive us nuts (love), and periodically steal their toys (sadness), I told her. And all this without pet hair, fleas, and the added expense of another mouth to feed.

Naturally, we got a pet. (My stance on this issue was similar to our conversation about having children by the way. I didn’t want any; she wanted about 6. So we had 2. At least I got the tv I wanted. I was, of course, happily wrong on the child front. Without a doubt, having children has transformed our lives for the better but that’s for another day.)

Sadly, we will, probably within the next week or so, find out if losing a pet helps our kids deal with loss. Increasingly, our dog of 7 years spends her day hacking up whatever lungs she has left. Worse, we are starting to see the lights go out and the fear creep in as she looks at us.

Buffy the Kitty Slayer’s path to our doorstep was a circuitous one. Our first pet, Goldie, a cat rescued from my wife’s parent’s back yard, spent about a year here before our sneezes forced a change. Beautiful, calm, and definitely not hypo-allergenic, Goldie has lived the last 8 years with my parents growing fat and happy.

Never one to abandon her claim that the kids needed a pet, my wife gave two dogs an audition.

Blackie, an Australian sheep dog, lasted a month or two before we found her a ranch with room to roam. I liked Blackie because she kept the kids in line, nipping at their heels, but she needed space. And the neighbor kids were tired of holes in their pants and puncture marks on their ankles. Frankie the psycho dog followed. One day he loved us; the next day he was a mini-Cujo, mocking our fear as we huddled by the back door. When we returned him to the vet, they knew who he was. He is the only pet I know that came with a warranty.

You might imagine we would have learned our lesson. I noted (smugly I might add) that we should abandon the whole pet project and I asked my kids what their favorite toys were, already planning my midnight raid.

Instead, we drove out to the animal shelter and came home with a scruffy, Benji-looking rat-terrier mix with a penchant for running away and killing birds.

And I’m man enough to almost admit I might have been wrong. Certainly, our kids are as responsible as most teenagers, demonstrate their fair share of empathy, and know the value of love (I hope). (I could, of course, stick to my guns and argue about causation versus correlation, but that would seem stubbornly unseemly.) They have great memories with Buffy.

But here we sit. For the second time in a week, my wife and I spent most of the midnight hours petting but otherwise ineffectively comforting Buffy as she suffered through whatever congestion is mucking up her lungs.

Our dilemma, as many know, is that animal science probably has the ability to help. Even now, our vet has Buffy on a variety of pills that are supposed to reduce the fluid and increase the energy level. Our medicine cabinet is starting to look like the pharmacy counter. It’s an odd thing to be taking the same high blood pressure medicine as your dog. More than likely, we could call the vet, schedule a visit, probably do some tests, and prepare for some major medical procedure.

While her care and her health is our responsibility, we are also faced with a decision about other responsibilities. At what point, my wife asks, is the cost higher than the benefit? In a house where budgets are stretched thin, can we really justify $50.00 to a $100 a month for pills?

More importantly, at what point, we ask, are we keeping her alive unfairly, prolonging her life so that we can avoid saying goodbye? When does quality of life supersede quantity of days, months, and years?

And, we remind ourselves: While Buffy is an important part of our family history, she is a pet, an animal. Her existence is not defined by her higher level thought patterns but by a series of evolutionary tendencies—food, safety, survival. When those things are no longer attainable, her existence, her nature, is no longer sustainable. What then, we ask, is our responsibility? What would she have us do when she is hamstrung by illness and she can’t be a dog?

My wife and I have never really struggled with keeping the line between pet and person clear. I’m fairly certain we’ve never been to PetSmart and we’ve never pretended the dog was equal to a child. As products of a certain age and economic past, we grew up with pets who, often, either died violent deaths in the street or simply wandered off to a peaceful (or so we hoped) end. We both knew of pets mercifully killed at home in a back field, out of sight. Mercy, quite frankly, came at the end of a gun.

But those were decisions and things that happened somewhere else. In our families, there was no moral dilemma and the lines of demarcation between pet and person were always clear, and, seemingly, easy for grownups to make.

In the long run, I’m not sure what Buffy has taught my kids about anything, but I’m starting to understand what she is teaching my wife and I about sadness and responsibility. As I sit here today, I kind of wish we could have stuck to stealing the toys. At least we could have given those back.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Land-of-the-FreeLike many of us, I once imagined myself as a poet. Verses scribbled in various states of emotional pain, angst, and despair—I wrote because I felt the well-spring of language lurking beneath the surface of my hum-drum life, convinced no one could capture my feelings except me. So I thought.

Then I read Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore and I realized my hastily scribbled verses were akin to a 6 year old finger painting. Certainly, I doubt any of those poets would, were they still around, argue that reading their poetry should stop someone from writing poetry, but they did. Reading these three pillars of American letters was something like viewing a Gaugin, reading James Joyce, listening to Billie Holiday, watching Nolan Ryan pitch or seeing Michael Jordan play basketball. Those moments of artistic beauty are what Frost argued poetry should be: a momentary stay from confusion.

I think when we see greatness, there’s a little voice in our heads that says, “So that’s how it’s done” (or, at least, there should be). I’m well past the days when I thought I could put pen to paper and write the great American poem. I have neither the talent nor work ethic for such a thing.

Admittedly, I’m not really a huge fan of poetry, much preferring big, fat novels, but this holiday season I’ve been thinking a good bit about Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Like much of America, the recent shooting in Connecticut isn’t far from my thoughts. Unlike 20 parents in Newtown, my two boys opened presents this Christmas. Unlike 12 parents in Columbine, my two boys opened presents this Christmas. Sadly, I could create a longer list.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I’m no gun control zealot. While the second amendment, mostly because of the way it’s written, is tough to interpret, eliminating gun ownership is not the answer.

But, I also think what most of us want is realistic and meaningful dialogue regarding the American soul and at some point we have to have a grownup conversation about guns. Mental illness is awful; violent television and video games can disgust us; but at the end of the day, no one killed 20 children and 7 adults with an X-box game. He used a military weapon designed for maximum damage and carnage.

That’s what makes the NRA proposal to place armed guards in every school across America so problematic. Beyond the obvious training, liability, economic, logistical issues with either paid or volunteer guards, we need to ask ourselves who we want to be as a nation.

Do we believe, as the narrator of Frost’s “Mending Wall” claims that “Good fences make good neighbors?” In Frost’s poem, the two men meet each year because “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” During the spring thaw, the rocks tumble and fall: nature, the poem seems to argue, abhors the barrier.

We know, of course, that walls (and walled cities) are a marker of civilization, but we also know that walls go up in order to protect us from the “old-stone savage.” In other words, the irony of the wall is that while it protects us, it also isolates us. We erect a barrier to keep out that which we fear and those borders and barriers mark people as us and them.

The NRA, quite frankly, brings nothing to the national conversation simply because “they will not go behind his father’s saying, / And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Certainly, the NRA is right. If we arm every teacher or put armed guards at every school, we can slow down school violence. We can build, figuratively speaking, a wall around each school that is built of bullets. Each day, our kids will go to school knowing they are safely protected. At what cost, though?

The idea itself seems so simple. And archaic. The last thousand years marked an evolution away from armed protection and walled cities. As culture grew, we recognized that diplomacy, language, compromise, and shared sacrifice were better markers of civil society.

We began to build figurative walls by developing laws that promote justice, order, and establish communal relationships. Laws have consistently worked to tear down artificial walls when “we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.”

There is no doubt that humanity is marked by our animalistic and violent impulses. But there is also no doubt that what separates us from the other animals is our ability to repress those urges and impulses in favor of our humanity. We have the ability to affirm individual rights within our shared social responsibility. Doing so re-affirms our humanity, our move beyond the walled city. The role of government is to help us organize and decide what those shared responsibilities will look like.

Placing armed guards in our schools sends us down the path of mutual distrust, arguing simply that every intruder is a danger.

Perhaps this is the goal for the NRA. We simply return to a day prior to shared social responsibility, a day where we all move, as the neighbor does, in the “darkness” of his father’s philosophy. I don’t think that is what most of us want to teach our children.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine we can completely protect our children from violence nor am I here to argue for the elimination of guns. But an intelligent conversation must begin by asking not just “Why good fences make good neighbors.” We must also start to ask what we are walling out and what we are walling in.

The history of social systems is a movement toward suppressing our violent impulses. We affirm our individual rights through the lens of our communal commitment. When we ask our children to walk past armed guards each day, we are turning our backs on our shared humanity and we teach our children to erect walls within the walls, devolving into the “old-stone savage” of our past.

Fire and Brimstone: McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain

Here of late, I’ve been thinking about Cormac McCarthy’s novels and, since one of the goals of this blog is to keep me in the habit of writing daily, I’m going to post periodic reviews of literature. Below is a review of the last novel in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

Cormac McCarthy’s 1999 novel Cities of the Plain is set in the El Paso/Juarez border region and serves as the final novel of his Border Trilogy. The title, a reference to the two contemporary cities, also alludes to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah: two cities whose Judeo-Christian symbolic meaning has overwhelmed any historical reality.

Arie Nissenbaum, in his article “Sodom, Gomorrah and Other Lost Cities of the Plain: A Climactic Perspective,” tells us the “Bible emphasizes the agricultural richness of the Jordan plain prior to the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah and its catastrophic transformation into a wasteland. Thus, stripped of ethical and religious overtones, the scenario is that of a rapid climatic change that converted a densely inhabited and richly watered area into an infertile salt playa.” Likewise, we know from geologist Dr. W.C. Cornell that the area around El Paso, TX/Juarez, Mexico was “Similar to those seen in modern beach systems such as the Texas Gulf near Padre Island. This quiet scene ended abruptly about 1.1 BY ago by an extended period of geologic disruption and violence . . . [that] included pyroclastic ash-flow tuffs (the sort of eruption that destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii in 79 AD) as well as numerous lava flows.

But that’s a story only a geologist could love. It’s far more interesting to move beyond the rocks and ask how those geological changes impact the myth and culture that grows up around the lava and ash. If you haven’t read Genesis 12 through 19 lately, take a few minutes to dig the old King James out of the closet and refresh your memory. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for daytime television: God tells Abram to leave his country and “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). Abram and Sarai pack up the tents, grab the slaves, get Lot on the way out of town, and head for Canaan. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I always picture the Beverly Hillbillies loading up the truck. Lot’s driving, Sarai is sitting in the rocking chair strapped to the truck bed, and Abram’s riding along giving directions. (Hagar must be Ellie Mae I guess?) Among the many possible readings of this story, we must note that sex and reproduction are commodities in this early biblical world. The womb is a tool for nation building. We see this later in Genesis when God promises Abram an heir. It’s not just about leaving the tents and animals to a blood relative: nations require people and unlike God, we can’t just fashion them out of the clay of the earth.

When the Lord visits Abraham (newly named and now circumcised—at 90!), Abe rushes out to fulfill the established rules of hospitality, offering to “wash your feet . . . and bring a little bread” (18:4-5). We don’t want to miss the importance throughout the story regarding the rules of hospitality as they relate to the early biblical story and to the later dictates of Christ in the Bible. When the stranger knocks, Jesus tells us to let him enter. Once he does, his protection is guaranteed. Hence, when the two angels enter Sodom and Lot invites them in to his house, he is offering hospitality. Good thing, too, because the “men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them’” (19:4-5). Lot, mindful of his obligations offers his “two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:8). (For a parallel story, by the way, read Judges 19 where we read virtually the same plot.) It’s important to recognize the focus of this story is not the homosexuality, but the city’s disregard for the protection and sanctity of hospitality. Throughout this early story, God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a new nation and we see example after example of how the old nation is divided and unruly. Reproduction and hospitality are political issues here.

So where does McCarthy’s novel enter the picture and how are his cities of the plain (El Paso and Juarez) connected to Sodom and Gomorrah? We must remember that All the Pretty Horses ends with John Grady riding into the sunset, a man without a country. Ordained by no god, he still fashions himself as a man searching to replace a lost world. He is, for all intents and purposes (and with apologies to Jane Kramer), the last cowboy. But he doesn’t want to be. John Grady Cole wants to nest, create a home, and, presumably, start a family that might last. Like Abraham, John Grady sets out to start a new country, to find a place where he can exist and follow his own religion and his own set of morals. He looks in all the wrong places, though. In Cities of the Plain, he locates himself in the right economic strata, but searches for love, and presumably fertility to populate this new country, in a whore house. At its heart, the problem with prostitution is the same as the problem with sodomy: both are sexual acts that don’t reproduce. The immorality or unnaturalness of the act is rooted in the need for reproduction as a tool to build nations, something we see the Genesis story. On a larger scale, this final novel of the Border Trilogy signals the end of two houses: Cole and Parham never reproduce. Abraham gives birth to the nation of Israel, and, eventually, paves the way for Jesus to offer salvation. John Grady Cole, a type of Christ figure according to some critics and readers, fails to offer any salvation.

The Sodom and Gomorrah story isn’t just about the citizens’ desire to sodomize the visiting men. Remember that Lot offers his two daughters to the men to avoid breaking the rules of hospitality. The desire to engage in sex that fails to reproduce creates sterile and empty bonds. In addition to re-reading the bible, we might be well-served if we read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as we look at McCarthy’s novel. Eliot’s poem ends as we read about

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,

In the poem, the rain is coming. The fisher king has arrived and Eliot gives us the clues to overcome the sterility and emptiness we’ve seen in the modern world. We’ve looked at the carbuncular young man through Tiresias’s eyes and seen the empty sexual encounters. London, Eliot seems to imply, is headed down the path of Sodom and Gomorrah. Characters have sex for the sake of sex. They lose sight of humanity, living in angst and despair. John Grady Cole has found his empty chapel with no windows and he sets out to replace them, creating a home for him and Magdalena. But the venture is doomed from the start. The two cities on the plain, El Paso and Juarez, are so filled with degradation and waste, driven by their inherent disregard for reproductive law, that John Grady’s faith is not rewarded. Lot’s wife is turned to salt. Magdalena is murdered and left on a slab at the morgue. John Grady’s faith is misplaced. His chapel won’t receive the quenching rain: it will revert back to an empty, windowless cabin.

In McCarthy’s world, God doesn’t rain down fire and sulphur, but the land is part of the military industrial complex taking over the southwest. Already dry and desiccated by drought, the military is bombing and buying. Like Magdalena, the land has become a commodity bought and sold by men in the 20th century. The death of the American cowboy wasn’t some cataclysmic event or seismic shift of tectonic plates in McCarthy’s novel; rather, the culture shifts. Like Eliot and the early modernists, McCarthy fashions a world where people are trapped in relationships without love, forced apart by religious ideas reinterpreted into a social reality willing to create its own fire and brimstone. John Grady dies not because he loves, but because he tries to love outside the acceptable cultural norm, a norm deeply rooted in a mythical mis-reading of an ancient text.

You Don’t Have to Leave, But You Can’t Stay Here

Blogging, I told someone the other day, is a bit like controlled free-writing for me. In theory, there is a focus to each day’s post but I’m not holding myself to the same rigorous standard I might apply to academic writing. This approach lends itself to a wide-variety of posts–no one will ever accuse me of being an “educational” or “political” blog partly because each day’s post depends, in many respects, on what I read in the paper.

But today, I want to revisit yesterday’s post because I fear I might have sounded a little less than enthused about the place I work. Let me say categorically that ASU is a great university. I have colleagues who are some of the best teachers in the business. One of the most frustrating things for me to read are blanket attacks on college professors. My colleagues here, unlike faculty at large research universities, teach a full load, research in moderation, and serve both the campus and the community.

Put simply–they are some of the finest educators I know, dedicated to helping our students achieve success. We have undergraduate programs that are some of the finest in the nation. Our Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Geo sciences students regularly participate in undergraduate research, get accepted to medical schools and graduate schools. I’m partial to our English department and the employability. Our students go to graduate school, teach, and, at times, become officers in the military. Our kids graduate, get jobs, and have some of the lowest student loan debt in the nation. I could go on and on.

But, as I noted yesterday, I still don’t want my son to go here.

When my wife and I had our first son, I told her my parenting model was Homer Simpson and that the key to great parenting was keeping our expectations low. Remember, I told her, the mind is powerful and we should encourage our kids to repress as many memories as possible.

Of course, the real goal of parenting is to create human beings who are better than you. We do that by giving them appropriate opportunities and steering them into making good choices. Sometimes we have to be surreptitious. And many times we have to let them fail. But most importantly, we have to let them be uncomfortable.

When my son goes off to college, I want him to live someplace where being the tall white kid isn’t the norm. I want him to live someplace where he doesn’t know anyone, where the couple living next door is the same gender, and the couple on the other side is multi-racial. And I want him to live someplace where the washing machine is across town and only works with quarters.

I love my son but I don’t want him to come home every weekend.

Most importantly, I want him to struggle with ideas independent of my wife and I. He needs to see and hear things outside the context of his comfort zone. Certainly, he’ll be home on the holidays, crashing on the couch, but when he does I’m hoping he’s different. He should see us as small town, backwards, and out of touch as the world of ideas and people opens up before him. I have faith he’ll eventually change perspectives and realize we aren’t quite as dumb as he thinks, but when he goes to his 10 year reunion, I hope people look at him and say, “you’re different.” That’s not a bad thing. (At my 10 year reunion, someone told me I talked different. I felt like saying, I’ve got a PhD in English. I damn well better sound different or I’ve wasted my money!).

I understand parents who want to keep their kids close. I’m sure they have the same hopes and dreams. We want our children to be happy and safe (and employed!). Many parents hope their children stay around and live near by. There’s something to be said for that. We live 7 hours from my wife’s parents and holidays are a pain. I know her brothers, sisters, and parents would love to see her and our children more often. My relatives live even farther way and I haven’t seen many of them for years.

And sometimes that’s the price we pay for sending our kids off into the world. Periodically, I’ll ask my students where they’ve traveled. I’ll have some military children who have been everywhere, a couple of folks who have, at least, crossed into Mexico (we are two hours from the border here), and I’ll have 5-10 kids who have never been outside Tom Green County. I realize sometimes this is economic, but not always. Usually, it’s a conscious decision by the parents who don’t see the need.

Our job as parents, though, isn’t to encourage our kids to stay around because we want to be near them. We aren’t supposed to try and turn them into a little us. Our job is to open the world and give them a chance to live in it. I would be thrilled if my kids move off, find love, and come back to San Angelo. But if they come back, they need to make that choice. This needs to be the place they want to live; not the place they have always lived.

The goals of education and the goals of parenting are often the same: we want smart, critical thinking kids, who can both follow direction but who are also capable of telling us how to improve those directions. We want, as the old adage goes, to teach our kids to fish instead of just giving them fish. These goals are long range and largely impossible to measure because they require pushing, pulling, getting out of the way, and, in general, making stuff up as we go along. They require help but they also require times when we don’t help. We can manufacture successes when necessary and allow failure when it’s appropriate.

And it also means, eventually, letting go and hoping nothing really bad happens. That is particularly true when our kids turn 18 and that’s what we hope to do as we encourage our son to choose a school where he can be un-comfortable so he can learn to think, live, love, and become himself.

College’s Liberal Agenda: Critical Thinking Skills


Click to view

The standard consensus is that colleges are bastions of liberals pushing their agenda onto helpless and unsuspecting 18-22 year olds. Bill O’Reilly, conservative commentator masquerading as a populist, has even called for a kind of affirmative action to increase university hiring of conservative professors. Never mind that there is almost no evidence that this liberal agenda has almost no impact on students, and forgetting that the other general consensus about higher education is that we aren’t teaching anyone anything, if college’s are doing such a bad job and creating such awful students, isn’t it odd that “data shows that your chances of being unemployed increase dramatically without a college degree?”

It’s possible, of course, that O’Reilly is not entirely serious, especially in light of his opposition to other affirmative action policies. I can’t imagine he would stoop to such hypocrisy and wallow in inconsistency. All this conversation about the liberal agenda of my colleagues and I, employability after college, and value seems strangely prescient as we watch my older son and his friends make decisions about where they will go to college. More importantly, we listen to our friends and relatives discuss which schools their children should attend.

No one doubts that a university education is as valuable as you make it. A part of me recognizes that a student graduating from Angelo State University (where I teach) has the potential to be just as well educated as a kid from Harvard. Simply put, a student who works hard, studies, reads, and wants to learn will learn (and graduate with less debt!) regardless of the political beliefs of her professor. Likewise, a student who is apathetic and disengaged will leave college just as unprepared academically.

We would be foolish, though, if we claimed that a degree from ASU was just as valuable as a degree from Harvard, Yale, or even University of Texas. Fairly or not, the elite schools are, in fact, elite. “I went to Harvard” sounds different than “I went to ASU.” Top tier schools have academic resources and greater opportunities than other schools. It is also worth noting that when critics attack universities for their liberal agenda, they are talking about Harvard, Yale, and those elite schools. (I’m perpetually annoyed, in fact, that we speak of universities in this universal way but that’s a blog for another day.)

So, and I say this with all due respect to my colleagues, I don’t want my son to go to ASU. Financially, it would be a good thing. He could live at home, continue eating my food, and I wouldn’t have to pay housing costs. Kaching! I know plenty of parents who are encouraging their children to attend college and live at home for these very reasons and I have some sympathy for their decision. Tuition isn’t getting less expensive. Housing costs, driven by opulent dorms, climbing walls, and increased student life amenities are creating incredibly comfortable college campuses. Comfort comes at a cost and I understand the sticker shock.

But I also know that this decision to “encourage” their children to attend college locally (whether ASU or their local school) is being driven by a different kind of value. While college professors are increasingly criticized for graduating students who lack critical thinking skills, we are watching enrolled students who have been raised to resist thinking critically. One of the reasons, quite frankly, that the “liberal agenda” of college professors has very little impact is that our students too often simply ignore or reject political philosophies that challenge long held beliefs. Often, as you can imagine, the most resistant students are those who have never left the safety of their own nest.

Asking my son to attend our local college would, in fact, be a disservice to his future. To become educated he must be challenged educationally and emotionally. I want his college professors to politicize the classroom and I want them to ask him challenging questions that force him to confront his beliefs. Quite frankly, I want him to go to a school with an agenda. An agenda implies ideas, thoughts, conversations, and all those other things that require critical thinking and analysis.

The value of a university education isn’t in an apolitical skill-set they might learn. The value of a college education should be in the independence they earn by confronting ideas that make them uncomfortable. I can only hope my son’s professors have a liberal agenda or a conservative agenda or, at the least, an agenda so that when he comes home to visit that nest he left seems smaller and different. At least then I’ll know I’m getting my money’s worth.



Good Morning. My Name is Ms. Smith and I’m Packing Heat

I’ve thought of plenty of ways to reform education, but I will admit that arming elementary school teachers has never made one of my lists. Yet, here we sit, a few days post-Sandy Hook, and Representative Louie Gohmert told Chris Wallace “I wish to God she [Dawn Hochsprung] had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out … and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids,” Gohmert said.” (I guess he didn’t get the memo about not politicizing the shooting?)

Gohmert also argued that mass killings take place in schools because the shooters “know no one will be armed.” Once again, I’m proud of yet another representative from Texas who clearly spends his days in an alternative universe. If, Chris Wallace might have asked, the shooter was being reasonable would he have shot anyone? Wallace might have also pointed out that most mass killings are performed by people who are mentally unstable and one of the definitions of instability is a lack of sound logic.  Of course, Chris Wallace would have to commit himself to actual journalism to ask such a question.

I’ll let your imagination re-design our college teacher education courses to include gun ownership, firing range activities, and gun safety. I’ll also let you imagine the horror when pistol packing junior high teachers step in between two enraged 8th graders and one of them pulls the gun off the teacher and kills his classmate. In fact, I’ll let you develop the 1,000 reasons arming teachers is a bad idea.

Let’s be clear–people who are mentally unhinged don’t care if you are armed or not. The only people who care if you are armed are those people thinking logically and the people who are thinking logically aren’t going to go crazy and shoot up the place. It’s a classic catch-22, only in a good way.

For today, though, I’m going to cede the remainder of my writing to Alan Jacobs. Jacobs, in “Guns, Risks, and Safety in The American Conservative, captures my thoughts about arming teachers so well, and so much more succinctly, that I copy it here. The issue, as Jacobs notes, isn’t really about arming teachers. The issue is what kind of society are we trying to create.

But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.

Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)

Is this really the best we can do? It might be if we lived in, say, the world described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. But we don’t. Our social order is flawed, but by no means bankrupt. Most of us live in peace and safety without the use of guns. It makes more sense to try to make that social order safer and safer, more and more genuinely peaceful, rather than descend voluntarily into a world governed by paranoia, in which one can only feel safe — or, really, “safe” — with cold steel strapped to one’s ribcage.


Just This Side of the Nuthouse

Our family decorates for Christmas the first weekend of December. After the lights are up outside and the tree is decorated (inside), we all settle in for our annual viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This is our only real family Christmas movie. We watch the other standard movies—It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard, and some others–but watching Chevy Chase spend time with kith and kin has become part of our tradition.

For the most part, my boys and I stop watching Miracle after the opening drunk Santa Clause scene and I spend most of It’s a Wonderful Life mocking the Jimmy Stewart character and complaining about the flawed philosophical self- importance the movie lends to our individual lives. I’m always really bothered by the scene where Donna Reed’s character becomes a lonely librarian without George’s love. (Really, I yell! Her life was meaningless and empty without him? And she became a mousy librarian? She wasn’t mousy before they met and married!)

Each year, I also remind my kids of the Saturday Night Live skit with Dana Carvey where they attack Mr. Potter. “I don’t want the money, Mr. Potter. I want a piece of you!” Inspired skit-making.

It’s worth noting that our holidays are never quite as crazy as the Griswald’s, but the essential element of the movie strikes me as more relevant than Frank Capra’s ideas. For Clark (Chevy Chase), expectations can never equal reality and I think in too many lives we see the same problem (without the humorous result). I’ve watched, consistently, as people compare the moment they are in with the moment they wish was taking place.

The holiday’s become stressful because that expectation, that desire to have “the happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye,” is necessarily in conflict with the reality of human behavior. (By the way, after a particularly nasty teenage meltdown when we were supposed to go visit with some people, my son stomped down the hall, slammed his door, and made it pretty clear he was asserting some intense obstinate defiance. I walked down with an outer calm hiding that rage only a teenager can produce, sat on his bed, put my arm around him—his shoulder not his neck—and quoted me a little Christmas Vacation. While I don’t like to cuss in front of the kids, it broke the hostility and got us out the door. Inspired parenting. Calm. Funny. And, trust me, rare.)

During the holidays, so much of our behavior is measured against these classic holiday films. When my wife and I first starting illuminating the exterior of our house, she wanted white lights, green wreaths, and all those sophisticated accoutrements we see in holiday movies. The inside of the house needed to have that soft glow of a fire, holiday lights, and the Norman Rockwell haze of normalcy.

Christmas morning, our kids would rise, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, toddle down to the tree and calmly open one gift at a time.

Yeah. Not so much. And there is the rub. What we like so much about Chevy Chase is his unending desire and optimism that things can be perfect. They are on the threshold of hell, but with a chain saw, some duct tape, and rum-laced eggnog, we can get through the holidays. The key, it seems to me, is latching on to the moment in which we exist and stop searching for the moment we wish existed.

Building Schools with Straw Bricks


Click to hear Carlin on the 10 Commandments

The Christmas season always puts me into a movie watching mood. Our family has some standard favorites: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and that contemporary classic, Die Hard. Actually, we watch all these but Vacation is our only true family favorite. The others we tolerate. Here of late, though, I’ve been thinking a little bit about a movie that really pops up more often at Easter.

My favorite scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Ten Commandments is right after Moses’ staff transforms and swallows Pharaoh’s snakes. Moses is all puffed up and feeling good. And why not. Turning a staff into a snake is way cool, but Yul Brynner, the Pharoah, just laughs at his demand to “set my people free,” and, adding insult to injury, demands the Hebrews start making bricks without straw so he can continue building an empire for his son. A confused Moses later stands at the well, earning the derision of the Hebrews who are forced to build with inferior products yet then get punished when the structure fails. What, Moses seems to think, do I have to do to get some respect around here? I’m guessing he feels like God has thrown him under the bus.

Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh wins in the short term as the demoralized Hebrews virtually abandon Moses. He has, for the time, averted the revolution, saved money, and built his empire. But it’s an empire built on straw bricks and, in the long run, he loses his army and his son dies.

As we head into another legislative session in Texas, I would recommend our governor take a look at this movie over the next few weeks. Our legislators would do well to avoid a pharaohesque mistake as it prepares yet another budget that asks the already depleted schools to build without all the required materials. The consequences might not be so dire and deadly as they are for the pharoah, but the structural damage to our state will surely follow such a foolish budget.

Our legislators share some of Pharaoh’s penchant for illogical proclamations. Each session, I hear at least one state rep. compare the state budget to a family budget. While it certainly sounds politically clever, this is really comparing apples to oranges and creating a false analogy. There are no tax loop holes in my family budget for the richest members of the household, and we do not hold yearly elections to vote people into office. If we did, I’m sure I would have been voted out of fatherhood by my kids a long time ago. We don’t have revenue enhancement in our house, and the only lobbyist gifts I get come with a smile and a hug. (Or whining and tears, depending on who is asking.) There is, of course, some measure of debate within the house about how to distribute income, but we have no conference committees or corporate special interest groups asking for favors each budget session.

Fundamentally, of course, the issue is not just the logically flawed comparisons being used to form our state budget. Instead, we are witnessing a state government willing to cut its nose off to spite its face, forcing state agencies to make bricks without straw. No new tax pledges make for great sound bytes, but our representatives should take their show on the road to community colleges and universities to talk to students who will struggle because of cuts in funding. How will Rick Perry justify his no new tax pledge when tuition rates go up 7-15 percent (again) and Texas produces fewer college graduates, impacting our growth potential? In the mid 80s, the state of Texas covered 75% of the cost of higher education. Today, the state covers less than 30%. Gee. I wonder why tuition went up?

The traditional role of government assumes that each of us has a vested interest in paying for services that benefit all of us: education, public safety, indigent care, road ways, environmental safety, growth management, etc. Texas tax codes certainly are not simple, but the math is—the more people who contribute to the cost of a program, the less each person must pay. If we reduce the number of people paying, the direct cost to each person in the smaller pool increases. If we remove those services from the state’s responsibility, each local community will, by necessity, either cut services or increase the cost to its citizens to continue to provide basic needs. Texas already ranks 39th in state and local spending for public health and 45th in health and welfare. Quite simply, there is not much fat to cut from state budgets. Local politicians do not have the luxury of sitting in Austin crunching numbers: the people who suffer from those numbers are your next door neighbors, your libraries, your schools. To maintain our already basic services, we will increase local costs and there will be fewer people paying into the pool.

Yul Brynner got his bricks from the Hebrew slaves, but he never got the glory of building a kingdom for his children. Is Texas ready to head down that same path? The Governor wants to take the straw away from state agencies, but do we want the bricks those agencies will produce?

Guns Don’t Kill But They Sure Make It Easier

Click to view clip from Falling Down (1993)

Click to view clip from Falling Down (1993)

Way back in 1993, Michael Douglas starred in Falling Down, a relatively uneven movie that tried to tap into the angry white, middle class male demographic. The movie, boycotted by the Korean-American Coalition and rejected by engineers in the defense industry, was marginally successful, but failed to generate huge box office returns. I’m sure part of the lukewarm reception was the overall sadness of the Michael Douglas character. He’s virtually unredeemable as he slips into a kind of psychotic disgust with daily life in America. In same ways, Douglas (whose performance is really very good in this movie) is simply a gun-toting version of Peter Gibbons of Office Space. Whereas Gibbons is sardonic, cynical, and peacefully looking for a way out of the rat race, Douglas’ character is sad, lost, and carrying a loaded weapon.

While I do remember some of the response to the movie, I don’t remember how the NRA reacted to a pissed off white guy toting a gun around L.A.. But, based on their inability to have any perspective at all about owning weapons, I can only imagine their secret glee as Douglas wanders around L.A. “bearing arms” and glorifying in his second amendment rights.

I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about the second amendment. When we look at the Constitution in its historical context, we see a clear need for such an expressed right. For the authors of the Bill of Rights, their memories are dominated by English troops patrolling the country-side and invading their homes. As a recently occupied region, owning and bearing arms was essential to uphold and maintain the core freedoms they just worked so hard to earn. I’ll also note that the core of the Bill of Rights focuses on limiting government intrusion into our family homes. Freedom of speech, for instance, is really less about our freedom to speak and more about keeping the government from constraining our speech and freedom of religion is about stopping the government from requiring religion.

But, it’s also worth noting that the second amendment is the most poorly written amendment of the bunch: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I don’t want to get all English professory, but if a student turned in such a sentence, I might be tempted to take the red pen to it. Was Yoda involved in writing this thing? “Own a gun, you shall, young Skywalker.”

The NRA, it seems, likes to focus on the “shall not be infringed” part of the amendment, reading that as a de facto statement that any gun laws are unconstitutional. As such, they argue American citizens should be able to carry any gun anywhere at any time. Workplace, college classroom, church building, mall–doesn’t matter to the NRA. Beyond the second amendment, NRA supporters are prone to argue  ”

the measures are needed to protect employees during their commutes. They say that employers who ban guns on their property are preventing workers from possessing their weapons when they commute, leaving them vulnerable to attack.


  “This provides safety and protection for workers who oftentimes travel 20 to 50 miles to their jobs,” said Alabama Democratic state Sen. Roger Bedford, who has introduced a parking lot gun law in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. 

  Bedford said he introduced the measure at the request of constituents. He couldn’t point to any incident in which a commuter would have benefited from having a gun in the car.”

With a certain cynical glee, I note that the GOP is caught in the cross hairs of two false political gods–business and guns, but mostly I’m struck by the sheer stupidity of gun rights nuts who lose any semblance of perspective regarding public safety and common sense. The Senator has no evidence he’s right in his claim, yet he will still push forward.

Let’s forget for a minute that the greatest danger the workers have is driving 50 miles to their job (with or without a gun) and that the danger of being carjacked on the back roads of Alabama is pretty slim, and focus on why a business might want to maintain some semblance of control over what it’s employees bring onto their privately owned property. Let’s think about Michael Douglas above and make it just a little bit more difficult for him to walk onto the job site carrying a loaded weapon.

We also shouldn’t assume that having a large body of armed citizens will make the world a safer place. There’s a reason most law enforcement agencies don’t advise getting in a gun fight with criminals. Random, mass shootings generally happen very fast and in large crowded areas. (Aurora, CO lasted about 2 minutes.) Even I, as someone who doesn’t shoot guns, knows that bullets fly really fast and they rarely go exactly where we want, especially in times of duress. Why, after all, does the military keep looking for guns that fire lots and lots of bullets very quickly? Because only the trained sniper, sitting in a relatively secure spot, is a dead eye. Deer hunters don’t shoot on the run and, let’s face it, if the deer ever started shooting back none of us would eat venison. The prospect of multiple shooters, circled by law enforcement agents trying to stop the violence, can’t be positive.

Like most Americans, I don’t really have a problem with guns, per se. I think our right to bear arms, to hunt, and to shoot recreationally is an important part of our cultural and historical heritage. While I’ll admit I do all my big game hunting at HEB, I’m glad my friends shoot deer and turkey (and even more glad when they share). As the bumper sticker says–I didn’t climb to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables. I’ll also admit that crazy people who want to shoot up the workplace aren’t going to look at a sign on the door that says “No weapons” and think “Darn! I guess I’ll have to go off company property to be a homicidal maniac.”

But, let’s keep some perspective. While guns don’t kill people (people kill people), pissed off people with guns are a lot more dangerous that someone without a gun. The guy in the deer stand is pretty relaxed. The guy who just drove 50 miles at 6:00 probably isn’t. Let’s start being big boys and girls and have an honest and open conversation about guns. Change the language and perhaps we change the culture.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)