I Can Hang Up Without Uncle Sam’s Help

The wireless phone is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the world’s great inventions. Back when many of us were kids, we consistently tested the laws of physics, uncoiling that phone cord to the outer limits of physical possibility, hoping, praying even, for every inch and that the small plastic connector would hold long enough to make our secretive, teen-age plans or to express our undying love and commitment to that week’s love our life without our parent’s hearing us. We were electronically tethered by a kind of communicative umbilical cord: parents, brothers and sisters, and your crazy Uncle Joe who visited every Thanksgiving, listened in, offered advice, added commentary, or made little kissing noises at the worst possible times. We were veritable oral prisoners, maneuvering cords into hallways and under door frames, performing acts of flexibility that might make a contortionist envious, as we struggled to move outside our family’s auditory zone.

Shout out to Terri Pall and George Sweigert for giving us the cordless phone. They saved teenagers across the world embarrassment, angst, and future back problems from lying on the floor talking on the phone by their closed bedroom door.

And, more importantly, they saved parents from having to listen to the mindless, meaningless conversations our children have with their friends. I’m more than happy to let my kids go to their rooms, outside on the back porch, out to the car–anyplace so that I don’t have to listen to two teenagers have a conversation. If Dante were alive, there would be a special place in the Inferno where sinners were trapped listening to “dude,” “like,” and “whatever.” For eternity.

Unfortunately, though, I now have to listen to equally mindless conversations by people whose lives mean absolutely nothing to me as I walk down the street, sit in a restaurant, walk the grocery aisles, and, after the FAA ruled cell phones are safe in flight, perhaps on airplanes.

Sure, I care that your mother has never appreciated you, your boss is a uncaring jerk, or you can’t decide which toilet paper to buy. Feel free, I say, to share your foibles with the world. I especially like it when you get so wrapped up in your conversation you take longer in the check out line because, of course, I have no place else to be and your life is oh, so important to me.

Listening to your conversation in the grocery store (or at Lowes or the mall or simply walking down the sidewalk) is, though, part of the cost of a free and open society. If, for some odd reason, HEB or Best Buy gets over run with cell phone users who impede my ability to go deeper in debt, I can go someplace else to buy milk, electronics, or other equally unaffordable things.

Because, last time I checked, I am free to shop where I want.

More importantly, stores are free to decide if or when people use cell phones while shopping. McDonalds might think its fine, but the Malibu Kitchen and Gourmet Country Market won’t let you order until you turn off the cell phone.

And, surprisingly enough, they can make that decision without any help from the government.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m no fan of shopping on Thanksgiving day, but Walmart has every right in the world to participate and contribute to America’s seemingly endless appetite for avarice, greed, and unbridled capitalism. In much the same way, Hobby Lobby and Chik-Fil-A can stay closed Thanksgiving day or Sunday or any other day of the week.

If I don’t like those policies, I don’t have to shop there. There are plenty of businesses willing to separate me from my dollar bills. Heck, I still don’t buy Exxon gas because of their unconscionable, irresponsible response to the Valdez oil spill, and I avoid Walmart because their hiring practices are, to put it mildly, questionable at best. Sure, I might pay a little more for Susie’s first bike but it’s my money and I’ll spend it where I want. You do the same. Don’t like Starbuck’s liberal, pinko free trade coffee policies? Get your Peppermint Mocha Frappuchino someplace else.

One of the great things about America is that I can develop whatever illogical, contradictory economic morality I so desire.

And one of those desires would be to never, ever, in a million years, fly on a plane that allowed people to talk on cell phones in flight.

But just because I don’t want it, Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Dianne Feinstein, doesn’t mean we need the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act to ban in-flight phone calls. Let’s forget for a moment the horror we should all feel that Congress wants to legislate courtesy of any kind and skip the irony of a self-professed small government Republican proposing legislation with a big government Democrat, and remember that if airlines, travelers, and passengers are all troubled “over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight,” then United, American Airlines, and any other airline can simply choose not to allow talking on cell phones in their planes.

Certainly, we’re all very happy the FAA has banned weapons, cigarettes, and 8 ounce bottles of shampoo since these all constitute a health hazard and a danger to other passengers. We can’t have terrorists with full, bouncy, and healthy hair after all.

If, though, American Airlines decides to let Chatty Cathy talk on her phone in flight from New York to Seattle, I (and this might shock some folks) don’t have to buy a ticket on American Airlines. I can let my wallet do the talking for me and fly with a different airline.

Left to their own devices, airlines might develop a variety of options for passengers: no talk seats, free talk sections, buffer aisles near the exits, or even talk free flights. In the meantime, while I’m tickled pink that Congress seems to have found some semblance of bi-partisanship, I don’t need Uncle Sam’s help hanging up the phone. And neither does anyone else.

A Novel I Couldn’t Refuse: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (a book review)

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather opens with a quote from Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” For those of you not well versed in your 19th century French writers, Honore de Balzac is considered by many to be the father of French Realism, Balzac is, perhaps, best known for his novel Le Père Goriot (1835), a novel translated as Father Goriot for us non-French reading commoners. Balzac also authored a series of short stories he gathered into a giant collection he called the Human Comedy. (Well, he called it  La Comédie Humaine but I’m writing American here so cut me some slack.)

Labeling Balzac a Realist, in many ways, reduces his contribution to world literature. Fellow countryman Marie-Henri Beyle (who wrote under the pen name Stendahl) once described the goal of Realism, and I paraphrase and translate, to provide a mirror walking down the road. Both Balzac’s novel and Stendahl’s great novel The Red and the Black are far more than simply reflections of society, but the common idea was that each writer (and, in fact, the job of the writer) was to accurately reflect, to offer a mimetic sense if you will, of the world in which they exist.

Doing so and doing well, though, involves delving into the human psyche, probing culture, and carefully crafting the images we see in that mirror. In many ways, calling Balzac and Stendahl Realists limits their contributions to both the literary world and our understanding of that larger human narrative. Like so many great writers, their works get categorized so they fit neatly in a variety of anthologies and “eras” and readers often ignore their other qualities.

In many ways, Puzo’s novel suffers the the same reductive fate. I will willingly admit that I’m a fan of the film. The Godfather (1972) and Godfather Part II (1972) are cinematic masterpieces that epitomize 1970’s American film making. Director Francis Ford Coppola rejected the pretty beach blanket boys and girls of the ’60s and took us into the dirty, gritty city streets with that cinema verite that seems a direct descendant of Balzac and Stendahl.

I’ll also admit that I’ve had a copy of Puzo’s novel on my book shelf for so long that when I cracked the spine and started reading the other day whole chapters fell out onto the floor. I have never read the novel, partly I’ll admit, because I’ve simply assumed Puzo had given us a crime novel (with all the formulaic connotations such a tag implies) that would be superficial, shallow, and filled with stereotypical, flat characters.

Like Goodfellas only on the printed page. (Sorry. That’s a cheap shot but I stand by it. I love Ray Liotta, but that stare has always been just a tad melodramatic for me. I’m not sure if his new tequila commercial is parody or serious?)

Fortunately, I’m man enough to admit I’m wrong. (Mostly because I have so much practice. At being wrong not being a man. No practice necessary for that, of course.)

Certainly, the novel has its fair share of stock characters and stereotypes. Too many of the Italian men have slicked back pompadours and Puzo writes about sex like a man who read too many letters to Playboy, but we also get a deep and insightful examination of one family’s desire to fight for, not against, it’s share of the American dream. In many ways, Puzo gives us a novel that is, at times, incredibly critical of how power is distributed and deeply intertwined with economic prosperity. Don Corleone is simply modeling corporate America on a smaller, and at times more violent, scale.

The Corleone’s recognize the disparity of power and economic possibilities early in the novel and spend years working within the system while alternately gaming the system as a means to gain power so that their “children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity.”

Giving his family this opportunity requires that the Don, and his son Michael, make decisions outside the accepted norms of the social system because, quite simply, the system within which they exist restricts access to power for immigrants and the poor. We see, early in the novel, the oppressive conditions in which immigrant and poor families exist. In many ways, then, Puzo’s novel both criticizes and glorifies American society.

But what makes Puzo’s novel so interesting, it seems to me, is his emphasis and focus on Italian-Americans. The willingness to trumpet the values and humanity of “hyphenated” Americans in 1969 reflects a burgeoning civil rights movement that is starting to find legs in American culture while at the same time showing us, holding that mirror up on the path to prosperity, the seedy underbelly of the sacrifices necessary to achieve power in America. The men and women in this novel are definitively American and they believe in America, but they also have refused to shy away from or reject their deeply embedded cultural heritage. America is not about assimilation for Puzo: the Corleone’s spend most of the novel living in a small compound that keeps the outside world at bay.

What America provides, though, for those men willing to take it, Puzo seems to argue, is an opportunity to gain access to the halls of power if you are smart enough to bring men together and appeal to their reason. (Or, at the least, make an offer they can’t refuse.) But America is also about remembering your past and holding on to those ancestral, deeply embedded cultural identities that provide the narrative of who we were, Puzo seems to say. Bringing those two things together might not be pretty, but the successes and failures are all, the novel seems to imply, part of the growth, part of the culture, and part of America.

Balzac, I think, would have been proud.


Let’s Delete the E-Card

About 10 years ago, my family received a Christmas letter from some friends. You know the kind: 2 pages, 8 point font, photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph dedicated to each one explaining all their successes for the past year. Boy did they have successes. Hell, their dog had a better year than me. And, the letter seemed to imply, the pet was definitely smarter than I was. On the one hand we were happy things were going so well for them. On the other hand, we felt inadequate and began questioning most of the choices we had made in life.

Not really. Mostly, we spent our time making fun of the letter and our perfect friends. Envy might be a sin, but it also promotes wit and humor in the right hands.

We were also inspired to begin writing our own Christmas letter but ours was a little less Norman Rockwell and a little more Chevy Chase. Our first annual letter way back in 2005 set the tone:

“Dear __________ (please write your name here for that “personal” feel):

We all know how impersonal Christmas letters can be, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than calling each and every one of you with a family update. The enclosed photo is proof that our children are still happy and well adjusted. Please disregard any phone calls from the FBI or Child Protective Services. I assure you those are prank calls.”

As you can see, the letter was written back when people 1) used phones to actually talk to people with voices, and 2) had to pay for the minutes necessary. They had this thing called long distance charges. Primitive.

The biggest news of the year for us that year was that my older son cut the tip of his middle  finger off while closing our back door. He spent half the year flipping everyone off. I’m still convinced he kept his finger taped up way longer than necessary. Even better, we (and by me I mean my poor wife) managed to pick up the tip, put it in a baggie with ice, and send the thing with me as I rushed the poor child to the emergency room. I guess we thought they could just duct tape it back on.

Rest assured no one felt insecure after reading our letter. I spread Christmas cheer by letting everyone know their dog probably was smarter than me.

Amazingly enough (or at least amazing to me), we are sending out our 9th annual letter this year. The tone for the last 9 years has remained the same but each year we try to do something different. Two years ago, we included about 20 song lyrics in the letter. This year the letter is riddled with Christmas movie references and every year there is at least one reference to big news stories from the year. (Santa sells data to the NSA–who else knows when you’ve been bad or good? They either have to buy it from him or play World of Warcraft.)

Perhaps even more amazing than 9 years of letters: we are sending an actual letter using honest to god stamps. No e-card or attachments or twitter feeds. We aren’t posting the letter to our Facebook page or Tumblr or Instagram.

And I wish other people wouldn’t either.

I’m no Christmas Card history expert, but I’m pretty sure the first Christmas cards were sent out in the mid 1800s in England and, generally, they were the province of the wealthy. As we entered the industrial age and commercial printing became readily available, the rest of us could send greeting cards relatively cheaply. Such cards offered us a chance to “greet” our friends and let them know we were thinking about them. Even with mass production, cards were special things to receive and many became mementos and archives of Christmas past. It should be noted also that such cards represented a kind of gift, a sense that the sender was thinking about you and yours at this special time and they were treated as such by being placed on the mantle or on the Christmas tree itself.

Try that with your e-card.

I’m no luddite. I understand the speed and efficiency that email and mass posting sites provide (hence the blog), but it also seems to me that speed and efficiency is exactly what we shouldn’t be worried about this time of year. Regardless of our religious or non-religious affiliation, the winter break, that time when we transition from one year into the next, should provide us with a moment to reflect both on the last 365 days but also on the broad range of relationships we have built over the course of time.

Christmas Cards, Season Greetings Cards, Happy Holidays Cards–the words on the card are far less relevant than the sentiment behind the gesture itself. When we get a card in the mail, we know someone took the time to sign the card, address the envelope, and, we hope, reflect for one brief moment on the person who will in 4-6 business days open the card.

Just as importantly, that card or that letter provides each and every person with a tangible, physical artifact, a sense if I may try to wax poetic, of our connection across the space and time of our lives. We renew or at least remember the people we have met and whose lives we have touched. And while there might be plenty of reasons for the season, it seems to me that trip down memory lane is at least one of the most important ones.

You Can’t Pursue Happiness if You are Sitting Still

A friend of mine emailed the other day. He’s been teaching Cormac McCarthy’s The Road this week, a novel we’ve both had good success with in the past, but this time around “there were two or three passionate responders in a sea of potted plants.” He’s teaching a general education Humanities course and at times there “seems an active, even aggressive attitude on their part to NOT BE INTERESTED at all costs,” he writes.

He attributes their indifference to a growing sense of entitlement and a laser-like social and cultural emphasis on STEM fields. Let me say first that my colleague is one of the good guys. He’s a fine teacher who willingly creates cross-disciplinary courses, emphasizes critical thinking, and truly helps his students learn. He has an ability to take complicated material and help students understand and, on occasion, even enjoy such things. He is the kind of teacher who normally is able to show students that reading Shakespeare or Homer or even Cormac McCarthy is both worth their time and rewarding. He couples short fiction with popular culture, even showing a “Simpson’s parody to a mirthless audience.” He’s the kind of teacher many of us would like to be and the kind many of us wish we had taken.

While I would agree that we have increasingly raised a generation of students who think showing up is all of the battle (not just half anymore) and too many students who demand passing grades simply for putting forth a minimal effort, I think my friend misses the boat a bit. In many of my general education courses I’ve stopped teaching works that I truly and dearly love because I get frustrated not because the students don’t love the poem/novel/play, but because too many students are almost aggressively apathetic in those classes. They have been so bombarded with an educational ideology that tells them to seek out their passion that they too often refuse to engage with ideas if they don’t feel passionate, treating each class as if it were a side dish at Thanksgiving dinner. Mom makes you take a spoonful, but if you lick the spoon and don’t like the taste, you move the food around on the plate and scrape it in the trash when no one is looking.

They firmly believe they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but they have forgotten, as one of my professors used to remind us, that pursuing requires effort.

We have, simply put, convinced a generation of students that passion is more important than work. Far too many teachers, educators, and parents have become convinced that school must be fun, entertaining, and teachers must create active learning environments. We have passed along such ideas to our students and they sit idly by waiting for us to engage them. More important, they willingly admit that they only work well if they “like” the assignment or “feel comfortable” with the topic.

Mike Rowe, in his S.W.E.A.T Pledge at profoundly disconnected, tells us that Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo and his list of Pledges includes a reminder that “I do not ‘follow my passion.’ I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.” I might, were I so bold, change “can be done” with “should be done.” Jobs, essays, readings, and anything else worth doing should be done with passion and enthusiasm regardless of your desire.

But it’s more than just this misplaced emphasis on passion. Far too many of our students in these classes lack a larger sense of self. We see this increasingly, I think, in our students’ inability (or unwillingness) to laugh. There is, in many ways, some measure of irony in this “mirthless” generation. School, for years now, has been fun, filled with pep rallies, crazy clothes weeks, and school lunches that are a diabetic 12 year old’s wet dream.

Yet, I think, we have too many students who just don’t get humor that doesn’t involve body parts, flatulence, or violence. There’s more to humor than crazy grandpas and jack asses.

You have to have some brains to understand parody, satire, and sarcasm and we have developed too many pedantic, humorless students. They go to high schools where parody and satire are dangerous (and too often offensive) and where their English teachers teach, I’m convinced, scared. It’s one of the reasons so many high school reading lists are filled with crappy, politically safe books that focus on feeling good and teens struggling with their own identity. We’ve turned reading lists into “After School Specials” and in doing so we perpetuate the myth that the struggle of teenagers is unique, special, and worthy of study. I hate to sound all curmudgeony and such, but who really gives a shit about teenagers who are sensitive and freaked out.

Aren’t they all? Aren’t they supposed to be? They will, history shows us, grow out of it.

Even at the university level we see common read programs that choose books that above all offend no one and are accessible to multiple populations. I’m all for inclusion and I certainly believe we must move beyond the dead, white male reading lists of the 1950s, but we also must demand that our students stop expecting their trials and tribulations sit at the center of our daily studies. Education is about pushing ourselves beyond what we know comfortably and willingly, and I might argue even aggressively, finding a way to be happy and engaged.

Even when the material, or the professor, seems dull.

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 HuffingtonPost.com

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