Slavery, boxing, & other things I’m reading (and watching) this week

"So, what'll it be...binge watching, binge eating or both?"Some random thoughts about a couple novels, Foyle’s War, and the AHCA.

  1. I finished Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad over the weekend. Whitehead’s novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize this year, is both compelling and uneven. In Whitehead’s narrative, the underground railroad is, literally, a railroad running underground, a kind of abolitionists subway that carries slaves up and down the east coast. Station agents are citizens and abolitionists who see slavery as the abomination that it was. The folks risk live and livelihood helping slaves escape into the dark tunnels where old engines pull broken down rail cars through the darkness. Colson, at his best, shows us the emotional toil slavery exacts. While many novels about slavery show us a sliver of hope, I like that Colson paints us a picture of the human soul in collapse. Even the moments on a plantation that might offer a respite from the degradation of slavery contain the dark anger and despair of life as a slave in America. Cora, Colson’s primary character, can’t relax or experience those momentary stays we all need from the confusion of daily life. Colson keeps that cloud of hopelessness hovering over her head throughout the novel. But Colson also falls into what we might call the Richard Wright trap. I’m in no way disparaging Wright’s masterpiece Native Son. His novel was a product of its place and time and stands as an important 20th Century novel that captures the abject despair of being black in America. Wright, though (as virtually every critic notes), gets a tad bit preachy in the last third of the novel. In defense of Wright, he was writing to an audience largely ignorant of the plight of Bigger Thomas, and Wright was going to by God make sure his readers didn’t miss the larger point about inequality and race. Colson’s novel isn’t quite as preachy, but I think he also loses some faith in his audience once Cora lands in Indiana at the Valentine farm. He’s done so well letting despair linger right under the surface of Cora’s life and then characters that might have had some depth get a little to caricatured for my tastes. More importantly, Colson’s strengths are bringing the pain of slavery to life. Turning the Underground Railroad into a real thing and not a metaphor fits with that focus on the real. At the risk of spoiling anything, the “Ghost Station” Cora finds in Indiana moves us away from the solid actuality of the first 2/3rds of the novel and into some metaphorical, allegorical mysterious space that we haven’t occupied anywhere else in the novel. Don’t get me wrong. Whitehead is a fine writer and Cora’s story is compelling and interesting. Slavery, Colson clearly shows, rots the soul of everyone involved, fueling a hatred that dehumanizes owner and slave. In a larger sense, Colson’s novel is an important reminder about an ugly and shameful part of our past that we can’t, and shouldn’t ignore.
  2. I’m about halfway through FX Toole‘s Pound for Pound. If you don’t know Toole, he’s really Jerry Boyd, a guy who didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until he was about 70. The film Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Hilary Swank, was based on a story in his collection Rope Burns. Toole didn’t survive to see the movie or Pound for Pound published and, as others have noted, Toole’s story is probably as compelling as his fiction. In point of fact, Pound for Pound was about a 900 page manuscript edited into a novel, and I’m always a little skeptical about authorship and quality in such cases. Toole spent his life as a cut-man and trainer. I’m not being entirely critical when I say his fiction reads like it. When you add in the edited nature of the manuscript, the writing can get clunky. However, if you like boxing and all the metaphors associated with the sport, you’ll probably like Toole’s work. Boxing, in Toole’s world, provides discipline and order to the chaotic world of the men in his works. There’s a reason that so many inner-city churches and youth organizations start boxing clubs to try and provide an outlet to the chaos of the poverty and tragedy of the streets. For Toole, this discipline is transcendent not in victory but in the beauty of a punch thrown correctly. At his best, Toole shows us a character’s joy when his breathing and footwork coincides with a left hook that strikes with devastating power. Men in the novel who lack discipline cheat, fix fights, and succumb to addiction. Toole’s no Hemingway, but his novel offers an insight into the allure of boxing not as an outlet for violence but as a place of beauty and the artistic possibilities when parts of an action come together as a whole.
  3. My wife and I are slowly but surely getting hooked on Foyle’s War. Set in World War 2, the series follows Christopher Foyle as he solves various crimes. There aren’t many guns, we don’t see any blood and guts, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen faster chases watching two 3 year olds on tricycles. In fact, the show is about as sexy watching a sunset on a cloudy day. And yet every night about 8:00, we settle in and watch Michael Kitchen (he plays Foyle) walk around in his 1940’s wool suit and slowly unravel whatever mystery he’s faced with this week. Simply put, and I know it makes me sound old, the acting in the show is stunningly good. The story lines unfold like a well-written short story with characters that develop slowly in each 90 minute episode. Show recommendations are always dicey things because we all think our tastes in entertainment are better than anyone else’s, and we’re shocked (flabbergasted even) that people can’t appreciate the humor or joy we find in movies or tv. (Everyone loves Strange Brew, right?) If you’re sitting around some night surfing through Netflix, give Foyle’s War a shot. If you’ve got good taste, you’ll like it. If not, keep your recommendations to yourself. We don’t need any reminders that our taste in television can be odd.
  4. The American Health Care Act passed the House this week. I haven’t read it, but neither did some of the House members who voted for or against the dang thing. My excuse is that I’m not paid to read the bill. I’ll say what I’ve said before on this blog–the issue isn’t insurance: it’s the cost of medical care. At some point, we need to stop this charade and either move to a totally free market health care system (where lots of people go without insurance and overwhelm emergency rooms driving up our local costs) or move a single payer system that creates a safety net for all of us. We can’t keep patching this mess up with bailing wire and duct tape. Most disappointing to me is that Republicans have had seven years to craft legislation and this bill seems to be the best they could do. Remember students–this is what happens when you procrastinate and wait until the last minute to finish your assignment.

Random Thoughts about Things I Read Today

I was going to spend today writing about dual credit, but I got bored and spent my time reading various articles online.

  1. Justin Peters gives the Bill O’Reilly story the “no-spin” explanation it deserves in “The All-Spin Zone: Bill O’Reilly’s long career of transforming B.S. into “common Read Tweetssense.” Like so many other things lately, too many of us underestimate the appeal of Fox News and it’s television hosts, Peters says. O’Reilly speaks to an aged viewership who appreciates strong opinions and paternalistic “straight talk:” Correctness is less important than certainty and, Peters argues, gives rise to Trump’s successful presidential election. I agree. As the world gets more complex, people want to believe the solutions are simple and easy. “Elites” like Obama and Clinton bloviated, spun, and obfuscated. O’Reilly, for his faithful viewers, cut through all that BS for common sense solutions. Watching O’Reilly, for me, was always a bit like watching a talking WWE episode, but I’m thankful for O’Reilly’s career because he gave us the Colbert Report.   Interestingly, commentators like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have an out-sized influence based on the actual number of viewers and listeners. (FYI–if you don’t follow ratings, the NBC Nightly News has about 10 million viewers a day.) Any post about O’Reilly also needs a shout-out to the advertisers who pulled their ads as a way to stop supporting a many accused of such abusive behavior. Of course, I’m sure the sting of unemployment is soothed by his $25 million pay out.
  2. After spending time reading about Bill O’Reilly this morning and then sitting in an hour and a half meeting, I read (with a great deal of longing) Forbes “The Best Places to Retire in 2017.” The mind and body are willing, the 403B isn’t. I’m looking forward to reading about Forbes best places to retire in 2037. That’s painful to write. I’ve reached a point in life, though, were retirement becomes this actual thing instead of some abstract concept in the long-away future. I particularly like that the list seems to privilege college towns and lower cost housing. Retirement isn’t just about money (thank goodness). Keeping costs down, having easy access to medical services, and living someplace with low cost entertainment matters.
  3. The Texas Senate has advanced a bill to gut the top 10% rule. These types of bills pop up every couple of years. For those of you outside the great state of Texas, years ago the state mandated that state institutions automatically admit any student who finished in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. The idea was to create diversity at public institutions without requiring race-based admissions. Using high school standing takes into account the impact race and economics has on ACT/SAT performance and rewards good students from bad high schools with automatic admission to a state institution. Of course, both the U of Texas and Texas A&M have waivers. For those of us at mid-sized regional universities, gutting the top 10% rule would help as those students who weren’t admitted to UT or A&M would be forced to go with plan B and attend less expensive, high quality regional universities. Works for me. I’m weary of our state representatives writing bills and higher ed policies based on what works at UT and A&M and forgetting the other colleges in the state. The current budget proposed anywhere from 4% to a 10% cut for higher ed, cuts that some of smaller schools can’t absorb. In 2001, the state portion of higher ed funding was 65% and students paid 35%. Today, those numbers are reversed, even as our legislators tell us they want more graduates. We’ve done more with less for so long, I fear we’re about to do less with almost nothing.
  4. If you have a chance, read Adrianne Jeffries’ “How Google Eats A Business Whole.” After, try not to get worried that we’re giving our entire lives over to machines that will control knowledge and truth. Reminisce about the good old days when Bill O’Reilly was around to tell you what to think. If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ The Circle (read a great review here and an old blog of mine here), check it out. His novel (spoiler alert!) is about how social media has infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life. (Hopefully, the movie will live up to the novel.) Jeffries’ dos a nice job, unintentionally, of showing exactly why it’s so difficult to teach research skills to students these days. Who are the experts? How do you trust data? Where is truth (or truthiness for any Colbert fans out there)? As importantly, we probably need to start paying more attention to the way social media, information aggregate sites, and invasive data purveyors shape ideas and impact business. In the meantime, I wonder what google has to say about dual credit?





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.)