You’ve Read This Post Before


The Glossary, a Los Angeles-based audiovisual marketing firm, has reinvented David Foster Wallace as a motivational speaker. This “fine purveyor of STIMULATING VIDEOGRAMS” edited the best soundbytes from Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This Is Water,” and then dressed it up with video, trendy animated scribbles, and sprightly background music.

The Glossary included the lines from the speech that haunted Wallace’s readers after he hanged himself:

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Returned to its original context as part of an exhortation to graduates to work towards mastery of their own perceptions – considering, for instance, that the overweight woman losing her temper in a checkout line might have spent the night with a dying husband and was not, in fact, just put on earth to annoy everyone in line behind her – the passage serves as a sort of radical motivation in which reimagination is the only way to keep oneself alive. Some critics, including Leslie Jamison, in his review of a Wallace biography, have rewritten Wallace’s suicide as a piece of postmodern performance art, with the “terrible master” passage a snippet of autobiography concealed by being waved in front of a crowd.

The less esoteric version has Wallace suffering from lifelong depression, forced to go off his medication because of severe side effects, and then, after falling into an even more severe depression and restarting the poison pills, discovering that they were no longer effective for him. Apparently, even if you are a genius, you still also have to be a person and a body with an uncooperative brain. Irreconcilable differences are bound to occur.

What surprises me about The Glossary video that has gone viral this week is that people find Wallace’s views so inspiring and revolutionary. In essence, he argues that most people ricochet back to the same mental point of origin, the panoramas that are so familiar we have stopped seeing them; but by prodding ourselves to consider other versions of what looks like reality, we are free to become better masters of our minds. He also acknowledges that getting outside ourselves is difficult, exhausting work, and he admits that sometimes he himself is too tired to engage in it.

To me, this celebration of possibilities is as good a definition of creativity as I’ve ever come across – something like mental Cubism, in which all realities can be embodied at the same time. But it also makes perfect sense to me that Wallace’s call to reinvent and reenvision, and the massive effort it takes to do so, would come from someone who was suicidal enough of his life for a bullet in the brain to become a metaphor. With depression as the random point in space from which you view the world, death is always right in front of you, blocking your view. To survive, you have to imagine a different frame, in which the option of suicide is somewhere far in the distance, behind a closed door, somewhere you might visit sometime when you don’t have so many other things to do. Once you know where the door is located, though, it is impossible to forget it exists or how to open it.

In a speech at the 2011 National Book Festival, Toni Morrison briefly discussed her dissertation, which compared William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s conceptions of suicide. Faulker viewed suicide as the ultimate defeat, Morrison explained, while Woolf saw it as a reasonable choice, in her case a rational alternative to putting herself and her husband through another period of psychosis. I tend toward Woolf’s view, and, I would guess, so did Wallace. Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech offers instructions for making other choices.

However, it is a more than a little paradoxical that the speech has been appropriated by a marketing firm. As a former (mostly mediocre) ad writer, I’m in a position to know that the whole objective is to create materials that act as magnets, pulling thoughts in the intended direction without infringing on viewers’ certainty of their own free will. Within a few days, the video had attracted 2.7 million views, dwarfing the popularity of previous projects (and, incidentally, using audio of Wallace’s Kenyon speech without permissions). In an Adweek interview, the creators claim, disingenuously in my opinion, “Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech.” Later in the interview, though, the creators concede, “…as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed…so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed ‘This Is Water’ to get in touch with us.”

I’m reminded of the perennially puzzling sentences, “This statement is untrue” and “Question authority.” Wallace’s legacy will almost certainly transcend this little ripple in the information ecosystem, but I’m also fairly sure its undertow is meant to pull us down into the water.

Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

Not with a Whimper but a Bang

candlesThis is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Something about the slaughter of twenty first graders and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut makes me want to state the obvious rather than striving for eloquence. The dead deserve eloquence, but they will be honored more by a thoughtful response to our country’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.

Massacres of innocents with semiautomatic weapons have become so frequent that recent articles on the Sandy Hook shooting haven’t even had space for them all in their ledes. Grisly greatest hits like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora usually get a mention, but so far there have been eight mass shootings in 2012, not including a bow and arrow attack at Casper College in Wyoming last week or a man who opened fire this morning at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Also left off most lists of past shootings are Kip Kinkel, a depressed 15 year-old who killed his parents and two classmates and wounded 22 others in Springfield, Oregon in 1998 – yes, before Columbine – whose story was featured in Frontline but has been all but lost in the crowd of other shooters.

An objective observer might conclude that we have a problem.

It’s not a some-people-are-evil problem, a constitutional problem, or even a mental health system problem. It’s a gun problem.

How many times have you heard that the mass murderer of the moment was “always polite,” “perfectly normal,” or “doing well”? Kinkel’s parents were dimly aware of his psychiatric problems and tried to help him; Seung-Hui Cho and Jared Lee Loughner had attracted the attention of school officials who were unable to compel treatment; James Eagan Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist. In most cases, the guns used in mass shootings were legally obtained. The overwhelming majority of people suffering from mental illness are not dangerous and never will be. However, the overwhelming majority of people, period, are clueless about what is going on with other people, period; and those who are not clueless are often reluctant to intervene, unsure of how to intervene, or helpless to intervene.

Meanwhile, shots continue to be fired. Firearms in the home significantly increase the risk of death from domestic violence, crime, suicide, and accidents. Gun-rights advocates rightly say that gun owners who are careful, properly trained, and law-abiding can safely use guns and that Second Amendment rights trump the risks. But since when are humans consistent about being careful, properly trained, and law abiding? There are more than 17,000 car accidents per day in the U.S. with a crash-related death, on average, every 13 minutes.

With cars, though, the driver who makes the mistake is roughly at as much risk as the other drivers and passengers involved, which theoretically acts as a counterbalance to carelessness and stupidity. Not so with guns. Also, cars have keys, meaning that it is difficult for anyone but the lawful owner to use them. Again, not the case with guns. In a perfect world, only people kill people, and on purpose. But our world, the real one with routine violence and accidental death, is filled with rampant imperfection and frequent errors in judgment. It’s nice to think that only responsible people will use guns, or that these good citizens can somehow deter killers who have abandoned civility or reason, but reality is not on the side of idealism.

The gun control topic has come up regularly in my classes since I started teaching. At first, I adamantly opposed all guns in all circumstances, and I regarded the fiery psyches of my gun-owning students with suspicion. From talking with students, though, I realized that in cities, guns are used overwhelmingly for violence, but that in rural areas, they were necessary for protecting and euthanizing livestock and sometimes for defending humans against large predators. When I moved to DC and commuted on a highway to work, seeing so many deer disemboweled by cars even made me sympathetic to hunting: Which is more cruel, a clean shot or a painful and terrifying evisceration by accident?

But semiautomatic weapons? Seriously? In Newtown, the six- and seven-year-olds were shot multiple times, presumably because the guns Adam Lanza used continued to fire after the children were hit. In this as in so many other things, the bullets are speeding towards their victims much more rapidly than a shooter can think.

We’ve had almost fourteen years to think about Columbine, though, and as the gratuitous death toll has mounted, the political environment has become more hostile to gun control. So many families will go through the holidays missing loved ones who died for no reason – or, rather, who died because skewed notions of self-defense and the right to hunt have overshadowed the reality of the world we live in, in which the killers right in front of us are far more dangerous than the ones from which we imagine guns will protect us.

Reality is on the side of reinstating the ban on semiautomatic weapons, keeping guns out of schools and other public places, requiring robust background checks and review of owners’ continued ability to use guns responsibly (we do it for driver’s licenses!), and considering possession of lethal weapons as a factor in judging whether a mentally ill patient is a danger to him/herself or others.

According to the ancient Mayans (or at least catastrophizers crediting the ancient Mayans), the world is supposed to end on 12/21/12. If the world really ends, I may die regretting my blithe attitude – another day, another apocalypse that hasn’t materialized – but really I’ve hardly given the date much more airtime than it takes to roll my eyes.

In the case of guns, on the other hand, it’s time to stop pretending that we can do nothing to prevent another apocalypse like the many others that have unfolded in the past year. For every family dealing with the aftermath of the dozens of shootings that have cumulatively caused hundreds of avoidable murders, the apocalypse has already come and gone – and any of the first graders who were killed at Sandy Hook, if they had lived, could have told the rest of us what we should do to stop the next one.

You Can Stop Whispering Now

Since the first time I saw The Dog Whisperer, I have had a slight crush on Cesar Millan. I don’t watch cable and so have only seen a few episodes of his show – in one of them, he subdued a dog with an unfortunate habit of attacking his owners; and in another, he schooled owners in becoming “pack leaders” after their dog became aggressive after their other dog died.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2006 New Yorker article, “What the Dog Saw,” speaks of Millan’s body language in adoring terms. The accompanying photo, in which Millan stands in a superhero pose, tennis ball in fist, surrounded by dogs leaping through what looks like a muddy stream, solidified my crush. By the time I got my cockapoo, Kerfuffle, on August 1, it was no longer necessary to watch Millan’s show to know all about his training methods: Like Seinfeld and Survivor, The Dog Whisperer had so thoroughly infiltrated popular culture that the average non-viewer could love Millan without knowing him.

Some of what I learned from the couple of episodes I watched made a lot of sense. For one thing, Millan reinforced the idea that dogs are fundamentally different from humans in that they don’t want to dominate; rather, they feel more secure when their humans are in charge so that they know what to expect. Like Americans, nearly all of whom (even these days) have bosses and paychecks, dogs want to have a purpose, fulfill it, and be recognized for their efforts. Dogs – carefully bred and raised alongside humans for centuries – would rather develop a strong character than be spoiled for being cute. And, finally and most revelatory for me, I learned that because dogs look to their owners for guidance, many behavior problems can be traced to failures of human leadership.

Unfortunately, however, the show also taught me that “alpha rolling” dogs onto their backs was a good way to establish “pack leadership.” The day after I brought Kerfuffle home, he snapped at the vet when she tried to examine his ears; after muzzling him to complete the exam (both ears were infected), she emphasized the importance of obedience training to discourage further aggression. Later, I discovered that he growled at me, the cats, and a friend when his toys or food were approached, even though otherwise he seemed hesitant, subdued, and shy. I watched a few videos on Millan’s website, carefully rolled Fuff onto his back, and tried to pry toys out of his jaws.

It was immediately clear that Cesar’s methods (even gently applied) were horribly frightening to my dog, who looked up at me with tragic eyes and began to roll over whenever I approached. Fuff seemed to like to go on walks, though, so I took him on a long one while I thought things over. Unlike the off-leash, insouciant dogs I’d grown up with in the age of choke chains and nose-in-the-accident housetraining, my dog withered at the slightest signs of disapproval. When Fuff barked, several people told me to poke him in the ribs and hiss, Tssst! like Cesar does on his show. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was certain that physical punishment or harsh words weren’t a good idea for my dog. “That’s too much force for my dog,” I said to the neighbors.

Fortunately the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I adopted Fuff, has trainers available to answer questions from new pet owners, and it was there I learned about positive reinforcement training – and thank goodness I did, because it turns out that although Fuff is sweet-natured and quick to learn, his sensitivity and tendency to be fearful make him more challenging than other dogs I’ve known. Consequently, I’ve read and learned more about dog psychology, training, and body language than I thought I would ever need to know, and I’ve handed out so many treats that I feel like a human kibble Pez dispenser with a very sore lower back.

The hardest thing I’ve had to learn, though, is to listen to my dog rather than ill-informed human know-it-alls. Since he is small, I have had to figure out what his body language looks like from overhead, feel it from his movements on the leash, or infer it from the reactions of other dogs we encounter on our walks. I’ve put a yellow ribbon on Fuff’s leash, but most people don’t recognize it as a “Keep Away” sign, so I have had to experiment with pithy ways to ask people to let us keep our distance and come up with quick exit strategies when they ignore my requests. Owners have told me everything is okey dokey because both dogs’ tails are wagging, or that I should push my dog’s chest because his ears are forward and it means he’s aggressive, or that it’s fine for a dog to run off leash on a city sidewalk as long as he’s good with other dogs.

Most obnoxious, though, is when they tell me to do what Cesar says. All the Dog Whisperer videos were checked out from the library, so I borrowed one of his books, Cesar’s Rules: Your Way to Train a Well-Behaved Dog. While I’m sure the book was ghostwritten beyond belief, its tone suggests a more contemplative Millan than what’s evident from his show, and several sections seem very self-conscious about the criticism his methods have received. Organized around meetings with a variety of trainers explaining and demonstrating their techniques, the book serves as a fairly balanced introduction to competing theories about dog training, with Millan taking care to point out where his own methods diverge, but praising the strengths of each approach.

The book gave me an eclectic mix of ideas to try with Fuff, from figuring out what your dog likes to do and using it as a reward to teaching each command’s opposite (for instance teaching “stand” with “sit”). It clearly explained different types of conditioning and how to use them on their dog, and since by then I had started Basic Manners at a positive training school, the book encouraged me to experiment with different reward-based methods to see what worked best for my own dog.

Tomorrow, Kerfuffle and I finish Basic Manners, and the tentative dog I brought home has become a waggy, playful, cuddly, laundry-stealing goofball who only rolls over when he snuggles and who now knows how to watch, target, sit, come, lie down, wait, stay, drop a toy, walk on a loose leash, and dance on his hind legs. He also tends to be anxious in new situations and is going through a phase of reactivity to other dogs, but the combination of classes, practice, Pez dispensing and careful attention are making a huge difference in his comfort level and behavior.

Not long ago, Your Dog’s Friend (where I’ve been taking Kerfuffle for classes) offered a free workshop on dog body language. At the end of the workshop, the trainer showed a few video clips from The Dog Whisperer. I don’t know if the videos were representative of every session with Cesar, but the dogs all showed the obvious signs of fear and confusion I’d seen in Kerfuffle during my (luckily) abortive attempts at dog whispering. By the most recent time a sidewalk blowhard instructed me to hail Cesar, I knew enough to say confidently, “That’s not the model of training I’m following.”

Even so, I think Millan is absolutely correct that owners must also be pack leaders – but in the past couple of months I’ve learned that means being able to ignore the gusts of hot air coming from everyone with vocal cords and a television.

As for that crush? Let’s just say it has gone the way of shock collars and choke chains.

Pass on the Robo-Pet…and Hold the Animals

In a gorgeous scene early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, children bring a litter of kittens to a river and baptize some of them before an adult stops them. The kittens all find homes, but nobody remembers which were baptized. The narrator, a minister, always wonders whether there is any theological difference between the baptized and non-baptized kittens. I don’t find this dilemma troubling at all, since I have never for a moment doubted that animals have souls.

My fifth-grade teacher, who was also a former minister (and, as far as I’m concerned, a saint as well), tried unsuccessfully to convince me otherwise. He’d filled his classroom with assorted fauna – rats, tarantulas, gopher snakes, chicks, lizards, crawfish – and allowed us to hold them during lessons. I was nonchalant about snakes, couldn’t bring myself to hold a tarantula, and fell in love with the rats, especially after reading Robert C. O’Brien’s classic, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Trying to turn me into a good scientist, he showed me several science books that presented as fact that one of the factors that distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity to feel emotion. He taught me a word that felt clunky and collegiate on my tongue: anthropomorphize, the tendency of humans to attribute human qualities to animals and other things that are not human.

His contention that the rats had no personalities and no emotions was the one thing he ever told me that I didn’t believe. Research since then has suggested that I was right that the divide scientists then drew between humans and animals was artificial and anthropocentric. One of the experts on animal emotion, Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University, says “people don’t have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world.”

The human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, however, is also well documented. In a famous 1960s experiment I studied in college, students confided in a computer program, ELIZA, that spat out responses based on Rogerian therapy. Many participants mistook ELIZA for a human and grew emotionally attached to “her.” More recently, a New York Times editorial by branding consultant Martin Lindstrom – contended (controversially and possibly falsely) that brain scans revealed that “the subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member…they loved their iPhones.

The implication here is something like, “Humans anthropomorphize both objects and animals; objects don’t have emotions; therefore it is likely that animals don’t have emotions either.”

For those of us who spend time around them, though, it seems glaringly obvious that animals have an emotional life. Pets clearly show jealousy, anger, affection, and joy; and when their owners feel strong emotions, they rarely fail to appear with a cold nose, a warm tongue, or a snuggle. Our pets declare their personalities and desires as plainly as any child, and they share the child’s impulse to touch and give comfort in the face of human emotions they don’t understand. Researchers point out that only humans have the ability to think about their own emotions…at least as far as they know.

And then there’s Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” about a woman’s failure to acknowledge her best friend’s terminal illness, which ends with this devastating passage about a real-life chimpanzee who has been taught sign language:

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

I have never been able to read this story – or, I have just discovered, write about it – without crying.

So, when I read Clay Risen’s brief article in the New York Times Magazine, citing “Robo-Petting” as an innovation we can anticipate in the next four years or so, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea was not just disgusting but a poor approximation of the love of a good animal:

Petting a living animal has long been known to lower blood pressure and release a flood of mood-lifting endorphins. But for various reasons — you’re at work, or you’re in a hospital, or your spouse is allergic to dogs — you can’t always have a pet around to improve your mental health. So researchers at the University of British Columbia have created something called “smart fur.” It’s weird-looking (essentially just a few inches of faux fur) but its sensors allow it to mimic the reaction of a live animal whether you give it a nervous scratch or a slow, calm rub. Creepy? Yes. But effective.

Right. I prefer my “smart fur” on a live animal, thank you very much…and I would be willing to bet that animals do, too.

The Shelf Life of Total B.S.

With self-appointed vigilantes gunning down unarmed teenagers, elected officials rushing to pass laws enforcing repression of women’s rights, a spring so surreally warm in the eastern half of the country that the blooms have come and gone like time-lapse photography, CEOs who earn 327 times the wages of average workers (at least those that still have jobs), a decade of endless war burning through the national budget, civil war searing the Middle East, et cetera, it is hard to understand why David C. Levy has singled out my higher education colleagues for scapegoating in his editorial, “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?

His editorial, which appears in this morning’s Washington Post and was apparently printed in a smattering of other newspapers around the country, blames the rising costs of higher education on the supposedly cushy schedules and salaries of faculty. Levy, who defines himself as an “educator,” does not list a single teaching position in his entire biography. David C. Levy is a former director of Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery and is now president of Cambridge Information Group, a firm best known for acquiring companies in the information industry – including ProQuest, a staple of library databases, and Sotheby’s.

Even if I were to grant that Dr. Levy is a credible source on workload in higher education – which I don’t – his argument rests entirely on factual errors and unsound logic that wouldn’t pass muster in a student paper. For example, he singles out my institution, Montgomery College, as an example of what is supposedly wrong with higher education:

Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: “Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty.” While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

Okay. First of all, only 50% of the employees at MC are teaching faculty, according to the same page Levy cites in his $88,000 figure. What the website doesn’t say, but which would have been easy for Levy to find out with even cursory research, is that of those, only about half are full time, and of those, few are full professors. (The starting salary for an instructor is 56,000.) Interestingly, he does not attribute any higher education costs to our having 20 vice presidents, 11 of which were added in the past year. In the meantime, faculty and staff are heading into our fourth consecutive year without a pay increase, and tuition will be raised yet again.

Having misstated salaries and composition of the MC workforce, Levy goes on to offer distorted information on faculty workload. His contention that full time faculty only spend 15 hours a week teaching is especially outrageous. Levy writes: “Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation [as they do to teaching], their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals.”

First of all, for most faculty, teaching “15 hours a week” means teaching 5 different classes, most of which have at least 25 students. In my department, we routinely spend 20-30 minutes commenting per student essay – and easily double that on the 8-10 page essays in transfer composition. We assign five essays a semester, minimum. Although I’m not a math whiz, my calculator says it adds up to 200-325 hours per semester on grading alone. For a 15-week semester, that’s an additional 13-20 hours a week just on grading. That’s not counting office hours, meetings with students outside of office hours, or prepping. If Levy thinks he can do a good job teaching without spending at least a couple of hours outside of class for every hour in class, he has no business calling himself an educator – and, based on the inaccuracies this essay, it’s clear that he needs to spend a little extra time fact-checking what he puts in print as well.

As for the “curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach” our faculty handbook “suggests,” Levy might not realize that these activities are not only part of our evaluations – in other words, that would-be slackers still have to participate – but are intrinsic parts of ensuring that our students learn. In an average week, most of us spend at least a few hours in committee meetings and a few more hours doing work for our committees. We engage in professional development so that we can be more effective in the classroom. And some of us, despite a lack of financial support from our institutions, still find time to engage in scholarship.

Nevertheless, none of these things are what I feel I do.

Most community colleges have open enrollment, which means that anyone with a dream of going to college can come through our doors and get an education. Seventy percent of community college students are considered “nontraditional,” meaning they have families, work more than 20 hours a week, and/or were out of school for a few years before they came back. Around half are “underprepared” for college coursework as determined by placement testing; but a large percentage of those whom the tests deem “prepared” still struggle with a variety of competencies necessary for success, including academic vocabulary, college-level reading skills, study habits, and communication skills. On top of the academic challenges, we regularly have students who routinely deal with hunger, health problems, homelessness, lack of childcare, legal trouble, family problems, and lack of funds.

What our students also have, though, is the will to change their lives despite – and often because of – all these obstacles. I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say, put simply, that I am honored to teach them. Our goal is to help students meet their goals, regardless of their preparation for college work. We don’t just teach classes; we teach individual students. Helping every student succeed takes a lot more time, and is a lot more worthwhile, than showing up in the classroom for a few hours and then vanishing. As one of our former students put it (AsperGirl, posting at 8:31 on March 25) in her reply to the Washington Post article, “I frankly got a [sic] better teaching at the community college. The professors pay more individual attention, work harder to communicate their vision and love of their craft/study and make efforts to make more extracurricular time and activities for their students. Frankly, at UMD there were few professors at UMD who didn’t begrudge students even the time allocated to office hours, as if their time was too valuable to spend with the grimy hordes.”

The idea that teachers get away with being overpaid slackers is a fantasy whose popularity endures despite abundant evidence to the contrary. I am sure it must be more appealing to blame teachers, with whom we’ve all had personal experience, rather than one-percenters or budget-cutting legislators, who seem to be protected by a bubble reserved for the already wealthy and powerful: people like David C. Levy, who has published an editorial that relies on speculation and cherry-picked support but taps into ignorance and prejudice.

We could follow his advice to increase the teaching load, decrease salaries, and cut education budgets even more than we have already, but since the education funding problems really come from legislative cuts and budget freezes, bloated administrations, and skyrocketing enrollments, we’ll see little, if any, improvement to the funding situation. Meanwhile, faculty’s effectiveness will come up against our natural physical limits. Privileged one-percenters like Levy will buy their kids’ way into institutions that support quality teaching, and those students who can only afford public college will suffer.

I am sure we can find Levy a job as an adjunct instructor so that he can see firsthand how actual faculty spend their time. He might even be a better “educator” once he does some genuine teaching instead of sitting in an office orchestrating media mergers. Don’t get me wrong – community college teaching is a dream job, but only for the right sort of person. My guess is that Levy wouldn’t last a semester once he realized how different our jobs are from the outright fantasy he has constructed for the Post.

In the meantime, let’s call Levy’s argument what it is: bullshit.

The Top Five Things That Aren’t on a Top Ten List

Photo by Paul Octavious at pauloctavious.com

’Tis the season to prove your mastery of the decimal system by listing items that are already popular and showing off your knowledge of them. My list, however, consists of the humble little underdogs that I think are least likely to make it onto a top ten list.

5. My blog. If you are reading this post, you may not realize how much I appreciate you. You are a rare and wonderful creature, and if you post a comment, you are practically an endangered species. I have noticed that all the blogs on WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” are mostly breezy little tea sandwiches: tiny, concentrated, and divided with numbers and headings. You, dearest readers, have actually read multiple long paragraphs at a time, but if I tell you how much I appreciate your generosity, Item Five will get too long.

4. Postal service. Maybe neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay our couriers, but – like everything else this year – the economy has threatened the lovely anticipation of getting an actual card or letter from an actual person. I won’t miss the junk mail or even the catalogs, but the post office funeral march already has me nostalgic.

3. Coffee. I do not need to list the many wonderful qualities of The Holy Bean. I admit that coffee might even be on someone else’s Top 10 list, but it’s too good to leave out. Yes, I already know I’m addicted – no need to say so. I appreciate your coffee at least as much as my own, because it means I can talk to you without needing an adult beverage afterwards.

2. Pharmaceuticals. Maybe drug companies are evil zombies that are killing our health care system, but I am still grateful for the miracle of antibiotics, not to mention the other assorted pills, sprays, and liquids that keep all of us walking, eating, sleeping, and breathing.

1. Books. You know: bendy paperbacks, printed on paper. A book should be a multimedia experience that you can touch, smell, and hear as well as see. Every time I hold one, I think, “Thank you, Book, for not being a Kindle or a Nook.”

Please let me know if you find any of these items on a Top 10 list. In fact, I invite you to post a comment telling me I’m full of it. At least I kept it short for once.