As an onlooker, I love stories like this one about divorce and religion and child custody and the legal system because I can imagine all these different ways of the people involved getting huffy and feeling justified in their moral outrage. I can only enjoy this because I'm an onlooker, though, and even then only to the point where I consider that the three-year old kid at the center of it is going to suffer for something stupid, and then I get upset as well. The arguments are fun in the abstract, but kids don't exist in the abstract.

Here's the story: Jewish woman and Catholic man get married, he converts. They have a kid, and get divorced. Judge gives her primary custody and they agree to raise the child Jewish. Husband decides to renege on the deal later and has her baptized. Wife gets a restraining order. Husband takes the kid to church and gets news cameras to come along, loudly proclaiming that his rights to worship as he chooses have been violated. Ex-wife's lawyers demand he be held in contempt and spend the next six months in jail over this outrage.

See what I mean about all sorts of opportunities for outrage here? This story is complicated by the fact that both religions involved have traditions that strongly dissuade marriage outside their faith--my former religion has a similar tradition--and proponents of that tradition can point to this case as an example of why breaking that tradition is a bad idea. And they'd be perfectly justified in doing so.

People who argue that forcing children into a faith from such a young age is tantamount to child abuse could point out that the real victim in this case is the child, who's being torn between two sides of her family over an issue she can't possibly understand, nor will she be able to for years. And it's hard to argue against the basis of that conclusion, given that disagreements over faith are at the heart of this fight, and that she is no doubt suffering some mental anguish over this disagreement between her parents.

People who argue for the rights of people to express their faith without governmental interference but with governmental protection (how that works in practice is a mystery to me) can find themselves on either side of this debate. The mother says her religion tells her she has to raise her child in her faith, and that she had a deal with the father. The father says he has the same obligation, and that he only converted and then later agreed to the deal under duress, which should nullify the deal. Whose religion gets primacy here? No answer will satisfy both parties, at least not if both sides are devout.

And then there are the personal stories, the ones that aren't really mentioned here. Why the marriage? Why the divorce? Why the conversion? Why the insistence later on exposing the child to a second religion? How much of this is based in the anger between two people who couldn't stay married wounding each other through the only avenue of contact they have left? So many opportunities for outrage. So many chances for spin. And all perfectly justified, if you've chosen a side.

But it's all going to end tragically unless the parents back off their entrenched positions on their child's faith. One or both will find their relationship with the child irrevocably damaged, and there's a good chance that half the extended family will find themselves shut out of the child's life at some point. To the mother who's concerned that her daughter will be confused by going both to a Jewish school and a Catholic Mass, I say your child will grow up in a multi-religious world. Get over it. To the father who's calling a press conference to bring his daughter to church I say stop being a damn douche and think about how this is going to affect your daughter. And to both of them I say this: you're grownups. Solve your differences accordingly.

A Pet Rescue Story

Meet Gladys, our latest cat. We've had her for about 3 months now, I guess, maybe slightly longer, and hers is an interesting story.

We've mentioned before that there's a problem with feral cats in our neighborhood. In the eight months we've lived here, we've captured and fixed six cats, and adopted or found homes for three. The other three aren't tameable, so they live in the back yard along with a couple who are smart enough to avoid our trap, and we feed them and try to care for them as much as we can. We've even named them, and we consider them to be our pets (as far as the legal system is concerned).

And then there's Gladys.

Amy was feeding the outside cats one morning and heard something that sounded like a cross between a groan and a demand. It was on the other side of the fence, and when she opened it, Gladys walked right past her and to one of the food bowls and started eating. The outside cats treated her like she was diseased or something, and honestly, she looked it. Her hind legs were wobbly, she was bone-thin, and she was covered in dirt.

Later on, Amy opened the front door to our Florida room, and Gladys walked in like she owned the place. She'd been a house cat--that was obvious. But we didn't know what kind of shape she was in. We put together a bed for her, some food and water, a litter box, gave her a combing and then thought about it. She looked ancient, and was so malnourished we weren't sure if she'd survive. Even our vet said he didn't know how old she was, but she was missing at least one front tooth and had whip worms, which meant that she'd been so hungry she'd eaten feces at some point.

And she was crabby as well. She loved (and still does) sitting on laps, but doesn't want to be petted for a long time, and if you persist in doing it, she'll take a swipe at you. We suspect she was abused by her last owner, and I think probably by a woman, because Amy's more likely to get swiped at than I am. She was extremely defensive around our other cats, though they're starting to get along better now (by which I mean there's less hissing now around the food bowls than there once was). In fact, when I took that picture, she was on the futon with two of the other cats. They'll probably never cuddle up together, but at least the hostility is disappearing.

We have no idea how old she is or how long she lived on her own. We think she probably has a cataract and some hearing problems too. But her hind legs have filled out and she's gotten more spry since we moved her indoors and she has more room to move around. She's our fourth cat, which is one more than we ever wanted to have. But she's a part of the family now, so expect to see the occasional photo on here or Facebook.

I am confused

Can someone explain to me what this picture has to do with this ad? Seriously, I'm baffled.

When the mobs come

with torches and nooses, don't act surprised, okay?

Echoing the kind of trades that nearly toppled the American International Group, the increasingly popular insurance against the risk of a Greek default is making it harder for Athens to raise the money it needs to pay its bills, according to traders and money managers....

As Greece’s financial condition has worsened, undermining the euro, the role of Goldman Sachs and other major banks in masking the true extent of the country’s problems has drawn criticism from European leaders. But even before that issue became apparent, a little-known company backed by Goldman, JP Morgan Chase and about a dozen other banks had created an index that enabled market players to bet on whether Greece and other European nations would go bust.
It's amazing to me that the banking industry isn't more reviled than it is. Between the games they're playing with the fates of hundreds of millions of people and their near-constant whining about how they're being forced to take slightly smaller while still obscenely large bonuses this year because of a crash they were largely responsible for bringing on, it's a wonder they haven't been strung up like a deposed dictator.

Coral Ridge Ministries

Coral Ridge Ministries is horrid even by mega-church standards. The founder was a right-winger who hated gays and abortion and the teaching of evolution and added nothing of any social benefit to the world around him, and the people who took over after he died aren't any better. They've kept a lower profile for the last couple of years, and that's been a good thing, but I guess you can't keep the bile down for long or it backs up.

With President Barack Obama convening lawmakers of both parties Thursday for a televised health care summit, Fort Lauderdale-based Coral Ridge Ministries is pledging to do “everything possible to stir grassroots opposition to this budget-busting monstrosity.”

Coral Ridge Ministries, founded by the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, has for years been a proponent of conservative politics, especially related to social issues. It’s opposed abortion, gay marriage, teaching of evolution and abortion.

The organization is now calling the latest version of the Obama health care plan “more of the same from a president unwilling to bend in his fierce determination to impose a government health care takeover on the American public.”

In a statement, Coral Ridge Hour host Jerry Newcombe said: “Like Captain Ahab, the President won’t stop in his drive to harpoon his great white whale of health care ‘reform.’ If he succeeds, he will only bleed one-sixth of the American economy of its energy and efficiency.”
Apparently the bile backs up so much it makes preachers unable to understand the basic plot of Moby Dick. If health care reform is the white whale, then doesn't that make the Republican party Captain Ahab? I mean, it's been a long time since I read the Illustrated Classics version (though I have seen "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" recently), but I'm pretty sure Ahab wanted to kill the white whale. So if President Obama is Captain Ahab, then they should be cheering him on if they want health care reform to die, right? He gets it sort of right at the end when he says 1/6 of the economy will bleed energy and efficiency, I guess, but seriously, how hard is it to get something like that right? Assuming you've read the book you're taking your metaphor from, that is.

I'd just like to point out that Coral Ridge Ministries' position is particularly douche-y for a couple of reasons. One, as a ministry, they're tax-exempt, so they're already a drag on the government's ability to respond to economic difficulties. Two, they're supposed to be looking out for the poor--Jesus said something about that, right?--and yet if you go to their website, they're not exactly touting their charitable works, assuming they do any at all. So in two ways, Coral Ridge Ministries is contributing to the problems that health care reform is trying to address.

There's a part of me that wishes this sort of advocacy would be cause for the IRS to yank their tax exemption--there's a bigger part of me which thinks that any tax exemption for a church is a travesty, but that's another blog post--but I know it's not going to happen. It's still frustrating, though.

The Slow Death of Colonel Reb

If this keeps up, I might have to quit hating on Ole Miss. I have to confess, I didn't know that the school had dumped Colonel Reb as an on-field mascot years ago (though they still sell tons of memorabilia with his image on it), so I was pleased to learn that. It's also important to recognize just how far this school has come in recent memory.

In 1997, the school ended the waving of Confederate flags at sporting events. Then Colonel Reb was booted off the field. Last year, the band stopped playing the fight song, "From Dixie with Love," to discourage the fan chant, "The South will rise again."
Make no mistake--those flags would be flying today if it weren't for the ban, and while the university has made some moves away from its more immediate and overtly racist traditions, racial tensions are still high, especially among alumni.
Alum Bob Dunlap, 80, who's in the tire business, said he has donated about $1 million to Ole Miss athletics over the years, but he'll likely stop if Colonel Reb is removed from the campus entirely. He said the vote is unnecessary.

"Everybody liked that little guy at those ball games," Dunlap said. "They just create a lot of bad feeling when they do these type of things."
Gee, I wonder who Dunlap is talking about when he uses the pronoun "they"?

On the plus side, the school is headed in the right direction, even if it's taken them a really long time to get going. The students who support the old mascot are fighting a losing battle (though their inevitable loss will only feed into the martyr complex that the lost cause so powerfully embodies in the old south) and in a few years, maybe Ole Miss will have a core of student leadership that questions the wisdom of having a team name that represents treason in defense of slavery at all. And some alumni and students will shout and mourn the loss of southern heritage and the rest of us will nod and perhaps even applaud a little and wonder what the hell took them so long.

I hope so, at least. But I feel pretty solid in my hopes. Race is becoming less and less an issue for younger people, even in places where racial tension has been an open wound for, well, forever. My students don't look at race the same way I did, or do for that matter. It's barely a blip on their radar screens, and I don't see why they would regress. Makes me feel good.

Oooh, shiny...

I feel fairly big time now. Okay, not really. But I'm still enough of a goober to take a screen grab of this moment in my interwebs life.

In an information-obsessed age, fiction and poetry have the disadvantage of not being information. They are written, which is a format associated with work, research, tasks; but they are not information. The exception is a work of fiction so popular (like Twilight, or Lord of the Rings) that knowing it well becomes a kind of social currency – in other words, the details of the story become information, with a clear and specific value, same as cash.

Otherwise, to have value amongst readers, fiction must seem to be a form devised to disguise information so scandalous or dangerous it cannot be told in the form of fact. Fiction becomes the act of obliquing: saying, “I have a friend who has this problem,” instead of admitting to your problem. Only more so, more removed. Because fiction claims it is not even the life of your friend, but of an entirely made-up person. In this, it is closer to religion than to fact.

Religion is of course the fiction that transcends its form: it is a fiction accepted as information by a large group of people, and within that group the “facts of the story” are vital information, information that is often utilitarian: it tells them their future, and how to behave, and what to eat, and who are friends, and who are enemies. Is there any more important and essential information in this world than that?

So fiction has become, to us, the form that speaks the truths that can’t be said. But this identity for fiction requires the subterfuge remain intact. We cannot go into a work of fiction aware that we are reading disguised facts. If we do, the disguise fails, the truth is found out, laid out for all to see. The author is exposed, and embarrassed, or shamed. See Orenthal Simpson, How I Did It, as an example of failed fiction. We must suspend not only our disbelief in the fiction, but we must suspend our belief in the ur-fact we imagine the story is derived from. And so the primary stated purpose must always be something else: entertainment.

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is simple coincidence. The story is fiction in whole – entirely made up for your entertainment. Here, friend, is a great lot of bullshit. Enjoy! And yet there is a wink behind that bullshit. Greater truths are being told than mere information could tell us. More than any other, fiction is a form that requires mental feats of derring-do. The mind must be capable of holding two contradictions at once: everything I read is true, some of what I read is false; everything I read is false, some of what I read is true. Religion, too, requires adherents to accommodate contraries and contradictions, and this extraordinary imaginative act, this resolving of opposites, has long been the fount of creation itself: it has created states, wars, paintings, cathedrals, treatises, dramas, stories. One could argue it has created culture itself.

Contrary ideas held in one mind are the matter-antimatter reaction of the human soul: the mind explodes with energy and that energy is set to resolving the problem, explaining how things may be both up and down, both yes and no. From this conflict spins a narrative. We want and need to believe in the narrative if we are to make sense of the world. And so the function of fiction is to be real, to stop being fiction, while insisting quite convincingly that it is nothing more than an entertaining lie.

So that's what I was thinking about this morning. Let me know what you think. :)

About three weeks ago, I wrote a piece called "Unsurprising. Still Depressing" which talked about the results of a Gallup poll showing that there's a huge percentage of people who either think that humans have only been around for about 10,000 years or that evolution and creation are compatible. What I didn't realize at the time I wrote that piece was that Gallup's poll was actually 3 years old--I went by the date at the top of the screen which said it had been updated the day I wrote about it. Completely my fault because everything else on the page pointed toward the older date.

But I didn't feel too bad about it because I figured the chances that those numbers would have changed significantly away from the depressing situation they represent were slim. And at least as far as Texas is concerned, I was right.

Let me preface what I'm about to say about these results this way: I'm not going to bash Texas, nor am I going to suggest that Texans are any more ignorant than other parts of the country. In fact, I think Texas is a pretty decent slice of America--it has large rural areas, a vibrant immigrant population, respected public and private universities, and urban areas with, dare I say, progressive sensibilities. They have their wackos as well--as Amanda Marcotte mentioned yesterday in her piece about the Austin asshole who flew a plane into a building (I'm not naming him in keeping with our editorial policy to refuse even posthumous recognition of those who take lives in order to gain notoriety), this is the state that gave the nation both Ross Perot and Ron Paul--but every state has its extreme element. The differences tend to be a matter of flavor more than substance.

What the poll results seem to suggest to me is that people don't really know what they believe when it comes to the origins of humans and other life on this planet. Look at the different percentages you get between these three questions:

• 38 percent said human beings developed over millions of years with God guiding the process and another 12 percent said that development happened without God having any part of the process. Another 38 percent agreed with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago."

• Asked about the origin and development of life on earth without injecting humans into the discussion, and 53 percent said it evolved over time, "with a guiding hand from God." They were joined by 15 percent who agreed on the evolution part, but "with no guidance from God." About a fifth — 22 percent — said life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time.

• Most of the Texans in the survey — 51 percent — disagree with the statement, "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." Thirty-five percent agreed with that statement, and 15 percent said they don't know.
Notice that one group stays pretty static--the group that leaves God out of the equation stays in the 12 to 15% range, which is about what agnostic/atheist came in at in a recent national poll measuring religious belief (this poll got 6% from the sample group). The biggest group is the "evolution guided by God" group, which says to me that they're comfortable with the idea of evolution, but they don't really get it, and adding in God allows them to avoid the potential conflict between the two ideas.

As you'd expect, there's a huge correlation between how religious a respondent claimed to be and how they answered these questions, but this was the breakdown that actually made me chuckle a bit.
An overwhelming majority said their religious beliefs were extremely important (52 percent) or somewhat important (30 percent). Only 35 percent go to church once a week or more; 52 percent said they go once or twice a year (29 percent) or never (23 percent).
82% said their religious beliefs were very or somewhat important, but only 35% go to church once a week or more, with a max (if I did my math correctly) of 48% saying they go to church more than once or twice a year. So that means roughly a third of the respondents say their beliefs are very or somewhat important, but not so important to cause them to head to church more than a couple times a year. "Somewhat" is a pretty flexible word, I suppose.

Which brings me back around to the point of that last post--language is important. That's why I refuse to say I believe in evolution--belief isn't part of the process here. Evolution occurs whether I believe in it or not, whether Texans believe in it or not. I continue to worry about the effects that this lack of understanding about evolution will have on our society over the short term. If we continue to allow false controversies over basic scientific understandings infect the discourse, we'll find ourselves falling further and further behind the rest of the world in terms of innovation and discovery, and given that we've already done bad things to this planet that we might not be able to resolve, we can't even afford to stand still. We have to be moving forward.

Driving Peeves

When you get to my age in the US, assuming you haven't lived most of your life in a city where you have ready access to public transportation, you've probably been driving more than half your life. You probably have a love-hate relationship with the practice as well, though that's not as universal an experience. The love part for me was captured very nicely by Stephen Dunn in his poem "The Sacred", which closes this way: "how far away / a car could take him from the need // to speak, or to answer, the key / in having a key / and putting it in, and going." When I was a teen living in Slidell, that's what a car meant--a bike could take me anywhere I needed to go during the day, but not in the rain (which was ever-present in the summer) or at night, or anywhere beyond the city proper; the highways in and out of town didn't have paved shoulders and the drivers weren't exactly bike-friendly.

The other love part comes from my multiple drives across the country, whether because of moves or just for vacations. Amy and I have seen mind-numbingly beautiful sights on our trips--Utah may be the most gorgeous state in the continental US, by the way--and there's a peace that comes from the long drives, the miles eaten away, the conversations, that can't be replicated by plane or train (though trains come closer). The potential for discovery is much higher on those sorts of trips than any other in my experience.

But then there's commuting, and the delicate dance one has to perform with a bunch of Brawndo-fueled, distracted and disgruntled rage machines on I-95 and the surrounding streets. Very often, it seems, vehicles become weaponry, turn signals become challenges to one's parentage, and traveling at less than ten miles over the speed limit in the HOV lane is an insult which cannot be tolerated.

It's the last that aggravates me the most, and which spawned this post. We drive to Boca a couple of days a week, and we do it early enough that we're catching the first moments of rush hour, but we're able to bypass it mostly because we're two in the car, which gives us access to the HOV lane. The speed limit on the stretch we travel is 65, but I routinely go 75 unless there's a backup in the regular laves--more than once I've had someone jump into the HOV lane and had to jam on the brakes because they miscalculated how quickly they could accelerate. But 7 out of every 8 trips, I'd estimate, I'll find myself with someone--this morning it was the driver of a Porsche Cayenne--crawling up my tailpipe for miles on end. "So just move over and let them by" you say. I can't. There's car-to-car traffic to my right and about 10 yards at most of follow space ahead of me. Even if I move over, there's nowhere for them to go, except up the next person's tailpipe.

The really ridiculous thing is that because I drive such a small car--a 1995 Saturn SC2--the people behind me generally know that I'm not holding up production, that I am keeping pace with the traffic around me. They can often see that better than I can from their lofty perches in their SUVs. Maybe they just don't see me down there, or maybe they don't realize just how close they are to my rear bumper. Or maybe they're just Brawndo-fueled assholes who resent having to share the roads with anyone. I really don't know.

What I do know is that they make the already stressful driving experience worse. Give me a grandpa doing 53 with the left blinker stuck on any day--I'd rather deal with that than with the pressure to move over so the-most-important-driver-in-the-world can move forward an extra 30 feet and make someone else's life miserable.

So what is it that most angers you on the roadway? What increases the likelihood of your middle-finger flying of its own accord?

Onward Christian Historians!

If you're the kind of person who keeps tabs on the latest from fundamentalist Christians in the US, the story I'm about to link to might contain some facts you weren't aware of, but nothing particularly surprising. The NY Times Magazine is running a piece on the continuing efforts by the Christian fundamentalist community to recast early US history in a very religious light.

The problem--besides their ability to pretzel facts with the ardor of a television prosecutor with a looming election--is that Texas has an outsized effect on the school textbook industry (for now, at least--e-books might lessen that grip in the future). What Texas wants, Texas tends to get, and that spills over into other states because textbook publishers don't want to make multiple editions of the same book. So if Texas wants Magruder's American Government to call the US Constitution an "enduring" document instead of a "living" document (even though the book has called it "living" since World War I, hardly a period of radical liberalism in US history), Texas gets the change.

I don't want to overblow this and suggest that we, as a society, are staring doom in the face if we don't band together against the attempts by Christian fundamentalists in Texas to make K-12 history books more religion-focused. Even if they get their wish and textbooks throughout the land argue that the country was founded as a Christian nation, or that there's no wall between church and state inherent in the First Amendment, they can't change the reality that the US is not now the same country it once was. The Founders' intent is kind of beside-the-point now, because we don't live in that country anymore, and we never will, despite every attempt the fundamentalist Christian right makes to roll back the clock.

But there is still a danger in allowing the history books to be rewritten to the degree these people wish. Orwell was right when he said "who controls the past, controls the future," only in this case, the past I'm concerned about is not in the books, but in the memories of the kids who'll read those books. The people pushing for these changes aren't looking for nuanced view of early America--they want a curriculum loaded with Christian Dominionism and American exceptionalism, because they're hoping to convert people to the cause, and a good place to start is in the public schools.

If you do this, you will die

but a Superbowl drinking game is probably inevitable, so here's one example from my old friend Chris Tusa's Facebook page.

Saints Super Bowl Drinking Game

1. Every time they mention hurricane Katrina, drink 1

2. Every time they show Kim Kardashian in the stands, drink 5

3. Every time Reggie Bush gets negative yardage, drink for 5 seconds

4. If they mention Tim Tebow for any reason, funnel a beer

5. If Jeremy Shockey pretends to be hurt after dropping a pass, drink 2

6. Every time they show a Saints fan yelling "Who Dat", drink 1

7. If Brett Favre is mentioned for any reason, take a shot of cheap liquor

8. Every time they compare hurricane Katrina to the Haiti earthquake, drink 1

9. Every time they show Archie Manning, chug 2 & mention how he sucked

10. If they show Ray Nagin, drink 5 and punch someone in the face
I'd add Bobby Jindal to number 10 as well, and suggest that anyone left standing at the end of the game be awarded this painfully awesome Hello Kitty Chainsaw as a prize.

An Attempt at Pure Fandom

My third post on this blog, just over six years ago, was about the Superbowl and the Moveon ad that CBS refused to air. I was pulling for the Carolina Panthers that year because Jake Delhomme was a former Saint and a Louisiana native and I figured that gave me a (very small) dog in the hunt, but I can't say I was devastated when they fell short. In fact, in my entire time as a football fan, I can only cop to one year when I really cared who won the Superbowl, though in that year, 1999, I wasn't rooting for a team. I was rooting against the Atlanta Falcons. I can't even tell you who won--I just know the Falcons lost, and that's enough for me.

But this year, obviously, is different. And that has caused me to completely rethink how I'm approaching the game.

See, most years I want a good game, exciting, taut, down to the last second. Last year, for example, was incredible, and I enjoyed every second of it. But I don't want that this year. Nope. I want a blowout. I want one of those Niners-Broncos 55-10 beatdowns, and here's what will surprise you--I don't care who's on the winning side.

Sure, I'd love it if the Saints do the beating down, but what I really need, for my sanity and my blood pressure, is a convincing win by one side or the other. None of this overtime-coin-flip-wins-it garbage (I particularly hate that debate, by the way). I want it to be over by halftime, so the celebration/sorrow-drowning can begin early.

But even if I don't get that, even if this turns into a double-overtime ulcer-inducing nailbiter, I'm still going to try to have a "pure" fan experience. What do I mean by that?

No divided loyalties. No bets, even on the coin-flip. No taking the points or either side of the over/under. No football pools. I don't want to do anything that would compromise my whole-hearted pulling for the Saints. I don't want to drown my sorrows at a Saints loss with the 25 bucks I won when the Colts kicked a field goal with 7 seconds left. I don't want to be satisfied with the Saints covering the spread, or hoping that the Colts will score again near the end so I can get the over.

If I'm going to be sad, I want to wallow in it. I want the misery or I want the elation--no interference by outside interests. I've waited 35 years for this. I'm going to savor every second of it.

Most semesters I teach at least a few freshmen writing students. And every semester I do I am dismayed that somewhere out there high school English teachers are teaching them to do very dumb things. I'm hoping a few high school English teachers will read this and change their ways. Or maybe I just want to complain.

1. Stop telling students it's smart to start essays with dictionary definitions. Since the beginning of time and rhetoric writers have known that openings must be attention-getting and intriguing, and there are few things in this world less attention-getting and intriguing than a dictionary definition. Teaching this technique is teaching them to suck. Stop it.

2. Stop telling students they're "not allowed" to write questions. Rhetorical questions are a powerful technique. They're trying to do something good, and probably failing at it, so you tell them not to try at all. You're retarding their growth as writers and preventing them from using every technique in the writer's toolbox. Stop it.

3. Stop telling students that you can't use "you" or "I" or "us" or "we" or "me" in academic writing. Have you ever read a piece of real academic writing? With few exceptions, everyone, from physicists to anthropologists to economists, uses these pronouns. And every essay we assign them to read uses these pronouns. So what you're teaching them is that they're never expected to model the good writing they see; they're supposed to produce another creature: lifeless gutless bullshit guaranteed to bore. Stop it.

4. Stop telling students "commas go where you take a breath." There are seven fucking ways that a comma can be used in a typical English sentence. Seven. Go look them up you lazy bastard. Then teach your students to use them. Seven for fuck's sake: they fit on ONE powerpoint slide.

5. Stop telling students not to use contractions. I know why you're doing this: you're doing this because writers who don't use contractions can't possibly confuse "it's" with "its" or "you're" with "your" or "there" with "they're" or "can't" with "cant" or "we're" with "were" (and I could go on): you're tired of marking those errors. I get it. But what you're really doing is making someone else have to teach them the difference between those words later, when they're of legal age to own a home and marry. Or perhaps you're making it so they never learn them at all, and will simply look like fools for the rest of their lives. How nice of you.

6. Stop telling students that concluding paragraphs just reiterate the essay's points. If that's all a conclusion does, there's no point in reading it. Conclusions bring the essay's emotions full circle and emphasize the importance of the topic; they tell the reader why she should care about the subject. If you make your students think about this, the idea that it's their job to persuade the reader that their topic matters, they will become better writers. If you ask them only to reiterate, they learn that writing is a pointless exercise in repetitious bullshit, whose main purpose is to fill blank spots on the page even if that means saying things they've already said.

I hate to get down on high school English teachers. I know it's a really hard job. I know they've got too many students and too few hours in the day. I know that education has been highjacked by standardized testing. And I know that people who choose to become teachers are good souls who mean well and want only good things for the future of their students and their country.

But what gets me is that none of the problems I encounter are about the students falling short: it's not that students are coming to me only understanding 3 of the 7 ways to use commas, or are still confusing a few contractions with similar words; no, it's that they've been actively taught these weird "rules" (that they follow religiously), and these "rules" prevent them from progressing as writers. It's not that they're attempting to write well and failing, it's that they've been taught to write badly and are succeeding.

Rhetoric is one of the Western World's oldest, most firmly-established, most well-developed disciplines. We have thousands of years of examples of great writing, and thousands of years of examples of lesson plans, going back to the ancient Progymnasmata. And there is nothing more important to the students' individual fortunes and the success of their society than their ability to communicate clearly. Yet English teachers are out there distributing "folk wisdom" like the witch doctors in Africa who tell the HIV-positive that sex with a virgin will cure them. Sure, it's a little harder to get your hands on AZT than a virgin, and it's a little harder to teach the seven uses of a comma than it is to say, "where you take a breath." But there could not be a greater gulf between the quality of the results.

Via Pandagon, I present Colofado Springs, CO. Colorado Springs is home to, among other things, the Air Force Academy and Focus on the Family, as well as Ted Haggard's former mega-church, Saddleback. If you think this means the population skews Republican, then you're awake and cogent. So what else, other than Hippie Jesus (because they love their gun-toting version instead), do these brand of Republicans hate? Taxes. But that hatred of taxes is now coming back to bite them on the ass.

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.

City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won't pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.
We've already seen cuts of this nature in Broward County, though not of this magnitude. Yet.

I say yet because I have to believe they're coming. Even if Democrats in Florida get a double winner next year in Kendrick Meek and Alex Sink--far from likely, I'd say--unless there's some massive turnover in the Legislature, we won't see any tax increases or reforms which would increase revenues for municipal services. This legislature has already made clear that they adhere to the Republican dogma that tax and budget cuts are the only tools they are willing to wield when it comes to balancing a budget, and there won't be any Washington stimulus money to bail them out this time.

I'd like to think that these sorts of cuts will wake voters up, once and for all, to the realization that you can't have services if you won't pay taxes, and that paying taxes is, in fact, a patriotic thing to do. I'd like to think that, but I have little faith that people will learn the lesson, because there are too many steps between local park closings and Tallahassee Tea Party rhetorical flourishes. I fear we'll just get more of the same.

Six Years

It's been six years--just a hair over, technically--since I started this blog. At the time, I was living in San Francisco, attending Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, working part-time with a valet company, and spending too much time reading Daily Kos and Eric Alterman, among others. Today I live in south Florida, teach college students how to write effectively, and spend too much time reading about politics, only now it's more on Balloon Juice and Pandagon and Ta-nehisi Coates. I also edit the poetry section at The Rumpus and tweet a lot.

Last December, this blog almost shut down. I was burned out on a lot of stuff, and I still have my mood swings related to it. I don't feel as impelled to blog as I once did, but that's a good thing because it means I'm making more time for the rest of the world--poetry, teaching, other writing, and just enjoying south Florida.

Blogging is dangerous in a way. There's no outside editor tapping you on the shoulder and saying "that's a bit over the top" or "you're not making sense" or "take a closer look at that date before you go on a tirade." You're just out there on your own, and if you say something stupid--and man, in the last six years, I've said an awful lot of stupid stuff--there's no one to take the heat for you.

And you can't really go back through your archives and disappear any of that stuff because it's probably archived somewhere, and even if it isn't, that's dishonest. I own what I wrote, even when owning it hurts.

I don't remember exactly how long ago I put a sitemeter on the blog--fours ago perhaps?--but since then, this blog has received nearly 200,000 visits and over 250,000 page views. Even in the times when I wasn't blogging much, we still got around a hundred visits a day on average, and there have been times, thanks to people who've linked to us (like when Batocchio subs for Mike at Crooks & Liars) when we've gotten over a thousand in a day. My honest and sincere thanks to anyone who spends the time to read something I've posted and especially who chooses to comment on it.

I have no idea how long I'll keep blogging--as long as I feel I need to, I suppose. Here's to another year of it.

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