Thursday, April 28, 2011

A little glimmer of good news?

Wow, the tornadoes in Alabama...I hadn't seen too much coverage but it looks brutal and horrible. My prayers are with those affected. (I live in tornado alley myself, so I always shudder when I hear about a tornado is truly a scary thing).

The one bit of good news? When I went to call in a donation to the Salvation Army (I'm broker than a skunk right now, but I figured I could scrape together a bit and help out), I had to wait on hold for a little while...presumably, because so many other people were doing the same.

One of the things that makes America great is the willingness of the people to step in and help out those who have suffered a tragedy. We have great compassion and I hope that never dies.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bang head here

I gave an exam in class today.

I just received a rambling, ungrammatical e-mail from a student apologizing for missing class and wanting to know what we did and what he could do to make it up - no glimmer, apparently, that we had an exam today.

I think I figured out what frustrates me with some of the students (predominantly, but not exclusively, Millennials): they are so used to people mopping up after them, they are so used to being told, "Oh, that's all right, don't worry about it" that their senses of responsibility have somewhat atrophied.

I have students who have no qualms about handing papers in late - some don't even ask - and get incensed when I tell them I don't accept late work. I have students who don't follow lab safety rules and that I have to harass on a regular basis. And even little stuff - like, in an exam, when I close the classroom door (because the prof in the next room has a loud droning voice that CARRIES and I know I'd be annoyed having to take an exam listening to it) and students finish up and leave, and just leave the door standing wide open, so I have to walk over and close it again. Or walking in late and going, "Sorry, I had a hard time parking." And doing that AGAIN and AGAIN. (Hint: if you have trouble finding a parking place, LEAVE THE HOUSE FIFTEEN MINUTES EARLIER. Oh, I know, it's hard if you have kids or spouse or whatever but TOO DAMN BAD. We all have difficult things we have to do in life)

And I just wonder - are they really going to expect this kind of treatment out in the work world? I know getting a job now is really difficult, surely an attitude of "the world owes me" and "I am special and the rules don't apply to me" won't help.

I get fed up with the fact that deadlines are seen - even by some profs - as an antiquated concept. Um, one reason I like due dates? I like to grade everything at once. Much, much easier to tell if Bobby copied from Jimmy. And easier to be more fair...if everyone seems to have muffed a certain concept, I can be more lenient on that. But if I don't have all the papers to look at at once, I might not figure that out.

And besides, there's the issue of fairness to the prof. I budget time to grade. I might budget 4 or 6 hours on a particular day. But if I don't have all the papers that day, then I have to find 15 minutes or 30 minutes here and there to grade the late-rons.

Don't get me wrong - a lot of the students I have are wonderful and can take responsibility. But some of them...I just shake my heads over them and wonder if they're going to ever get it together. (And I don't think continuing to coddle them helps at all. I'm sure it's years of no-deadlines-in-school or someone patting them on the head and making vague noises about how not being able to be places on time is a type of learning disability has contributed.)

(And I don't know, maybe being chronically late is now a protected disability. But here's the thing: I know people with disabilities who managed to overcome them and be functional (more than "functional") adults. I know both a minister and a man who owns a successful computer business who have dyslexia. I have friends who cope with ADD. And they manage. They hold down responsible jobs. Sure, it may take more effort on their part for someone like me who has no trouble reading and who can usually focus on stuff pretty easily - BUT THEY DID IT. It's not IMPOSSIBLE. And that's what frustrates me about some of the people who don't seem to want to take responsibility: it is as if they have convinced themselves that it is impossible for them to do so. And so they just shut down, and give up, and accept defeat. And expect other people to take care of them.)

bwah ha ha ha ha

Hah! I like it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thoughts on Holy Week.

For those of you unaware, my background is Protestant. We do Holy Week a little differently from the Catholics. I think actually a lot of Protestant churches play down Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I think it's because there is some...turning away, maybe? From the violence of the image of Christ on the Cross. (Most Protestant churches, for example, have an empty cross - symbolizing the Resurrection - rather than a crucifix in the sanctuary).

But I think, if you're a practicing Christian, it's important to be reminded.

I talked last time about feeling kind of worn and weepy this week. I noticed that last night at the Holy Thursday service. It is as if this week of the year, the insulation of intellectualism or whatever it is I put between my rawer emotions and the world is thinner than normal, that I can be swept up by things and feel them in a way I might not feel them at other times.

Some years my church has done a Good Friday service. One year in particular, I remember the pastor reading a physiologist's account. I don't remember the man's name, but someone who was a doctor- and trained in human physiology - read all he could about the practice of crucifixion and he wrote up what he hypothesized would be going on in a person's body - the pain, the difficulty breathing, and so on. (For example: breaking Jesus' legs was actually a concession, so He would die faster, no longer being able to "push up" to try to get breaths). It was...the best word I can think of is "harrowing." Very, very difficult to hear. But again, important.

We've also sometimes done Holy Thursday evening services...I think it was in one of these that I totally lost my composure, a few years back, during a prayer I was saying. And I'm still baffled and amazed by that; it really was as if something from outside me grabbed a hold of me and said "LOOK. Look at the suffering Christ underwent" and I could not bear it at that moment.

Last night, the service was a little different - but very meaningful and moving. The head of the Elders and the minister sort of acted out the Last Supper. (The head elder played the role of Christ; the minister was Peter. The rest of us in the congregation were to represent the other disciples...including Judas.)

One thing they did - instead of the usual communion wafer we use - they used matzo. Which was surprising but appropriate, as it's the modern descendant of the unleavened bread that would have been used at the Passover meal. So there was a very tangible reminder of our link to Judaism, to the history of what we do.

"Jesus" spoke a traditional-sounding blessing and prayer, lit the candles. He also symbolically washed "Peter's" feet, and they went through the discussion of what that meant.

We all read the 114th Psalm, which, I don't know if it's traditionally read at the Passover table (how little I know, really, about the practices of Judaism), but it referred to the escape from Epypt, so it could be.

And then "Jesus" blessed the bread and the cup. And he spoke of his body being broken for us. And that he would be betrayed. And "Peter," ever-impulsive Peter, asked him, "Who will betray you?" And "Jesus" did not respond directly to that, but held a piece of bread out to the (unseen) Judas and said "Go quickly and do what you must do."

But - and here's the thing that grabbed me about it - when he held the bread out, he held it out toward the congregation. It was a subtle thing but I do think it was intentional - a reminder to us that at times we have all played the role of Judas and betrayed Christ, just as at times we have all played the role Peter would play later that night and deny Christ. It was a reminder that we are all in part responsible for putting Christ on that cross, and it was pretty breathtaking.

And then, we all slowly came forward, and were given a piece of the matzo, and a cup was held out for us to dip it in the wine (normally we do not do communion by intinction, so this was also different) and then we silently returned to our pews.

It was interesting: after the benediction and the minister and elder walking down the center aisle, everyone just sat there. Sat in silence, as if under a spell, for several minutes. (Normally, at the end of a Sunday service, there is a lot of shuffling and getting ready to go - parents getting ready to collect their small children from the nursery, people quietly wishing one another a good week, plans being made to go out to this or that restaurant for lunch. But this time, we all just sat for a while...and then someone broke the spell, and got up, and walked out, and the rest of us all walked out - much more quietly than after a normal Sunday service, which seemed right to me.)

I was very tired when I got home. Emotionally tired, I think. Even though the focus of this service was very much on the idea of the Last Supper, and why we do it, and why it's important, and less on what would happen AFTER the supper ended, I still found myself tearing up at a couple points during the service - again, I think that "insulation layer" I put between my feelings and the world is thinner right now.

I also got to thinking about the events of that night...and of the next day. And I realized something I never really thought of before...Jesus and his followers got no sleep at all (well, other than the few who fell asleep in the garden, briefly) during that time. Now, maybe people during that time were tougher, but I can imagine it adding an extra nightmare quality over the events of Christ's arrest...and the crowds out below where Pilate stood, in the flickering torchlight...and how it might have seemed unbelievable, nightmare-like, to some of the Disciples. (No wonder some of them fled).

You don't hear much about the intervening Saturday. For one thing, it would have been the Sabbath, and the observant Jews would not have been out and about, but I also imagine Jesus' followers, each in their own lodgings, reflecting in horror over what happened and wondering what they would do next...and whether THEY were next in line for arrest.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Not as bad now, I guess

Before coming over to campus this morning, I watched a bit of a program on forgiveness.

The thing that pulled me in was a woman who had - along with her college roommate - been brutally attacked while they were camping. The man who did it, even though (apparently) some of the townspeople identified him, knew who he was, got off scot-free, because the statute of limitations expired.

But I kept watching. There was a segment on a woman who had been involved in the killing of a police officer during 1960s anti-war riots. A couple of things struck me:

First: setting the scene, explaining what the times were like - I wasn't entirely aware of how violent and how scary the protests were. (One of the faults of the way American history is taught in schools? We spent enormous amounts of time on things like the Stamp Acts and similar things, and then ran out of time around World War I. So much of the 20th century history, unless I read about it (or actually lived it), I didn't know that much about it.) I knew there was rioting and violence and all that. (My parents - newly married - were on a college campus at the time, but it was a small, Southern school and my mother always said they were insulated from the worst of the goings-on. How insulated was the place where they lived? In the mid to late 60s, it was still expected women wore hats and gloves to church and for grocery shopping...)

I didn't really think about how bad it was. Until in the voice-over, the woman remarked that the student radicals saw it as "war, no less than the war we were in in Vietnam."

I don't think I could remain on a college campus where there was that attitude.

Another thing she said struck me, and made me think - she talked about how after she had finally surrendered to the authorities (she ran away, and started a new life elsewhere), she kept thinking that she'd feel better - that she'd get the forgiveness she needed.

But she couldn't, and didn't. And she said at one point how unfair it felt, that she was thinking, "Why did General McNamara [who, in her mind, had done far worse than what she had done] get off scot-free, and I have to be punished? Why can't I be forgiven?"

And finally, she realized: Part of the barrier was the resentment she still held to the Vietnam-era generals, to what she saw as an evil, faceless "war machine." That in order to be forgiven of her crime, she also had to forgive others of what she perceived as their crimes.

Of course, she wound up still paying for it - I don't know if she's still in prison or not. (I guess the state where she shot the police officer didn't have the same statute of limitations that the state where the woman and her roommate were attacked had).

But I think that comment she made so sums up a human condition, one of the big problems with human nature: "HE is getting away with something that I believe is far worse than what I did. It's not fair." Instead of looking at our own sins, and going, "Oh, man, I really did something wrong."

I've often said on here that one of the biggest things I learned as I became an adult is that the only person's behavior that I control is my own. And while it's a lot more painful and difficult to look at one's own transgressions (and to work on either making them right, or not committing them again) than it is to point fingers at others, it's really the only way to move forward.

But I think that's something we as a culture may be forgetting - that if you can do something to improve a situation, you should. Rather than blaming the other guy. Rather than claiming you were dealt a crummy hand. But I do think looking at a bad situation, going, "Well, this stinks" but then rolling up your sleeves and trying to fix things is ultimately the path to being at peace.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tired, and worn

This has been a difficult spring. I don't exactly know why; I can't pinpoint any one thing.

I think part of it is that we've had a major administrative change in the past few years where I work, and the people who used to be pretty much content to leave departments that were working well alone have been replaced with people with a love of micromanaging.

(We got an e-mail the other day claiming that if we didn't follow the absence policy - in the case of sickness or accident - to the letter, it would be considered insubordination. That scares me, because I can totally see someone not following the policy perfectly because they were in pain, or seriously feverish, or had something else going on - and them being threatened with a revocation of tenure over it. I don't KNOW that it would happen, but "insubordination" is a very, very strong word.

And I think I know why this is, and this is just another reason why I resent zero-tolerance policies: The administrator in question is probably having problems with a few faculty members who are AWOL. But instead of manning-up and going to talk to those people, to deal with them individually, to say "You are violating campus policy," instead the admin in question spanks all of us with yet another harsh e-mail. This makes about four for this semester. And I'm NOT happy about it. I'm not sure if it's coincidental that the results of the faculty senate surveys came out and this administrator had an approval rate of about 30%, and that's why we got a nastygram, but it's possible.)

And inflation is bad. And gas prices are bad. And I just have a feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better.

(And I don't know how any of you feel about Donald Trump, but here's how I feel: If he is the Republican candidate in 2012? I will be writing in either Thomas Jefferson or Ronald Reagan on my ballot. Stupid, I know, and throwing away my vote, but I really think Trump would make a bad president - I mean, do we really want ANOTHER egoist in the White House?)

So I'm tired a lot of the time this spring, and trying to focus on the things I can deal with - planting a garden (Not that I have enough land, or enough time, to be able to grow an appreciable amount of my food), keeping up my house, keeping up with my work. And trying not to think about things like inflation and threats of insubordination and bad politics and all that.

Today was Palm Sunday. Our choir did its annual cantata. As always, it was well-done. I liked this cantata in particular because it incorporated bits and pieces of familiar hymns - even a bit of "Once to Every Man and Nation," which is an interesting old hymn (If I remember correctly, it was written essentially as an anti-slavery poem. (Well, it's more complex than that - I think it had something to do with the war over Texas...) It's a pretty stirring hymn though, and one that I like, even if some might criticize it for its moral inflexibility).

Anyway, they worked around to the time of the crucifixion. And launched into "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded."

And I almost lost it, sitting there in the pew. I was doing every "displacement behavior" I ever do when I'm trying not to cry - adjusting my glasses, scratching the back of my neck. I even went so far as to think, "Puppies and kittens and pretty flowers" (one of my friends in grad school said she used to do that when she felt ill and didn't want to risk vomiting; I've adopted the idea to keep from crying, because I'm a lot more prone to crying than I am to vomiting).

It's funny, though - and maybe I feel a little ashamed now - that I was trying so hard NOT to cry, during an reference to the most grueling event in the history of Christianity, and something that SHOULD be humbling to Christians. I guess my only defense is that I didn't want to risk drawing undue attention to myself.

Maybe it was just something in the air today. The woman who served as one of the elders at the table was also fighting tears as she said her prayer (And I remember that, several years ago, how I was just totally seized by something and actually DID start to cry, while praying at, I think it was, a Maundy Thursday service. And it's so hard to stop it once you start, and so hard to go back from it).

So I don't know. I'm just going to have to remind myself these coming days to be extra careful and extra kind with myself (And kind with other people, at least without becoming a doormat...because I am dealing with a couple people who would walk all over you if you gave them a bit of leeway).

Monday, April 11, 2011

beer for my horses, water for my kids...

So, the Boston mayor is deciding to nanny his citizens by banning soft drink sales on city property.

Here's the quote that makes me irritated: “I want to make this a healthier choice, the easier choice in people’s daily lives, whether it’s the schools, the work sites or other places in the community,”

Dude: it's not a CHOICE if people are FORCED to do it. The last time I went to a baseball game (not in Boston, but still), they checked our bags going in. I don't know if they disallow "outside" beverages brought in in bottles or cans (I'd guess yes, less likely for fans to throw crap onto the field). But if all you can buy is beer or water (which means, for under-21s, water), you don't have a "choice" to make to be "healthy": you are being forced to do so.

Also - what about the concept of moderation? I know people who never, ever eat a hot dog OTHER than at their yearly-or-so outing to the ballpark. I rarely drink soda myself (I am not that crazy about it and yes, it is calories I don't need and can easily forgo), but once in a while - like if I'm out with friends getting a pizza, or AT THE BALLPARK or somewhere like that, a soda tastes kind of good.

I also note that some of the "grudgingly permissible" drinks (other than water, unsweet tea, unsweet soy milk, lowfat milk, which are considered "OK"), most of them are artificially sweetened.

Um, mayor: just as some of us don't tolerate milk well - or tolerate soy well - there are some of us who shouldn't have artificial sweeteners. (And not to go all conspiracy-theory, but I would not be at all surprised if aspartame were declared unsafe for human consumption in the next 10 years or so).

I have issues with the idea of making some foods "good" and some foods "bad." I've already seen the effects of nutrition-scaring on some of the girls in the Youth Group - skinny, athletic kids who wouldn't eat a lot of the food served because they were afraid it would make them "fat," who would only take something to drink if it was diet soda (and they didn't seem to want water, which was what I drank - though I drank water mainly because it was late in the evening and I knew the caffeine in the soda would keep me awake).

And some people, making foods "forbidden" makes them all that more appealing!

Of course, this is all presented as a "it's for your own good" sort of thing.


C. S. Lewis said it better than I could have, from "God in the Dock":

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Friday, April 08, 2011


I think I've gone on record before saying I dislike zero tolerance policies. I think those of us in positions of authority need to step up, grow a spine, and recognize that sometimes you have to use your human discernment. Sometimes you need to show a bit of compassion, other times you need to give tough love.

I teach a class with a 'zero tolerance' absence policy. I did not write the policy, I did not vote for the policy, I do not like the policy. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that if a student with a chronic illness were to challenge the policy, we would be told we would not be permitted to have it.

I don't like required attendance in college classes for a number of reasons. First, if the person doesn't want to be there, they're going to be a problem. They will be a drag on the discussion by sitting there and sighing or texting or doing whatever not-really-disruptive-but-still-disturbing behavior. Second, these folks are adults. They need to start deciding to act like adults. Third, if a class REALLY can be passed without ever setting foot in class other than for exams - the prof probably needs to re-evaluate how he or she is teaching. Fourth, it makes more busywork for the prof to take attendance every day. And finally: I find that the whole attend-or-not thing works itself out: Students who chronically skip my classes also tend to be the students who earn Ds and Fs. And when they come and bitch at me about "That thing on the test wasn't in the textbook" I can ask the class: when did we discuss that thing? And at least a few people will pipe up with the day I discussed it, and will mention how it related to the other stuff we were working on at the time.

We do get students with "university sponsored" activities - one student in a play being performed at a local school during school hours. Sports stuff. Honors college programs. And my understanding is that those trump the "zero tolerance on absences" thing. So I let those be excused.

Well, this semester, I've decided: I'm going to subvert the policy. If they don't like it, they can take it to the dean and see what SHE says.

This happened because I had a student come to me. She didn't give me many details but she was upset because she was having to miss class because she is having to file, and then testify for, a restraining order.

And I'm sorry, but in my book, that becomes an excused absence, policies be damned.

I think the reason so many zero tolerance policies were enacted was to take the "burden" of decision making off of people in authority: if you can equally suspend schoolkids for bringing pot to school and bringing aspirin to school, you don't have to make decisions. And I'm sure they were instituted to keep from fielding calls from aggrieved parents, by saying, "Sorry, that's just the policy. Your child should have known." (The problem is - though maybe this is a feature and not a bug - there's a lot MORE outcry when an otherwise rules-following student is suspended for something like having a Ricola cough drop in their backpacks)

And I suppose they may have been instituted in a spirit of good intentions (though we know which road is paved with those): we don't want teachers/profs/whatever to treat people unfairly. And it would remove the possibility of charges being made, like, "This professor always gives excused absences to the guys and never to the girls." Where someone who was a member of some group could claim discrimination, even if there was none intended.

But I think we need to start being more intelligent - and certainly, do so on college campuses. Because the problems I've seen with my having some flexibility on stuff comes from other people, people with a sense of entitlement: "Hey, why does he get to bring a laptop to class when you forbid laptops?" Um, because he's BLIND and it's how he takes notes? I mean, seriously. If a student is so self-centered that they cannot understand a difference between an absence from a student going to court and getting a restraining order to protect herself (and possibly her children) and an absence because a person drank too much beer the night before - they need to grow up and start learning that the world doesn't revolve around them. Granted, they may not KNOW the circumstances of the person with problems - and I'm not going to violate privacy by telling them - but my looking at the student in question and saying sternly, "There's a GOOD REASON that the person is getting an excused absence" (or an extension on their paper, or being allowed to use a laptop in class) should be enough.

I was thinking about that this morning - I wonder if the sort of blanket policies where everyone is treated the same, and no one has a greater or more urgent reason, is allowing some people to persist in their "everyone gets a trophy" mentality.

Have to get this off my chest


Get OVER yourselves, people.

Also: saying that reducing abortions "hurts women" doesn't totally compute with me: aren't half of fetuses female? While I'm not quite so hard-core as to say it should be banned, I think we need to work really hard on alternatives, so abortion, if it happens at all, is incredibly rare.

I don't know. I would have no headaches with a de-funding of Planned Parenthood. Or NPR. Or Public TV. If people think those things are so valuable, they should be willing to voluntarily pay for them to exist.

My understanding is: we're getting close to broke as a country. If we don't do something, it will be VERY BAD. If I were getting close to broke as a person, instead of continuing to borrow money and eat dinners out and have premium cable and buy fancy coffee drinks, I'd cut out ALL the unnecessaries and focus on keeping a roof over my head, keeping myself minimally insured, getting to and from work, paying my necessary bills, and buying what food I need to keep going. It would suck, but sometimes things just suck.

I don't want to see Weimar-level inflation just so we can all still have certain perks. What good is public tv if you can't afford to pay the electric bill?

But I have to admit, the "evil republicans are engineering this specifically to prevent women from getting abortions" trope, which I've heard various places on the internet, is really making me rage-y.

What about anger and upset over our TROOPS IN HARM'S WAY maybe NOT BEING PAID? I'm a LOT more upset about that.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Interesting little moment

Saturday, I decided to go out and do some shopping. I decided to include a trip to the craft store because it was a hard week, and I also wanted a couple additional colors of floss for a project I'm planning.

I wound up in the aisle where they have embroidery floss. There were also two women there - older women, very conservatively dressed (dark skirts, long-sleeved blouses, and jackets over the blouses). I don't know if they belonged to a particular religious group or to a religious order - they both had black head coverings, kind of like a nun's, but not exactly. (I know they weren't Amish. We do have a few Amish in this area but these women were dressed differently). They were speaking quietly to one another in some other language - it sounded Germanic, but my German is not very good and anyway, I try not to eavesdrop on other people's conversations.

(It's possible they were of one of the Mennonite subgroups. I'm sure they were Christian; the head coverings were not like those Muslim women sometimes wear, and also, I think I remember one of the women had a cross pendant)

But it struck me as sort of an interesting thing - sort of a "we are really not that different, after all" moment - them in their dark plain clothing, me in jeans and an old t-shirt from a conference I attended several years ago, both of us looking at floss.

They didn't look at me but if they had I would have smiled gently. I would love to know what they were planning on making with the floss they were buying...