Friday, March 20, 2009

American Eyes -- Writer's Poke #217

Students in my Advanced Composition classes write argumentative essays; I tell them that I won't grade them on the position that they take, but I also remind that that not all positions are equal.

Some have difficulty taking a position at all. And when I remind them that they need to acknowledge and refute opposing points of view, sometimes they simply acknowledge all points of view without clearly staking their claim to one.

Not all positions are equally valid, however; this might sound rather subjective, but arguing, for example, that sweatshops are "good" is not really a defensible position to take. One student attempted to take that position, though, citing that it beat the alternatives. Sweatshops, for example, allowed the economies in third world countries to grow, gave the workers a living wage of $1 per day, and kept children from even worse fates, such as the sex trade.

He thought he was making a strong case.

How does being an American color ideas of right and wrong?

"America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy." -- John Updike

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Great Depression -- Writer's Poke #216

My dad and I were talking about the Great Depression not too long ago; I expressed the idea that President Hoover's ideological views made him inflexible. This inflexibility made it impossible for him to act when action was necessary.

Dad insisted that the Great Depression was part of a world-wide phenomena, and that Hoover had little control over what happened. Then Dad played his trump card. He had lived during most of the Great Depression; therefore, his view was more accurate than mine.

So it brings to mind a question: Does lived experience matter? If you were alive, even say, just as a child in a small, isolated community, does that make you more of an expert than, say, someone that didn't "live it"?

All of us see life through our minds; some of us have memories of events to draw from, but memories are subjective; memories can be misinterpreted. Perhaps it takes someone that hasn't "lived it" to be able to "know it" more objectively?

How important do you consider your personal experiences to be in terms of what you "know"?

"Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin." -- Barbara Kingsolver

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Allegory of the Universe -- Writer's Poke #215

Most scientists believe that the universe is expanding -- at rates that most people cannot comprehend. The current edge of the known universe can only be measured in billions of light years, which is something that I personally cannot wrap my head around.

Equally frustrating, the stars we see in the sky may or may not be there, may or may not still exist. By the time their light reaches Earth, all we're really witnessing is a twinkle to a distant (in both space and time) past.

We live in a vastness that most people acknowledge but never study. We perceive a reality that only exists in hindsight. Most of what is "real" cannot be known, cannot be seen.

Whereas Socrates premised that prisoners in his Allegory of the Cave could somehow be freed from staring at shadows that they mistook for reality, none of us will be able to escape the illusion of the Universe.

What role or function do you serve in the bigger picture?

"The universe is an intelligence test." -- Timothy Leary

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One Sentence Friends -- Writer's Poke #214

"Friend" is one of those words that people use rather liberally. How many friends do you actually have?

On Facebook, for example, I currently have over 150 friends; most of the people on the list mean something to me, but I'm not sure "friend" is the correct term. Perhaps "connection" would be more accurate, although that doesn't feel entirely right either.

In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, author Chuck Klosterman notes that we barely know most people we call "friends." Most people, he claims, we could sum up in a sentence. That's a scary thought, and one worth seriously pondering.

How many people do you know that you couldn't "summarize in a sentence"? What makes these people different from "one sentence friends"?

"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive." -- Anais Nin

Monday, March 16, 2009

In Your Own Words -- Writer's Poke #213

I'm sure a comic genius like George Carlin or Steve Martin has already made a joke about this, but if so, I'm not aware of it.

So let me share this semi-original thought with you: Imagine you're in a courtroom, and a clown has just taken the stand. A lawyer walks up to the clown, asking him to speak honestly, "in your own words."

"Booga sentri sooma sah," says the clown.

Okay, the point is this: none of us has our "own words." Those of us that speak English use a common language, but that doesn't necessarily make communication that much easier. The meaning of words change. Think, for example, of how older folks sometimes complain that "words don't mean the same thing that they used to."

This isn't a new phenomena, by the way. Take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary sometime, and you'll discover the origin and evolution of any word you care to explore. And as Bill Clinton showed us in the 1990s, even the most simple two letter word, even the humble word "is," can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Perhaps the clown is right to develop his own language?

What does "words are all we have" mean? Are words nothing more than beautiful lies?

"A different language is a different vision of life." -- Federico Fellini

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Unlearn More -- Writer's Poke #212

When you learn something, you stop thinking. And that's a problem.

Take this rather innocuous example: Your 3rd grade teacher tells you that you cannot start a sentence with "And." And from that point on, you might never start a sentence with "and" for the rest of your life. You have "learned" that it's wrong to start a sentence with "and," and you simply never question it. Why should you? After all, you learned it, right?

I use this silly example to illustrate a much greater point. Throughout our lives, we "learn" things all the time, and what we learn affects everything else that we might think we know. But consider this: if you're working on a math problem, it's important that you are using the correct formula. You'll never obtain the correct "answer" without an equation that's probably developed. And yet, many people go through life working under faulty assumptions.

Even more dangerous: some of us even recognize that what we've learned isn't correct. But rather than unlearn and start over, we force ourselves to believe that we're right. We ignore all evidence to the contrary, shut down our minds, and will ourselves into blindness.

Take something you've learned about politics, religion, or any subject that interests you. How do your fundamental beliefs in this area affect how you approach other areas of your life? Take one of the basic things you have learned and analyze it critically. What areas in your life do you need to "unlearn"?

"Minds are like parachutes - they only function when open.” - Thomas Dewar