Friday, December 28, 2012

What's Your Type? -- Writer's Poke #389

I work three different jobs; I’m enrolled in two graduate programs simultaneously. So am I delusional when I identify myself as a “Type B personality”? My lifestyle belies my self-diagnosis.

And yet, I sincerely think of myself as Type B. At the same time, I realize an inner restlessness. It is difficult for me to “do nothing.” Like a lot of people I know, “taking a break” can prove stressful; not only does it cause me more than a little bit of anxiety, but I also find it somewhat depressing. Time off is time lost.

I wasn’t always like this. At least not exactly. When I was younger and more free from responsibilities, it was easier for me to be true to my Type B nature. Something about responsibilities and “being an adult” transformed me into the Type A monster I am today.

More than that, I think another reason for my Type-A-ness is a recognition of my own mortality. I’ve often joked that all the greats die young, and if I was going to die young, I wanted to have something to show for it. Although I no longer dwell on the idea of dying young, I would still like to have a pile of accomplishments to show for my life lived. In truth, none of these “accomplishments” will probably mean much in the overall scheme of things – at least not from the billion-year view – but that hardly matters to my psychological wiring.

I’m currently watching the fourth season of Fringe, and I even consider watching a complete season of a television show to be an “accomplishment.” I know I won’t feel at rest until I complete watching the next six episodes. The joy in that “achievement,” however, will be short-lived, as then it will be time to turn my attention to completing the latest seasons of True Blood and Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones and on and on and on…

What is your type? What is the type of life you live? What type of people do you like? What type of people do you attract? Are there incongruences you can see in your answers to these questions? If so, how do you explain them? Are there any ways you could better align your life to iron out the inconsistencies between your “ideal” and your “reality”?
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can't be any large-scale revolution until there's a personal revolution, on an individual level. It's got to happen inside first.” – Jim Morrison

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Santa Claus: Equal to or Greater than St. Nick?

So Santa Claus is a Christian? I guess that’s right, but for some reason, I thought he was bigger than that.

It’s almost Christmas, and so NPR did a segment today to explain how Santa Claus is able to do what he does each and every year. The person doing the segment interviewed experts from Fed Ex and UPS, and using standard business methods, they determined that Santa Claus would need approximately X million employees to deliver 760 million gifts to all the good Christian boys and girls around the world.

Actually, the Fed Ex and UPS gentlemen were provided with the 760 million figure, which is apparently the number of Christian boys and girls around the world.

I have to admit I was a bit shocked at this point in the story. I realize that Christmas is a “Christian” holiday -- as if that matters to anyone  -- but hasn’t Santa Claus moved beyond Christianity? Doesn't he give gifts to all the nice boys and girls around the world, regardless of a child's parents' religious affiliation or beliefs?

Maybe not. Maybe for millions of children around the world, December 25 is just another present-less day. It seems that Santa keeps more than “Naughty” and “Nice” lists; he also keeps a baptism list as well? Or, what about children in Christian families, who, according to their parents’ chosen religion, may be too young to be baptized? Are they counted as “Christian”? Or, are they included in a special ancillary category, such as: "Christians-in-training," or "apprentice Christians"?

My daughter mentions God every once in a while, mainly because her good Christian grandparents have mentioned God to her and have taken her to church. Surprisingly, she receives presents on Christmas; although I don’t consider her to be Christian, somehow Santa Claus has insider information? She’s just five years old. I simply consider her to be a little girl.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I Like Meatloaf

In 1993, I had a cassette player in my car, but I didn't have very many cassettes and never took the time to make cassette copies of my CDs. I did have two cassette singles, however. One was RATT's "I Want a Woman," and the other was Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love."

The problem with a cassette single, you must understand, is that it sometimes had the A-side (the main track) and the B-side (usually a so-so song), but sometimes it just had two versions of the A-side track – maybe a “radio edit” and the “album edit,” for example. I don't remember for sure, but I think the Meatloaf cassette single just had two versions of the one song. In any event, if it did have another song, I never listened to it, and because I was too lazy to switch out the cassette, sometimes I would pop it into the player and listen to it over and over and over again.

Some songs are just so bad... they're good. It's kind of like, if you go west long enough, you end up in the east. Music must have the same sort of circular effect. No one really listens to Meatloaf, right? But most people who like modern and popular music are drawn to this song. Why? Is it the passion of the delivery? Is it the power of the lyrics?

The song is what is widely referred to as a "Rock Anthem," and its subject matter is so pure, so full of chivalry and honor. The passion of the vocals, as bad as the vocals are, is a key component, but I think it's the lyrics that keep people interested and engaged. It's not just about people too lazy to change the song; it's also about people wanting to enter the fantasy of real love. And come on. What a throwback for a man to profess his true love for a woman. I mean, when one listens to this song, who doesn't think about Petrarch and Laura?

Okay, maybe nobody, but it's still a great tune.

The video attached to this post is just made by some dude and posted to Youtube for whatever reason. When I watched it tonight, it had been posted for at least a year and had received a scant 18 views. I think it's worth a few more views than that. If you do watch it, you're in for a nice surprise, too. I promise. I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to give away the secret.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thank You for Your Service

Once it become clear that Obama had defeated Romney, CNN's "partisan" contributor Paul Begala noted that he felt empathic for Mitt Romney. After all, Romney had just spent the better part of the past six years, really, running for president. For the man so richly blessed, not finishing first in this week’s presidential race must rank as the bitterest disappointment of his life.

Like Begala, I found myself feeling bad for Romney, too.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt bad for the runner-up in a presidential election. In 2000, I didn’t support Al Gore. Not, at least, until it was clear that he was not going to be president. But when Gore conceded the race to George W. Bush, he displayed an aspect of character that had been missing during the campaign. By accepting defeat, he proved himself to be an honorable man. Although conservatives would continue to belittle and mock Gore for the rest of the decade, I grew to respect his leadership on the issue of climate change. His passion to serve his country was real.

The opposition’s treatment of Gore made me wonder why Republicans tend to be sore winners. George W. Bush wins the election, and Republicans still do not have anything nice to say about Al Gore. Gore is still a joke, and his work to make the world a better place is rejected solely for one reason – his political affiliation.

When Mitt Romney gave his concession speech, I turned to my wife and said, “Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if a person ran an entire campaign like a concession speech?” What I meant was simply this: Romney was genuine; he was honest. And, he was likeable. Maybe he actually does believe in America after all; his tone was humble, his words were gracious.

He had nothing more to lose. That’s probably why a campaign cannot be run like a concession speech, by the way. The stakes are too high, and winning is everything.

I don’t know what Mitt Romney will do now that his dream of being president is over. Whatever he does, I wish him well.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mitt and the Gipper's Slipper

On the eve of the 1992 election, the unemployment rate was 7.4%. Bill Clinton ran a campaign on the economy, and with a little help from his little friend, Ross Perot, his message resonated.

On the eve of the 2012 election, the unemployment rate is 7.9%. Mitt Romney has tried everything he can to make this an economy election,  but he hasn’t been able to seal the deal. Why not? Because 2012 isn’t just an election about the economy.

When Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, unemployment was 7.2%, but Walter Mondale didn’t stand a chance against Reagan. Why not? Because people genuinely liked Reagan; more than that, they liked his broader “morning in America” message.
Obama in 2012 isn’t Reagan in 1984; but neither is he Bush in 1992. He will not win in a landslide over Mitt Romney, but he will win. The reason is simple: this election is about much more than the economy. The nation is deeply divided on most issues. From healthcare to gay marriage to energy, people tend to take the view of the left or the right. Some talk about America as being Red and Blue, but really America is Black and White. People do not see the nuances of the issues. They see only see in sound bites.

But enough people believe that more than just the economy is worth fighting for, and that’s why Obama wins re-election. If this was just an economy election, maybe Obama loses, and maybe he even deserves to lose this election. But a majority of Americans do not believe that Mitt Romney is the right man for the job. (In private, if Republicans were honest, most would admit that they aren’t voting for Romney so much as they are voting for party – or more accurately, voting against Obama.)

The Republicans have been looking for the next Ronald Reagan for the past 25 years. So far, no one has been able to fill his shoes, and most likely, no one ever will. Like Cinderella, Reagan is a fairy tale, and the reality of the Republican party is this: Most of its members are more suited for filling the role of the evil Step-mother than they are for fitting Reagan’s slipper.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wrestlemania III -- Professional Wrestling's Quality Event -- Writer's Poke #388

Wrestlemania is WWE’s annual sports entertainment spectacular. The show itself is typically four hours long, and event usually sets attendance records for whatever stadium that houses it. Wrestling fans know by heart, for example, that Wrestlemania III attracted 93,000 people to the Detroit Pontiac Silverdome. This event was headlined by Hulk Hogan defending his heavyweight title against Andre the Giant. Hogan even managed to body-slam the 500 pound giant, but the effort it took to do so almost destroyed his back.

Not surprisingly, wrestlers usually didn’t try to body-slam Andre, but it had been done before and would be done again. And yet, nobody talks about Kamala or Big John Studd or Ultimate Warrior slamming Andre. They don't even talk about Hulk slamming Andre at other events. All people remember and all they talk about is Hulk slamming Andre at Wrestlemania III. Something about this slam was different and special. Something about this slam could only happen at Wrestlemania.
But if Wrestlemania is such a special event, why is it held just once a year? If you like professional wrestling, between WWE and TNA, you can watch at least 7 hours of new content each week. Both brands have monthly pay-per-views, which adds another 6 hours of available wrestling entertainment each month. Altogether, then, a wrestling fan can watch up to 436 hours of body-slams, bad comedy, and sensational drama each year, and yet, the 4 hours of Wrestlemania are still valued. The event itself is still special.

Pay-per-views themselves used to be special, but now fans often complain that they are no better than the weekly episodes of Raw or Smackdown or Impact that they can watch for free. Why pay $50 for a pay-per-view if it’s the same content that you’re used to seeing? But how much different can one event really be over another? In the end, the whole idea about professional wrestling is two men (or women) pretending to fight. The potential matchups are limited, and so the writers must continually find new ways to keep the fans interested in the same people fighting.

Would it be possible to run Wrestlemania monthly? Weekly? What is the tie between quality and the sense of how “special” the event is? What is the tie between quality and time (or how often an event is offered)?

“I believe that given the audience attention level, we could do an even more compelling 90 minutes.” – Vince McMahon

Monday, April 30, 2012

In Defense of Propaganda -- Writer's Poke #387

Propaganda is a rather discredited term, but not necessarily a discredited concept. Probably best recognized in politics (and generally called “spin”), propaganda has its origin in the Reformation. Back in the 16th century, the Catholic Church was trying to keep the faithful from turning Protestant, and so they developed a propaganda office to forward their cause.
Even today, some people try to defend propaganda by suggesting that all it is, really, is a way for activists to promote a position. As long as propagandists allow the facts to speak for themselves, refrain from omitting some details and exaggerating others,  and avoid purposely using logical fallacies, then propaganda is good.
The problem is: the term “propaganda” is no longer associated, if it ever was, with “good argument construction.” Propaganda is associated with manipulation. The propagandist has no interest in letting the facts speak for themselves; rather, the propagandist wants to direct your thinking in a specific way -- to close your mind to further inquiry.
This is different from a person who simply wants to provide information. Someone who provides information may not have a specific agenda. An information-provider simply wants to give people the opportunity to make informed decisions. Likewise, a propagandist is not in any real sense an “educator,” because true educators hope you will continue to ask questions -- to keep your mind open even after you have reached tentative conclusions.
How good are you at recognizing propaganda?
“By skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even a heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.” – Adolf Hitler

Friday, April 27, 2012

What the Hell Is Quality? -- Writer's Poke #386

We act like we can measure quality. In the game of education, we develop “rubrics” and then we measure performance by how well students measure up.  This is somehow supposed to be different from just giving out letter grades. Sure, an A can tell a student that she’s doing quality work, but it doesn’t explain why. The Rubric is supposed to break it down so that the student can see where quality lives.

But can the Rubric be used to help a student achieve quality? Accrediting agencies and politicians, and therefore school administrators, seem to have a fanatical appreciation for Rubrics. At Rochester Community and Technical College, for example, the Rubrics for Aesthetic Response, Civic Responsibility, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Global Awareness/Diversity are all available on the Faculty homepage. Anytime I wish, I can click on a Rubric, access a specific class that I am teaching, and rate a student’s performance in a number of subcategories on a 1 (Unsatisfactory) to 4 (Above Average). The data generated from the report can then be used to assess how well the course is working to achieve expected outcomes.

Actually, the Rubrics can be quite useful for summative course evaluation purposes. And as a result, I would go as far as to admit that having data to drive how a course is designed may be useful increasing the overall quality of the course. Will any of this actually help more students develop quality in their individual work? That’s the bigger question. No matter how well designed a class may be, some students will always do well, and some students will always perform poorly. Rubrics will always be able to measure the differences, but they will never be able to ensure that all students perform well.

Do people promote the salvation of rubrics because they have a strong distrust for just doing what “feels” right?

“Do or do not… there is no try.” -- Yoda

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Passion of Uncertainty -- Writer's Poke #385

Why are there so many books written about Alexander the Great? I have at least eleven in my personal library, and I’m sure that I will end up buying even more.

In Paul Cartledge’s introduction to his 2005 biography, he offers what sounds to me like a preemptive apology when he writes that “no explanation is necessary” for why he decided to offer the world another biography on Alexander the Great. While that may be true, it does seem as though the thought crossed his mind, or that at the very least, he knew the thought would cross the minds of others.

Yes, Alexander the Great was, at least for a brief moment in time, King of the World, but how important is he really in the grand scheme of things? His empire, after all, fragmented almost immediately upon his death. On the other hand, his influence on the so-called “known world” was everlasting.

Most modern historians rely on three ancient texts when writing about Alexander: Curtius Rufus’ The History of Alexander, Plutarch’s Nine Lives, and Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. Problematically, Rufus, Plutarch, and Arrian all lived 300 years or more after Alexander. The one advantage these men have over modern historians is their access to more ancient texts that no longer survive, but consider what a disadvantage we face when we attempt to study Alexander. We’re already 2300 years removed from his time, and we rely on primary texts written 300 or more years after his death. How certain can we be about who Alexander the Great was?

Do historians continue to write books about Alexander the Great, because they believe their interpretations of the ancient texts available are really that much better than what’s been offered before? That their interpretations will somehow bring clarity and certainty to the man who claimed to be the Son of God (Zeus)?

How or why does uncertainty contribute to our fascination?

“Although our intellect longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” – Karl von Clausewitz

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Center of the Universe -- Writer's Poke #384

Ptolemy believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. This view was the “truth” for hundreds of years. Only in the 16th century did Copernicus challenge the truth and suggest otherwise.

Today, of course, we can look back on Ptolemy’s beliefs and laugh, but as Robert Pirsig notes, it took Copernicus to help us fundamentally change the way we understand the truth of our universe.
People simply are not generally willing to question the established truth. Perhaps, as Pirsig suggests, this is because institutions in control of “truth” are more interested in perpetuating themselves than they are in questioning the fundamentals.
Why should anyone be so worried about protecting ideas from scrutiny? One reason may be that ideas define who we are. Maybe they shouldn’t, but there is fear of change and security in stability, even if the stable foundation is incorrect.
How do we really know if our perspective is “incorrect”? After all, we cannot look outside ourselves. We are locked within our perspective, and we have the tendency to assume our perspectives provide us with the proper experiences necessary to see the truth.
How scary it must be to wake up one morning only to discover that the Earth you’ve always known is not a place, at least in a sense, you’ve ever known at all. How many of us are willing, truly willing, to seek out the truth, even if it means erasing everything that we have once believed to be true?
When is the last time the center of your universe (or your understanding of truth) fundamentally shifted?
“A lot of people have this ego need that makes them want to believe that Earth is the center of the universe and humans are the most important species, the supreme expression of creation.” – Ann Druyan

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lost Art of Living -- Writer's Poke #383

“Measuring Happiness” is one of my more recent Writer’s Pokes. According to the blogger stats, it’s generating more hits than any other post within the last few weeks. In fact, it’s generating about ten times the amount of interest of any other post. The key word in the title is “Happiness,” and apparently people are searching for it.

Living is an art, or should be. For a long time I had Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” up on my office wall. This is a fairly iconic painting that probably most people know, but why is it so popular? Is it true that most of us live lives of quiet desperation? Am I, and others, attracted to this painting simply because the central focal character is no longer staying quiet?

What makes life so difficult? Many of us may think we’re “connected,” but more and more we spend our lives isolated from real human contact. Even saying “hello” to someone passing by in the hallway may seem pointless, especially if “hello” is the only thing you ever say to that person. Why even bother to go through the social niceties of a greeting? Just walk on by and go about your business.

Kurt Vonnegut suggested that people need to create extended families for themselves, and how these extended families are created doesn’t really matter. We could all pull numbers out of a hat, and all the people that pull twos, for example, could be the Two Clan. People, Vonnegut thought, don’t do well alone. Alone, we tend to break. Go off. Get loopy.

And yet many of us spend the majority of our time alone. We may even think we like being alone. After all, dealing with people is tiring. They don’t always understand. They’re as preoccupied about their own lives as we are with our own.

But finding a group of people to share experiences… what’s better than that? Robert Pirsig observed that reading a classic, for example, is a lost art. People used to read a classic a sentence at a time, stopping at the end of each sentence to discuss it with somebody else. I don’t know if that’s “literally” true or not, but I do know that the power and the joy of discussing a book or a movie with someone can far surpass the act of reading the book or watching the movie in solitude. I also know that as much as I like to write, I find it far more satisfying to discuss my pokes with others than to write them late at night, alone.

Through discussion, the potential for connection; through connection, the potential for art. Without connection, no art, and really, no life.

How “connected” are you to the art of living?

“I do not seek. I find.” – Pablo Picasso

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No Instruction Manual -- Writer's Poke #382

At the end of Chapter 2 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes, “We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.” Now, assume for a moment that “motorcycle maintenance” is a metaphor for life. How do people live? By a instruction manual? Can an instruction manual teach caring?

Granted, some people may claim that an “instruction manual” for living exists, but does any written document really explain how to live a purposeful life? And, how do people use the written documents they claim as “life’s instruction manual”?

Pirsig’s friend John is dependent on his instruction manual. He doesn’t know his motorcycle, and therefore, he falls back on what the manual tells him to do. He doesn’t have the ability to deviate from the manual. He assumes the manual is 100% accurate, and if Robert offers advice, John refuses to take it. Moreover, he refuses to learn. In essence, the manual stunts his growth and understanding about motorcycles. Again, think about if the discussion is about really about life and not motorcycles.

Have we lost the ability to examine our own lives? I had a conversation with a friend recently, and she said she has been exposed to an instruction manual her entire life. Not surprisingly, she strongly believes that her children should be exposed to the same instruction manual. Why? I asked. Can your children really understand the instructions? Is providing them the manual too early crushing their ability to develop their skills divergent thinkers? Can early exposure to a manual kill free will? I don’t believe that she understood my concern, and I don’t think she valued the concept of divergent thinking. For her, it was all there in the manual, and thus, she didn’t need to worry about alternatives or asking questions or even thinking for herself, or allowing her children the privilege. In my view, however, she is little different from John, who doesn’t know his own motorcycle.

Is life the journey or the destination? Often times, people will admit that it is the journey that counts, and this is the philosophy that Pirsig subscribes to as well. Are people that rely on a manual of instructions too preoccupied with the “destination”? Not necessarily, but based on my own personal experience, it does seem to be more likely.

What are your thoughts on instruction manuals for living? Do you agree or disagree with Pirsig on their possible limitations?

“I hate having to read the manual.” – Trevor Horn

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Key -- Writer's Poke #381

Lakshmi doesn’t know much of anything about the outside world, but like the other girls who live at Happiness House, she is fascinated by television. When she first came to the city, she thought that the roofs of houses would have golden roofs, but even though that turned out to be false, television didn’t disappoint her. In fact, television is better than golden roofs. Even the commercials.

What the girls most like to watch is American soap operas. What do they think when the watch Days of Our Lives or One Life to Live? Do they assume that what they are watching is real? Remember: these are the same girls from the country who didn’t even know what to expect from the city. The city didn’t turn out as they expected, but can they still believe in the magic of America?

Americans, they all know, cannot be trusted. Is this lesson reinforced by the soap operas they watch? America is undoubtedly a strange and mysterious place, but perhaps there is no real to assume that all Americans are bad. Perhaps there is every reason to keep believing that the American man who says he wants to help her leave Happiness House is telling her the truth.

Lakshmi is convinced that there are two kinds of stupidity: the stupidity of naïve belief, and the stupidity to keep believing when one has the experience to know better. Nevertheless, Lakshmi makes up her mind to believe in the American, and when he finally returns, trust allows her to escape. Hope might be an illness, but Lakshmi walks out of Happiness House with the American when her friend Anita can only languish in the despair conditioned by mistrust.

After all Lakshmi has been through, where does she get the strength to continue to trust?

“You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you do not trust enough.” – Frank Crane

Friday, April 13, 2012

I Have Decided to Let You Live -- Writer's Poke #380

In the United States, abortion has been legal nationwide since 1973, the year that Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. So, assuming you were born after 1973, you should call your mother and thank her for allowing you to live.

Once you’re born, you probably no longer worry about someone else having life and death control over your existence. That is, unless you happen to commit a capital offense, you assume that your life is your own and that no one can take it from you. Even when you are a teenager, you know that you might be punished, you might be grounded, but no one is going to kill you for not doing what you’re told to do.

Imagine living in another world from the one you know and grew up in. In this world, you have a “master,” and this master can do with you whatever she wishes. Like the world you know, this world might have laws to protect you, but the laws are not enforced. No one cares if you live or die, and you have no way of escaping the prison you find yourself in. Even if you could leave your prison, you wouldn’t have anywhere to go, and you wouldn’t have anyone to turn to.

Eventually, you might meet a friendly man who claims he wants to help you, but you don’t trust him. Why should you? You’ve learned early in life not to trust anyone, because everyone you’ve trusted has only ended up betraying you. But something about this man is different. He doesn’t seem to want anything from you. Do you have it in you to believe that he will take you away to a magic place? You can’t go home again, but perhaps if you put your faith in this man, he can help you escape your prison. What, really, do you have to lose?

Your master tells you that she has decided that she will let you live, but what kind of life is it to be a slave? Can you put your faith in a man that promises to make you the master of your own life?

How can (and do) people maintain hope even in the worst of circumstances?

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” – Martin Luther King

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Rules of Being a Woman -- Writer's Poke #379

For Lakshmi, being a woman means looking up to your mother. It also means understanding that your mother does not have the power to protect you. Lakshmi’s mother has had four children after her, but none of them have lived. Being a woman means no health care.

Being a woman means remaining in the goat shed for seven days when you have your first period.

Being a woman means working like a mule. “Women’s work” includes cooking, collecting wood and dung for the fire, raising the children, patching the hut walls, and burying the children.

Being a woman means not looking a man in the eye, not talking back to a man, not eating until your husband has eaten, and satisfying your husband in every way.

Being a woman means needing a man for protection, but being powerless to do anything about a man that doesn’t uphold his obligations. A man’s obligations are voluntary, whereas a woman’s obligations are mandatory.

Being a woman means dreaming big and hiding disappoint when the dreams evaporate.

If these are the rules, is there anything Lakshmi (or her mother) can do to break them?

“Being a woman is terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” – Joseph Conrad

Friday, April 6, 2012

Measuring Happiness -- Writer's Poke #378

I like the idea that Bhutan has established. It’s a poor country, so not surprisingly, it doesn’t put as much emphasis on Gross National Product as the United States does. Instead, it has developed something called “Gross National Happiness.”

Is Bhutan happier than the rest of the world? That, I don’t know. Every so often, some sort of “contentment survey” is released, and I don’t recall that Bhutan has ever topped the list. Then again, perhaps the people conducting the survey neglect to include Bhutan in their evaluations.

Bhutan is a country that was “closed” to the outside world until 1974. Even today, while Bhutan welcomes tourists, it charges them around $200 a day for the privilege of visiting. That obviously makes Bhutan a fairly expensive country to visit. But it is a country that is being more modern. Heck, ten years ago, it finally got a TV station, and the people of Bhutan now have access to the Internet. Bhutan’s main road, finished just 25 years ago or so, has also made it possible for people to travel across the country in 2 hours rather than 2 days.

Things, then, seem to be looking up for Bhutan. Question is: Is the country any happier for the modernization? For that matter, does modernization make you any happier? Thanks to modernization, I am able to complete two graduate programs, both online, simultaneously. In addition to that, I can continue my full-time job. I can even pick-up part-time online work, if I so desire. The point is, modernization has made it possible to exhaust myself completely, beyond my wildest dreams. And, I would say that I have reached past the point of exhaustion at least three times this semester. Each time, I have been able to recover, and each time, I have felt the satisfaction of knowing that I can reach beyond my limits and survive. Am I happier? Ask me in a month when the semester has come to a close.

How do you measure personal happiness? What is the best way for a country to measure happiness? Do you think the United States is, overall, a “happy” country?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” – Aristotle

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tibet Appropriated -- Writer's Poke #377

David Attenborough was probably joking when he said that he rather doubted if there was anything in Tibet. Of course when Michael Palin first arrives in Tibet, what he sees he describes as “lunar landscape.” And, it’s true. Not much is there. At least, we don’t see any strip malls, and who knows how many miles it might be to the nearest McDonalds.

If by “anything” one means people or even human structures, then perhaps vast portions of Tibet are “nothing.” Then again, Buddhist monks call it home. Are they attracted to the nothingness? Everest is there, too, of course, and it’s the “tallest nothing” on the entire planet. People from around the globe like to test themselves against it. Why?

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, isn’t “nothing.” It’s home to over 250,000 people. However, is Lhasa actually “Tibet”? Palin notes that since the Chinese came, so too came the wide roads, the modern communist-style apartment complexes, and something more: the Chinese. Did the Chinese see Tibet as empty space?

More than Chinese influence has changed the landscape of Lhasa. Palin notes that American influence (by way of China) has penetrated the nothingness of Tibet as well. Tibet used to be one of those “closed” mysterious societies. Now, although it still requires a long series of flights to reach Lhasa, anyone with a few thousand dollars can be there within a day or two. And with visitors comes outside influence. If nothing was in Tibet at one time, this is no longer true. Now the question becomes: Is anything in Tibet authentic? Or is everything simply imported?

If the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, would he be able to recognize the place he still calls home?

How do people's ideas of place change places?

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." -- Nelson Mandela

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ten Facts about Tibet -- Writer's Poke #376

The website illustrates that the fight for who controls the idea of Tibet is not yet resolved. China might have assumed political and military control, but it has yet to win all hearts and minds. Following is the link to an interesting page on this website that lists ten facts about Tibet. All the facts listed are political and connect specifically to the mission of the website. ( )

For facts of a more trivial or fun nature, check out’s Tibet facts page: ( Below are tidbits of knowledge about Tibet that you will gain when you make your visit:

Q: What is the average altitude of Tibet?

A: 14,000 feet. Covering an area the size of western Europe, Tibet consists of a vast plateau at an average altitude of 14,000 feet. It is one of the most sensitive and unique environments on Earth.


Q: In greetings, Tibetans honor guests by placing a decorative cloth around their neck. What is the name of ceremonial scarf?

A: Kata. A kata can be white or yellow. It’s often decorated with symbols or Tibetan prayers, but can also be plain. They often give these as a greeting but also to honor performers whom they enjoy.


Q: What is the most common Tibetan funeral method?

A: Sky burial. In sky burial, the body is left on a mountain top. The birds come and feast, thus the lifecycle continues.


Oh yeah... sometimes Buddhists like to set themselves on fire. It's a method of protest.

How difficult would it be to learn 10 facts about every cultural/country/religion in the world? How might making that commitment matter to our “everyday lives”?

“I’ve been to Nepal, but I’d like to go to Tibet. It must be a wonderful place to go. I don’t think there’s anything there, but it would be a nice place to visit.” – David Attenborough

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Borders -- Writer's Poke #375

Nepal, a country that was never colonized, was only “opened to the outside world” in the 1950s.

Closed societies aren’t all that uncommon throughout history. At one time, Japan and China were “closed” to the West. Today, of course, North Korea is a closed country, although it apparently is toying with the idea of promoting its own brand of cruise-ship tourism.

But what does it mean to be a “closed country”? Are such countries simply xenophobic? Elitist? Scared of strangers? Correct in trying to protect themselves, just like individual homeowners are correct when locking their doors and windows?

Countries, like people, probably have a variety of reasons for building walls around themselves. China built a Wall to keep the “barbarians” out, and so the mindset seems to be that bad guys come from “out there.” Close the borders, and keep out the bad guys.

Nepal and Tibet only has one legal border crossing; only opened in the 1980s, it was commissioned by the Chinese, who dubbed it “the Friendship Bridge.” According to Michael Palin, the Chinese border guards at the Friendship Bridge aren’t all that friendly, but the people he meets in his travels – in Nepal, Tibet, and elsewhere, almost inevitably are friendly. They never exhibit any animosity to him. Hospitality is still a virtue, even in countries with the highest fences and tightest border restrictions.

So perhaps the question is: Why are governments of closed countries so scared of their citizens meeting foreigners?

What are your thoughts about national borders? Are they just lines on a map? What real value and significance do they hold?

"Globalisation has made us more vulnerable. It creates a world without borders, and makes us painfully aware of the limitations of our present instruments, and of politics, to meet its challenges." -- Anna Lindh

"I'm competitive with myself. I always try to push past my own borders." -- Tyra Banks

Monday, March 26, 2012

Butting Heads -- Writer's Poke #374

From Pakistan to India to Nepal, one link in the travels of Michael Palin’s Himalaya experiences is human conflict. Palin doesn’t necessarily dwell on it, but it’s always there, just underneath the surface.
Sometimes the conflict crosses borders, such as the battle over Kashmir, but other times the conflict is internal, such as the Communist insurgence in Nepal.
It might be a stupid and cliché question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Why can’t people all just get along?
In Pakistan, the people who seem to get along best are the ones, like the Kalash, who are completely isolated. But I’m sure that even the Kalash have their issues.
What affects this region? Poverty, illiteracy, lack of resources. Are these, or like reasons, explanation enough for why human conflict is inevitable? Is it the difference in religions practiced, philosophies held? Is the Himalaya region really all that much different from any other region of the planet in terms of human conflicts? In other words, it’s probably not the region itself that produces conflicts – it is the inhabitants themselves. Perhaps, then, it is fair to suggest that wherever humans exist, so will conflict.
What are the most productive ways to handle conflicts? Why are human beings not always so good at handling conflicts productively? Can conflict be considered “healthy”?
“A conflict begins and ends in the hearts and minds of people, not the hilltops.” – Amos Oz

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Discover Iran -- Writer's Poke #373

“Politicians come and go. The people are here to stay.” – Rick Stevens

In 2008, Rick Stevens traveled to Iran to see if the country matched the images Americans see in the United States. Not surprisingly, he found some of Iran to be like what is shown on American television, but he also found so much more.

The people of Iran were genuinely glad to see him. He recalls asking Iranians to guess where he was from. Typically, they would wrongly guess five or five different countries before he told them he was from the United States. Instead of shouting “Death to America!”, however, they inevitably smiled at him, welcoming him warmly as, perhaps, the first actual American they had ever met. Stevens felt as though the people of Iran didn’t hate Americans, although they might hate America’s leaders.

Why would they hate America’s leaders? Because they scare them. In 2008, for example, presidential candidate John McCain parodied the Beach Boys with his version of “Bomb Iran.” Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton noted that Iran would be “obliterated” is Iran attacked Israel. In other words, it’s not too surprising to learn that the average rank and file person in Iran is not jumping with joy to hear the way American political leaders' use of hard-line talk, any more than Americans are happy to hear the president of Iran talking about wiping Israel from the world map.

Stevens never tried to justify what Iran or its leaders do “wrong,” but he does suggest something quite simple and quite powerful: Get to know Iran. Get to know its people, and you will discover that they are much like people anywhere in the world. They care about their families, their futures, and their country.

Iran is a country to discover.

Where have you traveled in the world? Where would you like to go? Would you consider going to Iran for a visit?