Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A More Interesting World

Playing For Change | Song Around The World "Stand By Me" from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

davidbraun93 threw this onto Twitter. It touches on the ideas behind the post I put up Monday.

I think I'm going to enjoy seeing the global culture that emerges from the cultural, economic, and environmental crises we're enduring right now.

If my classroom is any kind of indicator, it won't always be as pleasant as this video makes it seem, but it has this kind of potential. And that's exciting.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Futile Attempt to Hold onto 'Politically Correct'

My friend Dan and I spent the last week arguing over email about the term 'politically correct.' I was foolish enough to step in and defend the often reviled term. I knew I was getting myself into trouble. There are few phrases more loaded than, "That's not PC."

Dan was unhappy about what happened at the Miss America Pageant (That sentence, taken out of context, puts Dan in an odd light, but it is true.). Dan suggested that Miss California had lost because her stance on gay marriage is not politically correct. That's where our debate began, but to be clear, we did not get into a debate over gay marriage.

I took issue with Dan's assertion that it is politically incorrect to oppose gay marriage. He was suggesting that the ideas behind PC are motivated by a political agenda - an agenda that favors gay marriage. He had both history and examples of 'PC-gone-wild' to back him up.

Despite that, I argued that a more useful definition of political correctness suggests this:
If an issue is still open for debate in the public discourse, then the various sides of that debate are all valid - none of the views are politically correct or incorrect.
The distinction between correct and incorrect is actually as follows: If your language pushes a stakeholder out of an active debate by marginalizing him/her based on sex, race, creed, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status, then you are being politically incorrect.
I went on to say that anyone arguing in a debate can cross the line of political correctness. As a hypothetical example, I said if Miss California had been in favor of giving gays the right to marry, and she had phrased her answer using words like 'homo' or 'Jesus-freak', then she would have crossed the line. She would have been politically incorrect.

Which means the pageant "judge" responsible for the question that started this debate crossed a line at the end of his recent interview.

You see what he did there? He used two gender-specific slurs to marginalize a woman's view on same-sex marriage. It's offensive, and it is politically incorrect. Not to mention, he just helped the same-sex marriage movement take several monumental steps backward.

It's frustrating because that video really helps Dan's side of the debate on how we understand political correctness. And that drives me nuts because my understanding of political correctness is very helpful in the classroom. In fact, that is why I engaged in the debate in the first place.

In my composition course we discuss and write about cultural diversity. In that classroom I have students from over 15 different countries, at least 6 different religious views, a wide array of political ideologies, and many different temperaments (often changing from one day to the next). In order for such a class to function, I need to both abide by AND enforce the brand of PC I argued for. I've had students sit out of discussions because of the offensive way a peer has expressed an opinion. I actually need political correctness as a teaching tool.

Of course, I don't use the term in class because it has become a parody of itself - especially here, where Europeans see PC ideology as a pointless debate about "manholes versus people-holes." Nevertheless, I need to keep in mind that I am an American teaching non-Americans via an American system of education. The ideas behind political correctness help to remind me of the lack of balance in that power structure.

So my question for readers today is this: Can we invent a term that avoids the baggage of PC while describing the act of avoiding "expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against?"

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dreams and Dreaming of Fiction

I'm working hard to make up for some lost time at work. I got sick last week. It's still lingering, but I'm back in the office, which is good. On top of that, the week's fitful sleep has resulted in some exquisite imagery from my dreams, some of which I hope to incorporate into my creative work.

I don't keep a dream journal in a strict sense, but I do keep a pen at my bedside. It was 3am last night when I woke up coughing. The image I held onto from the dream was of a nude, hairless, sexless, gray humanoid with bulging black eyes. It was shivering beside an iron bed frame covered in a pile of bloodied bandages stacked so high it was impossible to tell if there was a mattress underneath. The room was padded, lined with a mildewed polyurethane fabric. There was a porcelain sink in the corner, with rust stains and a leaky faucet.

The trouble with dream images is the difficulty of transcribing the mood from a dream. What I wrote above fails to deliver the simultaneous feeling of dread and excitement that was in that room during my dream. There was also a sense of altered states woven into the whole thing. And those bloodied bandages were unpleasant to look at, but there was a kind of relief in that they were no longer in use.

There's a character in my project that gets guidance from spirits while hallucinating, and I think this dream might contribute something to her story. But trying to get all the elements on the page will undoubtedly change the original moment several times before the elements are all just right.

And there's the part of fiction that's hard to describe, the aspect of fiction writing that I can't explain to some people. These people suggest, "You ought to write some journalism stuff. Like some 'life in Hungary' bits." These people mean well. They feel I'd be better off if I cast a wider net in search of publishers. But if I just wanted my words in print I'd go into journalism (or I'd keep a blog). It's not the act of writing that's got its hooks so deep in me. I enjoy composing a killer paragraph sure, but that is not what brings me back to this work. It is the fiction that I get a kick out of. It is the attempt to capture a moment taking on a life of its own.

My work on Miffland was exciting as long as it felt like the manuscript was more in control than I was, and the same is true of this fantasy story I'm working on. I guess it's kind of like dreaming that way.

So my question this week is this: What have you read or seen that creates a dreamlike state for the audience?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Unpleasant Violence

I still enjoy a good kung-fu movie from time to time, and I know the cartoon violence of big-budget action flicks can be fun. For me, however, the portrayal of violence is much more interesting when the violence is an unpleasant experience for the audience. Violence is horrible in real life. So, when art portrays violence as horrible, I find that engaging. I find this rings even more true when the audience is expecting the more cartoonish variety of violence.

Don't get me wrong, I like the over-the-top stuff. When I mentioned kung-fu movies as a source of exaggerated and exciting violence, I was thinking of classics like this:

No doubt, that's a great scene. Many would argue it's one of the highlights of Chan's career. But there's something 'Three Stooges' about it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when the audience gets excited because a guy is on fire, then the audience has cut yet another connection between themselves and the fictional world on the screen (I hope). And I think those connections - the uncut connections - help us experience fiction in a more interesting and more engaging way.

Staying within the kung-fu genre, here's one of the best fight scenes of all time:

While it maintains the excitement of an old Jackie Chan film, that scene is infused with the pain and dread of both inflicting receiving bodily harm. And I think the fight has more of an impact on the audience as a result.

This is the issue I'm currently exploring in my fantasy story. I'm dealing with a lot of violence: ranged attacks, massive flooding, soldier-eating beasts, and other forms of violence that are common in fantasy fiction. My aim is to bring those fictional moments as close as possible to a reader's experience with real violence - I want cringe-inducing violence, like the end of that Bruce Lee fight when he kills Bob Wall's character.

I think I'm going to re-read "The Iliad." I remember a lot of battle sequences that seemed awful in that.

My question for today is this: What else should I see or read to get a sense of how to portray violence in a less-than-romantic way?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Congrats to Dave, Anna, & Joni!

In a departure from the usual content, I want to send out my congratulatory wishes to my old roommate and longtime friend Dave Burck, his wife Anna, and their newborn baby girl Joni.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Well Said

I guess this thing is all over the cyber-place. It lays out a lot of the basic concepts I try to instill when I teach persuasive writing. Good stuff.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Rock and Roll, Sisyphean Style

I sent a message to my family the other day, and in it I used the term 'Sisyphean task.' I worried for a moment that using the term might come off as obnoxious. I thought to myself, “Perhaps that’s a bit much. Can people still allude to Greek mythology in everyday conversation, or will that go over some heads?”

I dismissed the thought for two reasons:
1) My family is a smart group of people.
2) The term suited the situation far too well.
You see, my cousin Kim is working very hard to organize a Hayes family reunion. There are two words in that last sentence that should give away the interminable and thankless nature of her task, 'Hayes' and 'Organize'.

So I used the term, but my brief hesitation highlights an issue I deal with in the classroom.

At Davis, I took a seminar on how to teach creative writing. It was led by Jack Hicks. He gave us all a very good piece of advice, “You’ve got to take them where they are.” Meaning, as teachers, we get students of varied skill levels, varied backgrounds, varied temperaments, and varied intelligence. This fact, along with the challenges it presents, is part of the job.

I understand and accept that. My issue is not that some students arrive in my classroom with subpar writing skills. I can fix that. My issue is that the world they come from, and the world they’ll go back to when they leave my classroom is...

A) Full of dumb people...
B) Those dumb people are often in positions of power and influence.

This seems to suggest that the pursuit of knowledge is a waste of time. Now, I know that's not true, but I am just one quiet voice. And the dumb are loud and many.

Here’s an example from my area of instruction.
The headline from USA Today's top story reads as follows: “Suspected NY shooter may have lost job.” I don’t wish to make light of the shooting, but that sloppy bit of writing suggests that since the shooting, the suspect might have lost his job. In other words, after killing 13 people and then himself, the shooter may no longer be employed.

As a grammar issue, it's an interesting problem. The auxiliary verb 'have' is used to place the modal 'may lose' in the past, and you get 'may have lost.' But the word 'have' can also make a verb present perfect, which means the verb's action affects the present moment (the cause of my gripe). Introducing the past perfect would solve this, but then the headline would read 'NY shooter may have had lost job.' Yuck. The headline could have added a time indicator like "NY shooter may have lost job before rampage." It's certainly not as catchy a headline, so I can see why they didn’t go with that. The headline they chose, however, is sloppy to the point of blurring the meaning of the intended message.
(And why is a newspaper speculating about past events in the first place? I don't want to read about what might have happened. Tell me what did happen.)

How am I supposed to convince young people that the rules of grammar are there to help craft precise meaning when the editors of a major national newspaper print a headline that ignores those rules?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Spring Break in my 30s

When I was 21 years old I went on spring break with John Andonov, Andy Gehl, Mike Kodner, and Perry LaRoque. Our aim was to drive down to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail and backpack north for a few days. We arrived in Chattahoochee in a downpour of cold miserable rain. There was no opposition when someone suggested we continue to drive south until the sun came out.

We ended up in Daytona Beach, and though we felt like outsiders looking in, our spring break did meet many of the benchmarks of an Mtv spring break.

Note for the ladies: During the wet T-shirt contest, we're not laughing with you.

Note for the guys: Chanting doesn't make it so.

As someone in education, I once again have a spring break coming up. It will probably pale in pop-culture comparison to that week in Florida. I'm going to catch up at work, write, finish Master and Margarita, and train Dio to fetch properly (he gets the ball, brings it back, and then runs away with the ball).

So... Can I get a "Spring Break! Yeah! Whoooooo! Badgers rule! Spring Break! Spring Break! Spring Break! Whooooo! Yeah! Spring Break! Dude I am so wasted..."

Okay, so maybe the connotation has changed, but I'm just as excited.