Friday, July 31, 2009

Who's On First?: Hyperbole or Not?

My Fellow Comedists,

Let's put up the Comedist post a little early this week since we're on a roll of baseball questions. Showed the short people "who's on first" and, of course, they loved it. They've asked to see it five more times since. When I showed them the first time, I prefaced it by saying that it was the greatest sketch in comedy history. A fair claim or hyperbole?

What other sketches would make the top ten?

My suggestions (in no order): Groucho and Harpo's mirror scene from Animal Crackers, Chaplain's dance of the dinner rolls in Gold Rush, the ministry of silly walks, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's 2000 year old man, Lucy's vitameatavegemin, Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze Chippendale dance-off, Sid Ceasar's argument to Beethoven's fifth, Ernie Kovac's Nairobi trio, Dave Chapelle's Racial Draft.


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hall of Famous Steriod Junkies

Jim B. in the comments to the last post raises an interesting issue.

"I can at least say he never cheated as a player. How many of our modern baseball stars, some more than likely soon to be hall of famers, can say the same?"
Given that you have an entire generation of ballplayers who used steroids with the tacit approval of the league, do any of these folks -- the McGwiers, the Sosas, the Bonds, the Clemenses -- players who were clearly were the best in their day and who achieved amazing feats while juiced, make it into the hall? To say put them in with an asterisk raises the question of what the asterisk means.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Should Pete Rose Be Reinstated?

Charlie Hustle, clearly one of the best to ever play the game. But gambling on games, especially as a manager, is a major offense against the integrity of the sport and had to be punished severely. But has it been enough? Should Pete Rose be reinstated?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Is Spinal Tap a Real Band?

My heroes, Spinal Tap, will be on The Daily Show tonight in support of their new album.

Philosophers of language have long grappled with the question of fictional names. What does "Hamlet" mean given that there is no Hamlet for the word to refer to? This case seems an interesting twist on this question. when there was just the movie, This Is Spinal Tap, it could be said pretty straightforwardly that there was no band, Spinal Tap, but a collection of comedians acting as if there was. They played gigs after that, for example, in 2007 at the Live Earth benefit, they played "Big Bottom" with the most bass players to ever simultaneous play: Nate Mendelof the Foo Fighters, Robert Trujillo, Kirk Hammett, and James Hetfield of Metallica, Gordon Moakes from Bloc Party, and the Beastie Boys' MCA. This clearly could be called a comedy routine, a live performance of the fictional group from the film.

Other performers use stage names. Robert Zimmerman isn't playing Bob Dylan, he is Bob Dylan. But this seems different from the case of Spinal Tap.

At the same time, the Blues Brothers did seem to make the move. In opening for the Grateful Dead at the closing of Winterland in 1978, they were a band, they performed for the sake of the music and not the laughs. Is that the defining property, is it in the head? But what about Spinal Tap? There is always that comic edge to them, but if we put it in the head, can we know?

So, is Spinal Tap a real band?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pornography, Free Expression, and Public Life

In Fort Meyers, Florida, last week, the town manager was fired because his wife is an adult film star. The mayor said that his job performance was fine, but that he feared it might become disruptive.

Councilman Tom Babcock, responding to residents' questions, said at a council meeting Wednesday that Janke was fired because his wife's profession brought an inaccurate image to Fort Myers Beach, according to the News-Press of Fort Myers.

"When you become a public figure you are held to a different level of scrutiny and ethics," Babcock said.
This reminds me of a discussion I had with a Contemporary Moral Issues class a few years back. We were discussing the freedom of speech and the question I posed was whether a corporation should be able to fire you for posting nude photos of yourself. To my surprise, they overwhelmingly said yes. The right for them to be profitable, they contended, was more important than your right to free expression.

Here the case is even more interesting because it was not the person who got fired, but his spouse. Is your spouse's expression something that employers ought to have a say over? If one's husband was a Holocaust denier or white supremicist publicist, should that be something your boss should be able to consider?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Doctor, It Hurts When I Do This

My Fellow Comedists,

With all the discussion about healthcare, it seems a good time for some medicine jokes.

Here's something from a bit I'm working on:

I've always thought that 'pap smear' was the worst name out there for a medical test. I have no idea what pap is, but surely you should be more delicate with it. "Dab the pap, gentle, don't just smear it around. What do you think you're putting cream cheese on a bagel?!"

The only other one as bad is the western blot. "Sorry, Mr. Gimbel, but we're going to have to run a western blot." What is a blot? Whatever it is, it doesn't sound like something you run. Blot? Now THAT sounds like something you smear. And it's always a western blot, never one of those liberal, elitist, Harvard-educated eastern blots. No, this is a blot you want to have a beer with. A western blot is just like a regular blot, except that it comes with green peppers and onions. Add jalapenos and salsa and you've got a southwestern blot. Run it for the border.

I had a western blot once, back a few years ago when I had lyme disease. I didn't actually need the western blot, I knew I had lyme disease when I was overcome by the sudden urge to bathe in Corona. With the way these viruses mutate, it's only a matter of time until we have diseases for all the flavors of Absolut. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but you have mango-apricot disease." It's true. You know mohitos largely are repsonsible for the transmission of mahalaria.

You know why we haven't cured swine flu yet? Because most medical researchers are Jewish. Remember a couple years ago when it was the avian flu we were so scared of and they came up with a vaccine so quickly? Of course. These guys understand chicken soup. No problem grabbing that littel bug by the knadles. But THIS is swine flu, we're talking pork here.

A few classics:
Do pediatiricans take off every Wednesday to play miniature golf?

A doctor and his wife were having a big argument at breakfast. "You aren’t so good in bed either!" he shouted and stormed off to work. By midmorning, he decided he’d better make amends and phoned home. After many rings, his wife picked up the phone.

"What took you so long to answer?"

"I was in bed."

"What were you doing in bed this late?"

"Getting a second opinion."

Doctor: "I've got very bad news. You've got cancer and Alzheimer's."

Patient: "Well, at least I don't have cancer"
So, what are your favorite doctor jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, July 24, 2009

Of Friends and "Friends"

Aristotle wrote that friendship is a special relation that has ethical dimensions. Similarly, contemporary thinkers like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Sara Ruddick have stressed that the relationship between friends comes with certain obligations to the befriended. If you are late for an important appointment and clock eyes with a stranger whose car has broken down on the side of a little traveled road in nasty weather with no cell phone, you might feel bad and wish you had time to stop as you drive by. But if it was a friend you see -- and who sees you--, you better pull over. Being a friend means caring about the other for the other's sake. Friendship means something.

But what does it mean to be a Facebook friend? Surely, that's a different sort of relationship, but what comes with it? The bar is certainly lower, but is there an ethical dimension there at all? What degree of care and consideration do you owe your Facebook friends?

Do other relations play a part? For example, I happily agree to be Facebook friends with former students who request it. But at the same time I avoid initiating the connection myself because it seems untoward. Our relationship during their time in college was one of unbalanced power and it seems awkward to approach them in this way after the fact, while it feels joyful when they approach me. I'd have no problem inviting them over for dinner (well, ok, some former students...), but this seems different. Is it?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Are Advanced Degrees More Than Intellectual Masters-bation?

A Stranger (who in fact is not at all a stranger, although he is stranger than most) asked me to comment on this a while ago. Many of the writers contend that a Masters degree is a waste of time and money, a meaningless degree propped up by institutions of higher ed because it is profitable.

I will admit that I am of two minds here. On the one hand, in an intellectually hostile environment like ours, any chance to set aside time for education is a good thing. We have a culture that thrives on marketing and this drives us to the lowest common denominator, meaning that informal learning happens infrequently. We as a culture just don't go to lectures, performances, or museums for fun, have book club discussions of probing texts, watch challenging documentaries often. As such, we unfortunately have the classroom model of education imprinted on us where we set aside sacred spaces of instruction. If a group of folks who have undergraduate educations and real-world experiences re-enter the academy as a group to seek additional intellectual engagement, wonderful things can and do happen.

At the same time, however, this pure image is often far from the reality on the ground. The Ph.D. is one thing. It is an extended hazing ritual/apprenticeship where you learn how to be a professional researcher at the feet of a famous scholar along with others who are so excited about a given field that you are willing to live in poverty for several years to join the union. There is a level of commitment and drive that is part of the doctoral program, but many students see the Master's degree in nothing more than utilitarian terms; it is a piece of paper they want to help advance their careers (read, make more money to buy more stuff). It is not about doing the work, thinking the thoughts, growing their minds, it is about doing just enough to to check off the boxes and get their accreditation. It is a means, not an end, and there is a hostility towards the genuine cares of the scholar. This cannot but infect the classroom.

But it isn't just the student who are cynical here. Institutions of higher learning have been in financial straits well before the current meltdown. On the one hand, what attracts students and their tuition dollars is not academic success, but state of the art gyms, student unions, and on campus bowling allies. These cost money. Further, students are more likely to go to schools they have heard of and what is the only way folks outside the academy hear of schools? Championship sports teams. So, cash pours into athletics. At the same time, faculty clamor for raises, increased travel money, and funds for research. Colleges and universities looked for alternative revenue streams and seeing this urge for quick, evening master's degrees responded to the demand by ramping up the supply.

But rapid expansion can affect quality, especially when the consumer comes in with a WalMart mentality. So, many of these programs are not run out of academic departments, but out of a completely different evening school that gets instructors wherever, whenever. Now, this is not, is not, IS NOT an indictment of adjunct instructors writ large. I was on the circuit for years as an academic migrant worker, following the work, moving with the seasons and semesters. Many of the folks who adjunct are very qualified teachers who are finding it tough to find a job in an incredibly difficult academic job market, many tied to a location because of a spouse's job. These people are often better teachers than their tenured or tenure-track colleagues who have to give their classroom time time shrift to focus on research -- that which gets them raises, tenure, and recognition.

But at the same time, the night schools have a limited pool of these folks and also hire -- especially in professional areas like business and technology -- people who are are supposedly qualified, not from an academic background, but from their work experience. These are people who have no classroom chops and don't understand the student/instructor dynamic. I have witnessed and heard many horror stories. and to some degree, the programs are often stuck with these folks because they need these classes taught and don't have the recruiting mechanisms that regular academic programs do. They don't have hundreds of qualified candidates from all over the country dying to come teach for them. They need people who are willing to work for a small paycheck at odd hours who live in their particular area.

Additionally, because these programs are either not run out the main schools' departments or when they are compete with the undergraduate classes, the curricula are often not the most rigorous. Because they are not staffed with full-time faculty whose main job is dedicated to it, the Master's programs are often slow to respond to new developments because there is not someone pushing for the change from the inside and when it is, it is often very difficult to staff. As a faculty member in a full-time department, there is constant discussion by experts in the field about what we should offer to our students and how to tie different profs' classes together in coherent ways. But when you have only part-time adjuncts who do not know each other and only show up to teach their own class and have no connection or input to the larger curricular aspects, you get a very fragmented, less effective path through the program.

To be fair, there are good, committed people running these programs who do care about very much about them. I know, like, and respect the folks I've met over the years. Many masters programs are wonderful processes for their students. But they are seen as red-headed stepchildren by their institutions who consider them cash cows and their students -- some of whom are the best, most interesting folks it has ever been my privilege to share a classroom with, but others who see them as nothing but stepping stones and who resented the idea that this is "real school" -- as just an ATM.

All of this is part of the "No Child Left Behind" mentality where education is a product. We see it as certification, not as education. It is about getting a degree, which makes each class something to get out of the way, not as an opportunity to grow. Some of the best experiences I've had in the classroom were teaching non-credit classes where the people were there for the sole purpose of being intellectually excited. Sadly, I didn't see that as much on the credit side of the house (and to be honest, all too often see it here in the undergrad world) where the end is merely materialistic and not intellectual.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


So, in the attempt to derail health care reform, GOP chairman Michale Steele had this to say,

"You're journalists. You scrutinize this stuff. You mean you're sitting here and telling me that this is not unprecedented? That even you aren't shocked at the degree to which this Administration is bringing the government not just into our lives, but into the very relationship between the doctor and the patient?

Between the patient and his insurance company?

Between the insurance company and the market?

This is unprecedented government intrusion into the private sector. Period."
The relationship between the patient and his insurance company? Really? I mean isn't that like fretting about putting government paid law enforcement between a victim and his mugger?

It brought to mind something discussed here at the Playground about a year and a half ago.

Based on purely anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that an unexpectedly large number of claims are wrongly rejected because of problems with the paperwork, whether its a wrong code, the wrong person listed as the policy holder, a data entry error or any number of other missteps somewhere between the doctors office and the insurance company.

The rejections are often the result of a human error somewhere along the way and if one is diligent in working through the intimidating looking form full of seemingly meaningless numerical codes, the mistake can be found. Then, if you have the time, patience, and sheer force of will to negotiate the phone tree and call back a couple of times until you get someone at the insurance company who will work with you and not merely dismiss you, you can get it sorted out. TheWife has become an expert in negotiating these shark infested waters.
The question was whether the complexity of the health insurance system was being used by health care insurerers to bilk customers out of more money by not paying claims, fully or at all, that they are obligated to pay because virtually no customer could understand what was happening or have the stamina or spare time to get it appropriately resolved.

Is there anyone who has not had this happen to them? In light of that, is it really a good strategy to raise the relation of a patient and his insurance company? Am I mistaken or is that relationship not universally seen as adversarial?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bullshit or Not: Marshall McLuhan Edition

Today would be Marschall McLuhan's 97th birthday, a perfect time to go to "bullshit or not."

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

From Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man:

"Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavors. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness. When all production and all consumption are brought into a preestablished harmony with all desire and all effort, then advertising will have liquidated itself by its own success"
McLuhan was writing before television had hundreds of niche channels, thousands of slimly tailored blogs could connected on-line communities across the world, and cookies on your computer could allow pinpoint marketing.

Have the new media shaped the advertisers' messages? Is McLuhan's insight here still meaningful or was it tied to his context?

As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word response to a dissertation. So, bullshit or not? You decide.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Irony Can Be So Ironic

The British definition of irony is "the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning," whereas the American definition is "the property of being like iron." Either way, irony can be so ironic.

Last week Amazon remotely deleted editions of George Orwell's 1984 from the kindles of folks who had purchased them.

On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm,” that were dropped down the memory hole — by In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.
In these electronic times, this feels like personal betrayal. We order from Amazon as often as we e-mail our siblings. Amazon has become something akin to a member of the family, you know, like a big brother to us all.

So, let me see if I understand the Sotomayer hearings properly...We have the first African-American President, raised by a single mother who would get him up at 4 in the morning to get extra time in on his school work which allowed him to go to Columbia and Harvard Law, nominating the first Latina for the High Court, who came from poverty in the projects of the Bronx with parents who so stressed education that her brother became a physician and she went to Yale Law before becoming a federal judge, only to have less intelligent, less qualified, rich white guys complain that her appointment shows the problems with affirmative action.

Just a week after the death of Oscar Mayer (brothers and sisters, our beloved departed had a first name, it was O-S-C-A-R,...), the Wienermobile crashes into the side of a house. I've heard that geese mate for life and when one dies, the other is not long for this world. But please, Wienermobile, try to be strong. None of us relish the idea of going it alone and your beloved Mr. Mayer faced life with all the verve he could have mustard. But this self-destructive behavior may catsup with you the next time because the insurance company may not be around to pull your buns out of the fire.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Feast of Saint Miltie

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Miltie on what would have been Milton Berle's 101st birthday. He had one of the longest and most influential careers in 20th century comedy. Beginning as a child actor in silent films, he grew into a successful stand-up who made the jump to radio. But it was when Texaco Star Theater made the move to television, that Uncle Miltie became the first televised superstar.

Berle was successful as a physical, visual comic, appearing outrageous, often dressed in drag. He was big and the only place you didn't want to be on a Tuesday night was between Uncle Miltie and the camera. Berle was all about Berle. it didn't matter who the guest was -- and they all wanted to be on -- you didn't upstage him, he upstaged you. But it worked. The stories are legion about restaurants closing and mass numbers of toilets flushing around his show. He was Tuesday night and television sales skyrocketed because everyone wanted to see his show at home.

Berle was also famous for his book. Every comedian keeps a book, a list of jokes they've written and collected over the years. Berle's book -- like a certain part of his anatomy -- was rumored to be the biggest in the business. But his "writing" often violated the first commandment of comedy, "Thou shalt not steal." Berle was well-known in the comedy world for acquiring other comedians' material. Jack Benny famously said that it wasn't stealing to take a joke from Berle, it was repossessing.

Here's one from the Texaco Star Theater with Basil Rathbone and Berle's longtime sidekick Arnold Stang.

Milton Berle, who said,

I'd rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are; because a could-be is a maybe who is reaching for a star. I'd rather be a has-been than a might-have-been, by far; for a might have-been has never been, but a has was once an are.
Happy birthday Uncle Miltie.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Effects of Professional Philosophers

Peter Singer has another op/ed in the New York Times Magazine, this one on health care. A colleague asked me a while back if there was a philosopher still living who has had any effect on contemporary popular American discourse. Peter Singer's work on the treatment of animals was the only one I could think of. Anyone I am missing?

On a related note, Hilzoy is leaving the blogosphere. She will be missed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why Do You Know That?

Let's go to the well one more time. It's the converse of "auto mechanics to quantum mechanics," where the idea now is to contribute those bits of knowledge that seem really cool even if they are not directly applicable to anything.

Mine for this week:

One to stir up the Moxy Fruvous fans out there: Delaware is the state with the second lowest highest point, Ebright Azimuth, at 442 feet above sea level. Florida has the lowest highest point, Britton Hill, which reaches 345 feet above sea level.

Charles Darwin's wife used to make fun of the overuse of commas in his writing.

The original name for the game lacrosse is "bagataway," an Ojibway word, although the game was also played by the Mohawk. The goals were about a mile apart and 100 yards wide.
So, what do you know and why do you know it?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

France and the US

It seems like Bastille Day is a good time to think about our relationship with France.

On the one hand, it is odd that we would not be more Francophilic given that we most likely would not have a country without them. The French were instrumental in our revolution in terms of money, troops, and training. The French and the British were enemies and seeing the colonies break away would not only embarrass the British, but cost them gold and soldiers they then could not use elsewhere. The United States was to a degree a French proxy and we owe them a large debt. That is why major figures like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were the first American ambassadors to France. It was our most important international connection.

But perhaps this is part of the reason why we are hesitant about embracing France. The American mythology has a ragtag, underequipped band of militia men defeating the world's most powerful military because they devised the brilliant ideas of hiding behind trees and not marching in a straight line. Why don't we scoff at this absurdity? Is it because it plays to the American ideals of self-reliance and strength in avoiding the prim etiquette of the British?

There have been times when all things French were in style. It is not an accident that the historically best selling American car is called "Chevrolet" and that Julia Child was a fixture on television for decades. France is equated with culture in our collective consciousness and Americans have an awkward relationship with culture. On the one hand, we aspire to it, but there is also the deep cultural insecurity that we discussed last week. French goods are often seen as overrefined, signs of puffery, form being put before function and thereby an affront to the more pragmatic Yankee sensibility. MacGyver would never be a French hero.

But then there are more recent issues. The need to intervene on their behalf in both World Wars, especially in light of the rapidity of the Nazi success in the second after which they were deemed insufficiently grateful. Their position as an independent minded ally in the Cold War when we saw the US as team captain and the French as the pitcher who kept shaking off our signs for a fastball. Their pushing back over the invasion of Iraq leading to the wonderfully mature relabelling of "freedom fries." (Maybe for today, we ought to revert to that, only now calling them "liberte egalite fraternite fries.")

What is the reason for the odd American ambivalence towards the French?

Monday, July 13, 2009

What Is Coaching?

The Baltimore Orioles' manager Dave Trembley is serving a two-game suspension and paying a fine for coaching after being ejected from a game. In a game against the Seattle Mariners, the umps blew a call and the usually mild-manner skipper was thrown out of the game for arguing with the home plate ump. He went back to the clubhouse and during the next inning, the team's big slugger and designated hitter walked back to commiserate with his coach whom he thought was right all along. Trembley looked up and replied, "Get me a couple." For that comment, he was removed for two days.

Was it coaching? If the manager's job is to plan strategy and make moves, then surely it was completely innocuous to tell the team's biggest hitter to do the job he knows he is on the team to do. If he told Scott that because of the shift they were playing, he should surprise them with a bunt, thgen, yes, that would be clearly a case of coaching. But here, he was seemingly just trying to verbally accept the care that was being shown for him by one of his players and his comment in no way contained any information that would lead Scott to play any differently than he would have before.

One could argue that a coach's job is not only strategic and operational, but also motivational. A manager needs to get his players mentally in the game. Getting thrown out for a bad call is often seen as a way to demonstrate real fire in the belly and get the players charged up in the face of adversity. In this way, this comment could be a part of the manager's job and therefore something unacceptable.

In terms of the letter of the law, the line is drawn at contact to make sure that ejected managers don't take advantage. This is like tennis in which the no coaching rule frowns on a player on the court and his coach even having extended eye contact or a head nod. But it does raise the more interesting question here, what is coaching and would "Get me a couple" be counted under the best explication?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Passing the Plate: Take My Wife...Please Edition

My Fellow Comedists,

It is time to pass the plate again. Other religions ask you to donate money, but in Comedism we tithe jokes. So, dig deep and give to the worthiest of causes. In honor of TheWife's and my anniversary, let's do marriage jokes this week. Wedding, marriage, mother-in-law, divorce jokes, all fair game.

Some classics:

Groucho -- "Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?

Rita Rudner -- "Men who wear earrings are particularly well-suited to marriage; they've bought jewelery and experienced pain."

Rodney Dangerfield -- "My wife likes to talk to me during sex. I wouldn't mind so much, but the long-distance bills are killing me."

Phyllis Diller -- "Marry a man your own age - as your beauty fades, so will his eyesight."

Henny Youngman -- "Why do Jewish men die before their wives? They want to."

Joan Rivers -- "The one thing women don't want to find in their stockings on Christmas morning is their husband."

Johnny Carson -- "I know you've been married to the same woman for 69 years. That is marvelous. It must be very inexpensive."

What are your favorites?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, July 10, 2009

Menopause, Middle Aged Men, and Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Today is my 10th wedding anniversary (interestingly, it is also TheWife's 10th anniversary, so we decided to celebrate together). What more awkward time could there possibly be to consider Maha Barbara's post "Hormonal Rages" that considers the Sanford affair and the many like it?

I realize that anecdotes are not data. However, I have never personally met a woman of menopausal age — and I’m past that point myself — who who blew off her life because of hot flashes. But I’ve known, and have known of, a number of men aged 45-60 whose lives crashed and burned because of an affair. In some cases they didn’t just throw away their marriages; they also lost jobs and wrecked careers. Relationships with children, friends and other family members were irreparably strained or even severed.

Yes, I’m sure there are examples of older women who behaved just as foolishly, but it seems to be much less common. We women tend to go through our self-destruct phase when we’re much younger.

I remember one of my former college professors who left a wife, two children, and a tenured college faculty position to run off with a student, who then dumped him a few months later. Another academic of my acquaintance burned a plum position at a prestigious university and years of hard-won professional contacts when he left his wife for a student. A man I used to call a good friend lost every one of his friends after he abruptly left his wife (also a good friend) for a younger woman. Yes, the younger women were involved in the affairs, too, but they had nothing to lose.

Think about all the well-known politicians who either wrecked their careers or compromised their offices because they got caught messing around. What’s often remarkable to me is how reckless their behavior can be when so much is at stake in their lives, their ambitions, their work. In some cases they aren’t just taking chances with their own lives; they are taking chances with their countries. Yet they can’t seem to help themselves.
One explanation for this comes from Christine Northrop's The Wisdom of Menopause in which she contends that there is a reason why it is a time when many, many marriages go through this sort rockiness.

She argues that menopausal women are misunderstood, that it is not a period of irrationality, but actually a time of empowerment for women. The kids are no longer in need of constant care, there's a sense that life is now theirs to live. Screw the constant primping to impress men, there's a comfort with the new body and the old self. Longstanding desires that had been put on the back burner and new ideas about what to do with yourself become live options. During menopause women catch a second wind. But physically, the body change comes with a decrease in physicality that coincides with a sense that it is time for them to take care of themselves and not to take care of their spouse like his mommy any longer.

At the same time, men are going through their own changes. We are a culture that defines masculinity in terms of (a) virility and youth, and (b) bread-winner status. Men get older and suddenly the six pack abs turn into twelve pack flabs. The hair is going and certain parts don't quite do what they used to do anymore. At the same time, they think about retirement and the loss of the professional identity that they had formed over decades. No longer seeing themselves as the young, rising go-getter at work, they envision a life of leisure getting served in the way they've grown accustomed. And then they don't. Their sense of self as a man is undermined from multiple directions. How to get it back? Sexual interest from a young woman who is willing to dote on him does the trick. It makes him feel like he is still himself, like he is valuable in cultural terms again. As a result, one often sees menopause and marital strife and/or divorce coinciding.

Of course, there is a difference between an explanation and an excuse. The point here is not to say, "poor old guys, what victims," and let them off the hook for their indiscretions. Infidelity is wrong, period. But Barbara is right that there is a gender thing happening here, something conditioned by both biology and culture, something that might have an explanation.

I probably should mention that I proposed to Thewife in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia while we were hiking the Appalachian Trail -- literally, that is, we were hiking the Appalachian Trail, not "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in the Governor Sanford sense of the term...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Social Facts and the Media

Jonathan Verson of Dead Horse and Hugo Zoom made some interesting points about my claim that class-based insecurity was a motive force in contemporary American culture. (His post is titled "Security State," a double entendre that gets him instant credibility here at the Playground.) He makes two points that I think are worth playing with.

The first is a point TheWife also made when she and I discussed the idea behind this post last week. He argues,

"I think there's a bit more to it than that, since this is, to an extent, one of those "people are so X because of Y" arguments, when in fact our society is increasingly less homogeneous and that argument, irrespective of the particulars you replace X and Y with, gets increasingly harder to make."
The point here is that my claim is too broad to be true or meaningful (pick a strength), society is more complicated and when you talk about individuals there is so much variability, that social generalizations of this sort are bound to miss the mark.

I see my claim coming out of the tradition of Emile Durkheim who argues that there are social facts concerning individual behaviors that are as, if not more important than biographical/psychological facts about the individual. He argues in his book Suicide, that even this most personal of acts which no doubt every individual who attempted or succeeded undertook for his or her own reasons that were tied to his or own individual life context is conditioned by sociological factors. He considers religion and shows that suicide rates were significantly higher in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries and in countries with mixed populations, Protestants were much more likely than Catholics to take their own lives. Surely, there is a causal mechanism here related to something in the institutions, power structures, and foundational beliefs within the group that played a role.

Verson, like theWife, is arguing, if I get him right, that while Durkheim might have had something, he was dealing with much more homogeneous societies; so even if there are operative social forces, the complexity of contemporary American society makes simple claims like mine oversimplifying.

To some degree this is correct. There are places where I make the claim in a fashion that is stronger than I am entitled to. But, I do think the underlying argument is cogent. While we are a heterogeneous society, we are also a starkly polarized one, especially after the overt political intents of the last administration where the strategy was to try to do away with the political center and create a radical cleave in the population with the belief that conservative voters are more likely to turn out on election day than those constituencies that traditionally vote Democratic. Rove's strategy when combined with Luntz's wordsmithing worked. We have become a culture divided and there are, I think, definite differences in the basic stance towards life and society that are shared on either side of the divide.

There is a reason why "elite" has become a four-letter word for a significant part of the country and a goal for the other. Working class conservatives bristle at anything branded that way while at the same time middle-class parents try to send their kids to everything from pre-school through college at an institution so labeled as elite. To play David Brooks here, upper middle class families tend to prefer the more nutritious and sophisticated leafy greens like arugula where such snubbing of the flavorless iceberg variety is used as evidence of being out of touch for those in a different socio-economic place. Why does that work? Insecurity seems the best explanation. Ever been to a dinner that a bit fancier than you are used to? Feel insecure? You betcha.

My daughter was incensed when a member of my son's little league team scoffed at soccer "Who plays THAT?" Where I live (an extremely conservative working class part of Maryland), boys play football and girls cheer for boys playing football. The contact makes you a man in their eyes. It makes you base, common to the more well off where soccer is the sport, in part because it shows a worldliness, a cosmopolitanism. Football, on the other hand, is purely American and not only has the macho factor, but a provincial pull in line with the knee-jerk "we're number 1," "America: right or wrong" type attitude that comes with the nationalistic aspect of conservatism as opposed to the internationalist impulse of the liberal point of view. There is a reason why you find Indian, Thai, and Ethiopian restaurants in certain places and KFCs and McDonalds in others. Italian, Chinese, and Mexican foods have become safe, but beyond that is to be elite.

Are these generalizations overgeneralizations? I don't think so, but there's question one for everyone.

The second interesting point Verson makes is that where such homogeneity does exist, it may be artificially stoked by the media.
"it would be interesting to explore the ways that popular media reinforces our more reactionary traits and deliberately avoids discussing contrasting qualities we have."
Chicken or egg? Are these divisions here beforehand and then played to by the media, are they small rips in the pantyhose of society that the media turns into large runs, or are they created by them whole cloth for the purposes of marketing and/or pleasing certain powerful constituencies?

Hmmmm. Good stuff.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

In Praise of Mulberries

Last night, after watering the garden, I laid down in the hammock for a few minutes and then wandered down to the mulberry trees for a little dessert. We're in peak mulberry season and we have four trees that produce copiously. One, in particular, has the tastiest berries of them all and I worked my way up one delightful branch. It is the perfect blend of sweet and tang, just the most delicious berry I've ever tasted -- I loves me all kinds of berries.

The thing is that you'll never buy them in a store. We have friends who have an organic farm about 25 minutes away and every year we help them harvest their blueberries. After a long day of picking we get a percentage for our freezer, which we save for frostier times of year when fresh berries are usually just an unsatisfied longing.

Last year, as we're picking and chatting about varietals and watering and what grows well where, TheWife asked why we don't see mulberries for sale given how wonderful they are. Our hosts just laughed. A few years back, they had a student working an internship on their farm to learn about organic growing practices and when he found a mulberry tree along their long, dirt driveway, he too fell in love with the fruit. He decided that he would pick and sell them at the farmers' market in DC where our friends sell their produce on weekends.

He tried. He failed. The berries just won't last off the tree long enough to get to market. They got mushy and lost their tang. It made me realize how thin of a slice of what grows that we get because our choices are dictated by that market. Fruit is apples, oranges, and bananas; maybe a peach and a plum occasionally. But how much are we missing?

I'd tried carambola before, I thought it tasted like a bland cross between a grape and an apple. Then I tried one at a little fruit stand outside of Everglades National Park ('Robert Is Here' if you are ever in south Florida). Mind blown. Again, what a shame it is that we experience food so badly.

When you think about what school cafeterias did to vegetables or even what comes out of cans, is it any wonder children won't eat them. To be honest, I wouldn't either. The only flavors Americans will tolerate are bland and sweet. It is not only sad, but a big part of the reason we have the obesity epidemic (here's an amazing animated map from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showing how obesity levels have changes across the country since 1985).

What can we do to change the way we experience what we eat?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Right and True and the Way We Educate Our Kids

I'm reading Strawson's Introduction to Logical Theory and in a footnote in the first chapter, he draws a distinction between a student giving a correct answer and giving a true answer. The point brought to mind a conversation I was a part of over the weekend. It was a party and a student who was a part of my first experience teaching critical thinking to Montessori middle school students was reporting the details of her first year in a normal high school. She said that her English teacher would make fun of her former educational institution calling it "that hippie school." Apparently neither he nor any of her classmates could understand how any learning took place in a school that did not give quizzes, exams, or grades. "Why does anyone do any work?" they all asked quite honestly. She gave as best she could the answer of a fifteen year old about acculturation and learning to learn. But it is truly unbelievable how the reward and punishment regime used to make sure that no one gets away with anything undermines and destroys the will to learn. What became clear is that for them, education was not about finding the true answers to questions, but all about finding the right answers to question. Grades are not markers of progress in an independent learning process, but have become the raison d'etre for the process. We work for a meaningless grade, imbuing it with ultimate meaning so that we can do it again at a "good" college, so that we can get a meaningless job to earn a paycheck that allows us the meaningless material symbols that we imbue with ultimate meaning. We don't need "No Child Left Behind," we need therapy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Dalai Lama, Religion, and Science

Today is the Dalai Lama's birthday, so let's play with a couple of exchanges he had with Carl Sagan.

Here is a recollection Sagan had of a brief bit of a day-long conversation the two shared in 1991: theological discussions with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. When I put this question to the Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change. Even, I asked, if it's a really central tenet, like (I searched for an example) reincarnation? Even then, he answered. However, he added with a twinkle - it's going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.
So the Dalai Lama's view is that religion must change when science changes. Is this the case? Are religious and scientific beliefs interconnected or are they separate, religion dealing with supernatural and science with the natural world?

One could say that Buddhism is not a religion. The Dalai Lama himself seems to say this in another part of the conversation,
"Even the Buddha said we should question his teachings. A scientifically minded Buddhist does not consider Buddhism a religion. It is a science of mind, an inner science."
This seems different from Galileo's idea expressed in his letter to the Grand Dutchess Christina in which he argues that religion has nothing to fear from science. If reveled truth is truth, then it must be consistent with whatever science discovers.
And in St. Augustine we read:

"If' anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there."

This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us. Now the Bible, as has been remarked, admits in many places expositions that are remote from the signification of the words for reasons we have already given. Moreover, we are unable to affirm that all interpreters of the Bible speak by Divine inspiration for if that were so there would exist no differences among them about the sense of a given passage. Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know."
Here, Galileo argues that all that needs to change are interpretations, is this different from the Dalai Lama's claim that the religion itself must change? Are religious beliefs interpretations that are open to empirical refutation?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Pass the Plate: American Style

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we celebrate the 4th of July, so this makes for a good time to pass the plate. Other religions ask that you contribute money, but in Comedism, we tithe jokes. This time, it'll be jokes about any part of America.

Here are my contributions:

From my routine: I love to play the license plate game. Do you do this on long trips? You know, see how many different states you can find. It's educational. Even the colors tell you so much about a state. Texas: red, white, and blue. Alabama: red, white, and blue. North Carolina: red, white, and blue. New Jersey: yellow, the exact shade of urine. Vermont, hippie central, Ben and Jerry's country: green, the kind of green where you figure to pick up your plates, you don't go to the DMV, but to the parking lot behind it where some guy in a van who gives them to you in a ziplock baggie. There's a new plate from South Carolina, a Strom Thurmond memorial plate, it's all white with eye holes cut out.

How do you know the toothbrush was invented in West Virginia?
If it was invented anywhere else, it would be called the teethbrush.

Red Skelton: You think New York is bad, you ought to go to Detroit. You can go ten blocks and never leave the scene of the crime.

From Carson: Last night, it was so cold the flashers in New York were only describing themselves.

A Texan, a Californian, and a Nevadan were out riding their horses.

The Texan pulled out an expensive bottle of whiskey, took a long draught, then another, and then suddenly threw it into the air, pulled out his gun and shot the bottle in midair.

The Californian looked at the Texan and said, "What are you doing? That was a perfectly good bottle of whiskey!! The Texan replied, "In Texas, there's plenty of whiskey and bottles are cheap.

A while later, not wanted to be outdone, the Californian pulled out a bottle of champagne, took a few sips, threw the half full champagne bottle into the air, pulled out his gun, and shot it in midair.

The Nevadan couldn't believe this and said "What the heck did you that for? That was an expensive bottle of champagne!! The Californian replied, "In California there is plenty of champagne and bottles are cheap."

A while later, the Nevadan pulled out a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He opened it, took a sip, took another sip, then chugged the rest. He then put the bottle back in his saddlebag, pulled out his gun, turned, and shot the Californian.

The shocked Texan said "Why in the hell did you do that?"

The Nevadan replied, "Well, in Nevada we have plenty of Californians and bottles are worth a nickel."

So, friends, dig deep and give us your best.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, July 03, 2009

Team Building: Boggleball

Let's try this again. It's based on those obnoxious corporate team-building exercises where folks have to work together on a task.

Last night after dinner, TheWife and the short people and I took the word "basketball" and found 101 words that could be made by rearranging the letters. Plurals are allowed, but proper nouns are not. Leave words in the comments and see if the collective mind can top us.

Here's the rule, no one can leave more than seven words, but you can leave hints to others provided they are not absurdly transparent.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Groundhog Day and the Right to be a Curmudgeon

A very interesting discussion of the movie Groundhog Day by Vince Manapat.

Everyone likes Groundhog Day. But have we really understood this movie for what it is? As a child, I thought I was watching a story about a man who is given an opportunity to fix everything that is wrong with his life. But when I watched this movie again as I an adult I realized that this perennial family favorite was about something entirely different: the total destruction of an individual identity by an unrelenting and insipid petty bourgeois culture.

In the beginning of the movie, we see a man (Phil Conners) who grants no quarter to all that is phony and spurious in the people around him. For instance, he thinks Larry, his driver, is unintelligent and beneath him, but rather than pretend that he cares for Larry he treats him in such a way that reveals his true feeling. Indeed, this could be said about all of his interactions with other characters: the way he treats people corresponds to the way he feels about them (a cardinal sin in middle class American life). It is harsh but it is also honest. He is intensely critical of other people and he has little enthusiasm for the things that make common people happy. This is how Phil has chosen to live, and his adherence to this way of life is an endorsement of it. It is a legitimate and even laudable way to live one’s life, but alas, it cannot always survive in environments hostile to it.
The rest is well worth the read, but the crucial point is that there are differences between the characters of Phil Connors and Ebenezer Scrooge. Groundhog Day is clearly an updated version of A Christmas Carol, but where Scrooge was not merely curmudgeonly, but malicious in his treatment of his employee and those around him, Larry is merely distastefully arrogant and blunt.

Vince's question can be re-asked as do we have a right to be a curmudgeon? Sure, it's nice to be sunny and helpful, but do we have to be? he was not much fun to be around, but he wasn't harming anyone? It wasn't a crime of behavior of of will, he did not wish well for others. But do we have to?