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Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Dutchman Views World History

The text-books of ancient History give the date 476 as the year in which Rome fell, because in that year the last emperor was driven off his throne. But Rome, which was not built in a day, took a long time falling. The process was so slow and so gradual that most Romans did not realize how their old world was coming to an end. They complained about the unrest of the times—they grumbled about the high prices of food and about the low wages of the workmen—they cursed the profiteers who had a monopoly of the grain and the wood and the gold coin. Occasionally they rebelled against an unusually rapacious governor. But the majority of the people during the first four centuries of our era ate and drank (whatever their purse allowed them to buy) and hated or loved (according to their nature) and went to the theatre (whenever there was a free show of fighting gladiators) or starved in the slums of the big cities, utterly ignorant of the fact that their empire had outlived its usefulness and was doomed to perish.

- Hendrik Van Loon, The Story of Mankind (Boni & Liveright, 1921)

Hendrik William Van Loon (1882-1944) wrote The Story of Mankind for young people and illustrated it generously with his own simple drawings and maps. It received, in 1922, the first Newbery prize ever awarded. The copy I’m reading is a first edition (but without the dust jacket, so I am pricing it accordingly), but very inexpensive copies of the book, even small pocket paperbacks (this adult edition omitted the illustrations), are widely available. It was that popular.

It was 1993 before I discovered Van Loon, happening upon a copy of his Geography at a yard sale and being enchanted by the illustrations. Soon afterward I came to know Lives, the wonderfully inventive series of stories written about an imaginary series of dinners, given by two Dutchmen so determined to have interesting guests that they decide not to limit themselves to living persons. Their first guest is Erasmus. Another I remember fondly is Descartes. Sometimes they invite more than one historical personage at a time, and I have always wondered if this book was the inspiration for the old (very old) Steve Allen television show, with its “appearances” of characters from history and literature.

The Arts is another enchanting Van Loon contribution, detailing the history of various arts from the beginning of mankind. It is another look at the “story of mankind” from a different angle, with a more specific focus (and leaving out a lot of field generals and battles).

I should warn that The Story of Mankind is decidedly (and disappointingly) Eurocentric. Native American tribes are shown on a map of the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes but not otherwise mentioned. There is a very brief chapter on Buddha and Confucius but no detailing of Asian civilizations. Van Loon’s picture of world history is very much a story of Europe taking over the world, and he says as much. One wonders what he would say were he alive today.

For all of Europe’s world “victories,” however, the author does not close with “They all lived happily ever after,” and I suspect he may have had somewhat the tragic sense of history possessed by Michigan’s Civil War historian Bruce Catton. Almost at the end of the book, Van Loon mentions “problems” in the world and the need for apprentices for future leadership. He does not say under whom the apprentices would learn.

He then closes with a lengthy quotation from “a very great Frenchman.”
The more I think of the problems of our lives, the more I am persuaded that we ought to choose Irony and Pity for our assessors and judges as the ancient Egyptians called upon the Goddess Isis and the Goddess Nephtys on behalf of their dead.

Irony and Pity are both of good counsel; the first with her smiles makes life agreeable; the other sanctifies it with her tears.

The Irony which I invoke is no cruel Deity. She mocks neither love nor beauty. She is gentle and kindly disposed. Her mirth disarms and it is she who teaches us to laugh at rogues and fools, whom but for her we might be so weak as to despise and hate.

Can anyone identify the “great Frenchman” who penned these words? At the end of his book of world history, what do these words tell you about Van Loon’s view of the world?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Late Great State of Michigan

Maybe this story has passed you by, but if you live in Michigan, you need to get up to speed. Folks in other states, you should also take heed, because you could be next.

Except for Rachel Maddow, most reporters have either ignored this nightmare or focused only on parts of it, such as the threat to collective bargaining, leaving basic issues untouched. Finally, however, a voice of reason from Traverse City has called the new law by its rightful name, so if you’re anywhere in northern Michigan, pick up the current copy of Northern Express and read Stephen Tuttle’s take on Michigan’s newest and possible worst law in history. Bless Steve’s heart! Tuttle gets to the heart of the matter. This is indeed, as he calls it, a coup d’├ętat, taking power away not only from voting, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens but also from their local elected officials. Government is not a corporation, should not be run like a corporation, and should not be run by corporations, but the people of Michigan may be waking up too late on this one.

The hostile take-over didn’t happen overnight. The question is, can it be turned around? And if so, how? Our State Supreme Court has long been on the side of monied interests, and I don’t look to them to see the unconstitutionality of this law. The problem with Michigan’s Supreme Court go way beyond which party is in power, too. Partisanship and favor-owing are the problem.

If you can’t get your hands on an Express, here’s another quick overview of the story on the new Michigan law. And for those with time and interest, here’s the Michigan House bill passed February 23 that led to the new law.

(My attempts to access Public Acts 4 and 7, created by these house bills, “did not return a result.” The search engine speculates that the act may be too new to have been added into the database as yet. What do you suppose is the holdup?)

When is your local government in trouble with the state? Read Section 12 carefully, noting that only one (1) of the triggering difficulties need be present for the state to review. The diagnosis is then “probable financial stress,” and if you’re stressed, obviously someone else needs to step in. Forget elections, forget self-governance. What are the powers of the Emergency Manager? See Section 19.

So far, most of the reporting on Michigan’s new law has focused on the danger to collective bargaining rights. There’s a hell of a lot more at stake. Is it “paranoia” to be worried?

(1) “He doesn’t mean us. He means Detroit.” Law is law, friends. It doesn’t name names, and it applies across the board. No exceptions. If we wait to worry until the review lands on our doorstep, we deserve what we get.

(2) “He just wants to motivate towns and school districts to get their acts together, and if they do that they don’t need to worry.” Budget cuts at the state level will have effects at the local level. A town or school district may not be financially stressed at the moment, but—look out! The floor could drop out from under us tomorrow.

(3) “Crisis calls for crisis management.” When a crisis is over, the law will still be in place, and the governor’s budget priorities will still have a great deal to do with who the sacrificial lambs will be. Getting rid of an Emergency Financial Manager once one has been put in place may turn out to be next to impossible

(4) “He only wants what’s best for Michigan.” So you would trust to the benevolence of someone with dictatorial powers, trust that person to be “on your side”? How many people in Third World countries have tried that?

We're supposed to govern ourselves. Or is that too hard? Would we rather close our eyes and be led backwards? Just so it would be clear where to point the finger of blame?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Viktor E. Frankl: On the “Meaning of Life”

I doubt whether a doctor [Frankl was a psychotherapist] can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

...Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Rediscovering this book means a lot to me. I am weary of fiction and film and personal conversations doing their best to persuade me of life’s meaninglessness. I’m tired of cynicism, irony, satire and kitschy nostalgia. A sense of humor is indispensable, but I can do with a bare minimum of ridicule.

As for the Big Question, the one that begins to plague us in adolescence, the Meaning of Life—. If death renders life meaningless, then, since we will all die, life has no meaning for anyone. But if temporary life has no meaning, neither would endless life, since nothing qualitative would have been added. So that line of inquiry heads nowhere.

Frankl turns the question on its head: It is not for us to question life but life that continually questions us. What will you do? How will you respond? Where are you going? I find refreshing Frankl’s denial that meaning can be found only within oneself. No, he says, it is the opposite, and “self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence.”

Meaning is in the ways we respond to what life hands us. No one can give it to anyone else in a sentence. Really, how else would you have arranged the world?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Northern News of Snow and Books

Sun on a metal roof causes the snow to begin to slide. When it freezes, caught at the edge, this is what you get.

In the morning, still frozen mid-fall, snow and ice from the roof frame the dawn of another cold, sunny day.

Here at the bookstore on a cold, Sunny Saturday, light reflecting from a windshield in front of the store took words from my window signage and threw them appropriately onto the correct wall. Can you see it?

There's big excitement in the future (rapidly approaching) for Dog Ears Books. In case you haven’t noticed my announcement in green over there in the right-hand column, a couple important bits of news are author events starring Ellen Airgood on June 17 and Loreen Niewenhuis on July 26. I’ll have more to say about these events as spring unrolls, but mark your calendars now. Ellen’s visit is on a Friday, and her book party, the Leelanau Launch (!) of South of Superior, will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Loreen’s later summer Tuesday in Northport will begin with an hour at Dog Ears Books, from 4 to 5 p.m., and continue with a slide show and talk at the Leelanau Township Library on 7:30. Signed copies of A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach are already available at the bookstore now, so you don’t have to wait until summer to read about Loreen’s adventure, but I’m hoping to have good crowds for both of these talented Michigan writers when they come to Northport.

For right now, the chicken books are in! Chickens, bees, gardens! Plus all kinds of bargain-priced “new” used books on all manner of subjects, so what are you waiting for? Come on down, and let’s compare notes on our winter reading, shall we? We're open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 4.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Do You Call Yourself a Liberal? Here's a Book You Should Not Miss

Yes, it snowed! Wednesday was a snow day all over Leelanau County, with an accumulation of well over a foot between bedtime on Tuesday and noon on Wednesday. It was good to stay home doing laundry, baking brownies, reading and writing and watching to see if the plow had come yet. I'm starting this post with the weather news because the title of my last seemed to promise an image and then didn't include one. These pictures are from Wednesday at home (above) and Thursday in Northport (below).

But now, on to the book of the day.

The liberal church, the press, universities, culture, labor and the Democratic Party have all failed us, says Chris Hedges. These institutions continue to speak in the rhetoric of liberal values but have sold out to--and now act in--alliances that have turned them into collaborators with the corporate state and the enemies of liberal values. The strength of Chris Hedges’s Death of the Liberal Class (NY: Nation Books, 2010) is in the evidence he puts forth and the fearless conclusions he draws from that evidence. The weakness is his tendency to reiterate, at unnecessary length, claim statements emphasizing blame and predicting further disasters. I found his argument convincing but suspect that many, some of whom might otherwise have been convinced, will dismiss his book because the author’s passion leads him to go on and on and on.

That’s a very general assessment. On the technical side, there is a problem with the index, obviously constructed before the final version of the text. For example, a reader sent to page 16 by the index must look to page 15 for the desired content. Very annoying.

The foregoing caveats are not to keep you away from the book, only to warn you that you shouldn’t look for a “smooth ride.” Nor is it escape reading. If, however, you care about the future of your country and the world and are not afraid to have your most cherished liberal beliefs challenged, Death of the Liberal Class is must reading.

When Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA, I started having serious doubts, but I was only disappointed in Clinton, not in the Democratic Party. It didn't occur to me to be disappointed in the party--and what alternative was there for anyone who believes in a role for government? When John Kerry lost, I tried to think it might be for the best, since he would have inherited an impossible situation. Better, I thought, to let Bush flounder for another four years until it’s obvious that a party pushing him to the White House doesn’t deserve to stay there. So then, yes, I was hopeful with Barack Obama—voted for him, was thrilled that he won the election, felt pride in my country. Now? Well, you?

Do you wonder about the eclipse of Ralph Nader, and do you think he brought it on himself? What do you think of “free trade” agreements, sold to us on trust with the specious argument that “globalization is inevitable”? (Death is inevitable, I kept reminding people who gave me that reply, but does that mean we should commit suicide today?) Do you feel that loving your country requires you to give allegiance to a foreign policy of permanent warfare? If you were raised as a Christian, does present-day Christianity seem strangely different from what you remember as a child? Can you think of a single arena of American life that has not been invaded by corporate culture?

Colleges and universities are run on a “business” model, more and more prisons and military roles “privatized,” and who thinks even to question these days the idea that hospitals should be run for profit? The churches with the fastest-growing congregations are the ones preaching the gospel of money, the idea that God wants you to be rich. Hedges began with an investigation into print media, the publishing world, but when his first publisher (Knopf) objected to some of the author’s “negative” views, he took his book elsewhere and expanded it to cover pretty much all of American life and the ways that liberalism has been watered down by liberals themselves so that it can no longer oppose the erosion of liberal values.

Here are some glimpses into the book, which I hope you will buy and read in its entirety.
The tragedy of the liberal class and the institutions it controls is that it succumbed to opportunism and finally to fear. It abrogated its moral role. It did not defy corporate abuse when it had the chance. It exiled those within its ranks who did. And the defanging of the liberal class not only removed all barriers to neofeudalism and corporate abuse but also insured that the liberal class will, in its turn, be swept aside.
p. 139

The mechanisms of control, which usually work to maintain a high level of fear among the populace, have produced, despite these admissions of failure [banking crises], the “patriotic” citizen, plagued by job losses, bankrupted by medical bills, foreclosed on his or her house, and worried about possible terrorist attacks. In this historical vacuum, the “patriotic” citizen clings to the privilege of being a patriot....
p. 154

For an introduction to the book from the author himself, see this eloquent and compelling video.

The video serves as a preview of the argument presented in the book. I have not presented that argument here. I could not hope to do Hedges justice, and his book deserves attention.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fox in a Snowstorm

The last ice in the harbor (photo on “A Shot in the Light”) was not the last snow of the season. Seasons, anyway, are designated by human beings, not respected by Nature as hard boundaries of behavior, and so we woke this morning to snow falling (blowing sideways) at a rate of one inch per minute, with all schools “for a hundred miles around,” although “around” in this context, on the side of a peninsula, must not be taken literally. It’s all right. We have all the necessities of life, and being snowed in one more time is no tragedy for a pair of foxes. Yes, I am a fox.

No, not the cute little red or grey creature, half-cat, half-dog, but a philosophical bookseller snowed in at home during a spring blizzard. A fox? In what way?

Isaiah Berlin makes the distinction in his well-known essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which takes its title from a fragment of Greek poetry attributed to Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin acknowledges that scholars give different interpretations of the poet’s sentence, but he has no desire to take sides or to give a competing interpretation. His intention is to use the contrast between hedgehog and fox figuratively, in order
to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, more or less coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last live lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

That was a lengthy quotation, I realize, with complicated sentences, but anyone with the patience to read it carefully sees that Berlin’s basic distinction is simple.

Hedgehog: The hedgehog is only interested in capital-T Truth, and that Truth must be unitary and all-encompassing. The hedgehog is, then, a True Believer. Everything must be made to fit into the Truth he has found, and no other perspectives are of any interest to him.

Fox: The fox’s interests are wide-ranging, his curiosity about the world limitless. What does not interest the fox is trying to force all experiences and ideas and bits of knowledge into one over-arching Truth or theory.

Berlin gives some examples of philosophers and writers (any field will yield some of each), and as it should be he tells us that Plato was a hedgehog, Aristotle a fox. Yes! Who on earth could ever love Plato and Aristotle equally? One must choose between them, which is to choose between idol worship and independent curiosity. The focus of the essay, however, is Tolstoy—specifically, Tolstoy as historian, and Berlin’s thesis is that “Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog....” In other words, Tolstoy’s nature (or, we might say, his personality) was in conflict with his beliefs.

Haven’t you known people whose stated beliefs clashed with their nature? Long ago, I had a professor of religion who was the diametrical opposite of Tolstoy, in that he was by nature a hedgehog but believed in being a fox. He avowed very Western European democratic ideals. According to his beliefs, he had us move our desks into a circle at the beginning of each class period. More democratic. According to his beliefs, he assigned each of us a segment of the course material to prepare and present to the rest. His hedgehog nature, however, got the better of him session after session. A student would be only one or two sentences into a presentation—this is not an exaggeration; I kept close track—when the professor would interrupt, take over and deliver a lecture, from his place in the circle, for the rest of the class. It was not that the student had made an error or had not done a good job of preparation, because the professor never waited long enough to find out. He just could not restrain his own nature, and time after time it collided with his beliefs. I watched the dynamic repeatedly, and when my turn came to present material I stood up from my desk and went to the blackboard. My presentation did not require terminology and diagrams on the blackboard, but having a chance to deliver my presentation required that I take a position of authority. Naturally, the professor interrupted me, too. Did you think he wouldn’t? But I interrupted back and continued and managed to present the material more or less as I had planned.

Teachers have several classes a semester of students, so it’s far easier for the students to remember a professor’s name than vice versa. I must admit, though, that meeting the professor on campus that very same semester and speaking to him, after my presentation, I was chagrined that he had no memory of me at all, with or without a name.

That’s one of the problems with hedgehogs, you see. Even when you think you’re having a conversation with one, you are more or less invisible and inaudible. Your presence as another sentient warm body might be noted, and perhaps the hedgehog would observe later that you were, in some vague, general way, either bright or dull, attractive or repulsive, attentive or pig-headed. But your ideas will not be heard as your ideas, if indeed they are heard at all. You will be given no credit for any contributions or insights. The hedgehog has it all figured out, you see. Why should he care what you say or think?

I used to feel sorry for hedgehogs but have learned a few things from encounters with them. They don’t feel sorry for themselves (how could they, when they possess Truth?), so I can save my pity. Also, there is a definite limit to any personal, conversational, philosophical or any other kind of rewards I might hope for when engaging with a hedgehog. Initially, there is a chance to hear someone else’s Truth--always interesting--and many examples or references will probably be given. But then? Since the hedgehog’s Truth is unchanging, there will be nothing more, nothing new. Impasse. Dead end.

The animal hedgehog is adorable, sweet and unaggressive and droll. The human hedgehog is an armed fortress, closed except to other True Believers of the same Truth. Thank you, I would rather run with my fellow foxes, exploring woods, fields and shore, books, blogs, bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, small towns, big cities, the open road--the list is endless. The world is so rich and multifacted, so full of mysteries and delights! Sarah, I’m happy to say, is on my side when it comes to the outdoor adventures, and David is on board for the rest, so I can go solo or in company, the way foxes do.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Health Care Costs: Insurance Reform Is Not Enough

“The health care system in the United States” is this or that, argue both pundits and ordinary citizens. What gets forgotten is that “the health care system” in this country does not exist. If there were one system, we would not have the wide disparity of cost from one geographical region to another cited by Dr. Atul Gawande.

American medicine’s costs and benefits are more often compared to and contrasted with costs and benefits of medical care in other countries. Gawande’s look at our own country from one area to another shows a surprising and troubling picture. He finds a poor town, McAllen, Texas, that has medical costs per capita equal only to wealthy Miami, Florida, and he looks for an explanation.

Can it be that these two towns have the worst health in the country? No, that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Statistics for cardiovascular disease, asthma, HIV, infant mortality, cancer and injury are lower in McAllen than the average across America. Next hypothesis: can it be that people in McAllen are getting care superior to the rest of the American population? No evidence for that, either, and the county has a lower than average number of medical specialists.
Medicare ranks hospitals on twenty-five metrics of care. On all but two of these, McAllen’s five largest hospitals performed worse, on average, than El Paso’s. McAllen costs Medicare seven thousand dollars more per person each year than does the average city in America. But not, so far as one can tell, because it’s delivering better health care.

At this point in Gawande’s investigation, the high cost of health care in McAllen is still a mystery to him. Some doctors, when questioned, wanted to blame malpractice suits. (We’ve all heard claims that the cost of malpractice insurance is responsible for the high cost of health care, haven’t we?) But Texas had passed legislation capping “pain and suffering” awards, and the numbers of such lawsuits had dropped to almost zero, as one cardiologist admitted.

Finally someone proposed a shocking answer to the mystery:
“Come on,” the general surgeon finally said. “We all know these arguments are bullshit. There is overutilization here, pure and simple.” Doctors, he said, were racking up charges with extra tests, services, and procedures.

The surgeon came to McAllen in the mid-nineties, and since then, he said, “the way to practice medicine has changed completely. Before, it was about how to do a good job. Now it is about ‘How much will you benefit?’"

Gawande gave the doctors around the restaurant table a hypothetical case (read details in the original article) and asked what treatment would have been prescribed 15 years earlier. “Send her home,” they agreed. And now? Stress test, EKG, Holter monitor and maybe a cardiac cath. Why? Because the doctors don’t trust their judgment? Because they’re afraid of being sued? Because the bills will be paid. Whether it’s Medicare or private insurance, in some places in this country—not everywhere—the fact that someone will pay seems enough of a reason to prescribe unnecessary tests. And this doesn’t even assure better care or outcomes.
Fisher found that patients in high-cost areas were actually less likely to receive low-cost preventive services, such as flu and pneumonia vaccines, faced longer waits at doctor and emergency-room visits, and were less likely to have a primary-care physician. They got more of the stuff that cost more, but not more of what they needed.

So now another question comes up: Why is this not the case everywhere in the country that medical tests and procedures are overutilized? Why and how do some areas with much lower costs deliver better care? How does Rochester, Minnesota, for example, home of the Mayo Clinic and #1 destination of choice for many out-of-state seekers after top-quality care, keep its Medicare spending in the bottom 15% of the country?

Overutilization was obviously only a piece of the puzzle, not the whole solution to the mystery, and here I’ll cut to the chase scene. What Gawande finally finds at the bottom of all the figures and statistics and differences from one end of the country to the other is that doctors in places where health care costs are high provide and refer patients for the expensive tests and procedures, but the difference seems to have nothing to do with their medical training--it was more pointedly what one hospital administrator called “the culture of money.” Doctors in McAllen, this administrator said, had “entrepreneurial spirit,” and the medical decisions they made for patients were driven by their own financial goals.

We won’t solve the health care crisis in this country by forcing people to purchase health insurance they couldn’t afford in the first place. A public option isn’t the answer, either. Neither private individuals nor employers nor the government can afford to finance the high and rapidly rising cost of American health care. The costs need to come down.

Gawande authored a subsequent article that detailed some of the ways cost can be reduced, but the overall problem, the “entrepreneurial” attitude to health care provision, is a big, tangled knot that won’t be quickly untied.

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, is on my book order for this week.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Horrors Lurk in the Dark, Dank Cellar?

I’ve been on a reading rampage this week. Having started one book after another until I had four in progress, I finally finished one on Monday, another on Wednesday, and two more between last night and this morning. (Sometimes insomnia, which does not plague me often, helps me get my reading done.) Today I want to back to the third from the end of my “Books Read” list to talk a bit about In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.

“Professor X,” as the author’s name appears on the book, protecting his anonymity, teaches as an adjunct instructor. I have done adjunct teaching, also, and “Professor X” and I have many points of agreement. On a few matters either our experiences or our opinions diverge, so I’ll get that out of the way first.

My students’ writing has never as bad as the student writing he reports, and I’d like to know why. Is my experience the anomaly here, or is his? I’ve heard horror stories from fulltime, tenured faculty, too, about whole classrooms of students who “can’t write a simple sentence.” If there are that many, if the problem is so epidemic, why were my students not this ill prepared? I’m not saying they had a deep background in the classics, but those who could not write sentences were rare. (Paragraphs, yes—they had trouble there.) The age range, economic background, educational level of parents and career aspirations (nursing, law enforcement, business) of my community college students were comparable to those of “Professor X.” And it isn’t as if I let my students slide, either. I can pick nits with the pickiest. For example, the very notion of a “desktop podium” (p. xxii) sends my mind and stomach reeling, and I want to reach for the red pencil. Podium, lectern—not the same thing! You stand on the first and rest your books and papers on the second! (Line editors, take note.) A common error—nay, epidemic—and I realize I have an irrational and exaggerated antipathy for this mistake, but it’s not entirely beside the point, my point being that I can be a stern judge of writing. Then there was this one, new to me: the use of ‘adjunct’ as a verb. I thank my lucky stars the word is not used this way in my area of the country. God forbid this catches on and becomes accepted usage! --Yes, yes, linguistic nit-picking, and that’s all I’m going to do.

“Professor X” suggests, without coming straight out and making the direct claim, that women adjuncts are easier graders than male adjuncts because they feel “maternal.” Are there statistics to back up this suggestion? My concern was not to be “easy” or to be “hard” but to let students know my grading criteria and then be fair in applying those criteria. He’s right about the hell of assigning grades. It’s the only part of teaching I hate.

Okay, those are my quibbles. In general, I liked the book as much as I expected to like it. I have never seen the original article from which this book grew, but I suspect that most of the angry responses the writer received in its wake came from the partial picture of his teaching that I’m guessing the article presented. He is forthcoming about everything except his identity (understandable), and his style is humorous and entertaining despite the seriousness of his subject. And, while he fell into teaching accidentally, out of financial desperation, he takes his part-time work seriously. In fact, it’s not too much to say that it has become his vocation, that he has “found himself” in this lowly rank of academe. His adjunct position, he comes to see, “is my world. Without English 101 and 102, I think I might well be bereft.”

The book jacket waves statistics like a flag, and that’s pretty much where the book begins, too.
Number of college students in the United States: 18,248,128
Percentage of four-year college graduates leaving with debt: 66%
Average debt: $20,000 or more
Average number of credit cards per student: 4.6

The painful fact that colleges and universities have come to be run on a business model is not news, nor is the fact that more and more fields of work are requiring college degrees that have nothing to do with the work. The degree requirement is a hurdle into the job world that gives employers a way to consider fewer applicants.

From the White House to the community college comes the message: Everyone should go to college! Think about that. If every American citizen had a B.A. tomorrow morning, what new, higher barrier would be erected to weed through job-seekers? If everyone goes to college, the value of the degree vanishes.

Incidental caveat: Another statistic from “Professor X” is that 50% of community college students drop out before their sophomore year. Well, I learned recently something about the community college “dropout” statistic. It is not unusual for people to enroll in community college to take classes they need for work, say something to do with bookkeeping or auto mechanics, with no intention of going further. When they enroll, however, they are required to state a major course of study in a program they wish to complete. Understand, this is whether or not they want to complete a program. Maybe the student needs only this one class, pays for it, learns what he or she needed to learn and leaves satisfied. That student is counted as a “dropout” and seen as a failure. The reality is that this student and his or her completion of desired class work are successes! They are simply not measured as such. And because they are counted as failures, very useful and popular community programs such as auto mechanics are being eliminated. Talk about irony--.

Higher education is a wonderful opportunity for anyone when it’s either strongly desired for itself (which sums up my reasons for studying philosophy) or seriously needed for work that person wants to do (the case with my father’s study of engineering), but having adults go into debt to study subjects that don’t interest them, at levels for which they are unprepared, because of job requirements having nothing to do with their unwilling study is a cruel hoax. I don’t need to be able to discuss Ulysses with my E.R. nurse. That would be about my last concern.

Here’s what In the Basement of the Ivory Tower does that I don’t remember another book or article doing before: it connects the problem of unprepared college students to the problem of mortgage foreclosures. Put another way, it links rising college enrollment and failure to graduate with the housing bubble and its bursting. This connection is a very important contribution to what needs to be a national discussion on higher education. “Professor X” is also able to make the connection personal. He and his wife signed a mortgage on a larger house, a home they could not afford on their income, which forced him into adjunct teaching where he encountered students convinced that only by going to college, regardless of the cost, could guarantee them a rosy, upwardly mobile future. These two features of the book, the housing-education connection and the writer’s personal experience behind the curtain of both myths, make this book unique. “Professor X” sees that he and his unprepared students are struggling together to keep their heads above water, struggling not be drowned by the unrealistic expectations that landed them in this mess.

And yet there is that matter of finding his vocation as a teacher.
How did we all get here? The classroom surroundings are familiar, even cozy: there’s a comfort to sitting in rows, and the desks wrap around the students protectively. The textbooks seem compendia of all the world’s knowledge. Who among us wouldn’t think: we can do great things in this room!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

You Can Only Vote Once

And you can only vote for one candidate in each candidate, but voting ends tomorrow, so don't say you forgot. Gerry reminded me (and voted for herself, so I voted for myself) and I'm reminding you. Go NOW and vote for ME (or someone you love more) as top red-hot blogger (oops, and Dog Ears Books as your favorite bookstore, Gerry reminds me!), and while you’re there vote for your favorite restaurant, favorite cherry pie, ale, salsa, fruit product, wine, whitefish, favorite bartender, barista, local festival, etc., etc., etc. What do you love Up North? (You don't have to give reasons, just make choices.) It’s fun to vote! And what else are you doing until it’s a decent hour for drinking green beer?

This was the late morning sun over Northport on St. Patrick's Day. Kind of weak and puny, do you think? But when I got home, I checked under the silver maple, and finally there they are--the first signs of this spring's daffodils!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Winter Wednesday Postcard Promenade #5: Bits of History and a Challenge

It was hard to decide where to go today for the winter’s last postcard promenade, so many possibilities presenting themselves, and in the end, I went for history rather than geography. That is, rather than going to some top Michigan destination like Mackinac Island, today--not counting the greetings from my birthplace above, home of the team responsible for my mother’s love of baseball, the Aberdeen Pheasants--we’ll be looking at features of the cards other than what they illustrate. Most are in black and white or, in the case of the example below, sepia and white.

This card intrigued the bookseller in me. I had no idea that publishers’ publicity departments were advertising new titles with postcards back in one-cent stamp days, but here’s the evidence. The book, “with frontispiece in full colors” [sic] is available for only $1.50 net. You can put a stamp on the card and mail it for a penny to place your order or send the card in an envelope (for a little more postage) with your remittance. I wonder how many copies of The First Hundred Thousand were sold this way.

Look carefully at the next pair of black-and-white postcards. Can you tell which one is the real photo postcard (RPP), Moose River or Veteran’s [sic] Monuments? (I presume more than one veteran is being honored here.)

Moose River is the RPP. Your clue is the graininess in the closeup. I’ll post a better image of the monument here especially for Gerry, though, because I know how she is about veterans.

Here are some more soldiers, all lined up at Fort Sheridan, Illinois (going by the postmark).

“Dear Sis,” the writer has scrawled in pencil, “A picture of me, I marked it to be sure you could find me. Love Jim.” This card was postmarked (October 22, 1945) but mailed without a stamp, with the word “free” written over the “Place Stamp Here” box, a privilege of the military. I’ll show a closeup so you can see Jim a little better.

Doesn't he have a nice smile? His sister lived on Barlow Street in Traverse City.

I love this RPP from the Pioneer Village at Salem, Massachusetts, showing “Dug Outs, Saw Pit, and English Wigwams.” (English wigwams?) The bottom corner of the card is the second clue that this is an authentic RPP. Then on the back are the words “ACTUAL PHOTOGRAPH.”

Can you tell the difference between the next two? Look closely.

The sepia-tone view of the Virginia gorge is the RPP, printed on Kodak paper, as the back of the card indicates, while the Nova Scotia lighthouse with sailboat (Amy-Lynn! A card from Nova Scotia!) is printed from a photograph but is not itself an actual photograph.

A certain Miss Litchfield received many postcards from friends. One from Nova Scotia bears a 2-cent Canadian stamp and reads, “Hi Doris, I bet you were surprised to find me gone. Well here I am up in Parrsboro. I still have about two hundred and twenty-five miles to go. Glenda.”

Another friend mails Miss Litchfield a card in 1942 with a one-cent stamp showing the Statue of Liberty with the words “INDUSTRY AGRICULTURE FOR DEFENSE.” The writer was enjoying a vacation from serious matters, however: “Here I am enjoying fresh air, ocean bathing and lobster my favorite sea food. This afternoon I took a sun bath and now I am burning up!”

Maine has always been a popular vacation destination. Many of the postcards from Maine almost look like places in Michigan. Here’s a colorful one:

I find the back of this card interesting, too. Like the one from the publisher, this one has an advertising message. “GOOD FISHING” is to be had in Maine, and back in the days of penny postcards you could rent a family kitchenette on Lake Maranacook for only $20 a week from Mr. Charles Brown.

Now here’s the POSTCARD CHALLENGE. Of the three cards below, all RPPs, can you tell which one was developed on Devolite Peerless rather than Kodak Paper? Be the first with the right answer, and you win the card.

How’s that letter-writing commitment going, by the way? Does it seem like a long way to Memorial Day? If you’re having a particularly busy week, it wouldn’t be cheating to send a couple of postcards in place of a single letter. The cost of postcard stamps has risen over the years, but it’s still a bargain. The current polar bear stamps make me think of Grand Marais, Michigan. Go, Polar Bears!

And now, let’s hear it for the fast-approaching vernal equinox and the end of winter! Birds were singing in our farmyard at dawn. That's a sure sign.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Busy "Days Off"

The bookseller whose shop is open only four days a week in the winter season got up before 6 a.m. this morning, one of her “days off,” to be interviewed by telephone on TV 7&4. It was a first for me. I’ve been on the radio before, but never on television. Of course, doing the interview by phone meant that I could sit comfortably at home in my cozy robe while the station showed pictures of my bookstore, which you can see on my new blog. For my readers who did not get up before 6:30 to catch the interview or who live outside the Traverse City viewing area, the video should be available online in a week or two. Thank you, Alex, Megan, Melissa and Harrison!

Next item on today’s agenda is the Northport-Omena Chamber of Commerce meeting at 8:30. We’re meeting this month at Sally Coohon’s store, Dolls and More, at 102 Nagonaba. Sally’s store is very inviting and comfortable, so the meeting should be enjoyable as well as productive.

Next stop, the post office, where I need to mail out a package of—what else? Books!

Then there will be plenty of time between errands and a 7 p.m. group discussion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to get Sarah outdoors for a romp in the sunshine. Oh, and I’ll be making time to organize the last Postcard Promenade for tomorrow's blog post, too.

“It must be nice to have a bookstore and just sit around and read all the time.”

In your dreams! My bookstore dream came true, but there’s a lot more to it than sitting around reading all the time! And that’s fine. No complaints here. I love country life, married life with dog, and life with books. We should have another sunny day, too, possibly as beautiful as these images from yesterday, and that will be icing on the cake.

Monday, March 14, 2011

First-Ever "Books in Northport" Book Giveaway!

I've never done this before on my blog. It's the first time. Two people will receive free copies of the new novel Caleb's Crossing, by noted author Geraldine Brooks, and you can be one of those people by reading the Q&A below, leaving a comment demonstrating your interest in the book and sending an e-mail to dogears at netonecom dot net to alert me to your comment. Fun! Of course, I welcome comments from more than two people, also--the more, the merrier. Who knows? If it's lively enough, there may be a "next time" in future.

Q&A with Geraldine Brooks, author of CALEB’S CROSSING:

Caleb Cheeshahteamauk is an extraordinary figure in Native American history. How did you first discover him? What was involved in learning more about his life?

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah are proud custodians of their history, and it was in materials prepared by the Tribe that I first learned of its illustrious young scholar. To find out more about him I talked with tribal members, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, then delved into the archives of Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the correspondence between colonial leaders and benefactors in England who donated substantial funds for the education and conversion to Christianity of Indians in the 17th century. There are also writings by members of the Mayhew family, who were prominent missionaries and magistrates on the island, and John Cotton, Jr., who came here as a missionary and kept a detailed journal.

There is little documentation on Caleb’s actual life. What parts of his life did you imagine? Do you feel you know him better after writing this book, or is he still a mystery?

The facts about Caleb are sadly scant. We know he was the son of a minor sachem from the part of the Vineyard now known as West Chop, and that he left the island to attend prep school, successfully completed the rigorous course of study at Harvard and was living with Thomas Danforth, a noted jurist and colonial leader, when disease claimed his life. Everything else about him in my novel is imagined. The real young man—what he thought and felt—remains an enigma.

Bethia Mayfield is truly a woman ahead of her time. If she were alive today, what would she be doing? What would her life be like with no restrictions?

There were more than a few 17th century women like Bethia, who thirsted for education and for a voice in a society that demanded their silence. You can find some of them being dragged to the meeting house to confess their “sins” or defending their unconventional views in court. If Bethia was alive today she would probably be president of Harvard or Brown, Princeton or UPenn.

The novel is told through Bethia’s point of view. What is the advantage to telling this story through her eyes? How would the book be different if Caleb were the narrator?

I wanted the novel to be about crossings between cultures. So as Caleb is drawn into the English world, I wanted to create an English character who would be equally drawn to and compelled by his world. I prefer to write with a female narrator when I can, and I wanted to explore issues of marginalization in gender as well as race.

Much of the book is set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is also your home. Did you already know about the island’s early history, or did you do additional research?

I was always intrigued by what brought English settlers to the island so early in the colonial period...they settled here in the 1640s. Living on an island is inconvenient enough even today; what prompted the Mayhews and their followers to put seven miles of treacherous ocean currents between them and the other English—to choose to live in a tiny settlement surrounded by some three thousand Wampanoags? The answer was unexpected and led me into a deeper exploration of island history.

You bring Harvard College to life in vivid, often unpleasant detail. What surprised you most about this prestigious university’s beginnings?

For one thing, I hadn't been aware Harvard was founded so early. The English had barely landed before they started building a college. And the Indian College—a substantial building—went up not long after, signifying an attitude of mind that alas did not prevail for very long. It was fun to learn how very different early Harvard was from the well endowed institution of today. Life was hand to mouth, all conversation was in Latin, the boys (only boys) were often quite young when they matriculated. But the course of study was surprisingly broad and rigorous—a true exploration of liberal arts, languages, and literature that went far beyond my stereotype of what Puritans might have considered fit subjects for scholarship.

As with your previous books, you’ve managed to capture the voice of the period. You get the idiom, dialect, and cadence of the language of the day on paper. How did you do your research?

I find the best way to get a feel for language and period is to read first person accounts—journals, letters, court transcripts. Eventually you start to hear voices in your head: patterns of speech, a different manner of thinking. My son once said, Mom talks to ghosts. And in a way I do.

May 2011, Tiffany Smalley will follow in Caleb’s footsteps and become only the second Vineyard Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard. Do you know if this will be celebrated?

In May Tiffany Smalley will become the first Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb to receive an undergrad degree from Harvard College. (Others have received advanced degrees from the university’s Kennedy school etc.) I’m not sure what Harvard has decided to do at this year's commencement, but I am hoping they will use the occasion to honor Caleb’s fellow Wampanoag classmate, Joel Iacoomis, who completed the work for his degree but was murdered before he could attended the 1665 commencement ceremony.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Backward with Weather, Forward with Books

Can you see the coyote? He or she is well camouflaged against the background of the bare field. That was on Sunday, cold but sunny. By Wednesday, on our way to Lake Leelanau for an appointment, the picture had changed dramatically. A blizzard had arrived! These shots were taken from the passenger seat while the car was in motion.

One last Wednesday image, a few hours later in Leland, shows the snow in a melting phase. But we still have plenty today on Friday morning!

No matter. It’s only winter’s last gasp and about what we can expect in March. Or April. Yes, it could happen in April, but I’ll call it a “last gasp” then, too, if it comes, because the days are noticeably longer, and there is no stopping the cycle of the seasons.

Weather seems to take a step back now and then, but forward movement is the essence of reading (in English!). In my current adventure with Tolstoy, surviving Anna’s tragic death at the end of Part VII, I have come to the early pages of Part VIII, where Chapter I opens with a brief anecdote about a disappointed writer. Sergey Ivanovich had worked for six years on his “Sketch of a Survey of the Principles and Forms of Government in Europe and Russia” and expected it to make “a great stir in the scientific world.” Its reception was otherwise.
After the most consciencious revision the book had last year been published, and had been distributed among the booksellers.


But a week passed, a second, a third, and in society no impression whatsoever could be detected. ...

Servey Ivanovich had clculated to a nicety the time necessary for writing a review, but a month passed, and a second, and still there was silence.

Apart from a “contemptuous allusion” in a “comic article” on another subject, no one seems to have any opinion about his book at all or even to have noticed its appearance until finally, three months after publication, a devastating review is published. Sergey Ivanovich himself cannot help admiring the wit of the reviewer, despite the fact that he has completely misunderstood the book. No matter. His six years’ work have come to naught, and he must now find something else to do.
From there Tolstoy shifts to a wider angle, taking in volunteers for the war in Serbia and the fever pitch of enthusiasm for the war in Russian society.

Northport is no St. Petersburg or Moscow, and it’s pretty quiet in the winter, when even those who live here year-round find ways to escape for a few weeks in February or March. Despite appearances, however, there’s life in the old town yet. Olivia is baking croissants at Barb’s Bakery this winter. That’s a treat! And at Dog Ears Books, I had to restock A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach for the author’s drop-in visit tomorrow morning (Saturday, @ 11 a.m.)

Loreen Niewenhuis will sign the books I have in stock (and those my customers have already bought, if they want to make a trip in Saturday morning), and we’ll talk about a summer date for her to come back for a reading at Dog Ears Books and/or the Leelanau Township Library in Northport.

Whatever the season, something is always happening in the world of books. Here's a tip: Come back to "Books in Northport" on Monday for a big surprise! Something we've never done before!