Monday, June 30, 2008

The Forgotten Virtue

While recently watching Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Salomen Torres successfully close out another game, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Other than the famous Biblical king and philosopher and a 70s soul and R&B singer, I could not think of another person named either "Solomon" or "Salomon."

I suppose there is nothing inherently unusual that a Biblical king hasn't inspired modern nomenclature; after all, I don't know that many Jeroboams or Hezekiahs, either. However, those monarchs weren't renowned for a specific virtue as Solomon was. And I fear that it is more than just the name that our society has buried, I've come to realize that we rarely speak of that which made Solomon famous in his day---wisdom.

In the NIV Bible, there are 58 references to wisdom. The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular deal with the concept of wisdom as a main theme. I don't have a similar concordance for the writings of Plato and other Greek philosophers, but a Google search of "Socrates" and "wisdom" turns up over a million hits. Obviously, the societies of centuries past concerned themselves greatly with defining and discerning wisdom. Even as recently as the 19th Century, writers such as Emerson and Thoreau were adding to the genre which has come to be known as "wisdom literature."

Today, we are no less obsessed than Aristotle himself when it comes to defining and categorizing people and ideas, and the proliferation of the mass media means more people are able to join in the practice of assigning designations to individuals or movements than ever before. So theoretically, the use of an adjective like "wise" or a noun like "wisdom" should be easier to find than when surveying ancient literature. Yet it rarely crops up, even in places where we would expect to find it.

One such place it would seem to be useful would be on the presidential campaign trail. Yes, I know that we are often cynical about candidates, but in actuality, every four years we still lay it on pretty thick with our praises. Barack Obama recently called John McCain "honorable." The "maverick" senator has enjoyed a string of compliments along those lines for the last several years. He has been called "heroic," he has been called "principled," he has been called "effective" in his role as a senator, but despite being of an age which one would think would confer such a title, I have not heard him referred to as "wise."

Obama himself has been lauded with seemingly every adjective in the book, from "charismatic" to "effusive" to "energetic," and no less than Bob Dylan said he was "redefining... politics from the ground up." But I haven't heard anyone refer to him as "wise" (though I did find one blogger who referred to his "wisdom on Iraq"). He himself has littered his speeches with adjectives (and a right-wing blog takes him to task for an alleged overuse of them), but I have not heard him reference wisdom.

Because we still see the recurrent archetype of the wise old man in fiction, it seems odd to me that nobody, whether rightly or wrongly, is appointed that role in real life. When the term "wisdom" is bandied about, it is often in an ironic way ("wise guy") or in a way that diffuses its power in such a way as to render it meaningless ("conventional wisdom"). Elsewhere, other words are substituted so that we don't have to even to confront it anymore; i.e. "wisdom literature" has transformed into "self-help books."

I think there are advantages to this paradigm shift. Most obviously, if we don't look to others for wisdom, we can develop the self-reliance that Emerson himself championed. Also, we aren't as likely to be taken in by charlatans. However, I'm disturbed by one possibility that may have already arisen by this neutering and diluting the power of this word. In removing the word from our lexicon, we could be removing the idea, and therefore the virtue itself. People may aspire to be kind, honorable, diligent, or intelligent, but may no longer aspire to being wise. And then we would be neglecting the words of a wise man who said "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you" (Prov 4:7-8 NIV).

Monday, June 23, 2008

A New Era for Fiction: A Proposal

I believe the last piece of fiction I wrote was a short story in 11th grade, in which my protagonist Pulex died while attempting to swim across the ocean. I think Pulex was unaware that his name meant "flea;" otherwise he might have been dissuaded from attempting such a feat.

If I had to write a story today, I'm sure it would be slightly less ham-fisted than that attempt at portraying the classic Greek formula of hubris meets comeuppance. However, I can't promise that it would be any more compelling. Between the idea of a limited number of basic plots and the idea of a limited number of character archetypes, I don't see any reason to even attempt to create something original. In fact, I've come to the realization that there are so many fictional characters in existence, that there is really no need to create any more. There are only two factors which account for the continued practice of creating new ones--economics and, yes, hubris.

I propose that Congress pass a law prohibiting the creation of any new fictional characters. On the other hand, as part of the deal, all existing characters would become public domain. I believe that everyone would benefit in such a scenario. Storytelling, in whatever medium, would combine the best elements of Marxism and free enterprise . Rather than the current status quo, where the privileged few have access to lucrative characters, everyone has access to the same means of production, making the idea pool a true communist venture. However, the end result would be competition, and a rather fierce Darwinistic competition at that. With multiple versions and iterations of the same character floating around, only the fittest will survive.

What would be particularly exciting to storytellers, consumers, and distributors alike is the dissolution of boundaries between fictional "worlds." We've seen glimpses of the possibilities: The Wold Newton Family, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. But even those attempts to break down creative barriers were limited. Under my proposal, all stories would be a wonderful free for all. The opportunities for cross-overs and character interactions are limitless. And I could re-write my 11th grade story to have Pulex eaten by Moby Dick.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kids Nowadays

I've just returned from Florida where, along with several hundred other English teachers, I helped to score the approximately 900,000 Advanced Placement test essays taken this year by high school juniors. I had the unusual privilege of working on two questions this year--the vast majority of "readers" (as we are called) have to see the same essay for seven consecutive days. One of the essays I was assigned is top secret; it was given to students who missed the regular test for whatever reason, and the testing service wants to leave the option open of using it again in the future. After we finished those essays, I moved to reading a question about the use of advertising and corporate influence in schools. While there were certainly some terrific essays exploring the complexity of the issue, there were many others where students, bereft of anything substantial to say about the issue, were forced to contrive arguments. One of my favorites included the notion that if corporate logos weren't displayed in high school gyms, athletes would be unprepared to cope with them when they made the pros. Also, while I know that violence is a real problem in some schools, I'm skeptical of the argument made by one student that people could end up getting shot because their school is sponsored by a corporation rival to an assailant's school's corporate sponsor.

I'm certain that these essays, though perhaps only partially reflective of the actual beliefs of America's teen-agers, offer a lot of sociological and anthropological insight. The corporations they named, the celebrities they cited, and the books they shoehorned into the discussion all present a picture of what is foremost in their minds, what they are being influenced by. As many of them told me repeatedly, teen-agers are "bombarded by media," so what emerges and sticks from that bombardment is noteworthy.

However, as I had a job to do in reading and scoring the essays, I didn't have the ability to be very reflective about these issues. What I couldn't help but notice, though, was the re-occurrence of certain phrases and language patterns. I will list some of them here, along with a brief interpretation of what I think they mean:

"Nowadays": I've discussed this phenomenon before on this very blog last week. Our culture inculcates in the young the notion that things are different (and usually worse) than they used to be. These essays were evidence of the effectiveness of this inculcation.

"Slowly" or "Slowly but surely": This adverb is certainly subtle, but once I picked up on it, I noticed it over and over again. To the American teen-ager, nothing happens rapidly. Everything is a gradual process. I can't say that this is necessarily a bad idea to possess, and its probably more true than the alternative, but I wonder where it comes from. Perhaps when you are only cognizant of less than a ten year time period (most of these kids would have only vague memories of the Clinton administration), even something that occurs relatively quickly seems gradual.

"Win-win situation": This phrase was used absurdly often to describe the process by which a school and corporation can both benefit from a partnership. Perhaps it speaks well to the influence of Sesame Street. When I was a kid I watched that show religiously and therefore to me "co-operation" was the greatest of all virtues. Slightly more advanced students would use the term "mutually beneficial," while those who sought to impress used the word "mutualistic." Some of the more scientific minded discussed "symbiotic" relationships, while the more cynical regarded them as "parasitic."

"The pros outweigh the cons" or vice-versa: Since the question asked students to evaluate "pros" and "cons," then to choose a side that is more convincing, it isn't surprising that this phrase kept showing up over and over again. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

"So be it.": This was a phrase commonly used when the student felt that the pros of corporate involvement in schools outweighed the cons. An example: "If students have to be subjected to advertising in order to get a new computer lab, so be it." The authoritative tone of this phrase makes me a little nervous. It sounds like a pronouncement of a monarch or even of a divinity. I would be curious to see a longitudinal study of teen-agers speech patterns and find out if previous generations had such certitude of assertion, or whether it is unique to young people nowadays. Perhaps it was a change that took place slowly over time. I'm sure finding that information out would be a win-win situation, but I'm afraid that for me the cons of reading another few hundred essays outweigh the pros.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Good Old Days Part Two

Despite my post a few weeks back in which I detailed a search for "The Good Old Days," I'm inherently skeptical things are any better or worse now than they ever have been. Conventional wisdom seems to be that the world is a worse place now than it used to be. I saw my 80-something grandpa this morning, and he took the occasion to remark upon people these days not being responsible (for the record, he wasn't implicating me, but rather a customer of my dad's business who ended up in jail leaving behind a Uhaul truck full of stuff. Long story.) On the other hand, it's not just grandparents who tend to espouse such theories--I've read a number of essays by teen-agers and young adults in the last few years theorizing that society is in a precipitous decline.

Despite my unwillingness to make such ground pronouncements about life in general, I am willing to committ to a sweeping proclamation about an aspect of society. Sports in America just isn't as good as it once was.

I've harbored the suspicion for awhile, but a confluence of events this last week or so served to convince me. Between the Belmont Stakes, the French Open, the NBA Finals, and Major League Baseball, I pine for the way things used to be. Furthermore, I can pinpoint where things went wrong. I can summarize the problem in one word: "innovation". If we had left well enough alone, we would be more entertained.

Starting with the sport of kings, recent tragic fatalities have served to spotlight certain "innovations" in breeding that may have led to faster but less durable horses. Back in the "good old days" horses were bred to run, whereas now many are bred to breed. In other words, as more money comes from stud fees than race purses, horses are retiring to stud earlier. The problem with this is that we don't get a full sense of their durability, the way we used to when they would run for several years past the age of three. Big Brown's Belmont disappointment may have been the most dramatic, but he has been far from the only horse in recent times to falter in the third leg of the Triple Crown, which just happens to be the lengthiest race of the three. Until things revert to the way they used to be, I don't see this Triple Crown draught ending anytime soon.

I bring up the French Open not to use it as an example of what is wrong with tennis, so much as to point out how other events pale in comparison. For years people have been speculating as to why tennis is so much less popular than it was years ago. At a family gathering I attended this weekend, I was tossing around a tennis ball with a young cousin when someone brought up John McEnroe's name. Given that McEnroe was last a force on the tour 20-25 years ago, and given that he still is more recognizable than Roger Federer in an average American household, one has to consider the sport of tennis seriously passe. And while many have decried the lack of personalities in tennis recently, I (and this is not an original thought by any means) peg the problem squarely on the existence of high tech rackets that kill the length of rallies. The clay courts of the French Open serve to somewhat alleviate the problem, but until things go back to the way they were, I don't see Americans giving tennis much love.

As for basketball, if I were David Stern I would ask ESPN to please not show the 1980s Lakers/Celtics games on ESPN Classics. It only serves to show how much more entertaining basketball used to be then. The paradox of the NBA is that one reason it is less entertaining is because the players are more physically sculpted. Watching relative stringbeans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parrish patrol the post in the 1980s reruns, one can only shake his or her head and wonder how dominant Shaq would have been in that era. On second thought, Shaq might have had trouble getting up and down the floor back then. The more freewheeling less disciplined style that typified the 80s might spotlight a lack of coaching innovation, but boy, it was fun to watch.

Finally, I've blogged about baseball's problems before. Again it relates to players getting bigger. Back when weight training (and yes, steroids) weren't as well understood, and players were smaller, less home runs were hit, and baseball was more fun to watch.

But there is one sport which can only beneift from people getting larger, and it happens to be a sport where innovation probably won't come into play. After all, there are only so many ways you can beat somebody up. And until horse racing, tennis, basketball, and baseball figure out a way to return to the past, the Ultimate Fighting series will reap the ratings benefits.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

2010: A Vernacular Odyssey

I've been noticing a disturbing trend lately. As we start to anticipate events a couple years into the future, we are discussing years like "2010" and "2012." But when these years are bandied about in the media, I am hearing them referred to as "Two-thousand-ten" and "Two-thousand-twelve."

I've been waiting patiently for over eight years for a return to the days when we would be able to signify a year by simply stating two two-digit numbers, i.e. "Twenty-ten" and "Twenty-twelve.". And now it looks like my patience may have been in vain. I couldn't tell you why this issue holds such fascination for me, but it does. It first entered my radar screen sometime in the mid-90s when someone wrote to "Dear Abby" and asked the advice columnist to settle a bet. The reader said that when we got to the year 2000, we would pronounce the year twenty-hundred. Her friend demurred. Abby's answer was that we would pronounce the "two thousand" part of the year up through 2010, after which it would be our choice.

I thought at the time that it wouldn't really be a choice, that we would all happily go back to pronouncing years the same way we have been our entire lives (and our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lives for that matter). What I didn't account for is how quickly new habits could become ingrained. After several years, it now feels natural to start the year with "two thousand."

So what are the drawbacks of fully embracing the paradigm shift? I suppose I could trot out Santayana. Allowing a few years of practice to elide a status quo fortified over centuries signifies a rather chilling potential for forgetfulness in the human race. On the other hand, I suppose it could be viewed as a positive that our race is able to throw off the encumbrances of tradition, no matter how engraved by habit. As I write this on a night when Barack Obama has seized the Democratic presidential nomination, I'm sure his supporters would claim the latter, while his opponent's supporters might very well argue the former. But whatever the case, we may have to wait until 2010 or 2012 to ascertain how everything will shake out.