Friday, May 28, 2010

On My Refrigerator Door

"Who is that?" my wife asked me a few days ago. This was a reasonable question at the time, since I was posting a photograph on the refrigerator, a photograph of people she had never seen before. It consisted of a family of five posing in front of a white house: a big guy with a mustache and goatee wearing a red collared shirt; his wife, with long brown hair and bangs wearing a green sweatshirt; a boy (probably about 12) wearing a red T-shirt with a Ford truck on it; a girl of about 10 wearing a blue T-shirt with the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup logo; and a boy of about six wearing a blue hoody with some kind of skating logo. In fact, I had never seen these people before, either-- at least I hadn't prior to my decision to open a donation solicitation from Habitat for Humanity. But once that wallet-sized photo tumbled out of the envelope, I just had to put it up on the fridge.

This photo is not the only item I have contributed to the decor of the refrigerator. Years ago, I hung up a sheet of paper that says "Purchasing Department at Fruit of the Loom." It lists the names of 11 people (such as Gary Baker, Burnus Baldwin, Helen Cole, and Mary "I wonder is she's related to Morgan" Spurlock). It also lists the job title and a specific responsibility for each of those 11 people (Baldwin is the Inventory Analyst who oversees polybag inventory. Bart Summar is a Systems Analyst who oversees JD Edwards System, whatever that is). Also listed for everyone is a phone extension (you can reach Cole at X2444). The document is dated 11/14/97. I found this particular sheet of paper when I opened a package that contained a used book I had ordered on-line. I have no memory of the specific book, but I know that it had nothing to do with any kind of garment. When I first held this sheet of paper in my hands, I knew that it was something that must be preserved.

And though it does not hang on my fridge, there is another item that I found, between the pages of another used book I received through the mail, that I have felt compelled to keep for several years. On the back of stationary marked "Sheraton Frankfurt Hotel & Conference Centre Flughafen Terminal 1" is a note which reads "Mom here's your purse...thanks for everything today & tonite. We had fun... will switch tuna in A.M. Love, Rick." (at least I think it says "tuna"--it's kind of hard to read).

I suppose there are two main reasons why people keep (or display) physical objects: A) There is a perceived utilitarian value (including aesthetic considerations) or B) There is a personal significance connected to the object, a significance rooted in sentimentalism. But the above objects don't fit either criteria for me. They don't provide any value and they don't have any personal meaning. So what is the attraction?

A cynical explanation would be that I am simply being ironic, that I am mocking cultural sensibilities, such as the practice of displaying sentimentality on one's refrigerator door. An alternative explanation might be that I am being Romantic, that in maintaining an authentic artifact of human expression divorced from the particularities of context, I am celebrating the universalities of our experiences, finding beauty in the unfamiliar precisely because it is so familiar ("the shock of recognition," as a critical theorist might say). Another theory may be that I am attracted to the potential that each of these items represents, the narratives that can be constructed around them, and the mysteries that they engender, all without having to worry about the disappointment of the prosaic. Because the narratives will never be known and the mysteries never solved, like Keats's Grecian Urn, this ephemera will only and always have potential.

One final possibility: perhaps I am taking part in a ritual act of preservation. In keeping alive something that others cast away (at least in the case of the latter two items), something that has no value to me but may have had some fleeting significance to others, I am doing my part to affirm the validity of those experiences. And perhaps I am doing this in the hope that the favor may be returned, that what I find to be significant will not be carelessly sloughed off by others, but validated in return. So if you happen to have some open space on your refrigerator door, drop me a line. I'd be happy to send you a trifling item to display.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Calstar Tech- A Corporate Review

In the three months that I've been a parent, I've confronted a number of challenges that I have anticipated, and I've confronted a few that I never knew to anticipate. In the latter category, I have found myself having to come up with a constant flow of nicknames for my son. His (near) baldness is an obvious target: I've referred to him as Mr. Magoo, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Elmer Fudd, Luthor, and, my personal favorite, Ubaldo Jimenez. His name (Kal) has also provided fodder. Although his particular spelling is unusual, and it is not short for anything, I've compromised in referencing several people named "Cal" or "Calvin," at times getting fairly obscure (I grant that calling him Calvin Schiraldi is a somewhat unusual thing to do). I also admit that I amuse no one but myself when I refer to him during one of his screaming fits as "not so silent Kal." (Hey, I get it, even if no one else does).

On one occasion recently, for reasons still unbeknownst to me, I referred to him as "Cal Star Tech." Curious as to how in the world this particular designation popped into my head, I googled "Cal Star Tech." There is such a business as "Calstar Tech," but there is no good reason for me to know of its existence. It doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. But what it does have is a website. And though studying this particular website gives me no insight into the inner workings of my own mind, it just may give me insight into the inner workings of today's corporate mindset. Looking at this website, I can't help but think: "no wonder we are in a recession."

First of all, Calstar Tech is not, as I would have presumed, in California. It is in India. In fact, the website boasts that "Calstar Technology is one of the Fastest Growing Company in India." So right off the bat readers are met with a combination of unnecessary capitalization and lack of pluralization. And apparently they are not so unique either--according to google, there are over 36,000 of the "fastest growing companies/company in India."

So what exactly does Calstar Tech do? According to the website, "Calstar Technology is one of the Leading Software development, Training and Consultancy Organisation providing Design, Development, Reengineering, Maintenance, Support, Consulting and Migration Services in the areas of Databases, Internet, ERP & eCRM to our clients." Cutting through the verbosity (and more grammar issues), it appears that we've got a company that writes software, and they will work directly with businesses to ensure that the software works. They boast that they have been "catering to the all High-End Software Requirements of Fortune 500 companies spread across the World."

Aside from grammar, so far so good. What kinds of businesses do they work with? Here is where it gets interesting: "Calstar Technology has years of experience with a number of industries, such as Healthcare, telecommunications, retail, Transport and financial services." They go on to boast that "Our specialist teams focus on the changes generated by issues such as e-business, globalization, and deregulation." I'm struck by the way that they try to balance an incredibly diverse (and completely unrelated) list of industries with the claim that they have "specialist teams" (even though the specialist teams seem to focus on incredibly broad "issues." "E-business" is an issue that your specialists work on? Really?)

Here is another sentence taken verbatim from the website which seems innocuous enough at first, but is very revealing under scrutiny: "The successful implementation of various projects is due to the technical niche our team enjoys in arenas as diverse as follows: [and a diverse list of technical projects follow]" For one, we have more annoying verbosity and passive voice construction (could you say "We are successful because" instead of "The successful implementation of various projects is due to"?). But the deeper issue here is that they boast that they fulfill a niche in diverse areas! You either diversify or you serve a niche, you can't have it both ways!

I could probably spend another 18 paragraphs criticizing this company's website (including the ridiculous graphics, one of which is captured above), but I don't want to run the risk of straying from my core purpose. Yet before I log off their site, I am tempted to take advantage of their "contact us" feature and send in a request. I wonder if they can write some software to help me come up with nicknames for my son.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Idea of a University

A nationally-known Catholic university in Milwaukee hires a lesbian dean...and then retracts the offer. It's a tailor-made news story for several reasons: the media embraces flashpoints in the culture wars, accusations of discrimination are always journalistic fodder, and political tensions on any university campus are always going to be regarded as interesting.

Marquette's president, Rev. Robert Wild, was quoted as saying that to discriminate against homosexuals is contrary to his university's mission, that the decision to retract the job offer was not based on Jodi O'Brien's sexual orientation, but rather that it was based on ideology that she espoused in published writings: “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family."

To some, this probably comes across as a rather weak attempt at spin. But I tend to take him at his word. I'll admit to not having scrutinized O'Brien's writing, but as somebody who has read a fair share of academic articles, it wouldn't at all surprise me if this were an accurate description, perhaps one that O'Brien herself wouldn't dispute.

I do think that this situation came about because of a culture clash, but not necessarily the clash that every commentator is talking about (Catholicism vs. homosexuality). The clash I'm seeing here is Catholicism vs. social constructionism. Social constructionism holds that all of our institutions, ideologies, and practices (political, social, economic, religious, etc...) are formed, or "constructed," by society. These constructions are also regarded as essentially arbitrary. A job of an academic then, is to determine the origins of that construction, and perhaps to critique its utilitarian value. As somewhat of a corollary to this theory, academics are often intrigued by exploring the negative ramifications of our constructions. They regularly argue that the institutions we have constructed serve as power structures, and in fact power structures that seek to perpetuate themselves through the exploitation of certain groups that are designated as "others." Furthermore, if something can be constructed, it can also be deconstructed. Therefore, many scholars see themselves as needing to deconstruct existing social institutions in the name of justice for the oppressed.

And consequently, it seems completely likely to me that this particular academic would be seeking to deconstruct the social institutions of "marriage" and "family." And this obviously creates a tension point when the university you seek to work for believes that these institutions are not arbitrary social constructions, but divinely established.

And I'm not sure there is a way to reconcile this tension. But I do wish that at the very least the tension would be recognized. It's just too easy to look at this as a "gay rights" issue--for the general public, that at least speaks to an area of familiarity. Social constructionism is not in the vernacular of the media or the public at large. And for that, I'd put the blame on the academic world. Scholars do a good job talking to each other, but are often lacking in their ability to communicate with the masses. And if they were more skilled in this area, the discourse surrounding this recent incident would be more meaningful for everyone involved.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

People Take Warning

Flooding, tornadoes, an explosion, a mine disaster, unrest at the stock market, a high-profile murder, and a mass transit accident. I suppose this could be a description of news headlines of the last 30 days, but it could also be a list of events that led to the creation of popular songs in the first part of the 20th Century. A few years ago, a 3-CD box set was released with a collection of such songs.

For a stretch of several decades, whenever a disaster struck in this country, or even a sensational event such as an unusual murder, it would become the basis for a song. When the south was struck by flooding, it became the inspiration for countless blues numbers. Folk singers drew their inspiration from similar events. Woody Guthrie became renowned for his Dust Bowl ballads, but his most chilling song just might be 1913 Massacre, about the deaths of of 73 mine workers and family members at a Christmas party.

Even into the early 1960s, the folk genre was still drawing from "current events" for song subjects. Bob Dylan writes in his autobiography of picking up the newspaper for inspiration during his Greenwhich Village days, with the "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" perhaps being the greatest product of this method. But as time went on, "disaster songs" faded from public consciousness. Sometimes a protest song would pop up in the wake of a specific event, such as CSNY's "Ohio." Once in awhile you'd get a cover of one of those older songs, devoid of the context of the original composition, such as "When the Levee Breaks" by Zeppelin. And as perhaps a singular example of a disaster song of the 1970s, Gordon Lightfoot had a hit with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

But as the years went on, disasters and tragedies kept occurring, and they weren't being made into songs. The Challenger explosion would have resulted in a number of songs had it occurred in the 1920s, but not so in 1986 (though a space shuttle explosion in the 1920s would have been a bit of an odd happenstance, I suppose). An event the scale of 9/11 did inevitably result in a handful of songs, perhaps most notably Neil Young's "Let's Roll," but by Hurrican Katrina, the most notable song was Randy Newman's re-make of "Louisiana 1927," about the previous worst flood in that state's history.

To understand why those songs have gone away, we probably need to understand why they flourished in the first place. Perhaps in a time when news travelled slowly, or at least slowly relative to today, they were the last vestiges of the oral tradition, hearkening back to the days when raconteurs and lyrical poets would travel around villages singing the news. But perhaps they served a psychological function as well. While an individual might be able to come to grips with a problem by talking it out with a therapist, a mass tragedy might require a larger scale for "talking it out." These songs were the way that a nation of people could deal with the senseless, the tragic, and the unfathomable.

And though the songs have gone away, this need hasn't. We've just shifted our gaze to the more visual and the more immediate. Many motion pictures now depict monumental events of the recent past in an intensive and immersive manner, and our 24-hour news cycle, cable news channels, and now even Twitter and Facebook provide the outlet that music used to provide for us to "work through" unexpected occurrences. And it hasn't helped that the music industry has made artists non-prolific. When you are supposed to wait a couple of years between albums, it is hard to rush into the studios and cut a song.

But although we have found cultural substitutes for the "disaster song," I don't think that these substitutes need to be replacements. I think there is still a need (and if bean counters must hear it, I'll add "a market") for this defunct genre. As stultified as radio playlists are today, it would be a challenge for most artists interested in attempting to write such a song to "fit the format." But there is one format that I could see embracing the possibilities. I think contemporary country could be a fertile ground for the re-emergence of the topical disaster song. And there is no better time than now. The last 30 days have given country musicians ample material, including some occurrences in their own capital.