Virtual Bourgeois

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Archive for the ‘autobiographical’ Category

Once more unto the blog, dear friends

Posted by Gerald on April 4, 2012

It has been nearly a year since I wrote anything here.  My film review project just fell flat – I was getting less and less interested in anything I had to say about those films and the whole thing started feeling like a job, so I just kept not doing it.  Still, I kept feeling like I wanted to get back to writing regularly.  This has also been a period in which I’ve been doing many things I’ve intended to do for a long time. So, I’m back once again, but this time with no agenda save to keep a journal that others may read if they choose.  The plan is to post once a week, and more if the spirit moves.  Now, I’ve said I was going to do this before, and failed, but I’ve also said before I was going to eat better and exercise regularly and failed at that too – but now I’ve lost 70 pounds and I’ve kept up with my health regimen for six months, so I’m a little optimistic about keeping it up.

Do, or do not, there is no try.

Okay, the big event in my life this week was the death of Ginger, my dog of some 13 years.  I really don’t know how old she was, since she was a rescue dog my mom adopted years ago.  She was at least 14 and might have been a couple years older than that.  She had really slowed down over March and then just crawled in a corner and died last Friday night.  This is a new avenue of personal loss that I’m exploring, and I’m still processing it.  I don’t have much to say at this point except that the house is really empty now.  I do want to add thanks to all of my friends who expressed their concern.  Seeing twenty-seven responses to my Facebook post about this was very touching.  I especially want to thank Steve and Mandy Kapica and Julie Dixon Grimes.

On a much less dismal subject, I made a decision this week.  I’ve been experimenting with playing MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games) for about three years.  I started with EVE Online, then Star Trek Online, and finally a short foray into Star Wars: The Old Republic (which just launched).  What I’ve decided is to leave these behind.  I really don’t like the online multi-player format.  This was brought home to me last week when I joined some other players in TOR (short for Star Wars: The Old Republic) to run a multi-player “flashpoint”.  I was new to the game, which I told these guys, and I screwed something up.  I then found myself being called vile crap (“fucking idiot” was the mildest term).  While I’ve met some cool people in these games, most of what I’ve run into was more like this.  Add to this unnecessary static in my life the problems of having to coordinate my computer gaming with other people and this was quickly becoming too much like an extra chore – and I’ve got enough real ones.

I’m really not blaming the game or the fans – it just isn’t for me.  I still love, and will play, single-player games like Skyrim or Fallout.  Ultimately, I think that this isn’t something I want to do with other people.  Computer games provide an entertaining way for me to escape others.

The big exception is Star Trek Online.  First, the game is free to play, so no money lost.  Second, you really can play most of the content alone if you want.  Third – its Star Trek.  I’m maintaining my account there.  I’ve cancelled my other ones and the big thing here is that I’m not going to try any new ones unless I know people in real life who want to play with me.

Other notes for the week:

I started reading James Garner’s autobiography.  My friend Dana Hatcher loaned it to me awhile ago.  It isn’t a great piece of biographical writing, but it is fine if, like me, you’re a big fan.

I also started watching the new adaptation of Great Expectations on Masterpiece Classics.  No opinion so far beyond planning to keep watching it.

My friend Jon Foster recommended a documentary called “Shut Up Little Man” which I just finished before writing this.  It is interesting.  It details two guys who made audio recordings of their drunken neighbors fighting and the results went viral.  What makes this interesting is that all of this happened between 1987 and 1989 – no internet.  It was disseminated through people who traded cassette tapes of found audio across the country.  It then takes an interesting twist with the coming of money into the story.  Finally, the film-makers address the whole question of the ethics and exploitation inherent in all of this.  It was very good.

That is it for this week – probably.  Talk to you next week.

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Posted in autobiographical, my blog | 1 Comment »

Fall Opening Session

Posted by Gerald on August 10, 2007

We’ve had three straight days of record breaking high temperatures here.  Given that we are talking about NC in August, record-breaking has meant three days with triple-digit highs and high humidity to boot.  This the major reason why I’ve been a bit quiet these days.

Today was our big opening session.  As always we had a big assembly of faculty and staff.  Our president gave us a motivational and informational talk.  Then all the new employees were introduced to the group – including the two very cool women who have joined my department.

Then we recognized a truly remarkable member of our staff who is beginning her well-earned retirement.  As Faculty Senate President it was my job to present her with one of a series of limited edition prints of the main art and sciences classroom building on campus and then to say a little something.  I totally bungled and forgot to get the print, but luckily for me there are people around me who pick up my fumbles – and I like to think I occasionally pick up some of theirs (my use of a football metaphor here is incredibly strange for me and requires some reflection on my part.)  This is one of the things I like about the place I work.  We have our problems but there is a real sense of community.  In any case I had the print and didn’t spoil the moment and managed to think of something to say when the microphone was passed to me.  We also passed out certificates for everyone who was nominated for our excellence in teaching award.  Again, this was partly my job.  Since I’m really loud I was calling people’s names and helping hand them the certificates as they came up.  That went fine.  Then we had another informational thing (we’re making plans just in case we have our own version of the shootings at Va. Tech. – I have a theory that all such plans are in vain but I still see the need for them.)

Then it was time for the main event.  Two older white guys (and I’m entering my mid-40s) were going to tell us how to become “Totally Responsible Persons” (TRP).  They have trademarked that.  I’m not kidding.  This went on for the next four hours – until 2:30 with a rigidly enforced 30-minute lunch break.

My good friend over at Semiotikos was also in attendance.  You can read his reactions here.

The gist of this thing was that we all need to take total responsibility for our actions and our emotional state.  The whole thing was presented via numerous homilies worthy of Dr. Phil.  The thing is there were several ideas I agreed with.

It is certainly common to place agency about one’s emotional state elsewhere – “She made me angry” – and then use that to justify actions – “so I smacked her a good one.”   That is wrong.  You cannot control your emotional reaction to something, but you can almost always exert control over what you then do to express the emotion.  Fine.  My grandmother taught me that.  My father used to frequently say “engage brain before starting mouth” – and to himself as often as to others.  His point was to think before acting. 

Our attitudes are reflected back by the people around us.  Again one of Dad’s little aphorisms – “if you look around and see nothing but assholes, you are probably looking in a mirror” – sprang immediately to mind.

Every single thing these guys said that I agreed had some validity was also something I learned as a child.  I do not think I am unusual in this.  Why in the hell did I need two corporate rah-rah types to waste four hours of my life telling me this?  I became very angry as this drew on (actually, to be “totally responsible”, I was rather ticked going in.)  First, I had perfectly serviceable parents.  They taught me things.  Second, I am quite capable of a certain amount of self-awareness and self-criticism.  Third, it is NOT the place of my EMPLOYERS to interfere in my personal moral and spiritual development.  Fourth, why in the hell should I give credence to “personal” advice given to a group of 150 people?  Advice given by two guys who hawk “no whining” watches and signs on their website?

A few people from our faculty and staff had attended the full six-hour version of the workshop and raved about it.  Hence the college ponied up the money to pay these guys (but will not fund the Scholar’s Program).  I wonder if this is what they LIKED so much about it.  They had already heard all of this before so it just confirmed what they already thought.  Different wording makes it seem all new – like a discovery that tells you you were right all along.  It works in writing best-selling books and national politics, so why not here?

I was also repeatedly struck by certain things about the rhetoric being used in this presentation.  One of my colleagues summed it up well when she wrote me a note saying “Subtle racism and sexism is alive and well.”

I agree with her summation…

… except, maybe, the subtle part.

In talking about choosing one’s reaction to emotional stimuli these guys kept going back to a “straw girl” they built starting out.  They talked about a mythical teenage girl who argues with her parents and gets very emotional but then immediately switches states when she gets a call from “the cute boy she likes.”  They then “validated” this with an appeal to the vox populi infomercial-style – “Parents, am I right?”

Hmmm… Using a teen-aged girl as an example of false emotional reactions.  Repeatedly.

In fact any time these guys wanted to illustrate a person “letting their emotions take control”, it was a woman.

Then there was the story about the Latina woman who wanted to slam the door in her house to show how angry she was but couldn’t because it was a sliding door (point – her physical manifestation of emotion was simply a “victim ploy”).  This was told by a 60s-ish white guy doing her dialog with an assumed accent.

Let us not pass unnoticed the “skit” they performed where the shorter one wrapped a piece of plastic around his head like a scarf and they then had a “domestic spat.”  The gender stereotypes were flying thick and fast.  The three women I was sitting with became quiet and stone-faced during this and I felt moved to proffer an apology on behalf of my gender – which they were nice enough to accept.

One of the presenters told a story about how Colin Powell was told he was the “best Black lieutenant in the Army. ”  He responded by saying nothing and striving to be the best lieutenant in the Army period.  I have no right to judge whether that was an appropriate response to subtle racism (for the time) or not – neither do those two white guys.  They argued, however, that another response – such as direct confrontation – would have been succumbing to a “victim mentality”

They wrapped things up be talking about Jackie Robinson.  The same point was being made as in the Powell section – direct and angry confrontation in response to injustice would have been “being a victim” whereas accepting abuse with grace is not.

Oh, and a little rhetorical point for my fellow white guys.  We do NOT get to repeatedly use the phrase “keeping his eyes on the prize” while praising how black people handle our racism.

I’m not arguing that the Powell or Robinson response was “wrong.”  I’m arguing it is A response and that there are other ones just as valid – including an immediate confrontation.  My real point is that there was a constant suggestion that those facing injustice and oppression in our society should respond by continuing to obey the rules.  Don’t challenge the system but change how you choose to react to it.

Their fawning praise of the parasitical Warren Buffet also fit into this.

As my friend points out in his blog this whole thing was a celebration of the mythologies of the American Dream.  You are an autonomous individual.  You can free yourself from any outside control by deciding that those things don’t control you (they used Viktor Frankl talking about how the Nazis could never take away the freedom of his own mind in support of this.)  Add this to their quotes about how complaining about being poor is just buying into victim mentality and you have a psychobabble justification for economic inequality.  It isn’t that the system is unfair – that is just taking the victim role.  Grab them bootstraps and pull yourself up boy!  (you can do the cooking, little lady.)

Finally, we also had a long thing about “victim language” – like “you hurt my feelings”.  Then there were the enablers and the rescuers.  The enabler responds with sympathy and the rescuer tries to fix the problem for the victim.

Again, there is some truth here.  Too much sympathy or support can be an attempt to rob a person of their own agency.  They can be about the power of the enabler or rescuer rather than the problem of the victim.

Still, the ham-fisted presentation basically said that any offer of empathy that wasn’t based in individualized problem-solving is victimization.

Today’s Lessons:

The response to everyone else’s problems should be “Cowboy up and deal with it yourself.”

and

Compassion is for the weak.

I was struck shortly after escaping this place by the idea that this all seemed very familiar.  Then I realized where I had seen this played out recently – I watched the dvd of 300 a few nights ago.

Anyone for a Totally Responsible Spartan?

I could simply go on for hours – but I’m sure we will all be doing that around the office next week.

Posted in autobiographical, community colleges, Personal, thoughts | 2 Comments »

My Real Addiction

Posted by Gerald on August 5, 2007

This has been the last real weekend off before the semester and I have been vegging above and beyond the norm.  Of course next weekend I’ll probably come up with another reason for doing nothing productive.  Until then I shall let tomorrows rationalizations rationalize tomorrow – or something like that.

Yesterday was mostly reading and playing some Civ 4.  I hadn’t been playing any computer games for several months, but I have started again over the last few days.  I must stop.  If there is an area of my life where I’ve displayed addictive tendencies it has been with these sorts of games.  I first noticed this when I was little.

When I was a kid we used to go “camping” in the summer.  My parent’s (and extended family’s) version of camping was to haul a travel trailer to a campground not far from where we lived and live in them for a few weeks.  My parents and I and some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins would all do this together.  Who had the biggest and nicest trailer became a version of intra-family social warfare.  During the week the adults (including both of my parents – mom always worked) would go into work and if there were non-working adults to supervise we kids could spend the day at the park (if not I would spend the day where I usually did the rest of the time – with my grandparents).  The first place we did this in was called Pioneer State Park and it was right on the shore of Lake Michigan.  This area was somewhat unusual because it had sand dunes.  After a few years, and for reasons that were not explained to me – I think I was seven or so – we stopped going there and started going to a place called White River Campground.  Therein lies the tale.

I used to enjoy playing on the beach at Pioneer, but there was no beach at White River.  There was a swimming pool but I never really learned to swim.  Dad tried to teach me that first summer – an experience that left him frustrated and angry and me absolutely terrified.  This was about 1969 or 1970 and the idea that you should teach children to swim BEFORE they develop a fear of the water had not been communicated to dad.  Still, I could ride my bike – which I lived on at that age – and my cousins and I found this little wading pool near the eponymous White River that was full of plants and crayfish but also had the benefit of being far from prying parental eyes.  We weren’t actually doing anything they couldn’t see, but that wasn’t the point.  We had fun, until during our second summer there the wading pool was discovered and the parental group jointly decided to ban it as “too dangerous.”  A few punishments for trying to sneak down there later, we were back to just riding bikes, which is fun, but can get old after awhile.

This takes us to the game shack.

There was a small outbuilding with three or four pinball machines.  At that point I couldn’t have cared less.  I didn’t really start playing pinball until I lived in Iowa City.  What caught me was a game called “Desert Fox”.  Before I describe this, remember that this is around 1971.  “Pong” was about to be released but I wouldn’t actually see a working version of it for about five years.  This was an arcade game, but not a computer game.  In “Desert Fox” you put in a quarter, a light projected through a painting of a desert with tanks on it.  The painting scrolled down the screen and you used a joystick to move a gun-sight back and forth while firing at the tanks.  The sight only moved along the x-y axis and when you “fired” a little red light would depict gun-flashes and a machine gun noise would sound.  When you hit a tank the whole thing flashed red and there was a bang.  If you hit enough tanks, you got a free game.

After awhile I could – and did – play for three hours on a single quarter.

Then mom found out and I was banned from the game hut as well.

The story doesn’t really pick up again until I moved to Iowa City.  It was there that I purchased my first PC.  Then I discovered Harpoon (a modern naval warfare simulator), then Doom, then the original Civilization… and way too many other to count.  The big ones recently have been Civ 4, the Medal of Honor games, and Oblivion.

I think this is a real addiction.

When I am in these I can lose days of my life.  I will keep playing late when I know I’ve got to get up in the morning.  I will play when I have significant work to do.  In the past, I had even begged out on social occasions just to keep playing.

This isn’t as bad as it used to be, but I can still get lost in these games.  The thing that really makes me think that this is a problem for me is that I KNOW that I feel better after a day of – say – reading, listening to music, and even blogging – but I will still light the damned game up.  I will tell myself I’m only going to play for awhile – and sometimes I do.  Sometimes I don’t.  I’ve taken them off of my computer.  I’ve thrown them away.  But then I hear about another cool game and I buy it.

I don’t think this is really damaging my life but I do not think it is helping either.  I wrote this to try to head off a lost evening and it seems to be doing the trick.  I do not feel the urge I did earlier to play the game.

If I start jonesing again tonight I’ll write a review of the Bourne Ultimatum.  I saw it with some friends this afternoon.  If not, I’ll probably write the review tomorrow.

Posted in autobiographical, Personal, thoughts | 3 Comments »

Low Maintenance

Posted by Gerald on July 12, 2007

I was paid an unexpected and rather unusual compliment earlier today.  It has had me thinking ever since about who I’ve been and who I am.

I was talking with a female friend and colleague today about another, male, colleague of ours.  My female friend and I had both attended a party last night where we consumed burgers made by a “secret” recipe, alcohol was consumed, and we all watched Serenity on our hosts’ big screen TV.  After the party, as she was driving home, she said she was thinking about me and her other male friends and came to a realization.

“Gerald,” she said, “you are the only ‘low-maintenance’ man in my life right now, and I really appreciate that.  Thank you” (laughing)

She seems to have (or perhaps inadvertently attract) a lot of male friends who are in need of emotional support or reassurance or whatever.  I’m not one of them.  Outside of the occasional moody post on this blog – which I find is very purging – I’m a fairly content guy.  There are some things I wish were different about my life, but I think anyone can say that.  Overall, I’m pretty happy.

What gave me reason to reflect on this, is that I know this was not always the case.  I know I have been “high-maintenance” at times in the past.  I’m fairly sure that because of my bullshit I damaged beyond repair one friendship I held quite dear.  If there is one thing that both my life and the study of history have taught me is that the old saw about how “you can’t un-ring a bell” is the absolute truth.  I tried to learn from that experience.  That isn’t the man I want to be.  What my friend told me today gives me some hope I did learn and that I am becoming that man.  That is cool.

Posted in autobiographical, Personal, thoughts | 1 Comment »

Late Realization

Posted by Gerald on July 11, 2007

In grad school, I did most of my work on modern British economic and colonial history.  My Masters essay was about the British South Africa Company and Rhodesia.  By dissertation time, I was looking at how British imperialism contributed to the industrial revolution – for anyone who knows the literature, I was re-examining the “Williams Thesis.”  I saw a test-case there for using counterfactuals in economic history and also a field for expanding on my growing interest in how scholarly arguments work.  For a variety of reasons, I burnt out before finishing the dissertation.

If there is a lesson I learned, it is that you shouldn’t pick a topic simply because you think it is important and you should really avoid getting into a topic that requires extensive research in a place you hate visiting.  To give myself a bit of a break though, I have to say that I didn’t know how poor a fit the Caribbean and I were going to be until I went there.

Looking at who I am now, I really wish I had gone into Classical Studies.  I’ve been on a Greek and Roman history kick for about two years now – really ever since I haven’t been a full-time care giver for my mom.  I’ve been reading further and further into the literature – at least what I can get here.  I’m even flirting with trying to learn Latin.  I am mesmerized and horrified by the Romans, but the whole Ancient world is so fascinating.

Damn, I wish I had figured this out twenty years ago.

Posted in autobiographical, History, thoughts | 1 Comment »

Yay! I’m Getting A Colleague!

Posted by Gerald on July 7, 2007

Ah, Saturday morning.  The dog is sleeping off her morning run, I’m well into my second large mug of coffee, Steeleye Span is playing on iTunes, and the temperature outside hasn’t gotten into the 90’s… yet. 

Now, to be honest, I already have a number of wonderful colleagues, but none of them teach history.  I have been the only full-time history faculty at our little Yale-Near-To-The-Yadkin ever since I was hired.  For a long time (since the late 1960s) we had two full-time history instructors.  One of them (a man who taught me when I was an undergraduate and then hired me as an adjunct faculty member many years later) retired.  This left us with one full-time instructor and many adjuncts.  At that point I  became a “full-time adjunct” (all the classroom hours, none of the benefits, less than half the pay) for a few years.  When that guy decided to retire a couple of years later, they had to hire at least one new history faculty, and they did.  It wasn’t me, which is another story.  Eighteen months later the person they hired decided to move on, the college had to fill that position and I did get hired that time.  Since then it has just been me.

Mind you, we have a lot more students now than when we had two full-time instructors, so there is plenty of work to do.  Our Associate Dean and my Department Chair had been pushing for another history position for awhile, and this year they finally got it.

My biggest work issue this week was interviewing applicants.  I was on two hiring committees this summer – one for a new history person and one for a new sociology person (we had hired a sociology instructor last summer -I was on that committee too- but for various reasons she isn’t coming back this year.)  I’m not going to get into any of that because of the privacy of those involved.  Suffice it to say that we found two excellent people and they both look likely to accept the positions we are offering.  Also, I have learned how different the whole process looks from this side of the table than it looked from the other.

I love history.  I love reading it, I love teaching it, and I love talking about it.  I even enjoy writing about it.  Until this week, I don’t think I’ve realized how much I’ve missed not being able to talk to someone with similar professional training and interests.  I really haven’t had that since leaving Iowa City ten years ago.  I’ve had people from OTHER fields to talk to, but no history people.  It isn’t the same.

I’m so happy I’m not going to be a one-man department anymore.

Yay!

Posted in autobiographical, History, Personal, Teaching | 3 Comments »

I’m a History Teacher

Posted by Gerald on July 5, 2007

Once upon a time, I had pretensions of being a real historian.

I was going to spend my life doing major research, writing journal articles and books, engaging in big debates, and teaching my students.  I saw myself with a career where I would be making an impact on the profession.  Hell, you should have seen my dissertation thesis.  Peter Novick once congratulated me on having picked something that was “so likely to piss off so many people.”  I was going to be paradigm-shifting with the best of them.  I was going to be a historian.

That is not how things turned out.

Some of it was life intervening, but that isn’t really why I didn’t go where I had planned.  Two realities re-shaped my goals.  First, I’m not that smart.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bad, but I’ve met class-A historical minds and I am not one of them.  Second, I’m not a researcher.  I can do research.  I can write.  I gave some papers and I even got one published.  I never enjoyed a minute of it.  As I got deeper into research for my dissertation, it felt like I was pulling my own teeth.  The idea of a lifetime of that was simply unsustainable.

So I didn’t become a historian.  I became a history teacher.

I teach at a community college.  Let’s face it, community colleges are a national punchline.  There were two episodes of “My Name is Earl” devoted to the pretensions of community college students, the thrust of which was that they hadn’t gone to a real school.  We are the subject of Rob Schneider jokes.  Certainly, from the viewpoint of most real historians, what I do is the academic equivalent of being a fry cook.  I teach nothing but basic survey courses and the occasional sophomore-level history course.  Everything I do is a case-study in creative editing because I have 16 weeks to cover dawn-of-time to 1700 and then 16 more weeks to cover 1700 to the present.  No depth, no nuances, no local case-studies, we gotta move.

I love it.

Most students who pass through the state universities here are going to take two history courses – either Western Civ or World Civ.  Those going into teaching will also take American survey.  Most real historians hate teaching survey courses.  I love them.  This, to borrow a phrase, is where the rubber hits the road.  This is where the real dialog between the historical profession and the world takes place.  The average American college grad will never even see a copy of the AHR, but they are going to hear what their survey course instructor says.  Some of those people are then going to go on to teach social studies to elementary school kids.  Freshman survey is where America learns its history.  We had better get it right.  If we don’t, the rest of the entire profession is culturally meaningless.

Years of experience at this level has taught me one important lesson.  The one thing my graduate education did nothing to prepare me for was actual teaching.  The conceit is that the best researchers are the best teachers.  I’m sorry, but that is like saying being a really good farmer is going to make you into a master chef.  There is some connection there, but they are two separate skill sets.  You can have them both, some of my former colleagues from grad school surely do, but it isn’t automatic.  I learned more about being an effective teacher from being a TA to a guy that the U of Iowa didn’t grant tenure to than I ever did in my seminars.  I learned a lot from being involved in the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, but that was a sideline in my program.  I learned to teach like most college instructors do – on the job.  Since coming to the community college I have found a group of professionals who see themselves as educators first and who take pedagogy seriously.

We lower-class community college types get 41% of the nation’s undergraduates and about 13% of Federal funding.  Our students are more likely to have developmental needs, more likely to have jobs and kids, have less money, and are less likely to come from families that are already boasting a lot of college graduates.  These were not the college-bound kids (for the most part – we always have a few of the students who were right at the top.)  Our kids are on a really tough road and most of them do not make it.

But some do – and nobody else was around to help them.  Just me and my colleagues at our silly little, not REALLY intellectual, community college.

I’m damned proud to be here, teaching my silly survey courses.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But then, as I said earlier, I’m not that smart.

Posted in autobiographical, community colleges, History, opinion, Personal, Teaching | 7 Comments »