Good People Doing Good Things – Pay It Forward Day

A reminder from a good blogging friend that there are good people out there doing good things in spite of everything going on around them.

Filosofa's Word

Yesterday, April 28th, was Pay it Forward Day.  Since it is too soon to find the many people who found ways to ‘pay it forward’ just yet, but since I did not wish to let the day pass unnoticed, I am reprising my post about the day from 2017.  For many of you it will be new, but even if it isn’t, some of the things these people have done is worthy of a second read, three years later!


“From what we get we make a living – from what we give, we make a life.” – Arthur Ashe

wed-pif-2

As usual, I am about a day late and a dollar short.  Well, actually about 5 days late, as it were.  But, better late than never, right?  Turns out that April 28th was the 10th annual Pay It Forward Day.  Yes, folks, there is actually an annual Pay It…

View original post 1,021 more words

Picture Puzzles

There is little doubt that the novels of Joseph Conrad will soon gather dust in forgotten sections of the few remaining libraries around the world. For one thing, Conrad’s novels have been castigated by China Achebe, who tells us that we should not read Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness because the author has the audacity to use the “N” word  with abandon. This is absurd, of course, and I have defended Conrad in print against this attack. But Achebe’s essay is much read while mine also gathers dust in libraries around the world. So it goes.

But, more to the present point, Conrad’s novels will not be read because the novelist was an impressionist, which is to say, he demands of the reader that he or she engage their imagination in order to enter the world the novelist has created. He hints and suggests rather than describing in detail; he allows the reader to infer from the written words what it is that has not been written. And while it is certainly the case that there are fewer and fewer readers of books it is even more certain that there are fewer and fewer of those who have the capacity to engage Conrad’s novels or indeed any work of art with his or her imagination. The problem is, of course, that our imaginations have become shriveled by the entertainment industry which is convinced that the more graphic and vivid the entertainment the more success it will have. God forbid that we should have to make an effort!

This is a shame because the world of the artist is a richer and fuller one than the one we occupy in our ordinary goings and comings. But it demands that we pay attention and that we imagine what is NOT being said.

In Heart of Darkness, for example, we are taken into the world of avarice and greed on a major scale as Europe is in the process of pillaging the world of Darkness in order to make a buck — the only real value that seems to be shared among those who are not the exploited of this world. In that novel, the hero, Marlowe, is seeking out the man Kurtz who has disappeared and, because he has been very successful in bringing tons of ivory back to Belgium, is sought by the company — if he is still alive. Marlowe wends his way past villages that have  been laid waste by greedy Europeans; he eventually finds himself approaching the hut where he is told Kurtz is to be found. He describes the sight as he approaches:

“You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable given the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as though from a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post [in front of the hut] with my glass and saw my mistake. Those round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing — food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the poles. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned toward the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way.”

The passage goes on for a bit, but Conrad does not describe the orgies and the murder of the blacks that Kurtz was engaged in to satisfy his sensualism and greed, his lust for human flesh and elephant tusks, not to mention his contempt for the blacks he exploited. Conrad demands that we imagine for ourselves. Can we do that any longer? I do wonder.

Another impressionistic novel that I finished lately also provides us with bits and pieces and asks us to out them together to form a complete picture. I speak of the Nobel Prize winner Yusunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes — which draws on the Japanese Tea Ceremony to assist us in putting the pieces together. Doubtless it is more difficult for us Westeners to do without the proper indoctrination into the complexities of those ceremonies, but it is made even more difficult because  most of us are forced to read the original in translation. Those difficulties aside, we must, above all else, think and attend carefully to what is said in order to imagine what is not being said.

Toward the end of the novel, Kikuji, the hero of the novel, has found his way into the interior of himself and realizes that the woman Fumiko is the one person in the world for whom he is able to feel real love. As he approaches her house very near the end of the novel he discovers from a young girl that Fumiko has “gone away with a friend.” Kikuji realizes at once that this means the Fumiko, like her mother, has taken her own life. Kawabata does not spell this out for us. He suggests it, as does Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and we are left with the terrible awareness of the emptiness in the man’s soul — a sense that comes to us as we put together the pieces the author has provided us with, using our imagination.

Kawabata’s novels, like Conrad’s, will also gather dust on the shelves of libraries around the world — in the East no less than the West, as we can infer (even at this distance) from the impact Western capitalism has had on the orient. For better or worse — and many a Japanese writer suggests that it is worse, much worse — the East is being informed by the West and Western values, such as they are. But in any event, both novelists demand that we use our imaginations and we are slowly but surely losing the ability to do that. How sad.

Revisiting Heroes

I have written several times about what it makes to be a hero. It is more than wearing camouflage and holding a flag at sporting events — though we are told that our armed forces are all heroes. In a sense they are (or at least some of them are)– in the sense that they are doing something they may or may not like to do in order to foster the greater good.

And we are now being told that doctors and nurses, indeed the entire “health care” family, are all heroes. And they are, though I am not sure we need to be reminded of it every few minutes on the boob tube. But those people put their own lives at risk to help people they have never even met, patients with a disease that can easily be spread to the care-givers and their families. These people deserve the title “Hero.” And it demeans their vital role in these times to make light of the risks they take, to dismiss the whole thing as a political ploy or insist that the danger is over-blown. The danger is very real and moreso for some than others — though we are all at risk.

But what about those who work for minimum wages at the stores deemed “essential,” such as grocery stores and the like? Those people come into contact with a great many people every day, people who may or may not be taking care and people who cannot, under the circumstances, keep a “social distance.” It seems to me that these folks deserve the praise that comes with the designation “Hero.”

To be sure we are verbally sloppy and use words loosely — such words as “tragedy” for example — and this applies to the term ‘hero.” Sadly, this demeans those who deserve our thanks and high praise. If everyone is a hero then no one is a hero.

But some are and we need to acknowledge the fact that there are folks out there in our stores trying to make ends meet on meager wages and risking their health in the process. Those who help others and in doing so take a risk are worthy of the accolades attached to the term “hero.” Those who wear camouflage and risk nothing do not.

Boredom

I have said it before and I will say it again: boredom is a state of mind. When a person complains of being bored he is simply telling us that he has an empty mind. There is no reason whatever why anyone in this world should be bored. Ever. Not even now.

The coronavirus is taking its toll on Americans as they begin to realize that they have nothing to say to those near them and they are running out of things to do. I have heard a number of people complain how bored they are. The other day a professional golfer was interviewed and when asked what he was doing to waste away the hours and he said he was binge-watching movies on television and asked the interviewer to recommend titles as he was running out of ideas — and he was bored to death.

When I coached tennis I recruited players from around the world: Colombia, Holland, Finland, Mexico, among other places. These were the only players I could get because our facilities were so terrible (three lay-cold courts outside and a wooden gym floor with lines for two indoor courts pasted down every Spring). Local players of any caliber would visit, take one look and say “no thanks.

There were a few remarkable exceptions, of course, but the foreign players didn’t realize how bad the facilities were until they got to town. And then it was too late! But they came from great distances and couldn’t simply get in a car and take off for a week-end or even Thanksgiving. So they remained on campus and I never heard any one of them complain about how bored she was.

These were remarkable young women who were not only bright but also enterprising: they found ways to entertain themselves and fill their time. Among other things, they read books and got ahead in their studies.

But we hear complaints on every side as we are now forced to stay at home and find ways to spend our time. I say “we” knowing full well that there are those who play down the seriousness of the pandemic and stroll about in crowds. But should we take them seriously? Surely not. But finding things to do to entertain minds trained to open themselves to electronic stimuli is not easy for a great many people. It is nearly impossible for others.

One simply wonders what these people would do if there weren’t any electronic devices to provide them with entertainment. The golfer I mentioned above will find more movies. There are enough to fill anyone’s weeks and months. And there are games and sports replays a-plenty. So the notion that these are boring times needs to be qualified to read: “I have an empty mind and cannot find a way to fill it.” Just imagine how empty it would be if there were no electronic media to fill the void!

We Americans are terribly spoiled and are used to having things our own way. That’s at the root of the problem — though the fact that people don’t read any more and have little or no imagination with which to invent new ways of spending time is also a factor.

In any event let’s stop complaining and look around and realize that there is really so very much to fill our lives — and perhaps those we must now spend many hours with are well worth getting to know!

“Student Athletes”

I ask my readers respectfully to allow for a moment of silence as we bury once and for all the myth of the student athlete.

R.I.P.

With the corona virus off and running and spreading ill health and death to many on the planet, I note that university presidents and athletics directors around this country are desperately searching for alternatives to what they see as the end of sports as we know them. They talk about playing football in the Fall in front of empty stadia — even when the colleges and universities are closed for business due to the virus scare. I say “they” meaning “some” because a few presidents realize that the claptrap they speak in public about the student-athlete dies as soon as plans such as these are even discussed, much less pursued.

If these “student-athletes” play football before empty stadia and especially while classrooms are empty as well, then the myth lives no longer. The players are professionals and they play because the universities desperately need the revenue from filled stadia. Indeed there NFL is seriously thinking about playing before empty stadia. But they are openly professional. Colleges and universities are not, presumably. One athletics director told a spokesperson on ESPN that his entire athletics program lives or dies with the revenue that comes in from football — as much as 80% of their entire income comes from attendance and gifts during the football season. Interesting.

Another idea floating out there that is designed to save the athletics programs is to have the football season played in the Spring. This idea has very few takers, but the fact that it would even be discussed once again lends the lie to the myth of the “student-athlete.” It also lends the lie to the fiction that the student-athlete’s health and well-being is a concern. Given the notion that these young men would play (even a truncated) season in The Spring and then take  a couple of months off and return in July to start practice for Fall football, it is clear that no thought whatever is being given to the health and well-being of the players themselves.

But I have said it before and I will say it again: major college football has nothing whatever to do with education. Basketball, is not mentioned because the revenue from basketball is slight compared with football. Not only are the meager numbers of graduating football players an on-going embarrassment to the universities (even those lesser players who remain on campus for four years), but there is now talk about paying them since their performances are obviously so essential to the running of the athletics programs where, in many cases, as many as eighteen different sports are played by great numbers of “student-athletes” – and supported by the football program.

The notion that Spring football is even a remote possibility, as is the more likely notion that games would go on in front of empty stadia in order to at least being in some television revenue, makes it impossible for anyone to use the phrase “student-athlete” with a straight face — at least in the context of major sports at the largest of our universities.

Stay tuned….

 

Terms In Quotes

I wrote this post almost ten years ago and it received minimal interest at the time. But my readers have changed over the years (even as they remained small in numbers!) and the topic does seem relevant. So I repost it here as, in the current climate, it is difficult to find new topics to discuss that I have not either already written about or are of the political variety, which I avoid like the plague that it is.

I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.”  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.

As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.

My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.

Head In The Sand

I spent a lifetime trying to help young people take possession of their own minds, helping them think and ask fundamental questions. I often wondered if mine was a futile and perhaps even a wrong-headed task. But then I came up with thoughts like the following which I posted about six years ago and which still ring true.

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

(I would only add that I would now think the coronavirus will be over by Easter because our president has willed it to be so. But I know better.)

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

There Is Hope

There is hope and I repost this piece in an effort to convince others that this is true. This has nothing whatever to do with the corona virus, by the way. It is simply a timely reminder,

I meet on a regular basis with a good friend who still teaches at the university where I taught for 37 years. He teaches English and was talking about a remarkable paper written by one of his students in a Freshman Composition class. The student is a high school student taking college classes in order to reduce the time and money spent in college later on. It’s a program that Minnesota has had in place for many years now and some of our best students have been those kids who are still in high school. In any event, the paper this student wrote was so remarkable that I asked for a copy and read it with astonishment. The assignment was to go to the library, take any magazine and write what most impressed the student about that particular publication. The idea was to (a) teach the students where the library is, (b) have them read a magazine and (c) test their observational and writing skills. This student picked the National Geographic. (S)he decided to compare and contrast recent copies with several written years before — as early as 1915.

The student was impressed with the great difference between the older version of the magazine and more recent issues. (S)he compared the length of the articles and was struck by their simplicity and brevity. As (s)he noted “Fewer words and more pictures.” (S)he then went through two articles, both on Armenia as it happens, in the two publications — word by word! After the more recent article, (s)he concluded:

“This passage contains ninety-six words, four sentences, nine commas, two colons, one pair of quotation marks, and one pair of dashes.”

(S)he then contrasted this with an older article on the same topic and noted that:

“This passage has 146 words, four sentences, twenty-two commas, two semi-colons, and a pair of dashes. There are four lists, if groups of adjectives are not counted, and there are even instances of figurative language present in the older article that are not found in the newer one. On average, there are 4.67 letters per word in the first [newer] passage and 1.39 syllables. This is significantly different from the 5.58 letters per word in the second [older] excerpt, and the 2.26 syllables. We are simpler now than we were before. . .”

Needless to say, after this remarkable study of the particulars in the two articles he was eager to draw conclusions — as you can see from their final comment. But (s)he shores up that conclusion with further evidence. At the very end of his paper (s)he contrasts two passages from literature, a short story by Conan Doyle and another current one by Stephanie Meyer. The conclusion is worth pondering:

“These passages both describe characters that the protagonist is meeting for the first time. The descriptions, however, are barely comparable. Meyer is vague and barely scratches the surface of the characters, while Doyle goes in depth about his character. Meyer uses sentence fragments in her writing, while Doyle uses comprehensive sentences. The styles are not simply 2000s writing against 1910s writing; there is more to the differences than that. People do not want to read the older literature on the grounds that it is ‘too hard,’ it takes effort and time to truly comprehend Doyle’s work, where anyone could understand what Meyer writes about.”

I would also note the shrunken vocabularies and diminished imaginations of those who still read and write — a number that also seems to be shrinking.

It is possible that this student is writing what his professor wants him or her to say (students tend to do that) or even that (s)he pilfered this article from the net. But that would all be sour grapes. I prefer to think that this young person has a good head on his or her shoulders and not only writes well but also thinks well. I realize, of course, as does my friend, that this student is one of those few that have slipped between the cracks of a decaying educational system. This is why we were so excited. So many of their peers in colleges all around this country prefer the picture books and the short paragraphs that demand no intellectual effort whatever. Reading, writing, and thinking have become passé. They are so analogue, so we hear.

This explains the growing popularity of a demagogue who uses small words, twists the truth around his tiny fingers, makes vapid promises he cannot possibly keep, and seems, contrary to Lincoln, capable of fooling a great many people most, if not all, the time. Still, it is delightful to read such a paper and to know that there is hope if young people such as this manage to work their way to the top and have a say about the future of this country and our besieged planet.