Monday, April 30, 2007

Cynicism's Dark Quicksand

President John F. Kennedy hated cynicism and frequently chided the complainers in his administration. His mother, Rose, had read to him as a child of knights and heroes and brave deeds in the face of adversity. He grew to manhood believing that if one didn't like the way things were, he should try to do something about them rather than just complain. As a public servant he wrote the Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage to inspire others to act for change, not to simply accept the slings and arrows life's outrageous fortunes fling at everyone.

And it struck me today as amazing what one individual can do when one takes hold of almost any issue. I admit that much in our lives seems to visit things upon us we'd rather not face, and sometimes it's tempting to feel we really don't have much control over events and outcomes. But it's very rare that something happens that we really can't do anything about at all. When those things do happen, St. Francis of Assissi had the best response in his famous prayer, "Give us the courage to change what we can, and the strength to accept what we cannot."

The psychologist Robert Butler wrote that the human mind is programmed to think toward one goal, and that is to act. "The end of all thought is action," I read from him as an undergraduate, and it rings still in my ear today. Every thought tries to move toward a response, not just an acceptance of a status quo. It is ingrained in the species and is an imperative for survival. The mind of man is not given its intelligence, its reasoning abilities, its many faculties of memory and imagination, insight and intuition simply to mull things over and over and never conclude anything, or to wallow in self-pity, bitterness, or a sense of despair or helplessness. To do so, to harbor and cultivate resentments against others instead of trying to take positive steps to correct perceived wrongs, to the point of delusion and paranoia, is the quiet prelude to tragedy, as happened at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and countless other sad events of our times.

No one should allow himself to feel helpless in the face of life's challenges or victimized by circumstances, because no one can control what will challenge him each day. What we can do, however, is control how we respond to those challenges, and in those choices become not victims of fate but the masters of our own destinies. Someone once said, if you believe you can do something, you may be right; but if you believe you cannot, you are right. So long as you choose to feel that way, you are a victim. But it is your choice whether you accept it and remain so. As JFK said, if you don't like something, try to change it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Killer Within

Cho Seung-Hui, the South Korean senior English major who methodically and calmly executed thirty-two of his fellow students and teachers at Virginia Tech University Monday morning before killing himself, is a compelling study in evil hatred, depression, depravity, and horror of the human mind utterly disintegrated. Some students trapped in his killing rooms described his icy calm and coldblooded silence. Others spoke of his maniacal laughter as he fed upon the slaughter, returning again and again. His obscene and violent writings scared his instructors into warning others who might have intervened earlier in his silent rage, but their hands were tied because he made no overt threats, spoke to no one. He hated so many so blindly that he was convinced all hated him, and he became so paranoid that he acted out the rage within. In hindsight, his bloodbath was probably predictable, but perhaps not as preventable, for the killer in Cho Seung-Hui is, frighteningly, in each of us.

Nearly all of us control our killer rage all our lives, but some do not, and the killers capture and destroy the names of the individuals they feed upon, and blight their names and memories in infamy: the road ragers who pull their guns from their glove compartments and fire into another car, the suicide bombers whose killers within surrender their hosts to fanatic, senseless, indiscriminate murder of as many innocents as possible in the name of some misguided cause or movement, and all the rampaging, sick killers who have come to hate this world and its people beyond endurance, including themselves, and have determined to quit their human participation and break the social contract that binds us all: to live, to somehow live together, and always to respect human life.

So abhorent was Cho's hatred and so terrifying to contemplate Monday, that it was an uplifting, beautiful thing to find, as that day went on into Tuesday and into today, that Cho's legacy of hatred and death was more than matched and completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and healing at the candlelight vigil, at the memorial convocation, at the arrival of thousands of messages of sympathy and comfort. His infliction of pain and suffering for moments of a few dozen and of a lifetime of pain and loss for many hundreds more was more than matched by the heroism of so many at the scene and in the hospitals, the law enforcement communities, the entire campus and town which came together as one to grieve and support each other, by the shock of an entire nation who responded with messages of support and offers of help. I first felt Cho's hatred and the horror of evil, then felt the surging power of love and the healing peace and joy of goodness. It is the way humans are. In tragedy, grief and despair, we comfort and reach out to one another.

What I did not feel, I was amazed to realize, was hatred for Cho Seung-Hui. Not in the victim's friends and families' remarks, not in the officials' and authorities' remarks, not in the remarks of fellow students and professors he sought to destroy. It was so ironic that he felt everyone hated him, because he hated them. That they wanted to kill him, because he wanted to kill them. And that instead of destroying others, he could not destroy who they were in the hearts of those who knew them, could not sully their memories or recast them as the villains he saw in his sick mind and wrote of in his obscene, violent plays, but rather elevated their memories to the status of heroes cut down by senseless evil, to be remembered and honored as are fallen warriors and the victims of 9/11 and others.

Cho Seung-Hui sought to weaken and destroy his world. Instead he only brought it closer together and made it stronger. I have sensed that instead of a desire by anyone to destroy him, there is and will remain simply a profound sadness for him, a profound regret that no one could act to save him from his killer within. I think we realize that he, as the others who died, are in some way in us as well.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


As so many of us part-time college instructors have found, night teaching is often more rewarding than day because the higher motivated, working students seeking career advancement opportunities tend to pay attention and get their work done on time, and are less likely to cheat or plagiarize, I suspect, as well.

Carol Anne has written an excellent blog on the subject at It's Five O'Clock Somewhere, but the part that really hit home for me was her frustrations not only with some unruly afternoon students who were disruptive, but the administration's hogtying of her hands to deal with it. When did the teacher's authority get so usurped by politically correct rules that took away any ability the teacher had to maintain order and accountability in her or his classroom? I've been victimized by it myself, and I've blogged about it before here (February 14: "The Most for the Least"). I think it's even worse now than in the free-for-all '70's counterculture days. No one seems willing to recognize that within a classroom, the teacher's authority must be respected--and backed up by the administration, even if it is unpopular with parents, politicians, or school boards of the system. It doesn't take very long for students to sense when the instructor's hands have been tied, and to act accordingly.

Society tends to ultimately get what it wants. If it wants its educational system to succeed in teaching its students effectively, it must support its teachers' authority with policies and procedures that engender respect. Anything less continues the mediocre, expediency-driven weakening of certifications and degrees, to the point that society, which wants college degrees and certifications to mean something, can no longer believe those degrees have any merit.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hey guys, mind if I use my own computer?

These constant updates every time I turn on my computer are making me wonder whose machine it is anyway. Microsoft, Java, Real, Macaffee, HP, Apple, and half a dozen other denizens of cyberspace want to grab hold of my operating system every time I log on and tell me new updates are ready to download or install. I can only stall them off from their nagging for so long. I don't want most of them, and they all use the security scare to try to frighten me into letting them do whatever they want, for as long as they want, while I twiddle my thumbs or plod along side-by-side with my slowed-down system trying to do what I wanted to do when I logged on, while they tinker under the radar.

It's a little like driving with your hood up while your mechanic fiddles around in the engine compartment and won't ever let you start or operate your vehicle without him reaching back in to adjust some little frammis or kree. I hate it. I especially hate it when I'm trying to get on the net for some information, and here comes the danged popup nags again, despite my having turned off every automatic update option I can find. And when I do try to turn off any of the "security essentials" they have defined, ooh-ooh--ooh, can't do that! your computer may be at risk! flash-flash-flash.

So eventually I do take a look at what these guys want to install to make it all better, and often it's not that altruistic. Often it's a self-serving update for the company instead of something I need, like Microsoft's latest gimmick that they just want to check to make sure I'm running a genuine Windows operating system--are there non-genuine ones? What the heck else is there that could have taken over my XP I've run since I bought the machine, pray tell. Or Mcaffee insisting I "validate" my antivirus software or I can't use it till I do. Who do they think is using it, since I bought and paid for it, if not me?

Moreover, I've found that most of these wonderful free update packs come with clever little things attached that I have to opt out of manually or they'll install automatically alongside what I maybe do want. One package wanted to install a Google Toolbar in my browser, for instance. Phooey. I don't want another menu bar under everything else crowding my main window space even more like a permanent popup ad. When I want to use Google or Yahoo, I'll go to Google or Yahoo fast enough. I don't want them "available" staring at me in my Word screens or my Internet Explorer or Firefox screens or my media player screens too.

The latest Microsoft "update" wanted to put in their latest browser, which I don't want, and didn't make much announcement about their intentions. It just came through the same pipe as the little "Security Updates" that never seem to end--you know, the ones that scroll down page after page in your control panel's "installed programs" screens after the "real" software list?--, only this one was a mega-megabyte, fullfledged new edition of Internet Explorer that took over everything I was doing for about a half-hour while it infiltrated every aspect of my machine, putting in a browser with tabs that I found anything but intuitive. I had one heluva time pulling that one all out.

Maybe I have a distorted view of what I as an end user of software and hardware I purchase gives me the right to do. I like to think I can control what I do with my own stuff, and when I do it. They, on the other hand, seem to believe they still own everything and control everything forever, and I have only leased the right to use what they have licensed me to use under certain conditions, the main one being when they don't want to mess around with it. Whatever I want to do with it, as far as they're concerned, can wait. I understand their right to nag me till I buy their product for its full price, but after that, go nag someone else. I'll take my chances with the gremlins you keep trying to scare me will take over. They can't be any more bothersome than you have become.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Don't Overlook the Obvious

I once read a news item about the struggle a moving company had physically moving a big two-story house across a city to a new location. They got it up on big cushy wheels okay and through the streets and down to a bridge. But then they ran into a problem: the house wouldn't clear the height of the bridge by four or so inches. The workers struggled for some time wondering whether to weaken the bridge structure by trying to remove trusses temporarily or weaken the house by trying to lower its roof crown, and things were at a standstill till one of the workers heard a boy, watching nearby from his bicycle, say, "why don't you just let some air out of the tires?" They did, and the house slid through nicely. In their zeal to attend to details, they had overlooked the obvious.

I tend to do the same thing. A born worrier, I try to imagine whatever surprises Murphy has in store for most projects I undertake and prepare to deal with them. When we got our new refrigerator I went over and over checking with both yardsticks and tape measures the height to clear the overhead shelves, the width and depth, and cleared thoroughly the path through the garage into the house, making sure the car was parked tight against the wall to make a wide run for the refrigerator applaince dolly. We got our automated call Wednesday night that they'd deliver it Thursday morning between nine and eleven. I knew I'd be working at school; Barb would have to handle whatever came up. But I had confidence we'd done all we needed to prepare. I'd brought in cooler chests and storage bins sufficient to receive the food. I worked the icemaker faucet back and forth a few times to be sure it wouldn't stick, and taped the excess line coiled against the back of the old unit so they wouldn't run over it. I'd protected some security cam wires where they'd be run over, possibly, by creating a valley for them between two lengths of yardstick and taped everything down good. I was sure I'd thought of everything.

But when I turned on my internet quad picture of my house cams between classes, I was appalled to see one cam, the one on my front door, askew viewing the blank door jam, instead of the cul-de-sac and house across the street. I knew immediately what had happened: the delivery men had brought the fridge through the double front doors instead of through the garage. Aargh! That meant they'd probably sever my through-the-door wiring and mess up my new door cam against the house, and I'd have to repair or replace about a hundred dollars worth of equipment. I called Barb. Yes, they came in and out of the front double doors.

Well of course they would, I realized. It was obvious--the easiest way to deliver the item and remove the old unit. But in my obsession with details, I had overlooked the obvious.

Probably the worst non compis mentis I ever committed was when I once made breakfast in my Chicago near north side apartment one morning. I was trying to make up some orange juice from concentrate, and in my still-half-asleep fog I couldn't get the frozen concentrate to shake out of the large-size cardboard cylinder even after I pried off its metal lid. So I ran some warm water around it and shook it again. The vacuum was too great on the bottom; it wouldn't come out. So I had a can punch in my hand and--you guessed it. Holding the cannister upside-down over the floor, I punched a nice triangular hole in the bottom. That worked. With the vacuum broken, the entire cylinder of frozen Del Monte Premium 100% Orange Juice concentrate fell to the floor with a squishy thud. I had overlooked the obvious.

But wait, there's more! After gathering up what I could of the orange juice glob and spooning it into the pitcher, I went for the necessary can of waterto the kitchen sink and--you guessed it--filled my big cannister to the brim with cold water, crossed the kitchen to the pitcher on the table, and poured in the few drops left in the cannister which had not streamed out the triangular hole I'd made in the bottom all across the kitchen floor. Twice in two minutes I had again overlooked the obvious.

With a Ph.D. and sixty-seven years of life experience, I would like to believe I'm not just plain stupid, but sometimes it's hard to be convinced. If I've learned to respect one thing, it's that all the expertise in the world, or the intellectual accuity, or the experience, or the wisdom, or attention to details, is no substitute for the best of all smarts: what they used to call "common sense." I think maybe it's the sense nature programmed in us that enables the human race to survive, despite all the warped, airy thinking we too often, in our folly, embrace instead.