Archive for June, 2012

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

I’m incredibly lucky to have all that I do. My life is full of tremendous things, and getting to earn a living doing something I love is near the tippity-top of the list.

My good fortune was made particularly relevant in class this week. The text for this week’s class was excerpts from The Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Marx and Engels. Naturally, we spent a lot of class time discussing socio-economic class, money, and spending. My students enjoy class discussion; here’s a chance to talk about real things, and try to make sense of them. From my perspective, the most significant moment of our conversation this week occurred when I told them that I truly believe that having more money would not make my life happier.

Fascinating data provides evidence that, after achieving a set point of “comfort,” enough income to live safely and comfortably, more money does not increase happiness. Look to the work of Dr. Martin Seligman and his fellow psychology professors for the astounding intricacies. In fact, theorists have moved away from using the term “happiness” in their research because it is too often conflated with pleasure (what feels good). Understanding the attributes of a fulfilling life is complicated, but investigating and promoting “well-being” seems to be more productive.

My poor students: this might have been the first time they’d questioned the promise of more money. Imagine the questions that erupted! I had to explain a lot quite quickly. I assured them that I am not foolish enough to suggest that money is irrelevant, or that I remain angelically above the temptations of commerce. Nevertheless, the revelation isn’t about me. It’s about the perception that more money will mean more happiness. Not some money, more. Always more. Happier with more. The endless futility of this logic should be obvious, but many of my students remained unconvinced.

Interesting what a “tough sell” (pun intended) this is to my bright, inquisitive, ambitious college students. And why shouldn’t it be so? How many times they are encouraged to go to college to “make more money”? College is bought and sold like a product, and nearly every other aspect of daily life is packaged as a commodity. When told that college is an “investment,” they all “buy it.” I’m not the first person to point out that metaphors matter. If we continue to frame life in economic terms, we will be eternally disappointed. The repercussions are far beyond the scope of this diatribe, but consider how infrequently students are asked to question the capitalistic motivations in their lives. Living an enriching life is not about more money. Students need to know that how they choose to spend their time and apply their talents, in college and beyond, should be not be motivated by the desire to have more, but the determination to be more.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

If you remember my previous post, you know that my wife has created an incredible fruit/vegetable garden in our yard. In a small amount of land, she has peas, beans, carrots, strawberries, beets, and much more.  At this time of year, there are a good number of plants producing; asparagus, chard, lettuces, onions. My two favorite plants producing this time of year are strawberries and peas.  We must have 15 strawberry plants, and 20 pea plants.  We should be able to harvest this, and use it in a fresh culinary innovation, but we never get a chance.  We have two major pests that grab the fruits of the plants before we can.  They are not insects, rodents, or marsupials.  The pests are our children.

Our girls are 5 and 3 years old, and they are pretty adventurous eaters.  Like all parents though, my wife and I have to cater our desires to their tastes.    I would love to make some wonderful Indian dishes, but to our girls, this is “too spicy”.  So, it is a nice homemade Mac and Cheese with three cheeses and broccoli.  They will gobble this up, so I really shouldn’t complain.

As with most children, the girls have their seemingly irrational likes and dislikes.  The oldest will eat raw broccoli all day, but she won’t touch it if it is steamed or sautéed.  She literally turns up her nose.  The younger one enjoys sautéed asparagus, but only the stems, and not the ‘gross’ tops, even though there is no difference in taste between the two.   Though this can be infuriating at dinner time, it is an interesting phenomenon to watch from an unemotional distance.  I wonder why they, and most children, are so seemingly random in their tastes. I can’t say for sure what causes this, but I do have a hypothesis: my girls and other children want the autonomy of making a choice for themselves.

This brings me back to our garden, and the two little girl pests that eat our produce before it can be brought inside to process.  One of the girls’ favorite things to do is picking the veggies and fruit directly from the plant, and popping it right into their mouths.  They don’t want to be told to eat it, because it is good for them; they want to eat it because it is fun. In fact, when I asked my elder daughter why she so voraciously ate all the green and purple peapods right from the plant, she simply replied that “it is fun”.  I think it must be fun for the same reason that it is fun for my wife to work in her garden; it is a wonderful feeling of making your own choice, your own world.

Picking peas “is fun.”

Unfortunately, with the industrial food system, this experience of grabbing your own food by yourself is rare for some, and nonexistent for most.  Food is packaged to an absurd extreme in today’s world. (Del Monte produced an individually wrapped banana last year!)  At the same time, we face a mounting health crisis where the closest children get to a homemade meal is Old Country Buffet, and the closest they come to fresh fruit is Snapple.  Many times parents simply say that children will not experiment, and hence, they give them the easiest mass produced food-stuff for their growing bodies.  However, the garden has proved to me that kids do crave experimentation if it is autonomous.  This was driven home to me when the girls got their hands on arugula, and ate it direct from the pot.  That’s right, I said arugula. I really don’t even really like plain arugula.

Harvesting your own food is fun; cooking your own food is fun; food should be fun. The mass production companies realize this, and take advantage of it by stuffing horribly made toys in cereal, calling their ‘food’ happy meals, and marketing “snap, crackle, and pop.”  What we need to remember is that nature still provides kids with much more fun than any factory in Battle Creek, Michigan ever could.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

A couple days ago the New York Times ran a story about the re-dating of an ancient flute found in modern day Germany.  The flute, made of bird bone and mammoth ivory, was thought to be 36,000 years old but more recent dating has pushed the age of the flute to roughly 43,000 years old.  This is the oldest musical instrument known, though that doesn’t mean it was the first musical instrument.  Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.  I have no doubt that buried deep within caves of Africa there exist remnants of even more ancient musical instruments that early humans crafted and used.

Lascaux Cave Bull

Though there may be older ones waiting to be found, a 43,000 year old flute is pretty darned ancient.  To put this into context, the famous cave art at Lascaux was probably completed 25,000 years after this flute was utilized. This is more than just an interesting side-note in the New York Times Science section, or in the world of archeology. This flute says something important about humanity.  Such an amazing finding provides evidence that music is as ancient as any human artistic expression and that human nature is inherently musical. Symbolic language is usually the trait scientists identify as to what makes humans different from other animals, but music cannot be far off. In fact, evolutionary archeologist Steven Mithen believes that human language and human music are very much interrelated. Though this is a controversial idea, there is no debating that the symbolic use of music provides another example of human uniqueness.

Knowledge of the flute raises the inevitable question: What did these ancient Europeans use music for? That we may never know, but it sure is fun to guess.  A safe assumption would be that music was central to proto-religious and spiritual rituals; perhaps it was utilized to calm nerves and entrance listeners, especially infants; or, maybe music was used for entertainment and dance.   It doesn’t seem like a big stretch to believe that dance went hand in hand with this ancient instrument. Dance has probably been with us for as long as music, though, of course, there will never be any physical remnant found that proves this to be the case.  But just as music is a part of all human cultures, dance and physical reactions to music are as well.  It doesn’t matter who you are, it is darned near impossible not to have a kinetic reaction to music as it is played.  Tapping of toes, drumming of fingers, whistling, humming; these things come naturally.

I would go so far as to argue that dance is an inborn human response to music. If this seems doubtful to you, crank up some beats for the nearest infant you can find.  The smallest children are enthralled by music, and will move rhythmically when some tune catches their attention.  I know this first hand, since at 6 to 9 months old my daughters loved playing drums, blowing flutes, and hitting piano keys, while swaying or shaking rhythmically to the sounds they made. Children develop this desire even before they have the ability to speak words.  I am sure 43,000 years ago, some prehistoric parents were amazed to figure this out; or, maybe they were simply relieved to realize a good way to keep their baby occupied was to let him pound on the ole’ reindeer hide drums.

by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

I can’t take it anymore. I want to go back to Europe. I haven’t been on a European vacation since I accompanied some friends to Ireland for their wedding in 2004. This is unacceptable. I need to travel.

It doesn’t help that I really only watch PBS, which means endless episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe. He is incredible dorky, and I need him desperately. He’s my connection, my pusher. I’m addicted to the quaint landscapes and elegant buildings of Europe, and frankly, I need a fix.

I have been lucky enough to visit several European countries, but there are still so many on my wish list. Unfortunately, European travel isn’t exactly in my budget these days. I did the bulk of my travelling when I lived in Ohio because it is cheaper to live in Ohio. The cost of living in Chicago just doesn’t enable the expensive flight across the Atlantic. So, I’ve been left with no alternative but to ache with unrequited love for the countries yet unseen: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain. Strangely, the same “PIGS” held responsible for the EU’s economic difficulties are the places I’ve yet to visit. Perhaps my presence there could usher in a new economic prosperity. I’m not much of a souvenir shopper, but I’d do my part.

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If you’re wondering what’s so special about Europe, you probably haven’t been there. Beyond anything else, I adore the authentic sense of place: the awareness that the cities and towns grand and small mean something to the people who live there and pass through. Additionally, European cities are remarkably walkable, and enormously pleasant to see in that way, closely and slowly. Like a good American traveler, I am quieter and more careful when I am in Europe, adjusting to the lifestyle and longing for long, lazy days in a café.

Another reason why I long to travel is due to its astounding capacity to remind me exactly who I am. When I am alone in a foreign country, I sense my true self completely. The lack of anything familiar brings me to the surface. I am who I sometimes forget to be: observant, grateful, aware. The newness of each experience is like a visit to the awe-inspiring aspects of childhood; the whole world opens in incredible ways. I recognize that I am a part of something grand and mysterious.

I’ll feel that again, someday. I’ll busy myself entering free travel contests and shopping for cheap airfare online. Until then, the desire will have to do.