Archive for July, 2012

By Paula Diaz, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

I’ve always found it sad that so many athletic competitions are measured in hundredths of a second—you can get fourth place (which is the same as millionth place at the Olympics) by an over-clipped fingernail or an unshaven hair in swimming. You can miss the team by virtue of a misaligned shoe tread or a loose piece of fabric in running. We don’t look at the beauty of the stroke or the style of the gait; we only care about how long it took to put the thing behind us. These meager measures of time seem to find their ways into our non-Olympic lives—especially when it comes to dealing with our kids. Or at least my kids.

I do a lot of Bikram yoga. The shortest pose in Bikram is held for 10 seconds. I can suffer a lot in 10 seconds of Bikram and walk away. I can suffer a lot in 10 seconds of Bikram and then do it again. I’ve decided that 10 seconds is the shortest period of time that I will recognize.  Bikram teachers have been trained to internalize counts and seconds—you don’t see them looking at a watch or counting off repetitions; they just know it. I’ve decided to naturally understand 10 seconds and use it to define a “moment.”

  • I will give my kids at a moment or two to start getting dressed before I ask them again. And again.
  • Adding a few moments to my breakfast routine to let my daughter put the bread in the toaster is OK.
  • If another parent has to wait a moment while my son swipes the key card at daycare, I won’t feel anxious.

There is that scene in”Pulp Fiction” where Butch and Marcellus have just escaped the dungeon (don’t think too much about it or it will ruin this essay) and Butch is heading back to the hotel to get his girlfriend, Fabienne. She is upset because they fought earlier in the day (about the watch, but don’t think about it) and he is rather undone by the “single weirdest day of [his] entire life.” But, rather than frantically rushing her to get on the bike so they can get away—which she needs to do—he takes, what?, 10 seconds?, to ask her about her pancake breakfast. He gives her a moment of attention and the difficulty between them that wanted to take hold is gone.

I am heading into a long summer home with my kids. He will want to stop every day as we are on our way out and look at the dead wasps on the front steps and tell me that they are dead (as he has done every day for the past week since we sprayed their hive). She will need to pack a bag of crucial supplies each morning—today’s selection: newspaper sale flyer, notebook, flashlight, locked padlock, and 2 carat zircon ring. Every night he will require a kiss but no hug. And then a hug with no kiss.  And finally a kiss and a hug together.  Honoring these moments will add, what?, two or three minutes of being with them to each day that I have with them.

There are no records in parenting (which is way different than birthing). No medals. So why measure, in fractions of seconds, how long it takes each day to raise them? In Bikram, before that 10 second pose, the instructor will remind us to make a decision to be in the pose; to commit all our energy to that moment. I want to be committed to their moment; to their drawn-out and repetitive collection of moments for as many 10 seconds repetitions as I can.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I just can’t look away.  The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal is rocking the sports world, and the ethical, social and economic questions that it raises have me thinking.

Students and fans celebrate Joe Pa.

First of all, I am not going to recap the scandal, or deal with Sandusky. He will be spending the rest of his life in prison, and no one in their right mind feels that is not just.  That part of the scandal is black and white; the more difficult question centers around Joe Paterno, the face, football coach and benefactor of Penn State since the mid 1960s. What has dumbfounded me is that when journalists, commentators, athletes, coaches, and general fans discuss Paterno, they constantly return to one question: How will Paterno’s assisted cover up of a child predator affect his ‘legacy’?    I would hope there would be no controversy. His ‘legacy’ is now the scandal.  Case closed. Everything else he has done pales in comparison.

Many disagree. Here is what Matt Millen, a former PSU player said on ESPN after the damning Freeh Report was released last week: “My opinion is he (Paterno) made a mistake.…He (Paterno) made a mistake and it was compounded and it was over a course of time…What means something to me is what he (Paterno) stood for. And what he was. And the character part and the character side of what he was. And what he stood for was significant….It (the report) shows he was fallible…He made a mistake for whatever his reasons are. Is it spoiled? It’s absolutely spoiled but there is still a lot of good there.”

Coach K.

Millen is by no means alone in the sports world in his defense of Paterno’s ‘character’.  Perhaps the most famous person to speak out in this way was the active dean of college basketball coaches, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K).  A month ago, Coach K made it known that he thought the firing of Paterno last year after the scandal broke was not handled properly by the university.  “You had somebody who’d given six decades of service to the university and done such an incredible job…Somehow, you have to let – something has to play out and respect the fact that you’ve gone through all these experiences for six decades. And it doesn’t just go out the window, right at the end.”  In other words, ‘JoePa did lots of good, and some bad, and we shouldn’t let the bad overshadow all the good.’ Coach K is correct in his pop-philosophy that we ‘all make mistakes’; that we are all sinners and saints. His ethical philosophy falls short though with his misunderstanding that all sins are equal, and all sins can be washed away by our good deeds.

What I see here is a problem that goes beyond Paterno, and strikes at the heart of big-time athletics. Moneyed athletics seem to lack of an understandable moral hierarchy. When an athlete is important enough, small transgressions and large moral failings often mean the same thing: an athletic slap on the wrist. Insignificant slips such as public intoxication have the same consequences in the sports world as disturbing behavioral patterns, such as physically attacking your own mother.  The athletes may face different legal repercussions (notice I write MAY), but athletically, the punishment is often the same no matter what they have done.  They are made to sit for a quarter/half/game, and cheered like mad by the hometown fans when allowed to come off the bench, out of the doghouse.

I always assumed there was a limit to this type of situation.  Assault people regularly enough, and you will see your career end; your reputation ruined. In other words, the moral hierarchy of our world would eventually catch up with the ethics of athletics. However, the response to Paterno throws this into question, and unnervingly so. By covering up for a sexual predator of children, Paterno should fall within the abyss of moral approbation on all counts. In any other line of work or society, this would be the case; but not athletics. Instead, when Joe Pa was fired last year, thousands of fans took to the streets, others ‘mourned’ at his statue (that is right, statue), and athletes were abuzz on the twitter-verse saying how unjust all this was to poor ol’ Joe. They obviously thought, as with other realms of athletics, he should be forced to sit on the bench for a quarter, thus serving his penance. As the role of Joe Pa becomes more damning in this scandal, his defenders often hold even tighter to such beliefs.

Up is down, and down is up in such a world and these topsy-turvy ethical standards are making me feel a little nauseous.

By James Baltrum, English Faculty.

Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein in 1818. H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898. MTV unleashed Snooki upon the world as it introduced us to Jersey Shore in the latter half of 2009. Perhaps this trio may seem less an ironic gathering and have more in come with each other than a first glance allows. Each of these cultural, or pop-cultural, moments addresses in its own way the struggle, danger, or absence of intellect. Tracing the major issues surfacing and re-surfacing throughout sci-fi culture, one finds a border-line obsession with the pros and cons of intelligent inquiry (versus say… emotional awareness or moral rigor), and in most cases such evidence voices a concern for the purely intellectual life. Likewise, evidence demonstrating a preference for the anti-intellectual over the intellectual life amounts to something of an Everest throughout relatively modern American politics and pop-culture.

In sci-fi literature, this obsession with the intellectual, or rather, this obsessive fear of the intellectual, manifests itself with one iconic image: the brain. Conjure up any cinematic version of the Frankenstein tale, and each contains the proverbial floating brain in a glass jar. My personal favorite has always been Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody Young Frankenstein in which Igor (Marty Feldman) has the misfortune of telling Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) that the brain belonged to “Abby… Someone. Abby Normal, I think.” A classic film from my childhood indeed! The encased and floating brain is entirely removed from its counterpart, the body. In each film adaptation, the brain – whether it’s the brain of the monster or the brain of the doctor who created the monster – is a focal point and a fault. The monster’s body lies limp, useless, harmless; it is only once the brain is jump-started with a few thousand volts of lightning that horror or hilarity ensues (depending on which version you’re watching…)

H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) provides its readers with a grim look into its author’s perception of the Industrial Revolution, with its Martian invasion and their mechanized tripods and heat-rays. Wells’ narrator provides albeit brief descriptions of the extraterrestrial beings at the helms of these devastating machine: “the internal anatomy… as dissection has since shown, was quite simple. The greater part of the structure was the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear, and tactile tentacles” (142)[1]. The narrator goes on to explain, “our bodies are half made up of glands and tubes and organs, occupied in turning heterogeneous food into blood. The digestive processes and their reaction upon the nervous system sap our strength and colour (sic) our minds. Men go happy or miserable as they have healthy or unhealthy livers, or sound gastric glands” (143). A graphic and less-than-gracious evaluation of the human body and its effects upon our higher psychological functions. The narrator seems almost admiring and envious of the invaders as he concludes, “the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion” (143). In other words, because the Martians were made up largely of brain matter, they were not constrained or confused by matters of the heart (i.e. “mood and emotion”) but because of this separation between the heart and the head, because of this totality of the brain, the narrator also notes “never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal” (64) while assessing the ruins of yet another burned our village he happens upon. Wells’s message, in a nutshell, rings apparent: the mind, when left unchecked by matters of the heart such as mood, emotion, and/or morality, wreaks havoc. The 1958 sci-fi horror film Fiend Without a Face takes the culturally presumed dangers of pure intelligence a step further. A not-so-thinly veiled commentary against nuclear science lies behind an army of alien beings made up of nothing but crawling brains with stems or spinal cords in tow. Special effects being what they were in 1958, the creatures flop around in scene after scene like water balloons of cerebral gumbo, but the point is clear. No arms, legs, or body of any sort… not even facial features to distract us. A brain is a dangerous thing on its own!

Science fiction and America’s political arena and pop-culture would seem to make strange bed fellows to be sure, but each has waged its own little battles against intelligence and the value of human intellect. You don’t have to surf too far through the channels anymore to find any number of “reality” TV shows episodically illustrating cast members’ increasingly unintelligent behavior, and it’s almost always assured that the cast member of any of these shows who does the most unintelligent thing (and survives) will be rewarded with his or her own spin-off series the following season. Nothing should be more real than good journalism, and bad journalism can be just really dangerous (if not life-threatening!). Enter Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (a.k.a Joe, the Plumber)… In 2009, Wurzelbacher travelled to Israel as a war correspondent for a politically conservative news source, hoping to illustrate that good journalism does not require any special intellect or skills sets and can be achieved, if not improved upon, by any “average Joe.” However, Wurzelbacher wound up providing a lot of other news sources with the expected evidence that, amongst other things, qualified journalists perhaps do possess a level of intelligence not found in the average population, an intelligence sharpened by keen perceptions, critical judgments, and challenging experiences. Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in 1992, walked on to the then-popular (now defunct) Arsenio Hall Show and belted out a saxophone solo-ed “Heartbreak Hotel” in an attempt to show what a regular (and damn cool – if you include the dark sunglasses he donned during the performance) guy he was. Entertainment takes precedence over intelligent discourse… Likewise, in 2008, the McCain-Palin camp attempted to get as much mileage as they could out of the VP Hockey Mom image of Sarah Palin as an everyday working mother contra Obama’s having attended Columbia and Harvard Law School and presiding over the Harvard Law Review: hockey (everyday) vs. Harvard (elitist)…

A new show I’ve been trying to watch regularly, if and when I can watch TV regularly, is HBO’s The Newsroom. Within the first ten minutes of the show’s first episode, the main character Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) laments that America is no longer the greatest country in the world but thinks back to the days when it was, stating, “We aspired to intelligence;

didn’t belittle it to make ourselves feel bigger.” There’s nothing wrong with the everyday, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with some good old-fashioned entertainment, but there’s also nothing essentially wrong with intelligence either. It doesn’t need to be feared, mocked, or cut down. What it does need is to be nurtured whenever it’s identified. Like a sapling, it should be care for and protected so that when it matures, whatever fruit it bears can be utilized in the best way possible to help as many of us as possible.

[1] Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2008.