Archive for February, 2014

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Last week, the New York Times ran an amazing story.  Evidently, a team of researchers have been spending the last few years developing a ‘genetic atlas’ of the world.  What is a ‘genetic atlas’ you might ask?  Put simply, the researchers have been collecting, and comparing the genomes of people living in many parts of the world, all the while finding similarities and shared genetic markers between seemingly disparate communities. Our DNA tells the story of human history, and surprise, surprise, it is pretty messy (the history, not the DNA).  Shared genome sequences point to, in scientific lingo, ‘mixing events’, and

Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have
plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be
accounted for. For instance, many populations of the southern
Mediterranean and Middle East have segments of African origin in their
genomes that were inserted at times between A.D. 650 and 1900,
according to the geneticists’ calculations. This could reflect the activity of
the Arab slave trade, which originated in the seventh century, and the
absorption of slaves into their host populations

genetic_atlasTwo things stick out to me most with this amazing, exciting research.  First, the findings of this study, and many others of the same ilk, are continually clouding our ideas about race. This is especially so for Americans, who historically have portrayed race as absolute, and physically evident.  Historians realize that notions such as ‘white’ and ‘black’ have culturally metamorphosed over the years, and that race as a definitive genetic category is socially constructed.  But to the average American born within the twentieth century, racial categories are non-negotiable.  You are either ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, or something else.  Hence, when last quarter one of my students who was raised in Bulgaria mentioned to the class that she does not consider herself to be ‘white’, though she fits the ‘Caucasian’ physical bill, many of my students were dumbfounded.  Since they were born in America, they believe her whiteness to be not a choice; it is a mark of her biological essence.

Studies such as the ‘genetic atlas’ throw such ideas for a loop.  As the quote above illustrates, a white-skinned Italian-American student may have a genome made up of Middle Eastern, African and European portions.  Though twenty-first century Americans would consider him/her white, how do we base such a notion?  Do we simply go upon highest percentage of DNA for racial grouping?  Well, American history has generally said no to this solution.  Race, specifically ‘blackness’, but necessarily then ‘whiteness’ as well, is not based upon majority genome markers.  As Professor F. James Davis explains:

To be considered black in the United States not even half of one’s ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. It is also known as the “one black ancestor rule,” some courts have called it the “traceable amount rule,” and anthropologists call it the “hypo-descent rule,” meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. Blacks had no other choice….

As Davis points out, the ‘one drop rule’ became central to identifying power and status in the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow.  Ironically enough, such a definition of ‘hypo-descent’ was necessary for American slave-v1m2012_art10_im5_growners since they  themselves were consistently ‘mixing’ with their African-American chattel.  Though the ‘Virginian Luxuries’ sign was meant to critique the practice, it illustrates the well-known fact that slave-owners (male only) were allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to take a slave mistress.  Though never truly consensual, these interracial couplings produced thousands of ‘mulatto’ children. It was all-important to identify who was, and who was not, a slave.

Thus, I come to the second striking aspect of the ‘genetic atlas’ study.  Notice from the initial quote above what historical events caused the genetic mixing? It was usually the worst aspects of human history.  Slavery, wars, and the growth of empires caused human genomes to splice in all different directions. The history of American genetic ‘mixing’ events in the Colonial, and early Republican periods was nothing new to the human experience.  American slavery was similar to Roman wars of conquest; or Mongolian empire building; or the Arab slave trade. Each was based upon unequal power dynamics  with one people being the exploiter, and the other the exploited. Exploitation of labor, and exploitation of sex.  Our genomes display the continually violent, often horrendous tale of human historical misery.

But, let’s look for a more positive side of this research, shall we?

Maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the birth of a new, more peaceful ‘genetic atlas.’ The twenty-first century may be the first time that human-kind is mixing ‘racial’ genetic traits voluntarily and equally.  Just look at America today. What was once a taboo ‘mixing event’ is becoming something common and accepted.   Just in the last decade, there has been a 28% growth in interracial/ethnic marriages in the US.  At this point, around 10% of married couples are interracial. The number is even higher for non-married couples (18%).  As these couples have children, and their children grow up, and meet partners themselves, interracial numbers will only grow. The vast majority of Americans have no problem with this development. Is America specifically breaking racial ground? Is the genetic atlas of the 21st century going to be consensually complex?

You may say I am being naive, and maybe I am.  You may say that America is still a racialized society, and you would be right.  You may say that American racism is alive and well, and I would sadly agree with you. Racism is thriving in America.  But, perhaps race is slowly perishing.

It’s a start.


By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. ~ C. S. Lewis

Perhaps getting older is like everything else: it gets easier the more you do it.

Ten years ago I stressed more about growing older than I currently do thanks to a cheerful acceptance of the inevitable. Another Imagebirthday is approaching and the only thing that is troubling me this year, at this age, is that I wasn’t able to go on a weekend birthday trip getaway (or, rather, I elected to save for a longer trip in the summer).

There are tremendous benefits to getting older; the two key ones are, in my estimation

Alpha: Understand and accept yourself

Omega: No longer wasting time

ImageSome of the other glorious things about getting older include:

Spending time with children.

Knowing the words to old songs, and unabashedly singing along.

Loving a myriad of magnificent, beautiful people (and counting).

Welcoming the surprises life can bring, and awaiting the next with anticipation.

Thanks to the tiny bits of wisdom I have garnered over the years, I know what to do and what not to do, to some degree, better now than I did before. For instance, beige is not my color (beige clothes make me look naked, truth). A miniskirt was never my best look, so I feel fine relinquishing that costume of youth. I’ve also discovered I look terrific in a wrap dress, and I wear a signature perfume that smells divine only on me.

ImageI have accepted my own personal version of crazy; I practice punctuality and don’t like to stay up late; happily those personal tics correspond well with aging, so eventually, it won’t be odd that I arrive promptly and want to go home at 10:00pm. In fact, if I stay awake past 10:00pm in 30 years, that’ll seem like a real accomplishment, much like it did 30 years ago.

I will continue to develop my relationship with myself in the coming years. Indeed, it has been said that “the most profound relationship we will ever have is the one with ourselves.” The fact that this sentiment emanated from the 20th century actress and meditation guru Shirley MacLaine should encourage your acceptance of its veracity, since she’s lived a lot (if you get that reference, you are my age, or older—hello, fellow traveler!)

While I hope to age well, I do have a central regret: I should have started saving money when I was younger, not for retirement, but for the amount I spend on moisturizers. The one aspect of aging I do not want to have to gracefully accept is wrinkles. There is no way to avoid them; they are a key demarcation of age. To wrinkles I say, “yuck, oftentimes with an ‘ef’.”

Nevertheless, I am happy to celebrate my birthday in late February day after day, often lasting a week, or even into March—why not? I Imagecan think of limitless fun things to do, and I know enough people whom I can invite, so I take advantage of that serendipity.

Aging without growing old arises from enjoying life. Years ago, I was a bartender at an Irish pub in Cleveland, Ohio. Opening night was New Year’s Eve. I went to the hair salon before my shift, mostly to make a good impression on my new customers. I was the youngest woman in the beauty parlor by at least two decades when the stylist asked who wanted glitter sprayed into their hair. Thinking it too girlish, I immediately said, “No.”

The much older woman next to me looked up with a grin and said, “I never pass up a chance to sparkle!” In that moment, she was younger than me, and I opted for the glitter after all.

When young, we are all more sensitive to what people think. When older, we care more about what we ourselves think, and therein resides the wonderful freedom to be exactly who we want to be.

Though youth is often associated with impetuous choices, age brings certainty of purpose. Someday becomes right away, the sooner the better. I have wanted to travel to the Pacific Northwest for the past three years. This winter, I bought my ticket for a trip in July.

At my age, I know if I want to make things happen, I have to act fast. After all, Time’s a wasting.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

My grandfather had a flower farm outside St. Louis, Missouri, Sadly, he died before I was born, and I never met him or saw the farm where my mother and her brother, my Uncle George, were raised. I always thought it seemed an exceedingly idyllic setting for childhood—imagine growing up surrounded by flowers! My uncle, who helped in the fields, remembers it differently. Such is the way with memories and illusions.My beautiful picture

My beautiful pictureMy mother taught me a great deal, and her knowledge of flowers seems a most gracious legacy. She knows the names of most every flower in the Midwest—a skill learned from her father and passed on to her children. I adore selecting and arranging flowers, a cheerful activity my mom encouraged in my youth that remains with me. Through her example, I came to know the many ways to understand and appreciate flowers.

Most people do not love the rose better than any other flower. A friend of mine was delighted when her husband sent roses to her office for her birthday when they were dating. Ten years later, he still sends roses. She doesn’t quite know how to tell him she would prefer a change. While roses symbolize love, florists really market roses because they are sturdy and have a long blooming period, making them more profitable. There is a flower shop in my neighborhood, but it is preposterously expensive, roses go for $5 a stem throughout the year, more before Valentine’s Day: outrageous! Also, the store charges for every item. Unlike every other flower shop I’ve ever frequented, this place offers no free greenery or “filler” to augment the blooms, which just seems stingy, undercutting my typical desire to shop local; additionally, consumer reports show that grocery store flowers cost less, last longer and are a better value. Most importantly, if you do plan to buy roses this Valentine’s Day, know that the color of a rose matters.

Rose-Color-MeaningI’m always curious to discover what flowers are favorites among family and friends, as it reveals yet another distinctive aspect of their personal tastes. Leah loves tulips; Holly admires irises, both Stacy and Kris favor gardenias. Here’s where I ought to recommend The Botany of Desire. With regard to State flowers, I’m much happier with Illinois’ violet than Ohio’s red carnation (like Carrie Bradshaw, I’ve never liked carnations).

The flowers I prefer are vibrant and quirky; I appreciate the wide, optimistic face of the stargazer. Hydrangeas’ exceptional response to the soil in which they grow seems a valuable lesson in “nature versus nurture,” proof that environment can color reality. I’m fond of bouquets that include a variety of hue and shape, representing the ideal of diversity at its most lovely. I’m crazy for aromatic blooms; I’d love to buy enough hyacinths and snapdragons to fill my “Tree house” apartment.

I’m best at identifying spring flowers, probably because after a long winter, it is always a thrill to see them bloom, especially so this year. From the appearance of the first irises-1889tiny crocus peeking out from beneath the snow, I delight in welcoming flowers back to life; I eagerly await the forsythia in April as a true marker that spring has arrived. By the time the perfume of lilacs fills the air, winter seems a faint memory.

Valentine’s Day is approaching, and spring is hovering at a tantalizing distance; once again, it is time for flowers.

By Kaylin Hetrick, RMU Student.

My first solo trip out of the United States was just this past October. Many times I invited some friends and wanted them to start saving to come with on this great adventure. Needless to say, everyone backed out. There was no way I was, though. There’s a website I visit often, sometimes too often, that has great deals on adventure packages. I decided to book my trip to the Galapagos Islands. My package included hiking the world’s second largest active volcano and visiting Santa Cruz and Isabella Island for seven days.

Travel is a passion that will never escape me. I love going to the airport to check in, go through security with efficiency, and then wait at the gate patiently. It’s almost like a meditative process knowing that I am about to embark to an unknown place with unknown people.

When I first arrived at the “airport” on Baltra Island, Galapagos, the plane taxied straight up to the only building on the island. I felt like a VIP. I didn’t have to walk but fifty yards to find out my luggage didn’t make it out gal5of Miami where my connecting flight had been. This never fazed me though. When I’m on vacation, I don’t need any material things, just my legs to walk and my eyes to see.

The first Island to explore was Santa Cruz; it is the most populated with 17,000 inhabitants out of the total population of 30,000. The mission was to drive from one side of the island to the other, which is only about thirty minutes. At first the island looked barren with short shrubs and no trees. The sun beat down on this side of the island. Then, finally with a slight elevation towards the middle of the island it was completely different. The area became foggy and misty with no sun. All around trees were everywhere and the grass seemed to be glowing green. Along the way two huge craters came out of nowhere. Over two million years ago the craters were huge lava tunnels that had since caved in, and greenery had set in the craters to make it more scenic.

As traveling continued, the opposite side of the island became alive. This was where all the people lived. Next to the water there were many shops and people walking outside. The smell of the ocean was calming. The sounds of the birds, sea lions, and clicks and clacks of the crabs on the rocks were the sounds of nature.

The Galapaganians are the only people who can inhabit the four of fourteen islands. Most students and tourists can only get a visa for three of less months at a time when visiting. The only other way to stay indefinitely is if you marry someone that is from the Galapagos. What’s so fascinating about the people is that they have a depth of respect for each other and all the creatures on the islands. Many times while in a vehicle driving to and from a destination, if there was a bird in the road the driver would honk, and even slow down to ensure the animal would not be in danger. It was forbidden to take anything from the islands, even a small rock or shell. No one may touch any of the creatures or try to harm anything. I loved the respect the people had for their land.

sierra-negra-volcano-isabela-island-signAfter a couple days on the main island, I got in a boat and traveled to Isabella Island. This is the largest, yet youngest, island of the Galapagos. Isabella Island is less developed and only has a population of about 2,000. This is also the location of Volcán Sierra Negra. I hiked that volcano for ten hours. It was worth it. Similar to the other island the climate changes drastically. Ascending the weather was foggy and wet with mist. Sometimes the sun would show through, but the sun was dangerous at such an altitude. Towards the top of the volcano, about three hours into the hike, a clearing came through.

The volcano was vast and looked like a pit of black sharp rock. The volcano peak is 12 kilometers across. A million years earlier, lava was flowing violently down the side ofgalapagos-islands-volcan-sierra-negra-y-volcan-chico this dangerous place creating new surfaces of this island. On the side the lava flowed you could see the path it took all the way to the ocean. Only the areas where the lava didn’t touch had greenery. The other areas were covered with sharp, rough volcanic rock. I could even feel the heat coming through my feet from the lava that still flows way below the surface. It was incredible.

My trip wasn’t long enough, but what adventurous trip is? The islands in the Galapagos over time will shift and fall back into the ocean. There are five humungous volcanoes under the surface that create the islands that are visible today. The tectonic plates continuously move and after several million years more islands surface from below the ocean. How cool it that? I think it’s pretty awesome.

By Steve Varisco, RMU Student.

I am usually the one complaining. I like to do it. My friends expect me to rant and rave about the simple annoyances in my life. (Some even find it amusing.) I’ve even gone as far as to complain about how terrible it is being a night student: work all day, class all night, on a terrible diet due to no time for dinner, all the homework and group projects, submitting papers for final grades, etc. It is terrible being me with all of my first world problems. This post is something different. I want to share a learning experience I’ve had.

I’ll try almost anything once. I enjoy having unique experiences. There is one experience that will stick with me forever. This came about during my first attempt at college 15 years ago. One of the people in the dorms with me was in a wheelchair. Being the smug and invincible teenager that I was, I bet him that I could handle being in a wheelchair for an entire day. I used to always say, “The whole world is handicap accessible now. What’s the big deal?” Little did I know, my dorm-mate was on the wheelchair basketball team and he had a spare chair. I was about to learn what the big deal was.

The terms of the bet were simple: I couldn’t use my legs for the entire day. But the fun actually started the night before the bet began. The door to my dorm room was not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. What I would have to do was roll out of bed and pull myself out into the hall where my new mode of transportation waited for me.

I need to interject at this time and notify all readers that I was 5’10” and weighed in at a whopping 145 lbs. My musculature could have, and was, described as non-existent. Pulling myself across the 15 feet from my bed to the door was not exactly stress free. What was worse was trying to maneuver in the bathroom. But that is a story for another day.

Finally, I’m in my chair and ready to make my way to class. Right from the start, I noticed the smallest incline in every sidewalk. The idea of propelling myself up each one seemed like a cruel punishment. Had I not wheelchairknown better, I would have thought that my stride-challenged friend had spoken to God himself to ensure that there were no downhill slopes the whole way to class. I was moving at a snail’s pace. By the time I got to class I was 15 minutes late. Usually, I was 5 minutes early. First lesson learned. Can’t move so fast when the world is leaning against you.

Once in class a fun new discovery hit me. All the desks had the chairs connected to them. There was no way I was going to try sliding in one. I decided using a hardcover text book as a table top was the best idea. As I pull the backpack off of my lap I realized how sweaty and steamy the gap in between the two points had become. I was soaking wet wherever the backpack had been touching. Luckily the backpack was waterproof or else almost the entire contents would have been in contact with “eau de Varisco.” As I’m about to put the book on my lap so I could take notes, I decide against the idea. I just felt disgusting as I sat defeated and listened to the instructor drone on for the rest of the hour.

Finally it was time to go back to my dorm. Learning from earlier mistakes, I sling the backpack around the back of the chair. I roll outside and relish in the fact that the whole ride back will be downhill. I start rolling towards the dorm. Thank goodness I don’t have to push myself. I start picking up speed. The breeze feels so refreshing. I get to the end of the block. I hadn’t had to stop like this yet. I grab the wheel rails and they slide through my hands. I let go. I brace myself and grab on again. The rails are sliding through my hands, burning as I try and stop. I clamp down and manage to hold on to execute my stop before hitting the street. I look at my hands. They are black from dirt and a fine layer of skin had been removed. Second lesson learned. Every advantage has a disadvantage.

It was only 10:30 a.m. and I was already hating my big fat mouth. I roll inside and was greeted by the professional wheeler. “How’s it going?” he asks.

I can hear him already enjoying what he thinks will be a victory. I muster the best smile I can, “Piece of cake!” I say as I roll towards my room.

I expect my arms to fall apart at any time. I get to my room and remember I won’t be able to go in there. The chair doesn’t fit. I turn around and roll to the common area tables. I can see Mr. Wheels smiling at the other end of the hall.

I live through the whole ordeal two more times during the day. No matter how much I planned, I was never able to anticipate all the obstacles in my way. On the way to my second class, I found that my shortcut through 792886_1_Ocampus woods wasn’t going to help. Foot trails aren’t made for wheelchairs. Halfway down the paved path through the woods, I encountered a downed tree limb. Any other day I could have just stepped over. That day, I had to double back and take the long way around. By the time I get to class there are only 10 minutes left. The third class is on the other side of campus. I usually make it just in time. Defeated, I roll back to the dorm. Third lesson learned. I’m an idiot for thinking I can do this.

Upon my return, I’m sweating, out of breath, dirty and tired. Wheelie is waiting for me. I could sense him sitting there smiling from the time I gave up on going to my third class. When I get inside, I roll up to him and concede. “You win” is what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really say much. I was worn out. I stand up, glad to use my legs. They were the only parts of my body that weren’t screaming for relief. I wave off the chair and Mr. Wheels. My hand is a smear of dirt and blood. Defeated I walk into my dorm room and fall asleep.

Wheelie McWheelson and I are still friends to this day. Whenever we meet up, a game of wheelchair basketball is customary. Needless to say, he always wins. He also never lets me forget that day. Even if he didn’t constantly remind me I will never forget. Learning about somebody by walking a mile in their shoes is dumb. Try wheeling “half” a mile in somebody else’s chair.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Though I study history, which is undoubtedly the ‘softest’ of the social sciences, I enjoy reading about and keeping track of ‘harder’ sciences. Yes, even physics.  But, to be honest, most physics of today I just barely grasp.  It is just too complex, specialized, and my eyes, arcane.  It is intriguing to ‘learn’ about the newest discoveries in the world of quanta, or the most exciting theories about ‘multiverses’, but it is really to, excuse the pun,universe-multiverse-1024x768 ‘far out’ for me.  I took physics in high school, and an introductory astronomy class in undergrad, and even at that rudimentary level the mathematics and scientific jargon were just too complex for my liberal arts brain.

dog_wolfOn the other hand, I can wrap my head around biology.  Now, don’t get angry all you biologists/biology students.  I am not saying I could easily become a specialist in your field. I most definitely could not.  However, biology is much more understandable to a layman like me.  Maybe this is simply because I can see my role, as a human lifeform, in the biologist’s world more than the physicist’s world.  Or, maybe it is because of biology’s founder, Charles Darwin, and his theory of natural selection.

Darwin’s incredibly important, and influential theory is explainable, in a very rough and ready way, within minutes to even the most science-phobic folk.  The theory itself makes sense on a rational level. We, as human beings, can imagine evolutionary theory even if we don’t completely understand the process.  Look at a wolf, then look at a dog.  See the similarities?  Yeah, that is because they are related. Wolf evolved to dog.  When?  Well, we are still trying to figure that out.  Why? Yeah, that is still a question too. But, wolf slowly evolving into a dog is imaginable, even to a child.  Now,  try to quickly illustrate Newtonian, Einsteinian, or quantum physics to said child.  On second though, don’t.  It’s just not gonna work.  

HeliocentricWe live in a strange world, where up is often down, and black is often white.  The world of astrophysics, no matter how immensely strange, foreign and arcane, is blindly accepted by most anyone who calls themselves sane.  Just imagine the heliocentric solar system.   The vast majority of Americans faithfully argue that the Sun is at the center of our world. Only the crackiest of crack-pots would take the opposite stance.  Yet, why is this so?  Can Americans prove we live in a heliocentric system in which our planet is spinning in an elliptical orbit at an enormous rate of speed around a giant ball of burning gas?  Have they seen the Earth revolving?  No, they have not.  So, why believe? Well, because scientists tell us so, and they’re the experts. 

Antithetically, Darwin’s much more obvious theory of evolution by natural selection is always fighting an uphill battle for acceptance throughout the world, but especially in America. This is doubly true when it comes to the touchy subject of human evolution. A very large minority of Americans believe with all their might that humans were created in our present state, and have no relation to other primates.  98.7 % DNA shared with chimps be damned! Same physiological features be damned! Constantly growing fossil record be damned!  For those Americans, it doesn’t matter what biology or Ockham’s Razor says.  They just aren’t buying it.

Obviously the reason for this distaste of Darwin’s incredibly well documented theory are complex, and controversial, and I really don’t want to touch on them in this post. What I do want to illustrate is the exciting news these people are missing. I want to let them in on some recent findings in the field of human evolution that are blowing collective scientific minds. The seemingly daily breakthroughs, theories and discoveries in the world of anthropology, paleontology and human genetics is, to put it mildly, awe-inspiring. See here:

These are simply a few stories about human evolution to appear in the last couple months.  Yes, you read that correctly: MONTHS. Not accepting Darwin’s theory, and hence, most likely human evolution, makes all these stories moot.  To put in bluntly, if you are in that large minority of Americans, you are really missing out on a great deal of our  amazing world. I suggest you celebrate Darwin’s 205th birthday by reading these attached articles, and then, analyze your worldview.

Go on. Darwin will wait.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

“Oh, Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”  – P. B. Shelley

Regardless of how miserable winter can be, I love the seasons. My short residence in Florida proved that though an endless vacation may seem tempting, there is something of primal importance in the delineation of the seasons as markers of life, growth, death, renewal, and the passage of time.

I was not surprised to discover that Groundhog’s Day is based on the ancient rite of Imbolc, which like all pagan rituals celebrates Imagenatural phenomenon and life cycles of the universe. The Christians co-opted this holiday (among others) and created the mid-winter holy day of Candlemas. Along the way, Groundhog’s Day emerged. At this point I feel compelled to recommend Bill Murray in Groundhog Day since winter is a great time to stay in a watch a movie.

Groundhog’s Day falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, the true middle of winter. No matter what holiday we observe, the celebration marks making it halfway through winter. In every other era before this one, surviving until the midpoint of winter was a physical triumph, not just a psychological one. Think about all the real hardships that our forebears experienced specifically extreme cold (without that trusty thermostat) and limited food supplies (no stocking up before a cold snap). Fuel was unreliable and difficult to procure. The food saved for winter was all; when the provisions ran out, there was simply no more. Add to these terrifying realities other issues, particularly with regard to hygiene and illness. Not too much in the way of bathing occurred in the cold months, and sickness spread rapidly, regularly claiming lives. While we have tired of winter at this point, we are fortunate that the season is no longer life-threatening to a vast number of Americans (though the poor and sick and old throughout the world are perpetually at risk).

ImageThe seasons demand a visceral consciousness of the natural world. Weather remains a perpetual topic of polite conversation, even if it consists primarily of complaints. Weather is one of the few shared experiences; we sympathize with each other because we endure together. And, like every struggle humans face, weather can reveal wonderful human traits.

Moreover, without winter cold, there would be no need for knitted scarves, eradicating one type of my favorite accessory. I love wearing scarves, and now that it is regularly below 10 degrees, I wear two at a time. My favorite scarves were made especially for me by my generous (and crafty) friends. I can thank Ruthie, Jackie, Ingrid, and Hanna for the extra warmth they’ve brought to me life, in colorful, portable form.

Too often, contemporary life allows and encourages ignoring the natural world. The seasons bring us back to our senses. With the change of seasons comes the joy of anticipation, too. There is always something new to long for, whether soft spring rain, or warm summer nights, vibrant autumn leaves, or the hush of snowfall.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Chicago’s museums are second to none.  Though all the major museums in the Windy City are worth an afternoon or two, none is better, in my humble opinion, than the Art Institute of Chicago.  As luck would have it, theAIC-Facade-North-View1 AIC is all of two blocks away from the Chicago campus of Robert Morris University.  For each class I teach, I try to create at least one assignment that gets the students over to the AIC for a couple hours. If I have a little free time, I am more than happy to join them.

As a father, I have been looking forward to taking my two daughters to the Art Institute for some time.  The girls have already visited the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Field Museum more times than I can count.  I take them to museums because I want them to gain an appreciation for Chicago’s cultural attractions early in life. How early?  Well, my daughters are now 7 and 5 respectively.  You may think this is too young for places like the Field, but you would be dead wrong.  The girls love it there, and never get enough of the Evolving Planet exhibition, the Ancient Egyptian exhibition or the Hall of Gems.  Heck, they even have had fun going into the special exhibits on Ghenghis Khan and The History of the Horse.  The Field, not to mention the Museum of Science and Industry are wonderful places for children, since their exhibits are usually pretty flashy and hands-on.

On the other hand, the AIC is a bit more staid and serious.  I love the AIC, but it is safe to say the term ‘hands-on’ isn’t very welcome there. Still, both my girls are pretty well-behaved, and they love doing, and looking at art, so I figured it was time to break the seal.  The perfect opportunity to take them to the AIC presented itself the day before RMU’s December Holiday break. Since the girls did not have school, and their babysitter could not watch them, my wife and I decided to bring them to the downtown campus for the day trading off parenting duties between our classes. During my two hours with my little…angels, I figured I would introduce them to the Art Institute.  Why not?  I figured they were finally ready, or, perhaps, I was finally ready.

I am happy to say that the experience was a positive one.  The girls really enjoyed themselves, and though the younger one  took her teddy bear in, they didn’t end up breaking anything.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that a good number of exhibits at the museum were, at least partially, ‘hands on’.  Some pieces had computer tablet set-ups that allowed viewers, including my girls, to investigate the art more closely.  The girls loved this, and since they have been using touchscreen computers since, roughly, their births, they were able to really go crazy playing with images of the art.

As a parent, the ‘hands-on’ aspect of the museum was a nice surprise. But, also as a parent, the gruesomely violent nature and/or graphic sexuality of much of the art was an unpleasant shock.

Now, let me make myself clear. Neither I, nor my wife, are prudes or philistines.  I am not some ignorant bumpkin who never noticed the raciness of art before.  I am not embarrassed or disgusted each time I walk into the Ancient Greek exhibits.  But, as I walked my girls around the museum, I was looking at the artwork through new eyes; parents’ eyes. I have been looking at art during my adult life as a student, or a connoisseur (honestly a dilettante), or a teacher, and never as the protector of two small girls standing by my side.  As parents, my wife and I have tried to shield our children from the violence of television and movies as best we can.   Then, boom!  I let my guard down at an institution devoted to culture with a capital C, and as we walked out of the area devoted to Impressionism, we stumbled upon this:


And, here come the questions.

What is she doing to him?  Is that blood? Why are they cutting his head off?

Crap. This is a tough one. As I tried to scoot the girls out of the room, they didn’t want to go. They were transfixed by the gruesomeness, and obvious taboo nature of the painting.

So, what could I do?  I did not want to shut the door on this experience.  I decided not to cover my girls’ eyes, ears or mouths.  Let me try to explain.  After all, no matter how much I want to protect them from worldly knowledge, they are going to come upon such images sometime, or someplace. It might as well be in the reverent halls of the AIC, instead of the trash-heap of FX, FOX, or A&E.

“Well, girls….you see….”