Archive for April, 2015

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

Recently, a new “100 Days” project emerged; this one labeled The Great Discontent and a product of an inquiry begun by artist Ella Luna. A few of my friends joined the plan to make something for 100 days in a row and post the results to a selected social media platform. Always eager to be more creative in my daily life, I elected to begin a “100 Days” project, too.

The “100 Days” project runs from Monday, April 6 through Tuesday, July 14, 2015. Beginning a project on April 6th seemed particularly fascinating, as it was the day after Easter, the traditional conclusion of Lent. No matter what our beliefs (or lack thereof), human beings crave ritual.

finish-each-day-and-be-done-with-itMany of my artistic friends selected drawing for 100 days, but I turn to words when inclined to create. Words are my touchstone. When sad, or lonely, or confused, or feeling powerless, I read and write. While casting about, trying to imagine what I’d like to work on for 100 days, I considered a variety of writerly exercises, including 100 days of metaphors, but that plan transformed.

Ultimately, I decided to curate a collection of good advice; thus, my project is on Instagram with the label #100DaysofGoodAdvice.

My selection of “Good Advice” highlights two fundamental questions: what does advice entail, and how and when might it be considered good?

Defining words requires traversing a complex landscape of meaning while maintaining a keen awareness of implication. Advice suggests a useful approach to life. In order for it to be good, it must be purposeful. All advice remains dependent on situational factors, an eloquent answer may be wrong as often as it is right. At this point I am reminded of Heraclitus’ proclamation, “workoutYou cannot step into the same river twice.” Despite these challenges of connotation and relevance, after a full fifteen days, I’m thrilled with the results.

I have to make the conscious effort to find and select a new piece of good advice each day, attempting, when I can, to connect the events of my day with some larger perception, as when I spent a weekend visiting a longtime friend, and I was reminded of the eminently useful bit of wisdom I learned in a song from Girl Scouts, “make new friends, but keep the old (one is silver and the other gold).”

Collecting good advice also requires acknowledging the meaningful encounter, as when I happened upon this empowering idea outside a health club on North Avenue. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to perceive my work out routine.

Another wonderful thing about the words and phrases embodying good advice is that the thoughts contained are largely positive, hopeful, which may simply be a reflection of my optimistic sensibility. Knowing that is good, too.

Awareness and intention are essential, and responding to the call to be inspired may be the best any of us can do to remain vibrantly alive.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Jen and I got married 13 years ago.  After a small ceremony, small reception and small honeymoon, we had to take care of the paperwork.  Trips to the DMV and Secretary of State were necessary to gain new ID’s and Social Security cards. Unlike most married couples however, both Jen and I needed new documentation.  We both had new names, and hence, new identities. On an October day in 2002, she became Jenny Jocks Stelzer (nee Stelzer), and I became Michael Stelzer Jocks (nee Jocks).

13 years on and the fact that I changed my name when I got married still catches people off-guard. So not surprisingly, a recent Atlantic article titled ‘Men Should Consider Changing Their Last Names When They Get Married‘  caught my eye. Not only did I ‘consider it’; I actually did it. Of course, I have been asked many times why I made the unconventional choice, and I believe I provide such queries with a very good answer.

A couple years before we got married, Jen and I talked about the topic of spouses changing names after marriage. As a progressive, idealistic 21 year old who enjoyed going against social norms, I stated with a good deal of bravado that if we ever got married I would gladly take her last name, and cast off the surname Jocks.  A bit incredulous, she asked, ‘Really’?  ‘Sure, why not’, I responded…..Buuuutttt, the more I thought about it, the more troubling I found the possibility.  I think it was later the same day that I stated I, in fact, would not become Michael Stelzer if, and/or when we got married.  After all, for my whole existence I had been Michael Jocks.  Who would I be if I changed that?  It was a surprisingly disturbing question.

On the other hand, if I found it so troubling to give up my name, and some portion of my identity, how could I expect, much less demand, that Jenny change her name simply based upon tradition?  If she wanted to take my name, that would be fine.  But, it was completely her choice and I would have no say in the matter.  Sometime after this discussion, when marriage was actually on the horizon, we came up with our compromise.  I would take her name, and keep my name, and she would take my name and keep her name.  That was that. All’s fair.

And so, this brings me back to that Atlantic article. Most of the article deals with the troubling history behind the marriage_dictionarytradition of women changing their names. I won’t go into that here as you can read the linked article yourself. But, one part does need to be dealt with in this post (and future posts as well).  The first line of the article is an absolutely dumbfounding statistic. According to a recent study, ‘More than 50% of Americans think the woman should be legally required to take her husband’s name in heterosexual marriages.’  Read that again.  It does not say over 50% of Americans feel women ‘should’ change their name (that is closer to 70% of Americans). No, no, no. Over 50% of Americans feel there should be a law that forces women to change their names at marriage.

Mind blown…

This is shocking for numerous reasons. In my next post, I want to delve into what this statistic says about how Americans’ view womens’ rights in a historical context. Here, however, I just want to point out how out of place this is in our national political environment.

Americans today are seemingly obsessed with libertarianism. Now, this does not mean a huge portion of people identify themselves as such politically. It is only about 10% of the voting public who call themselves libertarian.  But, on many topics, libertarianism has a foothold. The cause of this obviously has much to do with how Americans feel about the government.  Congress is notoriously despised by the American people, and for the last ten years, Americans simply do not trust lawmakers, law enforcers, or law interpreters. With such professed distrust of government, the American people are reaching new heights in calls for individual freedom. Gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, deregulation of gun laws, defunding of government services,  liberalization of internet control, etc, etc. On all sides of the political divide, libertarianism is front and center. It seems unlikely that this will end anytime soon.

And, so, we have a surprising paradox here.  Over 50% of Americans, meaning many who argue that the government should not decide who can or cannot get married, who believe the government should have no say whatsoever in curtailing deadly weapons, and who will march against laws limiting the size of sodas, believe, with the utmost cognitive dissonance, that women should be legally mandated to change their names when they get married. If over 50% of Americans today agree on any cultural topic, it is newsworthy. When it comes to women being forced to change their names, evidently liberals and conservatives (and men and women) agree. The majority of voters, at least in theory, support such an obviously paternalistic law.

How can we explain this?

In my next blog, I’m gonna try.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

What’s your favorite Michael Jackson song?

Think about it for a second.

Okay, what’s your answer?

Today, I tested a hypothesis of mine by texting and asking a number of people this same question. Everyone, without exception, responded within seconds:

“‘PYT.’ No question.”

“I like ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

“Probably ‘Billy Jean.’”

“I like ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’”

“‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’”

“‘Thriller.’”

“Oh – ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

For me, my answer is “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Now, why am I asking?

About five years ago, I had an idea to have popular music playing in my classroom as students arrived for our 8:00am class. I thought it would be fun and inject a bit of energy into a group of very tired people (myself included) who had just woken up.

However, I balked.

Generally, people are very judgmental and combative about music. Not just students – all people. I started to envision people would arrive and, rather than enjoy the music, there would just be gripes like “I hate this song?” or “Who listens to this?” or “This singer is terrible!” So, I abandoned the idea.

Instead, I spun it into a class activity. I broke the class into groups and asked them to come up with songs that would appeal to 90% or more of the entire diverse Robert Morris University community, which includes students, staff, faculty, and administrators of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Each group presented their best option to the entire class, and then we voted on which song was the best fit to appeal to that diverse audience.

In the years since, I’ve done this same activity with around 15-20 classes, and the answer in all but one instance has led us to the same artist:

Michael Jackson.

Around 75% of the time, the specific answer is “Billie Jean” with an occasional “Thriller” sprinkled in.

Billie Jean

A few years ago, after years of getting Michael Jackson as the answer to this experiment, I tried out my original concept just to see what would happen. I got to my classroom early and setup a playlist of “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” at the height of their popularity. I then left the room so the “teacher” wouldn’t be present. Just before class started, I peeked in. The music was playing and nearly everyone in the room was dead silent and motionless. Some of them even looked like they were reenacting A Clockwork Orange.

clockwork-horror

“This isn’t lucky at all!!!”

It confirmed my original fear, especially when I got into the class and some students started to gripe about those (at the time) extremely popular songs. This means that even the most popular contemporary songs and artists have no chance at appealing to 90% or more of an extremely diverse audience. But Michael Jackson always does.

Which leads me back to my experiment today.

When I talk about my favorite artists and bands, typically the discussion starts with, “Have you ever heard of this band?” or, “Do you like this song by this group?” Through years of this classroom activity, and through many discussions with friends and colleagues, I realized that Michael Jackson is the only artist for whom you can immediately assume that everyone will know, everyone will like, and everyone will have an immediate response to what their favorite MJ song is as if they have thought about it many times before (which they have).

So, I tested the hypothesis. As I asked a bunch of people today, “What’s your favorite Michael Jackson song?” no one said, “Eh, I don’t like him,” or “I don’t really know his music.” Everyone had an immediate response, literally within seconds.

It isn’t strange that people would love “The King of Pop,” but it is amazing that the love is so universal and unquestioned.

However, strangely, almost no one these days identifies Michael Jackson as their favorite artist. That age has passed, and perhaps just the generation of people who grew up during the time the Thriller album was released would be in play to identify MJ as their favorite artist, but the music remains unquestionably popular to everyone.

My next idea was to wonder if there are any other artists, in any other medium, that are on the “Michael Jackson Level” in this 90% appeal scenario. While sharing this whole topic with my colleagues today, we kicked around a few names. I thought perhaps Steven Spielberg; everyone has to love at least one movie from his catalog, be it Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones or Jaws or E.T. A colleague then proposed The Beatles. Both were good options, but unlike Michael Jackson, we were able to immediately identify ways in which those two would not have the 90% appeal.

Thus, the “King of Pop” really is the king of universal appeal.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.
This year’s mayoral election must be one of Chicago’s strangest with but one more day left. What’s so strange? Well, we’re having our first run off in a long time, though most experts felt the incumbent would easily win in the first round. Obviously they were wrong.
Also strange is how very different the two run off candidates seem to be. The incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, is an extraordinarily experienced, nationally known, hard driving, brash, arrogant, steam roller type while his opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, is a largely unknown, mid level Chicago machine foot soldier with no special achievements to his name, nor any shining personal skills that would explain his sudden leap to prominence.
Strange too is that “Chuy,” though new to center stage, immediately came out swinging. Unfailingly aggressive, he got lots of media coverage, and initially polls showed he wasn’t far behind Rahm. In the television debates, he easily scored points criticizing Rahm on a host of issues such as ignoring the neighborhoods, relying on speed cameras to generate revenue, and arranging pay for play schemes. Now, the strange thing is less “Chuy’s” aggressiveness, but rather Rahm’s muted, laid back, almost boy scout responses, a complete about face from past behavior. High hat’s out, demure is in.
Though surprisingly successful at first, “Chuy’s” campaign started to flounder a bit as editorials began criticizing his stand on the City’s financial crisis, criticism richly deserved. For “Chuy’s” position sounded and continues to sound bizarre, even ridiculous, as if it was the brainchild of a comedy team writing political satire for a Second City skit.
“Chuy” has said many times his policy is that he has no policy. Why not? Because he can’t offer one until he or an “Official Commission” can objectively examine the City’s “books,” implying Rahm’s budget ain’t legit. Then, several weeks ago, “Chuy” stated flat out at a BGA presentation that the “books are cooked.”
But “Chuy” offers not a shred of proof, nor does he retract his charge. Why then make the claim? All this seems strange, does it not?
Nonetheless, “Chuy” continues arguing that an “Independent Commission” must be created to assess the “books.” Yet he never discloses who he thinks should be on the Commission, what its charge should be, or how the Commission will be chosen. He also fails to explain how the Commission’s recommendations will be implemented. What if, for instance, “Chuy” disagrees with the Commission’s ideas? Chuy’s not talking.
Emanuel’s approach to the budget issue, though definitely a cut well above “Chuy’s”, also leaves much to be desired. Rather than discussing his budget proposal, he prefers listing his first term achievements and blaming Springfield for failing to give the City more money.
So the strangest thing about the election is why neither candidate will say much about the budget crisis, far and away the most important issue confronting the City. An obvious answer is that it’s unpleasant for no easy solutions present themselves.
Certainly this makes sense. However, I believe another factor helps explain the mystery namely, public union influence on City politics. “Chuy” complains about the evils of “pay to play” but neglects mentioning that public unions are the most important group engaging in pay to play schemes. The enormous pension liability the City faces is the number one reason the City’s broke, a liability incurred through elaborate pay to play schemes between our pols and the unions. Are the unions willing to renegotiate these agreements? To date they’ve said no.
Despite his oft expressed call for greater transparency, “Chuy'” never mentions his candidacy is closely linked to the unions though they contribute significant monies to his campaign and promise to supply a large army of voters. Might this be why “Chuy” doesn’t like to discuss cutting services or reducing pension benefits? Could his union ties help explain why his comments about the schools often sound like a CTU handout?
Rahm faces the opposite problem–many unions oppose his re election bid–but union influence also explains Rahm’s reluctance to discuss the budget crisis. Why? Because he fears stirring up the unions, especially the Teachers Union which he infuriated during his first years in office. Karen Lewis, the President of the Teachers Union, screamed bloody murder and vowed she’d teach that high stepping blow hard a lesson he’d never forget. And he hasn’t. Unbrashed, he now minds his manners, eats his oatmeal every morning, and makes very sure he says nothing that might upset the unions, that 5,000 pound guerilla in our living room we’re never allowed to mention.
Thus a major reason we’ve witnessed such a strange even bizarre election season is that the candidates refused to discuss the City’s budget debacle. Only feel good, gee whiz, nice guy issues are allowed. Why? Largely because of union pressures, with “Chuy” running as the union’s candidate, while Rahm campaigns terrified of mentioning service or pension cuts, lest the unions go after him like fleas on a dog. Surely Rahm is by far the better candidate and deserves to win–“Chuy’s” budget views are literally laughable– but the strange and frustrating nature of the election casts a pall over the City’s future.