Archive for January, 2016

Here and Now

Posted: January 27, 2016 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

The practice of mindfulness began with the oldest philosophies, yet in a world inundated with distractions and desires it is more necessary than ever.

Everything can be done in a state of mindful focus and intentionality. I am reminded of the “Zen art of sweeping the parking lot” as expressed by a teenage employee who was gently mocking the advice of his boss, the owner of the small convenience store at the end of my road who believed that a well-maintained parking lot is a beautiful thing, achieved with the utmost care and purposefulness. When engaged in what I consider the best things in life: walking, dancing, baking, cleaning, cooking, swimming, I am filled with the joy of the activity, living fully and happily in the moment.

A recent study attempts to measure the impact of mindfulness on happiness, applying technology in an ingenious way while gleaning an astounding amount of insight thanks to the possibility of enormous research participation through an application feeding the findings to the TrackYourHappiness.org project. A discussion of the discoveries can be found in the TedTalk by Matt Killingsworth.

The results yield fascinating insights, particularly the significant correlation between mindfulness and happiness, determined through feelings of well-being experienced when people are truly present and engaged in the current moment and activity, whatever that may be.

Another extremely encouraging result is that among all the activities human engage in, the one activity that engages us the most, commanding 90% presence in the moment, is having sex. I find this data incredibly reassuring since it provides positive proof of the powerful impact acts of love wield on our imagination, in case the plethora of novels, paintings, songs, and poems weren’t proof enough.

I recall a related definition of happiness from the movie Shadowlands

Jack: Now I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. Not waiting for anything new to happen. Not looking around the next corner, not the next hill. Here now. That’s enough.

Joy: That’s your kind of happy, isn’t it?

Jack: Yes. Yes it is.

Intentional, intense, and sustained attention can be built also a reliable life skill. Often challenged by the many diversions of modern life, concentration must be established and maintained to accomplishing anything. Thus, the practice of mindfulness and development of focus becomes more crucial; I remain firm in my position that smart phone dependency undermines daily productivity and happiness, among other things. No matter what we are in the midst of, more contentment emerges through finding meaning in each moment.

Recently, my friend Kris created a mindfulness project for his art students, inviting a yoga instructor to expand his students’ understanding and inform their work. He’s the kind of art teacher who ensures learners go on to lead meaningful, creative lives.

As for engaging in moments that are less wonderful, it seems that accepting the difficult days as they are might be the best strategy, too. We must find the strength to live through things. Here, again, Kris offers wise counsel, including accepting the aches which accompany life, “pain now or pain later,” is his sage advice.

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Whenever possible, we must seek to live fully and deeply in each moment. Indeed, being fully present is an extraordinary act of choice, one upon which our happiness may even depend.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

It is difficult to decide what Star Wars’ fans like to do more: Watch Star Wars, or identify all the influences and cultural references within the Star Wars film universe? Countless books, articles and blog posts have attempted to decipher the shoulders that George Lucas stood upon in making his space opera. Most people by now have heard that Lucaskuro9 created a tale that fit Joseph Campbell’s meta-myth structure, or that he gave life to characters similar to those in the samurai films of Kurasawa, or that he sometimes blatantly copied old Flash Gordon television serials.

Star Wars’ fans devour this seemingly arcane information, and I am a Star Wars’ fan. As such, I have always been intrigued with the sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure cultural references contained within Lucas’ masterpiece. But, as a student, and now professor of European history, one reference/influence has always struck me above all others. George Lucas obviously created his evil Empire in the guise of the ‘fascist aesthetic’ most infamously formed by the German director Leni Riefenstahl, and her 1935 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Triumph of the Will.’
Leni Riefenstahl was a famous, talented, groundbreaking German filmmaker in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. And like many of her German cohorts of the era, Riefenstahl became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She used her immense talents for the party, directing a number of full length propaganda films. ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is her most influential and troubling work. ‘Triumph’ is a roughly two hour celebration of the 1934 Nazi party rally in the Medieval city of Nuremberg. 120 minutes of Nazis goose-stepping and cheering the ‘Führer’. If you have in your mind’s eye an image of fascist spectacle, it has probably been molded by Riefenstahl’s film.

Riefenstahl’s films were as artistically influential as they were politically abhorrent. Filmmakers could not ignore her innovative cinematography. Her techniques of wide Triumph-of-the-Will-2shots, crane shots and sweeping cameras were co-opted by many after her. When I first saw ‘Triumph’ as a sophomore in college, I realized Lucas was one such director. Riefenstahl made the 1934 Nazi rally look massively popular and powerful by setting a camera high above the whole parade grounds, recording thousands upon thousands of Nazi party members lined in rows. In such shots, the Nazi hordes are a man-made sea, being parted by the all- powerful leader, Adolf Hitler. In the same film, Riefenstahl records Hitler high above the masses, standing upon a giant concrete viewing station and watching stoically as his SA and SS march by on the parade ground. When viewing such scenes, it is impossible not to see Darth Vader 7dafa3515f1704408b38da906ceba044and the Emperor marching through masses of Imperial Stormtroopers. Lucas made such scenes even more powerful by using John Williams’ ‘Imperial March’. In this, he was no different than Riefenstahl, who used music in much the same way. Of course, the music she chose for her celebratory film made the Nazi Stormtroopers seem heroic, whereas Williams’ march makes Vader’s Stormtroopers dreadful. For Lucas, the Empire and its’ leaders become the personification of political evil by being the reincarnation of Riefenstahl’s Nazis. The empire is fascism revived.
With such thoughts in mind, I must say I was excited to see if J.J. Abrams would continue utilizing the ‘fascist aesthetic’ of Riefenstahl for ‘The Force Awakens’. I was not disappointed. With modern computer graphics, Abrams was able to do so even more effectively, and spectacularly than Lucas.


Abrams’ ‘First Order’ feels fascist. The military outfits, the giant image of the supreme STAR-WARS-THE-FORCE-AWAKENS-First-Order-Bilderleader and the symbology that surrounds the movement illustrates that Abrams continued the fascistic look of evil from Lucas’ galaxy. Like Lucas, Abrams used Riefenstahl as the ‘First Order’s’ reference point. Just look at the apocalyptic speech by General Hux, as he prepares his troops for the destruction of the Republic. Wearing military haute couture, Hux stands on a massive concrete platform with red ‘First Order’ banners hanging behind him. He speaks to thousands of ‘First Order’ troops lined in formation. When he is finished, the troops raise their left hands in salute. Hmm, that definitely looks familiar, doesn’t it?

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Riefenstahl and fascism are living on in this new Star Wars galaxy. Happily, Rey, Fin, Chewy, Leia and Luke will be fighting it in Episodes VIII and IX. We must do the same in our own galaxy.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

My senior year of high school, I vowed to get in shape. At that point, I had been playing the role of “fat kid” since at least 5th grade, and I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin thanks to the teasing and invisibility to girls.

I decided to workout each day after school. I would go home, say hi to my mom, and then disappear into the basement, where I would lift weights and run tiny 25 foot laps across the room for 30-60 minutes.

I had always been athletic despite my weight, but the chubby kid will always get picked last for teams in gym class regardless of his abilities. My short basement laps weren’t just to get in shape; they were also to prove a point and train for a specific goal. Thus, my fitness coming out party was the day in gym when we had to do the PACER test (or “Beep Test”), which has everyone lineup on one side of the gym and run to the other end to the sound of beeps that set the pace.

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Children being tortured by the PACER test.

It was back and forth in bursts, just like in my basement. As the test goes on, the beeps increase in frequency, and most people cannot keep up. Once a person fails to make it across the gym before a beep sounds, they are eliminated from the test. After more than one hundred beeps, the handful of runners remaining were typically stars on the track, cross country, and basketball teams.

Beep Test

Normally, I dropped out around 30-something beeps. But this time, I finished the entire test with the other fit kids, to the shock of everyone in the gymnasium.

I kept running for a while after achieving that goal, but I found it hard to stay motivated, because running was hard to measure on my own. We didn’t have a treadmill at home, and there was no track near the house, so measuring time, speed, and distance was difficult. I tried to make up arbitrary courses to time myself on with my handheld stopwatch, like running down the street around the cul-de-sac and back in the fastest time possible. It worked for a time, but ultimately it felt unsatisfying. I tried driving over to tracks to run, but it all seemed too complicated.

I fell away from running for almost a decade, and when I got back into it, one of the biggest motivators to help me succeed was my smartphone and MapMyRun app. Suddenly, I could run anywhere I wanted and know how fast and how long I was going. It also tracks all my data, so each time I went out to run, I could push myself to run a little faster and farther than before. In no time, I went from someone who dreaded running a mile or two, to someone who was running half-marathons. I could have always been running outside, but the app was that extra little push to motivate me.

Technological innovations that inspire and motivate us aren’t new, necessarily – they just continue to evolve and improve. For example, like many people, my fiancee is currently obsessed with her FitBit. There have been days when I find her walking circles around our kitchen table so she can make her daily goal of steps. The device’s accompanying app allows FitBit users to compete in daily steps challenges, and during her first challenge against family members, I thought she might attempt walking to the moon in order to claim victory.

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That FitBits are so popular seems odd when broken down to its most simple function: it’s a pedometer, which is nothing new at all. But the FitBit is a fancy, elaborate, 21st century pedometer that will get someone like my fiancee to demand we go for a walk at night in freezing temperatures just so she can win her FitBit challenge.

Likewise, last week, I downloaded an app called “Productive” that is intended to build habits. Users input what habit they would like to form – such as exercising daily – and the app delivers notifications to encourage the behavior, as well as tracks data like successful/unsuccessful days and streaks of successful days.

I have five habits in my app, including exercise and writing. For writing, I felt I had fallen off the wagon pretty hard in recent months. Now, within five days of downloading the app, I have written and performed a nonfiction story at a local live lit show, penned an Op-Ed article that I submitted to the New York Times, and wrote this piece for the Flaneur’s Turtle. I’d say the free app has been worth it so far.

Of course, all of the apps and devices can only work if we support their missions with our own willpower and action. No app can do the exercising or writing for me; well, not yet, at least. There are also plenty of arguments that can be made that technology is making us lazier and more dependent, rather than self-motivated and independent. (See: Wall-E.)

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I understand the satire, but I still kind of want a floating chair…and a soda.

Yet, sometimes it takes only the tiniest spark of motivation to spur us to keep pushing forward with our goals, and if that spark is a notification on our smartphones – a device we all have in front of our faces at all times – then it’s all the better and easier to be inspired.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

On December 19th, I began to read the most famous novel of all time.  I hefted Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterwork War and Peace off my shelf for the first time in years. When I say years, I mean years. I had actually read War and Peace one time51qFi0rYw7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ before when I was 21 years old. Back then, during the Spring Semester of my Junior undergrad year, I signed up for a course titled ‘Great Books’, or something like that.  We had to read Homer’s Iliad, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Tolstoy’s aforementioned monster.  That is A LOT of reading for a 15 week course.

It was a pretty interesting course. However, I really didn’t need it to graduate.  I signed up because I thought it would be fun. I enjoyed the class and I enjoyed the readings, but I did not want to produce any of the work.  I just wanted to learn about the books. So, I did something that I probably shouldn’t discuss: I dropped the course, but kept doing the readings and showing up to the class.

What can I say? I’m a bit of a nerd.

At 21, I enjoyed War and Peace.  I don’t think it was the first Tolstoy I had read, but it was undoubtedly the first of his great novels I tackled.  I must have read it when it was cold outside because, for some reason, whenever I would think about the book in the years following it would make me think of winter.  And so over the last few winters when it would get cold outside, I would think fondly of the big ol’ tome.

Which brings us back to December 19th. I finally cracked that monster open again. It had been 18 years since I had read it so I really didn’t remember a great deal. Would I still enjoy it?  It was questionable. Over the last 3 or 4 years, I have re-read some ‘great works’ that I loved in my early 20’s.  Maybe it was to be expected, but I found that my late 30’s self felt differently about said books.  Some books really spoke to me at an older age more then they did at a younger age.  One of these was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I remember slowly slogging through that book when I was 20. When I read it at 35, I absolutely loved it! On the other hand, one of my favorite books when I was 21, Albert Camus’ The Plague really didn’t hit as hard the 30-something me.

So, what about Tolstoy’s epic? 39 years of age, or 21 years of age made no difference. It was, is and always will be amazing.  I realize many people get intimidated by the size of the book, the number of characters and the historical references therein, but I think that is war_and_peace_is_heavy_readingbased upon reputation and heresy more than reality.  Many will sit down and read all the Game of Thrones books, and each of those are only a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s work. Plus, there really aren’t that many main characters; ten or so protagonists make up roughly 80% of the book. Granted, the historical aspects of the book can confuse, but all you need are some end-notes to clear things up.

Tolstoy’s writing in War and Peace is simply awe-inspiring.  The psychological portraits of even the most secondary characters make you feel as though you have truly entered a complete world; a world that is not easy to extricate yourself from. After finishing the chartemainaltarbook, I felt spiritually charged. Only the greatest pieces of art have this ability. I believe a good analogy would be walking into Chartres Cathedral for the first time.  The size, the colors, the sounds, the epic nature of the environment must take one aback. Even if you don’t believe in what the church represents, the grandeur of the product still moves you. This is much like Tolstoy’s creation. At times, Tolstoy’s esoteric mystical Christianity shines through in certain characters’ beliefs, words and actions. While I in no way buy into Tolstoy’s religion, it is difficult not to be moved by his descriptions of the sacred.  War and Peace is Chartres, Rouen, Notre Dame in written form.  The nice thing is, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles across an ocean to experience Tolstoy.

So, what book is next?  I need some time to think about that one.

from A to Z

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

Beginnings and endings get a lot of attention. 20130702_a-to-z_91

I use the alphabet as a calming go-to-sleep tool, thanks to the advice given by my excellent psychologist friend, Maddie.

Having discovered the intellectual fun of creating alphabetical lists, I introduced the exercise to my classes.

In my Fall 2015 course, I reached the pinnacle of that practice when I asked to my students to create an alphabetical list of what they value in life; the results were amazing, brilliant, creative, downright extraordinary! Fortunately, I took a photo of the result, a memento of a conversation that will no doubt remain among the most wonderful and meaningful experiences in my teaching career.

ABCThe alphabet can be used as a poetic instrument as well, done vividly in the abecedarian entitled “ABC” by Robert Pinsky.

The A to Z approach tantalizes with a sense of order that the chaos of life denies.

As I struggle through the heartbreaking conclusion of a love affair, which has been slowly, painfully ending for a year, I wish, in vain, to go back to the beginning, knowing (but not quite feeling) that the end would be the same.

Life moves in one direction. We can begin again, but only in the place we are now.

Ultimately, the desire for an ending leads to the same place, brilliantly articulated in “The School” by Donald Barthelme and the perfectly awful “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood. Art tells the terrible truth of life.

Beginnings seldom announce themselves.

Endings are rarely what we wish them to be.

Meanwhile, the Alphabet talks it all in stride, certain in its totality, until it packs a bag and travels elsewhere, only to discover that there are other alphabets that do not begin with A or end with Z, and suddenly nothing is sure, and anything is possible.

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