Friday, November 23, 2012

Statement of Intent

You might think this post is about deciding where to apply. Nope, I've already got that figured out. (yes, there are some snowy schools on the list.) But with that problem solved, I've encountered a new one. The Statement of Intent.

I'm stuck. I'm not really sure I get the genre of the graduate school statement of intent. Yet here I am, sitting in my bed wasting my holiday trying to figure out how to write it. I've stopped and started the blasted thing numerous times today, but I can't decide what's the best way to go about this in order to justify myself as a viable PhD candidate. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the subject.

I get the feeling that I ought to do something in the way of personalizing the statement so that those who read it get a sense of who I am, my personality and so on. So maybe I should include a related anecdote about my past that gives them some sense of where I started and why I've come to the conclusion that I want to dedicate my life to the study of rhetoric and composition. You know something like this:

When I was a little kid I had a lot of concerns and worries about the future and growing up that were largely born of my fear of the unknown. Sometimes as a school-aged child I would lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and thinking about what my life would be like 15, 20 and 30 years down the road. The fact that I had no clear picture of what it would be was at times cripplingly terrifying. Among all those worries, there was one aspect of the future about which I had no doubts and that comforted me when I got to thinking about the horror before me, I knew what I would be when I grew up. An astronomer. And so I set about getting myself ready for my life with astronomy by…reading works of literature and writing stories. Yep. While consciously I had it in mind to study the stars, I was unknowingly preparing myself for a life with words. I should’ve seen the writing on the wall in high school when I got a 5 on the AP English test and a 1 on the AP Calculus BC test, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I finally realized that English was the path for me.

But that feels too corny and lame. Maybe instead of telling a related anecdote, I could tell an unrelated anecdote that illustrates a character trait that uniquely suits me for the study of rhetoric and composition. Maybe something like this:

I was nervous causing my body to tremble slightly in my new Cub Scout uniform. Keith and Craig and I stood there outside of the gym wherein our parents were waiting for us to march in and start pack meeting with the flag ceremony. We’d been in the hall a long time. Too long, frankly. Unfortunately, before we could march in and get started, we had to decide who would carry the flag, Keith or Craig. Frankly I didn’t care, I was just excited that I got to be the one to tell everyone what to do and lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, but Keith and Craig were angry and all red-in-the-face from arguing, each unwilling to give in and let the other carry the flag. I peeked into the gym and saw our leader standing at the front of the room nervously looking back at the doors hiding us. When he saw my forehead and glasses poke out from behind the door he gestured in such a way as to ask, “What’s the holdup?” I raised my eyebrows and shrugged, and turned back to the argument behind me. Something would have to be done. I told the two of them to shut up, and said, "We've got to get in there. Everyone's waiting for us." Keith responded, "Then tell Craig to give me the flag because I'm carrying it." I looked at Craig who just gripped the flag's pole tighter. I realized this wasn't going anywhere, so I proposed that Craig carry the flag into the gym, at which time he would hand it to Keith to hold during the Pledge of Allegiance. After the pledge, Keith would take the flag over to the flag stand and post it. That way they both got to carry it. They looked at each other with a hint of suspicion and agreed. They were both happy and the ceremony went off without a hitch. As I sat down with my parents, I was pleased with myself for coming up with a solution. I had no idea that I'd just enacted "transcendence" per Kenneth Burke.

That seems a little too touchy feely too, and it takes way too long to get to the point. I don't know. Maybe I'm trying to hard to make it personable and unique and I should just jump right in and say what I want to study, what I've done to prepare myself for success in this field and why the acceptance committee in question should accept me. In other words I should give them "just the facts" without any personal narrative flavor to dress it up. It might look something like this:

I’m fascinated by people. The way we interact, the way we work together and against each other and the way we somehow manage to make life work even though we never really understand one another. Really, what I’m saying is I’m fascinated by rhetoric. A professor of mine, Grant Boswell, summed up this fascination pretty well when he said, “Fish swim in water; people swim in rhetoric.” It’s all around us, everywhere. What I want, and the reason I’m applying to your program, is to better understand this process. How do we make ourselves known to one another? How do we really influence one another through words and other symbolic gestures? How can we know whether or not such influence is inherently ethical? These are the kinds of things I’m keen on understanding. Specifically, I want to know how these things are done through the medium of the written word, and how we as scholars can best help students in writing and composition courses really grasp and embrace these ideas.

I don't know. I know the kind of stuff I need to include, but what form should it all take? This is my question.

Maybe, instead of doing anything I've suggested up above, I could just flesh out this blog post with some particulars and submit it as a kind of alternative discourse to the grad school letter of intent.

I dunno. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It's the End of the World As We Know It

Tonight's the end of the world. I'm stoked. I'm, like, this stoked:

It's gonna be awesome.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Christmas Time Is Here

Last night around midnight, as I was driving home on the slushy, wet, lovely white streets of Provo, the snow was still falling in thick heavy flakes as it had been doing since about 10:30 in the morning. I was taking it slow to account for any black ice the might be hidden under the blanket of white that covered the world. There didn't seem to be many people out and about (strange for a Friday night), but I wasn't complaining because I hate people I hate being around people crowds make me uncomfortable some moments of life are best experienced in solitude. Watching the snow fall late at night is such a moment.

As I waited for a stoplight to turn, I grabbed my iPod and queued up Diana Krall's "Christmas Time is Here":

When I was a kid I didn't like this song because I thought it sounded sad and depressing and all things that Christmas was not, but in the last few years it has become one of my favorites. 

The song seemed a perfect reflection of the world all around me. It was the melodic embodiment of that mildly ethereal, warm orange glow of streetlamp light  reflected off the fallen snow and gradually swallowed by the pitch black of the night sky. 

The song ended as I arrived back at my apartment and eased my car into a safe parking spot along the street. I got out of the car, shut the door, and looked up at the sky. Before going in and wrapping myself in a warm cocoon of blankets and sleep, I stood still in the street for a moment listening to the world. 

The only...sound [was] the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.*

Diana's voice rang in my mind and I smiled. The holidays are upon us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

America and Patriotism

I voted today.

It was awesome. I felt so American. As I left Provo Peaks Elementary School, I pulled out the old music maker, rolled down my windows, and cranked this song as loud as I could while cruising the streets of Provo:

Naturally I was singing along as loud as I could as well. People were looking at me funny, but I didn't care. Because this is America. When Neil got done I turned it on over to this song:

Yes, I know it's a Vietnam protest song and not necessarily "patriotic." But that's the thing, protest is patriotic. You know 1st amendment and free speech and all that jazz. It's patriotic. like voting. And I voted today. Plus, people often think that it's a patriotic song. What's more American than being wrong about what a song means and then stubbornly owning it and not caring what people think about your interpretation of the song because you know you're right and ain't nothin' no one can do to change your mind. This is America!

When that song got over I decided that I needed an all-American lunch. My original plan today was dino chicken nuggets, but that didn't seem American enough. I mean, dinosaurs are worldwide. Nothing wrong with being worldwide, but I voted today, and this is America. So as Bruce got done, I put on some Ray:

and I made my way to get myself some real American lunch:

Yeah,  Big Mac. With a large fry. And a large, sugary soda. None of that diet crap. And even though I was pretty much done with the meal when I was about halfway through, I ate the whole thing anyway. Because this is America, and no one is going to dictate to me how much I should eat, not even my own appetite. I do what I want. It's a free country. This is America!

Alright, tongue-in-cheekiness aside, I actually really do love America and feel great patriotism for this country. Let me illustrate as best I can why I think America is so awesome with an anecdote. A couple of summers ago I was down in Emery with my family over the 24th of July, which of course is the biggest party day in Utah. For those of you unfamiliar with Emery, it's a small town in the middle of the South-central Utah desert. It has a population about about 200 people...and that number is ever-diminishing as the old folks in town pass on. Seriously, there are a lot of old people. My brother-in-law Graham once joked after going to church there one Sunday that he wanted to move to Emery and sell oxygen tanks because he'd make bank. It was funny because it's true.

Anyway, whenever possible my family likes to go down to Emery over the 24th to celebrate with the town because their festivities are second to none. One of the best parts of the town's festivities is the parade. As a family we often laugh as we remember the year that the parade traversed the parade route twice because the route was so short and there were so few participants. Anyway, this particular year my family and I were sitting across the street from the city park as we watched the parade go by. Now if you've never watched a parade with my family, you're missing out because it's a lot of fun. We scream and shout and cheer and generally make fools of ourselves, but we have a lot of fun doing it.

We were laughing and carrying on as we usually do as the Emery High School band came marching up the road playing one of those songs that all high school marching bands play. As they marched to where they were right in front of my family, they stopped and turned their backs on us. Someone wryly commented that they were shunning the out-of-towners (us), and we all laughed. But as they started playing Yankee Doodle I realized that they had stopped in that exact spot, and turned as they had for a reason. They'd done it in order to face the little memorial monument and flagpole that remembers all the young men from the small town of Emery who have served their country in the armed forces during wartime. As the band played, I thought of the dozens of young men from Emery, my grandfather included, who had answered their country's call to serve and protect throughout the years. Because my grandpa served in World War II, I thought about how during that war particularly, the young men who signed up to fight consisted of an entire generation of the hope of this small town. They were the future. They had the world open before them, and yet, even in this small and often forgotten corner of the nation, these young men decided that their country came first. Uncle Sam needed their help and they responded.

This naturally led me to think of the millions of veterans across the country, and the many small towns just like Emery who likely had similar stories. As I thought about this, the band, which I had momentarily forgotten, finished playing “She’s a Grand Ol’ Flag” and struck up “America the Beautiful.” The image-ridden lyrics of this great American standard ran through my mind, and the implicit appeal to God’s grace, in conjunction with my thoughts of the sacrifice of the millions of proud Americans that have served in our armed forces, brought a lump to my throat. I was never more proud and grateful to be an American. 

On days like today, as I fulfill my civic duty, I can't help but to think of fifth grade when my teacher Mrs. Plazier gave us an assignment to memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This was one of the most impacting experiences that I had during the formative years of my youth. To this day, some 15 years later, I can still recite the words of the Gettysburg Address, and those words have had a large impact on the development and maintenance of my American patriotism. One particular section sticks out to me as it describes the ideal of freedom and our collective cause as freedom-loving citizens:

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought              here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." 

Freedom was the cause Lincoln was talking about. He was fighting a war over whether freedom extended to all men and women regardless of race. He wanted to make it abundantly clear that liberty is indeed one of mankind’s God-given and unalienable rights. In reflecting on this, I have realized that America’s dedication to this cause is what really sparks the flame of my love of country. For centuries the huddled masses have clamored to our shores in search of a place where freedom is practiced and preached. They’ve come in search of a land where they might make something of themselves no matter the station in which they were born. Though the phrase is trite and a bit hackneyed, they come in search of a "land of opportunity." The cause of freedom is the essence of what it is to be American. That is what I love. Lincoln wasn’t content to let the soldiers on the field take up the fight for freedom while the rest of the nation sat back on its haunches and watched. Lincoln’s call to action and dedication to this cause was intended for the rest of the nation. It was intended for us. He was challenging the people of his time to take up the torch of freedom and live valiantly by its tenets. His challenge, though delivered 145 years ago, remains as true for us today as it was for them then.

As I go off rhapsodizing about America, and freedom and patriotism, I realize that I'm probably coming across like one of those uninformed idealists who embraces American exceptionalism and refuses to acknowledge that America can or ever has done anything wrong. That's not the case. I know we have a bit of a pock-marked past. It hasn't always been sunshine and roses, and there are aspects to American culture and society that I frankly don't agree with at all. But that's the beauty of it all, we don't have to all think the same things. We can disagree. We can fight with each other. We can protest if we like. We can, and should, think critically about the way things are done and ask ourselves if there isn't a better way. I'm not saying that this is the way all nations should be run; frankly I think that's absurd. But it works for us here, and I think it works wonderfully. Yeah Congress is full of a bunch cotton-headed ninny-mugginses who can't get anything done, and I'm not real keen on the uber-partisan hacks on both sides of the aisle who preach their political agendas as if they spoke the word of God. Yeah I'd like to see changes and reforms in our education programs and immigration laws and campaign-funding laws and any number of other issues that I think aren't working right. But the beauty of America is that we can make those changes. We're free to work through these issues. None of us really knows for certain the absolute truth of what's best in every situation, but we can all work together to try and figure it out. Or we can refuse to work together and fight and yell at each other. We can choose. We can do what we want. And I love it.

I realize it's not cool to be patriotic, and I may be falling victim to what Kenneth Burke calls "Identification by Inaccuracy" here, but I don't care. I love America. And I voted today.

Now I'm gonna go lay on the couch and try not to puke up a Big Mac and fries.