Thursday, March 21, 2013


I've learned something about myself today.

If I want to just keep track of scores, I can watch 4 basketball games at once:

But if I want to keep track of the play by play, I can only watch 2 games at once:

Here's where it got a little tricky. I wanted to be productive and grade papers while watching basketball, so, following the example of Katie Wade-Neser - my peer, my mentor, and my guide in all things worthwhile - with the aid of a laptop I tried watching 3 games and grading: 

But who was I kidding, I was just watching basketball. So I tried to watch just 2 games while grading:

It was a little bit better. But I was still just watching basketball and hardly grading at all. So I dropped it to one game and grading:

And honestly, I was able to grade quite well and relatively quickly, while still watching a great game. 

On a related note, it turns out that you only have a certain amount of time allotted to you to stream games live via the interwebs:

 Hopefully the IP addresses in the carrels reset overnight so I can start tomorrow fresh.

Merry March Madness!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Not Vicious but Mistaken

In the course of getting a Master's Degree in English I have taken several classes in which I have studied quite a bit of the work of Kenneth Burke. It would be futile to try and encapsulate his work here, so let me just say that he was brilliant. A genius really.

This is him:

(On an unrelated note, maybe I should grow out my mustache again so that when I'm defending my thesis I can channel his brilliance. I like that idea.)

In studying and writing about his work I've been struck by a lot of his ideas. (I'm particularly drawn to his ideas concerning identification and transcendence, but I'm not going to discuss them here. If you'd like, I'd be more than happy to chat with you about them in person.) But I think my favorite thing I've learned from Burke comes from book Attitudes Toward History:

"The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy."

Reading this quote and thinking through it's implications frankly changed the whole way I view and think about others, and it gave me greater insight into how to actually go about Christ's commandment that we love one another. It seems like whenever I have a hard time loving someone, getting along with someone, or even just thinking kindly about someone it's because of some perceived slight or because that person engages in some action or behavior that rubs me the wrong way. Someone says something insensitive or treats me or others poorly, and my instinct is to ascribe a specific meaning to what was said or done. The problem is that the meaning I ascribe is the meaning that I would be communicating if I were the one saying insensitive things or treating others poorly. But that doesn't mean that that was the meaning that was meant to be communicated by the speaker or treater. So what I am viewing as vicious, may not have been intended to be vicious at all. There was just a disconnect in the communication. So the best we can do is to view that person as mistaken. But not mistaken in the sense that they are wrong, but rather mistaken in the sense that they are likely communicating something (viciousness) that they don't intend to communicate, and so the real intent of the message is lost along the way, leading to a mistaken interpretation of said communication.


I'm pretty sure that last paragraph made no sense. I feel like the more I try to explain what I understand by this passage of Burke's the more convoluted I'm making it. Let me try explaining with a story.

Last week I went out to eat with Ben, Melinda and Smed. We had just gone to a hockey game (I still don't understand what icing is, by the way), and it was a little late. Probably 10 pm or so. After we'd been served and were eating, the waitress came around and filled up everyone's glasses with water. Unfortunately, not everyone was drinking water; Ben was drinking Sprite. As she topped off Ben's glass he pointed to his cup and said, "That was Sprite." The waitress got an exhausted look on her face, apologized and took his cup away, and brought back a new one filled with Sprite. All was made right in the end.

Now, I'm sure you've all gone out to eat with people who, if kind of thing had happened to them, would have been thoroughly offended by this waitress's actions, perceiving them as vicious, and would have left a tip reflecting the displeasure felt. And, frankly, our societal mores, as they pertain to waiter behavior and tipping, would condone such lowering of the tip. The patron would be upset at having their drink watered down, the waiter would be upset at having gotten crappy tips, and everyone would go home angry. Now that's obviously a bit hyperbolic, but it illustrates the point that viewing people as vicious doesn't make anyone happy.

But that's not what happened with Ben. 

Ben saw the whole situation as an amusing misunderstanding, mentioned that it was late and the waitress was probably tired, and I'm guessing he remunerated her adequately with his tip. (If he didn't, I tipped her extra, just in case.) 

This is just one example, but I can think of many others. That dude who cut me off on the freeway probably wasn't trying to be a jerk, he wasn't being vicious, he probably just didn't see me or misjudged how fast I was going or maybe is just learning to drive and isn't very good yet (we've all been there before). There are numerous alternate ways of interpreting the situation than the one that leads to me writing him off as a vicious dirtbag who can't drive and then letting that bug me all day. Viewing people as vicious in this way is what makes us fight with one another over stupid problems and makes us unable to progress towards human enlightenment, however we want to define that.

According to Burke, humanity, with our imperfect language systems and inaccurate way of communicating with one another, can only progress so far as we are able to see past our miscommunications, seeing one another as mistaken, not as vicious. And he says that's the way we should view all of our interactions. And it's not just that we are occasionally mistaken, but necessarily mistaken. All of us, all the time. No matter how hard we try or how much study and effort we put into being clear and accurate communicators, we are inevitably going to be mistaken. Our symbol systems are imperfect, leading to imperfect communication. Every time we think we have some insight into how to perceive a situation or into something someone says or into something we see, we are also blinded to other interpretations of it. Look at Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, for example.

Claudio thinks he sees Hero being unfaithful to him. He sees her performing an act that is vile and base, so at their marriage he reacts to what he thought he saw in a manner that is also, though differently, vile and base. Going back to Burke, he perceived her actions as vicious, so he responded to them viciously, not realizing that he was mistaken. He did not see what he thought he saw. The "truth" that he'd witnessed wasn't the truth at all, but rather a ruse cooked up by Prince John as his cronies. Luckily Dogberry intervenes and ensures that everyone understands that all is a misunderstanding and it is made right in the end. Everyone gets married and is happy. Unfortunately, in a similar situation, there is no Dogberry in Othello, and the end result is the deaths of both Desdemona and Othello.

These examples are a bit extreme as they involve people dying because of misunderstandings, but in their extremity they highlight the danger in automatically viewing the world and the people in it as vicious. Setting aside for a moment the viciousness of Iago and Don John, let's suppose that Desdemona and Hero were guilty of the claims laid against them. For all Othello and Claudio knew, the claims were true, and they had no reason to suspect them, so through their eyes those claims were as good as true. That said, their reactions are utterly impermissible, per Burke, because they treat Desdemona and Hero as vicious. Othello and Claudio are willing to act in ways that result in the deaths of the women they purport to love, all because they viewed them as vicious.

So what would have happened if they'd viewed Hero and Desdemona as mistaken, and not vicious. Maybe Claudio and Hero wouldn't have been married, Othello and Desdemona might have gotten divorced, and all parties would continue their lives as they had. But maybe they would have worked through their issues. Maybe Othello could have talked to Hero and Desdemona, expressed their concerns over what they saw/heard/thought was reality, and then rather than sending them off like harlots, tried to work through the problems. If these women were guilty and repentant it could conceivably be a moment of forgiveness and change. If unrepentant, the relationships would likely be broken off and all parties would be sadder for it, but they would all get on with their lives productively. If, as was the case in both plays, the women were given the chance to explain what really happened, then all the death fiascoes could have been averted and everyone could go home happy. All if Claudio and Othello had seen fit to treat Hero and Desdemona as mistaken and not vicious.

I realize I'm imposing today's views of relationships and masculine ideals and the like onto Elizabethan theater, and maybe that's irresponsible of me, but I feel like Shakespeare gave us a good setting with which to work through Burke's ideas today, so I don't feel bad about it.

This idea I'm talking about is often described as "giving others the benefit of the doubt," but I like the words "vicious" and "mistaken" better as they give us specific strategies for how we can treat people. Someone we perceive as vicious we treat much differently than someone we perceive as mistaken, but the phrase "benefit of the doubt" is really ambiguous when you think about it. 

No matter what you call it though, I feel like this is something we should all aspire to.

The way I've written about this so far probably comes across as if shifting our ways of thinking to better reflect this ideal no big deal and it requires nothing more than making the decision to do it. It's not that easy. I think it's the kind of thing that requires a lifetime's dedication to really master, and heaven knows I'm far from incorporating it as well as I'd like. But it's something that I've found has helped direct my thoughts as I try to love and respect the people around me. Even and perhaps especially when they're bothersome.

I could continue talking about this as I have several other ideas concerning this topic, including what do we do about people who are, in fact, vicious, but I think I'll leave it here for now.

Monday, March 4, 2013


I'm taking a creative nonfiction writing class right now. It's hard. Mostly it's hard because I'm out of my comfort zone and I'm being forced to think about things and do things that I don't usually have to think or do. But I'm sure it's good for me. Builds character and all that.

Today in class we workshopped an essay that I'm currently working on. It's about nose-picking. The inspiration for this essay comes from a picture I took of my niece a couple of years ago wherein I caught her with her right index finger firmly entrenched in her left nostril.

Upon finding out on the facebook that I was writing this essay one of my sisters requested that I post the essay here on my blog. Because the essay isn't quite finished yet, a fact that was driven home to me today as my peers helped me see areas where I can improve and expand, I'm not going to do that.

However, I will post the first couple of paragraphs that I read aloud to my class today. They're not totally polished, but it gives you a taste.


I pick my nose. It’s true. Writing that down, I feel like I’m at some sort of Nose-Picker’s Anonymous meeting or something.

"Okay everyone, the first step to healing to acknowledge that you have a problem. So all together now..."

*Gestures wildly as if conducting a Gospel choir*

"I'm a nose-picker."

The real problem, though, is that I don’t really see it as a problem. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who will go out of his way to make a scene when picking. When I’m in public and the need arises, I pick and discard as discreetly and quickly as possible, and I wash my hands at the earliest possible opportunity. When I’m in polite company and I find obstructed my ability to breathe nasally, I excuse myself to the restroom and exercise the polite, tissue-aided pick my mother taught me. See, I may pick my nose, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have class about it.

That said, I will readily admit that when in the privacy of my own company there is little more satisfying than a deep cleanse. The pick that you have to go for with the gold-mining, brain-scratching eagerness usually reserved for the very young and the very old. The deep pick that’s crusty on the surface nearest the outside world, but that’s connected to enough of the still moist and mildly gelatinous buildup within that as you pick and it comes trailing out of your nose, it feels like it’s coming from a place deep enough on the inside that you question for a moment if you’re not pulling out something actually important. Like a tear duct. Or your brain stem. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as picking out that long, stringy glob of snot and feeling it tickle the top of your throat on its way out.


I realize that was a disgusting image, so I’ll give you a moment to stop retching before I continue.



There you go. I might post the rest of the essay someday. Or I might not. Who knows?