One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

August 2, 2009

Story-telling vs. essay-writing

Filed under: Education,Writing — alancochrum @ 3:08 pm
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Quote for the day for English teachers and would-be English teachers like myself:

“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”

— C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy


July 13, 2009

Language, faith, fiction and long Russian names

Herewith a review of a book I read recently. It’s not for the intellectually faint of heart, though!

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction
By Rowan Williams
Baylor UniversityPress, $24.95

In an old “Peanuts” comic strip, Lucy finds Linus reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “Don’t all those Russian names bother you?” she asks her brother.
“No,” he replies, “when I come to one I can’t pronounce, I just bleep right over it!”
A little advice if you happen to pick up Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction: Before starting, do your homework on the 19th-century Russian author. Some background in literary theory and criticism (particularly Dostoevsky critic Mikhail Bakhtin) would help, too. Otherwise, you may find yourself taking the Linusian approach and bleeping over large sections of Rowan Williams’ book.
The unresolved tension in Dostoevsky’s novels, says the archbishop of Canterbury (yes, it’s that Rowan Williams), “is not — as it is too often portrayed — a tension between believing and not believing in the existence of God. … Dostoevsky is not presenting to us a set of inconclusive arguments about ‘the existence of God,’ for and against, but a fictional picture of what faith and the lack of it would look like in the political and social world of his day.”
Another key point (and this is where some of that literary theory comes in): “[W]hatever Dostoevsky actually believed himself, he could not but put it into a novel as one perspective among others, since he was committed to a particular view of what authorship can and can’t do …. we have a text that consciously writes out the to and fro of dialogue, always alerting us to the dangers of staying with or believing uncritically what we have just heard.”
Working from The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky’s other major novels — Crime and Punishment, Notes From the Underground, The Idiot and Devils (also known as The Possessed) — Williams addresses various questions. What did Dostoevsky mean when he wrote that “if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth … then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth”? How are freedom and the diabolical connected? Why is open-endedness important to the concepts of dialogue and narrative? What might “taking responsibility for others” entail? How does Dostoevsky employ the ideas of holy images and blasphemy?
If all that sounds like quite a mouthful … well, it is. Rowan’s book assumes not just a thorough working knowledge of the novels — there are no plot summaries or character lists — but also an ability to hike in the rarefied atmosphere of academic discussion. CliffsNotes this ain’t.
“[O]ne of the most serious mistakes we could possibly make in reading Dostoevsky,” Williams says, “is to suppose that his fundamental position is individualistic, simply because of his passionate opposition to determinism.” True freedom, according to Williams’ understanding of the Russian writer, involves the ideas of language and exchange — it is not something that focuses on my arbitrary choices and obliterates any need for an “other” whom I must react to and dialogue with. “Freedom as detachment or freedom as self-assertion will equally lead away from language, toward the silence of nonrecognition.”
So if you’re up to a thorough intellectual workout, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction may be the right exercise machine for you. Otherwise, you’ve got a few rounds of literary push-ups to do.

April 28, 2009

“An industry of liars, traitors and … know-nothings”

Filed under: Culture,Journalism — alancochrum @ 6:26 pm
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Being laid off, it seems, can be a very educational process.

As it happens, that is true in more than one way, given that losing my longtime newspaper job is now pushing me into graduate school in the hopes of perhaps someday teaching at the collegiate level. (And just to clarify something: The master’s degree in question will NOT be in journalism. The burnt copy editor dreads the fire, as the new old saying goes.)

No, in this case the education has been in the public perception of the media — or at least the perception held by a sliver of the public.

For a while now, my regularly scheduled Web visits have included two newspaper-related sites: the McClatchy Watch blog ( and ( The former is devoted to the woes and perceived sins of the troubled parent company of my former newspaper; the latter was basically established as a place for Fourth Estate worker bees to … um … well, vent would be the polite word.

(One could argue that a laid-off journalist visiting these kind of sites on a regular basis is about the same as a dog obsessively gnawing at a wound — somebody really ought to put a cone collar on the dumb mutt to keep him from doing it. But I digress.)

 In one way, the posts on these sites were nothing unexpected: irate reporters and editors trading news and complaints about pay, job conditions, co-workers and layoffs. What took me aback more than I might have expected were the number of posts from other people who detest journalists.

Actually, that sentence doesn’t do their feelings justice. These are people who really really really really REALLY detest journalists, people who think the phrase “American journalist” is actually an oxymoron, people who would object if journalists were hanged with new ropes. They recall the scene in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in which the sheriff of Nottingham declares his intention of cutting out the title character’s heart with a spoon. Guy of Gisborne asks why, and the sheriff replies: “Because it’s dull, you twit! It’ll hurt more!”

Here’s a typical expression of this viewpoint, a recent post on commenting on the financial woes of newspapers: “With great delight I read of the continued demise of an industry of liars, traitors and arrogant, self-righteous know-nothings. Now … go get real jobs that actually contribute to society.”

And yes, I knew that media is a dirty word for a lot of people. Call me naive if you wish. But the noise was sort of in the background, not something that I was really listening to. More recently I have been, and the venom — there really is hardly another word for it — that is out there is jolting.

For the next point, a prologue is required. My politics tend to be a mixture of conservatism, libertarianism and pragmatism. During my college days, I was accused — inaccurately, in my humble opinion — of being to the right of Joseph Sobran. (If the name means nothing to you, the Google button is probably someplace nearby. )

In terms of religion, I was raised in and continue to be part of a Christian fellowship that would be described as evangelical shading to fundamentalist (or perhaps vice versa, depending on your viewpoint), a tradition with a powerful separatist streak. True, I would probably be considered theologically left of “center” by a lot of my people, but that’s an internal measure and comparitively speaking.

All of this is to say that I can by no stretch of the imagination be accurately labeled as part of the “liberal left” (which always struck me as a redundant phrase anyway). Any accusation that my boxer shorts are red is (as the British comics would say) too silly, and my longtime journalistic colleagues would be happy to tell you so, right after they finished their apoplectic fit of laughter on the office floor.

So where was I? Oh, yes … I will admit that any number of individual journalists are arrogant, self-righteous, ignorant, careless about the truth and/or subject to prevarication. They probably even vote Democratic. But the idea that journalism is “an industry of liars, traitors and arrogant, self-righteous know-nothings” is simply … well, lunacy.

I think that the average journalist is just like the average person in any other industry. They are trying to do a tough job in a professional manner, with the added difficulty that their work is subject to intense scrutiny.

And despite the fact that the debate is constantly cast in terms of political/philosophical bias, a huge amount of journalism really has nothing to do with that — certainly not in terms of the Republican-Democratic debate. How much does politics bear on cop reports, the local school district, human interest stories or sports coverage?

The irony is that the phrase “an industry of liars, traitors and arrogant, self-righteous know-nothings” is precisely the sort that the real leftists — the kind of people who ran Stalinist Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia — used to toss around. In their mind, if you belonged to a particular class, you were automatically an Enemy of the People — and we all know what happened to them.

Journalists are people, too, ya know. That ought to go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t.

April 27, 2009

Bin Laden and the Bene Gesserit

Filed under: Books,World — alancochrum @ 9:20 pm
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So according to The Associated Press, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says that Osama bin Laden may be dead but that there’s no proof.

I’m reminded of an exchange in Frank Herbert’s Dune between Count Fenring and his wife, Margot. The count expresses regret about the reported death of Paul Atreides, the ducal heir of the planet Arrakis.

“There’s a Bene Gesserit saying,” his wife says. ” … It goes: ‘Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.’ “

April 25, 2009

A pause for thought at the wordsmith’s anvil

“We are all like the Word himself — we might say that we are ‘little words,’ made to be communicators in words just like our Creator. God is the One who called all worlds into being by his creative word, who sustains and rules over all things by his powerful and law-giving word, who reveals himself by his truth-giving word, who communicates by his life-giving word. We are to use language in imitation of him by exercising the gifts of creative imagination, by understanding and naming the world around us, by revealing ourselves truthfully in all we say and write, by communicating with our Creator and with one another to build trust and to give life to all our relationships.”

— Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible

January 27, 2009

I thee wed

Filed under: Books,Marriage — alancochrum @ 9:28 pm
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Quote for the day in a society in which matrimony seems to weigh lightly in many minds:

“The very nature of marriage means saying yes before you know what it will cost. Though you may say the ‘I do’ of the wedding ritual in all sincerity, it is the testing of that vow over time that makes you married. I hope that I will always have faith in the giddy wonders of romance, but in considering what makes a marriage endure, I am likely to employ such ascetic and unromantic terms as discipline, martyrdom, and obedience.”

— Kathleen Norris,
Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

January 12, 2009

I have GOT to get me one of these

Filed under: Humor,Life,Technology — alancochrum @ 7:14 pm
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I ran across the following note in some computer-program documentation (the word issue being used as a technical term):

“If you are ever lost or confused while working with an issue, the Workflow tab will help you find your way.”


(1) Is there a tab of this kind for … well, Life?

(2) If so, where is it, and WHY am I only now hearing about it?

January 11, 2009

You know you’re in Texas when …

Filed under: Humor,Texas — alancochrum @ 11:23 pm
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A sign spotted in a men’s bathroom at a small college near Dallas-Fort Worth:

“Please DO NOT discard tobacco or chewing gum in the toilets and urinals.”

What a great state this is.

January 8, 2009

It’s a lovely dream — don’t wake me

Filed under: Culture,Humor,TV — alancochrum @ 9:51 pm
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A recent fantasy:

I wish that low-quality Drama — solemn tones of voice, mood lighting, pregnant pauses in speech, teary monologues, catty confrontations — were a tangible substance, something that could be packaged in a bag, bottle or box and sold as a commodity.

Because if it were … I would buy it all up, every bit. I would raise the price so sky-high that truffles, saffron and caviar, by comparison, would be as cheap as Vienna sausages. And then I would give the bad news to all those reality TV shows out there.

I figure that in about three months, about 90 percent of them would no longer be able to afford their particular stock in trade and would be off the air. And the ones that could afford it would be making my bank account look like Warren Buffet’s.

A quick fortune and less junk on TV. What’s not to like?

January 7, 2009

Jingle all the way

Filed under: Books,Humor,Journalism — alancochrum @ 11:29 pm
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The most memorable Christmas present that this recently laid-off newspaper copy editor received in 2008:

My older daughter  bought me a book when the University of Missouri was culling its stacks: Arville Schaleben’s 1961 (my birth year) Your Future in Journalism.

And just to make it extra-special, on the spine label was stamped, in big red letters, “DISCARD.”

Gotta love it.

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