A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

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Selfie Soullessness

In northern Italy, a tragedy happened at a train station.  A Canadian woman was struck and badly hurt by a train. Rescuers and station personnel went to help her, and ultimately the injured woman was taken to a hospital, where her leg was amputated.

selfie1-870x418But while the helpless, injured woman lay prostrate on the track bed and rescue workers assisted her, a guy in white shorts and a white shirt positioned himself on the adjacent platform so that the woman and the workers appeared in the background behind him, flashed a hand gesture and no doubt a facial expression . . . and then used his cell phone to take a “selfie” of himself and the tragic scene.  The man’s act of cold-hearted callousness was captured by a news photographer in the photograph published above.  Police noticed the man in white shorts, too, and briefly detained him.  Although he was found to have committed no crime, they required him to delete the selfie — so we’ll never see the photo that he thought was so important to take.

The above photograph of the heartless selfie-taker has caused shock and outrage in Italy.  The photographer said the scene caused him to think that “we have completely lost a sense of ethics.”  A commentary in a popular newspaper spoke of a “cancer that corrodes the internet” and said that the man in white shorts had lost his soul and his personality; a popular radio said the scene showed that the human race is “galloping towards extinction.”

But should anyone really be surprised by the man in white shorts who thought a scene of personal tragedy would be an interesting and fitting backdrop for yet another photo of his face?  We’ve seen stories of people risking life and limb — and sometimes losing the bet — to take selfies, and we all know people whose first thought, wherever they may be, apparently is to take a selfie and publish it to their friends.  The selfie zealots have allowed their narcissism to overwhelm their common sense, and the guy in white shorts has allowed his basic sense of decency to be overwhelmed, too.

For the selfistas, the real world is just an abstraction, and nothing more than background for their self-absorbed grins and gestures.  For the sake of the guy in white shorts, let’s hope that if he ever is injured or needs help, there are people nearby whose first reaction will be to help him — rather than step back and take a selfie.

Presumed Names

On my walk to work in the morning, I regularly see the same older man walking in the opposite direction on the same stretch of sidewalk.  He’s jovial, wears glasses, has white hair and a white beard, and clearly likes Ohio State sports from his choice of jackets, scarfs, and hats.  We’ll wave, give each other a cheerful “good morning” greeting as Midwesterners often do, and occasionally say “Go Bucks!” as we pass by.

people-on-streetI haven’t introduced myself to this gentleman and have no idea of his real name, but I think of him as “Frank.”  To me, he just looks and acts like a Frank.  It’s an older name, and he’s an older guy.  When I’m walking and I see him approaching, I think “here comes Frank.”

It’s hard for me not to assign names to the people that I see regularly, whether it’s on the morning walk around Schiller Park, or the jaunt to work, or the evening stroll home.  Those people aren’t strangers, not really — they’re people I’ve seen multiple times in their same, specific setting, often enough that we recognize and acknowledge each other with a smile or small wave.  There’s Candace, the square-shouldered, inexhaustible jogger who circles the park at least twice first thing in the morning, and Tom and Dave, who are usually out walking their dog, and Terry, who runs full tilt with his obedient two border collies right at his heels.  And some other people get nicknames rather than real names — like Cell Boy, the skinny young guy who’s always sitting in the same chair by the front window of Snap Fitness, thumbing away on his smartphone, when I walk by.  Hey, I inevitably think, does Cell Boy ever actually work out, or does he just belong to a gym to have a place to check his messages?

I’m not exactly sure how I come up with the names — after I see the same person in the same setting often enough, a name usually pops into my head — but I’m fairly confident that I know why it happens.  Human beings have a well known tendency to organize experiences or perceptions into patterns, whether a pattern truly exists or not, and I think giving presumed names to people is part of that same impulse.  It makes me feel better to think of these people who play a tiny but repeating role in my daily life as people with actual names, and not just faceless intruders into my corner of the world.

The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

Questioning Your Very Existence

Philosophers, from Aristotle and Plato, through to Kant, Descartes, and Leibniz, and down to the present day, have wrestled with crucial questions of being and existence.

Just imagine how profound the philosophical debates might have been if Aristotle, say, tried to use one of those automatic faucets in an airport restroom and found that, no matter how much hand waving and cursing he did, the photovoltaic cells would not register his presence and start the water flowing?

It gives rise to troubling existential issues. Can I be said to truly exist if the automatic faucet doesn’t acknowledge my being?

Willful Ignorance

Kish shared a fascinating article with me, a New York Times piece about a man who was upset by the election of Donald Trump and, ever since, has decided to retreat from getting information about what’s going on in the world.

stream_imgA former corporate executive, Erik Hagerman lives alone on a pig farm in Glouster, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state.  He’s consciously avoided getting any information about what has happened in America since November 8, 2016, and has taken steps with his friends and his life to enforce the ban.  No social media.  Constantly reminding his mother, family, and friends, and the baristas at the local coffee shop, to honor what he calls The Blockade.  And, as a result, he is blissfully unaware of everything that is happened for the past year and a half.

I say “blissfully,” because Mr. Hagerman reports that he’s “emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt.”

When I first read the article, I thought that Mr. Hagerman’s solution to the news of President Trump’s election sounded pretty juvenile and immature.  Really?  An adult who can’t cope with adverse news and decides to disengage from the world as a result, like the kid who gets mad at his friends and takes his football and goes home?  But after thinking about it, I wonder if Mr. Hagerman’s example isn’t worth emulating, even if only a little bit.  Why work yourself into a lather on a daily basis about faraway political races, investigations, congressional hearings, and other that are beyond your control?  Why expose yourself to social media memes that are just going to get under your skin?  It makes you think about what’s really important, doesn’t it?

Most of us don’t have the ability to move to a pig farm in rural Ohio, live a solitary life, and shield ourselves from reality.  Our jobs require us to have a least a rudimentary awareness of what is going on in the world, as we deal with customers and clients and colleagues.  But maybe some disengagement from the big, bad world, and a renewed focus on our families and things like reading the classics, taking long walks with our loved ones, or starting a new do-it-yourself project at home would be good for us all.

A total blockade won’t work, but total immersion isn’t a wise thing, either.  Trying to strike a balance makes sense.

Testing Your Limits

Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits.  They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential.  Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.

eh3vj3c2r36jslu3rdf7Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging.  Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon.  They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.

But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide?  The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record.  He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.

I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it?  Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt?  There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.

Me?  I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger.  So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.