Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas or Giftmas

Christmas is almost here and I can’t wait for it to be over with. It is sad that I am not excited about this holiday, but I can’t help it. I love it but it has turned into a mad dash to get everyone a gift, it has lost its focus. I know, I know, everyone talks about the “true meaning of Christmas.” In fact my daughter has a Veggie Tales video about the same theme, but really what are we doing? Christmas becomes so stressful because of the gifts. Everywhere I went this week people asked me “Are you ready for Christmas?” Meaning “do you have all of the stressful ridiculous shopping finished?” As a matter of fact, my wife did most of the shopping, but she transformed our dining room table into a gift wrapping central, and has been wrapping gifts since Thanksgiving. It is too much.

I propose we make an entirely new holiday separate from Christmas. We could call it Giftmas. It would make all of the department stores happy because people could still go crazy buying things. In fact I am even willing to concede December 25 to Giftmas. Maybe we could more Christmas to the summer sometime (which is when Jesus was actually born). Christmas should be more like Thanksgiving to me. Thanksgiving is a great holiday. All you do for Thanksgiving is get together with family and friends, eat a lot and watch football (if you like football). It is great, there is so much less stress. Sure there is the stress of cooking, which Christmas has anyways, but there is no “what should we get so-and-so, or you-know-who.” It gets crazy with the gifts. You know the awkward feeling you get when you spent about ten dollars on a gift for someone and they bought you something for fifty. It is awful. I want to skip it every year. I like getting gifts and giving them, but I don’t like the gift game.

So that is why I am advocating a moving Christmas and calling December 25 Giftmas. Maybe then we can make Christmas a religious holiday again since it has been besieged by secular advocates like the ACLU and others who are trying to take Christmas away from the Christians. One point that some people bring up is the Christmas was made December 25 because there was a pagan holiday on that day and the leaders of Rome wanted to replace it with a Christian holiday. I think it is time to give it back to the pagans. Let’s move Christmas and make it a purely religious holiday again. No more Christmas vacation, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, snowmen, Santa Clauses etc. It will just be about Jesus coming to this world with the ultimate goal of redeeming us who were lost. That’s what I want for Christmas—Jesus, and only Jesus.

So Merry Christmas to you and yours. Enjoy the holiday, whatever it means to you. Enjoy the company of your family, and try not to stress out about the gifts, they are only material gifts, the best gift is the gift of life from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

When Cold Bites

I wrote this poem and put it on Christmas cards a few years ago. It is a bit weak, but it is the only Christmas/winter poem I have. I still like it and I hope you do too.

Snow lightly falling on the frozen ground.
A forest full of animals all sleeping without a sound.
The wind sharply blows against a peaceful town.
A blizzard white mouse scurries with some bread he found.

Through it all the warmth of a fire burns strongly.
Thick smoke pours from a chimney and rises calmly.
Life beginning to stir inside a house slowly.
A family awakens from a soft slumber peacefully.

Outside a father is chopping wood to maintain a fire.
A mother begins to prepare a breakfast to cure any hunger.
The children wash their faces; eyes full of joy.
They return to their rooms to recover their toys.

Hot chocolate warms the families bellies.
The fire burns hot, and the food is extra tasty.
Outside the cold bites down especially nasty.
But it can’t touch a family warmed by love.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Real Football

Note to the reader: I wrote this essay in the spring of 2003 so the SuperBowl winner was New England and the previous World Cup winner was Brazil. If it makes you feel better you may substitute Pittsburgh for New England, and Italy for Brazil.

Well, that’s all for this season folks. That’s right, the New England Patriots are the world champions. After sixty minutes of play that took over three hours, the Patriots of New England defeated the Panthers of Carolina to win Super Bowl XXXVIII in one of the most watched sporting events in the world. Fifty something men beat another fifty something men in a domed stadium in temperate Houston Texas and were crowned world champions. Congratulations to the victors, but where was the rest of the world. Well, they were playing football too, only it hardly resembled the football Americans cherish. The rest of the world was playing a type of football that most Americans don’t enjoy and don’t pay much attention to. Strange? Of course it is. Two sports bear the same name, yet are fundamentally different. So why don’t Americans like football, or soccer by its American brand? I’m not sure. Everyone else seems to like it. Perhaps Americans have a better version of the sport. Or, perhaps not. The father of Patriots owner, Frank Cash, owns the Major League Soccer team the “Revolution”. In an article published by the Houston Chronicle he said, “In terms of my family, there is no difference between football and soccer.” Europeans have a different opinion as evidence from an article in “Sporting Life” “America’s football is a sissy version of rugby.” The only way to find out which is better is to break them down, and examine every aspect of the two sports.

First, why are these sports even comparable? Not only are they both called football, but they have several other things in common. They are played on the same size field. About one hundred yards from end to end. Both have goal posts at each end of the field, though they differ in size and shape. Each sport has a huge following of fans. In both sports eleven men from a side play at a time. In both you can tackle another player, and can also commit a foul. In both sports players wear brightly colored uniforms and their teams often have nicknames or mascots. It is not the similarities between the sports that are interesting however it is the differences.

The first difference is how each game is played and by whom. Football is played by a team consisting of no more than fifty-two players. Eleven play on offense at a time and likewise eleven on defense, leaving another thirty for substitutions and special players like kickers. Soccer is played by a team of sixteen players per side. Eleven play on the field at one time and five are substitutes. Both sports play eleven teammates at a time but in football a team may make unlimited substitutions. In soccer, a team may only make three substitutions per match, which means at least eight players play the entire game. It is difficult to say then which sport is superior in this aspect. Does one want to see more players involved in the game or the same players play the entire match? Advantage: Draw.

In terms of match length the two sports differ greatly. In football a regulation game consists of four fifteen minutes quarters with half time that can be 15-45 minutes based on media coverage between the second and third quarters. The time clock does not run constantly. It stops for numerous reasons: change of possession, injuries, team time-outs, a two minute warning at the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters (NFL only) etc. A full game generally takes three hours to play or more. In soccer, teams play two forty five-minute halves with a twenty-minute half time between them. The clock does not stop for any reason, though “extra time” or “injury time” can be added by the referee at the end of each half to counter time lost by injuries, celebrations, etc. A full match takes two hours to play. So, in football teams play for sixty minutes and a game takes three hours. In soccer a match is ninety minutes of play, yet only takes two hours. Soccer manages thirty more minutes of playing time, in an hour less than football. Advantage: Soccer.

When comparing each sport’s organized leagues they contrast greatly once again. Football’s top league is the National Football League (NFL). It consists of thirty-two teams, all from the U.S., divided evenly into two conferences, the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). Each conference has four divisions, designated by region, with four teams in each. Each team plays sixteen games in a regular season excluding play-offs. Each team must play the teams in their division twice, which means a team plays only half of the teams in the NFL every season (6 division games and 10 non-division games). The team with the most wins determines division winners. There are only a few other football leagues in the world. Many colleges in the U.S. have football teams, but these are not professional teams. Canada has a league with somewhat different rules. Europe has a league of several teams, and Australia has a football league with drastically different rules. Soccer has hundreds of professional leagues in the world, but I will focus on the Premier league in England for comparison, one of the world’s top leagues. The league consists of twenty teams. Each team plays the others twice, once at home and once in the opponent’s city, for a total of thirty-eight matches. There is no geographical or other division between teams. The league winner is determined by the team with the most points at the end of the season; three points awarded for a victory and one point for a tie result. Also at the end of the season the worst three teams are relegated to a lower league (in England it is Division 1), and the top three teams from the lower league move into the Premier League in order to keep the league competitive. When it comes to league set up and schedule, soccer is superior for simple league organization and because every team plays the others for more games total. Advantage: Soccer.

Rules and regulations of each sport are also dissimilar. Football has a quagmire of rules that are so complicated many fans don’t even fully understand them all. In fact it takes years of football viewing to grasp them. For example many do not know when and how to perform an “on-side kick”, or what a “safety” is, or which players are “ineligible receivers.” What does it mean when a team is playing a “nickel” defense? What is a “flea-flicker”? When can a player do a “forward pass”? When can he do a “lateral”? Why does a team have to have a certain number of players on the “line of scrimmage”? How many do they have to have? These questions illustrate some of the confusion that football creates by way of it’s rules. Soccer however is very simple when it comes to rules. If a team kicks the ball out of bounds it is given to the other team. If a player fouls another player by knocking him to the ground without touching the ball first the team that was fouled gets the ball. If any player besides the goal keeper touches the ball with his hand, it is awarded to the other team. The “off-sides” rule seems to be the only one that causes confusion, but any eight-year-old British boy can explain it. So when it comes to simplicity of play again soccer seems superior. Advantage: Soccer.

Scoring is another area where these two sports vary. Football’s methods of scoring are again more complicated. A touchdown is worth six points after which a team has the option of kicking an “extra-point” worth one point, or trying to make a “conversion” worth two points. If at any point a team kicks the ball through the goal posts (besides immeidatly after a touchdown) it is worth three points and called a “field goal”. A team can also score a “safety” by pushing a team’s offense into their own “end-zone”. This play is worth two points. In soccer there is only one way to score; kick the ball into the other team’s net. Such an action is always worth one point. There is no other way to tally points. Some say that football has more scoring in general, but such a point, were it true, would not counter the complexity of scoring. Advantage: Soccer.

Finally let’s examine the competitions that award a team with the title of “World Champions”. For football it is the Super Bowl. A competition held every year. Teams first must qualify for the playoffs. The four division winners and two “wildcards” from each division make the playoffs, a total of twelve teams. The four best teams do not even play in the first round. The tournament is single elimination. Only the winner moves on, until there are two teams left which play in the Super Bowl, at a location determined before the season begins, and lately is always in a warmer region of the country. The winner becomes the champion. In soccer the competition is called the World Cup (even the name suggests world involvement). Qualification for this competition, which is held only every four years and is played in a different country each time, usually begins two years before the event. Each nation must play teams from other nations on their continent or in their region. The regions are Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, North/Central America, and Oceana. The top teams from each region qualify for the competition. Only thirty-two nations actually make the tournament. They are then divided into one of eight groups, each with four teams. A team then plays each team once. The top two teams advance to the next round. The sixteen teams that make it out of the group round then play in a single elimination tournament. Winners move on and losers go home, until there are only two remaining teams. The teams then play each other in a match watched by millions all over the planet. The winner of that match is the world champion for the next four years. You can decide which competition is more significant, and more prestigious, but for me the choice is clear. Advantage: soccer.

So who then is the true world champion? The Patriots of New England? Hardly. They are the Super Bowl champions. They are the champions of American football. That is all. Brazil is the world champion for winning the World Cup in 2002. The Brazilian team went through much more than the Patriots did to get such a title. In my opinion they deserve it more. As for which sport is superior, I guess that it all comes down to personal preference. Stephen Eule of the Wall Street Journal said, “When played well and at a high level, there is nothing to compare the beauty, excitement, and passion of soccer.” Frank Deford, a sports commentator, had this to say about football, “the game suffers from a bland image.” There seems to be a new trend away from football and perhaps towards soccer. Bob Edwards on the television program “Morning Edition” reported this information, “For the first time in recorded history, too, the number of American boys actually playing football is declining,”. Could this mean that there is a new movement away from football and toward soccer? It is certainly a possibility as the US becomes more global or, perhaps young boys are simply playing football on their Playstations instead of on the field. A fellow can still dream can’t he?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Real World

There are a few phases that drive me crazy, as I am sure there are phases that drive most people crazy. One of them for instance in using the word “kudos.” I recognize that this is a legitimate word (as well as a candy bar), but it was used so often by my “superiors” when I was stationed in San Antonio that it has lost any appeal to me. They practically went around saying, “hey nice work, kudos!” Then someone would reply, “hey thanks for the kudos.” I wanted to kill myself. But no matter how annoying this word is to me, there is one phrase that beats them all. It is “the real world.” I am so sick of people using this phrase and would like to make the case that in fact it should be banned from vocabulary and vernaculars everywhere.

I first heard this word in high school while teachers would say that they were preparing us for the “real world.” I understood this to mean that somehow high school was meant to replicate this “real world” and that by being there we would somehow be more equipped to deal with this world. First of all nothing about high school replicated the “real world,” or as I assumed they were referring to, the work world. No where else in our society can you find thirty-five people of the same age and education level with so different dreams and ambitions, who are not there by choice, but rather because they are compelled to be there, than you can in high school. It is astonishing really to think about it. Prison resembles high school more than the “real world.” In prison people are not there of their own free will, and cannot simply leave, or if they do, someone is likely to come looking for them, in both cases it is likely to be a man or woman representing law enforcement. So I conclude that high school is not the like the “real world.”

I left high school and joined the army. I thought that surely this was much more the “real world” than high school, but there too my drill sergeants and superiors talked about getting out of the army and going to the “real world.” I was disappointed because I really had hoped to have entered the real world by then, seeing as how I had lived the first eighteen years of my life in the “non-real world.” Still I found myself in a world other than the real one.

I was discharged from the army after five years of service and felt that I must finally be entering the “real world” as my fellow service members called it, but alas I went to college. In college I had a speech class on argumentation, and one day the professor talked about how college is not the “real world,” and how we had better be ready for it because it would be hard or something. By now I was downright depressed. I was already 23 and had never lived a day in the “real world.” I began to wonder if there was such a thing as the “real world.” I could not seem to find it, and no one could seem to tell me where it was.

Three years in college, two kids and five years of marriage, now I am teaching, but of course, teaching is not the “real world” either. Now I was convinced that there is no “real world.” Perhaps we were all living in the Matrix after all. Maybe it is all an illusion. I don’t know. At 26 I had never found the “real world.” I of course saw it on MTV once but I didn’t know how to get on the show so I guessed I would never be a part of the “real world.” Then I decided something.

It wasn’t me who was confused, it was everyone else. Is that possible? It seems so strange that all this time I am the one who realized where the real world is. It is right here. It is all around us. Everyone who is alive is in the “real world.” Students, soldiers, professors, and teachers are all in the “real world.” Why? Because they all have their own personal "real world problems" like relationships, family, stress, illness, death, bills, crime, traffic, etc. Let alone all of the global "real world problems" that affect everyone like, terrorism, politics, globalization, unemployment, energy costs, supposed global warming, poverty, cloning, abortion, AIDS, and Brittany Spears.

This entire time people have been telling me that I am not a part of "the real world," but they were wrong. I am a part of it, and so are they. Now I have a mission, to get them to see that they are in the “real world” as well. All this time they have been thinking they are somewhere else, but they aren’t. They need to quit wasting time waiting for the “real world” to come to them and start living. THIS IS THE REAL WORLD! WAKE UP AND SMELL THE NAPALM! (I mean non-free-trade coffee).

Monday, December 11, 2006

Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dawn Treader

This Narnia book is also good, but I had some critiques to offer. The thing that bothered me about this one, which Prince Caspian did well, is the manner in which they entered Narnia. I felt that it was a little cheesy myself. I realize that it is a children’s book, yet I wondered where did the children get the painting? Anyways, besides that I felt that Lewis did a great job entertaining the discussion of Heaven in this book. There were a lot of things going on that offered perspectives and insights into the manner in which people think about heaven. In the end I was satisfied with the result and the treatment of the subject. The thing that impresses me about these books is the way Lewis integrates some of the difficult questions about the Christian faith into a narrative story for children no less. This book is well written and I felt that the plot was more interesting in this one than Prince Caspian even though the moving between worlds was weaker.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

So much to write, so little time...

Today I finished my last paper for the semester, and I am glad to be done. With so much writing momentum I hope to get as much book writing done as possible. I am not sure where to start. On the one hand I have the sequel to the Sureshot about two thirds of the way completed. I would love to finish it and then begin working on editing. Then I have so many other ideas. One project which I am calling Confessions of a Prisoner has about four or five chapters completed, but I need to rework those because I don’t like the voice of the main character. Then there is another project that I wrote only a few pages for but one that I can’t wait to do. The working title for this one is Bring Me Home, and Brandi is especially excited about this one. Besides there I have about a dozen other ideas, two of which I recently came up with that I could work on. What should I do? I guess I will just start writing and if I get tired of one thing I will move on to another. We’ll see what happens. I have only one month before I start the spring semester. It will be interesting to see how much I get done before then.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian

This is the forth Narnia book, and another good one. This was the third book I read over the Thanksgiving break. It was good. More specifically, I felt that it brought back the kids in an interesting yet acceptable manner. It was interesting how Lewis dealt with the issue of time between the “real” world, and the Narnia world. In this book he points out that time does not match between the two, which was of course a given based on the ending to the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, but he explains that in fact it is not a set ratio, but rather a non specific amount of time may pass in Narnia while the children are in the real world. Anyways, it was interesting to see how things had gone since the children left Narnia and how people then believed that there was no such person as Aslan etc. My favorite part was when Lucy can see Aslan, yet the other children can not, but eventually after following Lucy (who is following Aslan) they come to see him as well. To me this related to people who are “new” to the Christian faith. They do not see everything very well, and may not “get it,” but if they trust that they are not being led astray, eventually they will see things for themselves. Well, it was a good book, an easy read, enjoyable, and a bit thought provoking. I was trying to think of how I would rank them, and I just don’t think that it would be fair, so I won’t.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

In the zone

Lately I have felt really good about myself as a writer. I'm sure it is the same for other people with different professions. No doubt the football player feels good about himself when he knows he is at the top of his game. I suspect the painter knows when she is painting better than ever before. Perhaps the farmer intuitively knows when his crops are doing well. It has been the same for me this last week. As we sometimes say “I have been in the zone.” This is good because I have been writing final papers for my classes this semester among other things. It is just coming naturally to me right now. I think about what I want to write, put my headphones on, listen to Project 86, and then the vision of what I am going to write hits me. It is a wonderful and magical thing. I hope I find the time to take advantage of it while it lasts.

Building Bridges

This is the "letter to the reader" in my teaching portfolio. I am so pleased with it that I decided to post it.

Dear Reader,
I write this to you so that you might have a sense of how a man is transforming into a teacher, and not just a teacher, but a redeemer. The Fresno Pacific mission and vision statement describes teaching as a “calling to redemptive service.” At first this seemed very cosmic and idealistic, but then I met seventy tenth graders at Sunnyside High School who were there to learn, among other things, world history. That is were I came in—I was there to teach them. I had so many questions going into this semester and at the beginning of my initial student teaching experience. Among them were: Will I relate to the students? Will they learn anything? Will they want to learn anything? What if I fail? What if I can not reach them? I found that there were students who were in gangs, abandoned by family, parents, on drugs, illiterate, hopeless, and unloved. Then I understood why Fresno Pacific would call teaching “a calling to redemptive service.” My students needed to be redeemed, and I had the power to do it. But how?

All of the books and articles in the world could not equal the actual time spent in the classroom. William Ayers (2001) wrote that “teaching is an eminently practical activity, best learned in the exercise of it and in the thoughtful reflection that must accompany that,” (p. 12). I learned in a couple months working with my students what I could never have learned spending years studying teaching and learning, and while it is an enormously complicated thing that cannot be fully explained in words, I will sum it up like this: first I have to know myself, then I have to know my students, then I have to find a way to build a bridge between us.

The first thing that I learned about teaching is that in order to be successful at it, I must be acutely aware of myself as a teacher, but more importantly a learner. Socrates is accredited with the advice “know thyself,” and Shakespeare elaborated in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.” This to me is the heart of being a teacher, and my goal as I become one. Parker Palmer (1997) wrote that “we teach who we are,” and “teaching holds a mirror to the soul,” (p. 15). I can only teach effectively if I have an understanding of how I learn and who I am at every level—socially, spiritually, and internally. In practical terms then, teaching for me is less about adapting to the classroom, and more about adapting the classroom to me. This includes curriculum, lessons, even physical environment. Everything reflects me as an individual. The more I understand myself, and teach who I am, the better I will be as a teacher.

Part of being true to who I am is being honest. Students are smart. They have noses for smelling a liar and eyes that see through masks. Everyday I must get up and be myself, in my weakness and in my strength, the students need me to be me, they need me to be real. Authors Sizer and Sizer (1999) wrote that “kids count on our consistency. Few qualities in adults annoy adolescents more than hypocrisy,” which is a huge burden on the teacher (p. 11). It means that every day I am being evaluated. Not by administrators, mentor or master teachers, but by students. As a teacher I must accept that I am fallible just like my students, and that making mistakes is permissible and a natural part of learning. Haberman (1995) wrote that “the surest way to teach children and youth to accept their fallibility is to select and prepare teachers who accept their own,” (p. 71). This is something that I tried to instill in my students and at least one appreciated it by writing to me, “you helped me learn that being wrong is alright.” This is a crucial part of understanding myself, but knowing myself is only the first part.

The second challenge for me is to know my students. Ideally I will know all of my students intimately. The goal according to Levine (2002) is to “become deeply familiar with each student’s abilities, needs, and interests so that [I] can suggest well-informed strategies for each student’s learning,” (p.17). This is challenging with a large number of students, but it is extremely important and begins with something as simple as knowing each students name. Because of who I am, and the way I relate to people, I learned all of my students’ names and used them as we interacted during the day. I was rewarded for this in an informal evaluation I had my students write about me. Michael wrote, “most all of my teachers didn’t know my name, but you do. You would call on me during class on a question to answer.” It was important to at least one student that I knew his name. I was disappointed that he believes other teachers do not know it.

Knowing my students is a key element in shaping my strategies to teach them. They are all different and they might require different teaching methods. This again reinforces the idea that teaching is not about methods or strategies, but instead it is a dynamic relationship that is wholly human and therefore immune to imposed models and machines. Haberman (1995) wrote that “stars establish very close and supportive relationships with most of the children they teach,” but that knowing is not enough, but rather must be used to “make teaching more relevant,” (p. 53-54). My goal is knowing my students, which leaves the final piece in quality teaching—building the bridge between myself and them.

Once I have a solid understanding of myself, and spend the time to significantly know all of my students, I must find a way to connect who they are with who I am. Students are not likely to do this on their own. I alone have the power to build the bridge. Ayers (2001) suggested that “the teacher must be the architect and the contractor who begins to build the bridge,” (p. 75). The question is then how do I build the bridge? It begins with me and my passion for not only my subject but learning in general. I can build a bridge to them by becoming a student myself. To this Robert Fried (2001) explained that, “passionate teachers convey their passion to novice learners—their students—by acting as partners in learning rather than as “experts in the field,” (p. 23). Once I become one of them in a sense, they will trust me and I can lead them effectively. Haberman (1995) explained how the class works once the bridge is complete, “by identifying with their teacher—through rapport, caring, mutual respect—children are naturally drawn to explore and sample the teacher’s interests and pursuits,” (p. 33). I can lead them and they will follow. The possibilities for learning are endless because they know that I will be there with them, the bridge is built.

It all begins with me. If I can “to mine own self be true,” I have a chance of building the bridge to my students. When I am true to myself, building the bridge will come naturally because, “teaching can come from the depths of my own truth—and the truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in kind,” (Palmer, 1997 p. 20). It is the importance of knowing myself that makes this portfolio important.

Reflecting on and examining my experiences during my initial student teaching has helped me to understand myself, my students, and how to build bridges to them. Examining the community contributed to my understanding of my students. Reflecting on the lessons that I taught helped me to understand the things that I did well and not so well, and helped me understand what I was able to communicate to my students (bridge building). Discussing the nature of the school with the assistant principle helped me understand both myself as a teacher and also the school with its students. The discipline inquiry further helped me understand myself and my beliefs about discipline, but also how the students respond to different discipline strategies.

Finally all of this goes back to my revelation that teaching is in fact a “calling to redemptive service,” in more ways than one. First and foremost there are students who need redeeming. The community and the school sometimes discount students. Like one of my students whose third grade teacher called him a “burro,” he does not believe in himself as a learner. It is my job to make him believe in himself. Besides the students, I have the task of redeeming the subject matter. Several of my students began world history believing that it was a waste of time. I had to build a bridge between them and the curriculum in order to redeem it. To this end some of my students wrote that “you helped me learn that history can be fun and interesting.” For these students history is no longer something to be dreaded. It can be enjoyed, and know that gives me satisfaction as a teacher.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms

Another book that I finished over the Thanksgiving break was A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway. I have been a bit critical of him despite having only read The Old Man and the Sea which I in fact enjoyed, so I decided to read this novel and see what all the fuss was about. I must admit that it is a good book. I enjoyed the very real dialogue that he used as well as the story line itself. I did not feel that I got a good sense of the characters’ emotions however and especially the main character. He seemed to me to be fairly emotionless, which is fine except that I hoped for a bit more out of him. I also expected there to be more of a critique on war. Maybe it is not so much that there is not a good critique of war, but rather that there is the stronger storyline between the main character and his lover. I felt that he did a good job of showing the insanity of it when they were retreating and he was going to be shot because he was suspected of being a German infiltrator. Also there was the sense that no one really knew what was going on most of the time. The dialogue was often about what would happen next and the soldiers and civilians all had different opinions but never really knew anything. I found this to be true in my own experience in the army. Everyone has an opinion but no one really knows. Well in general I thought that it was a good read. It is both interesting yet insightful, subtle and yet clear.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Is Violence Getting Worse?

In my seminar class at Fresno Pacific we read some articles about bullying and violence in schools, including one on sexual violence. It was my professor’s stance that violence is getting worse in our society. I have yet another professor with a similar opinion. While I yield to their experience in years, and trust that they have a solid sense of things, I cannot agree to this opinion yet, even though it is often reported in the media that violence is getting worse in this country and that gangs are worse now than ever, so on and so forth. I am still not convinced. Not because I don’t want to believe that it is getting worse, but rather because I do not have a rosy view of the past.

The press about the apparent rise in violence is often blamed on the media. Music, television, movies, and video games are often cited as contributing to the violent nature of our citizens today. “He listens to angry music,” someone might say, or “he learned it playing video games.” I am not sure that these things make people angry or violent or if violent people listen to angry music and play violent games. But my reasons for not trusting the prevailing wisdom is not a matter of the psychology of people committing violent acts, but more broadly, the violent nature of humans in general. Because of this more general perspective I doubt that there has ever been a peaceful time in our world. Because of this I feel that there are a couple things that are contributing to this sense of rising violence.

European Perspective

First of all I feel that there is a lot of violence in the world. Certainly one could not deny that places like Iraq, Israel, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Columbia, Kosovo, and many more are places were violence is common. If we understand then that in general the world is a violent place, then what we are really concerned about is violence in the Anglo-Saxon part of the world which is seen as “civilized” and peaceful. The kingdom pulled together by the British has been the new Rome for the last 200 years. England and her children have been the model of justice and gentleness. This of course is in spite of numerous wars and conflicts internationally, as well as domestic horrors such as mob lynchings in the US south, church bombings in Northern Ireland, and the October Crisis in Canada. Still people of these nations, in general, apparently believed that they were a peaceful society. It was the rest of the world that was seen as savage and violent, not the west. The issue then is not that the world as a whole is becoming more violent, because it has clearly always been that way, but rather that the “civilized” world is not besieged by violence from within. This perspective is wholly Eurocentric and the result of tunnel vision. Had we been paying attention to anything that went on in the last hundred years and beyond, we would know that violence has been a staple of human existence since the beginning of time. I believe that this is the first error in thinking that has led us to believe now that our society is growing in violence.

Middle Class Perspective

The second issue that I think may be getting in the way of true understanding when it comes to violence and society, is that we (WASPs) see things from a middle class perspective, and often times Puritan New England perspective. It is a simple fact that in the slums of New York there was much violence even as early as the first half of the nineteenth century. There was violence between Italians and Irish, “natives” (people born of English or German families who came before the revolution) versus immigrants. Violence against Jews and Russians was common. The difference was that it was something largely ignored by the middle and upper classes. They did not care if there were Irish immigrants getting killed in the streets of the five points. No one was worried if there were Italians dying in gang or eventually mob conflicts. The news did not even cover the countless stories of murdered women and battered children. Nevertheless the violence was there.

Besides this there was a historically violent south in the United States. More white people than black were lynched in this region, and it was not uncommon for there to be feuds between families that went on for generations. There were many gangs of robbers and other types that raided towns and terrorized people, only there was no national press that covered this type of violence. It was not uncommon in the south for two men to fight each other to the death over seemingly inconsequential disputes, yet we talk about senseless violence in this country as if it is a new thing.

Lastly one should bring up the West as another example of a violent era. Nevada, Oregon, and California all have a violent past. There are endless stories of bandits and robbers, cowboys and crusaders who were all violent. In California there was violence against the Spanish, Mexicans, Natives, Chinese, Japanese, and others. Rarely has there been a time when the state was not beset with violence, yet some speak of the present as if this is the first time that violence has surfaced.

I believe that all of this history is simply under reported and the media makes it seem as though it is only now that violence has erupted. Furthermore, I believe that the violence of the past went unnoticed because it was perpetrated mostly by and on the poor, as it is today, and the wealthy did not pay it heed. The bourgeoisie did not see it, hear about it, or talk about it. It is the old “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” strategy. This is no longer possible because television has brought the images, sounds and discussion into the homes of middle class people. This is the real rise in violence. Not that there is any real change in the number of violent acts, only there is now up to the minute reporting on it that reaches every American no matter how high the gates around the community reach.


Perhaps the perceived rise in violence is not due to an increase in the tendency toward violence, but rather the increased ability to kill people. The increase in technology coupled with the availability of weapons of any sort, have likely lead to a rise in the number of deaths from violent acts. In this country kids have access to rifles that are able to fire rapidly and accurately whereas before, even firearms were inaccurate and slow to reload. I am amazed when soldiers in Iraq or Kosovo conduct a raid of private homes to yield hand grenades, rocket propelled grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles. This of course allows people to kill one another much more efficiently than before, and the likely hood of death from such an attack is higher than before in spite of an increase in medicine to treat gun wounds etc. Instead of treating a patient for one gunshot wound as was likely in the past until the last thirty years, victims are often shot multiple times making treatment much more challenging. Instead of fist fight that have always been common, there are gunfights. This is a fundamental shift in the nature of violence, not an increase in violence in general. I admit that such a change may in fact be more devastating than a simple increase.

Sexual Violence

As for the prevalence of sexual violence it is historical that women have been abused and mistreated since the dawn of man. The question is whether this sort of thing is increasing in modern society. I recognize that it seems that younger children are becoming increasingly more sexually violent. For this I am not sure of the reason, though it may again have something to do with the media and exposing children who do not understand their sexuality to sexually explicit material. However, I suspect that there is a certain amount of sexual violence that went unreported for a long period of time. This is evident in the number of molestation charges that are surfacing now from thirty and forty years ago. I believe that there has always been a significant rate of sexual violence but that it was unreported because of the shame factor. There is naturally a certain amount of shame that comes with being violated, and this is only magnified when one is violated sexually. Coupled with an immature understanding of what occurred and this is a recipe for denial and repression. Furthermore there is the sense that one should not “shame the family” that is rapidly fading in the USA among middle class people, that is allowing for more of these events to be publicized. In other countries, such a thing sometimes leads to the death of the girl involved because of the shame that it brings to other family members, which almost ensures silence on the part of the victim, and I believe that there was a similar force at work in this country until the past twenty years or so. Like the belief that violence is occurring more frequently in our society, sexual violence could suffer some of the same misunderstandings.


I want to conclude by first saying that I do not think that we should ignore violence in our society. It is a cancer that should be treated not ignored, because ignoring it will not ease it. Furthermore I am fully against children watching violent programs and playing violent games, while I do not believe that such things will make them killers, I suspect that it is nevertheless a poor use of time, and not beneficial for their social or scholastic development. Secondly I am not even sure that I am correct in my hypotheses. It is quite possible that violence in fact is increasing in our society, and that it is due to media, music etc. I am simply challenging the idea and asking for some proof. This I understand may be difficult as the means by which to record information improve, and the past is difficult to properly gauge. I also understand that I am painting with large brush strokes and have not been very specific. If I were to devote significant time and energy into researching this issue, I am sure that I could further develop my argument or perhaps find what I am looking for in the first place: evidence that violence is increasing, but for now I will have to settle for generalizations and nonspecific counter arguments. Feel free to enlighten me. I have not asked questions about this issue because I feel I know the answers, but rather because I wish to know the answers.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Book review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Over the Thanksgiving break I finished three books and I intend to post my review of all of them. The first is Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. I have read three Sowell titles now and loved all of them, though there is some tendency to repeat the same theme. For instance in Conquest and Culture’s he discussed slavery in his chapter about Africa, and again had a chapter devoted to slavery in this book. However, the chapter in BR&WL was much more thorough. I was especially interested in the chapter on Black Education because I myself will soon be a high school teacher. It confirmed what many people have suggested, that in order to have success teaching children in poverty or “at risk” or whatever we are supposed to call them according to the politically correct police, one must have high expectations and require hard work. This makes perfect sense. If children in inner city schools are in fact behind those in suburban areas, how can they close the gap unless they work hard? Some might argue that it is not their fault and so it is not fair to make them work harder than children who’s parents pay for tutoring etc. but the fact remains that they are behind and are not likely to catch up by any amount of praising or complaining.

Besides this chapter I felt that the chapter about “middleman minorities” was very interesting. Sowell made the case that there are many “Jews” in the sense that there are other examples of minorities who filled the role that Jews did in Europe and even the United States. He cited Chinese in Southeast Asia and Indonesia, Lebanese in northern Africa and Armenians in Turkey. All of these he claimed and supported, are minority peoples who were often on the margins of the parent society, but that achieved success in spite of disadvantages they faced. It was a strong argument.

The main chapter and theme of course is that the “black” culture that we find in the United States today and which is often celebrated by not only some blacks, but often liberal elites, is not the result of culture brought from Africa, but rather culture brought from areas of England by white settlers. He argues that it is the “redneck” culture that has found its way into “black” culture originating from the south by osmosis. Sowell cites many examples of people from the North traveling South in the Anti-bellum period, who noted the “redneck” culture and its characteristics. He quotes such scholars or W.E.B. Dubois who held negative views of the Southern blacks. This is a very interesting argument which, in my mind, is not so much an indictment of African Americans today, than it is of the South in general.

I would recommend this book for its original point of view and sound scholarship. That is, Sowell does not simply make up arguments or claim special insight, but supports everything he writes with a mountain of citations and quotes. It is well written and offers much to ponder.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Fantasy Writing

I have been reflecting a bit on writing in the fantasy genre and have come up with a few things that I think are a special challenge. There are two main problems with writing fantasy. The first is the largest. It is creating a believable world. Whether in sci-fi or fantasy, the author has often created a new world. The easiest thing to do is to use the “real” world. There are plenty of sci-fi books that are set in the modern world or in the near future which means the reader can understand the setting without a lot of explanation by the author. In fantasy, often the genre will borrow the historical medieval world so that again there is no need for a lot of explanation about the setting. If the author chooses to create an entirely new world, with new rules, than there must be some pages devoted to helping the reader understand how things work in this world. This is true of any changes to the actual world. In fantasy it is often magic that has been added to the medieval setting, and such things should be explained in order to be coherent and believable. In sci-fi any time there is new technology or a new race of character these things should be explained. This allows the author tremendous freedom because he can deviate from the “real” world and create a new world, but also adds responsibility to the reader for not leaving him behind. Then there is the additional question as to how many pages to devote to background or explanation of the fantasy world or the additional characteristics found in the story’s world.

The other challenge that I have found is with names. I agonize over names of characters and places. There are several options for the writer. The easiest on the writer and the reader is to simply use common or at least recognizable names. I feel this is often the case with Harry Potter. The series actually uses a mixture of common and creative names, which makes it easy to read, but then adds some mystique to the story. Another option is to borrow the names found somewhere else as in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien borrowed nearly all of the names found in his books from a German epic, the Saga of the Volsungs. Still another option and the one I employed is to create all of the names found in the story. This is by far the most challenging. I eventually developed a complicated system for randomly building names in the different languages found in The Sureshot. While this often prompts people to ask “how I came up with those names,” and to complain about their difficulty, it does add a sense of the fantastic. I defend my use of created names by explaining that to use English as a base for naming would be bland and lack the “feel” I am after in my stories. I am pleased with my system for naming as it is now both efficient and effective in my opinion. I will not apologize for any difficulty in their pronunciation.

Anyways, these are my thoughts so far about writing in the fantasy genre.