What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Movie Review

I like the Christian Science Monitor’s movie reviews. Here’s a link to their review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (TBEMH) so you can compare and contrast theirs and mine. I won’t read theirs until completing mine.

This is going to be short because I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot and therefore ruin it for you.

Rare is the movie made for the 40+ crowd probably because seasoned citizens don’t go to as many movies as younger peeps so they’re riskier financial endeavors. For the sake of more diverse choices at the local cineplex, I hope TBEMH makes a lot of money.

I liked it, Betrothed liked it “a lot”. India is a country I’d like to visit and I’m a sucker for any film where I feel like I can even partly “experience” the subcontinent. The street scenes and soundtrack were good, but not on the level of Slumdog Millionaire or Monsoon Wedding, one of my favorite films.

All-star cast. Mostly believable story lines. It’s a film that mostly respects your intelligence. It’s not predictable, but a few Hollywood coincidences (e.g., running into one another in the chaotic city) detract a bit.

And if you’re like me, it will inspire you to think about the purposes of life and how you’d like to spend the last few chapters of it. How many films can you say that about? I’m just not sure it left that indelible a mark. While I recommend it, it’s not a film I’ll tell anyone in a few months that they “absolutely have to see.” That’s why I’m giving it a B+. Read the Monitor review, go see it yourself, and let me know what you think.

[Okay, I just skimmed the Monitor review. Two “B+’s” meaning they and I have what’s know in assessment circles as “inter-rater reliability”.]

Contemporary Challenges to Writing Well

Follow up to the previous post, “Writing Hard”.

When working on their drafts, I ask my writing students to continually self-assess whether they’ve been sufficiently introspective and whether they have interesting ideas to communicate.

Sufficient introspection is tough for an increasing number of students who are unable to unplug for any time of real consequence. For some of my students, not texting for an hour and forty-five minutes is excruciating. I wonder, how introspective can one be when alternating between texting, talking, listening to music, facebooking, tweeting, watching youtubes most recent viral videos, or streaming films?

A second challenge is sufficient exposure to complex and challenging content. This challenge takes two forms—the quality of curriculum materials in school and the personal choices made outside of school.

With respect to the later, young people watch a lot more television and movies than they do read. That’s not inevitably negative, depending on the relative quality of their preferred television programming and movies.

Extrapolating from my students and my daughters and their friends, today adolescents tend to watch television and films that fail the complex and challenging test.

Again I wonder, if they’re unable to unplug and they’re switching between Gossip Girls, Camp Rock, and Legally Blonde (my frame of reference is admittedly female) what can we expect from them in terms of interesting ideas?

Postscript: I’m not immune from these challenges, particularly unplugging. I am too easily distracted. That partially explains why it took me so long to FINALLY finish Franzen’s Freedom. Whew, masterful. Worth noting, he said he worked on it in an office without an internet connection. Currently I’m reading The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. And last night the family and labradude gathered for this excellent film. Fifteen was NOT happy it was subtitled, but she dug deep and read for the whole 2 hours. She’s still not quite forgiven the Galpal and I for subjecting her to this excellent film five years ago.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Resilience

I’ve been thinking about how different my daughters’ lives are and the seventeen year old central character’s in Winter’s Bone.

Winter’s Bone has the feel of a documentary/commercial hybrid. It’s the story of a seventeen year old woman taking complete care of her mentally out of it mother, 12 year old brother, and six year old sister in a desperately poor, rural, Appalachia-like environ.

Her dad is elsewhere cooking meth and he’s put the house up as collateral on a bond and then missed his court date. As a result, the house will be repossessed if he’s not located within a week. The bulk of the film is the daughter trying to locate the father. In the hands of these particular filmmakers, it’s a brutal, powerful, mesmerizing story.

Despite the increasing prominence of national chain stores in this country, this film was a reminder that substantive regional and subcultural differences still exist.

My daughters have a legion of educated, financially secure parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins. They’re entering adulthood with a nine-person offensive line to run behind. The central character in Winter’s Bone had an extended family wracked by poverty, substance abuse, and violence. When the ball was hiked to her, she had no one to block for her.

Despite all the countervailing evidence, many Americans believe every young adult has an equal opportunity to flourish. Did the drug users in Winter’s Bone choose separately to take drugs or did they succumb to pervasive environmental influences? Were they immoral, undisciplined psychological weaklings or rather was their demise practically inevitable and entirely predictable from a socio-psychological point of view?

Even though the central character turns out okay because of her uncommon resilience, we need social, economic, political, and education reforms to expand the life opportunities of poor young people. The challenge is implementing those reforms without forcefully capping other young people’s life opportunities. Exceedingly difficult to pull off, especially in a recessionary era.

Sometimes I wonder if my daughters might be too privileged to develop the type of resilience they’ll have to draw upon to be successful adults. They don’t project a sense of entitlement, and they are socially aware, but they could be even more so.

Eighteen’s fancy pants college should show the class of 2014 Winter’s Bone so that they more fully appreciate the amazing opportunities their college experience will provide them.

[first Pad post, harder to edit sans mouse, so DKB cut me some slack]

Digital Nation

The title of a provocative PBS frontline documentary that I recommend. Young people spend 50 hours a week plugged in. The film-makers seem in favor of teachers integrating as much personal tech as possible. At the same time, they highlight researchers who are discovering that young adults aren’t nearly as good at multitasking as they think. For example, drivers who text are 23 times more likely to have an accident.

A few tech skeptics in the film argue that tech-happy schools inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns with respect to students’ shrinking attention spans, disinterest in reading books, deteriorating writing skills, and inability to think deeply about anything for a sustained period of time. How can teachers integrate technology—whether cell phones, wireless internet netbooks or laptops, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and related social network sites—without the negative consequences?

Most of the tech zealots in the film would argue the consequences aren’t necessarily negative because the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Times have changed, no big deal if people don’t read books or don’t write as well as they once did because they’re better prepared for the world of work and they’ve gained new, gratifying, virtual friendships. As one zealot says, “Okay, so people won’t write in as flowery a way.”

The loss of “flowery” writing isn’t my concern, it’s the loss of illuminating, insightful writing. When I read, I want to be enlightened. Help me think about something more deeply or in an entirely new way. Take me somewhere I’ve never been Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Chinua Achebe. Introduce me to new people, move me, change me.

Another question raised by the film is how is personal technology impacting young people’s writing? M.I.T. students in the film are quick to admit that the sum of their papers’ paragraphs don’t add up to more than the total. Each paragraph is okay, but they don’t build one upon another because they’re writing while instant messaging, checking email, watching YouTube videos, commenting on them, reading blogs, watching t.v., and listening to music. They have “paragraph-long” not “essay-long” attention spans. In ironic parallel structure, the filmmakers suffer from the same malady since the last-third of the film explores drone technology in what feels like a tangent definitely deserving of its own 86 minutes.

How is technology impacting my writing? Like everyone I’m suspect, I struggle with internet-based distractions including a steady stream of email, other people’s blogs, favorite websites, news headlines, sports scores, stock market swings, and on and on.

A month ago I had to cough up my university laptop for a day to get the OS updated. To quote Paul Krugman (Wednesday in response to Obama’s backpedaling on bankers’ pay), “Oh. My. God!” I culled reading material, student papers, class handouts, and other forms of clutter that had been collecting for months. Next, I read some of the reading material that survived the recycling bin. Then with notepad and pen, I made writing-related notes. At the end of the day, I felt like I accomplished more than normal and wondered why don’t I unplug regularly.

Digital fasting.

Maybe the gap between how I felt after a normal “plugged-in” day of near constant interruptions (email, websites, blogs, the phone, colleagues, students, etc.) and how I felt after my forced “unplugged day” explains why I haven’t purchased a cellphone yet. As someone once said about globalization, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” I’m not ready yet to spread more toothpaste, in the form of incessant interruptions, onto my brush.

I don’t have a good answer for why I don’t unplug on a regular basis.

Truth be told, this blog may be a form of distraction. Instead of telling a sweeping, substantive story of some sort, one that rests upon numerous ideas carefully woven together, I spend thirty to forty-five minutes a few times a week writing 400 word mini-essays that rest on one or two partially developed ideas.

Telling a sweeping, substantive story would require me to focus for several weeks, months, or years. So far at least, I haven’t been up to that.