Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This blog has moved!

To wordpress. URL, for now, anyway is www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com. The current name, mostly a joke but not totally, is Campus Crusade for Bayes. That's an inside joke from my Secular Alliance, but you can probably figure it out. Bayes is important to me, and so is rationality, which is why the name is taken from this Less Wrong post: http://lesswrong.com/lw/or/joy_in_the_merely_real/. If you don't know less wrong, I'd check it out. The summary of this post is that the 'merely' real is both all there is and not mere at all. If we accept the second, we can accept the first without worrying that we are missing out. Which is important, if we want to be happy in this amazing universe we're in. Reality is a thing to be treasured.

The name might change, to Strange Matter or The Merely Real. It's not clear yet, but I'll update if there are any changes. The links will probably be screwy for a while, but I'm sure it will all work out.

Thanks for following me to this point, and please join me over at Campus Crusade for Bayes!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

In the Night Kitchen: Part 2

The project continues! I'm really enjoying this opportunity to reread a valued childhood book and rexamine it with fresh and overly analytic eyes. I hope to finish before the end of the week. Unlikely, I know, but the goal remains. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, here's Part 1. Without further ado!

Page 5Source: Maurice Sendak

I remember very little about my reactions to this page as a child, which is understandable given that it serves mostly as transition. I wonder a great deal about Sendak's choice of jams and other kitchen objects, whether they are from his memory, or imagination, or something else. I do want to point out the visual aspect of the text "Mickey Oven" which evokes Disney, alluding to a darker side, perhaps, of that other children's favorite, demonstrating with just a subtle symbol that most children's fantasy is grimmer than it appears. The rhyming and compound word "Mickey-cake" seem to come straight out of the pat-a-cake rhyme game, reclaiming the excitement of a child at having a cake, a real life physical object, marked with the name that signifies their identity and in that marking becomes a part of the universe that is cordoned off just for them. That world in which the cakes are all for you, brought into existence by singing games, is the real-life analogue of the Night Kitchen, that exotic but almost-close-enough-to-touch world where bakers make cakes for the morning, cakes that are in fact, not only for you and named for you, but made of you, too.

Page 6
Maurice Sendak

Oddly, I don't remember this page at all. Reading it now felt like reading it for the first time, and this first time reader thought, look how empowered Mickey is! There is this fanciful world in which the cakes are for you, but what if that's not what you want? What if the conventional path laid out, in which things (clothes coming off, falling into another world, being folded into a batter) simply happen to you, without your say. What if, even though, because this is fantasy, you are delighted at all of these lovely things, and there's nothing wrong with them at all, you want to act? It remind me greatly of Knight's Castle, by Edward Eager, in which the protagonist children become part of the world of their knights and dolls, and occasionally things go quite dangerously awry. The way to get out of the danger is to remind yourself that it is fantasy and not real, and , there is a scene in Knight's castle in which Ann, the youngest child, petulantly cries out the words that end the magic, and while the other children are upset with her, it is her way of asserting herself and her power over the events transpiring that affect her. Similarly, Mickey is defiant, changing the course of the story, disturbing the calm, nightly patterns of the bakers, and proudly stating, "I'm not the milk and the milk's not me! I'm Mickey!" There will be no denial of identity in Maurice Sendak's book, not like the polite children in most children's literature, who could be replaced easily by their counterparts in similar formulaic books. No, Mickey knows who he is, and encourages readers, by example, to know who they are, too, and to shout it unashamedly.

Page 7
Maurice Sendak

This I remember. This I remember as being a splendid set of instructions for any life task, as if if you only could pound and pull and work enough, you could build anything, even a plane made of bread dough. It's important, I think, that the bread dough was simply lying around; it emphasizes the completeness of the Night Kitchen. It is not only a vehicle for the story, but an entire world with characters and objects we haven't necessarily heard about yet. In any fantasy story, the protagonist meeting new characters from the world reminds the reader just how complex it is, just how real it is, just how much there is to discover. It allows the reader to consider the world as one to discover, rather than to create, a beautiful fiction (since authors and readers do, in fact, together construct these worlds) that lets us truly fall into the magic of fantasy.

Mickey's facial expressions are important here. He begins, as he has been most of the story, idyllically tranquil, then becomes frustrated and scared in the third panel. That's not mentioned in the text at all, so we have to divine it for ourselves, noting the brief uncertainty before sheer determination and talent set in. After all, Mickey is no conventional protagonist. He is not serendipitously perfect. He is in a world that is not of his creation, and though his intent to escape is pure, he's not quite sure how to do it. Soon enough, though, he devises a plan, and executes it. All the while the background changes, showing us more and more of this strange world, even if it doesn't quite accord with spatial physics.

Page 8
Source: Maurice Sendak

And he does it! He succeeds in his crazy plan and manages to fly, fulfilling the imaginations of countless children. Two things of note on this page: the plane is neither purely nor fully functional. That is to say, Mickey wants the plane to "look[] ok", to have a decorative star, simply because he wants it there. We notice that the mobile on the first page has something that could be a star on it, but on the body instead of the wing. Secondly, the plane drops pieces of dough as it flies, because Mickey isn't perfect, and neither are his creations. What are a few pieces missing when you've just made a plane out of nothing but bread dough and will?

The next page doesn't make any sense except in the context of the flow of the plot, so I'll stop here for now. This is really great fun, and I hope my readers (the few that there are) are enjoying it as well. It's so nice to reminisce about great books.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In the Night Kitchen: Part 1

Though psychology has unequivocally swept away Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa, the blank slate with which we are born, in the imagination of children’s book authors, the minds of children are still sunny, white-washed and tranquil, disturbed only by the absence of food or a blanket, or the transient difficulties faced by a beloved character. But this is nothing more than an obsession with purity worming its way into our socializing processes. No adult knew better than Maurice Sendak that to be a child is to be constantly disturbed, bewildered and terrifying by an ever-changing landscape over which one has no control. Do other people have minds and thoughts? Where do my parents go when I don’t see them? What if the monsters are real? How much can I imagine? To be a children’s author is to work at remembering what it was like to be a child; an incredibly difficult procedure. It requires truly the best of minds to speak to the mad and wild complexities of internal life in language suitable for young ones. 

My copy of In the Night Kitchen is sitting in my home in Miami, Florida, currently thoroughly unloved, though still showing signs of the tens of times I eagerly tore through it (not always figuratively) or asked that my parents do so aloud. In honor of Maurice Sendak, that brilliant, unconventional, controversial children’s writer, I am going to blog through a rereading of the book. The pdf is available online here, though the effect is far diminished when the pages are not in front of you, adamantly demanding attention with their glossy shine, intense colors and larger-than-your-head size. Follow along, and add your own recollections or thoughts in comments!
Cover Page.
Source: Maurice Sendak
There are no bright colors. None. This is unheard of for a children’s book. There are greys, muted reds and greens, and a great deal of brown. The effect, frankly, is one of uneasiness, perhaps fear. The image of of our hero, flying in a clearly not airworthy vessel, with a facial expression of sheer contentment gives a sense of delicious fun (he’s wearing something on his head!) and delightfully contrasts with the dirty, grimy city below. And yet! What is this city but all the things one might find in a kitchen, alluding to all of the playful childhood imaginations of anthropomorphic household items. I certainly remember wishing I were small enough to see my house as a whole world, being absolutely certain that the vantage point of an ant or toy soldier would be infinitely more interesting.

Page 1
Source: Maurice Sendak

As a child, I never noticed the mobile above his head, which foreshadows the plane he flies in later, but I absolutely loved this font, as well as the rhythm, begging to be read aloud by the very spacing of the words.

Page 2
Source: Maurice Sendak
Definitely one of my favorite pages. I think it’s the suddenness with which reality changes to something more fantastic, and the total nonchalance of Mickey, who’s just enjoying the ride. And being awesomely buck naked.

Page 3
Source: Maurice Sendak
I mean, just look at that face. He is so comfortable, so content. It’s like he always knew where he was going. And that batter always looked so soft and inviting. I notice now, as I didn’t then, that in addition to common ingredients, the structural architecture in the background is tools, peelers and mixer paddles and the like. And always that moon, illuminating and watching, promising the reader that the connection to the real world remains intact, since it is the same moon we saw earlier, but simultaneously introducing a whole new world, the world of the Night Kitchen. Mickey’s ease of entry combined with the construction “did you hear” at the beginning suggests the tantalizing notion that the Night Kitchen has always existed, it’s just that most of us haven’t found it yet.

Page 4
Source: Maurice Sendak
And here comes the chefs. They always looked so cheerful and friendly to me, although Maurice Sendak has claimed that they and their moustaches were intended to represent Hitler. I’ll go into that later.  I realize now that the image of being baked into a cake by chefs so oblivious or uncaring as to not notice your presence could be the stuff of nightmares. To me as a child, though, there was nothing frightening at all. Instead, there a sense in which these were simply the chefs going about their nightly work. There was something delightful about a parallel universe which was completely devoid of conflict and hubbub, which ran completely smoothly, without a hitch, and without our knowledge, to deliver cake in the morning. Worlds of our imagination do not need drama to enthrall. The fireworks of fantasy are replaced by the endlessly exciting idea of normalcy, of a consistent and unremarkable pattern, thoroughly different from our own, simply existing.

This, I think, is true genius. To understand that a world of strange creatures doing unbelievable things and having gripping adventures all the while comes second only to a world populated with people more or less like us, doing things more or less like us, just different enough to bewilder, who care not a whit for our existence.

There is also brilliance in the tension of the possibility of abject terror from being buried alive in hot batter existing side-by-side with the nonchalance of the everyday workings of a different world. Of course, this neatly fits into the extended Holocaust reference, which adds another layer of meaning. For those, including myself, who wonder whether children were expected to understand such allegory, remember that once said “I don’t write books for children. I write them for myself. Children happen to like them.”

We do indeed, Maurice. RIP.
Maurice Sendak
Source: Telegraph.co.uk
Parts 2 through however many to come. UPDATE: Part 2 here!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Atheism is fun, but that's not why we do it

One of the problems with being an atheist is that your very existence is offensive.
One of the other problems with being an atheist is that everyone knows that your very existence is offensive, so they expect you to be exciting and radical, even when you’re not.
Catch-22, anyone?
Greta Christina’s been talking about Catch-22’s lately (catches-22?), and I wanted to add one to the mix. Being an atheist is a statement that you believe a claim about the world that is relatively uncommon, and so that identity is a message to most of the people around you that they are wrong. That’s a difficult barrier to overcome. There’s something about believing “there is no god” that is more combative to theists than “I believe in a different god” is to a fellow theist of a different religion. Given that, many atheists refrain from making their atheism known when it’s not absolutely necessary. Or, when the context is one of tolerance and diversity, we might tone down our rhetoric.

On the other hand, atheism is becoming better known. Atheist books are bestsellers, atheist blogs get thousands and millions of hits, secular groups are growing and increasing in number. Unsurprisingly, this has led to more and more awareness, and thus more and more intellectual and political conflict. Articles in newspapers, debates, scandals all point to a massively exciting culture war, which can completely erase the fact that day-to-day lives of atheists are generally calm and normal. As Greta Christina says, “it’s not like we walk around angry all the time.” But sometimes, people are itching for a fight, and we’re supposed to provide one, because as is well known, when an atheist and a theist walk into the same room, hijinks always ensue. And that can really detract from one of the main thrusts of our cause, which is that atheists are normal people. Some of us are activists, of course. Many more of us are very angry. But that doesn’t erase the fact that what we’re asking for is simply common sense: separation of church and state, no discrimination against atheists, and evidence based politics.

This all came to mind during the University of Chicago’s Multifaith Celebration, which was intended to showcase the diversity of practices and beliefs on this campus. Various religious groups said invocations and sang songs, while the Secular Alliance read from Carl Sagan’s brilliant essay, the Pale Blue Dot. Before we were set to present, someone came over and asked what we were going to present. Upon reading our print-out, he complained that it wasn’t particularly atheistic, nor was it very radical. He was certainly wrong on the first point; Sagan makes it clear that he feels that belief in god is nothing more than superstitious mysticism. But taken together, this points to a subset of the American population which is not surprised by secularism and atheism, but rather excited by the prospect of conflict. While my friend Mike would say that progress only comes through conflict, I think that to see atheism as a spectacle is to undermine its power. Atheism is not a sport; it is an idea, and a powerful one. Secular politics may be unpopular in this country, but it is the very opposite of radical. Those who want atheism and secularism to thrive should indeed encourage unapologetic displays of nonfaith, but, please not for the sake of entertainment.

Monday, April 30, 2012

How to Stop Bullying

Nicholas Kristof ran a contest which ends today about bullying. I love that he decided that American teens were the experts on teen bullying. I know when I was in middle school and being bullied, I would spend my time in class critiquing every one of my teachers' bungling attempts to make it all better. Most of their failings came from the fact that they were more interested in ridding their lives of conflict than of making my life easier or less painful, but they also lacked any understanding of teenage social dynamics and had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. So I composed lists in my head of things I would do differently when I was a teacher. I'm not sure I'm going to be a teacher anymore (though still a definite possibility), but I still have plenty of ideas on how to stop bullying. I'm technically still a teenager, but I'm three years out of high school and it's possible all my advice is hopelessly out of date. I wrote this as an open letter to teacher, and it's a little didactic (I had a lot of options for format, and I decided against heartwrenching anecdotes from my bully-stricken past), but I like it anyway. Let me know what you think!

Open Letter to Teachers: Here's How You Actually Stop Bullying

Hey there teachers,
Bullying is complicated, so I don’t blame you for not knowing how to stop it. You’re wrapped up in the immense difficulty of being friendly enough to be liked, strict enough to be respected and spectacular enough to be remembered. That is the job of a teacher, and it’s hard enough to teach the material effectively and walk the tightrope of student perception without getting involved in the nitty-gritty of student interpersonal relationships, especially if you have as much chance of doing harm as good.
So here’s what you need to know: students, bullies and bullied alike, need friends and advocates, and to varying degrees, teachers can be both. Students who are being bullied are hurt by far more than the words hurled at them; they are also being harmed by the loneliness of going through the experience alone. If you see students being bullied, reach out to them gently, reminding them that the teacher is always available for talking, comfort and a safe space. Then follow through, listening, giving advice and affirming that bulling is unacceptable and that it is not a reflection of the worth of the bullied. And do the same for bullies. Bullies gain social power by taking it away from others; they could use a friend. As a  teacher, as an authority figure but also a kind presence, you can speak firmly against the behavior of a bully, retreating not a bit from your position against the bully’s actions while still reaching out to a student, a child, who might need nothing else than a trusted adult to remind them that they are a worthwhile person and can be popular and respected without doing harm.
The advocate aspect of the your role is important, too. Any time bullying, of any degree, is witnessed, you should make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. Importantly, it is the behavior that is being attacked, not the bully, and the bullied student is not being made a focus of attention. Rather, the mistreatment of fellow students is simply not to be tolerated at any time. The fact that the bullying can shift to times and places where you are not around is to be addressed by being a resource for any students involved in bullying, even as bystanders, as mentioned above. Students should know that you can be trusted, and that you will go to the administration or parents only when necessary, but then without hesitation, for example if there is any physical violence involved. This fairness and ability to analyze a situation serves you well when they suspect plagiarism or cheating, and it will serve you well here.
Bullying is a problem. It hurts children on either side of conflict as well as those who are not involved, and if it continues to stymie teachers, then children will have to fend for themselves while facing treatment that no person, let alone a teenager, should ever have to endure at the hands of their peers. The job of a teacher already encompasses the roles necessary to stop bullying; you must only appropriately act on them. No more excuses. Start now.