Hattiesburg American Column: 4/1/2011

Today I made a paper crane as a symbol of hope for Japan. It cost me about a dozen sheets of wasted paper and a few rounds of watching “Origami Crane Folding Instructions – Slow Version” on YouTube, but I finally managed one pitiful little paper bird. I’m proud of it. I’m going to keep trying until I make one that doesn’t look quite so pitiful.

According to my research in the form of reading one Wikipedia article and a few posts on social networks by friends, Japanese legend says that a person who makes a thousand paper cranes will have one wish fulfilled. Cranes are given as gifts to express hope for happiness and well-being.

I first learned of this practice on the photo-sharing site Flickr where I noticed that in the wake of the disasters in Japan, many people were posting photographs of origami cranes. My first reaction was that the cranes were very pretty in pictures but possibly served as a kind of slacktivism wherein people were making symbolic gestures rather than doing things that would really help.

I’ve changed my mind. I think they are more meaningful than that, and while I don’t think they substitute for contributing money and time to relief efforts, neither do they detract from relief efforts. People are actually using the cranes in conjunction with fundraising.

Go to http://studentsrebuild .org/japan to learn about a project that asks students to send in paper cranes. For every crane collected, the Bezos Family Foundation has pledged to donate $2 to Architecture for Humanity and the rebuilding of Japan.

Google “1000 Paper Cranes” if you want to learn more about the tradition, or search Flickr for paper crane photos if you want to see some of the origami tributes to Japan that have been posted worldwide. Meanwhile, consider making a crane yourself. It’s a good activity to get kids involved in as well. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for simultaneous lessons in culture and geometry.

Paper cranes may not help as much as money, but that doesn’t mean they don’t help at all. They are expressions of a desire to offer comfort and hope. They say we are thinking of and praying for others in their time of devastation. They say we care. Caring alone may not rebuild lives, but it certainly matters. It matters quite a bit.

Hattiesburg American Column 2/17/2011

Here’s my column that appears in today’s Hattiesburg American.

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Last week I attended at ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Mississippi School for the Arts in Brookhaven. They’ve been awarded a grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to restore Elizabeth Cottage, the old president’s home on the campus of what was once Whitworth College and is now MSA.

This was a special event for me and for my family because Elizabeth Cottage was once our home. It’s where I lived from the time I was born in 1967 until my dad left the college in 1976. For me, Elizabeth Cottage is home.

It has been heartbreaking to watch the old house deteriorate. I couldn’t be happier to see it now coming back to life. I’m even more excited, however, to hear that it is to become a literary arts center. As someone who was born there and then went on to earn a Ph.D in creative writing, I feel like MSA is doing this just for me.

My old bedroom will become housing for visiting writers. The living room where I sprawled out on the floor reading Nancy Drew will be classroom space for poets and a reception area for literary events.

Let me just take this opportunity to say thank you.

Thank you to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for preserving this piece of Mississippi’s history that also happens to be a very important piece of my own personal history.

Thank you to the City of Brookhaven for rallying together in support of the School for the Arts and in support of preserving the historic value of the old Whitworth College campus.

Thank you to MSA for so graciously honoring my parents at the ribbon cutting for Elizabeth Cottage. Thank you for turning my bedroom into a refuge for visiting writers. Thank you for seeing the beauty in the old house and not just the nuisance of a deteriorating structure.

I was impressed with everything I saw on my visit to MSA. I was especially impressed with the level of talent I saw in the students. I hope that all of Mississippi will continue to support our School for the Arts and its presence on this very special campus in Brookhaven.

Mississippi’s best resource has long been our artistic youth. I, for one, am very grateful to see that tradition continue through the Mississippi School for the Arts.

Hattiesburg American Column 1/5/2010

My column that appears in the Hattiesburg American today.

I HAVE A GOAL FOR 2011 — to take one photograph (at least one) every day for the entire 365 days of the year.

I’m reluctant to call this a resolution. I don’t want to feel like I’ve broken a promise if I don’t follow through.

I might miss some days. I might quit altogether.

And that won’t be so terrible. I’m doing this for me. I’ll only really fail if I don’t try.

I want to do this because I want to be a better photographer. I believe the daily practice will inspire me to accomplish that. I’ll probably experiment more with my camera, read more books about photography, and attempt shots I might not have otherwise tried in my efforts not to repeat myself too often.

As a bonus, I will have a visual record of my year when I am done.

I’m a big believer in daily practice. Whether you want to be a musician, a writer, an athlete or a chef, the only real way to develop and maintain skills is to work on them every day.

I’m not trying to become a professional photographer, though. This is my hobby. This is my personal outlet that gives me some relief from my work.

I don’t aspire to become better than “real” photographers. I just want to be the best I can be. That too is best achieved through daily attention to the craft.

365 projects appear to be popular New Year’s resolutions this year. “Take a picture every day” is currently #9 on the list of most popular resolutions at www.43things.com.

“Lose weight,” much to no one’s surprise, is #1.

Normally, I try to avoid resolutions. I don’t like setting myself up to fail. This year is different, though. I have something I really want to try.

If you, too, hate to let yourself down, don’t be so hard on yourself. Just pick something you want to accomplish and go for it.

I might not make it to day 3 of my 365 project without breaking my streak.

If I don’t, I’ll still have 2 more pictures than I had before. And if I pick back up again on day 4, I’ll have one more.

That’s more than I could say if I didn’t try at all.

Christmas Column

This is my column that appeared in the Hattiesburg American earlier this week.

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I don’t know how my mother managed to make Christmas the special time it always was. We never had enough money when I was growing up, and my parents had six children to feed and clothe. We always all had several gifts each under the tree on Christmas morning, though, and they weren’t just socks and earmuffs. We had toys. We had things we wanted, things that reflected each child’s interests and personality.

My mother’s children tried going cynical on her as adults. The family grew so large that keeping up with gift-giving seemed an impossibility. We wanted to quit exchanging gifts with each other, but my mother kept right on. To this day, every child, every grandchild, and every great-grandchild has a gift under her tree. The year she was in the hospital with a broken hip and the house was gutted out thanks to Katrina, everyone had a gift under her tree. I know because one of the first things she did after the anesthesia wore off was to give me a list of what she still needed to buy. Some days I have trouble remembering everyone’s name, but she remembered who was getting what down to the last grandson-in-law.

This isn’t about stuff. It’s about making sure everyone knows she cares, that she wants to do something special for each and every one. It doesn’t matter how cynical the rest of us become, we can’t take that from her.

I hear lots of complaints about the commercialization of Christmas this time of year. It’s true that the hype is overwhelming, and we are all in danger of getting lost in the chaos. I don’t think the problem is the commercialization of Christmas itself, however. I think what we’ve done to Christmas is just a symptom of the overarching problem of excessive commercialization in our lives. If Christmas were still one of the few times of a year when we did get a treat for ourselves, we would still remember what’s so special about giving and receiving gifts.

It isn’t Christmas hype that has us so jaded. It’s year-round hyper-consumerism. Becoming grouches about Christmas doesn’t solve that problem.

I, for one, have a goal to enjoy Christmas but to reduce my spending year-round. Christmas isn’t about stuff, but stuff only detracts from Christmas when we forget what gifts represent – that someone cares about each and every one of us.

Hattiesburg American Column: 11/16/2010

Here’s my column that appears today in the Hattiesburg American:

I started a diet over the summer when Robert St. John said in his column that he was going on a diet. I quit my diet a few days ago over a platter of fried green tomatoes at the Crescent City Grill. Quit might actually be a strong word, though, since I haven’t given up on the idea per se. I’ve just deferred any real effort until after Christmas.

As I see it, the next few weeks will be nothing short of a calorie/carb/fat obstacle course.

Food is comfort, and skinny is self-esteem, but holiday pies are a social contract. You can’t decide you aren’t going to eat them without a note from your doctor, and even then someone will say, “Just have a small piece.”

Mississippi is, after all, the most obese state in the country. Every day here requires real vigilance if you want to diet. There’s that certain time of year, however, that requires super-duper extra-hyper vigilance. It starts with the first bucket of Halloween candy and doesn’t even start to let up until Mardi Gras. This is the time of year when spinach dip starts looking like health food.

That season is here, and I have a survival strategy.

I read the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano, and I think I get it. One, eat teeny portions. Two, pay penance after. Guiliano talks about eating the finest chocolates in the smallest portions and paying penance after by eating leek soup to reset the metabolism and balance out the calories.

She presents a few other foreign concepts like the leisurely enjoyment of eating, the leisurely enjoyment of walking, and the leisurely enjoyment of being watched looking good. None of that suits my current lifestyle, so I’m just going with portion control and penance.

My new holiday motto is “Put one brownie on your plate at a time, and don’t eat it all at once.” If I can just pace myself with nibbles, maybe I can keep up with how many calories a single office party costs. That way, I know whether I can afford one celery stick or two the next day.

Failing that, maybe I’ll just enjoy the holidays and save up all of my penance for January.

Hattiesburg American Column: 9/16/2010

Here’s my column that appears today in the Hattiesburg American:

TO THE QUESTION of “Can good composition teaching be done under present circumstances?” Edward M. Hopkins said “no.” Teachers are overworked to the point of break down, he said. Students are not getting the individual attention they need, and their language skills show it. We just aren’t creating circumstances conducive to the best teaching and learning.

He said this in 1912 in an article published in English Journal.

Some things never change. English teachers are always the first to complain that they are overloaded.

English teachers, after all, have heavy grading loads, and they carry large burdens in terms of overall student performance. Reading, writing, and arithmetic have long been recognized as the core of all other learning. If no one else has noticed that English teachers cover two of the three essential subjects, we certainly have.

English teachers – at least in the two-year college system – have known for some time that education budgets were being cut too much in Mississippi. Now, everyone feels the pressure.

If you saw the report WDAM-TV aired on Sept. 8 about enrollment increases in two-year colleges, you saw Jesse Smith (president of Jones County Junior College) and Eric Clark (executive director of the Mississippi State Board for Community & Junior Colleges) discuss the budget crisis two-year colleges now face. Enrollments are up. Funding is down. This is the story across the state.

Dr. Clark describes this situation as “unsustainable.”

I understand that the whole state is in a budget crisis, that everyone has to tighten up. I also understand that severe academic cuts don’t help anyone recover from a recession.

Mississippi needs more jobs. To create new jobs, we need new industries. To attract new industries, we need an educated workforce. We need the system that provides the bulk of workforce training and affordable education to be hearty and healthy.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned two-year colleges as offering a solid and affordable education “within a day’s ride of every student.” He saw the opportunity as an essential building block of a viable democracy.

I, for one, believe this is an ideal worth investing in no matter your circumstances. In fact, I believe we need what the two-year colleges can offer more than ever in tough times.

Speak up on behalf of academics, Mississippi. I am prepared to beg.

Hattiesburg American Column: 8/27/2010

My column that appears today in The Hattiesburg American.

***

ON July 26, I read Robert St. John’s column, “The Earl of Sandwich,” and decided I was going on a diet. I know it was July 26 because I wrote about it on my blog. I’ve written about my diet nearly every day since. You can follow my triumphs and tribulations at www.writerlyhaphazardry.net if you are so inclined.

Though I was already keeping a daily blog, I did not set out to write daily about dieting. I just started it one day and kept going. Like the blog itself, diet blogging could fade from my focus at any moment. There’s a reason the site is called Writerly Haphazardry.

I’m glad I’m doing it, though, despite the fact that I sometimes find this process of writing out my life in food to be truly and excruciatingly embarrassing. Despite all that, it is keeping me on track. Writing makes me mindful of what I’m doing. It helps me sort out my priorities. It makes me accountable. My mother reads it and then calls to deconstruct the rightness and wrongness of my choices.

The blog also keeps me in a constant process of self-education. I look up information for my posts. I find books to inform and/or motivate me so that I will stick to my diet and will keep having something to say about it.

The blog also challenges me. I started exercising. I wrote about it, and in the act of writing I committed myself to keep going in front of my mother and my three friends who read my blog.

That put me on the treadmill where I started listening to audio books for the sheer purpose of entertaining myself long enough not to quit before a respectable amount of time had elapsed. Then I found myself listening to books like Lance Armstrong’s “It’s Not About the Bike” that were simply motivating in and of themselves.

If the guy recovering from cancer can stay on his bike, the easily distracted English teacher who spends too much time in front of a computer can certainly make it through 10 more minutes on the treadmill.

This is the story I tell myself every day when I try again and every day when I sit down to write. So far it is working out for me, but that may only be because I haven’t seen Robert lately to talk sandwiches.

Today's Column: 7/27/2010

In today’s Hattiesburg American:

Last week Newsweek featured an article claiming creativity is on the decline in America. This conclusion comes from a study at the College of William and Mary. It’s based on Torrence scores, a test that has been used to measure creative thinking in children since the 1950s.

The Torrence data says creative thinking steadily rose in America from the late 50s up to 1990. Since then it has steadily declined.

This is bad news, bad news indeed. Blame video games all you like. I blame standardized tests.

And maybe I blame video games a little, along with TV. Kids need to make up their own imaginary worlds. If they spend all of their time in imaginary worlds created by other people, they have no motivation to exercise their creativity.

That said, I’ve never met an unimaginative 4-year-old. They aren’t coming to us less creative. We’re sucking out their natural creativity after we get them.

Also last week, Inside Higher Ed published an article claiming that our students are technologically illiterate. This may seem counter to all we’ve been hearing about the generation of digital natives, but it all ties back to the trend of declining creativity.

Stuart Selber, in his book “Multiliteracies for a Digital Age,” identifies levels of technological literacy ranging from functional (the ability to perform basic tasks) to rhetorical (the ability to produce something new within a technological environment, to be innovative).

So while our college students do have the functional literacy to perform a wide variety of technological tasks, they don’t, on any large scale, have the rhetorical literacy to become technologically productive or innovative.

It’s true. Being able to text message and post updates to MySpace and play video games doesn’t automatically translate into being able to perform technological tasks required to succeed in college or on the job. We need more creative people in the world and in our country. We need them to be creative online and off.

Draw. Write. Read. Sing. Dance. Act.

Do whatever you can to lead children (of any age) into a world of their own imaginations.

And while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt if you spoke up for more arts in the schools.

Today's Column

From the Hattiesburg American.

A FEW DAYS AGO I sat in Starbucks wishing I had my camera with me.

A line of people formed, all waiting to order lattes, all looking down at phones rather than ahead toward whatever people watched while in line before ubiquitous text messaging.

The symmetry of the scene would have framed well for a photograph. It also framed well into my own sense of social irony.

It reminded me of a book I’ve been reading, “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier, the basic premise of which is that too much of the wrong kind of technological engagement erodes the human spirit.

A steady stream of fragmentary information and fragmentary communication dehumanizes social interaction and makes people mean and crazy.

They go along with the hive mind and pursue mob crusades which often are hostile in nature.

Lanier has a point. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of mob behavior online tending toward shallow and cruel.

His is just one of a number of books out lately questioning the human consequences of too much technology.

Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” was just released this week. Carr is also the author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This was an article published two years ago in “The Atlantic” that received enormous attention, enough at least to have its own Wikipedia page.

Carr says our brains are actually changing to accommodate technological saturation and not in a good way. We’re shallower and more easily distracted, and this can be measured at even the neurological level. Disturbing stuff.

I did read Carr’s article and his Wikipedia page. I have not yet read his book because it was not available for Kindle. When I realized I couldn’t acquire it with one push of one button on the gadget in hand, I moved on to become just another of the shallows.

Man makes machine. Machine threatens man. This is a familiar plot. We tell it over and over and have since the Industrial Revolution spawned an age of Romantic poetry and the monster Frankenstein.

Questioning anything that overtakes society at such a rapid rate as technological change is necessary and good. We do need to step back from the gadgets sometimes and remember our humanity.

I’ll do that tomorrow. My iPad just arrived.

Saving Our Place

Here’s my column that appeared yesterday in the Hattiesburg American. I was nervous about this one. I thought people would leave rude comments on it. I usually write about things that aren’t in the least bit controversial for this column, and people leave rude comments anyway. This time when I thought people would have rude things to say, no one left a comment at all. Maybe this isn’t controversial after all, or maybe no one read it. 🙂

At any rate, it’s very difficult to say what you mean in less than 400 words, especially on a large and complex topic. I cut more sentences than I kept in writing this. I may not be finished with it yet, but here it is…

***

The Onion (www.onion.com) had a story last week with the headline “EPA: Stubborn Environment Refusing To Meet Civilization Halfway.”

The Onion is all about satire, but satire only works when it resembles truth. This sentiment does in fact accurately reflect our societal attitudes toward the environment. We tend to think we have a right to do whatever we want for as long as we want.

Then something happens like an explosion on an oil rig that kills 11 people and pumps vast amounts of oil into the Gulf, endangering habitats and livelihoods across multiple states.

Something happens to make us take stock, to make us question whether we ought to keep doing what we are doing. Despite our carelessness, we humans are very good at momentary guilt.

We’re ready in the aftermath of disaster to make changes. The trouble is that real change takes a long time to accomplish.

We’re at a point now, though, where we can’t afford to be short-sighted. We can’t afford to just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We need rational, deliberate, determined, and long-term commitment to both conservation and alternative fuels.

I won’t claim we need to stop drilling for oil right now. I’m horrified by what has happened in the Gulf, but I’m not prepared to give up my car or my air conditioning.

I’m not prepared to see the many people in our area who make a living in the oil field lose their jobs. I’m not prepared to see our economy suffer because gas prices shoot to new and alarming heights. I’m not prepared to see us shift even more of our oil purchases to foreign sources, thereby further enriching the people who hate us the most.

There isn’t an easy answer, and there isn’t a quick answer. For now, we are undeniably dependent on oil. If, however, we have not radically shifted to other fuel sources in another 10 or 20 years, we are a foolish people indeed.

This isn’t just about saving the dolphins and the turtles; it’s about saving our own place in the world.

This week I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” He makes a compelling case for America taking the lead on clean energy initiatives. In a hot, flat, and crowded world, can we afford not to put our considerable industriousness toward finding new ways to fuel our own habits?