Friday, August 31, 2012

The Grit That Makes Good Schools Great

Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Every four or five years, another study comes out claiming that American schools have hit rock bottom. Seniors can’t find their hometowns on a map, name the elements that comprise water, or parse “Dick and Jane” grammar. Each time, a flurry of “reformers” manhandles the school system, kids’ experiences change little, and we wait for the next study. Surely there must be a better way.

Of course there is. Ex-New York Times journalist Paul Tough investigates several schools that have bucked the downward trend, producing upwardly mobile graduates from adverse circumstances. Avoiding the sort of moddish educational philosophy promulgated by professors who mainly work with graduate students, Tough goes in the field, and reports only what he can back with real-world results and scientific research.

He finds that the traditional academic disciplines seem to matter less than habits of character. Anyone who has taught will agree this seems obvious, yet so much educational theory has emphasized the memorization of subject matter. Standardized tests and the GED reward students for book smarts; but higher-order skills, like self-discipline and diligence, have more to do with students’ success in school, and in later life.

Researchers call these “noncognitive” skills, since they have to do with principles that cannot be quantified on cognitive tests. Having discretion cannot be measured like one’s ability to complete analogies; conscientiousness is not essentially similar to mathematical reasoning. Yet people who have these character traits are more likely to learn the academic skills in school, and more likely to apply them in work, family, and social life as adults.

Schools have been reluctant to teach character skills. In part, this is because character and ethics have often kept company with religion, which is dynamite in public schools. But also, character can be political: conservatives tend to favor traits like “individualism” and “self-reliance,” while liberals like “justice” and “equality.” Whose values do we teach, so we don’t offend others?

It turns out, many researchers have spent much time and effort finding values that transcend politics, religion, and history. They’ve successfully pinned down several that not only have clear definitions, but which teachers can incorporate into their lesson plans. The traits which researchers identify have different names—one list may include words like “ambition” and “professionalism,” another may name “courage” and “grit.”

But, no matter what we call the virtues, they share a few important traits: they transfer from the school out into the adult world, and they have concrete qualities which mentors can teach. In families where parents teach these virtues to their children, success seems to run in the family. That’s why the well-heeled seem to remain rich from generation to generation. But some parents don’t know these virtues, and thus can’t pass them along.

The bad news, then, is that character virtues, or the lack thereof, are generational. The good news is that conventional classrooms can close the gap when parents don’t know how to teach values. Transformational teachers do not convey information; they instill character. Paul Tough observes ways in which teachers successfully teach virtues, and follows the research on what we still need to learn. He does not bother with high-minded hypotheses; he shows where and how schools succeed.

This book is not entirely original. Tough not only cites Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he even revisits one of Gladwell’s sources. Much of what Tough says overlaps recent work by writers like Susan Cain, Jack Hitt, Charles Duhigg, and the disgraced Jonah Lehrer. Some of his final chapter recites claims John Taylor Gatto has made for two decades. Not that this is bad; it probably means these ideas’ time has come (I think it has). But be prepared to rewalk some roads you’ve traveled recently.

Tough also sometimes contradicts himself. For instance, he says high school GPA is a more reliable indicator of college success than standardized tests, then admits some high schools pass students who merely show up and stay awake. He says parents who soothe kids through stress empower them for the future, then praises chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose blunt style seems stress-inducing, if not downright scary. So which is it?

Notwithstanding these limitations, Tough’s readable book combines the latest science of developmental psychology, with exposés of schools that actually turn disadvantaged youth into successful graduates. He gives we who teach real hope that our actions can make a difference, not just now, but throughout our students’ lives. It reminds us why we became teachers, and restores our hope that we can make a difference.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Wandering Christian and the Lost Blessing

John Hagee, The Power of the Prophetic Blessing

On the one hand, I appreciate Pentecostal pastor John Hagee’s attempt to reclaim an ancient Jewish tradition as part of the Christian heritage. The blessings distributed by patriarchs, prophets, and Christ should be part of our faith, as they were for Jesus Himself. On the other hand, Hagee has not written the book he promised in the dust flap copy, and certainly not the book a scholarly Protestant like me would want to see.

When God called Abram out of Ur to found a new nation, God poured a blessing on the chosen patriarch. Isaac famously blessed Jacob (at Esau’s expense), a blessing that observant Jews have used as a model for parental blessings for centuries. Time and again, the Gospels talk of Jesus “blessing” the multitudes, and as Hagee notes, Jesus’ blessing was probably similar in form and content to Jacob’s blessing on his sons and their tribes.

So far, so good. I both like and agree with Hagee’s core thesis. Christians really should reclaim more of our Hebrew heritage. But then Hagee goes off on tangents. He throws in lengthy diatribes against evolution and abortion, and multiple discursions on Christian Zionism, all in just the early chapters. The point Hagee actually set out to make disappears, sometimes for dozens of pages. It feels like he’s begging me to disagree with him.

For instance, his Christian Zionist fulminations completely ignore that the modern state of Israel is largely secularized. Observant Jews emigrating internationally today are more likely to move to the United States than Israel. Likewise, in his jeremiads against evolution, he notes that Scripture says we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and exclaims (repeatedly) “You did not evolve!” He never says what makes the two exclusive.

It got to where, every time I put the book down to cook dinner or go to work, it took an effort of will to pick it back up again. He had a Scripturally solid core in his book, but he chose to ornament it with buzzwords and side remarks designed to connect with a pre-made conservative Evangelical audience. Did he perhaps include these irrelevant parenthetical digressions as an in-group signal? If so, that’s risky, because it also excludes new audiences.

Hagee crossed the final line with me in a text box which read: “Think on this. When a believer is in the middle of God’s will, he has perfect peace even during the greatest crisis of his life.” Beg your pardon? Was Job out of God’s will when he couldn’t take the pain anymore and cried out? Was Elijah out of God’s will when he felt he’d been abandoned by the straying nation? Scripture doesn’t seem to think so.

Claims like this alarm me, because they tell people suffering routine, human struggles of faith that they have already failed. If I believe Hagee, then when some setback or personal tragedy fills me with worry or grief, I start reprimanding myself for straying from God’s will. That seems like a small God to me, who cannot accommodate our fears and doubts without treating us like apostates. The God I worship is bigger than that.

Scripture certainly doesn’t blame Jesus for weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. It doesn’t devalue His blessings for praying at Gethsemane that God take this cup from Him. It doesn’t diminish His claim to divinity for Him wondering on the cross why God had forsaken Him. If the Son of Man can feel such suffering and doubt, yet remain the giver of eternal life, how arrogant must I be to think that I can never face life’s misgivings or turmoil?

In essence, Hagee tries to do too much, with the unsurprising result that he talks himself into a corner. He bounces from topic to topic so fast that he does none of them any justice. In so doing, he short-changes his core thesis, confuses people who don’t share his evangelical argot, and alienates readers like me who expect a heartier level of insight. As an ardent Christian, I should be among Hagee’s audience, yet this book leaves me frustrated.

Hagee is not the first to deal with these topics, and certainly not the best. While I think Hagee’s heart is in the right place, his incoherently inclusive style, frenetic wanderings, and questionable exegesis leave me cold. Trent and Smalley address the same topics in The Blessing, without the hyperbolic boasting or the cow paths. I like Hagee’s point, I just don’t think he’s the one to sell it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Life of Burma's First Citizen

Peter Popham, The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi

It’s amazing, sometimes, how we can admire individuals in the public eye, yet know so little about them. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s democratic resistance movement, has drawn international acclaim, celebrity support, and the Nobel Peace Prize; yet her actual identity remains an enigma outside her home country. British journalist Peter Popham tries to explain her life, her work, and her context in this new biography.

Known as Daw Suu to her adherents (literally “Aunt Suu”), the daughter of General Aung San stands as heir to her country’s name and reputation. General Aung San fought the British until he squeezed independence from them, but was assassinated before seeing the free Burmese flag flying. To keep the general’s family under control, the new state gave his widow a diplomatic posting to India, and young Suu grew up mostly abroad.

Like most post-colonial nations, three forces have torn at Burma’s history. The military wants to rule with colonial impunity, as in Pakistan; the intelligentsia wants Western-style democracy, as in India; and people groups that never enjoyed colonial privilege want to restore ancestral identity, as in Biafra. From her adoptive home in England, Suu watched the military, the University of Rangoon, and the Buddhist monks feud for control of the nation.

It’s impossible to detail Suu’s life without investigating the history of her homeland, and Popham doesn’t even try. He minutely examines the forces that led Burma’s nascent democracy into a military dictatorship, and one of Asia’s most developed nations into the pits of extreme poverty. (These passages run to the prolix. Some of Popham’s best passages are also his most technical and difficult; be prepared to soldier through some dense prose.)

For a woman so innately tied, in world narrative, with her country, it may come as a surprise, as it did for me, that she scarcely lived in Burma until her early forties. She attended graduate school in England, married a white man, and had two sons. But she remained in touch with Burma, visiting often, and putting her sons through Buddhist rites of adulthood. She also made a career writing about Burma for Westerners.

Only in 1988, when the increasingly doddery military strongman who ruled her homeland appeared on the brink of collapse, did she return. Even then, she intended it to be a brief stop, lending her father’s name to the burgeoning democracy movement. She had no way of knowing that she would step into a situation where her every action would be freighted with import, her face would energize masses, and she would be unable to leave for twenty-four years.

Popham explains how Suu’s outsider perspective had a profound transformative effect on Burma. In a country where power has always been a zero-sum game (you flourish only at my expense), her spirit of cooperation took the military rulers by surprise. She made inroads against the regime by simply speaking politely. And no matter what, she refused to hit back. Popham acknowledges Suu’s debt, in this, to Gandhi.

This positions her perfectly to communicate her nation’s plight to the outside world. She speaks unaccented Burmese and practices the Buddhism of her deeply religious homeland, but she has a Western education and can speak to Euro-American understanding. As an outsider in both worlds, she has the ability to recognize deeply ingrained prejudices, and subvert them without appearing confrontational.

Some of Popham’s biography is already outdated. It was published in Britain in 2011 before swimming to America this year, and recent changes don’t come up. For instance, Popham makes repeated reference to the fact that Suu has not left the country since 1988, not even to be at her dying husband’s bedside. Not so anymore: earlier this summer, the flagging government let her visit Europe to collect her Nobel Prize.

And despite his best efforts, Popham sometimes comes across as patronizing. He keeps commenting on Suu’s appearance. She’s a beautiful woman, certainly, even now in her late sixties. But nobody would extol young Gandhi’s brooding good looks, surely. Besides, it’s hard for a white European to comment on post-colonial Asia without relying on tropes that would make the late Edward Said pale.

But despite its shortcomings, Popham has crafted a smart, engaging biography of a nation, and its most prominent citizen. He helps white onlookers like me understand not only who Suu is, but why her ongoing campaign matters. And he gives us a model for how the fight for global justice will persevere despite fleeting adversity. Well done.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Fine Line Between SF and a Double-Dog Dare

Christian Cantrell, Containment

Concept-driven science fiction can easily backfire, because it relies on the audience’s willingness to follow the idea more than the characters or plot. Science fiction probably has better audiences for that than most other genres, but still, it’s risky. Christian Cantrell’s debut novel requires readers to invest over 150 pages to reach his real, king-snake crawling story. I almost didn’t, so I fear less driven readers won’t, either.

Deep within the claustrophobic confines of humanity’s first Venus colony, Arik lies recovering from injuries suffered during his unauthorized airlock walk. Huge chunks of his memory are missing, and his life’s work in terraforming is gone from his computer. His pregnant wife is talking in riddles, and his father is clearly lying about something. So Arik starts digging for the truth. What he finds casts doubt on his entire life and everything his people have accomplished.

Throughout the first half of this 300-page book, I kept rolling my eyes. The science appeared decades out of date, and the characters didn’t so much talk to each other as discourse on themes. (The promo copy compares this novel to Orson Scott Card, but the dispassionate characters and expository narration remind me more of Isaac Asimov.) Several times I had to resist the temptation to stick this book in a bottom drawer and forget it.

I’m glad I didn’t, because around the midpoint, we fall into unexpected revelations that force us to rethink what we’ve just seen. The big reveal is neither original nor particularly surprising (I got it twenty pages before our “supergenius” protagonist), but Cantrell handles it with panache. And even if we feel we’ve seen something like this before, Cantrell keeps it smart, with degrees of nuance that ensure his revelation feels at least somewhat new.

But you have to push through a very long slough of despond to reach the real meat of Cantrell’s story. No one could blame you if, well before page 100, you chucked the book aside—though you should not. If you want to know what makes this book worth reading, keep going, but you’ll find spoilers. If you want to enjoy the book and be surprised, stop now, realizing this book will yield its generous rewards only after a long and difficult investment.

Our lives rely profoundly on testimony. We expect our peers, elders, and senses to report the world accurately. Without their honest testimony, we have no basis for judging truth. That’s why philosophers from Plato and Descartes to The Matrix and M. Night Shyamalan get such mileage out of questioning what happens when everything we think we know proves false. It’s a fertile conundrum that is far from played out.

The wobbly science and sociology in the first half exists so that, in the second half, Cantrell can tear it all back down again. The world we, and our protagonist, thought we knew turns out to be something between eugenics and a rat in a maze. Though I won’t reveal the particulars—Arik’s dawning realization is half the appeal—I will go so far as to say that Cantrell rewards doubt beyond merely systemic, into a realm of existentialism that would make Kierkegaard blanche.

With science fiction, unfortunately, changing technologies mean a story’s details get outmoded long before its philosophical precepts wear out. (Or have you tried reading Philip K. Dick lately?) Weirdly, Cantrell tries to straddle the line between scientific accuracy and rococo technology, the two traditional SF options. In the first half of the book, I found this very distracting. Only in the second half did I realize this distancing effect may have been intentional.

Cantrell, as it turns out, wants you to call BS on his creation. His writing style is almost a challenge: can you tell the difference between an error and a clue? What constitutes “outside reality” in a life defined by constraints? Cantrell’s language in the waning pages suggests that the revelations will not end when you close the book. Layers of reality may linger, waiting to be uncovered by the next supergenius in the pipeline.

I would be remiss if I told everyone to read this book. Christian Cantrell has engineered a story that will select its own audience, and that audience will want to revel in ideas as much as action. If that’s you, resist the temptation to walk away from this book early. If you do, you’re cheating yourself out of a smart, subtle denouement that would remind you why you read science fiction anyway.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Short, Sweet Steps to Build Talent at Any Age

Daniel Coyle, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

Current society worships child prodigies and assumes that, if you had the potential to excel at something, you already would excel. I can’t count the number of times I tried to persuade my students that they need not rely on some “gift” to improve their writing and reasoning skills. I often failed to convince them, because they were immersed in the cult of innate talent. Plus, I lacked the skills to ease them through the process of self-improvement.

In his prior book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle traveled to several different schools, camps, and academies that exist to cultivate talent in particular areas. He observed a wide variety of fields, from music and art to sports to technical trades. And he found that most of these schools used the same small handful of techniques. Now, in this follow-up volume, Coyle distills those techniques to a handful of brief lessons that fit inside a pocket-sized volume for easy reading.

Talent, says Coyle, is not the exclusive domain of prodigies to whom success comes easily. Such crackerjacks tend to burn out early, or get discouraged when what seemed easy turns increasingly difficult. Instead, the best talent, and most impressive success, tends to accrue to those willing to work hard, make incremental gains, seek out the best teachers, and invest aggressively in their own growth. Coyle shows how that’s done.

Some of Coyle’s pointers seem obvious. When he tells us to “Learn Hard Skills First” or “Break Every Move Down Into Chunks,” he says little our grade school teachers didn’t try to tell us first, if we’d cared enough to listen. Yet how many of us actually do this? It’s easy, for instance, to want to skip the “hard” technical skills and race headlong into the “soft” expressive skills before we have a firm foundation. I know how common this is, because I have both seen and done it.

But others of Coyle’s pointers seem to come from out of left field. How many of us would think to “Embrace Struggle” or “Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake”? Most of us avoid struggle, which is painful, or flee mistakes, which we regard as failure. Considering how many of our schoolteachers made us feel stupid if we had to work hard, holding our flubs up for public scorn (or was that just me?), we probably have much to unlearn.

I especially appreciate Coyle’s insistence on risk-taking as a learning endeavor. Too often, we associate risk with imminent failure, and retreat into our shells. I've written before on the importance of taking risks and being willing to look dumb as necessary to our growth. But Coyle backs this up with evidence from diverse experiences and difficult discoveries, explaining not just why risk is good, but how to tell valuable risk from wasted time.

If your school days were anything like mine, your life followed two parallel tracks. In the “school track,” you faced hours seated in a chair, facing forward like a soldier in a regiment, while an authority figure talked past you, then rendered judgment on your ability to perform “skillz drillz.” In the “life track,” you pushed yourself to improve at something you loved, even if it meant giving up something else, working through pain, or practicing in solitude.

Like me, you associated the tedious “school track” with learning, and the exciting “life track” with fun. You never thought of your “life track” activities as a form of study and practice, because study was boring, and life made you feel alive. But Coyle describes how the best schools don’t allow you to follow two separate tracks, keeping life and learning hand in hand. This means that, as long as you remain alive, you still have the opportunity to learn and improve.

Coyle does not bother with windy explanations of how and why his pointers work. Though he throws in real-life examples where it helps, he keeps his pointers brief and energetic (only a handful run over two pages). If you must understand the process, recent books like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success explain the science and sociology, but you don’t really need them.

Rather than explicate how learning works, or why learning matters, he delivers short, workable guides to how you can learn any skill, at any age. You’re never too old, too established, or too creaky to improve your skills. You just need the opportunity, which Coyle provides in spades.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

27th Precinct Book Club—Serial Slayers

Chelsea Cain, Kill You Twice

Detective Lammers needed a slug of lukewarm precinct coffee to bolster himself before walking into the waiting room. Hargreave was waiting out there. The man was an excellent source of information, but talking to him always took all the courage Lammers could muster. His training officer claimed he’d been allowed to fortify his coffee with bourbon. Sounded like a story.

Ah, well, no sense prolonging it. Lammers took a threadbare chair opposite Hargreave. “Whaddya got for me?”

Hargreave reached into his attaché with an inscrutable grin. “Just one this time. The new one from Chelsea Cain.”

“That ex-hippie who keeps turning up on the bestseller chart?”

“The same one.” Hargreave tossed the book to Lammers. “This is the fifth in her Beauty Killer series, which is a naked rip-off of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels. But don’t let that fool you. She’s actually a good writer, with a strong focus on character and psychological nuance. When you read the books, it feels like you’ve read this story before, but somehow, the characters remain new enough to be interesting.”

Lammers riffled idly through the pages. “So this one is a serial killer drama?”

“Don’t focus on the killer,” Hargreave said. “If you treat this like a cop drama, you’ll feel like you’ve read this before, which you have. In terms of the mystery aspect, Cain’s novels are really ordinary and derivative. But if you read this like a character drama set against a crime background, you have a smart, intriguing ensemble who push each other to reveal strange and powerful personalities.”

“I know a little about the story,” Lammers said. “Gretchen Lowell is a sadistic genius, and Archie Sheridan is the cop she’s obsessed with. Though she’s locked up, she has the power in the relationship, and demonstrates it through repeated breakouts. Nobody knows what to do with her, in part because nobody knows who she really is.”

“Bingo,” Hargreave said with a smile. “Have you read them?”

“The first one was a lukewarm market grab, the second was actually damned good, and the third one rambled without a clear sense of purpose.”

“The fourth book?”

“Missed that one.”

“Well, you can jump into this one without it. Cain takes the time to explain what you might have missed. This time, Gretchen is under sedation and restraint, so when a killer uses her sgnature on locals, everyone knows it can’t be her. But then she calls Archie into her cell and asks him to intervene, because she thinks this new killer is after the child nobody knew she had.”

Lammers rubbed his chin. “So the torturer asks a favor from the man she tortured?”

“More than that. The woman who holds power by refusing to open herself up, opens herself up. This makes us wonder who Gretchen really is, and if her expression of ultimate evil might just be a cover to protect herself from something even darker. To put it another way, how can the sins of the past torment a person who has no past?”

“So I take it we start to get a glimpse at who Gretchen Lowell really is.”

“Yes, no, maybe so,” Hargreave said, flashing a theatrical shrug. “Gretchen lies with such intricate aggression that we never know what’s true. Then, as the story goes along, clues conflict with her story, suggesting the killer is no mere psychopath; he may be a time bomb Gretchen herself set running when she realized she’d be at somebody else’s mercy. Especially when the bomb starts to go off, and she demands quid pro quo for information.”

Lammers shook his head. “I don’t care for novelists who make crime so complicated. Most crime is banal—even murder usually has perfectly ordinary motivations.”

“Like I said, you can’t read it like a crime novel.” Hargreave leaned in and tapped the hardback with two fingers. “This is a story about characters who push each other to the limits of human endurance. They expose each other’s weaknesses, but they also provoke each other to go further and do more. Even Gretchen in her psychosis turns out to have superhuman qualities. She just uses them to kill people.”

Lammers tucked the book under his arm. “I think we’ll give this one a try.”

“Good choice,” Hargreave said. “It may be a bombastic, implausible premise, but if you read it the right way, the rewards hit you in subtle ways.”

“Good enough,” Lammers said, rising. “Now get out of my station house, you lowlife pissant.”

Also in this series:
Heartsick
Sweetheart
Evil at Heart
The Night Season

See also:
27th Precinct Book Club—Nicely Noir

Monday, August 13, 2012

Be Here Now, In America, In Your Own Skin

Congressman Tim Ryan, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit

The term “mindfulness” comes from Buddhist tradition, but it applies equally to many religious and secular traditions. At heart, it refers to a constant conscious awareness of the senses, the body, and even consciousness of consciousness. It goes back centuries in Buddhist and Yogic tradition, where sages teach that becoming aware of oneself moving through the world is one of the stages toward true enlightenment.

Congressman Tim “Don’t Call Me Paul” Ryan (D-Ohio) became interested in mindfulness when he took a retreat with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who himself learned it from Thich Nhat Hanh. When Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist, discovered the mindfulness principle, he realized its applications in modern medicine, particularly in chronic illness. Not surprisingly, Ryan saw its applications in American public life and politics. It makes sense.

Traditionally, sages see mindfulness as a private endeavor. But a growing body of scientific research, which Ryan reports with breathless excitement, shows that the private benefits, if multiplied across a population, could potentially alleviate all manner of suffering. Stress has become epidemic in American society, Ryan notes, and stress hastens nearly every disease that kills Americans. But mindfulness reduces stress to controllable levels.

From an early age, we tell children to “pay attention.” Teachers and parents punish them for lack of attention. Doctors prescribe heavy medication to alleviate attention deficits. But we never tell kids how to pay attention; we simply assume they can draw it from some inner reservoir. But do we even know what we mean when we say “attention”? Turns out, scientists have a reliable definition, and we know how to teach kids to have more of it.

Nor is “attention” the only word we throw around, not realizing it has real scientific import. Terms like “stress,” “diligence,” and “grit” have definitions and measurable qualities. We know, for instance, that hitting a human mind with too many high-priority stimuli overwhelms the ability to make informed decisions. But this is no mere abstract effect; it actually warps the structure of parts of the human brain. “Stress” is a form of brain damage.

Mindfulness turns out to not only equip us with the tools to face life’s stressors, but actually helps reverse the damage wrought by today’s massively complex world. Recent research advances demonstrate that people who are mindful of their surroundings show less inflammation in key areas of the brain. And when these brain areas return to their normal state, we are less vulnerable to obesity, heart disease, and autoimmune conditions.

As a political leader, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ryan has great interest in how mindfulness helps our first responders. Police, firefighters, medical professionals, and soldiers undergo stress that the rest of us can only imagine. Then, statistics indicate that many of them, overwhelmed by too many competing stimuli, make hasty decisions, and pay dearly. But mindfulness helps them manage stress, prioritize, and remain at their peak.

Importantly, this is not a book on how to achieve mindfulness. Congressman Ryan, a lawyer by training, does not pretend to pursue skills beyond his ken. Rather, he explains the latest discoveries in how mindfulness works, what it does for our minds and bodies, and how it affects our relations with one another and with the body politic. He also makes available to us the tools to achieve his lofty goals.

Most research into mindfulness has emphasized its oldest influence, traditional Buddhist meditation. Because Buddhism does not include much of a role for the gods, Buddhist techniques can apply to followers of other religions. Some concept of mindfulness, under another name, informs traditions like Sufi mysticism and Christian centering prayer. I particularly enjoyed Robert J Wicks’ Prayerfulness for a Christian take on these concepts.

Indeed, one need not even subscribe to any religion to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. Though Ryan is Christian himself, among his recommendations, we find new research from Duke University, UCLA, and other respected institutions, explicating how mindfulness applies without regard for religious belief. Its scientifically measurable benefits to mental and bodily health make mindfulness a secular ideal as much as a religious one.

This book is not so much an instructional guide on mindfulness as an exhortation on what mindfulness is, and why we should pursue it. Ryan mixes instructive anecdotes, personal narration, and scientific exposition in a way that keeps us informed without feeling like we’ve just received a lecture. As long as you understand what this book is, and what it is not, it makes for both a substantial education and an exciting read.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Curtain Up on the New Political Vaudeville

President Obama’s decision to place his required disclosure statement at the top of recent campaign ads markedly shifts the tone of presidential campaigning, though in a way not obvious at first. By spotlighting what we’re about to see, instead of acknowledging what we’ve just seen, he gives us permission to perceive his words in an entirely new way. A simple rhetorical shift admits a truth that has lingered beneath politics for years.

Since the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 made mandatory the “I’m <Candidate’s Name> and I approve this message” disclaimer, we’ve mainly heard these words at the end of an ad. Especially in ads meant to stir up strong negative feelings, that conclusion has distinct psychological impact. Notice this notorious 2004 ad, in which President Bush’s very name serves to relieve the fear of imminent pain and death:


This makes a seamless blend of theatre, politics, and storytelling. Notwithstanding how you perceive this historic ad, or its effect on the 2004 election, it makes good art. The cinematic production values make Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America” ads look clunky by comparison. And the disclaimer at the end announces in essence: you have just watched theatre. I, George W. Bush, am real. In life, as in theatre, I am the solution to fear.

President Obama reverses this. He announces at the outset that we will now see theatre, and we go in expecting to see art. People who follow politics already know this, and the discourse is dominated by drama. Conservatives want to refight the “hippies vs. squares” culture war of 1968. Liberals play off the accomplishments of the labor movement after World War II. Neither wants to run on the powerful but incomprehensible issues which dominate current governance.

Traditional advertising tries to present itself as reality. Ad buyers want us to believe we could really make this car go zero to 60 in seven seconds, or get our shirts this shiny with this detergent. And political ads try to achieve this same goal: a vote for me will spearhead the reality I advocate, and a vote for my opponent will lead to dystopia. But they cannot achieve this goal if they acknowledge their campaigns are engaged in art, not governance.

So they move their disclaimers to the end. Even if it only lasts twenty-five seconds, we have to believe campaign ads as completely as we believe ads for Viagra or liquor. We withhold the admission that, oops, this is art. Not so President Obama. He admits—not implicitly, but explicitly—that a gap exists between campaign promises and the realities of governance. These, he says, are my words. Judge them only as that.

Commentators like Matt Taibbi have declared unambiguously that most of us cannot understand the real questions candidates have to deal with today. Events like the 2007 economic meltdown or global warming are so massively complex that, without extensive study, ordinary voters cannot encompass their labyrinthine nuances. Yet candidates rely on ordinary voters if they want to get their feet in the door.

By ballyhooing the theatrical nature of his ads, President Obama admits we cannot really understand the issues in play. We can listen to what candidates say, but we must also look at their respective actions. Thus Obama invites us to look at his record on the national stage, which he apparently believes Americans will find, on balance, positive. Thus he could not have made this choice in 2008, when many Americans still didn’t know him.

Calling attention to theatre’s theatrical nature could go either way. Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream stage a play for the king’s coronation, but feel the need to remind the audience that they’re watching a play. Shakespeare plainly considers these amateur actors to be rubes worthy of our disdain.

But Thornton Wilder’s Our Town centers on the narration of the Stage Manager, who repeatedly calls attention to the theatrical conventions around him. He encourages us to consider the play with cool intellectual distance. Despite being adulterated by uncounted sentimental high school productions, this distancing effect has made Our Town a legitimate classic.

President Obama thus is taking a chance. He trusts us voters to perceive his campaign as Our Town, not Quince and Bottom. Anybody who has sat through a Bertolt Brecht snoozer knows self-conscious theatre can drain the audience. But current authors like Susan-Lori Parks draw attention to their art, and audiences love her. We, the President’s audience, will give our binding theatrical review this November.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Truth™—It’s What’s For Dinner

Jonah Lehrer
The saga of Jonah Lehrer's Hindenburg-like collapse continues to yield new revelations: he faked interviews, fabricated quotes, and failed to acknowledge sources. The best bits of Lehrer’s Bob Dylan chapter, the heart of the controversy, were lifted almost verbatim from Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. But the revelations have also encouraged some stupid armchair speculations of why Lehrer did what he did.

The worst I have seen so far: Lehrer isn't a trained journalist. Though an Ivy League graduate with a substantial publication record, Lehrer didn’t go to school to study the Five W’s and the Inverted Pyramid. Leaving aside the obvious absurdity of this claim—journalism school graduates fudge too, and many good journalists don’t have degrees in the field—it still smacks of elitism, and an effort on the part of professionals to guard their privileged enclave.

Saying Lehrer licked the bottom of the barrel for want of journalistic training is like saying Enron imploded because Ken Lay lacked an MBA. The problem is not what training the guilty party had or needed; the problem is the lack of a moral core to push back against frankly banal pressures. Keeping going, or increasing the pace, provided more rewards, both to Lehrer and to Lay. Without a ringing conscience to stop them, both succumbed to ordinary temptations.

Jonah Lehrer received success worthy of somebody with twice his experience. Not only did he achieve the sought-after sinecure of a New Yorker staff writer position at the improbably young age of thirty, he made more money for one or two speaking engagements than many newspaper reporters net in a year. He owned a historic Los Angeles house at an age and in a time when many of his peers struggle to make rent on one-bedroom apartments.

Ambrose Bierce
But these rewards depended on his ability to produce bestsellers at an almost monotonous pace. To do that, he couldn’t simply state the same bullet points over and over; he had to package old knowledge and new discoveries in appealing anecdotes and comprehensible language. So he held forth on topics he knew little about, like Bob Dylan, Marcel Proust, Broadway theatre, Pixar’s building design, and more.

This pressure does not excuse his behavior. Rather, his rush to the top without stopping to earn his chops reflects worse on his actions, not better. Newspapers have provided journalists with the best training grounds. But Lehrer made his name as a blogger, and blogs don’t reward long attention spans. My own 750-word target, a lingering remnant of my newspaper days, pushes the limits of web audiences’ likely perseverance.

Throughout history, the best reporters were not trained journalists. Many had degrees in other fields, including Tom Wolfe (American studies), Bob Woodward (History), and Anderson Cooper (Political science). Barbara Walters, Brit Hume, Helen Thomas, and William Shirer studied English. Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, and William Randolph Hearst never completed degrees. HL Mencken, Margaret Fuller, and Mark Twain never went to college. Ambrose Bierce never finished high school.

But today, most reporters go to journalism school. Just as business school graduates make lousy entrepreneurs, and film schools produced tediously self-conscious “cinema” of the 1970s, journalism graduates have a spotty record. As we saw in the Scooter Libby or Anthony Weiner scandals, trained journalists tend to robotically parrot press releases. Real breakthroughs come from engaged outsiders. And conventional newspapers keep boarding up their windows.

Meandering through the journalism department at the university where I formerly taught, and for whose newspaper I wrote in grad school, I was shocked one day to notice the emphasis in publicity. The honorary society for journalists had one dinky poster, but the advertising program had a whole wall of awards, flyers, and bulletin boards. The message to journalism students was clear: you exist to hold the space between ads.

Woodward and Bernstein
In that regard, Lehrer, who generated bestsellers with the regularity of the Nancy Drew factory, was a perfect professional journalist. While most publishers take a gamble on new books and regularly bleed money, they could take Lehrer’s name to the bank. But they could only keep doing so, just as he could only keep blowing his nose on Benjamins, if he produced a steady stream of easily digestible gruel.

As I said before, this stew of forces creates an environment in which scandal becomes nearly inevitable. We will almost certainly see more spectacular flame-outs in the near future, as we struggle to balance the demand for constant content with the ease of instant verification.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Singing the Voice of an Ancient Muse

Julia Older, Tales of the Francois Vase: A Poem

The François Vase gets its name from Alessandro François, an amateur archaeologist who discovered this rare Greek krater in an Etruscan tomb in 1848. How a hand-glazed Greek vase decorated with scenes from Homer’s Iliad wound up shattered in northern Italy remains a mystery to this day. But its history since its rediscovery almosts tops that, as controversy and violence have circulated around it for 150 years.

American poet Julia Older, who lived for several years in Italy, discovered the François Vase, not in its place of public display, but in the diaries of Alessandro François. Its story fired her imagination. So she recreated it over the course of the centuries: who are the craftsmen, Ergotimos and Kleitas, who created this artifact? How did it cross the Adriatic? How did it wind up entombed, shattered, recovered, restored, and shattered again—twice?

Older’s subtitle calls this “a poem,” as though she has crafted a single forty-page verse. But her intersecting voices, building urgency, and cycles of destruction and recreation resemble more a verse drama. Her characters talk over each other, diverse and contradictory, not the sound of one poet telling several stories, but several identities in orbit around one nucleus. Consider this story of the man who found an orphaned fragment, “Seduction”:

When I picked you up
I remembered my remorse.
You looked so lonely, so lost.
A hip, a breast. Gently I caressed
that fragment of you—earthen, burnished
like the essence of Sophia.
Though I could imagine my college professors disparaging the feeling in this passage as “sentimental,” I find it subtle and understated, a sense of the humility most thinking people would feel holding a millennia-old artifact in their hands. The shapeless verse reflects the fragmentary thoughts any of us would feel with something so ancient in our own mortal hands.

The François Vase
Older uses different verse structures to create different moods. Compare the blank verse above with this, from her speculation on how the Greek vase wound up hidden for the ages, in “Entombed”:

My heart is pounding. I ran
before they could rape me—
and escaped. We
have done what we can
to protect our dwindling race
from the Tiber warriors.
I load the mirrors
and my Mistress’ cherished Vase.

The form does not jump out and demand the reader’s attention, as it does in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” yet its short, graceful lines and subdued rhyme reflect that these lines are spoken by an ancient Etruscan, a member of a race as old and enigmatic as the vase itself. The use of form conveys just how old the poet means us to perceive this voice.

Despite the age of her subject matter, Older does not craft a mere museum piece. Her language creates a view not just of the people she spotlights, but the time and the social position they represent. “Interior Cracks” presents the words of the conservator who sought to restore the Vase after it narrowly evaded the Arno River flood of 1966, which destroyed the Uffizi Gallery:

Just look around if you deny
that destruction comes easily!
One day the sun shone on Florence.
The next, she took a quantum leap to ruin,
and a gift in abundance turned us to beggars.

I can’t call this verse drama perfect. Though the individual poems created excellent voices that reflect their place and time, the linking narration is uncomfortably declarative and seemingly doesn’t trust us to follow the transitions, some of which cover centuries. That voice, presumably the voice of the Vase itself, lacks the subtlety of the verses it binds:

Through the hole in my side
I peep at hads and veiled faces
Where am I? I ask the Sphinxes
on my handles who are good
at such riddles.

Notwithstanding the choppiness of that linking narration, Older creates an arc of poetic identity complex enough to sustain readers’ interest. Her high degree of introspection nevertheless resists the solipsism that has left me disappointed with so many recent poetic journals and magazines. And she creates characters who have human depth and feel complete, even though we glimpse them so briefly.

The conceit of following an artifact over three millennia could devolve into silliness or cheap sentiment. Especially where we have gaps of knowledge—and in this case, the gaps are huge—it would be easy to fill them in with pseudo-mythological nonsense. Julia Older holds the line, presenting a story of real depth and intricacy, mining the human nuance of a true historic treasure.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Resisting the Nazis From a Bicycle Saddle

Aili and Andres McConnon, Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation

At his prime, Italian cyclist Gino Bartali was most famous for winning the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948, the longest gap ever between Tour wins. In the struggle to rebuild democratic Italy after World War II, his victory helped unify the country when struggles between centrist Catholics and the Communist Party almost caused a civil war. Though unknown globally, he remains one of his nation’s icons of sportsmanship.

Only decades later did the world discover how Bartali used his fame and athletics to aid Italian Jews facing systematic persecution during the German occupation. Who better than a renowned cyclist, wanting to keep in shape, to convey sensitive documents and fake ID long distances? And when you want to distract the SS and Polizia from a train smuggling Jews across enemy lines, a sports celebrity can keep all eyes away from the refugees.

Siblings Aili and Andres McConnon reconstruct Bartali’s rise and heyday, from poor roots in an mountain village. At a time when most sports were the exclusive domain of rich sybarites, cycling was refreshingly egalitarian. With only a sixth grade education, Bartali worked for a local bike repairman, learning make-do maintenance skills that would serve him on the professional circuit, saving to buy the secondhand bike that changed his life.

But riding wasn’t a value neutral activity in Bartali’s youth. With the country under the heel of Benito Mussolini, the Fascists used athletes as propaganda instruments. They wanted to reawaken a perceived warrior spirit they believed Italy had lost. The rising star’s every victory got turned into a poster. Bartali, raised by a strict Catholic father to distrust Fascist power, found himself trapped in a monster he couldn’t resist.

So Bartali offered a perfect response: he ignored the machine he was forbidden to criticize. After his first Tour victory, he thanked everybody except Mussolini and the Fascist regime. You can imagine how Il Duce took that slight. But as the “poor boy made good” narrative took Italian fanatics by storm, the state found itself with only one way to silence Bartali: it drafted him, cancelled Italian races, and stopped international sports.

Like that would stop a True Believer. Bartali became Italy’s most famous (or infamous) deserter. And he came under the increasing influence of Cardinal Elia Della Costa, archbishop of Florence. Della Costa taught Bartali how to dance the fine line between law and conscience, and brought him into the conspiracy to rescue Jews from the encroaching machine. To this day we don’t know Bartali’s true contribution to this act of far-reaching heroism.

The McConnons go beyond retelling the story. They are no mere journalists, content to recount the facts of the case. They delve into the emotions behind the circumstances; the history behind seemingly unrelated events; the risk that these heroes took resisting a powerful, intolerant state. Many people involved in Bartali’s story, including his wife and several former teammates, are still alive, and the McConnons interviewed them, conveying their first-hand urgency.

The war put Bartali through serious turmoil. With all the races, and their attendant prize money, on hiatus for several years, he struggled to feed his growing family. His resistance activities nearly cost him his life, including one occasion when his sports heroism couldn’t even save him. Only brief twists of fate kept him off the train bound for Auschwitz. Yet he kept up the fight, because his Catholic faith told him it was right.

He also kept his secrets. Even his wife didn’t know about his heroic interventions until well after the war. Nazi resisters like Bartali often had to work in the dark, and few records were ever kept; even fewer survive. Therefore, we only know as much as survivors tell us, and Bartali said little. In a turn of humility that would seem alien to today’s glory-hungry athletes, he refused to let his sports celebrity take anything from the people he considered the real heroes.

Bartali could have traded on his war heroism. Catholic centrists tried to make him their poster boy after the war, but he refused. Instead, he electrified Italy, and the world, with a come-from-behind Tour victory. This man, prematurely aged by the war, older than nearly any other Tour winner ever, overcame a crushing handicap to win by one of the largest leads ever. Sort of a symbol for postwar Italy, really.

The McConnons brew an exciting stew of sports, history, conspiracy politics, and the war that redefined the modern world. Their narrative holds on tight and brings readers on an emotional ride you won’t forget soon.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Dark Side of "Publish Or Perish"

I’m of two minds about neuroscience popularizer Jonah Lehrer’s spectacular flame-out this week. The claim that he plagiarized himself seems laughable on its face. John Fogerty demonstrated in court, back in 1987, that writers have distinctive styles, and even a very strong resemblance between two works is inevitable. Besides, in today’s media-saturated society, writers must recycle to get paid; even college courses emphasize this.

But that accusation, for which the New Yorker grudgingly forgave him, pales beside the accusation that he fabricated a prominent Bob Dylan quote in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Reminiscent of James Frey, Janet Cooke, and Stephen Glass, Lehrer’s intrusion of fiction into his journalism makes it impossible to separate reality from imagination. Lehrer went overnight from top journalist to a case study in his own discipline.

One of the bromides of creative bullshittery holds that a lie works best sandwiched between two truths. Thus Lehrer’s decision to place his fake quote in the opening pages defies reason, as does his decision to take many Dylan quotes out of context, changing their meaning. Because this is the opening section of the first chapter, it looks like Lehrer wanted to get caught. Moreover, it looks like he wanted to cast doubt on everything that came after.

Which is exactly what happened. The book sold over 200,000 copies in four months, including one to me, but it vanished on Monday. The publisher recalled all unsold copies, and its Amazon page disappeared at midday. The response was so quick and complete that the New York Times bestseller list will still contain the title at #5 this Sunday. In other words, one of America’s top-selling titles is a book you can’t get anywhere now, for love or money.

Many critics have homed in on today’s widespread Dylanology: it was only a matter of time before some informed amateur caught the fabrication. But I don’t understand why Lehrer even felt the blatant fictioneering necessary. Dylan, formerly the music industry’s greatest recluse, has lately become a veritable quote factory. Between copious interviews, multiple volumes of memoir, and idiosyncratic speeches, Dylan has been remarkably forthcoming.

Despite Lehrer’s naked chicanery, I actually understand his decision, at least somewhat. He had a point to prove, a point backed up with abundant evidence and a corpus of research. Bob Dylan made a good illustration, and the writing of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Lehrer’s chosen example, has been well documented. But he lacked a single, unambiguous quote linking the evidence to the conclusion. This doesn’t excuse lying, but it at least makes sense.

Writers today, as I said above, have to publish—a lot—if they want to get paid. Our society has become so saturated with stuff to read, watch, and listen to, that only constant production staves off obsolescence. Books that don’t become instant bestsellers have a life expectancy of about six weeks before they get pulled and pulped. Gone are the days of sleeper hits like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which took several years to find its audience.

Nor do books have exclusive claim on this limitation. Actors who once made $300,000 per film now do free webcasts so their résumés don’t stagnate. Musicians release rough masters to YouTube just to keep their names in consideration. Publicists require artists to update their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds as often as every fifteen minutes. That’s saying nothing about producers trying to fill 500 satellite TV channels daily.

Sooner or later, somebody was going to plagiarize, fabricate, or misrepresent something. Lehrer’s bestseller status nabbed him a prestigious New Yorker staff writer job, the holy grail of writers, when he was only thirty-one. That means he made money coming up with ideas and writing them down. He would have continued doing so if he hadn’t warped such a stupidly transparent source. Watch for other writers getting on the gravy train.

Our society, unfortunately, will feed, clothe, and house lunatics and murderers for the rest of their lives, but which tells geniuses to go pound sand. People like Lehrer (and me) want to make money doing what we’re good at. But look around. Financial executives can crash the economy trying to spin straw into gold, and make multi-million dollar bonuses for it. Most writers are two steps removed from food stamps.

Jonah Lehrer’s fabrications are humiliating for those of us who write. But they sadly make perfect sense in today’s context. I fear we haven’t seen the last controversy of this kind, not by a long shot.