Sunday, May 21, 2017

life, not-so-interrupted


My phone frequently blurts out the following digital notification: “Medium power saving mode turned on  Your battery life has been extended.” The editor in me forgives the missing hyphen between “power” and “saving.” It even shrugs off the missing period after “turned on.” And why not be magnanimous? After all, the smartphone’s notification exudes generosity, hope, and optimism.

Sure, I can pretend to take some credit for the cellphone notification, owing to the settings I clicked on.

The word “notification” is a delicious one for an artisanal, homegrown, non-GMO, gluten-free wordsmith such as myself. If St. Peter is hip and modern enough, he can forgo all that fabled judgmental jazz at the gates of Heaven. He can simply email notifications. I don’t doubt he can find a way to spiritually transmit notifications to every soul. St. Peter, if you are metaphysically listening, may I make a suggestion? Develop an app that has emojis for paradisiacal salvation and for hellish damnation. Then you can save yourself all the time and trouble words take. (Purgatory? I’m not so sure about that one.) You won’t have to have all those interviews at the gate as depicted in cartoons.  

As for “power-saving mode,” don’t you wish we could do the same for ourselves? Don’t you wish that a few taps of your fingers would put you in a state of energy conservation? How handy it would be. Oh. Wait. We have that! My word for that power-saving mode is the English word “nap.” In Spanish, it’s “siesta.”

Why stop there? If we can invoke a personal power-saving mode, we should also be able to apply the same concept to endless varieties of human behavior. I salivate at the prospect of a limitless parade of modes beyond power-saving. A few brief examples include anger-saving, grief-saving, embarrassment-saving, trust-saving, and error-saving.

Logic dictates that this brave new world should stretch beyond the limits of conservation, as it were. Flip the opposite way. Power-enhancing, patience-enhancing, trust-enhancing, esteem-enhancing, virtue enhancing. The list goes on ad infinitum.

I freely admit the existence of logistical hurdles. If it’s not as easy as adjusting settings on your “digital device,” what are we left with? “Conscience” is the smart-aleck reply of the wise ones among us. My answer to that is: since our banishment from the Garden of Eden there has been a deep and wide chasm between what conscience ordains and what human beings actually do. So that’s the tricky part. Getting our behavior to be as automatic as an app on our phone or tablet is hugely problematic. That’s why we have drug and alcohol rehab centers; billions of dollars spent on psychoactive medications; and gazillions of dollars — and hours — invested in weight control and fitness. Not to be a shade too cynical, it’s also the reason we have corrections facilities that strain the credulity of the word “correction.”

As I said at the outset, my phone also declares without equivocation: “Your battery life has been extended.” Would that we could be as certain. Would that our fortunes were bound by such a simple and absolute algorithm.

“Your life has been extended” if you eat right, exercise frequently, wear a seatbelt, and signal before turning. (Extended for how long? one wonders.)

Text St. Peter. Ask him.

Get back to us on that.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Brutal Murder

In news stories, one frequently sees or hears the phrase “brutal murder,” or words to that effect. Although I worked at a newspaper and in publishing, I have never taken a journalism course. My first year of teaching I was forced to teach a journalism course though I lacked any credentials aside from having been an English major and having worked on the school paper in junior high, as it was called then. But if I were to study or teach Journalism 101, “brutal murder” might be a good starting point.

I understand that some murders are more grisly than others. I comprehend that certain methods of violence are more heinous than others, and that the intent of such a phrase is meant to underscore that.  And yet . . .

All murder would qualify as brutal, wouldn’t it? Whether the method is subtle or silent, or explicit and horrific, the result is the same. Nevertheless, the idea of brutal murder is worth pondering. Is a drone operator who is detached from the sounds and smells of execution any less murderous than one more directly involved? When combatants in World War I engaged in combat with soldiers close enough to see their eyes, was the result different? Or did personal proximity raise the remote possibility of peace, at least briefly and on a small scale? There are many accounts of Union and Confederate soldiers engaging in conversation, perhaps exchanging tobacco. But the grim truth is that the ravages of war continued.

Back to “brutal murder.” What do we mean by “brutal”? Are we referring to the look or the sound of the perpetrated act? Is it measured by the incalculable pain that is endured? Or the innocence of the victims?

Does war or insurrection get an exemption based on the assumption that war is brutal and murderous by definition?

Extending the notion, what roles do intent and context play? Surgical and precise terminations of life may seem less brutal owing to evidence unseen or unheard.

And what about the phrase “killing with kindness”? What is meant by that? More than a touch of irony emanates from that particular locution. Surely, we will never hear a news reader proclaim, “In other news, police are investigating a kindly murder at Peaceful Heights. The victim’s identity is unknown, but authorities were puzzled by the smile on the victim’s face.”

No, we will never hear or read anything like that at all.

Nor should we.

What’s my point? I am suggesting that words matter. They matter as stand-alone utterances and in combination with other words. The combinations matter, too, as much as the individual words. Implications exist. Legal bindings or loopholes, acts of war or declarations of peace, or life-long covenants hinge on both the mosaic arrangement of words and the very words themselves. Think of that jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. It matters.

The same with words.

Am I a nut for attuning my ear to a simple and widely understood phrase? Perhaps, but not likely.

Failing to prick up our ears like a dog alert to a dog whistle means we run the risk of becoming deaf to meaning and subtlety. That opens the door to manipulation. To be honest, the door is already open.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Everyone Is Approved Here

As you drive along the busy boulevard, an A-frame sandwich board all but shouts, "Everyone is approved here!!!" It is an unabashed, traditionally American, free-enterprise invitation to buy “pre-owned” automobiles. The sign says, in effect, "No matter what your financial history is, no matter how reckless or foolish or disastrous or triumphantly capitalistic, we can lend you the money to buy a vehicle." (Naturally, such generosity has its own price. That price goes by the code words “interest rate” and “months.”)

Which got me to thinking.

Imagine if "Everyone is approved here!!!" referred to real people. What if actual living humans were approved “here” just as unconditionally and with the √©lan of three exclamation points as a used-car dealer approves all?

"Everyone is approved here!!!" could be a statement of credit beyond financial history, and instead it could apply to redemption that reverses personal misdeeds and waywardness.

Does unconditional approval get the cold shoulder in our society because of our puritanical past? One can reasonably argue that the reward of virtue and the punishment of transgressions is the right path. It’s wholesome for society. It sets the right balance and the right example.

But is that notion more cultural than theological?

After all, the New Testament offers ample weight and rich testimony for what we will call the Mercy Rule, as opposed to the Justice Rule.

In the early Seventies, when I was a fledgling English teacher, a colleague just as new to the profession announced to his social studies students on the first day of class for that marking period: “You all have A’s. That’s it. You have an A.” This was not contract learning. It involved no quid pro quo. The students were dumbstruck at first. Looking back, I would venture to say the teacher risked disciplinary punishment or job loss for this daring, if not foolhardy, move.

The teacher later trumpeted the success of his gambit. He said no class collectively or individually ever produced more or learned better. They rose to the occasion and justified someone’s belief in them, however dreamy or utopian. All were not merely approved. They were rewarded in advance, unconditionally.

Not being a sociologist, I cannot safely draw any generalized conclusions from this small sample. I cannot go from point A to point B to establish a theory of education or a social construct rooted in unconditional “all are approved here.”

But being a columnist, I can pose leading questions, and draw inferences till the cows come home — home from wherever they wandered to in the first place.

Taking literally the declarative sentence “All are approved here” (with or without accompanying punctuation denoting interjection, surprise, or excitement) yields a multitude of questions, the answers to which will remain speculative.

Could you successfully apply this approach to child-rearing?

What about the justice system? Would the Radical Advance Approval Method cause chaos and imperil public safety? (Incidentally, my former teaching colleague went on to become a top official at the U.S. Department of Labor. I was shocked to see him one evening making a comment on the evening’s national news.)

Speaking of labor and industry, what if supervisors and managers gave employees automatic A’s on annual performance reviews? (I had a manager do that; I loved working for him.) Would quality and production improve?

Consider the implications for the alcohol and substance rehabilitation industry. Would outcomes be better or worse than those produced by current methods?

I’m just a columnist. I get to grade myself with an A no matter what anyway.