Monday, January 30, 2012

On the Phone (Again)

Sometime last week, I hit the two-year mark of owning a prepaid cellular phone. I wrote here about making the switch from our monthly pay-ahead Sprint plan to a prepaid plan with Tracfone. I also wrote at the one-year mark (see here) to report that the switch was saving us loads of money. Now that another year has passed, the savings are even more impressive. So, I thought I’d write about it all again.

As a reminder, back when Melanie and I were with Sprint, we had one mobile phone and paid for the cheapest monthly plan that Sprint had to offer. After the myriad taxes and fees that get tacked on to the basic monthly service fee, we were paying nearly $50 per month for one heavily underused phone.

In January 2010, Melanie and I bought two new mobile phones with Tracfone. The phones cost us $20 and came with 200 minutes of prepaid talk time. To keep our phones active, all we have to do is reload each phone before it runs out of minutes and/or before the service date for that phone ends. Every time you add minutes to the phone, it adds 90 days to your service period. Thus, you are stuck buying more minutes every 90 days, even if you don’t yet need them, just to keep your phone active. On the other hand, if you need to buy more minutes after just 30 days, you’ll still be extending your original service expiration date by 90 days. The service days can accumulate, in other words. So, if you add minutes to your phone on 10 different occasions, even if it’s within 10 days, you’ll have added 900 service days to your phone. Anyway, when we activated our phones, we were given more than 90 days of service to begin with. I lucked out with literally years’ worth of time on my phone. Right now, I have 1,275 days (or 3 ½ years) left until my service expires, provided I keep my phone loaded with minutes. (Melanie didn’t get so lucky and has actually had to buy minutes just to extend her service date.)

Of course, the whole point of changing to prepaid cell phones was to save us money. Has that been accomplished? Yes, indeed. The more minutes you buy at a time, the cheaper each minute is. Thus, Melanie and I have typically bought 900 minutes at a time, which costs $80. It sounds like a lot when you’re paying for the minutes, but in my case, 900 minutes last nearly forever. I’ve reloaded my phone only twice since purchasing it, and as I write this, I’ve barely made it through half of the second batch of minutes that I bought. Adding it all up, including the initial $20 that it cost to buy my phone, prorating my minutes so as to be accurate in my estimate, I have calculated that my cell phone is costing me about $6.07 per month (not including tax, which probably adds about $.25 per month). That means that even if Melanie is burning through 450 minutes per month (which she’s not), we’re breaking even compared to our Sprint days. I honestly don’t know just how many times we’ve had to reload Melanie’s phone, but it has been at least a couple of times more than mine. Still, I’d be surprised if we’re spending even $20 per month for us both to have phones. It’s probably much closer to $15. I once again rejoice in our decision.

While I think the Tracfone service has gotten better over the last two years, it hasn’t been as reliable as Sprint. Nothing has been problematic enough to make us look elsewhere, but I’m happy to hear from anybody out there who believes Melanie and I could both have cell phones, with even better service, and pay this little for it. I’m not committed to Tracfone, and in fact I was quite pleased with Sprint’s service. It’s just that Tracfone has made more sense for us than anything else thus far. (Or is it that Tracfone has made more cents for us? LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!!)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Review: Real Steel

Real Steel
Directed by Shawn Levy
Running Time: 127 minutes
Originally Released: October 7, 2011

* * ½ (out of four)

In the far distant future – the year 2020 to be precise – there aren’t any boxing champions. Not human boxing champions, anyway. The human version of the sport has gone extinct, with robot boxing now ruling the ring. Of course, the robot competitors are owned by humans, and depending on how fancy one’s robot is, it will require more or less directional input from a human during the fight. The most sophisticated robots can learn and adapt to their opponent’s fighting style, running mostly on autopilot, while a bare bones model must be remotely controlled from the sidelines. Regardless, human audiences love watching two bots get into the ring and fight to the virtual death. It is the human desire for total and mass destruction that has given rise to the robot boxing phenomenon in the first place.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former human fighter who, now that the robot leagues have taken over, manages robots on the amateur circuit. Charlie is something of a con man, or perhaps just absurdly optimistic, making bets he can’t afford to lose but typically does. It leaves him scurrying, continuously looking for a win while attempting to avoid the wrath of those he has swindled. Charlie also has an estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), who comes into his life after Max’s mother dies. When Max’s well-to-do aunt Debra (Hope Davis) expresses interest in adopting the boy, Charlie sees it as another moneymaking opportunity. He makes a backdoor deal with Debra’s husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) to sign over custodial rights for $100,000. Marvin agrees, on the condition that Charlie keep Max for the summer and thereby not upset the aunt’s and uncle’s travel plans.

It isn’t long before Max demonstrates a knack for robot boxing himself. The boy salvages an old-school robot from a junkyard and begins competing against more advanced robots, scoring a surprising string of victories along the way. Atom, Max’s robot, soon draws national attention, soliciting ire not only from Charlie’s past opponents, but from the team behind robot boxing’s most famous fighter, the undefeated Zeus, whom Max publicly challenges to a duel.

Real Steel is brought to you by director Shawn Levy, whose résumé includes Just Married, the 2006 reboot of The Pink Panther, Date Night, and the two Night at the Museum movies. It is safe to say that Levy specializes in making movies that are meant to have mass appeal and suffer because of it. Indeed, the list of unflattering adjectives that can be used to describe Real Steel is extensive: hokey, corny, formulaic, predictable, and uninspired, just to name a few. And yet for all of that, it is nigh unto impossible to watch the movie without rooting for Atom’s (and Max’s, and thus even Charlie’s) success.  It is also a surprisingly stunning film visually, and not just during the special effect-laden robot fight sequences that have garnered the film an Oscar nomination. Mauro Fiore, who himself won an Oscar for his work as cinematographer on Avatar, endows the film with absorbent colors and picturesque landscapes that help to elevate the film beyond its mediocre core.

Acting isn’t what this movie is about, so it is probably pointless to mention it as I am about to do. That being said, Jackman does an adequate job, as does Lost’s Evangeline Lilly as Bailey, the obligatory love interest who is also the daughter of Charlie’s deceased boxing trainer. Lilly’s role is excess baggage, but to be expected in a film that flaunts rather than flouts convention. Meanwhile, Goyo is neither as charming nor as grating as many child actors, though he would much more easily fall into the latter category than into the former. Viewers may be reminded of Jake Lloyd, the heavily derided actor who played young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. Throw in a dash of Jodie Foster (both in terms of looks and in terms of talent), and you’ve got Goyo. It’s not a flattering comparison, but it’s suitable.

Real Steel is based on a short story from science fiction writer Richard Matheson. Matheson’s novels and stories have been adapted into numerous movies over the years, from Somewhere in Time to What Dreams May Come to I Am Legend. (Matheson has also written or co-written several screenplays, including Jaws 3-D and the Gene Hackman / Dan Aykroyd comedy Loose Cannons.) Despite its more prestigious origins, Real Steel ultimately plays out like a big screen adaptation of Rock’em Sock’em Robots—a none-too-ridiculous notion considering that a Battleship movie is set to hit theaters this summer. Though there is no official tie in with the 1960s game, I imagine those with a fondness for Rock’em Sock’em Robots will enjoy Real Steel more than anyone else could. Only a lightweight will be knocked out by the film, but there are worse ways to spend two hours.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F*cked

Fair or not, as I read Darrell Hammond’s God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, I couldn’t help comparing it constantly to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Both Hammond and Fey are prominent alumni of the long-running NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, and their memoirs were published a mere seven months apart. While Fey’s book was modestly entertaining, it was a bit of a disappointment. It favored cute and clever witticisms over candor and humility. In contrast, Hammond has penned an absorbing, emotionally frank, and surprisingly educational memoir that lays its author bare in a manner that is both delicate and unflinching.

It is no surprise that Hammond’s time at Saturday Night Live should underscore nearly every chapter of his memoir. His record-breaking 14-year stint as an SNL cast member made him a household name, from college dorms to the most famous house of all, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Indeed, Hammond’s impressions covered a veritable pantheon of political figures—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Jesse Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pundit Chris Matthews, and even Donald Trump (who counts only because he briefly flirted with the idea of running for president). The man also famously performed as Sean Connery, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Phil Donahue, Regis Philbin, and scores of others. Hammond’s notoriety as the preeminent comic impressionist of this generation followed him everywhere, from Presidential black-tie soirées, where Hammond was invited to perform as Clinton alongside Clinton himself, to the psychiatric hospitals where, as a patient, Hammond still couldn’t escape the requests to appear in character.

Little do people know that Hammond’s penchant for imitation began as a child, when his impressions of Porky Pig and others formed the only positive link between him and his sadistically abusive, mentally-ill mother. It was a relationship that would germinate more than Hammond’s vocal talents, leading the comedian for most of his life to struggle with severe mental and emotional problems, and in turn with alcohol and a wide assortment of other drugs. Even more shockingly, Hammond’s psychological turmoil was frequently manifest in acts of self-cutting, a practice he engaged in often just moments before taking the stage and performing in comedy skits on live television. An amazingly persistent talent, Hammond nevertheless didn’t always make it in front of the cameras. More than once his appearances were cancelled as he was rushed from the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center to a hospital—one time in a straitjacket.

Hammond’s tome is a powerful one, with writing as dignified as it is gracious. It’s almost surprising that the book is a memoir for as little as Hammond makes himself the center of attention. In no way does he shy away from the details of his life, from his vast accomplishments and the wealth of professional respect that has come his way. And yet Hammond exudes an unwavering awe toward all of the talent with which he’s had the honor to have worked, a relentless gratitude for all of the wondrous occasions of which he’s been a part. At the same time, Hammond openly discusses his foibles and flaws. His matter-of-fact recounting of personal weakness is neither arrogant nor apologetic nor a plea for sympathy, it is just the truth. It is a pervasive and guileless honesty that commands the respect of the reader, even when a bit of the unsolicited sympathy does manage to slip in.

I would be remiss not to mention the expert way in which Hammond fuses informative passages into his tale. The knowledge the reader gains of everything Hammond discusses, from life in Hell’s Kitchen circa 1980 to law enforcement in the Bahamas, is staggering. A copious amount of detail is woven into the narrative, but it is done so seamlessly and succinctly that you’ll scarce realize you’re being educated just as much as you’re being entertained. Nowhere is this as true as when Hammond describes the inner workings of Saturday Night Live. Even the casual fan of the show will gain an appreciation for the controlled chaos that goes on behind the scenes. Hammond’s book should be used as a primer for anyone aspiring to join the cast or crew of SNL.

It is incredibly fitting that Hammond should conclude his memoir discussing his most recent adventure, playing Truman Capote in a stage production of the one-man show Tru. As Hammond notes, the stage is designed to make audiences feel as though they are sitting in Capote’s living room, effectively transforming the nearly 100-minute monologue into something of an intimate conversation between Capote and the individual viewer. Hammond’s book accomplishes nearly the same feat. By the time I had reached the final few chapters, I realized that I was reading every page as though poised on the edge of my seat, with Hammond sitting directly in front of me, talking to me personally, telling me about his life as if I were a near and dear friend. It donned on me then that Hammond, whom I felt had alluded me in the earlier chapters, had been there all along, but with such a quiet and pleasing demeanor that I had failed to appreciate his arrival, so caught up was I in what he had to say. Without my even realizing it, Hammond had befriended me through his stories. And I can’t think of a better compliment for the author of a memoir.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Parenting and Race

I recently wrote a post about adoption (see here). While it isn’t necessary to read that post in order to understand what I say here, this is a follow-up to and expanding of ideas already mentioned there.

Consider the following claim:

Ideally, children will be raised by parents of their own race.

Let us refer to this claim as the Symmetry Principle of Parenting, or SPP. Is SPP true? I can imagine some people reacting to SPP with disgust. Those people may see SPP in terms of what it (seemingly, but not actually) prohibits. That is, some will see SPP as carrying the following mandates: blacks shouldn’t raise white children, whites shouldn’t raise black children, Asians shouldn’t raise Hispanic children, etc. Though SPP does not actually entail any of these things, I can see why people might respond negatively to SPP. Something about it just doesn’t sound politically correct.

I’m not 100% committed to SPP, but I think it’s probably true. In fact, I think the implications of rejecting SPP are much more likely to be offensive than are any implications of accepting it. By denying that, ideally, children would be raised by parents of their own race, it seems to me that you are disvaluing race altogether. And that doesn’t seem right. I think most of us are comfortable saying that there is something special and unique about each race. Perhaps I am wrong, but my impression is that most (if not all) black people regard their black heritage as something to be proud of, as an inherently valuable part of who they are. I also assume that, no matter how in touch with black culture a white person may be, that person has only a superficial understanding of what it is like to be a member of the black community. Finally, I assume that the more intimate and complete the parents’ understanding of what their child’s experiences in the world are like—in one sense, the more capable of empathy the parents are—the better that child will fare in life. Now, I know this is not a black and white issue—neither figuratively nor literally, as there are more races than black and white—but I trust that my point is becoming clear. A black parent can provide things for a black child that a white parent cannot. To suggest otherwise is not only absurd, but insulting. It implies not only that race is of little consequence, which is just false, but (for example) that when it comes to raising a black child, any value a black parent might offer to that child in light of their common racial identity, can just as easily be replaced by the good intentions of a white person—a white person whose understanding and appreciation of black culture is necessarily both minimal and largely impersonal. Now, can that be right???

At this point, we might ask what the practical implications of SPP are. Perhaps nothing. We aren’t living in an ideal world, so it may not matter what’s ideal. The ideal might be unattainable, and we might be capable only of doing what’s best in a non-ideal situation. Without a doubt, it is better than not that a child be raised in a safe home by loving parents who can provide for that child, regardless of who is of what race. But if we accept SPP, it may imply that adoptive parents do children a disservice if they intentionally adopt outside of their own race for superficial reasons (e.g. to diversify, to be cool, etc.). And it might go beyond race. SPP can be extended from making a racial claim to making a cultural claim. If it’s equally true that, ideally, children will be raised by parents of their own culture, then it may be morally wrong (in some situations) to adopt a child from a different country. This is less obviously true, especially when (or, at least, if) adopting typically improves the life of the child. But again, when people adopt outside of their own culture primarily because it seems cool to do so, they should recognize that such a move may be detrimental to the child’s sense of self-worth and identity. It’s at least a possibility, one that I think merits consideration.

Side note: in writing this, I began to wonder just how many non-white parents adopt white children. More tellingly, I began to wonder just how many non-white parents would even want to adopt white children. I can’t help thinking that it must be a SUBSTANTIALLY higher percentage of white parents who adopt outside of their own race than non-whites. This almost certainly has a lot to do with the availability of adoptable children, and yet I'm not convinced that there isn’t more to it than that. I’m tempted to say that white parents are much more likely to take pride in adopting outside of their race, believing that it says something positive about their characters. Insofar as this is true, it irks me.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Ides of March

The Ides of March
Directed by George Clooney
Running Time: 101 minutes
Originally Released: October 7, 2011

* * * (out of four)

Not everyone holds to the same ideals. As reflective human beings, we are sometimes forced to ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay if we are to keep our most cherished personal convictions intact. Less often do we consider what value such convictions hold for us in a world that treats them as mere commodities that can be bought and sold. The Ides of March examines both sides of this issue, imparting to viewers a cinematic cost-benefit analysis of personal integrity.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young press secretary working the primary presidential campaign of Democrat and current Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen is ambitious, hard-working, and carries an impressive résumé for his age. But Stephen does more than play the game—he believes in his team, and he is driven first and foremost by his commitment to the ideals touted by Morris. If he didn’t believe in Morris, Stephen wouldn’t allow himself to be among Morris’ most fervent advocates. Harmoniously enough, Morris himself is a staunch idealist, so much so that his idealism has become one of his most controversial attributes.

Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is Morris’ campaign manager. Across the way is Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for Senator Pullman, a Democrat from Arkansas. As the film takes place entirely within the scope of primary elections, Pullman is Morris’ main rival, making Tom and Paul archenemies. And then there is Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern serving on Morris’ campaign whose fling with Stephen sets off a string of tumultuous events.

With an impeccable cast, it may be all too easy to deem The Ides of March a “powerhouse” film. But 90% of the film’s success can be attributed to Gosling. I’ve long been an unabashed admirer of Gosling’s work, and yet I continue to be amazed by his talent. With The Ides of March, Gosling reaffirms the power of facial expressions. Think of the way a pupil dilates to accommodate a shift in the light; with an equally effortless ease, Gosling conveys a precise and sudden change in his character’s emotions. Though the change is natural, fluid, and almost imperceptible to the casual observer, it speaks volumes as to what’s going on within the character’s psyche. Hate, disenchantment, anxious fury—with the gentle lift of a brow or the nearly indiscernible tensing of the mouth, Gosling deftly conveys all of these emotions, richly, in full force, and with all of the nuanced differences between them properly accounted for. It is highly impressive, especially when one recognizes just how similar these faces can appear.

The remaining cast is in top form, although lesser-developed characters sometimes hurt the film. A recurring theme in the film is deceit and betrayal. When a mask falls from this or that character and true motives or natures are revealed, it is hard to feel as shocked as one might had the decimated façade been more firmly established.

Incredibly well-acted and directed, The Ides of March is far from perfect. It’s a slow process, bringing the film to a simmer. Viewers spend nearly two thirds of the film convinced they’re watching a fairly straightforward, modestly entertaining election movie. Then, after nearly an hour of screen time and seemingly out of left field, things start to get interesting. Very interesting. The problem is that the movie then spends its remaining time steadily building to a rolling boil—only to come to an abrupt stop. In the end, it feels like a very extended trailer for a movie I still wish I could see. Put another way, the movie does a lot of gearing up without really paying off. The slow start only accentuates the jarring swiftness with which the film concludes, which may have been a deliberate and stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers. Even so, I can’t help thinking that the movie stands in dire need of a cinematic haircut—taking just a little off the top would give it a much tidier appearance overall.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Review: One Day

One Day
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Running Time: 107 minutes
Originally Released: August 19, 2011

* (out of four)

If nothing else can be said about the would-be romantic drama One Day, this can: once the near 25 years depicted in the movie have elapsed, viewers will believe they have devoted at least that much time to watching the film. In fact, it may only take 20-30 minutes for audience members to grow uncomfortably antsy. This is indeed one long, drawn-out day.

In actuality, One Day derives its name from the narrative gimmick of telling a quarter-century-long story via a series of vignettes restricted to the ides of July. In a mostly linear fashion, the film gives us glimpses of the main characters’ lives on July 15th of each year, beginning in 1988 and concluding in the present. Some of these glimpses last less than a minute, while others clock in at a bulkier ten. Through them, we observe the ebb and flow of two individuals’ lives—those of Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess)—their successes and failures, their personal growth and development, and of course, their relationships both professional and romantic. Though Emma and Dexter are good friends—sometimes distantly so, sometimes co-dependently so—the question is whether they will ever amount to more. They almost amounted to more on that first July 15th, the night they graduated college and literally, but only literally, slept together. Flash-forward 365 days and the two would-be lovebirds seem to occupy entirely different worlds. Emma is working as a waitress in London while Dexter, who hails from well-to-do British stock, is making the most of his posh, playboy lifestyle. Somehow, the tie between the former classmates is never quite severed, even as Emma goes from borderline frumpy but upbeat and dedicated working-class girl to successful writer, and Dexter transforms at an even more rapid pace from prissy womanizer to equally prissy but slightly less womanizing B-list celebrity and Joey Lawrence lookalike to an emotionally-matured, deli-owning Taylor Hicks lookalike. Along the way, Emma enters into a halfhearted (for her) relationship with Ian (Rafe Spall in the film’s best performance), a daft but enthusiastic aspiring comedian, while Dexter confronts the fact that his frivolity is a source of disappointment to his father (Ken Stott) and ailing mother (an underutilized Patricia Clarkson).

Put simply, One Day is a very boring film. Watching two disinteresting characters live out a significant portion of their lives—even in the abbreviated and fragmented form this movie employs—is a tall demand, especially for a drama. While Dexter is certainly the more developed of the two lead roles, he is such an effeminate doofus that it is hard to believe any heterosexual female, much less the seemingly respectable Emma, would be charmed by him. Meanwhile, in order to emphasize the contrast between Dexter’s and Emma’s characters, the latter has been stripped of all vitality. That she might play straight to Dexter’s zigzag, the filmmakers have divested Emma of even the most fleeting looks of deep contemplation or joyful enthusiasm. Presumably, Emma is something of an artist deep down inside. But if she is meant to be a gifted writer, why not convey at least some sense of her genius to the audience? Why not tease us with her potential and get us rooting for her to blossom? Instead, Emma remains as washed out as the movie poster that advertises the film (see above). It’s all quite tragically mundane.

Life has its ups and downs, and this is a clichéd truism that One Day seeks to exploit. Yet for all of the July 15th’s visited in the film, One Day fails to find a single moment with any real pizzazz, that sparkles and shines and draws the viewer in. The dedicated moviegoer may note with stoic objectivity that, indeed, time has passed and lives have changed onscreen, but the experience is all too monochromatic. Whatever magic may exist in the pages of the book on which this film was based, it has not found its way to the big screen. And that makes the 25 years that pass between the movie’s opening and closing credits feel like an eternity.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Adopt? Seriously, Why?

This post has the potential to offend some people. I’m not sure that any of them will ever read this, so it might not matter all that much. But I do recognize that what follows may be viewed by some as incredibly, offensively ignorant. For all it’s worth, let me say that I have absolutely no intention to offend anyone. I acknowledge (without condoning) my ignorance on this issue. In fact, it is precisely the hope of eradicating my ignorance that prompts me to write this post. This is a topic which I admittedly claim not to understand. Help me, if you can.

So what is the topic? Importantly, it is not adoption tout court. Instead, it is a certain class of adoptions—namely, those adoptions that take place in families consisting of two happily married adults who already have multiple biological children and are biologically capable of reproducing again.

I recently learned (fourth-hand, mind you) about a set of parents that fit into this category. They already have four children, the oldest turning seven within the next couple of months and the youngest being just one year old. The parents are now in the process of adopting two babies from Ethiopia, a seven-month-old and a four-month-old. (The two babies are not related to each other.) It may or may not strike you as relevant that the adoptive parents are Caucasian and, from what I understand, have no special connection to Ethiopia.

When I heard about this, my brain immediately screamed, “Why in the world are they doing that?” And, to reveal the part of my post—or of my mentality, I suppose—that is most likely to offend certain people, I admit that I cannot think of a good reason for people like this to adopt. That is, I have a hard time thinking that adopting under these circumstances is really justifiable. Put even more bluntly, I cannot help but view the parents’ decision to adopt as a negative thing, as somehow reflecting poorly upon them. Like, if they really want to have more kids, they should—rationally, if not morally, should—just reproduce. There, I said it. I don’t understand adopting when you can have your own kids. Something about it just doesn’t seem right to me.

But wait? Isn’t adoption a good thing? Why, yes, it certainly can be. But is that the point here? Is adoption justified on the basis that it is performing some kind of charitable service? Providing a needy child with a loving family and a safe home—pretending for the moment that all cases of adoption have these benefits—is undoubtedly a good thing … if that’s as much about the issue as you consider. But let’s be honest, adoption is not the most efficient way of saving the world. Word has it that adopting these two babies will cost the adoptive parents approximately $40,000. (The babies were buy one, get one at half price. That’s putting it crudely, but I’m not joking.) One might quibble with how the term “saving a life” should be understood, but various sources will tell you that donating $40,000 to charity has the potential to save anywhere from 3,600 to 80,000 lives. (See here, here, here, and here.) In short, the Good Samaritan Defense for adopting doesn’t strike me as all that plausible. Improving the world might, in certain circumstances, justify putting a child up for adoption, and it might justify adopting certain children when and if one is going to adopt anyway. But I don’t think it qualifies as a good reason for adopting in-and-of-itself.

Here’s where I get even more controversial: I can’t help but think that some people adopt because it seems cool. It’s hip to adopt, just like it’s hip to be vegan or drive a Prius. I think some people view adopting a child as somehow forward-thinking and progressive. But to adopt for this reason is, in my view, morally repugnant. It strikes me as a poor attempt at “embracing diversity.” This is especially true when such people adopt outside of their own countries and cultures. Now, if a person is going to adopt, there may be very practical reasons for adopting outside of one’s own culture—it might be cheaper and involve less wait, for instance. But is that always the motivation behind adopting an overseas child? I swear I’ve heard some people say that they’ve always wanted to adopt a baby from this-or-that foreign region. I get the impression that, in these people’s minds, there’s just something cool about adopting an alien child, the same way someone might aspire to visit all seven continents or write a novel. I have absolutely no basis for thinking the parents I mentioned above fall into this category, and yet I have no basis for thinking they don’t. I sincerely hope they don’t. Adopting a child from another country because it’s cool to do so puts adoption a bit too on par with collecting shot glasses. What’s next? Have ten children and raise them all in different religions? Wouldn’t that be cool and forward-thinking?

With my rant more or less complete, it is worth reiterating that I don’t think adoption is a bad thing. I’m just baffled by those who would adopt under the circumstances described above. I’m inclined to think that if one is in a situation where having another biological child is a viable option, adoption is an odd way to go. Maybe the parents are thinking something like this: we want to have another child, so we might as well adopt a child in need rather than bring another child into an overpopulated world. I’m highly skeptical that this applies to the couple in question (for reasons not worth broaching here), but it may explain why some parents in a similar situation would choose to adopt. I’m leery of this being the general line of thought in the kinds of cases with which I’m concerned, but perhaps it is. At least it is a coherent position to take. There is more I could say on the matter, more questions that I might have even if this is the best answer that can be provided, but I’ll resist for now. I don’t think my questions would make me sound any more open-minded or any less judgmental. I guess it’s just hard for me to think of choosing to adopt when having my own offspring is achievable and would not change the family dynamic any more than—and indeed would probably change it less than—adopting would. It might be nice to avoid the challenges of pregnancy, but adopting in order to avoid being (or having a partner that is) pregnant is a bit off-putting to me. (Of course, I am not considering cases where pregnancy would pose a special threat to the woman’s health.) So, are there good reasons for adopting even when one can, without threatening the extant family unit in some way, have a child of one’s own?

If you’ve read all of the above and you think I’m a horrible person, please reprove me. I would appreciate it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Results Are In - Student Evaluations

A sampling of some of the comments I received on student evaluations of my teaching over the past two semesters:

“I really liked the instructor…. He made the material fun to learn and very interesting. I’m glad I took this class”!

“Very funny”!


“A great teacher…! Love the course!”

“He was hilarious and kept the mood light”!

“Brings modern relevance to a course that often cites old, dead men…. Great class!”

“Extremely funny…. He makes many situation comedy jokes to help understand concepts…. Funny, educated, and on task”!

“He was funny”!

“Well knowledged [sic] … well prepared … made the class interesting”!

“Funny and entertaining, but also serious.”

“Nice and funny”!

“Makes class interesting and exciting”!

“Helpful, well-spoken, and intelligent”!

“He was great!”

“A great teacher”!

“Favorite teacher, he is awesome! So good!”

“Very boring lectures”!

“The course was awesome and so was Ben”!

“A very approachable instructor!”

“Kept classes interesting / entertaining”!

“Amazing class!”

“Straight forward, and knew exactly what he was talking about.... He knows how to make a person think”!

“He was funny!”

“He made it fun”!

“Very informed … really made you think and hone in on what your beliefs are”!

“Great teacher that is able to answer questions that were bombarded upon him”!

“Great instructor”!

“Great teacher, easy to listen to and … very helpful”!

“He was kickass”!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad

More of a literary collage than a straightforward novel, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is likely to resonate with those with a penchant for the experimental. The writing style, voice, characters, times, places, and even layout (one chapter is presented as a series of PowerPoint-like slides in landscape orientation) shift and pitch with all the fervency of a dropped flyer on a busy Chicago street. It’s a cluttered, crowded, and sometimes disorienting journey, lacquered in a dubiously purposeful aimlessness that remains largely unresolved by the book’s end. (An appropriate sentiment, perhaps, given that one of the novel’s central themes is the ambivalent and unstoppable passage of time.) Fortunately, there is beauty to be found in Egan’s writing, even if it is often hidden beneath pages and pages (and pages and pages) of noise. Put briefly, Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a work littered with creativity—a claim that speaks more to the book’s detriment than to its success.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Ghost Semester

It’s hard to believe the spring semester has already started. Christmas Winter break flew by, as always. Because I was in charge of grades and had a slew of problems not worth discussing here, the fall semester dragged on a bit beyond what it normally would have. That didn’t help. But aside from the fundamental shock at how quickly the semester break has passed, it’s a bit unbelievable that the spring semester has started simply because the evidence for it is so lacking. I spent the previous two semesters teaching, so I was incredibly busy once the semester started. This time around, I’m back to being a lowly TA, which means all is quiet for the moment. The beginning of the semester has appeared only as the faintest of blips on my radar. And though I’m sure to get busy with grading in the near enough future, I’m not sure this semester will ever feel entirely real. The instructor for which I’m a TA, who is a graduate student like me, has explicitly told me that I needn’t attend his class. He assures me that the material is so basic—it’s an Introduction to Philosophy course—that I’ll do just fine if only I glance at the readings now and again. It seems very strange to me not to attend a class the assignments for which I’ll be grading, but I happily welcome the flexibility afforded me by the lax attitude of the instructor. It is good to have this kind of arrangement when I’m heading into a semester where it will be exceedingly important that I get a lot of good work done on my dissertation, a project that has remained all but dormant since I began teaching back in the summer.

Here’s another cool perk: I might actually be able to attend the occasional gymnastics class for Edison and Peter. The boys’ gymnastics classes conflict with the class for which I’m a TA this semester. Melanie and I purposely arranged the gymnastics classes for the day and times that they are, but we did so based on the assumption that I would have a different TA assignment than I ultimately got. This wasn’t done merely as a matter of wishful thinking—I’d been given the strong impression that I was all but guaranteed a certain TA gig I had more or less begged for. Turns out the gig was less “guaranteed” and more “all but.” When I learned I’d been assigned a TA gig that overlapped with the gymnastics classes, I was quite crestfallen. But now that I know I don’t even have to attend the class to which I’ve been assigned, it’s irrelevant what my TA gig is. And that’s kind of cool.

A final note, just to get everything off of my chest. Last semester, when I taught, I had 142 students and one TA to help me out. This semester, I am one of two TAs for a class of 101 students. On the one hand, I’m extremely happy that I did not end up flying solo this semester as a TA for a class of nearly 150 students. On the other hand, I’m keenly and begrudgingly aware of just how under-supported I was an instructor last semester. I know they assign TAs based on availability and that the largest classes get multiple TAs first, and it so happens that in the fall there were two or three philosophy classes that were larger than the one I was teaching. But still. It was kind of a joke.