Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blessing in Disguise

I found out yesterday that I’ve once again been (choose one: awarded / permitted / condemned) to teach this summer. I trust this is a blessing in disguise. I really do, even though it’s a very scary and convincing disguise. I know I always express apprehension about these kinds of things, but there is a lot more to it this time around. For starters, I’ll be teaching a 3000 level course. It’s not an introductory course, and that means both that the material will be more difficult and that the students (who will primarily be philosophy majors) will be more competent. Ideas may be challenged a lot more than I’m used to, which means I’ve really got to know my stuff. Secondly, the topic itself can be a rather challenging one: philosophy of mind. It doesn’t help that it’s been years since I’ve dabbled in philosophy of mind (in its most direct form). Preparing to teach this class will be immensely more difficult than it has been for anything I’ve taught thus far. Thirdly, I’ll be teaching during the first half of the summer. This means that my preparation time is vastly reduced, and I’ll scarce have any time between the end of this semester and the beginning of my teaching gig. Fourthly, I should be applying out for real jobs this fall. As I understand it, this requires a LOT of preparation in and of itself, and many graduating Ph.D. students entering the job market in the fall spend the entire summer preparing to do so. I’ll need to be doing this on top of my teaching gig. Fifthly, there is no funding available for TAs this summer, which means I won’t have a TA. I’ll have to do all of the grading myself, in addition to preparing for and giving lectures. This is the first semester I’ve heard of without any available teaching assistantships whatsoever. Times are bad.

I told you it was a convincing disguise.

So, what are the benefits to teaching this summer? Well, money for starters. Now that I know I couldn’t have gotten a TA-ship, teaching is my only chance of earning an income between mid-May and mid-August. (Okay, I could get a job at Walmart or Chick-fil-A or something, but c’mon.) It will be a paltry income, but it’s better than nothing. More important to me than the money, however, is the opportunity to develop myself in an area of philosophy that I would like to claim as my specialty. I don’t know how it works in other academic disciplines, but philosophy job offers often revolve around areas of specialization. Philosophy is a very broad topic, touching quite literally on everything. There are philosophers who specialize in ethics, in art, in science, in language, etc. When you apply for a job, the potential employer is typically seeking someone who specializes in a certain area. Philosophy of mind is a fairly prominent field within philosophy, and most of what I do probably falls under it in a subcategory kind of way. However, the most typical debates and issues that philosophy of mind deals with are not the ones that I typically work on. Ergo, I will benefit greatly from teaching a course on the more traditional side of philosophy of mind. Once I have done so, I will be more confident (and more justified) in asserting that philosophy of mind is my area of specialization.

As you can tell, I have very mixed feelings about this teaching gig. In the long run, I’m sure it will be a good thing. I’m just overwhelmed, knowing that some of my most challenging times as a Ph.D. student are right around the corner.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Truth About Kids' Night

Mom: It’s family night! Let’s go out to dinner!

Dad: Sounds great! Where should we go?

Mom: It’s kids’ night at Amy’s Awesome Grill. Kids eat free with every adult entrée purchase. We’ll save a bundle by going there!

Dad: You’re right. And the kids love going there. It sounds like a winner all around. Amy’s it is. Get your shoes on, boys! We’re going to dinner!

Boys [in unison]: Yay!!

[25 minutes later]

Waitress: Hi, folks! Welcome to Amy’s Awesome Grill! Can I start you off with any drinks or appetizers tonight?

Mom: Ooo, I do love the fried pickles. Honey, what do you think? Should we get some?

Dad: Well, we are saving on the kids’ meals. Even if we order the pickles, we’ll be spending less than if we’d gone anywhere else. Okay, what the heck. [To waitress] We’ll have an order of fried pickles to start. And a Diet Coke for me.

Mom: Make that two Diet Cokes. And two Sprites for the boys.

Waitress: You got it!

[Waitress leaves]

Dad [looking at menu]: Mmm, everything looks so yummy. Do you know what you’re going to get tonight, dear?

Mom: The chicken bacon ranch mozzarella mushroom melt, of course!

Dad: Of course.

Mom: What about you?

Dad: Well, I’ve always wanted to try the behemoth burger. It’s got five all-beef patties and Amy’s special sauce. It’s the priciest item on the menu. But

Mom: It’s kids’ night! The kids are eating for free. I think we can afford to buy the behemoth burger!

Dad: You took the words right out of my mouth. The behemoth burger it is.

[Waitress reappears]

Waitress [setting food on table]: Two Diet Cokes, two junior Sprites, and an order of fried pickles.

[Dad emits excited gurgling noise.]

Waitress: Are you ready to order your entrées?

Dad: Indeed. I’m going to try the behemoth burger, medium rare.

Waitress: Excellent choice! Do you want to add the bleu cheese pellets and Amy’s Special Fried Onion Sawdust for just $2.50?

Dad: Aren’t those both included? They’re in the picture here…

Waitress: They are in the picture, but they’re not actually included with the burger. They’re sold separately. See, it says so right here.

[Waitress points to the menu.]

Dad: Oh, I see. Well, yeah, I kind of wanted those. Yup, I guess you better add them.

Waitress: Great choice! And for you, ma’am?

Mom: I’ll have the chicken bacon ranch mozzarella mushroom melt with French fries.

Waitress: Perfect. Did you want a side of Amy’s special pepper jack Alfredo dipping sauce for just a buck?

Mom: Why, that sounds delightful! Sure!

Waitress: Super! And how about for the boys?

Mom: The boys will each have the pepperoni pizza short stack.

Waitress: Okay, just so you know, only the cheese pizza short stack is eligible for kids’ night. If you want to add pepperoni, it’ll be $1 per short stack.

Mom: Oh, wow.

Boys [in unison]: Pepperoni, pepperoni, pepperoni, pepperoni!!!

Mom: Well, they definitely want the pepperoni. Go ahead and add it. That’ll be fine.

Waitress: Any dinner salads for anyone tonight?

Mom [to Dad]: Should we split one?

Dad: Splitting one couldn’t hurt. It’s kids’ night, after all.

Mom [to waitress]: We’ll have just one dinner salad with Amy’s House dressing.

Waitress: Excellent! It’ll all be out in just a few minutes!

[35 minutes later]

Dad: This burger is soooooo good!

Mom: The chicken bacon ranch mozzarella mushroom melt has never been better! This pepper jack Alfredo dipping sauce is amazing!

[A young man with balloons aplenty approaches the table.]

Balloon Man: Hi, folks! Is everyone enjoying their meal tonight?

[Mom & Dad nod, food dripping from their lips.]

Balloon Man: Wonderful! Well, I just wanted to stop by and let you know, Amy’s has invited me to be here as a part of kids’ night. I’m making balloon animals, free of charge, for anyone who wants one. They’re absolutely free, and I can make just about any animal you can imagine. Yes, you heard me correctly, and just in case you didn’t, I’ll say it one more time—the balloon animals are absolutely free! I don’t charge a dime! I do this all out of the kindness of my heart!

[Balloon Man pats his heart, which coincidentally draws attention to the large note pinned to his chest. In bold letters, it reads: “Tips Are Appreciated!!!”]

Balloon Man: So, would you like to let your kids have a free balloon animal tonight?

Boys [in unison]: Balloon, balloon, balloon, balloon, balloon, balloon!!!

Dad: Ok, sure. I guess so.

Balloon Man [to Boy 1]: And what would you like, young man?

Boy 1: An elephant!

Balloon Man [to Boy 2]: And you?

Boy 2: An elephant!

Balloon Man: Two elephants. One of the trickier balloon animals to make, but I think I can manage! I do this for fun, after all! Just give me 90 seconds…

[90 seconds later]

Balloon Man: Voila!

Dad: Wow! That’s pretty amazing! They really look like elephants!

Balloon Man: Why, thank you! I’m just glad I could bring your kids so much joy tonight! Why, if I weren’t a poor college student, I’d pay a few bucks just to see the smiles these balloon animals have brought to their adorable little faces! [Sigh.] Oh well. You guys enjoy the rest of your evening!

[Balloon Man feigns to leave, walking backwards very, very slowly. He does not break eye contact with Mom and Dad, a pleading smile glued permanently to his face.]

Dad [fidgeting in his pockets and withdrawing a small handful of cash]: Um, wait just a second. Here you go. Thanks again for all your trouble!

[Dad hands Balloon Man three dollars.]

Balloon Man [feigning surprise]: Oh, wow! Thank you very much! That’s so kind of you!

Dad: No, no, we appreciate it. Thank you!

Mom [to Balloon Man]: Thanks!

[Balloon Man winks, pockets the money, and walks away.]

[15 minutes later]

Waitress: How was everything?

Dad: Absolutely fantastic!

Waitress: I’m so glad to hear that! Can I interest anyone in dessert?

Mom: Oh boy, I think we’re too full.

Dad [to Mom]: Not so fast. Maybe we should get something to go. What do you think?

Mom: Really? Isn’t that a bit indulgent?

Dad: Well, like you said, it’s kids’ night. We’re saving more than enough on the kids’ meals to make up for dessert.

Mom: I can’t argue with that.

Dad [turning back to the waitress]: You guys still have the Marble Cake Marble Run?

Waitress: We do. Did you want caramel or chocolate drizzle?

Dad: How about both?

Waitress: Not a problem. It’ll cost just 50 cents extra.

Dad: That’s fine. And we’ll get that to go.

Waitress: Great! I’ll be right back!

Mom: OK, boys, we’ll be leaving in just a couple of minutes. If you wanted to visit the game room, you better do it now.

Boy 1 [hopefully]: Can we have some quarters, Mom?

Boy 2: Quarters, Mom!

Mom: I don’t think so.

Boy 1: But, Mom, you never let us play the games!

Boy 2: Never!

Dad: Do you have a couple of quarters in your purse, honey? Maybe we should let them play this time. It’s kids’ night.

Mom: Well, let me check.

[Mom digs in her purse and finds four quarters.]

Mom: Alright, we’ll let you play tonight. You can each have two quarters, but that’s it. There’s no more after that.

[The boys excitedly take the coins.]

Boys [in unison]: Thanks, Mom!

[The boys scurry off to the game room. About five minutes pass.]

Waitress: Here’s your dessert!

[The waitress sets a heavy, large box on the table.]

Mom: Wow!

Dad: Yum!

Waitress: And here’s your check. I’ll get it from you whenever you’re ready!

[Dad takes the bill from the waitress. He eyes the total.]

Dad: Holy crapanoli, how did that happen?!? We’ve spent twice as much as we normally spend when we go to dinner, even when it’s not kids’ night!

[Mom peers quizzically over Dad’s shoulder.]

Mom: Wow! Did they forget to discount the kids’ meals or something?

Dad: No, they took those off. See? [Pointing at the bill.] Right here.

Mom: Hmm. Well, maybe their prices have gone up since the last time we were here!

Dad: They must have! What else could explain it? I tell you, I’m glad we didn’t come here when it wasn’t kids’ night! From now on, we’re only going out to eat when the kids can eat for free!

Mom: You can say that again!

Dad: From now on, we’re only going out to eat when the kids can eat for free!

Mom: Oh you!

[Mom & Dad laugh in unison.]


Friday, February 24, 2012

Confidence vs. Conviction

I think confidence is one of the most important attributes a person can possess. There are few traits of character other than confidence that I as a parent more greatly desire to instill within my children. However, over the last six or seven months, I have come to appreciate a more nuanced form of confidence: conviction.

I think it’s correct to lump conviction under the umbrella of confidence. It seems to me to be a particular form of confidence. Importantly, this means that one can have confidence without necessarily having conviction. That is, one can have confidence in one’s abilities without placing any value or normative judgment on the executing of those abilities within a particular situation. Conversely, one can have conviction that the task one has undertaken at a certain time is the “right” one for that individual to pursue and yet, in that scenario, not at all have confidence in one’s abilities. While it may be ideal to have confidence both in one’s abilities and in one’s reasons/decisions/values (which arguably is what conviction is), it seems to me that the latter is more important than the former. There may be unique difficulties that one faces in acting with conviction but not with the fullest of confidence in one’s own abilities. But if one is calmly reassured about what one is doing and why one is doing it, it will allay many of the doubts, fears, and sheer disinterest that can accompany the more confident undertaking of a task to which one does not feel personally committed.

If you’ve read my blog over the last little while—or at least those entries that deal with my feelings on academia as of late—you have probably sensed a looming discontentment. In part, that’s the result of my using the blog as a kind of therapeutic tool, as a way to get out some of my frustrations or feelings of disillusionment. In truth, I’m not all doom-and-gloom all of the time. Even so, I have been eager to claim for myself a greater sense of conviction about who I am and what I do. Not only professionally, but in every walk of life, I just want to feel comfortable and settled in to who I am and where I’m at. It’s hard to feel that way when everything I do is about looking forward and trying to get somewhere else. Even in those moments when I feel confident in my abilities or confident that things will turn out okay in the end, I wish for something more. I want to feel personally invested in what I’m doing, here and now. I don’t think that’s impossible to feel as a graduate student. I think if I were more stimulated and excited by what I’m doing, I would feel invested in what I’m doing here and now. But as I currently see it, I’m merely working to get myself somewhere else. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m blossoming into the person I aspire to be. I’m just passing time, paying my proverbial dues. In that regard, I’m not wholly unlike the person stranded on an island who must work diligently to construct the phrase “Help!” out of the rocks and coconuts found strewn on the beach, hoping the plea proves adequate to capture the attention of those high above me who might serve to rescue me from my squalid conditions.

One of the challenges I currently face is that I’m unsure of what changes in my life would allow me to live with greater conviction. When I fantasize about the future, I catch glimpses of what seems like a reasonably attainable but also conviction-filled life, but who knows? Who knows if what I envision is really even what I want? And who knows if it’s truly attainable? I think it is. It must be. But, boy oh boy, not feeling stable or secure can really dampen your feelings of conviction. It makes you second guess everything you do, because safety and success are seen as so precariously and tentatively available to you. It seems that ever since I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with diverticulitis in the fall of 2010, and then Creegan was born and had to have emergency surgery a few weeks later, and then Eddie had to have emergency surgery a few months after that, and on top of it all we had purchased a van that has (and to some degree continues to have) relentless problems—I just haven’t been able to shake the feelings of insecurity.

Another obstacle to living life with conviction is time poverty. The things that are important to me or that I really want to do are ever pushed to the side in order to do those things that I “have” to do. Everybody faces this challenge, but it’s a lifestyle that can really accentuate the ways in which one doesn’t live with conviction. When time is so precious, it is easy to resent those things that demand our time and attention and yet fail to compensate us with feelings of self-worth and personal satisfaction.

I say all of these things, and yet I believe I have made strides in living a life of greater conviction. As I said earlier, conviction doesn’t apply only to one’s professional pursuits. I feel more convicted of who I am in my beliefs and personality, for example. On at least a few matters, I’ve come to accept my views and values and feel less apologetic and/or questioning about them. I’ve tried to quiet the voice in my head that habitually asks, “Should I really do this thing that I want to do, or will it be a great big mistake?”, “Am I a jerk if I do what I want rather than what they want?”, “Is it really okay for me to have and/or share my opinion on this matter?”, etc. To the extent that I’ve managed to quell these questions, I’ve been all the happier because of it. There is a lot to be said about being firm and resolute in one’s decisions. Sadly, it is very unnatural for me not to question my decisions and mull things over to a nauseating degree. It takes practice.

This entry hasn’t turned out as I expected it to. The problem is, I always write these things when I’m feeling emotionally exhausted and need to purge. I had intended to focus more on the concept of conviction as it relates to confidence and why I think conviction is more important than confidence more generally. Instead, I rambled about my life in particular. Worse, I rambled vaguely. As an exercise in living with conviction, I’m posting this anyway.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dreaming Myself Awake

When I was young, I had a friend suggest that if I’m ever having a bad dream, I should simply change the dream. Within a few days, I had a dream that something was chasing me. At some point in the dream, I remembered my friend’s advice and decided to make whatever was chasing me disappear. It worked. I merely wished the thing away, and it was gone. In my dream, I thanked my friend aloud.

For a period of time when I was a bit older, I was frequently aware of the fact that I was dreaming. Usually, this had devastating results. As I became aware that nothing I was experiencing was real, it would begin to slip away from me. Just as I was trying to control my dream, knowing it was all in my head, it would became difficult to see and to act. I suspect that my awareness of dreaming was causing myself to wake up, and I was getting caught somewhere between being awake and dreaming. I think my dream vision became impaired because, in all likelihood, I was trying to open my non-dream eyes.

At other times, I would know that I was dreaming, but that knowledge was regarded matter-of-factly and inconsequentially, like knowing the capitol of Maine. It’s questionable that I really knew I was dreaming, rather than that I was simply dreaming that I “knew” I was dreaming. My “knowledge” made no difference to the dream, and I didn’t seem interested in, surprised by, or in any way impressed with the information. I didn’t appreciate it. It didn’t resonate with me.

Sometimes I would talk to the people in my dreams about the fact that I was dreaming. For some reason, I well remember a dream wherein I asked a good friend of mine if I was dreaming. “No,” he calmly replied. I continued to badger him with my suspicions about it being a dream, but he remained unconvinced. He continued to assure me that it wasn’t a dream. What a liar.

On a few occasions, I’ve had dreams that I know I’ve had before. Sometimes that tips me off that I’m dreaming. I believe I’ve also had “faux” repeat dreams, where I believe during the dream that I’ve had the dream before, but I actually haven’t. It’s a kind of dream déjà vu. It all seems very familiar, though it’s new.

Sometimes I repeat a portion of a dream within the same night, as though the dream is set to loop. I’m not sure if it was a genuine repeat dream, or a looping dream within the same night, but I once dreamed I was being chased around a tree. (Being chased isn’t a recurring theme in my dreams, by the way. An inability to get where I’m going by vehicle is, however. Stay tuned!) At some point while being chased, I thought to myself, “I’ve dreamed this before. That means I can just step away from the tree and the person chasing me will continue to run around it.” It worked. My awareness of the dream being a repeat allowed me to break free of the loop, while the person chasing me remained stuck on repeat.

Over the last several years, I’ve occasionally had dreams that are rather stressful and that I choose to wake up from. Up until the moment I decide to wake up, I have no awareness that I dreaming. But then, feeling adequately frazzled, I will think something like, “I don’t have to do this, it’s just a dream! Wake up!” And then I do. Perhaps I’ve just spent what feels like hours walking around a high school building, trying to figure out where I’m supposed to go for class. Suddenly, I’ll remember I’m done with high school and my experience must be a dream. So I stop it. I had such a dream last night. After attending a rock concert, I was driving a large truck through a rainstorm. Several roads were flooded, the height of the dirty water reaching up to the windows of the truck. The current hurriedly pushed me along, and my steering helped only slightly. I feared I would crash. Eventually, I was on a road that wasn’t flooded. It was a long, gradual hill. I followed the road down, down, down, hoping to find my way home. When I got to the bottom of the winding road, I was at the entrance to some kind of military base. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I couldn’t turn around because it was a one-way road. The guard at the gate told me they’d have to harness my truck to a helicopter and fly it to my home. I knew they’d end up charging me something like $700,000 for doing this, so I vehemently denied the offer. They finally let me in with a group of soldiers on a kind of bus, my truck being towed behind us. I had a lot of anxiety. It wasn’t clear to me how I would be getting home, and I felt in a very precarious position. After some time, I spotted a gift shop or little grocery store of some kind along our route. I felt that my only hope of getting off the base and safely home was to exit the base by way of the store. I begged to be let off there, even though I knew I was endangering myself. If I were caught on base unescorted and without military credentials, I’d be in big trouble. It’s the kind of dream that doesn’t sound like a big deal when you hear about it, but it was very stressful to be the one dreaming it. I willfully ended the dream without explicitly coming to understand that it was a dream. It’s like I just threw up my proverbial arms at some point and commanded myself to wake up. (The command was explicit, but there was no, “Hey, this is a dream!” moment.) I felt greatly relieved when I opened my eyes. I shut them again for some peaceful sleep.

I know I’m not unique in having these kinds of experiences. What kinds of experiences that I’ve mentioned have you had? What other interesting dream-awareness experiences have you had?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan is a book that could be summarized in about three seconds without leaving much out. Ivan is a silverback gorilla living in a shopping-mall-cum- circus-tent, where he is the main attraction. Stella the elephant is Ivan’s best friend, along with Bob, a stray dog who regards Ivan’s belly as the premier place to slumber. Mack runs the circus, which fiscally speaking has seen better days, while Julia, daughter to George the janitor, inspires Ivan with her shared interest in art. Then comes Ruby, a baby elephant who changes Ivan’s perspective on life under the big top.

This book has received massively positive reviews, which suggests that most readers find the story compelling and/or charming not just to hear about but actually to read. Whatever extra spark of magic these readers find in the storytelling process is lost on me. Sure, I found the book pleasant. Its narrator is a gorilla—that’s fun. It’s inspired by a true story—that’s neat. The characters are by and large likeable—that’s a plus. Is it a masterpiece? I see no reason for thinking so. It’s a simple tale, simply told and with simple characters. There is some conflict in the book. There is resolution. It all comes and goes just as easily as that. At its most exciting, The One and Only Ivan has all the thrills of a slow-turning carousel. It is a soothing and innocuously delightful ride, aimed primarily at the younger set. For adults, however, the book best serves as an agreeable pit stop between more adventurous reads.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review: The Other Side of Desire

Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire is a self-proclaimed case study of four distinct paraphilias, or what in layperson terms would be called sexual fetishes. Chapter one is dedicated to podophilia and centers on Jacob, a man who bemoans the fact that his erotic interest is limited almost solely (no pun intended) to feet. Chapter two examines the world of BDSM, a subculture in which a woman known only as The Baroness is both a celebrity and, even among her fellow sadists, something of a rebel. In chapter three, we learn of Roy, a 40-year-old whose yearnings for his 12-year-old stepdaughter ultimately lead to court-ordered counseling sessions and a surprising slew of sympathizers. And finally, chapter four introduces us to Ron, the highly successful advertising director whose keen eye for conventional beauty has not diminished his carnal (and emotional) cravings for amputees.

Considering the menu of sexual “anomalies” that The Other Side of Desire covers, Bergner cannot take much credit for the fact that his book is consistently interesting. Curiosity comes easily in matters like these. Where Bergner flounders, then, is in failing to plumb the psychological depths of his subjects. Much of the time, Bergner seems oblivious to the endless array of fascinating questions that he fails to explore, while at other times, he teasingly raises such questions only to squander them as food for the reader’s thought. It is as if he does not wish to impinge on the stories he tells by taking them anywhere other than where the subjects wish for them to go—an admirable aim, perhaps, but one for which the book suffers.

Missed opportunities aren’t the only failings of Bergner’s work. The writing style in general is hit-and-miss. It is sometimes unclear what one paragraph has to do with the next, and occasionally even the individual sentence is clumsy enough to cause confusion. Unfortunately for the reader, Bergner’s writing is at its best when it is at its least relevant. The author shows a much greater knack for describing the physical appearances of the people to whom he speaks than for articulating their psychoses (as some would consider them). It is evident that Bergner is a journalist, not an academic, and that his tome serves more as an idiosyncratic human interest piece than as a culmination of scholarly research. (The book doesn’t even feature an index!) That is fine, if that is Bergner’s purpose. And yet, I can’t help thinking that a few further deviations into the annals of science would have benefitted the book greatly.

To reiterate, The Other Side of Desire is far from uninteresting. But that is precisely why I wish it had been better. Rare is the reader who will not learn something from the book, and there are certainly some interesting (if not discomforting) points to ponder. Among other things, you’ll hear plausible explanations of why some people might find sexual intimacy with a horse to be more emotionally rewarding than with another human, of why it might make a lot of sense to prescribe Viagra to a child molester, and of why paraphilias are just as likely to be hardwired in the brain as is sexual orientation. Perhaps the greatest asset of the book, however, is the increased understanding and sensitivity that it will bring to open-minded readers, those who previously may have been all too ready to write off certain sexual proclivities as vile and depraved. When you learn just how common some of these paraphilias can be, you may even question the legitimacy of such a label, as I did. (Thus, my use of scare quotes in the second paragraph above.) As it turns out, it may be that the true paraphiliac among us is the one who has no sexual fetishes at all.