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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Guidance Counselor Follies

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Looking for a Sheep to Lead Instead of a Shepherd


The CDC says that 4400 children a year commit suicide because of bullying. Anybody wonder why that is?. Are we like Behaviorist BF Skinner said, solely the product of our environment, such that we really have no choice but to succumb to negative reinforcement like bullying? To listen to some commentators on culture in this country, someone has to do something about bullying.

I agree. The trouble is, programs to stop the bullies don't help much. Bullies tear down the posters and snicker at the lectures that pass for bully prevention. These kinds of "programs" make some people feel good but they are pretty much like a shepherd putting up a sign in his pasture saying "No Wolves Allowed".  Likes that's going to help.

There is something we can do, but it's not about throwing money at the problem. It's not about posters and slogans and sensitivity training. It's about throwing teachers and parents at the problem. Sure lots of kids succumb to bullying. Lots more don't. The difference is in what the victims are taught and it's parents and teachers who must do the teaching.

Tens of thousands of kids are bullied that do not kill themselves. Why is that, if we're helpless to resist the psychological damage to our self-esteem that bullying causes according to the pundits? How is it that all of those thousands of kids are able to bullies and not become victims? How do they learn to stand up for ourselves? How do some big strong kids learn to stand up for others?

My uncle had a kid in his eighth grade class who was a very tall and muscular young man. He was a gentle soul and could not stand to see other kids hurt or picked on. In an attempt to stop bullying in his class my Uncle promised swats to any kid who got into a fight. One afternoon this young man saw a couple of the class thugs ganging up on a younger kid. He stepped between the bullies and their victim. They took a swing and our young hero flattened them. My uncle pulled all the boys in to administer the promised punishment for fighting. He knew what had happened and hated to administer the consequences he had promised despite the injustice that it was. He offered to give him detention instead of swats, but the young man took the swats.

When the class bullies saw that this kid would take swats for the privilege of defending his smaller, weaker classmates, they quit bullying.
Uncle Art said it was one of the most peaceful years he ever had as a teacher.

I told my own kids that story
. Every one of them became a defender of the weak. My daughter not only defended younger kids from verbal bullying, she actually punched out a young man in the hallway for bullying behavior. And she had my 6' 250 pound brother backing her up. He did his own bit of defending the weak as did my oldest boy. My wife and I taught them that sense of justice and mercy. They learned that in stories from the Bible - David and Goliath, Gideon, and Jesus. They were never bullies. Quite the opposite. When we teach our kids that they are persons of value and we give them a moral code, they no longer need the approval of big powerful people or groups. Even if they are bullied it doesn't break their spirit. It makes them stronger.

I remember the howl that went up when George W. Bush threatened that America would fight the war on terror alone if need be. "How could he?" wailed the politicians and the media. The hand-wringing over the fact that he would even say such a thing was wondrous to behold. To most Americans it was a joy to hear an American leader talk like that. "We must first get the approval of other nations before we defend ourselves," it was argued. Bush, like an American sheepdog, never wavered, despite the criticism. It's why American re-elected him. It's why we festooned our front porches with American flags. We've long been a culture that believed that you do the right thing first and don't worry about what the bleating sheep think about it. We don't like it when our leaders condone bullying. It was churches and individuals who demanded a stop to Government persecution of native Americans. It was churches and individuals who demanded the slaves be freed. It was churches and voters who demanded that child labor and monopolistic bullying corporations be reined in. Most of us don't mind helping protect the weak and downtrodden. We're the most generous nation in the world, pouring money and people into every disaster and tragedy that comes down the pike.

Part of the problem we face in our culture these days is that we are rapidly becoming a culture of sheep/victims looking for a strong leader to save us. We want to make sure we are part of the popular crowd instead of being the American sheepdogs we've been - protectors who stand alone, if necessary, to defend their flocks. Sheepdogs don't lead. They fight to protect us from the wolves.

There is a Shepherd, but He is neither dog nor sheep. We in America got in trouble when so many sheep have turned their back on the Shepherd and appointed one of their own number to lead them. It's little wonder Americans seem so lost these days. We've abandoned the Shepherd and gone looking for other leaders more like us and less like God. What we keep winding up with are wolves in sheep's clothing who lead us off cliffs and prey on us, exploiting our need to belong to drag us into collectives that serve, not the people, not God, but which serve the wolves.

We can do better. Otherwise, our children learn from our example as we submit to bullies who shout us down if we disagree, who take from us and give little back, and who hem us about with restrictions and rules that we can hardly do anything creative or productive. Our kids see the way we long for the approval of the crowd and they come to believe that the crowd is the thing and if you don't have the approval of the crowd, you are worthless. It's little wonder so many end their lives in despair.

It's time to teach our kids how to be American sheepdogs. It's time to teach them that they can stand alone against bullies and their toadies and that makes them stronger and better people. Time for American individualism to make a comeback. We are a nation of many. Our government and leaders serve by our will and not their own. And as Americans we must be willing to bring down bullies, even if they come in groups led by wolves in the garb of sheep saying smooth words about justice and compassion. Wolves are wolves and must be resisted. To hell with it if it makes you unpopular with some of the sheep.

© 2018 by Tom King

Friday, March 09, 2018

Facing the Post-Modernist Threat

Ever once in a while, I get riled up and rail against post-modernist philosophy. Given that the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences last week managed to lose  20% of its TV ratings for this year's Oscar ceremony after it presented another dismal panoply of post-modernists film, I thought it time to speak up again. The only Oscar winner that most of us cared about was Gary Oldman's best actor award for playing Winston Churchill in "The Darkest Hour".

Have you noticed lately that, Sir Winston has been showing up everywhere on TV and in movies. It's like there is this sudden need among people for some kind of throwback hero like Churchill to step up and lead; to do the hard things we need done that the simpering diplomats of the past 20 years have been unable to do. It would explain the last American presidential election anyway. And I hear Mel Gibson, hot off last year's hero biopic Hacksaw Ridge, is all set to resurrect Jesus in film with a sequel to The Passion. This should drive Hollywood's post-modernist establishment to the edge of insanity, which is after all where those guys like to build their mansions.

Someone in our online poetry group on Goodreads, apparently searching for something to believe in that could guide her poetic efforts, was trying to find out what post-modernism was the other day. Sadly, I can tell her for certain that the post-modernist intellectual philosophy offers no such guidance.Which is good news for bad poets who don't want to work very hard to create poems with rhyme or reason, I suppose. It means you can write crap and still be popular with the cool kids.

To understand what post-modernism, is you first must understand modernism. Throughout man's long history, up until pretty much the 19th century, life went on for everyone. If you were wealthy or a member of the nobility, you could count on remaining so for the most part. If you were poor or one of the rare members of the middle class, life would go on for you the way it did for your father. Then, at the end of the 18th century, America came along. People who came here or grew up here discovered that they could better themselves.

Then, a technological explosion began in the early 1800s and by the time the American Civil War was done people began to believe that technology and progress could make their lives better than that of their fathers. Soon by the early 1900s, people came to believe that live WOULD inevitably get better. Philosophers, in a fit of "wait for me I'm your leader" began to preach that now that man was making strides toward the ancient fantasy of a human-built utopia, that such a utopia was inevitable and God is an outmoded concept; a crutch we no longer needed as a race.

Modernism, as a philosophy, tells us we can expect that things will inevitably get better for us than they were for our parents.
Never in human history was that so. Before the era of modernism, the best you could expect was the same short life of hard labor and poverty that your ancestors lived. If you were born to the nobility, you might rise in rank if you plotted against your peers successfully and enjoy a short stint as king or emperor before someone out maneuvered you and you lost your head over the deal. Modernism, then, was the belief that you'd be better off than your folks and your kids would be better off than you. All of this was entirely too cheery an attitude to the academic/philosophical complex, who, with the help of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, decided it was time for a change.

In order to prove they were out ahead of everybody, writers and philosophers like Nietzche, Kierkegaard and Lyotard had to come up with something more advanced and cynical (not to mention depressing). A couple of world wars helped their ideas along and post-modernism began to be advanced as the go-to philosophy in a world riddled with post-war PTSD. Post-modern philosophers began selling books to intellectual snobs who bought them in order to impress other intellectual snobs. They told these effete dandies that words mean whatever they want them to mean and that there is no such thing as objective truth. CS Lewis warned about the dangers of this philosophy in his essay, Men Without Chests which I highly recommend you read. It explains a lot about what went wrong in academia and education that brought this generation to this sad condition..

Post-modernism rejects the idea that there is any meaning in life at all. Self-proclaimed post modernists see themselves as bravely embracing the monumentally depressing idea that, not only is there no God but that there is no meaning to life at all. The mantra of post-modernism could well be "Shit Happens and Then You Die!"

The effect of post-modernism can be seen in the spate of dismal books and films put out by those educated in the last part of the twentieth century - films with no point, no plot and no happy endings. Oh, they still make the older variety because it makes money for them so they can make "important" films that lose money. It's little wonder that no one except "artists" and film-makers gave a rat's hoo-hah about the movies that have won Oscars pretty much for the last decade. Most of the award-winning films were post-modernist exercises in meaningless misery and depression.
Ratings for this year's Oscar ceremony were down again this year and the whole thing appears to be sliding into utter irrelevance with the movie ticket buying public,

So, I think it's high time I do a little more preaching about it. Post-modernism is killing a significant portion of the movie industry even as more and more cynical producers and artistes embrace the philosophy. Were it not for less "intellectually gifted" film-makers producing a lot of throwback block-buster paeans to the idea of heroes and lives that have meaning, Hollywood would not have had the money to roll out awards for the dismal lineup of post-modernist misery that was on display at this year's Oscars. Significantly, few people saw this year's Oscar winners with one notable exception - Gary Oldman's brilliant turn as Winston Churchill, a figure most progressives despise.

Humans need to tell stories.
It's in our nature to ascribe meaning
to our lives and to what we do with them
Human beings have an innate need to tell stories about ourselves; stories in which we are the heroes and which ascribe some meaning to our lives. Post-modernists seem to think this is weak and cowardly and that we should simply accept the idea that life has no purpose as all truly enlightened people do. We evolved, we kill each other a lot and there's no point to it. At least that's the story. After all, one day the sun will explode and kill us all one day or an asteroid will drop on our heads. There's no point to life they say than to, as Solomon presciently described this vacuous philosophy, "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!"

I think most of us are still modernists or old-style Christians at least. Sadly, I fear we are becoming an endangered species. Christianity was probably the greatest of the percursors to modernism in that Jesus taught us to believe that life has a point and that, at the very least, we should be getting better as human beings. Christians have the temerity to believe that we have a purpose and that purpose is to leave the world better than we found it. Christians have always believed that things could get better and would get better at some point. At least that's what Christians believed who were allowed to read the Bible rather than being forced to submit to having scripture interpreted by the precursors of post-modern philosophers, the priesthood. Fortunately those guys couldn't burn Bible printers fast enough, and the Good News managed to get out there in spite of the intellectual oppression of the medieval era.

Why is it that people who are supposed to be intellectuals have such a dismal view of life? It probably has something to do with the whole "Thou shalt be like gods," philosophy first proposed to a gullible naked woman in a garden. It's a tragedy that our university system has devolved into the sex, drugs, rock n' roll mess we currently see on campus. It's not everywhere yet, but if the philosophers of this post-modern anti-enlightenment have their way, future generations will thoroughly embrace the "Live fast, die young, and be a handsome corpse" approach to life and, I fear, the last generation of Earthlings will die with a needle in their collective arms while playing apocalyptic video games in their mothers' basements while eating Ho-Hos and drinking Red Bull.

The irony will be that the thorough-going post-modernists will only be able to do this because their mothers were pre-post-modernists and kept feeding them hoping the kids would one day snap out of their funk and become better people! But Abraham Maslow, creator of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs  was wrong. Taking care of a kid's basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) does NOT lead to self-actualization after all. It appears to lead to a profound post-modernist funk and smelly basements.

We can only hope the next big blockbuster we see will be the actual Second Coming. Otherwise we may truly be without hope after all.

Tom King © 2018

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is Free Verse Easy?

Don't kid yourself. Writing good poetry is very hard work.

Someone on a poetry forum where I'm a member complained the other day that rhymed and metered poetry is harder to write than free verse; that free verse required rather less hard work than, say, iambic pentameter or a sonnet. The person who says that sort of thing is not an experienced poet. I suppose if you were to say poor free verse is easier to write than mediocre rhyme, I might grant you that. I certainly see examples of that rather too frequently. It's tempting to believe that without the structure of rhyme and meter, you can just write freely. Don't let the name fool you. Free verse ain't free.

Here's a sample of free verse well done by one of my favorites - Walt Whitman

“A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space…
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

The truth is that if you are a poet with any craftsmanship at all, you’ve likely sweated bullets trying to make free verse sound like poetry. For free verse to work, one has to have a deep understanding of the rhythm of the language in which you are writing. That is doubly hard in English which has over the centuries, absorbed the words and rhythms of dozens of languages. English is a banquet of riches for a poet. It can be the most beautiful language in the world, but its very richness of linguistic choices can overwhelm new poets. I know. I really sucked at it when I first started as a kid.

There are lots of available resources of language that English has borrowed from every corner of the Earth. European tongues lent us words we’ve Anglo-Saxonized over time. Africa gives us rich baritone words and rhythms. Asian poetic forms with their delicate use of syllables, deep meanings and softly colored language brings with it a tonal musicality. Spanish words themselves have a kind of the music built into the very words themselves. Even various dialects and accents of our own English tongue lend depth to what we may construct as so called free verse.

But free verse is not free. We must pay a price for it. Our words must find a way to sing without artifice. The natural ebb and flow of English words must be woven together using the right words and phrases, the right balance of pause and rush, flow and tumble and all in the correct arrangement that, when you read it aloud, it makes a song of your words.

Poetry can be found even in ordinary prose or speech.  Note how Winston Churchill lifted the spirits of the British people with his epic word poem “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…  Note how there is a kind of poetry in his words and look how very effective they worked, inspiring oppressed people around the world to resist the German onslaught.

Ronald Reagan’s speech the night before the 1980 election ended with this powerful poetic appeal.  Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act "worthy of ourselves;" that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.

Abraham Lincoln was another who knew how to turn prose into verse. At Gettysburg he delivered a speech that surprised the nation for its brevity and its beauty.  It’s worth reading in its entirety because there is such music in it. Note the repetition of rhythms and structures, the parallel themes and the precise choice of words. It’s not sloppy. It’s not slip-shod. It’s the craftsmanship of a brilliant wordsmith.

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth

Free verse is never easy. It is the most difficult of all poetic forms to do well and requires the greatest level of craftsmanship. If you are a new poet, start with rhyme and meter. Master the old poetic forms first before you try your hand at free verse. Learn your craft. Learn how to find and place words so that they sing in English. Poetry sings differently in other languages. French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish and even German can be beautiful, though they often lose something in translation. That’s why translated poetry has to be translated by an accomplished poet or it will not sing properly in English.

Too many new poets think they can fling out some pretty sounding words and poof, it’s a poem. Many wind up committing what I call “poesy”, a hodge-podge of pretty words like April, dawn, heather, entwined and despair with nothing much to hold it up and the flow arrested, no rhythm, no music.

Please don’t do that. Read some good poetry first – the achingly beautiful kind. You’ll be a better poet for it.

Just one old poet’s opinion.

Tom King
© 2018

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Texas Justice Is Also For the Birds

*Names changed to protect the guilty and the innocent.

The ACLU is currently defending someone who was ticketed and fined for flipping someone off in a public place.  The ACLU's position in defending this particular miscreant is that "the bird" is an expression of free speech and therefore protected by the constitution. It's unfortunate that a speech by Ben Shapiro, Dennis Prager or Bill Whittle is not also considered "free speech" by the ACLU, which turns out to be pretty much entirely on the side of the universities, many of which regularly shut down speech by conservatives to "protect" their students from offensive ideas like smaller government, free trade, deregulation, lower taxes and legal immigration.

Back in 1970s Texas we had a high school football player over in the town next to mine who had a similar "free speech" issue.
In those days "Angry Birds" was a pastime that had nothing to do with video games. This cocky young man was out jogging one sunny Saturday morning, training for the upcoming football season. As he jogged along Cleburne, Texas' leafy avenues, he spotted his elderly English teacher stopped at a stop sign. Recognizing an opportunity to express his right to free speech, and with the hormone-addled logic of youth, he flipped her off as he went jogging by. Quite pleased with himself, he jogged off snickering under his breath, leaving poor old Mrs Whitman who was in her 70s and still teaching at his high school, sitting at the intersection shocked and upset.

Unfortunately for our jogger, someone else saw "the whole thing" as the incident came to be called. On a nearby front porch sat one of the town's adult citizens. The man had graduated from that same local high school himself and had even sat in a couple of classes with the venerable Mrs. W. Now this was before the age of cell phones but during the age of front porch sitting and nosy neighbors who understood what it really meant to be part of a village raising a child. The neighbor stepped into his house and quickly called the cops. I say "unfortunately", but the whole thing probably was fortunate so far as this young man's moral education was concerned.

A couple of blocks down the street, a pair of cop cars, lights flashing rolled up and screeched to a stop in front of the confused cornerback. A couple of Cleburne's finest jumped out, none to gently secured the young man between them, bent him over the hood of the cop car and cuffed him. The next thing he knew he was down at the police station being arrested on a charge of "terroristic threat". The cops called the boy's dad and when the father, good man that he was, found out what his son had done, he agreed with the police that they should leave him in jail for a while (remember he is wearing nothing but his gym shorts seeing as how they'd taken his shoes so he couldn't hang himself with the laces). It was not a comfortable experience for the lad. Turns out his dad had also sat in Mrs Whitman's English classes.

Three days later, our young jogger was taken before the judge in his gym shorts. The judge, after giving him a stern lecture, promised the lad dire consequences if he ever appeared "in this court again". In a bit of sweet justice, the judge also made him apologize to Mrs. Whitman before the entire courtroom. He was given time served, was released and told to put on the t-shirt his frantic mother had brought to the court appearance.

The story became stuff of local legend. No one in the community over the age of 30 had any problem with this sort of law enforcement intervention. For years, the football coach told this story to his team members, who were thusly inspired to keep their fingers to themselves!

© 2018 by Tom King

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Great Grandpa ap Tegfan - Old King Cole to You

Our family's 20+ greats grandmother Ystradwel Verch Gadeon was "Queen Of Britan" also called "Strada the fair" (probably by people who couldn't pronounce "Ystradwel"). Her husband was Coel Hen ap Tegfan, high king of Britain on or about 374ish AD.

Strada's great grandfather was also named King Coel and In his later years he was known as "Old King Coel" by his subjects and he was apparently a merry old soul. After a few hundred years went by, the spelling of his name was changed slightly by some wandering bards or a drunk scribe in the royal archives. 

The Bards sang songs about Old King Cole calling for his pipe, his bowl and his fiddlers three. This was, of course, prior to tobacco coming over to Britain from America, so the Old King may have been smoking something but it wasn't likely that it was Prince Albert in a can. Perhaps what he was smoking explains the "merry" part of his description. Like I may have mentioned before, we've got some strange kinfolk. 

And a long line of ancestors with substance abuse problems.

© 2017 by Tom King