Category Archives: black and white and gray

Zadie Smith, Lifevest

In which Carrie goes back to college . . . . 

This itch.  Once at the height of my intellectual stamina.  The time when the person starved of morality sees the world through literature, and begins, anew, on a quest for purpose.

Zadie Smith will save me.

Memories of dead philosophy professors, still living and some actually deceased.  Byron, vanilla-flavored pipe at the lips.  Simple-minded me telling you I will take a trip to Bhutan where they believe in Gross National Happiness.  You said, Professor, with a keen moral philosopher’s mind, are you sure it follows from the social structures availible?  Me, in my naivete, thinking surely this other culture has it figured out, why wouldn’t I believe this catchy abandonment of Gross National Product.

Fast forward to the decision of a profession.  The requisite undergrad initiation into literature proper.  E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.  Followed by On Beauty.  Modern British Authors or something number 400 level course for English majors. An inspired body reaction stemming from a mind well-used in the recognition that symmetry is possible and two books side by side will yield the same message: social injustice.  Amazing to behold, one in each hand.

One may as well begin with letters and emails sent between characters . . .” start Forster and Smith, signaling the conflict which invariably arise from relations with others.  Zadie says I will tell a modern day version of a brilliant commentary on upper class warfare on the less fortunate.  Forster, one in a setting favoring the genteel persons who are obliged to pretend concern for the state of the world.

“He [Leonard Bast] was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more.  He knew that he was poor, and would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich … But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it.  He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable.  His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor …” (Chapter 6, HE)

Bast is on his way home from a concert where the classes mixed, and where he almost lost his precious umbrella to Helen, a stranger-to-him, of the upper classes.  He then goes home to his stuffy flat,  umbrella retrieved, which he shares with a desperate woman who won’t understand his dreams, and cracks open his copy of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.  He reads it slowly and with the performance of one separate from those who take Literature and Art for granted, struggling to understand it and integrate it somehow into his relations with people he wishes to rise above.


Smith, post-Modern British author, writes a similar scene centering on a middle to upper class, mixed race family.  They too have been to a concert, a free one featuring Mozart’s Requiem.  A mix-up occurs between the proprietership of similar discmans (not umbrellas): one belonging to Zora, the daughter in love with those in her father’s collegiate cohort yet able to mix with those in the hood, and a Leonard Bast look-a-like (except, in Beauty, a six foot something black man) named Carl.  Carl wishes to improve his mind through free concerts and lectures and poetry performances, and thereby his standing in the world of Art and Literature.

“‘You at college or . . .?’

“‘Nah . . . I’m not an educated brother, although . . . ‘ He had a theatrical, old-fashioned way of speaking which involved his long, pretty fingers turning in circles in the air.  His whole manner reminded Levi of his grandfather on his mother’s side and his tendency to speechify, as Kiki called it.  ‘I guess you could say I hit my own books in my own way.‘”  (Chapter 7, OB)

Like in 2007 when I first studied the British Moderns, I felt a sympathy for these characters, the poor wishing to improve themselves.  These who valued something which they were excluded from by birth, yet craving it for its intrinsic nourishment commanded by the elite. I, too, felt this craving to shed the skin of a confused past where I never learned to properly write or appreciate beauty in the way of scholars, and gain it through higher learning.

And so I return.  To the past of my betterment and the post-modern exploration of the same material. I now read these two novels in tandem – an exciting rejuvenation of a self slightly successful – and study the possibility of developing my own Art and Beauty.





In which Carrie writes a poem …

Horse photo Sisters



When the rider is green

and keeps falling of

the old cowhands say:

She’s got too much horse.

But she always learned

To get right back up.


I Reckon

In which Carrie reflects on the matter ….


Explosion of earthly


I wonder why

I am born a reckoner

And would I be

without our

Milky Way.


Orion points me true

I see you in the

spattered galaxy.


From Sisters

I stop and think

Of ways I might

have been


Less beautifully.



Theory and Fact

Our facts convince us but do they convince ultimate reality?

There has been some discussion here recently about what a fact is and what it really depends on to get a hold on the world (i.e. our minds understanding it as “fact”).  The problem is our species believes all of these facts–which are abundant–stand on their own.  A person can state something–their belief–and name it “just a fact about the world” and assume his interlocutor (s) will buy into his worldview.  But that’s just it.  There is a worldview there, from which the so-called fact depends upon for its existence.

I’m not trying to use the highly abstracted hand of skepticism to wave reality away from knowing creatures like yourself.  I’ll leave that to Descartes or Berkeley or Putnam.  But my aim is to remind you that “facts” are highly theory-dependent.  There are theoretical presuppositions behind every fact a person can name, and the truth of the fact depends upon the robustness of the theory.  Else it falls into the category of opinion.

We understand that objects fall because of our theory, or mental concepts making sense of patters, of gravity.  Or if you have never had the privilege of studying gravity in a formal way (school), you were (in fact) born with the fear of falling, as experiments on children show given controlled circumstances.  So, biologically, you will understand gravityness as true, that falling objects will not suddenly start misbehaving.  You will not test this embodied truth on yourself by throwing it (your body!) over a cliff.  This is a positive example of a fact which holds some mass in our worldviews.  My assertions utilizing biology and observation of physical objects and common assumptions about instinct or cognition back these asserted “facts.”

However, one must be wary because moral kinds of “facts” (or any using good/bad, better/worse, etc.) masked under the sacrosanct markers of True or False, ought to be realized as idiosyncratic preferences of individuals often arguing for thier opinions of how they would prefer others to see the world.  This can often be self-serving, selfish, and potentially destructive (the opposite might make up the consequence as well, as a matter of opinion). Beliefs also comes from biases, prejudices, and that ilk.  They are not justified until proven so.  It takes a maturer mind to question its own beliefs and opinions, and test them against alternative beliefs–even unpleasant ones– judiciously.

There is a wonderful game to examine the theoryladenness of factual claims, and how much we rely upon them,  often taking them for granted.  We have rich worlds within ourselves coming from our unique experiences, real or imagined. Below are a list of “facts” all linked to a common theory.  It is a puzzle to figure out.  See if you can guess the correct “theory” which links the list of facts below.  Feel free to comment on this blog.  The answer (guiding theory) will be in the categories at the end of this post.  Good luck!

  • Newspapers are better than magazines.
  • The seashore is better than the street.
  • At first it is better to run than to walk.
  • It takes some skill but is easy to learn, even for young children.
  • It’s true that it needs lots of room.
  • Beware of rain; it ruins everything.
  • A rock will serve as an anchor.
  • If things break loose, you won’t get a second chance.

Necessary and Sufficient Cause: On Evil and Anger

In which we examine if evil is real, and, while assuming it is, what it’s causes and expressions are…

A wise man told us once “it is easier to make it worse than to make it better.”  We wonder if this is true, and if making it worse is merely an expression of mere laziness or full-blow corruption and insanity, while, conversely, if making it better is the product of pure Good.  We have to assume a theory of human nature in this and, for time’s sake, we’ll plug in the concept of Evil.

Question: By believing Evil is a necessity of human nature, does this excuse “evil” acts?

This question makes several assumptions, for instance, the one which implies a universal human nature.  We will assume there is something like a biological unity tying us to one another, and perhaps a social one as well which shows us that certain things like a smile, can exist across cultures to mean something “about happiness.”

The excusing “evil acts” is loaded as a prescription, in the end, but it takes an ethical form first.  To excuse is value-laden – one makes excuses, at least in the the culture we are part of.  But it ultimately asks, should one attempt to control one’s evil nature so that it does not harm others or self?

Well, how do we do that?

But first, what are examples of evil behavior?  Many would consider homicide and dishonesty classic examples of the worst possible of evils.  We have heard once or twice that these may be universals among human culture, and when presented with a dilemma of having to choose murder over lying or visa versa, it is difficult to do.  We presently consider the quality (in humans) of anger which exists in most or all of us, as a cause of much evil in the world.

And now to the metaphysics.  We have proposed that Evil does absolutely exit.  This is in direct contrast to a friend’s metaphysics which denies the existence of evil outright, as nonsense. While this certainly needs its due in this argument, we will only briefly use it for contrast.

We looked at the concept of causation this morning in preparation for this question.  Aristotle’s classical four Four Causes were considered.

Material: The physical nature of a thing determines its behavior (assumes that our physiology, neurochemistry, or wiring determines how we will be in the world – deterministic view).

Formal : A thing’s form (human or plant or mineral) determines its nature or role (assumes that because we have the shape and constitution of humanness we will act fitting to that structure – might involve social features).

Efficient: The agency of the thing imparts change (so humans have some will over their actions independent of their material make up or human structure in body or society).

Final: is the ultimate end for which the thing exists, perhaps unknown (a human may believe there is some greater purpose to its existence, though may not be able to pinpoint it exactly).

The Material Cause and Formal Cause interpretations show us that Evil (and anger) are somewhat pre-determined either by brain structure or the structure of our human life in society by virtue of our place on the food chain.  (This deserves a much richer analysis than what we are giving at present.)

The Efficient Cause interpretations place much greater weight on human choice, action, will –  or agency.  We can think first and then act, or, we have some, if not all control over our inherent evils, such as anger.

The Final Cause interpretation might likely be deterministic if one believes in a God or it might be a mix of will and determinism given our propensity to reflect of past and imagine future.  It also involves a sort of self-creation (i.e. if I believe i am evil I will perform evil acts, if I believe I am good, it follows I will perform good acts).

The last bit we wish to put forth are the concepts of Necessary and Sufficient Causes.  Necessary means something must exist for an outcome to happen, though it won’t necessarily happen.  Sufficient cause relies on a Necessary condition to be there, but certain key variables must also for the necessary cause to be realized.

The example provided by Robert Chadwill Williams from The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History, is excellent for demonstrating Necessary and Sufficient conditions:

“Causation is like an explosion.  Necessary causes are like dynamite, plutonium, or hydrogen – that is, the fuel.  Sufficient causes are like the fuse, match, implosion lenses, or atomic trigger – that is, the ignition device.

Ignition causes explosion – but only because the fuel is present.”

What causes someone to explode in an expression of evil may have many causes.  It might be controlled to an extent, and with a lot of practice, but the metaphysics here pose (without sufficient analysis, granted) it will not go away from the human form, so long as we continue to exist.  Much of these causes imply determinism and therefore excuse evil acts as simply part of human life.

But it is easier to make life worse, than better, said the wise person.  Don;t we owe it to pride to overcome evil, to control it through some kind of self-determinism?


Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn (W-OZ) Reminds Me of David Foster Wallace

In which Carrie still mourns publicly over the death of her friend,  mentor, and teacher, Zinn, while telling her Smiling Ghost some stories of goldfish and the meaning of life…

Dear Zinn,

I find that I am thinking of you a lot this morning (while crying in the meantime) and wishing this manner of grieving the loss of your presence in my life could be exchanged for illumination.  You come to mind a lot when I have stories to tell of educational adventures.  And being the stronghold to the university where I learned from you, also the symbol of the question whether to persevere on this teacher-track or “to fly to others I know not of…”  I was recently in a classroom where lived a goldfish in a bowl on the teacher’s desk.  A student had given this person two, named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Guildenstern had died a couple of days ago, not by beheading as in Hamlet, but likely something to do with overcrowding of habitat.

I observed Rosencrantz throughout the day and toward the end he was spending much of his time up at the top of the bowl, sucking air it appeared.  I began to realize that he was probably suffocating, and after having a student do a quick check with google, confirmed the likelihood.  I was tempted to steal it from the room.  Some of the students encouraged me to do so. I almost did except for the questions I might have been asked upon leaving the school with a goldfishbowl under my arm.  I balked under the pressure of self-consciousness, and what an oddity my impulse would have seemed to those I passed in the hallways.  But, I cannot bear a suffering thing.  That I did not follow through on this impulse toward compassion hurts me now.  This heartache was reinforced by the following video,This Is Water, in what appears to be a commencement address by David Foster Wallace, who I associate with you.

And so I ask If it is not all about me, if I am not the center of the universe, why does it seem like I am?  I grieve the loss of you in my life, often.  I think of it mostly in terms of a question: who can I derive understanding and strength from besides the perfect person for the job?  You understood me and had just the right kind of encouragement for a “different” kind of teacher like me. There is the  default setting of missing you because of the benefit you brought to my life, now absent in the corporeal sense.

In another way – as I connect myself to a larger world as Wallace suggests to seniors everywhere –  that you have persisted in memory, I can recall your similar struggles in education and other places.  I still remember once staying with you in November (NaNoWriMo month) and how you confided your frustration over students “Philosophies of Teaching”  essays spread out in piles, as you were grading them, on your bed.  You lamented that they were writing “for you,” presupposing things they thought you would like to read in a philosophy of education stance. But you just wished they’d be themselves.  You wished them to be authentic.  I wonder now how they became so self-conscious, so unsure of their most authentic philosophies of living.

You always liked quotes, here is one:

“If one were required to consistently say that it was not about oneself, it is not clear how one could properly say that a painting is beautiful, a meal satisfying, or that someone is lovely and worth all the commitments of one’s heart. 

Recognizing oneself as the center of the world, and that in a sense it is all about oneself allows an opening of moral authorship and creativity, as well as the greatest of commitments to an involved, experiencing life.” –Steven Schultz

I wonder if your persistent fight to make the world better, to care for and affect the subjectivity of your students, killed you.  Did you feel the suffocation of objective thinking?  The dehumanization of our societies more in love with counting than with what counts? Were you adequately appreciated?  I am sorry for not reaching out to you more.  I think you could have used my help.

I write this to help keep myself going, because you believed in me, and are thus symbolic of something larger than my missing you as a person in my life.



Is Education … Barbaric?

In which we think things we probably shouldn’t think and say things we probably shouldn’t say …

An educator friend of mine supposed recently, “when humanity -one hundred years from now – looks back on what we do in American education, they will think it was barbaric …”  I laughed a little at this idea and remembered when I last sat in uncomfortable chair-desk when my body wasn’t as well-packed with middle aged weight.  And then I reflected again at a more recent experience of substitute teaching in a local high school.

It was awful.

(I shouldn’t say this.)

I’m trying to land a “real” teaching position and putting something like the following up in a public space could compromise my chances of scoring that highly coveted position (due to scarcity).  But, I’ve been abused enough by the education system and now armed with my high school diploma and 300+ credits of higher education, mostly upper-division (400 + level) courses I feel ready to be a citizen of this country.  I’m like that guy in Office Space who is suddenly relaxed about going to work, because he just doesn’t care to compromise his integrity any longer and can’t be bullied anymore by false authority.

I was at a school, one which would be called “State-of-the-Art” regarding the quality of athletics, programs, and the gorgeous building itself.  I went in optimistic.  I left with my heart in my hands.


This, due to the scarcity of sub jobs where I live, isn’t an optimal financial strategy (I work maybe once a week) but a really good one when I measure my physical and mental health next to other experiences I have substitute teaching.  “Just say ‘no’ to stress” be my motto now; my health depends on it.  And by “stress,” I don’t mean the normal amount (which is more than enough) I have at any given school (with any given set of poorly-crafted lesson plans and groups of lively and wonderful kiddos who sometimes test my limits or with other  educators with too little time and too much to do to be bothered with any below-the-surface understanding the the kids who compelled them in the beginning to serve with an objective to change the world for the better), I mean the kind of stress which drives dictatorships and authoritarian government structures into a tension with willpower to explode and exterminate, which in turn leave the citizens in a state of constant fear and on the brink of retaliation.

Because that is what the kids did with me.  Don’t these soon-to-be-adults know that they are getting a free education?

The last of four classes I had repeated the pattern from the three preceding it.  After being in their assigned seats (according to a picture chart available for me) they matriculated to where their friends were seated after my explicit instruction to stay in their seats and work with their table partners or people behind and in front of them.  I believe in cooperative learning- especially for such banal material like vocabulary – but experience has taught me that if one works with friends who are on the other side of the room for a reason, work doesn’t get done.

And my job was to make sure they learned (did their work).

Why did they move seats in spite of my direction?  Could they not see the reasoning behind my request?  Couldn’t they see by my demeanor of smiling calm that I cared about the test they would take later and the natural social-bonding aspects of school as well?  Is it that I am too soft on them perhaps that they figured they could get away with it?

Well, the last class of the day did.  I observed their blatant refusal to work with table partners and people at desks nearest to them as they one by one – popcorn-style – moved to places they wanted to sit, to be next to people they wanted to be with, and do their work.  This was not the case for the previous two classes, one of which I had to call in an administrator to help reinforce my (and, in essence, the absent teacher’s and the community-at-large – taxpayers’-)expectations for the day.

But my stepping from the podium and trying to observe these different dynamics with as little micromanagement as possible, I couldn’t help noticing also the times I was respectfully asked if a student could go to the bathroom or get a drink of water.  I say yes to this nearly every time  even though I suppose in most cases they don’t really need to use the facilities and are most certainly not that dehydrated, but are just bored and need to take a break (to text a friend most likely) from the classroom.  They really do try their best to control themselves, and work with me on this. It has been  pointed out to me how authoritative this practice is, or, rather, that there is an indignity in having to ask to use the bathroom.  Students accept some rules but not others, like being told where they should sit in order to review vocabulary.

I’ll no longer serve the State-of-the-Art school as a substitute now – I had to make that decision.  I also had to make a bold move to stand up for a certain student who was especially tenacious at testing me, but  – as was revealed later  – shared a common ailment with me.  Knowing about this commonality then compelled me to write the counselor of the school in a rage of reasoning passion and advocate for better understanding among school staff about this student and many like him.  It was my antidote for the physical stress I endured as the authority figure in a deeply authoritative school structure, one which is counter to my instincts toward humanity.  After all, I had my own share of mind-numbing in the American education system.  If it weren’t for some key players along the way I might not hold a masters in teaching today, much good that it does me,