Wintry Ruminations

So, the winter break is coming to an end, and I’ve been meaning to post to my blog since New Year’s Day, when I was still in Paris. If I had a New Year’s resolution, it would be to update this blog with more regularity, so that is ironic, I guess. But rather than spending the 11 days since my return enjoying free time, my body decided it would be a better idea to catch a cold, so that has put a damper on things. Truth be told, at least this cold had the decency to wait for my return. Traveling while sick is dreadful.

But enough on that.

I spent both Christmas and New Year’s in France. That was both delightful and exhausting. The sights and experiences were exciting, but there were long lines and cold temperatures to deal with.

I’ll enumerate some of the highlights from that trip:

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The gate to Mont Saint Michel

We spent the first day on a four-hour bus tour to Mont Saint Michel, which is in Normandy. This was the easiest part of the trip, and it gave us a chance to see some of the rural French countryside.

Apparently the monastery is a favorite sightseeing location for Japanese tourists, and the bus on which we traveled was owned by and operated for Japanese.

 

 

 

 

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A street inside Mont Saint Michel
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The entry corridor in the catacombs of Paris

The next day, we went to the Paris Catacombs, which was one of two primary destinations on my itinerary. This was also the beginning of waiting in long lines in the cold, however. We waited 4 hours in nigh freezing weather to get in.

I can’t say it wasn’t worth it though, and I would have been sorely disappointed if we hadn’t stayed.

The catacombs were everything I imagined.

20161227_153141The length of the passages into which tourists are led comprise a fraction of the tunnels. It’s illegal to trespass into most of it. I read that homeless people have set up communities in some of the abandoned areas, nevertheless. I thought this was great material for fiction, and it reminded me of something from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

 

 

The Palais Garnier (Paris National Opera) was an unexpected highlight of the trip. We’d planned to visit it, but we almost skipped it due to a press for time between the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Louvre. It would have been a great oversight, however. It was some of the most impressive architecture.

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Main staircase from the foyer of the Palais Garnier

dscf5043The florid ornamentation on every part of this building has to be seen to be believed. It’s like something you would imagine that only exists in the world of CGI—only without the CGI.

Unfortunately, there was no sign of Erik, for the Gaston Leroux fans.

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The chandelier and ceiling in the opera hall
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Oscar Wilde’s grave marker

And of course, I couldn’t call myself a writer and not pay a visit to the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise cemetery, on the eastern border of Paris. Père Lachaise was itself a highlight—easily the most gothic cemetery I have visited, complete with dead, wintry trees and crows flittering about. Moreover, Oscar Wilde is not the only famous person buried there. Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Maria Callas and others call the burial ground home.

 

img_20170109_000505_499We visited Notre Dame on one of the final days of the trip. It was so cold they’d closed the towers, so that was a bit of a let down. Nevertheless, the architecture of the church was magnificent. The very definition of a gothic cathedral.

 

Anyway, getting back home was a bit of an episode. There were horrible quandaries at both airports. In France, they told us the flight was overbooked, even though we’d reserved our seats in advance. They put us on standby, and we had to run to catch our flight,  without the seats we’d reserved no less. This inconvenience was mirrored back in the States by a national computer outage in the customs department that resulted in a 3-hour wait to get back into our own country.

We’d scheduled the trip back in September, so I can’t take any credit for it, but in light of the events back home at the end of 2016, it struck me as fortuitously apropos to welcome the new year in Paris.

What better location to usher in 2017 than at the place where corrupt oligarchs were brought to justice just over two centuries ago after a successful revolution?

So in keeping with that sentiment, here are two pictures of the Place de Grève:

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The site of the guillotine during the Reign of Terror
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Square at which enemies of the Republic were executed by Guillotine during the French Revolution

 

 

Oh, and of course—here’s the obligatory picture of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre:

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An Incubation Chamber for Bad Ideas

20496106648_7865c3f942_kI deleted my Facebook account years ago. It wasn’t out of an aversion to social media—quite the contrary. I love social media and technology. I spend time each day on Twitter, MSN, various blogs, my Feedly account, etc. Rather, it was the complacent and smug atmosphere that had permeated every part of the site that offended me on some sub-conscious philosophical level.

When Facebook began in the early millennium it presented a virtual interface that allowed young people to meet new people. It was a place to take a chance and explore the world beyond. But that changed some time back when the decade changed. It became less about exploring and socializing and more about manipulating and bragging to your closed circuit of associates—whatever clique or social niche to which you belonged. It became a place for stalking your exes and spying on your co-workers’ personal lives.

Then it became something worse. A podium for the proponents of bad ideas. Facebook fosters bad ideas, by giving people a safe place to spout off un-vetted arguments to a willing and uncritical audience. Ideas that would not make it out of the starting gate but for a modicum of fact-checking or rational questioning. As a result, travesties of critical thinking inflate to behemoths to the tune of applause and accolades of the proverbial choir. It is the antithesis of the scientific method or any kind of free market of ideas—viewpoints are promoted not for their resilience against efforts to prove them false, but rather for the number of “likes” they receive from a select group of similar and like minds. Let that go on for a year or two, and just try and convince a member of said circle he might be wrong—Did I say a year? Six months.

This is why Twitter and Reddit, which encourage the vetting of ideas in public forums, will always fail in their races against Facebook. Others can challenge you on Twitter and Reddit. If you put it out there, you’d better be able to back it up. There is always someone eager to take one up on her assertions. Unfortunately, people don’t like to be challenged. I’m an educator; I can vouch for this.

Now, people have reported that Facebook influenced the recent Presidential election by allowing fake news to proliferate on its site. But isn’t this just an extension of the environment Facebook has cultivated for years? A place where you can go and say what you want to say and hear only that which you want to hear? A place where climate change is a Chinese conspiracy ? A place where you can believe Obama wasn’t born in America without having to face obstacles, such as birth certificates? Isn’t fake news the natural progression of what Facebook has been about for years? People telling their friends and inner circles the information they want to hear and only the information they want to hear? A place to which you can retreat into your worldview without the inconvenience of contradictory opinions or evidence—or critical thinking?

And now one of those bad ideas has festered its way into the White House.

Acquiring the Dialect of Good Prose

As someone who holds a higher degree in linguistics, I’m not surprised to hear Stephen King extol the virtues of audiobooks. In fact, I’ve wondered for some time if audiobooks couldn’t do more for acquiring the sound of good written English than traditional print books. If written English is a unique dialect, which it is, and people learn dialects best by aural exposure, then it stands to reason audiobooks could do more for training your writer’s ear than reading alone.

It would be interesting to see some scientific data on the benefits of listening to written English.

Reflections: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

80646I read this the other day after a colleague recommended it on the shuttle during my commute to work. I’d never read O’Connor, but recently I’ve made a point to get more familiar with the American southern gothic literature.

In this short work, O’Connor captures the spirit of American culture and the kernel of what is unique about America. This story has it all: the racism, hypocrisy, religiosity, even the violence that make America what it is. What’s more, she didn’t need a novel to do it. Everything from the entitled, disrespectful children to the patriarchal, irate father is distinctly American, and particularly endemic of the southern culture from which O’Connor herself hailed.

If I ever teach an American culture class again, this will be on the curriculum.

Out of Sight; Out of Mind

I was off from teaching last week, so it was time to catch up on research I’d put off during the semester. An article online said that the L.A. Coroner’s Office had a gift shop, and I wanted to see the inside of the building. A gift shop seemed as good an excuse as any.

The building itself didn’t disappoint. The outside has the signature red-brick coloring that is ubiquitous on the USC campus. Still, the faded color reveals the history of the building.

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The top is  reminiscent of a gothic, mission-revival style, although the walls and doors have hints of art deco. The whole thing sits on a concrete pedestal, which testifies to the civic nature. Austere white marble adorns the entrance.

Inside, a classic, double-switchback staircase greets the visitor like something from a classic hotel. The lower walls are the same white marble from the entrance.

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The gift shop is immediately to the right, occupying the front, right-hand corner. It was both more and less than I expected.

The shop is a large room behind a wooden door. It must have been an office at one time. The room is packed with sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and car shades with various depictions of chalked men on the ground.

I asked the woman sitting behind the counter if there were any postcards, and she pointed out two stickers that sat in front of the register. I thought they were only stickers. The post information was on the back.

I asked if the building had always housed the Medical Examiner’s Office. She said it used to be the main hospital for Los Angeles. As I suspected, the structure dates back to the early 1900s.

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This got us talking about the recent budget cuts to the Coroner’s office in the news. She said Records used to have ten people; now there are three. Overall, the department is running at a third of its staff.

This scenario reminds me of something a manager at a restaurant told me once. If you ever want to judge how clean a restaurant is, look at the restrooms. If the restroom,which is visible to the public, is dirty, imagine the kitchen.

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The public doesn’t see what happens at the morgue.

Does the Venom Make the Widow’s Web Less Wondrous?

Yesterday, I listened to “Episode 60: The Horrors of Roman Polanski” on The Rant Macabre, and Darren and Keith were discussing the films of Roman Polanski when the conversation turned to separating the artist from his work. Roman Polanski’s history is no secret, and one of the hosts admitted he feels guilty for enjoying the director’s films.

This got me thinking about immoral artists.

The dilemma is an old one. I heard it in music school about Richard Wagner, an outspoken anti-Semite. Some refuse to listen to Wagner’s music because of his racial bias.

Nevertheless, this position never impressed me as a good one.  I’ll use an example from my writing classes on the fallacy of ad hominem. Consider the following:

At some point, someone might have asked Adolf Hitler for the time or a weather forecast. It is within reason to assume that Hitler responded truthfully at least part of the time. So, should a person have rejected Hitler’s answer as false out of hand?

Most people would say “No,” I suspect.

Here’s a more plausible variation involving Charles Manson, the notorious mastermind of the Manson Family murders:

In recent years, Manson has taken up the cause of curbing anthropogenic climate change. Does the fact that a convicted murderer promotes addressing climate change mean that climate change is not real, or dangerous? Or that we shouldn’t do something about carbon emissions because we would give this culprit what he wants?

The point is that arguments must stand on their own merits. So why not works of art?

If the business of stories is truthtelling, and all real art tells a story in some sense, then a work of art makes an argument—giving us a reason to believe something is true.

And if the purpose of art is not to reveal truths about the human condition about which science is silent, then what are the arts for?