6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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My Son's in the Army Now

My son called the other night and said it’s official. He’s enlisted in the Army and starts basic training the third week of September at Fort Benning, GA. Living in Houston, TX for the last year and a half, he was going to begin his second year of college, but decided that trying to be a full-time student while working full-time to pay for tuition and books was too much of a struggle. He figures that while in the Army, he’ll at least get the training and courses he wants to take, and be doing something exciting and worthwhile without having to worry about food and shelter.

As a single parent, saving for his college tuition was not an option. It was all I could do to keep up with food, rent and bills. Without scholarships, my son decided to try and pay his own way. He didn’t want to apply for financial aid, even though I suggested a Pell Grant might be in his best interest. And he didn’t want to apply for student loans to be paid back. Luckily, his grandparents where able to help him with some of his college expenses during his first year, but he didn’t want to continue to ask for their help and support.

With a score of seventy-six on his ASVAB test, he has been allowed to choose his career path. He decided to sign up for the Special Forces Enlistment Option, and after he completes his training, he'll go on to schools battalion to train in communications or computer systems. It is good to hear how excited he is, and how promising his future seems to be.

His enthusiasm reminds me of how I felt when I went into the Marine Corps as a wide-eyed seventeen year old. When I stepped off the bus with seventy-two other recruits at MCRD-San Diego, I knew my life would never be the same--that everything up to that point somehow didn’t really matter anymore. After being shorn of all our hair, we had to change out of our civilian clothes, go through a shower, and then put on our new fatigues. No sooner than we got our boots on we were ordered to “fall in” for formation. From that first march to the barracks, I survived and endured the next twelve-weeks and became a Marine. And in the process I learned about honor, respect, courage, and commitment--values that I still live by.

It seems that I have been marching ever since. From the Marines as a truck driver to General Electric as a machinist; to college, graduate school and teaching; to marriage, divorce and single parenting; my life has been a series of events that only now I am beginning to understand and appreciate.

I wish my son well. Like Odysseus’s son, Telamachos, his adventures in life are only beginning. I can only hope that he will take advantage of the opportunities he is presented with, and that he is able to make the kind of choices that will ensure he lives a long life filled with goodness and hope.

S. L. Cunningham


Too Good Not To Post

Because of the necessity to keep newspaper article headlines brief, unintended consequences sometimes result. This double entendre from The Courier Gazette: "Fungus bares ash trees." 28 July 2005: A1

Never again will I be able to think of denuded trees the same way.

S. L. Cunningham


The Future of Schooling: Hybrid Institutions

While doing a search on NCLB, I came across an interesting article on mcall.com. In “The Future of Schooling: Hybrid Institutions,” Chester E. Finn Jr. argues that because of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the “premium” it puts on “reading, math, and science, the American curriculum is beginning to experience a gradual “separation of teaching and learning” from traditional school buildings, and being reshaped into “hybrid institutions.” In this type of setting, Finn says, students “may or may not be in school,” since most of the students’ instructional materials will be provided from “an array of educational providers” that will “enter seriously into the operation of schools and the creation and delivery of education services, both full-time and part-time, in school and out.”

Read More

S. L. Cunningham


"Anything That People Do and Monkeys Don't:" More on Dawkins, Replication, and Memes

It is not often that I am stumped by the meaning of a word, but ‘meme” has succeeded in doing just that. Actually since my last post I’ve really been stuck on this to the point where my head has needed a good dose of ibuprofen. Because of Dawkins’s definition of “culture as a process of replication,” I am left with a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty. I can’t say why I find his theory—though fascinating and convincing as it may be—so troubling, but I suspect it’s because intuitively I sense he is so wrong.

As Cosma Shalizi says in his review of Aaron Lynch’s Thought Contagion: How Beliefs Spread Through Society, "Dawkins is an extremely persuasive writer, as are some of those whom he has inspired to write about memes, most famously Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. The notion of memes has led to a great deal of buzz and hand-waving and speculation, especially on the net, and even a decent sermon on tolerance. It makes a first-rate mind-toy. But some people want more, specifically an actual science of memetics, and at this point, if not before, they meet opposition. Memetics, an intelligent adversary might say, would not even be wrong. After all, social scientists and humanists have been looking at the transmission of folk-tales, myths, rumors, texts, mores, etc. for centuries. If it makes biologists and their sympathizers feel better to call all these things 'replicators,' well and good; no doubt they can even fit some numbers to the replicator equation, if they have nothing better to do." The Bactra Review, 30 September 1998.

To which we might consider the following:

"I don't know about you, but I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dungheap in which the larvae of other people's ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora. It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic. Who is in charge, according to this vision--we or our memes?"—"Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, 127-35, Spring 1990.

Whether we define our culture as a process of replication or not, I’m sure will be a subject of debate for some time. I will be surprised, though, if Dawkin's ethological argument of social biology becomes accepted theory of how we acquire our shared values and beliefs, social behaviors, customs and practices, for a culture defined in such terms lacks transcendence. And without transcendence how do you replicate the sublime?

S. L. Cunningham


Couch Potatoes, Dweebs, and Memes

As a writer I am always fascinated by how certain words or phrases come into use, and how people sometimes readily use what’s popular or current to express how they are feeling or thinking about any number of things without actually having to think or feel. What’s particularly fascinating about certain idioms or catch phrases is how we so easily glom onto them. By becoming a part of the common vernacular, these expressions or colloquiums in turn describe and define not only the culture of a specific decade, but also an entire generation.

The eighties especially were prolific in spawning coined words and catch phrases. Awesome became annoyingly irksome, and eventually was replaced by bitchin’. And most everybody was easily categorized as couch potatoes, dinks, airheads, yuppies, Joanies, jocks, dweebs and scumbags. To be spontaneous meant going horizontal. And everything about the eighties was way cool. The proliferation continued on into the nineties with back in the day, stylin’, tweak, wacked, going postal, and chillin’ just to name a few.

And so it is with our current decade. During the early 2000’s when I was interviewing for teaching positions, I began to pick up on how my answers to certain questions that were asked of me became a “nice segue.” Segue to what I was never sure of, but whenever I heard it expressed by the person interviewing me, I took it that we were connecting on some deep, personal level. Unfortunately not to the level, though, where I was offered a position.

Presently, one word that seems to have increased in amplitude during the last year has been “meme.” I never heard of it until a few months back when I encountered a blog that featured “book memes.” Curious as to what a “book meme” was, I read the individual’s posts only to discover that what she was featuring were no more than reviews of books that she had recently read. And so my question then was why would a simple review or critique of a literary work be considered a meme? Not exactly sure what the term meant, I decided to look it up. Quite a few dictionaries later I finally found this entry in the 2000 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines meme as “a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.”

Mulling the definition about a few times to try and get the flavor of it, I remained undecided as to whether or not I liked the taste. To think of a book as a “unit of cultural information” somehow seemed so utilitarian. A little research later I discovered that Richard Dawkins coined the word meme from the Greek, mimema (The Selfish Gene, 1989, p.192), which basically translates as, “that which is to be imitated.” His argument is that certain concepts or ideas related to skills, habits, catch phrases, song, clothing, etc., are passed on person to person in a manner that he describes as a process of replication, (ibid). For Dawkins meme is analogous to gene, and as such should be considered as “living structures” much in the same way as genes, and propagate themselves by a process of imitation. By passing on ideas, believes, phrases, songs, etc., to other individuals, according to Dawkins, you are in essence using their minds as hosts for “propagating” memes from individual to individual much in the same way “that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell,” (ibid).

To me it seems that to describe “imitation” in terms of living structures much in the same way as “genes” strikes me as one of those wild inductive leaps that smacks more of contrivance than science. And yet “meme” seems to have replicated itself in such fervor that it is becoming more evident as to how many people are beginning to make it a part of their everyday vernacular. Do a search on Google and you’ll not only find “book memes,” but you can also find “learning memes,” “personal memes,” “logical memes,” and so on. Even more curious is a recent e-mail that people are passing on to each other that’s called a “meme baton.” I’ve received three invitations to participate, and so far have decided to take a pass. Two of the “meme batons” had to do with music and one had to do with books. The purpose of the “meme baton” is to answer a series of questions, and then pass it on to three other people:

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
The last book you bought is?
What are you currently reading?
Five books you would take to a deserted island?
Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

As the “meme baton” replicates itself from email to email I have to wonder what happens should you choose not to pass it on. Does the “meme” die? Or are you cursed in some way for choosing not to participate? What I find particularly troubling is that a few people who have sent me an invitation express amazement at how contagious this “meme baton” has become. Contagious? It’s as if they had no choice but to respond and pass it on. They were not necessarily compelled to do so, but instead, as Dawkins might put it, were infected to participate.

I wish I could go back a few thousand years or so and seek out Socrates. It would be interesting to see what kind of dialogue we could intitiate in trying to define what a meme is. If it is a process of replication by which invidivuals pass on ideas, beliefs, and so forth as Dawkins describes, then it would seem to me that this would raise a few philosophical questions in determining the validity of his argument. What happens, for example, if an idea is not passed on. Does that mean that idea no longer exists? Do we love, hope, cherish, and pray because our brains have been replicated to do so? And if much of what we do in life is no more than a process of imitation and replication, then what about free will? Perhaps I am begging the issue, but what troubles me about Dawkins’s theory is that ideas, beliefs, and emotions can be so easily quantized and explained without necessarily debating the validity of those ideas, beliefs, and emotions. And so I wonder, just what kind of abstraction am I dealing with here that my poor, humble mind doesn’t understand?

Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene( Oxford University Press, 1989).

S. L. Cunningham


Getting Kids Out of the Textbooks

"Science is deciding what we do know and what we don't know. We're teaching them [students] to ask questions."

Nate Larlee of Thorndike, Maine,
Outward Bound Math and Science Program Coodinator in a outdoor science project involving students with investigating the causes for the high phosphorous levels in Pushaw Lake.
Bangor Daily News, July 2-3, 2005, C1


Rescue Me (Training to be a Lifeguard at 51)

After I returned to work from vacation, I learned that I had been volunteered for lifeguard training. At my age of 51 you’re not sure whether your boss has just given you the ultimate compliment or whether he is totally lacking in reality. Although I do exercise regularly and make a modest effort to keep in shape, swimming has not been my physical activity of choice for sometime. Thus when I was told I was going to have show up at 8 o’clock Wednesday morning at Camp Fairhaven in Brooks, Maine and be prepared to do a 500-yard swim, I felt a little apprehensive to say the least, especially considering that the only swimming I’ve come close to lately has been in my bathtub, and there’s no 500-yards about it.

No sooner than I arrived at the camp, I was greeted by one of the lifeguard instructors. She pointed to the dock down by the water, and told me to head on down. From where I was standing the pond didn’t seem to be that formidable, but when I got down to the dock, I started to have a different perspective on things. It was a perfect day for a swim--clear sky and a bright summer sun glistening off the water--with the temperature already at 80 degrees. Sticking my hand into the water, I was relieved to find it wasn’t too cold. I was greeted by a couple of my colleagues who were also there for the training. It wasn’t too long before the instructor arrived. She called us together and then explained that what she wanted us to do was to swim toward the other shore using a modified crawl and after turning around, to swim back using a breaststroke half way, and then freestyle for the rest. “When swimming out, make sure to keep your head above the water. You want to be looking straight ahead the whole time,” she said.

She then climbed into a kayak and paddled out just a ways. Looking at us, she said, “Anytime you’re ready.” I walked to the edge of the dock and looked across the pond. “This is just nuts,” I said to myself. I stared down into the water, and then dove in. Whether I wanted to or not, I was now committed and decided to make the most of it. In my teens I used to be a long distance swimmer, and won a few one-mile and five-mile swim awards. About a third way into my swim, though, I started to realize that the pace I used to be able to swim at was not the pace I could swim at now. I began to quickly tire and found myself having a difficult time catching my breath. I stopped swimming and asked the instructor if I could just flounder a bit and catch my breath. “Do you need to come out,” she asked. “When I finish I will,” I replied. After catching my breath, I resumed swimming at a slower pace, and finally found myself making progress with forward motion. About 50 yards from the other shore, the instructor finally said, “You can turn around.”

After making the turn, I focused on the dock that I jumped off from. I kept a steady pace and began to feel more self-assured as the dock loomed larger and larger. My arms and legs started to feel like rubber, but I kept on going. Finally I reached the dock and, oh, did it ever feel great to get my hand on the edge. Even though the entire swim was only about 12 minutes it seemed like forever. After two attempts I was able to flop myself up on the dock like a trout that’s been reeled in from a catch. It was good to see that my much younger colleagues were equally exhausted. The instructor climbed out of her kayak. “Congratulations,” she said; “You all passed.”

Thus began our training as a Certified Red Cross Lifeguards. We found ourselves in a class with a group of seven teenagers who work as summer counselors at the camp. For the duration of that day and the next two, we spent time in class learning about injury prevention, techniques used in performing rescues in the water, first aid and CPR. When we weren’t in class, we were in the water, sometimes as long as three hours at a time, learning and practicing skills involved in rescuing a victim near the surface, under the surface, and how to do rescues in the water with victims who may have sustained head, neck, and back injuries in the water.

Even though Wednesday may have been a perfect summer day, the next two days were cold and rainy. Thursday the temperature never broke 60 degrees and after being in the water for a while, my hands started to numb out on me. I find that when I’m cold I don’t concentrate very well, and as a result, I was having to perform a rescue technique more than a couple of times until the instructors finally said, “Good.” After taking the written tests Thursday night, I showed up at the dock at 8 A.M. Friday to take the final water skills test. Unlike Wednesday morning where it had been a sunny 80 degrees, it was 52 degrees and raining. I looked at the faces of the rest of the people who were in my class, and saw they were pretty much equally expressing what I felt. One of the younger persons finally spoke. “I hope I get each skill right the first time, because I don’t want to be in the water any longer than I have to.”

The instructors greeted us and then told us to get in the water. It was hard not to be miserable but all of us surprisingly made the best of it and helped each other get through the Skills Test as quickly as possible. I even surprised myself when I nailed all the difficult rescues in one attempt, especially with the head splint technique that’s used for a face-down victim who’s suffered a possible neck or back injury. The day before I struggled quite a bit with trying to remember that I needed to grasp the victim’s arms midway between the shoulder and elbow. Considering that several of my victims drowned yesterday because I forget one or two steps involved in performing a rescue, I felt good today knowing that all my victims survived. After two and half long days, it felt pretty good to know I passed. My body, though, barely passed. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt completely sore all over. With all the swimming and performing rescues, I’ve discovered muscles that I didn’t think I had anymore. And so Friday night I spent a long time doing my favorite swim—the stationary plop-oneself-down-and-take-a-load-off in a bathtub of warm water with Epsom salts.

S. L. Cunningham