Muddy Waters: The DJT Arguments

The video below is “Trump mocks reporter with disability.” Meryl Steep brought this moment back to light with her acceptance speech at The Golden Globes for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Donald Trump’s response on Twitter was predictable, calling Meryl “overrated,” which, although an opinion, is difficult to see how it would apply to Meryl, one of the greatest actors of our time.

Donald’s other response is below: “I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter….” You can judge for yourself.

I handed my syllabus out yesterday for a class called Justice in Literature. There are a few rules of discussion that I include.  One of them is “no personal attacks: critique the issue, not the person.”  It’s one of few rules I enforce, and I wrote it years ago, but I watch and read a lot of news media, and it’s apparent we’re in a new era of personal attacks.

In this instance, even if Trump is not mocking the reporter’s disability, he’s still mocking the man’s intelligence, which is still a personal attack (an ad hominem logical fallacy). It’s designed to distract us from the issue. And it works for Trump. I don’t remember what the issue was then.  Do you? And even if it was true that Trump had no intent to mock the man’s disability, it sure looks like he is mocking disability. A human being with any trace of compassion would apologize for even the appearance of mocking someone in that way.

Trump’s main rhetorical strategy is muddying the waters.  Ad hominem attacks distract us from the issue.  People will remember Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb, Crooked Hillary, but few will remember the substance of the issues. His larger strategy is distraction: Trump is letting fly with tweets about nuclear weapons and North Korea and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s television ratings, meanwhile confirmations of his crony-capitalist unqualified nominations are flying through the senate at record pace and the man isn’t even sworn in yet.

So the argument strategy is not just distraction, it’s a certain kind of distraction. Back in 2014, Ted Cruz seemed the most likely demagogue to win office, and The New Yorker ran a profile of him where he gave away his trade secret:

In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative . . . . As Sun Tzu said, Every battle is won before it’s fought. It’s won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought.

Setting aside the philosophy-lite reference to Sun Tzu, this passage is a key insight into image-based politics. It’s next-level argumentation.

I play Magic: The Gathering, and I’ve played for a little over a year now.  The rules are relatively easy to learn.  The first thing I learned that improved my game was that although you can win by playing the best cards that fit the rules, but you’re more likely to win by playing cards that change the rules in your favor.

Trump has framed the narrative from the beginning. He has, by his own admission, sought a strategy to dominate the discussion:

I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.

So he out Cruzed Cruz.  “Lyin’ Ted” he said.  It is true: Ted Cruz lies a lot. But somehow, Donald Trump managed to lie more and make Ted Cruz out to be the liar, the same way he out-crooked “Crooked Hillary.”

In fact DJT is so slippery, it’s hard to quote him, because whatever he’s said, he’s said the opposite at some point. Meryl Streep was apparently “excellent” in 2015.

The man lies so much that he makes the idea of truth seem impossible.


On Bullshit

I recently found that T.S. Eliot wrote a throwaway poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” which many people consider to be the coining of the term bullshit as we understand it today.

Given our current political climate, i.e., the fact-free campaigns of many current political candidates in general and Donald Trump in particular, I was hoping Eliot’s poem would be a statement on the broader culture. Unfortunately it is not. The poem is a petty jab at female poetry critics with the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.”

I’m a fan of Eliot in general. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the founding poem in my origin story as a poet, the first poem that blew my mind and made me think about the world differently. But Eliot has characteristics that I find unseemly: he’s elitist, sometimes anti-Semitic  and given to some statements that people today would find extremist. For instance, in his essay on Baudelaire, he writes:

“So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.”

This passage sticks out in my mind as the most bullshit statement in poetry that I’ve ever read. I’m using bullshit in a particular way, in this case, a statement made by a major figure that sounds like philosophy but is really nonsense. This sense is different from political bullshit, which I’ll get to later.

Eliot’s statement is ten kinds of bad. The argument relies on an either/or fallacy. As a human, if I’m sitting alone on my couch watching a rerun of Fringe and I sneeze, that sneeze is neither evil or good, it just is. I could imagine a scenario of an evil sneeze wherein I could sneeze extra loud to purposely distract a driver and cause a deadly car accident. But my solo sneeze just is. I suppose you could argue that an involuntary sneeze is not an act in the sense of “do”-ing. But come on. Not all acts are either evil or good. From that premise we get to the faulty conclusion that it’s better to do evil than nothing. Which I’m sure all sorts of evil people have used to justify themselves.

I can think of several caveats to defend Eliot’s passage. He his after all abstracting Baudelaire’s aesthetic from the man’s work, so you could say that this passage Eliot means to say that “In Baudelaire’s mind . . . .” Or you could say that Eliot means that this kind of thinking is endemic to human brains. But the rest of the paragraph says otherwise: “It is true to say that the glory for man is in his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is in his capacity for damnation.” Again, this could be some kind of yin-yang, you-need-to-have-evil-to-have-good definition, a Blakean turning things on their heads along the lines of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Okay, but the conclusion I find problematic. I can think of a million cases where it is better to do nothing than to do something evil. So I call bullshit.

But it is erudite bullshit. I’d say a faulty conclusion, but based on extensive research and thought, perhaps due to some arrogance or hubris, but I don’t think it’s a lie, I think it’s what Eliot actually thought.

So it’s bullshit of a different order than Donald Trump bullshit. Trump’s bullshit is all about impressing us. Whereas Eliot is misguided, Trump is dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Here’s Harry Frankfurt on the subject

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

For a man whose attraction for many is that he “tells the truth,” Donald Trumps lies are clearly demonstrable. I mean, we have the internet now. We can look things up.

Besides the big lies, I’m struck by the blatant gaslighting. For example Trump was booed at an event, and on the way out told reporters, “those weren’t boos, those were cheers.”

But concerning the big lie, Trump’s recent call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. is the biggest bullshit so far. In his announcement he cited two polls. First, a possibly non-existent Pew poll and another poll. He said:

a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”

He said this, reading from a printout, which is a sure sign he’s laying it on deep. Of course the Center for Security Policy is known to be an anti-Muslim think tank, but more problematically the data was gathered using a self-selected group of people who answered questions on a website. This, in social science, is known as a convenience sample. In academic circles, that’s shorthand for “totally worthless” and the number one warning against such polls is that they are absolutely not generalizable to any larger group. Fact-free bullshit, in other words.

But it doesn’t matter. If you criticize Trump, he deflects. On the morning shows today, he was pathetic. He tried to charm, bully, and red-herring his way out of the criticism, but at least Joe Scarborough stood up to him

Trump’s actually not hard to figure out. He lives by three principles:

  1. There’s no such thing as bad press.
  2. Say whatever benefits me personally.
  3. Never ever admit mistakes or apologize.

The rest, such as always speaking in superlatives, is style. Because he is fabulously wealthy, and therefore not dependent on campaign donations, this mix is toxic. Most people see through him as the great exaggerator, but if you take him at his word, he’s running for Dictator In Chief. It would require unprecedented power for a U.S. President to enact everything he promises he would absolutely do so fast your head would spin.

We’ve seen the pattern before yesterday’s proposed Muslim ban.   Outrageous statement, walking back and/or misdirection, new topic. Yesterday he called for “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Today we find out he doesn’t mean American citizens, not exactly “total and complete.” I expect at one point for him to say “I never said ‘total and complete.’”

It’s kind of transparent, but even though he’s not hard to figure out, his staying power in this campaign is perplexing, unless you understand the power of bullshit, which is all but impervious to information.

I began my teaching career at the dawn of the internet as we know it today. I got my first real email address when I began my current job. At the beginning of my career I was frustrated by the amount of bullshit that my students were willing to accept and replicate, and I was also frustrated by the bullshit in the media, especially because I taught academic writing and argumentation. Because of the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle grading papers that contained bullshit required extra work. I hoped for the day when we would realize the information superhighway. I found my students alarmingly uninformed about many issues and thought if they had better access to information there would be less bullshit.

That did not come to pass. People are willing to believe bullshit now more than ever. In fact, what has happened is that people now have easier access to bullshit.   I don’t want this post to turn into a bunch of griping about students, but I am astounded at some of the things I hear a few of them say, such as the Civil War was not about slavery, or that the United States Constitution is based on The Ten Commandments.  It’s not just shocking that some students say these things, but that they say them when they carry around access to huge amounts of information in their pockets. It is a small minority of students who believe such bullshit, but it is also a minority of Americans who are true Trump supporters. I believe that most political differences come from competing values and most of those values are valid. But I have to speak out against fascism and xenophobia.

Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims is ten kinds of bullshit. For many reasons but for one that it is impractical. Again on Morning Joe, when asked how the government would know if someone was Muslim or not at the border he said they would just ask. Because no terrorist would lie about that. A sure sign of bullshit is that it lacks even superficial practicality (deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a 2,000 mile wall at no cost, etc.).

I believe that the greatest force on Earth is denial. People who might still support Trump are in denial of facts. They are understandably afraid of terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty, but when those emotions turn into scapegoating and hatred and support of fascistic ideas, the key ingredient is denial: denying both basic facts and denying other people of their basic humanity. When people cling to fear, they deny reality.  When this behavior accumulates, terrible things are possible, holocausts and pogroms and slavery. Us vs. them. A level of bullshit like no other. Evil bullshit.

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass, Donald.

Uncle Trump

Donald Trump has gone full Drunk Uncle in his plan to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.  It was fun for awhile, but this reality show needs to be cancelled. Otherwise, we need to call him by his true name, Il Duce.

He’s even too extreme for Dick Cheney. I guess he really can’t stand being in second place.

By the way, there’s a name for Trump’s strategy of tying together protectionism and xenophobia with a slogan like “Make America Great Again”: it’s called palingenetic ultranationalism.

I call it bullshit.

Republican Debate Night Live Blog

Having Fox Business and The Wall Street Journal host the Republican debate is like hosting a compulsive shopper support group in Wal Mart.

Here’s what should happen: Fox News should host the Democratic debate and MSNBC host the Republicans.  And then Ben Carson and Lincoln Chafee can debate each other in front of a unicorn.

Hey, Mr. Rubio.  Higher education is already modernized.  It’s just too expensive because we have shrinking government funds.  Would you like to spend some more?

I think Ted Cruz is a secret communist who wants to destroy America from within the Oval office.  I mean, his name isn’t even Ted.

Obamacare is crony capitalism?  I thought it was socialist Nazi death panels.

Current least desirable job: debate moderator.  Part of the job description: “Must randomly press button to sound meaningless bell.”

Michael Bay did a Benghazi movie.  This is the true story you were never told.  With explosions.

“Whose [tax] plan would God endorse?” Um, no words.

It’s a flat tax system.  Except with rebates.

Rand Paul still uses pencil and paper to design tax plans.  How quaint.

It’s a flax tax system.  Except with exceptions. And no IRS.

How do you abolish the IRS and collect tax?  I guess the Department of Leprechauns will go door to door.

There should be three debates on debate night: the top-card debate, an undercard debate, and a demagogues panel.

Debate participants according to Trump: sweaty guy, low-energy guy, weak guy, guy who got lucky and found oil, Ted Cruz, look-at-that-face woman, guy who should not be on this stage, and President Trump.

Yay for military-industrial complex!

Really liked MSNBC’s forum format much better.  An argument in a bar has more decorum than this debate.

Trump just ended a protectionist tirade by saying “I love free trade!”  Hello Fox BUSINESS Network did any one of you ever take an economics class???

Getting really weary of typing the word “debate.”

HAHAHAHAHA Audi commercial where man loves his Audi more than his family!  It’s so funny because it’s true!  What a great way to sell a car!

Carson just gave his beauty pageant answer to the Middle East question.

Wait, did Bush just say Indiana was a caliphate?  I may have been eating Doritos and not heard him correctly.

Did Fiorina just say she personally knows everyone in the Middle East?

I keep thinking of Trump and Fiorina as the divorced mom and dad of this debate.

Can’t believe we’re talking about Russia as a threat again.  It seems so 80’s.

Kasich; “China doesn’t own the South China Sea.”  Hello?  It has their name on it?  Next you’re going to say we own part of the Gulf of Mexico. Sheesh.

Sorry, Neil Cavuto, I am not going to stick around. Time for bed.

On Beards

So I’ve done the stereotype and grown a beard while on sabbatical. Like luminaries before me—Colbert, Letterman, and Stewart—as soon as I was off the stage I was off the razor.

This is not my first go around with growing a beard. I tried it back around 2000. I knew little about beard growing then, and there were not web sites devoted to beard growing like there are today. Blogger was merely six months old at that point. We are in a beard growing renaissance today, as attested to by the Portlandia song “Dream of the 1890’s”  (I have no interest in carving my own ice cubes, however.) We’re probably in the midst of a post-beard-rennaissance decline but those of us in the rural Midwest are slow to catch on to fashion trends.

Back in 2000, beards were for old professors and young professors who wanted to look more like old professors. My first beard attempt looks silly in pictures now, more like I had an overzealous and misguided sideburn than an actual beard. For this attempt, which started with an innocuous comment by my wife: “Oh, are you growing a beard?” I heeded some new advice I read: if you’re starting a beard, don’t touch it for at least a month. Well, okay, not at first. I tried trimming it too soon and it got weird and narrow again, which is okay if you’re an aging boy-band star, but not if you want to look like an actual adult. So I left it alone.

Beard hair grows in stages. First the scratchy first-day stubble that makes one’s face like sand paper. Next is days two through five which is a pleasant, rough shod, unshaven look that feels soft on the face. Day six begins a new stage, which is best described as “oh my god this is so fucking itchy why would anyone ever want a beard!?!” Once I get to two weeks, that feeling passes and people start to think I’m either growing a beard or working on a manifesto. Today it is soft and quite pleasant (the beard, not the manifesto, which is scratchy and apocalyptic). The only bit that drives me nuts sometimes is the inverted pyramid that grows under my bottom lip, and I do get out the Wahl clippers and trim that to a 2 or 3 sometimes (ask a barber if you don’t know).

On my 44-year-old face, the beard has come in fuller than it ever did in on my 29-year-old face, but my 29-year-old beard did not have the twin streaks of grey now present on my chin. As I age, the hair on my forehead has begun to receed a bit, but my theory is that it has merely relocated as I recently had the first-time experience of a barber trimming hair that had grown out of my ear. Some follicles must have relocated to my face because previously bald spots have started to grow in. During Beard Attempt 2000, the sides of my mustache refused to meet the top side of my beard and now they are good friends. Side note, this is also the first time I’ve ever written “my mustache” without any irony. I do have to wash and condition it, and I like using an olive oil hair treatment my wife had in the cabinet which, upon further investigation is a tiny bottle of olive oil for the same price as a large bottle of olive oil you can buy in the baking aisle.

It takes awhile to get the neck line and the cheek line right. It’s hard to get both sides even, and the temptation is to keep trimming both until you’ve got back to the aforementioned narrow weird beard. I have the neck line even now, but it looks like the edge of a shag carpet now that it’s getting longer and I may have to work at tapering it (or fading it, as the kids say).  Another piece of technology that I have now that I didn’t have back in 2000 is the MacBook and the Photobooth app. I can see how my beard looks from the side and the bottom if I shoot a short video of it. My fear is I will forget to delete said video and run for president someday and it will go viral. Scratch that. If Ben Carson can declare the pyramids are grain silos and prison makes you gay and still be a viable candidate then my solo beard video will not be a disqualifier. (Neither will my spotty productivity as I mused during the previous election. [Oh how I miss you, Herman Cain.]) But I’m still not showing that video.

Ultimately my goal is a respectable, possibly literary beard, maybe like Ernest Hemmingway but without all the misogyny and alcoholism.

Photo on 10-25-15 at 6.01 PM

OMG, What!?

It’s been four years since I posted here. I kept another blog for quite awhile here:

But it’s been two years since I posted there.

I ran into some of life’s difficulties. First, my children’s health. My younger son was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma) in 2013 at age 7. He just finished his chemo this August.   My older son has epilepsy. Both of them are autistic. Yay us.

I also ran into some conflict that has led me to become estranged from my birth family, which left me loathe to reveal any information publicly. Hence blogging went away. I struggle with how much of myself to reveal to a wider audience, and I got burned with some painful blowback that shut down most of my writing for a good part of two years.

Also, fate has dealt me a combination of ADHD and anxiety, hence, hence, hence . . .

But I’m back.

I’m starting to gain some momentum as a writer and editor again. I’m lucky to have secured a sabbatical this semester.   My project is The Michigan Poet, a publication I co-edit. I’m editing a book of poems. And I’m also working on my own writing again, finally, ready to start submitting my poetry manuscript to contests and journals. I’m also growing a beard. Funny, the last time I tried that, it didn’t have any gray in it.

Today was a good day.

I got the strange notion this morning to rewrite a newer poem as blank verse and I like the result. Of course, I always like the result of writing in the short term. One feature of my ADHD brain is I’m forgetful, and highly subject to context and feedback. If I write a draft of something and it goes well, I feel I can do anything. After this morning’s draft it felt great to hang out with the kids all day while my wife went to rehearsals. The sun seemed brighter and the fall landscape out the windows looked right perfect all day. The other side of that coin is as soon as I run into a roadblock or get a string of rejections, I’ll feel like a hack again.  I’ll get into my everything-sucks mood again, which feels like my baseline state when I’m in it.

I honestly believe I have the talent and ability for writing, but in the literary sphere you have to endure tons of rejections and I am ill-equipped for that.

In other words, I have a muse, but she’s skittish.


The History of “Innovation”

There I was, thinking myself so clever for coming up with “new” ways to grade papers.

No wonder that new ways to handle the paper load, advances in efficiency in the production of response, have a long history in the teaching of college composition. The use of lay readers (called “reading assistants” at Vassar before they were phased out in 1908) may be one of the earliest, but it was only a harbinger. Here is a short list of shortcuts, with date of earliest record I can find in the post-WWII literature.

  • Mark only the presence of problem, leaving it up to the student to locate and correct it (1940)
  • Use a projector to respond to student writing in class (1942)
  • Use a checklist, or rubberstamped scale of criteria (1950)
  • Hold one-on-one conferences to respond (1946)
  • Have fellow students read and respond to papers (1950)
  • Hold one-on-two or one-on-three conferences to respond (1956)
  • Record comments on audiotape (1958)
  • Respond only to praiseworthy accomplishments (1964)
  • Have students evaluate their own essays (1964)
  • Respond only to a limited number of criteria (1965)
  • Have students use computerized grammar, spelling, or style checkers (1981)
  • Add comments to the student’s digital text with word-processing footnotes or hypertext frames (1983)

Riverwalking: The Story of “North”

The impetus for my poem “North” came from an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Moose.”  The premise of Bishop’s poem is that the speaker is riding a bus, leaving a familiar town, and a moose blocks the road in the countryside.  The poem is memorable for the description of the moose, but the angle I was after was the description of the journey leaving town.  I attended the Bear River Writer’s Conference a couple years ago, and writing a “departure” poem was one of the assignments in the workshop I attended with Richard Tillinghast. He handed out Bishop’s poem for us to get in the mindset of description.

List of sub-national animals

The poem I wrote at the time didn’t work out, but I kept the idea, writing about a departure, and later came back to it, with the idea of writing a poem about leaving Big Rapids on foot.  There is a river trail (the Riverwalk) that I can walk to from my house that meets up with the White Pine Trail.  The impetus for a poem is important to me: one question I continually ask as a poet is what are poems about? Because each time I sit down to write, I swear I don’t know.

Walking is also important to me.  It helps clear the mind, which is important, since I have adult ADD.  When life gets too overwhelming, I walk (because I’m usually too out of shape to run).  Lots of poems occur to me on walks and bike rides or while running. I think the exercise helps focus the mind, and some vague notions I might have floating around crystallize.  The excursions themselves often become the subjects of poems, and I’ve been known to dictate lines into my iPod Touch while walking.

In this case, after a particularly bad day, I went for a long walk, about four miles round trip.  I decided to walk until I felt better and then turned around, but I kind of waited too long and my legs let me know it on the way back.  At some point later on, I thought I wanted to write about that feeling, about feeling closed in, wanting to escape, not getting relief for a long while, realizing I went too far. In the writing, I wanted to recreate that feeling as reflected in the landscape going by during the walk.

I wrote the first draft of the poem longhand in a Moleskine notebook with my horrible, all-caps handwriting. I’m kind of a notebook snob: Moleskines are expensive, but have fantastic paper and binding.  I don’t have to have a Moleskine to write, but I like them a lot.  (If you want to buy me a Christmas present . . .) I was also writing with a fountain pen at the time,  but I usually can’t keep ink in it and so will write with whatever cheap stick pen I have around.

After a couple of days I typed it, making edits as I worked.  And I put it away for awhile and revisited it later.  Other than changing it to couplets and tweaking word choices and line breaks, there weren’t any major rewrites on this poem.

I chose the form of couplets with somewhat regular line lengths because I like the opportunities such a form creates.  The line breaks help emphasize certain words, and the frequent stanza breaks also emphasize the beginnings and endings of stanzas and each stanza can be seen as a “step” on this journey.  I realized, sometime after this poem, that my overall basic line unit was being dictated by how many words I can fit on a line in my notebook, so I often use different sized notebooks or double up the lines when I type to get out of that rut now.

I also like using second person, “you,” to write about myself.  Using “I” can seem too much like complaining sometimes, too confessional in a bad way, and talking about yourself in third person is just weird (and is currently the territory of Herman Cain).

Now, it’s important to note that if you walk away from my house for two miles, you will find the places I describe but not in the order I describe them.  To me, a poem is art with words that expresses some truth.  The goal I am after in an autobiographical poem is to render the “truth” of an internal state of being  through the emotional colorings of words on the page.  In order to do that, I don’t have to be 100% accurate in the factual details.  In some way, what actually happened doesn’t matter so much as what I do with what happened. There is a relationship between the events, my memory, and the poem; I’m not writing about walking on Mars or something.  But I don’t have to burden myself with being totally accurate in the external details if it doesn’t dramatize the internal state I’m after.  Plus, I have a poor memory for certain details anyway (ADD, remember?).  I remember images strongly, but not the order of them or names attached to them.  In fact, when I read someone else’s poem in a journal or in a workshop, I am often not that interested in the actual story of an autobiographical poem than in what the poet does with it.  If the language and sentiment and form are interesting, I don’t care so much about the plot.  You could write about Spongebob and it would be interesting to me if it were fresh and full of insight.

SpongeBob's Truth or Square

I was pretty happy with the result, and thought I could submit it to journals.  I submitted it to three different journals over time and it was rejected without comment from each.

In February of 2009, on a really snowy Michigan day, I met Foster Neil at a reading.  As part of the Festival of the Arts in Big Rapids, Phillip Sterling, one of my colleagues at Ferris State University had organized a faculty reading.  It was a great event, held at the Comstock House, a bed and breakfast in town.  Upwards of twenty faculty members from all disciplines brought their own writing to read, and we had a great time.

Foster is a local poet, originally from Big Rapids, who had earned a degree in poetry from Antioch and came back home.  He’s made it his life’s work to bring poetry to the public since then.  He runs a publication, The Michigan Poet, and he prints broadsides (posters) that he distributes in local businesses and schools and anywhere else someone might hang a poster.  At the time, he just wanted to talk to other local poets.

After I knew him for a while, he asked me if I had any poems that might fit his project.  There are some limitations to what he considers for publication: the poems have to be 25 lines or less to fit on the poster and, because he gives them to local schools, they can’t have anything overtly sexual, religious, political, etc.  It’s also helpful if they reflect the season or the Michigan landscape in some way.

I prepared a few poems for submission, and “North” fit every criteria except the length.  In the version I submitted, I end with these lines:

Past the last houses and
the old gas fields and

you’ve made it to the open.
When you wish to be gone

this is the way you go.

The last line is not a couplet, so it breaks the “rules” of the poem, but a form works in part through both regularity and variation, so I don’t have a problem with that.  It gives extra emphasis to the last line, and suggests that there’s more than one meaning there.  An alternate version I have (and the version I keep on my blog) adds these lines:

this is the way you go.
Your legs tell you when it’s

far enough to make it back
unless you are too far gone

to listen. In that case,
listen to the jays

and crows and fear
their warnings instead.

I kind of like the jays in crows in there, but these extra lines may be more telling, not showing, so I’m not sure which is the best version.  If this poem ever makes it into a book collection, then I’ll have to make a choice.

In December of 2010, the poem came out.  Foster posted it around town and in schools and online.  I’ve published poems before, and they often seem like they disappear into the ether.

Not this time.  For the next two months, I got comments from all sorts of people: other faculty members, students, and acquaintances.  They often would say, “Hey, I saw your poem at Snyder’s.  Cool!”  It was very satisfying to feel like I had actual readers for awhile.

The poem still hangs on my office door and in the hallway in my building, and students and colleagues comment on it sometimes. Very recently a friend and I had a good conversation about it.  One day, when I wasn’t there, her middle school son was with her in the office and had read the poem and said, “Hey, what’s he got against middle schoolers?”  She told him that the poem was me giving advice to my own son, who is autistic.  Although that wasn’t my intent with the poem it’s not an unreasonable assumption because I write a lot of poems about raising a son with autism.

I’m not given to the idea of the correct interpretation of the poem.  There has to be some connection between the poem and the interpretation (the interpretation has to be defensible with evidence from the poem), but I’m okay with a different reading of it.  I had never thought of my poem in that way, and that’s been the best outcome of publishing this poem, the continuing conversation.

Automated Conference Scheduling with Schedule Once

In a recent newsletter, I wrote about using Adobe Connect Pro web conferencing software to hold conferences with students in my online classes.  One burden in this practice is scheduling.  I started this summer with 60 students in my online classes and scheduling and managing that many conferences became a chore.  I used FerrisConnect’s Groups tool to set up one-person groups with a sign-up sheet.  I’d start by creating 75 slots and then manually typing in the time and date for each.  It would take a good twenty to thirty minutes or more each time to set up, and it was also time consuming to add more conferences slots later.

What’s Out There

For this semester, I researched several online scheduling services to see if there was some way to make scheduling more efficient.

For my choice, the system had to meet most of these criteria:

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Easy for students to use
  • Easy to set up many one-person time slots
  • Easy to vary the schedule from week to week
  • Output to a conference list I can follow when I am holding conferences
  • Allows students to reschedule

A lot of the systems I eliminated for complexity.  Most of those were for business and assumed multiple “resources” (i.e. staff) on a regular 9-5 schedule.  My schedule changes every week due to meetings and kids in school, etc., and I do conferences with classes every other week.  Some systems were for medical practices and had the look, feel, and text of a doctor’s office.  And a lot were set up for group meetings instead. After looking at a lot of systems, a couple stood out: Schedule Thing ( and Schedule Once (

Both Schedule Once and Schedule Thing are easy to set up and have a simple interface.  Schedule Once is ad supported and Schedule Thing is free for one resource (me).  Schedule Thing was originally written for restaurants, so the students would be signing up for “reservations.”  Table for one, I guess.

Using Schedule Once

Although I liked the cleaner interface and lack of ads better in Schedule Thing, I ultimately picked Schedule Once for one reason: setting up my schedule is much easier.  In Schedule Thing, you have to set up regular hours and then block out the time you’re not available.  Schedule Once links to Google Calendar; when I want to set up availability, it loads the calendar and I draw my availability on the calendar with a virtual highlighter pen, so I’m setting up the time I am available rather than setting up the time I’m “not unavailable.”  In other words, I set up my specific availability rather than start with a general schedule.

Here’s how Schedule Once works:

  • I set up my availability
  • I make the link available to students in my course
  • They visit the web site and pick times from a calendar
  • The student and I both get a confirmation email
  • Schedule Once creates an appointment on my Google Calendar

Some of the nice features: the web address for students is short (  After I set up availability, if I later block out unavailable time on Google Calendar, Schedule Once will schedule around it.

In order for it to work as I need it, I have to use Schedule Once in “appointment mode” rather than “meeting mode,” which is for coordinating a meeting with multiple people. Also I set up a rule in Lotus Notes to automatically send the email confirmations to a folder so they don’t clog my inbox.

There are a couple of drawbacks to Schedule Once.  There are ads on the student page (though they are unobtrusive).   There’s no way for students to cancel their conferences, although they can just sign up for another one.  By using this site, I’m adding an external product to my process as well, so there’s no University tech support.  Also, even though I start conferences on the half hour and tell it to schedule 30 minute conferences, it offers students some time slots on the quarter hour, so there will be occasional 15 minute gaps.  I guess it thinks I need more breaks!

These are minor drawbacks, though, and so far I am pleased with the system.  It has made scheduling conferences so much easier that I’m using it for my face-to-face classes as well.