Fulcrum Words

In rhetoric, we recognize and pay particular attention to what are called “fulcrum words,” an analytical term for words, phrases and broader topics that an argument’s direction “hinges” on.  Fulcrum words and how they’re employed rhetorically by agents and actors in a given conversation turn the tides of onlooking opinion; fulcrum words shift the balance of an argument depending on how they’re placed and how effectively they’re wielded.

Viewing the three presidential debates in the past few weeks, I believe I’ve identified some basic fulcrum words that begin a list which contains great value for the ways we decide our political direction and national identity in 2016.  Some important fulcrum words are:

  • Women
  • Mexico
  • Wall Street
  • Establishment
  • Media
  • Outsider
  • Prison
  • Taxes
  • Crooked (“Crooked Hillary”)
  • Accusation
  • Lies
  • Syria
  • Obama(care)
  • Constitution

Now, I don’t want this post to turn into a political discussion, or even to advocate one way or another on the issues discussed.  Those close to me know where I stand, and that’s not what I’d like to focus on here. The candidates format their arguments around a simple question: “why should American voters choose me on November 8th?” The fulcrum words that make up this list, after a year and a half of primary and general election debate, coverage, outreach, image-crafting and scandal, have generally remained about the same in my estimation.

Elections are very much a popularity contest, but they do generate debate over policy issues that influence people’s lives in very concrete ways.  The fulcrum words employed by each candidate, I argue, go a long way toward their chances of appealing to voters on a demographic basis, and are probably selected by that very measure.

Where you stand in relation to these words probably determines your attitudes toward each candidate, and possibly tips your vote in one direction or another.  Some words are policy-related, while others concern themselves with the candidates’ personal attitudes and actions.

Given the power and depth of ideology residing in these fulcrum words, what do you all think the (partial) list says about how we view our political landscape of 2016? Which words would still appear on a list in 1984, or, say, in 2012? What words might you add to the list, and why?

 

Classic Rock

The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older.” -Pink Floyd

Around eighth grade or so, I began to catch on to a little secret my dad had been casually holding out in front of me for a few years: there is some serious pleasure to be gained from an appreciation of classic rock.  In my usage of “classic rock,” I mean to include all of the big 60’s/70’s rock n’roll bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, CS&N, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, CCR, Hendrix– but remember, this is all experienced from the point of view of someone born in 1993, the year Nirvana released In Utero, at least a generation (or two) after classic rock faded from its unquestioned status as the dominant genre of popular American music.

This inspires a question.  What does classic rock mean to a “young person” today? And what did it mean to young people in the 60’s?  The term millennial is heaved about far too loosely (admittedly, this blog advertises its writer’s perspective as a uniquely “millennial” one).  We have so many more options because of changes in technological norms and information conveyance.  The avenues to hear music are easier to come by.

To start, classic rock will forever be associated for me with the hedonistic rockstar roadie image, the up-all-night, high-all-day, screw-jobs-and-conventional-society, we’re forever free! type of attitude.  This sort of ethos, chronicled throughout the extensive (and expensive) aura of the history of rock n’roll, the behind-the-scenes stories of the Jon and Paul meeting, or Keith Richards’ exploits in the London nightclubs of the 1960’s 2000’s, sells its listener on a very specific feeling- feelings of freedom, openness, vibrancy, youth, abandonment, the true spirit of rock.  In this sense, every rock song is about the same.  The buzzwords to listen for: babe, tonight, now, love, we/them, rebellion, resistance, liberation.  They won’t be hard to catch.

What were we liberating ourselves from? How’d the rebellion come to an end?  Where’s that resistance now?

As cultural writer Jeffrey Nealon points out, when Led Zeppelin plays over a Cadillac commercial and Rolling Stones tour can be sponsored quite literally by the housing bubble (their 2005 tour was brought to us by AmeriQuest Mortgage), we have to admit that those 1960’s cultural rebellion narratives we believed so strongly in are, simply put, dead.

Personally, I’m not able to love something, however grandiose and radiant, if I don’t believe it really exists.  I’m wary.  I don’t want to be tricked into seeing what’s not really there, especially by someone trying to sell me something.

The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” openly and transparently about the lack of consumer desire, now plays over a commercial for Hilton Hotels.  This isn’t what the Stones had in mind, is it? But the commercial will work. It’s a great investment on Hilton’s part; if the “use a rock song to sell my completely-unrelated product” formula wasn’t an effective one, marketing executives would stop using it.  They haven’t yet.  

I point all of this out and take on a somewhat cynical tone because I care about all of this very deeply.  It matters where we put our faith- and when I put my faith into a Led Zeppelin song when I was twelve, those feelings of authenticity and freedom became immediately attached both consciously and unconsciously to the commercials they were paired with. If classic rock songs could speak, they’d say “commodity culture sucks, live your own unique life.” But does the music and how its handled reflect this? I argue that it directly contradicts its own ethos. This narrative plays itself out over and over again on radio, iTunes re-releases, remastered music videos, historical documentaries, etc.

It’s that authenticity, the feeling you get when you “look to the west,” to borrow from a personal favorite in Stairway to Heaven, that makes classic rock such an enduring, recyclable product.  It’s a feeling that sells itself over and over again.  It gets stuck in your head.  It makes me wonder what we were really seeing out there in the endlessly-promising west.  If we really believed all that stuff, haven’t we failed ourselves just a bit?

We’re buying a feeling, a thrill, a perspective on the world.  It’s okay.  We’re buying an old pleasure, a tired alienation and pain; it’s the same as with everything else.

Writing, Composition and Deliberate Living

Lately I’ve been re-reading an old favorite I first read midway through college, right when I was just beginning to locate myself as a writer: Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The book raises a number of issues I won’t even begin to detail in this post, but I wanted to pay some renewed, closer attention to a few points about writing, thought and expression the book raises, and then attempts to answer.

First, and I’ll get back to more theoretical and philosophical issues later, I’d like to examine the distinction within the activity of mountain climbing made between what Pirsig terms ego climbing and another form, this one labelled deliberately-mindful climbing.  Put quite simply, “ego goals” do not fulfill.  When you climb a mountain to reach the top, you will oftentimes find it is a dull, monotonous task that is empty of much personal attainment, void of further meaning. Climbing a mountain becomes a hollow victory: it’s rendered obsolete whenever the next goal hovers into mental focus.  Climbing a mountain makes you feel good for a few minutes and then the feeling disappears, and it’s the same way with other things.  Ego-masturbation is not going to fulfill you, but rather tends to make a mess everywhere (okay, we’re done with this metaphor), and doesn’t really impress anyone else in the right ways either, I’d argue.  It’s great you’ve got a high-paying job, but how are you as climbing companion? How are you on road trips? How are you to sit cross-legged on a living-room floor with, just talking?

Deliberately-mindful climbing is an approach to mountain climbing (and, you guessed it, other things) that affirms attention to here-ness, now-ness, in-the-moment-ness.  It’s climbing that refuses to believe the goal is elsewhere, and recognizes that it’s right here. The goal for this type of mountain climbing isn’t to reach the top, but rather to have a nice trip getting there. It’s not about speed, height, distance or heart rate.  It’s about enjoying it.  It’s about being happy now, really living Walt Whitman’s quotation “happiness, not in another place but in this place… not in another hour, but this hour…” It’s something I bring to the table when I think about how I live my own life.  I’ll talk more about that later in this post.  But for now, let’s focus on ego climbing against deliberately-mindful climbing, and how they might inform our goals, thoughts, writings and values.

They’re simply two different ways of looking at things, and I consider them to be cousins rather than being diametrically opposed to one another.  I take a “meandering” approach with my composition-writing classes.  We spend a lot of time discussing questions of underlying form: what is good writing? What makes for sound thinking? What’s an appropriate way to say whatever it is we’re trying to say? What does it mean to “persuade,” or even to “persuade effectively?”  We work a lot on things like unity, flow and emphasis in our writing.  I’ve yet to be indoctrinated too heavily into composition theory, and there’s still a lot to learn, but when I was handed a blank syllabus the weekend before classes started I knew I needed to start thinking deliberately about how I was going to approach the long-term purpose this semester would play in my students’ lives.

I began the semester believing my early goals for the class, namely to teach strong essay organization and strong argumentative skills, were the main “endgoal.” They still are, in many senses; we try to achieve coherence in our persuasive writing, and to examine issues other writers talk about, perhaps.  But many of the students I’ve encountered in my (young) academic career, whether during my time as a student or now as a junior faculty member, refuse to even entertain the notion that their contribution is an adequate one, with equal status and merit to anything published so long as their points are as rationally thought-out and are expressed as clearly as the “professional” ones. I’d like for them to move past imitation and think originally, and to pursue whatever it is that tickles them. I tell them about what bothers me- digital camouflaging, environmental irresponsibility, class exploitation- and show them posts on this very blog detailing what I’ve written and thought-out on those topics.

I write in long sentences sometimes, I know.

I want to impart in my students a seed that might blossom now or that might not blossom until later: that their statements matter.  I want them to put themselves in the shoes of someone working to change the world, because they can change the world.  Change the conversation, and not in the sense of moving to something new.  Add a new perspective; narrate a new story; define something differently; reimagine, reupholster, redecorate.

Pirsig divides the hypothetical university into two distinct entities: the “concrete university” and the “church of reason.” School administration, deans, provosts, presidents, non-teaching staff, sidewalks, desks, hallways, athletics, clubs/activities, etc. are counted as the “concrete university,”  while the lectures, class notes, essays, collected datasets, learned skills, mastered concepts, chapters read and discussions occurring make up the “church of reason,” which I might simplify for our purposes here as the “actual education” encountered on campus.  Now, my positions on contemporary university priorities are pretty typical of the underpaid, overworked adjunct-faculty member: college athletics are great, but not when you’re building million-dollar stadiums and I can’t pay my water bill; university administration seems to care more about appearances and student enrollment than actual education; and regardless, we’re still dedicated to learning first-and-foremost, right? How much of my class, ie. the material I choose to impart to my students, should be up to me? What do we define “professor” as in 2016?

There’s so much to Zen about persuasion, quality and thought itself that doesn’t belong in a post like this one but that I love to consider, challenge and test… so much that I enjoy talking about.  It’s a book that I’ll likely re-read every year or two, and I rarely re-read anything other than my own writing. It challenges everything I hold dear intellectually- reason, science, empiricism, “common sense,” politics, even analysis itself.  I’m a natural Romantic, and when I first read the book in 2013, I hated it because it disturbed a belief that I was a well-balanced person, which I looking back was exactly what I needed at the time.  It’s not that I was headed in any sort of wrong direction, but I hadn’t found a right direction.  New attention to reason, analysis, analytics, underlying form and what the ancient Greeks might term classical thinking turned my world in on itself, and I found an aspect of my thinking I’d yet to recognize: I’m actually, in a completely reason-driven way, a classical thinker rather than a purely Romantic one.  Of course, the classic-Romantic dualism Pirsig sets up is problematic and frankly quite silly, but that’s a battle to fight on another day.  The two bleed into one another and inform the other. They’re supplements, and could not exist without the other.  Why fight it? I’m both, but it’s not about identity.  It’s about thought- and being able to think in multiple ways, to splice experience and knowledge differently based on context and situation.

 

And finally, a point not unrelated to Zen but not directly within its realm of focus, either.  Deliberate living.  It’s something I’ve been trying to do for a few years now, with varying degrees of success.  Deliberate living takes very seriously everything Thoreau and Socrates advocate about planning out your days, nights and activities in an attempt to maximize the “productivity” of a given measure. It’s all about doing worthwhile things, and doing them well.  It’s not all about avoiding laziness and wasted time, but rather planning for them and allotting time for them, and avoiding wasting further time worrying so much about it.  It’s about prioritizing and deciding not to compromise on how you spend your time.  Do the things you consider to be of value, and maximize their impact.

In a typical day, I attempt to spend, and generally tend to reach (at least 5 days out of the 7-day week)(weekends and weekdays are the same for me): 45 minutes of getting ready in the morning, 2 hours of pen-and-paper work (which for me generally takes the form of essay grading), 45 minutes of making dinner in the evening and 30 minutes of eating it, 1 hour of serious reading (I try for much more), 45 minutes of casual, easy reading (right now, the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series), 45 minutes of computer writing (again, I try for more, but there’s so much that interferes, not the least of which is an utter inability to end work on a project and declare it finished), 30 minutes of journal writing (this isn’t every day, but it evens out to about this much time) ,45 minutes of exercise, including dressing and showering, and 1 hour of online ESL teaching.  Spliced into this are travel times, errands, social life (!!!), relaxation (which I consider very different from watching TV shows, as I deconstruct them fairly closely and am anything but a passive viewer), social media time, internet time, maintenance of stuff (cleaning, laundry, car, etc.) and doing FUN THINGS.  Plenty of time for that. I want to be clear—I live deliberately, but I place great value on PLAY in whatever form it might take.

Texting cuts into my days quite severely: probably at least 40 minutes or so.  I don’t like this about myself, and I’ve cut it out a few times, most recently during peak points in the process of writing my MA thesis this past summer.  I’m relatively slow to get ready in the morning, and I allot for this; I spend A LOT of time on YouTube watching political talk shows, especially on my iPhone, and I listen to music in nearly all of my idle time on YouTube and Spotify (ask my roommates, friendly people who were nonetheless strangers from California un-indoctrinated to my sometimes-oddball ways). Music is always on (I listen to a lot of indie bands: Yo Le Tengo, No Vacation, Lord Huron and Joe Goodkin lately, and lots of hip-hop: Kayne, Logic and Frank Ocean in recent weeks). It’s got to be there- I can function without it, but I simply do not wish to.  And that’s what all of this “deliberate living” is about.  It maximizes happiness because I fill each day with the things that provide me happiness.  It makes me happy.

I don’t stress much if I miss something one day.  Deliberate living isn’t not meant to hold me accountable or to force productivity, but rather to maximize the quality of whatever I produce that day while ensuring I stay focused on larger goals.  It might take me a few weeks to read a novel, but it’s because I’m doing a lot else during that time.  It takes me months to finish a show, even a quick one, but it’s because I’m doing a lot of other things during that time. It’s important to be well-balanced and to vary the things you spend time on, especially if you’re like  me and have almost too-many interests, many of which don’t fit in easily with one another.

Well, I’m a bit lost in my life right now.  Everything’s jumbled up and facing the wrong direction to see clearly in front of me.  There’s not a lot of direction right now, not a strong feeling that I’ve got a definite path forward in front of me, but I suppose it’s got to be expected that a person will move laterally once in a while.  That’s fine by me, for now.

 

2 October 2016- Novel Excerpt

Hi all, 

I want to take a quick break from a busy few months to share a piece of my recent fiction.  I’m working as an adjunct writing professor at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, NY, and also writing freelance and teaching ESL to Chinese students online.  The following passage appears midway through a much longer project, and concerns a college campus and the competing heritages, both positive and negative, we encounter at institutions of higher education:

Perpendicular to the main two-laner that cut through the Winthrop State campus were a series of side roads, quieter to traffic but full of hustling undergraduates carrying books and backpacks, dressed in tight jeans and flat-brim hats, cardinal sneakers anointed with that famous free-floating brand-name lax swoosh logo tinged with frat-house-puddle-mud on the sides and soles, the students’ eyes rushed and their irises blank with tilled vexation.  Desire be, desire kindle, desire go.  A calm disquiet on the street.  It can’t last.  Three girls trudge with backpacks in hand.  Every day he texts me, one says, but then he takes an hour to respond.  It’s like, I don’t even know.

Mixed signals, another says.  Classic fuckboy move.

The painted yellow lines were new, a happily-overworked custodian of the grounds having spent three days organizing and supervising the private firm the University had hired to make its roads more appealing for the spring semester.  This was a yearly ritual the college’s administrators deliberated carefully and squarely on. Open houses, alumni weekends, sorority reunions, parents’ weekend, siblings week, another open house, various interviews with University Times Today and Collegiate Choice magazine and University Reports, two open houses back-to-back, the annual photoshoot, and finally senior graduation where soon-to-be-alumni get one last chance to remember how nice everything seemed there to carry with them in their future (high-paying?) careers.

Image. Lines re-painted. Stop signs added and removed.  Truckloads of new sand to add a volleyball court. Re-pavement of the student parking lots.  New concrete block walkways.  Sweeping the sidewalks, trimming the overgrown hedges. Squaring the bushes, picking up Coke cans, Keystone Light bottlecaps, 3-pack Trojan boxes. Resealing Residence Hall windows.  Tile floors glazed with finish.  Drinking fountain faucets replaced.  Graffiti painted over. A strange hill bulldozed.  Branches cleaned up. Dog shit extracted and expunged. Graffiti painted over a second time, temporary 24-hour camera installed on premises. Controversy and student newspaper articles.  Removal of camera, installation of signs and threats from suit-clad administration. Water-coolers installed, free paper cups to passer-bys.  Signs advertising the Student Life Center, recently built from a large endowment to the university. Twin maps added to central-campus corners.  Three more “Emergency Alert” telephones installed.  Posters, papers, advertisements everywhere.  A fifth and sixth open house, these ones open to entire families, trains of long-doored minivans from outside Richmond and rented Subarus from Williamsburg tunneled like ants through the newly-repainted central avenue.

And then there is the question of stadiums.

License the name.  William B. Rhoads stadium.  License the seats.  License sections. License ticket endorsements.  Uniform patches. Press-conference backgrounds.  Then license the field—Sapphire-Sachs field at William B. Rhoads field. The naming license runs out. Hard negotiations and soft renewal.  Cheap labor.  The easiest sell, school pride. Public university. Higher education. Research- ornamentation.  Publicity, at best.  Taxpayers? Donor retention.

Enjoy your day 🙂