Saturday, April 25, 2020

Going to College During a Pandemic

Though the numbers are only preliminary, already the data doesn’t look very good.  Fewer students will be returning to the universities this fall and the majority of institutions of higher learning are in a panic.  While the Ivy League schools are not worried—they have more applicants than they can admit (as well as large endowments)—public colleges depend on high enrollments to defray their costs.  And while public universities depend on state budgets for their base support, the revenue from student tuition is very important.

Students, however, are increasingly staying away because of the rising costs of tuition and books.  Suddenly, a lifetime of debt to repay the cost of a degree in Art History (my current major) doesn’t sound quite as attractive as it once was.  The cost of obtaining some university degrees far exceeds the average salary of any likely employment in that specialty.

I once showed a class of graduate history students a slide depicting the current salaries of faculty at junior colleges across the United States.  The horrified looks on their faces were exactly what you would expect if you told a group of kindergarten students that their parents had killed Santa Claus by beating him to death with the Easter Bunny. 

I have two quick solutions for this problem:  First, every university should be required to post statistics about how many of its graduates find employment in the field of their major and what their average income is.  This is similar to the crime statistics that the federal government already requires universities to publish.  Second, those greedy universities so eager to help students obtain the massive student loans that will later cripple their economic lives, should be required to cosign those loans.

Many students may just decide to sit out what will likely be a problematic year.  Recent surveys of graduating high school seniors show a record low number of students who plan on continuing their education.  Other surveys show a rise in the number of students planning a gap year before enrolling in college.  No one knows yet how many students will decide to wait out the pandemic by staying at home and skipping one or more semesters.

This coming year promises to be particularly difficult for Enema U.  Our state coffers are highly dependent on oil revenue, which has not only dried up, but is in danger of blowing away.  Already a state notoriously unfriendly (read that as “hostile”) towards business, because of an extended (though necessary) quarantine, it is likely to suffer an economic recession that will drastically reduce tax revenues and cause even greater unemployment.  It is inevitable that state budgets will be cut, and, if history is any guide, education budgets will not be spared.

The universities are already hurting.  As I write this, the entire university is teaching all of its classes online—a relatively poor method of teaching, at best—and even some of the best faculty members have little experience in this method.  (You can imagine the Herculean task of trying to teach a lab course online). 

Note.  I don’t know what is going on in the rest of the university, but I can tell you that the example set by the Art Department in carrying on in spite of the difficulties is inspiring.  One of my current classes is a lab course in conservation, and my instructor has done more than humanly possible to maintain the high quality of her excellent class.  All of the instructors, as well as the departmental secretary, have done the almost impossible—teaching art online.

Students are evidently and understandably a little skeptical about returning for the fall semester.  No one knows whether the dorms will be open or whether students will be able to use the labs and the libraries.  Will the school be able to hold sporting events and, if so, will the students be allowed to attend the games?  Will all the classes be online?  How many classes will be cancelled for lack of students?

Already, there are changes:  Graduation ceremonies for the spring have been cancelled, as are all festivities associated with them.  While a graduating student can still purchase a cap and gown—God alone knows why student would want to—it will have to be shipped as the campus bookstore remains closed for the foreseeable future.

The campus is something of a ghost town.  You can see a few people wandering around, but no one is allowed in most of the buildings without a pass.  Few faculty have seen their offices in less than several weeks.

In light of this ongoing crisis, the university regents of Enema U met and discussed the current problems, and then weighed and balanced the various avenues still open to them.  How can the school attract more students and support the faculty in its quest to deliver quality education?  What leadership role should Enema U play in the ongoing pandemic?

After lengthy debate, the regents reached a unanimous solution:  They raised tuition by the maximum allowable percentage.  Period.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Who is That Masked Man?

As I write this, the World Health Organization has several pages of its website devoted  to instructing non-health professionals how to wear a face mask, which it says you don’t need, but which you should wear whenever you leave the house, but won’t protect you in any way, but is essential.  This organization should change their name from W.H.O. to W.H.A.T.?  (World Health Alarmist Twits)

I’m not a health professional, but my wife is and The Doc made me a mask, so I am using it whenever I leave the house, even though I cannot stop humming the William Tell Overture. My mask may not help, but it won’t hurt.  After all, if all you have is a placebo, the correct prescription is to double the dose.

This blog post has nothing to do with whether you should wear a mask, or how to wear a mask, or anything of the sort.  (Though in all fairness, I’d probably be more accurate than the folks from W.H.E.N.—Whiny Hordes Enabling Nothing).

Despite being completely ignorant when it comes to things medical….I have noticed a few “peculiar” things about the way people are wearing their masks.  My mailman wears gloves, but while we were talking at the mailbox (at the approved social distance, of course), he used them to scratch his face twice.  And when I took The Doc’s cat to the vet today (where they wisely have you sit in the car while your pet is taken inside), I spotted masked patrons almost constantly scratching their faces and adjusting their apparently uncomfortable masks. 

If you google for “photos of people wearing their masks wrong”, the result is astounding.  People have cut eating holes through their masks, have worn them over their eyes, and (my personal favorite), one prominent senator had his mask positioned below his nose at a press conference about wearing masks.

That’s when it hit me—people aren’t wearing their masks for medical reasons, they are wearing them as magical gris-gris. 

If you aren’t up to date on your Voodoo, a gris-gris is a magical amulet usually consisting of a small bag on a string that is worn around the neck and used to bring good luck or to ward off evil spirits.  In Western Africa, where the custom originated, the bag usually contained verses from the Koran written on small strips of paper.  In Africa, the gris-gris was frequently used as a form of birth control among people who were called ‘parents’.

The custom came to the New World with slavery where it slowly changed over time becoming part of both VooDoo or, in some areas, the Church of Santería.  Slaves occasionally wore them to bring bad luck to their masters, and likenesses of the amulets can be found on a few slaves’ tombstones. In parts of Louisiana, a gris-gris is associated with dark magic, while in Haiti, a gris-gris is a good luck charm.   (And back in Senegal, a gris-gris is still one of the more popular forms of birth control, used by more mothers than the pill.)

Note.  I spent a couple of hours online reading about various folk remedies for birth control, wondering why people kept using a system that obviously failed.  Eventually, it dawned on me that magical birth control works exactly like socialism—when it inevitably fails, the reason is because it “just wasn’t done right” 

In popular parlance, a gris-gris is anything the wearer believes will keep away evil or will attract good luck.  Magical charms for protection seem to be universal, especially those that offer protection from bullets.

In Thailand, the Buddhists believe in Lek Lai, a metal amulet that protects the wearer from knives and bullets.  Magicians regularly demonstrate the effectiveness, and just as regularly—but not quite as often—get killed in the process when someone forgets to palm the actual cartridge for the specially prepared wax substitute.

During the Philippine Resistance, the U.S. Army ran up against the native Filipino troops, who lacking modern guns, confidently launched attacks armed with machetes, believing they were protected by the magic anting-anting charms they wore.  Though the Filipinos still lost—spectacularly—their fanaticism did help convince the Army to stop using a puny .38 revolver and adopt the powerful .45 automatic.

In Nigeria, magical charms known as odeshi are so regularly sold by shamans to ward off bullets that both the local police and the army tie small pieces of red cloth around the barrels of their firearms, which is the only known antidote to the odeshi charm.  Nor are the shamans indulging in fraud—they truly believe in their charms as testified to by the numerous online videos of shamans being slaughtered while demonstrating their wares.

Currently, there is a particularly gruesome video of a shaman who was profoundly bewildered after he shot his own jaw off.  The video doesn’t show it, but there was evidently a tiny piece of red cloth tied to the barrel of his revolver.

Closer to home, a number of Native American tribes believed that the right charm would protect them against bullets.  Tecumseh, the chief of the Shawnee, supposedly swallowed a small black lodestone (mąz-ni’ąp in Shawnee) that made him so impervious to bullets, that during battle he had to loosen his belt to discard the accumulated lead balls trapped between his skin and his shirt.  According to his tribe’s tradition, shortly before his death, the chief managed to cough up the stone and presented it to his son.  Somehow, the tribe’s tradition do not jive with the historical facts—Tecumseh died after being shot in the chest. 

A similar fate was met by the Lakota, who placed their belief—and lives—in the Ghost Shirts used in the latter part of the 19th century.  The Lakota believed that the shirts made the wearers impervious to bullets, and the U.S. Army, terrified that a newly confident Lakota might resume their war, promptly attacked first.  At Wounded Knee, at least 200 believers were killed or wounded despite their shirts.

I suppose that the most important aspect of any magical charm is that if the wearer believes in it, it probably works...At least until it doesn’t.  So, I’m going to keep wearing my mask.  Maybe it is magic.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

What’s a Little Fig Leaf Between Friends?

By the start of the nineteenth century, Antonio Canova was the undoubtedly the most famous and accomplished artist in Europe.  Certainly, a talented neoclassical sculptor, Canova was also a good businessman, for he published engravings of his work, garnering him patrons from all of the royal families of Europe (and even a few among the new presidents of the United States).

As Canova was justifiably famous, it was only natural that Napoleon Bonaparte, who was already looting—er, make that “collecting” art from conquered countries for his Musée Napoléon (now the Louvre), would want to commission the artist for creation of a statue of himself.  This was a problem for Canova, for while he welcomed the general’s money—he made busts and statues of Napoleon’s mother, both wives, and infamously, the reclining nude statue of his sister, Pauline—Canova didn’t like Napoleon.  He didn’t like that the general had invaded Venice, his home.  He didn’t like the way that stolen art treasure was steadily making its way to France.  The devout artist hated the way Napoleon treated the Pope, and he especially didn’t like that Napoleon was going to use his marble statue for official propaganda.

Though he didn’t like Napoleon, Canova had little choice but to show up in 1802, but he did impose a few conditions.  Though Napoleon wanted to be depicted wearing the uniform of a French general, Canova insisted on depicting Napoleon as “Mars the Peacekeeper”, a classical figure, made more than twice life size.  Napoleon agreed, and even “sat” for the artist a total of four times.

Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Amiens, halting the war with England.  Perhaps the idea of being depicted as a pacifist suited his political aims at the time.  Or maybe, he just liked the idea of a statue 11 feet tall.  (In fact, despite common belief, Napoleon wasn’t especially short.  The French inch was a little different from the English version, so he was actually 5’ 5”, about an inch shorter than the average of the day.)

It took four years for the statue to be completed, by which time the “keeper of peace” was once again engaged in war.  So, the statue remained in Venice.  Various French diplomats who viewed the statue, pronounced it as magnificent and one even recommended that the peace be placed just inside the entrance to the Musée Napoléon, so that it would be the first work a visitor saw after entering.

Due to various military engagements…a battle here, a fleet lost there, an invasion or two, etc., it was not until 1811 that Napoleon finally gazed upward at his statue, the day before it was to debut at the Musée Napoléon.  Canova’s statue depicts a well-proportioned nude Mars, who has set his breastplate and sword aside, holding in one hand, instead, a globe surmounted by winged victory and in the other, the staff of rule.  Napoleon as Mars is walking forward while turning his head to look to one side, almost as if the statue is unsure of his actions. 

Try to picture the scene, a middle-aged Napoleon, more than a little thick around the waist, is staring at a young, nude, muscular man who seems to be mocking him.  The fact that the man’s genitalia is exactly at his eye level probably didn’t help.

“Too athletic,” Napoleon said and ordered the statue to be hidden from sight.  The statue vanished for years.

Napoleon’s sister obviously disagreed.  Pauline Bonaparte Borghese said “If one could make statues by caressing marble, I would say that this statue was formed by wearing out the marble that surrounded it with caresses and kisses.”  Perhaps we should take the eccentric sister’s opinions at a discount, since she was just a trifle ahead of her time.  Years later, after she had insisted that Canova create a life-size statue of her as a reclining Venus, she was asked if she had felt uncomfortable posing in the nude.  “No,” she replied.  “There was a nice fire in the room and I was quite warm.”

Note.  A century and a half later, Marilyn Monroe was asked what she had on while her Playboy centerfold photo was taken.  “The radio,” she answered.  I’ve seen photos of both—Pauline wins.

After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington first viewed the statue in Paris.  Already championing the cause of returning the artwork stolen by Napoleon to the rightful owners, Wellington was also collecting the work of Canova, though it is not known if he was interested in obtaining the Napoleon statue.

France, desperate for cash, began selling off some of Napoleon’s legitimate artwork.  Though Canova eagerly offered to repurchase the statue, France sold the marble to England’s Prince Regent for 66,000 thousand francs (about $240,000 today).  And the Prince gifted the statue to the Duke of Wellington.

I’m not sure that too many people would find a 11-foot statue of a nude man—much less a former enemy—much of a gift, but supposedly Wellington was pleased with the gift, even though he had to have the floor of his home’s foyer specially reinforced to handle the stress of the 3-ton statue.  Wellington always spoke respectfully of Napoleon, though once the statue was installed in his home, the general had a removable fig leaf strategically added.  (And if you’re wondering, Wellington was 5’ 9”, so yeah, it still would have been right about eye level for him, too.)

Regardless of what the Duke thought of the statue, his friends were not quite as respectful since the records of the house indicate that visitors usually hung their hanways (umbrellas) on the statue to dry.  The home remained in the family until after World War II, when it was gifted to the National Trust (though the family still maintains an apartment in the building).  Later Dukes, and their families, used the statue as a bicycle stand. 

It is amazing how many times history replays the same tune.  Though London has changed over the years, today, Apsley House still links Greek Park to Hyde Park.  Just to the north of the mansion, one can find an even larger bronze statue of Achilles, the Greek Warrior, by the famous English sculptor, Sir Richard Westmacott, who had studied under Canova.  Though few remember today, the statue was commissioned by a group of upper-class ladies to honor the Duke of Wellington as a war hero.  When the statue was unveiled, the public, shocked to discover a large nude figure, laughed and made jokes about the statue.  Embarrassed, once again Wellington had a fig leaf strategically placed.  This one is not removable.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Your Reading List

Like most people, I always imagined that if I had to survive the Apocalypse, I’d be fighting through the dystopian wasteland dressed in leather, with a pump shotgun strapped to my back.  As it turned out, the reality appears to be “wandering around my living room in sweats and a pair of slippers while trying in vain to find the DirecTV remote”.

At least I was right about the scavenging for food part.  Last night, The Doc and I just barely managed to survive on a meal of baked salmon, garlic potatoes, and Caesar salad.  Thankfully, our survival shelter has a freezer heavily loaded with the pickings of Trader Joe’s frozen food aisle.  We can’t be the only people who are going to come out of quarantine five pounds heavier than when some moron shut down the world by lunching on bat tartare.

Sadly, I’ve been watching way too much of the news, where I have learned that the world has already gone to hell, and we’ve lost the basket.  The last couple of weeks have reminded me of several science fiction books that are relevant to the perceived panic, if not to the  pandemic.  Since I find myself constantly making mental comparisons of the day’s news to these books, I thought I would share the list.

The Naked Sun, by Issac Asimov, is a sequel to his Hugo-winning novel, The Caves of Steel.  Written in the early fifties, both books are eerily prophetic.  In a distant future, while the population of Earth is confined to densely packed cities, a small population of humans on the planet Solaria is attended to by a vast army of robots.  The humans on Solaria live almost completely solitary lives, interacting with each other only through “holography”—the equivalent of today’s Zoom or FaceTime.

Despite the ultimate in “social distancing”, there is a murder, so an experienced detective from Earth is brought to the planet to solve the case.  The Earth-man, conditioned by the hive-like conditions of life on an overcrowded Earth, suffers from agoraphobia while he interviews the suspects, who deeply resent his invasion of their personal spaces .

Asimov was way ahead of his time with this novel and it would not surprise me to see someone in Hollywood snap up the rights to this script.  I suspect that, shortly, we will see lots of television mysteries in which the plot is based on social distancing.

Next is The Puppet Masters, by Robert Heinlein.  First, if you saw the recent movie, about the only part of the book that Hollywood used was the title.  The book is about an invasion of parasitic ‘slugs’ that attach themselves to humans and take control of their bodies.  As the world fights this invasion, the first thing to ‘go’ is the wearing of clothing.  Public nudity becomes mandatory and anyone wearing even the smallest article of clothing in public is immediately under suspicion of harboring a slug and promptly killed.  (If Hollywood had filmed that, it would have been a much more popular movie.)

Heinlein’s book is far less a story about an invasion from space and more a commentary about how public attitudes change during an emergency then never return to their previous state.  This book comes to mind every time I wonder how long our wearing masks and self-imposed isolation  will remain with us.  If Heinlein is right, masks and frequent use of hand sanitizer may be with us a long, long time.

Power Play, by Kenneth Cameron, is a a post-apocalyptic tale, in which there is no overwhelming cataclysmic event—no nuclear attack, no virus, no asteroid strike—there is just a power failure.  One by one, the links that hold society together around New York City break, eventually leading to a cascade of failures as too many people in too small of a space suddenly realize that urban living is totally dependent of a chain of supply that can be broken too easily.

What this book does that no other similar book seems to do is drive home the idea that our society depends on the cooperation of a relatively large number of people.  Put plainly, survival requires a group of people and—sadly—Cameron also demonstrates how easily such a group can fall apart.

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank (Harry Hart Frank).  When this book was published in 1959, it was one of the first post-apocalyptic books of the nuclear age, but despite its being over sixty years old, it consistently ranks in Amazon’s list of best sellers for science fiction.  The book is a classic and probably one of the most widely read books in this genre.

I think one of the reasons this book is so popular is that most of the book deals with ordinary life:  growing food, obtaining salt, dealing with feral dogs, and working with neighbors toward a common good.  I must confess, that, despite being the Anti-Social Poster Child, I am starting to miss being with my family, my friends and even the neighbors whom I’ve spent the last thirty years running from when they see me.   

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is another book highly reminiscent of our current situation.  In a world all but destroyed by a swine flu pandemic—called the Georgia Flu before we all learned that the centuries-old tradition of naming diseases? after their point of origin was racist—that has killed most of the world’s population over a period of twenty years.  The remnants of society create a Museum of Civilization that showcases the technology that they are no longer capable of supporting:  cell phones, microwave ovens, and the like.

The point of the book isn’t really the pandemic or even the day-to-day struggle of life after the Georgia Flu:  it is about the triumph of human life over adversity.  Somehow, a book that kills almost everyone on the planet comes off as optimistic.

That’s enough!  In no way does our present situation qualify as a dystopian hell and sitting on the sofa and reading a book is not only my idea of a vacation, but it is a pretty apt description for the last five decades of my life. 

However, I can’t stop making  mental comparisons between what I have read and what I see on television these days.  I can’t be the only one comparing this pandemic to fiction.  I’d be very interested to know which books you have been thinking about.