Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Memories of a (still-living) professor

I don’t make a habit of reading David Brooks anymore, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t run across yesterday’s piece until just now. It begins, “Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family,” a sentence that immediately piqued my curiosity. Years ago, I had a professor with the same peculiar last name. The next sentence, about the death of a woman named Anna after she’d been thrown from a horse, confirmed that Brooks was writing about the same family whose father had once taught my Political Philosophy class.

His name was Ashley. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and I was a typically heady student impassioned by the notion of political contrarianism generally and reactionary liberalism specifically. The school was Wheaton College, a devoutly evangelical institution perpetually toeing the border between extreme-right social ideology and academic mainstream respectability. (It succeeded brilliantly in the former arena and marginally less so in the latter.)

I was conflicted, born into a conservative family cursed (blessed, really) to settle in the Boston suburbs. Despite my considerable social isolation as a child, enough of that famed Northeastern elitist progressivism rubbed off on me to be viscerally repulsed by the ménage à trois of religion, academia, and Republican politics that permeated Wheaton’s classrooms and chapel halls.

Ashley Woodiwiss was a godsend, an embodiment of absurd contradictions. He had seven children, but was nevertheless a high-church Episcopalian in the decidedly low-church bastion of American Midwestern Christendom. He always opened his class with a reading from his pocket-sized Episcopalian prayer book, repeatedly joking that he had no idea how to pray without it. Even this self-deprecation transformed itself, to my impressionable ears, into a subtle mockery of his evangelical peers: their casual descriptions of alleged interactions with God as the laughable contrast to his distinctly Victorian bedside manner with the Almighty.

I loved him for other reasons as well. On the first day of the semester, he inquired as to whether any freshmen were present. Upon hearing nothing, he continued, “Good. Now I can cuss and tell anti-Bush jokes.”

That fall, the Democrats finally retook the House from the GOP, ending their twelve-year reign atop the chamber. This utterly delighted Woodiwiss. Beforehand, while jokingly previewing his upcoming behavior at the polling station, he told us he planned to ask an election official where exactly the “no-electioneering” line ended, step as close to it as possible, yell “Throw the bums out!” and then stride purposefully inside to cast a vote to do just that to the Republicans.

During another class session, he mused, “Jimmy Carter had Habitat for Humanity after he left office, Bill Clinton is a huge policy wonk now, so what’s Bush going to do? Speak to large churches?”

He assigned Shakespeare readings. Once, while attempting to show the class a production of one of the Bard’s plays on VHS (these were the old days, after all), he inadvertently switched the TV to a Manchester United game, whereupon he declared himself “morally torn” and proceeded to watch for several more minutes.

I remember, finally, a game he used to play on Mondays. “I want to hear three stories from this weekend where you remembered you go to Wheaton,” he’d say. A student would call out, “I went to a twenty-first birthday party and no one was drunk.” Someone else might add, “The highlight of my weekend was finding hash browns in the cafeteria on Sunday morning.” “Fantastic!” he’d respond, practically giggling.

It was, indeed, moments like these that endeared him to me most. Reading back through emails I wrote to my family at the time, I’m a little taken aback to find my barely-exaggerated descriptions of him as, alternatively, “St. Ashley Woodiwiss” and a “demigod.” Hovering beneath the surface of my academic man-crush was my giddiness at feeling like an insider: I felt at the time as if I were the only student who truly understood his acerbic wit and, more importantly, was intellectually sophisticated enough to endorse his progressive politics and share his sarcastic dismissal of evangelicalism.

This was probably not perfectly accurate, of course. But reality felt sufficiently similar such that my enjoyment of his class owed at least as much to my fellow students’ imagined bewilderment at his antics as it was to the substance of the jokes themselves.

Years later, I ran into another former student of his, now knee-deep into the (smoldering ruins of the) conservative intellectual sphere. He kindly forwarded me some favorite Woodiwiss quotes he’d once compiled and sent to the professor. Reading them now, I’m almost shocked at their mundaneness:

  • “I was sitting there swilling beer and watching football games all day long New Year’s Day.”
  • “I don’t see how you can be a Republican and be a Christian.”
  • On Exxon: “Hell no, they are terrorists, they are destroyers, they are raping the environment.”
  • “Every Protestant church starts off with a split.”

It’s difficult to fully appreciate, over seven years later, what it was about this brand of humor that so captured me as a rapt 19-year-old. There is, moreover, an inescapable irony in the fact that I received this exhaustive list of Woodiwiss’ anecdotes from a very conservative classmate, an implicit rebuke of my longtime “insider” illusion. Indeed, given the benefit of hindsight, the quote that stands out most to me now is this one: “This is the Wheaton version of a liberal,” he said once. “At Chapel Hill I’m a fascist.”

He isn’t wrong. There was little truly radical about Ashley Woodiwiss. Stripped of any context, his ironic musings were red meat to malleable students craving brain food. But despite their appearance in his Political Philosophy class, these quotes were neither political nor philosophical in essence.

In David Brooks’ piece, which discusses the death of one of Ashley’s daughters and a serious injury to another, Woodiwiss speaks of lessons learned. “Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.”

It’s not a direct quote, but I’ll take it. It sounds like something my old Political Philosophy professor might have said. Right before trying to convince everyone that George W. Bush was the worst American president of all time.

A tale of two platforms

My New York vignette sneaked its way into The New York Times (excerpted below):

Like Bill de Blasio’s New York, West Fourth is a tale of two platforms. And although the teeming masses on each level probably earn similar incomes on average, a yawning gap separates the have-trains from the have-not-trains.

Above lie the A, C and E; below, the B, D, F and M. Separating the two is a cavernous expanse in which the stairways to the levels on either side stretch outward toward the invisible way home.

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The year in 10 posts

I’m not usually a List Guy, and I’m even less a Listicle Guy (nor do I know the difference). But given the recent dearth of writing on this blog dealing with non-Homeland subjects, the end of the year seemed like an appropriate time to select 10 posts from 2013.

Note that these aren’t necessarily my 10 favorite posts, nor were they all posted this year (one wasn’t), nor were they even the ones that garnered the most views (although this category is the general baseline I used to compile the selection below). It is simply a list that expresses, in some abstract or nonsensical way perhaps, The First Casualty in the year that was. Or more accurately, the year that is, until Wednesday.

So without further commentary:

10) “Did you get into Harvard?!?” by Sam Lim (April 6)

Money quote: “While the general perception is that having a degree from an Ivy League school, Stanford, or MIT automatically trumps a degree from most other institutions, the truth is our focus should be on the substance of the degrees and not the degrees themselves.”

9) “At Fernandez v. California Oral Argument, Supreme Court Debates What It Means To Be Roommates” by Victoria Kwan (November 14)

Money quote: “From today’s argument, it looks as though the Supreme Court will reduce Georgia v. Randolph to ‘nothingness,’ as Justice Ginsburg mused. Sotomayor may be able to convince Ginsburg and Kagan, who both showed some discomfort with the amount of control their conservative colleagues would hand to the police. She might also get Breyer’s vote if she can somehow figure out a test that is consistent with both his Randolph concurrence and his desire to limit it in situations like these. Without the support of Scalia, however, the list of justices supporting Fernandez’s claim is stuck at four, which, in the Supreme Court, is still a losing number.”

8) “Beyond the Dish meter, part II” by Jay Pinho (February 18)

Money quote: “I believe Sullivan mentioned recently that if the pace of subscribers didn’t pick up, he may ‘nudge’ them towards paying their dues. This could happen in one of two ways. Either he could reduce the number of monthly “Read On” clicks it takes to trigger the meter (it’s currently at seven), or he could introduce more “Read On” posts as a percentage of his total posts. As an early subscriber, it doesn’t really matter to me which one he chooses. But so far at least, the content lying beyond the “Read On” button certainly seems to justify the annual fee.”

7) ‘Too Far, Too Fast:’ A Timeline of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Disappointment with Roe v. Wade” by Victoria Kwan (May 14)

Money quote: “Though Justice Ginsburg’s remarks may be particularly relevant now–her preferred bottom-up, state-by-state approach to abortion mirrors the strategy that same-sex marriage advocates have been using–this isn’t the first time that the justice has publicly expressed disappointment with Roe’s lack of judicial restraint. Over the years, Ginsburg has been quite vocal about the many roads not taken, even while she approves of the outcome of increased access to abortion.”

6) “‘The Choice’ to stay: Sam Lim and I discuss the season finale of Homeland” by Sam Lim and Jay Pinho (December 18, 2012)

Money quote: “So it looks like that’s our two-man consensus: Saul and Carrie’s relationship takes a turn for the weirder. Or at least, it becomes more complex. I like your prediction of a new main character too: I think that will be necessary, especially after killing off Abu Nazir, Walden, and Estes all in the space of three episodes.”

5) “Whose ‘journalistic malfeasance?’ Fact-checking Joshua Foust’s Guardian critique” by Jay Pinho (June 17)

Money quote: “At the end, Foust laments the barrage of misleading and inaccurate news. He is right: the mainstream American press has had a rocky few months. (In reality, it’s been rocky for far longer than that.) Twitter and other real-time social networks have certainly contributed to the proliferation of these deceptions at ever-faster speeds, although they fact-check just as fast. I actually agree with the general thrust of Joshua Foust’s analysis of The Guardian‘s hasty reporting that appears to have cut corners in dangerous ways. But sometimes even the fact-checker needs a fact-checker.”

4) “A broken Constitution, and a few misplaced facts” by Jay Pinho (December 5)

Money quote: “I bring all this up not to rag on Toobin, who is obviously an astute legal mind. I enjoyed his article and am generally sympathetic to the complaints registered by the progressive movement regarding the Constitution’s many inadequacies. But several passages somehow slipped past The New Yorker‘s legendary fact-checking desk.”

3) “2013 March Madness: College Costs-Style” by Sam Lim (March 20)

Money quote: “In all seriousness, though, skyrocketing college costs are no laughing matter. Given that these numbers show how much students must pay (read: borrow) AFTER they’ve exhausted scholarships and grants, there’s already a great need to boost student financial aid and implement more student-friendly policies. If perhaps more schools followed New Mexico State’s lead (estimated annual net price: $2,344), we might actually be able to curb the growing student debt bubble a bit.”

2) “No Saint in this game: Is Wynn Resorts using Everett United to gain casino support?” by Jay Pinho (May 30)

Money quote: “Everett will get its chance to vote for or against the proposed casino in just a few short weeks. If, as expected, the residents approve the proposal and if Massachusetts subsequently awards the gaming license to Wynn and not either of his competitors, time will tell whether the ambitious project is beneficial to Everett in the long run. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask to ensure that Everett’s residents know just who is purporting to unite them.”

1) “My problem with TEDx” by Jay Pinho (February 17)

Money quote: “The ritualistic — at times almost mystical — nature of the event was deliberately designed so as to overwhelm each listener’s critical faculties with all the pomp and circumstance of a staged performance. It was no accident that, following the final lecture, we were all ushered quickly out to the neighboring lounge, where a bar had been set up with wine and beer, and where we were quickly serenaded by a singing theater troupe while we downed our various alcoholic beverages. The point is not to think: it’s to believe.”

Believe it or not, this list actually excludes the two single posts with the most page views this year: Victoria’s March 5th commentary on Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (712 page views), and my May 26th “statistical jaunt” through more than 1,100 views from Dish readers’ windows (926 page views).

So yes, five of the 10 posts in this selection were written, at least in part, by Victoria and Sam. Their posts in aggregate represented a disproportionate number of eyeballs on the site, and — far more importantly — an even more disproportionate contribution to the quality of the blog itself.

Looking forward to 2014! Here’s your last song for the year:

“Bars were the original social network.”

Fast Company takes note of a beer glass innovation at Salve Jorge Bar in São Paulo:

 The Offline Glass, by Mauricio Perussi, Melissa Pottker, and Fischer&Friends, is a low-fi way to stop any friend from using their phone. It’s essentially just a glass with half a bottom, so if your iPhone isn’t laying on the counter, perfectly wedged in its gap, your beer will spill all over the bar.

Of course, for the clever drinkers amongst you, there are probably conceivable workarounds. Wedge a cocktail napkin in there. Just hold your phone and beer at the same time. “We do not intend to [actually] solve the problem,” clarifies Art Director Mauricio Perussi. “The Offline Glass is just a funny way to annoy friends who only have eyes for their cellphones.”

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