Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Copying is Cool

There are a lot of double standards when it comes to plagiarism. Take two topics that are taught in schools: jazz music and writing. Jazz instructors often assign transcriptions, asking their students to learn a particular solo note for note. My saxophone teacher told me that his first conservatory assignment was to learn Louis Armstrong's solo on Potato Head Blues, including the nuanced inflections, the bends, articulations, and vibrato. In other words, his teacher had said, copy it as precisely as you can.

In writing education, there's a different story. A student who borrows even one sentence risks expulsion. What school doesn't have a strict, and oft-repeated, anti-plagiarism policy? Instead, writing instructors encourage pure originality. Write what you feel. Describe what you see. Recall an experience you had. Or, if the writing is more scholarly, a rigid structure is imposed. Write a five-paragraph essay. Clearly state your thesis. Which of the great writers, I wonder, learned to compose in this fashion?

When a music student can perfectly duplicate a solo, say the Armstrong solo on Potato Head Blues, (and I mean really duplicate it perfectly, matching the notes so a listener would hear only one instrument) he sounds as good as Louis Armstrong. But, when a poor high school kid goes through the motions of a "five-paragraph essay" it's as good as a five-paragraph essay. That is to say, it has no precedent in the real world of writing -- it's nothing more than a drab exercise.

It is doubtful that there is a pure analog to the jazz transcription assignment in writing education. If a teacher asked a class to go home and copy, word for word, a passage of Faulkner, any half-brained student would simply locate an online text, and copy and paste. Nonetheless, I think the musical exercise of transcription can offer an important lesson to writing educators.

Before moving forward, I want to make a foundational point: culture, be it musical, visual, or verbal, is passed down from generation to generation by example. We learn to speak by copying. We learn to sing by copying. How often do you see a class of art students sketching famous works in a museum? A painter endlessly glancing back and forth between his canvas and the one he is emulating?

Pure duplication is too easy to be an effective tool in writing education. But here are some ideas:

  • Take your five favorite books, all by different authors. Then write a story by arranging sentences that you copy, verbatim, from each book. Cite your sources.
  • Find an obscure short story. Continue writing where the author finished, trying to emulate the author's style as much as possible. Then, give the extended story to a classmate and see if she can identify the point at which you started writing.
  • Locate an online version of a 19th century novel, say Crime and Punishment. Choose a gripping passage, and copy and paste it into your word processor. Then, revise the text to include 21st century technology, culture, and language.
My point is, it's impossible to learn how to write like real authors without emulating them and getting a feel for the words. Would a school ever assign any of my ideas? Probably not. In the world of standardized testing and grading rubrics, there's little room for anything other than grid-like structures. Perhaps the reason that schools don't teach emulation of great authors is that such writers might not pass a modern-day test.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wild Reishi

I found this beautiful mushroom growing on a nurse log in a dry creek bed in the Quinault Rainforest, a region of the Olympic Mountains. It is Ganoderma Lucidum, aka Reishi. It's not exactly a tasty mushroom, but I was still excited to find it. Why? Other than being a hand-held post-apocalyptic sunset, this mushroom is one of the most healthful substances known to man-kind.

According to Rebecca Wood's New Whole Foods Encyclopedia (as quoted from http://www.naturalnews.com/021498.html) Reishi is "An immunostimulant, it is helpful for people with AIDS, leaky-gut syndrome, Epstein-Barr, chronic bronchitis and other infectious diseases. It is used as an aid to sleep, as a diuretic, as a laxative and to lower cholesterol." I briefly searched Google scholar for medical studies on the fungus and found that Reishi:
  • "suppressed cell adhesion and cell migration of highly invasive breast and prostate cancer cells, suggesting its potency to reduce tumor invasiveness" (Sliva, 2003)
  • an extract of Reishi "enhanced the immune responses in patients with advanced‐stage cancer" (Gao, 2003)
  • "intake of G. lucidum caused an acute increase in plasma antioxidant power" (Galer, 2010)
  • "The polysaccharides from G. lucidum enhance the repair process [of radiation damaged cells]" (Pillai, 2010)
These are just a sampling of the many studies showing powerful benefits of Reishi. Commercial extracts are available for upwards of 40 dollars, but, if you can find a wild specimen, stove-top preparation is quite simple. Just chop up the mushroom and boil the pieces in water for at least an hour. The resulting tea is bitter, but well worth it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thoughts On Vegetarianism

"Do you want a burger, or steak for dinner?", Betty asked.

"Well", I said, "I don't normally eat red meat..."

I knew this would happen. Someone had graciously offered me hospitality, and now I was confronted with the difficult decision of rejecting it for a long-held dietary principle. Betty's husband had found me sitting in a shelter outside a school in Caledonia, Ontario, eating lunch next to my bike. It was still early, but a cold and windy day. I was feeling less than enthusiastic about riding, so when he invited back to his house, it didn't take long to accept.

Now I was sitting on the couch, learning the life-story of a Scottish couple who had moved to Canada for opportunity and started a life. In their 20's, they got on a boat and left their native villages for a country with better job prospects. Despite having lived in Canada for over 50 years, I could only barely understand Betty's words through her thick accent. Nonetheless, we talked all afternoon, about her kids, her friend (also named Betty) who came over without asking and had a track-record of uninvited entrances, her work, and the new preacher at church who had strange habits and always showed up late.

At dinner, she served me left-over pizza, instead of a hamburger or steak. Initially relived, I was surprised to discover the pizza was dotted with bacon and sausage. As they dug in, I thought, this will be the first time I've eaten meat in two years. And it's factory-farm meat on a slice of microwaved pizza! But what could I do? Say no to this offering of kindness? Offend my hosts?

They already thought I was being picky for declining the beef. "Strange meal you're eating," Betty remarked, looking at a plate of pizza and potato.

Hesitantly, I cut into the slice. The first bite was good, delicious even. I felt the tension dissipate as we ate together. Here we were: myself a 22-year old cyclist, and two 75-year olds sharing dinner. Though I had just met the couple, I felt like we were already friends.

When it was time for bed, I went upstairs to a quiet room and crawled into bed. The night before I had slept outside in a picnic shelter on the wind-swept shores of Lake Erie. Periods of rain tapped on the roof and contributed to the already flooded lawn. Even though it was late June, the night was cold and blustery. Around 3 AM, two members of the RCMP woke me up with flashlights and demanded to see my identification. Bleary-eyed, I rummaged through my saddlebags for my passport which they then used to see if I was wanted on warrants. After a phone call to a police station somewhere, they found out I wasn't.
"You can't sleep in a shelter in a provincial park," one of them said. "But, we'll let you stay here for the rest of the night." That night I slept uneasily.

Needless to say, I was happy to be in a warm bed tonight. And, I was happy to have a full meal in my belly. Two strangers, blindly trusting, had taken me into their house, shared their table with me, and given me a place to sleep.

Two days later, I was sitting in a picnic table that was slowly sinking into a muddy field on the side of the road, strumming a few chords on my ukulele. A driver who had stopped came over to see what I was up to, and minutes later I was on my way back to his beach cabin. When we arrived, his wife asked if I was hungry. I can't tell a lie, and she presented us each with a plate of pork chops and potatoes. What could I do? Eating a meal that I would have found revolting weeks before, I was shocked to find myself enjoying the food. The next day, back on the road, my body felt stronger than it had in weeks.

At this point, my thoughts on diet and vegetarianism were in turmoil. The narrative that I had been developing for years was getting more complicated. Before my trip, I understood diet in terms of ethics and spirituality. I viewed animals as conscious beings, with the ability to feel pain and experience suffering. I saw the meat industry as vigorously capitalistic, ignoring all moral questions in the pursuit of the highest profits. And I saw animal consumption as unnecessary in the modern world, a dietary luxury. A carnivorous diet had no purpose, other than visceral enjoyment, but it had many effects: meat-eating caused needless pain and suffering, and it degraded the environment, polluting water-ways and contributing carbon to a warming atmosphere.

But then, somewhere in Ontario, I added another piece to this story. Food and diet are not only about ethics. Food is social. We use food to connect with each other. Eating is a bond, a shared experience. In the two cases I just described, complete strangers offered me food as an expression of hospitality, a gesture of kindness. From their perspective, these meals needed to include meat. A vegetarian meal might seem inconsequential, too frugal for a weary and fatigued traveller.

I see a fundamental conflict in dietary choices between ethics and human relationships. Humans are moral creatures, or at least have come to think of ourselves as such. But, at the same time, and perhaps in a more primal and ancient way, we are also social creatures. We thrive in communities. We need friendships to make us happy. And almost all of these inter-personal bonds orbit around a nucleus of shared meals. We cook dinner for our friends. We eat at restaurants together. We barbeque with our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods. And, almost anywhere you go in this country, meat is the centerpiece of these shared meals. Rejecting it makes it hard to share in the essence of the experience. At many of these occasions a vegetarian is an outcast, alienated from the group.

When I think about diet in terms of ethics, I always conclude that eating meat is wrong. It is an unnecessary action that increases suffering. I simply can't justify that.

But, this ethical judgment has to be considered in the context of American culture. Whether I think it is ethical or not, most people eat meat in this country. These people are my friends, and eating together is one of the most simple and satisfying expressions of friendship. If meat is on the table, I'm going to join in and eat.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What I was doing for the last two months

On June 2, I left New York City on a 10-speed Schwinn, heading for Seattle. I met my two friends, Trevis and Joanna, on the Upper West Side and we crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, leaving behind the city, and college. Two months later, on August 2, I rode the same bike into my parents' driveway, 3,000 miles of roads, adventures, and people now behind me.

Here are the basics:

Why did I do it? To see the country. To be surprised. To have a goal.

Reading List:
Zhuangzi - Basic Writings
James Baldwin - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Leo Tolstoy - The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Monique Truong - The Book of Salt
Michael Connelly - Nine Dragons
John Updike - Rabbit Is Rich
Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale
Amy Tan - Joy Luck Club

I always traded books, finding a new one at a gas station or a thrift store in a small town I was passing through.

What was the hardest part?
The wind. After reaching Montana, I faced days of unrelenting head-winds. A day of head-winds is like biking up a mountain, without ever having the opportunity to go down the other side. The wind is loud, and it can make you madder than hell. I cursed at the wind, and called it dirty names. I tried singing to the wind, hoping to appease it. Sometimes I would just lie down and let it blow over me, waiting for it to change its direction.

I spent whole days riding and ended 50 miles from where I began, in a place that was just as flat, windy and empty as the one from which I had left in the morning. Those were the hardest days.

The easiest part?
Riding with friends. I wish you guys had come farther! In Montana and North Dakota I encountered other west-bound cyclists, Rich in North Dakota and Michael in Montana. When we started riding together, the mile-post signs just seemed to effortlessly float past. Check out Michael's blog: http://2guys1biketrip.com/wp/.

Number of flat tires: ~10, almost all of which occurred during a particularly frustrating week in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Diet: I started as a vegetarian. My last dinner was a Big Mac value meal. The switch to a carnivorous diet wasn't easy, but I don't think I could have finished the trip without eating meat. I have a lot of thoughts about this and I'll explain more later.

My bike: My bicycle doesn't have a name, but I still love it. A Schwinn "World Sport", it's a steel-frame, 10-speed. I can't believe how sturdy and reliable this bike was. I never had to fix anything other than a flat tire.

The route: To begin with, it was never planned. In general, I intended on staying north to avoid the heat. That worked well until Montana, when the temperature topped out above 100 degrees for a few consecutive days.

I went through New York, Ontario, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I biked along the Erie Canal, took a 2-hour ferry across Lake Huron, followed numerous bike paths to their sudden and unannounced terminations, and hugged the shoulders of divided four-lane highways.

Coming soon: North Dakota's Oil Boom: The New Wild West;
Flooding in the West: Natural or Man-made Disaster?;
How a Thunderstorm Made Me Bleed;
Why Canada Didn't Let Me In;

and much more.... stay tuned