Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting Used to Presenting

In a little more than an hour I'll step before a packed conference room, with the video conferencing camera and screens running, and make a training presentation. At least, I hope the conference room will be packed. The topic of my presentation is: "Dealing with Regulated Floodplains: Part 1 - Floodplain Basics".

Floodplains have been a huge part of my civil engineering work in the last three years. Part of that has been detailed engineering analysis of floodplains. Another big part of it has been coaching our project managers through the process of developing in a floodplain. Another part has been working with a local city as their floodplain engineer, helping them comply with Federal regulations. It's worked, since they won an award in 2010 for their floodplain management activities.

I do these presentations as "brown bags"; that is, it is intended to be a lunch time presentation. However, since we have offices in three time zones, any of which may want to conference in to any given presentation, we do them at 1 PM Central Time. Almost no one eats their lunch at ours, maybe not at any of them. I usually eat my lunch after, since it's kind of hard to eat and present at the same time.

I've been making presentations like this in the company since 2001. At first they were for our small but growing department. Then we opened some of them up to other departments. When I moved to the training position in 2006, they went "global". For a while we did it at two different times. Now, with a down-sized company, one time is sufficient. So I've ben on-camera with these for five years.

The camera doesn't bother me. I barely know it's there. The audience doesn't bother me much. But the whole idea of presenting in general is not my favorite thing. I wouldn't mind getting up and reading something. But preparing a document to be read, which can fill a one hour training class, if a time consuming activity. It would take me two weeks to do it for a one hour class. So I present sort of extemporaneously, from notes and knowledge of the subject. I prepare mostly by knowing the subject, more than practicing what I'm going to say.

I've never been totally comfortable doing this. Nervousness? Not really, just always concerned that what comes out during the class will be truly beneficial to those who attend. A lot of the things I talk about are dry topics that don't lend themselves easily to lively discussions: construction specifications; floodplains; erosion control; construction management; drainage. I try to find ways to make them lively. Part of this is animation of the voice. Part of it is showing myself to be excited about the topic. None of it is easy. I have to make myself do this the way I do. It seems to work. People seldom fall asleep. And after one particularly animated class a few years ago, the CEO said to me, "I think you've found your calling."

Part of what I do during these classes is treat them as "media practice" for when I'll someday be on camera or microphone for promoting my author activities. If I can do it for engineering, why not for poetry? Or fiction? Or non-fiction historical/political books? Or Christian non-fiction? The topic may change, but the need to show poise and to not say anything stupid are the same. Today I get some more practice at that.

And, I have at least four (and maybe as many as nine) visitors coming from local governments to hear this. Let's hope that poise shows through.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The previous post is messed up

I don't know what happened, but when I went into the last post to try to correct a formatting problem, I lost a bunch of it. Now I can't edit the thing. I'm going to leave it in place for now, and try to fix it tomorrow. I'm much too tired now, and my eyes don't seem to want to focus.

22 Aug 2011: Okay, I managed to fix the previous post and add more to it. I'm not sure it's quite as good as the first time around, but the readers may be the judges of that.

I Don't Get Literary Criticism

File this under "old news", but I'm just getting around to it due to some recent reading that reinforces my old prejudices.

A couple of years ago at the Absolute Write poetry forum we had a thread about critique vs. criticism. Now I enjoy poetry critique, but I've never really liked literary criticism. I contributed to the thread, including this:
Criticism, on the other hand, is evaluating completed poems and comparing them to some standard that the critic holds regarding poetry. We might not state the standard, but it's always there in the background.
To this a most learned lady replied, a professor of some sort, obviously highly educated, also very sure of what she says. Her reply to the above was:
Be careful about conflating the common use of criticism with literary criticism; they are not the same. Literary criticism, and critical theory, are ways of reading texts that are interpretive, rather than evaluative.

One way of thinking of criticism is to look at it as a reader attempting to find personal meaning in a text, to discover how, and why, a text (a poem, a song, a novel, a letter, an advertisement) does or does not "work" for that reader.
Which brings me to the reading I did that finally spurred me to write this post. At the Chicago Publishers Row Lit Fest in June, I picked up the book The End of the Poem by Paul Muldoon. There were drawn from a series of 15 lectures Muldoon gave at Oxford University in the first decade of this century. Now I don't know Muldoon, had never heard of him before. But the book was marked down from $17 to $4, I liked the title, the TOC looked interesting, and so I bought. About two weeks ago I finally got it out of the bag and began reading it.

This is a book of literary criticism, I guess. Muldoon starts out evaluating Yeat's "All Souls' Night", which he ties line by line to various works of Keats, and to other works of Yeats. He looked at lines, structure, even the date it was written, and showed how this line and that line Yeats had borrowed from Keats, and how he was signalling that he was borrowing from Keats. At the end of the lecture/chapter, I found myself more confused than elucidated.

He then went on to Ted Hughes' "The Literary Life". He evaluated this one all right. It appears to have been about an encounter Hughes and Sylvia Plath had with Marianne Moore in 1958. The poem definitely seemed to be about a real encounter, and hence at least somewhat or maybe entirely autobiographical. At one point Muldoon wrote:

I want to concentrate in this chapter on that aspect of the phrase "the end of the poem" connected to the notion of there being "no barriers" between the poem and the biography of its author—including the hinterland of the letter, the journal, the gossip column....
In addition to this, Muldoon does this same line by line (not every line, but many of them) tying of the poem to other works by Hughes, by Plath, by Moore, and others. I reject this idea that the poem must be autobiographical. That's what he seems to be saying in the quote above. Why must every poem be autobiographical? Why must a poem by a poet be tied to other poems by the same poet? Can he/she not have works totally independent of each other?

Muldoon moves on the Robert Frost's "The Mountain", a poem I discovered three years ago and fell in love with. Muldoon, however, butchers it in his evaluation. The name of the mountain is Hor. This, he says, is a lot like hoar and hoary, which connote white and cold things—frost. Thus Frost is cluing us in to his name through naming the mountain Hor.

Give me a break. Is this what literary critics do? No wonder I never liked it. Could frost never mention ice or frost or cold or white or hoary without some over-reaching critic say it has to be about his own name, and hence autobiographical? This whole the poem must be autobiographical and must be tied to the rest of the poet's body of work and must be tied to poems that poet might have read and must have borrowed from disgusts me.

Give me critique any old day. Literary criticism and me have parted company, and I suspect we will never rejoin, unless those guys who met to define it meet and change the definition.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

More on "The Savage Nation"

Since I savaged Michael Savage's The Savage Nation in my last post, without giving much in the way of specifics, I thought I should come back for another post and explain a bit more and give some examples. I also should say that the way I read this book probably wasn't the most conducive to reading for comprehension.

My commute home, the way I normally go, takes me through 15 stop lights (or, if you prefer, go lights). The first nine of those are in Bentonville, the last six in Bella Vista. To slightly engage my brain during the drive home, to further multitask in addition to the driving and the radio, I keep track of how many stop lights I have to stop at. That gets old, however. Eight one day, nine the next, six the next (a good commute), ten the next (a lousy commute). I needed a different multitasking activity. Some of those lights are long ones, and the wait is long due to Bentonville traffic, and counting is at best intermittent.

So I put The Savage Nation in the pick-up and read it during time sitting at stop lights. I found this was a way to make the commute go faster. If I picked the book up as soon as I stopped after the light turned read, it would turn green quickly. If I forgot to pick it up, distracted by something, the light would stay red forever. Then I'd think, oh, I'm missing an opportunity to read, pick up the book, and immediately the light would change. So I picked up the book often.

Admittedly, this is not the best way to read for comprehension, nor for enjoyment. I was disliking the book so much I decided I needed to give it a better chance, so I took it into my office and read it in longer chunks on noon hours or breaks. Unfortunately, it was any better reading in bigger chunks. Here's a sample from it.
Listen to what this lunatic is saying. She and her human-hating buddies clucked over how we process chickens, but they show little concern for the flight attendants who had their throats cut by Arab and Middle Eastern hijackers. No such sanctimony came from the mouths of those psycho nutcases with green hair and nipple rings. No. They're only concerned about a chicken having its throat cut.
Even without the full context of what Savage is talking about, I think you can see that this is not a passage designed to inform. It is designed to inflame. But it's not well enough written even to inflame. This is poor stuff from a man with a PhD. Let's try one more example.
Women are afraid of angry men. Particularly in this homosexualized, feminized America. An angry man frightens a woman. If a boyfriend can't be like a girlfriend (with the exception of a male appendage), she doesn't want him. If a boyfriend can't be like a sister putting on nails with her, she's offended by him. If a boyfriend doesn't look like an emaciated model on heroin, she's afraid of him.

Just as Savage, on his radio show, runs between very good and ridiculous statements, this book of his sprints between the reasonable and the absurd. I have a feeling much of the book if probably pretty good, but getting through the junk is impossible for me. So, as I said in the previous post, I'm not going to finish it, nor will it take up 5/8 inch on my valuable bookshelf space. No, it's going in the garage sale pile. I'll give it two sales. If I can't recoup half my investment, it's going to recycling.
Generalization. Sensationalization. Ranting. It's like that through the book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: The Savage Nation

I'm not sure where I picked this one up, but it cost me 50 cents. Probably at a thrift store, based on the label. On occasion I pick up Michael Savage's talk show on the radio while driving home. He is an enigma among talk show hosts. Sometimes he says the most reasonable things, or gets off on "soft" subjects such as restaurants or bike rides, yet at other times he goes off the deep end worse than any other talk show host. But I say this in this favor: He always makes you think, is always provocative.

So when I had a chance to pick up his The Savage Nation [2002, Plume Books, ISBN 0-7852-6353-5] at a bargain I thought it would be worthwhile.

I wasted my four bits.

It is an awful book. Statements out of context. Premises made and not backed up. Rants that are close to incoherent. Poor flow of thoughts. Silly breakdown of chapters.

This is all based on my reading 37 pages of the 220 in the book. I'm not reading any more. I'll chalk it up to spendthrift ways. Don't buy it, even for 50 cents. Don't waste your time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review - "The Search For The Twelve Apostles"

I bought this book, The Search for the Twelve Apostles by William Steuart McBirnie, Ph.D. [Tyndale House, 1973 paperback 9th printing 1977] at least in part because of who the publisher was, and the title. I picked it up at some used book location—either a thrift store, used book store, or yard sale—for the grand investment of not more than 50 cents. The subject matter sounded good, especially this that was also on the cover: "The thrilling account of how a Bible scholar discovered what finally became of the original disciples of Jesus."

The book, in in 293 pages (not including a list of apostles, a bibliography, and an index, actually covers more than the Twelve. He includes other New Testament figures: Paul, Matthias (who replaced Judas Iscariot in the Twelve), John Mark, Barnabas, Luke, and a few others.

I was disappointed, to say the least, and feel that I wasted my investment. McBirnie has done nothing more than recount the various legends and traditions about where the twelve apostles went after Jesus' ascension. I don't mean to discount his research. What he describes in the book is impressive: so many trips to the Middle East, or to this country or that country; so many documents reviewed, including some he says were never before reviewed by any researcher into the twelve. Much of the book is quotes from the ancient documents he reviewed, or from a few more modern books (say 15th and 16th centuries). It's clear he did much research, and believes what he has is scholarly. The fact that the book went to at least nine printings indicates there was a demand for it in the 1970s.

But what he does is divide the information he found into the category of traditions and legends. Traditions can be relied upon to be truth, he says, while legends should be taken circumspectly. How he separates legends and tradition is not as clear. But, apostle by apostle, he gives us the traditions, he gives us the legends, and he writes a short "biography" of each.

A good example is Bartholomew, one of the Twelve about which little is said in the Bible, in fact nothing more than his name in the list of the Twelve. He was the son of Tolmai.

"His ministry belongs more to the tradition of the eastern churches than to the western churches. It is, however, evident that he went to Asia Minor, in the company of St. Philip, where he labored in Hierapolis...." page 139
Bartholomew escaped martyrdom and went to Armenia, carrying with him a copy of Matthew's gospel. He labored in the area around the south end of the Caspian Sea, where eventually martyrdom caught up with him. One ancient document says he was skinned alive before being beheaded. But then legend has it he preached in India as well. His body (or at least part of it) allegedly is in St. Bartholomew Church, where it was moved after original internment in Armenia.

Give me a break. I don't see the scholarship in this. How does one differentiate between tradition and legend? It would seem by weight of evidence is what McBirnie did. If a whole lot of ancient statements said this is what happened to an apostle, while a few give conflicting information or travels and labors incompatible with the majority report, then the former must be traditions and therefore should be believed, while the others are obviously legends and should be discounted. And throughout the book he seems obsessed to know where these men were buried, laying credence to where their relics are venerated. The was a colossal waste of what are obviously superior researching skills.

I'm discounting the whole thing. I didn't finish it and won't. In fact, I'm not going to waste the 5/8 inch of shelf space this would take. It's going out in the next garage sale, unless I decide to recycle it so that some other schmuck won't take time reading it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tell me what you think, please

Hey readers:

I just made a post over at my blog at, concerning a new, more concentrated effort I'm thinking of making in my writing. I don't want to paste that in here. Would you mind following the link, reading it, titled "Citizen and Patriot", and letting me know what your thoughts are?


Monday, August 1, 2011

Excuses and Factors Revisited

Let's see, my last two posts to this blog—actually my last four posts—were excuses of why my writing production has not been higher, and tacitly why I haven't been making more posts here. One was my tick-borne disease, ehlichiosis. This did indeed slow me down. It's still slowing me down, as I'm not moving as fast as I used to, still have stiffness and pain in my neck. It's improving, but I'm not there yet.

Then there was the Ephraim Factor. I'm sorry, guys, but time with grandson #1 was more important than writing or keeping up with this blog, or any blog. We had a great time, watching Veggie Tails and Winnie the Pooh, reading books, playing Runaway Pillow and T-Rex this or Unintelligible that. But he's gone now, along with the wife, safely in Oklahoma City, giving me a quite house with nothing to do but vacuum up some spilled food, wash and put away a few dirty dishes, wipe down the spills of a 3-year old from the kitchen table, and get back to writing.

Then there's the "what the heck do I do with two blogs" factor. At friend Gary's suggestion, I added an RSS feed of each blog to the other. So the posts I make on one blog are linked to the other automatically. That means readers of An Arrow Through The Air can, if they look at the RSS feed, get to my writer's blog by the links, or at least see that I'm active there.

That doesn't fully solve the dilemma of whether to keep the two blogs or, if I keep them both, what kinds of posts to make to each. But I suppose I don't have to solve that problem yet. I posted a political piece earlier today to The Senescent Man blog. I've posted here. Time to hop on over to my writer's blog and post about my writing routines. And where these three paths in the woods will lead, whether they diverge or converge converge, still remains to be seen.