Missouri State University
Dean's Blog
Communication from the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters

Summer News, 2012

Galanes Gloria, COAL Interim Dean
Dr. Gloria Galanes, COAL Interim Dean

Hello, Alumni and Friends of COAL,

As we get ready for a new semester, I thought you might like to know what’s going on in the college.

Let me introduce myself to you — I am a professor in the Department of Communication, in my 27th year here at Missouri State.

As many of you know, Dean Carey Adams left to become the provost of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, and I agreed to help this academic year by serving as interim dean. This is my second time as interim dean, and I believe I know the college well. I will do my best to help COAL keep moving forward!

Jason Jolley
Jason Jolley
Shawn Wahl
Shawn Wahl
Carolyn Cardenas
Carolyn Cardenas

We start the year with  2 1/2 new department heads! Carolyn Cárdenas, new head in Art and Design, comes to us from Utah State University and Dr. Shawn Wahl, new head in Communication, comes from Angelo State University, Texas.  Dr. Jason Jolley, who served as interim head of Modern and Classical Languages, was selected as the permanent head (Jason is our ½ new head this year!).  One of the things I am most looking forward to this year is working with them, the other four heads, and the associate dean — a wonderful, bright and talented group of people!

MFAA 2012 Art Jam
MFAA Director Ray Castrey with MFAA 2012 students during Art Jam

This summer we concluded our 17th Missouri Fine Arts Academy program. The MFAA is a residential integrated arts program for rising juniors and seniors in Missouri.  It provides artistic experiences, extracurricular activities, and support for students who are talented artistically, including as musicians, visual artists, creative writers, dancers, actors.  The students are pushed to explore the arts beyond their own areas of talent — visual artists are encouraged to dance, dancers are encouraged to draw, musicians are encouraged to act, and so forth.  The MFAA has truly changed the lives of many talented Missouri high school students. When the program began in 1996, the state provided the funding for the program; worthy students from across the state participated without cost to themselves and their families.  In recent years, the state has reduced (and consistently discusses eliminating) funding for this program. Thus, we have been forced to charge tuition, with reduced fees for those students on free and reduced lunch programs.  In addition, the college has supported the program financially because we think it is important — to Missouri as well as to COAL.  But as you can guess, many worthy students now cannot afford even the fairly modest tuition charged for the three weeks here on campus. One of the things I am committed to doing is figuring out a way that we can support the MFAA and put it on a sustainable footing that can withstand cuts from the state.  You will be hearing more about this in future blogs. If you want to know more about the MFAA, I Tent Theatre 50th Season Signencourage you to go to the website and take a look at the pictures from the 2012 academy.

In other summer news,  we had a joyous celebration of Tent Theatre‘s 50th anniversary in July. Four different reunion celebrations, by decades, were hosted around town and the gala event, highlighting Tent seasons from the 1960s, packed Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. A wonderful time was had by all who attended, including alums from the first season of Tent.

If you live in or visit Springfield, try to see the renovations of Brick City, just north of downtown Springfield.  Eventually, the entire Art and Design department will move to this formerly abandoned warehouse/factory area.  Being able to house the entire Art and Design department in one facility is a dream that has been decades in the making!  In addition, the two Brick City galleries are both stops on Springfield’s First Friday Art Walk, which is a perfect time to come see Brick City. Renovations are still underway, but by July 1, 2013, the entire department will be in one space.Brick City

Two more things you will want to know about. First, you may have heard that Missouri State is searching for a new president. Applications are currently being reviewed and airport interviews with the semi-finalists will be held in September.  The Board of Governors and search committee members hope the new president will be selected by the end of October.  Second, COAL will be conducting a search for a new dean; that search will commence this fall and will likely be concluded in the spring semester.  We’ll keep you posted about the results of those searches!

I am grateful for your support of the College and hope you will stop in to visit me if you are in the area. And, please, plan to join us for our Homecoming activities October 26 and 27!

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Make Decisions Good

The workshop presenter advanced the next Powerpoint slide in his list of essential steps to accomplish something-or-other. It read: Make Decisions Good. “That’s not a typo,” he cautioned wryly. “As important as a good decision making process is, the implementation, evaluation and adaptation that follow the decision are even more important. We have to make the decision a good one in everything that we do after the decision itself is made.”

Consequences — intended and otherwise — are what separate good decisions from those that only seemed like a good idea at the time. Armed with misplaced confidence in our ability to make objective, rational decisions, we may disproportionately emphasize the importance of the decision making process over what we do afterwards.

It is easier to see this truth in some contexts than in others. For example, as important as the decision to marry someone is, surely whether this turns out to be a “good” decision is dependent on everything that the couple does after they say “I do.” But this is no less true of most choices that we make.

Nobel-laureate Herbert Simon coined the phrase “bounded rationality” to describe the limitations inherent in human decision making. Even under the very best of circumstances we necessarily make decisions based on incomplete information and without the ability to fully anticipate their consequences. While generally we characterize “good” decisions as being based on sound evidence, reasoning, and objectivity, in fact the deck is stacked against our ability to fulfill that ideal.

Acknowledgement of our bounded rationality and the realization that we continue to “make” our decisions as we implement and adapt them should be liberating. A false belief that we can, if we work hard enough, make an objectively good decision that will inevitably lead to desirable consequences, can be paralyzing. Accepting the responsibility — and possibility — of modifying our decisions and expectations is not a matter of making lemonade from lemons or silk purses from sow’s ears. Nor is it simply making the best of a bad situation. The best-informed, most rational decisions must be borne out as such in their practical implementation.

This point of view also should broaden our definitions of success and failure. A friend of mine used to say, “Very few decisions in life are irreversible.” A decision is a failure only if it leads to having absolutely no options. Otherwise, it is at the very least a step toward the next decision.

An overemphasis on making good decisions versus making our decisions good reflects a bias toward rationality and empiricism and ignorance of the extent to which our worlds are socially constructed and our understandings built upon retrospective sense-making. Where we will go next is as important a question as how did we get here.

What decisions have you “made” today?

 

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Stuff

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” — George Carlin

My family and I are preparing for our move to Savannah, Georgia, and George Carlin’s commentary on “stuff” has never seemed more profound.  I’m not sure which realization has startled me more: (1) How much stuff we have accumulated, or (2) How easy it has been to part with most of it.  These two facts would seem to be at odds with one another.  If my stuff is not that important to me, why have I held on to so much of it?

One answer may be simply that I have had the luxury of space.  Four bedrooms, two stories and a full basement allow for a pretty big “pile of stuff.”  The first step in staging a house to sell is to de-clutter, so we now have artificially capped the amount of stuff we can have in the house.  That doesn’t mean we have disposed of all of that extra inventory: There’s a 5’ X 8’ storage container at U-Haul with our name on it.  Still, we have had to pay our trash haulers extra to pick up the large loads on our curb (including one pile I’m pretty sure was visible from space), and a resale shop took away two trailer loads.  For at least as long as the house is on the market we will have to resist the urge to bring more stuff into the house – or to unpack things now stored in the basement – but what will happen when that pressure is off?  What will happen when we buy a bigger house?

The volume of our collection would bother me less if it held more value.  I don’t mean that my house is full of useless junk.   Most things we acquired for a purpose and have had functional value.  But few things we own are worth today what we paid for them.  There’s a reason why people want their homeowner’s insurance to cover replacement value for their belongings.  Beyond the reality of instant depreciation, however, I have been amazed at what I have been eager to give away or sell at a loss simply to be rid of things for which at one time I was willing to pay good money.

I am not writing a sermon against consumerism here, although that certainly is part of the problem.  The accumulation of stuff in my house (not to mention my office) is more than just material goods.  There also are all those remnants of daily life that, by default if nothing else, appear deserving of space.

I have never thought of myself as someone who was overly concerned with owning things.  Certainly there have been things I have greedily longed for and times when I have spent money wastefully, but generally I spend little time considering the next thing I want to buy.  Yet I have a house full of stuff that I do not really need and to which I am not terribly attached.  That warrants some reflection.

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If necessary, go shopping

Like most kids of my generation (Oh my, surely I’m not old enough to refer to myself as having a “generation”!), this used to be the time of year for dog-earing pages of the giant Sears “Wishbook.” Today there is an online Wishbook that allows you to create your own online wish list that you can share with potential gift-givers. I think I prefer the more subtle hinting method of circling items and bending page corners, then leaving the catalog oh-so-casually where mom and dad might happen to notice.

I remember dreaming big when it came to the Wishbook. Sure, I knew that in a family with modest means and four kids the chances of a really big score were slim, but surely if there was any time to swing for the fences, Christmas was it, right? There was magic in the air. And while I never did get that battery-powered sports car that you actually sat in and drove yourself, our Christmases were always generous and joyful, and mom and dad worked hard to make as many of our holiday wishes as possible come true.

One big appeal of catalogs, Black Friday circulars and, now, Amazon.com, is the ability to be very specific about what you hope to receive. If you give your parents only general instructions like, “a video game” or “a magic set,” you put yourself at the mercy of what is likely to be their lame interpretation of what you want. (I can use harsh words like “lame” because, as a parent, I know I have been a transgressor of Christmas wishes myself.)

But there was this one Christmas where mom and dad got it exactly right, even better than I had hoped for. I had asked for an electric car racing set, and there was a wide range of possibilities. To my joy, not only did my parents come through, the set they bought me exceeded my wildest expectations. It had every feature I wanted. The cars even had working headlights for thrill-filled night racing!

There were many great Christmases in my house growing up, and more wonderful gifts than I could recount. As a parent I want to give my own kids exactly what they want, too, but the biggest thrills come not when I have simply paid for something they have picked out themselves, but when I have connected by giving them something they loved based on my own knowledge of their wants and personalities.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you celebrate the joy of knowing others and of being known well enough to exchange meaningful gifts. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have advised, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words. Perhaps the saint will pardon me if I paraphrase him to say, “Give gifts; if necessary, go shopping.”

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Telling Better Stories

Election Day 2012 is less than a year away now, and even if you are about as ready for election season as you were to see the Christmas decorations go up at Wal-Mart the week before Halloween there’s really no escaping the media blitz.  With my background in communication and rhetoric, I have picked up especially on repeated references to the political narratives of particular candidates and parties.  American voters have long tuned in to the compelling personal stories of individual candidates, but these broader political narratives contextualize the sea of data in which we would otherwise drown by framing them in overarching stories that resonate with our own experiences.  As I learned from reading rhetorical theorist Walter Fisher back in graduate school, humans are storytelling animals. (See here for an interesting discussion of Fisher’s “narrative paradigm” as it applies to politics.)

Narrative is the telling of a sequence of events involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do.  It’s not surprising that we make sense of life by telling stories since our lives are, in fact, stories.  The fun part is that people may live through the same set of circumstances yet tell their stories of that experience in different ways.  I don’t refer here simply to disagreeing on the facts.  Where we begin or end a story, for example, has a great deal to do with what the story means.  And, of course, point of view, detail, and who tells the story are critical elements, as well.

If I were to tell the “story” of my life (don’t worry, I’m just speaking hypothetically here), I might open with something like, “I was born in a small town in southern Illinois.”  Or I might begin, “The first thing my parents noticed when I was born was that my right foot and ankle were twisted at an improbable, unnatural angle.”  Although possibly suggesting two different ways of telling the complex story of my life, both lines begin the action on May 23, 1964.  But is that where the story of my life began?

Should the story of my life begin with my parents and the choices they made about careers, where to live, and having a family?  Should it start with my grandparents?  Should it begin with the observation that I was born a white male in middle-America?  How should I narrate the sequence of events that have brought me here?

Two classmates of mine once got into an argument when one of them insisted that he had worked for and earned everything that he had and the other countered that perhaps his family’s wealth and his educational opportunities also had had something to do with his situation.  The first classmate was telling a story that began, “Once upon a time there was a hardworking young man who was very ambitious,” whereas the second was suggesting that this “once upon a time” was actually several chapters into the book.

At the core of a liberal education are self-knowledge, understanding of the world, and the pursuit of a meaningful life within that broader world.  Stories and storytelling are natural and powerful ways of cultivating these habits of mind.  Nearly all the humanities and social sciences have explored narrative approaches to their fields of study, from psychology and theology to political science and philosophy, not to mention all the disciplines that have stories at their center, such as literature, writing, theatre and film.  Might we make greater use of these approaches and students’ natural proclivities for storytelling?

Imagine a capstone assignment titled, “The History of Me,” in which students must research and narrate their individual life stories in some broader context.  For example:

  • Genealogical or genetic history: Not simply what is my family tree or genome map, but how do I understand my life today in the context of this history?
  • Social/cultural history: Whether I go back 40 generations or focus on the town where the last three generations of my family have lived, who am I in the context of the people, places and events that have come before me?
  • Religious/moral history: Where have my personal beliefs come from?  Not just, for example, how are Western and Eastern philosophy systems different, but how have historical events and the evolution of ideas culminated to provide the array of choices before me today?

You can imagine similar approaches with frameworks such as evolutionary, political, or economic history.

If we wanted to get really creative we might ask students to narrate their life stories through the lenses of others’ experiences.  Imagine the story of your life told in the context of your mother’s autobiography, or as told by one of your children.  Now imagine your story told from the perspective of an undocumented Mexican migrant worker.  If that sounds strange, just remember all the essays you wrote in school about the role of slavery in the Civil War or the impact of FDR’s New Deal.  What were they but attempts to tell others’ stories through the dual filters of historical evidence and your own experiences?

Expressing our knowledge and experiences through narrative comes naturally to all of us, but a focus on storytelling also reminds us that our stories are constructions, not immutable realities.  The stories we tell are the stories we inhabit.  A dear friend and colleague, W. Barnett Pearce, who was a master at facilitating dialogue and helping people to break through impasses to understanding, used to say that we need to learn to tell better stories.  By “better” he didn’t mean more entertaining or having better plot structure; he meant that we must learn to narrate our experiences of the world in ways that open up possibilities for curiosity and understanding.

In The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel wrote, “God created man because He loves stories.”  I think he may have been onto something.

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Apply Within

After a quiet couple of years on the hiring front, our college is conducting no fewer than 15 searches for faculty and administrators this fall.  Right now we are just in the early stages, hoping that we will be awash in great applications.  Next we will face the challenge of asking the right questions and looking for the right indications in order to make the best hiring decisions.  It’s a challenging task, but in today’s economy I am glad to be on this side of the interviewing desk.

Occasionally I’ll come across a story of a corporate merger or restructuring where employees are required to re-interview for their own jobs.  When two companies fold into one, unlike Noah they typically don’t need two of each creature.  The prospect of having to compete again for the job you’ve already earned seems a bit like being told you have to take your chemistry final over again after you’ve passed the class.

For those of us in higher education, where we enjoy more job security than most people, this idea of re-interviewing sounds especially foreign. Perhaps the one exception, at least for faculty, is applying for tenure.  The department hired you with much celebration and affirmation, and then six years later you have to convince everyone all over again that they should keep you around.

A few years after I was hired as an assistant professor I served on a search committee to hire a new faculty member.  In just that short time the job market had become much more competitive, and we received applications from people who had much stronger resumes than I did.  I remember thinking how grateful I was that I didn’t have to compete with those people for my own job.  When my time came to apply for tenure I only had to compete against myself and my department’s expectations.

Of course, we all are evaluated regularly, but there is a difference between keeping a job and getting a job.  What if satisfactory or even excellent performance wasn’t enough to keep my job?  What if I literally had to compete for it, again, against others who were equally or even better qualified?

I probably would start with the job description.  When is the last time you looked at your own job description?  Is there anything there you might actually be surprised to find?  Would you find the job described there appealing?

What are the qualifications for the job?  Are we as qualified now for our positions as we used to be?  Are we now overqualified for our jobs?  Are we utilizing our abilities to our full potential?  Have the qualifications for our job actually changed since we were first hired?

I am sure most of us would find that we still are qualified for and well-suited to our positions.  But that is only part of a successful application.  I expect that for the college’s 15 searches we will have many applicants who are well qualified.  What generally sets candidates apart is their vision for the position, their enthusiasm, and their ambition.  Often when we hire for a new position or replace someone in an existing position we see it as an opportunity to shake things up or take a step forward.  If you were competing for your own job, what vision would you articulate to convince the search committee of the value you would bring?

We begin a new job with such enthusiasm and creativity, and a host of forces conspire to drive that energy out of us.  I am not suggesting that everyone reapply for their jobs, but I am intrigued by the mental and emotional exercise of imagining one was doing so.  More than a test to see if we could still land our jobs, this exercise could lead us to re-envision what we bring to those jobs and what we would like those jobs to be.

Try this: Write a one-page application letter for your own job.  If the job you have no longer seems to you like a job you would apply for, think about why that is and then talk to someone about it  — a colleague, a spouse, maybe your department head.  What might be possible to make this position a better fit for your abilities and desires?  If you’re generally satisfied with where you are at, imagine applying for the same position but at a different institution.  How would you sell those people on your qualifications?  Or imagine that there are a dozen really qualified people applying for your job – How would you differentiate yourself?  Above all, remind yourself just how much you have to offer and how much you have accomplished already.  Remember, the interview is just a formality.  The job’s already in the bag.

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Does Your Mother Know You Talk Like That?

Once when I was a teenager my mother tried to bolster my resistance against immoral influences by encouraging me to imagine that she was sitting next to me in whatever tempting circumstances I found myself.  Never mind that the fun of being a teenager is wrapped up in the fact that one’s mother is not sitting next to you, her advice reflected a basic truth of social relationships: how we speak and behave is often directly affected by who we think will observe us.  But I think Mom may have been onto something more than that.  It is possible to enrich our conversations and decision making by bringing to mind voices and perspectives that are not physically present.

Most of us have had the experience of walking into a room and having the impression that the conversation stopped or changed course with our arrival.  It is probably a daily occurrence for reporters, ministers, police officers, bosses, teachers and, of course, mothers.  Likely we can think of even more instances when we changed subjects, kept an opinion to ourselves, or chose to use different language because of who was in the room.  Often these kinds of self-censorship serve to avoid conflict or difficult conversations; sometimes they simply mask our own prejudices or our unwillingness to engage others honestly.  In either case, they are examples of things not being expressed because certain people are present.  What if we were to act just as deliberately as if certain people were present, even though they are not?

Some examples of this come easily to mind.  If you wouldn’t call someone a name to their face, don’t do so behind their back.  Don’t say anything privately that you would be embarrassed to have revealed publicly.  (Some have referred to this as the “front page test”: Don’t do anything you couldn’t defend if it appeared on the front page of the local paper.)   Again, though, these are mostly examples of refraining from something.  What would it mean to be proactive on the basis of imagining someone else was present?

Sometimes it is as simple as someone speaking on behalf of a person who is absent from a meeting, for example, “If Susan were here she’d ask about the financing.”  The implication here is that the speaker, at least, knows Susan well enough to be right about what she would say.  It is not always so simple.  A couple of years ago I was with a group of faculty and staff brainstorming ways to make MSU’s public affairs theme relevant to students and we realized that we didn’t really know what students thought.  Rather than attempting to speak for students or assuming that they would agree with us, this realization led us to plan additional conversations that did involve students.

A friend of mine who has worked extensively in facilitating dialogue suggests that we pause to ask ourselves, “Whose viewpoint is not being represented in our discussion?  What do we think those others might say if they were here?”  While we must be very careful about assuming that we know what others would say, and sometimes what we need to do is suspend the conversation until those others can be present to speak for themselves, these simple questions can enrich and expand our conversations immensely.

The next time you are in a meeting or a hallway chat, ask yourself what other voices might add to the conversation.  And when the answer is, “I don’t know,” try asking them.

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What Remains

This summer I spent several days with my mother sorting through boxes and trunks of belongings from my grandparents’ homes, many unexamined since being stored following their deaths a decade or more ago.  My dad passed away several years ago and Mom is the last living member of her immediate family, so I was keen at least to make sure relatives in old photos were identified before they passed out of memory.

My paternal grandfather died when I was small, and I only remember one of my great-grandparents.  I have vague memories of some great-aunts and great-uncles, but I would have trouble picking most of them out of a lineup.  (I’m told they were generally upstanding folks, so I suppose I shouldn’t expect to see them in a lineup, anyway.)  Looking at the few scattered remaining photos and letters of my relatives, I wondered at how little that is tangible remains of the lives they lived.  Their rural homesteads fell into ruin decades ago.  Few of their belongings – and most of them had few belongings – have been handed down.  They didn’t publish memoirs, create lasting works of art, or even leave recordings of their voices.  For me, at least, what little remains of them exists mostly in my mother’s stories and snatches of recollection.

For all of the things that were not among these familial artifacts, I was struck by some of the things that had survived into my hands.  Both my grandfather and my father saved receipts from the first cars they bought.  Among my maternal grandmother’s things was a notebook containing a year’s worth of minutes from a women’s church group to which she had belonged in the 1950’s.  Some things survive because someone deliberately saves them, others simply because no one thinks to throw them out.

Three of my grandparents lived well into my own adulthood and I feel like I have lots of memories of them, but how small is the sliver that I retain compared to the totality of their lives, or compared even to what my parents knew and remembered of them?  I wonder what these loved ones thought we would remember about them, or what they hoped we would remember.  How much of who my own parents were will I be able to pass on to my own children and grandchildren?

The one tangible legacy that all of our ancestors have left us, for good or ill, is us.  What remains of our forbearers is something different in each of their descendants.  Some of it is physical, such as the family nose, red hair, or long legs.  According to my mom I have her brother’s hands.   Much of it is in the values that are passed from parents to children.  We continually contribute to the meanings of our ancestors’ lives, and the importance of what they did and who they were is never completely known.  Sometimes we are not even able to recognize it.

As I look forward to a new semester, my 20th year at Missouri State, and my 25th year of teaching, I think more and more about what will survive of my professional life.  What story will the scattered photographs of my time here tell?  Will I have had any lasting impact on those whose lives I have touched?

With hard work and providence I believe we will have some lasting impact on who our students will become.  It may be through the knowledge we share or the questions we ask; by the examples we set or the time we spend listening to them.  Whatever else we may accomplish, surely they are our greatest legacy.

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21 Aphorisms for October 21, 2011

If you’ve been wondering what radio preacher Harold Camping has been doing since the day the rapture didn’t happen, he’s been busy recalculating.  The new date is October 21st, 2011.  I’m thinking of publishing a book of daily meditations for the month of October (well, the first 21 days, anyway), consisting of 21 aphorisms appropriate for reflection.  I’ll leave it to you to interpret why each one has been included.

  • Measure twice, cut once. (carpenter’s adage)
  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. (proverb)
  • Don’t wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day. (Albert Camus)
  • Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. (Aldous Huxley)
  • I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. (Galileo)
  • “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. (Yogi Berra)
  • The best writing is rewriting. (E. B. White)
  • The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. (Bertrand Russell)
  • Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Albert Einstein)
  • Faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets. (Arthur C Clark)
  • The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. (Carl Jung)
  • There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity. (Arthur Schopenhauer)
  • Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. (Confucius)
  • Whoever degrades another degrades me. (Walt Whitman)
  • The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.  (William Shakespeare)
  • Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.  (Henry David Thoreau)
  • Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.  (Benjamin Franklin)
  • A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.  (George Bernard Shaw)
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (Carl Sagan)
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If you are not yourself today, who is?

Regarding Ducks & UniversesSince receiving a Kindle this past Christmas my new favorite hobby is trolling amazon.com for unknown and out-of-print gems that amazon promotes by making available for dirt cheap or even free for limited periods.  I’ve downloaded more than a few clunkers, but I also have enjoyed several good reads that I would otherwise never have come across.  One such pleasant surprise was a debut novel by Neve Maslakovic titled Regarding Ducks and Universes. Its premise of parallel universes and alternate realities is not particularly original — cross reference It’s A Wonderful Life, the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, and Star Trek second season episode #33 for just a few examples — but the particular story line did capture my imagination.

In Maslakovic’s story, on a certain day a scientist’s experiment leads to the creation of a “copy” universe, identical to our universe in every respect at the moment of its creation but continuing on its own trajectory from that point forward.  (This is referred to as “Y Day” in the story, reflecting the divergence of two universes from a common point.)  Anyone born before Y Day has an “alter,” or a twin in the other universe, whereas anyone born in either universe (A or B) after Y Day is unique.  More importantly, the scientist also discovers a means of safely traveling back and forth between the two universes. (It’s later discovered that the scientist didn’t actually create the new universe, he just discovered a way to link the two universes together.)  The protagonist, Felix, who had always believed he was born six months after Y Day, discovers in his mid-30′s that his parents falsified his birth certificate and he was actually born before Y Day.  The book opens with Felix deciding to travel to the other universe to learn what he can about his “alter.”

Actually, there’s one very specific thing that Felix wants to know about his alter: Has he written a book?  You see, Felix has always dreamed of writing a great mystery novel, but he’s 35 and writes user manuals for a kitchen appliance company, and he has never written a page of his mystery.  When he learns there is an alternate version of himself in Universe B, his greatest fear is that his other self has beaten him to the punch of realizing his lifelong ambition.

I won’t give away any more of the plot (Kindle users, it’ll cost you $4.99 now instead of the 99 cents I paid for it a couple weeks ago – sorry!), but Felix’s fear has weighed on my mind.  Approaching 47, I refuse to describe myself as middle aged but I’m old enough to realize there a number of things I once hoped I would accomplish that in all likelihood will not come to pass.  It’s hard enough coming to terms with what might have been, perhaps harder still to look at others who have done what I have not; but contemplating what a different (better?) version of myself might have done?  That’s harsh.

Felix’s alter has the same genes, the same DNA, the same parents, the same economic advantages as Felix has.  What if Felix B has become a better Felix than Felix?  It is not a mere hypothetical — this other Felix is a real person whom our protagonist can meet on the street.

I give Felix a lot of credit.  He wants to know the answer and actually takes steps to confont it.  I’m not sure I would have that courage.  Felix B is a real life answer to all of those What If? questions that we ask ourselves.

As the book turns out, there are an infinite number of universes rather than just two, and new universes are created all the time by — well, I shouldn’t given away too much of the plot, even if I could explain it in a sentence or two, which I’m sure I cannot.  The point is that not only can a thousand different outcomes be imagined, they’re actually being lived out, somewhere.  In the end, however, the only outcomes that matter are the ones experienced by you; the only choices that matter are the ones you make.  Because you don’t get to live those other lives, you only get to imagine them.

If today were Y Day, I’d like to think that my alter-self would be wondering what I was doing with his life.

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