Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Grace to You

I frequently get into discussions online with earnest US Jesus people who want to save my soul. They just know (without my telling them) that I live entirely selfishly and consider myself accountable to nobody, and that this must cease. They have an invisible friend who tells them exactly what to do, and that is true freedom. American readers will have to forgive me, but it does seem that over there, they tend to go for the wholehearted espousal and vigorous defense of crackpot religious ideas far more than we do here. I mean, we do have Stephen Green, founder and, as far as I know, only member of Christian Voice, but he is pretty much the only completely home-grown nutter I can think of off the top of my head, apart from that bishop a bit back who told us that evil spirits entered the body via the ring-piece during man-on-man bum sex.

Why do I bother, you may ask. Well, these are often kind people whose concern is genuine. Also, their contributions are most instructive, furnishing as they do copious examples of every logical fallacy known to philosophy, along with demonstrations of selective inattention and often hilarious ignorance. Attempting to find a way into their minds, formulating an approach they cannot misinterpret, is a good exercise for a teacher, or anyone else who doesn't have a life.

What most drives me nuts is the stultifying literalism of the people I'm talking to. Ironic, isn't it, what this literal-mindedness forces you to do? You have to insist that myth (the creation, the fall, the redemption) is physical, historical fact, and that physical, historical fact (evolution through natural selection) is not even myth, but lies. You have to believe that a bunch of fervent, half-educated bible-bewitched amateurs from God-Box Ministries Inc. of Ballsack Falls, Shitsplat County, Texas have the truth ('We decided God done it all, and when we looked at the evidence, we found we were right!') while all those very smart people working so hard in the evolutionary biology departments of the world's top universities are labouring under a massive delusion. Then you call them arrogant. And you want your version of how we got here taught in schools, God help us, that you might raise a generation of scientific illiterates for Jesus.

An earnest but somewhat uncomplicated young man called Brandon asks me questions he thinks are going to stump me, such as: 'So tell me, if we came from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?' and 'what good has evolution ever done for the world?' In his overture to me, he told me that he too had once been a skeptic, but was now showered in the blood of the lamb and saved. Praise Jesus! This is a common ploy: 'I used to think like you, but then the evidence convinced me Jesus is real.' I told him he did not sound like a former skeptic, since he did not appear to understand, let alone to have entertained, any arguments against his position. I told him he sounded more like someone who'd been home-schooled, which he then admitted was the case. Congratulations, Mom and Dad. You've produced a goodthinkful little godbot who is completely unable to think outside of his immediate context.

'Everyone sinned and died. I deserve to go to hell for the wrong things I've done....I've done a lot.' He's twenty-one. His parents must have persuaded him he deserves hell simply for childhood misdemeanours. That, or it's just late adolescent self-dramatising.

'But, since I realized that Jesus died for me, to save me....I don't go to Hell. He came to save you, He came to save me. He died, so we could have the CHOICE of what we believe. He wants you to believe in Him and have a relationship with Him so you don't end up in Hell. But, He gave you the choice to believe what you want, just like a parent loves their kid and gives them a choice. It's your move. He hopes you'll make the right choice.'

I asked him how an omniscient Super-being has any need for hope, since he knows my choices before I make them, but he hadn't a clue what I meant. I might as well have asked if he thought that the inconsistencies encountered in religious imageries might be brought into harmony via a sapiential esotericism that would bring those dissonances back to the harmony of the substance.

Does not the story of Adam and Eve resonate with us because we all know that living inevitably involves a loss of innocence, that merely existing causes us to hurt others, and for many of us there's a sense of exile, and a sense of having fallen away from a better self in a better place? It has the emotional impact of a dream. Dreams often have a powerful effect on us, even if the details are absurd from the point of view of the waking self. Insist Adam and Eve were historical figures and that it all happened in physical reality, and you strip the tale of all its reverberations, making it merely silly. Did Adam have balls when God first made him? If so, what were they for, since Eve appears to have been an afterthought? Why did God plonk that sodding tree in the middle of the garden with two such innocents about? It was like leaving exposed wiring in a nursery. How, if they were innocent of good and evil on eating the fruit, can they reasonably be blamed for having done so? And so on.

After a few exchanges with people of Brandon's stripe, I need to hear music that will restore a sense of the mysterious, of the barely perceived, of a far-away mind that knows me but whose voice is obscured by the noise of this world, especially that kicked up by imaginationless Evangelical God-botherers. This is one such piece, 'Grace to You' by Jan Gilbert, from the album Sound in Spirit by Chanticleer. The words are verses four to six of the first chapter of Revelations.

4 ἰωάννης ταῖς ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαις ταῖς ἐν τῇ ἀσίᾳ· χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἑπτὰ πνευμάτων ἃ ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου αὐτοῦ,

5 καὶ ἀπὸ ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς. τῶ ἀγαπῶντι ἡμᾶς καὶ λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν ἐν τῶ αἵματι αὐτοῦ _

6 καὶ ἐποίησεν ἡμᾶς βασιλείαν, ἱερεῖς τῶ θεῶ καὶ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ _ αὐτῶ ἡ δόξα καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας [τῶν αἰώνων]· ἀμήν.

4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;

5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,

6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.


This morning I received from Amazon my copy of Writing the Icon of the Heart by Maggie Ross. I am going to start reading it on the train tomorrow. She quotes this poem by R.S. Thomas.

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep 
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of 
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

So shut the fuck up. 


Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church explains why there's oil under the ground.  

Friday, 8 February 2013

Arts and Farces

When I learned last September that we'd be offering a foundation course in English for Art and Design, I thought, cool; we'll have a class of lively, enthusiastic and creative young people, athirst to express their passion for art in English. They'll be dying to do presentations. They'll learn a lot from us, and we from them. I was not scheduled to teach them until January, and had October to December with a Foundation in Business English group. They were only eighteen years old and could be very hard to motivate, but they were paragons of dedication and diligence in comparison with the Art and Design students.

'Students' was not the noun most often used by their teachers to designate these kids; a selection of shorter Anglo-Saxon terms was usually deemed more appropriate. With one exception, they were a bunch of sullen little princes and princesses who would roll up fifty minutes late, sit in lessons sulking and playing with their smart phones, respond to teachers' prompts with silence or monosyllables, and frequently disappear after lunch. The teacher who had to teach them most often was crossing off the days until he could finally get the hell out. Of course they were rebuked and threatened, and their Xmas test marked most severely, and I hoped that by the time it fell to me to teach them, socks might have been pulled up and places in the scheme of things understood and accepted.

The students are from Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I have them for four hours on Wednesdays. Last week it only took twenty minutes to get four out of six kids present. Joanne asks if she can leave early, as she has a portfolio to prepare for an interview. I say no, and so she goes into a sulk which she will nurse and nurture for the rest of the day. I announce that we shall be considering the illusion of depth, and launch into my powerpoint presentation, which I refuse to deliver as a lecture: it's going to be interactive if I have to resort to the rack and the screw.

I have loads of vocabulary and loads of paintings and drawings. The vocabulary is chosen to help the little fuc... sorry, students to respond emotionally to the paintings and to describe the artists' use of perspective. You would think, wouldn't you, that anyone who has made the decision to study art and design over here would a) be passionate about art and b) see the necessity for expressing that passion in English, at least some of the time? But no. They have no passion, no fears, no horror, no compassion, no wonder. They dutifully take down the vocabulary, even ask me to re-explain some of it, but they have no reaction to any of the painting beyond monosyllables to describe some obvious, overall feature: 'dark' 'space' 'clouds'. These kids are pretty fluent most of the time, except on the matters that most should occupy them.    

My last slide, ladies and gentlemen, is a mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps you know of it?

'Jesus's Last Meal,' Kevin says.

Yup. Steak, french frarze, onion rings and a pint o' mint chocolate chip arse-cream 'fore they done fried His ass. 'The Last Supper' is what we call it, Kev - it sets up quite different vibrations.

They didn't know anything about the story of the last supper and the impending betrayal and crucifixion, but then again, why should they? They're from the other side of the earth, where they have myths of their own. I filled them in on a few details. Then after two hours filling their heads with vocabulary about one-point perspective, horizon lines, vanishing points, isometric and atmospheric perspective, I said 'tell me about this picture.' 

'Jesus's face is the vanishing point.' Kevin drones.

Hallelujah! A reaction.

'Yes!' Well spotted, that boy, 'Why is his face the vanishing point?'

'Cuz it's in the middle.'

A new group of Algerian pilots and technicians arrived last week. Pretty low language level. In one lesson we were discussing leisure pursuits. 'I like riding whores', one told me. He didn't mean ladies of the evening, but gee-gees.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Loony Module II

I spent three days at home a couple of weeks ago marking essays produced by Chinese MA students on my inter-cultural communication module. Marking these things one after the other is a mind-numbing business but there was a deadline to meet, and I wanted to get them all out of the way as soon as possible and sent off to the other tutor whose privilege it is to double mark them.

'When people who have the first time face to face the person who is not the same as me we might naturally classify he is different.'

Er, yeah, OK, go on...

'Cultural generational might avoid the stereotype by preponderance of belief culture'

Got to read that bit again...

' ...might avoid the stereotype by preponderance of belief culture are generated by human then we believe the culture perform and present our mind then it is from like that way and the more people have similar perceive.'

After marking five or so, the mind starts to wander, the gaze starts to slip down the page; there is seeing but no registering of meaning. Then you realise you have just spent five minutes staring at the margin, without a thought in your head.  

In fact, Culture is a kind of common phenomenon on the surface of the earth. For example, to western culture, the doctrine of Christianity, Copernicus's astronomy and Newtonian mechanics is a culture; 

I suppose so.

Women beam waist, fire burning Joan of Arc and abuse Galileo, is also a culture. Birds of the air, the fish in the water do not have these results. 

Jolly good thing too, I reckon. 

I'm comfortable with the way I handled that first module - pleased with myself, actually. Module no. two was intended to centre around improving the students' linguistic performance in business contexts; meetings, negotiations, memos, presentations and what-not. Language development was what I understood to be the main focus – I mean, look at that bloody essay - and this was why I had been asked to teach it. So judge, dear reader, of my horror when I found in session one that we had been joined by what I took to be two highly articulate native speakers of English. Hell, damn and shite, I thought, these two don't need anything I can offer them, nor can I offer them what they need. They don't need language for negotiations, but actual input on negotiating tactics, and if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a tactician. I’m way too innocent.  

EFL teachers have to teach English for all sorts of special purposes: I've done academic English, law, art and design, tourism and marketing, and others I know have done aviation, banking and medicine. Back in more innocent days, older teachers used to tell gibbering rookies 'oh gracious me no, bless you, you don't need to know the subject, the students are the experts on that. You just teach the language for the subject.' I didn't really believe that then, and I believe it even less now. You do have to know the subject pretty well, and if you are teaching an MA module, you'd better be an expert.

There was no point imagining that I could become an expert in inter-cultural negotiation tactics merely by boning up with a few library books in the evenings. I’d have to actually take part in a number of such negotiations, probably over a number of years. I wouldn’t be ready to teach this module for a decade. I started to get paranoid: who allowed native speakers onto a module intended to help non-natives with their language, and why? What does it do for the reputation of the university and of the MA to have someone teaching by the seat of his pants? And what does it do to me, fearing exposure as a fraud in every session? 

It did my fucking head in, is the answer. Just as an infuriating process called svchost.exe frequently sends the CPU usage screaming up to 100% and paralyses my laptop, the fear of failure dominated my thoughts to the exclusion of every other consideration and I felt nothing but anxiety, simmering and occasionally boiling over, for a week.

I went to see the lovely Professor Jiaying Wang, who’s in charge of the MA. She pointed out that the two people who were worrying me were nowhere near as clued up as I feared, that I was not required to teach business content but inter-cultural communication, and having a native speaker on the course along with the non-natives was therefore a good opportunity for all concerned. 

‘The students really like you!’ she said. ‘They appreciate your sense of humour and all the work you put in and how clear you make everything for them. The only reason I’m not trying to persuade you to go on is that I can see it’s stressing you out and I know how bad that feels.’ 

Bless you for that, Jiaying, I'll never forget it. Pity I can't use your real name here.

We agreed I would do one more session while she found a replacement for me. So feeling like a prisoner on a tumbrel being transported to Tyburn rather than a commuter on the Birmingham New Street train, I went in and did it. And it was fine. Nimit the Native Speaker was indeed as clueless about intercultural communication as Jiaying had said, and the other ‘native speaker’ Carla, was in fact Colombian and married to an Englishman, and she very much appreciated some of the vocabulary work we did.

I told the group at the end of the session that I was withdrawing from the module.

‘Oh, that’s a pity!’ Carla said.

‘You don’t teach us again?’ Rui asked.


‘But we love you!’ she said.

I was pressed for an explanation, and mumbled some crap about needing to reduce my hours a bit for health reasons, and felt rather pathetic saying it.

‘But why is it our hours you have to reduce?’ Meixiu asked. ‘Who’s gonna teach us?’

‘Probably Professor Wang.’       

Consternation! No doubt Jiaying cracks the whip more than I do, and they won't be able to crack in-jokes in Chinese. They probably like me because they think I’m a soft touch, I thought. (Because of course, no other reason is possible.)

By the time I got home I felt completely different about the whole thing, and pretty bloody stupid. Why had I got it into my head that I needed to deliver anything other than discourse analysis and language input, as agreed? Why hadn’t I seen immediately that Nimit was clueless about both, and was going to need to learn language grading and more subtle ways of reading reactions and interpreting utterances when dealing with Chinese people? I e-mailed Jiaying to say I now felt I could hack it, but she replied that she had found someone to replace me, various inter-departmental favours had been granted, and it would all be too complicated to ungrant them.

I now think that the anxiety attack simply coincided with the first day of the module, and my mind latched onto the presence of Nimit and Carla as justification for the purely endogenous fear. The worry did not subside when I knew I was off the module, but fizzed and bubbled on for several days. There’s still the occasional pang – even writing this piece made my stomach roll as I relived how I felt a couple of weeks ago. 'Don't get so stressed,' Jiaying said in her e-mail. 'Life's not about work.' Trouble is, there's not much else in mine these days. 

It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve had these paranoid periods. I used to get just peaceably depressed, not screamingly neurotic, and if I had to choose, I’d stick with the former state. Does anyone else experience this? What do you do about it?        

Friday, 1 February 2013

Omelette with Croutons

Because I live for the evening when I can open a bottle of wine and start to cook dinner, I get through rather a lot of money. Money is in short supply these days and so I’ve economised, sort of, by buying cheaper wine. Some of the basic reds from Mark and Sparks or Tesco are not that bad when swigged pretty cold and accompanied by hearty winter food, but tonight, sod it, I’m having something with a bit more character and eating cheap instead. Before we get onto the topic of food, though, let me counsel against buying Waitrose own ‘Italian Red: Rich and Intense’, unless you’re really desperate. ‘Red’ is the only honestly applied adjective on the label. It tastes like flat Cream Soda.

These days I need food to be economical, but also colourful, nutritious and above all, not boring. Omelettes are an excellent solution if you want to eat cheaply but not feel short-changed, and the one I’m going to make this evening could hardly be more frugal; you need three eggs, a slice of bread, and a handful of chopped spring onions.      

I’m not sure where I found the original recipe: might have been Elizabeth Jane Howard and Fay Maschler. I remember they called for parmesan to be grated over the omelette just before serving. I’ll be skipping that bit. The only parmesan I have easy access to at the moment is that repellent stuff that comes ready-grated, looking like soap powder and making food taste like it’s coming back the other way. I have a horror of it. We often ordered ‘Italian’ take-away for lunch when I worked in Athens, and a little drum of this evil stuff would come with each portion of pasta. I always gave mine to a colleague who actually liked it. Tipping two measures of the vile dandruff over his spaghetti he’d inhale and pronounce connoisseurially: ‘Ααα, σαν παπούτσι μαραθωνοδρόμου!’ Like a marathon runner's shoe! The office would reek of pre-bathtime infant and I’d have to go and eat my lunch in the library.    

Well, now that we are thoroughly in the mood, here’s what you do. Cut the bread, wholemeal for preference, into cubes, chop the spring onions, green part included, beat the eggs and add a pinch of salt. Fry the bread in garlicky olive oil until crisp, then drain it on kitchen paper. Add more oil to the pan and chuck in your spring onions, whizzing them briefly around until there’s a nice savoury aroma. Finally, add the beaten egg. Just before the omelette sets, scatter your croutons on top, fold it over and slide it onto your plate. That’s it. 

Preceded by a bit of pâté, a few olives, some roasted red peppers dressed with olive oil and basil, and accompanied by a green salad, I think this omelette would be good enough to serve to guests. I wish it had occurred to me to cook it at my mother’s the week after Christmas when everyone was getting fed up of the sight of food. 


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