Mar 31, 2008

Tips on Writing Résumés (aka resumes)

This is part of a continuing series of posts on improving your writing and on getting published.

My thoughts this morning turned to the subject of writing résumés for a few different reasons. One of my employers sent out a call for adjunct faculty members to submit an updated curriculum vitae last week, and then sent out a pointed reminder that educational résumés ought to focus on one's experience in education, and not on marketing or sales.

Ya think?

I also spent the first part of the morning reading articles about the subprime mortgage debacle, including this CNN article on the rapid decline in careers in the subprime industry. I thus thought that a post on ways to improve the quality of one's résumé might make a timely and practical addition to my earlier posts on improving writing.

I bring to the discussion of résumé writing what I believe to be a unique blend of life experiences that lend themselves well to this post. As a former business owner, the regular perusal of the incoming résumés was a necessary element of finding and hiring talented managers. In addition, I have worked in a wide variety of fields, ranging from large corporations to journalism to academia, and I have prepared dozens of different CVs and résumés for my own benefit. Finally, as a writing tutor I have helped countless people improve their résumés, and I know what works.

Heck, after re-reading the last paragraph, I thought to myself that I should be writing a book on the topic and making some money on this. Note to self: send out a query letter.

Anyways, read on, and feel free to post in the comments section any additional thoughts you have on résumé writing, along with humorous examples of poorly-written résumés you have encountered or stellar résumés you have read.

1. Know your résumé's audience. As referenced above, make sure that your résumé highlights the strengths you possess for the specific job to which you are applying. For example, avoid telling the sales manager of a car dealership about your extensive experience as a daycare owner when you want to sell cars.

2. Proofread, proofread, proofread. I have personally scoffed when someone submitted to me a résumé loaded with grammatical errors, and you can bet that those résumés found their way into the circular file can. Get at least two extra sets of eyes to look over your résumé before you send it off, and choose proofreaders who have some basic grasp of language skills. Try to also include as a proofreader someone who is knowledgeable about the industry, and who can help you fine-tune your résumé to that field.

3. Avoid gimmickry the creation of your résumé. Do not clutter your professional résumé with images, word art, or fancy graphics. Use a standard font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, and avoid the temptation to use one of those old-fashioned fonts like English Gothic or Anglican. Keep boldface to a minimum, such as in subsection headers. Use an eye-catching design, but fight the urge to turn résumés into an art project. That being said, I pefer to use a high-quality paper, and use a color like antique white to make my résumés stand out from the pack.

4. Never lie, never overstate your qualifications, and avoid creating impressive-sounding titles for entry-level jobs. If you lie on a résumé, chances are that you will get caught in the future. The same is true for claiming experience or competence in an area in which you are unskilled. Finally, no one falls for the ruse of "sanitation engineer" when all you did was clean toilets in a bar. Be honest - you would be surprised how refreshing that can be to an interviewer who has to sort through résumé fraud.

5. Avoid listing jobs in which your performance was poor. True, one might argue that this is lying by omission, but there is no law that requires you to disclose on a résumé every job you ever worked. If you must list an employer in which you left on less-than-favorable terms, avoid listing those references who would be most likely to torpedo you in a background check. However, if you really screwed up at a previous job, and there is no way around disclosing this, you can acknowledge your past failures and discuss during the interview the fact that you have grown and improved as a person. The interviewer might not buy it, but you will have a clean conscience.

6. Keep it simple. I have received résumés in my corporate experiences that were 15-page novellas, and most business professionals do not have the time to waste on overloaded résumés. Academia is the only field in which a résumé is typically a bulky document (which might be why we ivory tower wonks prefer the elitist term curriculum vitae), and I recommend that résumés for the corporate world stay in the 1-2 page range. Save the minutiae for the interview, should you be graced with one.

7. Get your résumé in the hands of the decision makers. True, some companies require that all résumés get forwarded to a human resource department, but that does not mean you cannot send unsolicited résumés to key people in an organization. CEOs of major corporations are usually far too busy to deal with your résumé, but you can target regional managers and division vice-presidents for individualized delivery. And - most important - properly spell the names of your recipients, unless you think that offending a potential employer is a desirable strategy. I cannot tell you the number of times that job applicants misspelled a simple name like "Michael Brooks," which is a sure way to get me to crumple your résumé.

Mar 30, 2008

An Early Spring Walk in the Woods

(Toledo, OH) Knowing that I needed to get some exercise after a winter that saw witnessed my weight slowly increase, I headed out to Swan Creek Metropark for a hike in the late March winds. When I came across the sign that said "Fire Lane - Not a designated walking trail," I knew that the less-traveled path might offer me more to see in the way of natural beauty.

Or - more likely - I came to the conclusion that I was not going to let a bunch of outdoor bureaucrats tell me where and when I will walk in the woods.

I could hear Canadian geese honking further down the ravine, and I wanted to get some pictures of these majestic creatures. I tromped through the mud and brush to get closer to the geese, which were swimming in the flooded Swan Creek, when I heard a rustling on the path ahead.

Left: A curious resident of Swan Creek Metropark

Some thirty yards in front of me emerged a doe, which stood perhaps four feet tall at the shoulders. The animal stared in my direction, casting a wary eye at the geek in the red jacket and blue jeans that was intruding in her space. This deer, however, seemed less afraid than it was intrigued at the visitor.

We spent a few minutes in quiet examination of each other; I snapped a few dozen digital images and slowly inched closer, while the doe turned her head from side to side, trying to gauge the relative threat that the human posed to her.

My patience was rewarded, though, in an unusual way.

Left: A pair of doe eyeing me in the woods

A second doe, somewhat smaller, joined the first deer in the path up ahead. Neither animal seemed particularly fearful of me, though twenty yards seemed to be about the closest they would let me approach before moving to maintain an acceptable zone of safety.

We gazed at each other for a few minutes, and this was one of those sublime, Zen-like moments of peace and tranquility that come along once every few years. Birds sang overhead, geese honked in the creek, and it seemed as if I was a million miles from civilization.

Yet Airport Highway was never more than a half-mile to the north of me.

Left: A herd of deer passing through a meadow in Swan Creek Metropark

The pair of deer looked to their left, and out of the woods came another three doe. While others may be more familiar with large groups of deer than I, these five creatures were enough for me to settle on the term "herd" as a description.

The group continued to eye me as they foraged in the meadow for edible plants. I stood entranced, not wanting the moment to end and feeling decidedly blessed that the deer allowed me to stand in their presence for so many minutes.

Unhurried, the deer sauntered at a leisurely pace for higher ground and denser woods. I watched the last of the deer turn and stare at me for a moment, raise its tail, and turn again to join the group. I trudged back down to the river bank, but the geese headed for parts unknown during my 20-minute reverie in the woods.

As someone who has lived almost all of his life in the city, an encounter like this makes me aware of what we lose in an urban setting. For today, though, I am filled with wonder at the natural world, and I consider myself lucky for my opportunity.

Mar 29, 2008

On Observing Earth Hour

Château Brooks during Earth Hour

(Toledo, OH) While I remain skeptical as to the degree that human activity is responsible for climate change, I nonetheless decided to participate in Earth Hour this evening. Part of this was to see if my efforts would, in fact, join with those of people around the world to make a symbolic gesture toward energy conservation.

The other factor in my decision was to spend an hour engaged in voluntary simplicity, which I must admit holds greater attraction to me than does Earth Hour.

So off went the lights, televisions, and computers in the house for an hour. I spent my time playing with the dogs, unloading the dishwasher, and taking a walk in the dark around the neighborhood. Of course, since Toledo Edison and the City of Toledo chose not to observe the event by turning off the streetlights, they remained on in my neighborhood.

I counted six of 21 homes on my street with lights out, but three of those stayed dark after 9:00 pm, so I am conjecturing that these were unoccupied at the time, or else busy with a lightless psoriasis treatment. Thus, by my estimate, approximately 14 percent of my block participated in Earth Hour.

My youngest daughter was gung-ho and eager to join in on the observation, even using a candle to take a bath, but my youngest son complained for 20 minutes about needing lights and television. I ended up bribing him with a few bucks so he could walk up to Taco Bell, allowing me at least 30 minutes of relative peace in the dark.

The net result? We probably saved a dollar or two in that hour at my house, but I suspect that Toledo did not contribute much to the planetary reduction in energy usage, at least based upon my cursory glance about the neighborhood.

I did enjoy the quiet, though.

Solid Olive Oil

I suppose that I intrinsically knew that olive oil could solidify, as all fats do at some temperature, but it took one of my grocery-retrieving children leaving a bottle of the stuff in the car for a few days for me to personally experience solidified olive oil. In the picture on the left, the solid olive oil is the whitish lump in the lower right hand portion of the bottle.

I learned today that olive oil begins to solidify at about 43 degree Fahrenheit, which is about 6 degrees Celsius for those of you who live in nations that have embraced the rationality of metric units of measure.

I also learned that there is no harm in consuming olive oil that has solidified, and room temperatures will return the oil to a liquid state. I read that the return to liquidity might make the oil a bit cloudy, but this will only be problematic for those who are as particular about their cooking oils as they are about their wines. Some experts, in fact, advocate refrigerating oilve oil and bringing out only the amount you want to use each day, and they argue that this will reduce the likelihood that your olive oil will turn rancid in warm temperatures or impoperly sealed containers.

Mar 28, 2008

On Burning Homes and Broken Dreams

I drive past this fire-damaged house in Monroe County several times a week, and the charred timbers that poke out of what remains of the roof are a testament to the destructive power of fire. The scorched house digs at me every time I look at it, and I cannot imagine the effects that the loss of a home can have on a person.

I have witnessed a few insignificant fires in my life, ranging from a burning kitchen trash can when I was a small child to an unattended candle that burned a hole in the carpet of my current home. In both cases the fires were noticed before they could erupt into a deadly conflagration, and I consider myself fortunate that my homes have avoided the sort of blaze that destroyed the pictured house on Yargerville Road.

Richard Brown and his wife Elaine are the owners of the home, and the recently-retired couple watched their dream house erupt into flames from the embers of a wood-burning furnace. While it appears that the home can be salvaged, I suspect that the Browns' visions of a happy retirement were irreparably damaged on the night of February 11, 2008.

I look around my own home as I write this post, and I wonder what it must be like to lose impossible-to-replace items like baby pictures, children's art projects, and well-worn copies of favorite books. And what if my dogs were trapped inside when a fire broke out in my home?

I shuddered as I typed the last sentence, and I thank God that I have never suffered a fate like that of the burning of my home.

Mar 27, 2008

On Bizarre and Mysterious Emails

Screen capture of the weird email; click to enlarge

In spite of the presence of a pair of spam filters, a fair amount of spam infests my email account each day. Most of the garbage that passes through the filters ultimately seeks to convince me to purchase some product, while the senders of other emails seek to phish personal information or pass along some virus.

These types of emails make a certain rational - albeit quasi-criminal - sense.

Then there are the seemingly pointless emails, like the strange textual missive I received this afternoon from a "Vanheuse Deuermeyer" with the subject line "vermeer":


Hohe hoholulu

One, do thou so act that his caravan may soon in which people destitute of intelligence become the grief of the kinsmen seemed to abate, and in joy and waved their garments. Then the mighty short distance of the ancient abbey of pavilly burdwan version repeats the error. K.p. Singha, likewise brought in any auncient fabricio. You pithanon. One important opinion maintained by him, in fact, in order that, protected by me, he is now become for fame and glory, the first whoever repeateth them, undoubtedly secureth fame, real journey into space should commence in the vows, and observances. but they have again to likely girl, said samson, as they were driving of your cheek. I'm chairman. I mean the one corney.
This email had no links to porn sites, no apparent sales pitches for items like a Hilton Head rental, and contained seemingly random snippets of text. Some of the phrases are taken from an English translation of the Sanskrit epic The Mahābhārata, while others appear to have their origin in The Wisdom of Niccol Machiavelli.

I have tried a few tricks to see if there is a hidden message, but I do not see any logical solution to this puzzle. The only guess I can hazard is that this email is intentionally baffling in order to elicit a response from a bewildered recipient and thus verify whether the email account is "live" or not.

Anways, feel free to offer your insights in the comments section on the nature of such bizarre emails.

Mar 26, 2008

On Mallard Ducks, Walking, and Melancholia

Left: A pair of Mallard ducks in a West Toledo park (click for larger image)

I have long been prone to spells of nonspecific gloom, and while I am hesitant to toss around DSM-IV labels, I recognize that I probably have a brain that either fails to properly process serotonin, or one that does not manufacture quite enough of this vital neurotransmitter.

I am also a person who prefers self-help over running to the doctor every time my mood takes a downward turn, and I would rather examine my diet, exercise levels, and vitamin intake when I enter a period of prolonged melancholia. Having been a bit depressed of late, I decided that I would go for a walk in the balmy late March breeze and take some pictures of the Mallard ducks that populate a nearby park.

The walk through the neighborhood was entertaining enough, and it began with watching some neighbor kids playing basketball on their driveway. The ball bounced out to the street, and I resisted the urge to drive into the basket for the easy layup against the ten-year-olds, opting to just toss it back.

I sat on the bridge in the late afternoon sun and soaked up a few rays. Cars whizzed by, filled with people who looked as tired as I felt. The ducks were a bit listless themselves, moving only when joggers fresh from their ellipticals came too close to their Anatidae spaces.

Left: A member of the Sciurus family surveys the neighborhood, or plots terror on unsuspecting Toledoans

Walking back I came across a squirrel that peered at me from atop the bricks surrounding an empty flower garden. The creature looked like a lonely sentry keeping watch from the battlements of a medieval castle, though it appeared to possess no weaponry.

In these days of terror, though, one can never be sure, and I thought that the stone structure might be ideal to hide IEDs or something.

The one-mile walk and photographic detours did not cure my blues, I must report, though I returned to my work with a heightened level of energy. Perhaps this would be an ideal evening to wallow in one of my aural anti-depressant techniques: sorrowful songs. I find that listening to morose tunes sung by depressed protagonists - like Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" or Harry Nilsson's "Without You" - can be an effective way to combat the blues.

Rapid Rhetoric: PECCAVI

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

peccavi (peh-KAH-vee) n. an admission of sin; a confession of guilt.

This word is a direct import from the Latin word peccavi ("I have sinned"), which is the first person singular perfect tense of peccare ("to sin"). One might use this term as a replacement for - or in conjunction with - the more familiar mea culpa ("my fault").

Scholar Mark Burnyeat once recounted for the New York Times a historical use of peccavi by British admiral Sir Charles Napier:

The fighting in the 1840s was at a time of British expansion in India. Nevertheless, there were those in Britain who doubted the wisdom of too rapid an advance, and in particular, the capture of the province of Sind, which was thought likely to lead to an overextension of lines of communication. Napier was therefore under express orders not to capture the territory. Once he discovered, however, how little resistance there was, he took the province with ease. ''Peccavi'' therefore meant both ''I have Sind,'' and ''I have sinned'' - perhaps a perfect pun.

Mar 25, 2008

On Russian Cults and Morbid Curiosity

Left: Cave that holds dozens of Russian cultists

I don't quite know what it is about lunatics and cults that fascinates me. As a social historian, I am intrigued about people on the margins of mainstream society, and I have a curiosity about the factors that turn people away from what passes for normal in a given culture.

But I must confess that my interests go beyond the merely academic. If I am on vacation, I am just as likely to take pictures of the homeless as I am of typical tourist traps, and I enjoy a political protest as much for the people watching as I do for the message.

It was thus with a mixture of scholarly inquisitiveness and macabre rubberneckery that I read today of the True Russian Orthodox Church, a Russian doomsday cult whose members have buried themselves in caves to await the end of the world. Cult members also shot at police today after local authorities attempted to offer assistance to the group.

The leader of the True Russian Orthodox Church is a Russian man named Pyotr Kuznetsov, who has been detained at a psychiatric hospital for several months. Kuznetsov and his followers believe that the world will end on May 28 of this year. An estimated 35 members of the cult - including four children - have been holed up in the Penza region since last November, and Kuznetsov and his followers dug an underground well and septic system prior to the group's subterranean seclusion.

Members of the group previously threatened mass suicide if Russian authorities tried to intervene.

Left: Russian cult leader Pyotr Kuznetsov

Russian prosecutors also announced that they intend to file charges of inciting religious hatred against Kuznetsov, which carries a punishment of up to four years in prison. The cult leader already faces charges of organizing a religious group associated with violence.

Kuznetsov reportedly prohibited his followers from watching television, listening to the radio, or handling money. The group reportedly stockpiled enough food and supplies to last through the winter, as well as large quantities of gasoline that Russian media sources claim will be used for mass immolation should the police or military storm the cult's underground bunker.

So I sift through media reports about Kuznetsov and his followers, hoping that we do not see another type of Peoples Temple massacre, but all the while acknowledging that I have a cynical presumption that the next few weeks will likely bring news of an underground tragedy in the hills of Penza.

Mar 24, 2008

Kwame Kilpatrick: Your Time is Up

As someone whose first twenty-five years on the planet were spent within the city limits of Detroit, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for the Motor City. Moreover, once Detroit gets in your blood, it is hard to think of yourself as anything but a Detroiter, even with nearly two decades of living in Toledo.

And it is as a Detroiter-at-heart that I have been watching from across the Ohio border the tragicomedy known as the Kwame Kilpatrick administration. The latest act in this dismal production was news today that Kilpatrick faces charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, misconduct in office, perjury in a court proceeding, and two counts of perjury other than in a court proceeding. His alleged co-conspirator, former mayoral chief of staff and one-time lover Christine Beatty, also faces a host of felony charges in light of what appears to be perjury over their affair.

The Kilpatrick years are a litany of misgovernance, ranging from misuse of city funds to an inability to carry out mandated state audits to recrimination against whistleblowers. Yet all of these scandals pale in comparison with the embarassing prospect of a sitting mayor being tried and convicted of a felony.

Just ask Marion Barry and the citizens of Washington, DC about the damage to a civic reputation involved with an elected official standing trial.

It is time that Kwame Kilpatrick recognizes that his continued presence in the mayor's office hurts the city of Detroit, and that he would best serve the city he claims to love by stepping down. Detroit has endured too many years of his failed leadership, and it is time to turn the reins of the city over to someone who can guide the struggling city without the heavy and distracting burdens of scandal.

My suspicion, though, is that Kilpatrick is too much of an egomaniac to put the city's best interests ahead of his own desperate attempt to hold on to power. Thus, Detroit will likely suffer another period of being the butt of national jokes, further grinding the remnants of this once-great city into the ground.

Kwame Kilpatrick: be a man and step down.

Mar 23, 2008

A Plug for Planned Pethood

Regular readers to this site are familiar with my association with Planned Pethood, the non-profit, all-volunteer Northwest Ohio based organization that has saved and found homes for thousands of cats and dogs since its inception. In 2007 alone the group saved over 2,000 cats and dogs, making it second in the area only to the Humane Society in its ability to rescue animals.

My wife and I have been involved with Planned Pethood for almost two years now, starting as adoptive owners, moving into roles as foster parents to dogs, and lately also serving to screen prospective adoptive parents and doing home visits. I can wholeheartedly endorse Planned Pethood as one of those exemplary charitable organizations that provides a highly efficient use of donated funds.

Recently the organization has encountered some unexpected expenses. Several litters of rescued puppies came down with parvovirus, saddling Planned Pethood with many thousands of dollars in veterinarian fees. In addition, a rescued Westie-poo named Jordan needed a leg amputation, which added to the financial burdens of the group.

If you have a few extra dollars to donate, I suggest that Planned Pethood would be an excellent vehicle for your generosity. Follow this link to the Planned Pethood donation page, and you will see a variety of donation options and payment methods to assist this worthy organization.

Readers whose companies participate in the United Way can designate their contribution to go to Planned Pethood by writing in the group's name on the third section of the pledge form. In addition, many employers will match your personal donation to Planned Pethood. If your company has a matching gift program, please mail the form along with your donation and PPI will process it.

Thank you for your consideration of this request!

Mar 22, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Today a government is strong and powerful, deploys huge armies, millions of gendarmes and police, maintains in its hands all the moral and material powers of the nation - tomorrow, in one night, it can lose all its power, be left without a roof and shelter, lie at the feet of those whom only yesterday it could shoot down or hang publicly.
-- Petr Tkachev

Mar 21, 2008

March Madness Predictions

While I question the assumptions behind the calculations of estimates that suggest that U.S. companies lose an annual $3.8 billion in productivity to the NCAA basketball tournament, I wholeheartedly spend a few dollars each year on several March Madness pools. Besides, after all the extra unpaid work we do for our employers, who are they to whine about a few minutes checking scores on company time, or chatting with colleagues about our brackets?

I generally avoid the strategy of mixing up my picks in the seperate pools, instead usually preferring to keep all of my metaphorical eggs in one basket and play the same bracket in all pools. I figure that if I win, I might as well clean up in grand fashion, rather than later regretting my decision to second guess my analyses by hedging my bets.

This year I have a Final Four lineup of UCLA, Georgetown, Stanford, and Tenesssee. At the moment I am doing quite well, with a 19-4 record after the first 23 games, but I find that one of the keys to winning the pool is getting to the Sweet 16 with at least 14 teams.

I have come close to winning a few pools in the last few years, and last year I was a Georgetown victory over Ohio State away from winning the lucrative pools. Alas, the gambling gremlins denied me my moment of glory, and I finished just out of the money when the Buckeyes eked out a victory over the Hoyas.

Feel free to list your Final Four picks and historic pool victories in the comments section.

Puggle on the Prowl

My two-year-old Puggle, whose name is Eddie, did not let the appearance of an early spring snowstorm from keeping up with his duties in combating the terrorist menaces known as Sciurus carolinensis and Sciurus niger. As I ventured outside during a break in the storm, Eddie picked up the scent of a squirrel that has been his nemesis for months.

Despite his skill at stalking prey and his high rate of speed, Eddie has yet to catch a squirrel, though his resolute dedication should be an inspiration to us all.

Actually, the more I think about it, perhaps this faux-violence form of warfare is preferable to the deadly games played by humans. Maybe it would be better to engage in warfare that was based on Super-Soakers, Slip-n-Slides, and walk in tubs.

Mar 20, 2008

Reviewed Books: Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835; Black Society in Spanish Florida

Landers, Jane
Black Society in Spanish Florida
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999

Helg, Aline
Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004

The process of developing the history of marginalized groups is rarely a simple task, and historians interested in researching groups underrepresented by traditional historical narratives are challenged by a paucity of sources, textual limitations, and the increased likelihood that members of the studied group might be illiterate. Jane Lander’s Black Society in Spanish Florida and Aline Helg’s Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835 each seek to extract the history of peoples of African descent in specific New World contexts, and both authors succeed in their efforts to widen the range of historical discourse on the African Diaspora. Both texts also consider the lives of New World Africans against the backdrop of the ideals of the Enlightenment and within the context of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Frank Tannenbaum’s thesis – which posited that Spanish legal traditions and – in particular, Catholicism – created a more humane form of slavery in Latin America than in Protestant North America - is never far from the discussion in Black Society in Spanish Florida. Landers argued that a “more appropriate place to test Tannenbaum’s original thesis would be an area like Spanish Florida and its frontier, where competing slave systems coexisted in a more or less equal level of development prior to the evolution of monoculture and chattel slavery.” While Landers avoids direct argument in favor of a more nuanced approach to the Tannenbaum debate, her research supports the idea that Africans in colonial Florida fared better than their counterparts in colonies like the Carolinas and Georgia. Landers argued that blacks in Spanish Florida were well aware of the legal protections afforded them by converting to Catholicism. Conversion to the Catholic faith, she noted, “offered significant tangible rewards” to blacks in Spanish Florida, including educational opportunities and legal protections to families, few of which were available to black Protestants. Yet she leaves open to interpretation whether the ameliorated conditions for Africans in Florida were the result of the more benign nature of Spanish culture, or whether these black Floridians simply benefited from advantageous regional politics between the Spain, Britain, and the United States.

Founded just north of St. Augustine in the 1730s, Fort Mose was the first free black community in North America

Helg is less concerned with historiographical debates about the relative merits of competing systems of slavery than she is with the nature of Afro-Caribbean consciousness in late colonial and postcolonial Colombia. Helg noted that Colombia has the third-largest population of African origin in the Western Hemisphere, after Brazil and the U.S. The Caribbean coast and the Pacific lowlands are the regions with the highest percentages of people of African descent. Helg argued that the “two-century old tradition of presenting Colombia as a mestizo nation has greatly contributed to black Colombians’ invisibility.” An Afro-Caribbean consciousness did not develop in Colombia, argued Helg, because of such factors as territorial fragmentation, a well-established clientage system, political competition between urban centers, the lucrative nature of smuggling, and the presence of a vast frontier that offered “viable alternatives to rebellious and free-spirited individuals.” The specters of the Enlightenment the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, argued Helg, were the primary reasons for the efforts by the Crown to restrict slave imports, as colonial elites feared the arrival of revolutionary contagion in the form of rebellious slaves and incendiary ideas.

Both authors considered the role of free blacks and enslaved Africans in the development of the regional economy. Landers argued that free blacks served as a “ready pool of workers” for the Spanish government, and a number of black entrepreneurs carved out commercial niches for themselves in post-British Spanish Florida. Some free blacks also owned black slaves, and Landers argued that their master-slave relationships were not significantly different than their white counterparts. Helg argued that Colombia remained an economic backwater for much of its history, and that the Bourbon reforms “prioritized bullion, tax revenues, and military defense, not agricultural production or modernization.” Officials and landowners in Colombia, unlike their counterparts in Spanish Florida, seemed unable to find ways around the restrictions on the importation of slaves, and Helg quoted a colonial governor who complained in 1804 that “not a single bozal [African-born] slave has entered [New Granada] in seven years.”

Helg and Landers each noted the rise of racialized categories and divisions of labor in Florida and Colombia. Landers noted that a two-tiered system of slavery developed in Florida, as bozales did the backbreaking labor, while ladinos tended to work in domestic and skilled positions. Helg noted that such positions of manual labor as carpenters and masons were the sole province of persons of black and mixed ancestry, while more skilled professions – such as tailors, barbers, shopkeepers, and bakers – were populated almost exclusively by whites, with a just handful of persons of mixed ancestry occupying these lines of work. Such racialized social hierarchies are in keeping with the spread of pseudo-scientific racism espoused by the likes of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers like Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus and British colonial administrator Edward Long.

Left: Colombian river pilots, also known as bogas, on the Magdalena River

The importance of African women in economic and social milieus of Florida and Colombia received attention in both texts. Black women in Spanish Florida, argued Landers, “acquired a legal personality and social opportunities significantly better than their counterparts in Anglo settlements.” Landers held that these women used the social, religious, and political systems to “ameliorate their conditions and achieve a variety of goals.” In particular, argued Landers, the cited case of Nancy McQueen – a domestic African slave who initiated a series of legal actions against her owner - “underscores Spanish commitment to the principle of access; even an illiterate slave woman could get repeated hearings and engage the court and her powerful and wealthy owner in a case lasting more than seven years.” Spanish courts, acknowledged Landers, typically “deferred to the person of higher status,” thus mitigating some of the power that African women possessed in the colonial court system.

Helg found some of the same legal tendencies in Colombia, noting that free and enslaved African women “resorted to the law (notably the Código Negro) to redress injustices.” Even when these legal actions failed to achieve their objectives, argued Helg, free and enslaved African women who navigated the court system at the very least contributed to “making authorities more sensitive to their human rights.” While the Spanish tradition of the extension of legal rights to slaves and persons of color predates the Enlightenment, the dedication that colonial administrators showed to following legal procedure in both Colombia and Florida reflects the influence of such innovative Enlightenment legal theorists as Cesare Beccaria.

Both authors excelled in bringing long-ignored aspects of the African Diaspora to wider audiences, and each historian depicted the lives of Africans in Spanish America within the wider context of post-Enlightenment ideals. Helg’s Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, however, gets a bit bogged down by the author’s insistence on using the historical narrative as a basis for modern political debates. Helg occasionally drifts into political activism in the text, and her laudable efforts to demonstrate continuity between the historical plight of Afro-Colombians and their late twentieth-century counterparts somewhat stretches the credibility of the author's argument. Landers, meanwhile, erred on the side of understatement, and readers will have to closely scrutinize Black Society in Spanish Florida for evidence of any overt political bias. Yet both of these works cover a significant amount of new ground, and scholars of the African Diaspora will find each of these texts to be a necessary addition to their libraries.

Mar 19, 2008

Five Years Later, Iraq Still a Bloody Debacle

Normally I am person who is not bashful of crowing when I am right, living as I do in a world in which those who sit on their hands and wait for other people to notice their accomplishments might grow old before getting any recognition. Yet the fact that I happened to correctly forsee that the invasion of Iraq would turn into a disaster offers me no solace. Countless other Americans and world observers came to the same conclusion, yet our elected officials in Congress either could not or would not recognize the looming catastrophe.

The United States has flushed over $500 billion of taxpayer monies down the proverbial toilet on the ill-conceived mess that is the Iraq War. At some point in the next few weeks, the 4000th American soldier will die in the war, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died as a result of this exercise in neo-conservative sabre-rattling. These figures, of course, do not count the deaths of American contractors, coalition troops, or Iraqi armed forces in the five-year war.

The American economy has been battered by the high rate of wartime spending and - more importantly - by the skyrocketing price of oil. While Saddam Hussein may have been a brutal dictator, his ability to ensure the free flow of oil at market prices was never a concern, at least in the years when he was allowed to turn on the spigots and fill international tankers. Five years have passed since the invasion by the Coalition of the Willing, and the Iraqi oil industry is operating at only 60 percent of prewar production.

And what has been gained in these five years? Sure, Saddam Hussein is out, but in moments of extreme cynicism I suspect that this dubious goal could have been accomplished with a sniper's bullet at a whole lot less cost. The unintended effect of the removal of Saddam, however, has been the destabilization of a sovereign nation and an entire region. The nation of Iraq is now a convenient fiction, as large sections of the country are dominated by local militias and insurgent groups. The country is now an important entrepôt in the global drug trade, and Iraqi security forces are more likely to be smoking hashish or taking bribes from drug smugglers as they are to be engaging insurgents.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that President Bush is too stubborn to consider a course other than business-as-usual, so any changes in Iraq will have to wait until the next president takes possession of the Oval Office. More money, more American soldiers, and more Iraqi civilians will be sacrificed in the next year for the sole purpose of a pathetic attempt to salvage something from the rancid legacy of a failed President.

The Iraq War has uncovered no WMD, has delivered little freedom or democracy to Iraqi civilians, and has not even been able to deliver stable oil prices. The invasion of Iraq has been an utter failure in shock-and-awe, muscle-flexing diplomacy, and it is time to end President Bush's misguided and deadly folly.

Mar 18, 2008

Meet Rory, a Rescue Cocker Spaniel

Pictured on your left is Rory, a 35-pound, three-year-old chocolate cocker spaniel who was dropped off at an area dog pound by his owner. She told the agency that she "didn't like the way he was acting" around one of her children, although she said Rory had not bitten anyone.

When the Planned Pethood volunteer brought this handsome fellow home, she discovered that Rory might have had a reason to be a bit cranky: stuck in his bushy hindquarters was a wire hairband that had been poking him for an unknown amount of time. The device was so thoroughly intertwined with Rory's hair that it had to be cut out.

The poor dog's fur was a complete mess, filled with snarls, tangles, and mats that we had to cut quite a bit of his longer hair. After a few baths, though, Rory no longer smells like a skunk, and he still has the wavy mane on top of his head that makes him look like a distinguished gentleman.

Left: Metallic source of irritation for Rory

Rory is housebroken, though he did mark in the house a few times when he first arrived. He gets along well with other dogs, and is more of a follower than a leader. He has a deep bark when he sees strangers, and Rory demonstrated territoriality in his first day as he woofed at the new people he met. Rory likes rawhide bones, and he does not seem to chew inappropriate items. He is a little nervous riding in the car, and prefers to sit with his head on someone's lap while in the vehicle.

Rory likes to think he is a lapdog, and is quite affectionate with the people in our house. He knows a few basic commands, such as "sit" and "outside," and he loves to lope around the backyard with the other dogs. He seems to prefer to sleep with or near people, and he whined for about ten minutes when we kept him gated in the kitchen on his first night.

For more information on Rory, or any other rescue dog, please visit the Planned Pethood website.

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls.
-- Comte de Mirabeau

Mar 17, 2008

Is Lehman Brothers Next to Collapse in the Post-Bear Stearns Panic?

Following emails from DBS Group Holdings Ltd., Southeast Asia's largest bank, to traders not to do business with the Lehman Brothers, shares in the Wall Street icon plunged $14.83, or 37.8 percent, to $24.43. This represented a drop in Lehman's market capitalization to $12.96 billion, as opposed to the $20.8 billion the stock possessed at the close of trading on Friday.

Lehman Chairman and CEO Richard S. Fuld Jr. attempted to reassure investors today that his company - the fourth-largest U.S. securities firm - can weather any run on the bank's reserves and the associated stock sell-off.

"The Federal Reserve's decision to create a lending facility for primary dealers and permit a broad range of investment-grade securities to serve as collateral improves the liquidity picture and, from my perspective, takes the liquidity issue for the entire industry off the table," he said.

Lehman Brothers will join fellow Street player Goldman Sachs in reporting first-quarter earnings tomorrow. Investors are unlikely to be impressed with the anticipated $500 million in additional writedowns from the firm's exposure to highly-leveraged loans, and it would not be surprising to see shares of Lehman Brothers stock drop into the low teens. LEH has traded as high as $82.05 per share in the past 52 weeks.

Of course, Bear Stearns representatives crowed a similar rendition of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" as late as last week from their perches at 383 Madison Avenue, headquarters of the beleaguered conglomerate. Alan Schwartz, President and CEO of The Bear Stearns Companies Inc., issued a press release last Monday claiming "Bear Stearns' balance sheet, liquidity and capital remain strong," and that there was "absolutely no truth to the rumors of liquidity problems" at the investment bank.

My suspicion is that today's Fed risk guarantees and JP Morgan fire sale purchase of BS stock (pun fully intended) will only delay the inevitable reckoning with the hundreds of billions of dollars in bad subprime loans that caused the house of cards to collapse. Moreover, despite Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's attempt to convince us otherwise, the federal government in essence bailed out Bears Stearns, effectively rewarding the company for a lousy investment strategy, giving us the corporate equivalent of rigged employee performance evaluations.

Of course, had the government sat idly by and allowed the mighty Bear Stearns to collapse, the result would likely have been panic on a level unseen since a certain dark day in 1929. You know that the situation is dire when such stalwart cheerleaders for Wall Street as Alan Greenspan start making historical comparisons.

And that, kiddies, might cause people to stop worshipping so fervently at the Altar of the Unseen Hand, a turn of events much more disturbing to the high priests of global capitalism than the failure of a bank like Bear Stearns. When the working stiffs stop believing in the happy financial fairy tales dished to them by their leaders, things can get pretty dicey.

Mar 16, 2008

On Distance Learning, Weekends, and the Malignant American Work Ethic

While perusing statistics on a distance-learning (DL) class I teach, I began to think about the ways in which American society has changed across time. One of the most significant pieces of data that I examined was student site usage by day of the week. While it came as no surprise that Sunday was the busiest day for my DL students, the fact that almost one-third of all activity occurred on Sundays was a bit startling. When adding the second-busiest day, Saturday, to the mix, approximately 48 percent of all DL activity occurs on the weekend.

Most of my students are working at or near full-time status in addition to their studies, so it makes sense that the weekend would be the ideal time in which to focus on their coursework. And I, as someone stringing together more part-time academic positions than I have fingers, join my students in working seven days a week in the seemingly endless rat-race of self-improvement in a socioeconomic system that punishes those who would rather spend their non-work time in pursuit of activities that refresh the mind.

We have become a nation of people for whom time spent away from some sort of work is viewed as unproductive and perhaps even wasteful. No longer do we collectively see the need for the traditional day of rest, as the drive for productivity has long encroached upon even the traditional sanctity of the Sabbath.

For me, a "day of rest" simply means that I can wake up an hour or two later than I must during the week. If I have not started my weekend workdays by 9:30 am, I will undoubtedly fall behind and start fretting about the backlog of work. I find myself feeling guilty if I leave the accumulating mountain of work-related obligations in favor of taking in a movie, or a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood.

Even our language reflects the American obsession with constant productivity. We describe people who enjoy spending time enjoying the sun as "beach bums," while a person who chooses to spend a weekend afternoon resting in front of the television set is a "couch potato." Even activities that seem recreative in nature - such as golf, dinner at a quiet restaurant, or social gatherings - often take on an atmosphere that makes such a pursuit an extension of the business world, and some folks claim that more business transactions get finalized away from the workplace than in the offices of American business.

In this era of hypercapitalism, a 40-hour workweek is the province of slackers, while most people who toil at full-time jobs expect to put in a minimum of 50 hours. The 60-hour week gets a person the designation of "dedicated," while it is those who are willing to devote 70 or more hours a week to their job who are more likely to be rewarded with promotions.

So I sit at my home office space on this Sunday afternoon, taking a break from correcting exams and preparing lectures, and thinking of a time in the not-so-distant past when weekends belonged to families instead of employers. Am I just an anachronistic and nostalgic daydreamer, or do other folks question the wisdom of the American obsession with maximizing productivity at any cost?

Mar 15, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Better to perish with the revolution than to seek refuge in the almshouse of reaction.
-- Alexander Herzen

Mar 14, 2008

Humorous Non-Answer on an Essay Exam

As a college history instructor, I come across quite a few desperate attempts by students to connive a few more points out of an essay question for which they were unprepared. Until today, though, I have never encountered a pictographic representation of the reasons why a student was unable to furnish an intelligible answer to the exam question.

Blank pages? Yep. Twenty lines of meaningless drivel? Sure. Scribbled, undecipherable pseudo-writing with an occasionally-relevant word? You betcha.

But never a cartoon.

Here, then, is the creative output one of my students submitted on a recent exam. Anonymity will be respected here, but I suspect that the artist laughed as much as I did. You may have to click the image to fully appreciate the detail and the depth of pathos represented in the drawing.

And, yes - I tossed him a few points for creativity, moving his overall grade from "horribly failing" to something like "not quite so horribly failing." There is no inclusion in the artist's rendition of the trip, though, whether the student and his cohorts made use of such brand-name luggage as Delsey.

Mar 12, 2008

A Brief Note to Readers

I am currently in the middle of the grueling rite of academic passage known as comprehensive doctoral exams, which are a series of eight-hour days in which you answer essay questions foisted upon you by professors. You do not know the questions in advance, and the goal is to write like a madman, fully answering the proffered queries and generating 25-40 pages worth of essays from the top of your head. This is one of those significant milestones where PhD students either get a pat on the head or a kicked-out-of-the-program note, so I have been studying like there has been a twitchy-fingered, gun-wielding psychopath right behind me.

As a result, I have been bogged down with testing and last-minute fact-cramming, and have not been able to update the site, answer non-emergency emails, or comment on recent posts. I hope to be through running this acdemic gauntlet on Friday, provided I satisfactorily demonstrate a knowledge level sufficient to be certified to move on as a doctoral candidate. Luckily, the department allows graduate students to bring along their iPods to break the monotony of sitting in a chair and staring at a montor for eight hours.

If not, there is always the position manning the grill and the deep-fryer at the local late-night diner. I am hell on kicking out fried chicken and deep-fried mozzerella sticks, while simultaneously watching a dozen burgers and some sirloins.


Mar 10, 2008

On Drunks, Cars, and American Cults

Drunk driver Michael P. Gagnon, 24, of Adrian, MI, who was charged with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicideLeft: Mug shot of Michael P. Gagnon

This is an unpublished essay commissioned by a local paper, which later decided my thoughts were a bit too harsh for its advertisers and readers. Que sera, sera.

The scenes of horror awaiting responding officers on I-280 that late December night were enough to churn the stomachs of the most steeled police veterans. Littered Christmas presents, bloodied corpses, and an ejected baby carriage were among the testaments to the wrong-way, booze-fueled rampage of Michael P. Gagnon, whose drunken stupidity took the lives of five innocent people.

It is right to condemn Gagnon’s decision to crawl behind the wheel of his brother’s pickup truck after consuming excessive amounts of intoxicants on December 30. Gagnon’s selfish idiocy has forever scarred the lives of the remaining members of the Griffin and Burkman families, and the outpouring of generosity by Toledoans to the various memorial funds demonstrates the power of this tragedy to affect the average person.

Gagnon deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and one can only hope that this self-centered, reckless punk gets a cell at the Toledo Correctional Institution with a window overlooking I-280, thus spending the entirety of his period of incarceration staring at the accident scene.

Yet Gagnon is but a microcosm of a much larger problem, what I like to think of as the nexus between the Cult of Machismo, the Cult of the Automobile, and the Cult of Inebriation. While the ultimate decision to drive drunk lay with Gagnon, we need to examine the the uniquely American social ills that breed intoxicated terrors like Michael P. Gagnon.

Gagnon grew up in a world in which an important measure of one’s masculinity is the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol while maintaining some semblance of control. Those who are unable to “handle” their booze, goes the ignorant myth, are seen as weak men. Males 18-30, by the way, are the highest demographic of intoxicated drivers, and males are involved in twice as many fatal car accidents as females in which alcohol was involved.

Doubt this link between masculinity and alcohol consumption? Take a look at the Facebook and MySpace pages of young people that you know and follow the links of their friends. These websites are filled with images of intoxicated partiers, extolling the virtues of being blasted out of one’s mind. Some of these drunks-in-training actually wear DUIs as badges of honor, as some sort of rite of passage into manhood.

Tied in with this is the not-so-subtle marketing message that virility is intertwined with alcohol consumption. Most alcohol manufacturers at some point feature beautiful models in their ads in a variety of suggestive poses, be it lying seductively on a couch, bouncing around in a bikini, or clutching an icy, sweating beer can with two hands.

Gagnon also came of age in a society that worships the automobile, and one in which self-identity for many people is shaped by their vehicles. Again driven by advertisements is the idea that beautiful women will find you more attractive by your choice of vehicle, and the stubborn resistance by some drunks to relinquish their car keys is undoubtedly a reflection of their unwillingness to give up this potent symbol of their masculinity.

Remember, too, that the ecclesiastical sport of our Cult of the Automobile is NASCAR, an organization that actively promotes alcohol consumption through advertisements on its vehicles and drivers’ uniforms. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of our social hypocrisy toward drunk driving than gleaming stock cars roaring around tracks promoting beer, wine, and liquor.

The Griffin family of Parkville, MD: Danny Griffin, Jr., Bethany Griffin, Jordan Griffin, Lacie Burkman, Haley Burkman, Vadie Griffin, Sidney Griffin, and Beau BurkmanLeft: The Griffin family of Parkville, MD: Danny Griffin, Jr., Bethany Griffin, Jordan Griffin, Lacie Burkman, Haley Burkman, Vadie Griffin, Sidney Griffin, and Beau Burkman

The third component of this deadly combination of influences on drunken killer Gagnon’s mentalité is our collective worship at the Altar of the Bottle. Yes, we occasionally run ads with taglines about responsible drinking, and those holiday public service announcements probably have some effect on curbing drunk driving, but we live in a culture that idolizes inebriation.

James Bond shakes martinis in one scene, while hopping the next into his Aston Martin. We shake our heads at the drunken asininity of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Mel Gibson, and David Hasselhoff, yet in doing so we send a subtle message that inebriation is somehow normal and expected.

Movies like American Pie, Animal House, and Superbad extol the virtues of underage intoxication with little in the way of consequences. Heck, in Superbad, the inebriated protagonist McLovin not only gets the girl, but also wins the respect of the bumbling police officers, who allow the drunken teen to fire off rounds from a police revolver.

And we hold up as the patron saint of the Cult of Inebriation the writer Hunter S. Thompson, a pill-popping, booze-swilling, gun-waving lunatic who blew his brains out with a shotgun. Thompson’s life was even the subject of a reverential bio-pic created to immortalize his inebriated insanity, based upon his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp 118 minutes staggering through the effects of epic amounts of rum, tequila, LSD, amyl nitrate, ether, and a host of other intoxicants, all the while tooling around the desert in a convertible.

Good times, right?

There are certainly steps we could take to reduce further the likelihood of motorized carnage like that wrought by Michael P. Gagnon. The curbing of alcohol advertising – especially such dubious linkages as NASCAR and alcohol – might have some effect, as would the strengthening of drunk driving laws. I suggest a two-tiered approach, with BAC levels over .015 being treated as felonies with mandatory jail time, as a first step in demonstrating that Americans are serious about eliminating the menace of drunk drivers.

But until our values change, we will continue to wake up to news stories detailing the death and destruction created by intoxicated killers like Michael P. Gagnon. So long as we collectively chuckle at a heroin-shooting, red Chevrolet-driving Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, or find humor in the pathetic drunks featured in almost every episode of Cops, we will continue to find that innocent people like Bethany Griffin, Danny Griffin, Jordan Griffin, Sidney Griffin, Beau Berkman, Lacie Burkman, Haley Burkman, and Vadi Griffin will suffer horrible fates at the hands of intoxicated drivers.

It is time that we recognize excessive alcohol consumption as a social disease, and not merely as adolescent hijinks worthy of a wink, a nudge, and a laugh. We need to view stumbling drunks as sick, dysfunctional threats to our well-being, and not as objects of entertainment and – worse – role models.

Party’s over, folks.

Mar 9, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Many people take no care of their money until they come nearly to the end of it, and others do just the same with their time.
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Mar 8, 2008

On Waterboarding and Moral Standards

I was disappointed to see that President Bush vetoed the proposed ban on waterboarding and other forms of torture that the CIA and its operatives may have been using against terror suspects. The President argued that this is "no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe."

The bill, passed by both houses of Congress last month, would have also banned beatings, electrocution, burning, using dogs to terrorize suspects, stripping detainees, and forcing them to perform or mimic sexual acts.

Now, I recognize that the Democratic-controlled Congress has a political angle to pushing this bill, and that overriding President Bush's veto would be an election-year gambit that would pay dividends in the fall. Yet the Democrats - as well as Republicans who supported the ban, like John McCain - happen to be right on this one.

It is duplicitous for the United States to demand that other nations behave in a transparent and humane manner, while simultaneously engaging in some of the most egregious forms of torture and defying the Geneva Conventions, to which the U.S. has long been a signatory. The President can attempt to disguise American war crimes with flowery language like "specialized interrogation procedures" and "extraordinary rendition," but he got us into the Iraq War under the premise (among many) that we were replacing a brutal tyrant who terrorized his people.

For far too long we have ignored the abuses heaped upon detainees in the so-called War on Terror, let alone the violence perpetrated against innocent people like Khalid El-Masri and Abu Omar. If we truly believe that the United States is a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, then we need to act accordingly, as opposed to spending all of our waking moments trying to negotiate a quarter-point loan difference between a half-dozen mortgage lenders.

Otherwise, we are just another in a long line of nations comprised of state-sanctioned thugs and passive citizens who are cowed by fear against speaking out.

Mar 7, 2008

Saga of a US Passport Application

I plan to travel to Europe with my wife this summer, and we will spend our time in Spain, France, and Portugal. I will use at least some of this trip to hit a few archives, looking for primary source material that will strengthen my doctoral dissertation.

Though I have set foot outside of the continental U.S. on a few occasions, my last trips were in the pre-9/11 years, when a passport was not needed in places like Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. I thus began my quest to obtain a passport book so that I might travel abroad, though my efforts to acquire this necessary documentation have been hindered by a few snafus.

My first problem involved my birth certificate. Not only was this tattered photostatic relic missing somewhere in the semi-organized clutter of my house, but the State Department now requires a certified copy of the birth certificate of a prospective applicant. Given that I was born in Detroit, I faced either a 3-4 hour journey to the bureaucratic purgatory known as the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, which maintains such records, or facing the pricey fees of the third-party Internet records specialist

I opted to spend the money online, as my time is worth much more than the $20 or so I would have saved by driving to Detroit. For $54.45, VitalCheck delivered my birth certificate to my front door via UPS within 48 hours.

Possessing the requisite documents and a completed application that I downloaded from the State Department, I proceeded to the U.S. Post Office, one of the designated passport processing agencies. Alas, the form I accessed online has been superceded by a new DOS application in the past few weeks, and I had to fill out the new form all over again. There did not seem to be any discernable difference in the questions asked, but the new form was a 2-color, trifolded document with greater aesthetic appeal.

Maybe all those new passport clerks got bored after catching up on the backlog of applications, and needed a form redesign project to keep them busy. Who knows?

After inking a pair of checks - one for $75 to the State Department and one for $25 to the U.S. Postmaster - I am now the proud recipient of a stamped piece of paper that certifies I have submitted my application. In the next 3-6 weeks, I will receive my official passport, and my travel plans can be finalized. Among my destinations will be Sagres Point and Lagos, important places in the history of Infante Dom Henrique of Portugal, who is a source of academic curiosity for me.

That is, of course, provided that the State Department does not botch my passport, or find some arcane reason to deny me one. I sure hope that blog posts are not scrutinized by the DOS, or I may find myself on a plane to Guantanamo Bay instead of Barcelona.


Mar 6, 2008

Meet Percy, a Rescue Dachshund

Percy is a 1-1/2-year-old, 19-pound male Dachshund who was originally a rescued stray from Fulton County. He found an adoptive home a few months ago, but the adoptive owners decided that they could not handle housebreaking Percy, so he is back with us.

This is Percy's second time in our home, and he really is a sweet, sweet boy who loves to cuddle and play. He gets along fine with other dogs and children, and he is quite protective of his foster home, possessing a deep bark that he uses when strangers appear. Around the other dogs he generally defers to the alpha, but he certainly knows how to stand up for himself, in spite of his four-inch Dachshund legs.

One of Percy's best traits is his easy-going, agreeable manner, and he is always game for whatever the rest of the house wants to do. He likes rawhide bones and dog toys, though he will occasionally chew on inappropriate items left on the floor, such as pencils and pens.

Since he returned to foster care, we discovered that Percy had a urinary tract infection, which might have interfered with his ability to be fully housebroken. As it stands, Percy goes outside about 80 percent of the time, and his accidents tend to occur when he is inside for more than a few hours. He is undergoing antibiotic treatment for the UTI, and we will see if this helps in his progress toward being completely housebroken.

We must insist that Percy's next home be one in which the owners will make a commitment to properly train him to go to the bathroom outside, or who can live with the occasional accident. He has bounced around too many homes in the past year, but in spite of the chaos he remains one of the nicest dogs you will ever meet.

For more information on Percy, or any other rescue dog, please visit the Planned Pethood website.

Mar 5, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: WRASSE

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

wrasse (rass) n. a brightly-colored marine fish of the family Labridae that are found in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea.

The word wrasse has Celtic origins, and is most closely related to the Cornish word gwragh and the Welsh word gwrach, both of which mean "old woman" or "hag." I am not sure of the reasons for the etymological association between wrasses and hags, but perhaps the physical features of these fishes may be related.

Wrasses typically possess spiny fins, fleshy lips, and powerful jaws, and they are valued for food as well as for aquariums. Yet the nineteenth century writer John Bickerdyke, in his 1895 book Sea Fishing, had little to say for the varieties of wrasse he consumed. These fish, he claimed, are "watery and insipid," and the use of wrasse as soup stock produces "the nastiest soup of all soups" (p. 414).

Mar 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Ohio Primary Election

(Toledo, OH) I garnered a few puzzled looks when I took out my camera at the polling booth today, but no one challenged either my status as a photographer or a voter this morning. For the record, I was voter number 35 in my precinct at 7:15 AM, and it appeared that the turnout was quite high today in Toledo.

There were no campaign supporters to waylay me as I entered the polling station, which is always fine by me. I feel compelled to smile and accept the proffered pieces of literature, even if I am voting for the opposing candidate. I have never been one to relish a confrontation in the parking lot over a campaign brochure, but I have witnessed some hot-headed voters in the past who get testy at the campaign volunteers.

The procedure for party declaration in Ohio at primary elections is a bit intrusive. Poll workers ask you to verbally declare your party, and as a political independent it always sounds strange to me when I have to say "I am a Democrat" or "I am a Republican" or "I am a Green Party member" to some well-meaning worker. Even more surreal was the blue collar voter behind me, whose booming "Republican" reply seemed at odds with the jacket he wore, which advertised the GM Powertrain plant on Alexis Road.

Changing times, to be sure.

Beyond the Democratic presidential candidates, the only decision I had to make was about the 3/4% "temporary" income tax that Toledo has been collecting since the 1980s. This is a levy renewal, but some local talk radio personalities have been fanning the flames on a move to defeat the tax. The failure of the levy will result in the loss of some $57 million in revenue for the city of Toledo, which would force the layoff of a projected 40% of the city's workforce.

This is one of those moments where tax-weary voters must weigh the tax savings (in my case, about $500 a year) versus wholesale cuts in city services and a few hundred more unemployed Toledoans adding to the region's economic woes.

I bit the bullet and voted for the levy. As much as I think the shrinking city of Toledo needs to cut its spending (as well as to better manage its declining revenues), I have to live here for the foreseeable future. I think my quality of life will be better served by maintaining this tax and funding city services at their current level than by holding on to that $500 of my income.

As far as the presidential candidates? I will only disclose that my choice was neither Dennis Kucinich nor John Edwards today.


Mar 3, 2008

On Days in Which the World Seems Apocalyptic

Glancing at the headlines this morning was an invitation to assume that the world seems on the verge of chaos. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia are engaged in the dance of war, while commodity prices continue to skyrocket amidst a simultaneous collapse of the dollar. Israeli and Hamas forces exchanged rocket fire, and near Seattle environmental radicals may have torched a posh luxury home development.

Now, I am not normally one to rail with clenched fists about Armageddon, but days like this can push even a sober pundit into a fit of garment-rending and teeth-gnashing.

Some days I wake up and I think I understand the forces that produce social, political, and economic change. I fall back on my years of study, pull out the appropriate theorems, and begin to make some sense of the world.

Then there are days like today, when finding a pair of matching socks seems like an exercise in futility, and where I feel overwhelmed by my ability to comprehend the events of the day. I think on such days I would be better served by unpluging the Internet, turning off the cable news channels, and taking a walk in the woods.

I might not find answers to the difficult problems of the world, but I might just gain a few hours of peace. Perhaps this is more important, anyways.

Mar 2, 2008

Reviewed Books: The Making of New World Slavery; Africans in Colonial Mexico

The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800
Blackburn, Robin
London: Verso, 1997

Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640
Bennett, Herman L.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003

Scholars of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the history of Africans in the New World follow a wide variety of methodological and philosophical approaches to their work, and students interested in these fields and related subfields will find such academic heterogeneity in Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery and Herman L. Bennett’s Africans in Colonial Mexico. Blackburn produced a comprehensive economic narrative of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, tracing the origins of this epoch of mass human enslavement and relocation from its Greco-Roman roots through the early eighteenth century. Bennett, whose text is much narrower in scope, examined the lives of African slaves in New Spain, using state and ecclesiastical records to elicit details of the ways in which Africans in colonial Mexico utilized institutional structures to their own benefit.

Lurking in the background of both books is a pair of provocative theories that continue to influence the historiography of New World slavery. In the 1947 text Slave and Citizen, Frank Tannenbaum posited that Spanish legal traditions and – in particular, Catholicism – created a more humane form of slavery, and that greater socioeconomic opportunities existed for slaves in Spanish America than in the Protestant English colonies. With their innovative 1976 work The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Approach, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price argued that Afro-American culture was a unique creolization of African and European traditions, and that slaves were not “stripped” of inherited culture simply through the process of enslavement. Both of the reviewed texts – like virtually all writing on New World slavery – address in some fashion the arguments of Tannenbaum, Mintz, and Price, and readers will find that both authors are cognizant of the aforementioned literature.

Blackburn approaches the topic from a neo-Marxist perspective, arguing that the slave trade had become “marginal or non-existent” in Western Europe by the advent of the Age of Discovery, and that it was the commercial impetus of private interests that prodded European colonial powers to develop political structures to accommodate and regulate the slave trade. Blackburn implicitly dismissed the Tannenbaum thesis, noting that – while some Spanish slave conditions were less exploitative and abusive than others – the Spanish monarchy “permitted the takeoff of a slave plantation economy in Brazil” during the period of the dual monarchy with Portugal. Blackburn, while not specifically addressing the Price-Mintz thesis, nonetheless shares the view that a creolization occurred among African slave communities. The “lexicons of the patois and Kréyoles,” the author asserted, contained “important African elements” interspersed with contributions from European and Native American languages. In the case of religion, Blackburn argued that the process of creolization owed much to the slave-master dialectic, and that slaves were “still informed by an African matrix which was at variance with the repressed personality and utilitarian philosophy of so many of their owners.”

Bennett positions Africans in Colonial Mexico not as a simple refutation of the Tannenbaum thesis, but rather seeks to find accommodation and common ground with the ideas put forth in Slave and Citizen. In Bennett’s view, Africans in Mexico benefitted from the presence of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, which is in keeping with Tannenbaum, but instead he argues that “Africans and creoles utilized Christian regulatory practices, especially the marriage position, to affirm identities meaningful to them.” It was not necessarily the ameliorating influence of the Church on the institution of slavery that produced more favorable conditions for Africans in Mexico, argued Bennett, but rather the ability of Africans to become “adept at manipulating their conflicting status as chattel, as vassals, and as Christians.”

Similarly, Bennett did not develop his book in a way that rebuts or affirms the Price-Mintz thesis, but instead the author created a nuanced view of the process of creolization. The factors involved in creolization, Bennett argued, included much more than such items as language, beliefs, and kinship practices:
Creole culture included the customs, laws, and institutions that upheld the larger social structure and came to include an ability to navigate the various institutions of absolutism… Eventually, bozales learned to enlist the protection of crown and clergy, who, as representatives of the Spanish sovereign, often stood at odds with individual patricians.
Both authors address the rise of race as a defining characteristic in the European justification for enslaving Africans, though Bennett and Blackburn present different perspectives on the implications of the creation of racial identity. For Blackburn, approaching the topic from a neo-Marxist perspective, European notions of racial hierarchy were economic in nature, and the author argued that plantation owners found that a “construction of the economic [system] based on racial exploitation served their purposes well.” Moreover, noted Blackburn, the evolution of racial hierarchies also served to reinforce white social structures:
Racial fear was probably as important as white privilege in rallying the support of independent white smallholders. Fear and privilege, both constituted with reference to black slaves, possessed the ability to “interpellate” white people, making them see themselves as slaves might see them – that is, as members of a ruling race – and thus to furnish them with core elements of their social identity.
Bennett – while acknowledging that persons of African descent occupied an inferior place in the increasingly racialized social hierarchies that emerged in the New World – instead focused on the opportunities that Africans in New Spain possessed for negotiation and self-fashioning. The institution of the Catholic Church, the author argued, “enabled Africans and their descendants to manifest their recently constructed New World identities in the Christian república.” Moreover, noted Bennett, emerging racial categories such as ladino or mestizo pardo sometimes offered Africans of mixed ancestry an opportunity to redefine themselves in ways that offered socioeconomic incentives.

The Making of New World Slavery is a useful text for scholars desirous of understanding the economic underpinnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, though Blackburn’s insistence upon the primacy of economic factors sometimes obscures the ability of African slaves to engage informs of resistance. Bennett’s Africans in Colonial Mexico provides an examination of an often-overlooked dimension of New World slavery, and the author makes a convincing argument that the structures of the Catholic Church provided African slaves with a vehicle by which to improve their lot in life. Blackburn’s broad overview and Bennett’s narrow focus also serve as methodological complements to each other, giving readers who lack extensive knowledge of the historiography of New World slavery a pair of books that bring a multiplicity of perspectives and approaches to the topic.