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The Stupid Factor
3/17/2008 11:46:21 AM
Anti-intellectualism in America shows signs of becoming permanently institutionalised, now that the Dubya Bush has succeeded in 1) miring us in an unwinnable 3 trillion dollar war, 2) encouraged the construct of a 'hollow' economy based almost exclusively upon deficit spending (which in turn allowed unconstrained corporate greed to create the sub-prime mortgage mess that is throttling the pahootie out of so many 'ordinary citizens', right now), while 3) making us all feel good about his absolute incompetance and lack of ability to lead the nation wisely. One of the primary reasons why all these unhappy little pigeons have come home to roost (and poop on our heads) is because America no longer encourages individuals to reflect intelligently on the quality of their lives or apply intelligence to the daily living of their lives. After all, if everyone thought deeply about things and actively cultivated broader awareness, people wouldn't tend to consume mass quantities of material things they don't need any more of, would they? The following paragraphs examine some of the causes of today's 'head-up-the-ass' proletarian posturing that passes for 'common awareness.' Fasten your seatbelt and keep your brain in the upright and locked position. Regrettably, the fact we as a nation are in so much deep doodoo right now is not just a slamming indictment of Dubya and his gang of crooks, but of all those addle-brained yahoos in this country who elected him (because they though he 'looked like' a good leader). Sadly, his 'legacy' will in future be looked upon as the one of the worst terms this nation has ever collectively had to suffer through.
One of the huge benefits of having been born before the personal computer became joined to all Western human beings at the hip is an ingrained respect for the old fashioned printed book as both a tool of learning and an instrument of enjoyment.
The Stupid Factor: Fear of Literacy
Throughout my life I have relied upon books to slake my thirst for understanding. It all started (at least for me) with a small ‘Little Golden Book’ that I still have somewhere, titled So Dear to My Heart, that was based upon a 1949 Walt Disney movie of the same name. Combining live action with animation, Disney’s version of So Dear to My Heart concerned itself with a boy in rural Indiana who was determined to raise a champion lamb for the state fair. The Walt Disney movie was itself based upon Sterling North’s children’s book Midnight and Jeremiah and as was the case with most children’s books of that era, the story revolved chiefly around various interplays of strong personalities within a rural family context. Just the sort of homey story best suited for instilling moral lessons about life in small children.
Interestingly enough, as has been often noted by any number of astute authorities in education, true ‘education’ depends utterly upon the successful attainment of basic literacy. Time and time again in the past, we have encountered examples of individuals who have achieved fame and notoriety in highly technical fields not by virtue of their having graduated from Cambridge University with honors, but due to their ability to read and absorb the unlimited learning offered in books. A surprising number of individuals we would regard as veritable geniuses achieved their vast understandings entirely on their own and in fact almost exclusively through the absorption of knowledge through reading, alone.
I was fortunate in having a school teacher for a mother who well understood this basic requisite of learning and encouraged me to read quite early in life. I was three years old when the Walt Disney movie based on North’s book premiered, and the ‘Little Golden Book’ made from that movie was published a year later in 1950. This was my very first book and somewhere in my rather diffuse library, it still occupies a space of no small significance. I well recall having been read to from this book by my father and mother at that tender age and I am convinced that the process of reading stories to children at an early age figures substantially in the development of their critical skills of understanding (this is a fact frequently reiterated by authorities in child development, who underscore the crucial need for story-telling as an early requisite participatory experience for child learning).
From the ‘Little Golden Book’ series of children’s stories I quickly graduated to comic books (yes, those Westernised ‘Animae’ precursors that are so often dissed and looked down upon by well-read intellectuals). From comic books I progressed quickly into science fiction, and my final phase culminated in a break-through from science fiction into mainstream literature when I reached high school age. Of course, in those days (early 60s) most schools still embraced the notion that high school was merely a preparatory phase for entry into college, wherein the process of genuinely advanced learning would take place. It was presumed at that time that a thorough knowledge and understanding of classical English literature was absolutely necessary to properly prepare a student for college, just as was a moderately a well developed understanding of physics and mathematics, since the traditional model of ‘complete’ learning fulfillment at that time presumed that true self-actualisation was best achieved through cultivation of the mind and body as fully integrated halves of the whole human matrix.
Today, schools have been profoundly impacted by many modern nuances of Western life, not least among them the sheer pressure of demographics and the radically changing admixture of ethnic and cultural diversities that today characterise America’s extremely heterogeneous population. So too has the somewhat sinister influence of philistine economic expediencies had its substantial impact on the notable changes in curricular philosophy we have evidenced in the past several decades.
Today, the shift in basic educational preparation has veered far from the traditional model cited earlier and appears to have embraced a new conceptual understanding that the primary and secondary phases of the contemporary American education process exist more to prepare future wage-earners to enter the economy as skilled workers, than to stimulate reflective thought and higher awarenesses. As science and technology have emerged in American society as predominating elements of cultural economic construct, the need for skilled technical workers has expanded proportionately and emphasis has therefore been placed upon preparing most adolescents to follow that path.
Concurrent with this trend, the growing PC movement sentiment woven closely into the modern fabric of social and cultural diversity has found expression in a compulsion to force an acceptance upon the nation that “every child needs a college education”. This soft-gelled and highly emotional bias gathered increasing momentum within the last two or three decades from proponents and advocates of ethnic and cultural integration, mainly due to recognition that distinct (that is to say, ‘easily identified’) statistical elements of our adolescent population were not attaining more fully equalised levels of academic achievement. Bluntly put, Blacks and Chicanos were stigmatised as being far less accomplished in scholastic subjects than White and Asians.
When this finding originally surfaced, there was understandably much peripheral discomfiture and an attendant, proportionate amount of nervous hand-wringing being engaged in by White academicians, since the issue of race has been and ever shall be a most awkward joker in the pack of cards dealt to American educators everywhere. The fact that the racial cross-section of American demographics had been changing radically since the end of the Second World War was evident but not well understood, but the immediate effects soon became apparent enough to educators long accustomed to championing the concept of the classical Western (read: White Anglo Saxon) educational model. Almost overnight, in their frantic haste to explain the fact that Blacks and Chicanos were ‘under-achieving’ in comparisons of racially categorized student populations, attention was rather quickly drawn to the relatively inadequate educational facilities that characterised institutions with student populations that were predominantly ‘non-white’. Other causative factors were similarly sought out and isolated with great haste, prompted as much by acute embarrassment on the part of certain aesthete elements of the educational establishment as by genuine concern over possible social injustices gone long-unaddressed. And since the ‘race card’ is never an easy one to play OR discard in the ‘Texas Hold-em’ poker game that American education seem to have become, a great many efforts were immediately initiated to make this uncomfortable finding more manageable as quickly as possible.
One of the less intelligent, if far more easily embraced, theorisations put forward was that even if we couldn’t immediately rectify this clear but still very ill-understood disparity, we could at least soften the impact on the educational system in the interim by bolstering self-esteem of those students who soon saw themselves as being discriminated against (thanks in no small part to liberal White educators who wished to spare themselves as much embarrassment as possible) by an educational model that was now seen by its very origins as intrinsically handicapping non-Whites (I should clarify that for the sake of simplicity, the term “White” used here means of Anglo-Saxon/European origin, even though the term is imprecise at best).
Thus began the so-called ‘self-esteem’ process of gradually lowering previous standards of academic achievement to a point whereby every student could pass required tests of competency, regardless of actual or quantifiable academic capability. Regrettably, this worked together most synergistically with another process that has been referred to by several contemporary social critics of note as the ‘dumbing-down’ of our society. This reductive reconfiguration of the collective social awareness level down to the lowest common denominator had in fact been actively exploited for years by the economic sector (commerce and business, mostly on the larger, corporate level), so as to more compellingly coerce Americans into assuming an endlessly reflexive consumption mode bereft of any minimal level of critical reflectivity (as regards considerations of either quantity or quality). Together, these two conveniently congruent forces have exerted a more dangerous effect on American culture than anyone but a sociologist might have foreseen, but in terms of lowering educational expectations, the resulting confluence of results has been particularly dynamic.
The popular euphemism that ‘all children need to go to college’, one of the pet exhortations of various liberal advocacy groups, has resulted in a facilitation of that belief achieved largely by a lowering of minimal academic standards, rather than a raising of minimum academic expectations. Not without some irony, many of the youths who have been assured that they are not inferior to the White norm, despite their own vague awareness of not being able to compete on level educational ground, sense the deceitfulness of this bland reassurance and thus understand it to be what it actually is to a large extent: well-intended, but still blatant hypocrisy and an ineffectual, even insultingly insincere sop. Kids may seem clueless, after all, but they’re not hopelessly stupid!
Thus, in bringing about a less demanding learning environment that enables the superficial benefit of making scholastic incompetence seem academically acceptable, multiple unhappy collateral effects have been allowed to add fuel to an already out-of-control educational conflagration. One of these that is most disturbing is reinforcement of the increasingly pervasive conviction that anti-intellectual ignorance is not just acceptable, but even highly desirable as a sub-cultural aspiration. That feeling is embraced more and more by adolescents ‘of color’ who, in having been deserted by nearly every critical role model or socially positive supportive element in their early lives (parents, peers, and schools), turn aggressively to rejection of the social norm for reinforcement of their own self-worth and the basic internal measure of their self-respect. Ignorance is, by this convention, worn with pride like a sort of identifying badge among peers.
The accelerating alienation of adolescent youth from the social norm attributable to this severely flawed sub-cultural perception has further resulted in an alarming increase in gang activity, wherein affirmation of group values is founded on the simplest of unifying elements: complete rejection of the social norm and enthusiastic adoption of anything that is the polar antithesis (the more flagrant, the better) of traditional ethical, moral White Anglo-Saxon values. Since self-improvement in the form of higher educational achievement is one of the ascendant values of the oppressive White cultural norm they so violently reject, the notion of ignorance being hip or cool (or at least the appearance of it) has become elevated to a most desirable status. Anything that therefore outrages, flaunts, rejects, or puts down the anathematic (White) social norm has subsequently been incorporated into this sub-culture mentality and popularized in the music and pop mythology that has grown up around it.
Violence, mistreatment of women, intolerance, rejection of basic respect and dignity for others (outside the immediate group), and selfish instant gratification have all become popular themes to emulate in and of themselves for these severely disaffected adolescents. The lyrics of hip-hop, so-called ‘gangsta-rap’, and closely associated forms of expressive violence are full of this vitriolic rejection of the norm of White society. Ironically, even peripheral elements of disaffected White youth have seized upon the same basic pop-culture mechanisms of social rejection to employ to their advantage (one of the most conspicuous examples that comes to mind is White rapper ‘Emenem’).
Despite the fact that today’s American colleges have become little better than training camps for skilled workers in highly technical areas of commercial business, and despite that fact that the academic quality of today’s American college is probably only roughly equivalent to that maintained by the average American high school of the late 50s and early 60s, the basic incongruity of the assumption that ‘all children need to go to college’ still stands out painfully distinct against the contemporary backdrop of failed educational promise in America. The simple fact is not only that not all children have to have a college education, a great number are arguably incapable of reaching even the greatly relaxed levels of academic competence that today’s grossly lowered educational standards have sadly enabled.
Given this highly paradoxical and essentially irresolvable dilemma, it is curious (at least to me) that America has never taken a serious look at the model successfully employed in (White) Europe for centuries. I refer to the parallel system of academia and skilled craftsmanship that had its roots in the guild system of post medieval Europe. In this system, adolescents are subjected to comprehensive testing very early in their primary school years to ascertain whether or not they have the ability to succeed in higher academics. Those who show promise of being able to do so are cultivated for advanced learning along traditional university lines, while those who are not as likely to have the cognative resources or disciplinary attributes to do well as academics are carefully cultivated to become craftsmen or tradesmen. While this approach creates two divergent paths of learning, European society does not look down upon those in the trades program with the same archly condescending disparagement directed by white collar workers in the US towards blue collar workers. In Europe it is well understood that not everyone has the same level of intelligence required to obtain a graduate degree, although the possibility exists that someone who might fail in the pure theoretics of higher academia might be quite capable of doing extremely well in a trade of craft that requires good mechanical apptitudes.
Of course, the possibility of adopting such a system in America has now been nearly totally obviated by the increasing intrusion of science-based technology into our lives. Simple trades and crafts are no longer without their highly technical aspects and nuances, thanks to the dynamic motivating force that science-driven technology has become in America. In a culture such as ours, in which traditional beliefs in a God and/or some sort of supreme being are being increasingly supplanted by a belief in the gratification potential of technically advanced amusements and diversions, America is in dire jeopardy of losing any former vestige of its soul to mindless worship of technical science as the modern deity of choice.
Regrettably, while that sort of new religious regard may suffice for the masses, someone still has to pursue highly technical courses of instruction in the sciences that enable it. That’s where higher education is now finding its challenge to lie, and that is one of the major impetuses behind the conversion of our higher institutions of learning into little more than sophisticated training camps for future techno-worker geeks.
Meanwhile, any possibility of anyone striving to attain a higher state of personal awareness, aesthetic fulfillment, or socially broadened understanding of who and what they are in a world that is still largely totally incomprehensible in any absolute philosophical context (the traditional cultural paradigm that higher education was originally set up and structured to support) has become obviated by the more immediate pressures of finding meaningful employment for the same masses mentioned earlier, who have been prepared instead to become unquestioning seekers of wages (sufficient to enable lifetimes of diversionary amusements, what better way to keep people out of trouble until they die and thereupon cease to pose problems to the social order, eh?).
Sad enough to contemplate, in my opinion, but shelving all of the foregoing so as to return to my opening ruminations, basic literacy remains the promising key to all personal potential and individual development. Regardless of advancements made in electronic communication over the past 20 years, nothing shall ever replace the printed book as the ‘standard meter’ literacy measuring stick (e.g. serving as a measure for literacy in much the same manner that the distance light travels in a given moment of time in a vacuum serves as a standard for physical measurement of distance). Thus, despite the allure of today’s advanced electronic forms of communication, the ultimate and most pure measurement of literacy will remain the ability to read and absorb visual graphic symbolic representations of ideas. Or at least, this is my conviction.
One of the many benefits of keeping a diverse library on hand is being able to match the reading material to the mood. Since I am a person of many moods, I sometimes find I am not always in a suitable frame of mind to read something I may have picked up and started earlier and will then go to my book shelves and select reading matter more closely suited to what may currently be spinning through my head. For the past week or so I have been thinking ‘ice axe’, or more specifically thinking about the beautiful custom-fabricated wooden-shafted climbing axes in the classical alpine tradition made by the Brothers Willisch in the Swiss Vallasian community of Tæsch (near Zermatt). When I was in Zermatt last I picked up a couple of Willisch ice axes and have ever since admired them for their timeless, beautifully hand forged alpine craftsmanship. One of the not well known facts associated with Willisch ice axes is that the famed Everest climbing team of Mallory and Irvine had carried Willisch made ice axes on their final climb of Everest’s Northwest Ridge. Irvine’s axe was in fact found in 1933 at an altitude of 27,700 feet on that route. Given my own experience with Willisch ice axes and this link with the immortal memory of Mallory and Irvine, my thoughts were naturally drawn to mountaineering and so I pulled a fascinating book from my shelves published in 2003 by an English chap named Robert Macfarlane.
Aside from being a beautifully thoughtful study of how humanity has grown from primitive fear of mountains as objects of storied dread, to a modern regard for them as timeless objects of great natural beauty, a number of thoughts not directly related to mountaineering and climbing soon made themselves evident within its pages (Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane, ISBN 0-375-71406-5, Vintage Books Divisio of Random House, 2003). One aspect of climbing Macfarlane focused on with regard to climbing dealt with fear (‘The Pursuit of Fear’, chapter 3), since fear is a necessary part of any human undertaking involving high risk. Macfarlane referenced the fact that part of the undeniable appeal of climbing is the cycle of fear and hope that it evokes in individuals who climb. Macfarlane stated that the process of fear and hope are a necessary (actually almost a vital) part of all human experiences for many reasons, not least of which is that successful abrogation of fear produces a corresponding sense of heightened awareness and sensational exhilaration. Thus, risk-taking that pays off handsomely produces sensations that sharply define life and make it richer and more fulfilling. This is one of the reasons why climbers climb—but only one among many, of course.
In a broader sense, coping with fear in any setting produces varying rewards that have an effect similar in many ways to taking consciousness altering substances. A number of individuals who face dreadful dangers and hazards in wartime, yet remain alive and unscathed despite the exposure become so hooked on the cyclical fear/hope process that they cross over that thin line between ‘normal’ stimulus/response reaction to a near-addictive state, eventually captured by the endorphin producing ‘high’ that high risk activities can (and often do) induce. Thus, a deliberate pursuit of danger may ensue, as Macfarlane describes it.
In our modern Western world, so highly compartmentalized and pressurized by the requisites of the Western (Post-industrial) capitalistic economic model, excitement is consequently a relative rare commodity. Therefore, risk-taking that invariably involves substantial danger (and corresponding fear) often has great appeal to many human beings as a cathartic relief from the domestic, humdrum routines that most of us get caught up in over the course of our occupational lives. Fortunately (I suppose), women seem to be less drawn to risk-taking than men. This is most likely gender-related specific, but it is always difficult to make generalisatons about something of this sort due to the intricate complexities of human biochemistry and the infinite gender-influencing permutations that underlie male and female human personalities.
Immature male adolescents, in light of this influence, may become easily drawn into peer associations (such as gang activity) that preferentially sublimate intelligence to violently reactive (anti-social) action. QED: another reason why literacy is devalued by adolescents who reject the status quo (of thoughtful reflectivity) and embrace the risk/hope sensations that collective states of applied group ignorance offer (viz. rejection of intellect for the simple but powerful gratifications of immediate physical sensation). The difference between, therefore, an intelligent, well educated male youth who takes up high-risk mountain climbing and an uneducated (or poorly educated) adolescent youth who prefers to gang-bang with his fellow gang members is that while both seek stimulation to affirm life, the individual with intelligent, educated regard for the world understands more about the inherent interconnectedness and mutual dependency of all life (presumably) than does his counterpart whose capacity for awareness has been crippled and/or severely stunted by a lack of education.
No matter how one looks at things, basic literacy is the single most important primary key to salvation of the entire human race, regardless of all the effects of the primitive emotions we human beings are subject to and regardless of varying levels of human intellectual capability (a capacity largely predetermined by genetic factors, anyway). Although today’s electronic (read: visual) entertainment media deliver sensate returns more quickly and effortlessly than do books (which require a more complete analytical ability and a correspondingly healthy amount of applied imagination), basic reading is still the primary means by which truly thoughtful and reflective understanding is achieved.
And although not every child ‘needs’ to attend college, without doubt every child needs to attain a modicum of basic literacy, so as to maximize his or her potential--even if that doesn’t involve a Harvard Law degree or honors at Cambridge reading literature. It remains an exceedingly difficult job instilling an acceptance of this need in children, given the alluring temptations and diversions of electronic media, and for all I know it may even be impossible in view of the severe constraints, both social and economic, that far too many children face today in their lives. We can only try our best to effect change and hope, as individuals, can’t we?
Hopefully (speaking of that all-important human concept), as we all grow older and wiser, that childish sense of wonder that so richly marks early life will remain fresh and vital in each of us. To that end, even today I personally enjoy certain classics in children’s literature, since many of those basic lessons in ethics and morality that they offer young minds for inspiration are just as applicable to fully mature adults as to the immature. I keep a selection of children’s books that I consider especially valuable in my library that underscore that regard for literature, and most recently had a friend introduce me to what I anticipate as being a particularly important book that I was previously completely unaware of (title: The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, and first published in 1961.
There is another book I read as a child that I recently found again, much to my delight (Fattipuffs and Thinnifers by French author Andre Maurois). Fortunately, although I was not at first able to recall either the title of it or the author’s name, a bit of web sleuthing finally yielded it up. Maurois' tale dealt with a war being held between two imaginary nations, one of which consisted of extremely fat people who called themselves the ‘Fattipuffs’ and the other a nation of severely thin individuals calling themselves the ‘Thinnifers’, over the most sublime differences of simple opinion. The book was a fantastic allegorical parable of the follies of war that even I could appreciate at the age of 7 or 8, and my youthful awareness grew considerably, subsequent to a reading of it back then. To this day, it has exerted a profound influence on how I regard the world of human affairs.
You see what a small, thin ‘Little Golden Book’ titled So Dear to My Heart can produce, if planted in the fertile soil of a child’s ever expanding mind? (and don’t answer: “An occasionally raving, semi-maniacal blogger who takes seven pages to say little of consequence!”). In the legend that I am within my own mind, I like to think I occasionally produce thoughts of significant substance; I just haven’t quite figured out what form that ‘substance’ has yet taken…if ever, LoL.
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