Sunday, June 23, 2013

That's Absurd

Do yourself a favor: go to Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s website or the web-based version of his column and read. Read to enjoy, read to argue, read to bask in the humor, wit, and true talent of this Pulitzer Prize winning author. For this Try-It, at least read "Don't Lower the Bar on Education." And do yourself another favor: read it aloud. Read it with all the sarcasm required of the rhetorical questions and informal voice that he uses to talk directly to you, the reader. Read it through, and don't worry whether you agree with him or not. Then ask yourself: How does he do that? Where did he make it nearly impossible not to agree with him? Likely you landed in the same place I did:  

"But if that’s what these standards are, can we talk for a moment about what they feel like? The best analogy I can give you is based in the fact that some coaches and athletic directors have noted a steep decline in the number of white kids going out for basketball. They feel as if they cannot compete with their black classmates. What if we addressed that by lowering the rim for white kids? What if we allowed them four points for each made basket?
Can you imagine how those white kids would feel whenever they took the court? How long would it be before they internalized the lie that there is something about being white that makes you inherently inferior when it comes to hoops, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki notwithstanding?"
 So what is this?  This technique he uses?  He calls it "analogy."  My colleague, Sue, calls it "Absurd." So, let's call it "ANALOGY to the ABSURD."

And why does it work? Would you ever agree to what he proposes here? Doesn't it seem ridiculous to consider treating white kids this way? And yet--a technique I know recognize is a signature of Pitts'--this analogy to the absurd makes the topic of the piece itself seem utterly ridiculous. We would never accept why are we accepting that?  Who hasn't been told (or told their child): "And if all your friends jumped off a cliff..."

And I didn't have to go very far to find another example. Consider Charlotte's Web: "But it's unfair," cried Fern. "The pig couldn't help being born small, could it?  If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?"   

To think of my own example, however, was much harder.  I started by thinking of topics I feel passionate about, topics of injustice, topics that are fresh right now. I talked with my friend Pam, who can now no longer pick up a newspaper or answer email without taking each topic to the absurd. She started by considering her position on the death penalty, realizing quickly that her position against it is made stronger when she points out that the countries we align with on this matter belong, not the civilized West, but to the tyrannical regimes we are often trying to undo. 
Again, though, I was stumped. I don't consider myself passionate about the same kinds of things. Right now, my days are driven by a 45-minute commute, a seven-year-old, a teaching career, and sleep that usually comes before my loving husband. Oh, and there it is! My husband, Micah! Since starting this blog post back in December, there are so many more stories to tell that could follow this train of though to the absurd. Let me give one a try: 

Imagine you (or someone close to you) owns a '60-something classic of a car. The engine has seized from years of sitting in your sideyard, and you'd first and foremost, like to hear it run again. Now imagine, after days of having it worked on by your regular mechanic, you call to check up on it. You are surprised when he invites you to come in the next day; even more surprised when he informs you that it's ready for pickup, and the cost is exponentially less than you had anticipated. When you arrive and see the invoice, you realize why: He has changed the oil, replaced the spark plugs, and done overall maintenance on the car--including rotating your dry-rotted tires, checking your brakes (which will need to be replaced at a later visit), and topping off the washer and radiator fluids. He informs you that if you are not satisfied, you can always bring the car back to him and he'll look more carefully for the source of the problem. He explains this, mind you, as you carefully winch the car back up onto the trailer that you had hoped to drive it upon.  

Of course, if this were your car, you'd never pay. You'd also never bring the car back to this mechanic. (Instead, you'd take it to Micah, by the way, who would start by convincing you to replace the motor with an LS complete with turbo. And when you did hear it run, you'd grin from ear to ear and gladly open your wallet.  But that is beside the point.) The point is that a mechanic like this wouldn't be in business for very long. But we routinely--and sometimes for reasons not so routine--visit doctors who practice medicine this way. We are treated for pneumonia when we, in fact, have lung cancer. We are treated for asthma when we, in fact, have a chronic sinus infection. And we are treated for a sinus infection when we, in fact, have a brain tumor. 

We are told in as many words, "We don't go looking for zebras in a field of horses." In other words, we don't replace a seized motor when we can clearly see that the oil is dirty. This is fine when the people you are treating do, in fact, have pneumonia or asthma or a sinus infection. When the car in front of you truly just needs an oil change. This becomes another matter entirely when my dad, my daughter, or my husband walk in, says they feel like a zebra, lets you examine their stripes, and demands to be treated as the unique individuals they are with the unique and very not-so-very-horse-like symptoms and response to medication so far.  It is a very different matter because treating a brain tumor like a sinus infection is like changing the oil in a car that needs a new engine altogether. 

Thankfully, we have not returned to that doctor's office. When Micah needed brain surgery, we had the best. And though Dr. Crawford didn't offer him an upgraded model, Micah did get his turbo back and we did gladly open our wallet for this restoration. Unfortunately, this kind of business is rare in medicine. Doctors are not the diagnosticians we need them to be, but perhaps we need to demand that they move away from the computer and take a look at our stripes. That they look at our 50-something, 30-something, or even single-digit-something bodies with an eye toward seeing it run like new again. 

For this try-it, you might try listing the things that drive you.  In my case, it took not only a list, but a little time for the right idea to emerge.  And when it did, I grabbed that zebra by its stripes and took the analogy all the way to the absurd.  Now it's your turn. Go on, try it!
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