Forget Friday the 13th—Thursday the 12th!


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Dr. Eden Wales Freedman and Scarlett O’Hara–two strong feminist icons.

Of course, the superstition is that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, so any comparison to Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, isn’t totally apt. It wasn’t, for me, a particularly unlucky day, although it did wear me out.

I had to give a mid-term exam that afternoon, and it was a bit dicey getting everything ready and printed. I am behind in grading for that class, too—and how I have an exam to add to the pile. After hustling to the exam, I had a newspaper meeting. There may have been cookies.

Anyway, the meeting broke up early because there were three big events that students needed to cover that night. First, at 6 p.m., the MMU Law and Politics Club was sponsoring a visit by Ronald K. McMullen, former U.S. ambassador to Eritrea. He shared many interesting stories about his career as a U.S. diplomat.

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Ronald K. McMullen, former U.S. ambassador, speaks Oct. 12 at MMU.

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MMU Times reporter covers the ambassador’s visit.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

He also noted that he had wanted to study geology, and admired the many geodes in MMU’s Grotto. The state rock, he said the geode “is rough on the outside, like many Iowans, but inside we are all gems.”

But I had to rush off. At 7, Dr. Eden Wales Freedman, assistant professor of English, was speaking as part of our Fall Faculty Series, “Divided we Fall.” Her topic was “Feminism is for Everyone.” The theme was that the feminist movement in this country has often been focused on the needs of affluent white women, to the detriment of others.

Despite the many competing events on this crazy Thursday, Dr. Wales Freedman attracted yet another full house to Flaherty Community Room.

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Dr. Eden Wales Freedman, demonstrating the face we’ve come to call the “Robertson eye roll.”

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Dr. Wales Freedman with Dr. Joy Ochs, professor of English. Dr. Ochs coordinates the Fall Faculty Series at MMU.

On the way in, I had been greeted with the thump of Latin music. The Latin Club was doing some Zumba on the plaza. Because, you know, Thursday the 12th.

I noticed my sister and sister-in-law attending, but felt bad I could not linger and chat with them. Because at 8, Jason Sole was visiting to describe his personal journey from prison to earning a PhD.

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Jason Sole speaks in the Chapel of Mercy to the third sizeable crowd drawn to an interesting Thursday night lecture at MMU.

Sole’s speech was compelling, but I didn’t quite make it to the end. I had to finish grading an exam I needed to get back to a Friday class, so about 8:30 I packed it in and headed home. To work until about 11 p.m. or so.

That’s what Thursday was like. MMU is an exciting, vibrant place, and was, especially on this Thursday. To cap it all, right before the 6 p.m. speech I had spotted a pair of hawks hanging out on Warde Hall. Honestly, birds of prey on that high perch are not that unusual, but I’ve not seen two together before.

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Iowa hawks at MMU–on top of Warde Hall, framed by pine trees.

I’m cheating a bit on the hawk image—they were back on Friday and I shot this image that day. But here are links to more images from Thursday: the ambassador’s visit, the feminism speech and the student-organized prison to Phd presentation.

Thursday the 12th—it was a day that we’ll remember for a long time. Honestly, I hope it’s not repeated—I liked all of the events, but may have liked them even more spread out just a bit.

But it was still my best day this week.

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Filed under Freedom, Journalism, Mount Mercy

Where is the Care in Healthcare?


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Dr. Danielle Rudd, assistant professor of biology, speaks Oct. 5.

I think you’d have to have a heart of ice not to be a bit riled up Thursday night.

Dr. Danielle Rudd, assistant professor of biology at Mount Mercy University, spoke on “Putting the Care in Healthcare” during the 2017 Fall Faculty Series. It was another standing-room-only event, attended this time by many MMU students as well as faculty and community members.

She was speaking about Americans who live with rare diseases—but she noted that it’s only the individual diseases that are rare. In total, about 30 million American, close to 1 in 10, are dealing with a “rare” health condition.

And she powerfully introduced the audience to three people who we’ve surely seen before—the current president of MMU’s Student Government Association, the daughter of a religious studies professor and the son of a prominent local alumnus. All have conditions that have forced their families into becoming advocates and exports in our dysfunctional health system.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

The evening was personal, enlightening, entertaining—and frustrating. Republicans have tried, and failed, to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now, the Trump administration is doing everything it can to ensure the law’s failure, which they will surely blame on the law itself rather than their own governing incompetence. That’s when I got riled up. No, Congress, no GOP–we don’t want the ACA repealed. When you get a leak under the sink, you don’t decide sinks are a bad idea and ban indoor plumbing.

What does it say that too many of our national leaders don’t understand that adequate health care is vital to us all? And who could hear the stories we heard last night and want to go back to a time when too many would be denied insurance or care? What do you have that makes you think that way?

Hearts of ice.

Post script: After I wrote and posted this, I recalled that there had been at least 4 personal stories shared–and I felt a little bad, as if I were ignoring someone’s life. Anyway, I wrote this straight from memory without notes, which is why it is short of details and has no direct quotes. If I messed up details while thinking about the event a day later sans memory aids, I apologize, and, well, that’s just a sign of how an old brain works (or doesn’t).

Eden Wales Freedman, assistant professor of English, listens Oct. 5. She will speak Oct. 12 in a presentation called “From the Suffragettes to the Women’s March: Feminism for Everyone.”

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Filed under Mount Mercy, Science

Watering Gardens of Worry in Fall Heat Wave


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Browning ferns in odd late September heat. The calendar says fall, but the weather says heatwave.

A former professor of mine posted an interesting video on Facebook recenlty, a Vox commentary on how news media use a war analogy to cover natural disasters, especially hurricanes.

One point of the commentary is that positioning Mother Nature as the enemy in a heroic survival struggle absolves humans from a more difficult conversation. Such as, who put all those expensive developments on barrier islands? If a dam fails and 70,000 people have to flee—what does it say about that dam idea? And isn’t climate change influenced humans and a real thing?

Mother Nature isn’t our enemy. Earth does not have to mean, but be. It’s up to us to understand and do what life has always done: Adjust.

I am not trying to belittle or trivialize the struggles or tragedy humans face. We’re all in this together. I and my wife are conversing about which aid agency we will donate to, and I’m worried about in-laws in Florida and an in-laws family in Puerto Rico.

Instead, what I’m thinking about is how tragedies tug at our hearts in the short run, but sometimes we increase risk in the long run. We should be careful about earthquake resistant construction, about leaving flood plains open for water, about farming practices in Iowa that will absorb more water and leave less runoff.

Sadly, that does not seem the mood of the times. We fuss about how we react and think less about how we act.

This morning was a weekly ritual, these days. I unwound my garden hose and sprayed on the backyard gardens, trying to save what can be saved in this odd, hot, dry fall.

Ferns are browning—not a serious problem, honestly, because I know from experience most ferns just let their tops die in a drought and emerge again when the wet returns. But young bushes, trees and perennial flowers planted this year are at risk. Given heat in the 90s, I should be watering maybe every other day, but I only have time for once a week due to the crush of school work.

So, I do what I can and do what we always do—hope for the best. And hope I’m not wasting too much precious water. We’ll see what comes back next year. If a few flowers expire in my gardens, I’m aware that’s a pretty minor issue compared to flooded homes or lost lives.

Still, I’m trying to adjust to Mother Nature in the short and, I hope, longer term. My heart was a bit heavy as I sprayed my garden, despite the assistance of two young grandchildren who helped lighten my mood a bit.

I was wondering about what it would be like to be in oppressive heat on a tropical American island with no power and no way to contact relatives to let them know you’re OK. Puerto Rico, Texas, Mexico—I hope we do what we can to help you. Thoughts and prayers are just the start; treasure and action must follow.

And I hope we learn.

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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Weather

Pope Francis and His Call for “Mercyfying” Hearts


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Dr. Matthew Ashley, University of Notre Dame, speaks at Mount Mercy University’s Chapel of Mercy.

As Dr. Matthew Ashley, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, noted, Pope Francis, a man of peace, has done some violence to the language.

One of the Pope’s favorite words is “Mercy,” and he has called upon Christians to work for “Mercyfying” hearts. “It doesn’t work any better as a gerund in Spanish than it does in English,” Ashley said.

But the idea is important. Mercy, Ashley noted, can be sort of condescendingly granted, as when a professor grudgingly looks the other way when a student has a lame excuse for a late paper. He contrasts this with the way Jesus treated St. Peter.

“Peter was not the brightest bulb in the package,” Ashley said. “He made lots of mistakes.” But, he also accepted God with an open heart, and that gave him the steadfast faith that made Jesus declare him the rock on which the church would be built. The mercy extended to Peter included a call to action. “Jesus was ‘mercifying’ him,” Ashley said. The mercy was not condescending, but rather empowering. And our world desperately needs more such mercy.

“Mercy is probably the one word that characterizes Pope Francis’ papacy,” Ashley said. His presentation, “Pope Francis and the Message of Peace,” was Sept. 19, 2017, in the Chapel of Mercy. I think around 90 people attended the event, which was both the keynote speech for Mercy Week, which celebrates MMU’s Sisters of Mercy heritage, and was part of our Fall Faculty Series, “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age.”

Ashley did take one minor, but well-paced, jab at President Trump, noting his threat to annihilate North Korea clearly falls outside of what Catholic teaching would call a “just war.”

The presentation was laced with quotes from Pope Francis, and it couldn’t have been a starker contrast between the leader of the Catholic Church and the President of the United States. Trump delights in cheap insults like “rocket man” while he dangerously plays with unthinkable violence. Pope Francis insists in seeing connections between violence between people and violence to the Earth and condemning violence in all its forms.

When Trump jokes, it is with inappropriate and violent memes. When Francis jokes, it makes you think.

Anyway, the speech tonight was the second one in the Chapel of Mercy for the fall series. One week ago, writer Tim Wise spoke on “The Great White Hoax: Racism, Divide-and-Conquer, and the Politics of Trumpism.” He speech, as well as being in the fall series, was part of English Program’s Visiting Writer series.

Wise said that Trump must be understood as fitting in to a long narrative in America, of the powerful invocation of ancient racial fears that have always infected our politics. He noted that in American politics, “nostalgia is a sacrament,” although the memory is often not clear.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Of the two speakers, Wise drew a much larger crowd and was much more animated. Still, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of Ashley’s presentation tonight.

One thread that unites them, I suppose, is that both speeches are part of Mount Mercy’s ongoing mission to have provocative and revealing public conversations on matters that concern us all. That, to me, is vital to who we are, and a key reason we recently started having these fall series

Ashley concluded his speech by noting “the university” is a key institution that should help the culture by imagining and working towards “another possible world.”

Taken together, the two contrasting evenings felt like highlights of this fall’s series—but the series continues and there is plenty of good material yet to come. Stay tuned and check MMU’s web site—Dr. David Klope, associate professor of communication, is up next in the series on Monday.

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Ben Franklin Is Fake News!


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MMU Times photo by Brooke Woolley. Me and some other dude.

I can relax now. My presentation in the Fall Faculty Series is in my rear-view mirror.

It went well, from my point of view. The Flaherty Community Room at Mount Mercy University was packed Sept. 7—standing room only. I quickly counted chairs and estimated there were about 100, so I would say the crowd probably numbered between 110 and 120.

Jon, Phil—Facebook ads may be working! Dixie from marketing also notes that the Happenings on the Hill pamphlet went out in the neighborhood and could be an additional factor.

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My pre-talk photo of the crowd. Dr. Joy Ochs, series coordinator, is introducing me.

The title of my talk was “Fake News vs. the Free Press,” and I began with a short review of why the press is free—the “marketplace of ideas” concept that was enshrined by the First Amendment.

Then, I started in on “fake news.” The concept, and even the words, is not new—my first example was Silence Dogood, and I was pleased someone in the audience recognized it as the early pen name of Benjamin Franklin. Today on Facebook, a faculty member who was there noted that a tidbit from the evening was that Ben Franklin being the first Mrs. Doubtfire, to which another faculty member replied that he was also the first catfish.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Anyway, I gave a 10 minute synopsis of the use of the term “fake news” leading up to 2016, and then talked about how the term last year originally referred to the false, real-looking stories that were deliberately placed on social media.

And then along came Donald Trump and his cooping of the term to mean anything that The Don doesn’t like.

I was hoping to highlight the need for us, the larger “us,” to be responsible news consumers and to be able to recognize when news is fake and when it’s not. Hint: If Donald Trump labels it “fake news,” it’s almost always not. I put in a plug for one of my favorite pipe dreams, that due to the economic model that supported news media in this country being broken, we need an American BBC. Forget the wall—build PBS.

I was also speaking against the easy, politically based fussing we do about “media bias.” Whether the media are liberal or conservative only makes sense to ask in the rather odd, narrow way Americans define their politics, and, while worth considering, political bias is not the most consequential form of bias built into our news system.

News, for example, focuses on conflict and human interest—which distorts the picture of the world that it presents. I don’t consider that kind of distortion necessarily terrible, as long as the audience is on to what’s going on, but it is pervasive. Bias is furthermore inherent in who presents the news—that it’s mostly white, college educated Americans.

My plan was to talk for 40 minutes and take questions for 15 or so, but I probably spoke for an hour and five minutes. It was past 8:30 by the time we were done, yet the audience seemed engaged, and I had lots of side conversations at the end of the evening.

Earlier in the day, I had emailed our library about recording the talk, but the library can’t spare the staff right now. However, Dr. Joy Ochs, series coordinator, already had that base covered and arranged to have Bob Najoks, a retired professor of art, do the recording.

For me personally, seeing Bob again, having my sisters attend, chatting with some neighbors and seeing so many faculty—that made it a fun evening. Thanks, guys.

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Bob Najoks.

In addition, Robin Kash of “Neighborhood Network News” recorded the program, and says he plans to post a video of it. I’ll pass along a URL when I get it.

So far, we’ve had two events in this year’s series, and both have been SRO in their respective venues. My communication colleague Dr. David Klope is the next faculty speaker on Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. in Betty Cherry Heritage Hall, but the series includes other events. Check it out at the MMU web site.

Fake news! I don’t think that was what we had last night, but then again, I do not claim to be an objective observer. I appreciate that I’ve received some kind notes—the chair of the faculty stated that her husband though it could be a TED Talk, although there aren’t a lot of 90 minute TED Talks—but mostly I appreciate that my presentation was of interest to such a crowd.

It is always nice to speak before a large crowd, but I’ll try not to fixate on crowd size or ratings alone. Doing so would feel too fake.

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Sober Optimists Erected Government Guardrails


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Dr. Richard Barrett, assistant professor of political science, speaks Aug. 29 at Mount Mercy.

The 2017 Fall Faculty Series is underway! Called “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age,” this year’s Mount Mercy University series started Tuesday night with an introductory presentation by Dr. Richard Barrett, assistant professor of political science.

Barrett surveyed key points about our democratic republic—including that the founders were fairly sober about what they were doing. They recognized democracy is a fragile form of government, subject to the potential of internal divisions tearing the experiment apart.

So they introduced balanced powers between branches of government, and a complex federal system that balances interests between states.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

It is, Barrett noted, far from perfect. But perfection and the pursuit of the perfect ideal is dangerous in politics, which must be a messy business of give-and-take. So the United States was not so much designed to be the ideal, but rather to avoid the dangers of democracy. In effect, we were designed to be OK when we are divided. The founders aimed to put guardrails on our national political roadway.

“Democracy is fragile,” he noted. “Our government was designed to minimize the chance of bad outcomes.”

Of course, at various time in our history, we’ve come close to a bad outcome. A Civil War that consumed 600,000 lives (in a country of 30 million—imagine a war consuming 6 million lives today to be of the same scale) was one of those times.

And the Civil War is worth noting today, Barrett said, because our level of political division is again almost at that level.

A chilling thought, indeed. But he did offer some hope. The key, he said, is for us to commit to continued communication with those who disagree with us.

And he made, I think, an excellent point. We need people to express disagreement with us—whoever “we” are. Without vigorous opposition, any political viewpoint can become blind dogma whose rationale is forgotten. It is the need to defend our ideas in debate that keeps us in touch with the reasons why we have a particular point of view.

In that spirit, I thought the questions at the end were a highlight of the event. The start, I hope, of an ongoing, engaging conversation.

The series had an interesting start. Betty Cherry Heritage Hall was packed for the session—there were 72 chairs, and a handful of people standing in back, so the crowd was around 80 people. It was encouraging that they were a mix of young and old. I saw a high school senior I know there, along with many university students, faculty members and people from the community. There seemed to be a lot of elderly in the crowd—which, honestly, doesn’t surprise me too much, since I think older members of our citizenry are often the most politically engaged.

Maybe it takes a lifetime to learn that politics matters.

Anyway, I enjoyed the first session—and enjoyed seeing English Professor Dr. Joy Ochs start it off as the new series coordinator.

I hope you can join us for future sessions. I speak next week about “Fake News and the Free Press.” For more information see the MMU web site.

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Filed under Freedom, History, Mount Mercy

Eating As a Silicon Valley Techie Eats


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My wife and I walking on the Golden Gate Bridge this spring break.

During spring break this year, my wife and I flew out to San Francisco to visit with our son and his wife.

They both work in technology out there—she designs human-machine interfaces for Samsung, he is a software engineer for WhatsAp, a division of Facebook.

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Daughter-in-law and son do an “ussie” during a visit to a San Francisco park with us.

One highlight of our visit was the half day we spent at the Facebook campus. With tens of thousands of high tech employees, the company’s site is a mini city. It has a main plaza with shops and restaurants, for example. You can get your hair cut, visit the dentist, drop off some dry cleaning and get your bicycle fixed (or buy a bicycle) without leaving the company grounds.

Jon explained that he thought it was just smart for the company to provide those kinds of services because tech employees are highly skilled, and the corporation benefits by providing services that keeps those people together and talking with each other.

The day we visited Facebook, we ate both breakfast and lunch there—and both meals were a surreal experience. You walk into a company cafeteria, grab a tray, and go through a food line—and then there is no cashier. You just proceed to a table to eat. Have as much as you want of whatever you want.

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It does rain in California, despite the song. Drizzly day when we visited Facebook.

Again, Jon noted that the food perk, while costly, enhances collaboration and boosts  morale.

Gosh, my wife and I said to each other during the visit. That seems like a neat idea. Maybe they could do that at Mount Mercy University. Then, we shared a laugh. We don’t work for a rich, high-tech company.

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At Facebook, they have a wall where you can post any comment you want for random passing people to see. Someone should invent an online equivalent …

Well, surprise, surprise—fast forward to this week, when we had the “opening day” all-employee assembly in the chapel. The President was speaking, and announced a new program at MMU.

On one designated day each week, employees can have lunch in the cafeteria. For free.

The day is Friday in September, and will change each month.

The idea is pretty simple. Students eat there all the time, and having faculty and staff share a meal encourages informal conversations, both among employees and between employees and students. We can break bread together and hash things out over hash.

They don’t offer free food daily, and don’t have the kind of variety and fancy eateries Facebook offers. What’s available is college cafeteria fare. Some may balk at that—it is institution food.

Me? Most days I brown bag it, but in the past on very busy days, such as when I’m staying late on campus for a newspaper production cycle, I have eaten in the cafeteria. And I love my cafeteria days, for several reasons:

  • I like the collaboration it fosters. I have ended up, unplanned, chatting with others about all kinds of topics related to MMU. A lot of plans for the Fall Faculty Series have been hatched over lunch in such informal encounters.
  • I think there is value in seeing my students and them seeing me in this context. If you encounter a person as a student in a class (or as a professor in the class) you have a particular kind of relationship. Seeing them in another place doing something entirely else sort of humanizes them. It makes them more of a familiar “person” rather than “student” or “professor.” In particular, there is something a bit interpersonal in being in proximity to another as they eat. You don’t eat with enemies, and the people that you regularly eat with become, in some minor way, a bit more family like.
  • I love cafeteria food. I know many students complain about the cafe food, and maybe with some reason, but in my experience the cafeteria offers a buffet of wondrous delights. Their cooks have a slightly heavy hand with spices—sometimes you scoop up some veggies and are thinking “bland” and you take a bite and suddenly you’re thinking “chilies.” But I am a spice boy. I’ll tell you want, what I really, really want—some pork or chicken or fish coated in whatever breading, served in a giant pan under a warming lamp prepared by the fine cooks at MMU. Maybe some of my MMU friends don’t agree—food opinions are like music opinions, they are personal and nobody need apologize for their preferences—but I am a fan of MMU cafeteria food. Go Mustangs! To the feed!

Anyway, I understand that the free food program is an experiment, and that it is offered only one day a week. I am also familiar with the old, reliable, wise saying TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch). MMU will continue the program only as long as MMU sees some payoff, and if budgets get tight, so might our waistbands.

But for now, I can eat like a techie, at least once a week. I think it was a smart idea for MMU to introduce, and I hope it does what the powers-that-be hope it does so it can continue.

More networking and contacts between employees and students? A plus. Soft serve and salad bar? Count me in.

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Filed under Food, Mount Mercy, Uncategorized