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exploring how the world works and why it works that way …

How my novel, mapping Utah, came to be — and what it taught me

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In November 1989, I asked a remarkable woman to marry me.

That didn’t go well.

So I drank myself into a stupor deepened by self-pity and hacked away all night long at a Macintosh SE (Remember those? Two floppy drives?). In the morning, I had an evil headache, more questions about women than I could ever answer, and a 30-page short story.

Such was the sulking, ignoble, drunken genesis of mapping Utah.

That story lay dormant for half a decade, buried in a chaotic array of papers accumulated during study for my master’s degree. It emerged from hiding in 1994 during research for my doctorate. I’d just finished my course work and was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

As all doc students know, aptly timed and brilliantly executed procrastination is a requirement for a successful dissertation. So I procrastinated. (May my adviser, Trager, forgive me.) The short story beget a longer story, about 100 pages. That, too, slunk into hibernation among copies of mass communication research articles I never wanted to face again.

In 1998, the longer story crept unbidden out of a box I had not unpacked since arriving at St. Bonaventure University in 1996. Hmm, I thought. Beats grading the inept writing of freshmen. So, night after night, I wrote more.

Thus begat Lesson No. 1: Don’t over think it. I had written as far as Kara’s desperate flight on her mountain bike from a rest area just west of Green River. Noah had yet to appear in the sky above her unconscious body in his ultralight aircraft.

But I kept rewriting and editing this first third of the book. My logic: Have to get it just right. It had to be perfect before I could continue. My friend Greg Stene intervened: “Why?” he asked.

Greg knows me well. He pressed me: “Why haven’t you moved on to introducing these two people?” I admitted I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what Noah would or should say to Kara and what Kara would or should say to Noah.

“Denny,” Greg said, “You’ve thought about these people for years. Just put them together and get the hell out of their way.”

He was right. I did not write the last two-thirds of mapping Utah. Kara and Noah did.
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Too many people + unbridled consumption = trauma for billions

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Scratch a problem involving homo sapiens. Smog choking cities. Carbon dioxide and methane warming atmosphere or ocean. Forests rapaciously slashed. No fish where fish used to be. Nuclear waste with no safe home (ever). Pollution everywhere. Children without education. Billions of poor without hope or safe drinking water or adequate food. Disease and death induced by lack of health care.

And wars. Plenty of wars.

In such examples of human trauma amid conflicts over life-sustaining resources, there’s a centrality rarely discussed.

Too. Many. People.

When I was born, in 1946, America housed just over 141 million people. Today, the 50 states approach 320 million people. Despite a declining birth rate, America gains a person every 16 seconds, thanks largely to the admission of about 1.5 million legal foreign workers each year.

When I was born, the Earth had about 2.5 billion people. The Census Bureau anticipates 9.3 billion people globally in 2050. That would be almost a four-fold increase in the people Earth would seek but likely fail to adequately support.
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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

December 31, 2014 at 11:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Rolling Stone’s UVA story flogged as flawed — and rightly so

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Critics are panning Rolling Stone’s 9,000-word account of a sexual assault, an account that preceded protests at the University of Virginia and vandalism of the fraternity house at which, the article claims, the assault occurred.

The chief complaints: First, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Nov. 19 story about a woman identified as “Jackie” relied too heavily on the woman making the accusation and failed to show attempts to interview those accused. Second, Erdely “shopped” for a context that best fit her own agenda in proposing and crafting the story. Here’s Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple:

Rolling Stone thought it had found the “right” campus and the right alleged crime: Following her Nov. 19 story on Jackie’s alleged assault in a dark room at the Phi Kappa Psi house, the university suspended all fraternity activities and a national spotlight fell on the issue of campus rape.

Now it’s all falling apart. Thanks to several days of reporting by The Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro, Rolling Stone’s account is not even a semester away from becoming part of journalism classes around the country. Jackie’s friends now doubt her account of the traumatic event, reports Shapiro, and the fraternity insists it never held a “a date function or social event” on the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, which is the date cited by Jackie in the Rolling Stone story.

Result: Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, has attached a 293-word note at the top of Erdely’s story, saying, “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. (emphasis in original)” All this leaves media critics to attack journalism’s machinery of story-making.
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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

December 6, 2014 at 4:29 pm

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Another fruitless election. Why bother voting for Congress?

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Did you vote for a candidate (and more likely an incumbent) who will put the interests of the monied few above yours?

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Post that over every voting booth from now on. Hope and change, promised most recently by our current president and in different verbiage by politicians everywhere since I was born, do not lie ahead. Unless you are a rabid, frothing Democrat or Republican obsessed with ideological purity and achieving a stranglehold on power, choosing a member of Congress, for most of us, represents futility in the hope-and-change department.

I just don’t give a damn any more about Congress. It doesn’t give a damn about me — and most of you. Congress has amply demonstrated for at least two decades its grotesque inability to intelligently and compassionately perform its principal duties — to legislate fairly, to levy taxes sensibly, to advise and consent wisely on treaties and executive branch appointments, and to produce budgets competently.

I have remained rationally ignorant about the coming multi-billion-dollar partisan apocalypse. That’s because no matter who controls the chambers of Capitol Hill, Congress will produce nothing meaningful that will positively affect the remainder of my life. Or yours.

Why won’t that happen?

Congress has become a self-perpetuating, integrated system of bribery and extortion fueled by amounts of money mere mortals can no longer comprehend. Congress is inhabited by men and women who are at worst corrupt or at best willing, perhaps eager, to embrace moral ambiguity. In an institution populated by 535 powerful men and women who are supposed to legislate for the benefit of all, moral clarity is difficult to find. Result: The few get more; the many get less. Much less.
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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

November 15, 2014 at 4:32 pm

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When It’s Time to Grow Up

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Dr. Denny Wilkins:

From one of my senior students …

Originally posted on karlybuntich:

All around town, the preparations begin.

Making our houses seem livable means hours of throwing out the mountains of trash that have accumulated, sweeping filthy floors, and cleaning rooms with care, tucking contraband out of sight.

We must face the sinks full of dishes growing strange-colored, spongy mold. A toilet brush and some bleach make no impact on the neglected bathrooms we must deal with. My roommate spends a few hours sifting through the layers of flotsam and jetsam that obscure his bedroom floor. He comes out red-faced, sweating and swearing.

We are all getting ready.

The parents are coming.

Yes, that charming yearly event where our loved ones are invited to come visit and see how we live. As a freshman, it was exciting to show your parents around campus and nice to get a break from eating at the dining hall. As a senior, it’s a little different…

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 26, 2014 at 5:10 pm

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I read books because I need to know … so much more than I do now

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If you’re a reader, you probably have a list of “fave” books. Or of books you found “influential.” Or of books you liked because each told “a good story.” Or maybe because the books were filled with vampires and such.

I’m surrounded by book listers. I lurk on a listserv of really bright people, and one of the topics du jour is “what’s your book list.” (Thanks to them, I’ve picked up several to add to my own list.)

Jim Booth, one of my fellow co-founders of Scholars & Rogues, compiles a list of books each year and reviews them here. (He’s done more than 50 reviews this year alone.) A faculty colleague has from time to time posted outside his office a list of “books I spent time with this summer.”

I never thought much about book lists.

Then the Time of My Great Disenchantment with Mega-Corporate-Run Journalism began to descend on me about seven years ago. I realized that the grist of daily journalism no longer dealt at length or in depth with the gnawing questions I need answered:

How does the world work? Why does it work that way? What are the consequences of the answers to the first two questions?
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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 22, 2014 at 4:28 pm

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The press isn’t providing what the public desperately needs — news that matters

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The daily print journalism I know and love is breathing its last gasps. The craft I practiced for 20 years, and have taught for another 20 years, is limping toward the grave. The newsroom values I have believed in for close to half a century face burial under a morass of corporate arrogance, a flawed business model, and a digital “content” that caters to our shallowest instincts instead of lifting us toward wisdom.

I don’t read as much news as I used to in the nation’s dailies anymore — either in print or online. Nor do I get much authentic news I need from local and cable TV. That’s not the same as saying I don’t get much news — as defined by the bastardized news judgments of managers of dailies and TV — from those sources. Surveys show we get something passing as “news” from those media.

But do we get the news — or sufficient explanation or interpretation of issues and events — we sorely need? Remember, much of what we receive via media, especially mainstream media, is secondhand. We need far more credible news about events we cannot or do not experience firsthand. “Our experiences are shaped by ready-made interpretations,” wrote sociologist C. Wright Mills in the ’50s. (See his “second-hand world” warning.) So we depend on journalism to convey events and issues to us secondhand. But we need clearer, more cogent interpretations than the press provides these days.
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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 15, 2014 at 8:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My lot in life: teaching sophomores how to report and write

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Like Mom’s admonition to ‘eat your spinach,’ my sophomores should dine on basics.
So this week I will teach them how to write a useful sentence.

A car hit a pickup today at Smith and Wesson streets, injuring both drivers.

I will tell these tablet-toting, smartphone-lugging students that this is perhaps the most efficient sentence structure in journalism.

I will tell them this: “Car hit pickup” tells what happened. “Today” is an adverb telling when it happened. “At Smith and Wesson streets” (and NOT “Smith and Wesson Streets”) is a prepositional phrase telling where it happened. “Injuring both drivers” is a verbal phrase explaining to whom “car hit pickup” happened and the consequence. Yep – action and consequence, all in one sentence.

Then I will conduct a mock press conference in which I play the roles of police accident investigator, hospital spokeswoman, and witnesses. (Incidentally, I get killed in the accident, bringing great joy to my sophomores past and present.)

I will do this repeatedly for the semester. Mock press conferences. Subject-Verb-Object Comma Verbal Phrase. Over and over.

And you’re thinking: Yo, Doc. It’s the digital age. What’s with the horse-and-buggy approach to writing news?
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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 15, 2014 at 8:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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