Cedar Valley Chronicles

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.

  • Brian Williams, Lying, and BS

    • Posted on Feb 22, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Here's today's Courier column; (2-22) I needed to ponder BS, since I'm so familiar with how many of us do it, how much of the time.  I mean just shifting and changing and enhancing stories from our past.  

    Sometimes we're aware that our stories aren't quite right, but most of the time, we really think we're relating what happened--and our story puts us in a good light.   That's what BS does.    

    Seems harmless enough, right? Facts and truth really don't matter that much when it comes to personal anecdote. Our own sense of ourselves counts more.  

    Except when you're on the national news, and when others are involved who remember it differently.  

    Alas, poor Brian.  

    So, let you who are without BS cast the first stone.  And people who live in BS should not blame others when they BS too.  

     How about those for ancient folk wisdom?  One thing’s sure; we all do it, at least in private with good friends.  For a full and philosophical exploration of the subject, read Harry G. Frankfurt’s 2005 book, “On Bull----“.  It’s funny, disturbing, and oh, so true.   

     Frankfurt, by the way, taught philosophy for years at Princeton and Yale.  He thinks long and deep on subjects that the rest of us just toss around. Frankfort’s companion book “On Truth” also merits a look. 

     However, truth and BS are not opposites.  Lies, the opposite of truth, aren’t what BSing is all about.   That’s Frankfort’s point, and it’s worth pondering.  

     Which brings me inevitably to Brian Williams.  Williams evidently has been known around the NBC newsroom as a pleasant co-worker and a great storyteller.

    That’s the first clue to BS-ing:  storytelling.   

    If you’re joking or repeating “once upon a time” tales, everyone knows it’s pure fiction.  No one condemns jokesters or story fabricators as liars or BS-ers.  

     However, if you’re telling fact-based stories, you’re probably BS-ing.
    It’s these “factual” storytellers who run they risk of getting called out, especially if they do it habitually and in public.  However, they’re still not liars—just bull-tossers. 

     So, what’s the difference between lying and bs-ing?   Here we need Frankfurt, whose explanation makes perfect sense.  Bs-ers, he asserts, aren’t really concerned about truth or falsehoods.  They’re mostly concerned about the impression they’re giving of themselves. 

     As Frankfurt puts it,  “Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

     Liars, in contrast, know the reality, and deliberately set out to distort it for what they perceive as important agendas worth lying for.    

     Does this mean we should condemn Brian Williams for misrepresenting the facts of his experience in Iraq?  Or in other news zones, where he reports from the ground? 

     Well, yes.  In his private life, talking with friends about his experiences, he probably throws bull like a rodeo cowboy.  As do most of us.  So we can forgive him that.  

     Where Williams went wrong, and why he’s losing his salary and position for six months, is that he did in public, on air.  Journalists on the job should not BS about their experiences.  In his BS story, he was more intrepid, more under threat.  He might have gone down in that first helicopter, had he been on it.  It wasn’t enough to be in an active combat zone. 

     That’s understandable, though not excusable, since it’s demonstrably false and potentially insulting to those who were there.    

     Incidentally, most Fox News pundits aren’t really BS-ers.  They’re liars, though a
    few don’t seem to know the difference, and habitually BS as well.   That deserves a column of its own.    

     So, what should the new and improved Brian Williams say to NBC News viewers when he returns in August?  Something like this might help: 

    “Good evening, I’m Brian Williams returning from NBC limbo after BS-ing on air.  

    Like most of you, I toss bull with friends all the time.  But now that I really do understand the difference between public and private BS, I will never again do it on air.  It’s wrong, it’s inexcusable, and it has almost ruined my professional life.” 
    “I return to the newsroom sadder and wiser. I honor your trust, and will work hard to deserve it.”

     I’d forgive and almost forget.  But he can never do it again.  

    Go comment!
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  • About Time for "Quiet Time"

    • Posted on Jan 11, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    This morning's Courier column; I do have a personal interest in meditation, since I've been practicing for nearly 40 years--Transcendental Meditation and a hybrid form from Deepak Chopra's workshops, which I attended some years ago.  

    For those who are curious about where to start, there is a lot of material out there--books, YouTube videos and live instruction from real teachers.   Here's  link to the TM site that might be helpful:  http://www.tm.org/#.VLKoCHQF0w4.email

    And here's a book that offers a comprehensive overview:
    THE MEDITATION HANDBOOK (1990) by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  

    I personally really like videos and material from TARA BRACH--YouTube videos and her wonderful book RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.  She includes meditation instruction with every chapter and on her videos.   

    All of these might give you a good start--and a personal teacher is better than books and videos, but will mean more trouble and expense.  It's well worth it, though.   

    In any case, the big deal is what's happening in the San Francisco school system, where meditation seems to be transforming schools in remarkable ways, as I explain below in the Courier column.  

    Nothing succeeds like success, as they say, and I’m here to report two genuine successes.  One is small, the other large, a possible game-changer.  

     The small success involves my own daily meditation practice.  It began over thirty years ago and continues to this day.   

     As a young assistant professor teaching anywhere from 90 to 250 students in three classes, struggling with writing conference papers, grading piles of student essays, meeting with students, attending multiple faculty committees, facing constant pressure to do more and do better, I was stressed.  I mean, stressed out, exhausted, short-tempered, and chronically anxious.   I was staying afloat, but barely.  

     In those days, Cedar Falls had a Transcendental Meditation Center down on third and main, and a couple of friends each recommended I try TM.  

    I did, and it worked.  Within a few days of twice-daily meditation, I began feeling relaxed, then peaceful, then downright blissed out. Well, not quite, but close. 
    And it continued.  No one was more surprised than I.  

     Over the years I’ve attended meditation workshops, modified my practice slightly, and still continue meditating twenty minutes, twice a day. It has made all the difference in my stress level, and I’m still alive, well, and pushing 72.  

     I’m convinced that regular brain-quieting has given me more, and better, years.  That’s what meditation does, by the way:  quiets our always-buzzing brains.   I recommend some form of meditation for anyone who feels overwhelmed with pushes and pulls beyond their control.  If it worked for me, it will work for you. 

     Beyond my own small life, there’s a much larger meditation success story that recently made national news.  

     At Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, they began a program in 2007 of twice-daily “quiet time” breaks for the entire school.  This particular school sits in a rough, even violent, neighborhood.  Attendance, academic scores, and teacher and student retention were dismal. 

     Teachers and students alike hated the chaos of school days.  In other words, the school made no progress toward anything but failure.  

     Now, after over seven years, they can judge Quiet Time’s success. It’s been dramatic, school-wide, and heartening.   This is how David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, describes the results: 

     “In the first year of Quiet Time, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent. Within four years, the suspension rate was among the lowest in the city. Daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average. Grade point averages improved markedly. About 20 percent of graduates are admitted to Lowell High School – before Quiet Time, getting any students into this elite high school was a rarity. Remarkably, in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey, these middle school youngsters recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco.”

     Amazing but true.  Kirp continues:  

     “On the California Achievement Test, twice as many students in Quiet Time schools have become proficient in English, compared with students in similar schools where the program doesn’t exist, and the gap is even bigger in math. Teachers report they’re less emotionally exhausted and more resilient.”

     Incidentally, students are not forced to practice TM.  They can simply close their eyes, daydream, nap—as long as they’re quiet during those two 15-minute periods. Parents must give permission if they want their child to learn the meditation technique. 

     I can hear objections:  wasting valuable school time, returning to hippie-dom, 
    imposing a religious practice in a state school.  All of these seem to be satisfactorily answered, since the program’s success with the parents’ permission for seven years speaks for itself. 

     Best of all, Quiet Time costs virtually nothing, and it affects whole schools so positively (based on real data) that it’s at least worth a look. 

     My own small success story offers unqualified support.  

     Much more power to them.  

    Go comment!
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