Monthly Archives: February 2009

After Kenko

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Yoshida Kenkō (1283?-1350?), a guard to a Japanese emperor. Following the emperor’s death, Kenko (born Urabe Kaneyoshi) turned to a life of contemplation as a Buddhist monk.  During those years, he wrote Tsurezuregusa, which translates as Essays in Idleness or Notes from the Leisure Hours.  This collection of 243 short pieces, published posthumously, includes compositions that might be three sentences or three pages, all discussing the commonplace issues of life.

I encountered them first when Phillip Lopate included them in the “Forbearer” section of The Art of the Personal Essay.  It may be a misnomer to call him a forbearer, as the first essayists to use the term “essay” wouldn’t have known anything about his work; however, his pithy and personal style anticipates the same reflective style discovered in the west much later.  At the same time, however, Kenko’s work is his own.  His homespun wisdom and quiet observations are endearing and enduring because they seem unadorned, unostentatious—qualities less common in western essayists.

At first, I thought I might write about Kenko but decided it might be more fun to admire him by imitating him.  The excerpts below don’t come close to the original—and I can’t help some of me intruding into the pieces I’ve written—but I offer these essays in the spirit of mental exercise and experimentation…

1.

No one who knows you well will think you a risk-taker.  To them, you behave as you behave, and, if they love you, as you ought to behave.  Our greatest risks are in actions we undertake without forethought.

We buy a house not thinking about how the roof might someday leak or how our finances may run low, and we may have to choose how dear that house is.  Then we might consider what chances we took blithely, but before then, no.

Perhaps it’s too hard to look ahead and see all those risks aligned to meet us.  Perhaps it is the way we are, insisting that most of the things we are doing right now must be safe.

2.

A sensible person knows not to criticize another’s heroes.  What can be gained by trying to persuade someone not to revere a beloved figure?  You have little chance of success, but, if you do, what have you done but taken direction from someone’s life and given them greater cause to resent you?

3.

Here is a story of friend I knew in school.  He ran for a minor office, treasurer or secretary of his class, and made a campaign speech quoting wildly and broadly from strange sources.  He thought many of these quotations were funny, and they might have been… on the page.  Yet when he said them in front of an audience expecting responsibility, seriousness, and purpose, his classmates did not seem to know how to respond and met his cleverness with silence.  He fell flat.  The collective effect of his speech was strange.  They thought him strange and didn’t elect him.

In the school year that followed, the student government decided they needed direction and asked the student body for suggestions.  To that purpose, they placed a locked suggestion box in the cafeteria.  So, nearly every day after this box appeared, this failed candidate would finish lunch, pull a pencil from his pocket, and, on a little scrap of paper, jot down a sentence or two, fold it several times, and discreetly drop it in the slot as everyone rushed to class.

His classmates didn’t seem to notice, but if they had, they would have wondered, as I did, what he was writing.  He didn’t hesitate to tell me when I asked: he was offering an piece-by-piece plan to convert our high school to the sort of bumper cars you find at amusement parks.  The stairs would become shoots and inclines.  Halls would have traffic lights.  The classrooms would be outfitted with poles and speakers like those found at drive-ins.  Gym would be stockcar-type racing and, naturally, demolition derby.

The year stretched on, and he began to submit tiny drawings, minimally labeled, as if whoever would be reading them already knew where they fit in the overall plan.

How strange it must have been when the student government finally thought to open that box, and all those scraps of paper tumbled out!  With the fragments out of order, they probably didn’t trouble to piece them together in any way.  Perhaps they thought they were dealing with a madman.

But, some time later, when the principal of the school made an announcement at lunch telling students not to abuse the student government box because, after all, they just wanted to make school life better, I looked over at the failed candidate and, unnoticed by him, I saw his face break into a broad and open smile. I watched him carefully after that, but I never saw him make another suggestion.

4.

With some friends, you only carry on one conversation, so that, even after years of being separated, you drop back into what each of you once said.  That’s the way the mind works, as if time meant nothing to it.  You find a photo beneath a dresser you’re moving, and the people in it are with you again, smiling as vividly as they did then, as they might be at that moment.

5.

Try as we might, we can’t stop thinking how others see us.  The intentions and effects of our words so seldom match, and, just as one person will say a blossom is faint pink and another say it’s more purple than pink, you would struggle to move either to agree.

So, when a friend says to me, as one did the other day, “She doesn’t begin to understand me,” I’m tempted to say, “perhaps she does, just not as you wish.”

It’s rare to understand yourself as others might, because that would mean seeing yourself from outside when the heart of human experience is only having your one mind, and its one, one-way, window of senses into the world.  When we read what we’ve written, intention seems woven into it.  The very fabric of our thoughts seems represented there.  But it might be a great gift to see the true fabric, to discover whether it holds together and fits the world or whether it’s as insubstantial as a ruined spiderweb.

Instead, the fabric we imagine grows stronger and thicker, in our minds, at least.  Experience assures us we understand, and who can really see the actual world through all the layers of surmise we’ve accepted and stopped questioning?

I wonder who of us could handle knowing ourselves as others know us.  Sometimes, when you are riding a bus or passing through a garish hotel lobby or mindlessly staring at shop windows, you catch an unfamiliar reflection.  You recognize you there, but the reflected you is not looking back, and, suddenly, you’re a stranger and stranger than you’ve ever been.  Your eyes keep flitting back, expecting that person to be gone, hoping and not hoping for it.

Everyone likes to talk about how much they dislike the sound of their own voice on an answering machine.  I’ve seen people hold the phone away to avoid listening to their own voice asking for a message.  But I wonder why—if that sound is the sweetest sound in our own heads most of the time—what soul leaves our voices when they enter the world?

We mean to say something clearly and are heard entirely differently.  A desperate sea lives in the gap between what we mean and how we’re understood—one that sometimes seems as vast and airless as space… and as little subject to influence or intention.

Most of us are living out in that space all the time and can’t know it.

6.

To hear an ancient author as if he were a branch finally grown long enough to tap the window or a household pipe that has always been shuddering to life unnoticed—what a strange thing reading is!

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Filed under Essays, Kenko, Memory, Teaching, Writing

Another Angle on the Humanities

No adequate name exists for the level of education I teach. Elementary school is “primary education” and “secondary education” is college.  “Middle school” makes some sense—because it’s in the middle—but few think of  “high school” as very high anymore.

High school should probably be middle school too.  The term sometimes used to describe independent schools like mine—prep or preparatory school—comes closest to what I do.  I ready students for “higher education.”

So news about university trends suggests what’s to trickle down soon, and I read Stanley Fish’s January 18th “Thinking Again” column in the NYTimes with particular concern.  Titled “The Last Professor,” it describes the decline of the humanities in colleges. Fish uses a new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, to describe how practical education has defeated humanist values.

As college is the tail that wags schools like mine, I also worry how long it will be before high school English teachers are passé.  But I have to ask a bigger question, whether any of us—humanists, or non-humanists, or even Stanley Fish, understand education at all, whether we are all wrong about what education is.

The observations of Frank Donoghue, the book’s author and Fish’s former student, aren’t new.  Fish cites Andrew Carnegie praising students for learning shorthand and typing instead of less practical stuff like dead languages.  Fish quotes another industrialist, Richard Teller Crane, saying, “No one who has ‘a taste for literature has the right to be happy’ because ‘the only men entitled to happiness…are those who are useful.’”

This latest round of doubt has some oomph because more and more humanities positions are untenured or adjunct.  As Donoghue baldly puts it, universities don’t “hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers.”  Jobs and status are on the line, and professors shudder when  their values and their motives for teaching come under fire.  John Sperling, a founder of the University of Phoenix  and champion of for-profit education, says, “We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ nonsense.”

Understandably, statements like Sperling’s anger humanists.  If we really believe expanding minds is “nonsense,” I guess I should be upset too.

Except that I don’t entirely buy Sperling’s position.  I’d like to know how a teacher avoids expanding minds, how any education—even the most practical and job-oriented—won’t shift the students’ perspectives.  Who hasn’t had the experience of learning something that then appears everywhere?  Awareness seems an inevitable consequence of any education, which is, by its nature, expansive.

And just as we can’t avoid expanding minds, it’s hubris to believe we could design education to be practical in the first place.  The world has long moved too quicky to expect today’s teaching to be practical or even relevant tomorrow.

Even if we could be practical, we couldn’t prepare students for exactly what they will face.  All we can hope for is some good rehearsal, developing sufficient skills so that, when the real moment arises, students can improvise resourcefully and reliably.

Fish opens his column by saying, “higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.”  If I understand him properly, he’s saying we shouldn’t expect to connect education to jobs, material progress, or cultural values.

In high school, we try to violate Fish’s wishes exactly, and fail.  We design a relevant curriculum, not for jobs (at least at my school) but to achieve a specific effect measured by the corporate entities who created the AP, SAT, and ACT.  We hope our activities will prepare students for college, which necessitates our guessing constantly about “what colleges want.”  Yet, doing so is nigh impossible because, as Fish’s column illustrates, universities shift their thinking and vary considerably.

And despite our best guesses, some of the least practical things we do—reading Shakespeare, studying art history, discussing the causes of World War I—end up being the most practical. We live in a world where developing visual acuity is indispensable.  The skills learned decoding difficult literature—the resourcefulness gained by rearranging language to discern meaning—comes in handy reading all the bad prose out there and composing better prose ourselves.  Finding historical causes, it turns out, isn’t that different from finding the cause of a shift or change in markets.

What’s more, students don’t learn what we desire, they learn what they desire.  Try as we might to be practical, they constantly question what’s relevant and ultimately decide what is worth remembering.  What they don’t question—and can’t question because it’s never overt—is the training their minds receive.  Their familiarity with mental work of all types is the most practical, and sometimes least recognized, effect of their education.

I’m not a college professor—not even an adjunct. I toil away in the farm leagues, so my perspective may be moot—and far be it for a lowly high school teacher to enter a conversation, virtual or real, with Professor Fish—but the real issue appears to be how much our society values the content of humanities classes, which is another question altogether.

I don’t know the answer, but I love books, art, history and all that the humanities entail.  Many of my students share that love.  I have a hard time believing that humanities, despite its declining status, will disappear.  In corporate terms, the market won’t vanish.

So rather than create war between history and chemistry or English and Math, I’d like us to acknowledge that all education is impractical and that the humanities are no more impractical than anything else or, seen in another light, that the humanities are no less vital than shorthand or its modern equivalent.

Perhaps you have to see education from my perspective—from the middle—to understand how academic this debate over the humanities can sound. It might be healthier to view education as mental training, all of it—humanities and non-humanities—useful more as practice than as practical.

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Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Meditations, Stanley Fish, Teaching, Writing

Carrying Suitcases

Look on the web and you’ll find many versions of what happened to Ernest Hemingway’s suitcase.  They agree, however, on the essential fact—in 1922 most of his fiction and poetry disappeared.

The longer story is that Hemingway was covering the Lausanne Peace Conference for the Toronto Daily Star. After reading Hemingway’s accounts of the event, the editor Lincoln Steffens asked to see more writing, and Hemingway sent word to his first wife, Hadley, to bring his collected work—including carbons—from Paris to Switzerland.  As the train sat in the station, she left the suitcase behind to get something to drink. When she returned, it had vanished.

Writers have created novels out of Hemingway’s misfortune, and I have nothing new to add to their conjecture.  It must have been hell.  But it’s easy to say so and easy to say, as conventional wisdom does endlessly, that this event made Hemingway.  Forced to start again, he heeded the advice of Gertrude Stein and refashioned his prose in the characteristically spare style now famously imitated and parodied.  Losing the suitcase was a good thing.

Hemingway later wrote Fitzgerald, “We are all bitched from the start, and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it.”

I suppose so.  The literary lesson isn’t lost on me.  I know the moral—we go on loving what we’ve done until something shakes us from complacency and forces us to revise ourselves.

Yet, to me, seeing the theft as fortuitous suggests darker implications.  What about writers whose early work evolves unnoticed into their later work, the ones who make steady and sure progress toward an unanticipated result?  What about writers who lose nothing, who haven’t had the good fortune to experience a tragic catalyst?  Shall we all put our work in suitcases and leave them in train stations all over the country?  What will Homeland Security say?

When I was getting my MFA at Bennington and worked with Susan Cheever, she suggested something like a “suitcase cure”: take what you’ve written and put it in a drawer, then try rewriting it.  She believed what you repeated, what you lost, and what you added might be the best revision possible.

I use her method sometimes and, sure, it works.  But I can’t help wondering: is there any other way?  Elsewhere on the web you’ll find 365 posts I wrote under an alias.  I know how to delete it—Wordpress gives very specific and helpful instructions—should I go now and irreversibly scramble its zeros and ones?

I can’t do it.

Hemingway isn’t the only one to have lost his work.  Dylan Thomas lost Under Milk Wood three times—in pubs, naturally—and John Stuart Mill’s maid accidentally burnt the only copy of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution.  T. E. Lawrence lost the first version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in another train station.  In the Oakland fires of 1991, Maxine Hong Kingston lost a computer disk containing the only draft of a novel.

Many of these writers responded nobly.  Carlyle wrote his brother that he’d been a “schoolboy” seeking the approval of his master only to have his work returned torn, with the message, “No, boy, thou must go and write it better.”  He concluded, “What could I do but sorrowing go and try to obey?”

Having no other choice, these writers did what they had to—but would they have deliberately destroyed the work to achieve same effect?  How confident would they be of success—defining success, in this case, as creating something better than what they’d already done?

When I was complaining about starting over as a blogger, one of my friends said deleting the old blog would be the only way to stop comparing my new self to my old.  Honestly, I meant to delete it months ago.  Yet something has stopped me.  I know nothing is as devastating to art as imitating yourself, and in the end that may have been what killed Hemingway.  However, here’s another case where I pause on the brink of doing what some would say is required of a writer.  I’m thinking “Can’t I  be a real writer without throwing my suitcase off the train?”

Just after the loss of his manuscripts, Hemingway wrote Ezra Pound:

I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenelia [sic]? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left, and found …all that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem, which was later scrapped, some correspondence … and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.

The other blog is a giant museum that throws this blog into deep shadow, but I’m not ready for the wrecking ball yet.  Perhaps I can resort to Hemingway’s answer for a while and say I’m waiting for the right moment.

The truth may not be so complicated, however—maybe I’m just worried I’ll never write anything as good.

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Filed under Blogging, Essays, Hemingway, Meditations, MFA, Suitcases, Writing

Walking My Shoes Home

Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of winter in Chicago can’t be placed on a single date. Instead, we get glimpses of yellow grass beneath snow and whiffs of sodden, fertile earth. We have days when the sun feels a little more energetic on our ten exposed square inches, as if light is getting ready to shrink the eccentric white shapes sitting on every horizontal.

Occasionally our discontent thaws enough to venture out, hoping the breeze won’t sting.

I’ve lived here four years, and old-timers tell me that, thanks to global climate change, the winters are milder now. In that case, it won’t be long before Chicago is habitable in January. Eskimos have seven words for snow, and we have at least that many types—wet and dry, firm and fluffy, granular and smooth, snow that gathers under your boots like uncooked pie crust, and stuff that won’t stay, dancing off rooftops and glittering into your eyes.

Other cities brag more brutal winters—Milwaukee has more snow, Minneapolis is colder, Detroit and Cleveland are subject to sudden onslaughts—but Chicago boasts its amplifying wind, wind that insults injury and laughingly tosses freezing air every which way.

Plus, we have gray. This time of year some sidewalks offer single tracks between berms—on one side is unshoveled snow, on the other is a reef of plowed snow that’s started to melt and then refrozen, each time taking on a darker shade of grim. When and if spring comes, they will dwindle to reveal their full store of litter, but now we only see the half a wrapper, half a bottle, half a shoe, half a wig they’ve captured.

So living here requires managing hope. By all means, enjoy the day the temperature soars over freezing—let your crazy soul live in the moment—but don’t think spring is here yet. It’s still a dream to cherish, akin to the Cubs winning the series, a consummation devoutly to be wished, sure, but something that might be better where it is, in fantasy land. What would we do if this balmy 35º were spring?

As a newcomer, I might not have the right to say so, but that perspective IS Chicago, a sort of odd pride in misery, as if we’ve tied our self-worth to futility and hope. We’re yanked endlessly between the two, know not to hope too much, and are proud not to hope too much.

New Yorkers carry a black look with them on the street every day, but their expressions don’t fool me. Their masks don’t penetrate. The true Chicagoan has made black as much a part of him as the plowed ice has absorbed the city’s smoke. People in Chicago laugh and smile and jest, but whatever midwestern charm remains after one winter hardens into determination: I can survive this. I can survive anything.

For the last three winters, with the first snowfall in November, I’ve worn boots to work and carried my dress shoes. They stay at work, almost uninterruptedly, until March, and every morning I change, Mr. Rogers style, from serious boots (or my more serious boots) into those shoes. It adds a few minutes and a little hassle to the start and end of my day, but I do it without grumbling. I have nothing I’m willing to complain about. One day—though certainly not today and certainly not too soon—I’ll walk those shoes home. At least, I almost hope so.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Groundhog Day, Hope, Meditations, Survival, Urban Life, Winter