Monthly Archives: October 2009

On Loving to Hate

The other day a student asked if I intended to read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I took a moment to recall the opening of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway repeats his father’s advice to “reserve all judgments.”

Then I said, “No way.  Not a chance.”

I ought to reserve judgment—particularly of books I haven’t read and particularly with students who benefit from any reading—but, when it comes to Dan Brown, I can’t help having an opinion.  When I read The Da Vinci Code a few years ago, I hated it so much that I stopped reading with five pages to go.  I could have stopped on the fifth page but wanted to hate it from a position of strength.  I needed a way to express my contempt more vividly.

If you love Dan Brown, I sincerely apologize.

I think you should stop reading now.

As an English teacher, I see books as my business and generally celebrate anyone appreciating any book.  In the past, I’ve had colleagues who’ve rejected some of the novels we teach as second rate, but, for me, a book students like is a good book.  I keep my misgivings about The Lord of the Flies to myself.  I bite my lip when students praise Of Mice and Men because I assume they sense something I’m too jaded to see.  I’ve never wanted to be the sort of snob who thinks we should teach Crime and Punishment instead of The Joy Luck Club because everyone knows that anyone who has a brain recognizes that Dostoyevsky is the better writer.

I generally don’t like hating books.  Though I listen patiently and recognize every citizen’s right to complain, I barely tolerate students who want to tell me (usually over and over and over) how little they enjoy the book I assigned them.  The fault, I say inwardly, may be the reader’s and not the writer’s.  Every book, I tell myself, offers something redeeming for the person who searches for it.

So why single out poor Dan Brown?

My wife finds it odd that I can muster such hatred toward so innocuous a figure. It is a little like hating white bread. I find my hatred odd too.  I state reasons—the amateurish way characters discuss clues as they flee from gunfire bugs me, as do the barely differentiated characters discussing these clues… endlessly, in tediously informative baby-step bits.  I’ve taught eighth graders who write more engaging dialogue, and the telling-heavy, showing-short chapters always, always, always end in cheesy and/or clumsy cliffhangers.

None of these objections, however, account for my hatred.  I sometimes play literary activist and say it’s a crime better writers go unpublished.  That’s certainly true, but worse writers are published too.  It’s occurred to me that, though I don’t author accounts of century-old global religious conspiracies couched as thrillers, maybe my hatred is jealousy.

When people who love Dan Brown chide me for spoiling their fun, I do feel guilty.  What’s wrong with a little jigsaw solving—even if it is a puzzle of finite, identically shaped pieces?  My hatred is irrational, and, being a rational man, I know the cure.  I should buy The Lost Symbol, strap myself to a chair and read it, cover to cover.  While I’m at it, I’ll read Twilight and all those other novels everyone else talks about too.

But I can already feel a biological fireball gathering in my lizard brain.  Please, oh Lord, don’t ever let me meet Mr. Brown.  I’ll be nice, but I might have to keep my hand over my mouth to arrest the sneer overcoming me.

Which—I know, I know—is not my best expression.

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Filed under Art, Dan Brown, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Fiction, High School Teaching, Laments, life, Opinion, Showing and Telling, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Ahead and Behind

Other runners must have the same daydream—shambling along at my tired pace, I look up and imagine the back of my younger self racing out of reach ahead.  The two of us can’t be split and still be one person, but, if we could be, he’d be winning.

Like most ex-competitive runners over fifty, my best times are behind me. I’ve nearly used up the expression, “Back in the day.”

Little in life is as quantifiable as the time it once took you to cover a distance.  I don’t figure my time completing projects at work or my efficiency answering e-mails—but I remember my best at every distance.  The numbers have remained relevant because the high school cross country athletes I coach—including my son—periodically ask me, “What’s your fastest at…?”

But I’m sensible enough to know how meaningless those numbers really are.  Some runners—even ones whose bodies have long betrayed them—still see themselves as an X-minute, Y-seconds Z-distance runner.  They regale you with former workouts and stellar performances at races that occurred decades ago.  Their triumphs are as fresh as last weekend.

Okay, me too.  But usually I wait to be asked and tell the story with disbelief.  Those performances belong to someone else.  That I once ran so fast astounds me.  What astounds me even more is that I once trained hard enough to attain those times.

The biggest difference between me and the imaginary younger runner ahead is the spirit behind his dedication.  He has a naive faith in sacrifice, the cumulative effect of daily work, and the tolerance of pain.  He has no excuse for taking it easy—mostly because he doesn’t take it easy—and he’s never as impressed with himself as he hopes to be after his next race.  He’s not nostalgic because it’s not time yet.

His perspective is what I miss, not the times or even the body that produced the times.  I’m lucky I get to work with young runners filled with hope and am grateful so much of their spirit rubs off on me.  However, experience, especially the sort that tells you what’s possible, makes you resistant to their sort of ambition.

Perhaps it’s time for another dream. For me, the hardest part of aging has been feeling less hopeful.  My racing years have ended, and I could turn to other goals, but little seems as quantifiable—verifiable—as those old times do.  Strangely, new tasks often feel like starting over.  Another magnitude of desire seems required.  I gulp very hard to toe the line.

I’d love to shout to the young man ahead of me—ask him to stop for a moment and indulge an old man with a little advice—how does he do it?  I’d love to get a pat on the back, a smile, and a shove.

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Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Numbers, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

You Were Saying…

Sometimes I view language the same way a scientist might see gloves anchored into the side of a containment box—better than nothing but still not the same as handling the subject.

Most of the time, I don’t separate words and what they name, but occasionally the labels come off or,  even if they stay on, obscure the things under them.  Why do we still call a computer a “computer” when the actual computing it does is negligible?  Who decided “dog” or “cat” fall under “pets”?  How can the same orchid have an “odor” to one person and an “aroma” to another?

Perhaps the brain needs dreams to elude language, to find terms less distant from what they describe.  Though I’ve always heard you can’t read in dreams, I seem to.  Yet, oddly, those words are more objects than signals, their identity pure text—curves and lines, spacing and thickness.

Writing poetry approaches the dreamy feeling language is a thing.  Sometimes the music of the poem is already written, and I need only find words—maybe any—to go along.  If a struggle ensues, it’s between the underlying sound and the accompanying language’s insistence on meaning and logic.  The words have to go together, after all, and be understood by someone else.  Otherwise the best they might aspire to is opera, lovely gibberish.

But I love gibberish.

Ludwig Wittgenstein thought language defined and limited our world—it was not the vehicle but the driver, he thought.  “Uttering a word,” he said, “is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”  The word creates the thought, and when we disassociate a word and examine it instead of what it describes, we find ourselves on what he called “frictionless ice,” lost and unable to rescue ourselves.

Maybe, but lots of organisms seem to do quite well with language much less devoted to abstraction.  We want to be able to put words to everything, as if we meant to equip all reality with handles.  Do ants, butterflies or mountain goats want anything so ambitious?  Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”  Living closer to the world as it is rather than as it’s described, his lion might not need to talk about freedom or angst.  He might have words only for the basic needs our language buries under mounds of verbiage and lets molder.

Sometimes I wonder if words are our species’ fatal flaw, the reason we can’t live in the world without warring against it.  I wonder if language is the germ of our extinction.

I have to believe in a wordless world, if only to escape the double life of being and thinking.  If you desire to live in the present, you have to sense it without intermediaries, to see it without its armature of vocabulary and syntax.  You must dream it.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Wittgenstein, Words

Birthday Story

Today is my birthday, and rather than writing reflections as an essay, I thought I’d create a sort of parable to gather all the different thoughts I have about celebrating this day.  This sort-of story is a little surreal and a lot cryptic and very experimental but closer to the confusion I always feel on this day.  For me, writing often means settling things, which sometimes feels false.  I grow so tired of conclusions.  As strange as this piece may seem, perhaps it mirrors what’s in my head today better than an essay might…

14venus1.395Every citizen cycled through the duty, so the remnants of waiting littered the post—half-written notes, tiny totems built of splinters or carved from fragments of shattered wall, a stack of reading well-worth abandoning in the middle.  You were to sound a bell if you saw anyone outside the town walls, but someone long ago yanked the bell’s rope down.  It lay in a shadowy corner like a sleeping snake.

His turn came once a year like everyone else’s, but his stay there felt continuous.  He’d just been pacing in front of the narrow window, just craning his neck to stick his face out and catch scents borne by the wind’s new direction.  Out there were winds.  They whipped tiny circles of dirt in the expanse surrounding the town.  In the absence of anyone arriving, those ghost dervishes came closest to company.  He imagined they were trying to tell him history no one knew.  They’d traveled and he hadn’t, after all.

And he imagined a figure walking out of the horizon, a blur at first, a flicker that could be something loose in a current of air, and then actually a thing with legs and volition moving consciously, purposefully toward him.  Not everyone took this duty seriously anymore—most spent the time sleeping and dreaming—but he’d never been able to accept being alone.  Someday someone would materialize in the distance, and he’d watch, each step of the strange shape erasing a little of the calm forbearance he’d been taught to value.

The hours at the post made his eyes sore with watching and his psyche tired with longing.  He may have dozed a little because, for just a moment, he was sure the figure in the distance would be himself, coming into focus like a reflection in a bowl of water as it comes to rest.  That picture of fate seemed fleetingly right to him.  He was really looking for himself, another self who came from the outside instead of projecting itself onto nights of black and stars.

He shook himself awake, and the fantasy evaporated.  Out on the horizon, the line of trees thinned for fall. A week ago, he knew, some trees must have seemed to burst into flames as their leaves changed, but that hadn’t been on his watch.  He always arrived just after, and sometimes whatever changed in his life since his previous duty felt as wan as trees graying in anticipation of winter.

Soon he’d hear the knock signaling the next watch. He lifted a little statue from a crowded shelf and studied its shape, a woman’s figure whose belly and breasts promised fertility.  Her head and face were unfinished, but he read her inscrutable expression as concentration on the moment she would be two, herself and her child.  His own mother had that moment, and he wondered, for perhaps the first time, how her waiting felt, the inevitable arriving so slowly as to seem invisible and yet rushing up with an undeniable, physical urgency.

And the thought roused him.  He gathered his things to go.  When the door opened, he would be relieved for another year of living.  His eyes off the horizon, he thought of all the different arrivals the world offers.  He thought of his own children, sitting near the windows, looking for their father’s figure rounding the corner.

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Filed under Allegory, Birthdays, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, life, Meditations, Memory, Parables, Thoughts, Writing