Monthly Archives: June 2010

Now… What Was I Doing?

Everyone in my office has Facebook.  Everyone in my immediate family has it, as do my brother, my sisters, and all my nieces and nephews, and even my mother.  Just about everyone I know at work and in the world has Facebook.  I have Facebook too, though I’m not sure why.

My children joke that if I’m carrying my cell phone, it isn’t on, and, if it’s on, I don’t have it.  The rest of the time it is neither with me nor on. They chuckle over my glacial texting.  They say, “Are you still working on that?  Is it a novel?”  Then they shake their heads with a smirk that says, “Silly Daddy.”  To them, I’m an old dog incapable of chasing these tricky, new-fangled devices… and any modern means of communication.

Naturally, I see it differently.

Okay, I’m absent-minded and haven’t developed a habit of using a mo-bile phone, but I’m learning.  I’m not an ossified coot or a Luddite or a sand-hooded ostrich. My youngers may see me as such, a fossil from a non-digitized stone age, but I don’t pine for any good old days of phone booths and landline isolation. I simply remember we once had different modern conveniences… and felt as fortunate.  We didn’t know we might have more.

We do have more, don’t we?

The advantages of Facebook are plain to me—I’ve heard from and about people I might otherwise have lost, followed friends’ links to funny and interesting videos or articles, communicated social plans, and shared in the small and large triumphs and tragedies of friends’ lives.  I also know which Twin Peaks character I’m most like… Agent Cooper.

But pesky balance sheets pop up in my imagination—what I’ve gained that I like versus what I’ve gained that I don’t. Because convenience has no master, distraction is as convenient as productivity, and intrusion is as convenient as accessibility.  Before email, I couldn’t spend time avoiding work and calling it work.  Before Facebook, I could write three or four paragraphs in a row.

Now my breaks have breaks. I avoid projects—like doing my job or helping out around the house—by answering dubiously necessary messages. But that’s hard too, so I turn to check Facebook or another email account or an information site I just checked a few minutes ago (and which might possibly have something slightly new to share) or I look something up on or Wikipedia or I Stumble for a minute (going on half an hour) or I visit my blog to see if I might have received one of my semi-weekly comments.

Then I wonder if not learning to use my phone—I AM learning—is such a bad thing.  At least my atomized attention doesn’t suffer from the additional distraction of receiving the relentless texts my kids do.

My iPod is broken, thank God.

A life of distraction makes me more distractible, and all those mental channels that used to take me from conception to execution seem to have filled with silt and cattails and become one huge undifferentiated swamp.  Perhaps people born to this world see landmarks I don’t and navigate that swamp, but I’m lost.

When I said before that everyone in my family had Facebook, I made an easy and convenient generalization. Actually, my younger brother is holding out.  Somehow he refuses to believe he’s missing something.

He’s my hero.  I hope to find the courage to quit Facebook. I want to let go of some of the electric diversions coursing through my life.

I want to tie myself to the mast and sail straight again.


Filed under Aging, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Facebook, Gesellschaft, Home Life, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Memory, Parenting, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Writing

Auteur! Auteur!

Back in the 1950s, the French director Francois Truffaut labeled some directors auteurs and others metteurs-en-scène.  Auteurs create a distinctive vision of the world—their own—and produce films with instantly recognizable and idiosyncratic style.  They return over and over to their peculiar fixations and seem to create connections between films as well as within them.

Metteurs-en-scène—perhaps best translated in this context as “the rest”—might be capable, but they do a job, follow convention, and recycle acceptable, digestible, and familiar cinematic techniques.

And in this distinction lies a larger vision of art that celebrates the artist over the art… a vision that, today, seems increasingly quaint.

Critics applying Truffaut’s thinking today might label Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Kathryn Bigelow auteurs.  Though we might like some specific films from other largely nameless directors, they are the metteurs-en-scène.

As a way of watching movies, Truffaut’s viewpoint is useful.  He urges viewers to look for the strange obsessions directors indulge and the resourceful ways they use cameras to convey their particular takes on a reality we ostensibly share. For Truffaut, membership in one group or the other is fluid—a metteur-en-scène could become an auteur and vice versa.  Ambition is most important.  A successful director needs individual innovation, an overpowering anxiety of influence, and dissatisfaction with ancient and recent history.  He or she has to want to stand out, to make a mark.

Like many theories about art, however, this perspective suggests prickly values—innovation is good, synthesis bad.  Eccentricity is artistic, universal appeal is not. Meanwhile, a few critics decide which few directors are worthwhile.  Others may seem enjoyable but, in the end, are really only serviceable.  We appreciate their efforts but they can’t be deemed artists.

Therein lies the problem.

Pauline Kael and other reviewers objected to the auteur theory in part because film is collaborative—auteurs don’t work alone and owe much to actors, writers, directors of photography, and editors.  Kael’s response, however, implies a more prominent issue—whether viewers appreciate movies or the person (or people) who made them. From a more democratic shuffling iPod perspective—one that celebrates songs over bands or poems over poets, or paintings over oeuvres—auteur theory seems especially elitist.  Declaring auteurs suggests some artists are artists and some are not. It is not okay to simply like something.

The backlash to that sort of elitism seems especially strong now.

The question of who is worthy is complicated.  Most of the directors called auteurs are, to the general public, outsiders.  They may be admired—may be even academy award winning—but their fare isn’t always appealing or bankable.  Cinema is increasingly divided into “entertainments” everyone sees and art films viewed as DVDs or electronic files.  Like the highbrow books on the NYTimes best seller list, they may not be watched all the way through.

And, in the computer age, many have begun to question whether art requires an auteur at all.

Electronic sharing erodes the whole concept of authorship.  Torrenters think less about makers.  They don’t see artists as owning their works or even deserving the economic benefits deriving from them. They regard the stranglehold of access as a sort of extortion and see sources as largely anonymous, a contribution to a pool called “Television,” “Music” or “Cinema” that no one should truly own or control. And their tastes are eclectic—they vote with their terabytes.

While a division has always existed between artist and art—and, by extension, between high brow and low brow art—the distinction seems headed in a new direction.  The ease of accessing art through our computers makes a new aesthetic possible.  What’s seen or heard or visited or clicked on is valuable, the people who made it, less so.  The person who created the work of art is the beneficiary of public attention… which is not quite the same thing as being deserving of adoration.

Which is also why “auteur theory” seems the product of another age.  Reverence for artists hasn’t disappeared—it will never disappear—but viewers and listeners and art appreciators seem to come closer and closer to sports fans. They aren’t the hero worshippers Truffaut anticipated.

Watching from wherever he is watching, he might be surprised where we’ve traveled and wonder where an electronic aesthetic of popularity may take us.

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, Film, Genius, Humanities, Opinion, Thoughts

Accept a Moment

Here is the commencement address I gave at my school this week with a few changes to avoid real names.  If you are a regular reader here, you may notice some familiar themes (and prose):

Standing here, I’m thinking of the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Those of you who have read the book know Billy Pilgrim finds himself transported bodily to his past and future.  He is suddenly serenely drowning in a pool at the Illium, New York YMCA, making love to Montana Wildhack in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore, weeping over an injured horse after the allies’ firebombing of Dresden.

Then he’s back again.

My affliction is more metaphoric.  I can’t help seeing this moment through other moments—my own senior year, graduations of students I’ve taught in the last 27 years, classes you’ve been in.

And, because I’m a parent of a senior, I also see other moments—saying goodbye on the first day of pre-school, listening to hurried explanations of “what I learned today” or watching, as every parent does, even when my child didn’t know I was watching at all… and was probably busy ignoring me.

Vonnegut’s surreal approach, it turns out, is real.  We suddenly find ourselves in memories and can’t recall how we arrived there.

As Billy Pilgrim discovers, many of these moments are absurd. Look at us now—this auspicious occasion is more than a little strange.  Were I Billy Pilgrim arriving here, I might wonder… why am I wearing a mu mu?  What is this limp, multi-colored hula hoop around my neck?  Why are you wearing such silly hats?  Those tails are in the wrong place. How come—as I’m speaking to you—you are staring at the back of my head?

Calling this occasion “commencement” is absurd too.  You might be thinking about endings.  No more dozing on the senior couch or discussing the ridiculous test-slash-quiz-slash-quest-slash-assessment-slash-Challenge Assignment you just endured.  No more leaving mystery objects in classmates’ mailboxes, filming a banner, or wondering when someone will suddenly stand up and say “Now shut the barn door, are you saying…” You won’t be slipping into gathering late anymore—next year, no one will know what a “Gathering” is.  Fishbowl will return to being a noun, and you will never, never, never have to explain the school’s schedule again.

Your future classmates will thank you if you don’t.

You may already have moved on.  We are all so unstuck in time, we are always moving on.

One moment I can’t return to is my own high school graduation.  I didn’t go.  My sister was getting married the same weekend five states away.  I could have made it back for the ceremony, but that part of my life seemed done.  I thought, “I’m way too cool for that falderal” and I told myself, “Isn’t it mostly for parents anyway?”

Well, I’m parent now, and I’ve decided that last part…. is true.  We are immeasurably and irrationally proud of you.  We need this moment… so get over it.

The older we get, the more we want to live in moments like this one.  They’re special even if we manufacture them.

For all this ceremony’s absurdities, it’s not absurd to make you pause, look at one another and be immeasurably and irrationally proud of yourselves, to say goodbye to teachers you’re leaving behind, especially the teachers who are leaving us all behind.

Books and movies linger on these moments—just before the bat hits the ball, or the score ignites the crowd, or the crowd realizes what magic it has just witnessed.

We don’t get to do what books and movies do.  We’d like to, but can’t.

Last fall, I went to Peoria with the Cross Country team for the state finals.  The girls and boys teams had dwindled to ten runners and only eight would stand at the start line of the two races.  Everyone received Coach’s words before the start—and, as usual, they were good, rousing words—but I wanted even more.  We could have had a bigger moment.  We should have eyed each other and said, “Look at us.” We should have remembered all the athletes who weren’t there but who pushed the ones remaining to run better than they ever thought possible.  We should have said, “This moment only arrives once.”

But someone was wondering if the computer chip was secured correctly, and someone was sick of being photographed, and someone was worried whether that visit to the port-o-let was ill-timed and someone else wondered if it was too hot or too early or too scary.

Someone wanted it over.

Because that’s how most of us live—with “what’s next?” on our lips.

So, absurd as it is, we’re holding you hostage.  Those silly hats—they’re for pinning you down.  For once, you have no laptops, blackberries, iPods, or other electronica to divert you.

I hope.

Welcome to monotasking—the sort that means drinking in the present, of being spontaneous, free of self-consciousness, without judgment, open to influence.

Some of you already know that pleasure from reading.  Books offer complete immersion in moments.  The best ones give us precious echoes of our own experience.  They give us more moments that make us feel less alone.  Though the author manufactured them, they tell us what’s true.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau said, “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence.”

Seniors, if I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t waste it on any accio to material success.  I’d give you pleasure in this moment—and every moment.  I’d give you more reasons to come unstuck in time.  I’d focus on every moment as we have this one.

Our era is skilled at judgment.  People read a page and declare a book “crap” or reject a task as dumb even before undertaking it.  We have judgment as a constant companion, evaluating each moment—and each other—until everything fractures into what it is and how we judge its worth.

Instead of enjoying each other—really being with one another—we text, we face…book.  We hurry onto our next notification or message.

But look at us now. Right now.  Your last homework is to think of a moment you’d like to remember forever… something you couldn’t tweet or text.

Because, more than simply filling your head with stuff, your teachers wanted to create moments to return to…

Because soon you’ll move on…

But before you go, I have one last seemingly random, off-the-subject story that turns out to be quite instructive:

I worked for the University Press in college.  My job was pretty uninteresting—I put books in boxes, sent bills, and did some quite crude accounting—but my boss had placed his faith in me, and that meant a lot. I took the job not because I loved bubble wrap, but because of Professor J. I could mention few subjects he hadn’t read something about, but he didn’t show off his knowledge.  He had a wry smile for undergraduate opinions he’d heard a million times and listened attentively as I rattled on about everything and anything.  I loved our messy basement office and every moment I spent there.

But I got behind.  Professor J was hardly a taskmaster.  He trusted me to keep up with orders and I didn’t always fulfill his trust in timely fashion, so I’d go in on a Saturday or Sunday to complete orders.  I didn’t want my boss to know.

One Sunday in the winter of my senior year, I let myself into the office to work.  My attention was elsewhere—I’d had a tough conversation with my dad the night before, and, on the desk in my apartment were the dates for GREs and LSATs, applications to graduate school, and handouts from the placement office about on-campus interviews.

It had dawned on me that the school was going to make me graduate, and I was upset—upset because I loved school, because being a student felt like the only thing I did well.

As I wrapped books and sealed packages, I began to think about how little I knew about what was outside this place I loved, what was next, who I was.  And I became more emotional, and, perhaps because I was sleep deprived or miffed about getting behind, or maybe because I was visited by the murky spirit of that senior winter, I began to cry.

Not sobbing or weeping or throwing-myself-to-the-floor-and-gnashing-my-teeth crying, but water, a lot of water was leaking from my eyes —we’re 60 % water, after all.  And I was in this state, crying and packing books, mailing my tears to various libraries and bookstores all over the country—and internationally—when I heard the lock of the door turn.

And there was Professor J, arriving to pick something up, clearly not expecting a momentarily leaky undergraduate flinging books. I wiped my eyes quickly, but he saw me, and he stopped.  He looked at me—the most complete eye contact you can imagine—soul to soul—and then came the moment I want to share with you.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked.

I actually don’t like tea much, but I understood, at that instant, that the answer was “yes.”

Seniors, maybe you want to know what we discussed—about the future, about how you know who you are, about how to find the sort of life where it feels okay to leak unexpectedly.  We did talk about those things… but the truth is, I don’t remember any of it.

I remember how sweet the honey in the tea was, how the cup was so warm I dared not keep it in my hands or do more than sip it.  I remember the scent of bergamot and how the chair creaked when I shifted.

Most of all I remember how kind he was, how he let silences lie, how he told me, without telling me, that he’d been where I was and knew how much that odd moment mattered.

Over the last few years, you might have a moment like that to recall, a moment when you realized that, sometimes, we need to stop our restless movement and show gratitude for every moment… including this artificial, manufactured, but very real expression of our love for you.

I hope so. Your parents, your teachers, your friends might be hoping the same—we don’t want time to sweep you away.  It will, but while you are here and we are here, let’s stop and love this pomp and circumstance… before you leave us to find more moments to love.

Thank you for sharing so many nice seconds, minutes, and hours with us, thank you for giving us this event to celebrate, for giving us this NOW, a good reason to come unstuck in time… Godspeed class of 20-10.


Filed under Buddhism, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Humanities, Kurt Vonnegut, life, Meditations, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work


One of my favorite expressions is “Nonsense,” but I rarely say it out loud.  Instead, I think it and take secret delight in what I know and the speaker doesn’t.  The trouble is others feel the same, and sometimes I see the word “stupid” spelled-out, letter by letter, passing left to right cartoon-fashion through the eyes of people listening to me.

And sometimes, I’m caught in warring, wordless “Nonsense” sessions, a meeting of unmoving objects and stagnant forces—an impasse of disregard.

I used to be proud of getting along with everyone, but that sense of myself has slipped recently.  Your governor weakens when you get older, and, if I said half of what passes through my mind, I’d be the curmudgeon of the year, the decade, the new millennium.  The only thing that saves me from that status is recognizing that, like nearly everyone I meet, I’m full of shit too.

The end of the school year presents a particular challenge.  We’re tired and understandably a little tired of each other.  The obligation of finishing breeds impatience, and I’m always wondering, “Why can’t everyone see my way is the best way?”

Yet, when I acquiesce, it works out.  Which is to say, I often discover I was as wrong as they thought I was.  So I swing between “Nonsense” and “Sorry,” passing through very little in between.

I’d like—officially and in this semi-public space—to issue one prophylactic “sorry” to cover all the ignorance, insensitivity, and testiness of the next few days… and all the days after that… and upcoming years.

In a few minutes, my mind will swing back to “nonsense” again.

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Filed under Aging, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Laments, life, Teaching, Thoughts, Work