Monthly Archives: August 2010

Open Letter To My Former Teachers

It’s time for me to return to teaching again, but before I do, I want to thank you.

I didn’t know I owed you this debt until just now…because we don’t always ask questions when they ought to occur to us. When I was in school, I might have said it was me who mattered, me the student, to whom much is owed. It was too early to realize where the debt lay, and much too early to recognize what teacher would last, whose shove could propel me still.

Yours does.

You didn’t think I was the best student you taught—and you were right—but you never let me believe I was hopeless and wouldn’t allow me to believe being the best mattered much. You credited me with progress. You convinced me progress was the greatest prize and hardest to hang onto.

You weren’t easy on me but told me your high expectations were a tribute to my promise. Your challenges weren’t mean. They were calculated and strangely sweet, offered with just enough regret to tell me you needed to say what you did. You looked for moments to commend me. I’m sure at times your praise for my work seemed only partly true and felt like selling your soul off by ounces, but you sometimes did it hoping your actions might spur me to better work in the future that would make earlier praise accurate.

I wasn’t easy. Though you wanted to move me forward, some of the energy you put into me returned in opposition. You bore my skepticism with grace, knowing my role as student demanded it, and yours as teacher required listening patiently, without answering my personal disappointment with your own. I see now how silly some of my arguments were. Thank you for not telling me then how inane I could sometimes be. I never really doubted I could learn from you—or no learning would have happened—but I needed my dignity too. You gave it to me, sometimes at the sacrifice of your status.

You also let me be wrong.  Either I’d discover my errors in time or…maybe there was nothing to discover in the first place. What hope did I have of learning without your making me see how important learning was to you? What material progress could we produce without enjoying learning together?

I’m tempted to give you credit for what I’ve become, but you wouldn’t want that. You taught me to own my growth, to see labor as the first step to skill. You wanted me to discover how much I could do. Belief in myself would be your greatest gift—and anything simply given me wasn’t truly mine.

Turns out, school was about me all along, but not in the way I thought. You sacrificed, and for that I am deeply, though belatedly, grateful. I carry you with me.

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Filed under Education, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Love, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes

We’ll Talk When We Talk

When I was in high school, my parents brought home a new dog.  I was away on a Key Club retreat and returned to discover Frodo, a full-grown Dalmatian, running laps from living room to den, stopping periodically to snort and nuzzle whatever hand presented itself.  He was one spasmodic wag, and I remember being shocked at having a new housemate.  After my childhood dogs died, my parents never expressed any interest in a new pet, but there was Frodo.

We never bonded.  High school ending and plans set, I was already half gone, too busy and too distracted for new affections.  I’ve hardly given Frodo a thought until recently, as my own son prepares to leave for college in New York.

Frodo stationed himself every evening in front of the door to the basement, the one my father used when he came home.  Frodo lay there with his head between his paws, occasionally huffing in what must have been his sigh, waiting.  When my father returned, Frodo came to life again, leaping and spinning and snorting anew.

I wonder what it means to be so much to someone.  Though my attachments run deep, I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyone’s one and only the way my dad was Frodo’s.

My son’s been gone most of the summer.  He’s had two jobs, one during the week and one on weekends.  Most of the rest of the time, he’s busy with friends.  They’re all keenly aware they will soon say goodbye to one another, and—based on calls I’ve overheard—turning down invitations is perilous.  Doing so brings hints of insensitivity and callousness.  He and his friends are very nearly family to one another, much closer than my friends were at his age.  They owe each other companionship.  In high school, when I declined a movie or dinner, my friends went without me.  They might promise to ask again and express hope I’d be available later, but they signed off saying we’d see each other when we saw each other, talk when we talked.

That level of autonomy seems appropriate—you wouldn’t want a friend to be anyone other than him or herself or to do anything undesired—but maybe that’s jealousy speaking.  I worry I’m not as important to my son as his friends are.

My father died when my son was a year old.  Recalling my relationship with my dad, I see how different a father I’ve been.  Winning the family bread kept my dad occupied and away.  When he came home, he seemed weary and out of words and energy.  But I never pressed him either.  We talked when we had something to say, and most of our conversations were about common interests or niceties.  My father and I hardly ever fought, probably because we seldom spoke.  I’ve always regretted we weren’t closer—and I’ve been lucky to spend more time with my son.  If we sometimes fight, at least we have more heartfelt and honest communication.

How can we know how much we owe one another?  Being taken for granted feels horrible but so would insistent companionship.  Relationships ought to spring from yearnings much deeper than proximity or convenience but they can’t compromise a person’s individualism either.  Affection should be unconditional, counted on, and willingly borne, yet a friend has a right to expect something.

These paradoxes are tough to sort out.  Maybe our deepest connections create such assurance—such confidence these links will survive every pull—that we need no longer work to maintain them.  Maybe we can’t know their meaning until they’re gone.

I’ve been saying that I spent more time with my dog than my son has spent with me this summer.  That’s an exaggeration, but it’s revealing too.  I’ve been thinking about Frodo, my sympathy for him awakened at last.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Father's Day, Home Life, life, Love, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoughts

Cabin Fever

I’ve been under house arrest the last few weeks.  First I stayed home to nurse my daughter, who suffered complications after wisdom teeth surgery, then hung around to monitor workmen painting our condo.

When I was younger, I admired recluses. The pathetic parts—agoraphobia, social retardation—never occurred to me.  Instead, reclusiveness was a noble choice. Giving up social contact required special sacrifice and strength.  Having that level of self-control seemed unimaginable.  I knew I’d ultimately beg for company.  I felt weak.

Isolation is less arduous now.  With a computer, you might work from home.  You need never go to a concert, a movie, a library, a game, or social gathering if you can satisfy for cybernetic substitutes.  Not even groceries are an obstacle.  You can order those online.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash described a future generation plugged into computers in rental storage units.  We aren’t far from that.  But I don’t hear anyone crowing “Progress!”

My family accuses me of being anti-social, and I suppose that’s true.  Mostly I’m resting from interaction.  Being a teacher, I talk and listen all day and, while that’s stimulating activity, it’s also exhausting and goes against my grain.  I’m shy, other people are messy, and the potential for conflict is never far away.  I’d much rather stay home and attempt something beautiful than waste energy on conversation.  Am I hiding?  One person’s hidey-hole is another’s self-protection.

Or rationalization. Some artists find reclusiveness romantic—you can’t make art without being self-involved, after all—and many see diffidence, regarding life from afar, as essential.  Emily Dickinson might not be the same poet if her eccentricity bumped into ordinary life more regularly.  For her God was a recluse. Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Don Delilo live in self-made worlds.  Visual artists and even performers like actors and musicians sometimes treat everything outside creation as frippery.

I can’t deny the last few weeks have been productive.  I’ve written my first full-length poems in months and done several paintings.  Many deviate from previous work in exciting ways.  And knowing they have no public place has been strangely liberating and inspiring—no worry about how they would be received, no one to please but myself.

Which isn’t difficult.  Ease is the problem as well as the solution.  How long can you separate yourself from life and still live?  Isolated art risks forgetting life altogether.  Challenge may make better impetus than protection.  And what about wanting to be heard and seen—can any maker really want his or her work to languish?

This blog is approaching its 100th post, an accomplishment but also a perfect time to quit, and I’m thinking about it.  If I can be satisfied with writing only to please myself, perhaps I should give it up.  Yet,  as Margaret Mead said, “Essays, entitled critical, are epistles addressed to the public, through which the mind of the recluse relieves itself of its impressions.”  If something moves me to speak, maybe I should be here.

Maybe I have to leave the house.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Gesellschaft, Home Life, life, Poetry, Science Fiction, Solitude, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Huxley On Writing

A reprise from my old blog…

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World includes a character named Helmholtz Watson, a eugenic specimen so perfect his superiors describe him as “able, perhaps too able.” All of the novel’s main characters have imperfections, but Watson’s may be the most interesting, as he is a writer and thus in the position to suggest Huxley’s view of his craft.  What does it mean for a writer to be “too able”?

Strictly speaking, Watson isn’t a writer. He’s an “emotional engineer” charged with indulging and titillating his audience, with giving them precisely what they want and making them want precisely what he gives them. He’s really a propagandist, and he is well versed in inspiring feelings in his readers. To that end, his subject is incidental. The sale is more important than the product.

Part of Watson’s being too able, however, is knowing something is wrong, seeing what he is and realizing it isn’t enough. A tickling absence possesses him. Watson complains his tasks waste his talent.  He senses he needs a subject, and the anaesthetized brave new world offers no tears or fury, no envy or unrequited affection.

The trouble is, Watson seems uncertain those things exist. It’s not entirely clear he even has the apparatus to understand them if he were exposed to them. Introduced to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Watson laughs and laughs. He has been so thoroughly conditioned, the contents of the play are too absurd to consider, so implausible he can’t identify anything human in them. The story is, in the end, a story and nothing more.

Ironically, Helmholtz Watson alerts Huxley’s readers to disturbing, real possibilities Watson can’t himself consider. Properly engineered and propagandized, human beings can be rendered insensitive to feelings people like to believe innate. In fact, the human appetite for entertainment and stimulation is so deep and vast, it can make empathy into merely an imaginative tool, a handy means of getting into art rather than an intimate connection to another human’s emotion. Worse, Watson’s callousness suggests intellect—of which humans are so proud—aids dissociation. Being too able means Watson can think around and think away  feelings. Big brains can convince themselves of anything, even that everything we experience is a construction of the mind, not real.  From there, it’s a small step to believing empathy is dispensible.

Like any good satirist, Huxley gives no viable solution to these possibilities. He doesn’t say they need solutions. They just are.

His warning seems more clear: the material is not the excuse for the technique. Writing about life is dangerous because it isn’t life, and an artist courts insensitivity, artifice, propaganda when he or she forgets to focus on the subject and not the artifice of creation. Nothing as horrifying and sad as Helmholtz Watson can happen as long as artists recognize being “able” is only one of the demands he or she faces…and, relative to other demands and responsibilities, maybe not so important.

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Filed under Essays, Fiction, Genius, Huxley, Thoughts, Writing