Monthly Archives: October 2010

Llama Politics

A friend used to tell a strange story about visiting the zoo.  He walked among the enclosures enjoying a serene early spring day until he encountered the llamas.  When my friend strolled around a corner, one of the llamas looked up from whatever llamas do and made immediate eye-contact.  Then, as if startled by some imminent competition, the llama bolted eyes-wide toward him making a vague, in-its-throat protest.  The fence prevented the llama from reaching him, but every available centimeter disappeared in its rush to reach the edge of its llama world.  The llama stood there, snorting with exertion.

I can’t reproduce my friend’s very fine llama imitation here, but, aside from the drama, the story seems to have no point at all… other than establishing that llamas just don’t like my friend.

Maybe that’s point enough though. I sometimes wonder if humans have that same llama sense, unconscious, unexplainable feelings that come from other worlds.

All the back-channels of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and mute scents crowd our unconscious so that, sometimes, we don’t like people and don’t know why.  I distrust inexplicable feelings when I detect them and look for reasons to calm my formless antagonisms.  Yet, more often, the process flows the opposite way, and my brain just rationalizes my feelings.  That’s what humans do, they search for a cause before they really know the truth of what’s happened.  We think something has been stolen when it’s misplaced.  We assume thoughtless remarks were meant to injure us, or that the most minute gesture might mean hostility.  We form conclusions on sketchy evidence.

Self-awareness—knowing what errors you fall into—seems the only hope. Talking about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in class this week, the students ran through the dramatis personae assessing how well each character knew her or himself.  Without fail, the greatest sympathy lay with the most self-aware.  The least aware were laughable at best and, at worst, contemptible.  Knowing or not knowing made some characters human and others monsters.

Yet, sometimes we seem about as self-aware as my friend’s llama.  We’re slow to recognize errors, slower to acknowledge them, and slower still to remedy them.  We take so much so personally.  We live in an age when we are supposed to frown upon judging others too quickly, but we also shy away from judging—or even monitoring—ourselves.  For all the signs of our civility and culture, the animal in us often wins.

Sometimes, in heated meetings, I awaken to the sound of my own strident voice, pressing home some self-righteous point, and I wonder who’s speaking.  I momentarily see myself as others might see me, and I’m afraid.

The same theme of acrimony pervades contemporary politics.  What if everyone living on this shrinking planet stops listening? What if we all give in to the hostility of the moment and let antipathy become the first, best, and last resort?

I sense something dark charging toward us.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Modern Life, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts

That Hopey Changey Thing

In 1861, on the brink of the Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln left Springfield for his first term as president, he made a speech from the train car about his “grave duty” and “the principle or ideal that has kept this Union so long together.” With his characteristic eloquence and elegance, Lincoln said;

Perhaps we have come to the dreadful day of awakening, and the dream is ended.  If so, I am afraid it must be ended forever.  I cannot believe that ever again will men have the opportunity we have had.  Perhaps we should… concede that our ideals of liberty and equality are decadent and doomed.  I have heard of an eastern monarch who once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence which would be true and appropriate in all times and situations.  They presented him with the words, “And this too shall pass away.”

Had Lincoln’s words ended just where I ended them above, this speech might be remembered as defeatist and dark—clear evidence of his clinical depression—but Lincoln goes on to say that, as comforting as it might be to say “This too shall pass away,” it is no way to live.  He exhorts the crowd to develop “the natural world that is about us and the intellectual and moral world that is within us” and believe we can make ourselves better.  He wanted to fight, and his fight brought us here.

I’ve been living in the “this too shall pass” mode, wondering how I might hunker down to survive all the mishaps that seem to gather around me.  I’d like time not to pass but to pass over.  Sometimes, I don’t have the courage or will to do what Lincoln asks—to live—and simply want to get to the end of what I’m doing and move on. Completion could easily become the standard for my life.

I’ve heard the mood in the United States has dropped 14%.  Please don’t ask me how they measured this statistic or what it means, but I believe something is different with us right now.  We are in a deep hole everyone senses, but rather than take up the hard work of climbing out, people want to bicker over what might be done or, worse, do nothing strategically, hoping to embarrass those trying to effect change.

Where has the gumption of Lincoln gone?  I can imagine what might happen if Obama made a statement like Lincoln’s.  Though not in so many words, he’d be accused of defeatism, of the vague anti-Americanism his opponents try to pin on him. They don’t like his calling broken what they think can’t be fixed.

I hear the call of lethargy too, frustrated by all the acrimonious disputes, ready to give up.  Even though I know more than minor adjustments are needed to right this ship, I sometimes feel willing to ride it as it circles the drain.

But my best self prefers change.  Why aren’t we rolling up our sleeves?  The politics of obstruction will have us fiddling in the inferno. The politics of initiative at least offers hope. We need critical self-examination, not vapid patriotism, pie-in-the-sky nostalgia, national self-congratulation, or ledger rattling.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake (where I found Lincoln’s speech), he has Kilgore Trout welcome back free will with the words “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”

We seem far from well, but we can’t get there without first acknowledging we’re sick and trying to do something about it. Anything.  All of us.  Together.


Filed under Doubt, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Thoughts

Fun With Numbers

This weekend I’m busy, so I’ve collected and edited 15 thoughts jotted into my notebook over the last few months.  Some are quite random and may be a bit strange, but I chose them for the conversations they seem to have with each other.

I used a random number generator to put them in this order.

For fun, you could REorder them—just set the parameters of the generator to “15 random integers between 1 and 15 with unique values.”

  1. I worry about missing moments of change, not because I’d want to stop them but because I’m afraid of having nothing to remember.
  2. Once I dreamt of a house constructed from lint, and, every time it rained, I reshaped it with bare hands.
  3. I can’t be the only person who thinks numbers have personalities.
  4. In my urban neighborhood, I see the same unacknowledged faces everyday… but I bet I’ve said so before.
  5. Replacing dates of the year with colors might set time free at last.
  6. One of the floodlights in our kitchen emits a nearly inaudible high-pitched tone, and, once I hear it, I begin to think it’s screaming.
  7. My vocabulary is finite—how do I ever reach anything new?  Perhaps I’ve only forgotten what my brain has already said.
  8. What would my neighbors think if I numbered all of the uncollected dog shit on our block?
  9. In a meeting, I began to imagine amusement parks have opposites.  All the gray rides and attractions aimed at tedium and boredom.
  10. The thought of being heard keeps me silent; the thought of silence gives me peace.
  11. Every day I pass ghostly landmarks, memories my mind is too lazy to retrieve fully but which still emit faint feelings.
  12. Of all my senses, smell seems to grow stronger… because what I’ve seen and heard before fades from notice.
  13. I’m sick of the cut and paste conversations patching my life.
  14. What people call metaphors are animals lured from hiding places: we knew they were there and hadn’t seen them.
  15. Some ideas are clay, others dust—you hope for water.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Experiments, Groundhog Day, Home Life, Kenko, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Numbers, Recollection, Thoughts, Urban Life, Words, Work, Writing

Kindness by Choice

A number of found objects have dropped into my life lately.  Two weeks ago I found an elephant ring in my classroom and then a student’s ID.  Last weekend, when my family washed blankets after a cross-country meet, we found another ring, one that belonged to the owner’s grandmother.

The biggest find came one morning on my way back from the gym. I found a wallet beside a bus stop bench. Inside were several credit cards and—though I didn’t count the money—it looked like this wallet also contained a huge amount of cash. The only clue to locate the owner was a student ID for a nearby theater training program. I returned the wallet to them, and they returned it from there… at least I hope they did. I didn’t identify myself, and, with no way to notify me, the owner had no way to respond.

All this karma won’t prevent my losing things of course, but reversing someone else’s loss and disappointment is satisfying, fulfilling even. I like to believe it gives recipients a reason to believe people are generally good at heart. Maybe it will start a chain of good deeds like those in a commercial I saw recently.

In Go Down, Moses, one of William Faulkner’s characters says, “Most people are better than their circumstances give them a chance to be,” and that statement seems accurate. Sometimes people surprise you with kindness when circumstances require it, but we might all be more loving, generous, open-minded, and forgiving if we’d received similar treatment. We might expect more of ourselves if everyone set higher standards for his or her own behavior.

A number of colleges like Rutgers have been tutoring their students in civility, trying to teach them to treat others as they’d like to be treated, but it sometimes seems as though the golden rule does battle with a perverse contemporary variation—act before you are acted upon.

We’re quick to call the actions of others cruel, but slow to own cruelty ourselves. In fact, to the perpetrator, unkindness may seem sensible, a good offense as a good defense. Where lowered behavioral expectations are cool, self-protection trumps faith, self-interest overwhelms any myth of “the common good.”

With no credible absolute morality, we have to posit one. So schools add another message to the ocean of messages pouring into our lives from media, advertising, and entertainment. It doesn’t matter that the golden rule makes sense. Nearly every message, experience tells us, is ulterior. Most messages carry second agendas. They have little intrinsic truth. Sincerity is, almost without exception, a sham.

When I went to the theater group to return the wallet, the people there greeted me with wonder and awe, as if a miracle had been visited upon them.

I loved it.

At least, I loved it until I started walking back to school, and my thoughts turned to everything lost that I would not be able to return—swindled money or money taken in “mark-ups,” downsized jobs, interest on opportunistic loans, the loyalty and support extended family once offered (before “opportunities” fractured them), and the general succor for those in trouble that we now only grant, in dollars, to people faraway.

Some lost objects seem tough to find and tougher to restore.

You may accuse me of being naïve. You may want to remind me the world has never been good and may actually be better now than it has ever been. You may say the golden rule has never been more than a pretty idea possible only in perfect circumstances. You may call me “idealist,” a label now synonymous with “dreamer.”

And I’ll only put up one defense—if I think we can be more than we are, it is just because I want others to believe it.  I want to contribute to circumstances that might make it so.

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Filed under Essays, Gesellschaft, Hope, Laments, life, Modern Life, Opinion, Thoughts


This piece is my one-hundredth post on Signals to Attend:

He wondered about the letters.  They couldn’t stuff them in the box anymore and couldn’t—not after all this time—expect someone to retrieve them.  Protocol, rules, maybe laws decide what post offices do.  Procedure dictates all.

The key sat somewhere in his bedroom, but his desire was selective.  He couldn’t muster energy to find it, didn’t want to, so he pulled out stationery instead.  Every day, strangers sent him letters offering him things or telling him which causes he ought to care about, and he threw away the windowed envelopes and used open spaces on the pages inside.  The messages that didn’t go onto the back of the sheet were best.

Putting pen to paper always scared him, initially. After years of missives, what did he have to write about? But maybe that was the answer.  People stretch a sore muscle, speak when they’ve lost their voice, tongue the gap in their teeth.  They aren’t soothing themselves.  They’re confirming a wound, making sure it’s still there.

He wanted to know his pen still moved and that, starting, it would continue.  He dreaded—and desired—the day it wouldn’t.  He wondered if emptying himself at last would mean relief, ratification of a different sort.

As a boy, he received a diary with a locked clasp, and dates appeared at the top of every other page.  Though he’d tried to keep up with them, he’d failed.  Within a month or two, the diary sat taunting him on his bedside table.  He resolved to pick it up again and planned, fitfully, to make up deficits.  He hadn’t.  He stared at it until it stood for disappointment he had to accept in himself.

He filled these daily pages—with news of his whereabouts and tasks, his conversations, his thoughts, his daily operations.  He measured success by whether he could convince himself of their importance.

Today, he watched cursive ripple across the page.  He supplied words like notes for a ready rhythm—words mattered less than placement.  They fulfilled space, which didn’t make them nonsense but made them tones sensible only to themselves, compulsion.

He wrote how pen and paper met each day and never sparked sustainable flame.  He wrote about actions with no more specific name than “action.”  He wrote about birds barely seen, lurking in thickets, flightless and colorless.  He wrote about what words are.  He asked questions that stopped hoping for responses.  He cast nets into darkness.  He wrote about silence.

When he’d filled the space, he stopped.  He knew the post office box number without knowing it, addressed the envelope and affixed the stamp without notice.  Another person might have worried about the expense, but his job paid for stamps.  A job was good for that.  On the way to work, he’d drop this letter in a mailbox down the street and, like the others, try to forget it.

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Filed under Allegory, Blogging, Experiments, Fiction, life, Meditations, Parables, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Work, Writing