Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Christmas Message

The final words of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol say Scrooge learned, “How to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Everyone who celebrates the holiday knows how difficult that knowledge is.  I sometimes feel I’m practicing, reviewing the disappointments and triumphs of Christmases past and hoping, this year, to come closer to what often seems an impossible ideal.  The challenge isn’t finding a gift suited to each person but living through the season without living in its commercialism.  The world this time of year can become pure material, a list of activities, a list of purchases, a list of obligations.

Yet the things we’ve kept mean the most to me: the ornament that belonged to my wife’s dad when he was a boy, an advent calendar we’ve hung up since my children were small, the familiar candy dishes, the tiny crèche for the mantle, the stockings my mother made, the sloppy handprints on overlarge daycare ornaments, the Santa toy that, when you press a button on his base, collapses as if he has narcolepsy.

Merchants celebrate novelty each Christmas, but I look for familiarity.  I want to touch base and sometimes wonder if we need anything new at all, if the music and food and stories and traditions we’ve always known might be enough. I need to sustain the Christmas spirit year to year, and anything new has to support that goal. If the opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is true and, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” then, at least on one day, I’d like my family to be archetypical and share something with everyone who has discovered how to keep Christmas well.

The presents are incidental, but saying so sometimes seems naïve, idealistic.  Of course gifts mean something to The Economy.  Of course, during this season, buying assures the welfare of countless people who live by our yearnings, and I don’t mean to belittle the fiscal significance of the holiday.  I don’t mean to belittle advertisers, marketers, sales managers, or shop clerks.  I wish them Merry Christmas too.  I only want their sincerity, their assistance finding a gift or gesture to express affection, not my hip-ness or how much disposable income I can muster.  I want to keep Christmas well and need help.  Generosity is the spirit of the season, but generosity so easily slips into exploitation, extravagance, acquisitiveness, and waste.

However, though navigating this time grows trickier every year, I’m up for the challenge. I know belief is also part of keeping Christmas well.  I celebrate—as an ideal to live all year—this one day of family, companionship, good will, and love.  I believe without the three ghosts or the prize turkey.  I believe without ribbons. I believe without tags. I believe without packages, boxes, or bags.

So here is wishing everyone the peace, affection, understanding, and hope Christmas is supposed to represent.  It is hard not to be used by Christmas and use it instead, but when you get the day and season right, it is truly magical, truly the most wonderful time of the year.  That knowledge, as Scrooge discovered, is well worth possessing.

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“Winter Wonderland”: An Exegesis

In that last few weeks I’ve read many, many critical essays on literature, so I thought I’d offer this parody suited to the season.  None of the papers I read are really this crazy, but perhaps it says something about the critical essay form that it can be twisted this way.

Don’t worry.  I’m not serious.

Recent criticism of the song “Winter Wonderland” has focused on it as a work of faith—Nagurski called the poem, “A utopian examination of how the coldest and least lively season, naturewise, can be really pretty cheery” and R. Grange mentioned it in his respected collection of critical essays, Songs that Make Me Grin.  However, to see the work correctly, a reader needs to note its accretive fiction and the purposeful delusion that piles up like so many deep snow drifts.  Doing so leads to the same conclusion T. S. Eliot reached when he said the song was “more a work of doubt than faith.”

As Eliot pointed out, the initial question in the song really frames the entire work.  The first line asks, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” and the astute reader might ask in response, “Am I listening?  Of course I’m listening.  Wouldn’t I hear some damn sleigh bells if they were ringing?” The true question behind this seemingly innocent inquiry is whether the listener is willing to participate in an obvious fiction.  The song queries, “Are you willing to accept the sound of sleigh bells?  Conjure them now, if you will.”  If the reader is unwilling to conjure, the end of that first verse, “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight / Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” rings emptily, offering an unsubstantiated, entirely unjustified happiness. Who is to say “We are happy tonight” after all?  What is the basis for this so-called happiness?  All the reader has to go on is the “glist’nin’ snow” in the lane in the third line.  Is that enough?  What if the reader had to drive somewhere—because some readers work at night, remember—would glist’nin’ snow make them happy?  The aesthetic question “What is beauty?” also lurks like a creepy, half-inflated, ghostlike front lawn Santa.

Some readers undoubtedly will cry for suspended disbelief, but the poet, it seems, expects just such skepticism.  The next verse makes no effort to rouse a reader or justify his or her elation over a little “glist’nin’” snow.  In fact, it opens with an absence, “Gone away is the bluebird.” As an established symbol of happiness, the bluebird’s disappearance is conspicuous.  The happiness so tentatively granted in the opening moments immediately disappears as well.  It is gone, and in its place is some unnamed “new bird” a reader is supposed to find so comforting.  An unnamed bird that arrives in winter when all of the others are flying south is worth comment.  Few readers speak bird and thus could say with certainty whether this clearly lost bird is singing a love song or a lament that he is freezing in a climate for which he is clearly unsuited, the average tolerable temperature for a small bird being 45°F  or 7°C, well above freezing.  Does the author even expect a reader to swallow what is now the fifth supposition of the poem.  Is it believable?  It is not and—this is the song’s brilliance of course—it is not meant to be.  This text looks happy, but like the glist’nin’ snow, its shiny surface hides a pretty bad car wreck waiting to happen.

The accumulating fictions continue apace in the third verse.  “In the meadow”—does a reader need to be told it is a meadow; is not a reader just being reminded of what it is not—green, lush, and full of life?  Then “we”—the author is careful to include readers so they begin to chafe against the restrictive hempen restraints with which he binds them so very, very, very tightly—”can build a snowman.”  Yes, a reader could build a snowman, but would he?  And if he did, would said snowman be anything more than an empty white figure who really stands for nothing and no one, a symbol of the companionship so many people so desperately seek and cannot find during the holiday season because no one really understands the workings of another mind, particularly a discerning mind that sees so, so much more in what others simply accept as “happy”?

By the appearance of Parson Brown, the enigmatic center of the song, the fiction has begun to wheel like the falcon in Yeats’ “Second Coming.” “We,” the identity superimposed on the reader, superimposes the name “Parson Brown” on a white no one.  The name is pointedly bland, generic, but the color is interesting.  The juxtaposition of white snow—which at its best might represent new hope—and brown—the color of decay and decline—is pointed.  Similarly the verb “pretend” stands out.  It is out in the open now, the reader is pretending and knows it.  The conversation with this specious parson is not any more comforting.  He says, “Are you married?” which is quite a personal question from a pile of compacted frozen precipitation.  Yet the reader answers, “No, man!  But you can do the job when you’re in town.”  Again the fiction stretches beyond the bounds of credulity.  Even if readers could accept they are out in a frozen meadow having a conversation with what amounts to an icy mannequin, even if they could accept that this frozen figure is endowed with a name and a job, even if they can accept that they are going to marry whoever is the narrator of this song, would any sane reader call a parson “man”?  “Parson Brown” evokes early New England and “man” evokes Jack Kerouac and smoky nightclubs.  The two cannot be in the same sentence. G. Sayer argues that it is the only way the rhyme would work, but a reader might remain unconvinced because the reader could have been convinced that a reader is supposed to be unconvinced by what is patently unconvincing. “You can do the job when you’re in town” obviates the failure of these multiple fictions.  The parson / snowman is in town, and he cannot do the job because, based on thorough research into international statues, snowman weddings are not legally binding in any state or country.

Ultimately the poem leaves readers huddled by the meager consolation of a tepid fire. Readers “conspire” because they know it will take some cabal, some magic obviously absent in the early twenty-first century world, to make our “dreams”—aptly named—happen.  The seemingly optimistic promise that readers will face their plans “unafraid” just illuminates the fear they do feel and can only attempt to face.  Why do readers need to fear their own plans unless they know that these plans, like the parson statue still standing like a post in the empty meadow, are vulnerable fictions, ideas they cannot ever completely convince themselves are real.  The final image of “walkin’ in the winter wonderland” leaves readers thinking of Lear wandering the moors, all anchors lost.  It is indeed a “wonderland,” but readers are left wondering that they did not perceive its emptiness before now.

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Grading December

This time of year, assessment fatigue creeps up on me.  I know the immense responsibility of responding to student work, but I grow tired of judging the merit of what they produce.  Hours of reading essays, tests, and rewrites improves my attention to students’ writing and thinking—what’s missing, confusing, promising, what’s singing and what’s stammering, what’s reaching out to readers and what’s just fulfilling the assignment.  However, the final act—writing A, B, C, (or worse) and deciding what a student’s effort deserves—becomes painful.  I’d rather skip it.

In a creative writing course last year, I experimented with assessing the volume and quality of student effort instead of judging the merit of what they produced.  To pass the course, students had to complete major writing projects conscientiously, through multiple drafts and workshops. But they could raise their grade from there by choosing to write smaller, optional assignments. I reserved the right at the end of the semester to lower or raise their final average by up to five points if they exceeded or disappointed expectations, but few fell short.  For the most part, students worked hard to reach the grade they desired.  And all I had to do was make challenging and inspiring assignments, monitor what students had completed, and assess the quality of their effort.  While I responded to all their work thoughtfully with the same volume of comments I always do, I did not put a letter on any assignment all semester.

As exams approach, I’ve been wondering, would it be possible to devise a “contract exam”?  So, though I should have been writing my real exams, I’ve written a contract exam instead.  I know it’s not realistic—I know it would never work, and I confess to indulging a little wish fulfillment in creating it.  I wrote this exam for fun and think of it as a sort of fantasy of what an exam might be…

SEMESTER EXAMINATION: Literature Class

Before you begin, please review these general directions:

  • By fulfilling the tasks on this examination, you will gather points towards 100.
  • This exam is unlimited—you may spend as much time on it as you like and respond to as many questions as you like.
  • However, you should spend no more time on it than you like—writing that is perfunctory, desultory, spiritless, disengaged, or generally obligatory is unlikely to receive points.
  • Please choose tasks that inspire you.  Doing everything on this exam—the shotgun approach—is counterproductive and will not yield success.

Section I: Must (75%)—In order to pass this exam, you must complete THREE of the following tasks connected to critical moments in the works you have read.  As always, your writing will be assessed for its focus, organization, and substance.  However, those comments will be for your personal growth as a writer only.  It is up to you to decide what is the proper length, form, and content of your responses.  You will receive full points if you complete what you are being asked to do in a credible fashion.

For THREE different literary works, write about a moment when…

  • a main character recognizes something important about him or herself
  • the author reveals a characteristic approach or technique
  • a secondary element (minor character, setting, motif, etc.) supports a major theme
  • a work establishes a question or issue it means to address but not answer
  • the resolution of tension or contradiction becomes clear

Section II: Might (30%)—All of the six point tasks below are optional. Please proceed only if a task inspires specific thoughts or reactions.  You will receive points if your responses add to a reader’s understanding of the work in question. As in the first section, commentary on your ideas and your expression of them will be a means of developing your writing skills.

  1. Take a moment in a work in from one genre and convert it to another—turn a poem’s line into a scene from a short story, make a scene in a story into a poem, etc.
  2. Speak in the voice of one of the writers we’ve studied and talk about what you are trying to accomplish in one of your works.
  3. Imagine a director has chosen to adapt one of the works we’ve encountered—write a letter advising him or her of the particular challenges the work presents.
  4. Discuss one personal connection you made with one of the works we’ve read—when did you say “I really understand what that’s about”?
  5. Choose the writer we’ve encountered who seems to come closest to your own view of what writing should be and do and discuss why.
  6. Create a conversation between characters in separate works we’ve read.  What might they have to say to one another if they knew each knew both stories?
  7. Recommend one of the works we’ve encountered to a friend—what is it exactly that makes it worth reading… perhaps because it offers something this particular friend?
  8. Describe a main character during a private moment in which he or she says nothing.  Communicate your understanding of this character within this constraint.
  9. Explain how an absence in one of the works we’ve encountered helps establish what the author hoped to communicate.
  10. Use a statement from one of the works we encountered and write a two minute radio piece expressing why that statement has been memorable and meaningful to you.
  11. Address the work that gave you the most difficulty and account for why.
  12. Devise a task along the lines of the ones above—but not covered in any of them—and respond to it.

Section III: Recovery Points—You may receive points to compensate for losses in the first two sections by writing a letter about your experience reading literature in this class. All decisions about the length, form, content, and direction of this letter are your own—please think about what you want to say.

When you have completed your work, please check it over to assure that you have presented yourself in the best possible light.  See you next semester.

Like I said, it would NEVER work.

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Changing Minds

An essay in ten parts:

1.

“Would you?”

“Would I what?’

“Anything.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Could somebody make you answer ‘Yes’  to ‘Would you?’ no matter what?”

“Always and without question?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

2.

Mrs. Mitchell was a boxy woman.  To a fourth grader, she was a big box, but she had rounded edges and used her soft, smiling side with me.  She was not, however, immune to policy.  She had to insist I eat the square of boiled cabbage on my tray.  It smelled of eggs gone wrong or the local refinery’s worst day.

Generally, I’d drink my milk quickly, and when Mrs. Mitchell wasn’t looking, I’d hide a couple of forkfuls in the carton.  That would be enough for Mrs. Mitchell to move on in her smiling patrol, but one day she caught me stowing some cabbage and told me to eat the rest.  I could see she wanted to be nice, and I told her it would make me sick.  She asked if I’d ever tasted boiled cabbage.  When I said no, she asked how a fourth grader could find out what he enjoyed if he never tried new food?

I started to gag on the first bite, my stomach lurching as if it meant to start a race without me.  The smell—a cloud of sulfurous purgative—set me off, and the texture—I imagined the inside of bugs—finished me off.  I survived the second bite, but nothing could hold my gut back.

Mrs. Mitchell stayed out of my lunch after that.

3.

My workplace isn’t extraordinary.  Meetings with colleagues slide through patches of absolute and smooth solidarity, but when we disagree, the brakes lock and everything pitches to a washboard stop.

We have convictions.  Each of us is married to his or her own way, and opposition turns us to the task of persuading others.  We have reasons, we assert, and as they reel out, listeners busy themselves with refutation.  We normally conclude to use our own best judgment, but when we don’t, our discussions depart from the matter at hand.  We initiate a quest for dominance no one can admit.  We discover whose point of view will subsume or overpower the others, which of us will receive concessions and which of us will not.

Don’t get the idea I’m innocent in this.  In fact, I may be the worst.

4.

Scientists who study wolves have soured on “alpha wolf.”  They use the term to describe breeders, those who contribute genetic material to the perpetuation of the pack.  No one wolf holds that post, and, though in larger packs one breeder might defer to another in a recognizable hierarchy, survival in the wild often relies on diversity, redundancy.

Behaviorally, however, dominance and submission appear often.  One wolf raises his ears and tail, another flattens his ears and lowers his tail, takes a lower stance, crouches, rolls over to expose his belly, looks away slightly, and, in some cases, dribbles some urine.

5.

Children learn early on that friends acquiesce.  When I was eight, Harley Ross always wanted to play baseball.  My hand-eye coordination was poor, the game was complicated and strange with just two players, and usually involved much too much exertion for a hot Texas summer.  Still, I played, pitching to Harley over and over as he filled and emptied the bases with ghost runners.

By the time I came up to bat, Harley had bored of the game.  He’d ask if I wanted to come inside, drink some lemonade, and watch T.V.  I had no trouble acquiescing there.

6.

Can anyone convince anyone else how to feel?  What if people are only susceptible to persuasion when they are indifferent or confused?

7.

John Dewey, the champion of progressive education and philosopher, wrote a letter to his wife Alice on October 10, 1894 about an encounter with Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer and pioneer of social work.  Addams was “blue” Dewey said, because she’d lost the financial support of an important local businessman over her remarks about the Pullman strike.  The supporter told Addams she shouldn’t have mixed herself in something that was none of her business.  In a clumsy attempt at consolation, Dewey suggested the antagonism of institutions like labor and capital were not only inevitable but also necessary to arriving at the truth.  Dissent, he suggested, is the engine of change.

Addams’ response, Dewey told his wife, was startlingly calm and composed.  She said that antagonism wasn’t inevitable at all and, in fact, was always pointless and detrimental.  Antagonism, she asserted, never arises entirely from “objective differences” because those could be resolved simply or, if left alone, blend over time. Addams believed antagonism arose instead from “A person’s mixing in his own personal reactions—the extra emphasis he gave the truth, the enjoyment he took in doing a thing because it was unpalatable to others, or the feeling that one must show his own colors and not be a moral coward.”  Every argument, in others words, invariably reverts to emotion and ego.

On whether antagonism was necessary to the growth of ideas, Addams told Dewey conflict was, “Always unreal and instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed and distorted it.”

Dewey tells his wife, “She converted me internally… I never had anything take hold of me so, and at the time it didn’t impress me as anything wonderful; it was only the next day it began to dawn on me.”  Two days later he writes Jane Addams to apologize and says, “Not only is actual antagonism bad, but the assumption that there is or may be antagonism is bad.”

I wish I had been there.  One great brain moving another with barely a nudge.

8.

Sasha Denninger hated the way I talked, so she decided that we shouldn’t see one another anymore.  I was always so oblique, always speaking through analogy or metaphor so she didn’t ever really know what I was thinking or feeling.  She thought I was funny and could be charming and affectionate, but none of that was going to overcome her feeling that I was too intellectual and abstract.  She liked smart people, she insisted, but she wanted someone who was more than smart.

I hadn’t seen the moment coming.  While we’d had arguments, they’d always ended well with one of us apologizing and the other taking part of the blame him or herself.  I thought maybe this time, the same would happen, and then we’d go on trying to be a couple.

But, as Sasha spoke, I played with the frayed edge of a throw blanket on her couch.  I looked around the apartment and searched for titles I knew on the bookcase.  I glanced at her to see if she was crying or had cried.  Her mascara clumped slightly in her lower eyelash, but no tears.

“I hoped I might rub off on you somehow,” she was saying.

“I think you have—maybe I don’t show it as much as I should, but you have.  Don’t you think we’ll both rub off on each other?”

“God, I hope not,” she said.

9.

A moment comes in racing when, if you’re side by side and stride for stride with another runner, you feel yourself inching ahead or giving way.  My coaches always prepared me for those moments with inspirational speeches about “the will to win” and “courage in the face of adversity” and “intestinal fortitude,” but none of those speeches ever meant much when the moment arrived.  I was in a different world.  After the fact, I could lament or celebrate the outcome of those contests with stories as carefully constructed as my coaches’ speeches, but, at the time, in my heart of hearts, I felt they turned out as they were meant to.

10.

I picture cavemen a lot.  They are lounging at the opening of their home and staring at a sky pinked by the sun dipping below the rocks.  The air is starting to cool, and they begin to think about fire, the magic and color of its fluid shapes, the smoke that scents their hair, the heat with a face that has to be turned to, the feel of fur and flesh as they gather around it, the sound of laughter and then sleep.

Probably it wasn’t like that, or not like that often.  They must have struggled, not just for enough to eat or for shelter from heat, cold, and violent weather, but also for peace among themselves. Assent.

But, in my fantasy, one hand gathering wood turns into many, and one smile ignites many more.  They fall in, agreeing without words to what is best done and therefore needs to be done.  They accept the battles they will create unawares, but each hopes to win at least enough to survive.

We just want to win.

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