Monthly Archives: November 2011

On Order (In 12 Parts)


I don’t always put things back.

One of my worst habits, it necessitates another—bouts of frenzied organization when reckoning is due. Sometimes, if I wait too long, my life feels like a boat beyond bailing. Then I deny the inevitable, and disorder becomes the order of the day.


People buy me blank books. They think highly of my self-discipline and have an unbounded and irrational faith in my daily organization. Many of these books have beautiful covers, but remain blank inside. Others contain a few full pages and then a desert of abandonment.

One I found the other day contains four pages of notes on some forgotten thought, then two pages of doodles, then a page titled “Self-Disgust-O-Meter,” with a needle crossing an arc of zones labeled:

  • a respite from self-recrimination and doubt
  • tolerably horrible—who has it any better?
  • I must change my life
  • resignation tipping into despair
  • self-loathing
  • acute self-loathing
  • nihilism and a desire to evaporate

The needle I drew hovers in “I must change my life.” And that’s the last entry.


Some people love lists and take naturally to calendars. For them, organizational aids are as much a part of existence as eating, breathing, and sleeping. They patch me into their lives so expertly that, from my perspective, they seem imaginary, appearing and disappearing just as I look for them. Their schedule possesses an order as invisible and enviable as DNA, and they dance in a dream ballet where each move presents itself as needed.

They are comfortable in their lives’ operations and accomplish daily what takes me several days. Their activity travels at a different pace, and their peregrinations look like a time-lapse train station flickering with activity and energy, filling and emptying like an impossible tide.


In the busiest moments, I sometimes awaken to life. I’m walking back from Starbucks and a cool breeze stirs, reminding me the season has changed. I smell fall during my senior year in college and notice how much wetter today seems, even though the sun is out and it’s not raining, as it always seems to be.

The stacked memories of the weeks leading up to Thanksgivings, then exams, then holiday breaks come tumbling down. A deep breath and suddenly I’m alive and aware. Sunlight recalibrates to illuminate the faces of familiar buildings, the faces of people passing, my own face in a storefront window.


In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, “When the mind speaks, the heart finds it indecent to object.”

I wonder why. Are hearts so doubtful they bow to the mind’s control or do they simply lack the strength of order, the organized direction of resolve or ambition? Maybe the heart doesn’t speak at all, its dumb will simply survival, happy with its place, music to our lyrics.


For almost the whole time we’ve lived in our condo, something inside our chimney has needed repair. When it’s windy—and in Chicago that’s much of the time—the cap at the top whistles and whines like a western prairie town just before the big showdown. If it’s really blowing outside, a cable to a defunct satellite dish whips against the downspout, creating rhythm for the symphony.

We always say we should do something, but the sounds are now a familiar domestic background and, when I notice, strange consolation sweeps through me, a deep association with the sort of peace I only find at home, out of the rushing stream the noise represents.


I only do as much as I can recall and rationalize that, when my appointments, tasks, or responsibilities exceed my memory, my brain is alerting me I’m doing too much. I meet nearly every deadline, make it to trysts nearly on time, and nearly fulfill all that’s expected of me. Or I can make it seem so. Or I can live with what’s missing.


Someone once asked me when I’m happiest, and I thought of sitting next to a sunny window in winter, just reading or writing or painting and feeling lucky to have sensory organs and a brain capable of amusing thoughts.

The rest of life seems spoken for. Though most of it speaks to important matters, I like feeling life can sometimes speak for itself, without direction or control. And when it’s good, it’s glorious.


In E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the character Leonard Bast tells the Schlegel sisters about an all-night walk. Sharing their romantic faith in possibilities, he takes a page from George Eliot’s The Ordeal of Richard Feveral and decides to “Get back to the earth,” break out of the workaday world, and just go. Bast doesn’t know how long he walks—it’s too dark to see his watch—and describes finding and losing the Pole star in his attempt to escape London’s streetlamps, the cloudy sky, and his life. When he steps from the road and into the woods he entangles himself in gorse bushes, unsure of every step. He didn’t consider he’d need the same meals he’d want during the daytime, and he finds himself hungry and cold. The sisters ask him, “Was the dawn wonderful?” and Bast answers, “No… the dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention.” His walk takes him far from home with only his feet to take him back.

The sisters admire Bast’s courage to escape his life more than Forster seems to. Bast can’t truly step out of a life more ordered by the world than his own heart. You want to escape the business of life, you want to elude its appointments, deadlines, and commands, but they are there, running parallel, ready to pull you back into the current.


Every few days I have a new dream for my life.

Last week, I decided I might find work as an adjunct professor, go onto my wife’s health insurance, and open up hours and hours of time to write, to paint, to make something new of my life.

Later I considered the drop in pay, the challenge of cobbling together the number of jobs I’d need to match my current income, the hassle of traveling from school to school, the tedium of being a gypsy instructor with no office, no title, no real place anywhere. Then I gave up that dream for another. I could put my experience to use teaching education.

That would mean another degree, and we’ve earmarked all our money for our children’s colleges. So I gave up that dream for another and two others since then.


Hand-wringing is my best subject.

I’m expert at eddying circumspection while the rest of the world gets things done. The few souls who know doubt as well as I do might identify and bask in fellow feeling, but some people just hate navel-gazing. They haven’t the patience to listen and shout instead. I hear them. “Get off your ass!” they say, and “Get yourself together, stop complaining, and do something about it.”

I know they’re right and resent them.


Once, when I had a fever, I dreamt I’d been given the task of outlining all knowledge and spent most of the night determining what the major headings might be. I’d settle on the next only to discover I’d forgotten the rest.

When my fever broke, the life I woke to seemed so ordered in comparison, so much more forgiving of variation and surprise. For a few hours, possibility defeated responsibility, and I began to think of all I might do instead of what I must.

I’d like to live in that moment, a moment every impulse finds fruition, and organization grows like a lattice, solid yet transparent, a lens on a life I might lead.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoughts

Thanks for Thanksgiving

rockwell.jpg Despite its dubious origins, Thanksgiving is a holiday worth celebrating.

It isn’t the days off, though for teachers like me, the break comes just as the last of my early-year energy gives out. When I can’t look at one more paper or re-read another thirty-pages, my students leave the room saying, “Have a good holiday,” and I feel a surge of gratitude for their talents, their cooperation and their effort.

It isn’t that the holiday is so much time. Two days hardly measures up against the longer spans at Christmas or at spring break. This occasion just skips the strangely stressful feeling of gift-buying and manic, frenzied celebration or the escapism of spring, when doing nothing and going nowhere seems aberrant. Thanksgiving, even if you travel, centers on arriving somewhere and being relaxed and comfortable once you get there.

It isn’t the meal. As a vegetarian, I see turkeys as alien creatures I have no desire to meet, much less eat. For me, the feast is just an excuse to sit around one table and talk, a time when eating together is its own end, not sustenance before meetings or activities to attend or homework to complete. With my son at college now, we have too few family meals and even fewer are for themselves, destinations instead of way-stations. Food is only the excuse for fellowship at Thanksgiving.

It isn’t even being thankful. I like to think gratitude is a regular part of my life. I aspire to start every day with Emerson’s discovery, “I woke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.” Perhaps needing ritual to remind you of good fortune isn’t healthy. I know the good life I lead isn’t as common as I wish it were.

It’s just wonderful to look into the eyes of my family and friends and tell them—whether I use words or not—how grateful I am for them, how they make my life what it is.

So I can’t say exactly why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days, which might be the true reason. I like a day without pretension or grandeur, a day when the domestic becomes holy, a homespun holiday for homebodies like me.

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Filed under Emerson, Gratitude, Home Life, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Thoughts

The Death of Memory

In education—as perhaps in all things—we are what we do. John Dewey thought so, and Marshall McLuhan believed the message of any class resides in the sort of learning valued there. Without making a single explicit statement about what’s important, teachers implant habits that shape students’ sense of what learning is.

In Neil Postman’s 1969 treatise on education, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, he looked at classrooms of the time and saw education centered on content. He observed students facing forward, watching and listening to their instructors transmitting knowledge gleaned from authorities greater than themselves. Later, he said, students would be asked to demonstrate their own belief in these authorities on tests or in other assessments. “Mostly they are required to remember,” Postman said, “They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true.”

This educational model may persist in places, but at my school, observing, deriving definitions and rules, and performing useful intellectual operations seem commonplace and central. Many teachers regard class as a sort of mental training ground where students exercise their ability to observe, to compare and contrast, to discern patterns in data, to recognize blueprints behind the solutions they find. The McLuhanian message of current classroom practice is that knowledge is less important than using it. A well-trained brain is a tool, and improving its operation is the worthiest aspiration of education.

I’m generally happy with this emphasis on doing. It makes teaching fun, practical and variable, open to inventive and interesting activities. Most importantly, current techniques put students at the center of education.

But I’m not entirely happy. Postman also noted every change produces unanticipated consequences, losses as well as gains. While our methods encourage resourceful and flexible minds, the popularity of emphasizing experience over content, training over knowledge, and application over retention undermines the crucial skill Postman addressed originally, remembering. Students spend so much time using information that their memories are largely untested and untrained and certainly undervalued.

Put data to interpret or analyze before my students, and they are impressive. Ask them to repeat a procedure they’ve practiced multiple times, and they hum like machines. However, if you ask them to recall the content we encountered last month, last week, or even yesterday, they may flounder. Many read for the overall plot and broad themes, not to remember particulars. Most feel responsible for broad concepts and patterns first. The only important details are ones with immediate use. And, once used, most of those details slip away.

Sometimes they remember last night’s reading the way you might recall a movie watched some time ago. When I take them to the brink of a scene or piece of dialogue, they suddenly retrieve what’s next. Information that’s out of context, however, often appears elusive. They struggle with questions like “Who can describe another time Huck apologizes?” and “What are some words Huck used to describe his father in this chapter?” At my school, I am one of the few English teachers who still gives tests—“I don’t care whether they remember names” some colleagues say—but when I do, even my best students stumble on fill-in-blanks and other objective assessments. “I always do so badly on the trivia sections of your tests,” one protested recently.

Some of my students still seek the pride of knowing and feel compelled to attain a thorough and exact memory of books, but some of their peers regard them skeptically and find their compulsion strange and suspect… surely brown-nosing. These skeptics need frequent reminders that discerning interpretations arise from discerning knowledge. They take notes if I insist, but they have trouble judging relevance for themselves. Often they assume someone somewhere has already written it down. They can seek information from the electronic devices circling them like satellites. There are e-texts ready for searching and, should they be stuck on what the author is trying to accomplish, some e-source is ready to explain and point out relevant details they’ve forgotten or overlooked. The goal is to remember content until the assessment or exam—if it hasn’t been replaced with a project—and then jettison it.

Please understand, I’m not insulting my students’ intelligence. Quite the contrary, many are smarter than I am and, properly trained, many could have memories far more powerful than mine. But remembering just isn’t that important in current education. Though teachers still regard learning as cumulative, it adds up differently. And, taking cues from their teachers, students seek to accumulate study skills rather than knowledge. They regard the “stuff’ we study as training material, a means to an end. One welcome side effect of putting practice ahead of memory is that students rarely ask, “Why do we need to know this?” Their assumption—and possibly our assumption—is that they don’t.

And maybe educators should be glad the bad old days of memorizing and regurgitating masses of arcane information are largely gone. Still, I wish we could restore some of that old school emphasis on remembering. As much as I enjoy the improvisational activity of my classroom and believe training brains should be the chief aspiration of education, I suspect I might enjoy teaching even more with exact detail to discuss and debate. For me, memory is a foundation education can’t do without.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, John Dewey, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Teaching, Thoughts

I’m Sorry for this Post

I’m always saying I’m sorry. Having given far more apologies than I’ve received, I’m solidly in the red of a great cosmic balance sheet. No one else seems as sorry as often or as much as me.

There is the little “sorry” that might be “excuse me” or “oops” and the “sorry” for forgetting or being late and the “sorry” for misunderstanding and the “sorry” for “I didn’t mean that at all” and the “sorry” that ought to be “please forgive me.” But moving among them all is a deep apology that rolls elliptically through life, moving back whenever I move forward, undoing nearly everything it does.

“Love,” a sappy movie once said, “means never having to say you’re sorry,” and yet the people I most want to apologize to are those I love most. I suppose I could count on their forgiveness, but I want them to think all my imperfections aberrations and all my intentions pure.

The last time I had a physical fight I was nineteen. My younger brother and I were arguing over something I can’t remember, and I took a swing at him. My fist never landed—it lost impetus just after launch—and my brother just shoved me out of the way. But my mother witnessed this ugly incident and ran from the room and slammed her door. My brother disappears from my memory at that point—I must have apologized—but I vividly recall walking down the hall to talk to my mom. I called through the door, “I’m sorry.”

She answered, “You’re always sorry, but sometimes ‘sorry’ doesn’t fix things. You shouldn’t do all these things you have to apologize for. You ought to know better.”

I’m sure I said I was sorry for that too.

My trouble is thinking apologies noble. Admitting fault sometimes feels good, like pressing a reset button. You right a wrong and, suddenly, you reboot. Trends are favorable again. Perhaps it’s not really your turn to say you’re sorry and someone else should apologize, but the word clears the air. You communicate, “I am the sort of person who acknowledges my mistakes. I learn.”

You may also communicate, “I consider myself the better person.”

Plato’s Apology, a record of Socrates’ trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, focuses on Socrates’ admission that he’s never thought himself wise, except in acknowledging that he doesn’t know squat. In other words Plato’s work is misnamed. It isn’t really apology at all, just boastful self-deprecation or disregard raised to stature of brilliance.

And sometimes nobility battles with resentment. My worst apologies appease or placate. Though, in my heart of hearts, I might feel wronged, I say “I’m sorry” in the interest of peace, but it’s tough to find pleasure in submission. Every pack needs beta wolves, but who wants to be one? Flattening your ears and cringing is so unbecoming.

“It is a good rule in life,” P. G. Wodehouse said, “never to apologize. The right people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”

Yet I wonder how other people avoid “I’m sorry.” It is a hard habit to break. Every day something goes wrong that I must take credit for, and, if nothing else—I’m sorry to say—there’s always apologizing for apologizing.


Filed under Apologies, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Thoughts, Worry

Time to Do Something Else

mic.jpg Another busy weekend, another reprise…

All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.—Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

During the credits of Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, the director asks the band what they would do if they weren’t rock icons. Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer) responds that he’d like to work with children. His answer comes as a surprise as, earlier in the film, he set off airport security with a foil-wrapped cucumber he put in his pants to enhance his manhood.

The question “What else would you do?” only comes up when you are already busy and stuck in a job. You may be unhappy at work or be simply thinking of alternate life paths, but even when the question is just diverting, it’s dangerous. Most days I love teaching, but I’m vulnerable to those devastating fantasies about what I might be doing. It’s an American thing, this Gatsbian infinite capacity for hope. It’s deadly.

Ideally, you would be well paid for doing a job you might do for free. Realistically, you can no more expect to be universally happy in your job than you might expect to be universally happy in your relationships. It’s natural to consider roads not taken.

I love reading aloud. Something about the rhythm and character of artful prose charms me, and I like to think I can find the author’s voice and communicate his or her intonation, pace, and emphasis. I love to read fiction, poetry, essays, textbooks, you name it… aloud.

When I told a friend, Derek Smalls style, that I’d like to a books-on-tapes reader, he poo-pooed the idea. “You don’t have that kind of voice,” he said, “my sister works with those people, and do you know how good you have to be?” He’s probably right, I don’t have a deep and resonant radio-voice. People mistake me for a woman on the phone. My voice is reedy and thin.

Still, for a week, I went around asking everyone, “Do you think I would be a good books-on-tapes reader?” Many said yes, and I reported every positive response back to my friend with an emphatic “See?”

Shouldn’t wanting to do the job be enough? Shouldn’t I be able to convince the world the conventional radio voice is all wrong, that it’s not the pitch, but the personality behind it that matters? Why can’t I embrace my belief in exceptions? Exceptions are more common than people think. Growing up, whenever I doubted the world needed another fill-in-the-blank, my parents said, “But it could always use another good fill-in-the-blank.” I’m sure I could be a books-on-tapes superstar. If I never try, I’ll never know.

The trouble is, I don’t know how to try. Even if I could work with my voice—maybe hormone therapy would help—I have no idea what path to take. I haven’t Googled it, but I’m not sure any schools cater to future books-on-tape readers. Nor do I know of any apprentice programs. No one has pitched becoming an oral reader as a reality show, yet. It’s the sort of thing you fall into, but the old Hollywood model of discovery is problematic. What drugstore should I hang out in?

Would it help to get a microphone and amp and station myself in subway tunnels and read aloud with an empty bucket in front of me?

The nearest proximity I’ve reached is writing as if I’m reading aloud. As “the author,” I am at last the only person for the job. In my fantasies, I branch out from there. Soon I’d be reading other authors’ work and then move into voiceover and replace the guy who once did every trailer of every movie.

Someone has to surmount his fame, right? Why not me?

You see how quickly I can get ahead of myself, flying off the fantasy handle and picturing myself with a mountainside home, a foundation for charitable donations, a personal trainer/chef/appointment assistant, a haircut every three weeks, and a new toothbrush every day.

In my dream life as a books-on-tapes reader, I can afford such luxuries.

Maybe we dreamers are chasing fluffy pink clouds no sane person should pursue seriously, and yet, and yet, and yet. Sid Madwed, a success speaker who touts the power of poetry to improve creativity, productivity, and everything else, says most people are afraid of losing jobs they hate so 90 to 95% of employees, “Work at jobs which are unfulfilling and which they dislike and would leave in a minute if they only knew what they really wanted to do.”

Which leads me back to a question: where can I get an amp and microphone cheap?

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