Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bringing Back the Middle Ages

entrance2-cc-clio20.jpg I’m nostalgic for the middle ages.

It sounds strange to say so because we think of that time as dark, a fallow period after the brilliant bloom of classical culture, a time of illiteracy and pestilence and scarcity, a time of abject devotion to a church that was busy a. burning people who questioned them, b. sending nobles (and anyone unfortunate enough to be attached to nobles) to fight silly, poorly defined wars in distant lands, and c. selling phony saints’ bones to raise funds for cathedrals that absorbed the lives and labors of uncredited craftsmen who considered themselves lucky not to be dead by 35.

What’s not to like?

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of the social good was impressive.

In the High Middle Ages, the serfs left the manors for towns with nearly 100% employment. Many of those jobs focused on high-minded civic projects like the cathedrals. Using the tools of the time, we would be challenged to recreate their decades of painstaking craftsmanship. For them, construction was more than a job. These buildings were emblems of faith and dedication.

By the end of the middle ages, the middle class was growing thanks to guilds, early pseudo-unions that trained and protected the livelihood of tradesmen and women. The guild offered support for injured workers and their families. Guilds also assured reliable products. The ratio of quality and cost was arguably the best in history. In the capitalism of the day, the church regarded excessive profit as sinful, so they set ceilings on the prices of goods. Try to sell a shoddy loaf of bread by filling it with air or using cheap, substandard materials, and you would wear that loaf around your neck as an emblem of your perfidy.

I’ve owned a few products I’d like manufacturers to wear around their necks.

If you want antibiotics or indoor toilets, medieval times aren’t for you, and it’s is a terrible era for women. But these towns aimed to nurture productive—if modest—lives according to their values. They acknowledged interdependence, and, if they accepted miserable lives in favor of faith in the afterlife, they also recognized the dubious joy of materialism.

But students laugh when I romanticize the consumer protection and social safety nets of the middle ages. This period seems boring in its emphasis on religion and work instead of excitement and pleasure. They hate the bread example. They are already well versed in the chief arguments of capitalism and find much to criticize in the guild economy. Progress relies on an open market, they say, one that rewards efficiency and innovation. What inducement might a baker have to develop better bread or unveil a whole new line of bakery products? To prove their point, they trot out a few famous inventors and businessmen who could not exist in the middle ages…like Bill Gates. “What about individualism?” they ask, “What about incentive? What about choice?”

I want to add, “What about greed?” …but don’t.

People in the middle ages traded liberty for security. In many ways, it was a terrible trade. The art seems anemic compared to the work of the Renaissance, when artists broke out of the narrow ruts of convention and sought to depict the natural world as it really is, with color and perspective and vivid life.

I’m nostalgic for the Renaissance too.

But I’m not naive—or a Marxist. I know the middle ages was, for many people, not really a great time to be alive. For some people, neither is our own time. I wonder sometimes why believing in the contemporary age—believing it the pinnacle of civilization—has to mean vilifying the past. I don’t want all of the middle ages back again, but even in the enlightened year of 2012, couldn’t we use just a little medieval self-restraint, a little medieval capitalism, a little medieval mutual support?

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

No Particular Love

I applied for something at work and didn’t get it. The specifics don’t matter. I bear no ill-will toward those who chose the recipient or the recipient himself. He is eminently deserving, and I’m happy for him.

In teaching, desire and fulfillment don’t always align. Opportunities outside the classroom only come up so often. You want something just filled or lack some stipulated prerequisite. Or you hope for positions others simply fit better. Maybe you seek to invent something perfect for you, but your employers aren’t interested or haven’t the money. You want an honor or a fellowship or a stipend that might ratify and support your personal ambitions, but you don’t have the stomach to push yourself forward… or the institution’s ambitions and affections supersede. Their plans may not include you. The older you get, the less likely they will.

So, as a teacher, you abide. You sit in the same figurative waiting room with a lot of other similarly hopeful teachers, all roughly equally qualified for a next step. In the meantime, you hope students express enough approval and/or gratitude to motivate you to do essentially the same job next year.

Maybe I sound bitter. It’s just that I’ve been here before. My career seems punctuated with moments of doubt and reconsideration. In my first teaching job, the headmaster met with me to talk about my future. He said, “Very few teachers remain simply teachers their whole career. Most find something fulfilling outside the classroom to keep them going.” I accepted his statement and the college counseling duties he wanted me to add. Yet, though I was a decent college counselor, I never took to the work, and, after the headmaster left, I left that position and that school behind. I focused on being a teacher again. After fifteen more years teaching, I became bored and reconsidered what my former headmaster said. I decided it was time I be a department chair. I switched jobs and shifted halfway across the country to fulfill that ambition and discovered working with students is more satisfying and reliable than working with colleagues. I returned to the classroom again.

Six years later I’m quite familiar with what’s asked of me, comfortable and ready for fresh challenges. But no new or dramatic change awaits, and few exist for teachers of my experience. It’s paradoxical—a teacher’s job is to assure the growth of students. A teacher’s growth seems hard to assure and is seldom an institutional priority. At most schools, as long as you are steady in the classroom and fulfill your job requirements without parental complaints, everything is fine. For any ambitious person, however, adequacy is seldom fine.

The geographical solution is popular in independent schools. Feeling unfulfilled?…Pick up your old life, and, like a gypsy scholar, move somewhere fresh. It’s a risky proposition, this leap of faith—you trade the goodwill you gained at your old school for whatever affection the new one expresses by hiring you. And you go to the back of the line for opportunities like the one I applied for. If I keep working hard and remain stalwart, I’m told, I’ll be a viable candidate in some future, indeterminate year.

I’m sorry if I seem to be crying “Poor pitiful me.” Like any good wannabe Buddhist, I try to tell myself I’m better off living for the moments given me than dreaming about reward or ratification or advancement. Ambition should be more modest, I think. My energy is best spent trying to deserve respect, not expecting applause. I shouldn’t be working for approval anyway. I need to satisfy for the occasional and quiet thank you and revel in my current headmaster’s message, “Teachers make this institution great. You are all superstars.”

Looking for personal advancement won’t do because who can rely on it? And any teacher expecting to survive on a regular diet of praise is bound to starve. We all do the same job and are roughly equal in stature. In a school, whatever author you credit for good fortune—chance, or fate, or circumstance—doesn’t love anyone particularly.

Not even—it turns out—me.

But missing out stings and takes me another step closer to “Teacher Burn-out,” a state I used to think mythical. New questions crop up: How much challenge and how much affirmation does it take to fuel a long teaching career? If my first headmaster was right and few survive as “simply teachers,” how will it feel ten years from now as I start another fall in the same spot?


Filed under Aging, Buddhism, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry


I’ve been noticing my dreams lately and wondering if that is a good sign. Most nights—even on the restless nights—I remember nothing. Whatever internal untangling takes place in my sleep goes on unimpeded, and I’m reconciled in ways I didn’t know I needed reconciling. But not lately.

The other night I had a dream about needing gifts for someone—can’t remember whom—and, finding a bunch of those colorful South American frogs hopping down the front steps of a museum, I gathered some for my pockets and then, when I ran out of room, put some in my mouth.

Wait, don’t indigenous peoples use their secretions for poison arrows?

The dream goes on, but I can’t. Other people’s dreams are either dull or disturbingly transparent. I look for trouble signs in my own dreams and sometimes seek second opinions, but really I hope daylight and reason will wash out any worrisome details.

I dreamed that I ran for Governor of Texas against a woman with a beehive hairdo and bumble-bee dress, and counties flashed black and yellow on a map as they fell to her campaign.

Most dreams only merit one sentence. Any more and I begin to fear. I don’t want too much of my life to be conscious. Which is to say, too much of my life seems conscious already. Which is to say, life seems hard. I don’t mind being less aware of that.

Enough instant trouble appears in my life—shit hitting the fan—that I’m grateful when my unconscious says, “I’ll handle this.” Do I need to see my unconscious trying to get more shit through the fan?

I dreamed that I drove down the street without my hands on the wheel, bumping between the parked cars on either side of the road, relying on them to channel me home.

Dreams are reassuring when you put on an imaginary lab coat and regard them as phenomena. You appreciate your nascent imagination working hard even after the day is done. Or celebrate them as relief from reality. Or other people do.

In another dream, my father wanted me to go to the courthouse to search for something depicting the underside of our house’s foundation, but I couldn’t figure out how to describe my desire.

That says something.

In most matters I love the examined life. I object, on principle, to blissful ignorance. However, here is the exception to feed the rule. Good sleep is like a smooth zipper, gathering teeth as reliably as a train gathers railroad ties. It brings the two sides of everything into one whole.

I’d rather not see the sandman working the zipper back and forth trying to free extra fabric caught in the middle.


Filed under Anxiety, Doubt, Dreaming, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Thoughts, Worry

Lost Work


Playing in neighbors’ yards, I sometimes spied wasp nests hanging from eaves or embedded in trees or bushes. Most of the time I remembered my father’s swollen face after an encounter in a rosebush and fled. But abandoned nests were more valuable to me than any other childhood artifact. I’d come back with a whiffle ball. If I could find a foothold on a windowsill or branch, the nest would come down… gently, cleanly whole.


Nature’s art is an order of order well beyond anything made with paper, paint, or glue.


A friend had a wasp nest the size of a rugby ball that he and his father found while deer hunting. I coveted it. You could hold it by the branch it surrounded, and the outside was all one irregular sheet of paper, understatedly striped and stratified like levels of foam on a the glass of a finished coke float photographed in black and white. Its grayscale spoke each day’s source. Some zones came close to white. Others charcoal.


I love nests’ deliberate and alien fabrication. What spurs wasps to begin them? What secret compulsion resides in all that mastication? How do they know without knowing how to build paper houses?


My friend talked about cutting his nest open to reveal its inner architecture, but, for a long time, I persuaded him not to. It wouldn’t be worth anything, I said. I spoke with authority, as if the wasp nest market followed laws of value easy to understand.


Nesting must still be in us somewhere, traveling lines of thought long subsumed by more complicated purposes. We are still makers but make less palpable stuff, much of it crap.


Carl Jung said creation isn’t accomplished by intellect but, “By the play instinct acting from inner necessity.” That necessity, he suggested, is deep affection. “The creative mind plays with the objects it loves,” he said.


I protected the nest my friend found because I knew how hard it’d be to find another. I begged him to consider how much time the wasps took to make it and how rare such unbothered time must be.


Once I watched my son as he sat with his laptop at the kitchen table. He slumped in a chair, ear-buds in, his head shifted to the left out of alignment with the rest of his body while, with his right hand, he stacked and unstacked paperback books. First they were stair steps, then the edges of an empty pool, then a tent preparing for a pyre.


For a long time, my friend’s wasp nest occupied a high perch in the corner of his room. He’d lodged it there, and, when you stared up, it looked like a disembodied head, faceless but ever vigilant and possessive.


Sometimes I think I might have something great to do if someone set me to it. Brilliance awaits the proper assignment. It only takes the visit of compulsion—Paul on the road to Damascus, Buddha silently lifting a lotus to show his disciples, Melville scratching, “Call me Ishmael” in an unoccupied patch of paper.


Perseverance dies in us. We hate the million daily delays that find us waiting before web pages or in line at Starbucks or between the subject and object of friends’ sentences. We desire nothing so much as completion, fruition, almost any result. Work accretes but not as one task. Stunted piles stretch over a vast surface, no tower more than a bump.


Last summer I visited the rare book room of the Columbia library and saw a copy of Shakespeare’s first folio. His bean-shaped head presided over its collection of columned pages of broken type, and I read his expression as a challenge. How many people have those eyes turned away?


The architect Louis Kahn said, “The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of need.” We desire what’s made. The world never needed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he said, until Beethoven wrote it.


I offered to buy my friend’s wasp nest. The bid was a rumpled stack of ones, a mermaid’s purse I’d found on the beach in Galveston, and a conch big enough to blow. He only shrugged.


In a college creative writing class, I drew a slip of paper from my professor’s hand and on it was written, “Librarian at Alexandria.” She wanted me to write a poem from that perspective, but I knew nearly nothing about Alexandria. My trip to the reference room gave me the facts of its destruction and what scholars think might have disappeared. I can’t remember exactly what I turned in, but I’m certain my librarian threw himself into the conflagration, reaching for a scroll that burned his hand and erased his consciousness.


Steven Jobs bristled when people undervalued his products as pretty things, pure design. “Design,” Jobs said, “is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product.” Even the surface, it seems, has soul.


The part of Texas where I grew up was boggy much of the year, and, when I picture it, I see fields full of crawfish chimneys. I don’t recall ever seeing a crawfish.


Everything nature makes follows its own design. Universal principles may lay behind the plans but its works are so various, so beautiful, so new.


I wonder if other organisms think about permanence as we do. I wonder if we think of it as much as we once did. I wonder if permanence is real or human invention.


My friend and his father often went deer hunting. They’d reappear in the neighborhood and flop a dead animal into the yard beside their driveway and then take it around back. Once they hadn’t had time to field dress it, so they wrapped yellow rope around one set of legs, hung it from a branch of chinaberry tree, removed its organs, and bled it out. I watched horrified.


When I sell my artwork online, I have to package it carefully to avoid damage. I’ve learned how, but one of my first attempts failed. The buyer sent a jpeg of a creased corner and a fold line stretched diagonally through the image. My handler at the art site suggested I send a message saying I’d remake the painting, and I emailed that offer to the buyer. He chose another painting to replace it instead, and I was grateful. I’d stared and stared at the damaged painting wondering how I’d made it originally. The lines, the shades and colors, the shapes, the media I’d used, the process I’d followed were all lost. Or trapped in the hours I devoted to creating it. I could not muster that effort again.


Growing up, we would tell each other we weren’t afraid of bees, or wasps, or the hornets that sometimes hovered near our faces, their flights audible and menacing. We didn’t think much about their having homes. Their interest in hurting us mattered more, and in the categories of making and unmaking, we knew where they belonged.


Though I don’t believe in ghosts, sometimes something of an owner lurks in what’s left behind. I have two of my father’s watches, and the only time I ever wore one, I later discovered the glass over its face broken, the hands stopped. The other is in my drawer now, long dead at 2:35.


I wasn’t there, but eventually my friend stuffed his wasp nest with firecrackers. He described its final moments like the rupture of an incendiary bomb. First it flew apart in shreds and then ignited. Most of it disappeared in ash, but my friend said afterward he found black larvae left behind like bits of tar. Those too he burned.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, life, Lyric Essays, Memory, Prose Poems, Recollection, Thoughts, Work, Writing

The Muse As Dreamer

All of this is a continuation of the lie, but if I am consistent in it, approximates the truth in its effect.

Franz Kafka, diary entry, May 11, 1916

Here’s a dream from high school: knowing beyond doubt my strategy for running cross country races was all wrong, I hit upon a new plan—drop to my belly just as Coach fired the gun and scramble on all fours, alligator fashion, through the three point one mile race. And bang, it worked. I was instantly 500 meters in the lead, feeling remarkably smug and saurian. I’d never felt such exhilaration before.

Then doubt crept in. The pack gradually—agonizingly—caught up to me and, when I finally abandoned my hope and stood to run like a human, I found myself in my own race, no other competitors about, striding through a labyrinthine hotel remarkably similar to the Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec. I stopped to study the carpet. The shade of red wasn’t right.

Needless to say, I never finished.

The particulars of that dream amused athletes I used to coach—it could be they just enjoyed my imitation of a running alligator—but I could never express how unfunny and compelling that dream originally was. When we tell dreams we recall the absurd and comic detail and forget that, at the time, the dream’s logic, doubts, and certainties were absolute. The stuff of dreams often moves us to retell them, but we can’t communicate their absurdity entirely.

When my wife tells her dreams, she sometimes “cleans-up” plot lines to put odd details in clearer contexts, but, to me, the true part of the dream is its bizarre form. I always ask for the dream exactly as it happened.

Early surrealists, led by André Breton in his Manifesto in 1924, tried to reproduce dream structure in poetry. They valued automatism (automatic writing) as a sort of dictation from the subconscious. “If thought is liberated from the dictates of reason and from moral and aesthetic strictures,” Breton wrote, “it may achieve a form of expression beyond the domains of hitherto recognized artistic expression.”

At the time his advice probably sounded dramatic, but it’s become familiar. Even homespun poets like William Stafford warned, “Intention endangers creation” and, “any time we adopt a stance that induces an analytical feeling, we may be subverting what art depends on.” Intentionally avoiding intention seems an impossible contradiction, but, every once in a while, even in a sonnet or haiku, the dream happens.

In Writing the American Crawl, Stafford said poetry is like a car trying to start on ice, where the ice is the interface between writer and reader. He said a writer can only gain “traction” by using “statements that do not demand much belief, easy claims, even undeniable progressions without need of authority. No solicitation of the reader’s faith.” Poems balance surprise and familiarity—Emily Dickinson called it “amazing sense”—with structure as well as imagery. Ordinary imagery can be quite surreal.

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? …Two, one to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored bicycles. So goes the joke, but surrealism doesn’t live at the opposite extreme from Stafford, groping for something pointedly alien, intentionally outlandish. The structure as well as the contents create dreams.

Beyond that brilliant oft-quoted first line of “The Metamorphosis” (“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”), it’s a fairly ordered tale. Its success rests with its structure as much as with that dramatic first choice.

Kafka wrote in his diary in 1921 that “All is imaginary—family, office, friends, the street, all imaginary, far away or close at hand,” and to me he writes best when he believes it. In his diary, reality is infinitely pliable. He says, “the truth that lies closest . . . is only this, that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.”

Mighty depressing. However, the broader sense of this statement, the feeling of inescapability, seems essential to art. Things are as they are because they have to be. Intentionally trying to invent that necessity pits your fabrication against the subconscious. Dreams suggest you’ll lose.

Once I dreamed the packages strewn about a room contained all the important statements of historical figures. No one else noticed them, but I spent the whole dream desperate to protect them and preserve what they held. But they had no bows or ribbons and weren’t easy to stack up in my arms. No one else seemed to care. They were invisible to everyone else. If I were awake, I would have asked, “Then are they real?” In the dream, nothing was weird about their existence. The only criterion for reality was belief.

“Whatever care the mind takes to isolate itself,” Marcel Raymond says in Baudelaire to Surrealism, “it cannot help being fed by elements originating in the external world.” In writing about the mind, we have no means of expression but words of this world and, hence, can’t entirely avoid intention. The secret surrealism tells, however, is that a mind ready to accept both the content and structure of the unconscious interferes as little as possible.

If the muse is a dreamer, let’s not wake her to explain herself. Let’s not trouble her by assessing the eccentricity of her night babble. Let her sleep. Record the movement of her closed and ever-shifting eyes.

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Filed under Art, Dreaming, Essays, Kafka, Surrealism, Thoughts, Writing

Memory’s Geography

The English office of a school where I used to teach offered a window on a courtyard penned on all sides by buildings. The roofs of these buildings were green-gray slate, and, when an earlier winter storm started to melt, patches of snow on the roof slid away from other patches, wrinkling and drooping in fanciful ways. These patches reminded me of continents with mountain ranges and coastlines, the irregular scalloped edges like harbors opening onto exposed slate seas. The color was right even if the sea divided neatly into regular rectangular shingles.

When it really warmed up the continents fell from the roof in sloppy landslides onto the courtyard below. The sound reverberated in the closed space, alerting you one moment too late to see it happen.

I may have caught it happening—I spent a lot of time standing at that window staring at nothing and sorting through my last or next class—but I don’t remember.

Some pictures are too big for the brain, and it crops the edges until just a detail remains, a square of canvas presenting fingers of one hand or a sfumato hillock too distant to need definition.  Strangely, I derive such comfort from these details, their visits reminders of memory’s consolations and the sweet poignancy of recalling something that seems outside yourself.

Here’s another:

During a wet June in coastal Texas, my older brother—and soon the whole block—dug a Venice out of a boggy vacant lot. All those ells of canals opened into a grand pool, and along each we erected cottages and palaces of dredged mud, grass, and sticks. One edifice in particular rose like a Tower of Babel, its layers cork-screwed to a plateau just big enough to hold an Astros’ pennant. The work paused long enough to wipe our brows and sigh admiration. It was an impotent city—for nothing—a construction of imagination with no aim but passing summer.

The scene likely ended with a pick-up truck rolling up, a driver’s side window rolling down, and a voice rolling out some version of “Cease and desist,” but that’s lost.

Two weeks ago, I saw my older brother for the first time in a year, and I meant to ask him about this Venice, whether he remembered it, whether my brain cut another misleading square of canvas, or whether I’ve made it myself, my creation completed by wishing it real.

But maybe I didn’t want to know. When these memory postcards return, I pause to marvel. Whether they’re actual or painted by desire sometimes seems immaterial.

Life deserves more attention than we give it. It’s a shame we can’t share our postcards, if only to communicate where our penlights landed, what our own angles illuminated. The snow continents slip too soon from the roof, and I wish I knew a reliable way to make them hang on longer.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Writing

Déjà Vu All Over Again

open_book.jpg Reprise… As an English teacher, I try to read more, but the problem is consciousness—not having enough. When I read just before bed, a hypnotist seems to whisper a word deeply embedded in me, and I slide into sleep.

Most of my reading is rereading—I may be in book three of The Odyssey and half-way through “Bartleby the Scrivener.” These juxtapositions make strange harmonies, but, unless I compare the two works in class, I’m the only one who hears the books singing each to each. I carry them around. They vie for attention, the decibels creeping up as one tries to drown the other.

Reading, like blogging, is another layer in my life to look through, a filter of Bartleby or Telemachus. Bartleby prefers not to do anything, and Telemachus is chock-full of self-doubt and unworthiness.

One of my son’s friends once asked me how I could stand teaching the same books year after year. I thought of saying we switch texts frequently—it’s what I usually say—but I’d be half-lying. Truth is, most teachers are reluctant to mark a new text, gather new assignments, and research relevant criticism. I love new books but have to be realistic. Do I have the time to begin again with a book to replace one students consistently find stimulating?

At its best, teaching a book you’ve studied can be like taking a friend to a movie you know and love—you feed on their first responses. They make an old book new, and the vicarious pleasure in their enjoyment makes pretending enthusiasm unnecessary.

I don’t love some of the books they love. Part of me secretly cheers when Piggy gets it in Lord of the Flies—it means only 15 pages remain—and, as much as I love Huckleberry Finn, I find myself desperate for the King and Duke to exit. They bug me.

Yet, I try not to reveal any antipathy. I’d never, as one of my former colleagues did with The Great Gatsby, begin with the premise it’s a terrible book that’s terribly overrated. Though I can’t help guiding students toward the incidents and passages I notice in these books, they have a right to their own reactions. The fun is discovering what patterns they recognize or conclusions they draw from what we uncover together. When our discoveries add up to something new, the book seems new.

And sometimes, out of the blue, a book renovates itself. Re-encountering texts teaches you—great books reward rereading. Someone reveals a new tiny detail or it simply stands out this time or a new experience arrives to light the hidden corner or a familiar room. One night I ran into Athena’s words to Telemachus in The Odyssey,

Few sons are the equals to their fathers;
most fall short, all too few surpass them.
But you, brave and adept from this day on—
Odysseus’ cunning has hardly given out in you—
there’s every hope you will reach your goal.

I thought about my children, going (or having gone) to the school where I teach, and wondered if they ever felt intimidated. I wondered whether they know how much more adept they are than I will ever be. I wondered if any adult can convince any teenager to hope if he or she doesn’t believe it.

In the middle of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I ran into this passage:

To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.

I thought of Melville’s courage in admitting the limits of pity, that the narrator’s feelings for Bartleby could go only so far before they turned about and became the narrator’s own pain and he wanted to run away. It’s not a pretty thought, but it illustrates the will required to listen to someone in trouble, to fight common sense and really listen.

Rereading sometimes requires the same determination to really listen.

My son’s friend asked a good question. How am I still teaching and rereading the same books thirty years after I started? On weekends, I look at the clock and think what period it would be—the patterns of a teacher’s life can pound like a boom box bass line.

The secret, it occurs to me, is staying awake, looking through fresh eyes (even if they are not your own) and listening for some—any—new sound.

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Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, life, Parenting, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Work


On my way home last week I saw a pink plastic-coated paperclip I was sure must be mine. That’s silly really. I don’t own all the pink plastic-coated paperclips in the world, and my path is busy with other travelers, some of whom must also need to gather sheaves of paper.

But maybe that’s the way we all are, interpreting everything as particular to ourselves.

I fished the paperclip from a crack between slabs of concrete and slipped it into my pocket. At home, I dropped it into a pile in one of our drawers, sure it had swum back into its womb and must be happy… as happy as paperclips get.

One of my idle fantasies is blinking and then spying the world crowded with my former selves occupying every space they have ever been. The lines of me would string all over my block and then stretch out toward parts unknown, places I couldn’t see from where I stood. La Marque, Texas would be crowded with me on bicycles, and I’d suddenly appear all over school campuses, in strange and secret places.

I imagine the rest of the population would be shocked. “Who is this guy,” they’d say, and “How am I supposed to get into the gym when he has choked the entrance?”

Working in a movie theatre in college, I used to take one dollar bills out of the till between show times and write installments of a mad saga in the margins around their edges. Chapter 368 picked up just where 367 ended, and strangers were always busy at something important only to them and their author. Once I asked a tour guide at the mint in DC what might have happened to my story, how far it might travel. He told me that, unless some bank clerk took an interest, my chapters probably left circulation right away. Up to then, I still hoped one might fly back to me like a parakeet I lost as a child.

As a teacher, I’ve heard people quote Henry Adams over and over. “A teacher affects eternity,” Adams said, “he can never tell where his influence stops.” Yes, but he can’t always tell where his influence starts either or if it starts at all. It’s possible that, every day, some former student of mine—I estimate there are around 1500 of them—gives some thought to good old Mr. Marshall, but perhaps they’re too busy wondering if anyone is giving some thought to them. Maybe they’re thinking of paperclips.

Wouldn’t everyone like to matter, to make some indelible mark on something somewhere? All those marks though, don’t they cover each other up? Wouldn’t every surface look like a Jackson Pollack? But then, even Jackson Pollack isn’t so prominent—many of my students have no idea who he is.

I meant to make a special case of my pink paperclip. It was grittier than the others in the pile, and I had it marked for some higher purpose. I retrieved it from the paperclip hoi polloi in the drawer and carried it to school. When I reached into my pocket, however, it wasn’t there, even when I turned the pocket inside out. Nor was it on my path to or from school.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to single it out. What if everything means to be lost?

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Thoughts, Urban Life

On Smartassery

diogenes.jpg Reprise… My father always said, “No one likes a smartass,” but, on the whole, my experience hasn’t confirmed his pronouncement. In fact, smartasses can be mighty funny, and their incisive humor can reveal hypocrisy and idiocy we should all see.

What are dissenters but smartasses? Socrates, “The gadfly of Athens,” was a smartass at heart, devoted to revealing the ignorance of those reputed wise. H. L. Mencken once said, “The cynics are right nine times out of ten,” and George Bernard Shaw said, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” We need our cynics.

But it’s sometimes difficult to bear them.

The part of my father’s saying I never heard fully was that word “like.” He may have been right that no one likes a smartass. You can admire their intellectual independence, their candor, their wit, their insight, their courage, and their honesty yet still not enjoy them.

The older I get, the less patient I am with smartasses, and I think about why. Maybe some smartassedness is better than other smartassedness. Some of what passes for critical thinking seems to me simple sneering, an automatic response with little motive beyond provoking laughter.

I love laughter but know I sometimes laugh when I shouldn’t. I don’t believe, as many smartasses seem to, that any statement you laugh at is okay. Just as I wouldn’t automatically reject an idea expressed in anger, I can’t accept absolutely anything that’s funny.

Once I accompanied a group of students to a competition in which every participant received a small trophy. The sneerer in me regards those sorts of self-esteem gestures as empty, especially as their cost adds to the price of participating. Nonetheless, I found myself bristling when, in response to being congratulated for winning a real trophy in the competition—a big elaborate trophy—the victor said to another student…

“Thank you, and congratulations to you for winning that plastic figurine on the mock marble base. He looks a lot like you…or what you’d look like if you were old and constipated.”

I felt laughter rising in me, and the students at his elbow did laugh. I can’t imagine the recipient of the figurine was bothered much, but I wanted to talk to the smartass to help him recognize the negative potential of his remark.

Many of the trophies broke on the bus ride back. A few were left behind.

Particularly hard to take are smartasses who deflate ideas before they really inflate at all. Some avowed “bullshit detectors” seem to carry bullshit around on their shoes and smell it everywhere. “A new idea is delicate,” Charles Boyer said, “It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke or worried to death by a frown on the right person’s brow.” I wonder if I’d participate again if a remark like the one above was aimed at me.

And I wonder if we’ve reached a tipping point where sincerity is actually more courageous than cynicism. So many people make fun of or dismiss tasks outright before they address them. Once, when plans for big changes at school were set before one of my colleagues, he said, “I notice the present system isn’t one of the choices. Isn’t it heart-warming to know we’re not doing anything right?”

Afterward when I complained about his smartassery to another colleague, she said, “But he’s right. Why aren’t we considering what’s going well?” She also said, “You shouldn’t be so hard on him. Most cynics are frustrated idealists, you know. He’s just tired of his hopes being disappointed.” She finished by scolding me. “You know, I’d rather be a cynic” she said, “than someone who thinks everyone should be idealistic.”

What I couldn’t say at the time was that I did understand his response and even agreed, somewhat. I’d never expect everyone to be idealistic, just to be open-minded and not automatically critical.

But I wasn’t sure she’d believe me. Where sincerity is suspect, clear communication seems impossible. How hard is it to assume best intentions before you turn to criticism? Can’t relentless cynicism become another form of censure?

I sound old—I’m certainly older than my father when he pronounced smartasses unlikeable—and if I’m fuddy-duddy ranting, I apologize. It’s just that I’m frustrated with the easy scorn I run into. We’ve traveled so far from the original meaning of “cynic.”

In the abstract, dissent can be the engine of positive change. Ultimately, I’m grateful for the world’s smartasses. I just sometimes wish they’d stay away from me.

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