Monthly Archives: March 2013

I’m Sort of Your Friend

JAILER_KEY_SETMy classes often ask, “How did we do?” but I avoid generalization. The moment I say, “These were great” or “These were worrisome,” the exception looks up at me, a student who climbed where others fell or one who stumbled where others waltzed. No collective judgment—this is my “good” class or my “bad” class—holds true for long, and, just when I think I have a feel for how a class operates, it surprises me.

And sometimes I only think I know. Once a ninth grade class railed endlessly against Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, but three years later two members of that class told me how much they loved the book, how our discussions stuck with them, how reluctant they’d been at the time to express their appreciation. Sometimes tests discover students who’ve quietly gathered criticisms as the rest of the class blew kisses at the author.

Generalization becomes even more complicated when you ask how a class feels about you.

I read somewhere that intimacy doesn’t scale up; that is, you shouldn’t expect to be affectionately understood by more than one person at a time. Teaching reinforces that lesson every day, for who reaches everyone? What teacher fully convinces all students a particular bit of knowledge, skill, or understanding is worth absorbing?

The ugly reality is some percentage of every class dislikes you. Their skepticism could be your problem or their problem or a function of your reputation or some chemical disruption that prevents either of you from understanding. Some students don’t like teachers period, and others only like a teacher as much as they liked their last grade.

Seeing the volatility of student affection gives you a ready justification for putting any question of “being liked” aside. Since you can’t win, you shouldn’t try. Concentrate instead on being demanding and fair and getting the most out of students, some say. Don’t smile until Thanksgiving. My high school yearbook included quotations under each faculty member’s picture, and, under the scowling photo of my junior math teacher was the line, “I am not your friend.” That statement was so accurate few of us dared bring our yearbooks to class.

Even my math teacher, however, must have sought affirmation. Perhaps she hoped we’d reassess our dislike years later, recognizing how much and how selflessly she’d taught us. Perhaps she survived on self-congratulation, assuring herself that, by eluding petty issues of affection, her class learned more.

Yet self-assurance of her type seems rare. I don’t know many colleagues who can will such ignorance. Who enjoys a hostile audience or stokes dislike when the fire dies? H. L. Mencken suggested no teacher should ever expect to be a regarded as more than a benevolent jailer, and maybe that’s so. But we have to work with these people. The math teacher who wasn’t my friend didn’t spur me to become a teacher. I haven’t learned to appreciate her these many years later. I liked the teachers who cared about me. Is it terrible to hope my students like me?

Which, admittedly, makes it easy to fall into pandering, coddling, compromising. Some teachers set themselves up as different from the tyrants. They bend at every challenge and not-so-secretly sneer at the school and education generally, setting themselves up as students’ only friend, the single exception to the hostility of school. Colleagues may discount them, but jealousy mixes with suspicion. Maybe when you have a student’s ear, you can accomplish so much more.

I try to tread a middle line, telling students how much I care about their progress (which is true) as I defend the demands I make of them. I also take myself out of the equation, saying, constantly, “When you realize you’re in school for you, every effort yields a 100% return.” Some of them roll their eyes—it’s impossible for them to see education as imposed and valuable, impossible to accept that, though my actions aren’t friendly, my intentions are.

Like it or not, the relationship with students is personal. When I was younger, students sometimes arrived asking, “What kind of mood are you in today?” I resolved to show a more regular face, to be more consistent, more professional. No one can avoid variability, but I wanted to be the same person every day, even if that person was only a version of me and not necessarily the person I’d be if we were truly friends. I wanted to be someone for them, to put who was helping whom in proper perspective.

Sometimes, at the end of the year, students will say, “I just didn’t want to disappoint you, Mr. Marshall,” and I’m sure they mean to compliment me. I’d be happier, however, if they said they didn’t want to disappoint themselves, that I’d been a friendly adversary, a goad to their progress and growth.

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Catching Up

running1-4aa9449ac89e156b8da08fbbcb91a863ace8f807-s6-c10A couple of months ago, I foolishly signed up for a half-marathon. As the race is in mid-May, I told myself I had plenty of time for another commitment in my busy life, plenty of time to become habituated to running again (because I ellipticize nearly every day), plenty of time to add mileage gradually so I wouldn’t get injured. I found a training schedule online and thought, “Easy. I’ll reach the longest run a month early.”

Now it’s spring break, and I’m really just starting to run again. Ramping up has been harder than expected—the ramp is steeper than it would have been if I hadn’t said “no” to treadmills and so much Chicago weather—but age and weight also make me feel like a plodder, earth-bound when, even two years ago, I could at least occasionally fly.

During my running prime, in my late 20’s and early 30’s, I was 25 pounds lighter. I was so cadaverous that a friend seeing me at a start line for the first time in a long time said, “Man, you look great! You look like they just dug you up for this race!” It’s crass to say how fast I ran that half-marathon, but I broke my ten mile personal best during the 13.1 mile race. After the finish, the friend and I ran a seven-mile cool down together.

Now, out for three or even two miles, I await the feeling every committed runner knows, the sense your brain and not your body matters most. When you’re in shape, no distance seems impossible at the right pace, and no pace seems impossible with proper training. You don’t dread the day’s workout because it has become easier to run than not to and because, at a certain level of fitness, it’s fun discovering how much you can do. People say the key to a long running career is simple—Don’t Stop—and the truth of that advice comes from winning that invulnerable mentality and clinging to it. You don’t want to rebuild.

But I’m rebuilding. My edifice looks mighty rickety right now.

Chicago has been cruel. The last few days, my first week of “spring” break, the temperature has hardly climbed above 30°. The wind gusts and, heavy as I am, seems to throw me off my feet when I round a corner or cross an intersection. The clothes this weather requires are long de-elasticized and/or missing, so I run in shorts and return with my thighs red and numb. I’m wearing socks for gloves. I’m leaden. I’m sore. I have blisters. Time crawls from mile to mile.

I’d shake my fist at the sky, but I’m too tired.

If you’re my age and complain about how hard running is, people offer some variation on “Humans weren’t meant to run.” However, a lot of anthropologists actually believe evolution favored distance running and explain our upright posture as evidence runners among us survived tree-dwellers. Sure, cheetahs and antelopes are faster, but humans can (and do) run such sprinters to death, pursuing until exhaustion makes prey vulnerable. In college, I watched a film about a bunch of Kung Bushmen running a giraffe down over days. The cameraman eventually shot the giraffe because he’d used most of his film, and the tribesmen were still at it. Our leg length relative to body mass, the energy stored in long tendons and muscles, our lung cavities, the shortness of our arms, all allow us to move efficiently, with minimal expenditure of effort.

Or ought to. In the African bush, I’d be on the menu rather than dining.

I understand someone attributing my running renewal to vanity or some pathetic mid-life battle with mortality. Maybe I should be playing golf—though no anthropologist has unearthed any ancient clubs yet. Perhaps I’m simply sublimating my self-loathing. But, as awful as training is right now, I remember better days, days I’d love to restore not because they would remind me of my youth or former glory, but because, to me, running once felt good, felt natural, felt right. And I like to think life is an endurance race and not a sprint.

That’s a rare perspective these days.

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On Resting

6a00d8341c595453ef010536b12fe0970b-320wiThe frontier between wakefulness and sleep is a demilitarized zone planted with bulbs and landmines. It’s where silly thoughts arise—a casting agency for dreams, methods of organizing sound effects, plans to market masks of people’s younger faces—placed next to all things horrifying. One of three nights, I suffer potential illnesses and accidents followed by unreeling deliberations about how to survive the end of the world.

I either drift into unconsciousness or take a u-turn, embracing gentle senselessness or fighting cold sweats. Sleep has never been easy for me, and sometimes I concentrate on images—one picture leading to another and another—and gingerly celebrate when an arational association suggests utter darkness ahead. When I fail, a shovel swings, and one dire possibility outdoes the last. I dig deeper until I achieve hyper-consciousness, staring up at the still bright sky from a trap I’ve made myself.

Stephen Wright used to joke: “People ask, ‘How did you sleep?’ I answer ‘I made a couple of mistakes’.”

The other night, I started thinking about my son’s spring break road trip and tried to settle all my questions about medical care in faraway states and the various ways to reach him quickly if he needed us. I finally fell asleep when I considered how difficult it might be to travel with penguins.

There is, in all this wavering between worry and fantasy, a larger observation about how we humans operate. The mind has its own agenda and carries us directions we don’t control. Were I an inventor or one of those exceptionally creative types who turn accidents into opportunities, were I sure each random thought offered limitless potential, I might be glad, but mostly I want rest, relief from ambition and aspiration and promise.

A rear-guard reaction comes with every hope—“This will work if…” or “What we need to pay attention to is…” I wish I might put everything aside and live. It’s an unpopular perspective to offer in a society obsessed with what wonderfulness awaits us, but I’m not sure what our “progress” has wrought. Have you ever considered humanity without a fixation on the future? What dreams do plants or other animals have? What rest—offered to every other organism—eludes us? Are we superior or tragic, endowed by our creator with special powers or damned by our minds and our pride in our intelligence and get-up-and-go?

These questions may revisit me tonight. If they do, my only real defense will be slipping past them and into random, spontaneous, and unplanned whimsy. Another moment may bring something new, and, if it’s a splash of the surreal, something visited upon me rather than constructed with my all-powerful, all-anxious human brain, perhaps I’ll delight in it. Perhaps I’ll be. Perhaps I’ll rest, assured a place after all, a role in the world that isn’t running it.

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Intermittence

par-intermittence-5846321. Sometimes I find myself staring and seeing nothing.

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2. Sometimes the pool of the world fills as from a spring pouring out of the last shovel strike.

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3. Sometimes the operations of my neighborhood—the trains and dog-walkers, the people loitering on stoops or shifting their weight as they stand beside locked cars—seem the working parts of a vast clock that only winds up.

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4. Sometimes a breeze turns as from some new impulse and urgency.

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5. Sometimes the moon seems to watch.

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6. Sometimes I have to close my eyes because fathoms-deep tides pull me under and, try as I might, their insistence is irresistible, the pleading voices of souls seeking company and solace.

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7. Sometimes, when walking seems new to children, I wait to see parents take their hands.

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8. Sometimes ice on the lake undulates the way the earth must during a quake, and, watching, I’m momentarily disoriented, my own legs wobbly.

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9. Sometimes, when a cold gust raises tears, I’m happy for the relief.

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10. Sometimes I imagine saving the sun from stampeding clouds.

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11. Sometimes the sun burns through the hardest ice.

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12. Sometimes unguarded people allow our eyes to linger.

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13. Sometimes, if my trip to work is full of images, sounds, and smells, they drown my thoughts and urge acquiescence and sacrifice.

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14. Sometimes snow flurries are so small and random, they remind me how much I long for mayflies.

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15. Sometimes I see empty storefronts, their windows expansive and vacant, gaping almost jealously at passers-by.

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16. Sometimes a shout from nowhere reminds me I’m really not alone.

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17. Sometimes people insist I listen.

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18. Sometimes I wonder if it might be a relief to be deaf.

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19. Sometimes branches move only when you watch.

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20. Sometimes cars lurch through intersections with visible resistance and sometimes they punch a new hole in that direction.

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21. Sometimes gray appears most of the world.

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22. Sometimes the parts of a broken glass seem to long for one another.

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23. Sometimes I do and don’t want more.

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24. Sometimes a flapping sail feels restless and sometimes reluctant.

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25. Sometimes my brain thirsts for color the way you want salt.

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26. Sometimes I forget the day started with my sitting on the edge of the bed willing myself to rise and silence the alarm and praying it might silence itself or, at least, only be part of a dream interrupted.

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27. Sometimes everything looks already made.

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28. Sometimes actors bow days after the show is over.

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29. Sometimes the sun’s exit is perfect.

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30. Sometimes sometimes doesn’t seem often enough and other times too often.

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On Writing

obsidian-hungary-DSC07619During the dust bowl, plains residents couldn’t keep their houses clean. Another storm arrived before they swept every corner and crack. Worse, even gentle breezes brought more dust, as if, once it found its way in, nothing kept it out.

The simplest impact of Sisyphus’ damnation is its endlessness—he rolls the rock up the hill and it rolls down over and over—but living in the story reveals deeper trouble. Once readers learn the central act of the story, no other iteration is necessary, and they don’t care for another telling. But, if you are inside the story, Sisyphus rolls his stone still. He knows answers to questions readers don’t bother to ask and inhabitants of the story can’t help asking, like whether he keeps his belief in success, whether some compulsion even worse than gravity drags him up and down, whether he resists and obeys each time, whether he’s tired and growing more so, whether he remembers particular trips, or his thoughts during any particular trip, or any time before the act of rolling began, whether his hands and legs and body become abstract, a machine busy as his mind moves different directions.

Lists fill from the top. Some people empty them each day or week. Others empty them from time to time, refusing anything new until nothing remains to be done. More people carry their lists, hoping the deepest items will wait or that recording tasks means their day is due and sure to arrive. And some people don’t make lists, pushed along by a need to do and do and attending to whatever speaks.

Some mornings are restless because you spent the night at work. Though memories of your dreams may lie like puddles from a missed storm, you know some torrent passed. You’ve been busy. The day begins with that feeling and continues from it, awaiting action and demanding movement toward shifting destinations according to shifting motivations.

“OCD” is now a casual term, a label for anything that seems excessively thorough or painstaking. “Can you say ‘OCD’?” someone asks. How-true, how-true, listeners laugh and nod. For those with the condition, life must seem very different. They return to the present to find themselves washing their hands again or placing items on a table just so. They discover they can’t leave the house because their inventory of gestures can’t be checked adequately. They touch and they turn and they look and they bend and they adjust and they begin again and they remain trapped, as if some dimly remembered spell lurked just in shadow. Another invitation might draw it out to open the lock at last.

Imagine a new coin resting on the muddy bottom of a pond. The shallow water allows the sun to glint from the coin. Imagine it’s gold. You reach into the water to retrieve it—even if it isn’t yours, you want to see it and hold it because it’s beautiful. Yet, when you reach, silt stirs and the water clouds. The coin disappears so no amount of groping finds it. The coin slips deeper into the pond bed, and now not even waiting for water to settle will discover it.

Essays begin with searching. The word “essay” means to try or attempt, and writing one is mining, pursuing veins through rock, trying—with only imagination—to recreate the shape of what’s valuable amid what’s not. All of it is solid, all dark, all hidden.

Truly abetting frustrations never die because they aren’t in resolutions. They are in desire deeper and broader than specific outcomes. Paradoxically, getting what you want can be the worst outcome, as it turns you toward new goals and swells expectations.

Writers do finish. They determine they cannot pick up pens again, throw their hands in the air and cry “Enough.” Maybe they succeed in finding quiet at last or reach some truce with need and sit, Buddha-like, surveying desire as it were an obsidian block that only exists. You want to believe that moment will arrive, but who knows? Who looks into another mind, and why couldn’t that thought, like any other, be wishful? In any case, how do you become Buddha? Buddha couldn’t really say.

The sun angles along the floor and reveals the surface isn’t clean after all. It’s a crash site strewn with dropped crumbs, unnoticed spills, and dust. The sun will climb, and the floor will appear clean again. You will know it’s not.

When Romeo tells Benvolio about loving Rosaline, Benvolio advises him not to think of her. Romeo replies, “Oh teach me not to think.” As is Shakespeare’s way, he says everything in one phrase every author wants to equal. You have to wonder at human beings’ faith in thought despite all evidence thought is futile. When does it end? When does satisfaction come?

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50 Sentence Story

pixars-rules-of-storytelling-finishThis story is based on an assignment I thought of giving my creative writing class and wanted to try myself first. I made fifty rules, and determined which five I would have to follow by using a random number generator. Some were technical and some were more comprehensive, but one rule I envisioned everyone following was only being allowed 50 sentences. I still haven’t decided if I will use the assignment or not—it seemed hard—but here are the five rules I ended up with.

  • Write at least eight sentences of four words or less
  • Include dialogue
  • Use at least one flashback.
  • Talk about storytelling as well as the story
  • Produce a sad ending

Here is the story I wrote:

1. He knew what was in the boxes before anyone opened them.

2. He just knew, and not by peeking if that’s what you think.

3. Leon wasn’t the sort of person to peek, and, if you met him, you’d sense that in him.

4. No magic influenced his knowing either—at least, none he accepted—but, perhaps that’s the way with magic, it only seems extraordinary to others, never to you.

5. Once, when he was a boy, his uncle produced a nickel from his nose.

6. That old trick.

7. And he “Oohed,” and delighted in the nickel’s delivery.

8. He thought it magic because from nothing came something.

9. His own magic appeared solid from the start, truth he understood without doubt or self-consciousness the way you know a pen is in your chest pocket or you’re wearing shoes.

10. Magic would be mistaking those facts, nothing where you expected something.

11. Sometimes Leon hoped for that sort of magic, desperately trying to believe himself wrong.

12. You might not like knowing either.

13. Before he could restrain himself, Leon announced, “That is a baby blanket, that’s a sponge to use to bathe the baby, that’s a chair that hangs from a door frame, and the big gift is a wind-up swinging chair.”

14. He wasn’t crowing or sneering but said each flatly and factually.

15. But the others laughed, thinking he meant to speed things along.

16. You can imagine how his wife Anna felt.

17. She’d been skeptical about this couples’ baby shower in the first place, and now this.

18. She scowled.

19. “Leon!”

20. She slapped his thigh.

21. Her half-smile was forced and said, “We’ll discuss this later!”

22. And the other guests read her signals, making noises indicating their response.

23. The men howled and the women scolded.

24. You might wish their reactions were less sexist, but they weren’t.

25. Most moments speak to what you want, release or suspense.

26. You don’t have as much control as you think.

27. Release or suspense.

28. Those are the two choices, at least to everyone but Leon, who knew.

29. Leon neither smiled nor frowned.

30. Anna was right he wanted to be finished.

31. He did not want to be there and didn’t want to realize what others couldn’t.

32. As for the givers, they accepted his knowing their gift, but guessing the others surprised them.

33. When Anna opened the third gift, a strange stillness filled the room.

34. The couples glanced at each other at first, then one of Leon’s buddies said, “How’d you know? Everything was wrapped.”

35. Maybe this moment, the moment before his answer, is more critical to you than to them because you see possibilities line up.

36. He can tell the truth and be disbelieved.

37. He can come up with a covering lie like, “We’ve done so much baby shopping lately, I recognized the shapes.”

38. He could be mysterious, smile, and say, “I just knew.”

39. Arching and unarching his eyebrows would be useful in that case.

40. His eyes dropped into his lap instead and then—shocking to them all—tears dropped after them.

41. Why was he crying?

42. Anna asked, “What’s wrong, honey?”

43. The ensuing silence meant something to them all—and maybe to you—but it’s hard to say what.

44. When you invent something, you have an out.

45. You can edit and revise, rewrite and repair.

46. Nothing is truly known.

47. Leon didn’t look up.

48. Though his voice was thick with weeping, he spoke clearly.

49. “They’ll be no baby,” he said, “It won’t make it.”

50. You see, he knew what was inside her too.

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Thoreau Down

thoreauA friend who reads this blog said, “You talk about Thoreau a lot,” and then added, “too much.” A little Thoreau suffices for most people. They disapprove of his allusions, metaphors, twisted inversions, deep ironies. Or they can’t stand how stridently he disapproves. Or they complain how irrelevant he was to his own time, how much more irrelevant now. To those who damn him entirely, he’s a crank seeking a version of humanity that has never, and will never, exist.

Next week I’m teaching an alternative class at my school called “Thoreau Down” and will be immersed in Thoreau. Part of the class is to give up television, iPods, computers, and phones, and so, between Monday and Friday, I’ll be unplugged from electronic media entirely. My next post will appear on its own, but I won’t be checking stats or reading comments. No email, no Facebook, no Netflix, no online news or gossip, no listless TV.

Believe me, I don’t worship Thoreau the way my friend thinks, but I do admire him as an artist. Thoreau says, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” To me, he finger paints with life. In rejecting received wisdom and convention, he experiences and assesses everything anew, weighs it, shakes it, scrutinizes it to determine its worth. “I know of no more encouraging fact,” he says, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”

My partner teacher and I aren’t proselytizing for Thoreau. We don’t want students to accept his solutions any more than he accepted others’ because, after all, if authority needs questioning, his needs questioning too. We just want them to study which “needs” may be proffered by advertising, tradition, and all the other manifestations of “the usual.” We hope, for a school week at least, to make them “front” their own essentials and discover what’s integral to life and what’s embellishment. There are possibilities they’re too busy or blinded by circumstance or prevailing opinion to see. Those who accept the challenge of shedding technology—some will shirk, it’s a given—may discover currents in life previously invisible to them, arcing through air and looping around trees, weeds, and their feet.

When I describe this project to colleagues, they often ask, “Yes, but what will you do?” We have them every day from 9 until 3.

When they enter the classroom on Monday, they’ll find it stripped entirely of furniture, with just a blue masking tape rectangle in the exact dimensions of Thoreau’s original cabin. That space they’ll be expected to transform into a cabin somehow. Each will receive $28.12.5 (the amount Thoreau spent building his cabin) to cover their lunches for a week. We will obviously read a lot from the book and study its particulars, but we’ll also read the thinking of authors after Thoreau, look at statistics about American consumption, engage in outdoor activities designed to reawaken their senses, examine developing technology critically for what it will add and take away, put conventional wisdom to the test, apply Thoreau’s thinking to contemporary scenarios, and entertain visitors who will address aspects of Thoreau and/or discuss their lives in light of his ideas. It will be a full week.

We also expect to argue. Thoreau wanted to be a provocateur and, if he’s sometimes a bit too vociferous, he’d say it’s because we’re too complacent. He raises his volume to overcome our noise, and I accept that. Some of the students, however, may think they’re being shouted down, and I pray I can watch their defensiveness gather without mine rising to meet it. My greatest service to them will be remaining calm, letting them make of his ideas what they can, assuring only they fully understand him, his richest implications.

In the introduction to the edition of Walden we’ll be using, Bill McKibben credits Thoreau with asking two main questions, “How much is enough?” and “How do I know what I want?” Even as McKibben addresses the first, he creates more questions:

If “How much is enough?” is the subversive question for the consumer society, “How can I hear my own heart?” is the key assault of the Information Age. How do I know what I want? What is my true desire?

If I can take them one half-step toward answers and living deliberately, I will have accomplished something—both for them and me.

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