Monthly Archives: August 2014

No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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Filed under Ambition, America, Anger, Arguments, Brave New World, Dissent, Essays, Grief, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Worry

Passing Strange

sun-shining-through-the-trees-2179-1920x1080More fiction…

It was a forest of matchsticks, not literally but in the spent feeling of it, which he suspected came more from him than the place. After they’d eaten, he’d said he’d go for a walk and left before anyone volunteered to join him. The others were laughing about one of her stories when the screen door slapped behind him. The sun just approached the horizon, its rays taking the longest path to his face and shining with faint attention. He walked into it and then away from it on a twisting course, half squinting, un-squinting.

She didn’t love him, he felt that now. Nothing she’d said told him so, but her gaze bounced off him. Once they’d engaged eyes, but this visit felt oblique. She guided his best friend and his best friend’s wife with her hand at their elbows, navigated them about the kitchen, dipping in and out of zones set aside to chop and assemble. He watched. She offered him a role but in her sergeant’s voice. Affection found no place. Back in his apartment, she spoke still more instructively, and this public echo seemed painful, hurtful.

Likely it was not. He told himself so as he found his direction. The wood’s hints of wear offered many choices, each turning toward or away from a destination.

They’d spoken about not coming. “They’re my friends,” he’d said.

“It’s okay,” she answered. That was right.

Since they met, he’d hardly shut up. He spent every moment carrying future conversations, amassing observations and editing for wit. He knew exactly where she might laugh, the twist that would move her to touch him, to kiss him.

Who could say when he stopped being right? If he was right—sometimes he imagined the same light in her he’d seen before. He’d wanted to talk about it, but time plowed through every impulse. He always lagged just behind.

He’d thought of asking if she loved him, but he felt it forbidden territory. His closest approach was to encircle her after lovemaking as if he meant to absorb her like a part of himself. She sighed. He wondered what that meant—relief, contentment, resignation?

Whatever it was, he couldn’t know if it was her or him, this remote spot or his own remoteness. Though evening was well underway, heat lingered between trees, the last light tangled as between the teeth of a brush.

Ahead, the pale sky promised the openness of the lake, the familiar cabin. Even from there, he could hear voices, and he emerged with familiar dread. Birds quieted now, or he stopped listening. The wind wheeled in new directions. He knew he had to go in.

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Filed under Anxiety, Desire, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Grief, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Place, Rationalizations, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Worry

School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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Filed under Aging, America, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Place, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Teaching, Thoughts, Time, Uncategorized, Work

Just As

readingFor me, the most challenging aspect of fiction is dialogue—conversation that is not quite real, elevated and efficient and yet believable, brilliantly pointed but never clever, the sound of the last hour and still somehow special.

You can find plenty of advice on how to write dialogue, and some of it is quite good. As in most writing matters, however, nothing substitutes for practice. Below, you’ll find practice. Having read many samples of what’s online about dialogue, here’s what I’ve done:

“Some things can’t be called ‘unexpected’ because they’re never expected.”

“What?”

Neither looked up from their reading.

“Here’s a person talking about an unexpected phone call, but how often do you expect one? That’s why phones ring, right?”

“Never thought about it.”

“It’s like—“

She glanced up to discover him facing the page, gesticulating, mixing the air with his one free hand in that familiar way.

“Like the weather. We’re having unexpected weather because it’s August and cool, but weather itself is always changing, so you don’t routinely think of weather as expected or unexpected. The nature of weather is to be changeable.”

“Why does it matter whether a phone call—or weather—is expected or unexpected?”

“That’s exactly my point. It doesn’t. People are always anticipating what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, and if it doesn’t match what we think, well…”

She’d looked away because he never returned her regard. His unfinished sentence lay between them like severed snakes.

“Well?” she said.

“Well, what happened to ‘Expect the unexpected’? Everyone is always planning and scheming. Humans never account for some supposed mishap being exactly what should happen. Or, if it shouldn’t happen, that it’s completely reasonable thing to happen.”

“Humans?

“Don’t say ‘which humans?’ You always say that.”

“You always generalize.”

“What else can I do? It drives me crazy people don’t learn. They just do the same stupid shit over and over.”

She snapped her book shut, and the noise alerted him to look up, his reading glasses reflecting her across the table, his gray eyes above them.

“Seems like you’d learn to expect that,” she said.

“Now you’re just being clever.”

He closed his book and pushed it to a spot between them.

“No,” she said, “you’re being clever. As usual. People do what they do. Deal with it.”

“I don’t have to approve.”

“No you don’t.”

His body tensed as if he meant to stand, but he didn’t. He stayed at the table, eying her.

“Because you never do approve,” she said, “just go on and on about stuff that won’t change, ever.”

He relaxed into his seat again, and a smile started to form on his lips.

“Don’t say it.”

“You don’t know what I’m going to say.”

“I don’t care what you’re going to say. There’s a difference.”

They held the silence between them a few more seconds, then pulled their books toward them, found their places, and began reading again.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Arguments, Dialogue, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Play, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

0The technical meaning of the word “feedback” doesn’t exactly the match its colloquial meaning. In acoustics, feedback is sound doubling back, fuzz reverberating in dammed sound waves. Whereas, when teachers or other evaluators use “feedback,” they mean to say something new, something missed or unnoticed. In sound, feedback is a sort of echo. Teaching feedback says, “Here’s what you’re haven’t done… and should.”

Not everyone is good at receiving feedback. A teacher points out a glaring error, and suddenly the student’s competence is being questioned. The student’s face clouds. Maybe tears start. The tone of critique can make a big difference, and many teachers rely on “This work” over “You” because they want to emphasize the process over its author. They wish to make feedback an intellectual process, and, as long as any issue is repairable, it’s no reflection on the person who made the mistake. A student who can always improve his or her work—these teachers believe—receives even brutal critique as a ratification of their ability and capacity for improvement.

Yet how students respond to feedback often rests more with their personalities than how they’re criticized. Someone burned before may not want to go near any stove, and someone with an insecure sense of self might be hypersensitive to even the mildest threat. Teachers often have to guess which category this individual is in and how he or she might respond. In other words, they need to know students. Sometimes that’s impossible, and yet, paradoxically, teaching means focusing not exclusively on work  but on the workers’ feelings and investment.

And as the consequence of the work increases, the gravity of criticism grows. Discuss “the essay” with a student five days before the due date, and he or she might respond positively and hopefully. The day before the due date, some measure of reassurance may be necessary, not just “These repairs are doable” but “YOU can do these repairs.”

Perhaps all work is personal work, inseparable from the person who does it.

Bosses frequently neglect “You can do it” because, after all, employees are compensated for good work. It’s required. What’s more, a boss may think only producing matters. Though studies confirm over and over that output rises when a manager takes interest in developing skills and a worker feels valued and important, concern for employees as people seems too messy, time consuming, and expensive. It’s easier to bypass the worker and stress the work. Many businesses use feedback exclusively to cull people they deem ineffective. In that case, “evaluation” or “adjudication” might be more honest. In a time of labor surplus, employers are much more interested in finding the right person for a job than helping someone learn how to do the job right.

To a lesser extent, the same issue arises in schools when those giving feedback have more concern for assessment than education. From that perspective, feedback justifies a grade instead of improving either the academic work or the capacities of the student. As in many workplaces, some teachers hope to keep the process of “managing” students clean by stressing the product. They wish to avoid entangling themselves in the idiosyncratic.

When the academic work is central, teaching is supposed to result in the best work possible, and any “feedback” that accomplishes that end, including threats, sarcasm, and personal insults, becomes permissible.

The dilemma is that, here too, personality matters in ways challenging to acknowledge. Teachers (and bosses) aren’t immune to insecurity either and, whether consciously or unconsciously, may express those insecurities in petty authority. An impersonal process has the advantage of protecting them from examining their own motives, even if giving particularly cold or harsh feedback fulfills only a need to believe in their own competence and significance.

As a term and a concept and a practice, feedback is challenging. In the end, however, its acoustic meaning may reflect most on the way people use the word. If feedback labels the need for evaluators to double back and evaluate themselves and their motives, perhaps it’s the right word.

But if the ultimate purpose is progress, growing productivity and confidence, then maybe the word is wrong. Proper feedback doesn’t feed back at all but reaches receivers through careful sensitivity to who’s listening and what they can hear well. It speaks without echo or distortion.

 

 

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Filed under America, Carol Dweck, Criticism, Desire, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Feedback, Grading, High School Teaching, Identity, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Words, Work

The Cyber-Me

imagesLast Christmas, idly thinking about artificial trees, I did some online screen shopping. Now artificial trees stalk me. Google, Facebook, and my email sites remind me, “Hey, what about us fake trees? Remember us?”

To watch any video on YouTube, I must first pass through a forest of phony balsam and syrupy sentimental music… at least until “SKIP AD” appears.

While no one is invading my privacy exactly, it makes me wonder what I am to the internet, what identity cyberbots have decided upon. They may know I’m male. They might have triangulated my investigation of recliners (on my mother’s behalf), a lingering visit to mental exercise site, and my interest in the death of a certain vintage of television celebrities in order to approximate my age. Perhaps they know I buy less fashionable jeans and shoes. They certainly seem to peg me as “Wealth management material” (though I have no wealth) and “Democrat” (though I’m closer to Marxist), and—based on what’s proffered by “Stumble Upon”—I’m an aesthete (though really sometimes I’m so tired I only want to look at the pictures).

Part of me wants to cry out, “Hey, you don’t know me!” but the internet clearly isn’t taking so personal an interest. It means to sell, and every iota of evidence contributes to a vision of me as a consumer.

Am I only a consumer? I want to say “no” but probably “yes.” Though I wish to be more than I buy, the internet—and maybe our society as a whole—defines “buying” so broadly it encompasses more than cash. It doesn’t take much to be a marketer these days, and, given the effort marketers apply to their tasks, some meaning we’d like to deny resides in our classification as mostly this or mostly that. We hope to be more than we use, but—maybe not today or tomorrow and for the rest of our lives—we chase identity into cash.

Some years ago, I read a science fiction novel called Feed, and nearly every character in the book accepted a brain-internet interface to enhance their everyday experience. They sought it. They accepted every absurd intrusion—say “Coke” five times in the next five minutes and we will give you a virtual coupon for a six pack!—not to be left out or, more accurately, to take their place in some group, any group. No one wanted to be solitary.

A main character, the child of hippy parents, didn’t accept the feed until her adolescence and, even then, chose to goof on commercial forces by staring overlong at farm equipment. Her reward was the same as mine, a nearly perpetual barrage from predators bent on making her interest material.

I’m feeling along a dark wall in search of a way out, but perhaps we can escape our time no more than a serf or a slave might. I wish for the courage to resist, but my resistance might be subject to interpretation too. I’d become part of a group left out, and, surely, there’s something to be sold to them.

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On Will

spockWhen I first watched Star Trek, Spock affected me most. Captain Kirk was bolder, Scotty more resourceful, Bones more lovable, but Spock’s cool calm made him enviable. At the time, his logic was my ideal, and he sticks with me still.

In one episode, “Amok Time,” Spock experiences all adolescence in a fortnight—pon farr, a rage of hormones so intense that it floods him with lethal levels of adrenaline. The episode opens with Spock throwing Nurse Chapell’s offering of soup against a hallway wall. He composes himself long enough to request a leave of absence to visit Vulcan but can’t say why. Kirk agrees, then, when diplomacy moves Starfleet to divert the ship to another planet, Spock must admit his problem is “biology,” a need to mate as powerful as a salmon’s swim upstream. He says “biology” with such shame it’s clear he wants nothing to do with inconvenient bodily processes, emotion, or expressions of personal desire.

The first time I saw the episode, that’s what I wanted too, complete control over longing, the power to suppress every impulse. Spock tells Kirk that pon farr, “Stips our minds from us, brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization.” My veneer has never been glued down especially well and, back then, it kept getting ripped away by innocent teasing, by precipitous attachments to girls who never liked me enough, by thundering anger and sudden unaccountable tears. Even in pon farr ‘s throes, Spock remains articulate and controlled, exactly the sort of adolescence I sought.

That yearning for self-regulation has hardly left me. Even now, I engage in daily staring contests with acts that require self-discipline—willing myself to work out, to count calories, to write in my journal and sketch, to work on my next blog post, to create a to-do list each morning I’ll pursue all day. None of it will abide looking away. Spock never blinks, and if I do, some lazy, inconvenient, momentary urge wins over will. And, being less than what I want to be, I lose.

In “Amok Time,” Spock hopes to be spared his biology but, in real life, who can truly avoid feeling? My negotiations with emotion seem melodramatic, but the issue can’t be uncommon. I’ve learned, as Spock does, “The ancient drives are too strong. Eventually they catch up with us. We are driven by forces we cannot control.”

“It would be illogical to protest against our natures,” he tells Nurse Chapell.

I know that—and know how ridiculous it is to look to Star Trek for adolescent survival strategies—but, at that time, everything in my family felt like a contest to me. If you idly balanced a yardstick on your index finger, someone could do it longer. Someone could hide in a smaller space for more minutes or think of another name that began with B or present some trivia you didn’t know or ride a bike around the block faster. I obsessed over being or doing just one thing better than my siblings.

As I was a volatile child, the contests involving self-regulation had the greatest stakes—who could finish an ice cream cone last or win a game of “The next one to speak is a monkey for a week.” When an advertisement for Lays Potato Chips claimed no one could eat just one, I watched my family consume the whole bag before I crowed victory, my uneaten chip in my palm under the table. I counted licks of a Tootsie Pop without biting it… many times. I meant never to indicate anger or disappointment. Inevitably, I failed. So I tried harder.

My days repeat (and repeat) the age-old contest between stoicism and hedonism, debates over whether life’s purpose is nobility or pleasure. Most people let pleasure win, which goads me on. No one will regard me as lax or accuse me of choosing the easy way by going with the crowd, giving in, or giving up

Something won’t surrender—I’m determined, productive, diligent, ruminative, and not particularly happy. It hasn’t made me particularly any emotion. Most days I just tire and can’t push my sled anymore. It’s quite heavy and lacks dogs, nice slippery spots, and hills to coast down. It’s a blocking sled, really.

Instead I worry time has spent my inner Spock. My handwriting shows its age. The arches of n, h, and m have melted, the loops of o, p, e, d, and b are closed to daylight, and the lifts between letters drag, tripping at each attempt to leap another height. Once I took pride in writing neatly, fluently, and legibly. Penmanship was like any art—any activity—and required practice of the right sort, the kind that includes consistent effort and willful vigilance, commitment to do more than good-enough.

Though I like to believe I’ve abandoned Spock, scanning my handwriting reveals haste and capitulation to fatigue and utility. I can make-out what I’ve written—it hasn’t come to that yet!—but I can’t stand to look. “I used to try harder,” I say, “where has my discipline gone?”

The conclusion of “Amok Time” seems laughable now, typically Star Trek, with its philosophical overtones drowned by gaudy sets, Dutch angles, transparent stunt-double combat, loud soundtrack music, and a deus ex machina. Spock survives his pon farr, forms another tie with Kirk, and gets a smile out of it. The madness of Spock’s amok time, Bones says, may be “The price [Vulcans] pay for having no emotions the rest of the time.” While that certainly makes sense, the melodrama seems staged. Deadened feelings, numb routines, amplified editing and denial are just as likely costs as explosive outbursts.

My experience tells me so. Even now, Spock is at my shoulder whispering to buck up, toughen up, and shut up and, this late in the series, who could exorcise him?

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Rationalizations, Spock, Star Trek, Thoughts, Time, Tributes, Worry