Category Archives: Modern Life

Dear World…

grandpa-simpsonLet me tell you about my embarrassing grandpa—not my actual grandfather because both real ones died before I remember, but the metaphoric grandpa you may recognize.

Grandpa expresses himself less nimbly than he once did. He isn’t the silver-tongued devil who swept my grandmother away, though in his imagination he remains vital and even sexy. In fact, as my grandpa’s store of words empties year by year, he has more to say. He has little governor—his brake pads malfunction regularly. A mind that once listened now bulls in, crowding every room with ambling and clichéd speeches about hard-tested wisdom, a right way of seeing and thinking born of ossified and unassailable memory and experience.

Listeners easily place his perspectives in more ignorant—he says “innocent”—times when consciousness-raising didn’t merit a name. The closest he comes to apologizing for diminishing others is excusing himself for coming up in another era. He loves to point out how much better we got along when we didn’t question the way things are. He pines for those days and wonders out loud why they can’t come back.

Don’t try to talk to my grandpa about how bad the good old days were. He may wait his turn to speak, but he will respond to the last thing you said as if it were the only thing you said. More likely, he will dismiss you as naïve. Grandpa’s learning years are over. He knows it’s easier to reinforce his ideas than to build new ones, and he can easily find all the information (or misinformation) he needs to support his beliefs. He only has to face the world in aggregate. The minute and intimate and human effect of any action is moot.

So please don’t bring up Grandpa’s neighbors. Too many of them have moved in, he carps, and ruined his nostalgic notion of unity and solidarity. Never mind that these new neighbors retrieve his grill cover when the wind carries it away or that they shovel snow from his walk along with their own. Never mind that they listen politely as he spews vitriol on the block party. He won’t acknowledge how grateful they are or how they’d rather leave him alone than impose. Their presence, he figures, will only attract more like them. Just to discourage new arrivals, he’d happily evict them.

My grandpa has revised his past to flatter his self-image. He remembers hard work and not luck, gumption and not circumstance, shrewdness and not his head start. He can’t fathom why everyone can’t be (and shouldn’t be) like him, and he never apologizes for his good fortune. Or shares. He won’t hand out what hasn’t been earned, and everything he and friends possess has been earned. The rest, apparently, are takers.

Apologies in general are not my grandpa’s thing. He is past considering other people’s feelings. He will tell you it’s natural he comes first and has reached an age and stature when regret is superfluous. He is exceptional, exempt from regret.

The appalling stuff Grandpa says—the foul words, the hate-filled language, the crude descriptions, the epithets—sometimes make people titter. Because basic social decency demands you respect him, his vile attitudes at times sound humorous, almost like a five-year-old stringing curse words together. He can’t really mean it, you tell yourself, and, as long as he doesn’t enact his pronouncements, he’s a harmless coot. He won’t be around too much more time, you repeat. That faith becomes consolation and excuse.

Occasionally my grandpa rouses the will to play nice, showing glimpses of his former civility. I’m told those moments should make me happy, make me accept him as my elder. But the worst aspect of my grandpa is that I must accept him. The first-person possessive pronoun “my” unites us. What I hate in him comes from our common stock. The same nation made us, and his blood is mine. Yet World, you need to know—by “embarrassing,” I mean “shameful.” I cannot unmake my grandpa or deny him. I can, however, do what he can’t. I’m sorry and determined not to become him.

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Drive Time

retirement-age-pension-fund-savings-886939Every day, almost every hour, I imagine being a sought-after editor, a teacher’s teacher, a designer for Crate and Barrel pillows and tablecloths, a podcaster, a muralist, an educational theorist and consultant, a freelance writer specializing in personal essays, a highly-paid fine artist. I could add masters athlete, but my body says, “no.”

My circumstances fuel these fantasies. When you reach a certain age, people ask, “When will you retire?” Then they ask, “What will you do then?”

I don’t know and blame our society’s new understanding of the word “retirement.” The dictionary says retirement is “leaving one’s job and ceasing to work,” but we’ve revised the concept. Where it used to entail traveling, gardening, doing crosswords, and just bemusedly (and charmingly) puttering about, now it means “second acts,” “rewiring,” and “side hustles.”

The impulse to stay vital makes sense. “The best way to stay on a bicycle,” a friend reminds me over and over, “is to keep peddling.” And I like completing tasks, helping out, creating what did not exist before I conceived it. I love being productive. What seems different now, however, is the vision of a post-work life I’ve absorbed, that, if I’m ready to cease teaching, I need to find something essential to my being and remunerative, preferably something I always dreamed of doing yet never did. I so easily confuse what I might do and what I should have done before now.

Like that other life-redefining moment—college—retirement isn’t cheap, but, unlike college, you can’t borrow for it, which may be what motivates people to remain in their jobs as long as they can. The pension era has passed. In 2002, the average age at which Americans expected to retire was 63. Now it’s 66. If Medicare fades away, we may end up working until we can work no longer, but, even now, if you haven’t saved for idleness, you can’t afford it.

If you have saved, you might still feel compelled to work. Books and articles claim savings justify bold ventures and alternative identities you’ve had to abandon. Like a professional athlete whose playing days are over, your situation is a golden opportunity to remake yourself. You can go back to school or start working in another industry or throw yourself into entrepreneurship… never mind that few places want to admit or to hire or to finance someone of your “experience.”

The “tired” part of “retired” no longer carries much weight. I confess, sometimes every fantasy appears more interesting than continuing down the same road, yet the prospect of starting over terrifies me enough to keep me on the job. My own father received his last paycheck the day after he died. Part of me hungers for an old-fashioned, more traditional retirement, the one where I see a lot of movies and feed the ducks in the park. What if I relearn the sidestroke or take up painting bad watercolors that don’t yield a dime? I’m not talking about idleness, I promise. Can’t my post-work life be busy without being stressful? Is that acceptable?

My school contracts with a service providing substitutes on short notice, and we see a parade of retired teachers pass through. A few don’t have laptops, don’t know how to attach or un-attach documents, and absent-mindedly forget to collect what we ask, but many are vibrant and capable, enjoying students as much as they ever did but going home without papers or parent phone calls to return. They earn nearly nothing—I’ve looked into it—except the satisfaction of putting in a decent day’s work.

There’s plenty of productivity left in me, and I could be someone’s new model employee, but is it so terrible to rest my drive and contribute what I can?

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About Pursuit

57a101e3c724f.imageEvery year, in each of my classes, I try at least one of the assignments I give. My post today is my attempt at a “Hybrid Essay,” an essay I assigned to my American literature class that mixes critical and personal attention to a text, in this case Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Though I’m slightly over the word count (300-600 words), I wanted to accomplish what I ask of my students, that they make their own encounter with the text the central and explicit subject. I’m asking them what the book makes them think about.

I’ve made some adjustments for a more general audience, and the page numbers refer to the hardback edition.

Midway through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the main character, the runaway slave Cora, asks about the word “ravening.” She encounters it in a North Carolina attic, in the Bible loaned her to practice reading while she awaits a chance to escape again. Martin Wells, her savior and captor, can’t define the word at first, but a few pages later, as Cora urges action, Martin reports, seemingly out of the blue, “Ravening—I think it means very hungry” (178). It means more. Its full definition refers to animals’ ferocious hunger as they seek prey. In the context of the moment, Martin recalls “ravening” as he thinks about Night Raiders, Whitehead’s version of the KKK. “The boys,” he says, “will be hungry for a souvenir” (178). In the context of the novel—and in the context of the issue of slavery and in the context of American life—“ravening” may be a key to our character.

I use “our” deliberately. Dress it up as we will, all Americans seem touched by desperate ambition. Our ravening curiosity brought us to the moon, and our ravening desire created global business and industry. Our ravening idealism believed we might create a utopia where all people are endowed with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—and life, and liberty.

The trouble begins with pursuit. In Underground Railroad, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway’s fascination with the “American Imperative” puts pursuit at the center of American life. He defines it as “the divine thread connecting all human behavior—if you can keep it, it is yours” (80). Something in us, some hunting impulse, believes in ambition even when its object is dubiously valuable and dubiously just.

Americans aren’t unique in their ambitions, but they may be the most conspicuously unapologetic about them. Ridgeway can’t resist bringing God into the American Imperative. The spirit that carried us to the new continent, he says, called us “to conquer and build and civilize,” and also “destroy what needs to be destroyed” (221). Charitably, he includes the will to “lift up the lesser races,” but adds “If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate” (222). All this ravening is, he suggests, “Our destiny by divine prescription” (222).

Ridgeway is a villain, and Whitehead can’t mean him to be an American Everyman. Yet his dark version of American ambition needs to be heard and understood as an inalienable American value. Ridgeway dies extolling his rectitude. “The American imperative is a splendid thing,” he sputters, “a shining beacon… born of necessity and virtue” (303). That label “beacon” sees the American Imperative as a signal aim—up on that City on the Hill—a virtue worth pursuing unquestioningly. Like many Americans, Ridgeway’s “greed is good” mentality places the side effect of progress ahead of primary effects like subjugation and destruction.

Alexis De Tocqueville believed Americans ought to amend “self-interest” with “rightly understood,” the comprehension that desires shouldn’t trammel or prevent others’ desires. Most of us know our aspirations are common. Whitehead goes further to create characters who sacrifice their desires. Cora lists them as “People she had loved, people who had helped her”: the Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher (215). They seek to control what others are controlled by.

Trouble, Whitehead knows, comes from regarding documents like the Declaration of Independence as good and only good or bad and only bad. We must remember the Declaration did nothing to curb belief in slavery as natural or divinely ordained. Though we aren’t slavers anymore, the impulse to rationalize—and to fabricate—in order to justify personal advantage remains. We want to call ambition “the American Dream,” but Whitehead suggests we need to wake up and see its context. “The Declaration is like a map,” his Indiana teacher Georgina says, “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself” (240). We can’t become so ravenous we don’t continually test our map’s accuracy and limits.

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On Thanks

1200People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough. I catch their hints and know they’re right, but agreeing doesn’t get me far.

Cultivating gratitude receives considerable attention in cognitive therapy’s efforts to confront negative thoughts and amend counterproductive behavior. You change the way you act in order to change the way you feel, and one prescription is ending each day with thanks—name five things that went well today or acknowledge a few moments that made you appreciate yourself and the people who love you.

Sounds good. I’m not oblivious enough to miss my advantages. Living in Chicago, I walk past desperate homeless every day. I see the tired, three-job, overworked souls slumped in L seats. I recognize my comforts, the safe and appreciative place I work and the warm and welcoming place I live. My worries, I know, hardly compare. I ought to be grateful and—mostly—am.

I’m not sure why affirmations rarely work for me. Intellectually, they make sense, but my relatively good health, relatively good pay, and relatively good emotions don’t fill me up. Try as I might, satisfaction feels somehow false. Doing what a cognitive therapist asks feels like prayer from memorization rather than faith, an act.

Even Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gratitude, exudes desire—company, decor, celebration, and food—ultimately unsated by the most extreme excess. Like the rest of the U.S., it seems, I’m never sure how much is enough. With potential continually thrown in my face, the day ends without fulfilling its promise. Part of me remains empty and insatiable. Do I have higher hopes than can be fulfilled?

The Buddhist in me says, “Live now,” the corporate advertising machine says “Buy.” I fantasize sometimes about dire circumstances, the lower limit of what’s essential, what few things might actually be necessary for happiness—a good bowl of oatmeal, a working pen, a thoughtful companion, a book I relish rereading. Yet little in this world helps me discover what I must have… yet.

Perhaps some poverty ahead will help me decide. For now, I’ll join the chorus of gratitude, if only half-heartedly. For all my doubts, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, the least acquisitive of all the acquisitive holidays. I only wish to mean it more, to realize emotionally what I recognize rationally, to feel what I know—that I am indeed lucky.

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Where I Am

3849820311_f5668a3d0c_oI found an old blog post of unexplored openings and decided to try one…

Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat. It includes the obvious (un-cracked crabs), the tedious (pumpkin seeds), the tragic (barely cooked stir-fry), and the sneaky (those half-exploded kernels at the bottom of a bag of movie popcorn).

Each addition—and conceiving of such a list at all—is symptomatic of a new attitude creeping into my life. It’s best summarized by a reply I could make seven or eight times a day:

“Really… again?”

I accept the part of my reaction that comes of aging. I don’t need to attend another “team meeting” or to compile another list of professional goals (with action plans) or to create another report describing the stultifying details of my extraordinarily ordinary task-laden job. But the problem is, unfortunately, bigger than exhaustion.

Once, I called staying power my chief strength. So great was my tolerance for minutiae that I believed I might sort a fifty-pound sack of mixed beans without complaint. I might agree to write the Gettysburg Address, circular fashion, around a half stick of chalk, just for fun. I could outline, then re-outline darker, the tiniest interstices of a child’s scribble. I’d take notes when the business manager of another school described the changed provisions of their health plan.

Now I sigh. I sigh so much that my officemates peek around the walls of their cubicles to ask, “Is everything alright?” What I hear them saying is, “Enough with the sighing, already,” or “Jesus, can’t you just get on with it?” I half-answer, tired of my reply before I reach the end.

As a teacher, I’m traveling a loop of familiarity. I picture riding a miniature train in my youth in Texas, the San Antonio Brackenridge Zoo train, folded at the hip and crying not from motion sickness but from pure ennui. I picture my son in the bouncy chair callipered to the lintel of dining room door, joyous for two minutes and then lolling, weeping, that he might be freed.

I’m not sure I have the will to finish this post.

Last week, my department chair asked me to answer questions about where I am in my courses and what I hope to accomplish before semester’s end. I thought, “I want to get there.” More, I want to get to someplace else, turn to some new and fresh task. What I call exhaustion is really desire for some new aim to target.

My age makes it easy to say little is left, but, really, so much remains unexplored. Those foods that challenge me need not defeat me. I may discover more laborious matters to chew, but I can embrace undercooked broccoli if I can believe in novelty. Just planning another life, and not sighing, would be a start.

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What—Me Worry?

CL50915When the person likely to be the next U.S. Senate Environmental Committee chair wrote a book called The Great Hoax denying global climate change, maybe it’s time to address a new strain of anti-intellectualism… delusion.

American ambivalence about intellect isn’t new. From the beginning Americans have favored plain-speech and uncomplicated thinking. They’ve always believed in simple answers to every complex problem. Trusting in fresh perspectives, putting aside received truths to encounter issues anew, that produces answers. The utopian “City on the Hill” faith in the possibility of starting over created the constitution.

However, the founding fathers, for all their flaws, were no dummies. They were subtle men whose elegant (and inelegant) solutions arose from rumination, deliberation, persuasion, and resourcefulness. They embraced complexity and kept up with the political science and regular science of their day.

They did not, as some do now, solve problems by denying they exist and vilifying any “overthinker” or “alarmist” who looks too closely.

Social scientists can offer decades of research on interdependent causes of poverty, and still some Americans cut through “all the crap” with the real truth—that some people don’t take advantage of opportunity. Graphs depicting the imbalanced distribution of wealth inspire yet another rags-to-riches tale, and, if social scientists unfavorably compare economic mobility in America to almost everywhere else, someone will assert the possibility, no matter how remote, is all that’s important. And, because if you work hard you should get ahead, those left behind must not have worked hard enough. They ought to blame themselves, the thinking goes, so helping them, giving them “handouts,” only saps their will to try harder. Cite economists who explain the mechanisms of inherited wealth and the game of musical chairs everyone else plays, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare, plotting to rob the deserving, being a socialist. The deserving believe in “the market,” as a counterbalance to (and not a manifestation of) human greed—no regulation or redress is necessary.

Americans untroubled by economic inequality are equally prepared to discount social inequality as a vestige of bad old days now gone. The mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating white privilege, they judge, only rationalizes indolence. Some go as far as to say the problem of race in America is solved, and any talk about persistent intolerance—surrounding class, creed, and sexual orientation—only reignites dead flames. It seems as long as you believe you are not personally (or at least not obviously) racist, sexist, and bigoted, these issues don’t exist. And expressing desire for equity elicits petulance. Pundits cry they’re not only blameless but also oppressed.

Though in scientific circles, human causes for climate change are rarely debated, some Americans choose to believe we know nothing and can know nothing about greenhouse gasses and the melting ice caps. They treat scientists with disdain, either correcting them (very slowly, as they would a child) with fundamentally flawed conceptions of the physical world or, alternately, declare, “I’m not a scientist” to turn ignorance to their advantage. Both responses share a view of science as evil and/or unintelligible—sorcery, not one of humanity’s best methods of seeking truth.

The catalog could go on: Gun control, environmental regulations, banking abuses, corporate tax loopholes, and healthcare divide along similar lines with some seeking to study problems and devise solutions and others carping there IS no problem. If anything needs to be done, the carpers say, it’s rolling back the meager amelioration managed so far.

To be fair, sanctimony exists on both ends of the political spectrum. The left dismisses opposition as much as the right. Neither listens to the other. Most Americans, left or right, read and watch only what echoes their viewpoint, facts be damned. Worse, Americans’ healthy appetite for drama has inspired the creation of loud and insistent megaphones to shout half-truths and whole lies. Subtlety and intellectual rigor aren’t, everyone knows, very sexy.

The conservatives’ position seems more dangerous, however. It’s much too easy for them to get away without persuasion or policy. In making ignorance and denial viable political stances, they’ve institutionalized distrust of scientists, economists, environmental experts, social scientists, and intellectuals devoted to study, discovery, and—let’s be direct—reality.

And, in the process, their delusion has infected the general electorate with a nearly nihilist sense of hopelessness. How do you argue with someone who believes there’s nothing to argue, who vows nothing is known conclusively, who says nothing can be done, and, moreover, should be done?

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Fiction in Truth: serialpodcast.org

SONY DSCIn analyzing stories, “verisimilitude” refers to likelihood. But what of reality and “the facts”—does verisimilitude still apply?

I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Serial” and mulling over that question.

If you haven’t tuned in, host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 trial of Adnan Syed, in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school classmate and former girlfriend. Each week, Koenig reveals what she’s discovered and examines holes in the case and pursues leads. More, we learn her process, how her thinking evolves toward knowing Syed’s guilt or innocence.

That is, we’re led to believe we may ultimately know. Koenig says we encounter the story as she does, that her search is ongoing, not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share. The website posted a photo of her producing the next episode to assure us she’s in middle of it, not finished.

Withholding information is key to suspense. Being coy appeals to readers (and listeners) because unsatisfied needs are enticing. This podcast owes much to the serialization of novels by Dickens and others. Americans stood at the docks for the next installment of Dickens’ latest opus. They couldn’t wait to discover what was next. Each episode of Serial includes a “cliffhanger” of sorts too. I’m always anxious to learn more.

If I’m honest, however, the cliffhangers irk me a little. Being an able storyteller and effective guide, Dickens knew where he was going. What Dickens’ eager readers called “discoveries” were really “inventions,” integral and vital to his narrative. His suspense was designed, and his readers trusted he’d manage information to enhance enjoyment. The answer would out, delightfully.

I’m enjoying Serial (very much), yet I’m also bothered. Verisimilitude explains why. My misgivings aren’t simply Syed being actually wrongly or rightly accused. I’m well past squeamishness over using fictional technique to present fact. Every history selects and emphasizes information to create coherence, perspective, and drama. Yes, Syed is fodder, and maybe it’s not nice to say so, but I know I’m being entertained and accept it.

My misgivings arise from Koenig, whom I like (very much) but—I’m sorry—distrust as I don’t Dickens. The subtlest form of verisimilitude resides in a narrative’s construction. Obvious technique announces, “Hey, this is artifice” and ruins the story. The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention. Once a tale becomes purely a tale, the teller’s sincerity appears unlikely, and the narrative’s style supplants its substance.

At times, I feel there’s something exploitive about presenting Koenig’s story as it goes along. Suddenly I focus on her rumination about Syed’s guilt rather than facts. If she were Dickens, Koenig would finish her investigation then masterfully cut it into digestible and suspenseful parts. Instead, she deliberately and repeatedly says, “I just don’t know if he did it or not” even as doubt amasses. She re-stirs and re-stirs troublesome evidence that, if not settled entirely, has been addressed exhaustively. When a team of expert retrial lawyers unanimously question Syed’s guilt, Koenig persists, “I don’t know.”

I guess she must. Her “big fat problems” can’t go away. She relies on them to create theater and emphasize her role as director. Regretfully (because I love the idea of this podcast) her indecision causes me to question what’s foremost, a satisfying conclusion—in this case, Truth—or engineering pathos.

I doubt her more than Syed.

At the end of the sixth episode, she recalls Syed asking why she was interested in “Doing all this.” Her answer, that she thinks he’s a really nice guy convicted of murder, produces an odd moment perfect for radio. We hear Syed pause and say, “Yeah. Oh, but you don’t really know me.” To Koenig, it’s confusing and chilling, as if he’s confessing something. To me, it reveals skepticism matching my own. He explains he’d prefer someone open to disputing the facts, and I guess that’s what I want too—more faith she’s truly on the case.

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