Category Archives: Numbers

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?


Filed under Ambition, America, Anger, Anxiety, Arguments, Brave New World, Criticism, Dissent, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Misanthropy, Modern Life, Numbers, Opinion, Persuasion, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

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.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Education, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, High School Teaching, Numbers, Teaching, Voice, Writing

The State (and History) of My Blogs

roofs_of_prizziWordPress says 2012 was my biggest year as a blogger. Though statistics are crass and don’t say much in the end, being “Freshly Pressed” in August helped nearly double my visitors this year. And I have many more followers, for which—I can’t say often enough, Dear Reader—I’m grateful.

But 2012 wasn’t really my best year as a blogger. In 2008, my totals were twice this year’s.

Signals to Attend, derelict satellite, and Haiku Streak (the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria of my blogs) are my fourth incarnation as a blogger. I can’t remember the name of my first blog on Earthlink, but I wrote a haiku a day and an essay a month, book reviews every once in a while, and, if I couldn’t think of anything else, I pasted in poems I’d written long before. I posted so infrequently only an audience who liked watching flowers turn to the sun would enjoy following my work.

I resolved to start over and do better, but my still-born second blog was so flawed in conception and design that it lasted only long enough to gasp its last breath. I think my first post might have been about how I couldn’t possibly hope to go on.

Then I started an anonymous blog, Joe Felso, on WordPress, and, for reasons I never really understood, it grew and grew. Maybe because I posted every day for months, people visited and continued to visit even when I slowed to four posts a week. No one would mistake me for a self-promotion machine, but, as Joe Felso, I courted readers and became part of a circle of popular blogs. Though I wasn’t posting to Joe Felso at all after 2009, that blog remained my most popular until, finally, this blog surpassed it in 2012.

When I gave Joe Felso up after three years, it was at its peak popularity. Exhausted and blocked, I couldn’t think of anything new to say, and the anonymous mask chafed. I’d had enough, I thought, and decided blogging was more burden than blessing. I didn’t need it.

Only a few months later, in January of 2009, I started here, using my real name, posting once a week and then, later, twice a week on this blog and derelict satellite… four posts a week, just like before. All I’d really given up was my audience. I intended to shut Joe Felso down but left it open as a sort of museum and stole from it once a week, revising or rewriting posts I’d made before. That well has since dried up. Everything you find here, and on derelict satellite, is newly minted twice a week. Only today, I finally made Joe Felso invisible.

All told—on and off—I’ve been blogging ten years, a long time in blogging terms. I’m approaching my 300th post on Signals to Attend and am well over 1000 posts, counting my various lives as a blogger. The quantity of my readership hasn’t grown though the quality has.

And every time I approach a milestone—like 300—I think of stopping.

The internet continually reminds me how little it needs my additions. My crowd of words gathers on the edge of an abyss, waiting for each new post to push more words over. My numbers are nice—better than some, I suppose—and still I wonder what I have to say that I haven’t said before and how much pleasure I can expect from expressing myself again. I have only my voice after all and no real, dramatic destination or goal.

I might be asking for affirmation, but I’m not being glib. Crises of faith that hit others once a lifetime seem to befall me four times a week. Perhaps it’s our accelerated world. It could be the stakes I seem to face every moment. Maybe doubt— through all my blogs, the only sustained reason I’ve ever found to write—fuels me.

The new year dawns. I’ll continue, and, begging your patience again, I will tell whatever truth I understand. When I pass 300, I will try not to look back. Something must compel me, who knows what, and I can’t shut up.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Numbers, Thoughts, Writing

Where Are the Albanians, Estonians, and Greenlanders?

MyMap2My fellow WordPressians know about the square on the Site Stats page called “Views by Country.” If you don’t, know this: when someone from Albania visits my WordPress Site, Albania turns a hue of yellowish, orange-ish red—pumpkin to tomato—deepening as the number grows. Click a link called “Summaries” and you see all the countries that have visited since February 12th 2012, which, in blog chronology, is essentially all time.

I admit I’m collecting countries the way a quilter collects scraps, hoping someday to patch the planet without holes, from Belarus to Uruguay, from Suriname to Greenland.

Okay, I chose those countries deliberately because no one from them has ever visited my blog, and I’m hoping my attention will snag some Google searches and garner love in return. I‘m finished trying to figure out why Belarusians or Uruguayans—or for that matter Paraguayans—might not care to hear what I have to say and what topics attract people from French Guiana and Kazakhstan. Now I’m begging.

Last week, I received my first visitor from Mongolia, and I pictured him in a loud internet café in Ulan Bator, hunched over a laptop, pulling in some attenuated connection from elsewhere just to read my scattered thoughts on metaphor or find my perspective on Jean Follain. It is indeed a small world after all when readers visit from countries where approximately 30% of the population is nomadic.

Of course, I don’t really know why anyone visits from anywhere, but perhaps they’re practicing their English, borrowing a borrowed image, or maybe adjusting my meditation on Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield into a fresh English paper. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. I like believing something I’ve said finds a place somewhere larger than my circle of friends, Chicago, or even the US. I wish someone from Guatemala—the only nation I lack in Central America—would find some value in my work.

My daughter introduced me to site called Free Rice to help me learn countries by their shapes on a map, but I have to rely on wiki-search and my imagination to know anything about Botswana where, though I’m a fan of Amantle Montsho, I say nothing relevant.

Travel is not one of my passions, as it is for other people. They’re braver. They love alien sights and sounds, the challenge of fulfilling their needs in novel ways, and meeting strangers whose culture and experience is radically different from their own. I like home. Or, more accurately, I only like the meeting part of travel and wish foreign visitors would occasionally stop by, especially people from Estonia, home of the singing revolution and somewhere apparently no one likes me.

You may think me a crass collector, someone interested in stamps, not the people who use them. My defense is the warmth I feel when a gray country turns orange or an orange country turns persimmon. They say all of us breathe a little of the oxygen Caesar breathed, but, in a time when any soul might meet and even mingle with another in cyberspace, we have so much promise to do more. I’m silly enough to believe in handshakes through electronic channels. The big blank of China—though I know it’s largely closed to traffic from the rest of the world—may someday shift, and we can exchange thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop or the devastation of envy.

I imagine what the world will be when it’s entirely orange, or even red. Perhaps we can all be friends at last.


Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Chicago, Essays, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Numbers, Solitude, Thoughts, Travel, Views by Country

Making Grades

Before assigning end-of-the-year grades, I steel myself for cusp numbers—each 76.3 and 89.5 and every other figure landing between A, B, C, and the oh-so-subtle levels of the letters. It’s absurd to think my year-long assessment accurate to the tenth, yet many students—particularly the most ambitious, hard-working, and conscientious ones—care deeply about tenths. I hate grades, but I assign them because it’s a responsibility of my job.

The computer program we use to record grades and comments tracks my average score for each section. These results are “helpful information only” that, as far as I know, no one monitors. I’m not aware of my colleagues’ statistics either, but I still sometimes worry—at a school like ours, where being rigorous is de rigueur, no teacher likes being a pushover.

When I look at that figure, defensiveness kicks in. I tell myself many variables go into my average being above average: Sectioning is never equitable, particularly when the registrar groups students for an honors section in another subject. You also can’t discount the relationship between teacher and students. When the atmosphere is positive and the class active and curious, the grades will be higher. When the students come to believe they can do better—as they often do when you clarify what’s expected and encourage them—their improvement seems inevitable.

But I know the trouble. A class average reflects a teacher’s grading policies, and mine are terrible. I give too many second chances. I drop the lowest score for every five quizzes and give a lot of quizzes. After tests, I often let students earn back three or four points by correcting the questions they missed, or by finding the spot in the reading where answers appeared, or by responding to an essay choice they passed over and practicing their writing. Students can also rewrite out-of-class essays. To encourage them to revise, I grant the grade they ultimately earn. An “A” can wipe out a “C.”

Some colleagues might say I just want to be liked. It’s true I don’t enjoy adversarial relationships, but I’m not naïve. H. L. Mencken said no teacher should expect to be seen as more than a benevolent jailer. One teaching reality is that many students appreciate you only as much as their last grade. In my experience, anything a teacher does exclusively to be nice, backfires. What seems nice often isn’t, and it’s best to be consistent instead. I try to be consistently challenging and create many chances for students to be challenged.

My standards are my standards (and I think they’re high) but students give what they can to reach them. A few have the mental wherewithal, habits, and training to meet my standards easily. The others add effort, particular attention to the skills I’m trying to teach, desire to improve, and intangibles like curiosity, teamwork, organization. The more opportunities I give—and the more varied opportunities I give—the more they do. Many find ways to apply their particular strengths in surprising and resourceful ways.

I could easily bring my grades down by eliminating forgiving policies. I could prevent students from learning from mistakes. I could reduce the number of assessments I offer and render every little misstep more consequential. If I remove chances to work through nagging issues in their writing, I can keep progress and improved scores at bay. Offering less feedback on the quality of their work might actually cause their work to decline.

In the nineteenth century, education was a sorting process, a way of separating scholars from workers, but I like to think we’re more enlightened now. If you don’t learn to ride a bicycle today, we don’t say, “Sorry, you aren’t a bicycle rider.” We offer another chance. At the end of each school year, I’m really saying, “This is where you are now, this year, in this class, with this teacher” and I’d love to be able to do so honestly, without a nagging voice telling me I’m being too generous every time I round a grade up.


Filed under Anxiety, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Numbers, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

15 Not-Posts

This weekend I’m busy writing grade reports, so I’ve collected and edited 15 thoughts jotted into my notebook over the last few months.  All of them represent stillborn posts, ideas I considered but somehow couldn’t return to…

I used a random number generator to put them in this order.

1.   The impulse to roam resides so deep in humanity that progress—if there even is such a thing—is irresistible.  Anything static begins to feel like death.

2.   A co-worker once told me people miss the word “not” in statements like “Don’t be nervous” or “I’m not mad.”  Now I wonder what instructions I’ve been giving myself all these years.

3.   Aging reminds me of wandering into a neighborhood I do and don’t know. I could knock on doors and meet the locals, but I’d rather not find out where I am.

4.   I haven’t seen many real fights, but I know violence alters the air around it—another dimension momentarily erupts into ours and drags everyone in.

5.   Are we close to the point when any effort to convince people to think of others is doomed to failure?

6.   When I board my imaginary time machine, I always travel back to the first mistake that felt irreversible.

7.   Some people ridicule those who live by the rule of “Nothing ventured, nothing lost,” but I think about what we’ve been spared… and what the blindly ambitious have foist upon us.

8.   People who don’t mind being hated have a sort of superpower.

9.   Buddhists are right that desire breeds misery, and the American solution—acquire things until you desire nothing more—is a fantasy.

10,   I’ve never taken part in a conversation that includes the words, “There’s something I’ve always wanted to tell you…”

11.   If privacy is keeping something sacred to yourself, perhaps its opposite is believing nothing is unique to any individual.

12.   Most of the young people I meet couldn’t care less about who owns the art they consume.  For many of them, anyone thinking of selling art doesn’t understand what art is.

13.   No one likes hearing our organic sensory devices perceive the world and not us—the idea of such devices suggests no “us” at all.

14.   When I picture the planet spinning, I start thinking of the earth as a generator and wonder what force all this life might be creating.

15.   The surreal and the absurd seem so close they’re inseparable, but what if they aren’t?  What if there’s a sort of surrealism that is entirely invisible… and we’re living in it?


Filed under Aging, Art, Buddhism, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Numbers, Opinion, Persuasion, Recollection, Thoughts, Work, Writing

Fun With Numbers

This weekend I’m busy, so I’ve collected and edited 15 thoughts jotted into my notebook over the last few months.  Some are quite random and may be a bit strange, but I chose them for the conversations they seem to have with each other.

I used a random number generator to put them in this order.

For fun, you could REorder them—just set the parameters of the generator to “15 random integers between 1 and 15 with unique values.”

  1. I worry about missing moments of change, not because I’d want to stop them but because I’m afraid of having nothing to remember.
  2. Once I dreamt of a house constructed from lint, and, every time it rained, I reshaped it with bare hands.
  3. I can’t be the only person who thinks numbers have personalities.
  4. In my urban neighborhood, I see the same unacknowledged faces everyday… but I bet I’ve said so before.
  5. Replacing dates of the year with colors might set time free at last.
  6. One of the floodlights in our kitchen emits a nearly inaudible high-pitched tone, and, once I hear it, I begin to think it’s screaming.
  7. My vocabulary is finite—how do I ever reach anything new?  Perhaps I’ve only forgotten what my brain has already said.
  8. What would my neighbors think if I numbered all of the uncollected dog shit on our block?
  9. In a meeting, I began to imagine amusement parks have opposites.  All the gray rides and attractions aimed at tedium and boredom.
  10. The thought of being heard keeps me silent; the thought of silence gives me peace.
  11. Every day I pass ghostly landmarks, memories my mind is too lazy to retrieve fully but which still emit faint feelings.
  12. Of all my senses, smell seems to grow stronger… because what I’ve seen and heard before fades from notice.
  13. I’m sick of the cut and paste conversations patching my life.
  14. What people call metaphors are animals lured from hiding places: we knew they were there and hadn’t seen them.
  15. Some ideas are clay, others dust—you hope for water.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Experiments, Groundhog Day, Home Life, Kenko, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Numbers, Recollection, Thoughts, Urban Life, Words, Work, Writing

Ahead and Behind

Other runners must have the same daydream—shambling along at my tired pace, I look up and imagine the back of my younger self racing out of reach ahead.  The two of us can’t be split and still be one person, but, if we could be, he’d be winning.

Like most ex-competitive runners over fifty, my best times are behind me. I’ve nearly used up the expression, “Back in the day.”

Little in life is as quantifiable as the time it once took you to cover a distance.  I don’t figure my time completing projects at work or my efficiency answering e-mails—but I remember my best at every distance.  The numbers have remained relevant because the high school cross country athletes I coach—including my son—periodically ask me, “What’s your fastest at…?”

But I’m sensible enough to know how meaningless those numbers really are.  Some runners—even ones whose bodies have long betrayed them—still see themselves as an X-minute, Y-seconds Z-distance runner.  They regale you with former workouts and stellar performances at races that occurred decades ago.  Their triumphs are as fresh as last weekend.

Okay, me too.  But usually I wait to be asked and tell the story with disbelief.  Those performances belong to someone else.  That I once ran so fast astounds me.  What astounds me even more is that I once trained hard enough to attain those times.

The biggest difference between me and the imaginary younger runner ahead is the spirit behind his dedication.  He has a naive faith in sacrifice, the cumulative effect of daily work, and the tolerance of pain.  He has no excuse for taking it easy—mostly because he doesn’t take it easy—and he’s never as impressed with himself as he hopes to be after his next race.  He’s not nostalgic because it’s not time yet.

His perspective is what I miss, not the times or even the body that produced the times.  I’m lucky I get to work with young runners filled with hope and am grateful so much of their spirit rubs off on me.  However, experience, especially the sort that tells you what’s possible, makes you resistant to their sort of ambition.

Perhaps it’s time for another dream. For me, the hardest part of aging has been feeling less hopeful.  My racing years have ended, and I could turn to other goals, but little seems as quantifiable—verifiable—as those old times do.  Strangely, new tasks often feel like starting over.  Another magnitude of desire seems required.  I gulp very hard to toe the line.

I’d love to shout to the young man ahead of me—ask him to stop for a moment and indulge an old man with a little advice—how does he do it?  I’d love to get a pat on the back, a smile, and a shove.


Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Numbers, Teaching, Thoughts, Work


Some statistics: according to my blogstats, viewers visited this site 32 times this week—two days it received two visits—and one person viewed my last post.

Which means, of course, no one may be listening right now.

At school, I’m teaching a Personal Writing ISP (Independent Study Project) to two wonderful students, and Friday we discussed Montaigne and the idea of what an audience is in essay writing—how a writer thinks of his or her readers, these people the writer can’t know or watch in real time. We talked about how a writer encourages and tries readers’ trust or affection, how voice communicates the sort of relationship the author seeks with readers. We did not, however, discuss whether the audience is real.

Yet the internet makes voices come out of the wilderness–writers, like me, who speak from need, not for profit or acclaim, and with little realistic hope of being heard by any sort of mass audience.

In an interview in November 2007, Derek Gordon, vice president of Technorati, reported that 99% of blogs receive no hits, and, as this blog dives and flies along the WordPress baseline, it comes close to that standard.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m presenting fact, and the facts are strangely liberating. I don’t worry about revealing my pathetic readership because this revelation may be a cybertree falling in a cyberforest—I’m unlikely to attract or drive away readers who don’t exist.

I write because writing is something I can’t not do (if you follow that poor wording) and, besides, I need the practice. I teach composition, and a writing teacher should speak from experience if he of she desires credibility. And, okay, I do aspire to a little wider audience. I appreciate any regular readers and anyone who lands here accidentally, and, if only for those few, I hope Emerson is right, “Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol and an audience is electrified.”

But, just as I can’t say who’s listening right now, I can’t answer “Why write?” for any other blogger. What do all these cries into the wilderness mean?

David Cronenburg, the director of A History of Violence and other films, said in a 2006 interview on Rocketboom, that the industrial revolution really created the concept of a mass audience, that the patron-driven art of Bach or Beethoven aimed at a particular aristocratic, elite, and definable target. Our “democratic” art, he suggests, relies on the assumption that we can speak to everyone and appeals for the attention of an audience with dramatically “splintered” interests. “You can only spend 220 million on a film” he says, “if you think it has a mass audience.”

Then he adds, “The possibility of doing that”—of spending that sum with the assumption of success, “is going to diminish.”

While I have trouble imagining the disappearance of popular films, he raises an interesting question about audiences splintered down to one or two…or zero—does writing (and art in general) require a mass audience or any audience at all? And that question raises an even bigger one, “Is it doing or acceptance of what we’ve done that matters?”

Thoreau wrote in his journal that we gain greatest insight into friends when they speak in public. The friend, he said, “will be stranger to him as he is more familiar to the audience. The longest intimacy could not foretell how he would behave then.” However, I wonder if the estrangement he attributes to the friend can occur on an individual level, when no one but you is listening. In the imagined presence of others, with just the possibility of being heard, you might see yourself anew.

Do we bloggers really write to hear ourselves speak? Saying so sounds like the rationalization of readerless writers and fulfills the public image of bloggers as self-absorbed and uninteresting to anyone but themselves. Yet, a writer can seldom say, at least while writing, whether there’s a market for his or her words. A writer never knows who’s reading or if a reader understands.  So is the audience what it’s all about?

Some time ago, I had an important presentation of the revised freshman curriculum to make and devoted a couple of hours to what I wanted to say, crafting and recrafting my exact words. When I arrived at school, however, I discovered I was mistaken. I was simply to answer questions, and I sat nearby listening to a colleague do what I’d thought was my task. I hated wasting the labor, and I couldn’t help thinking I might have done a better job, but those were matters of ego.  Another sensation dwarfed them—an odd disorientation, as if the presentation I heard and the presentation I prepared were somehow both real, superimposed from alternate dimensions.

I often feel that way when I blog. No one might be out there right now, or they might have only made it to word 550 before stumbling off to another site or getting up for a sandwich, but this essay seems real.

And I’m glad I wrote it.


Filed under Blogging, Essays, Meditations, Numbers, Teaching, Thoreau, Writing

And Counting

Recently, at work, we completed a count-your-steps wellness program sponsored by the PE department to encourage exercise during the holidays.

My total between November 24th and January 7th:

864,916 steps, or approximately 430 miles.

Averaged out, that’s about nine and a half miles a day.

You may think I’m bragging—and maybe I am, a little—but you should know a person covers four or five miles daily, and my number isn’t that large when you consider I add almost two miles walking to and from school and three or four more miles running or elipticizing at the gym.

And what does that number—or any number—mean?

Truth is, counting steps is only the most recent manifestation of my growing counting fetish.  Since July, I’ve been carefully recording calories on a health site and monitoring the number of pounds I’ve lost.  I keep track of daily haiku, how many books I read a year, and the total pages my classes need to finish to reach the end of novels in timely fashion.  Add all the other things ticked off—the items on my to-do list and the number of appointments or meetings each day—and my life seems all enumeration, all noting, recording, accounting.

Does that make me strange?

We sometimes think of numbers as neutral, amassing on their own, figures growing on some counter we can’t see but readily imagine.  Right now, the amount you owe for heating your home is rising.  Right now, you’re accumulating debt or, if you’re lucky, interest.

And scientists attribute powers to numbers.  If we knew all the numbers, they seem to feel, we might open a hidden window on reality…as if, in those exact figures, we can find something lost, including truths we didn’t know were lost.  I remember a childhood friend who carried a pad in his back pocket for a year, marking every emission of his body.  I saw him as the quintessential scientist.  He thought those numbers would mean something, and any missing data would ruin everything.

Now I sometimes feel like that boy.

But counting isn’t always neutral.  It also compels us.  The clicking of that pedometer in my pocket became a comfortable sound, and I might not have had so many steps if I hadn’t been entering the digits on a public site every morning.  Counting is rarely pure recording.  It quickly becomes a variety of self-consciousness. We affix the expression “but who’s counting?” as a way of alerting the world we are counting, we’re paying attention.

Which is also why counting is the first step of economy.  You can’t conserve without comparison.  You need to know where you’ve been to decide where to go.  I lost pounds that were slowly and unaccountably accumulating when I began measuring today’s consumption against yesterday’s and against an ideal number.  I discovered when I was off-course.

People sometimes encourage me to stop counting.  They call me a nerd.  Everyone, they say, needs a little abandon.  Everyone needs liberation from self-consciousness, planning, and schedules. Sometimes I am nostalgic for the days when I didn’t have to worry about what I ate or spent.  I miss the holidays when, instead of carrying a pedometer, I added foil wrappers from chocolate kisses to a growing ball in my pocket and laughed when it reached tennis ball size.

The trouble is, counting is in me.  Even that tennis ball was counting.  For me, the real trick isn’t knowing when to count and when not, but knowing which numbers should grow and which shrink.  I like to believe those numbers, nerdy as they are, help me lead a deliberate, thoughtful life.

As a world, we’ve gotten into such messes by not counting, but perhaps our biggest messes arise from counting the wrong things or heedlessly amassing what we might have diminished…or shared.

Maybe I should stop counting.  Maybe I should let numbers change invisibly and simply live in the moment, but I wonder if I can.

When the pedometer challenge was over, a colleague and I celebrated the silence of our steps, but, now that I’ve thought about it, I’m ready to admit…

I miss my pedometer.

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Filed under Essays, Meditations, Numbers, Teaching, Writing