Category Archives: Thoreau

Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.


Filed under America, Anger, Dissent, Doubt, Essays, Grief, History, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Pain, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

Welcome to the Now

no-regretsI distribute a list of Henry David Thoreau quotations, one to a customer. Some people say, “I don’t understand” or “What’s he saying?” But one voice cries out, “Is he serious? In mine, he’s saying we should have regrets.

Can that be right?”

We often hear the opposite. Regret suggests you didn’t seize a shining opportunity. It hints you’re unhappy with your choices or don’t accept yourself—and love yourself—fully enough. In contrast, living without regret means acting as you should, boldly, resolutely, decisively. “I have no regrets,” the hero says, and the audience beams approval. “Here,” they think, “is courage and confidence I lack.”

The voice puts it less grandiloquently, “Why would someone want to beat themselves up all the time?”

Our petty regrets seem unavoidable. We all regret eating too much or arriving late or not leaving the office sooner to miss the highway rush or forgetting an appointment we shouldn’t have or blurting out what we’d like to take back. Those regrets we endure. We must endure them. On the grander scale, however, we want to be happy with our decisions and our lives. We want to be comfortable and satisfied or, at the very least, come to terms with whatever transpired—no regrets.

We want to sing, “I did it… myyyyyy way.”

The disputed quotation from Thoreau reads, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” I try to explain, “I think he means each day is a new day. You can look back, see what you did wrong, and correct it.”

“But wouldn’t that just make you feel bad?” someone says, “you can’t spend your life looking back.”

Another truth of our time is that the past has passed, and we ought to point ever forward. Progress demands putting yesterday behind us. Newer and better things lie ahead if we direct attention to the future. There’s no sense in dwelling, no sense in mulling, no sense in revisiting. To get over it, we must forget about it, and what happened happened. It’s done.

Thoreau believed we couldn’t move on without knowing how to. We might fall into the same error, after all, if we pretend today never occurred and don’t fully acknowledge the how and why of events. He believed in studying experience, not running from it. Even carpe diem requires forethought.

That’s what I try to say. The voice replies, “Yes, but isn’t that the same as replaying the past over and over?”

“But if that’s what it takes…” I start to say. Everyone knows the old saw about history, how anyone ignorant of it is bound to repeat it. I offer that idea instead.

“You’re going to repeat it,” someone says, “I mean, look at history, we do the same stuff over and over. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.”

The broader context of Thoreau’s declaration is, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

I ask what—exactly—it means to “smother sorrow” but meet impatience. Perhaps it’s unhealthy to smother sorrow, the conversation runs, but should we wallow in it? What does an “integral interest” even mean, anyway? And, as far as tending and cherishing sorrow, well that’s crazy, hardly worth discussing.

Some days little seems worthy of discussion.

“Personally,” another voice says, “Thoreau is so contradictory. I’m not sure even he knew what he was saying… I think Thoreau is wrong.”

In 1839, when Thoreau wrote these sentences in his journal, perhaps he didn’t know exactly what he meant. Perhaps he was exploring, trying to examine connections between yesterday and today. Maybe he wasn’t sure and only posited an alternative to blind life, the uninterrupted and unstudied march most of us make each day. As his journals were private thoughts not clearly intended for publication, he could have uttered them only to himself, to spur the best life he could live.

I wonder, though, if that makes his ideas more or less valuable. Here is a person speaking to us from the past. Should we dismiss thinkers before us? Can we discount them so easily, without regret?



Filed under America, Brave New World, Doubt, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Words, Worry

My Honking Lament

imgThe geese in Lincoln Park are residents. They don’t migrate, or, if their flight can be called migration, only consists of travel to the western suburbs, announcing their exercise with loud exaltation, arresting pedestrians’ attention.

I wish I were so proud. My own diffidence says little more than, “Hi, I’ve arrived” or “I’m back” or “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’m still here.”

Travel isn’t something I relish, yet I know I have to leave here sometimes. I must meet the world to be part of it—no pretending musing online is being public—and life is supposed to be about greeting folks, about expanding myself through contact with genuine others.

The electronic reality I occupy suggests otherwise. The “friends” I create through Facebook and other “social” media don’t seem to seek intimacy. They appear to desire the electronic equivalent of a honking sortie through fall or spring skies, affection without heart. Noise over communication.

I’m sorry if that’s insulting, better to be sincere even when wrong. I’m guilty too.

And no wonder I’m lonely. Maybe my inability to express my feelings is my limitation. True character would insist on recognition, demanding—seeing as normal—the spouting I lid and re-lid daily. But I don’t know what to think or whether feeling is really looked-for from me. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, but what if quiet oppresses? I hesitate to say more… except to confess obsessing over all I hide, withhold, and swallow.

It’s not anger. I’m not mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. I want company, would like to be starkly myself.

Do people sense how convincingly “acceptable” overthrows “sincere”? Do others long to meet, long to talk instead of text, long to release feeling and speak rather than perform? The niceties aren’t nice, the insults more brutal by being couched.

Taking risks sounds good in abstract. Really, it’s embarrassing, showing emotion you know others—discretely or indulgently—ignore. You imagine people laughing. Derision is the modern default. The Eliot of “J. Alfred Prufrock” knew that, the Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” knew that, but we’ve learned little. We devise new modes of communication to say less, in fewer characters.

Real life still awaits us—by that I mean, of course, real life awaits me—and I travel further and further from authenticity by circling, circling, circling.


Filed under Blogging, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Facebook, Friendship, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Opinion, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Calling All Veterans of World War Z

world-war-z-wallpaperI’m no zombie fan. I don’t dust myself with powder, smear on fake blood, and plod along in “zombie walks” that, I hear, draw as many as 4,000 participants. I’m not devoted to The Walking Dead and haven’t even seen the granddaddy of all zombie movies, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

And, honestly, zombies don’t interest or scare me much. They’re relentless and contagious, sure, and their lax dress and hygiene is unpleasant to be around. Their stubborn refusal to just-stay-dead-already is problematic too, absolutely. Yet they seem so lost, so remote, so one-tracked, so barely with us. It’s as if they’re trying to operate heavy machinery—and any tool seems heavy to them—while opiated. We sober folk know no good can come of that, but zombies don’t worry. Self-awareness and planning aren’t their strongest assets. Living people have some decided and winning advantages.

Given my perspective on the undead, I was surprised to find myself in a darkened theater as World War Z engulfed the planet. There I was, watching zombies chasing panicked pedestrians through Philadelphia, zombies amassing like Amazonian army ants to surmount a wall outside Tel Aviv. There I was scrutinizing a zombie face impotently clicking its unflossed, unbrushed teeth outside a bulletproof window. Though the movie is diverting, suspenseful, and exciting, not a moment of fear passed through me. The zombies of World War Z are meaner and stronger and faster than most, but they’re still dead—which is to say, not living, not conscious, and really not at all smart. They don’t have a chance against Brad Pitt… which, to me, says a lot.

Sarah Lauro, an English professor at Clemson, writes about the zombie phenomena. Just as paranoia about communist infiltration brought us body-snatchers, and HIV pathogenic human blood returned our attention to vampires, Lauro believes zombies say something about contemporary anxieties and obsessions. For her, the current zombie fascination began with dissatisfaction over American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was a way that the population was getting to exercise the fact that they felt like they hadn’t been listened to by the Bush administration,” she says.

I have a simpler theory. Those zombies are us. Their restlessness, their overwhelmed and frenetically purposeful purposelessness, their over-caffeinated focus? All seem terribly familiar. Their expressions say, “Now, why the hell am I doing this again?” and, when they’re not eating people, they just look like tired office workers, so ready to abandon agendas clearly not their own. If they were self-conscious (at all) and spoke (at all), they might yell, “What a nightmare! I’m dead and still can’t get any peace and quiet!”

In World War Z, Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN operative who gave up his important, dangerous, and prestigious job for some homeland tranquility. He wants to be a family man. In the opening scene he’s making pancakes for his wife and daughters—and they say that’s all he does. He answers, “But I’m good at it.” I haven’t seen many zombie movies, yet I know enough to say that anyone who tries to hole-up the way Gerry does is eventually going to face serious home-invasion issues. And he does. Later he tells one zombie-besieged family that survival depends on moving, that “Movement is life.” No one can stand still, zombies or their victims, and domesticity is out of the question …at least until we get rid of these pesky zombies.

When the military makes the inevitable pitch to Gerry’s special skills and experience, when they say in effect, “The whole world depends on you, man,” Gerry replies, “You’re asking me to leave my family,” then, “I can’t leave my family.” He wants so desperately to cocoon, as do many of us.

He can’t, of course. The naval commander tells him, “Don’t pretend your family is exempt when we talk about the end of humanity.” Only the collective demise of humankind can pull him from the griddle. Even so, along the way, he fusses over his loved ones and picks up strays. We hope that’s what makes us different from zombies, after all—we know what matters, who matters, the purpose behind all our mad activity.

Spoiler alert!

(Though not actually because you can guess what happens)

Gerry Lane figures out how to battle the zombies. Once the store of victims shrinks, the zombies don’t do much but stand around like train passengers waiting for the big board in Grand Central Station to tell them where to go (like most urbanites, zombies aren’t interested in one another). Lane, reunited with his family in the Thoreauvian wonderland of Nova Scotia, putters up in a slo-mo inflatable boat and hugs them (for, like, half an hour) while a voice-over intones, “This isn’t the end, not even close.”

No rest for the weary, I guess. Yet the end of humanity, it turns out, is really the beginning of a richer, more purposeful humanity, one that spares us the zombies and, we hope, our own zombie-like tendencies. Now we have a reason to live—to kill zombies!

Okay, so my theory doesn’t cover everything. To those of you dressing up in tattered clothes, creating pretend wounds, artfully dabbing red glycerin in order to sleepwalk authentically down city streets, I can only say, “Have fun!” Maybe being a zombie is a relief. At least you’re not confused about why you’re here. And, if there truly is no way to prevent becoming undead, why not embrace it?


Filed under America, Brave New World, Buddhism, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Film, Laments, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

E-Reading (and Just Plain Reading)

tablet-maniaHumans didn’t evolve to read, so the process repurposes various circuits in the brain. Eyes hunt and gather. The mind interprets shapes and situations the way it would find prey hiding in shadow or edible plants suited to certain settings. The cortex registers meaning in patterns and trends, determining what grander lessons lie in individual observations.

Readers looking to recover detail often say, “I think that’s on a right hand page at the top” the same way a gatherer might say, “In the shadows of a rock beside the eastern branch of that stream is a bed of plump mushrooms.”

A recent Scientific American article suggests the brain undergoes a different sort of repurposing for electronic media, rendering finding information more troublesome.

Knowing has at least two dimensions—what it is and where it is—and, correspondingly, each dimension is subject to two types of memory. Some details humans remember exclusively in context, like knowing where to turn next when traveling to a location visited infrequently or singing the next line of song without being able to quote that line at other times. Babies are masters at this type of memory. When a parent sits them in a high chair, they know what’s next.

The other type of memory is deliberate and arises from a conscious effort to recall. Babies haven’t memorized their daily schedule or created a to-do list to assure they will eat, nap, and cuddle in appropriate sequence. They may not like the next activity when a parent proposes it. They know what’s coming only when it begins.

Another way to think about this distinction is to consider two questions from English class: “What does Holden say when the nuns ask him where he goes to school?” and “Which characters ask Holden about school and what’s consistent in his responses?” The former relies on knowing what’s next, the latter on locating, gathering, and retaining useful detail.

The research on electronic reading is preliminary and not entirely clear, but it appears that, when contextual memory doesn’t imprint strongly enough, conscious memory weakens accordingly. Reading comprehension quizzes demonstrate that electronic and physical readers do just as well immediately, but, when tested later, physical readers retain more detail and retain it longer. Some researchers say the results are transitional. Students still take paper more seriously, and those trained on physical texts are adjusting to a world where electronic ink predominates. Future generations will adapt to scrolled rather than paginated texts and results will even out.

Other researchers, however, believe these findings suggest electronic reading is inherently ephemeral. They theorize virtual location makes less of an impression on the brain than actual location. They place a great deal of importance on readers’ being able to hold the text and handle it physically, to regard the text as an object rather than as content in one of many undifferentiated receptacles. This “haptic” element of a tangible, sensory object, they say, is crucial to the hunter-gatherer in humans. Thus application writers are smart to adhere to page layouts that nod not only to familiarity but also to the way the brain works.

To complicate matters, however, some thinkers claim the sort of reading a person does electronically and physically are not the same. They make a distinction between focused reading and connected reading (which, elsewhere on this blog, go by “immersive” and “extractive.”) Focused reading requires a close examination of a single text, whereas connected reading assumes a nexus of meaning. Connected readers look for what’s relevant or interesting or important, rifling through containers to complete a larger task.

Connected readers also show an amazing ability to link disparate ideas and information, but their aims demand moving on. They may have lower expectations—one or two nuggets among all the ore—and less patience. They may skim more and be less likely to remember where they found a particular piece of information. When a reader gathers detail without context, to fulfill an overall conception, the information isn’t always discerning or accurate.

Some researchers even believe light fired into the face of the reader and flashing screens (though not perceived consciously) may prod readers to move on. Physical books exude permanence. While people skim them too, they aren’t as well-built for rapid ingestion and don’t accommodate extractive reading as easily. Nor do readers regard conventional books as readily searchable.

Overall, this early experimentation brings to mind Thoreau’s injunction against inventions that are “improved means to unimproved ends.” The most successful reading devices are those with low light, standard pagination, and signals like double screens or graphic book edges to indicate location and progress. In other words, they are costly and complex books. While these devices store more and save students everywhere backaches—an advantage not to be taken lightly—many of their touted improvements remain unverified.

More troublesome are findings indicating electronic ink improves neither means nor ends. If it’s true few landmarks mark a reader’s way through the undifferentiated topography of electric media, many readers could be lost… without really knowing it.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Memory, Modern Life, Persuasion, Reading, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

15 Thoughts About Things (1-8)

800px-WLA_vanda_Netsuke_4I’ve written another long lyric essay this week, so I’m posting it in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention. Ultimately the second half will land on top of the first half because that’s how blogs lay out. I’m sorry about that, but my excuse is that lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.


In the 1970’s, a game show called “The Pyramid” (in various dollar amounts) asked contestants to label a category by offering items from it. For instance, you might say “hammer, square, tape measure, drill, screwdriver” and I’d guess “Carpenters’ Tools.”

In the big prize round, the categories reached strange dimensions, and the contestant or a celebrity helper would lead his or her partner to guess “Things A Mother Says,” “Things You Do To Escape Prison,” or “Things You Accidentally Leave Behind on Vacation.”

Watching a team climb the pyramid excited me, but the reorganization of reality opened my young brain to see everything as part of categories, simple ones like “Things To Do Before Going to Sleep,” and “Things I Want to Study” but also darker ones—“Things I Wish I Could Forget” and “Things That Lead to Overpowering Feelings of Personal Futility and Worthlessness.”


Thoreau says, “Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” The “Chopping sea of civilized life” he says, requires a “a great calculator” to navigate fully. We can’t trust to any innate sense of direction because, having abandoned it so long ago, we’ve lost it.

Out walking in a city you see so many people engrossed by smart phones, and, on a crowed L car with no seats remaining and most people standing, you find only one or two passengers not using some device.

I think sometimes of all those devises hold. Were they books, tape recorders, short wave radios or primitive mainframes, pedestrians might be dragging overburdened carts behind them, and every L train would sink on its tracks, paralyzed by friction.


Recently I said that, if I could choose a religion, I’d pick Buddhism, and someone laughed. “You know Buddhists are supposed to live in the moment, right? You know they don’t believe in guilt?”

Maybe she’s right, maybe I carry too much to exist immediately.


Being part of “People Who Create Categories” means you live between giant blocks of experience. It’s never just one thing you’re looking at or thinking about. It’s a condition. You can feel squished.


As the utility of memory fades, our searches become more complicated, though easier. Finding the virtual storage site of an individual detail through Google requires knowing how to call it forth, and, having called it, we let it slip back into smoke. In grade school, my teachers advised me to use a dictionary to check the spelling of words, but sometimes I couldn’t spell the word well enough to find it quickly. When I did locate the word, it became another of many similar searches, each difficult to distinguish and remember.


Only feelings persist, a vague sense of familiarity as words move from pile to pile, useful for what they are and where they lay in an ocean of associations.


Having a middle school girlfriend meant gathering conversation in advance. Though I had no literal notecards, I’d have a pocketful if I’d written everything down. She might lose interest, I thought, if I didn’t always know what to say, and so I spent time between meetings mentally rehearsing. All the back of the class witticism, the cafeteria gaffs, the teachers’ lunacy became filed away bits.

And if she said anything outside my store, I would look to others: “Stories About Misidentification,” “Stories About Parents,” “Stories About the Unfair Nature of the World,”

“Stories Explaining the Source and Strength of My Desperation.”


This is that too.

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Filed under Aging, Anxiety, Blogging, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Urban Life, Worry

Thoreau Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under America, Dissent, Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Resolutions, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work

Respectfully, They Disagree

Eugene_V._Debs,_1907If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. —Henry David Thoreau

Buried deep in the definition of dissent is its legal meaning, “the voicing of a minority opinion.” A court of judges deciding on a legal issue expresses the majority decision and the dissenting opinion. Practically speaking, this dissent is immaterial—it has no bearing on what’s next—but civil society honors dissenters by acknowledging every opinion is important. Silencing any point of view is dangerous because it limits our perspective, and the majority isn’t always right (or is only right presently). Besides, any point of view, even a view most people agree upon, ought to face the burden of justification. A society without dissent is like a person without self-consciousness, prone to act thoughtlessly, blind to alternatives.

Explaining the place and importance of dissent is easy, but living with it isn’t. We often regard the person who expresses misgivings as an annoyance, and, even when the situation compels us to listen to these people, we sometimes feel sorry for them or grant them a chance to speak because doing so is harmless. The formality is easy to obey, really listening nearly impossible. We often assign other motives for the dissenter’s thinking, assuming that he or she must be this or that kind of person to think so aberrantly. “They are so out of touch,” we think, or “How sad to be so stuck in your ways” or “My aren’t they defensive.” Going along and getting along are crucial to the smooth operation of institutions and communities, and nothing is so tiresome as a grain of sand or shoe that might stop the wheels and obstruct what’s already underway. Progress can pause but it cannot stop, and we see resisting the inevitable as a foolish waste of time and energy.

However, dissenters don’t always want to convince us or alter our actions. Sometimes they know where they are and assess their chances more accurately than we think. Often they ask only to be heard without dismissal, condemnation, or character assassination. Typically, we the majority have our say and plenty—we like nothing so much as to revel in our solidarity and optimism, a self-assurance that sometimes edges into self-congratulation. At that point, any sensible person, even the foolish dissenter, can see the future clearly and recognize how futile resistance may be. That someone could be quixotic enough to disagree in those circumstances—even when the majority offers little or no sign of changing course—suggests a deep need for expression. And maybe courage.

Does the dissenter hope to dissuade or cast doubt? Of course, the minority wants just what we do, to win the day… although they suspect they won’t receive the same respect, trust, or credence. Anyone who’s shouted anyone down knows that, when dissenters can’t be dismissed, our next best alternative is to engage in arguments designed to demonstrate our rectitude. Potentially, debates exchange ideas freely and benefit both sides, but they’re seldom fair fights. We have several voices for every dissenting one, and the two sides are never truly equals. Freedom of expression is a good thing for us, not always for others. Dissenters must be debated out of existence, their viewpoints discounted, their perspectives erased.

If we could accept disagreement and live by the intellectual ideal of honoring every point of view, we might be a more open-minded and deliberative species, but perhaps it’s human nature—for both the minority and majority—to desire victory. Dissenters may not change anything. Usually they simply have to go along and do the best they can. Yet it’s the worse sort of bullying to neglect a point of view simply because fewer people hold it. That may be the dissenters’ ultimate message: “Please don’t ask me to equivocate or be silent. I have my own thoughts and feelings and, if you must be true to yours, allow me be true to mine… even though it’s clear you and nearly everyone else believes something is wrong with me that I see matters as I do.”


Filed under Aging, America, Arguments, Dissent, Ego, Essays, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Tributes

My Problem

man-reading-with-magnifying-glass-new-york-1959Most of the reading I do online is extractive—I’m looking for something on Wikipedia or dropping through layers of Google links to assess my best chance for success. When I reach a hopeful destination, I scan. I dart around paragraphs alighting on key terms and use the “find” function when simple searching doesn’t work. Then I move on, grazing impatiently on acres of electronic text like a horse fly in an inconceivably expansive and ripe landfill.

Reading for pleasure is different—immersive rather than extractive—and, when I can slow down enough to do it, no compulsion rushes me. My eyes sweep left and right in steady rhythm, happy when words disappear and imagination falls into another world. Oddly, the satisfaction of immersive reading assures more detail sticks. Desire is a better taskmaster than desperation, and an engaged mind beats a restive one.

You can read books extractively and electronic texts immersively—the problem isn’t the technology but the user—yet every technology carries its secret ideology, its assumptions about what’s valuable and important, what’s advantageous and essential. The ideology of electronic media is speed. It promises facility, accessibility, and infinite resources. And its assurance of a ready pay-off requires a different sort of persistence unlike the stick-to-it-iveness of standard reading. If at first a user doesn’t find what he or she wishes electronically, the best solution is to abandon ship and search for another ship and another and another, etc because, in the cyberworld, any pause elicits instant irritation. Electronic media has changed my reading habits, and often I find myself slipping over surfaces I once penetrated. My mind grows impatient. I watch words cross the page and curse the uneven surfaces of challenging prose rather than trying to fit my own mind to it. A dark voice cries, “Where’s the answer here and how far to the end… or another alternative?”

I have nothing against Kindles, iPad, Nooks, or any other electronic reader, laptop, or desktop computer. When I remind myself, “This is a book too. You don’t need to be in a hurry,” I encounter them just the way I do paper books, looking to step into the reading rather than ski on it. I’m lucky, though. I know the old ways. I learned to read from paper, and its low-tech format trained me in plodding attention. No built-in distractions lurked in the document itself. I’m more than capable of distracting myself, so I wonder how I might have turned out if glowing words dotted the page and alternative routes popped-up on every edge. I’m not a fast reader but a thorough one—I learned to get as much as I could from the one page given me. I had to be patient. Picking up and leaving wasn’t much of an option.

Students who have read more electronic than physical text feel quite impatient. They arrive irked by the 20 pages I’ve assigned. “What were we supposed to get out of that chapter?” they ask, or they say, “I didn’t follow that at all. What was he going on and on about?” Their chief concern is a quiz asking about minor details they worry they missed. For some, it seems all the details are minor… or major. When your purpose is extraction, every text is a pile, and cohesive elements that ought to hold the pile together or make sense of it—like narrative, argument, development, or progression—are irrelevant and/or annoying. Students who are bold enough to admit they hate reading tell me it’s too slow. Not enough happens fast enough, and much of what they encounter has no obvious (enough) point.

I understand. I feel their frustration. The first moments of reading, before I flip the switch from extractive to immersive, feel like gripping an electronic fence. I wonder if I can hold on. The secret is to quiet the impatience of a mind now hopelessly addicted to diversion, nomadism, and faith in greener grass. If I can commit my mind to following sentences and paragraphs before me, I find immersive pleasure again, but it’s hard and, in the technological context to which I’ve become accustomed, it seems alien.

Technophiles at school suggest this distrust of electronic reading may be my problem. Being trained in an outmoded technology, they say, I’d rather cling to what I know. I’m too timid to give up my precious paper, they imply, even though anyone can see technology promises greater ease, variety, innovation, and novelty. Maybe they are right, but, nonetheless, I can’t help being grateful for my past, happy I have an extractive to immersive switch to flip. That switch doesn’t work as well in some of my students. Technology doesn’t exclude or eliminate immersive reading and can never do so—I know that—but with each improvement I’m finding depth harder to find.


Filed under Aesthetics, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Worry

Getting Exercised

Sometimes I think I might skip the gym if self-flagellation weren’t so frowned upon. My athletic ambitions collapsed long ago, and the only reasons I’m out the door at 5 am are a.) it’s easier to work out than face the guilt of not working out, b.) my wife won’t make it without me and vice versa, and c.) I need to compensate for drinking the caloric sort of beer on weekends, the type that tastes like more than water.

Mostly though, the inactivity of the other 23 hours deserves punishment. Apparently I’m not alone. One of my morning gymmates hangs weights from his belt and then does infinite pull-ups. Another keeps one leg on a bench as she steps off with the other to the left, to the right, to the left, until her thigh visibly twitches like a generator shorting out. No lazy people work out so early, and the other day, in the class that begins at 5:30, the participants ran the length of the gym on all fours, hands and feet like the attacking gorillas in Planet of the Apes. Then they pushed a giant wheel of a weight on a towel, and their shirts gathered around their shoulders as they wiped the hardwood classmates dripped on.

My gymmates’ definitions of fitness look a lot like medieval torture to me. I watch my morning companions from my elliptical or treadmill and—as I’m one of only people in the place not wearing earbuds—try not to notice their involuntary grunts and squeaks. But I shouldn’t judge. The machines I operate, which are actually relatively mild, feel to me like modern iron maidens, and I sometimes sigh in exasperation. How many miles have I traveled without going anywhere? I tell myself my gym visits are a cost of modern living, something to be borne, like flossing… only for 20-30 minutes at 70% of my maximum heart-rate four to six days a week. Still, I wonder, would Thoreau join a gym?

Once my motives were greater than vanity.  I exercised outside, played games, and competed against people who weren’t myself. As a runner, my weekly mileage grew and grew as I prepared for road races at the end of this month or the end of next month or in the spring. In those days, exercise felt like devotion and assured time out in real weather. Some part of some day guaranteed meditation. Seventh mile thoughts untangled confusion from years before. The first breath after stopping made oxygen feel like a new wonder.

Now I watch ESPN on a screen flashing in my face, hoping to hang on long enough to catch the top ten plays for the day, which I will forget altogether when ten new plays replace them the next day. The swinging bats, fast breaks, deft shots, and controlled collisions are what true athletes do. In comparison, I spin a figurative hamster wheel, generating kilowatts powering nothing but early morning angst. I never score.

Two years ago, when my family hosted a Vietnamese exchange student, she seemed shocked to discover how relentlessly some Americans exercise. Maybe she’d expected the anonymous, tightly-framed distended guts and tabletop haunches routinely paraded by news outlets. Maybe she’d believed accounts of Americans bustling so much we only have time for fast-food or microwaved gluttony.

However, it didn’t take her long to see something almost as strange, fast exercisers who bypass the regular exertion of walking, climbing stairs, sweeping the house, or bicycling to work in favor of an hour of neat, tidy, and well-contained penance.

And I’m one of them. My fitness comes in fits. Single hours of frenzy accumulate like bricks of good works, and I calmly add them to the four walls I sit inside.

When I tell my wife I envy people whose work is bodily work, she tells me, “Be careful what you wish for,” and I know she’s right. Yet I wouldn’t mind giving up my daily absolution. I’d love to have no need for absolution in the first place.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry