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.

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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?

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

1.

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.”

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.”

8.

This is that too.

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Thoreau Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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