Tag Archives: Essays

Reluctantly

frustratedI momentarily lost it last fall when another senior complained about reading 22 pages assigned over two nights—in 14-point font, with sections interrupted and the rest of the page blank. In I983, my first year of teaching, I asked my department chair what homework reading load was reasonable. I operated on her standard for nearly a decade, 30 pages, but since then…

People outside my profession ask me, “How do your current students compare to the first students you taught?”

Honestly, I fear the question, as who wants to be a prune-faced back-in-my-day-er howling about change most label progress? I’ve rehearsed my answer, picturing the students I teach lugging their stretched-to-bursting backpacks into class. I like them. They smile at me. They thank me. They wave hello, goodbye.

The invention of averages hasn’t done much for subtlety. If I say, on average, my students are not as good at reading and writing, then one of the sharpest of my current students appears at an imagined door. I do teach some powerful thinkers, idealists, imaginative innovators. Some revere books and commit themselves to absorbing, testing, and exploiting ideas. The rest are, as a whole, good people. I respect them and would hate offending them.

But you hear me winding up. Whether I want an answer, I have one.

Unsurprisingly, reading challenges my students most. They seem unpracticed because few circumstances in the rest of their lives expects reading, and it’s a trial to convince them patience matters, that, the more they notice and retain, the more discerning their understanding and interpretation will be. For them, nuance matters less and less. They make dramatic links between disparate ideas but aim for fireworks, not gentle brushstrokes. Skilled at the broadest thinking, they sometimes resemble bots devoted to cursory recognition. Complications, exceptions, paradoxes, and mysteries don’t interest them as much. Instructions falling between extremes tax them. They want to know what’s required.

Impatience, I think, makes a bigger difference. The issue isn’t the number of pages but the page number where they become frustrated. The particular assignment my seniors objected to was Eula Biss’ “Pain Scale,” a roaming lyric essay about Biss’ back pain that included allusions to Dante’s Inferno and the history of numbers. Quixotically, I believed they might take to its strange and dramatic leaps between different arenas of thought, but some barely reached the bottom of the first page before deciding, and later letting me know, “This is bullshit.”

Every good student is a good critic, but judgment can be peremptory, skipping knowing, understanding, interpreting, detecting authors’ aims, and formulating thoughtful responses. Obviously, I’m heavy on judgment myself—it’s in the RNA of our times—but I’d love more than a “I didn’t like it.”

Maybe pragmatism explains their perspective. They’ve been conditioned not to deviate from straight paths. Their parents urge them to fix on destinations with less help getting there. Many parents forget about encouraging joy. To recognize how limitless they might be, students need to struggle and overcome, yet, because minor dents are too costly to their reputations, every accident or setback needs immediate remediation. They hardly have time to stumble or to distinguish between stumbling and failing. They’re told they must not fail and seldom come close. Few experiences lead to the redefinition—refinement—arising from discovering where strengths and weaknesses lie.

They’re an anxious generation—of course and understandably. Yet sometimes I wonder why. Granted, we’ve given them a terrible world, but they’re also ready to tell you how much harder they have it, and each challenge can feel to them like too much on top of too much. I long for the student who asks me to be hard, who accepts struggle as fundamental to education.

None of what I’ve said diminishes my affection, but it doesn’t lessen my concern either. I generally don’t compare current students to historical ones. I know it could be my problem, my nostalgia for a past that never was. Maybe I shouldn’t speak at all, but there they are, right in front of me, every day.

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Nuance-ing

“Nuance” isn’t a verb, though I heard it used as one recently. “We just haven’t nuanced the problem,” she said. My teacher-mind cringed. A second feeling chased the first, however. For the U.S., facing problems with so little thought, maybe we could use more nuancing.

I won’t try to write again about American anti-intellectualism—authors as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville have done so better than I—but I’ll describe five contemporary manifestations of the un-complications that plague us.

1. We’ve come to rely almost exclusively on one-size-fits-all-solutions. With hot-buttons particularly, we seek the simplest remedy. Gun advocates regard “gun control” as a guns-or-no-guns question. Because nuanced issues about abortions—how and when and if in what circumstances—suggest fine distinctions, some say we should ban them entirely.

More insidious is the collateral damage of good intentions. I can be momentarily generous and attribute good intentions to FCC chair Ajit Pai as he decries regulations as that, he says, discourage internet research and development, but ending net-neutrality, his one-size solution, seems a weed killer destined to take the lawn with it.

2. Part of our oversimplification arises from a desire to alleviate symptoms, not causes. Americans have a subject-object problem. They wish to treat opioid addicts without addressing the systemic origins of opioid addiction. They howl over individual instances of racism, sexism, and every other sort of bias but rarely get around to institutional forces proliferating them. The impoverished must solve poverty. If you’re feeling stressed by your circumstances, someone will help you deal with it. Just don’t try to cure its causes.

3. For simplicity’s sake, many Americans reduce groups like opioid addicts, immigrants, Democrats, or Republicans to monochromatic groups. A caravan racing from Guatemala must be bad hombres crashing our gates, and we’d prefer not to believe that those tiki-torch bearers, who appear otherwise conformist, yearn for white supremacy. It’s much too complicated to look closely at any one complicated member, never mind examining what subtle influences initiate and perpetuate socially and politically problematic attitudes.

4. Instead, we focus on individuals as emblems of broader concerns. We wish to believe our dilemmas might vanish if we could just get past the Trump presidency when, actually, Donald Trump may be the side effect of decades—and maybe centuries—of problematic American values. His removal may give hate and bigotry less credibility and a smaller megaphone, but what will happen to hate and bigotry?

And our obsession with emblems works the other way too. A figure like Martin Luther King can supply strict standards to complicated individuals with complicated circumstances. Being like MLK (or more accurately adhering to approved aspects of his thinking) can become a weapon to wield against dissent. Behavior like Trump’s or like King’s is aim or anathema, model or scapegoat. Either way it oversimplifies.

5. We look increasingly to humor or righteousness as a remedy, as if extremity substitutes for deliberation and verdicts or jokes are as worthy as science or rumination. Our laughter or pique is mostly confirmation, a pacifier to troubles we can know—and solve—only through contradiction and courage and disagreement and discussion. Yet it’s easier to assail enemies with oblique blows than to negotiate and/or reconcile.

In the end, you might dismiss my whining. I’m admittedly guilty of sweeping assumptions I rail against and, yes, have no answer myself. Before contradiction disqualifies me, however, let me defend myself. Solutions begin by identifying issues, though they may seem inconvenient or byzantine. We face so many troubles. Can we afford easy answers?

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Screed #468

spin_prod_206227001-1A favorite expression of mine is “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Naturally, I use it to describe other people, not myself. But lately I’ve changed my mind.

I not only have a hammer, I am one.

On the most fundamental level, we rely on five senses that create as much as describe our world. We regard as immutable the output of the peculiar apparatus we operate, but temperature can’t exist without some variety of thermometer. The sightless, given sight, have no context for the odd and, to them, senseless stimulus they receive. Attributes we see as inherent can’t be divorced from how we perceive them. We would not detect a fourth or fifth dimension either, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

Yet, even without the cosmic epiphany that nails are created by hammers, we fit everything we encounter into a system initiated by experience. Your father may have been a good man or a drunk, but, whatever he was, that relationship shapes your feelings about every interaction now and forever. My own father was a quiet man, not given to effusive expressions of feeling. Part of me resists repeating his example and part of me repeats it nonetheless. In either case, he moves me in largely unconscious ways though he’s been dead over twenty years.

Which might also explain the increased polarization of US and international politics. Indulged by the comfort of dwelling in cyber-zones sympathetic to our perspectives, we see our position as rectitude and everyone else’s as ignorance. I want to say the other side is simply wrong, but, more likely, they have their hammers out. No one likes to believe they’re mistaken. Few can accept being mistaken. Fewer still feel mistaken.

Over the years, I’ve come up with so many tragic flaws for humanity—our unbridled ambition broaching no objection, our reluctance to divorce ourselves from the past, our self-interest, our desperate need for approval, our proclivity for vengeance and hate—but all might be subsumed under the tools that make us tools.

It’s hard to imagine organisms not imprisoned by their bodies and minds, but we have no trouble considering humans free of restraint. We alone, we believe, are unlimited. Maybe our curse is the assumption we alone elude biology. Perhaps the problem is our biology—not hand guns, but gun hands. Our hammers are out and nails are everywhere.

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Another (In 12 Parts)

tesla-spacex-starman-falcon-heavy-rocket-elon-musk1.

In my backpack is a moleskin notebook containing to-do lists for the last few months. Each morning, I write the date and transfer every unaccomplished thing to another page. I add fresh imperatives—a deadline rushing up, an unexpected demand, some aspirational whims I rarely reach.

This habit doesn’t make me unusual, but sometimes, examining those pages, I regard them as others might, wondering at how repetitious my life is, how devoted I am to similar tasks.

2.

The word “another” is called a determiner, which describes words that modify nouns as adjectives do. Though grammarians classify determiners as adjectives however, they see them as different. Determiners require context. Adjectives make distinctions by differentiating one thing and another—the brown dog rather than the blue one—but determiners like “this,” “that,” “these,” “those,” and “another” rely on frames of reference understood by readers. To have another dog, you must know what a dog is. You must be sure of dogs as a species to identify another.

3.

So much of my mental energy focuses on the next few hours—tasks desired and dreaded, classes to meet, challenging colleagues and friends, presentations, tiresome meetings, and other obligations.

Expectation and experience mix like air and gasoline, and I sputter forward on my timeline, looking ahead and back, feeling the familiar in all of it.

4.

A search of “Another” on my haiku blog turns up more than fifty finds, proof I use the word frequently. When you add in work communication, personal emails, and other scribblings, it could be evidence little is new now. Maybe all I expected or didn’t has already come to pass.

5.

Elon Musk says, “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.” For me, most days, at my age, not.

Last week, Musk launched his Tesla roadster into orbit with a manikin bedecked in a space suit at the wheel. It’s a silly expense—he might have sent the entire senior class of several inner-city high schools to four-year colleges instead—but he must have meant to inaugurate his heavy lift rocket with a grand gesture. He’s said on multiple occasions that he wants us to be a “multi-planet species.” Any other fate, he says is “incredibly depressing.”

It occurs to me, however, that if we move to Mars, it will be us moving there, another footing but not another species. All our tragic flaws will come along for the ride. We aren’t manikins.

6.

What is hope minus surprise? Does hope necessitate believing in the unexpected?

7.

When I was eleven I found a black river stone I was sure could be magic. After soaking it in my sister’s perfume and lighting it on fire, I waited for it to cool and held it against my forehead. I pictured my thoughts moving from my brain through my skin and into igneous rock. Conceptions limit us, I believed then. Notions we didn’t question held us back, so, if you believed something could be—believed it enough—it could be.

Though my alchemy never worked (that I could tell) I carried that rock through another and another move and, even now, I think I know which plastic bin it’s in.

8.

The calendar is a strange instrument. It proceeds and circles. It originates, renews, and repeats. It contrives to describe time and does so in familiarly named days, weeks, months, and years aligned with predictable and comforting patterns.

For a teacher, the school calendar is especially rigid. People in “the real world” remind me their years have no clear demarcation of stopping or starting, no obvious moment of completion or break between one year and the next. I suppose that’s true, but the events in school year are nearly all rites and routines. When they aren’t, it’s usually bad.

9.

Once I argued with a student about social constructs. He was willing to accede we invent some distinctions we then see as real, but not everything, he said, is a social construct.

His example was progress. He couldn’t accept anyone saying we weren’t better off now than in the past. I tried pointing out parts of “primitive” societies that might be better—connections to nature, the sense of common work, lives devoted to essential needs, not material wants. While life then might be harder, harder wasn’t necessarily worse.

Truth is, I don’t really want to wrap my body in a buffalo hide or wipe my ass with a leaf, but I fought with fury for Neil Postman’s insight that every invention produces complicated and often contradictory consequences, and that every sign of “progress” is really “this and that” instead of “either-or.” But, to my student, history was a chain of skepticism like mine, the short-sighted carping about the latest invention—the steamboat or the telegraph or radio or television or computer—ruining things.

In the end, I surrendered. It isn’t my business to deny students hope. Still I heard his faith as proof humans are finite. He couldn’t believe another day wouldn’t bring us closer to perfection. From my perspective, another day couldn’t help being another day.

10.

I’m not saying humanity is like Macbeth whose “instructions… being taught, return to plague the inventor.” Some elements of the present make me happy. I delight as much as anyone in technology’s wonders. It’s just that inventions have been, and always will be, ours.

11.

Growing up in the heyday of NASA, I lived for launches and drew control panels on the underside of tables so I could pretend to run through checklists and play along with liftoffs.

You can monitor the progress of Elon Musk’s roadster online. It’s 1.8 million miles from earth, and its heading takes it beyond the orbit of Mars. Ben Pearson, an engineer who devised the site, saw that his projection of the roadster’s path didn’t match Musk’s and welcomed discovering he, and not Musk, was correct. “I was just relieved to know that I wasn’t doing anything critically wrong,” Pearson said, “Elon Musk is a visionary man, incredibly far forward, but there’s a reality distortion field when it comes to him.”

There’s something enviable in that distortion field, something experience disbelieves.

12.

It’s a point of pride with my school that it does not close, that no opportunity to learn is lost, so it was the rarest of events when, last week, I experienced a snow day. As soon as we learned we’d be off, colleagues asked each other what they’d do with this found time.

Like them, I came up with wild and mild possibilities. But I spent the day preparing and grading, barely questioning if I could do anything else.

“New,” I’m guessing, is also a determiner. Context matters. Who’s using the word, though, might matter more.

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The Stupor Bowl

Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, New JerseyI’m drawn to the Super Bowl the way junebugs in my Texas youth were drawn to our porchlight. Though the bulb sat inside four secure panes of glass with seemingly no junebug-sized access, every fall we opened the lamp to clear out remnants of another summer’s massacre.

There are so many reasons not to watch: seventeeen minutes of actual sports action in three-plus hours, the crass commercialization that preys on fans’ affection and loyalty, the exploitation of players asked to sacrifice healthy futures for their profession, the American-ness of American Football complete with faux patriotism and resistance to first amendment rights to protest, the gladiatorial, bread and circus nature of the contest itself, and the not-so-vaguely militaristic celebration of barely controlled violence.

That, and I loathe the Patriots.

Yet, at around 5:30 CST, I’ll probably be watching. Why? I’ve arrived at four answers:

Nostalgia: I played a lot of football growing up in Texas. Though I didn’t attain the height or weight to play for my high school, junior high, or even the peewee league, every fall weekend found me behind La Marque Intermediate School playing sandlot with my bigger and badder neighbors. If I could get tangled in their legs or bull-ride them down, I could gain some stature among them. And, yes, I enjoyed playing. For a long time, when I watched football on television I could imagine—fantasize, really—running routes or dropping back to snatch an interception from a sure-armed quarterback. My love of the Cowboys (sorry) made football my every third thought, and I still regard that era with some warmth. Of course, those were really times of ignorance not innocence, but football seemed purer when straight-arrow Roger Staubach led the team and strong and silent Tom Landry strode the sidelines.

FOMO: I might elude my nostalgia—I’m well over other youthful devotions—except that everyone else is watching the game. At work tomorrow, the first or second question from colleagues will be whether I saw some play or, just as likely, some commercial. It takes a person proud of splitting from the herd to leave the TV off. A strange and rare solidarity surrounds the event. We live in a Chicago neighborhood with multiple bars within earshot. Most nights we don’t hear them. Tonight, though, shouts will alert me to some highlight or turn in momentum I’m missing. Having spent 17 years in Delaware, well within the Eagles’ orbit, I’m not sure I’ll have the fight to resist tuning in.

Any excuse to celebrate: The game appears when my will is weakest. It’s a terrible gray day in Chicago with spitting snow and dropping temperatures. The holidays are long forgotten, and don’t I deserve a break, some excuse to eat poorly and let my resolve go for one night? Don’t I deserve some relief from bleak national news reports?

Cognitive Dissonance: Please don’t answer. The Super Bowl brings out all my greatest powers of denial. Watching or not watching is more than a contest between head and heart, knowing and feeling. It’s the same struggle of our time writ large. We live in a nation that isn’t what it once was, certainly not all it presents itself as. Football is just one example of clinging to what it is supposed to be instead of really scrutinizing what it is. Ultimately, I’ll be watching for the worst reason, to fill a deficit I feel in the rest of my life these days, a stubborn wish that, though this nation and its national sport don’t truly match what people want to believe, there may be a little dream left.

Fly, Eagles, fly.

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On Humor

article-0-0A6B4B82000005DC-470_468x560Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

This semester I’m teaching a class called “Humor and Satire,” and, though we haven’t reached the satire part, I’m beginning to wonder if I understand humor very well. So far, nothing on the reading list, apparently, is funny, and my students’ idea of what’s funny often doesn’t match my sense of humor either.

It occurs to me I might be better off teaching a course called “Humorless Sermons” than one that’s supposed to be funny. No one is laughing as much as I hoped, and, in the middle of the night when I wake up from twisted and disturbing dreams designed to sublimate my frustration, I ruminate on the very nature of humor and what skills or traits (or whatever) a person needs to get a joke and/or whether a sense of humor is inherently subjective, untouchable by education.

Some years ago, during my quixotic teaching years, I devised and taught another course called “The Comic View” and ran into different but similarly nettling issues. Then, students did find some of the content funny, but, beyond sharing what each person thought was funny, they weren’t interested in talking. I’d ask how humor worked—what we can learn about what elicits laughter—and the response would be… crickets. No one wanted to talk about why they were amused.

But at least they laughed at first.

I took over “Humor and Satire”—with considerable trepidation—from a colleague when the class wouldn’t fit into his schedule. He is a director and drama teacher and improv sponsor at our school. Unlike me, he’s quite funny, and, though he helped me design and organize the course and approved the books I chose, thus far I haven’t been able to create the magic he intended.

Why? It might be because I’m not funny or they are not sophisticated enough as readers to detect humor or humor itself is a challenging art form that’s easy to under-appreciate until you try it or maybe that humor, the minute you expose it to the spotlight of analysis, withers and dies. It could be all that and more.

For a recent assignment, I asked my class to write an essay (with the same title as this one) speculating on an essential trait of humor. The elusiveness of the answer, I hoped, would challenge them and—like the laboratory a course like this should be—lead us, together, to more sophisticated questions about what’s funny and why. I haven’t read their work yet, but, based on the number of times I answered, “Is it okay if we quote someone saying ‘fuck’?” I’m intimidated and afraid.

Were I writing the essay, I might argue similarly, that humor is inherently transgressive. It must cross a line or elude what’s “usual” or “acceptable” to hit its mark—but, if true, where does that leave stodgy (and older) professorial types like me? Does assigning a work as humor disqualify it as funny immediately?

My class, in their defense, puts up with me. My misguided enthusiasm, they communicate, is occasionally quaint and charming. I can’t help feeling a failure, however. Maybe an explained joke can’t be funny, but, if so, that truth doesn’t leave me much room to teach. The whole situation leads to a more existential question, “Can anything be taught at all?

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Dear World…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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