Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Lay of the Land (II)

Not too many posts ago I was wishing for a book to come along that would Grab Me By The Lapels And Not Let Go. Well, I'm 100+ pages into Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, and while it's not exactly a page-turner, it is turning out to be a terrifically satisfying read. It's certainly not plot-driven: I'm a quarter of the way through the book and it's still Day One, and it has been a pretty ordinary day. Most of what goes on in the book is what goes on in the mind of Frank Bascombe as he goes through the everyday events of his life. And it turns out that Frank Bascombe is very good company. (I have not read either of Ford's two novels featuring the same character (The Sportswriter and Independence Day), but I'm going to have to do some backtracking when I get done with this one.) Bascombe is a very good observer, alert and smart and often funny as hell. In course of the novel there are any number of set pieces, little one- or two-paragraph digressions, jazz-like riffs on whatever crosses his field of vision:

The other distraction making movement into the Square near-impossible is that the Historical Society, in a fit of Thanksgiving spirit and under the rubric of "Sharing Our Village Past," has converted the entire Square in front of the August Inn and the Post Office into a Pilgrim Village Interpretive Center. Two Am. Civ. professors from Trenton State with time on their hands have constructed a replica Pilgrim town with three windowless, dirt-floor pilgrim houses, trucked-in period barnyard animals, and lots of authentic but unhandy Pilgrim implements, built a hand-adzed paled fence, laid in a subsistence garden and produced old-timey clothes and authentically inadequate footwear for the Pilgrims themselves. Inside the village they've installed a collection of young Pilgrims—a Negro Pilgrim, a Jewish female Pilgrim, a wheelchair-bound Pilgrim, a Japanese Pilgrim with a learning disability, plus two or three ordinary white kids—all of whom spend their days doing toilsome Pilgrim chores in drab, ill-fitting garments, chattering to themselves about rock videos while they hew logs, boil clothes, rip up sod, make soap in iron cauldrons, and spin more coarse cloth, but now and then pausing to step forth, just like soap-opera characters on Christmas Day, to deliver loud declarations about the "first hard days of 1620" and how it's impossible to imagine the character and dedication of the first people and how our American stock was cured by tough times, blab, blab, blab, blab—all this to whoever might be idle enough to stop on the way to the liquor store to listen. Every night the young Pilgrims disappear to a motel out on Route 1, fill their bellies with pizza and smoke dope till their heads explode, and who'd blame them? (49-50)
This passage captures fairly well the overall tone of fastidiously detailed reportorial bemusement. But the description, despite its humor and syntactical playfulness, consistently gestures at what I take to be Ford's real subject, which is American culture itself, particularly the manifest and multitudinous discrepancies between how we attempt to represent ourselves to ourselves and how—or who—we really are. The increasingly sophisticated comforts and securities of suburban life have not brought us any closer to a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment; rather, the opposite. Bascombe has been a realtor in the town of Haddam for long enough to see a lot of changes which give him pause:

Back in the days when I got into the realty business, we used to laugh about homogeneity: buying it, selling it, promoting it, eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It seemed good—in the way that everyone in the state having the same color license plate was good (though now that's different, too). And since the benefits of fitting in were manifest and densely woven through, homogenizing seemed like a sort of inverse pioneering. But by 1992, even homogeneity had gotten homogenized. Something had hardened in Haddam, so that having a decent house on a safe street, with like-minded neighbors and can't-miss equity growth—a home as a natural expression of what we wanted from life, a sort of minor-league Manifest Destiny—all that now seemed to piss people off, instead of making them ecstatic (which is how I expected people to feel when I sold them a house: happy). The redemptive theme in the civic drama had been lost. And realty itself—stage manager to that drama—had stopped signaling our faith in the future, our determination not to give into dread, our blitheness in the face of life's epochal slowdown. (90)

It is perhaps not coincidental to the tonality of the narrative as a whole that Bascombe in this book is under treatment for prostrate cancer. It is in fact his medical condition that sharpens or enhances his ability to attend to what is going on around him:

Contrary to the TV ads showing cancer victims staring dolefully out through lacy-curtained windows at empty playgrounds, or sitting alone on the sidelines while the rest of the non-cancerous family stages a barbecue or a boating adventure on Lake Wapanooki or gets into clog dancing or Whiffle ball, cancer (little-d death, after all), in fact makes you a lot more interested in other people's woes, with a view to helping with improvements. Getting out on the short end of the branch leaves you (has me, anyway) more interested in life—any life—not less. Since it makes the life you're precariously living, and that may be headed for the precipice, feel fuller, dearer, more worthy of living—just the way you always hoped would happen when you thought you were well. (96)

I guess that's a central point right there. The cliché has it that we should attempt to live our lives as if each day were our last. The fact that it has become a cliché is no proof that it is a mistaken idea. The great virtue of Richard Ford's writing is that he brings to his narration the power of the kind of focussed alertness and attention to which the rest of us, might, on our best days, aspire to. I'm enjoying this book, and am glad to have it available as a sort of experiential bridge between December of 2006, when I began it, and January of 2007, when I will finish it. In the meantime, Dear Reader, wherever you may be, Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Foreign Policy

For Christmas my son and his wife gave me a copy of the seventh season and final season of West Wing, and so we've been bingeing on that the last few days, watching two or three or sometimes four episodes in a row, dealing with the presidential campaign between Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinnick (Alan Alda). Watching this show, I have opportunity to reflect and wonder, not for the first time, how it is that the writers and actors in this Hollywood drama are so much more thoughtful, engaging, and articulate than any of the real-life politicians and pundits who are actually in charge of our nation. You might say, "Well, it's just a television show; it's all scripted." So what if Matt Santos and Jed Bartlett and Arnold Vinnick have their lines written for them? Doesn't George Bush? Doesn't Hillary Clinton?

There are a number of moments in the show which are just unbelievably refreshing in the context of what we are accustomed to. One of my favorite episodes is the one featuring the televised debate between Santos and Vinnick, in which the candidates on their own initiative spontaneously agree to drop the formal constraints of the staged debate and have a real debate where they talk to each other instead of spewing out sound bites tailored to their predetermined time limits. It winds up being a great hour of television, not only because it gives a pretty good capsule survey of the conservative and liberal positions over a range of real-life issues, but because it demonstrates the (at least theoretical) possibility that politicians could, if they had the courage and the character, reconsider their own assumptions and change the entire way that political business is done in this country. Likewise, there is the moment after the election at which Santos, considering candidates for Secretary of State, comes to the conclusion that the best man for the job is Vinnick, and so he offers it to him. It's difficult to imagine that happening in The Real World. My question is, why is that? Are the people running our country less capable thinkers, less flexible thinkers, less informed and less innovative thinkers than the people writing Hollywood scripts?

And if our country's leaders are reluctant to look to Hollywood for ideas—and we are surely in need of them—what about sources closer to home? The December 18 issue of The New Yorker has an article called "Knowing the Enemy" by George Packer which unpacks an idea which is so stunningly obvious, and yet nowhere to be found in rhetoric of the administration, not to mention in the op-ed columns and and television news analyses and radio talk shows: perhaps it would be good if we were to try to understand the thinking of the people we are fighting against in the "war on terror." The article profiles David Kilcullen, an Australian, who is an expert in counterinsurgency techniques. Kilcullen has many things to say which strike me as being much more sensible and much more promising than anything I have heard in the mainstream media. Here are some excerpts from the article that are worth thinking about. (The ones in quotation marks are when Packer is quoting Kilcullen. The ones that are not is when he is paraphrasing him or elaborating on the implications of what Kilcullen has said.)

"What does all the theory mean, at the company level?" he asked. "How do these principles translate into action—at night, with the G.P.S. down, the media criticizing you, the locals complaining in a language you don't understand, and an unseen enemy killing your people by ones and twos? How does counterinsurgency actually happen? There are no universal answers, and insurgents are among the most adaptive opponents you will ever face. Countering them will demand every ounce of your intellect." The first tip is "Know Your Turf": "Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion, an culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district."

The notion of a "war on terror" has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required. A war on terror also suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to "disaggregate" insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan's tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so they aren't mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad.

American foreign policy traditionally operates on two levels, the global and the national; today, however, the battlefields are also regional and local, where the U.S. government has less knowledge and where it is not institutionally organized to act.

In the information war, America and its allies are barely competing. America's information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly: a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory, but no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway.)

Since 2002 America has spent more than six billion dollars on buttressing the Pakistani military, and probably a similar amount on intelligence (the number is kept secret). Yet it has spent less than a billion dollars on aid for education and economic development, in a country where Islamic madrassas and joblessness contribute to the radicalization of young people.

Is a society in which few people spend much time overseas or learn a second language, which is impatient with chronic problems, whose vision of war is of huge air and armor battles ended by the signing of articles of surrender, and which tends to assume that everyone is basically alike cut out for this new "long war"?

Terms like 'totalitarianism" and "Islamofascism," [Karen Hughes] said, which stir the American historical memory, mislead policymakers into greatly increasing the number of our enemies and coming up with wrongheaded strategies against them. "That's not what the insurgents call themselves," she said. "If you can't call something by its name—if you can't say, 'This is what this phenomenon is, it has structure, meaning, agency'—how can you ever fight it?

Since September 11, the government's traditional approach to national security has proved inadequate in one area after another. The intelligence agencies habitually rely on satellites and spies, when most of the information that matters most now, as Kilcullen pointed out, is "open source"—available to anyone with an internet connection. Traditional diplomacy, with it emphasis on treaties and geopolitical debates, is less relevant than the ability to understand and influence foreign populations—not in their councils of state bu in their villages and slums.

There is nothing in these excerpts, nor in the article as a whole, which seems to me to be remotely controversial or even arguable. It's certainly a pleasure to recognize that there are thoughtful and capable people who have a sense of what can and ought to be done. And I admire George Packer for his ability to research and synthesize and communicate the issues and the potential courses of action that are available to us. The entire article is an argument—and a blueprint—for re-thinking the way we are approaching the defining cultural conflicts of our era. The closing paragraph of the article lay out the opportunity, and the obstacles:

Bruce Hoffman said, "We're talking about a profound shift in mind-set and attitude"—not to mention a drastic change in budgetary and bureucratic priorities. "And that may not be achievable until there's a change in Administration." Kilcullen now is in charge of writing a new counterinsurgency manual for the civilian government, and early this month he briefed Condoleeza Rice on his findings in Afgahnistan. But his ideas have yet to penetrate the fortress that is the Bush White House. Hoffman said, "Isn't it ironic that an Australian is spearheading this shift, together with a former covert operator? It shows that it's almost too revolutionary for the places where it should be discussed—the Pentagon, the National Security Council. At a moment when the Bush administration has run out of ideas and lost control, it could turn away from its "war on terror" and follow a different path—one that's right under its nose.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Process Reflection

Doug Noon has an interesting post on his site Borderland in which he asks, essentially, what are we doing when we keep a blog, why are we doing it, is it sustainable?

I was already moving into end-of-the-year stock-taking mode this morning, so I decided to use his post as a trigger for a short reflection, which I posted as a comment there:

I’ve been asking myself the same “Why bother?” question, and I think I’d answer it the same way for myself as I answer it for my students. Do I value thoughtfulness? (Yes.) Would I like to think of myself, or be described by others, as a thoughtful person, or a thoughtless person? (Easy choice.) It’s true that in some mechanical sense we’re all thinking all the time, but in my experience, as a writer and as a teacher, the act of writing gives shape to thought, helps to generate thought (that “extended exploration of disorder and contradiction” sounds about right), and allows me to have, once the first thoughts are down on paper, second thoughts: elaborations, further questions, shifts in point of view. Thinking well isn’t something that Just Happens. Thinking well is a discipline which can be improved, like any other skill-based discipline, with practice and attention to process. That’s one answer to the sustainability question. I’ve taught, and written, for a long time now. For the first ten or twenty years I was good when I was good and I was bad when I wasn’t, and I didn’t have a lot of control over the highs and lows. The quality of my teaching, and my writing, wasn’t, for me at that time, sustainable. When I decided to monitor the processes I was in by writing about them—keeping a teaching journal—I got better.

I’ve kept that journal for years; I’ve only been blogging for a couple of months. But what I see as one truly significant difference is the (at least implied, and often actual) presence of an audience out there who share my commitment to the use of words as vehicles of thought. The presence of other thoughtful bloggers makes it easier for me to feel like I am not simply tilting at my own private windmills, but that I am engaged in a larger conversation which has a point and a direction, if not, as Doug suggests, a destination.

Another angle about the sustainability of blogging is that there really is a difference in feel. The templates that are available to bloggers are attractive; given some minimal sense of design, you can make your work look good. And the automatic archiving features offered by most blog engines make it possible to begin to shape a body of work that feels less like a notebook and more like a set of coherent explorations. So that’s both an incentive and an organizational tool, both of which support the sustainability of the enterprise.

It's been an interesting couple of months at Throughlines. I'm hoping to be able to keep it going.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Natural Selection

(Fair warning: I didn't know where I was going when I started this, and now that I'm done with it I'm not sure where I've been. I'm just running a line of thought out here: function following form.)

A while back, I had a post about a poem a student had submitted to our high school literary magazine that posed an interesting set of hermeneutical challenges to us. That poem generated some interesting responses on the blog, and upwards of an hour's worth of discussion amongst the literary magazine staff, before it was voted in unanimously by our staff and editorial board at yesterday's meeting.

In the meantime, I've been turning over in my mind an art submission that a young man brought in at about the same time. It is a pencil drawing on graph paper. There are four lines of handwritten text in the upper right corner which have been erased, sort of, although you can still make out from the imprint that the first two lines used to read "Wars fought over gasoline..."

My first thought upon receiving this submission was, he's got to be kidding. I filed the submission with the other paintings and photographs as they arrived, and then found myself looking at it again when we were preparing a slide show of all the submissions to present to the staff. And I found myself contemplating several questions. They are similar to the questions that gnawed at me when I was looking at the student poem (and that continue to gnaw at me even though we've decided to publish it.) They're not new questions for me personally, and I'm certain they've been beaten to death by art critics all the way from Aristotle on down, but here they are again, nibbling away at my reserves of critical self-confidence: what makes something a work of art? And if it is a work of art, what makes it good?

The case against the piece in question is easy to make. It's a sketch; it was apparently done in some haste; it doesn't put any particular artistic skill on display; it's scribbled on a (wrinkled) piece of notebook paper; the artist hasn't taken much care in presentation or execution; it's gotta be a joke.

But suppose that was the point? Suppose we give this artist the benefit of the doubt and say that each of the above elements of description, although accurate, were an intentional and integral to the conception of the piece? What happens if we look at this as a performance piece, a piece of asking us to deconstruct or reconstruct or at least rethink what it means to be a piece of art? Placed in the context of other traditional pieces of art, how might this piece of art enrich our sense of what art is and what makes it good?

The poet William Stafford opens one of my favorite essays about writing ("Making a Poem/Starting a Car on Ice") with the line "A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite from the reader a certain kind of attention." What interests me about this definition of poetry is that it places the locus of determination (Is this a poem or isn't it?) squarely in the mind of the observer. If a piece of writing elicits "a certain kind of attention," if it makes us think in a certain way, it is, according to Stafford, a poem. If we were to adapt that definition of art to the student submission above, I'd have to say, yes, it is eliciting from me a certain sort of attention, encouraging me to ask art-ful questions, and thereby validating itself as a work of at least some degree—and perhaps a considerable degree—of artistic merit.

So anyway, today I was out walking with my camera and I was thinking in a parallel processing kind of way about what makes a good photograph. I was thinking on the one hand of a photo (from cyclewidowpatti) I ran across while I was browsing on the Flickr site the other day:

This is, by any of my intuitive standards, a terrific photo. I like its texture, its colors, its composition, the fact that it suggests a story, or perhaps several stories simultaneously: the story of failed human endeavor, the story of golden life and grey death, the story what grows up and what falls down. I like the stillness of it, and the sense of place. It's both sobering and beautiful. The photographer has selected, from amongst everything surrounding her, something that invites a certain kind of attention. (Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) will also probably recognize an inclination on my part to respond positively to work that presents itself along the earthtones, Andrew Wyeth, organic woodgrain Ted Kooser Hudson-River-School continuum. Amber waves of grain and all that. Sorry. Can't help myself.)

And yet as I thought about this picture, and about the student's art submission, I found myself wondering whether and to what degree that element of selection by the artist is essential to our sense of what makes something art. So as I walked along, my left brain processing furiously as my right brain looked for camera fodder, I found myself starting to take, among the kinds of pictures I usually take—which is to say, composed, balanced, quasi-narrative pictures not unlike this one, at least in their aspirations—a number of random shots. What would happen if I tried to unlearn everything I think I know about taking pictures.(I'm not prepared at this point to start thinking about how to calculate the quotient of randomness in pictures which I was taking randomly by design. Even I have limits.) Suppose I were to just start pointing the camera at random odd angles and snapping away, would I perhaps find my way to something entirely new and comparably, if not equally, artistic? Suppose I dropped natural selection in favor of un-natural un-selection? So I did that for a while, as a kind of thought experiment. Here's one I took right before I arrived back home:

This is a picture is not composed, not balanced, not selected with a lot (well, any) conscious thought. (Take my word for it.) It's a point and shoot. It's somewhat dizzying to look at, probably because on some impulse I turned the camera at an odd angle just before I took it. It's not a very good picture, is it? Certainly not a work of art. Unless, of course, I listen for its understated, perhaps mumbled, invitation and shift the kind of attention I am paying to it.

Once I do that, I start to have second thoughts. That strong diagonal, for example has got my attention. There's an odd kind of geometrical balance here after all. The world is out of joint. The building and the world are fighting it out for space here. My hermeneutical antennae are starting to twitch. I sense the beginnings of a story...

So is this a good picture after all? Might it find its way, by virtue of its quirky, vertigo-inducing visual metaphors, into Flickr's "Most Interesting Pictures of the Week" after all? (Don't worry. I'm not going to hold my breath.) But it's certainly not as blatantly awful as it seems to have every right to be.

It occurs to me now that there's yet another factor at work: the question of context. This picture would undoubtedly look and feel out of place in the company of staid landscapes of the kind that are even now pulsing in the Flickr badge at the top of this screen. But in the context of the discussion we are now having, this picture, like the student work that we began with, takes on both conceptual and artistic weight.

So where are we? I'm thinking now that the traditional standards of artistic craft, the ones we apply intuitively (therefore?) unreflectively, will only take us so far. The more I look at the student artwork, the more I like it, not necessarily because of what is in it, but because of how it interacts with the other works of art that already exist as standards of comparison within my head, and how it would interact with the other works of art that would appear in the magazine with it.

I've thought about this before. I've written about it here before. I will doubtless do so again, perhaps soon, and with something more coherent to say. I'm already hearing voices objecting and elaborating and trying to make connections. But there's only so much I can do in one day. My brain is tired. So I'll leave with one last example of a truly random shot which gains significance only because of the context in which it appears, which is to say, right here:

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Lay of the Land

The other day I began reading Richard Ford's new novel, The Lay of the Land. I have not read either of the two previous novels in the sequence, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, but it didn't take me long to get a sense of why Ford is admired as a stylist. His main character, Frank Bascombe, in this book is a 55-year-old real estate agent. He's under treatment for prostrate cancer. It's closing in on the end of the year 1999. Frank's age, his medical history, the breakup of his most recent marriage, the closing of the millenium, and the dark events reported in the daily papers provide the background for the first-person narrative of his observations and reflections as he goes about the business of his life. What jumps off the page at me, at the start of this book, is Bascombe's (Ford's) eye for the physical details of the suburban landscape. In this passage, he is driving in a car with his business partner on the way to business meeting:

Route 37, the Toms River Miracle Mile, is already jammed at 9:30 with shopper vehicles moving into and out of every conceivable second-tier factory outlet lot, franchise and big-box store, until we're mostly stalled in intersection tie-ups under screaming signage and horn cacophony. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when merchants hope to inch into the black, is traditionally the retail year's hallowed day, with squadrons of housewives in housecoats and grannies on walkers, shouldering past security personnel at Macy's and Bradlees to get their hands on discounted electric carving knives and water-filled orthopedic pillows for that special arthritic with the chronically sore C6 and C7. Only this year—due to the mists of economic unease—merchants and their allies, the customers, have designated "gigantic" Black Tuesday and Black Wednesday Sales Days and are flying the banner of EVERYTHING MUST GO!—in case, I guess, the whole country's gone by Friday.

Cars are everywhere, heading in every direction. A giant yellow-and-red MasterCard dirigible floats above the buzzing landscape like a deity. Movie complexes are already opened with queues forming for Gladiator and The Little Vampire. Crowds press into Target and International Furniture Liquidator ("If we don't have it you don't want it"). Christmas music's blaring, though it's not clear from where, and the traffic's barely inching. Firemen in asbestos suits and Pilgrim hats are out collecting money in buckets at the mall entrances and stoplights. Ragged groups of people who don't look like Americans skitter across the wide avenue in groups, as though escaping something, while solitary men in gleaming pickups sit smoking, watching, waiting to have their vehicles detailed at the Pow-R-Brush. At the big Hooper Avenue intersection, a TV crew has set up a command post, with a hard-body, shiny-legged Latina, her stiff little butt turned to the gridlock, shouting out to the 6:00 p.m. viewers up the seaboard what all the fuss is about down here.

Yet frankly it all thrills me and sets my stomach tingling. Unbridled commerce isn't generally pretty, but it's always forward-thinking. And since nowadays with my life out of sync and most things in the culture not affecting me much—politics, news, sports, everything but the weather—it feels good that at least commerce keeps me interested like a scientist. Commerce, after all, is basic to my belief system, even though it's true, as modern merchandising theory teaches, that when we shop, we no longer really shop for anything. If you're really looking for that liquid stain remover you once saw in your uncle Beckmer's basement that could take the spots off a hyena, or you're seeking a turned brass drawer pull you only need one of to finish refurbishing the armoire you inherited from Aunt Grony, you'll never find either one. No one who works anyplace knows anything, and everyone's happy to lie to you. "They don't make those anymore." "Those've been back-ordered two years." "That ballpoint company went out of business, moved to Myanmar and now makes sump pumps ... All we have are these." You have to take what they've got even if you don't want it or never heard of it. It's hard to call this brand of zero-sum merchandising true commerce. But in its apparent aimlessness, it's not so different from the real estate business, where often at the end of the day, someone goes away happy.

We've now made it as far as the Toms River western outskirts. Motels are all full here. Used-car lots are Givin' 'em Away. A bonsai nursery has already moved its tortured little shrubs to the back, and employees are stacking in Christmas trees and wreaths. Flapping flags in many parking lots stand at half-staff—for what reason, I don't know. Other signs shout Y2K MEMORABILIA SCULPTURE! INVEST IN REAL ESTATE NOT STOCKS! TIGHT BUTTS MAKE ME NUTS! WELCOME SUICIDE SURVIVORS. Yellow traffic cones and a giant blinking yellow arrow are making us merge right into one lane, alongside a deep gash in the freshly opened asphalt, beside which large hard-hatted white men stand staring at other men already down in the hole—putting our tax dollars to work.
There's much to admire here: the sheer energy of the rhetoric of enumeration; the way the (entirely man-made) landscape alongside becomes the objective correlative for the consumer culture which has spawned it; the accumulating rhythmic patterns shaking out a kind of wryly humorous verbal jazz—I especially like the last sentence for that. This is writing that gives me physical pleasure, I was smiling to myself—and often laughing out loud—as I read it.

And as I read I found myself thinking about two other books in which topography plays a more than passing role in the way the story emerges. Here's Henry Perowne piloting his car through the streets of a London neighborhood in Saturday:

He's heading a couple of blocks south in order to loop eastwards across the Tottenham Court Road. Cleveland Street used to be known for garment sweatshops and prostitutes. Now it has Greek, Turkish and Italian restaurants—the local sort that never get mentioned in the guides—with terraces where people eat out in summer. There's a man who repairs old computers, a fabric shop, a cobbler's, and further down, a wig emporium, much visited by transvestites. This is the fair embodiment of an inner city byway—diverse, self-confident, obscure. And it's at this point he remembers the source of his vague sense of shame or embarrassment: his readiness to be persuaded that the world has changed beyond recall, that harmless streets like this and the tolerant life they embody can be destroyed by the new enemy—well-organised, tentacular, full of hatred and focused zeal. How foolishly apocalyptic those apprehensions seem by daylight, when the self-evident fact of the streets and the people on them is their own justification, their own insurance. The world has not fundamentally changed. Talk of a hundred-year crisis is indulgence. There are always crises, and Islamic terrorism will settle into place, alongside recent wars, climate change, the politics of international trade, land and fresh water shortages, hunger, poverty and the rest.

He listens to the Schubert sweetly fade and swell. The street is fine, and the city, grand achievement of the living and all the dead who've ever lived here, is fine too, and robust. It won't easily allow itself to be destroyed. It's too good to let go. Life in it has steadily improved over the centuries for most people, despite the junkies and beggars now. The air is better, and salmon are leaping in the Thames,

He's heading a couple of blocks south in order to loop eastwards across the Tottenham Court Road. Cleveland Street used to be known for garment sweatshops and prostitutes. Now it has Greek, Turkish and Italian restaurants—the local sort that never get mentioned in the guides—with terraces where people eat out in summer. There's a man who repairs old computers, a fabric shop, a cobbler's, and further down, a wig emporium, much visited by transvestites. This is the fair embodiment of an inner city byway—diverse, self-confident, obscure. And it's at this point he remembers the source of his vague sense of shame or embarrassment: his readiness to be persuaded that the world has changed beyond recall, that harmless streets like this and the tolerant life they embody can be destroyed by the new enemy-well-organised, tentacular, full of hatred and focused zeal. How foolishly apocalyptic those apprehensions seem by daylight, when the self-evident fact of the streets and the people on them is their own justification, their own insurance. The world has not fundamentally changed. Talk of a hundred-year crisis is indulgence. There are always crises, and Islamic terrorism will settle into place, alongside recent wars, climate change, the politics of international trade, land and fresh water shortages, hunger, poverty and the rest.

He listens to the Schubert sweetly fade and swell. The street is fine, and the city, grand achievement of the living and all the dead who've ever lived here, is fine too, and robust. It won't easily allow itself to be destroyed. It's too good to let go. Life in it has steadily improved over the centuries for most people, despite the junkies and beggars now. The air is better, and salmon are leaping in the Thames, and otters are returning. At every level, material, medical, intellectual, sensual, for most people it has improved. The teachers who educated Daisy at university thought the idea of progress old-fashioned and ridiculous. In indignation, Perowne grips the wheel tighter in his right hand. He remembers some lines by Medawar, a man he admires: "To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind." Yes, he's a fool to be taken in by that hundred-year claim. In Daisy's final term he went to an open day at her college. The young lecturers there like to dramatise modern life as a sequence of calamities. It's their style, their way of being clever. It wouldn't be cool or professional to count the eradication of smallpox as part of the modern condition. Or the recent spread of democracies. In the evening one of them gave a lecture on the prospects for our consumerist and technological civilisation: not good. But if the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended lifespans, wondrous machines. This is an age of wondrous machines. Portable telephones barely bigger than your ear. Vast music libraries held in an object the size of a child's hand. Cameras that can beam their snapshots around the world. Effortlessly, he ordered up the contraption he's riding in now through a device on his desk via the Internet. The computer-guided stereotactic array he used yesterday has transformed the way he does biopsies. Digitalised entertainment binds that Chinese couple walking hand in hand, listening through a Y-socket to their personal stereo. And she's almost skipping, that stringy girl in a shell suit behind a three-wheel all-terrain pushchair. In fact, everyone he's passing now along this pleasantly down-at-heel street looks happy enough, at least as content as he is. But for the professors in the academy, for the humanities generally, misery is more amenable to analysis: happiness is a harder nut to crack.

In a spirit of aggressive celebration of the times, Perowne swings the Mercedes east into Maple Street. His well-being appears to need spectral entities to oppose it, figures of his own invention whom he can defeat. He's sometimes like this before a game. He doesn't particularly like himself in this frame, but the second-by-second wash of his thoughts is only partially his to control-the drift, the white noise of solitary thought is driven by his emotional state. Perhaps he isn't really happy at all, he's psyching himself up. He's passing by the building at the foot of the Post Office Tower—less ugly these days with its aluminium entrance, blue cladding and geometric masses of windows and ventilation grilles looking like a Mondrian. But further along, where Fitzroy becomes Charlotte Street, the neighbourhood is packed with penny-pinching office blocks and student accommodation—ill-fitting windows, low ambition, not lasting well. In the rain, and in the right temper, you can imagine yourself back in Communist Warsaw.

Here—and throughout all of Saturday—we are given simultaneous access to the cityscape itself and to the interior landscape of Henry Perowne's hyperactive imagination: the things he passes as he drives are triggers for memories, for questioning, for self-analysis, for the whole simultaneous wash of one thought leading to another thought, lost in thought even as he continues to drive toward further stimulation of which he is at this moment completely unaware. I like the way McEwan slides us along in the fourth paragraph from the Schubert to the thoughts about life that Perowne has bouncing around in his head to the Medwar quotation that occurs to him to further thoughts about our place in the history of civilization to the wonders of technology to the Chinese couple and the stringy girl in the suit. This is writing of considerable richness and persuasiveness.

And, finally, here is topology of yet a different sort, the opening paragraphs of Chang-rae Lee's Aloft, in which his narrator Jerry Battle, also a man of middle age, is piloting his plane over Long Island:

From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looks perfect to me.

I am in my nifty little Skyhawk, banking her back into the sun, having nearly completed my usual fair-weather loop. Below is the eastern end of Long Island, and I’m flying just now over that part of the land where the two gnarly forks shoot out into the Atlantic. The town directly ahead, which is nothing special when you’re on foot, looks pretty magnificent now, the late-summer sun casting upon the macadam of the streets a soft, ebonized sheen, its orangey light reflecting back at me, matching my direction and speed in the windows and bumpers of the parked cars and swimming pools of the simple, square houses set snugly in rows. There is a mysterious, runelike cipher to the newer, larger homes wagoning in their cul-de-sac hoops, and then, too, in the flat roofs of the shopping mall buildings, with their shiny metal circuitry of HVAC housings and tubes.

From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged, as if fretted over by a persnickety florist god, even the ones (no doubt volunteers) clumped along the fencing of the big scrap metal lot, their spindly, leggy uprush not just a pleasing garnish to the variegated piles of old hubcaps and washing machines, but then, for a stock guy like me, mere heartbeats shy of sixty (hard to even say that), the life signs of a positively priapic yearning. Just to the south, on the baseball diamond—our people’s pattern supreme—the local Little League game is entering the late innings, the baby-blue-shirted players positioned straightaway and shallow, in the bleachers their parents only appearing to sit churchquiet and still, the sole perceivable movement a bounding goldenhaired dog tracking down a Frisbee in deep, deep centerfield.

I'm interested here in the shift of perspective upward, how viewing the landscape from above engenders an entirely different, lyrical mode of observation and reflection on the part of our narrator. The opening passage of the novel establishes the view from above as a kind of idealized version of the human landscape that looks—and is—much messier when you're inside of it than when you're above it all.

All three of these passages draw me in, satisfy my readerly need for grounding and for direction. I feel in each instance like I am in the hands of an author who knows exactly what he is doing, who is having a good time doing it, and who is offering me the chance to step into this landscape with him and explore the lay of the land.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Since I started this blog I've been able to keep my promise to myself to post something each day. Up until today, that has been easy enough: there are always ideas in the air at work, and when I'm not at work, there is always what I am reading or trying to think my way through to fall back on. But today I'm at a loss. My back is still bothering me. The doctor has no openings until Friday. In the meantime, I find it hard to do anything at all for more than a few minutes at a time, much less concentrate on something for long enough to shape a coherent post. I've been dipping into the collection of short esssays from the New York Times entitled Writers on Writing. (The most interesting or resonant single passage I've come across today is from Kent Haruf:
It's important to me to maintain this impression of spontaneity. By spontaneity I mean a sense of freshness and vividness. Perhaps at times even a suggestion of awkwardness. Otherwise, prose sounds to me stilted and too polished, as if the life of it were perfected out of it. It's very difficult to arrive at this sense of freshness and spontaneity in prose—in my experience, it takes a great deal of effort and practice and years of concentrated apprenticeship—but I believe it is one of the most important attributes to achieve. That, and simplicity. And clarity. Those would be the holy trinity in the art of fiction writing.
So that will go into the quotation bank that I keep to share with my students as the occasion demands.)

I've been listening to the Chekhov tape, with increasing appreciation for Kenneth Branagh's lively, multivoiced readings. (I've thought about trying to write up a response to at least on of the stories, that that's going to involve more time and energy than I have available today.) I've been thumbing more or less idly through the weekend papers. When my back begins to protest, I've been lying down and attempting to nap. I've picked up half a dozen books that I'm more or less in the middle in the hope of being drawn in for a while.

I've followed a few links from my site feeds, including one from the Conversational Reading blog to the new Book Lust wiki, where I was pleased to see a page in the "favorite authors" section devoted to Lee Child, whose pulp-fiction-with-a-jolt-of-something-more novels I binged on earlier this year. If Lee Child had a new book out this week, I'd be all over it. Instead, I'm in a kind of in-between zone, waiting for What Comes Next.

In short, I've been somewhat adrift. This is what always happens to me sooner or later during vacations, and it's one of the reasons why I often find myself, even when my vacation period is not yet half over, looking forward to getting back into the productive routines of my regular work life.

So that's my report for today. It's not much, and it's not too focussed, but, for what it's worth, I've kept the string alive. I'll try to do better tomorrow.

Monday, December 25, 2006


Once, when someone asked him his method of composition, Chekhov picked up an ashtray. "This is my method of composition," he said. "Tomorrow I will write a story called "The Ashtray."

This blog is called "Throughlines" for a reason. For as long as I have been keeping a commonplace book—a practice that has now been ongoing, in one form or another, for something like 40 years—I have in some cases sensed certain threads of connection which have run through the various entries and which taken together have woven at least some of the fabric of my identity: who I am as a teacher an writer and thinker and parent and free agent (or more often not-so-free agent) in the world at large. Sometimes these threads of connection need to be sought out; at other times they seem to push themselves forward.

Last Thursday I started Francine Prose's new book Reading as a Writer. Friday morning I woke up and decided to take the long walk down Ke'eaumoku Street, which runs from our neighborhood in a straight line all the way to Ala Moana Shopping Center. On a good day I could drive there in ten minutes, but on the Friday before Christmas I knew the roads would be choked with cars, so I decided to walk and bring my camera with me. Since I've recently started taking pictures again, I thought I might attempt a sort of photo essay about the Things You See on Ke'eaumoku Street. I had in mind attempting to put together a set of photos of ordinary things and ordinary places that on a regular day I might not even notice, much less select as the subject of a picture.

By the time I got home from my walk, my back had tightened up, and by the end of the day I was unable to stand or sit comfortably. So, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, I decided to go online and, since a colleague had recently given me an iTunes gift certificate, download an audiobook. I looked at my choices and decided to download a collection of Chekhov's stories. I listened to several of those, and then opened Reading as a Writer again and noticed that Chapter Ten is entitled "Learning from Chekhov." So I started reading that as a kind of counterpoint to my listening to my audiobook.

Francine Prose begins the essay by explaining the circumstance in which she began reading Chekhov on the two and a half hour bus ride home from her teaching job, as a kind of "ritual and reward" in her life at that time. She describes the interplay her teaching and her reading, and particularly how often she would find whatever she had just told her students about the process of writing convincingly refuted by the next story she picked up by Chekhov. For example, she cites a passage from the ending of the story "Volodya" in which the main character suddenly and with no explanation puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. She comments:

As anyone who has ever attended a writing class knows, the bottom line of the fiction workshop is motivation. We complain, we criticize, we say that we don't understand why this or that character says or does something. Like Method actors, we ask: What is the motivation? Of course, all this is based on the comforting supposition that things, in fiction as in life, are done for a reason. But here was Chekhov telling us that, as we may have noticed, people often do terrible things for no good reason at all.

After giving several other examples of this kind, she says that as a result of her sustained reading of Chekhov she "had been challenged, not only in my more flippant statements about fiction but also in my most basic assumptions about life."

I think I have always been suspicious of received wisdom, of dogma, of dead certainties. Over the desk of the vice-principal of my school is posted a quotation from Eric Sevareid which reads, "One asks not only for the courage of his convictions, but for the courage of his doubts, in a world of dangerously passionate certainties." I wrote it down in my notebook the first time I saw it, and later posted it here, as the footer on my home page, to serve as reminder—and a kind of cautionary note—to myself. So it was satisfying to see Francine Prose, in her essay, quoting one of Chekhov's letters to more or less the same effect:

It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, they wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artists decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.

Later, she cites a line from one of Nabokov's lectures on Chekhov, where he says, "We feel that for Chekhov the lofty and the base are not different, that the slice of watermelon and the violet sea and the hands of the town governor are essential points of the beauty plus pity of the world." That struck a chord as well. It seems an analogue to the previous point: if we do not know where the answers lie, we may perhaps be able to find our way towards them by paying attention even to the least important things: the watermelon slice, the ashtray.

The last words of Francine Prose's chapter on Chekhov are these:

Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.

Which brings us back to these pictures from my walk on Ke'eaumoku Street. I know that probably no one of these pictures is of any particular artistic or compositional merit. But my intention was to be in the world, and to use the camera as a way of looking at it. The pictures are one thread among the throughlines I have been trying to weave together here—throughlines of reading and writing and looking and thinking—and so I share them here, in the spirit that Francine Prose endorses in the work of Chekhov, as artifacts of a certain line of inquiry, and of a certain kind of celebration.

(To see the complete set of photos of Ke'eaumoku Street, click here.)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Back to Basics

This post will of necessity be brief; somehow yesterday I managed to do something to my back that makes it hard for me to sit. I can stand with some discomfort, or I can lie flat on my back, but there's not much I can do in between. So until my body decides to loosen up, I'm spending most of my time either napping, in contemplation of the ceiling, or listening to Chekhov's In the Ravine and Other Stories, an audiobook I purchased from the iTunes store when it became apparent that I was going to be out of commission for a while. The stories are read with considerable dramatic emphasis by Kenneth Branagh. There are a lot of audiobooks out there which have been unlucky in their assignment of readers. Branagh is excellent, perhaps the best I've heard since Patrick Tull reading Patrick O'Brian.

But in the spirit of the holiday season and its many subtle complications, you may want to take a look at this post from Geoff Nunberg on the Language Log.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Close Reading

In the August 2006 issue of the Atlantic, Francine Prose published an article called "Close Reading." It turns out that that article serves as the bulk of the introductory chapter to her new book, Reading Like a Writer, which I discovered at the bookstore last week and have begun reading this week. It's a book intended for readers, writers, and teachers, and it consists largely of Francine Prose citing and commenting specific passages from a wide range of authors, with particular attention to articles of craft and the aesthetics of language. In an interview posted on the Atlantic's web page, she says.

I think the most important thing—and it’s what I say in the book over and over—is to focus on what’s directly in front of you on the page; to read especially for the language. Too often students are being taught to read as if literature were some kind of ethics class or civics class—or worse, some kind of self-help manual. In fact, the important thing is the way the writer uses the language. I think there are writers who would be read more—and, conversely, writers who would never be read at all—if people actually looked at how well or how badly they wrote. In most cases, I would rather read something that’s written beautifully and doesn’t grapple with grand themes than something apparently slighter that actually has a kind of marvelous and fresh and invigorating approach to the language.

So that's what she attends to primarily in this book: the way writers use language. Her examples are entertaining and instructive, and she writes with clarity and assurance. So I recommend the book on those grounds. If you are interested in the process of being a reader, of how you might teach yourself (or your students) to read well, or at least better, than this book is for you.

But the passage in the introduction that most caught my attention—mostly because I just spent a number of hours writing about my own beginnings as a reader—was this one:

We all being as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, means that we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, that we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.

The more we read, the more rapidly we are able to perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.

At first, the thrill of our own brand-new expertise is all we ask or expect from Dick and Jane. But soon we begin to ask what else those marks on the page can give us. We begin to want information, entertainment, invention, even truth and beauty. We concentrate, we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread. We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.

As a child, I was drawn to the works of the great escapist children's writers. I like trading my familiar world for the London of the four children whose nanny parachuted into their lives with her umbrella and who turned the most routine shopping trip into a magical outing. I would gladly have followed the White Rabbit down into the rabbit hole and had tea with the Mad Hatter. I loved novels in which children stepped through portals—a garden door, a wardrobe—into an alternate universe.

Children love the imagination, with its kaleidoscopic possibilities and its protest against the way children are always being told exactly what's true and what's false, what's real and what's illusion. Perhaps my taste in reading had something to do with the limitations I was discovering, day by day: the brick walls of time and space, science and probability, to say nothing of whatever messages I was picking up from the culture. I liked novels with plucky heroines like Pippi Longstocking, the astringent Jane Eyre, and the daughters in Little Women, girls whose resourcefulness and intelligence don't automatically exclude them from the pleasures of male attention.

Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. There were chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly. On one family vacation, my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon.

All of which makes complete sense to me, and mirrors my own experience. We often think or speak of reading as being "broadening." But I think Francine Prose has hit on two dimensions of that broadness which are significant but not obvious: firstly that what we read is, or at least can be, an act of assertion, of resistance to the constraints of parental and societal attempts to define us. (Not to mention the harder-edged "walls of time and space, science and probability.") Secondly, that reading allows us to escape—or at least provides the illlusion of escape—from our bodies entirely. I remember writing a note to myself in my journal a number of years ago, in the form of a question: When you're deeply engrossed in a book, where exactly are you? It's still an interesting question.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Digital Tourist

A digital native I"m not. But since I've been on vacation this week, I've been carrying my pocket-sized digital camera with me and taking pictures as I've been moving around Honolulu. Yesterday I went for a walk with my son at Ward Center and Ala Moana Beach Park and took some pictures there, and then came home and played with them a little. I've also just recently begun to realize what can be done with the suprisingly effective digital editing tools that are built into iPhoto on the Mac.

This photo here, of Ala Moana beach looking toward Diamond Head, for example, was a regular snapshot that I cropped to emphasize the horizontal skyline, made into a sepia picture by clicking the button, and then adjusted the color using the sliders in the "adjust" bar. The effect is different than any photo I ever took before. I'm sure experienced photographers will look at something like this and find all sorts of reasons to disdain it, but at this point it's still new, for me, anyway, and I thought it was kind of easy and kind of cool.

This second was taken in shadow looking out toward the water, but it had a lot of pretty muddy browns and greens in it until I pushed the contrast, and it became a much more dramatic picture. I especially like the way that the sunlight on the water jumps out at you when it's framed by all that black. It's hard to see in the thumbnail I've posted here, but it looks pretty good even at 3x5.

The third was taken more or less on the fly as I was crossing Piikoi Street at Ala Moana Boulevard. I was interested in the intersecting lines, and was able to emphasize that by cropping the picture hard, clicking to make it b&w, and then sharpening the edges and pushing the contrast again. It's not the most dramatic photo from a narrative point of view, but I like the quiet little geometrical song that it sings, and I like the little man in the crossing signal window, making his presence quietly known.

All of which is to say, this is all just too much fun.

(Bonus tracks: to see what the Next Generation was up to earlier the same day, check out Axis Infinite...and if you'd like to see better versions of these and other photos, take a look at yet another high-tech toy, the Flickr Site.)

Heavy Weather

In yesterday's post I found myself waxing enthusiastic about Patrick O'Brian's writerly abilities. The Aubrey-Maturin series is a prodigious accomplishment by any measure: twenty-one novels that follow the career of Jack Aubrey, captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and the years beyond. The early novels were meticulously research and based within or in the context of many real historical events, but as the series went on O'Brian ran out of history and wound up moving the tale forward primarliy on the strength of his imagination.

The novels have much to recommend them. No one on this planet today has ever ridden a man-of-war into battle; few of us have been to sea for any extended amount of time. O'Brian brings us there.

O'Brian does many things well. His characters are idiosyncratic and acutely drawn. Aubrey—a man of action and physical impulses—and Maturin—a physician, an amateur naturalist, and most interestingly, a highly accomplished spy for the British government—form a partnership which is dynamic and constantly evolving: at one point they are even both in love with the same woman, but they weather that storm as well as many others.

Within a compelling narrative framework O'Brian manages to convey a great deal of highly specific information about historical events, about the conditions of life on board ship, about politics and biology and geography. But some of my favorite passages are about nothing more profound than the weather. I cannot recall any author I have read in my lifetime who is better at observing and reporting on meteorological events. Here is Aubrey, in Desolation Island, trying to read the weather as his ship faces an oncoming storm:

The swell was increasing, and the wind. He knew very well that once it came on to blow, to blow as the wind could blow in the forties, the clouds in the west would cover the sky with extraordinary speed and this seemingly sweet day would turn into a howling darkness, full of racing water. A visit to the cabin showed him the glass lower still: sickeningly low. And back on the poop he saw that he was by no means the only one to have noticed the mounting sea - an oddly disturbed sea, as if moved by some not very distant force; white water too, and a strange green colour in the curl of the waves and in the water slipping by. He glanced north-west, and there the sun, though shining still, had a halo, with sun-dogs on either side. Ahead, the aurora had gained in strength: streamers of an unearthly splendour. Below him, the pumps churned on and on: but both down there and here on the poop he caught an atmosphere of growing apprehension. Stiff though she was, the Leopard was heeling now so that her larboard cathead plunged deep on the leeward swell. And now the surf was rising higher on the icebergs and on the weather face of the headland on the bow. The howl in the rigging was louder and higher by far, and growing fast: a dangerous, dangerous note.

The broad expanse of water between the Leopard and the cape showed far more white than green; and inshore, where there had been smooth water not half an hour ago, there was the ugly appearance of a tide-rip, a long narrow stretch of pure white that raced eastwards from the headland and that must grow longer, broader, and fiercer by far as the tide reached its full flow.

The situation had changed indeed; but worse was coming, and coming very fast. A grey haze overspread the sky with the speed of a curtain being drawn, and it was followed by tearing cloud: the lightning increased on the starboard beam, much nearer now. And right ahead, a white squall, the forerunner of the full almighty gale, swept over the mile or two of the sea northward of the cape, veiling the land entirely.

It was no longer a question of where and how he should negotiate the tide-race, but of whether he should be able to approach the cape at all, or whether he should be obliged to put the ship before the ever-increasing wind and run before it. Speed was everything: in five or ten minutes at this rate of increase there would be no alternative—he would either have to put before the wind or perish. Or put before the wind and perish: the people could not pump for ever—they were already very near their limit even with this encouragement—and in any case the Leopard would almost surely founder in the kind of seas that would build up before nightfall. (279-80)

Or another example, from The Far Side of the World, as a storm hits:

On deck all hell broke loose as they were striking the maintopmast half an hour later; the preventer top-rope reeved through the fid-hole parted at the very moment a deluge of warm rain beat down on the ship, so thick they could scarcely breathe, much less see. From that time on until full darkness and beyond it was an incessant battle with mad blasts of wind from every direction, thunder and lightning right overhead, unbelievably steep seas that made no sense at all, bursting with such force that they threatened to engulf the ship - bursting as though they were over a reef, although there was no bottom to be found with any line the ship possessed. All this and such freaks as a waterspout that collapsed on their astonished heads, bringing the maindeck level with the surface for several minutes; and without a pause thunder bellowed about them, while St Elmo's fire flickered and blazed on the bowsprit and catheads. It was a time or rather—since ordinary time was gone by the board—a series of instant shifts and expedients, of surviving from one stunning thunderclap and invasion of water to the next and between them making fast such things as the jollyboat, the binnacle itself and the booms that had carried away. And all the while the pumps turned like fury, flinging out tons of water that the sea or the sky flung right back again. Yet even so it was the hands at the pumps who were the least harassed; although they had to work until they could hardly stand, often up to their middles in water, often half-choked with flying spray or still more rain, immeasurable quantities of rain, at least they knew exactly what to do. For the others it was a perpetually renewed state of emergency in which anything might happen—unheard of, shockingly dangerous accidents such as the seventy foot palm trunk that a freakish sea flung bodily aboard so that its far end wedged in the mainshrouds while the rest lashed murderously to and fro, sweeping the gangways and the forecastle just as an equally freakish squall took what little storm-canvas the ship dared show full aback, checking her as though she had run on to a reef and laying her so far over that many thought she was gone at last. Indeed, if a windward gun had broken loose at this point of utmost strain it would certainly have plunged right through her side. (310-11)

These passage give me great pleasure as a reader for the extraordinary grace and precision in the way they create the scene. O'Brian loves and has mastered the 19th-century nautical terminology and deploys it in a way that is both convincingly natural and yet easy for the unitiated reader to pick up on the fly. He's very good at following and rendering the minute shifts and major transformations that occur from one moment to the next. And he knows how to use the single elegant detail—like that palm-trunk wedged in the main-shrouds and lashing murderously about—to sharpen and give substance to our imaginative participation in the action. I could give many more examples. Some of the passages stay with a storm, or a sea battle, or a trek through a jungle, or a politically and psychologically charged conversation, for many pages of equally authoritative exposition. Those of you who have read O'Brian know what I'm talking about, and may have your own passages to put forward. Those of you who have not sat down with O'Brian, you really don't know what you're missing. Try him and see.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On Reading

Francis Bacon once famously observed that "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." He might have gone one step further and mentioned that some books are devoured in great, real-world-obliterating, dizzyness-inducing chunks. I've been thinking recently about the books that have shaped me as a reader and a person. Two I have already mentioned are the Tao Te Ching , by Lao Tsu, and Allegiances, by William Stafford. But the other day I was reading through some posts by John Etorre in his blog Working with Words and ran across this quotation from Proust:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure; the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench, without touching while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance at, it has on the contrary engraved in us so sweet a memory of (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and pond which no longer exist.

That quotation seems to have spun me off into another thought-stream: I've been thinking about my early days as a reader, and what made me a reader in the first place. (I wasn't really aware of the stimulus at first. I had written much of this post before I opened my commonplace book this morning and saw the Proust quotation where I had pasted it several days ago. It's funny how the subterranean streams of consciousness burble and flow.)

My mother and my father were both voracious readers. My mother loved mystery magazines and mystery novels; it was not unusual for her to read one in a single night. My father read the newspaper from cover to cover pretty much every day of his life, and subscribed to a number of magazines, from The New Yorker to Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. From the time I was old enough to be award of what was going on, both of my parents would read out loud to me. After dinner my father would often read to me the Thornton W. Burgess books, which were serialized in the New York Telegram and Sun, and featured animal characters like Peter Rabbit and Reddy the Fox and Johnny Chuck and Bowser the Hound. At bedtime, my mother would read from A.A. Milne, and later, from Kipling's Jungle Books.

Later, when I was able to read myself, I found I could often squeeze a few minutes extra before I was called to bed; if I sat reading quietly if was entirely possible that my parents, each caught up in their own reading worlds, would not notice that it was past 8:00. One of my clearest memories of boyhood is of playing on the living room floor while my mother and father sat across from one another in front of the fireplace in our living room on Croton Avenue in Mt. Kisco, NY. Here is the scene as I reconstructed it a poem some years ago:

62 Croton Avenue

We are gathered together by the fire:
Father in his easy chair, hidden
behind the evening Herald,
Mother with her feet up on the hassock,
devoted to her Ellery Queen.
I sprawl on the rug, dividing myself
between Treasure Island and the flames
which dance orange and blue around
the branches of the summer's apple tree,
now split and stacked over the andirons.

On my back, I scan the rough cut beams
which anchor the ceiling like the ribs
of a schooner. The lamp above my mother's head
sheds light reflected in panes of blackened glass.
Rolling over, I look at the clock on the mantle.
Quarter to eight. Soon, my mother will put aside
her mystery, my father will rise to lift another
log onto the fire, and I will be sent to bed.
But now there is still time for a few more pages.
I draw closer to the hearth, settle myself
at my mother's feet, and begin again to read.

So my parents obviously shaped my development as a reader by their own example as readers and by their encouragement of me, which took many forms: reading out loud to me, taking me frequently to the library, making sure to give me books on my birthday and at Christmas. But, thinking back on it now, I see there was another major influence. He's certainly not the only one; I was addicted during my youth to many writers and many kinds of books. But the first one who really grabbed me and wouldn't let go was Walter Farley.

I can remember with great clarity the feeling of total absorption I experience when I was reading about the adventures of Alec Ramsay and The Black. It is a feeling that I loved at that time, the feeling that Proust describes, of being swept out of my life and my world into another world of mystery and adventure seemed like the purest kind of magic. (It helped that when I finished one book, there was another to follow; Farley wrote 18 of them at least, and after his death in 1989 his son kept the series going.) It was an experience I sought out again and again as a child, and later as a high school and college student, and throughout adulthood to the present day. And I have to give at least some credit to Walter Farley for creating that magic for me. (I just read a Wikipedia entry on Farley and discovered, to my profound satisfaction as a teacher—expecially since it confirms what I was arguing in yesterday's post—that Farley began The Black Stallion in high school and finished in while still in college.)

Obviously, not every book has that kind of an impact. There are books I find myself working at reading, but manage to complete. There are books that I love at the start, but which fail to hold my interest. There are books that I like very much when I am reading them, but when I put them down, I don't find myself drawn back to them. (I include Salmon Rushdie in this category. He's clearly a brilliant writer and I enjoy the pyrotechnics on the page when I happen to pick him up, but when I put him down I do not find myself circling back in five minutes, or five days, to pick up up again.) There are some few books written in long series which sustain me, as The Black Stallion books did, through six months and more of nearly constant reading; I'm thinking here of Patrick O'Brian's majestic 21-volume Aubrey-Maturin series , which I've read through twice and am looking forward to reading again; and of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series, which are by any measure among the literary wonders of the world. (I found out about Dunnett only because I chanced across an end-paper essay in the NYT Book Review, the thesis of which was that she was among the greatest authors that almost no one has read. An assessment I now agree with.)

And I'm enough my mother's son to be seduced by the pleasures of well-crafted mysteries and pulp fiction, as for example the series of novels by Lee Child featuring ex-Army MP Jack Reacher as the reluctant hero of any number of teeth-clenchingly riveting adventures, or the Charlie Bradshow series by the notoriously prolific Stephen Dobyns, who is in his other writerly lives a college professor, a poet, and a "serious" novelist.

I'm often reading six or eight books at a time, in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the one that sweeps me up and takes me for a ride. Right now I have a stack of books behind my easy chair, and I am hopeful that one of them is The One which will open that magic door once again. It worries me that many of my students now report that they don't like to read, or worse, that they love to read but "don't have the time" because of the demands of homework and other school activities. Not to mention television, video games, and mySpace. My life has been immeasurably enriched by what I have read in my lifetime. I'd like to be able to share that with my students, but it seems to be getting harder. I do admissions interviews for my school, and one of my standard questions is "What are you reading?" The majority of students I talk to aren't reading anything that is not assigned to them in school, and of the ones who are, the majority is reading either Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket. I don't have anything against either; in fact, I've read all the Potter books with enjoyment myself. But I don't think they suffice, and I wonder about what kind of a world it is going to be when all reading is merely functional. S.I. Hayakawa once wrote,

In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read... It is true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.

Director/producer Sidney Pollack, speaking at the Birmingham University commencement exercises in June of 2003, takes it one step further, arguing—eloquently, I think—that reading not only enriches our fund of experience, it enriches our ability to understand and communicate and empathize with one another:

I can be a black housewife. I can be a king. I can be a 19th century fur trapper. I can be a CIA spy. I can be a warrior. I can learn what it feels like to be tried and convicted, to confess, to win the beautiful girl, lose the beautiful girl. It’s a way of understanding the world that functions beyond intellect and it teaches and touches through feeling and experience even when the experience is purely that of the imagination. Compassion finally is the great gift of literature. Fiction, and by that I mean the aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds, must persuade you to interpret the world through compassion.
I guess that's the holy grail of reading, the hope that I have for my students, and for myself, that reading (and, one might add, writing as well) can make us not only happier, but wiser. It's not always going to happen, but it's something, in this holiday season, to wish for.

(Additional random note: I received a copy of the NFAA's Young Arts magazine today. It included a short article by Elliot Eisner entitled 10 Lessons the Arts Can Teach. They're clear and well-stated, and they all make good sense to me.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Core Beliefs: 2

What does it mean when students talk about graduating from college and entering "the real world?" Where exactly have they been living all these years? Where have they picked up the notion that what goes on in the early years of their lives is somehow un-real or un-important, less relevant or less significant than what will be going on at some time in the indefinite future? It's true that because they are still young they are shielded from some of the worries and responsibilities of adulthood. But it's also true that an hour in the life of a child is no less real and no less valuable than an hour in the life of an elderly person. An hour is an hour is an hour.

I think that as parents and teachers we make a mistake when we act in ways that confirm our children and our students in their assumption that life doesn't really begin until you get to the real world, and that what they are doing in school is therefore not really significant, but merely a kind of rehearsal or preparation for real life. So that's core belief number two: Students already live in the real world. The challenge that presents to me as a teacher is to help students find ways to connect what they are doing in school with the things that they do really care about, and that are central to their sense of who they are as individuals right now. If what we are doing in the English class does not connect with or help the students to understand better the lives they are living right now, then we are all wasting a tremendous amount of time. I think it's critical that we invite the students to bring their worlds, the ones they live in right now, into the classroom.

Several years ago Everett Kline came to my school to talk about authentic assessment. He challenged us to think about ways of organizing our end-of-semester assessments (which for most of us meant either exams or papers) that would give the students the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise by doing something that mattered to them. I decided to try his ideas out by turning some time over to my second-semester sophomore students to do allow them to work on independent projects of their own design. I gave them about six weeks to work on the projects. I cut back on the other work I was assigning them, and I gave them time in class - a total of about ten hours - to work on their projects and meet with me in conference about them. The only two constraints I put on the assignment were that it should represent the best work the students thought they could do at this point it time, and that it should link to something they really care about. I also asked them to hand in a reflection paper in which they would talk about the process they went through, what they think they did well, what they enjoyed or had trouble with and what they would do differently if they were starting over.

The first year I did this, out of sixty sophomore students there were about five who did what I considered to be a terrific job. But, in one of the moves that looks really good only in retrospect, I asked those five students if I could keep their projects to show to the next year's students. (I asked those who wanted to keep them for permission to photocopy them.) The following year, I showed the students in my classes the previous year's projects. The second year I wound up with 15 or 20 first-rate projects, and I held onto those as well. Many of the students invested substantially more time and effort on the projects that I could have reasonably expected them to do if I were simply assigning them work of my own choosing.

Over the last five years I've continued with the sophomore independent projects, and I've been amazed at the results. Students have written collections of short stories and poems. They've written novels. They've done autobiographies and family histories and ethnographic research. They've done documentary videos, like this student's documentary on World of Warcraft. They've made physical objects and documented the process: surfboards, Hawaiian drums, necklaces, pottery, hand-crafted computer cabinetry. They have been able to apply the thinking and writing and problem-solving skills we've worked on during the year to the lives they are already living. Now I've got an archive of perhaps 100 terrific project (I'm strategizing now about how to make more than the small sample in the link above online available online) and the proportion of students each year who are come up with projects at least as good is up around 80%.

In an earlier post I talked about my belief that when we put too many constraints on what students write, we actually make it harder for them to write well. The same might be said about teaching in general. The teaching activities with which I have had the most success, the ones which I felt best about and which have allowed the students to do the best work, have by and large been the ones where I essentially set up a framework and then got out of the way. Most students are more capable than they think they are, and more capable than WE think they are. Donald Murray at the Univerisity of New Hampshire used to say "I'm going to underteach so my students can overlearn." In the context of everything I've just been saying, that makes complete sense to me.

And one might take this set of ideas one step further, from the pragmatic to the programmatic. What would a school look like that started from the set of assumptions we've been discussing? Norman Kolb has an interesting essay that was published in Independent School in the spring of 2006. It's called "A Map to the Future," and it begins like this:

What memorabilia do you still have from your school years? I remember having several cartons of the stuff—report cards, book reports, science projects—that at one time or another were important enough to save. But then, as the years went by, first one carton and then another and another somehow disappeared. In the end, the only survivor of all those years was a map of Long Island Sound I drew as a senior in a high school cartography course.

Why has this one artifact managed to survive all of the packing and unpacking I've done in moving through college and then from apartments to houses in three states on two coasts? The answer is probably the most prosaic one—the map, quite by accident, simply happened to make it through four decades of purges. Even so, I prefer to think that the map refused to be discarded because it represents an important moment in my educational biography: possibly the only time in high school that a teacher encourage me to work on something I actually wanted to do, something other than the required curriculum.

Kolb goes on to talk about his vision of what an education might be as opposed to what it too often is. He elaborates on his vision of education in the year 2016:

The school of 2016 should give students as many opportunities as possible to be knowledge workers. These opportunities include offering electives that are suggested and possibly even designed and taught by students; scheduling interim programs that encourage students to explore topics of their own choosing (and, ideally, without being graded); encouraging mentoring relationships that take students beyond the school's physical and programmatic boundaries; carrying out sustained problem-based explorations; promoting travel-study opportunities, and requiring that students plan and conduct substantial independent projects during the junior and senior years.

In other words, let's recognize that the lives the students have are the ones they are living now. And let's find a way to make what goes on in the classroom draw upon and enrich those lives.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fuel for the Fire

Will Richardson has a post today which reinforces the point I was trying to make yesterday. He quotes the executive summary of a report on the Skills of the American Workforce which says:

“This is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to a good life, in which high levels of education–a very different kind of education than most of us have had–are going to be the only security there is.”"Too often, our testing system rewards students who will be good at routine work, while not providing opportunities for students to display creative and innovative thinking and analysis.”

And I certainly agree with WR when he speculates that "2007 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in the school reform discussion." It's becoming clear that the No Child Left Behind act is a disaster. And it's also becoming clear that technology is changing everything. It always had the potential to change things, but the tools just keep getting better and better.

Yesterday, for example my son walked into the room where I was working on uploading some pictures to Flickr and showed me Google's latest toy, a web-site design program that is, like Google Docs, fast, clean, easy to use, and free. It took my son about fifteen minutes to create a home page that links to all his other web projects. The new Google module is one of a growing collection of tools—along with wikis and whiteboards and blogs and aggregators, not to mention this blog engine and gmail and Google itself—that have the potential to change how we communicate and how we teach.

This fall, the freshman at Punahou will, for the first time, each be arriving in classs with a laptop in hand. A year ago, the individual departments were wracking their brains trying to figure out what we would ask our teachers to DO with those laptops in class each day. For me, at least, that's changed. In the last three or four months alone, I've been swimming in a sea of ideas of the kind that Will Richardson keeps talking about, like the one he references in another of today's posts, where he points us to Pat Aroune's site, where technology is changing the way things work in the classroom.

So yes, it's an exciting time to be a teacher, and 2007 is shaping up to be a big year.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Core Beliefs: 1

I spent 27 years as a teacher in the Canton, MA public schools. During the last several years of my tenure there, the school system hosted a fundraiser called the Academic Olympics. Local businesses and civic organizations were invited to send teams—each team had to make a donation the the CHS scholarship fund—to participate in the Olympics. The teams sat at tables on the stage of the Canton High School auditorium—there was a microphone on each table—and competed to answer questions in several categories including world geography, current events, and vocabulary. Each correct answer gave teh team a certain number of points. If a team missed an answer, the next team to the left was given an opportunity to answer and receive partial points.

On one of these nights, long about the year 1995, the team representing the Town Library flubbed the answers to the first three or four questions. As guardians of the local repository of knowledge, were a little embarrassed to be unable to come up with the goods. When it came to be their turn again, they were asked "What's the name of the longest river in Paraguay?" The members of the team conferred with their hand over the mike, with much whispering and gesticulation and rolling of eyes. Finally, the head librarian leaned into the mike and said, "Well, we don't know the answer to that question. But we know where to find the answer to that question."

That got a big laugh from the crowd. But the reason it stuck in my head is that it confirmed me in something I have believed for some time, and believe even strongly even more today. Education is not, or should not be, about instilling information. Students today don't have to go to library, or even to a book, to find information. Information is here at the tip of my fingers as I type on this screen. Google and the Wikipedia and the New York Time are one click away. Thousands upon thousands of other resources are there for ready reference. MIT is in the process of making ALL of its curricula available on the web.

I've been thinking about basic principles, about what my core beliefs are after almost 40 years in the classroom. So here goes. Core Belief Number One: Real education is not about content. It's about process. If I'm teaching history, my goal should not be to teach students facts about history. My goal should be to teach my students how to think—and act—like historians. If I'm teaching science, my goal should not be to teach students facts about science. It should be to teach my students how to think—and act—like scientists. And if I'm try to teach students how to write, I should be teaching my students how to think—and act—like writers.

In the late 1970's I was teaching middle school English and became acquainted with the work of Donald Graves, one of the central figures in the process writing movement and its often-maligned and even-more-often misunderstood love child, the whole-language movement. I read everything he wrote, heard him speak (brilliantly) on a number of occasions, and completely reshaped my classroom practice based on what he had to say. I remember one presentation I attended where he said, "You can do all the technical things right as a teacher, and if students don't believe that you care about them and are interested in what they have to say, they will underachieve. Conversely, you can do all the mistakes in the world and if the students know you care about them and are interested in what they have to say, they will go way beyond your expectations." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that was the message. It's a message that makes both intuitive and experiential sense to me, and nothing that has happened in my classrooms in the twenty-five years since I first heard him say it has made me think he was wrong.

That's the problem that I have with the whole standards-based high-stakes state testing model that has come to dominate the marketplace of educational ideas in the last ten years. As I said in a recent post, the problem with the tests is precisely because they are content-driven. And when teachers know that they and their students are going to be judged by how the students perform on the test, everything else that a teacher might want to go after—like listening to students, like establishing relationships based on the how rather than the what of learning, like leaving room for exploration rather than regurgitation—gets pushed right off the table. There's just not enough time. It's a kind of Gresham's Law of education, with bad practice and bad ideas driving out good. It has even, sadly but utterly predictably, led to abuses like teachers and administrators changing answers on the tests to bring up the scores.

B. F. Skinner once said "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." He was right about that. We all forget stuff. We all forget most of the stuff we have learned and experienced in our lifetimes. But, if we are lucky, we emerge from our education with a set of habits of mind and a set of processing skills that allow us to read the situation and react. The Marines teach their recruits to "do your oodaloops," (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act: Repeat). That's a set of processing skills. I teach my students to ask themselves "Where am I now? Where I am I trying to get to? How can I get there?" That's a set of processing skills. (One of many.)

What's the longest river in Paraguay?

I have no idea. But I know where to find the answer to that question. It's a processing skill I've picked up.