Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Taint of the Schoolroom

Philip Lopate has called the personal essay the vision of middle age... I'd extend that statement by saying that any essay — personal, critical, expository — is more likely to be written by someone with a few gray hairs than by a twenty-five-year-old. (He's too busy finishing his first novel.) Activity and reflection tend to be sequential rather than simultaneous. And it takes at least a dozen years before the taint of the schoolroom—the "essay question," the college application "essay," the "essay on the principle exports of Bulgaria, due Thursday at 10:00," all of which have as much in common with an essay by Montaigne as a vitamin pill does with a chocolate truffle—wears off completely.

Ann Fadiman, in the introduction to Best American Essays 2003

The Bottom of the Ocean

In my post the other day, I made reference to a Nicole Krauss story in which the narrator considers the possibility that her inability to write might be connected with the fact that the work in progress had "the potential for perfection and that this possibility finally silenced me." When I read the story and while I was writing about it, I found myself thinking about a story that the novelist Mark Salzman tells (in Lawrence Weschler's profile "The Novelist and the Nun" in the October 2, 2000 New Yorker magazine) about seeing Yo-Yo Ma in concert. Salzman had begun playing the cello at about age seven, and he had played for about ten years when his parents took him to Tanglewood to see Yo-You Ma in concert.

"And that was one of transformative experiences of my life...I'll never forget how Yo-Yo Ma walked out onto the stage. I mean, most performers walk out completely stiff, like this, and you can sense the sobriety, the utter focus, the intense concentration — the barely concealed terror. And I don't mean that as a criticism: the techical level expected of performers these days is so insanely high that you'd be crazy if you weren't terrified. Yo-Yo, by contrast, came out like this—totally relaxed, guffawing, almost slap-happy, casually waving to friends in the audience, you know, 'Oh wow, great, what are you doing here?' Completely, but completely, unfazed.

"And then he started to play. Bach— the fifth suite for unaccompanied cello. And his playing was so beautiful, so original, so intelligent, so effortless that by the end of the first movement I knew my cello career was over. I kid you not. People talk about Yo-Yo Ma's superhuman technique. Let me tell you: superhuman technique is only the tip of the Yo-Yo Ma iceberg. What really sank my ship was how much he was obviously enjoying himself: he was lost in the music, freed by it, speaking through it, in love with it. He was enjoying himself as much playing as most of the rest of us do when we're listening, and as I myself never did when playing, not to speak of practicing.

"When I heard Yo-Yo Ma play, I suddenly realized that I wasn't just inadequate, I wasn't even making music. I was training to be a showoff, that's all. My playing was to true music what a résumé is to a real piece of writing. My true calling, I realized, was not the cello, never had been... So I put the cello into deep storage, and, reporting to Yale, I majored in Chinese.
At this point, Salzman's story seems to serve as a pretty good example of how the experience of perfection can be, at least initially, daunting, discouraging, enervating. Once you have a real sense of what the possibilities are and set to work on your own, whatever it is that you manage to produce is going to look pretty undernourished.

Fortunately, you don't have to stop there. Salzman himself recounts how, having used this discouraging experience as fuel for a novel he was writing (The Soloist), he was able to return to playing music once again:

"As I was coming to the end of the book, I realized how badly I wanted this cellist to be able to enjoy playing once again—not as a concert soloist but just as someone who loves playing for the sake of the music, who strives for the ideal that music represents but isn't destroyed by failure to reach that ideal. And as I was writing that scene I had the stereo playing in the background, and on came Bach's Fifth Suite, the one that Yo-Yo Ma had been playing the day he tore through the hull of my ship and sent me to the bottom of the ocean. I was describing this moment when the cellist, alone, drags the bow across the strings, just to hear the music come alive, and how it does come alive for him, and how now when he makes mistakes he no longer cares, he doesn't think of them as a crime against music, but, rather, as an act of nature, like the random cracks that show up in those Oriental teacups everybody's always raving about.

"After I'd completed that scene, I remember thinking, If I can do that for him, why not for me? So I rented a cello—my own was still back in Connecticut in deep storage—and I tried acting out the scene I had just written, and it was wonderful. That was ten years ago, and I've been playing every day since, and I can honestly say that nowadays, playing, I feel the way Yo-Yo Ma looked. How I sound is an entirely different matter.

Followup notes: In 1996 Mark Salzman got to play onstage with Yo-Yo Ma in a concert which was broadcast nationally on the television program Live From Lincoln Center. The rest of Weschler's profile details how Salzman was able to solve the structural problems he was facing in writing the novel Lying Awake by borrowing structural elements from another of Bach's cello suites. And how he eventually gave a combined reading and cello concert with parallel pieces from the two works.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Metaphors 2

Metaphors 1

"...sometimes I am asked by the occasional journalist who wishes to interview me why I stopped writing poetry. Either I say that the poetry I wrote wasn't any good, perhaps that it was even terrible, or I say that a poem has the potential for perfection and that this possibility finally silenced me, or sometimes I say that I felt trapped in the poems I tried to write, which is like saying one feels trapped in the universe, or trapped by the inevitability of death, but the truth of why I stopped writing poetry is not any of these, not nearly, not exactly. The truth is that if I could explain why I stopped writing poetry then I might be able to write it again."

I was taken by this passage from the Nicole Krauss story "From the Desk of Daniel Varsky," from the current issue of Harper's in which the narrator, a woman looking back from a distance of 30 years at one particular day in her life, recounts the events of that day and its associated afterthoughts. I like the way she poses the question that is put to her, and the way she moves through a series of plausible but ultimately unconvincing answers only to arrive at "the truth," which turns out to be not an answer at all but an acknowledgment of bewilderment, of limitation, of being shut off from that which she seeks. The context for the reflection is that she is thinking of a desk, presumably the one she is sitting at as she writes, which received from a friend of hers, a poet, now dead. The passage continues:

What I am saying is that Daniel Varsky's desk, which became my desk, my desk of now more than thirty years, reminds me of these things. I've always considered myself only a temporary guardian and had assumed a day would come, after which, albeit with mixed feelings, I would be relieved of my responsibility, the responsibility of living with and watching over the furniture of my friend, the dead poet Daniel Varsky, and that from then on I would be free to move as I wished, possibly even to another country. It isn't exactly that the furniture has kept me in New York, but if pressed I have to admit that this is the excuse I've used to myself for not leaving after all these years, long after it became clear that the city had nothing left for me.

When a passage like this conveys literal truth with such authority and precision, it's hard NOT to feel the metaphorical weight as well. Starting with the desk itself. The narrator feels simultaneously a sense of responsibility to the desk and to its owner—all the more since he is dead and unable to reclaim it as his own—and a sense of inadequacy, combined with a wistful desire to be "free to move." But she has not moved, even though the place she lives no longer fuels her emotions or imagination. I suppose all of us who write feel to some degree the burden of responsibility that other writers place on us. We want to measure up, to carry the torch, to hold up our end. And at a certain point, and often at many points, we run up against the invisible walls that constrain us. In this sense, the desk feels like the whole weight of the literary tradition, every writer one has ever read and admired, every writer whose presence in our lives has generated the desire to emulate, and it's darker twin, the anxiety of influence. The more you feel like you have something to live up to, the harder it is to write anything at all.

A few days ago I posted a poem by Richard Wilbur which similarly literalizes the dilemma, and uses clearing the "sill of the world" as the metaphor for transcending it:

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
He we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove,
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait there, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
That dazed starling, trapped in the room, battering against the invisible barriers, hoping to fly free, that starling is everyone who has ever sat down at a desk to write. The woman in the story, who feels "trapped in the universe, or trapped by the inevitability of death," is likewise, in some fairly obvious way, in exactly the same situation as you, or I, or anyone else.

My favorite line in the whole piece is the part where she says that maybe one reason she stopped writing is that she realized "a poem has the potential for perfection and that this possibility finally silenced me." So we have to deal not only with the ideal represented by those we admire, but with the inherent ideal of the writing itself.

And, as long as we're waxing metaphorical, there's no real reason why we need to limit our reading of these two texts to the context of writing, because writing itself can easily stand as a metaphor for That Which One Aspires To Do Well: Dance. Teach. Be a good parent. Play piano, or chess. Paint. Run a business. Create a blog. Live your life.

(Tech note: I just figured out that if you are a subscriber to Harpers' print magazine you can create an account which allows you to access the Harper's archives, which include not only the current issues but issues all the way back to the 1850's. Too cool.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lower Your Expectations

Three by Three

Classes are done.
Another year over.
The usual letdowns.

What to say?
Where to begin?
With what's here?

The cursor blinks.
The screen awaits.
My brain resists.

I'd like to.
Really, I would.
But I can't.

Not just yet.
I need time.
Time to sleep.

Time to read.
Time to regroup.
Breathe a little.

The kids are gone.
The house is empty.
I'm worn out.

So just this.
Find a pattern.
Push into it.

See what happens.
Sure, it's flat.
Not much here.

That's the reality.
What you see.
May 24, 2007

Well, great poetry it ain't. But it captures pretty well what it feels like on the evening after meeting my classes for the last time this semester and attending the end-of-the-year awards assembly. I'm beat. I don't have much electrical activity upstairs. My brain feels thick and my blood feels like it's thickened. I feel a little like I'm underwater. I'm torn between trying to find my way into something worth writing about, playing some online chess because it doesn't require me to think beyond what's in front of my eyeballs, and running out to the store for a brick of Nestle's chocolate chip cookies to bake up. Right now, the chocolate chip cookies are looking good.

Tomorrow I have school but no classes, so I hope to be able to begin to clear some of the clutter that has been stacking up on my desk, maybe get caught up on some reading. That's one of the reasons my brain feels like sludge, I haven't had the chance to read for more than a few minutes at a time for almost a month. I've been drawn into the vortex of everydayness, and I need to break a move. Mañana.

Last Words

Tomorrow is the last day of class for this year. I have always found the last day of school to be a little awkward, at least in comparison to the first day, which I always am looking forward to. I've tried various ways of trying to bring the school year to end with something more along the lines of a bang than a whimper, and about the best I have been able to come up with is some form of open letter, like the one I just completed for this year's sophomores. So here, for what it's worth, is my valediction:

An Open Letter to My Students
May 24, 2007

Well, here it is, the end of the semester, the end of the year. It seems like a natural time to look back at the semester, to think about where we are and what it means to be here. I have the sense, as I often do at this time of year, that there are some things I’d like to say, but I won’t really know what they are until I try to put them into words. (I’ve tried to suggest to you during the course of the semester that one of the functions of writing is to help you discover what you think. I know that it works for me that way.) So here goes:

• I hope that this has been a good semester for you. If I had been granted a wish at the beginning of the semester, I’d have wished that you would all enjoy coming to English class, that you would find the readings thought-provoking and the discussions energizing, that you’d feel connected to the work at hand, that you’d write well about things that matter to you, that you’d find yourselves thinking more clearly and more deeply about your lives and how you are choosing to live them, and that you’d find satisfaction in all of the above. Realistically speaking, I know that it’s probably not always going to happen that way for everyone. But one of my goals was to try to make it possible for it to happen that way for everyone. If there is something that I did or didn’t do that seemed to you to make the goal harder for you to attain, I would ask you to let me know in your feedback, so I can try to do better next semester.

• I want to say once again that I was terrifically impressed with the energy and enthusiasm that you put into your quality projects. I challenged you to put together projects which represented the best work you you could do and which would be connected to one of your essential questions or to something you truly care about. You did that. Thank you for your strong efforts.

• Throughout the semester I have asked you to think about the significance of process. When you are engaged in a process (and you are always engaged in a process), the process can change. A good critical thinker pays attention to the process and takes steps to change it when it is not working. That requires patience and attention, and the ability to ask questions. One set of useful questions is this simple strategic-planning sequence: Where am I now? Where do I want to get to? How might I get there? These three questions can apply to any situation that requires thought: reading a poem, writing a story, solving an equation, taking a trip, making a friend. Here's another useful question: Is there another way of looking at this? This is the question that leads to the sideways move, the shift to another perspective.

Although it may not have been obvious to you, many of the assignments you had this term—including the dialogues you wrote, the small group discussions, the blogs and the wiki, and the quality projects—were intended to give you practice in designing and monitoring and adjusting your own processes. I hope that you will find some of that experience relevant and helpful to you during junior and senior year.

• One of the unstated principles that has shaped our investigations this semester’s English course is probably worth saying explicitly at this point. It’s a pretty obvious idea, but it has important implications. The idea is this: language is the vehicle of thought. If you are in the habit of using language carelessly and unreflectively, your thinking is going to lack clarity, precision, logic, and probably most of the other standards of quality we have been trying to achieve this year. If you make the assumption that there is value in being able to think clearly and communicate effectively, then, since language is the vehicle of thought, it follows of necessity that you must pay attention to the words you use, and the words others use. Vaclav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and political activist who rose to be President of the Czech Republic, once wrote a speech in which he made the argument that “Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical.” In other words, if you care about the kind of person you are, you should care about the words you use, and how you use them. You words, like your actions, help to define who you are. Learning to write well is not just something you do so you can get good grades in English. Learning to write well is something you do so you can clarify your thinking, explore the world of thought, become a more responsible person. If you truly understand this, then you are always going to be able to find your way.

• Finally, I’d like to say that I have enjoyed working with you this semester and will be following your progress over the next few years with interest. If I can be of any help to you in the future, please feel free to ask. Congratulations and good luck.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Long Time Gone

I've been MIA for a week or so. We've been hosting my son and his family (the kids are 3 and almost 1) and there hasn't been time to teach and entertain and play with the kids and keep the blog going. The family is only going to be here until tomorrow, and I've got the rest of my life to write, so I've put myself on family leave. I've been thinking of it as a little breathing space, a moment to recharge my batteries as we head into the last few weeks of school. I've got some ideas taking shape that I'll get into later in the week. In the meantime, for your deliberation, here's a quotation from W.S. Merwin that a colleague sent along today:

At least in the Western world, we have persisted in defining our species in terms of intelligence—human intelligence, which is certainly distinct—and the distinction, we have maintained, confers upon us superiority over any other kind of life. Whether our intelligence exceeds that of any other form of life depends upon the criteria devised only by ourselves, for our own interest. But our intelligence, in any case, has enabled us to do two things that have magnified it. One is the articulation of language, effecting the communication of feeling, information, and varieties of order. The other is the recording of what has been expressed and thought and felt, allowing us to refer to the past intelligence and language of others.

But if we are to define and exclude ourselves from the rest of life on the basis of intelligence alone I can see no hope. Intelligence itself is morally indifferent, and as we see daily it can be bought and sold and used to advance any enterprise—including the most ruthless and ruinous.

I believe that our real superiority as a species is not our intelligence itself but the quality of imagination and compassion (in itself perhaps, one of the blessings of language) that allows us to care about the welfare, suffering, survival of lives far from our own, and not immediately or obviously related to our comforts, our prospects, our acquisitions. Whatever we may call the sympathy that involves us with the fate of victims in war zones half a world away, the sonar torture of whales, the mutilation of women and the tortures of bears in Pakistan, or the last members of a species of rainforest honeycreeper, this regard for life apart from our own is something that, so far as I know, is unique to our species. We can glimpse ancestral forms of it in the family and group behavior of other animals, but its broader emergence is a mark of humanity. It is our talent and we have developed it in our own way. It is something that we cannot altogether account for. But if we do not live up to our gifts they do us no good. And what this gift demands of us constantly is a change of heart. What hope there may be depends upon whether or not we can believe in such possibility.

- W.S. Merwin, from the forward to Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Sill of the World

It's almost the end of the school year. I'm trying to tie together the loose ends as I prepare to send my students off to Whatever Comes Next. Today in class we were talking about the items in Mel Levine's Cognitive Backpack, about which I wrote yesterday, and that led me into a mini-digression about deductive and inductive reasoning, which led me to the dilemma of Galileo. Confronted with the self-assurance of his Inquisitors, who knew by ironclad deductive reasoning that the earth stood still at the center of the universe, he was made to recant his own publicly stated conclusions, based on inductive evidence, that the earth itself moves around the sun. So I decided that for tomorrow's lesson we would consider George Bradley's poem, in which explores the inner workings of Galileo's mind in at the moment of his recantation:

E Pur Si Muove

Of course it had been madness even to bring it up,
Sheer madness, like the sighting of sea serpents
Or the discovery of strange lights in the sky;
And plainly it had been worse than madness to insist,
To devote entire treatises and a lifetime to the subject,
To a thing of great implication but no immediate use,
A thing that could not be conceived without study,
Without years of training and the aid of instruments,
And especially the delicate instrument of an open mind;
It had been stubbornness, foolishness, you see that now,
And so when the time comes you are ready to acquiesce,
When you have had your say, told the truth one last time,
You are ready to give the matter over and say no more.
When the time comes, you will take back your words,
But not because you fear the consequences of a refusal
(Who looks at the night sky and imagines a new order
Has already seen the instruments of torture many times),
Though this is the conclusion your inquisitors will draw
And it is true you are not what is called a brave man;
And not because you are made indifferent in your contempt
(You take their point, agree with it even, that there is
Nothing so dangerous as a new way of seeing the world);
Rather, you accept the conditions lightly, the recantation,
Lightly you accept their offer of a villa with a view,
Because you have grown old and contention makes you weary,
Because you like the idea of raising vines and tomatoes,
And because, whatever you might have said or suffered,
It is in motion still, cutting a great arc through nothingness,
Sweeping through space according to a design so grand
It remains, just as they would have it, a matter of faith,
Because, whether you say yea, whether you say nay,
Nevertheless it moves.

And then, as I was looking through my folder o' poems for that one, I came, in one of those instances of odd and serendiptious juxtaposition, across this poem by Richard Wilbur, which has been one of my favorites ever since I heard Donald Graves give a speech about the writer's life, in which he kept repeating the unfamiliar phrase "the sill of the world" all the way through, provoking wonder and confusion and a little frustration for all of us, until, at the end of the speech, he stopped, and by way of illustration and conclusion, recited this entire poem from memory, snapping all his previous remarks into focus. I read this poem now and think of my granddaughter, now visiting us, and of my students at the end of this challenging and sometimes frustrating school year.

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where the light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking.
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
He we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove,
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait there, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

May we all—as students, as writers, as teachers, as daughters and granddaughters and parents and grandparents—from time to time clear the sill of the world and fly free.

Monday, May 14, 2007

What's in Your Cognitive Backpack?

Our vice-principal just sent out an article by Mel Levine which recently appeared in Educational Leadership in which Levine provides a listing of the core skills, the " attributes of a successful adult" that he thinks students should be developing and carrying with them. He cites one report which lists skills cited by employers as being most important. "These include, in rank order, (1) critical thinking/problem solving, (2) information technology application, (3) teamwork/collaboration, (4) creativity/innovation, (5) diversity, and (6) leadership. Knowledge domains—foreign languages, mathematics, writing, reading comprehension, and science—were ranked numbers 12 through 16."

This listing seems to cover a lot of the same territory that the Microsoft corporation includes in the inventory I posted earlier. I think it would be an interesting challenge to go back over an existing curriculum - mine, say, or yours - and see how many of these skills are identified explicitly, how many are given the emphasis that would come with explicit and systematic practice, and how many of them just remain assumed, implied, or entirely off the table.

Another way of thinking about the list would be to prioritize the items on it in terms of pedagogical usefulness. For example, it is more immediately apparent to me what I might do with "forming vivid mental representations" than with, say, "preventing affiliation dependency." And I'm interested in and intrigued by the idea of "overcoming an obsession with 'fun,'" but don't know how exactly to begin framing the question of work/fun balance.

I guess I see the list as a structure within which to begin building smaller, more focussed structrues.

Cognitive Backpack Gear

Interpretation (becoming an in-depth comprehender)

• Forming, grasping, and applying concepts
• Accessing and using prior knowledge and experience
• Understanding through verbal, nonverbal, and experiential pathways
• Forming multiple vivid mental representations of new knowledge and ideas
• Monitoring degrees of comprehension
• Analyzing expectations (overt as well as unspoken)
• Systematically evaluating ideas, issues, people, and products
• Assessing opportunities
• Actively processing information inputs
• Balancing or integrating detail with the “big picture”
• Finding a balance between “top-down” and convergent thinking

Instrumentation (acquiring a project mentality)

• Brainstorming
• Thinking long-term and previewing potential outcomes
• Applying step-by-step thinking (instead of snap decisions or impulsive approaches)
• Achieving task integration
• Learning, developing, and applying strategies
• Managing time and prioritizing
• Overcoming an obsession with “fun”
• Harnessing mental energy and effort
• Postponing “payoffs”; working one's way up
• Developing effective personal work patterns

Interaction (building and sustaining productive, fulfilling relationships)

• Succeeding interpersonally without social addiction
• Collaborating
• Resisting/preventing affiliation dependency
• Forging working relationships (as opposed to adolescent-type friendships)
• Communicating effectively (verbal pragmatics)
• Relating to more senior people (such as bosses)

Inner Direction (attaining malleable self-insights that inform self-launching)

• Knowing one's current profile of strengths and weaknesses
• Aligning that profile with (preliminary/tentative) life plans
• Reviewing autobiographical leitmotifs
• Deciding on personal job values
• Finding pockets of intrinsic motivation/passions
• Discovering and cultivating affinities
• Uncovering competitive advantage(s)
• Previewing potential life roles
• Probing what it will take to succeed

Sunday, May 6, 2007


For all of you devoted readers out there, all seven of you: I'm hopping a plane tomorrow to go to my youngest son's college graduation in Arizona. I'll be gone all week. The likelihood of more posts between now and a week from today is close to zero. Have a good week, y'all.

- B

Sunday Morning Walk

The other day Doug Noon posted some pictures from Alaska by way of illustrations for his answers to the Successful Life meme. That looked like fun, and Doug was inviting others to play, so this morning when I went out for my Sunday morning walk in the neighborhood and on campus, I took my camera with me, with one 18th of my brain reserved for Hunt for Relevant Material. So Doug, this one's for you. The pictures are displayed in the order in which they were taken.

To everything there is a season.

It's spring in Hawaii. The changes are subtle, but there. This tree across the street from my condo is shedding its golden yellow flowers. It's beautiful. It doesn't last long.

Strive for balance.

The world of nature and the world of technology. The moon and the memes. The trees and the transformers. They frame one another.

Shape the world you live in.

First comes choice. Then comes responsibility. The only completely natural things in this picture arethe mountain, the sky, and the sunlight. The buildings, the hedges, the trees are part of a vision. Vision is a good thing.

Water the grass.

A long time ago I read an essay by Ken Kesey in which he extolled the virtues of watering. It's one of the few things you can do that you don't have to second-guess yourself about. (At least if you have your own spring-fed water supply, as we do on campus.)

Pay attention.

What do you see? A sheet? A tarp? A mountain beside a lake? Depends on whether you look. Depends on how you look.

Take care of yourself.

Mens sana in corpore sano. The Sisters of Mercy taught me that in third grade. They were right. Walking, like watering, is one of the elemental satisfactions. And it's good for you.

Slow down.

'Nuf said.

Take time to reflect.

Still water produces clearer images.

Make a space for yourself.

This is the office of a colleague, viewed through the outside window. Looks like a nice place to work.

Find your way back home.

You know where that is, right?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

How to Live

It's getting toward the end of the year in sophomore English, and it's a natural time for stocktaking. Since the students are knee-deep in working on their quality projects, I am also making an effort to give them some class activities that are more or less self-contained, so that they don't have a lot of other homework to do as they are finishing their projects. As I was thinking yesterday about what I would like to have them work on in class, I began leafing through a folder of poems that I have run across recently, and found this poem by Charles Harper Webb, from his book Amplified Dog:

How to Live

"I don't know how to live."
–Sharon Olds

Eat lots of steak and salmon and Thai curry and mu shu
pork and fresh green beans and baked potatoes
and fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream.
Kick-box three days a week. Stay strong and lean.
Go fly-fishing every chance you get, with friends

who'll teach you secrets of the stream. Play guitar
in a rock band. Read Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Kafka,
Shakespeare, Twain. Collect Uncle Scrooge comics.
See Peckinpah's
Straw Dogs, and everything Monty Python made.
Love freely. Treat ex-partners as kindly

as you can. Wish them as well as you're able.
Snorkel with moray eels and yellow tangs. Watch
spinner dolphins earn their name as your panga slam-
bams over glittering seas. Try not to lie; it sours
the soul. But being a patsy sours it too. If you cause

a car wreck, and aren't hurt, but someone is, apologize
silently. Learn from your mistake. Walk gratefully
away. Let your insurance handle it. Never drive drunk.
Don't be a drunk, or any kind of "aholic." It's bad
English, and bad news. Don't berate yourself. If you lose

a game or prize you've earned, remember the winners
history forgets. Remember them if you do win. Enjoy
success. Have kids if you want and can afford them,
but don't make them your reason-to-be. Spare them that
misery. Take them to the beach. Mail order sea

monkeys once in your life. Give someone the full-on
ass-kicking he (or she) has earned. Keep a box turtle
in good heath for twenty years. If you get sick, don't thrive
on suffering. There's nothing noble about pain. Die
if you need to, the best way you can. (You define best.)

Go to church if it helps you. Grow tomatoes to put store-
bought in perspective. Listen to Elvis and Bach. Unless
you're tone deaf, own Perlman's "Meditation from Thais."
Don't look for hidden meanings in a cardinal's song.
Don't think TV characters talk to you; that's crazy.

Don't be too sane. Work hard. Loaf easily. Have good
friends, and be good to them. Be immoderate
in moderation. Spend little time anesthetized. Dive
the Great Barrier Reef. Don't touch the coral. Watch
for sea snakes. Smile for the camera. Don't say "Cheese."

We had begun the semester with discussion a quotation from Christopher Clausen:

All great literature addresses, directly or indirectly, two questions: "What kind of world is this?" and "How should we live in it?"

So I thought that reading Webb's poem would give us the chance to consider one person's perspective on how to answer the second question, and provide the students with an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned during this semester, as well as what they might have to say in answer to the question posed in the title of the poem. After we read the poem, I asked students to share their observations and questions, to consider what we learn about the speaker from what he has to say, and then, finally, to pick one sentence they felt some agreement with. We did a brief renge exercise where I asked each student to say his/her line out loud three times during the three minute allotment of time, speaking not in sequence, but as their spirits moved them, and as time permitted when no one else was speaking.

Then I asked them to turn the paper over and write five lines of their own that would constitute what they would consider to be good advice, something they would stand on based on their experience so far. Then I broke the class up into four groups and asked each group to construct a stanza, modelled more or less on Webb's design. One of the features that students had noticed was that in all but the last stanza he breaks sentences across stanzas, so that added another challenge: three of the four groups had to have a leftover phrase at the end to start the next group's stanza, and they had to communicate with one another about how that was going to work. They had to turn in their stanzas to me at the end of the period. I did the same exercise this morning with my 8:30 sophomore group, and then put the assembled double-class poem together. Here, for your edification and delight, and the benefit of posterity, is the collected wit and wisdom of the sophomore class:

How to Live

Eat because you want to, not because you have
to. Don't be mad; you might hurt yourself.
Never doubt the awesomeness of dragons.
Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself, but be careful

about laughing at others. Don't go with the flow
too much. Do things that make you happy.
Go to the beach. Go nuts, but have control.
Take the time to talk with teachers. No fear,

just do it. Have fun but don't be stupid.
Embarrassment will go away when replaced
with laughter. There's no such thing as "I can't,"
only "I can" and "I will." Have a group of friends

who will listen. Don't spend too much money
in one day. Get a job. Drink deeply from good books.
Don't eat Texas Hash. Smile and be friendly.
Thank your parents for what they do for you.

Forgive others, but most importantly forgive
yourself. Tell people who think they're better
than you to "Shut the hell up!" Go to Egypt
and ride camels. Get drunk and stoned

at least once. Live life on the edge. No act
li' dat; no talk li 'dat. Play music loudly. Eat salad
once a day. Don't swim when there are jellyfish
warnings. Steal a car. Laugh: laughter

is the greatest medicine; it gives you abs.
Touch something dangerous, but not life-
threatening. Go fishing. Write a poem. Don't pee
on man-o'-war stings above the waist.

Ride the biggest roller coaster you can find.
Splurge every once in a while. Buy a diamond
back-scratcher. Meet one new person each week.
Dream the impossible; it might come true.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Game of Kings

A few weeks ago a sophomore student at my school found out I like to play chess and asked me if I wanted to play a game. We started playing and it turned out we were pretty evenly matched, so every few days he would stop by my office and ask if I had time for a game. We've set up a rhythm now where we play a couple of times a week, and, I've got to say, it's all coming back to me now.

My mom taught me to play chess when I was maybe seven, and I played off an on in high school. In college I had two professors at Fairfield University, Tom Loughran and Bob Bolger, who were serious chess players, and I spent many hours in their offices over a chess board.

I began teaching sixth grade in Massachusetts in 1971, and there were a number of students in my class who liked to play chess. So we formed an informal little club. Then in 1972 the chess world became the focus of international interest when Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky competed for the world championship in Reyjkavik. It was a brilliant match, with two terrific and innovative players representing the two countries locked in an ideological struggle that was mirrored in the playing styles and in the methods of preparation represented by the two contestants. The series was televised in the Boston area on PBS television, in a style that was from today's perspective decidedly low-tech: Shelby Lyman, the commentator, stood in front of a large board on the wall behind him with stick-on pieces, and waited for the phone to ring with the latest move. When it rang, he'd make the move on the wall chart and then spend the next minutes, and sometimes hours, talking about the implications. The match made Shelby Lyman a national celebrity.

The excitement generated by the match led to an explosion of interest in chess among kids. In 1973 my school system opened a new 6-8 middle school, and the kids I had had in sixth grade were now 7th graders and eager to continue with chess club. When I announced the first meeting, I was stunned when more than 20 kids showed up. So we began meeting each week and set up a ladder system to arrive at in-house ratings for each player. The following year we set up the South Shore Junior High School Chess league, and put together a competition schedule where the best five players from one school would travel to another school for afternoon matches. It was exciting. It was intense. It was fun. I started buying books for the chess club library, and spent some time studying them myself.

Some of my better players joined the USCF and began playing in weekend tournaments as well, so I often went along and signed up to play myself. At about the same time, my oldest son was in upper elementary school and he decided he'd like to play in some USCF tournaments as well. As he got more into sports, his interest in chess waned, and I stopped going to tournaments. It had become obvious to me that as a full-time teacher and full-time dad, I was not going to be able to put the amount of time into preparation that was going to be required if I really wanted to get The Next Level. It had also become obvious to me that in chess, as in most other endeavors, The Next Level, even if I got there, was not going to be anything spectacular. Chess is one of those games that is pretty rigidly hierarchical. No matter how good a club player you are, you're going to get killed by a master. And no matter how good a master you are, you're going to have a hard time winning a game off a grandmaster. And then there are the international grandmasters. And then there are the prodigies, like Fischer, who was destroying very good players when he was eleven, or the more esoterically talented geniuses like Najdorf, who once played 49 opponents simultaneously blindfolded, winning 39, drawing 4, and losing 2. Against that kind of competition, there's not much hope. So I turned my attention elsewhere. I'd play the occasional game with a neighbor or friend, or with one of my sons if I could bribe them into a game, but mostly the chess board just sat on its lonely shelf.

Like Jason, above, I tried computer chess, but that was not much more encouraging. There's a chess program that comes bundled with Macs that is almost impossible to beat even when it's playing at half strength. There's not a lot of satisfaction to be take in getting drubbed game after game by a box of wires. So it's now been maybe twenty years since I've played with any regularity, and it's taken me about two weeks to get the cobwebs out of that part of my brain. I'm starting to get a feel for the openings again, and a sense of the positions I like and the ones that are going to get me in trouble. I've found a couple of web sites, like, that offer competition against real people in real time, and that's been interesting. I've also started going down to Waikiki where there are some benches where the local legends hang out to play:

The student I've been playing is taking private lessons with a grandmaster, and it's only a matter of time until he's going to blow right past me, at which point I won't be much of a challenge for him any more, and the chess set can go back to gathering dust. In the meantime, I'm enjoying being back in the game.

(Foxtrot source:

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

One Percent

Last year Bono gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, addressing President Bush and other assembled dignitaries, in which he made a principled and compelling argument for the responsibility of the developed nations to take a more active role in relieving suffering in Africa. As we finish up with The Poisonwood Bible and with a semester in which one of our essential questions is "What do we owe to those who are less fortunate than we are?" I often ask my students to read at least excerpts from the speech. Early on he states the broad case:

Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment. 6,500 Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about Justice and Equality. Because there's no way we can look at what’s happening in Africa and, if we're honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. Anywhere else in the world, we wouldn’t accept it. Look at what happened in South East Asia with the Tsunami. 150, 000 lives lost to that misnomer of all misnomers, “mother nature”. In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it’s a completely avoidable catastrophe.

At the end of his speech he paints the picture of what it would mean if the United Speech were to devote to the cause of eradicating poverty and disease in Africa an additional one percent of its national budget to the less than one percent that we now provide:

I was amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much some churchgoers tithe. Up to ten percent of the family budget. Well, how does that compare the federal budget, the budget for the entire American family? How much of that goes to the poorest people in the world? Less than one percent.

Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America: I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing…. Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional one percent of the federal budget tithed to the poor.
What is one percent?

One percent is not merely a number on a balance sheet. One percent is the girl in Africa who gets to go to school, thanks to you. One percent is the AIDS patient who gets her medicine, thanks to you. One percent is the African entrepreneur who can start a small family business thanks to you. One percent is not redecorating presidential palaces or money flowing down a rat hole. This one percent is digging waterholes to provide clean water.One percent is a new partnership with Africa, not paternalism towards Africa, where increased assistance flows toward improved governance and initiatives with proven track records and away from boondoggles and white elephants of every description. America gives less than one percent now. Were asking for an extra one percent to change the world. to transform millions of lives—but not just that and I say this to the military men now – to transform the way that they see us. One percent is national security, enlightened economic self interest, and a better safer world rolled into one. Sounds to me that in this town of deals and compromises, one percent is the best bargain around. These goals—clean water for all; school for every child; medicine for the afflicted, an end to extreme and senseless poverty—these are not just any goals; they are the Millennium Development goals, which this country supports. And they are more than that. They are the Beatitudes for a Globalised World. Now, I’m very lucky. I don’t have to sit on any budget committees. And I certainly don’t have to sit where you do, Mr. President. I don’t have to make the tough choices. But I can tell you this: To give one percent more is right. It’s smart. And it’s blessed.

There is a continent—Africa—being consumed by flames. I truly believe that when the history books are written, our age will be remembered for three things: the war on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did—or did not to—to put the fire out in Africa. History, like God, is watching what we do.

Bono's entire speech is now available on YouTube. It's worth a look: