Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What Every Soldier Should Know

For various reasons both obvious and subtle, warriors and poets are often at odds. Here's a poem written by a soldier, Brian Turner, which made it into Best American Poems 2007. You can here him read it out loud, with a brief intro, here.

What Every Soldier Should Know

To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; it is at best an act of prudence.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop or I’ll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

A graffiti sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kill you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms, and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai—

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Next New Thing

So here we are. It's Monday night, but it sort of counts as a Sunday because this was a three-day weekend. (School holiday, long story.) The first marking period just ended there were two primary orders of business over the last few days: first to get the college recs out to the students applying for early admissions, and second to get the papers corrected and the grades done; they have to be entered on the school computer system by Wednesday. Other than that, it's been almost...calm, for a change. Which gives me a little time to think about the Next New Thing, which at this point looks like Moodle.

Moodle has been around for a while, and when I checked it out a year ago my socks were definitely not rolling up and down, but now my school's tech department has signed us up and we have our own-in-house version taking shape with the usual assortment of early adopters knocking themselves out. What I like so far is that in its present incarnation it has some neat features that are more or less immediately usable, and then lots of other bells and whistles that it's going to take me a year and a half to figure out, by which time it will probably have been made obsolescent by the Next New Thing. But, for the record, here's what I'm playing with so far:

Moodle is set up sort of like a blog page. The left sidebar is for maintenance functions, and the right for whatever you decide to put there: calendar, archive, headers for recent posts, etc. and I've created forums for our class to extend their discussion about what we're reading (The Poisonwood Bible, at the moment). Students can rate one another's posts based on whatever criteria you as the teacher decide to foreground; you can, for example, provide meta-tags and ask the students to label entries which meet certain conditions (cites text; raises a question; explores alternative answers, etc.)

There's also a cool feature that allows you (and/or the students) to create a glossary/lexicon. When we do literature circles, I'm asking the lexicographers to select five of their most significant words and add them to the lexicon. The words can be categorized and tagged with keywords (like the kikongo word below). You can also sort and track entries by date, category, and author (useful for checking to see who has completed the homework).

These words then form a database from which you can display a "Word of the Day" (the Vocabulary spotlight in the lower right in the first picture above). There's also a quiz-generating function which I haven't played with yet, and a whole grading module which basically allows you to use the Moodle site as your complete course-management system. I'm not there yet, and don't know if that's where I'm heading. With grading, as with poetry, I'm still more at home with the ambience and soft-edged indeterminacy of pencil on paper.

I've begun creating forums for other class activities. For example, our writer-in-residence Chang-rae Lee visited our class last week, and so I created a forum (number 4 above) and asked each of the students to report on something they thought was interesting or memorable. I've also figured out how to set up widgets in the sidebar, like the flickr badge in the upper right of the first picture, using regular html coding.

There's a group of teachers from the junior school and the academy (high school) who now meet once a week to share what they're up to with Moodle and help each other troubleshoot. One of the supposed advantages of Moodle is that because it's open source eventually you can get access to other modules and programming innovations from people all over the world. All you need to be able to do that is... time. Right now, I've got a foot in the door, and I'm playing around small kid kind in my own little sandbox. My vision is constrained by the realities of everyday teaching. But so far this has been a pretty easy first few steps, and I'm hoping that I'll find more and better functions on the way.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Spaceman Blues

Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues. is, well, an experience. It has to do with events immediately leading up to and including an alien takeover of New York City. It's not a book with much in the way of redeeming social value, and I can't say that it addresses anything in the way of deep philosophical issues, but if it's a ride you're looking for, Bucko, have I got a ride for you. Slattery is an impresario of the imagination, or, as James Taylor might have it, a churning urn of burning funk. Here, for example, is a passage from chapter one. A character of some notoriety, one Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez, has disappeared, and his living quarters have exploded, and the word is getting out:
The news spreads in a widening circle of shock, people are talking about it up and down the street, voices crackle across the air and over wires. He's gone, he's gone, it goes in letters, in words flashing across flickering screens, it is written by planes in the sky. It spreads from the city and moves to the end of Long Island, into New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate, across New England; it moves across the continent over the miles of thrashing grain, the ragged heights of the Rockies, down into the deserts and dense forests and to the opposite shore, where men hear it on shortwave radios at the place where the Mexican border falls into the Pacific Ocean, and the waves roll in gigantic and break against the rocks and sand with a force that ensures compliance. It passes along the piers of Eastern Europe, syllables slipped between knife points and rusting rifles; on the shores of Angola they wail at the ocean, beat their feet into the sand, turn back toward crumbling cities. The news burns bodies in the Bronx, things are cast adrift in the deep water of the East River, people depart into the sky, there are meetings in drainage systems, encoded signals broadcast in the flight patterns of birds, machines stir, motors grind into action at frequencies only subterranean people can feel. And people begin to congregate in the places that Manuel loved. They want to know what happened, they want to understand, but being the kind of people they are, all that wanting turns into partying. In Astoria, Egypt Cafe is jammed to the ceiling, people walk over other people to get inside, they spill out onto the street in front of the laundromat, they raid the delis and liquor stores and close down Steinway, they make a party so big that the police see it and just throw up their hands, set up roadblocks, join in when they get off duty. At the Maritime Lounge in Red Hook, some Congolese soukous band appears out of nowhere and plays for two days straight, they have to coat their fingers with glue in between numbers to keep the skin on, and the crowd crashes in and chokes on seven different kinds of smoke and laughter, they pour beer and whiskey all over each other and dance to break floorboards. The place runs out of alcohol after eighteen hours but people keep bringing in more, they toast Manuel again and again, wish to God you were still here. They end up in the water of the harbor, holding their drinks high and setting them on fire until the end of the second day rolls by and they go to sleep in the street, they crawl home in a blind drag. They pass out in subway cars, they wake up feeling like their brains are cut in half. They go home in pairs and wake up naked with each other, their furniture upended, dishes broken, sheets ripped into long shreds, clothes plastered somehow to the ceiling. (8-9)
The passage gives some sense of the hyperbolic intensity, the syntactical exuberance, the sheer delight in the rhetoric of enumeration that carries the narrative all the way through the book. I've been re-reading On the Road recently as well, and often found myself thinking of Kerouac, and of Whitman, as I read Spaceman Blues. Slattery's prose is jazzy, lyrical, bursting at the seams. Later in chapter one, for example, a party jumps into third gear with the arrival of the band, whose name and methodology are apt analogues for Slattery's preferred method of composition:

The Pan-Galactic Groove Squad crashes through the window at eleven-thirty to claps and cheers and stomping feet; there are twenty-seven of them in this band, they have guitars and basses, keyboards, accordions, horns, banjos, and drums, so many drums, and they set up in no time and begin to play, a beat that starts down low and simple, just the kick and some hi-hat with one bass snaking around it. The rest of the band waits, they're letting the groove get in the pocket, hit bottom. It does; and now two drummers join in, they weave a polyrhythm that brings in one guitar and some pops from a banjo, oh this groove is young but it's growing, and people are starting to move. Now a singer steps up to the mike, puts out some blues that two more singers turn to gospel, harmonies deep and wide that make you want to believe. Five more drummers slip their way into the spaces, two guitars, another bass, a single trumpet line, simple and urgent, and those singers are swelling up, they're filling the groove to bursting, and just when nobody can take another second, they break it open in an explosion of horns and keyboards and shouting strings. The people open up their throats and sing, and everybody screams and throws their hands in the air, they're falling in and stomping it down, sweating and throwing back their heads until they are bound together, band and dancers, into a single thing, and this is a party not even the Hand of the Righteous could stop, it is loud and large and full of joy; and then Wendell steps into the room. (25)
Wendell is Wendell Apogee, the book's main character, who, it turns out, is not only the lover of Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez—the book is in large part a quest story, as Wendell seeks to find out where Manual has disappeared to—but also one of the particular targets of the space invaders. His life is all too frequently interrupted by moments like this:

From Wendell’s window come flashes of green and purple light, scuttles and shrieks. Then a howl that sets the dogs barking for blocks, cats fighting and mating in the alleys to ripping each other to pieces. A glow grows, phasing from blue to orange, and with a scream that breaks glass, the window frames shatter outward and four shapes in purple raincoats fly out, mounted on tiny hovering scooters that emanate a fine red mist. They wheel around each other and then shoot off down the canyon of air between the buildings to lift off into the sky; seconds later, an explosion fires from the ruined wall, the flames leap across the street and warp the glass of the apartments on the other side. Wendell’s apartment is then a smoking hole, gaped at by neighbors, the tatters of his possessions snowing into the street: the limbs of furniture, cushion fluff, and books, hundreds of books burning and flopping to the ground, trailing fire and ash. (63)
You have probably noticed there seem to be a lot of explosions in this narrative. Slattery's story thrives on mayhem, and the tonality is that of apocalyptic glee.

There is one more sequence which I cannot resist citing: a description of the mechanics of Darktown, a whole and wholely imagined city underneath the streets and sewers of the Big Apple. It's an audacious act of the imagination carried off with Slattery's characteristic offhanded wizardry:

Catwalks and narrow metal stairs sway and tangle, metal shacks and globular houses hang suspended in the air, floating bars and restaurants throw out heat and steam, thousands of people climb with bundles on their backs and lights lashed to their heads, shouts and whistles fly across the space, animals scramble amok, babies scream, a riot of music threatens to resolve into a deep, smoky rhythm that shudders and moans. High above, the exposed pipes of the city heating system lance along the cavern ceiling, spouting steam. The belly of a subway tunnel shifts as the train rattles by, looses a film of dust that falls through all this, settling on the heads of the multitude, sprinkling through the latticework to rest, at last, on the water below that teems with boats, people rowing, trundling away with grunting engines. They’re selling things from Bangladesh and Brazil, they the teeth of a hundred beasts not yet named, they have rice cookers and machine guns, blowtorches and flares. It smells of fish, oil, and burnt electrical wire, a scent that trails through the people and the light and sounds, to the arms of the city they can only see as a group of yellow lights, like the shine of dull suns in constellation, dim but carrying for miles. (81)

If the genius is in the details, then I guess Slattery is some kind of genius. His sentences are concatenations of details in compelling configurations: rice cookers and machine guns, blowtorches and flares. I often found myself laughing out loud, not so much at what was being said, but at the zest and spirit with which it was being delivered. Check it out.

Information R/Evolution

This video from Michael Wesch is making the rounds. I saw it at Multiliteracies. I'll do my bit to spread it:

Sunday, October 14, 2007


In my sophomore class we've been using literature circles as a means of responding to The Poisonwood Bible. In the debrief of our first literature cirlce discussion, the students made note of three recurring motifs, "light" and "garden" and "heaven," the last of which we connected to the motif of "home" from their reading during freshman year of The Odyssey. As I followup I asked to find and place in their commonplace books a picture that illustrated at least one of these concepts in a way that interested them.

On Friday after school I was in the Writing Center for a small reception we were having for Fern Davye, a woman who travels all around the country doing dramatic interpretations of poetry. She had just spent three days visiting classes at Punahou, and during this last hour or two she was spending with a small group of teachers. We were talking, and then she presented some poems to us. She likes to turn the lights down when she presents, so it was darkish in the writing center.

A little after 5:00, just as the afternoon was coming to a close and evening was starting to descend, I happened to look away from the presenter and over to the side, toward the window beyond the teacher's desk. What I saw was a poetry presentation of a different kind: a silent poem made up entirely of light and shadow. It struck me as I was looking at it that it seemed to connect in subtle ways to all three themes we had talked about in class: light and garden and home. I had my camera with me, so I took the picture:

Saturday, October 6, 2007

At Large and at Small

I recently finished reading Anne Fadiman's delightful and good-humored collection of "familiar essays" entitled At Large and At Small. In her introduction to the volume she references a "dispirited writer" (her father, Clifton Fadiman) who mourned the imminent death of a genre that was "setting to the horizon, along with its whole constellation: formal manners, apt quotation, Greek and Latin, clear speech, conversation, the gentleman's library, the gentleman's income, the gentleman."

I suppose that it should come as no surprise that I am a fan, as I suppose any self-respecting blogger must be, of the "familiar essay." What are blogs if not essais, attempts, explorations of thought through words? It has often occurred to me as a teacher that in our schools we actually do the genre a disservice by impressing upon generations of students that an essay is, and must be, a thesis-based argument analyzing a text or a series of historical events. It's true that there are such essays, but if that's the only kind of essay we ask students to write, we are confirming their misunderstanding of the genre and denying them access to its considerable pleasures.

For, make no mistake about it, this is a fun book to read, and one gets the clear impression that for Anne Fadiman it was a fun book to write. She has essays on, among other things, ice cream, mail, on the flag ("A Piece of Cotton"), moving from the city to the country, coffee, and Arctic exploration. Fadiman has a broad-ranging mind, a world of memories, a fluid and engaging writing style, and a sense of humor.

I came away from the book with a renewed appreciation for the pleasure to be taken in the making and reading of lists. The first essay in the book is called "Collecting Nature," and it is a recollection of the time she spent as a child with her brother collecting butterflies and other objects from nature. Early in the essay she makes reference to Dickens which includes the sort of list I have in mind:
In Our Mutual Friend, Silas Wegg visits a shop belonging to "Mr. Venus, Preserver of Animals and Birds, Articulator of human bones." Mr. Wegg is there because—could anyone but Dickens ever come up with this one?—he wishes to retrieve his leg, which Mr. Venus purchased, for potential inclusion in a skeleton, from the hospital in which it was amputated. "I shouldn't like," Says Mr. Wgg. "to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here, a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself as a genteel person." (Mr. Wegg may thus be the only collector who has ever collected himself. He does get his leg back, though not until later in the book; it arrives under Mr. Venus's arm, carefully wrapped, looking like "a sort of brown paper truncheon.") Mr. Venus shows Mr. Wegg around the shop. "Bones, warious," he explains.
Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What's in those hampers again, I don't quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That's the general panoramic view. (17)
Later, in her essay "Ice Cream," she reports that in her researches that

In 1778, a Benedictine monk in Apulia published recipes for ices and ice creams flavored with coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, candied eggs, chestnuts, pistachios, almonds, fennel seeds, violets, jasmine, oranges, lemons, strawberries, peaches, pears, apricots, bitter cherries, melons, watermelons, pomegranates, and muscatel grapes. (50)
There's something about a list of that sort that just makes me laugh. At one level theres just the delight to be taken in the sequence of syllables, the work of the mouth in shaping the words; it's alphabetically musical. Then there's the movie behind the list: the monk laboring away in the monastery kitchen experimenting with every conceivable flavor, laboring far into the night with tasting spoon in hand, doing his particular version of God's work, trying to get the proportions just right. One wonders about the flavors that didn't make the final list.

Later, in her essay "Mail," we find this short history of epistolary innovation in a one-sentence list:

The Penny Post, wrote Harriet Martineau, "will do more for the circulation of ideas, for the fostering of domestic affections, for the humanizing of the mass generally, than any other single measure that our national wit can devise." It was incontrovertible proof, in an age that embraced progress on all fronts...that the British were the most civilized people on earth. Ancient Syrian runners, Chinese carrier pigeons, Persian post writers, Egyptian papyrus bearers, Greek hemerodromes, Hebrew dromedary riders, Roman equestrian relays, medieval monk-messengers, Catalan troters, international couriers of the House of Thurn and Taxis, American mail wagons—what could all of these have been leading up to, like an ever-ascending staircase, but the Victorian postal system? (117)
September 11 brought the flag back into American consciousness in a powerful way; suddenly flags were everywhere, and Fadiman found herself thinking about, and making a tentative inventory of, its multiple significances:

In the weeks after September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag—along with all its red, white, and blue collateral relations—is what a semiotician would call “polysemous”: it has multiple meanings. The flag held aloft by the pair of disheveled hitchhikers who squatted next to their backpacks on Route 116, a mile from home, meant We will not rape or murder you. The red, white, and blue turban worn by the Sikh umbrella vendor a friend walked past in Dupont Circle, not far from the White House, meant Looking like someone and thinking like him are not the same thing. The flag on the lapel of a Massachusetts attorney mentioned in our local paper—on seeing it, his opposing counsel had whispered to a colleague, “I’m so screwed, do you have a flag pin I can borrow?”—meant I am morally superior. The flags brandished by two cowboyhatted singers at a country fair we attended on the day the first bombs fell on Afghanistan meant Let’s kill the bastards. The Old Glory bandana around the neck of the well-groomed golden retriever I saw on a trip to Manhattan meant Even if I have a Prada bag and my dog has a pedigree, I’m still a New Yorker and I have lost something. The flag in our front yard meant We are sad. And we’re sorry we’ve never done this before. (148)
Later in the same essay, she quotes from an early twentieth-century tract in which the author has worked himself up into a loosely alphabetical frenzy of indignation:

In 1905, an anti-desecration circular lamented the use of the flag in advertisements for "bicycles, bock beer, whiskey, fine cambric, bone knoll, sour mash, tar soap, Amercian pepsin chewing gum, theatres, tobacco, Japan tea, awnings, breweries, cigars, charity balls, cuff buttons, dime museums, floor mats, fireworks, furriers, living pictures, picnic grounds, patent medicines, poolrooms, prize fights, restaurants, roof gardens, real estate agencies, sample rooms, shoe stores, soap makers, saloons, shooting galleries, tent makers, variety shows, [and] vendors of lemon acid." (154)

There is a satisfaction—even if it is only the satisfaction of having adequately enumerated the sources of one's indignation—to be taken in the creation of such lists, as in the reading of them. There is, I would argue, a larger satisfaction to be taken in having written well about what one has experienced and cares about. Sometimes, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, one gets to write something that takes on a life of its own, that opens up and surprises you. I remember seeing an interview with Jamaica Kincaid who was talking about her much-anthologized short piece called "Girl." It was the first piece she ever had published, and she said that when she finished writing it, she was taken off guard, surprised, stunned. And she said to herself, as she re-read what she had written, "This is really... something." She didn't have a word for it, but she knew it was different, it was new, it was good, it was a kind of gift.

I asked my sophomore students last week how many of them had had that experience as a writer somewhere in their first ten years of schooling. One girl held her hand over the desk, palm down, and wiggled her fingers tentatively: maybe, sort of. Everyone else was looking at the floor.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Discipline and Values

This passage appeared as a column by John Rosemond in today's Honolulu Advertiser. Tough to find anything to argue with here.

I've said it before, but it cannot be said often enough: The discipline of a child is not accomplished by manipulating reward and punishment. Yes, a child needs to understand that behavior results in consequences, but that understanding alone is not sufficient to grow a well-behaved, well-mannered child.

Besides, whereas proper consequences will virtually guarantee proper behavior in a dog, proper consequences do not guarantee proper behavior in a child (or human of any other age). If they did, no criminal would spend more than one, maybe two, stints in jail.

Discipline is the process by which parents transform a child into a disciple, a little person who will look up to them, follow their lead, and subscribe to their values. This is accomplished through proper leadership, not through the manipulation of consequences. The principles that define proper leadership do not change from one leadership context to another. Therefore, if one understands leadership in, say, a business environment, then one understands how to lead children.

The most important of all leadership qualities is decisiveness. All effective leaders act like they know what they are doing. They act like they believe sincerely in the rightness of their decisions. In parenting, this translates to standing behind one's instructions to a child, enforcing rules dispassionately, and proving that "no" means nothing other than "no."

I have taken to challenging parents in my most recent audiences to assess their leadership using this simple standard. "Raise your hand," I ask, "if your children know, without a shadow of doubt, that when you give an instruction, you are going to make sure it is carried out, that when you state a rule, you are going to enforce it, and that when you say 'no,' you mean nothing less than 'no.' " In a recent audience of some 200 parents, only five responded affirmatively.

I then ask, "Now raise your hand if as a child you knew, beyond a shadow of doubt!, that your parents were going to enforce their instructions and rules and that when they said 'no,' they meant 'no,' period." In that same audience, I estimated that 150 hands were in the air. The relative proportion has been approximately the same in 50 other audiences, bigger and smaller, across America.

This exercise tells why today's children come to school considerably less disciplined than children of even 20 years ago (I've never heard an experienced teacher testify to the contrary). This tells why today's parents are having so many more problems in the area of discipline than did their parents, and certainly their grandparents. It is not because they are not manipulating consequences as skillfully; rather, it is because they are not demonstrating to their children that when they speak, they mean exactly what they say.

Yesteryear's parents were apt to simply tell their children to pick up their toys. Today's parents are apt to ask their children if they will please pick up their toys, "OK?" Today's parents, in the face of their children's emotional dramatics, are likely to demonstrate to their children that sufficient displays of emotional dramatics on their parts will result in "no" changing to "oh, all right!"

The du-jour explanation for a child who will not take no for an answer, who tests every instruction and every rule with the full might of his or her free will, is that an inherited chemical imbalance causes knee-jerk resistance to authority. Concrete verification of this proposition is lacking, but as recent audiences of mine have demonstrated, proof abounds that many if not most of today's parents are suffering from leadership deficiency disorder.