Miscellany

Twelve and Two and Two

A dozen years of marriage, two years in Texas, and—in another week or so—two years of Walking Ledges. You’ll never believe what happens next!

Actually, if you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably will: posts on writing and teaching sprinkled with increasingly occasional #postac commentary. Come November I’ll be attempting NaNo again, and probably writing about that. I aim to keep work from devouring the blog the way it did last year. (A shorter commute will help with that, I hope.) At some point there will be something about the availability of Ghosts of the Old City.

In this blog’s first year, I wrote 77 posts. Many of them were about my breakup with academia, about the ways that I dealt with the emotional fallout of quitting and the loneliness of relocating. The second year of the blog has featured half as many posts—my first year of teaching devoured my writing energy, even when it wasn’t devouring my time. Those posts, though, have been…positive. It’s not as if every day has been a happy one. February was rough, and I had some particularly down weeks in the summer when I was spitballing scenarios in which I didn’t get a teaching job for the coming year. Overall, though, life has been good.

Good or bad, life is continuous. The important moments seldom pay attention to the calendar. The less discrete the steps are in a process, the more arbitrary the divisions between them. An 89 is just as far from 87 as it is from 91, but we assign a different letter to the 91 because we have to draw the line somewhere. Anniversaries—of moves, of institutions, of weddings and first dates and birth—are arbitrary markers in a continuous process.

I’m not sure whether that makes them more or less important. On the one hand, my blog is little different at 105 weeks from what it was at 102. On the other, it is much different from what it was at 50 weeks. I still write. I am (somewhat) better adjusted to Texas than I was when we moved. I still think my spouse is one of the best people on the planet. Dividing the time into chunks doesn’t change things.

That anniversaries are arbitrary does not mean they are meaningless. (Language is also arbitrary!) They give us an excuse to reflect. Even artificial divisions are thresholds. Sure, we build the doorways ourselves based on such flimsy things as rotational and revolutionary intervals. When we stand in a doorway, we’re between things—it’s a liminal moment. (I got kind of obsessed with liminal moments after analyzing characters in doorways in Hawthorne.) We can see where we came from and where we’re going, even if we know that the tomorrow will not be so different from yesterday.

So. Twelve and two and two. We count the years, we look forward and we look back. To those of you who are here—whether since the beginning or since yesterday or reading this a week after I type it, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.

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Research Questions

In this penultimate unit of eighth grade language arts, we are studying research. “Research” for these kids usually consists of pulling out a smartphone and asking Google (or Siri) a question. YouTube was in almost all of their lists of “five places to get information.” When I showed them a video about the Library of Congress main reading room, many were skeptical about there being that much that isn’t available online.

This has been a fun unit for me to teach, in part because I’ve taught variations on “how to write a research paper” more than just about any other topic. The key, I think, is getting students out of the idea that research is just looking stuff up. Research is really one way of answering a question. It often involves looking stuff up, but it’s the question that’s important. I let the students choose their topics, but guided them pretty closely in the development of those questions. They are sick of me asking what their research question is…and probably also sick of the dirty looks I give them when they can’t remember it.

Of course I was going to bring my dissertation in for them to look at. It’s a big stonking book and I wrote the whole thing. I researched it all. I found almost everything in the bibliography myself. If nothing else, it would give me something to hit back with when the students inevitably complained about the number of sources they needed to find.

It helped that the kids were interested in New York and the library with the lions and in their teacher more generally. They got to hear about novelties like “newspapers” and “microfilm.” I got to explain that some of the things I looked at had to be brought up from basements. In boxes. (In their defense, if you’ve had Google in your pocket for most of your living memory, the notion of getting paper files from boxes somewhere sounds a little bizarre.) The students were mostly suitably impressed, and I held their attention for one more day—a victory when the standardized test is over and you’re obligated to hold their attention for another six weeks.

Because I didn’t want to be switching back and forth between the document camera and my laptop, I went and looked at the page for my dissertation at the University of Minnesota digital conservancy.

It’s been downloaded nearly 200 times since January 2014.

I sincerely doubt many of those folks have read the whole thing. It was still a surprising discovery. I was perversely satisfied to know that somewhere out there, desperate undergraduates might be plagiarizing my work. It was the sort of quasi-immorality, I thought, that I probably deserved. I managed to squeeze in a lot of things that would come up in searches: a bunch of prominent 20th century American composers, the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Bourdieu… Plenty of places for an enterprising young person capable of using Ctl-F to grab a paragraph or two.

That was going to be the whole story—how I like to teach people about research, because research is about answering questions, and I want more people to be more curious. I want more people to feel equipped to look for their own answers. I want more people to actually be equipped to sort out reasonable answers from poorly-argued or unsubstantiated ones. And how I thought it was funny and a little flattering that somebody might plagiarize my dissertation for an undergraduate research paper.

Then I got a serious message about my dissertation…on Facebook. (Which just goes to show that my students’ constant claim that “Facebook is for old people” isn’t so off base.) A former professor of a former colleague had been reading it, and thinking about it.

That’s a different kettle of fish. That’s what the dissertation was meant to do. It was meant to be part of scholarly discourse, to contribute to human knowledge (in a minuscule way). At a moment where I am putting myself on a job market very different to the one in higher ed, one where I am trying to figure out ways to talk about how well my students did on their standardized tests without sounding like I care too much about the standardized tests…that message hit me. That’s what I left behind. The reasons that I did still hold true, even as a few more of my former colleagues get fingertips in doors with longer-term and even a few tenure-track appointments.

It’s a reminder that I was good at what I did. I wish that it could remind me of that without simultaneously poking at old scars. I’m sure that in a day or two I’ll be over it. I know (thank the FSM) that this is being bumped in mid-stride, not anything that’s going to really change my direction. It’s just enough to throw me off balance for a moment.

Still. Academia, man. It gets its hooks into you but good…

Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.

Clever? Yes. Wise? Working on it.

Sometime during my sophomore year of college, I realized that being smart and speaking well were not perfectly correlated. One of my good friends–who has since had the most surprisingly adventurous life of my college gang–was pulling steady Bs without really trying. Grade inflation might have blunted that accomplishment, but this friend was taking a fairly serious slate of biology and Japanese classes. At a selective liberal arts college, you’re not supposed to be able to get away with that. This buddy of mine, though, was managing it even though he talked like a dairy farmer from Wisconsin (which he was). He was plenty smart.

Around the same time, I began to seriously think about wisdom. Being “smart” has always been easy for me. I’m particularly good at clever. (It’s the one way I feel like I’ve actually made an impression on my students so far.) I think fast. I mostly respond to new and changing situations with workable solutions.

Clever kept me afloat in grad school. I was good at the necessary half-bluffs of sounding like you know more than you really do. When something truly caught my interest, I could do a reasonable job of getting below the surface and thinking Big Thoughts about it. Day-to-day, though, I relied on being mentally quick rather than being intellectually strong.

Mental agility is pretty damn handy, but clever isn’t enough.

What I have been aspiring to, what I have written about intermittently for years in stuff that nobody sees, is wisdom.

The definition I’ve come up with most recently is this: wisdom is recognizing your feelings but understanding that they don’t have to rule you. This divide between thoughts and emotions crops up fairly often on the blog. Most often, it’s an intellectual understanding that things will get better, that I am capable, that I’ve overcome plenty of obstacles opposed to a feeling that everything will suck forever and I suck, too. When I’m at my most wise, I can recognize that distinction and use it as a source of strength.

Similar principles apply to dealing with people and situations. It’s easy to get angry about things. It’s often even easier to get angry at people. Maintaining some detachment from my emotions helps me control my responses to the people and situations that upset me.

Writing about “detachment” might seem to equate wisdom with coldness. Really, though, when I’m working on wisdom I’m usually able to respond in the best way. That’s most often a warm one–for both practical and ethical purposes. Wisdom becomes a precursor to kindness and humanity. When I act with wisdom, I can do what’s best rather than what I feel like doing.

That’s what I aim for, anyway. I don’t get there as often as I’d like, in part because I’m still working on the more practical wisdom of getting enough sleep and exercise and eating the right food. Wisdom is hard when the body’s playing catch up. It’s hard to be wise when you’re in your third consecutive hour of 30 eighth graders in a small room. Mostly, it’s hard to be wise because we’re still toting around a lot of neurological wiring that kept us alive thousands of generations ago.

That doesn’t stop me from trying. It is, as I tell my kids (and my students) the only way to get better.

Teaching Dreams

I’m not sure I ever dreamed about teaching college courses. Intermittently, the dreams of my gradjunct years featured classrooms, but they were never about teaching. That is part of the reason I find the string of teaching dreams I’ve experienced since July strange. Few of them have been the typical ‘unprepared’ scenario (e.g., I just started teaching at this school and nobody can tell me where my classroom is or give me the attendance list). Mostly, they have been very concrete, quasi-realistic dreams about the work of being a teacher.

Last night, for example, I dreamed that I was teaching an intervention/remedial English class. I dreamed that I was angry at the police for the way they treated my students. I dreamed that I screwed up my introduction to the class by saying some dream-honest things about how messed up the system is when I should have started the speech with the encouraging parts that I delivered next. Those encouraging parts, incidentally, were precisely they ones that I have sketched out in the eventuality that I have a class of my own. The only odd thing about the dream was that in the subsequent teacher’s lounge episode, I could not stop eating cake even though I was full. Make of that what you will.

I’m not sure what I am supposed to make of these dreams. They’re not prophetic (I hope—the thing with the cake was uncomfortable). I don’t really feel like I’ve been thinking about teaching all that much. Indeed, I’m trying to take advantage of this time between finishing my certification and going back to work by finishing the draft of my novel. (Getting close!) I did not dream of technical writing jobs when I was applying for them, nor, further back, of tenure track jobs when I was applying for those. In part because I’ve been bereft of optimism lately, I want to read these teaching dreams as confirmation, whether cosmic or subconscious.

I want that confirmation because teaching feels right to me. It’s the part of my old plans that I’ve hung on to. I love writing. Writing feels right, but I’m not in a place to make it my full-time job. Teaching is different, because teaching is service. When I teach, I’m not doing it for myself. The job is bigger than the paycheck. I understand the idea of a life of service differently now than I did when I embraced it as a 17-year-old at a United World College. Not everybody gets the chance to make their work a meaningful part of their community. I have that chance now, which is pretty awesome.

The part of my introductory speech that made it into my dream? “You are all writers. You are all readers.” That’s a dream, not of kids all becoming novelists or or poets or literary critics, but of young people becoming adults who can express their ideas clearly, who can pull the ideas from a text and understand what the author is and isn’t saying. The kids have great ideas and insights. I get to help them understand how to make the most of them. That’s cool enough that I don’t mind my would-be work invading my dreams, even if I’m turned off by chocolate cake for a while.

What Can I Do?

Yesterday was a dark day. It’s been a bad week for news. Social media was full of horrors from Ferguson and stories about depression. (Never mind Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq.) I continue to fight a terrible head cold and have been worn down physically. It was also one of the days that I waited for a phone call about a job that never came. Some big things, some small things, all pulling in one direction: down.

I’m not going to lie. I felt the way Erica Moen describes in the middle part of this comic. Or like George Bailey on the bridge wishing he’d never been born. It’s not the darkest place I’ve gone to (and I’m better today), but I kept coming back to one question:

What can I do?

What can I do to make a world where my black friends and neighbors do not have to worry about their sons getting shot by the men and women who are supposed to be protecting the community?

What can I do to make a world where our response to a crisis isn’t “how can this be happening in America?” but “how can this be happening to human beings?”

What can I do beside shake my fist at the sky as I sink into the morass?

I clung to this question, because it was the only way I could see out of the dark place I’d gotten to.

Look, I’m just a guy. I’m a privileged guy, too, even when I’m hurting. The last time I worried about the cops was when they were taking my picture during post-9/11 protests. I have an intact, supportive family and a lot more education than most people. I live in a house that is only partly owned by the bank. That didn’t stop me from tearing up when I saw the photo of the Ferguson protest at Howard University, or read Rembert Browne’s Grantland piece this morning.  Humans should not be doing these things to each other.

This is what I’ve got: my words and my vocation. Words dragged me briefly to the forefront of those protests 13 years ago. I can write. I can speak out. I can struggle to make the feelings I’m wrestling with intelligible, along with the situations that provoke them. Words matter. Words make people think and make people feel. I will do what I can to write meaningfully, whether that’s stories that help people step out of the dreary for a few hours or essays that make people think or terrible over-referential humor that makes people shake their heads.

The other one is more important. I get to be a teacher. I see sixth graders already leery of anybody in a uniform. I listen to high schoolers talk earnestly about which county has worse police. I see students buying into what society has told them about themselves. I see students fighting that. And I get to be a part of what they learn. I can make a difference. I can help them find their voices. I can listen. If I do that job well, if I listen and teach and believe in the students…I can help them hope.

Hope. We usually oppose it to despair, but it’s a hell of a good opposite for depression, too. When those veils come down, nothing good matters. You can know you’re loved. You can know people would hurt if you’re gone. You can even know, in some puny intellectual way, that things are likely to get better eventually. On the darkest days, though, you can’t believe it. Tomorrow doesn’t matter because today stretches forever, and today is awful.

That is why I clung to “what can I do?” If there’s any answer —no matter how small—to that question beyond “end it all,” then there is hope. There is hope. Hope alone won’t do the work, won’t make the changes. Hope won’t armor you against the evils of the world. But if you have hope, you can get out of bed. You can do.  Hope keeps the door to the future open. Even if it’s just open a crack, that crack breaks the darkness with a little light.

What can you do? Keep the door open. Keep hoping and asking yourself what you can do. Then go out and do it.

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