Thursday, September 19, 2019

What is your Natural Default Setting?

Strangely, I recently noticed that I begin each day, even and especially at work, relatively happy and content. While work awaits and challenges arise, and while I admit that many early Monday alarms leave me staring at the ceiling thinking, "No, I don't want to do this today and again," I must concede that my smiles and "Hellos" to the kids and teachers in the hallway are authentic expressions of joy and comfort with my existence. And, I'm fairly certain that my relatively new attempts at beginning most days with about ten minutes of meditation are a key factor in my general ease with the struggles of dailiness.

That's probably a bit surprising for people who know me, for I tend to operate on a fairly intense level, and it wouldn't be wrong to admit that "drama queen" and  "neurotic princess" have been uttered in reference to me, including by myself. My Natural Default Setting, a term I'm borrowing from David Foster Wallace's brilliant graduation speech entitled "This is Water," given at Kenyon College's commencement in 2005, is "on edge" and in fight or flight mode. It's certainly not a calm demeanor at ease with the world. And, to clarify DFW's term, it is the belief that I am the center of the universe and my beliefs are the only true ones and my needs and desires are the only thing that matter. I tend to come from that viewpoint.

But I'm getting better, I think.

I am moving, hopefully, in the direction of greater awareness and, perhaps, closer to my goal of "living deliberately," a reference from Henry David Thoreau from Walden about living simply and authentically. And, it's so strange that DFW's speech has come back around to me this week because I've honestly been thinking about general contentment and meditation and understanding people in ways that enable me to feel less angsty and intense about traffic or grocery store lines or people I disagree with. For, "The true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be adjusted, conscious, and sympathetic." And that idea reminds me a bit of the insight from Patrick Deneen who challenges our contemporary notions of freedom and reminds us that  early thinkers actually intended the sanctity of freedom not as freedom to do what we want but actually freedom from the most base instincts and qualities that compromise our happiness and contentment.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Are Students Bored ... or Boring?

I'm probably a bit full of it when I try to turn the tables on my students and their ability, or inability, to appreciate the classic literature I've assigned. The crux of the claim is that a book like 1984 or Pride & Prejudice is neither interesting nor boring -- each just exists as an artistic creation. Their value and quality varies depending on the reader. However, the claim cannot be that they are awful or boring or weak or poorly written. And, if they come across as "boring," it may simply be that the reader who feels that way is the only boring entity in the exchange. Thus, I try to emphasize that my greatest hope as a teacher is that my students come to appreciate the work as a quality work of art and social commentary, even if they don't really like it. And, I hope they won't call it "boring," but simply concede that it's not their preference and, perhaps, they can't fully "appreciate" its brilliance. Because I am certainly not going to use class time to engage with any piece of art I don't believe is brilliant.

So, each year at some point we have this exchange, and each year I grow a bit as well. This year a student wanted to know what work I found "boring" -- because if I didn't like it, there was no way she was going to invest the time. I laughed, but it did make me a bit sad, for I don't want to be that curmudgeonly presence in anyone's education. That said, we had an interesting chat about works from our curriculum they were bored by. When the classic archetype for all modern superheroes, Beowulf , came up, I felt compelled to defend the famous Geat and help them understand why the poem is anything but boring. The gap, I believe, is the ability of people to connect with and grasp the written word as entertainment. If I can bridge that gap, I will truly be educating. And, perhaps one day my students will not only "appreciate" Beowulf in some similar way to Iron Man and Captain America, but they just might be inclined to buy my, yet-to-be-written, scholarly study of allusions and the epic hero, "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy: allusion and archetypes in popular culture."

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Novelists & the "Voice of a Generation"

When I was in college in 1991 and discovered this new funny-looking novel by Douglas Coupland called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, I was intrigued and became a fan, even going as far as writing my Master's thesis on the early works of Coupland in 2002. However, I was also surprised after finishing the book to read on the back that some reviewer had offered the blurb: "A Modern day Catcher in the Rye." That just seemed wrong. Coupland was the first to agree and to reject the notion that he was the "voice of Generation X," and he even went as far as declaring the "death of Generation X" in an article for Details. While Coupland's novel was certainly a zeitgeist novel that captured a moment in time and reflected the general ennui of people in their 20s in the early post-Reagan years, the comparison to an iconic generation-spanning novel like Salinger's work, which has sold roughly 65 million copies, just seemed absurd.

So, what exactly do we mean by the voice of a generation? That's been on my mind since encountering the work of Irish novelist Sally Rooney. It just seems odd to anoint a writer as the "Salinger of the Snapchat generation" when her books have sold roughly 60,000 copies, and the whopping majority -- I'm guessing 95% -- of people under the age of thirty-five have never heard of her and will never read her book. So, can we really say she "speaks for a generation"? What does that really mean anyway. Certainly, it is possible to speak in a voice that reflects a collective experience without the need to be famous, popular, and recognized by the entire group. Truly, the same can be said of Coupland, for it's a safe bet that most Gen Xers never read the novel, don't know how their label originated, and couldn't even identify the author.

In thinking about the generational voice idea for Millennials and Gen Z (or Generation neXt as I like to call them), I've also encountered the insight and literary work of writer/novelist Tony Tulathimutte, who has the distinction of writing what the New York press termed "the first great Millennial novel," while also penning an insightful bit of cultural commentary for the New York times where he posited "Why There's No Millennial Novel." The English teacher and sardonic literary critic in me loves the ironic dichotomy of those two pieces, and it helps extend my interest in the idea of a novel as the voice of a generation.

So, what do you think?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

It's Never Going to Be OK

Life is managed; it is not cured.

Each fall in the early weeks of school, I read to my class a list of "Life Strategies for Teens" from a book by Jay McGraw, who happens to be the son of Dr. Phil. It's an amusing little bell starter, and I book talk it a bit, mock warning them I'm going to recommend it to their parents, so they may expect one as a gift sometime soon. I also tell them I'll encourage their parents to purchase two copies, "so you can read it together and discuss it over dinner." The list of strategies form chapters of guidance, and the aphoristic nature needs some explanation:

  1. You either get it, or you don't.
  2. You create your own experience.
  3. People do what works. (successful, happy, well-adjusted people at least)
  4. You cannot change what you do not acknowledge.
  5. Life rewards actions.
  6. There is no reality, only perception of it.
  7. Life is managed; it is not cured.
  8. We teach people how to treat us.
  9. There is power in forgiveness.
  10. You have to name it before you can claim it.

The one bit of guidance I like to key in on is the one that opens this post:  Life is managed; it is not cured. I honestly, but somewhat regretfully reveal to the students the most important lesson we can ever learn -- it will never be OK, never done, never perfect. Life is a continual process of rises and falls and many lateral movements, and some time after early childhood we start to experience that. However, in a naive desire to get back to that mythical time of innocence when everything was OK, we start setting arbitrary and transient milestones and finish lines for ourselves.

It probably starts in middle school when most of us first begin to deal with the "stuff" of life that isn't so pleasant. And, we tell ourselves if we can just get through this and on to high school, "it'll all be OK." Once in high school, when the stuff closes in again, we tell ourselves, "I just need to get my license, and then it'll be better. It'll be OK." But of course, the stuff closes in again, and we repeat the cycle. I just need to get through this week of tests, or whatever, and then I can regroup and get organized and focused and never fall behind again. And, then I just need to be eighteen, just need to get into college, just need to move out, just need to get my own place, just need to turn twenty-one, just need to graduate, just need to get a job and a place of my own, just need to get this one promotion, just need to get to that next level ... and then it will be OK. Then I'll be satisfied. Then I can relax. Then I can calm down. Then I can stop worrying.

But it will never be OK. And, the only disappointment in our life comes from believing that we can get to a certain point, and that will fix what ails us. Life is managed. It's every day a new task, a new situation, a new something. And, when things are going well, you can be fairly certain they will eventually go south, or at least sideways. And, when things are really ... sucking, you can be fairly certain that it won't last, and things will get better, if even just marginally.

It'll never be OK. And when we realize that, it's really going to be fine.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Labor Day -- Spring Cleaning in the Fall

Americans are always ripe for reinvention, and ideas like New Year's Resolutions and spring cleaning when we recharge and remake ourselves in the image we have imagined are embedded in our DNA. Several years ago I read a column where the author described Labor Day Weekend as his New Year's Eve -- wish I could still find it. Anyway, that idea resonated with me, for the middle of winter is never really a good idea to reset and "clean out the garage," literally or metaphorically. But that traditional end of summer is a time to clean up and reset.

Labor Day really is perfect for spring cleaning of the house and life. We've grown up with the first weekend in September as the end of summer when the pools close, the kids return to school, and the days & nights cool off. Though many schools and communities are long past the days of school starting after Labor Day, it's still a great weekend for one last hurrah of play and carefree whateverness. The weekend activities dial back a bit, and we can turn inward for how we will make this school year our best yet. The natural connection to the seasons changing and a move toward hibernation can open our minds ... and our closets.

I've been in and out of the office this weekend, emptying files and filling the recycle and shredding bins with the remains of last year's work. For, the spring is really too busy to do an adequate inventory, and by the arrival of June, I simply don't want to dig through the mess. And, then, of course, the summer closes, my contract renews, and we prepare for the arrival of kids. So, not much cleaning and recharging happens then. But now, on this somewhat carefree weekend, I've taken some time to reflect, drink wine, clean up the yard, read a couple novels (I tend to multitask my reading), do a couple hikes, and think about the year.

For those who've read my work from early this year, I am not that much more adept at playing the piano, nor have I perfected a yoga handstand. And I'm certainly not more competent in French. But I did add a bit more art to my life with my first ever purchase of original artworks at the Affordable Arts Festival, and that makes me very happy. And, this year I did manage to place one piece of pop culture writing with Pop Matters; but most of my other work remains only self-published on Medium. That gives me pause, as I wonder if my writing will ever really become something more than this blog and the occasional piece in a non-paying website. But, whatever. I've decided to keep writing.

And, that's what this is. Happy Labor Day. Good luck in becoming who you are.