"Creating People On Whom Nothing is Lost" - A high school English teacher in Colorado offers insight and perspective on education, parenting, politics, pop culture, and contemporary American life.
Disclaimer - The views expressed on this site are my own and do not represent the views of my employer.
A recent post on my Twitter-feed posed the following question: If you could only listen to one musical artist for the rest of your life, who would it be? The immediate, instinctive answer for me is REM, without doubt. U2 is a close second. And The Police, including all the solo efforts of the band members, would certainly come in third. These bands could be on an endless loop throughout my life, and in some ways they already are, as each time a song comes up on the radio or Pandora or other playlists, I feel a ripple of memories and feelings from a journey in a musical time machine. The range and development and innovation and reinvention of these musicians are on par with major musical developments throughout the ages, certainly of the past forty years, and it’s impossible to understand the latter half of twentieth century pop culture without a nod to the collective work of Stipe, Bono, Sting, and the boys. Truly, the sounds of post-punk, power pop are the soundtrack of my Gen X life.
"Its all so wonky: I live in a town where everybody supposedly knows everyone else, yet I've never spoken to half the people who supposedly know everything about me. I see them on the street, but don't even know their names. How is living in Owl any different from living in Hong Kong or Mexico City or Prague? Is every place essentially identical?"
So ponders Julia, a young teacher from Wisconsin who has transplanted herself to the the small town of Owl, North Dakota, after graduating from U of W and teaching a semester in the city of Chicago. Julia is one of the primary characters in pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman's novel Downtown Owl, which reads as a series of vignettes about life in Owl over several months in 1983. Other narratives come in the thoughts of Mitch Hrlicka, a third-string quarterback who doesn't like rock music or his sleazy football coach, and Horace Jones, a seventy-ish widower who spends most of his days drinking coffee and chatting with his "colleagues" at the cafe and pondering American history. The lives of these characters are intertwined in general ways as the story moves toward a culminating event in an epic blizzard, but the tenor and appeal of the novel comes in Klosterman's pop journalist-infused psychological study of people of a certain time and place.
Something about this quirky little book really appealed to me, even despite some critics' jabs at the the style and plodding along of the stories, peppered with pop culture references that are certainly a trademark of the author but can at times seem forced or out of place for the setting and theme. For fans of Klosterman's non-fiction, these details aren't a problem, and for people of a certain time and place, like the Gen X youth who came of age in Midwestern towns in the 1980s. Perhaps it is that hovering bit of nostalgia that I'm always aware of, especially after turning fifty. But, as we're all hunkered down and social distancing lately, I'm glad I ran across this book and checked it out of my high school library before we left for spring break. While I'd read CK's non-fiction for years, I had never bothered to pick up Downtown Owl, and I was rather surprised to see it in a contemporary high school library. It was an enjoyable read, one which had me nodding often in amusement and occasionally in painful recognition or poignant recollection.
Here we are alone. Here we are shut off and shut down, alone with ourselves, alone with each other. And, I'm thinking of Phil Connors.
Phil Connors, if you don't know or recall, is the weatherman played by Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day, and I'm specifically thinking about the scene where he is sitting at the local cafe counter, reading a book, and he notices the piano playing in the background. Phil, who by now has become resigned to his purgatory reliving the same day in Punxsutawny, gets up and finds a local piano teacher and offers her $1000 to teach him. Stuck in a small town with seemingly no escape, and resigned to his fate of an absurd meaningless repetition of the same life day after day, Phil has decided to spend his days learning new things. And through those regular daily choices, he ends up becoming a better person and probably the person he truly wanted to be.
In the modern lexicon of pop culture references, "Groundhog Day" has come to mean monotony and boredom, and we too often use it to describe the repetitive dreariness of life. Yet that interpretation is not really what the Harold Ramis-Danny Rubin movie is about. The message of Phil Connors' predicament and dynamic personal growth is not one of absurd meaninglessness; the film is, instead, a story of existential re-birth. Phil is stuck in his life, and for a long time he rebels against his seemingly hopeless situation, not knowing what do do, but knowing for certain that it's not fair, and it doesn't make sense. After a while -- between 10-30 years by some estimates -- he accepts his situation and, at risk of sounding trite, makes the most of a bad situation.
And that is what is on our minds as we practice "social distancing," which is clearly set up to become the word of 2020, to say the least. As we read the paper and watch the news and check Facebook and Twitter, we are perhaps discovering an avalanche of advice on how to spend our time in isolation. For that time certainly seems like a sentence, but also has the potential to be a gift - the gift of time. How often have we talked about not having time? I wish I had more time. I would do that if I only had the time. Well, perhaps the time has found us. And this is not to detract from or minimize the anxiety and fear about the struggle and the dire situations many people are facing in a precarious economic and public health situation. The uncertainty is frustrating and unnerving to say the very least. And a service worker who is facing lost wages or the children who are out of school and missing important support systems can't simply say, "Well, great. This is a perfect time to start learning to play the piano, which I've always wanted to do." But here we are faced with an absurd, bizarre, inexplicable situation that has left us alone with time. Time to think. Time to do. Time to wonder.
In the early nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau "went into the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately." This may be our time to live deliberately, live mindfully, live intentionally. It may be our time to "front only the essential facts of life." It may be our time to explore what really makes us tick, to learn that thing we've always want to know. As John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Well, now that those other plans are on hold, we are left with the dailiness of living.
When did that become a word, a thing, a step, a plan, a prescription?
What are the sounds of a world trying to come together by staying apart?
What are the sounds emanating through suburban houses and downtown apartments and condos, as we hear each other, sense each other, try to stay busy, try to stay sane, and then wonder if it is OK to feel OK with isolation.
Will we be OK in isolation? Will we be OK with isolation?
Wasn’t Dr. Putnam’s story of bowling alone a warning?
We are not meant to bowl alone.
Weren’t we just fretting about division and separation and a splintering of our identities?
What are the sounds of a world in uncertainty?
Was that a cough? Can you hear me from six feet away? Can you feel me?
A car on the streets whispers by -- where are they going?
Is that a delivery truck in the lot at King Soopers?
Enough with the jokes about toilet paper.
Is there enough toilet paper?
Please don’t fight over the Charmin.
What are the sounds?
What are the sounds of “All Clear”?
What are the sounds of tension easing?
What are the sounds of students and workers returning, of stores restocking, of cafes and restaurants and coffee shops reopening, of actors acting, of performers performing, of athletes playing, of airplanes flying, of border restrictions easing, of suspicions fading, of medical workers relaxing, of bodies healing, of communities healing, of cities healing, of countries healing, of politics healing, of society healing ….
It seems counter-intuitive, Harry Smith of NBC observed in a video essay that closed the Nightly News broadcast Friday evening: Americans are being asked to come together in the fight to stem the spread of the coronavirus by practicing "social distancing," by staying apart. In this strange, uncertain time at the dawn of 2020, schools are closing and public events are being cancelled postponed or cancelled as cities and communities attempt to protect our most vulnerable and assist the medical community by trying to "flatten the curve." And staying away from each other to decrease the risk of infection is the recommended path. So, the family and I are at home this weekend, and planning to stay a bit isolated for at least a few days or so. And there is so much to ponder and unpack about this practice and its place in this time.
Some interesting thoughts:
In December and January, will we see a rise in birth rates .... or divorce and increased attendance at AA meetings?
Is Generation X, the so-called "latchkey kids" of the 70s and 80s, the most well-prepared to practice social isolation because it's basically in our DNA, and we've been practicing it our entire lives?
Are many men about the discover what their lives are like beyond sports?
Will I finally learn to play piano and improve my drawing and sketching and painting and perhaps study some more French and Chinese and ask my son to teach me some math and get around to finishing all those essays that are languishing in my Google drive and ....?
How much can you really learn from online tutorials?