Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Life You Have Imagined

As we approach the end of the year, it's time for the obligatory reflection on where we've been, where we're going, and how we feel about it.

Near the end of Walden, (Life in the Woods), transcendental writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau advises readers to believe “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” As the world wraps up another calendar year, amidst a pandemic approaching its second year of disruption, we will all again take stock of our lives and our year as the clock ticks toward midnight on December 31. While the examined life is not always a satisfying experience, the inclination to reflect and even judge our lives is a natural feeling that is nearly impossible to ignore.

Thoreau’s advice in Walden is a reminder of our powers of self determination and our ability to not only chart our course in life but to also manage how we perceive it. It’s easy to feel a lack of control at points in our lives, and it’s even easier to fall prey to that inclination in times of crisis and uncertainty, like in a global pandemic that just won’t seem to end. Thoreau certainly faced his share of challenge and uncertainty, losing his siblings to disease early in life before succumbing to tuberculosis himself at the age of forty-four. Yet by all accounts, including his own extensive writings, he seemed to never miss a chance to live the life he wanted. Many other writers and artists have sought to explain the conundrum we all face in making sense of our daily lives. And sometimes the lessons can be found in the most unexpected places.

In the film Stranger Than Fiction, the character Harold Crick played by Will Ferrell realizes his life is being narrated by some nameless voice, and he is actually the character in a story, one where he is going to die very soon. As Harold attempts to understand the voice and find some explanation for the dire fate that is quickly approaching, he begins to look at his life with fresh eyes and a sense of urgency. In a rather panicked conversation with an English scholar who has tried to discover the narrative Harold is living, the professor, played whimsically by Dustin Hoffman, advises him to simply live his life and accept the story as it is plays out. That somewhat dismissive advice is, of course, the same guideline we must all live by. Obviously Harold protests, saying “this isn’t a story to me or a philosophy or literary theory, it’s my life.” The professor smiles and tells him to simply “Go out and make it the one you’ve always wanted.” That guidance is the key to the film, and it is also the insight offered by Thoreau.

In many ways the movie Stranger Than Fiction and the advice from the English professor are a succinct reflection of the philosophy of existentialism. Life is basically what the individual makes of it, nothing more and nothing less. Starting with Soren Kierkegaard in the late nineteenth century and continuing with Jean Paul Sarte and Albert Camus in the middle of the twentieth, the existentialists addressed the challenge of living in a seemingly absurdist world, an increasingly apt description these days. At times it seems like the only meaning and purpose in our life is that which we individually and randomly assign to it. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the existentialist writer Albert Camus ponders the absurd fate of the mythical Greek hero Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a huge rock to the top of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down. Yet, in embracing a fate rather than lamenting a burden, Camus ends by asserting we “must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So, as we continue to enjoy the holiday season, bidding farewell to one year while preparing to welcome another, we will again succumb to the irresistible need to reflect on the past and make resolutions for the future. As we seek to understand the lives we live, the benefits we enjoy, the opportunities we receive, and the challenges we face, we can look to Thoreau, we can commiserate with Harold Crick, we can ponder Camus and Sisyphus. And, as we do, looking back in reflection and forward with anticipation on the last day of December, here’s to imagining ourselves happy and living the lives we have imagined.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

On Notebooks, Joan Didion, & Christmas Morning

On Christmas morning, I'm reading the paper and doing some writing and thinking of Joan Didion, who passed away this week at the age of eighty-seven. As the memories and reflections and tributes pour out, we can't help but reflect on her contributions to the simple act of writing down what we know, what we see, what we hear, and even what we wonder.

It was from Didion on keeping a notebook that many of us discovered the idea of writing down snippets of thought, phrases or references from an article, or perhaps dialogue overheard that isn’t really to include in pieces later as much to remind us of who we are, what our thought processes were, and what it means to simply notice and think. As I've been reading back through pieces about and by Didion and writing, I realize it's been  been officially a decade since I started keeping a notebook. It was the winter of 2011, sometime around Thanksgiving, that I started jotting down thoughts in a notebook. I also started walking regularly, perhaps to get out of the house and certainly to collect my thoughts. And I'm still collecting my thoughts, occasionally posting them here, or perhaps weaving them into a column for The Villager.

Perhaps I'll start second semester with Didion’s essay to set the tone for my students being writers of creative nonfiction, at least as long as they’re in my class, seeing the world like an artist.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve

“It's Christmas Eve. It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”

— Frank Cross, Scrooged

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Novelty of Manners

A novel of manners has lessons on the novelty of manners. Here's this week's column for The Villager.

At times it seems we live beyond the pale.

In contemporary American society, crass, rude, and careless behavior too often masquerades as bold, assertive, and independent expression. The manners, traditions, and customs that once seemed so central to American life seem to fade on a daily basis, replaced by people acting on base instincts. The decorum that should be sacrosanct in institutions like Congress is no longer practiced, required, or even expected. The basic decency that should be standard in places like the schoolhouse and the church parking lot is embarrassingly absent. Sometimes I think contemporary American society needs a few more Lady Catherines.

Jane Austen’s timeless novel Pride & Prejudice is considered a novel of manners for its detailed examination of the customs, institutions, and culture of the time in which the story is set. The novel is also a rather intricate tale of relationships and traditions, as well as biting satire and social criticism of the society its characters inhabit. It is a wonderfully entertaining narrative as well a rich character study of numerous personalities inherent in regency England. One of those characters, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is often perceived as somewhat of a villain, a snobby elitist member of the nobility who seeks only to destroy the inevitable union of Elizabeth and Darcy. And, of course, she is that and more. Her suspicion, judgment, and ridicule of the Bennett sisters is scathingly cold. Alas, it is also fair. Despite her callous contempt for people beneath her social class, Lady Catherine is also correct in much of her criticisms of the Bennett family. They are, at times, embarrassingly crass and inappropriate.

The true wisdom and beauty of Austen’s novel is that she simultaneously upholds the institutions and values of her society as she satirizes and criticizes them. The book is a novel of decorum and manners, two important tenets of civilized society. Both qualities are severely lacking in young Lydia Bennett, as well as the rakish Wickham who nearly destroys the Bennett family by stealing the virtue of their youngest and most naive daughter. Fortunately for Lydia, her older sister Elizabeth is not so crass and careless. And, it's Elizabeth’s inherent goodness which unites her with the gentleman Darcy who resolves the family drama with tact and discretion. Ultimately, when Elizabeth Bennett stands up to Lady Catherine, she actually represents all the poise, reserve, and class the rest of her family lacked. I can only imagine what the institutionally reserved Lady Catherine or the naturally refined Elizabeth Bennett might think of contemporary society.

In a recent column for The Atlantic, conservative columnist David Brooks laments a similar lack of manners and decorum in the nature of American politics. An erudite scholar and social critic in his own right, Brooks often looks to the great thinkers of the neoclassical era for insight into the human condition. Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume were concerned that man’s faculty for reason was not strong enough to control his inclination to selfishness. As a result of Hume’s concern, and to an extent those of Lady Catherine, nineteenth century writers crafted their vision “about how we produce good citizens—people who are moderate in their zeal, sympathetic to the marginalized, reliable in their diligence, and willing to sacrifice the private interest for public good.”

Noting specifically the increasingly crass behavior among some members of the Republican party, Brooks fears the party has strayed far from the principles of conservative godfather Edmund Burke. In reviewing the writings of Hume and Burke, Brooks ponders how the country arrived at this point. Brooks reminds readers how Burke, in some ways a contemporary of the Lady Catherines in nineteenth century England, lamented an increasingly blunt and mannerless society and stressed the importance of dignified behavior in our leaders and citizens. “Manners are of more importance than laws'' asserts Burke, for “upon them, in great measure, the laws depend.” Clearly, the lessons of the nineteenth century are lost on many people today, including those at the highest reaches of society and government.

In discussing his novel The Lord of the Flies, William Golding once explained how the story’s moral “is that the shape of a society must depend upon the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system, however apparently logical or respectable.” That ethical nature seems to be in short supply in a society looking increasingly beyond the pale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Less Than Zero: a Gen X Christmas Movie

It's time for the annual debates about Christmas movies, and the non-Christmasy Christmas movies. Yes, maybe Die Hard, probably Die Hard. But if you're between the age of forty-five and sixty, you probably recall another holiday season film from 1987, Less Than Zero. 

The 80s film based on Bret Easton Ellis' first novel is truly a Christmas movie. I wrote about this a few years for Medium. Here are my thoughts on a GenX Christmas.

Thirty years ago, Clay came back to LA for Christmas, and the holiday movie was never the same. For Generation X, a group of people raised on disappointment, the cinematic version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero is a true Christmas movie exposing the hollow superficial excess of the holiday season and specifically the 1980s. A visually stunning film from cinematographer Edward Lachman, the movie captures and spotlights all the glitz of the holiday season, especially in Beverly Hills, while not looking away from the vacuous lack of substance behind the style, the holiday, and the state of the American family. Director Marek Kanievska created a haunting music video of a Christmas movie with film noir elements amidst the bright lights of holiday decorations.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

This Thing We Call Literature

I've been reading much non-fiction about art and literature lately. Here are some thoughts from this week's column in The Villager.

In the teaching of composition and literature, I always remind my students that words have connotations in addition to their denotation, or dictionary definition. It's worth noting the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that literature is more highbrow than popular fiction, and it's almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is the long, complicated, sometimes boring stuff we read in school. The definition I've tended to use with my students is that literature is "the stuff that matters."

I always distinguish between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer's incredibly popular Twilight series from 2005, I’ve explained to my students, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won't ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now. Stephen King, one of the most successful and talented fiction writers of the contemporary age once made a similar observation of Meyer, noting she “can’t write worth a darn.” I tend to agree, though many readers of classic literature might make the same criticism of King. Of course, we could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and I've lately been reading several of his books of essays and criticism, notably his latest work This Thing We Call Literature, which is the inspiration for this column. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of literary criticism entitled A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well-known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Add to that the 2018 awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for music to rapper Kendrick Lamar, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about popular writers like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, Krystal's discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work's significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were actually the popular fiction of their time, read by a public including many who had nothing more than an eighth grade education. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson's classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago, it opened my eyes to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality - fast food and reality TV being examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: “If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation ... then you are living in the right time.” No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of western culture studies: "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy." But I don't disagree with Krystal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. I'd also agree that postmodern obfuscation of ideas like quality, morality, and truth are doing no service to culture. There's the good stuff that matters and won't soon be forgotten, and there's everything else.

Anyway, if you want to ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out Arthur Krystal. Read some popular fiction as well. And then perhaps follow that with some classic literature. Having recently introduced my students to Jane Austen’s timeless classic Pride and Prejudice, I can’t recommend it enough.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Immersive Van "no" Gogh

I’ve decided against seeing the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit everyone raves about, despite loving Van Gogh since I was a child. For some reason the idea of blending twenty-first century digital technology with the sublime oil paintings of a nineteenth century Impressionist master just makes me uneasy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Helicopter, Snowplow, & Stealth Fighter Parents

This week's column for The Villager:

Helicopter parent.

It's a loaded term with a cynical pejorative connotation, especially in the world of educators. People often look with contempt at parents who quite literally seem to care too much. And, in the era of overzealous mothers contacting college professors about grades or even employers about interviews and promotions, it’s easy to criticize and ridicule such behavior. However, after nearly thirty years in education, I have a slightly qualified view of over-active parenting. As an educator, I have always said I’d much rather deal with a helicopter parent who hovers too much than an absentee parent who just doesn't seem to care. I've seen both kinds of parenting, and the risks of disengaged, careless, or even resentful parenting are just too damaging. For, as esteemed author Elie Wiesel so wisely reminded us, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference."

Now it appears there is a bit of validation for helicopter parenting. According to researcher and writer Pamela Druckerman "the bad news about helicopter parenting" is "it works." With that news, I would imagine most critics immediately key in on the word "works." How exactly does it work, and at what cost to the child? According to numerous studies, the most effective parents are, in fact, authoritative. However, that authoritative approach doesn’t simply mean demanding obedience. It actually focuses on developing qualities such as adaptability, problem-solving, self-efficacy, and independence. Parenting is about methodically leading children to adulthood, nurturing their growth and independence.

However, a new parenting term has recently hit the lexicon -- snowplow parents. Snowplow parents are people who do everything they can to "clear the road" of any obstacles for their children. This approach is complicated because everyone wants what is best for their kids, and no one wants to see his child struggle unnecessarily. At the same time, reasonable people understand that struggle and adversity are part of growing up, and often "what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly," as noted by Thomas Paine. When children are young, it is right to protect them from the harsh realities of the world -- even if we inadvertently introduce them to death, destruction, and betrayal at an early age by showing them video games and Disney movies. Beyond that minor indiscretion, parents simply want childhood to be relatively pleasant.

Once kids reach adolescence, and the rules of competition and comparison come into play, we must begin to evaluate those sink-or-swim moments, as our kids learn to take care of themselves. Snowplow parents won't allow the sinking, mistakenly believing that smoothing the road for the kid is more important than teaching the driving skills and coping strategies to prepare kids to ride solo. There are varying levels of snowplow behavior, with the Lori Loughlin-Felicity Huffman version being the most insane. That “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal will perhaps provide a moment of reflection for parents, kids, and college admissions officers to reevaluate the often Faustian system we have created.

Of course, I've never advocated for helicopter parenting, even as I seek to understand it. The term seemed to arise from the Baby Boomer parenting style which sought to protect their Millennial kids from taking the risks and making the mistakes of their parents. I much prefer the structured and supportive but more free-range parenting style associated with Gen Xers who want their children to have the freedom and develop the resilience they did as children in the 70s and 80s. At the heart is the idea of loving them, but not obsessing over them. It's caring for them by teaching them and expecting them to care for themselves and others. It's also about trusting them to be the human beings we raised, even if that means knowing they will make mistakes and occasionally disappoint us and themselves. That's when they need love and support the most.

Effective parents don’t hover, they don’t helicopter, and they certainly don’t snowplow. However, they are neither aloof nor disengaged. Generational writer and sociologist Neil Howe has termed Gen X parents “Stealth Fighter Parents.” They are aware and involved in the lives of their children, choosing where, when, and how much. If an issue “seems below their threshold of importance,” they will let it go, “saving their energy” and probably their nerves. But if the situation “shows up on their radar … they will strike, rapidly and in force, and often without warning.” The target might be peers or other adults, but most likely it’s the kids themselves. Ultimately, it’s simply about being involved and caring while gradually letting them learn to fly.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Teaching as Performance Art

Teachers are in many ways performers. I've written several pieces about this idea before, and I've recently updated those for my column this week in The Villager.

“Mr. Mazenko, you could be an actor.”

One of my students recently gave me that compliment after I had finished reading a poem aloud in various voices for a lesson on tone and interpretation. I responded with, “I am an actor.” It's the Mazenko Show -- five performances a day, five days a week for ten months of the year. That, of course, excludes test days, though even handing out tests can be a rather dramatic scene.

While calling myself an actor is figurative, there is an element of acting to my job. My students often refuse to believe me when I describe myself as somewhat shy and rather introverted. Obviously, my classroom persona seems to defy any possibility of reserve or anxiety. In the classroom, I’m generally enthusiastic, energetic and, yes, quite vocal and outgoing. However, a teacher’s class persona is in some ways just a show. It's a performance. Interestingly, this quality is something people in "the real world" never truly understand. When friends and acquaintances in the private sector talk about a big presentation they have coming up at work, I think, "me, too. All day. Everyday."

Being on stage as much as teachers are, we really have to be performers, and effective teachers, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, "know our song well before we start singing." However, outside of the classroom, teachers can be rather reserved around other people. They can get nervous giving presentations to colleagues, and they can be surprisingly passive at social events. Many professional entertainers describe a similar feeling. Comedians, for example, are often troubled by the expectation to be funny all the time. Their show takes a lot of work, and it's not always so easy. In fact, many comedians reveal they were not the class clowns or the life of the party, but instead were the observers. They watched carefully what happened around them, and their understanding of humanity is what drives their art.

The distinction between our work and real selves comes up regularly as I talk to students about who they are. Though teachers project confidence and knowledge in the classroom, we are still human, and it takes a lot of effort to put on the show each day. After twenty-nine years in the classroom, I now realize the key is not just performance or entertainment, but the art of engagement. If the teacher creates an engaging lesson that is tailored to the students sitting in front of him or her, then the entertaining quality can take many different forms.

The performance aspect became my shtick early in my career, and it seemed almost necessary and more comfortable to do it that way. My high intensity approach has much to do with my first job out of college, teaching English as a second language in Taiwan. Though I trained to be a high school literature and writing teacher, I was teaching elementary school kids, and even kindergarten for a year. The fun, engaging performance style connected with the kids who were often reluctantly learning English because they had no choice. Thus, the rather rigid curriculum was centered on games and activities, and the school liked a high energy approach.

After five years teaching in cram schools, I returned to the States and taught middle school for a couple years at a Catholic school in Chicago before transitioning to high school in a suburban district. And, at each stop along the way, I discovered that a performance approach seemed to promote engagement. In all honesty, I now realize I may have been overestimating the engagement level, especially when I consider how school is often just a place where kids go to watch adults work. I also had a great mentor who once advised me to make sure I don't become a caricature of myself. Reflecting on these ideas is helpful. We do need to be "on" quite a bit, but it's important to remember we can also be human beings and be vulnerable. Otherwise, it's easy to burn out.

Reflection is the key. I tell newer teachers to simply be thoughtful about what you do every day, and ultimately be true to yourself and whatever your style of engagement is. At the end of the day and the sound of the bell and the rise of the curtain, the only important consideration is whatever engages the audience in the show.