A century ago, shutting out distractions was already a problem. Today, perhaps, the Isolator’s time has finally come.
H/t: “The History Lovers’ Club” Twitter feed.
A century ago, shutting out distractions was already a problem. Today, perhaps, the Isolator’s time has finally come.
H/t: “The History Lovers’ Club” Twitter feed.
I’ve never understood why the seven deadly sins don’t include ignorance and cruelty. They have anger and gluttony and lust in there, but I’d much rather have a person eat three slices of apple pie but be kind and well informed. Gluttony doesn’t come anywhere close to ignorance. I’m not talking about stupidity. I’m talking about failing to be informed and to deliberately cut yourself off from knowing things. That must lead to every kind of error there is.
—Louis Naidorf, architect
Naidorf designed the iconic circular Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. He is quoted in this profile in Billboard magazine.
Reading about the insane and obscene contracts being handed out to Major League Baseball’s most elite free-agents has reminded me of one of my better brilliant-ideas-that-will-never-happen.
Let’s socialize pro sports.
Crazy, eh? Read on.
Each team would be owned by its city. Players would be paid well, but not exorbitantly, according to a league-wide pay scale and salary cap. Players would have generous post-career packages that made sure they had plenty of opportunities to obtain further education and build a second career. And the biggest stars could still cash in on the side with endorsement deals, etc.
Players would cease to be nomads with a list of teams on their resumés. Trades would still happen, but not—as is so often the case today—as salary dumps. For the most part, team rosters would be stable.
Fans would be supporting their team, and cheering for their players, instead of supporting some billionaire’s team and cheering for the latest gang of rent-a-players to put on the team uniform.
Ticket prices could return to affordable levels for middle-class fans.
The bulk of the TV revenues and other profits would go to the owners—that is, the cities—and be used for roads, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities, etc.
“Objection!” you say. “My city government has messed up everything else already—I don’t want them firing coaches and GMs, too. And what about the possibilities for corruption?”
And I say: you’ve got to be kidding.
How could the hiring and firing of team management get any worse than it is now? And how could a bit more government graft be worse than a small pack of billionaires and millionaires taking everything? Maybe city ownership of teams would inspire a bit more participation in the democratic process; how bad could that be?
And I haven’t even mentioned the current scandalous conditions under which cities are extorted into subsidizing stadiums for billionaire owners who threaten to pack up and move elsewhere if they don’t get the sweet deal they demand.
To hell with all these billionaires. Socialize pro sports so we can root for teams that are really ours.
The love of Heaven and Earth is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the myriad things.
The love of the sages is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the people.
The cooperation between Heaven and Earth
is much like how a bellows works!
Within the emptiness there is limitless potential;
in moving, it keeps producing without end.
Complaining too much only leads to misfortune.
It is better to stay in the center of serenity.
—Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 5, translated by Yuhui Liang
No ice cream was consumed during the writing of this story, and consuming ice cream of any kind is NOT recommended. If you want something sweet, eat fruit.
One Saturday afternoon my friend and I were walking down the pedestrian-only section of the main shopping district downtown. My friend looked to the left and saw a Mr. Softie vendor selling swirls of soft ice cream in three different colors, with sprinkles of various kinds available at additional cost. “Oooh! Mr. Softie!” he cried, and started toward the stand. “Wait!” I said. “Do you have any idea what’s in that stuff? It’s just air and chemicals and artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors and artificial colors. The only real thing about it is the very real damage you do to yourself when you put that poison in your body.” “I know,” he said. “It’s crap, and it’s really bad for me, but I love it anyway.” And off he went.
Waiting for him amid crowds of shoppers, I began looking around. On the opposite side of the street to the Mr. Softie stand was a Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream shop. The best, most expensive, and most delicious ice cream in the world! Without hesitating I walked through the ornate double doors, already salivating as I imagined a scrumptious bowl of Waldorf-Ritz Rocky Road. The moment I passed through the doors, lights began flashing, celebratory music began playing, and confetti began falling from the ceiling. The store manager rushed straight up to me, smiled happily, and said, “Congratulations, sir! You are the one millionth customer to walk through those doors!” He took me by the arm and led me to a special roped-off table that had been prepared for the occasion. “Please have a seat here, sir,” he said. Then he called to his employees, “Bring out the Prize Ice Cream!” In a kind of procession, the entire staff escorted the master ice cream chef to me as he carried, on a silver tray, a large bowl of ice cream. “There you are, sir!” said the manager. “Three scoops of our unbelievably delicious pistachio ice cream, free of charge, with our compliments. I know you will enjoy it.”
I looked at the ice cream, and then at the circle of happy employees waiting to see me take my first spoonful, and then at the manager. “I really appreciate this,” I said, “but I’m sorry to say that I don’t like pistachio ice cream.” The manager looked shocked, but then smiled. “I think you misunderstand, sir,” he said. “This ice cream is handmade in small batches by our master ice cream chef. All the ingredients are 100% natural, organic, and completely free of any artificial additives or colorings of any kind whatsoever. The cream comes from cows raised in luxury dairy farms where they are treated like movie stars. Nowhere in the entire world will you find ice cream even half as good as Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream!”
“I know that your ice cream is the best in the world,” I sighed. “But I don’t like pistachio ice cream!”
The moral of this sad tale, of course, is that judgments of quality are different from judgments of taste. I may love Mr. Softie ice cream, or I may love a corny movie or a trashy piece of pop music, even though I know that if I judge their quality, they all fail the test. On the other hand, I may admit that Waldorf-Ritz Pistachio ice cream or the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are all superb examples of ice cream, fiction, and dance, while still not enjoying any of them. In the words of the great American film critic, Roger Ebert, “Does it make a movie ‘good’ because you ‘like’ it? No, it doesn’t, and I have liked a lot of bad movies.” We can put this another way: no one can tell you that your judgments of taste are wrong. No one can say, “You are wrong to dislike pistachio ice cream!” But if someone who knows more than you do about literature and ballet says, “You are wrong to claim that the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are crap,” he just may be correct.
I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod and haul’d up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter.
All this seem’d very reasonable.
But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well.
I balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable Diet.
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
“We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”
—Mikhail Bakunin, 1867
I had more sense than to argue with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast. A man should never inform a lover of his mistress’s faults; nor tell someone involved in a lawsuit that his case is weak; nor attempt to persuade a fanatic by strength of reasoning.
—Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques
A beautiful day in the neighbourhood.
Time to smarten up, folks.
“This is a monstrous act of savagery.”
“Yes, it’s terrible. But can we talk about the forces that would drive some people to such acts?”
“You want to make excuses for these animals? Outrageous! They are scum, it’s as simple as that, and they need to be exterminated.”
“Well, can we talk about how an innocent baby is turned into ‘scum’ that needs to be ‘exterminated’?”
“NO! Let’s talk about the innocent babies who were killed and orphaned by these monsters. Why are you more concerned with the killers than you are with the victims?!”
Did you imagine the killers as part of a group that you sympathize with, or part of a group for whom you have no sympathy? Go back now and re-read, imagining it the other way.
My cousin Yvonne was three years older than I. The summer she turned 18 she and (I think) her younger brother Matthew spent a few weeks with us in Coronado. She was slim, blonde, beautiful, and boy-crazy, and of course I was in love with her in that entirely theoretical but still heart-throbbing way that a 15-year-old boy can be in love. Here is the only photo I have from that summer, the two of us back-to-back, the neighbor boy (Jamie?) in the middle, and Matthew—I think—at the far left.
Yvonne was the eldest child of David and Marilyn Bogy, who were Catholic in the old-fashioned way and had a very large family. Eight kids? Twelve? I can’t remember. David Bogy was my mother’s first cousin, although since David had been adopted there was no “blood relation”—a fact that helped to nurture my teenage infatuation.
Years before, when I was perhaps six or seven, we were at some sort of family gathering at the house of David’s parents, Vernon and Margaret “Daisy” Bogy. The evening was coming to an end, and everyone was standing inside the front door, trying to say goodbye but failing. It was always at moments like this that my mother quoted Mr. Timmis, a man she had known in her youth. “Come as often as you like. Stay as long as you wish. But when you get up to go, for godsakes, go!”
At that time we were living in the San Fernando Valley and we had Siamese cats. Alex, five years older than I, had demanded a baby brother early on, and my mother had responded by promising him a cat. In the event she couldn’t bear the idea of the cat being lonely, so she got two cats, and soon she had many more, as she was too tenderhearted—at first—to consider birth control. I remember being told that the year I was born, thirty-six kittens were born in our backyard.
By the time of this family gathering at the Bogy house on Laurel Canyon Drive, however, my mother had become a believer in birth control—for cats, at least—and so I knew all about it. Standing in the doorway, listening with increasing impatience to the pointless chit-chat, I heard the conversation turn to David and Marilyn’s ever-growing family. Here was something I knew about, I thought. “David,” I said, “if you don’t want to have any more children you should have Marilyn spayed.”
That summer of 1967, my mother was alarmed at the responsibility of supervising a boy-crazy 18-year-old girl during her beach holiday. There was a bit of furtive smooching with Jamie, and some flirting with sailors on shore leave, but in the end no harm was done. Mother was much relieved, I think, to send Yvonne home.
I lost track of Yvonne for a while. The way I heard it, she married Bill Burger to get out of her parents’ house as much as anything else. We corresponded quite a bit for a while in the early 1980s. By then her husband was very ill with a degenerative disease, something like Huntington’s chorea. He was unable to work, his parents were decidedly unhelpful, her son and daughter were in their teens, and she was left trying to hold it all together.
In 1986 I took a job teaching at Casablanca American School, in Morocco. I had never been to England, and I wanted to see Dorset, especially, because I had been teaching Thomas Hardy’s novels for several years by then. I knew that Yvonne had had a rough go of it for the last few years, so I offered to pay her airfare if she would meet me in London and share my Christmas holiday in England. To my surprise, she accepted. We stayed at a rustic B&B in Dorchester, visited someone I don’t remember, went to Oxford, and we must have seen a bit of London, too, but I don’t remember exactly what. Yvonne had turned into quite a keen gardener, and she wanted very much to visit Kew Gardens. I think she did, but on her own. I can’t remember what I did while she was there. It was great to see her again after so many years, and I was very happy to provide her with a break from all her family problems, and to give her a holiday that she never could have afforded on her own. But it was also sad to see that the carefree 17-year-old of my youth had not only aged, but had been worn down, physically and emotionally.
After a while we lost touch again. I married, continued to work overseas, had two children of my own, and had little time for anything beyond work and family. Years passed, including over a decade in China. I returned to North America in 2015, kids grown up, marriage ended long before. Last year, after I settled in British Columbia, my brother discovered several boxes of mine that he had misplaced years before. He sent me a box of papers, and among them I found a collection of letters from Yvonne. I wondered how she was doing. I thought I should look her up, and send the letters back to her. My brother said he had her contact info, but it was on an old phone that he couldn’t find. Finally, I went online and after a few false starts I learned that she passed away five years ago, before I came back from China. She was 64 years old. In June I will be 67, and for the first time I will be three years older than Yvonne, instead of the other way round.
It just doesn’t seem right.
Yvonne, I miss you, and I’m sorry we lost touch, and I wish I could hug you just once more.
Your cousin Eric
Zhuangzi, whose name in earlier transliterations is rendered as “Chuang-tzu,” was the best known exponent of Daoism after its founder, Laozi. Where the book attributed to Laozi, the Dao De Jing, is enigmatic and elliptical, Zhuangzi has given us a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate the wisdom of Daoism. Here are two of them, translated by Patricia Ebrey.
What happened when Zhuangzi’s wife died:
When Zhuangzi’s wife died and Hui Shi came to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pan and singing. “You lived with her, she raised your children, and you grew old together,” Hui Shi said. “Not weeping when she died would have been bad enough. Aren’t you going too far by drumming on a pan and singing?”
“No,” Zhuangzi said. “When she first died, how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life. Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused, amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared; when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring and fall, winter and summer. Here she was, lying down to sleep in a huge room, and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”
And here is what he says about his own death:
When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ”I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins, the sun and the moon for jade disks, the stars for pearls, and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn’t the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?”
”We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you, master,” a disciple said.
“Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favorites?”
Source: Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization : A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28-31. https://web.archive.org/web/20060219221611/http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chuangtz.html
Lest we imagine that only ancient China could produce such equanimity in the face of our common destiny, here is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2:
If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all . . . . Let be.
And then of course there’s the great Walt Whitman:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
—Leaves of Grass, Section 6
I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:
‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be.
Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible;
Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war.
Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice.
This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
As I move past hundreds of homeless people on my daily commute, I wonder where their counterparts would have been, say, a century ago. And the answer seems clear.
They would have been in rural communities, doing low-skilled jobs on farms or in farming towns.
Or they would have been working in labor-intensive factories.
Today, those jobs have disappeared. Farming has been industrialized and mechanized. Factories have been automated. Today, the people who would have done those jobs have no jobs at all. From unemployment comes depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. Add in those who would have been confined in mental hospitals in earlier eras, and voila! —today’s massive homeless problem.
In England, beginning in the 15th century, landowners began enclosing their fields. They expelled the peasant families who had worked those fields for generations and replaced them with sheep, who were less trouble and expense, and more profitable. From Wikipedia:
There was a significant rise in enclosure during the Tudor period. These enclosures largely resulted in conversion of land use from arable to pasture – usually sheep farming. These enclosures were often undertaken unilaterally by the landowner. Enclosures during the Tudor period were often accompanied by a loss of common rights and could result in the destruction of whole villages.
The now-homeless peasants migrated to the cities, especially London, where they became the urban poor, many of whom succumbed to the vices of the urban poor: drunkenness, petty theft, prostitution. When the English began colonizing in North America and elsewhere, they realized that they could alleviate these problems by sending thousands of these uprooted peasants to Virginia and Australia as indentured servants or deported convicts.
Today, alas, we have nowhere to send our homeless people. What to do?
Let’s give them useful jobs and affordable housing. There are jobs that need doing, but aren’t being done. Cleaning streets and sidewalks, for example. Repairing items that would otherwise be thrown away. Recycling: why do we send our waste overseas to be recycled? I’m sure there are many others.
Would it cost money to give the homeless jobs and housing? Of course. But what is it costing us now to have thousands of people sleeping on the streets? A lot more, I bet. And what is it doing to the quality of life in our communities?
Queen Elizabeth Park is one of my favourite spots in Vancouver, so I decided to ride my bike up to the top of the hill and see if the North Shore mountains were still there. They were.
Thanks to L.K. for this one:
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t, either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.
― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
With the elegant Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. Check out Thigpen’s classic Ludwig kit.
The sun came out for Canada Day, and it was glorious.
N.B. I chose the seaside, not Quebec (read the green sign in the center of the pic):
The modern re-issue of a classic: Rogers Dynasonic Snare Drum. What a beauty!
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—from “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats
Bridges. Airplanes. Political systems. Things fall apart.
So, deleting Facebook (and Messenger) from your life turns out to be like checking out of Hotel California:
Just in case that print is too small for you: “To reactivate your account, log in using your old login email and password.” In other words, you can delete Facebook, but Facebook will never delete you and your data.
Comical coda: When you go to deactivate (not delete!) your account, you are told that deactivating FB will NOT deactivate Messenger, so after you deactivate FB you need to open Messenger, tap your profile pic, go to Privacy & Terms, and then click “Deactivate.” So, I re-install Messenger, then I deactivate FB on the computer, then I tap my profile pic, Privacy & Terms, “Deactivate”—only to get a message saying that my session has expired. So I log in, repeat the taps, only to find . . . “Deactivate” is not an option anymore! My guess is that logging back into Messenger reactivated my FB account.
At which point I removed my Franz Kafka mask, deleted Messenger from my phone, and walked away.
Memo to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO:
Let’s face it, you are filthy rich several times over. This monetizing-users thing has been a big, big success for you. You don’t need any more money. Your descendants for several generations don’t need any more money. How about you do something for the rest of us?
Make Facebook a free service with zero data collection, zero advertising, zero promoted posts, zero monetizing of users. Pay for ongoing costs with premium services, but keep it free for basic accounts. Make it into a non-profit corporation. Turn it over to some good people to run. Maybe Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia could recommend some to you.
Then go enjoy your money.
‘Want to freak yourself out? I’m going to show just how much of your information the likes of Facebook and Google store about you without you even realising it.’
‘One of the primary creators of this unintelligible academic rhetoric, Judith Butler, is best known for her theory of gender performance central to her 1990 book “Gender Trouble.” Yet in recent years, one cannot be sure that even Butler understands her own writing . . . .’
‘How did we arrive at this moment where learning means parroting incoherent political rhetoric?’
School, including Harvard, had taught him comparatively little; his fellow collegians had taught him less than he had hoped and wished; independent inquiry had taught him relatively much; and, lead where it might, he had decided to follow the path of self-education. This did not mean he would leave the college. No, he would conform to the faculty’s requirements sufficiently to graduate as expected. Neither did it mean that he would try to dispense with teachers; he would need and be glad to have them, in many instances; but he would try to take charge of his own education completely, including the finding of teachers.
—Both Sides of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, by Edward Chalfant. Pp. 84-85.
Those inclined to the optimistic view that anti-intellectualism in America dwells primarily in remote Appalachian hamlets, or has been produced by television and its digital descendants, will be dismayed to read Henry Adams’ 1857 assessment of his Harvard College classmates’ reading habits:
There are not . . . twenty students in College who ever read, of their own accord, fifty pages of Homer, or Euripides, or Aeschylus, or Demothenes, or Cicero, either translated or untranslated. The number of those who appreciate or even like the classics is absurdly small. It is so too with modern languages, or nearly so. English literature is the bound [i.e., limit], and even in English literature, little except the lightest and most common portion is at all known. The fishes all swim on the surface, and neither dare nor wish to go deeper.
—from “Reading in College,” published in Harvard Magazine, October 1857, and quoted by Edward Chalfant in the first volume of his biography of Adams.
Chalfant goes on to describe the response to Adams’ critique: “His classmates looked carefully at his ‘Reading in College’ and told him he was conceited” (Both Side of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, by Edward Chalfant, pp. 83-84).
So there you have it: even at Harvard College in 1857, people who enjoyed reading were regarded as snobs.
He has read very little during the Course of his Life, and has now totally renounc’d all Reading: He has seen very little, and has no manner of Curiosity to see or remark: He has reflected, properly speaking, and study’d very little; and has not indeed much Knowledge: He has only felt, during the whole Course of his Life; and in this Respect, his Sensibility rises to a Pitch beyond what I have seen any Example of: But it still gives him a more acute Feeling of Pain than of Pleasure. He is like a Man who were stript not only of his Cloaths but of his Skin, and turn’d out in that Situation to combat with the rude and boisterous Elements, such as perpetually disturb this lower World.
To see what is, is really quite arduous. How does one clearly observe? A river when it meets an obstruction is never still; the river breaks down an obstruction by its weight or goes over it or works its way under it or around it; the river is never still; it cannot but act. It revolts, if we can so put it, intelligently. One must revolt intelligently and accept what is intelligently. To perceive what is there must be the spirit of intelligent revolt. Not to mistake a stump needs a certain intelligence; but generally one is so eager to get what one wants, that one dashes against the obstacle; either one breaks oneself against it or one exhausts oneself in the struggle against it. To see the rope as the rope needs no courage, but to mistake the rope for a snake and then to observe needs courage. One must doubt, ever search, see the false as the false. One gets power to see clearly through the intensity of attention; you will see it will come. One has to act; the river is never not-acting, it is ever active. One must be in a state of negation, to act; this very negation brings its own positive action. I think the problem is to see clearly, then that very perception brings its own action. When there is elasticity there is no question of right and wrong.
One must be very clear within oneself. Then I assure you everything will come right; be clear and you will see that things will shape themselves right without your doing anything about it. The right is not what one desires.
There must be complete revolution, not only in great things, but in little everyday things.
—Letters to a Young Friend, 10
Unmotivated students are uninspired students. Good teachers help them find a dream that will make the perspiration worthwhile. Inspire them first; then ask them to work.
I try to challenge and inspire students by speaking to them respectfully as young adults, and by sharing with them my enthusiasm for reading, and writing, and building a better life by becoming a lifelong learner. It is much easier said than done. Moreover, as teachers we sometimes don’t see the effects of our work. Many students over the years have reached out to tell me that my teaching made a difference in their lives, and not all of them were the high achievers. I wrote about one of these, a student from my first years of teaching, here:
“Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story”
Those who are ready and willing to achieve at a higher level need work that inspires and challenges them, whatever their current skill level. Daily independent reading has been a constant component of my teaching, across multiple continents and curricula and exam systems, throughout my career. Why? Non-readers need to begin reading; readers with limited reading experiences need to be introduced to new authors and titles and genres; avid readers need to be guided to fill gaps in their reading experience and to take on ever more challenging books.
These principles apply to all of my work: find out where the students are, and help them to move one step higher in the same way that one climbs a mountain . . . looking at the distant peak one moment, and at the path ahead of one’s feet the next.
“A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)
Today I saw a brief post on Facebook from a former student in which she expressed dismay at the news that the Barcelona terrorists were Moroccans. My immediate thought was this: Why should Myriam feel dismay, anymore than I should feel dismay that the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were Americans? or males? or white? or from the state of ____________ or the city of ____________? or attended x college or high school? or were raised in this or that religion?
We should all feel dismay that any human being would commit atrocities or engage in hateful behavior. But I feel dismay, too, when groups—minorities, usually—are shamed and blamed for the bad behavior of some of their members.
I did not choose my gender, my skin tone, my body type, my place of birth, my sexual orientation, my mother tongue, the town, city, state, region, or country where I was raised, the religious beliefs, if any, of my parents, etc. I did choose to attend a certain university, but I did not personally vet and approve all the other students who attended that university. I am a reasonably decent human being. I am not more responsible than we all are for other males, or other white guys, or other tall guys, or other Californians or Americans or Lutherans or Acme University grads who do horrible things.
We are all responsible, because we are all human beings. But only the perpetrators are to blame.
When other human beings do horrible things, we must all pause, again, to consider what forces, what trauma, what past experiences or injustices or distortions of personality could have pushed the perpetrators to such hatred and violence. We must also resist the lazy and cruel temptation to turn to other good and innocent people who happen to look like the perpetrators, or who share the same religion or nationality or home town or who belong to any other of the perpetrators’ granfalloons, and then to blame those good and innocent people for someone else’s terrible behavior.
I am not to blame for the bad behavior of other members of my granfalloons. Neither are you.
Information has, in the internet age, moved to the forefront in the arsenal of weapons used in political and international struggles. China emphasizes defensive measures in the new information wars, investing heavily in its “Great Firewall” to cut off its citizens’ access to news and ideas the government deems inappropriate or dangerous. Russia is taking the offensive approach, flooding the media with disinformation to such an extent that many people, not knowing what to believe, cease to believe anything they read or hear. The United States, with its Wild West adulation of “Freedom!” above all, has proved particularly vulnerable to the torrent of lies and half-truths found today on the internet. In their responses to this torrent, Americans resemble the young students I have taught over the years. When a claim or idea they previously believed to be true is shown to be false, they rush to the conclusion that there is no truth at all. When political leaders they had formerly admired, or at least had assumed to be honorable, turn out to have been dishonest, they rush to the conclusion that all politicians are corrupt. “The system is rotten to the core!” people exclaim, and others from all points on the political spectrum nod their heads vigorously.
But there are honest, conscientious politicians, and there is a difference between truth and lies. So how can we recover our footing? Our response to these challenges may well determine whether the democratic experiment begun in America in 1776 continues, or whether the chaos grows so pervasive that Americans decide that, for the moment at least, they would prefer more order and less freedom.
Many people wiser and more experienced than I will have ideas, but here are three to start with—none of which is original to me.
In this beautiful, heartbreaking book, the descendants of Crazy Horse tell the true story of his life, as it was handed down from generation to generation. Partly history, partly a family memoir, and partly the manifestation of a quest to reclaim Lakota culture and continue fulfilling Crazy Horse’s purpose: to protect the people and their land. If you are interested in Crazy Horse, this is the book to read. Highly, highly recommended!
John Gruber of Daring Fireball extends his middle finger to Facebook, with some help from Dave Winer. The f-bomb may or may not offend you, but the argument is persuasive. So I posted a link to his piece on Facebook, naturally, but I am also posting it here.
Down the hill on Bates Road, off Liberty Road in the suburban farmland south of Salem, Oregon, you will find the former site of Rosedale Elementary School. The Rosedale building, along with a row of portable classrooms behind it, is now occupied by Abiqua Academy’s pre-K to Grade 8 students and teachers. West of the old school is a gravel parking lot, and behind it a new concrete path leads up to the unassuming, pre-fabricated square building where a remarkable new program opened its doors in the fall of 2015.
This is Abiqua Academy’s High School. No athletic teams. No pep assemblies. No cheerleaders. No long hallways lined with a double stack of metal lockers. No noisy cafeteria. No bells announcing the beginning and end of each lesson. No fixed daily schedule of classes. No assemblies in which the vice principal admonishes students about the importance of adhering to the school’s dress code. No sessions with the school counselor about what to do when you are bullied, or see someone else being bullied.
Inside the front doors, you see a small lounge area with sofas and a coffee table, a larger table for lunch or discussions, and a kitchenette in the corner. In the opposite corner, a photocopier sits next to the usual supplies of staplers, paperclips, sticky-notes, etc. Beyond this entrance area, a screen blocks from view the rows of study carrels that fill the remainder of the central space. Along the left-hand wall are the science lab, two restrooms, the janitor’s closet, and a mathematics classroom. Along the right-hand wall are two more classrooms, the office of Lily Driskill, our Academic Director, and a small meeting room. The two full-time teachers, Jo French (mathematics and sociology) and I (English and history), have our desks in the main area with the students’ study carrels.
In this inaugural year, we have just four students: two freshmen, one sophomore, and one junior. They follow highly personalized programs designed to meet their immediate needs and help them to achieve their future goals. Some of their coursework is completed online. Often the online curriculum is modified or supplemented by Abiqua teachers. For PE, three of the four go to a local fitness center twice a week to exercise under the supervision of a personal trainer; the fourth attends a CrossFit class on his own time. Two of them study Spanish, both online and with Abiqua’s Spanish teacher. The other two study German and Latin, following online courses supplemented with biweekly lessons with tutors. A part-time teacher comes in for lessons in biology. One student studies Anatomy & Physiology with the help of a senior at Willamette University. Another WU student visits twice a week to tutor one of the freshman in creative writing.
Anyone who works with teenagers knows that, as a rule, nothing is more important to them than friends. As we prepared for the start of school, I wondered how our four students would cope with the social isolation they were bound to find at Abiqua. I kept thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, in which Hell is imagined as four people locked in a room together. In December the students were interviewed, without their teachers being present. They loved the program, the teachers, the flexibility . . . they loved everything, in fact, about their experience so far, with one major exception: they wanted more students!
Now as we near the end of January, I see so many signs of growth. The students who lacked confidence are gaining it as they see that they can, in fact, be successful in areas where they had given up on themselves. Those who had learned to see teachers as the enemy and to regard schoolwork as drudgery imposed on them, have learned to trust their Abiqua teachers and are beginning to take ownership of their own education. And these four young people, so different in ages, personalities, interests, and backgrounds, have grown to trust and tolerate each other to a degree that I find remarkable. Their mutual kindness achieved a peak moment just a week ago when one of them, without the slightest prompting by any adult, offered to help another with his writing. I held my breath when they moved into the small meeting room for their first session, waited apprehensively, and then had no words when they emerged smiling and happy after forty minutes.
So here is my first-semester report card for Abiqua Academy’s High School program:
Comment: A great beginning, with the promise of much more to come. Bravo!
Let’s imagine that, somehow, Americans reached agreement that universal, single-payer health care is the way to go. How could it be implemented? Clearly, the transition would have to be managed in stages. It might seem logical to gradually lower the eligibility age for Medicare—say, five years of eligibility every twelve months. In the first year, 60-year-olds would be eligible; in the second year, 55-year-olds; and so on.
It makes more sense, however, to start with the children. Shouldn’t the health of our children be our first priority? And aren’t families with young children the people most in need of affordable health care? The problem, however, is that taking the youngest people out of the private health insurance pool would make it impossible to cover the expenses of older Americans without enormous premium increases.
The solution, it seems to me, is to move people into Medicare from both ends of the age spectrum, so that the balance of people left in the private system—younger, healthier people and older people with more medical expenses—remains about where it is now. In that way we could both give children first priority, and avoid a huge spike in insurance premiums for those still in the private system.
Imagine a transition something like this:
|Year||Medicare for everyone ages . . .|
In the first year, families with young children would immediately benefit. Those who already had health insurance would save money by removing their children from their policies, and those without insurance, or whose insurance included high deductibles and co-pays, would be able to take their children to the doctor without worrying about what it would cost. Both the finances and the health of working families would improve dramatically.
In the second year, people ages 60-64 would become eligible for Medicare. Every year thereafter, another group would be added, alternating between younger and older. Making the transition in this gradually like this would allow all the legal and bureaucratic and financial changes time to take place in an orderly way, and would give the private insurance companies time to move into other products. With experience, better arrangements would be discovered, and adjustments made. Companies providing insurance to their employees would have time to plan and implement the transition to the day when everyone would be covered by Medicare.
If the process began in 2020, then by 2030 every American would be covered by Medicare, and the United States would finally have caught up to the rest of the developed nations by providing health care to every citizen, with the costs borne by everyone through an equitable system of taxation—a non-profit, universal health insurance system that would benefit all of us, instead of filling the accounts of behemoth insurance companies with billions in profits, while leaving ordinary people scraping to pay medical bills, putting off medical care to save money, and fearing financial ruin should we suffer a major illness or injury.
I say, let’s do it.