Just a bit on Joy…and Boy

You know, at 52, and as a teacher of HS-aged students, I look back at my own HS years sometimes with sanguine eyes, and others with embarrassment. No one is, in their aging, any different. Our history is always a story in revision. And sometimes, sometimes that revision is one where we have to forgive ourselves for the quick and ignorant judgments of youth.

To whit…As a teenager, I had had just about enough of Boy George and Culture Club after about one week. I found the entire experience cloying. But this “naked/acoustic” version of Boy singing a different rendition of “Karma Chameleon”…well, I find that he and the song have aged well, like a wine that, at first, was too sweet, too upfront, but which, with time, has mellowed.

Comparing Boy’s look now to the image of him as a young adult in the 80s…It’s beautifully comforting to recognize our capacity for change, and yet also recognize that we retain so much of who we were. It is just differently placed. For example, the smile he flashes as he moves into the chorus and elsewhere. It’s a sublime expression of being in two places at once: Here (now) and there (past).

Sure, I know this is perception. That I, too, have changed. I know that the song is still pure pop candy. But, and perhaps this is why I teach, the recognition of joy on his face as he moves through the song…? Is there any expression in the realm of human experience more holy than joy? That flash in the eyes, the pull of the smile, in which we recognize someone is so “in their element” that action is fluid and emanates from a wellspring deeper and more mysterious than we will ever know.

Kodak Moments

Like many children who grew up before the advent of digital photography, I inherited numerous, neatly labeled shoeboxes full of what pop culture used to call “Kodak Moments”—real, tangible photographs, snapshots of my family processed and printed on photographic paper via the local Fotomat.  These artifacts, talismans of light and time captured by kodachrome and chemically fixed on paper, represent an archive of my life. Now 47, I’ve taken to going back to these snapshots to search for proof of my existence, to relive old stories, and to hold, if only metaphorically, a moment in time when I was younger, and full of wonder at the newness of the world.

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As a child, I would watch my grandmother spend her afternoons similarly searching for her own histories in piles of black and white photos from her childhood in Germany and her early adult years in Brewerytown, Philadelphia.  Showered by sunlight filtered through a high window and the leaves of a tall maple, she would sit, half-on, half-off her bed, photos spread out like an extra-blanket, reading, sorting, and resorting the photographs until she ran out of the stories to retell herself.  

Tracing an arc from my grandmother, through my childhood and now to my own family, I have grown into and out of so many shoebox archives that I’ve lost count.  Their size and number shifted with deaths and births until one day we stopped keeping them.

That day coincided with my purchase of a digital camera.  

I’ve since replaced the shoeboxes with virtual folders full of more pictures than I can count in a day.  Instead of spreading our photos out on a bed and moving them physically from one configuration to the next, we project them onto a large HD TV and praise the quality of the colors, the sharpness of the pixels.

And for all the convenience of the form, all the ease of printing and digital burning and dodging, for all that, I’m still drawn to the warmth and limitations of the physical snapshots over the flawless manipulations of digital photography.   Life is not perfect, at least not as perfect as it appears in digital photographs where the press of a button increases the “saturation” or the simple shift of a slider can alter the contrast or add more “warmth.” Rather, I believe life is full of fuzzily-focused thoughts, dimly lit understandings, awkward smiles, clumsy postures and poorly framed ideas. It is these errors and mistakes we laugh at and learn from which populate so many of our shoebox snapshots.

While I understand that all photos are mere pieces of larger stories and that most public photos from the pre-digital age underwent manipulations of their own, I believe the photos of the small cameras of our yesteryears, like the Brownie of my grandmother’s age or my own “Kodak Hawkeye 110” with its slim build and clunky flashbulbs, are a truer representation of who we were.  I believe in the photo-chemical marvel that was the old-school photograph and the errant, erratic beauty of lives captured in Kodak Moments.

Touching the Sturgeon

(The following essay, a meditation on why I believe we/I read, was first published by the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in the 2011 issue of their annual publication, Writing from the Inside Out.)

Last night I traveled.  Buoyed on the words of author Susan Rogers as she read from a recent essay, I swam from the hardwood paneled room with its ornate plaster ceiling on the campus of Bard College to the vast, watery plane of the Hudson River sliding past the college barely half a mile away.  In an instant, I was floating beside Susan as she paddled south on the wide, rain-swollen river heading towards a New York Department of Environmental Conservation boat that had clearly caught something large. One of the men on board acknowledged her presence as she glided up to the boat, and floating to the back, she could see that what they had was a 6-foot Atlantic sturgeon hauled up from the river’s depths that they were tagging for study.  

In itself, a scene like this is, perhaps, memorable.  Most people will never be that close to an Atlantic sturgeon.  However, Susan’s description of the fish made it unforgettable:  “It is a dinosaur fish–it hasn’t changed in over 62 million years.”   She continued, describing its blue-black belly, its flat gaping mouth for filtering “dynamic mud”, how when touched or struck gently on its body its solidity, like a piece of wood, surprised her.  There on the river beside her, I saw this animal, belly up, mouth agape, all out of sorts. I know now, too, of it’s prized caviar, of the fishermen with names like stories who used to pull them out of the Hudson and sell them as “Albany Beef.”

But I learned something else that night, something beyond the fish, beyond myself.

Susan’s language, the rhythm of the sentences, the placement of this recollection immediately after she described the death of her mother, the way she reached out to touch the fish, gently, with a curiosity and compassion…all this made me realize why we read.

 

In his work I and Thou, Martin Buber presents his relational philosophy of dialogue.  At its heart are two distinct modes of engaging with the world. The first, the I – it mode, is mere experience of an object of observation or utility (the “it”) by a subject (the “I”). This mode is clinical and scientific, detached and observant–think of a virologist watching a petri dish. But in the second, the I-you mode, both objects enter into a transformative relationship.  The “I” engages the “you” as an entirety, the universe in and of itself.  Jane Goddall’s game-changing relationships/studies with chimps are a good example.  Buber classifies such a relationship through three elements, the third of which is the fact that “this one person [the I], without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (Buber, Education, p.96 f., in Friedman). Buber calls this engagement an “encounter” and grants that such encounters can happen between the I and any object, person … fish.

 

This sturgeon, this ancient, alien fish hauled up through the spell of language, all glassy-eyed, mouth gulping air. . . it was real to me.  Its solid, scaled, bony body, its position of helplessness… I was there, on that river, touching that sturgeon. But the room was not gone, my classmates seated around me remained, Susan’s voice was clear.  I existed in two places at once.

What should I say? That I felt compassion for this fish?  That I sensed its fear? That though a silent and strange species, I felt a connection?  None of this gets to the totality I felt, to the way my mind reached out and the world rushed in, numinous, swirling around me as the Hudson swirled around this fish.

Why do we read?  Because the ability of stories to transport the reader compels us.  Because the incantatory power of language sings us out of our slumbers and into the circle.  And perhaps, as for me, reading stories and encountering characters makes us better people, and holds a religious power over us.  Maybe it is all these things at once. I read because an ancient fish connects me to the world. I read because authors preach a universal gospel in a church that requires no faith but what I have in mankind.

(This piece began as an essay for Indu Chugani’s Inquiry into Essay workshop in July of 2010 at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking.  That week we read essays by Junot Diaz, Malcolm Gladwell, and a piece by Nam Le–All of which dealt with identity and how we perceive our selves.  At midweek, Indu gave us a prompt to create a “mini-essay” that focused on a dialogue between the texts.  I floundered through four hours of joyless writing that evening, pleased only, really, with the fact that I’d felt transported by a reading that evening by Susan Rogers.  The next day following the advice of two of my peer-revision classmates, I jettisoned a full third of the paper (the section that was most like an “academic essay”) and instead focused on the experience of hearing Susan Rogers read.  Their advice, as well as the advice of the editors of Bard’s “Writing from the Inside Out” periodical, where this piece was published, has helped me to let this piece be what it wants to be.  And while it fails to address the original prompt Indu gave us, it succeeds in giving voice to something I’ve felt for a long time.

It wasn’t easy.  I struggled with the third paragraph, trying to revise it, cajole it into getting it to do what I wanted, which was, essentially, to give the piece a semblance of “the essay,” as I had always known it…to meet the focus of the course as I saw it.  I know that writing has a mind of its own, that it is often best to let the piece be what it wants to be.  Truth be told, this piece always wanted to be about that night as simply one instance of many where I’ve felt the dark lenses drop away from my eyes and the world reveals itself.  My demand that the piece stand up to some external standard made revision far more about me than about this piece, and thus I’ve learned something important.  Of course, it also doesn’t seem much like the traditional essay I thought I’d write, and in that, I’m also surprised.  It’s as though I went out fishing for trout at a river I’ve known all my life and instead hauled in a sturgeon.  )

Blade Runner 2049: What to Watch Beforehand

Blade Runner

I just (finally) watched Blade Runner 2049. In the fall of 2017 I watched one of the “prequel” shorts that helped fill in the blanks between 2019 (setting for the original) and 2049.That’s here: https://motherboard.vice.com/…/the-blade-runner-2049-anime-… It addresses the key plot event of a massive blackout that sent the world into economic turmoil.

Image result for blade runner 2022 blackoutWhat I didn’t know until last night was that there are two other prequels, live-action shorts that develop two characters, Jared Leto’s Niandir Wallace, and the Nexus 8 Replicant Sapper, who we meet in the beginnning of BR2049. Here’s a link to those: https://motherboard.vice.com/…/heres-what-you-need-to-watch…

Image result for blade runner 2036 nexus dawn

Anyway, if you’re a fan of the original and haven’t seen the new one, it’s fantastic, picks up on a lot of the motifs from Ridley Scott’s original cinematic vision, and continues to ask the (now even more pertinent) questions of “what does it mean to be human” and “what pieces are integral to the creation the ‘self’?” (Turns out one answer to the latter question is related to storytelling and narrative…which reminds me of this quotation I have had hanging in my classroom for years: “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.” Indian Novelist, Vikram Chandra.” )

Advice to a Young Writer(?)

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Quotefancy-2806954-3840x2160We set writing goals for the semester and year in my classroom.  Many students set a goal of “organization” or “focus.”  These are natural goals for any writer, but what I often find is that they are masks for “I want to write more efficiently.  I want to write right the first time.”  Below is one such goal, and my response to it.

(Of course, I am not the only English teacher in the world, in all of time, who has sought to counsel such students, but this is my student, and this is my response…with strong thanks to my mentors:  Mark R., my 11th grade American Lit. teacher who introduced me to Freewriting and gave me his copy of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power; Bard College’s “Institute for Writing and Thinking” where I have grown more as a writer and teacher of writing than any place else; and to Mr. Peter Elbow himself, in whom I’ve found a mentor and kindred spirit.)

“My goal for the marking period is to organize my writing better. I need to focus on putting my thoughts out in a clear format that makes sense and is in order. This means leaving out pointless information and recognizing the sequence that the paragraphs should be in. I’m really interested in working on creative writing or writing poetry, and it would help if I was able to write in a succinct manner in my writing without having to redo entire sections. I can recognize a lot of mistakes in writing, but the sequence of ideas is not one. My thoughts are sporadic, so are my ideas in writing. So my goal is to try and organize my thoughts in my writing so that a can write something that makes sense.”  –E….

E…,

I admire this goal as it seeks to discover a means for writing that is “easier.”  I’ll reply with a quotation attributed to, among others, Ernest Hemingway, one of our great writers of the 20th century:  “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

If you want to get things done and just be done with them and not worry about the quality of your thoughts or the craft of your words, then writing is easier than bleeding.  Organizationally the trick is to come up with some key ideas (Claims you want to make) organize them around a central thesis, and organize their order from least important to greatest, or from closest to most distant, (or vice versa, depending upon the topic), or order them from self, to community, to world.  Or from oldest to newest.  There are even more ways…but those are the key ones.  See, it’s easy, just like I said.  😉  But remember, that doesn’t take the measure of the quality of your ideas or the quality of your writing.

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The hard truth, however, is that nothing great was ever written with ease.  It is always a struggle, or perhaps a learning to dance with our selves and who takes the lead.  Perhaps that’s cold comfort to you and your goal, but the upshot is this:  to get better at writing, you must write, and not for a grade, but you must write for yourself, to please yourself.  If your writing is boring to you it will be so to the reader.  To do this well, you must find your voice.  To find your voice, you must write.  And so you’ve circled back. But none of this is unfamiliar to any artist.  And writing is an art–you must find your own way through it.  Here is one way to conceive of the act….

Peter Elbow breaks the writing process into two parts, “Growing” and “Cooking.”  One does not grow ideas and concepts in direct and linear ways, in ways that are totally organized as they leave the pen.  It is an organic process, like the growth of a vine of peas.  It wanders, meanders, finds new pathways…but it is always rooted in one place to begin…though it may find new roots elsewhere.  Only when that growth has been given time and distance can it bear fruit which we then take and “cook” under the heat of editing, organization, and pruning back all our wandering meandering ideas.  This will allow us to strengthen our original idea (the vine) and promote more growth.

That’s a lot to get, but it’s important to understand writing, at least in my class, as a craft, not a science.  I’m teaching you to write for learning, not write to demonstrate learning.  In AP Human or AP Gov/Euro you’ll write a lot…but most of that is artless writing to demonstrate learning or simply to rehearse ideas and cement learning (as writing is a good way to do that).  That’s not what I’m about in this class, though I will teach you simple ways to go about it.

Right now you simply need to spend the time upfront to develop and grow your ideas, find your center(s) of gravity(ies) and then work toward pruning and editing and reorganizing.  

If beauty is not skin deep, then beautiful writing is also not superficial.  

 In the end, I will urge you to follow this goal you’ve set, but only with the understanding that growing ideas is painstaking, heartbreaking, joyous, amazing, time-consuming work that requires a full-bodied attention to the world and the works around you.  It is hard, but good, honest, rewarding work.  All humans deserve to devote the time and effort to these rewards.

Such I will grant you in this class.