Monthly Archives: January 2013

Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.


Filed under Education, Teaching, Writing and Reading

Of Internet Trolls and Stupid Insecurities

A first for me!  I’ve experienced, or have been the victim of, my first internet troll (or so I think).

It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve become aware of such an animal as the internet troll, my first introduction probably coming from an internet video blogger by the name of Jay Smooth, who rocks, by the way.  My particular troll posted a comment in response to a blog entry about my fancy smoking jacket several weeks after the entry had been published.  Because I deleted it almost immediately, I couldn’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was a single sentence, only half of which I understood, the other half making reference to a group or a subject that was incomprehensible to me.  The half I did understand said, simply, fuck you.

Then I started thinking that I wanted to know or wanted to remember what the rest of that little missive said–and I found a way to retrieve the comment from my trash.  See where this is going?  Already I had given too much attention or psychic energy to this supposed troll. Here’s the message in its unedited entirety: “Fuck you all Forex bustards.”


A little research revealed that Forex is an on-line service to help people trade on the U.S. Commodity Exchange, or, in laymen’s terms, The Stock Market. I don’t know what it has to do with smoking jackets. I am not a member or a participant in Forex.  I had no knowledge of such an entity before I received this vitriolic comment post.  I am completely innocent of being associated with it in any way, shape, or form.  So what’s up with this guy? Or gal?  –I’d never want to assume the gender of my particular troll, but I assume he’s most likely a male.

I thought, first, this is a message accidentally sent to the wrong audience.  But that couldn’t be, because in order to post a comment on someone’s blog, you’ve got to be looking at their blog page, yes, and clicking your mouse or whatever it is you’re using as a clicker right there on the “leave a comment” button, right? So it seems to me this had to be a deliberate effort to send a message directly to my blog page. I am not a Forex bustard.  I repeat it, sir.  I am not a Forex bustard.  I don’t know what a bustard is. Ultimately, I don’t even know if I have, in reality, been the victim of a troll, or rather, the victim of stupid insecurities caused by some stupid program that sends spam to blogsites.

I could figure this whole thing out in several different ways.  I could be insulted and hurt because someone has cursed at me and called me a bustard  right to my blog page face.  And I could be angry that I invested so much energy in defending myself against an undeserved abuse by researching Forex and bustards and writing a blog entry about all of that. Or, I could be angry at myself for any insecurities I have that would lead to hurt feelings about a stupid comment that has no real relevant content related to me or anything else I may have written in a blog entry. I could be disappointed in myself for not calling it quits immediately after I trashed the comment the first time.  And if it is a spam and not a troll message, I could just feel silly, generally speaking, because everyone knows there’s absolutely nothing personal about a spam, annoying as they are.


I could be thankful.  I could be thankful, because this troll or this spammer has taught me a few things: one, that there is a trading company called Forex; two, that there are fake companies defrauding people in the name of Forex; three, sometimes spam is difficult to distinguish from trolling; and four, I am way more hypersensitive than I thought I was or ever should be.  But ultimately, this troll or this spammer has initiated and then inspired my 40th blog entry, and for that I am thankful.

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Of School Reform and The Common Core

So here we are in the midst of another school reform movement.  Here’s a funny thing.  I’ve worked as a high school English teacher for about twenty-four years now, and while I consider myself progressive, forward thinking, willing to try new things, and while I feel confident that, in actual practice, I do progressive, forward thinking, new things in my classroom with my students, I feel, paradoxically, that in the 24 years I’ve been teaching almost nothing of real consequence has changed in Education—despite the fact that at every step of the way there was some reform movement on the front burner.

Oh, let me count the reforms (fair warning: this will be tedious):  Over my twenty-four year career, we have been introduced to and/or implemented block schedule, site-based management, project-based education, schools within schools, houses, I.T.I.P., sheltered instruction operation protocol, professional learning communities, authentic assessment, Oregon state standards, Oregon state standards revisited, the CIM, the CAM, senior seminar, the capstone experience, career to work, language objectives, learning targets, multiple intelligences, international baccalaureate, and now, drum roll, please, The Common Core, adopted by something like 45 of the 50 states in the union.

Out of all of these hobby-horse reforms (some more hobby-horse than others and none of them meaningless on theoretical merits), only one or two of them have seriously impacted my practice and most all of them have come and gone and come and gone and come again.

Schools tend to be both perpetually in reform mode and perpetually frozen in time.  Save for some clear philosophical distinctions between what I do as a teacher and what the teachers who taught me did as teachers, the experience of teaching or taking a high school English class is essentially the same as it ever was, only more difficult.  Not that those philosophical differences between myself and my predecessors are small potatoes—I think of them as significant—significant, but not new.  I know that there were secondary teachers during the late seventies and early eighties who would agree philosophically with almost every thing I do now—and probably did some of those things themselves. But in the end, it’s not so much about what teachers DO as it is about what they believe, which influences what they do.  Can all students learn?  Can all students improve?  Should students have some autonomy, as often as is possible, to steer their own learning? Should students be encouraged to discover their own knowledge rather than regurgitate their teacher’s? Is schooling life-affirming and soul-enhancing? Is schooling a respectful, validating, joyful experience? Does the schooling experience grow positive and productive citizenry? If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, it seems to me you’ve got your answer to school reform.

All of this hullabaloo to measure and evaluate seems at total cross purposes with the above important questions.  We’re always trying to evaluate, grade, assess, measure, weigh, compare, compete and publish those results, and once we figure out how to do these things, then the job seems to be about how often we can do them. The more often the better. And all of this momentum toward measurement comes from OUTSIDE the school.  I have never known a teacher to beg for a standardized test.  I have never known a teacher who professed any amount of faith or trust in the value of a standardized test. What I do know is how much time with students actually exploring meaningful work is lost to administering tests I have no role in creating, the content of which I have no foreknowledge, and that have absolutely zero connection to my curriculum.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the guv’ment, and the district bosses who are beholden to the guv’ment, don’t trust teachers to teach up the kids in our community.  They don’t trust principals to hire effective people.  Actually, I do know better, and what seems to be true I think is actually true:  We’re not trusted at the school level.  And testing is the most expedient way for the powers that be to check up on our progress, even if the meaning or value of that check-up is nebulous.  Nobody once considered just stopping by, looking into a room or two, talking to kids and parents, asking some teachers to explain what they’re doing.  That would be too hard.

Instead, let’s get a bunch of college professors and politicians together to hammer out The Common Core—this new group of nationally selected standards by which ALL students in participating states will be measured.  In fairness, The Common Core website says the standards were created by “teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders.” Beyond this, the authorship of these standards and exactly how they were decided upon is a relative mystery.

What’s “new” about these standards?  Well, in English education, not a whole lot.  They’re standards for skills rather than for content knowledge, skills around reading, writing, speaking and listening.  None of these skills are skills that any thinking professional would dismiss as unimportant or trivial. But there are a ton of them, more than any one thinking professional could keep inside his or her thinker, and more than any one busy professional could ever accomplish in a school year.  And they’re rigorous as all get-out—as if the authors of these lovely little standards had NO idea about what the populations of our classrooms look like in terms of diversity in readiness and skill level.  They make the same mistake that every other standards movement in the history of standards movements makes: expect the same thing from all students in the same way over the same amount of time–as if they were all, dare I say it, the same.  Here’s more work.  Here’s more difficult work.  And the added resources to help you with that, or the relief from massive student loads?  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.

On the whole, if anything has changed in Education over twenty-four years, it’s that teachers have come into the profession, not less, but more highly skilled, knowledgeable, prepared, and professional than ever before—at least that seems true to me here in Oregon, or here in my district in a suburb of Portland.  It is a wonder that the most qualified teaching force in the history of the public school system is not qualified to make determinations about the effectiveness of and the best path toward improving our schools, our programs, the learning of our students, and ultimately, whether or not those students have the skills necessary to be worthy of a high school diploma.

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Of The End of Winter Break and a Bunch of Other Of

Sunday, January 6, the end of Winter Break in the school district for which I work.  Always mixed feelings about the end of any lengthy break from teaching. There’s some dread about having to get up and work hard again, always.  And there’s a sense of discombobulation and confusion about what it was we were doing before this two week interruption and how again were we supposed to get back to business.  But there’s also a sense of longing again for the normal rhythm of the school day and the five day work week, for mostly positive interactions with colleagues whose company I sincerely enjoy and miss, and for my students who, because there are just so damn many of them, guarantee always that no day will be the same as the last day.

It’s been a productive little break for me, but in unexpected ways.  I’ve been writing like a fiend.  This will be my eighth blog entry in two weeks time–nine, if I decide to publish the really weird one I wrote about prepositions.  I wrote almost 2,000 words toward a new novel.  I decided to participate this January in an off-shoot bastard child of National Novel Writing Month, January Novel Revision Month–which for me, will  be less like revision and more like drafting, but without the kind of hard core goal of 50,000 words in a single month. I have made for myself a goal of 20,000 words.  We’ll see about that once the work week kicks up again.  So, this productivity has come with some costs.  I feel selfish. We haven’t done very many things as a family this break.  I read only about 70 pages into one book by Andrew Pham called The Eaves of Heaven and played around a lot in The Onion Book of Known Knowledge.  We saw The Hobbit. I didn’t see very many friends. Didn’t make any progress on the new Here Comes Everybody recording–which I fantasized about finishing over the break.

Productivity seems to be always a kind of balancing act and all the things I’d like to get done during a break away from teaching get thrown into a big sack and tossed around and dumped out and always some things get done, maybe even some really impressive things get done, like nine blog entries and 2,000 words of fiction, but nevertheless, I feel somehow disappointed.  It’s a personal problem, I know.   

And the project to enlist subject matter help for blog entries from readers and friends has been fascinating and inspiring.  I may keep going with this, but I like the idea of this blog entry being a kind of conclusion to that particular project–which is a bit of a problem, because I got lots of subject matter suggestions that I have yet had an opportunity to tackle, a whole bunch of other OF essays that I did not get to write. So, perhaps, in conclusion, it might be fun to tackle a bunch of those in short form–the aphoristic OF essay.

Of Aging:  I’ve been thinking about this one a lot and have come to the conclusion finally that there’s not a lot of good to say about it.  With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes ambiguity and with ambiguity comes complexity and confusion, pain and suffering.

Of Sanguinity:  Despite that fact that aging is not good for anyone, at least physically, there are always things to be happy about.

Of Textbooks:  except textbooks.

Of Eternity:  We are blips in space and time.

Of Milk:  I hate those posters of celebrities with milk mustachios.  They seem somehow obscene.  And I hate the grammar problem there, also.  No, I don’t got milk.  I don’t have any milk.  Or, if I do got milk, I have it.  I have milk.  But that’s no good either.  I am drinking milk in this moment.  Or, yes, there is milk in the fridge and I can drink it if I choose.  Otherwise, outside of my aversion to this particular ad campaign, I am totally in favor of milk, enjoy it on cereal, appreciate its contribution over the years to the health of my bones, and recommend it to young people everywhere.  And I’m fascinated by the thought of the first human being to ever drink the stuff or suggest drinking it to others.

Of Beer:  I love beer.  Last night I had a really great one, aged in bourbon barrels, served in a brandy snifter.  I love bourbon and brandy and beer.

Of Good That Comes From Vice:  Good things come from drinking beer.  But in particular, with this one, I was thinking about how much blog writing I finished in my efforts to procrastinate the writing of fiction.

Of Sincerity:  This one fascinates me.  Especially as a teacher, or as an artist, there are a bizillion opportunities to tell people what you think of them and their work.  I find it difficult to be sincere and positive all of the time.  Sincere negativity, while it’s honest,  is not always helpful because it has the potential to hurt.  But I would rather say nothing than to say something positive when I don’t mean it. And I often find myself NOT responding when students say stupid things–and I know sometimes they perceive that as negative response.  Did I just say that sometimes students say stupid things?  That was a moment of sincerity.  They really do sometimes say stupid things.  But I would never say to a student, “that was a stupid thing to say.”  Is that, then, insincerity?  Not exactly.  Do you see the problem? I guess you’re not being insincere just because you don’t speak out loud what you honestly feel–out of respect, decorum, or common courtesy.  That’s just about being in the world and not making enemies and trying to be kind as often as you can without lying to people.

Of Strange Phobias:  I have little first hand knowledge of this, but I can imagine all kinds of interesting things of which to be afraid: bean bags, Scotch tape, post-it notes, music, flowers, cute puppies, dust motes, light, sugar, pencils, insert any mundane object here.  In a twisted world you could make any of these things scary,  I suppose, and that has to be the answer, right, that people who are afraid of the mundane, or conversely, those who are in love with or who fetishize the mundane, have had some kind of life-twist, biologically or experientially, that has made them respond to particular objects in “strange” or at least unconventional ways.  Of this one, someone should write a book.  I’m 99% sure someone already has.

Of Ghosts:  A great song by the 80’s English pop band Japan.  Otherwise, yes, I believe in ghosts–as memories.  I’m haunted on a regular basis by quite a few, thank you very much.

Of Music As Language:  There’s nothing else to say, perhaps, at this juncture, other than, yes, music is a language, universally understood, perhaps, the solution to all of humanity’s problems.  I don’t know if I believe that, but I’d like to.

Of Course:  Yes.  That’s it.  It’s obvious.  It’s true.  I am in complete agreement.  No doubt about it.  Of course.

And in conclusion–Of Gratitude for Good Suggestions for Blog Topics:  thanks to Michelle, Michelle, Mary, Chris, Chris, Kraig, Cary, Jim, Kerstin, Eric, Jeff, Cody, Brandon, Ostin, Don the Geek, and if I’ve forgotten someone I am terribly sorry.


Filed under Culture, Education, Parenting, Self Reflection, Teaching, Writing and Reading

Of Prepositions: A Prose Poem

Aboard a ship, about one or two years ago, above the rough sea, across the widest possible expanse, after a drink of the finest bourbon, against all of my best intentions, along the lines forming in your skin, amid the mist, among the surging anti-trees, WTF, around nothing worth mentioning, as far as I could throw, at last, before dawn, behind me, below me, beneath me, beside myself with something or another, besides, another word for “I’m an idiot,” between the sheets, beyond everything I’d ever imagined between sheets–but that one thing I’ve imagined over and over, in which other prepositions are introduced by way of associating, concerning ugliness, considering the vast beauty, despite myself, down on myself, during the entire episode, spasmodic and euphoric, except in the one case, excepting all other cases, excluding all of your cases, following this for all time from the mouths of babes, in this, inside all of this, into an essay resembling a poem by Beckett, like is now and has always been a verb, except when it’s a preposition, or a conjunction, or a noun, or an adjective, or an adverb.

Minus, which I did not know as a preposition, near other mathematical properties of proportion, of topics for which one  could compose something
near other mathematical properties off kilter, on target, onto a clear case of something opposite what one would expect outside the realm of possibility, over it for now, past the point of all recognition, as per our previous discussion, plus sizes, regarding what is truly sexy, round, yes, save all your notes, since you never know when you will need them, more than you will ever, never know, through thick and thin, to the ends, toward a more perfect union, towards a more perfect union, under one special Deity, underneath, indivisible, unlike anything you’ve ever thought until now.

Up with you!  A plague upon your houses, Montague versus Capulet via stupid, meddling holy man with access to drugs and tombs within the two hours traffic of our stage, through which we realize that a preposition is not always a preposition but that without the preposition we would never know where we are, or when, or how.

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Of Childhood Rock and Roll Fantasy

It was 1977.

I was 12.

From the perspective of my suburban cultural landscape, I was not yet aware of Talking Heads or Blondie.  I hadn’t heard The Sex Pistols, The Boomtown Rats, XTC or Japan.  I had not yet discovered the punk rock and the new wave or the truly experimental prog.  I had not yet heard King Crimson or Frank Zappa.  My favorite artists were Rush, Kiss, The Sweet, and Elton John. I got my first kit and I played the drums, poorly.  I had not yet formed my first band with real musicians, but I had heard older kids play, loved music more than anything else, and I could not wait for the skill or the people and finally the music that would turn my world upside down again–so I made it all up.  I formed a band in my mind and the musicians in the band were my best friends from the 5th and 6th grade and none of them were musicians.  We called ourselves (or should I say, I called ourselves) FLARE.  We played, when we actually played, with tennis rackets. No matter how loud we turned them up, our rackets made little sound–so we lip synced to our favorite records while striking ridiculous poses.

I made pretend record albums and 45 RPM singles using construction paper, terrible photos of my friends, usually shirtless (because we all knew the girls loved musicians and musicians didn’t wear shirts), or I drew terrible and primitive pictures of them, and I made for these “recordings” song titles and actual lyrics of hundreds of songs that didn’t exist and never would.  Oh, it was glorious.  We (I) made so many records–eventually there had to be live albums and greatest hits collections.  We rivaled The Beatles from a decade earlier in productivity.  We must have made 15 albums in a year! I was so obsessed with my imaginary rock band that in the 6th grade, during class for Christ’s sake, I wrote a novel about these characters, assigned them instruments to play, invented particular stage personas for them, and then, icing on the cake, gave them all super-human powers.  And of course there were evil villains who, for some reason which I’m sure seemed reasonable enough to a 6th grader, were always after the rock stars.  It was all about rock and roll, girls, evil villains, and danger in every town and in every concert hall.  This went on and on–until sometime in the 7th or 8th grade when I realized I could actually play the drums–and then in high school where, almost immediately, I would align myself and begin practicing with people who could also play actual instruments, I put my tennis racket down (except for lip-sync competitions) and retired FLARE for good.

What’s interesting to me about this little memoir sketch is the fact that as a 12 year old pre-pube my identity as both a musician and a writer was already firmly established, forged, wrapped up, determined.  How well and how early do children understand what drives them, what ultimately will make them happy human beings?  Long before Flare, I was acting the rock star and performing for relatives who would allow it, singing Steppenwolf’s “god damn the pusher man” to adults who were so overwhelmed perhaps by the cuteness factor that scolding me for profanity and drug references I could not begin to understand was the last thing on their mind.  My parents neither encouraged or discouraged.  They let me find my way–and their insouciance was perhaps the best thing for me.  So, maybe I take their lead on this.  I hesitate to “make” my son take music lessons of any kind.  I do my best, much more overtly than my own parents did, or could (because neither of them were musical or literary), to make opportunities available for him to find what rocks his world.  Let’s listen to this record.  Let’s play around on the drums a bit.  Let’s make a father/son composition on the iPad with Garageband.  Here’s a notebook to scribble in.  Look at Daddy’s book.  Here’s some art supplies.  And, yes, here’s a video game.  Go to town, son.  See what floats your boat.

Thanks to Cary Kiest for the prompt. Happy birthday.

Thanks to Michelle Williams for insouciance.

Here are some pictures of some slightly embarrassing early work.  The band made all of its fake recordings on Scotch brand audio tape, which, for some reason, I had difficulty spelling.

Flare's funky era.

Flare’s funky era.

Sun's In My Eyes Again, indeed.
Sun’s In My Eyes Again, indeed.

The debut album
The debut album

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Filed under Music, Parenting, Writing and Reading

Of Likes and Comments

Some people like and don’t comment and some people comment and don’t like. Some people don’t like to like, think it’s somehow a lame effort or no effort and therefore stupid.  I don’t like that.  I like things all of the time.  I like it when people like.  I like it when people comment, unless they make a comment I don’t like.  And then I don’t like but sometimes I comment because it’s hard to keep my proverbial mouth shut.

I don’t like it when I’m writing and someone’s looking over my shoulder.  It’s odd, sometimes, what people don’t like.  I recently read someone venting about generic birthday wishes, as if it would be better to say nothing than to say, simply, happy birthday; probably these are the  same people who think it’s lazy to like without comment. It seems to me that a birthday wish is a birthday wish, a like is a like, and sometimes the simplest thing is often the simplest and therefore the best.  Granted, it takes more effort to type the words “happy birthday” than it takes to point and click on the like button.  I’m not saying that they’re equal gestures.  I’d rather have someone say happy birthday to me, like my friend Curtis does every time he sees me, than to simply like a post of mine.  But I got 80 plus likes once on a post I made of a stupid picture of me, and that made me feel good; it made me feel liked, more liked, perhaps, than would a single birthday wish.  In Death of a Salesman, Willy and Biff Loman’s lines  have so much more meaning now than they did in the 1940’s, that Charlie and Bernard are both liked–but they’re not well-liked, and somehow that’s a problem.  After I posted that photo, I felt well-liked.  If only Willy Loman had Facebook.

I wonder how I would have felt had no one liked my photo.  I’d feel, perhaps, like Willy and Biff think Charlie and Bernard feel, but of course, they’re wrong about how Charlie and Bernard feel, and maybe I’d be wrong–Willy’s biggest problem is that he puts too much stock in whether or not people like him and that sends him into a psychological tailspin: he believes he is well-liked–and he might be–but he’s a terrible salesman and no one’s buying his shit. So he fails.  Charlie is shrewd and wise and Bernard is a hard working nerd, neither of them liked too terribly much, both of them successful.

What I realize, and like, about this blog post so far, is that (I’m guessing) four years ago this would make absolutely no sense to a great many human beings.  I like how it still might not make a lot of sense to a great many human beings.  I like, and don’t like simultaneously, how Facebook has changed our language, how a friend is no longer a friend, exactly, how both friend and like have become actions, how to comment is now about the same as it ever was, which I like, by the way.  And I like how I managed to talk about a play.  And I like how, in doing so, I might have landed on an idea.  Remember how Henry David Thoreau, in that one book, talked about how most letters were not worth the penny post it cost to mail them?  That was awesome.  I know Thoreau would absolutely hate Facebook–but he might appreciate how little it costs to send someone a message, less than a penny.  And Arthur Miller, and his tragic hero Willy Loman, might appreciate how the word like has become so absolutely pedestrian so as to mean almost exactly nothing.  I can’t believe I just wrote 632 words on this topic.

Thank you, Jim Thornburg.


Filed under Culture

Of Insouciance

There are a great many things about which I am taking it easy, and a great many more things about which I could take it easier. Taking it easy, being somewhat indifferent, showing a casual lack of concern: Oh, let me count the ways I have become, or would like to become more, insouciant.

I am taking it easy about the fact that I have not been on my bicycle through the whole holiday break–which is now a little bit more than half way over.  I am taking it easy about the fact that the closest I have been to bicycles is on a showroom floor or via various kinds of internet bicycle porn.  Don’t get me wrong–I have not been looking at people performing sex acts on bicycles, but rather, looking at websites that are geared toward making the visitor desire a new bicycle.  Granted, that’s a very different kind of porn, but nonetheless, porn. I am taking it easy about the fact that I desire a new bicycle.

I am taking it easy about my son’s use of screen time.  I monitor it closely, participate as often as I can, create limits or restrictions when necessary, but I am guilty of letting slip the limit of two hours a day during this break.  Some parents might say that even two hours a day is too many. These parents are not old.  I’m taking it easy about the fact that I’m an old guy with relatively young loin fruit and I can’t always be, nor should I be, even if I had the strength of a father a decade younger, managing my son’s every minute.

Now that the election is over, I am taking it easy about politics.  I haven’t argued with anyone on Facebook in quite a while. By the time of this blog post, the fiscal cliff deadline will have passed.  Did we fall over the edge?  You tell me. I haven’t watched Rachel Maddow in two weeks.  I miss her, but I’m okay about a break in our relationship, although, I must say, I’m kind of pining.  I’ll be taking it easy about the fact that I might not be able to stay away from her for much longer.

I am taking it easy about the fact that I took no grading home with me from school.  It will be there when I get back, I’m sure of it.  I haven’t picked up a book in a week.  I picked one up last night for the first time and read for a couple of hours.  I liked it a lot, but I’ll be okay if I don’t finish it.  I am taking it easy about the fact that I often start books I don’t finish. Oh Moby Dick, someday I will return to you.

I am taking it easy about the fact that I’m writing for my blog and not on the new novel.

There are other things, as I have indicated, that I would like to be more insouciant about–but I realize, I think, that some of those things are too personal for this venue.  Or, if not too personal, would require more space for exploration than I can afford right now.  Maybe there will need to be an  “Of More Insouciance” entry.  “Insouciance Two.” “The Return of Insouciance.”  “The Bride of Insouciance.”

Insouciance, insouciant–these are both really cool words.  I think words are great, and sometimes students ask me why we have to have so many damn words.  I try to talk to them about shades of meaning. The best word is the right word, or the right word is the best word, and it may not be the one that’s been sitting around forever, but rather, the one that strikes  just the right pitch of intended meaning, and you need vocabulary to be able to do that.  Words make thought possible.  If everything was good or ungood, people would, like they do in Orwell’s classic, cease to think about things. And that would be terrible.  So, here I am, on New Year’s Day, feeling rather insouciant.  And that’s different, I hope, from not giving a shit–because I do give a shit about a whole bunch of stuff–but today, January 1, 2013, I give less of a shit than I sometimes do.  And I’m okay with that.  Happy new year, reader.  I am not, nor will I ever be, insouciant about you.


Filed under Self Reflection