Saturday, May 31, 2014

Summer Hiatus 2014

My son gets faster and stronger, and I get slower and weaker.  This year I've realized that if he takes off running, even if I try, I might not be able to catch him. (This is so much of a psychic shock that, in the previous sentence I had to use the verb “might.” I can't bring myself to write the truth outright.) I used to play basketball against him left-handed to make it challenging, a la Inigo Montoya.  Then a month ago, he beat me straight-out at HORSE even after I stopped fooling around and switched hands.  He has mastered a tricky top of the garden wall shot and, in that game, hit it 8 times in a row.  So, unless I simply want to accept my decline, I need to take a break from non-essential activities, like blogging and work, and concentrate on my shooting skills (and my dodge-ball, tag, and slip-and-slid techniques).

I think I still have a few good years left to be in the game(s), but it will take a commitment.  I'll start posting again in August.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day and NASCAR

This column appeared in a local paper years ago.  I thought when it came out that readers would be annoyed, but that wasn’t the case.  Surprisingly, it was a column on hockey that enraged people and earned me the most vitriolic emails I’ve every received.

Memorial Day weekend always makes me nostalgic.  The unofficial start of summer, it is also when the Indy 500 is run.  Growing up in Indiana, I was more familiar with the names Foyt and Andretti than Nixon and Carter.  It seemed every radio and television broadcast the race.  Even people who didn’t care tuned in as a type of patriotic duty.
            As a kid, I played with matchbox cars then graduated to hotwheels then slots.  I read all the books about racing in the school library (learning, for example, about Junior Johnson, the stock car legend that essayist Tom Wolfe called “The Last American Hero”).  I loved The Dukes of Hazzard and Burt Reynolds movies, and even now I hum the Smokey and the Bandit theme song occasionally.  I learned to drive at thirteen, got my license at fifteen, and had a car at sixteen.  By eighteen, I had earned a couple speeding tickets and smashed my mother’s Toyota into a telephone pole on a moonlit dirt road. 
            In short, I would seem to fit solidly within NASCAR’s target audience, but although I’ve tried, I just can’t get enthused about the sport.
            When I moved South, I discovered the newspaper was filled with racing articles.  I knew almost nothing about contemporary NASCAR, but I was willing to learn.  Soon, I could identify the jump-suited men shilling products from 7-Up to HMOs on the television.  I also could explain to my wife why people flew flags with numbers from their houses.
            A few times, I turned on a race.  I quickly realized, however, that the broadcasts jack up the sound effects to distract you from the fact that there is not much actual racing.  Tracks are so cramped, and cars are so fast that except for a few brief moments there can be little jockeying for position.  Drivers rely on pit stops and mechanical failures to advance their positions.  They don’t race as much as try to wait each other out.
            Often what they seem to be waiting for is a wreck, and, if you strap dozens of people into the equivalent of land-based rockets and send them hurtling together in circles, you’re pretty much guaranteed one.  I’m not sure why these are called “accidents” instead of “inevitables.”  The only surprising thing is that people are surprised when they occur. Yet, after each one, people vilify some mysterious entity called “NASCAR” as if the rules have been responsible.
            Why the bewilderment that drivers get hurt and die?  When I wrecked my mother’s car at roughly forty miles an hour, I walked away.  If I had been going 180, I would not have.  It’s physics.  If you really want to guarantee driver safety, take them out of the cars.  Give each one a remote control and put them in the stands.  They will still need superior reflexes.  They can still cover themselves in advertising.  They still will be putting their livelihoods on the line, but not, however, their lives.
            The irony of modern NASCAR is that the founders were outlaws, those moonshiners who needed souped-up cars to get away from the law, and now the sport endlessly focuses on regulations about restrictor plates, air flow, and technical measurements.  The bad boys have been replaced by rule sticklers and whiners. Perhaps it’s inevitable because of the money involved, but NASCAR doesn’t seem to be a sport as much as a marketing machine paid for by multinational corporations and selling a sanitized “rebel” image.  To be true to the heritage, let them race whatever they want.
            I read the articles in the paper because it’s like following soap opera storylines.  I also like being able to identity the cardboard figures in the beer aisle.  As for watching races, however, I’ll pass until someone tells me that Junior Johnson and Burt Reynolds are out on some old U.S. highway.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Classroom as Chaotic System

I'm not sure when I first heard the term SLO -- Student Learning Outcomes --or when the idea became institutionalized, but now, each semester, professors have to put on their syllabi the SLOs of a course.  Suggested examples are along the lines of “In this course, a student will learn the fundamentals of ...”
Although I appreciate the desire to make educational goals clear, I have reservations about SLOs.  One is the use of the verb “will” in sentences like “students will learn.”  Well, maybe, they will.  That depends on the student. 
The saying about leading a horse to water is relevant.  Registering, paying for, and attending a course is no guarantee that a person will learn its content.  Buying a book doesn’t mean you know what’s in it, and it’s possible to read and not comprehend a thing.   In college, I was so focused on how many pages I had left to complete an assignment – 90, 75, 32 – that I had no idea sometimes what I was reading.  Pride and Prejudice?  A woman and man don’t like each other, and then they do.  (Or is that Sense and Sensibility?)  Hobbe’s Leviathan?  Something about governments and how death is bad, so kings are good.
The exchange in A Fish Called Wanda struck close to home.  Kevin Kline’s character, Otto, says, “Apes don’t read philosophy,” and Jamie Lee Curtis’s Wanda retorts, “Yes, They do, Otto.  They just don’t understand it.”  She goes on to say, “Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement.
If students put in the work and if they commit to the material and if they spend the time and energy and if they have a certain intelligence, then they may learn something in a course.  Maybe.
More fundamentally, however, I'm skeptical of the basic premise which assumes a direct process of the professor teaching X and the student learning X. My own experience was much more along the lines of the professor tried to teach X but I actually learned Y or LMNOP.  What do I remember from my Literary Theory course?  That Roland Barthes died by being hit by a laundry truck.  From Modern Literature?  That John O’Hara was hit by a taxi.  And, in some class I learned that Isadora Duncan strangled when her scarf tangled in the wheel of her car. 
What was I learning?  Terrific artists die mundane deaths.  I don’t think this was the SLO of any of my courses.
As teachers, we may know what we want the outcome to be or what we think it should be, but we don't actually know what it will be.  I often have former students say things like, “I’ve never forgotten how you once said…” and it will be something I have no memory of.  Something that was probably a throw-off line or digression.  This is the butterfly effect of education.
The classroom can be a chaotic system.  We know the general direction of how the water will flow, but it sputters and splashes in unpredictable ways.  

Saturday, May 10, 2014

So What? The Key Question

The most useful comment that I ever received on a paper came when I was an undergraduate.  The assignment had been to explicate a poem.  I don’t remember what it was – perhaps John Donne, perhaps Robert Frost -- but the paper had to be at least three pages long.  So, to pad at it out, I catalogued rhyme schemes, talked about metrical scansion (as best I could), counted syllables and words and lines.  Next to a paragraph in which I tallied these up, saying something like “this five stanza poem has five stanzas with each stanza having four lines each and each of the four lines contains ten syllables….” the professor, Wayne Booth, wrote in the margin, “So what?” 

So what?

Even though I was shocked at the bluntness, and a bit hurt, I understood that he wasn’t being flip or sarcastic.  Those two words pierced to the essential point.  Why did this information matter? He wasn’t saying that it didn’t; he was noting that I hadn’t made it clear why it did.  I was scurrying around, offering the appearance of analysis, without actually explaining what these observations added up to. 

So what?

The comment scared me because I couldn’t answer it.  What was the point?   I didn’t know. The point was to write three full pages.  The point was to do the paper so I would pass the class.  The point was to pass the classes so I would get the degree.  The point was to get the degree so …

So what?

Even now, I keep returning to these words, particularly when I’m revising my writing.   On bad days, they torment as “why bother?”  On good days, they prompt and provoke and force me to think about what I’m doing.  When I have put down yet another anecdote that’s merely shaped like a poem, I step back and look at it and think, “So what?”  What is this doing and why?  Is it more than a diary entry?  If not, why am I telling it?  It’s not always easy to find, or admit, the answers.
There also are a couple paradoxes or problems to the question.  One is that, in some work, explaining the “so what?” diminishes it and condescends to the audience, saying “I’m spelling this out so that you’ll be sure to get it.” 
Another is that sometimes you may not be able to articulate an answer.  Sometimes the process involves an element of faith that what you’re doing has a purpose. 
And a third is that if you explicitly try to sound deep, relevant, profound, you’ll probably fail.  In golf or baseball, if you try to blast the ball, you’ll often miss or pull it.  The effort will deform your stroke, and you won’t hit it as hard as you’d like.  If you try to act for the award, it’s unlikely you’ll do good work.  Reach for too much, and you won’t get anywhere.  And yet, simultaneously, as the poet Donald Hall puts it, "I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. … To desire to write poems that endure — we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Influences: Edward Hopper

Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence & like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; & it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style. – Mark Twain

I didn’t realize until years later how much of my work and my practice as a writer may have been influenced by my early love of Edward Hopper.  Like many in my dorm, I had a poster of Nighthawks on the wall, and the more I saw of his work, the more I responded to it.  In doing so, I suspect, I was unconsciously absorbing a number of lessons. 
Hopper paintings are spare with clean lines.  They have unexpected perspectives and odd angles.  The bottoms of cars are cut off, so that you can only see their tops.  A lighthouse may be shown off to the side.  The angle-of-vision may be coming from above or below; however, it doesn’t call attention to itself (or how clever the artist is).  These aren’t Dutch camera shots.  Rather they attune you to ways of seeing the world.
            Richard Hugo once said that he was given the advice to never write a poem about subject matter that needed a poem written about it.  (You think the subject itself, your mother’s illness say, is enough to evoke emotion in the reader.)  Hopper doesn’t do obvious dramatic moments or star portraits or the stereotypical icons and landscapes.  Instead, he paints everyday locations and lives – gas stations, offices, movie theaters. As he once put it, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman… All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.”
            He focuses on simple objects and moments, but they are charged with energy and emotion.  In Office at Night, a boss and secretary work.  A piece of paper has fallen.  Should she pick it up?  If she does, how?  Because of the smallness of the space, if she bends over one way, her butt is presented to her boss; the other way displays her cleavage.  There is the implicit tension and eroticism of looking; their two desks face each other. They are with one another, next to one another, all day.
In Nighthawks, a couple sit beside one another.  He smokes. She has placed her hand near him, towards him, but they don’t touch. The frisson of closeness, the melancholy of not touching.  Our isolation even as we are adjacent. (Hopper once said “the loneliness thing is overdone” but he didn’t say that it wasn’t there or inaccurate.)
              Sometimes it’s the spacing and juxtaposition that suggests the dynamic.  Sometimes it’s the title itself.   A woman sits naked, except for slippers, looking out an apartment window.  Is it night?  Early morning?  No, it’s “11 a.m.”  In a different work, a woman sits on the edge of a bed.  A car can be seen through the window.  The title “Western Motel” not only gives information, but is enormouslysuggestive.  Traveling.  The West.  Transit.  What’s she running from?  Or to?
            At some point, I realized that admiring Hopper wasn’t cool.  After all, too many people liked his work.  He was considered a kind of “art” lite, better than Norman Rockwell of course, but along the same lines in terms of simplicity.  A moody artist for angsty youth.  So, I took down the Nighthawks poster and rarely mentioned him.  Then several years ago, on a trip to DC, I went to a Hopper exhibition at the National Art Gallery.  For the first time, I stood before the originals, and their power struck me anew. I had been right when I was younger; these pieces were amazing.  I felt ashamed by my shallow disregard.  The more I looked at these paintings, the more I saw.  And, as I read the catalogue about Hopper’s discipline, his relentless revision, and his commitment, I realized that I still had much to learn from him.  His work is back up on my wall.