The Code of Knowledge

April 28, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of knowledge lately and a conversation I had yesterday really brought home one of my favorite parts about what it means to know things.

At our local farmers market, there is always someone playing acoustic music. When we walked up this week, we saw the performer’s back and I noticed that his guitar looked special. It looked like a Lowden, something I’d never seen up close (only at Richard Thompson concerts), but had looked at online. He had a tuner on the headstock, obscuring the logo, so I couldn’t be sure. We went about our shopping. As we were getting ready to leave and were walking back past him just as he finished a song. I asked what kind of guitar it was.

“It’s a Lowden,” he said. I said I’d thought it was a Lowden, but I’d never seen one up close. And right there, we had each signified to the other that we were members of the same tribe. He told me he was going to take a break in about five minutes and that I could play it if I wanted. I accepted (just to be clear, this is a fabulously well made and VERY expensive guitar. It’s the kind of thing you hand down to your children).

When I came back a few minutes later to play, he handed it to me and I began to finger pick a little. Hearing, I suppose, that I could play somewhat tunefully, he offered me a pick while noting that there was no pick guard (but assuring me that I didn’t look like someone who banged on guitars. Again, more code. He is effectively saying to me, “You can play, and I see that. I’m pretty sure about you, but not entirely sure. Use this, but please don’t damage my very nice instrument.”

After I played for a minute (I took a little solo while the guy who was spelling him strummed), we talked about the nature of the guitar. the neck shape. The sound. I mentioned Richard Thompson playing one (this is more code – guitarists are supposed to know about Richard Thompson). In the end, he invited me to stop by a song circle that has been going on for years and to which all stringed instruments are welcome (except banjo’s, “we don’t want it to turn into a country thing”).

The whole exchange was maybe ten minutes and would be all but meaningless to most people, but for the two of us, it was really cool, and it would not have been possible if we weren’t both intimately familiar with guitars. We both had specialized knowledge that we had spent years trying to obtain. It’s amazing how far that can go toward starting a friendship.


July 2, 2012

Two people who like long stretches of quiet and have grown used to this in their lives. Two people who write and prefer to do so free of any noise beyond a bit of music to get the juices flowing. These two people have started to feel lost because it is not just the two of them. Now there are two children. And it is never quiet. Never, ever quiet. There is a lot of brooding and griping about not being able to get things done.

And something needs to be done because no one is especially happy and people are forgetting who they are. Or worse, they are remembering and wondering why they feel less like that everyday and more like something else which is entirely wrong.

A compromise is made.

One hour each. Not everyday. Most days. Close the door. Lock it. Write. Ignore everything else.

My daughter tugs at the doorknob and screams. I ignore this because I know it will be over. Soon, she will be playing tea with her mother. That is, as long as the screaming doesn’t wake her brother. And anyway, Cate has had her hour already and it is my turn and I have these short stories and now is the time to work on them.

As my daughter tugs at the door and as the tugging subsides and I hear her offer her mother a cup of tea, I am doing several things.

I am listening to a band from when I was younger. They have fallen out of favor, but critics certainly loved them then. I still do, so they play. Not as loud as they once would have but not quietly, either. The song is about dreams and the failure of them and modifications they under go. All that stuff. It occurs to me the singer was the same age I am now when he wrote the words. That seems about right.

I am reading over a story about a man who cannot handle it. Who loses too much of himself and decides he has to go. I wrote the story, but I am not that man. This is the mistake people make. They think that because they can see a bit of the writer in the story, then the story is about the writer. It isn’t. We tell lies, we writers. We exaggerate. Maybe this is an exaggeration and maybe it is the perfect truth.

As I read the story and make changes here and there, I finger a baseball my daughter was given by an usher at the gate of the first baseball game we took her to. It’s been used, probably in a game and then batting practice, and is scuffed. There are grass stains and dirt stains and something black that perhaps came from a player’s shoe. If you hold it in your hand and feel carefully around the the leather, you can feel dents from the bat. Flat spots. I wonder if a pitcher might like to have it for that reason. Because it might wobble a little extra. Be a little harder for the batter to find.

I finger the ball because it lives in my desk. It lives in my desk because my daughter does not understand what it means to have a baseball from the first game you went to. I confiscated it, secretly, after finding it once, briefly, in the dog’s mouth. It may be that it will always mean more to me than it does to her. I won’t know for a long time.

And now it is quiet outside the room. I assume she is playing and her brother is still sleeping. It may be that this is not the case. That things are quietly inharmonious. The music is a little to loud for me to tell for sure. That’s intentional.  In any case, I’ll find out soon. My time is almost up.

I’ll leave the room though, and suddenly, children’s games won’t seem quite so dull. Household chores won’t seem quite so interminable. For now, my brain is not shouting at me about the days I’m losing because one more story has lost the “UF” tag I put in the file name to tell myself a story is unfinished. For a moment, the voices of the characters are quieted. This was a good compromise.

Cate and I have made a couple of very conscious choices in how we have constructed our lives. Much of it has to do with stressing time over wealth. I’m a teacher for a lot of reasons, but one of them is certainly that it gives me more time to spend with my family.

Another choice we have made is to pay attention to our environmental impact.

Our yard is not pretty. Oh, it’s not hideous or anything, I doubt very seriously you’d remark upon it if you were to drive past, but it isn’t the pristine green sheet that so many of our neighbors have. There are reasons for this. I have a reel mower instead of a powered motor. I don’t have a weed-eater (though I’ve borrowed one a few times when things got really out of hand). I don’t use pesticides or fertilizers or even water on my lawn.

So there are weeds. In the spring, the yard is alight with dandelions. The grass is uneven because the mower doesn’t deal well with bumps. The edges of flower beds and sidewalks are a little taller than I’d like. In August, things can get a bit brown. I’ve seen the neighbors glance unhappily around more than once.

The backyard is little different. We have a garden there. It is surrounded by chicken wire to keep the dog out. I have a few genuine metal stakes, but I also use branches that have fallen into the yard from our and the neighbor’s maple trees. I hone a point with a good sharp knife and shove them into the ground. I use these same branches to stake our tomatoes. I would never claim it’s pretty. it certainly isn’t uniform.

But I don’t care.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to meet since we had children is to always try and do things in a way I can justify to them. Sure, we could have a gas-powered mower. But it would be loud. It would pollute. It would be more expensive to run. The lawn would get done faster, but the kids couldn’t be outside playing while I mowed like they can now. I’d need ear plugs with a power mower, but with a reel mower, I can talk to Cate while I mow. So the yard isn’t quite as perfect. Who cares about perfect? If I had my way, I’d probably fill it with wildflowers and let it go. At least I’m not doing active harm this way.

Same with the garden. I could buy stakes. I could use herbicides instead of getting on my hands and knees to pull weeds. It would be easier. It would be more expensive. It would also be worse for the world in every way.

I try to be deliberate about how I use my time and resources. I doubt my neighbors understand, but I’m fine as long as children do.

On Being an Introvert

June 7, 2012

I realize, suddenly, that while I wrote a review of the book Quiet over at Elephants for Bookends, I never got around to writing the more personal post I’d meant to put up here about what being an introvert has meant for me.

The first thing you need to know is that my mother is an extreme extrovert. In America. Where we love extroverts. What this means is that while I really enjoyed spending much of my childhood in my room organizing baseball cards, building with Legos, or reading books, I was constantly told that I “spent too much time by [my]self.” This terrified me.

I was terrified because there were no images in our culture to contradict this notion. People who spent time alone were hermits and cave-dwellers. They didn’t take many baths. Sometimes they turned into serial-killers. All the best people were Out in the World. They were Making Things Happen For Themselves. This was not my style, but I felt like it should be.

In the years after I finished college and before I met Cate, I spent a lot of time alone and often felt bad about it, even when I enjoyed it. I played a lot of guitar, read a lot of books, and watched a lot of movies. It wasn’t so bad really. In one three-month span the summer before Cate and I began dating, I wrote 60,000 words of what became Lonely Human Atoms.

I felt guilty the whole time. I felt guilty because, except for work, I would sometimes go two or three weeks without “going out.” I was in my twenties, after all, and “out” was where I was supposed to be. Oh sure, I still had friends, though most of my closest friends were distant. I talked to people on the phone. I emailed and IM’d. I didn’t shut my door to the world, but neither did I leave it wide open.

And of course, I know now that there is a reason I find small talk awful and a night out fun, but exhausting. I am an introvert, and squarely so. I know also, that this is why I’m good at writing and the guitar. That is, I get obsessive. I practice. I am not afraid to hole up and block out the world while I get better.

And that is what was so wonderful about reading that book. It was a giant letter that told me I am, in many ways, completely ordinary. Often, I have found, it is a relief to be ordinary.

How to Think

May 17, 2012

I am a few days away from the end of my fifth year of teaching. More importantly, to me, I am in the process of wrapping up my first group of advanced writing classes.

The best teacher I have ever had was a man named Robert Milder at Washington University. I took three classes with him and I always felt pushed to my potential. In one of these classes he told the class the single most important thing a future teacher can be told (though I did not know, at the time, that I would be a teacher). He said, “It is not my job to teach you what to think. It is my job to teach you how to think.”

So much of teaching right now is of the “what to think” variety. Many students come to high school knowing very little and virtually all schools are focused on having students do well on a standardized test. It doesn’t leave much room for trial and error. In fact, many students come to me completely unwilling to offer an opinion. They have been taught to wait for the right answer to come to them from a teacher and then to parrot it back at the appropriate time. Still, sometimes we manage to have a good, critical discussion. It just doesn’t happen very often.

This year – this last trimester, really – has been very different for me.

Last summer, when I started working on the curriculum for these writing classes, I knew right away that I wanted to expose them to as much contemporary writing as possible and that I wanted the class to be largely workshop-focused because, if they take writing classes in college, this is what they are going to see. They need to have read good literature that is younger than they are. They need to know how to workshop and how to analyze an unfinished piece of writing.

One of my classes hit the ground running. There were some good, talkative kids in there who had a sense of what they were talking about and things went really well. My other class struggled. Discussion was often maddeningly short, but they were quiet and stubborn. I talked a lot in that class because they were missing so many things that I felt needed to be talked about. This was disheartening because my goal, really, was to barely talk at all.

What they heard when I talked was just me workshopping a piece like I would if I were student in the class (though, perhaps a bit gentler), but it had some kind of effect because now that class has pretty much caught up to the other class. And it’s not that they’re saying exactly what I want them to say – they don’t – it’s that they are thinking and coming up with good points and sometimes catching things that I missed. The level of discussion is so much better than it was at the beginning. What they are saying shows an entirely different kind of thinking than they had at the beginning of class.

And, for once, I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.

One of the central tenants of my life is that I want to get as much rigorous mental activity as I can. I came to this organically the summer before I got my first teaching job. I had just finished graduate school and was living off what remained of my student loans. I had a lot of time on my hands and I started reading like I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate (I am fond of quoting the following numbers: during my last semester at Washington University, I averaged about 1000 pages of reading and 10 pages of writing per week). In the evenings, I was working on the first draft of what would eventually become Lonely Human Atoms.

As the summer passed, I started to notice something. Nights I spent watching TV or sloughing around on the computer, I felt lethargic. When I spent my time reading and writing, I had energy. I was much happier. Slowly, TV subsided from my life. Aside from baseball, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey, I don’t watch TV at all. Instead, I read and I write.

This post is mostly about what I read. As you know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, I don’t read crap. I read mostly literary fiction, some fairly weighty nonfiction, and a smattering of poetry, plays, memoir, etc. In fact, I disdain that which does not aspire to be literary in some sense because I don’t believe there is much use in things that do not challenge us.

More and more I am being proven right. For sometime, there have been studies showing that reading fiction teaches a person empathy, but they include all fiction. Twilight gets lumped in with Great Expectations. That never felt right to me.

Recently, there has been new research showing that reading about something is not – as far as your brain is concerned – appreciably different from experiencing it. This is where the literary triumphs. Literary writing is that which is most vivid, which most pulls at our intellect and our emotions. It is that which provides us with the most memorable experience.

And more people need to get on board.

There are people – my mom, sadly is one of them – who do not like to think. Or who insist that they think plenty during the day. (“I don’t want to think after work,” was always my mom’s answer when dad and I tried to get her to not watch mindless TV in the evenings.) I think there is something wrong with this.

I can, perhaps speak with more authority now that I am a teacher. Not because I have special knowledge of learning, but because I have a job that taxes me mentally all day. There is no down time (or very little) and when I get home, I still push myself. I still read good books. I still try to write good posts and beautiful fiction. I do not let myself checkout. I keep my brain on.

I force this rigor on myself because I know that I am better for it. I am happier. I am more thoughtful. I am, frankly, smarter when I spend my free time challenging myself instead of checking out.

But there is another level. You might even call it a moral level. Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” Learning is a form of action. Reading – and gaining experience through reading – is a form of action. One of the primary problems in American society is the uneducated electorate. Certainly, many people have never been given the chance at a decent education, but many more have simply chosen to check out when they get home from work. Why? Because it is easy. Because it takes effort to get going on a book when you spent all day doing whatever it is you happen to do all day.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take mental time off. Everyone needs that. I’m saying it is a mistake to have your extracurricular life be about nothing other than leisure. Leisure is great, but it doesn’t fulfill you. I’ve known several people who spent their lives doing not-very-much engaging outside of work and then retired to find themselves with nothing to do and no outlet for mental stimulation.

An article in The Atlantic recently has caused a bit of a stir. The writer asserts that everyone needs to start reading literary fiction at least 30 minutes a day because it will make you a better person. She’s right. It will. Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

Different Versions

March 7, 2012

Over the last year, I have gone from being a non-presence in the online baseball community to playing a moderately prominent role. I write a lot at a Reds-focused blog and I edit for a national baseball site (and write every so often). Since I started becoming more active in that community, I’ve formed online relationships with some really cool people.

And some of them are really conservative.

They are so conservative that if we met each other under any other circumstances, we would probably hate each other. Harsh words would quite possibly fly. But on the baseball sites, we get along well. I think this is a very important thing.

So many people get worked up about the supposed echo chamber of the internet, but that only exists if your interests are very narrow. In many ways, the internet encourages community and community is a good thing because it forces us to consider the impact of our words on people. It forces us to frame our arguments differently. It forces us to realize that though we might disagree on everything else, we can be friends when we’re talking about the glory of watching Barry Larkin turn the double play.

And then there’s my job. I can’t bring my politics to my job. If I taught math, that would be one thing, but teaching English, things come up. Kids want to know what you think. Parents might not. It’s a tough situation. It’s hard, at times, to hold myself back, but if I didn’t, I’d turn some kids off. I’d lose them and then they wouldn’t learn the most valuable things I’m trying to teach them – how to think and how to question authority.

I try to be Atticus Finch and live the same in town (and on the internet) as I am at home, but sometimes, that feels impossible. Some of that is decorum and some of it is the nature of my job, but I am glad, in a way, to have these different versions of myself. If I didn’t hold myself back in some arenas and let myself go in others, I would miss out on some pretty cool experiences and some interesting people and that would be a shame.

I just finished reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. Obviously, that will be discussed in a few days during my monthly book log, but I found one particular passage especially resonant. For those who don’t know, For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of an American fighting with guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Nominally, it’s communists versus fascists with the main character on the side of the communists. Mostly, it doesn’t take sides, but focuses on the horrible injustice of war, but there is a spot in the middle when Hemingway writes this:

Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. “But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,” he said.

“But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,” Primitivo said.

“It is possible.”

“Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.”

“Yes, we will have to fight.”

And this is exactly what has happened in the 70 years since Hemingway published that book. The rich have continually fought against attempts to increase equality. This is especially true of the income and inheritance taxes. They have been largely successful and those of us not at the very top have taken a long time to wake up to what was going on, but finally – finally – there is a fight.

It is impossible to say if there will ever be any kind of real equality of opportunity in the US – that is what those taxes are meant to create – but at least now, there is some sense that what has been happening is unfair and that there has been conflict, even if it’s been non-military. Hemingway only shows us that it is an old fight we are fighting. The fight of the few rich and powerful against the many poor and marginalized.

Money Is Not Inspirational

August 19, 2011

Recently, the space shuttle program came to an end. You may have heard. Astrophysicist (and nerd-celebrity) Neil DeGrasse Tyson got pretty worked up about it. You can find a video of him being worked up here. In it, he talks about how the lack of ambition where space exploration is concerned hurts the sciences in education. He talks about how many kids wanted to be astronauts once upon a time and how this got them involved and engaged in science. I can remember this. When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut. His ramble on the subject got me thinking about how we try to inspire kids today.

All you ever hear about, be you educator or student, is how if you go to college you will make X dollars a year more than if you don’t. That’s it. Money is supposed to serve as the whole motivation for getting an education. But when I was a kid, no one ever talked about how much money astronauts made. I can’t remember ever thinking about how much any of the fantasy jobs I wanted paid. I didn’t care about the money. I just thought they would be neat things to do.

Of course, much of this is the naïveté of childhood. We were pretty poor when I was little, but money still never entered into the equation whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do. Later, in middle school and high school, I started to hear the money-first rhetoric and suddenly I wanted to be some indistinct thing called a “businessman” (I distinctly remember putting this on some career survey they had us do). Of course, I never really wanted to be that. It was simply driven home to me that money was what mattered and money, obviously, was in business. Whatever that was.

But why do we do this? I am a high school teacher and I am happy in my job. I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with my paycheck. I have a friend who is now a lawyer. When he was in law school, he told me that I should go to law school so I could be a lawyer and make ridiculous money. My response was that I did not want to be a lawyer. I did not think I’d be happy working the absurd hours a lawyer has to work to make ridiculous money while spending all my time doing something that didn’t seem particularly enjoyable.

But I like the job I have now. Yes, the summers off are nice, but I like getting to work with kids on writing and I like teaching good books and I like that at least a few kids have made it clear that I’ve made a positive impact on their lives. But no one ever talked to me about this kind of thing when I was in school, and I think that’s a shame.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know that money wasn’t the most important thing to me, but it was a close call. I wonder why we can’t talk to kids about how money might not make them happy if that’s all they go after. In fact, it probably won’t (ask my friend who now has the lower-stress and lower-paying lawyer job by choice). There is something to be said for contributing to society or pursuing your low-paying dreams in the arts or whatever else it is that really grabs you.

You hear a lot of stuff about how growing up has a lot to do with letting go of your dreams (something I disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there), but I think we’re almost reaching the point where kids don’t get to dream at all. We’ve become such a materialistic, Tea-party driven society that the only thing we really praise is the pursuit of wealth. As a result, I think we, as a society, are losing a wonderful kind of purity.

Think about when you were a kid and how your dreams gripped you. At different times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, and eventually a writer/English professor. Most of those things have a lot to do with curiosity. They are about pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This was what inspired me. It wasn’t money.

I grew up at the end of a time in America when everything seemed possible. Who knew where we might go in space? Who knew what we might accomplish as a people? There was real value in helping. In working for societal gain instead of personal gain. There was satisfaction to be found in cooperation and creativity and curiosity and sacrifice. As a result, our society grew and innovated and prospered. Perhaps I am being nostalgic for my childhood, but it seems to me we were happier and better for it. If I get the chance, I will try to mention this to my students.

All I Have to Say

May 2, 2011

Certainly, the world is better without Osama bin Laden. However, upon hearing of some celebrations, I am reminded of verse 31 from the Tao Te Ching:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.