Thursday, May 31, 2018

Why I teach

For the longest time, I have been meaning to read a book by Colin Wilson called The Outsider. Even blogged about it once before.

I have had difficulty finding an edition for various reasons, but I will get to it one day. Here's a quick precis of the text: In his early 20s, Wilson found himself alone on Christmas Eve in his one-room apartment. He was struck by how similar his position was to many of his favorite characters in literature. "It was not a position I relished," he wrote of the time. "Inner compulsions drew me to it, forced me to this isolated position. I was an outsider." It is a state of mind that while not exactly like my own, I find it kindred. I think of it often as I fear the future of English, History, and other Humanities disciplines in an increasingly bottom-line world. That, I promise, will be the subject of another essay, but for the scope of this blog post, I would like to examine how it spurred, and in select ways continues to spur, my teaching.

In my early adulthood, I worked in a typical business office. I wasn't sure, despite any proclamations to the contrary, just what I really wanted to do in terms of a career. What I did know was that I felt like an outsider. I would mention books that I've read or explain aspects of how humanity came to be, and in return I would get furrowed brows and tilted heads, responses of "How do you know that?" or "What does this have to do with delivering our services?" Now I don't mean to paint these people in a negative light. Not at all. They're fine folks and contribute positively to society. The experience simply served to help me realize I needed to be back in an atmosphere that was a "culture of ideas." More than that, I wanted to be engaged in showing others how to express their ideas in writing.

By accident of fate, I found myself making a visit to a DePaul University extension campus and the rest is history.

After grad school and the commencement of my career as a professor, my drive to teach transformed. I still wanted to discuss books and ideas and show students how to develop their own writing, but the motivation was different. After just finishing a year's worth of classes in my MFA program on the teaching of writing, have spent a great deal of observation and reflection in terms of my pedagogy. I now think I can at last put that transformation into words.

"How can I help?"

That phrase, or several variations upon it, is what I found myself saying more than anything else in the classroom. It also happens to be exactly why I teach.

I want to help.

If someone has been historically frustrated by the writing process, I want to help.

If someone hates school, I want to help and make them hate it a little less, even if for just an hour.

If assigned reading and essay structure induce palpebral twitches and eventual drowsiness, I want to help that student find a new and exciting way to look at it all.

If someone feels like an outsider themselves, I want to help and show them there are a lot of cool outsiders out there. Often, they do amazing things for society.

Whatever is going on with a student, whether it involves writing or not, I want to help.

And yet that "outsider" feeling comes creeping back. After my college closed, I was once more greeted by harsh realities of the high walls and the fierce competition of higher education. Others, namely "vodka tonic guy", asked why I would still fight to get back into a college. "It isn't 'market valued'" he said. "Why would you struggle to go make a quarter of what I could make in business, like doing marketing or PR?" Thus, I feel again as an outsider. Sort of brought back adolescent memories of wearing my long coat, the brooding, melancholic literary artist who listened to The Cure and had poetic insights to offer if only otheres would listen.

Thank God I'm not that dreary or insufferable anymore (I hope), but the "outsider" feeling resurfaces when facing individuals like Vodka Tonic Guy. So why do I teach?

Here's why:

"Thank you. I don't think anyone else would have helped me the way you did."

"You teach like you care. You care about us."

"Thank you for challenging me to always keep thinking critically and intellectually."

"You're the best teacher I've ever had. Thank you."

And in response to the blog post "Lost Causes" (linked above with "Vodka Tonic Guy"):

"Thank you for everything you taught me. The lessons I learned with you have been fundamental. I know our last months at SJC were tough, but I know I and everyone else are just as grateful that you didn't leave us. Thank you."

So, I hope that I may humbly take that as evidence that I helped. That's why I keep going.

That's why I teach.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, May 28, 2018

ROBOTS: The Musical Production

ROBOTS: The Musical Production takes place June 22nd through June 24th at the Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana.

It was spring of 1983 and robots were on my mind.

My little self just heard "Mr. Roboto" by Styx and a grand idea struck me. As I walked to get the bus to school that morning, the idea took root and grew. I would write a story sure to earn me both Hugo and Nebula Awards for it was so earth-shattering, so innovative, that it's fresh quality could not be denied by anyone of estimable mind. What was this bold new literary concept? Why I would write an epic story arc about...hold on to yourself now...

Robots taking over the world.

Fortunately for the human race, I never got far with it. Even more fortunate is there are those out there with truly inspired takes on robotics and what their continued evolution means for humanity. One of them is my friend and former professorial colleague, Dr. Paul Geraci. He has written and composed an opera called ROBOTS: The Musical Production and took time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about the show.

Jon Nichols: Thanks for talking with me today, Paul. Could you please tell us a little about the play?

Paul Geraci:  ROBOTS is a futuristic opera in one act that takes place in a 1st grade classroom in the not too distant future.   It blends story aspects of Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica, the Twilight Zone, and the Terminator, with operatic musical stylings of classic Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Soundheim musicals.  
In this conception of the world, students learn to control robots to accomplish their every task.  But since machines now do everything for them, what purpose do human beings have?  Events occur that pose questions such as “If robots do everything what will we do?” and “Is our station in life defined by the robots we own?”.   The teacher must balance her role in teaching robotic education while contemplating her place in this new world of technology.  When no one is around the robots come to life and ask questions of their own such as “Where would the humans be without us?” and lay hints at future robot revolution.  Finally, a new teacher comes to the school and challenges perceptions about society’s values and a new paradigm of things to come. 
ROBOTS is a show that will leave the audience humming tunes, deliver big laughs, and put on a spectacle of dancing robots.  But more importantly it will also leave concertgoers with deeper questions about the future, humanity, and the obsolescence of the human race.

JN: What inspired the show?
PG: Originally ROBOTS was a 5 minute short film.  After several rewrites and brainstorming sessions with film director Tim Mills, I decided it worked better as a stage show with music than a film, thus, it became a 1 hour opera instead.  This show is unique as I wrote the music, lyrics, and the story, but the added time allowed me to develop the characters and create some amazing feelings about them.  I took some inspiration from the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee where all the children are played by adult actors.  This added some humor and light-heartedness to some rather dark subject matter.  It took 13 months to compose- though I am constantly editing!

JN: What can an audience expect musically?

PG: Since ROBOTS is futuristic but also centered around 1st graders, a special type of music was called for.  In most music we have chords, and those chords are built on thirds (do mi sol, or C E G).  ROBOTS uses what we call quartal harmony, or chords built on fourth (sol do fa, or G C F) this creates the signature harmonic language for the entire show.  Quartal harmonies are not new, composers Paul Hindem
ith and Kent Kennan used them quite a bit.
    Despite the lengthy and technical description of the harmonies, my concept of melody still falls within the tonal paradigm.  All of the melodies are singable and fun with memorable tunes.  And there is variety – the audience will hear a wide array of styles including:  operatic arias, musical theatre tunes, children’s tunes, funky blues, waltz, and rap  (yes, rap). 

JN: What are your favorite robots from science fiction?

PG: There are so many robots from science fiction that I loved.  Here are two of my tops
1.  R2-D2  -- R2 is a stud.  Although he doesn’t communicate in English, we can tell he’s got sarcastic bent to him and that he is probably not above using a few four letter words from time to time.  He always  manages to save the day and has been in every Star Wars film with the exception of the new Han Solo film.
2.  Twiki  --  Who didn’t love having a robot voiced by Mel Blank.  The wise-cracking Bugs-Bunny jokes keep me amused even today.  Buck Rogers may have been the hero, but we watched for Twiki!  Well, and Erin Gray- as Twiki would say “What a babe!”

There are deeper issues at work in ROBOTS. As I mentioned, Paul was a colleague of mine at the now closed Saint Joseph's College. He explained how that traumatic event, perhaps inadvertently, found its way into the work.

PG: There is a actually a big connection to SJC and losing a job in this show.  Even though it was written before the announcement, perhaps it was a strange foreshadowing of things to come.  Many people may tear up a bit as it strikes at our hearts.  Even though the show is called ROBOTS, it is really about people and human emotions and self worth.   I’ll leave you with some song lyrics from the show:

What do you do, when they don’t need you anymore?
        The curtain falls, but no calls for encores.
        Yesterday’s news, just a footnote to the page.
        I’ll sing the blues, retired at middle age.

        And it’s plain to see, this society
        Ignores all the flaws that make us real.
        Then humanity, will cease to be,
        A people who love and care and feel.

What do you say, when they take your life away?
        You gave all you had, but you can no longer stay.
        Collect your memories, and put them in a box.
        Turn in your keys, and watch them change the locks.

        And as soon as you’re gone, progress bravely marches on.
        But does it march in the right direction?
        And to whom it may concern:  What lessons are being
        There is more to life than sterile perfection.
        And what becomes of me, a disposable human being?
        Sacrificed on the alter of efficiency.
        And who do you think, is next to be extinct?
        It’s you and you and you just wait and see.
        Wait and see!
        You’re ostracized, no one cares about your cries.
        And you curse the ground upon which you live and breathe.
        Outrage ensues, and your faith becomes unglued.
        And there’s no one left to blame or to believe.
        But I believe!
        There is more to life, than just a petty job.
        And my heart’s value can’t be judged by anyone but God.   
        There is more to me, there is more to say,
        The journey doesn’t end it just goes another way.
        There is more.
        There is more.
        There is more.
        There is more.
There is more to life, there is more to me.

        There is more.

I certainly hope so, brother. I certainly hope so.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

We are what we read

Books have been a constant companion in my life and for the past several years, my means of making a living.

Yet something has happened. After the events of the past year, I have developed a difficult time reading. Don't get me wrong, I get it done. I can read through piles of student writing with due diligence, notably this past weekend for the end of the semester. When reading is assigned in my terminal degree program, I attack it with "active reading" just as I've been trained. I underline key phrases, I make notes in the margins, and I "engage with the text." I've also managed to plow through news articles, documentation, and a few dry business books as research for my book.

The problem arises when I try to read for pleasure. I'll pick a book from my massive to-read pile and try to end the night in comfort. Things start out well enough, but then I find my eyes darting from the middle of one page to the top of another. My thoughts begin to drift to existential worries, just as they have for a year now, and my mind is everywhere except on the book in my hand. It even happens when I read comics.

This has had a deleterious effect on this blogger for leisure reading has always been something I've prized. It relieved stress, not caused it. Then not long ago, I read this book review in the New York Times of  The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization by Martin Puchner. It heightened my concerned for my pleasure reading habits. From the review:

"“Literature,” the first page declares, “since it emerged 4,000 years ago,” has “shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” We are what we read.

“The Written World” makes this grand assertion on the basis of a set of theses. Storytelling is as human as breathing. When fabulation intersected with writing, stories were empowered to propagate themselves in society and around the world as civilization-forming “foundational texts.”"

We are what we read.

That phrase haunted me. If we are not reading, then what are we? I take this as a particular indictment of myself. I press my students to read, read, read, so that they may learn, learn, learn. Outside of what I'm assigned, what have I been able to read? I did have success for two days last summer when I went to visit Chris in Florida. I enjoyed two installments in The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I believe my success in that case had something to do with being trapped in a metal tube, hurtling high above the ground at hundreds of miles an hour, leaving me no choice but to concentrate on my books.

While I don't know if I can replicate such conditions on terra firma, I committed to set aside time each day this summer to read. Read just for myself, that is. So what follows is my immediate list. It's lengthy, it's ambitious, but I would rather overshoot and fall short than do otherwise.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
I've mentioned my rereading of this tome in an earlier post. The sensation of being tossed adrift while clinging to Queequeg's coffin, the drive to achieve justice though the heavens fall, it all speaks to me. I have a had a head start, but it still might take me the entire summer to finish it, rendering the remainder of this list moot. Going to give it a valiant effort anyway. Maybe if I gloss over the numerous pages of tech writing on whaling and seafaring, I can manage it.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

I have taught Kafka's The Metamorphosis many times, but am less familiar with this work, considered by many to be Kafka's paraph. In fact, my most memorable exposure to it is the delicious black and white film adaptation by Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins. A man is charged with a crime that is never named and he hurtles listlessly through a labyrinth of bureaucracy.

The Plague by Albert Camus

Another existential classic. I loved The Stranger and have been eager to give this one a try. It is said to be similar in tone to Kafka's The Trial, asking many of the same questions of the human condition, plus examining what crisis brings out of human nature.

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
There are any number of marvelous works from JCO where one could start. I don't know why this one just spoke to me from the shelf at Half Price Books. The things that can tear a family apart...

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Already read it. Already taught it. So I'm not sure I'll have time to revisit it after getting through my first-runs. It calls to me again, however. This is not simply for Coates' amazing writing style, but for the allure of the concept of "the beautiful struggle."

Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys by Lol Tolhurst
In an alternate timeline, I might have been a music journalist. Of course, I probably would have to have been born in the late 1950s in London so that I could be writing about my favorite music scene when it was actually happening. This book tells the story of one of my favorite bands, The Cure. As is so often the case with these bands, it explores how something so massive in pop culture came from the humble origins of two guys who lived near one another and both loved music.

Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience by Stanton Friedman and Kathleen Marden
The 1961 story of Betty and Barney Hill was one of the first, perhaps the first, alleged case of alien abduction to reach widespread popular publication. There are many reasons to poke holes in the account, and yet it remains an intriguing case for a number of reasons. Stanton Friedman is a nuclear physicist by academic training and has, usually, been one of the more level-headed voices in ufology. Yes, he's had his head scratching moments, but I'm intrigued by this book nonetheless and would like to weigh the evidence with a fair mind.

So that's the list. Well aware my eyes are bigger than my stomach, but here I go...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Writing about trauma

Don't know the name of the artist, but painting was found at Evidently Cochrane.

It all started with Phil Collins.

Yes. That Phil Collins. I was in the writing center and a student brought me a paper she wrote on the life of Collins. She was a superfan of his and was having difficulty deciding how to fit the man's extensive career in the limitation of six pages. I found myself having a debate over which carried more significance: the album Invisible Touch or the film Buster. My grad work in comp/rhet did not prepare me for such a discussion.

The unexpected examination of Phil Collins' body of work dug a song out of my memory, one that I really liked in my teen years and still do to this day. Only it was not memories of high school that came back to me, but somewhere else.

It's called "Take Me Home."

"They don't tell me nothing
So I find out what I can
There's a fire that's been burning
Right outside my door
I can't see but I feel it
And it helps to keep me warm"

For exactly one year now, I have been writing about something that was most traumatic for me. As a writer, this has caused me to consider a few questions, such as "How do I tell this story without relentlessly traumatizing the reader?" "How do write the narrative without drowning the reader in pathos and offering little in the way of objective substance?" Perhaps most critical to me, "How do I write this without burning myself to a cinder?" I mean, when I'm not writing it, I'm thinking about it. In so many ways, I relive what happened on a daily basis. One time last February, I watched the video of the announcement of the college's closing seven times in a row.

Seven times.

I had to. For accuracy.

"I can't come out to find you
I don't like to go outside
They can't turn off my feelings
Like they're turning off a light"

And they did turn off the lights. Thus, the trauma. In my work, I must revisit the trauma multiple times and in multiple ways. Again and again.

And again and again and again.

I suppose for a moment, just as philosophers do, we should define our terms before proceeding with discourse. I fully realize that using the word "trauma" is a dicey proposition. Unlike other writers who have published gripping accounts of enduring trauma, I have not been sexually assaulted. I have not spent a tour of duty in a war zone. I have not survived a concentration camp. In light of all of these examples and my own awareness as a ten year supporter of Amnesty International, I know that I have not suffered trauma to the degree so many other people have and that in the grand scheme of things, I'm actually quite lucky.

At the same time, I don't believe that trauma and pain are contests. Pain is pain. If you have suffered a loss or had pain visited upon you, that is trauma. Your experience was, as existential philosophers might say, authentic, and your feelings are valid. Therefore, they are valid subject matter for writing, dare I say, they are essential, much needed stories for the world to read. They serve many purposes. Consider Elie Wiesel...

Wiesel wrote the book Night. It is a gripping and often gut-churning account of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. The book stands as a testament to those who suffered, and in many cases died, in such a horrific example of humans being inhumane to humans. There are many reasons Wiesel wrote the book, but there are two that stand out to me. For one, he wanted the text to be a testament, an account of what these people went through for their stories deserved to be known to the world. Secondly, I once read an interview with Wiesel (exactly where is lost to my memory and therefore I apologize) where he said that he was able to get through his concentration camp experience by seeing himself on the other side of it, telling his story to other people.

I once more must make clear that when I write about trauma, my experience is in no way on parity with someone who endured a concentration camp. It was still a loss though. I lost someplace that meant everything to me. I witnessed the dispersing and dispossession of a community of people who meant everything to me. As if all of that were not bad enough, I found myself in a place where I had no idea how I would continue to work and make a living and provide even the basics for my family. That brings with it a loss of dignity. A loss of self-worth. A loss of humanity.

This didn't just happen to my community. I found more and more examples of these experiences as I did my research into closed colleges. This is from an interview I did with a former faculty member of Dana College, which closed last decade:

"It was like a death...and it had everything that comes with that. The campus is closed off and empty now. And I have to pass it every day on my way into town for coffee. I've had to mentally callus myself."

I just kept nodding in grim understanding as he told it all to me. It became clear to me that there were many more people with similar experiences and their stories deserved to be read.

So I started to write. I needed to write my way out of this state of mind. There were a few complications, however:

Compounding these emotions was the knowledge that the loss of the community was caused by a select group of people.

"I've got no far horizons
And I wish upon a star
They don't think that I listen
Oh but I know who they are"

Oh I do.

That brings anger. Hatred. At times, I would stop writing, stand up from my laptop, and start walking in circles. I was like a fuse burning down. I was like a Navy fighter jet, revving and engines flaming, just waiting to be shot off the deck then switching to afterburners to go intercept the enemy. This rage is a fuel. It's an engine for the writing.

It's not exactly the most healthy thing for you, though. As the old saying goes, if you hold flaming coals to hurl at your enemy, do you not burn your own hand in the process? Not only is it unhealthy for the writer, it's bad for all those around him or her. Such intense feelings are hard to just shut off and they have an insidious way of being visited upon those who deserve it the least. So how does a writer create an accurate, authentic account of a traumatic occurrence without turning all around him or her to scorched earth?

I found an article in Writer's Digest by Kelley Clink. Clink wrote A Different Kind of Same. It's memoir about surviving her brother's suicide.

In the article she gives several tips on how to write about trauma. One of them is "Write to heal, then write to publish." This has helped create a balance and an objectivity in my own book. Much of the writing requires research into the experiences of other college communities as well as a fair amount of dry and boring business research. This affords stretches of work where I'm emotionally detached, thus allowing me to recharge. Clink also recommends, as you might expect, stepping away from the work from time to time. It's not as simple as it sounds, especially if you're writing about a particularly intense moment. The advice is, however, still most sound. A good friend of mine pointed that out to me.

"Look at the comics you probably have piled around your workspace," she said. "Aren't they colorful? Aren't they fun?"

Of course, they are. More importantly, looking at them brings me back into the present. I am not actually in the trauma at the present time. I am in a place where I am safe and in no immediate danger. When she said this, I immediately related to something that happened to me not long after the trauma.

It was in early August of last year. I was giving my TV a good thousand yard stare and fighting one hell of an internal battle to keep from going out and buying a case of beer and downing it all. Then this guy showed up.

Chewie jumped up onto the couch. He licked my face once, plopped across me, and promptly fell asleep, complete with deep puppy snores. I stayed right there, stroking his head.

"It's not all bad," I thought. "Not everything is bad."

That little moment changed me. I could change my thinking and find something in the present to give my focus as opposed to the past or future. Sound touchy-feely? Well, I found out Navy SEALS are trained to use this said same mental and emotional practice to get through difficult missions. You focus on what's right in front of you. Once you do this, you begin to see the good in a situation. Once you do this, well, then you can start building a better future.

How successful am I with this technique? Welllll...I'll admit it's a mixed bag of success, but I truly am proud of where I am now after it all. Whatever success I've had in this philosophical shift is due at least in small part to looking to how other writers have written of their own traumas and emerged with scars, but not broken. Here is. to my mind anyway, a great example:

Wild by Cheryl Strayed is about a young woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. She was, by her own admission, not a woodsman of any kind and thus hilarity and cringing ensues in various passages. It's not really about her hiking the trail, though. Her true life account of this journey is about her trying to make sense of the many different things that happened to her during the course of her young life. As she hikes, she comes to terms with those who have hurt her and those she has hurt.

There has been criticism of trauma writers of course. There are those who see memoirs and other accounts of surviving traumas as navel gazing or using the world as a therapy couch. They see a sort of "cottage industry" developing of literature describing traumatic childhoods or recovering from abuse or addiction. People said it about Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation. I heard it from students sometimes when I used to teach The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

I understand these criticisms. A reading audience can indeed develop "trauma fatigue" and sometimes a writer risks coming off as self-absorbed or even whiny.

And yet...

And yet...

I believe this kind of writing is wholly necessary. The aforementioned Wurtzel had this to say about Prozac Nation, the story of her battle with depression:

Yes. It needs to mean something. No less eloquent is author Melissa Febos, who writes in Poets & Writers magazine that "writing about trauma is a subversive act." You can read it all at the link (and I truly suggest that you do), but I've extracted a few of my favorite quotes:

"Navel-gazing is not for the faint of heart. The risk of honest self-appraisal requires bravery. To place our flawed selves in the context of this magnificent, broken world is the opposite of narcissism, which is building a self-image that pleases you."

"Listen to me: It is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or beating a dead horse."

"Don’t tell me that the experiences of a vast majority of our planet’s human population are marginal, are not relevant, are not political. Don’t tell me that you think there’s not enough room for another story about sexual abuse, motherhood, or racism. The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room. That’s how it gets bigger. You write it, and I will read it."

That's just the idea. In the singular, we find the universal. If something happened to you and you want to write the story of it, then write it. It doesn't matter if it might seem a "variation on a similar theme." It is unique by virtue of the fact that it happened to you and you are the only one who can tell it. Your own perspective makes it unique. Through such writing we learn what it means to be someone else and in doing so, we find that we maybe aren't so different.

"I'm in pain," a patient once told a doctor.
"Aren't we all?" the doctor responded.

Though flippant, that's the idea. In someone else's struggle and account of trauma, we see our own tribulations and if we're lucky...we also find a way through them to a better future. Through this communal act of writing and reading, we all serve one another.

So I keep writing my book. Of course it is partly an act of catharsis and self-healing. It would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise. My goal is greater than that, however. The stories of those who shared my experience and those who went through similar closings...those stories matter. Those people matter. They deserve to be known and their stories deserve to be told. My writing is therefore a debt of honor that I take most seriously. So I keep going.

For right now though, I think I'm going to go play with my dogs.

"So take, take me home
'Cause I don't remember
Take, take me home"

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, April 23, 2018

Lost causes

So there I was...

Stone-cold sober and conversationally accosted by an older guy on what I guessed was his sixth vodka tonic. He was a successful businessman who wanted to "ask me a few things" about my closed college.

"You had to know it was going to happen," he said, spraying spit on me.

I replied that while we knew of the financial problems and the imminent need to act, we were assured by our leadership, just two months prior to the closure announcement, that we were all right and had years to right the ship.

"Oh so they 'told you.' All right, you know hope's not a plan, right?" he said, the volume of his voice seeming to rise with each slurred word. "Do you think it was smart to listen to them?"

The seventh vodka tonic arrived, distracting him and giving me time to compose.

"Let me ask you another question," he said, pointing at me and tossing back a swig. "You were $27 million in debt. What made you think this was going to turn out all right?"

I explained that many of us saw the college as our home. We were willing to stay and do what we could to make things work because the place meant something to us.

He was stunned.

"Admirable...positive..." he shrugged. "But was that realistic? Do you really think you were smart to do that?"

We writers tend to be a sensitive lot. It allows us to understand how someone else feels and then convey it in words. It also means that we tend to internalize what people say to us. Ironic then, isn't it, that we engage in an activity that insists we tender the work of our hearts and souls up for judgment? That question lands outside the scope of my post. I am trying to grok something else altogether.

Am I really "not smart" for having stayed at my college? Doing the research for my book, I can see the trajectory of things with a cool mind. Indeed, all the signs of collapse had been there for a fair amount of time. In the hours after leaving my conversation "partner," I...well, I felt like my current situation was entirely of my own doing, as are my successive failures. Two days later, I shifted my thinking and I decided that I might need to ask myself a different question: "Having it to do over again, would I have chosen differently?" Pondering the question led me to deep reflection and self-examination. In those moments, I turn to the narratives I've consumed over my years.

As a writer, I have a penchant for the romantic. The painting at the top of the post is a good example of it. It's called The Third of May and it's by Francisco Goya. As you can probably tell, it depicts an execution. Note the man in the center. Though obviously knowing he's at the end of things, he stands defiant. The enemy has complete control of everything in his sphere of existence save for his own attitude, his own integrity, and his own values.

I think of Marius from Les Miserables, which is an excellent book but I insist it be read in the unabridged edition. Hugo will actually go on for pages that become essays on morality and serve neither plot nor subplot. It's beautiful in both its depth and inefficiency. Just can't get away with that these days. But I digress...
Marius believes the love of his life is lost to him. He then joins a group of French revolutionaries, fully intending to die but at least his death will have meaning. At the barricade and in the face of the advancing army, he holds a torch to a powder keg and threatens to gladly send all of them to kingdom come.

I think of the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings. Knowing they are hopelessly outclassed and outnumbered by an army of Uruk-Hai, Legolas voices quite fact-based doubts to his friend, Aragorn as to the wisdom of their remaining with the refugees.

"Then I shall die as one of them!"

My gods wear spandex. I say that as a paraphrase of another writer's book title. It simply means that comic book superheroes serve as a contemporary pantheon. Their stories serve as a kind of common mythology, helping us make sense of our world and showing us ideals we should aspire to.

In a landmark story arc written by DC Comics in 1993, a creature named Doomsday attacked Metropolis in an incoherent and unstoppable rage. As the body count mounted, Lois Lane, then secretly married to Superman, begged her husband not engage. "At least wait until the rest of the Justice League gets here," she pleaded. Superman counter-argued that though that would be a sensible plan, there was no time for it. More innocents would die while he waited. He was the only one who could do this. Just as Hector said goodbye to his wife in The Iliad, Superman flew off to face his own Achilles. After a fierce and ugly battle, Superman did indeed stop Doomsday, but at the cost of his own life. He dies in Lois' arms, depicted in an homage to Michelangelo's Pieta.


Then DC somewhat nullifies the sacrifice by bringing him back to life a year later. Was glad to see him back, but, well...I digress.

I'll confess, I have another, far less cerebral example. Red Dawn is, in truth, an awful movie that fails on most every level. Writing, acting, plot, you name it. But I can't help but hold a special affinity for it. A group of kids cry out to their invading enemy "You will not take our home from least not without paying a grievous, grievous price." In this scene, my favorite character in the film meets his end with nobility.

Now there's a word. Nobility. The more and more research I do on closed colleges, it's a word that continues to resurface. I've seen it in faculty and students as they met the end of their own institutions. I've seen it in other faculty and students as they, against all odds and reason, stood and fought the decisions of their own boards of trustees. I particularly have in mind a quote from one student who transferred from her closing college: "How could I have left my community and chosen to save myself?" She dropped out and returned to her college for its final days.

Why, you might ask? Sometimes the choice that makes no sense is the only sensible choice.

I have the answer to my question. Knowing everything I know now, I would have done nothing different. Not one thing. Wouldn't even have started sending out my CV earlier. I admire characters in each of the story examples I've just shown and of course there are many more. Through them, my family, and the many mysteries and experiences of life, I'd like to think I've acquired a few slivers of nobility. I believe it's necessary for my teaching.

You teach students far more about who you are than what you know. I'd like to think I helped "my kids" through a very difficult time just by being there for them. When they feared the future, I'd like to think my simple words of "I won't leave you" meant something. I was meant to be there at just that time. We all were, each in our own way. Therefore, there is nowhere else I would rather have been than right there with everyone at the very end.

Nobility hasn't made me much on the commodities exchange, but it has helped me stay true to who I am.

I can live with that.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Where is your technology museum?

From the New Yorker.

I have a technology museum.

No really, I do. I noticed it the other day.

I guess it starts in the basement. There is, as the cartoon above describes, a box of AC adapters and power cables that have long since been orphaned. What did they once belong to? Who knows, because whatever it was broke a long time ago and being in a disposable society, I threw the tech out.

Next to that box is another, this one filled with VHS tapes. Their contents have been replaced by DVD counterparts years ago. Why do I still have all the tapes? This question is made doubly confounding by a trip upstairs.

I have a VCR. It stopped working at least two years ago. In fact, there's still a tape stuck in it (a Godzilla movie, if I recall). Why haven't I just thrown the thing out? Better yet, why haven't I taken it to one of the area's many technology recycling centers? I'm not sure. Just haven't gotten around to it.

And that's how simple it is. As technology turns obsolete, it accumulates in darkened corners as autumn leaves in the porch corner.

Really dusty autumn leaves.

I'm guessing many of us have similar versions of these museums that we curate. They come to be faster than we realize.

Ray Kurzweil, arguing The Singularity is Near, warned me...and all of us...about this phenomenon. Many of my museum antiquities were rendered irrelevant only ten years ago. That's not all that long in the grand scheme of things. In fact, even my DVDs are obsolete and cumbersome due to my easy access to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime (except for a few rare gems I own, likely only appreciated by me.) The Law of Accelerated Returns. How long until I get cybernetics?

Hopefully soon. I'm feeling my age. Looking at technological relics isn't helping.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets