Tuesday, September 28, 2010

School Days

I went to the same school from first grade (there was no kindergarten in our district) through graduation from senior high school. It was a terrific school, state of the art, for those dark ages of the 1940s and 50s. When I arrived at college, there were kids who were far more cosmopolitan, far more aware of the arts, but there were none who would have had any educational advantage over me had I worked as hard in high school as those who had ranked higher than me in class standing, instead of indulging in the fooling around that I preferred. Even given this, the quality of my school was such that I was fully able, had I wanted to do so, to graduate with excellent grades from college. If I had lived in a different school district to the north, south, east or west of Reedville-Charlotte, I would have had the same quality of education.

During the late 60s, the 70s and later, people set about making schools ‘better’ and there were ways in which my school could have been better, I suppose. And there is no question that there were bad schools back in my era; the film Blackboard Jungle, as well as a number of other similar works in films and books were reflective of some conditions in some schools; in some of the rural, poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia and the South, for instance, schools were probably pretty bad. But in district after district in the North, Midwest and Far West, as well as the better off (white) schools in the South, education was damn good.

Of course there were great inspirational teachers – at every class reunion there are a handful of names that always come up – and there were those who were merely good but who are remembered with affection by a few students from each class, and there were mediocre teachers and there were bad teachers. But even with the worst of the bad, we learned – I learned - what I needed to know. There was no such thing in our school as a teacher who didn’t know his or her subject or curriculum; bad teachers were those who could not teach their class. They might be obsessed with discipline or too timid to maintain control or have some other failing and the very bad ones rarely lasted beyond a year. These, however, were a very small minority. I had one really bad teacher – my sixth grade teacher, who was gone after a year. I had one ineffective science teacher, whose problem was an inability to exert any control in class, but we did manage to learn the subject, even if we were not inspired at all.

A goodly number of the best students in my class went on to spend their lives as teachers, one or two are still teaching although they are beyond the normal age for retirement. I have kept in contact with a number of people with whom I graduated and many of them tell me that teaching was a joy for most of their career, but that every year did seem to get worse. I once asked my good friend who became a teacher – one of the guys that was my housemate during that wonderful carefree surfing year in Southern California – why it was that in this area of Western New York, where there was little school violence, little abject poverty, only a modest variation between the wealthiest and the poorest families, and where there was pretty decent parent involvement, why the schools just get worse and worse, and the first thing he said was, “Every time a parent sits across from you at a parent-teacher meeting, there is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

He told me, for instance, that the parent of a “C” student sued when that student was not asked to join the National Honor Society – and won. He said that now in his school membership in the Honor Society is open to anyone who wants to join. When I was in school, those kids who got asked to join the Honor Society had to be top students as well as exemplary in behavior. I had the grades to be admitted, but I was not invited to join. Why? This was because I was a behavioral problem. I knew it and, although I was disappointed, I knew the failure to be invited was my fault, and I knew exactly why. My parents knew this as well (and were more than willing to pass this knowledge on!); they sure did not blame the school, the teachers, the times, the schoolboard or the school bus driver for this situation. I don’t recall my mother actually saying anything, but I know if she had, it would be some variation on, “What did you expect?”

My parents were pretty busy with nine kids, and they were not active in the school, although they did attend individual parent-teacher conferences when requested, and PTA at times and, very rarely, some extracurricular activity in which I was involved. I did well, though not spectacularly, in school, my sister was near the top of her class, while a number of my brothers failed to graduate, but they got damn good educations nonetheless. Gary did not join any activities and did not achieve the required grades in one or two classes, so he was not allowed to graduate. (He did later get a GED). He was elected Justice of the Peace in his town, as well as being a member of the volunteer fire department, the local volunteer ambulance driver and a scoutmaster. So even though he did not graduate, he got a damn good education, and was a far greater contributor to his community than I ever was.

I have been watching the news this week as the discussion has centered on National Education Week or whatever it is, and on the powerful new documentary film Waiting for Superman. I saw the filmmaker on Oprah, and I saw Governor Christie of NJ and Mayor Booker of Newark talk about changes needed. I have seen some footage of Michelle Rhee, the crusading superintendent of DC schools. And it is pretty clear the new demon in education is teachers’ unions, which protect incompetent teachers.

I know that this is a big problem and I do hope that the issue of tenure for poorly performing teachers will be torn from the control of the unions. But I also noticed that a survey showed that, when asked who caused the problems in the schools, elected officials and parents ranked above unions and teachers on the list. My experience is that my rare encounters with poor teachers did not stop me from learning or cause me to drop out, they merely made school attendance a miserable experience for that year, or for the hour each day in which I endured them. I still learned what I needed to learn even though I never was reliable about doing my homework. We did not have teachers’ unions, so it is easy to say that the rise of the unions must be the problem. But really, it is only one of the problems, and not, I believe, the biggest of them.

There are several bigger problems and I know what they are; thank you for asking.

First, although schools must now spend an inordinate amount of resources to teach the exceptional students – exceptional in terms of physical or mental handicap – for the vast majority there is a ‘one size fits all’ mentality now in schools. Like the “C” student who can now join Honor Society, there are kids who love cooking or fixing things or selling things or drawing or any number of ‘vocational’ type skills who are being pushed into college-bound scheduling and who are being measured against those kids who are drawn to college required subjects. The greatest teacher on Earth cannot make a boy who loves to fix cars change his passion to English Literature. And this greatest teacher should not try.  If he or she is truly great, then he or she will NOT try and will thereby lose his or her job.

Previously in NY, there was a state Board of Regents who mandated a curriculum for students who wish to receive a ‘Regents Diploma,’ which qualified him or her to enroll in college. A third, at least, of the kids in my school opted to get ‘local diplomas’. These students went to school, had classes in English, math and so forth but spent much time in classes such as typing (who knew keyboard skills would be a college necessity one day?), shorthand, home economics, shop and agriculture. They were learning how things worked, even if they were light on why Heathcliff loved Cathy. My observation is that these kids tended, in later years, to remain in the local area and to become the local leaders, the driving force in volunteer work, the best members of the school boards; they opened restaurants and small shops such as local auto repair shops and generally became the small entrepreneurs that so many politicians extoll (and ignore). They became, like Gary, the local volunteers in all kinds of areas – areas which required practical experience and hard work toward specific useful goals. On school boards they are often the ones who want to make things work, rather than spend hours discussing ideological texts and better ways of doing what is already working beautifully. We do not need a ‘new math’, the old math works perfectly.

The vocational (non-college-bound) classes should be restored and made respectable. Even in my time, there was a whiff of ‘second tier’ to the shop and secretarial students. But these were the ones who stayed in the community, who made things work locally, who grew (or continued) to love their town. Many of them later did seek some further education, after they knew who they were and what they wanted to be and what they needed to get there. The college kids moved to cities and moved from place to place bringing to any school involvement new theories and a profound lack of any sense of what the local community was all about. They often want to improve what needs no improvement and are indifferent to what really brings in a paycheck for most graduates while he or she is waiting to be elected president. Taking the position that all kids must go to college is no different than taking the position that all black urban youngsters should aim for the NBA. The number of kids in a school who go on to college should be only ONE measure of that school’s excellence. Of course, a decent math and language performance, as well as some knowledge of history, are essential for all, but the college bound curricula are not.

Second: The parents, the community at large, and the school board supported the teachers in the 50s. The parents thought and acted in terms of ‘our kids’; now an inordinately large percentage of parents think only of ‘my kid’. I cannot think of a single instance where my parents did not support school or teacher decisions, even when that meant one of their kids came in second best. When I was expelled from school (twice) my parents NEVER questioned the decision, nor did they expect to override any teacher in that or any other matter. In this they were not extraordinary – this was the attitude of nearly all parents in our district. Parents' response (after making themselves highly unpleasant to the child in question) was to contact the school and ask what the child must do to improve the situation. And you damn betcha that child was the one who did the hard part – apologize, work harder, accept the consequences, stay after school in detention, repair the damage. Were the teachers ever wrong? – sure, although rarely. When I had that terrible sixth grade teacher, my mother’s response was, “It’s only a year; next year will be better.” That is a very valuable lesson – it has stood me in greater stead than all the math and science I learned that year.

Part of supporting a teacher is being very flexible when the teacher’s methods or behavior or material (within limits of course) are unorthodox. In my senior year, we had a young teacher who made a point of being somewhat of an enfant terrible. He would stagger in unshaven on Monday in the same clothes he had worn on Friday saying something like, “God! I need to sit down!” (OK – this happened once). He was definitely contemptuous of the normal class material. He made us read Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot, which were not in the curriculum, at a time when Robert Frost and Longfellow were pretty much the cutting edge. He taught drama and was pretty brusque when one did not perform up to par. He was not prone to break things gently. When two of us wanted to take a fourth year of Latin, he added us into his third year Latin group and spent part of his time with the third year kids and part of his time with the two of us. But you better believe we didn’t get away with just translating Virgil; we had to translate it into poetry. I will never forget his face when he learned that a substitute teacher during his absence allowed us to translate a line as “Say, Miss, why is everybody rushing to the river?” This man did so much to make me know and love good writing, even though he didn’t really single me out much or spent extra time mentoring. What he did do was make me know that doing OK, or merely being understood, wasn’t really very good. He is one of the teachers whose name always comes up at any reunion.

We also had a teacher whose political views were well known and freely expressed – a history teacher who was also passionate about his subject, and his students’ performance. Yet kids emerged from a year with him with wildly differing political views – most commonly kids’ views reflected their parents beliefs, not those of even the most ardent teacher. So vetting the classroom for subversion is a counterproductive, wasteful and foolish exercise. People who need everyone to believe as they do reflect only the weakness of their own convictions. If I am right, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me OR to my kids.

One thing I heard while watching these various shows castigating teachers’ unions was that we need to get rid of poor and mediocre teachers. I concur that we must weed out poor teachers, but I contend that a mediocre teacher will be perfectly adequate in an excellent school, with support from parents and the school administration. It would be impossible for every school in America to be staffed with nothing but superstar teachers. There are a lot of great teachers, but not that many. Just as any large company does, a school will perform perfectly well, and students will learn everything they need to know, when adequately performing men and women are intermingled in schools with superior ones.  Expectations of, and insistence on, superior outcomes for a school as a whole, matters hugely.  This is measured by a child knowing how to do something well enough to be a desirable employee or a successful entrepreneur, but that something need not always be math or science, or another college-centric discipline.

Third: Schools are too big. It is not so much that classes are too large as that schools themselves are too large. My old school district and a great many of the exurban school districts in Western NY encompass two townships or more. This was fine when it meant that a senior class might total 100 students or less. But now the same area provides hundreds of students at each grade level. The cost in transportation and logistical support, the inability of single families to impact decisions without resorting to a courtroom, the likelihood that school boards are composed of politically ambitious ideologues who are unknown personally to most voters and who are more interested in imposing their views than in all kids doing well. Even bullying would probably be greatly lessened, in severity if not in incidence, in smaller schools. To start with, the parents would be more likely to know each other and siblings are more likely to be aware of each other’s situations. When Michelle Rhee talks about schools currently being for the adults rather than the kids, this size issue is not what she seems to be addressing, but it should be a big part of it. Small class sizes are good, but they are not as important as small school size. In the one-room school days, there were a lot of kids in the care of a single teacher, and worse, they were split among several different grade levels, so that only an hour or two per day was given to any one grade. Yet, look at the graduates these schools produced – many of the greatest of the Greatest Generation came from just such schools. Would the sports teams in gigantic high schools be reduced in quality? Probably, but in high school this is not such a big deal (and a local Christian school near me, which is so small that nearly all the boys had to play in order to field a team, recently played to a very impressive level against much larger schools). The great ballplayers before World War II came from somewhere, even though these mega-schools did not exist then. School sports might even be fun again for the average-performing kids, which, I am here to tell you, they emphatically are not now. Somehow the same folks who applaud the ideal in Little League that everybody gets to play, are just as eager to restrict their high school teams from having any members who are not professional material whenever possible. Talk about school being for the adults!

I really suspect that the negative impact of teachers’ unions is not so much in its protection of abysmal teachers’ jobs as it is in conveying to the majority of good teachers that "it doesn’t matter how well I do". This is a crucial distinction. It is not that they are protecting the bad, but that they are not protecting the good in a sense. In every company I have worked, and as a consultant I have worked in many well-known companies such as Halliburton, Texas Instruments, John Deere, Greyhound, Textron, Timken, Toro, Bechtel, Allison Engine (even though I cannot remember if it is spelled with one ‘L’ or two!), PG&E, DuPont, Saudi Iron & Steel, Accenture and others, as well as governments – San Francisco, NASA, Royal Commission of Jubail, and even a college, it was not a problem for performance or for morale when there were bad employees who kept their jobs. The negative impact on both morale and performance was when it did not matter how well the good employees performed. It isn’t even a case of the best making more money. It was important that the best be listened to and that respect (and possible promotion) be accorded to the good performers. An emphasis on excellence and a recognition thereof, even if it did not mean more money, was the crux.  The outstanding performers must feel that they make a difference, no matter how this recognition is expressed. There will always be super-performers and there will always be duds. But the great middle was moved toward excellence in the companies which had standards, not of dress and deportment or of time required in the office or on the job, but of excellence in the common result – the product and company's reputation for service. Where one merely had to meet goals – pieces output, programs written, hours in attendance – where ‘good enough’ was the standard – then the great middle was moved toward cynicism, time-serving and corner-cutting. It is essential that the top-level people in a company be subject to the same standards and rules as the bottom people. The worst places had the most inflexible rules, hours, dress codes, the greatest deference to seniority (this tends to cause the best young talent to leave), and often the most ‘official’ recognitions and rewards – such as service awards (although these latter also showed up at the best places). I recall at one very low-morale company (with a strong union), an employee threw her 'years of service' pin back at the supervisor because he had not presented it to her on the exact day she reached that level. This was symbolic of an overall malaise, not of a specific failure. It is also a very bad sign when a promotion signals release from some of the behavioral restrictions that apply to the levels below.

But I am digressing. And you are very likely sick of reading. Go forth and be strong.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Were You Thinking?

The latest seven-day wonder of a non-political variety is the story of a woman who threw acid in her own face and told police that she had been attacked by a black woman. I was torn between disgust and ho-hum in my reaction until this morning when one of the ‘news’ shows broadcast an interview with an ‘expert’ (expert in what, I didn’t notice), who placed this episode within the context of people hurting themselves to get attention and also within the context of self-mutilation, in general. By far the most common recognized form of this mutilation is the phenomenon of ‘cutting’ whereby people, mostly young, mostly female, cut themselves with razor blades or knives. This, too, I have heard about and I have been mostly irritated by the topic. “Screw ‘em,” has largely been my attitude, although I know if it were a girl I cared about - a niece of mine, say, or a daughter of someone I liked, I would probably be more concerned in that specific incidence.

This expert said that quite a number - I think he said eight percent, but I could be wrong - of people, or young people or of some population like that actually did things like this - he mentioned cutting and other forms of self-injury that I have forgotten already. And all of a sudden I realized that I was, when I was young, one of those people. It is kind of annoying to be contemptuous of a set of people, and then to realize that you are one of them.

When I was in college, there was a small spate of self-mutilation among a loosely defined group of my friends, and I would say that only one of the guys involved (it was a men-only phenomenon) was as deeply involved as I was myself. This took the form of challenging each other to an endurance contest where two guys put their forearms together and lay a lit cigarette between them to see who would move first. Most of the guys only tried this once or twice, and most of the guys were more than willing to be the first to pull away rather quickly. But if I recall, I always won (except when it was a tie by mutual agreement) and I was one of the contestants far more often than anyone else. The only guy who equaled me in this regard was a friend of mine who was one of the more unusual of my college friends, whom I will call Grady.

Grady came to NPU two years after I did, and we became friends rather quickly. He usually had to be the wildest guy in the crowd - something that always attracts me. His older sister was a year ahead of me, a pretty girl who was fairly popular, particularly with the guys in my fraternity. I hasten to say that popularity, even with a fraternity, at NPU in the early 60s had nothing to do with promiscuity or sexual availability - but had to do with attractiveness and personality. I didn’t know Yvette well; I probably never had a one-to-one conversation with her beyond a greeting or farewell. I heard later that Yvette had been born with a club foot (whatever that is) that had been surgically corrected. I never noticed anything unusual about her, however.

Grady, however, was afflicted from birth by a far greater burden: both his hands were deformed. His left hand had a single thick finger replacing what should have been his left index and middle fingers. This was, in the scheme of things, not that much of a handicap. However what should have been his right hand consisted of just two fingers, one of which probably was a malformed thumb and the other longer one probably was the entirety of what would have been his palm and four fingers. The whole looked vaguely like a lobster claw, and when he held something, the first impression was that he was holding it between his index and middle fingers until one noticed that these were all that he had. By the time I met Grady he was a master of somehow minimizing the appearance of deformity; my recollection is that I did not even notice his hands the first time I met him. I would like to say that deformity did not faze me, but the truth is that I had a severe and deep revulsion for physical imperfection - especially amputations or deformities - which I have overcome to a large extent, but which I still have to fight against to this very day. I don’t even really like ‘normal’ bodies all that much, I prefer not to touch others unless I am attracted to them. I am the last to hug or shake hands in any given group of people. And I cannot look at any open wound where the underlying flesh or bone is visible; I cannot watch NCIS or Bones or ER or any of the TV shows which make a fetish of showing close-ups of decayed flesh or open wounds. I hate even seeing unattractive people - old or wrinkly or fat or saggy - on the beach. The movie Cocoon was not a happy experience for me. And I loathe having my shirt off in public.

Grady overcompensated for his physical shortcomings in a big way. One might say that he overcame them and point to him as a shining example, like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder or Stephen Hawking. One might find it hard to believe but he was an accomplished musician - he played trumpet and guitar well, and he played the piano so well that he actually got a part time job playing lounge-style music thereon at a local Holiday Inn’s lounge. Anything that required finger work was a challenge which attracted him. I never really watched his hands play closely, but I can affirm that if I didn’t know of his problems I would not have guessed from what I heard that he was different from any other pianist in any way. I suspect that to a person more versed in piano music there were some interesting substitutions in harmonies, but it sounded good to me. I know that he played notes quickly in succession; since he could press only a limited number of keys at once, I’d guess he compensated by breaking chord harmonies into their component notes and played the individual keys in rapid succession, but that is just my guess. Grady was quite good looking in that curly-haired Eddie Fisher/Cornel Wilde way that was popular in the 50s. In fact Grady, now that I think of it, looked like a paler slimmer Eddie Fisher. He tended to keep his right hand pushed into his back pocket, but upon being introduced to someone would quickly offer it for a hand shake. When we were better friends, I asked him once if he preferred that I prepare people for this before I made an introduction. He told me no, he liked seeing the look on their faces, but I don’t think this was true. I think he was determined to be defiant about his situation in this as in all things. Unfortunately, the impulse that made him challenge himself to become proficient at music, also led him to try to be the wildest of the wild, and to strive to outdo all others in anything that was self-destructive. In this, he was often joined by me; I realize, looking back, how vastly self-destructive I was in my younger days. I think both Grady and I were saved from involvement in drugs only by the times we lived in. I am almost certain that both of us would have jumped in with a glad cry had we been born a mere ten years later.

I really don’t know who was the first to think of the cigarette game; it may have been Grady himself, or it may have been my friend Tony who spent that week in the DC jail with me, or it may have been another of the gang that usually wound up at the local bar when finances permitted. And, as I say, most of the guys tried it once, and briefly, but Grady and I once let a whole cigarette burn its entire length as it lay between our arms because neither of us would back down. I have quite a number of burn scars on my forearms, as well as one or two on my calves and I even had one once, which has disappeared over time, on my forehead. I actually never, until this morning, equated this to the current teen fad of cutting, and even less so to the more dramatic forms of self-mutilation. For one thing, I never did any of this burning when I was alone - there was always some element of public spectacle; the actual appearance of mutilation was beside the point, except in that the effect was not reversible. But I realize that my curled lip when I read of these things occurring was a lip that would do well to uncurl itself and take a look within. So why, as any adult at the time would ask me, would anyone do something like this?

I wish I could say why I did this with any clarity or degree of certainty. There were a whole raft of feelings involved. Am I sorry now? Absolutely. I do not like being marked with scars. I did not really like the blisters and scars back then, especially when my peers looked at me like I was weird. The rewards, whatever they were, were in the moments of doing the burning. I was slightly shamefaced and defiant in the aftermath. It was an easy way of appearing brave to myself, and in my mind, to others. There was an element of control in a sense, I think. I know I thought of those of my peers who were critical of this practice as being more ‘grown up’ than me, although I might have denied this at the time and certainly framed their greater maturity in unflattering ways. I thought, in the moment, that I was somehow cool although I didn’t feel afterward that I was so cool. Among the loosely defined and inchoate group that also participated, I was one of the insiders because I always ‘won’ the challenge. The fact that we usually did the burning in a bar and were usually drinking had nothing to do with the activity; we were not drunk when we did it, or if we were, that was not really relevant to the ‘why’ issue.  At most it removed that tiny hesitation at doing what we wanted to do anyway.  "In vino veritas" is something I do believe.  You may do something you would not do otherwise or may not think of otherwise, but you never do something that you do not want to to do on some level, in some way. 

I think I always felt that there was an invisible barrier, thin but impermeable like cellophane, between me and other people, between me and what mattered, between me and what was ‘real’. I always felt like a wannabe, even though I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to be. Part of me wanted to be admired and noticed by others, but I never wanted to be like others. I never felt that anything that I read or heard really applied to me. This was not because I felt I was better, although sometimes that was the case, but because I never felt that anything fully covered all the facts as I knew them or felt them to be true. When I was burning myself in one of these contests, for that one moment that was the only thing that was happening, it was the full focus - it was completely and describably real. There was the fact of burning myself and nothing else had any relevance in that moment. It was a moment of complete clarity.  It was something that could not be undone or explained away later.  When someone says or thinks, "I'll show them!" it is really, "I'll show me!"  or "Then I'll know."

I can figure a lot of things out; I have always been good at seeing patterns, but there is always a grey area that I can’t entirely erase. I do not have the gift of being absolutely certain about anything. This has kept me from ever finding a cause or career or religion or purpose or hobby or even life partner to which I can fully commit myself. Even if I find something to be completely true, I have a horror of someone responding, "But wait a minute.  What about such-and-such?"  When I was young this feeling was more pronounced; now it is a dull reality that forms the background of everything I think or do or feel. There seems to be a dictionary full of words that never quite mean the thing that I am seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking. I believe I know exactly what most words mean, and they never seem to cover the topic under discussion. Adolescents, by definition are in a state of becoming adults; that is the actual etymological meaning of the word. But in the eyes of the world at large, that word describes people of a certain age range. When applied to someone older than that age range, it is an insult. But I wonder: has anyone arrived? Is anyone sure of who he is exactly? It seems that most people have found something that describes them satisfactorily - it might be a racial description, or a gender description or a political label or a religious conviction or a career choice, or something else, but it is a final destination; they have become something and are happy (or unhappy) to have arrived. I certainly don’t think I am youthful, but I do still feel adolescent. I feel like I am still in the darkness of my cocoon waiting to see what kind of butterfly I’ll be. I am indehiscent, and it looks like I’ll stay that way. I am the fruit that never ripens, an apple still green on the leafless bough already covered by snow.

But I don’t cut myself or burn myself or throw acid in my own face now. So what is the difference? I don’t know. The only thing I know is that now that I have seen the acid thing in this context I get it. That the woman in the news accused a black of doing the throwing is harmful and unforgivable, but I kind of get the acid itself. There is the momentary throwing of the future to the winds. There is a certain glee in inflicting the scar, a glee that will not outlast the act itself. It is like getting drunk on Sunday night; you know you will be sorry tomorrow, but... I wonder if anyone has considered that tattoos and piercing are part of the same scenario. Those moments of sheer relief (which may include such things as accepting Jesus or Islam or coming out of the closet or whatever) which are crystalline in their clarity at the moment and which can never entirely be undone. It is like assuming your position onstage and seeing the curtains open, the moment that you do this thing which will mark you forever; the flood of feeling that you have finally done SOMETHING in all this vague unclear messy stew of facts that aren’t always true and words that don’t quite mean what you want to say - this is a split second of rest in the hurtle toward the end of a game that it looks like you will neither win nor receive honorable mention. And then your whole life will be some kind of defense of why you were such an ass, but at least it won’t be the same as it was before.  You are forcing the issue, and hope that by doing so you will finally know what the issue is.

There are so few things that one can do and then say to oneself, “There! That’s done!” and know that what is being done is exactly that thing and nothing else. It is like a mini-suicide. Whatever was wrong, whatever was pushing at you, that may not have been gotten rid of but it has unalterably changed. The focus has been shifted, at least for a while, to something else. It never works, really; or at least not for very long. But that is tomorrow’s worry. For the moment, this is it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Read, Jump, Eat, Read

The Shaughnessys had a family reunion this July, and my sister Lucy stayed with me for two weeks. I think that during the last two years she and I may be coming to something of a rapprochement in our relationship. Certainly, the fact that my brother Jack and his chere amie of ten years standing, the Lovely Medea, also stayed with me for a few days helped put Lucy in perspective for me. On the scale of how awful a woman can be, the Lovely Medea scores so high that Lucy’s more annoying qualities shrivel into insignificance in the pitiless sun of Medea’s imperfection – in fact, Lucy and I may have bonded somewhat in our extreme distaste for her. The Lovely Medea, though a grandmother, is a trophy type of woman: platinum blonde and flawlessly made up and dressed at all times. This could be seen as admirable, I suppose, but the personality that goes with it is not. The woman emerges talking in late morning from her labors in front of the bathroom mirror until her final putting to bed at whatever hour. And her talk is divided into three categories: her friends, family and experiences, none of which have reached even the lowermost level of interesting; the many and divers men who have attempted to seduce her (all of them, all the time); and honeyed blades of poison inserted into the backs of any of my kin who is not present. The Lovely Medea is a rich topic for a lengthy entry, but she is not my topic for today.

My sister Lucy brought with her a quilt she has been working on for a year, which depicts various scenes from our days on the Farm. In one scene, she has my mother pinning up laundry on the pair of clotheslines that spanned most of our back yard. Sitting with his back against one of the anchoring posts that held the clotheslines is the figure of a boy reading from a book. Lucy says that is me; she says that Mom told her I used to sit and read to her as she worked. I don’t recall doing this, but certainly it seems like something I might do. If one wanted to picture me when I was happiest as a boy, one would have to show me reading a book.

I loved books. I read and re-read anything I could get my hands on. I can still picture our local library, which consisted of two rooms and an adjoining alcove on the first floor of the Town Hall, which was located a little more than a mile from the Farm. Entering the library to return books and to get more was one of the great pleasures of my youth; it was akin to the feeling I had when entering a theater. I would linger long over my selections; there were books that I considered and dipped into over and over again for years before I finally selected them. When I found an author or a genre that I loved, I would get a book from that source each time until the supply was exhausted. I read the dog books (Lassie, Come Home; Lad, A Dog), the horse books (Farley’s Black Stallion books, and the Island Stallion books), the Little House books of Wilder, the Moffat family chronicles by Eleanor Estes, the Lois Lenski books with their pen and ink sketches of children who always had a certain almond-eyed look – to this day I occasionally see someone on the street who looks to me like he or she stepped from the pages of Lenski’s books. I read boys’ series, girls’ series, and the tales of the talking animals in Walter R. Brooks’ Freddy, the Pig series. When I found The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, I was ecstatic. I followed the fortunes of this impoverished family through the several sequels, each centered on one of the children: Ben, Polly, Phronsie, Joel and one I distinctly remember being called Ned, but Google tells me he was Davie. Have I confused the Peppers with the Moffats or some other series family? The Peppers echoed the girls of Little Women or the plucky lads that filled the pages of Horatio Alger’s books in that they were poor people who managed to have the good (and plot-enhancing) fortune to attract the attention of a wealthy benefactor who was attracted by their virtue and unspoiled spirits.

As I moved into the more mature books – the Young Adult category, I believe it is now called - I only grew more entranced. Of course I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (How I loved mysteries! What is more magic than a secret stairway, room, alcove or passage?) and Tom Swift and a host of series that are no longer remembered: the Mimi books, the Little Colonel series, the Go Ahead Boys, the Rover Boys, the Girls of Central High and so on. In fact, when I was introduced to Harry Potter by the daughters of a friend, two girls as book-crazy as I was, I realized that underneath the wizardry and magic Rowling’s books were exceptionally skilled ‘boarding school’ series books, with all the familiar and much loved trappings – the sports contests, the ‘good’ hero and his ‘chums’ versus the rival ‘bad’ boy (bully, braggart, spoiled child, whatever) and his ‘toadies’, the unfair burden on, or accusation against, the hero – a noble, plucky lad or lass who bore the bad with grace and who rose above adversity. Our side wins again!

For me, the absolute acme of young adult books was a quartet of books written by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, which I read and re-read and then read again. These centered on a life choice in the lives of teen-aged heroes or heroines, all orphaned, in exotic settings – logging camps of the Northwest, the circus, the old frontier West or ancient Egypt. Though on a recent re-reading, I find the Newberry winner Moccasin Trail to be better, my personal favorite, a favorite which led to a lifelong interest first in archaeology and then in history, was Mara: Daughter of the Nile. I don’t know how many times I read Mara’s story, probably twenty or thirty times at least. My goldfish were named Mara and Sheftu after the leading characters. Oddly, my best friend Emily tells me that she was equally a Mara fan and that she met a lifelong friend when she noticed that each time she borrowed the book from her school library, a girl named Kirsten had borrowed it in the interim and sought that girl out at her school. Ms McGraw also wrote some of the sequels to Baum’s Wizard of Oz (something I only found out recently). The high point of the school day for me when I was in third grade was when Mrs Holfoth would read the next chapter of the Wizard, and when the original was finished, one of its sequels. Occasionally she would try to introduce a different book, but popular demand always returned us to Oz. I was spellbound by the Oz books. Oz time beat recess time all hollow for me.

I read everywhere. In summer, one of my parents would see me curled up with a book in the house on a lovely day, and tell me I should be outside enjoying the weather. I would move, book in hand, to the porch or to a spot under a tree and continue reading. My dad would get very irritated because I would not hear him speaking to me when I was lost in some book. I can still quote from memory the entire first page of the first hard-cover book I ever read, The Tale of Betsy Butterfly. Losing myself in a fictional world was like settling into a warm bath.

I have lately realized that I am still that guy. While I can’t seem to find books I love like I once did or continue reading uninterrupted for hours, I am still a guy that is indoors on lovely days, reading or writing or watching a film. I feel guilty about it, and it is a part of a larger issue for me, that I have only begun to see clearly. There are two ‘me’s – the one I wish I were (and sporadically believe I am), and the one I actually am. I constantly plan for things as if I were Doing David and wind up way off the mark because I am really Reading David. There is nothing like a long period of isolation, which this first full year of retirement has essentially proved to be, for getting a new perspective, or maybe a clearer one, on oneself. I find that I planned my retirement, insofar as I planned at all, for the wrong David, for the David I wish I were. I had the odd idea that I would be this man who gardened faithfully: mulching, weeding, fertilizing; who made repairs and enhancements to his home, learning new skills as he went along; who went about visiting old friends and making new ones in his new-found open-ended leisure time, and who opened his home to friends and relatives for long visits. I actually imagined I was self-directed, and throve without a schedule to limit me as work had done.

It would be OK, in fact it would be wonderful, if I could say, “Oh, but I am Reading David, as I have been all along”, and could pick up a book or magazine or watch a film with unalloyed pleasure, as I once read through my young summers. But it doesn’t feel right; it seems like wasting time. I can’t seem to forgive myself for not being that elusive Doing David that occasionally put down the book and learned to surf and to box, or who went off to Saudi (though I spent a lot of time there seeking out English language books, it must be admitted) or who hitch hiked west to see what was there. I feel I should be doing something more active and useful, particularly during these truly beautiful summer days we’ve been having. Any time I actually do anything in the gardening or home fixing vein, it seems to be desultory and in passing. I am very much afraid that I have a commitment problem that makes Casanova seem like a solid family man. If life were a multiple choice test, my answer would be “E. None of the above.”

Even Reading David is not what he used to be. George Will wrote a column for Newsweek very recently which crystallized a lot of thoughts I have had about my attention span. He brought up something, however, that I had not thought about (or known) but the results of which I have experienced. He mentions that brains can actually be rewired (even at my advanced age) by constantly repeated experience. What I HAD noticed is that I have drifted into a lot more magazine reading and a lot less book reading. I feel more comfortable with the shorter attention span required. I read Newsweek every week, and I subscribe to Atlantic and read it cover to cover. Recently I re-subscribed to the New Yorker, a subscription I had allowed to lapse, because it has a lot of reading in each issue and is a weekly. I was pretty much backlogged, and with each week I was falling further behind, which created some kind of guilty feelings. But I find myself casting about for something to read often, without feeling like I want to plunge back into any one of the several novels I am halfway through. So I am back with the New Yorker– I guess anything that I’ll actually read, even sometimes, is better than computer games.

I just cannot read for long hours like I used to do. Occasionally I will come upon a book that is an exception, but for the most part I find I constantly interrupt my reading to get coffee, to go to the kitchen on vague errands, to check e-mail – anything to avoid long stretches of uninterrupted reading. I don’t know why this is, but I truly believe that it is related to the theory put forth to explain the growth of attention deficit disorder in children – the nature of current television programming. It is not the watching of television or movies in itself that is the problem, it is the way that more and more the fare is sliced into tiny bites of interwoven plot narratives. Back when we were watching Beaver or Lucy or Gunsmoke or Mary Tyler Moore (although the last named showed the beginnings of the trend), a TV show had a single plot line that played out over the course of the show. Incidentally, there were fewer interruptions for ads, and even these tended to be for a single product per interruption; shows were ‘sponsored by’ a single advertiser. Now, however, every show has a series of plotlines playing out, and the ad breaks are for multiple sponsors. In Modern Family, for instance, (or Parenthood or The Good Wife) there is an ensemble of actors who, in various combinations, play out three or four plotlines in brief interlaced scenes. You are here, you are there, you are somewhere else, and you are watching three seven minute stories at once. Crime shows have moved from the single star detective to teams on different parts of an investigation, or even whole squads pursuing different issues. Add the nearly constant commercial breaks, which many of us use to try and do tasks in the 90 second interval thereby provided and you are doing some serious brain wiring: move, move, move. I am becoming incapable of sustained attention to anything. I notice that even one of my favorite crime novelists – Robert B. Parker – keeps my attention by writing novels of 50 or more very short chapters – many only a page and a half in length. Compare that with something by Mark Twain.

I don’t like this development in myself, and I don’t like it in others. I resent people putting me on hold during personal calls while they take a second call. I resent people constantly checking a mobile device when we are together. I realize this is the world today and it will not change for me. I am trying to decrease the feelings of insult and anger that arise over something that is not personally or exclusively aimed at me. But most of all I resent that I can’t keep my own attention on a good book any more – I resent my own addiction to constant stimuli. I suspect I can only change this for myself if I stop watching TV and other modern electronica, and I am pretty sure that isn’t going to happen. So I guess I am watching the evolution of a third me – Jittery David.

I wish I liked him more.