October 2017

October skies / view from May Hall

I teach in Framingham until 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday nights, so this means I’ve seen firsthand how inevitably the days have shortened: a class that used to end in daylight now lets out after dark.

Sunset from 2nd floor women's restroom

I teach my afternoon class in May Hall, where my office is also located. May Hall is perched atop a hill, and its stairwells have west-facing windows that offer lovely views of distant hills and afternoon sunsets. October is a busy month for professors, so I haven’t had much time to go leaf-peeping. On late October afternoons, however, you needn’t go far to enjoy the seasonal scenery.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Puffed and strutting

Yesterday morning as I left for campus, there was a throng of tom turkeys strutting and puffing in the street at the end of our driveway. When I was a bird-obsessed kid growing up in central Ohio, wild turkeys were wild and rare: something to be seen in the deep and distant woods, if at all. You could see deer in the suburban outskirts of the city–nearly any grassy field would attract them at twilight–but turkeys were creatures of deep wilderness, as secretive as bears.

Turkey trot

I still haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of wild turkeys in the Boston suburbs. They are almost as prevalent as rabbits and infinitely easier to see than raccoons or opossums. Turkeys are widespread here–in winter, we frequently see small flocks strolling down streets and sidewalks; in summer, we see hens singly or in pairs leading straggling lines of poults through our backyard; and in October, we see roving gangs of tom turkeys fluffing their plumage and fanning their tails, practicing on one another the displays intended to impress females.


These birds aren’t shy; they don’t need to be. Suburban turkeys are large and savvy: they know dogs are leashed or contained behind fences, and coyotes are elusive and largely nocturnal. This leaves turkeys to rule the backyards of Newton, Brookline, and Cambridge: yardbirds with a stately strut and little need to lurk or skulk. Until Thanksgiving at least, the not-so-wild turkeys of suburban Boston have no need for secrecy.

White snakeroot

It’s been an unusually warm October: today the temperatures were in the mid-seventies. Apart from a few clear, brisk days, the month has been soupy, with warm temperatures, rain, and unseasonable mugginess. Although it feels like bad luck to wish for cooler days, I’m looking forward to the end of summer humidity…assuming, that is, that October eventually starts feeling like fall.

Mumkin in afternoon light

Even when the weather doesn’t feel like October, however, the sun always knows what time of year it is. Late this afternoon on my way home from doing errands, I had my car windows down while the setting sun illuminated the street, sidewalks, and neighbors’ yards with a metallic sheen. Even at high noon, October light feels belated, and on an October afternoon, the world feels downright antique. Although today’s temperatures still said summer, the low-angled light of late afternoon was tinged with the same bronze hues that ripens every year in October: the witching month, when the earth leans into an approaching chill.


I’m almost done reading Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened. I rushed to read the book in large part because of the backlash against it: many angry reviews have been written by people who haven’t read (and indeed refuse to read) the book, so I was eager to make up my own mind. Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton, she’s in a unique spot to comment on an unprecedented election.


Now that I’m almost done with What Happened, I have a few observations about it. First of all, I’ve been struck by how much of a bookworm Clinton is. I knew that Clinton was smart, but I wasn’t expecting a memoir that mentions so many books: books Clinton read before she entered politics, books that guided her as a candidate, and books she’s returned to in the aftermath of a crushing defeat. In the first chapter alone, Clinton mentions more books than Donald Trump has probably read in his entire life. I don’t think Clinton is trying to look bookish; she’s just a person who reads (and thus talks about) a lot of books.


Second, I’ve been struck by Clinton’s obvious religious faith. Whereas many politicians make a big show of piety to appeal to heartland voters, Clinton has always been private about her own Methodist faith. Now that Clinton is out of the political realm and thus more comfortable talking about her personal life, it’s clear that her faith inspires pretty much everything she did as a politician and (especially) everything she’s done since. Although many of Clinton’s critics will presumably accuse her of false piety, she literally has nothing to lose now that she’s no longer running for office. When Clinton explains how prayer and the advice of trusted spiritual advisors helped her weather everything from the trials of her marriage to the stresses of a contentious campaign, I choose to believe her.

Water lilies

Third, I think What Happened is far more than an autopsy of a failed campaign; it’s also a warning about what lies ahead. Press reports (and negative reviews) peg the book as a political postmortem, with Clinton offering excuses for why she lost the 2016 election. But as attention-grabbing as those parts of the book are, the most interesting, troubling, and useful parts are the ones that warn of what comes next: a book that could have alternatively called What’s Happening. Clinton’s days as a candidate are over, but the challenges she faced as a candidate are not going away. Instead, those challenges will be alive and active in future elections, threatening to undermine our democracy as long as we continue to ignore them.

Maidenhair fern

Clinton describes a perfect storm of factors that led to her defeat and Trump’s victory: a toxic stew of sexism, misogyny, racism, sensational press coverage, an ill-timed letter from then-FBI director James Comey, Russian interference, a widespread inability of voters to detect and ignore fake news, and a willful campaign of voter suppression. Despite all of these impediments, Clinton still won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, but that still wasn’t enough to win her the presidency.

Mown path

Still a policy wonk, Clinton offers ample evidence to support her claim that a combination of forces tipped the election in Trump’s favor, devoting an entire chapter to a statistical analysis of how Comey’s letter about an FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage proved to be the nail in her campaign coffin. But here’s the thing: even if you don’t believe Clinton’s admittedly subjective account of what went wrong in the 2016 election, you’d better listen to what she says about future elections.

You can argue that sexism and misogyny weren’t a factor in Clinton’s loss, or you can argue that James Comey had no impact on the race. You can argue that nobody is to blame but Clinton herself, and she would actually agree with you. But–and this is the essential point–with the exception of James Comey, none of the factors Clinton discusses is going away, so we ignore her insights at our (and our country’s) peril.


Maybe Clinton was a terrible candidate, as her critics argue. But sexism and misogyny aren’t going away, so the next woman to run for president will still have to face them. Maybe racism didn’t motivate Trump voters–but racism isn’t going away, so future populists and demagogues will still have reason to appeal to it.

Maybe the Russians didn’t work single-handedly to get Trump elected–but we know for a fact they interfered in the election, and they continue to spread fake news and propaganda designed to sow domestic discord. Russian propagandists and click-bait factories aren’t going away, so future candidates will have to face the lies they spread, just as Clinton did.

September faun

Most alarmingly, voter suppression might not have lost the election for Clinton, but it played a role, and it’s not going away. If we believe in fair and accurate elections, we should be alarmed by the number of voters who were prevented from voting in states where the election was decided by a slim margin. Voter suppression alone might not have thrown the election to Trump, but it’s an issue we should care about if we care about future elections.

Clinton’s tale of “what happened” is about much more than her individual experience of the 2016 election. Instead, it’s a tale of what will continue to happen if we don’t learn from recent history.

Smile, you're under video surveillance

This semester, I’m asking my first-year writing students to do something I’ve never asked my students to do before. At the end of class on Thursdays, I’m asking them to write me a private journal entry about a weekly win: one thing, big or small, that happened over the course of the week that made them happy.

Hibiscus bracts after blooms

I often ask students to write something for me at the end of class. Usually, that bit of writing is related to whatever we did in class that day: what, for example, was the clearest or most helpful thing they’ll take from a given class, and what was still confusing or unclear? But this semester, I’ve decided to ask my students to “accentuate the positive” by keeping a weekly log of things that have gone well.

It’s an idea I stole from a story I heard on NPR this summer. A radio host somewhere–already, I’ve forgotten the details–set up a voicemail line where listeners could share things that went well the previous week. Each week, the host selected several voicemails to play on the air, and the result was wonderful, with kids sharing what they learned at school, parents bragging about their kids’ Little League games, and people from all walks of life sharing small victories, random acts of kindness, and other assorted reasons to say “Hooray.”


College is stressful in part because there are so many opportunities to mess up. We’re five weeks into the new school year, and already my students are feeling the uphill slog of a long semester. When you’re a new college student, everything is alien and confusing, and the pressure to succeed is high. With so many chances to do something wrong, it’s a relief to remember there are some things that go well, end happily, and run smoothly.

Hibiscus buds.

The weekly wins my students have shared with me so far this semester have run the gamut. I’ve heard about aced quizzes, completed homework assignments, and extended assignment deadlines. One student was thrilled to have gotten the phone number of a secret crush; another was excited to have talked on the phone with a little sibling. Yesterday, many of my students were happy to be heading home for a three-day weekend: a chance to see the friends, family, and pets they’ve missed these past five weeks, and an opportunity to sleep in their own bed, enjoy some home cooking, and otherwise enjoy a break from the academic grind.

When I see my students in class on Tuesday morning, we’ll start our next writing assignment: as soon as you’ve grown comfortable with one skill, it’s time to move onto the next. Given the continual challenges of the academic semester, sometimes it’s a relief to focus on small successes rather than the challenges that still lie ahead.

Fallen in fall

Last night, a man with at least eight rifles opened fire on an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas, NV. At last count, 58 people were killed and over 500 injured: the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.


In his inaugural address, President Trump promised an end to “American carnage.” He was referring, presumably, to threats from outside: travelers who can be banned, immigrants who can be blocked with a wall, and dreamers who can be deported. But who or what can protect us from home-grown terrorists who can easily inflict mass carnage because owning a gun is the one right Republicans believe to be inviolable?


Since the President’s inauguration, many of our constitutional rights have been under siege. Voting rights are under attack because of baseless claims that millions voted illegally, and the right to peaceful protest is under attack because a football player quietly kneeling is more offensive to some than a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd. Healthcare, we are reminded by an administration who has tried time and again to take it away, is not a right; this very weekend, in fact, the Trump administration let the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) die a quiet death, endangering the coverage of nine million children.

Dead or only sleeping?

While the first and fifteenth amendments come repeatedly under fire, the second amendment alone is sacred and unquestioned. Because literalists argue the constitutional right to bear arms means individuals have the inalienable right to amass as many high-capacity killing machines as they’d like without the common-sense controls we enforce on everything from cars to cold medicine, the rest of us no longer have the right to feel safe at an outdoor concert, nightclub, movie theater, elementary school, restaurant, college classroom, softball game, or Bible study. We no longer need extremists from abroad to cross our borders to unleash mayhem: we here at home are doing it ourselves, with weapons both Trump and the Republicans refuse to control.

Cooperative subject

Americans are very good at mobilizing against external threats. We rain down bombs and missiles, we strengthen and threaten to lock down our borders, and we ruefully relinquish personal freedoms in the name of public safety. (Remember the days when you could board a plane without taking off your shoes, limiting your liquids, or tolerating invasive scans and pat-downs of your person?) But when the inflicter of carnage is an American with a gun, we fold our hands and shrug our shoulders, earnestly but not convincingly at a loss for what to do. When the killer of many is an American with a gun, our nation of great ideas and even greater thinkers is suddenly stumped.


Last night before gunfire erupted in Las Vegas, I read the chapter in Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir where she talks about meeting with mothers of children killed by gun violence or police brutality–the Mothers of the Movement–and how their heartrending stories led her to campaign for sane gun control. An overwhelming majority of Americans (including responsible gun owners) want reasonable gun regulations, but the National Rifle Association shuts down such legislation at every turn, pouring money into attack ads against Clinton in 2016 and preventing any progress toward gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. There is no way the NRA and its members would let Democrats like Clinton, Obama, or even Gabby Gifford make any headway toward sane gun control laws, and this means President Trump now faces a unique opportunity for bold leadership.


When Democrats even whisper the words “gun control,” gun owners fly into a panic, but these same gun owners trust Trump to protect their second amendment rights. If Trump were to advocate for common-sense legislation that would protect responsible gun owners while taking guns out of the hands of madmen, would Trump’s base trust him to thread that political needle?

If Trump is as wealthy as he claims, he has no need for the NRA’s deep pockets, and if it’s true that diehard loyalists would stand by him even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone (as Trump himself once claimed), now is a perfect opportunity for the President to prove his leadership mettle. If Trump were at least as brave as Hillary in standing up to the NRA, he could prove himself even better than Obama in brokering a gun control deal the Democrats could only dream of. It’s a longshot, but if the President wants to end American carnage, he has to protect Americans from every source of danger, not only ones located abroad.

I shot (and previously blogged) the photos illustrating today’s post in November, 2013, when Laura Ford’s “Armour Boys” were on display at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA.