Life lessons


Scooby and Groucho

Today is Veteran’s Day, so I have a rare weekday off. My ideal schedule would be to teach on campus a couple days a week while spending the other days working from home, grading and prepping for classes, but at the moment I teach somewhere five days a week. This means I direly miss the grading days I used to have when I had a lighter teaching schedule: days when I could sleep in, catch up with housework, and grade papers in a leisurely fashion, never changing out of sweatpants if I didn’t feel like it.

Snowflake lounges

Although I’ve done it for several semesters now, teaching five days a week still feels alien to me. Folks who work nine-to-five jobs have to show up for work five days a week, but they get their weekends off and aren’t necessarily required to give presentations every day. (Indeed, the number of weekday Facebook posts shared by my nine-to-five friends suggests they have quite a bit of downtime while sitting in their office cubes.) Perhaps because I’m a closet introvert, teaching five days a week is tiring: a constant drain. It feels like I constantly have to stay “on” as I perform in front of a class, without enough time to regenerate my game face.

Rocco in window

Truth be told, I didn’t become an English major because I wanted to spend lots of time standing in front of classrooms of often-indifferent undergraduates talking about commas and apostrophes; I became an English major because I like to spend time alone reading and writing. At this point of the semester, I feel starved for unstructured quiet time, even if all I’m doing with that time is grading papers. Grading, after all, is where I meet my students’ work individually, and it’s where I feel like I can make the most difference, apart from the group dynamic of the classroom. In the classroom, it’s a constant effort to keep my students entertained, awake, and engaged. The real work in a writing class, however, happens in the quiet space between an individual student and her or his writing, and that’s what you encounter when you read your students’ work.

Groucho

So this morning I slept in, and I’ve been spending the day grading papers in sweatpants, catching up with housework, and otherwise enjoying a day when I don’t have to stand in front of a classroom and talk. It feels like something I’ve been sorely missing.

This is my Day Eleven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Film the police

I’m back teaching today after having cancelled several days’ classes due to sickness last week. My lungs are still phlegmy and my voice is still froggy, but I’m slowly getting my energy back. There was a point last week when I didn’t know whether I had either the energy or the motivation to draw another breath, so after hitting that sort of rock-bottom, anything better is a vast improvement.

Black tags

While I was sick, I didn’t get much done in the way of paper-grading: I barely had enough energy to cough, do a middling-job with household chores, and drag my tired body to the classes I did hold. At this point of the semester, I’m usually feeling completely overwhelmed with grading, but this semester, being sick has shifted my priorities. I’m more behind with paper-grading than ever: I was falling behind when I got sick, and getting sick made me fall even further behind. Normally, this would be a source of unending stress: I hate being behind. But this term, I’m recalibrating my own expectations, having learned (or been reminded) that I can do only so much work before my body says “Enough.”

Somes

By this point in a typical semester, I’d be a slave to my to-do list, marshalling out an impossible list of tasks for each day in a vain attempt to catch up, then growing increasingly discouraged as I inevitably fail to check off each day’s ambitious goals. Today, I updated my daily to-do lists so that each day includes the generic list item “Read papers.” The item doesn’t say how many papers I need to read each day: it just says I need to spend some time doing it. Even such a subtle shift in to-do list nomenclature feels incredibly freeing. Compared to, say, lying in bed coughing, sitting and quietly reading papers sounds almost relaxing, at least when you have the energy to do it.

Graffiti wall

I’m learning, in other words, that what I dislike about paper-grading isn’t the actual reading and commenting on papers: it’s my obsessive fixation on the bottom of the paper pile. When I focus on how many more papers I have to read, I grow tired and anxious, eager for the work to be done. But when I focus on the top of the current paper pile—the paper I’m currently reading, and possibly the one immediately after that—reading papers isn’t too onerous a chore. You just sit there and read papers until you’re tired, and then you do something else: a lesson only being sick can teach you.

This is my Day Ten contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Makers' mark

Last week, long-time Boston mayor Tom Menino passed away, and yesterday, as Mayor Menino was being laid to rest, news broke that Tom Magliozzi, one half of the wise-cracking duo from NPR’s “Car Talk,” had also died.

Two fish

Although Tom Menino and Tom Magliozzi had wildly different job descriptions–one was a beloved politician, and the other a goofy mechanic and radio personality with an infectious laugh–I can’t help but think of the similarities between these two men. Both hailed from the working class, both were Italian-American, and both grew up in the greater Boston area: Menino in Hyde Park, and Magliozzi in East Cambridge. Both men died too soon of diseases that rob us of too many of our elders: cancer claimed Menino at age 71, and Alzheimer’s disease took Magliozzi at age 77. I never met either man, but I somehow felt I knew them both. Both Tom Menino and Tom Magliozzi were always there doing what they did with characteristic aplomb. A world with these two Toms feels like a lonelier, sadder place.

Fish and turtle

How Tom Menino and Tom Magliozzi made their individual impacts varied wildly, but they each do leave a legacy. Menino was known as the “urban mechanic” because of his hands-on approach to improving Boston one neighborhood at a time. Magliozzi was an MIT-trained chemical engineer turned actual mechanic who alongside his brother believed talking to radio callers about cars was a way to educate and entertain. With both Menino and Magliozzi, you got the sense that these were men who truly loved doing what they did, and they did it in a way that only they could. Menino and Magliozzi didn’t fit the mold of a typical politician or a typical radio personality: instead, both men made their own mold by throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their work and somehow trusting that work would be helpful to others.

Turtle and flowers

I don’t believe heaven is a place with clouds, harps, and pearly gates: none of us knows where (if anywhere) we go when we die, and in the meantime we comfort ourselves with stories and symbols. But I’d love to think that somewhere, elsewhere, Tom Menino and Tom Magliozzi are together and laughing, the two of them freed from pain and earthly troubles as they trade stories from Hyde Park, East Cambridge, and the many places far and wide where they were admired and loved.

This is my Day Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Two tombstones

This year J went all-out decorating our yard for Halloween, ordering a brimming box of tombstones, skeletons, zombie hands and other spooky accoutrements to transform our otherwise normal suburban yard into somewhere scary.

Tombstone with hands

As I mentioned last year, Halloween decorations are very popular in our neighborhood, and over the past few years there’s been a gradual upsurge in tombstones, ghosts, and witches as more and more of our neighbors have gotten into the habit of creeping out their yards for Halloween.

Graveyard skeleton

My favorite yard decorations are the so-called ground-breakers: skeletons who are in the process of rising up out of their tombs. Skeletons are intrinsically fascinating: we all have them, but we don’t normally see them. I like the idea of spending one holiday a year pretending our otherwise normal yards are haunted with history: not just skeletons in our closets, but old bones and forgotten souls underfoot at every step.

Tombstone with skeleton

When J moved into this house, he found a tombstone for a previous resident’s pet goldfish, so who knows what other bones were buried long before there were houses much less a suburb here. Isn’t every inch of earth haunted with some sort of story, some sort of history, or some silent assortment of souls?

Buried alive

This is my Day One contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Central Square tower

I’ve been wanting to write about this past weekend’s riots in Keene, NH: I taught, after all, at Keene State College for a decade and lived near campus for most of that time. But everything I’ve imagined myself saying quickly devolved into a cranky rant, and the world doesn’t need more of those. Raising a fist at rioters doesn’t do anything productive; it only adds to the clamor and discord.

Gutted pumpkins

Drunken idiocy happens at all the colleges where I’ve taught: it’s not unique to Keene State. It’s true that Keene State has acquired (and, among some students, apparently relishes) a reputation for being a party school, and over the years the Pumpkin Festival has become an increasingly popular occasion for drunken partying and the reckless mayhem that ensues. But apart from timing, this year’s riot had nothing to do with the Keene Pumpkin Festival. Despite news headlines to the contrary, this weekend’s parties gone bad didn’t happen at the Pumpkin Festival; they simply happened during it.

Zucchini nose

There’s nothing that made this weekend’s events unique to Keene apart from an escalation in recent years in the number of revelers attracted to Keene State on a particular Saturday in October. The Pumpkin Festival wasn’t the reason for the riot, but it did serve as an excuse. There is, unfortunately, particular kind of college student—typically white suburban males, children of modest privilege with no real reason to take to the street in justified protest—who will take any excuse to over-imbibe in the name of “partying” and who quickly turn violent out of sheer boredom.

Pumpkin cannibalism

I say this not to defend Keene, its college, or the students at said college; I say this because what happened in Keene this weekend is indicative of a larger problem. It’s easy to peruse media reports of the Keene riots while politely shaking one’s head, quietly condemning those ill-behaved college kids who are nothing like me or my children. Make no mistake: what happened at Keene State could have happened at any college in any town. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s our own.

You should see the other guy!

Let’s be frank, America: our college campuses have a drinking problem. Not all college students are violent, drunken vandals…but yes, all professors (and yes, all residents living near college campuses) can tell you horror stories of drunken, immature kids who frankly have no business being in college but were attracted to campus primarily because it’s a perfect venue for a four-year party.

Rows of pumpkins

We as a culture have come to see college as a right, not a privilege, and our campuses reflect that fact. For every student who goes to college out of a genuine desire to learn and grow, there are too many students who would be the first to tell you they don’t want to be there. These kids find themselves in college because they’ve been terrified into submission by teachers, parents, and guidance counselors who tell them they’ll never get a job without the piece of paper called a college degree: a piece of paper as essential today as a high school diploma was to my generation.

You look fabulous

Is it any surprise that students who have no real interest in becoming scholars—students who have no qualms telling their professors point-blank that they don’t care about their classes—would entertain themselves with drunken mayhem? Why not? If college is merely an extension of high school—a place where you have no real choice but to show up for four years in order to get the necessary, job-granting certificate known as a college degree—why wouldn’t you kick back and party your time away?

Creepy!

I’m not sure that scaring students into college by telling them it’s the only way they’ll ever get a job is a wise tactic. A college degree isn’t a guarantee of employment; if a student doesn’t get anything out of the classes they don’t want to take, that piece of paper isn’t going to hold much power. But our culture sees college not just as a right but as a rite of passage. We somehow believe that spending four years on a college campus will turn an unfocused, under-motivated eighteen-year-old into a capable and qualified adult without fully considering how that happens. If drudging your way through a high school curriculum isn’t enough to make you employable, how will drudging your way through four years of college help matters much?

Pumpkin skulls

I don’t know how to solve the drinking problem on American college campuses: I suspect it reflects larger problems in a culture that worships alcohol as both an escape from worry and an excuse for nearly any sort of bad behavior. But I do have a modest proposal for the problem of boredom-inspired bad behavior on college campuses: parents, don’t send your eighteen-year-olds to college. Save for your children’s education, and then insist they take a year or two off—a gap year—to figure out what they want from that education.

Apple-nose

As a college instructor I see a huge difference between the first-year students who come to college straight out of high school and the ones who have spent a year or two working, serving in the military, or otherwise engaging with the “real world” outside of college. Too many fresh-from-high-school students come to college with no real sense of what they want to attain from their studies. Instead, they’re in college because that’s what’s expected, that’s what their friends are doing, or that’s what mom and dad want.

Central Square gazebo

This weekend’s riots in Keene suggest that college (like youth) is often wasted on the young. Older, more mature students are almost always more driven to learn. They’ve spent time working or traveling, they’ve lived on their own, and they’ve gotten some of their youthful hijinks out of their system. Older, more mature students have a better sense of what they want to do with their education and with their lives, and they realize that engaging in drunken mayhem doesn’t get them anywhere closer to their goals.

This post turned into exactly the kind of cranky rant I was trying to avoid. At least the photos, which come from the 2010 Pumpkin Festival, are a bit less crabby.

You looking at me?

I was tempted to skip my journal pages this morning, as I’d been hoping to comment on some more papers–always more papers–before leaving to teach today’s classes. But instead, I came across a line in Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Created By Us that stopped me short:

Finch

On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unatttainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.

This line comes in a chapter titled “Nature, Pixelated,” where Ackerman discusses the phenomenon of nature webcams and other forms of virtual reality. Simulcast betting is so last century: nowadays you don’t have to leave your desk to go birdwatching via webcam at any of a number of distant and exotic locales.

Black swan

Too much of our life is spent indoors staring at screens, Ackerman laments, and she doesn’t know the half of it. She’s talking about young people who stare at phones and tablets and computers for fun: the nature-deprived children whom Richard Louv describes as preferring to play indoors because that’s where the electrical outlets are. But what about those of us who are tethered to screens because our jobs demand it?

Baby gorilla throws hay on mom

It’s easier for me to comment on essay drafts my students submit electronically: instead of carrying stacks of folders with papers my students can subsequently lose, all the papers I need to read are online in the cloud, backed up and safe for the semester and accessible from anywhere via my laptop. My students submit their papers online, I comment online, and none of my comments get crammed at the bottom of a students’ backpack, as happened in the Old Days when I commented on student papers by hand. Now, when the end of the term approaches and my students get serious about revision, all their work is waiting for them online, along with my feedback.

Peekaboo prairie dog

Collecting and commenting on papers electronically is a huge improvement over the old method, but a it also means I spend a huge amount of time every semester glued to a screen, answering emails, posting homework assignments, and commenting on draft after draft after draft while the whole wide world transpires outside, where I’m not. I miss those days at Keene State where the topic of my first-year writing seminar gave me an excuse to step outside and journal with my students. In retrospect, I wonder whether keeping a nature journal was the most helpful lesson I taught those students: a simple technique for Being Here, Now.

Camel

So much of college isn’t about Being Here, Now: it’s about biding your time until you get he piece of paper everyone has promised will lead to the Good Job everyone says you need to Be Happy someday, eventually. College, in the interim, is too often a series of hoops you jump through on your way from A to B, during which time you’ll write too many papers assigned by part-time faculty who have to teach too many classes to keep themselves fed.

Baby wildebeest

Where do moments of presence happen in today’s college classrooms? I’m not sure I know. Sometimes I’ve started class with five minutes of writing–the old fashioned kind, done with pen on paper–and that has felt grounding, the pen serving as an anchor to the here and now. But I’m not doing this in my classes this year, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’ve missed a prime opportunity to show my first-year students how the practice of the present moment can be as enthralling as any technological gadget.

Today’s photos come from a trip to the Franklin Park Zoo J and I took the weekend before last, and the title of today’s post is an allusion to Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.

The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Thursday mornings are hectic, as I cross off a laundry-list of chores before heading to Framingham State to teach an 8:30 am class. This morning as I neared Natick on my way to campus, I saw a flag at half-mast and the date dawned. Today, thirteen years ago. The tears came as unbidden and right as rain: tears for the grief, confusion, and fear everyone felt that crisp and beautiful autumn day thirteen years ago, and tears for all the lives that have been lost since then. How many flags at half-mast have flown these past thirteen years?

Dearly departed

The spring we put Reggie to sleep, I acquired the habit of weeping during my long drives to and from Keene: 90 uninterrupted minutes each way during which I had nothing to do but steer the car and marshal my own thoughts. My car provided a cocoon of privacy; nobody needed to see or know why I had tears streaming down my face, whether for a person or a pet or for the whole sad and suffering world.

Flowers

This morning I once again wept in my car: not for any individual person, but for the whole suffering world. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11, but that day was a collective wound. Watching the news, hearing the stories, and seeing the flyers posted with pictures of the missing: these were enough to unite us in a shared upwelling of sympathy. When innocent lives are lost, you realize how tenuous and random your own survival is. The people who died on 9/11 and the people who have died in subsequent military operations could easily have been you, me, or any of our loved ones. How can any of us feel safe in a world where some of us are targeted?

Wreathed

Thirteen years is a lifetime, long enough for a child to ripen into puberty. Now that the first generation of post-9/11 children is entering young adulthood, what has happened to our grief and remembrance? They say that time heals all wounds, but memory (as Salvador Dali suggested) is persistent. Thirteen years was a lifetime ago–I was an entirely different person then, leading a life that now seems alien and unknowable. But the simple sight of a flag at half-mast is all it takes to melt the intervening years, the passage of time revealed as illusion. Grief knows no timetable, and sorrow has no season.

One wilted rose

We live in an amnesiac culture that ignores the past while chasing the future. In the pursuit of positivity, we are denied the chance to grieve, instead being told to “get over it.” September 11 is one of the few days a year when we are allowed to drop the pretense of optimism and cheer in order to be somber and still. I wish it were more acceptable to grieve whenever the occasion calls for it. To be awake these days is to have one’s heart broken on a daily basis. Planes fall out of the sky, black boys are shot in the street, and journalists are slaughtered overseas. How can we get over the grief of 9/11 when that day was merely the first in a thirteen-year-long litany of loss? At every turn, there is suffering, death, and mayhem; humanity, it turns out, is infinitely inventive when it comes to hurting one another. But with each instance of hurting also comes an instantaneous outpouring of help.

Memorial

September 11, 2001 was an impossibly beautiful fall day here in New England, an irony that has always struck me as cruel. But perhaps this juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty is merely reflective of the world we live in. In the face of heartbreak, there are hands to help. In the aftermath of suffering comes the strength and resilience to carry on.

I’ve previously blogged these photos of the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, which I’d shot in May, 2011. In the years since then, this stone memorial is already starting to wear away.

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