Thursday, September 6, 2012

Unconscious Competence

I had an interesting chat with my dad today, somewhat centered around this idea--unconscious competence. It's of some note today that many people--and I should qualify that by saying a great number of people I've come into contact with who also happen to be right around my demographics--aren't merely impressed when someone knows their stuff.  Rather, they are completely flabbergasted.  It's like magic to them when someone simply knows the answer to a question.

Now, I'm the kind of guy who sort of expects this from people, in a limited way.  When I ask a plumber about fixing the pipes, I imagine his answer will be sound and to the point, and the problem will be solved.  If I ask my physicist friend about how lasers work, I can reasonably expect an enlightening lecture beginning with the dual, wave-particle nature of light (you can perhaps see from my make-believe that I am not unconsciously competent at physics).

We're in an era when a broader sense of capability seems to be disappearing.  It began with the specialization of labor.  No wasted motion on the assembly line; you do one thing, and you do it for 8-10 hours every day.  Here's an example of what I mean by "capability disappearing:" colleges are running first-year introductory courses to doing your laundry.  I find this remarkable, and I'm not a laundry wizard myself.  No, what this says to me is something a little more pervasive.  I don't expect your average college freshman guy to know exactly how much soap to use, or the reason for separating lights and darks, or the rationale behind hand-washing cashmere sweaters.  That's all ok, I'll give them a pass.

What worries me is that they can't even read the directions!  Directions printed on the washing machine, listed on the side of their bottle of Tide, and if that wasn't enough, sewn into every single piece of clothing they own! 

What worries me is that this sort of behavior--which extends far beyond the laundry room--is indicative of complete unwillingness to problem-solve and an inability to think critically about...anything (possibly).

This piece could very easily drift into faux-nostalgia for a time when "men were men" and could just do stuff.  I don't want it to go there--though certainly when I think about all the things my mom and dad, and even more so my grandparents just seem to know how to do, I sort of want it to go there.  Surely, everybody knows how to do some things.  Some kids are just great with computers, others really do get how to build things solidly.  They seem to be able to do some of these things without formal training.  It's not really until school that young people find some subject of interest, and start to build a working knowledge of it.  This isn't bad, in itself.

My concern with writing this started out being a sense of general in-capacity.  What I think, over the course of these short paragraphs, has really started to bother me, is that this sort of system we're in is one in which a natural curiosity about the world and all the things, situations, people, places, and whatever else, is prized.  My composition students were awed by the fact that I seemed to know everything about everything.  I'm not saying that I do, but when they would choose their own paper topics, I would usually have something intelligent to say about that topic.  They couldn't understand how I knew those things--I'm an English teacher, and that's it.  I tried to tell them, the world is a fascinating place, full of compelling people doing some truly amazing things--why wouldn't I want to know about them all?

What happened to natural and creative curiosity?  Did anything happen to it, or am I just missing it?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

5 Simple Steps to Coping

I have an incredibly hard time listening to my wife. There, now I've said it. I am your stereotypical guy. She's just talking and talking away, and I might as well be on the other side of the planet for all the care I'm giving her. Except I'm not. I'm sitting right next to her on the couch, after just telling her how much I want to have a talk with her.

What's my deal? Why do I set her up for such an obvious frustration? What reasonable man would walk willingly into that trap—devaluing the biggest thing that women prize in relationships?

I am one of the estimated 3-5% of the population diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Personally, I've opted for the more energetic variety that so completely entertained my teachers. I'm a fidgiter, and I would tap out desk-top drum solos like a
10-year old Neil Peart. I'm also one of the eight million of sufferers who didn't outgrow the problem.1

While this issue has been on the books since the 1970's—actually well before, but in terms of its contemporary understanding the 70's work—something interesting is happening in the Self-Help section of bookstores everywhere. People have started to figure out that some of the first generations of kids diagnosed with these disorders are grown up. They're getting married and having kids, and many of them are still dealing with the same issues that made getting through a day at school an unending struggle.

I'm not sure if my wife knew I have ADHD when we were married in 2008. For a long time, I felt that I had things under control. Frankly, I had never considered that it was something I'd have to handle when I was older. Life has gotten along just fine so far, after all. I've managed, I suppose. It's in our relationship that I now see the biggest strain, and it's starting to draw my attention to the many ways I might not be getting on so well after all.

Communication is important to any relationship. I would argue it's more important to my wife than to anyone else on the planet. She thrives on intense, intricate, philosophical, and difficult discussions. I like them too, and that's one of the reasons we're good for each other. We share absolutely as much as possible, and use each other to push ourselves to grow and to better one another.

You can see then, why it drives her crazy when in mid-sentence, I'm suddenly not there.

I can't even describe what it's like accurately. Because, when she tells me I'm not listening, the first thing I remember is that I was listening. “She can't possibly be mad at me this time, I'm sitting right here looking at her!” The trouble is, she's right—sometimes I couldn't repeat the sentence she'd interrupted to ask me whether I was listening. Then you have to look back, and try to figure out where you went astray. You have to try to explain it, to make it feel like less of a personal attack against her. Good luck.

One problem is that it seems as though I can focus alright on things I want—sex, for an easy example—but when she needs me to share in her interests, it's a constant struggle. The real internal trouble for me is that I am a caring guy, and I'm genuinely interested in what she has to share with me. My struggle with ADHD becomes one of self-worth when I can't help but feel that I'm just not a very good husband. It's especially terrifying to think there simply may not be much I can do about it.

Tons of websites and books have popped up; a cottage industry of coping. The trouble is, there don't seem to be 5 Easy Steps to solve all your problems with ADHD. I'm willing to bet that people who regularly go out looking for “steps” in any situation rarely, if ever, find them. That's because life doesn't operate along a systematic series of steps for success.

The way to deal with this issue, like so many others (short of medication), is with patience and understanding. And it can't just be one partner's problem. I can't make all the necessary changes to ensure that my wife never feels negatively affected by my condition.

I'm going to fail her. Probably often. It's a miracle that she loves me anyway.

For me, this is a problem that becomes worse the more I'm made aware of it. When she points out my horrible track record of remembering to do simple things or follow through on chores I said I'd take care of, it only makes me more distracted. I get angry, at myself, mostly, but I also feel judged and a little humiliated. Every now and then she'll do it in front of our friends, not out of malice, but simply because she may not be thinking just how serious this can feel to me. It's not like either one of us are consistent in how we act with regards to each other.

Maybe there are a few steps to follow. 1) Remember that you love each other no matter what. 2) Remember that sometimes things will be hard. Sometimes things will be downright intolerable. 3) Remember that you can only be responsible for how you act and how you respond, and choose not to make the problems worse when they arise. 4) Recognize that there is a problem, and that you're both doing your best. 5) Remind each other of all the good things you do for one another, rather than focusing on the few times when one partner falls short.

Rinse and repeat.

1Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2012). Adult ADHD. Retrieved August 18, 2012, from  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

American Dreams

I've recently made two new guy friends.  They could very quickly become "my boyz," if I weren't moving out of town in a month.  They're both somewhat outside of the normal circles in which I travel.

One is an Army dude.  He loves cooking, costumes, and karaoke.  Kind of an eclectic mix, but always entertaining.  The other is a firefighter.  He loves good scotch.  That's enough for me to go on.

This post is called "American Dreams" for a reason.  I had a weird dream involving these two guys, and it was somewhat telling of what may be (just barely) subconscious urges under my veneer of ivory-tower elitism.  Here's the breakdown:

Mid-summer, possibly the Fourth of July.  A wide backyard, with unimaginably cliched white picket fence around it.  The Weber barbeque is smoking away, burgers and dogs sizzling happily.  The three of us stand apart (I apparently dream in 3rd-person omniscient) from a larger group of party-goers--a group which I have the distinct impression are supposed to be "the neighborhood."  So far, normal enough.

The weird part is in the details.  Apparently I have a strong desire to live in 1980s middle-America.  The three of stood around the grill, wearing oddly similar bowling shirts, too-high shorts, and tasseled loafers.  Frightening.  All three of us sported thick, black, full mustaches--which is odd because none of us has black hair, and they just didn't match up.  Those visuals, and the cans of Blatz beer in our hands put this dream over the edge.

I can understand where this dream probably came from.  I have a more-or-less unconscious desire to have the classic group of guy friends as my neighbors.  The fellas I compete with for the greenest lawn and best-trimmed hedge.  The guys who borrow my tools and never quite get around to returning them.  I have a desire somewhere for this bizarrely stereotypical image of white America.  I imagine we'd all be middle-management at some sort of vaguely defined "business" or "firm."

It's not bad to want for yourself a life that matches up with the picture of a satisfied life you've perhaps grown up with.  I suppose it can become a problem when we try too hard to force that dream into reality.  If the people or places actually around us refuse to fit quite into where we'd like them, we're bound for dissatisfaction.  So, how best to approach our dreams, our desires, is the question.  How can I make a life for myself that fits the standards I set for my happiness, and to what extent do I need to remain open to shifting those definitions?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Working Tools

Rudyard Kipling (forgive me here for writing about the one thing I'm sure I know about) talked about writing in a way more suggestive of an assembly-line worker than a creative genius.  He was famous for a strict regimen of sitting down to his desk for hours--even when nothing was coming out.  His autobiography includes a whole chapter on what he called his "working tools."  The writer's craft, to Kipling, was exactly that--a craft needing practice, and patience, and consistent effort to improve.

He was a journalist, so it's not really surprising to see him think about writing like that.  For years, that was a fairly common sort of view.  Literary genius wasn't so much a matter of an inspired person simply putting pen to paper and spouting gold from the depths of their soul.  Rather, the genius lay in a writer's skill with words, their sense of balance and sound, of tone and structure.

I try to instill in my students something like this attitude towards writing.  Most of them are under the impression that simply can't do it.  They have nothing to say.  They're often not even sure what they think.  The hangup seems to be, if there isn't a fully-formed essay (or even a single paragraph!) floating around in their head in its most perfect form, then they couldn't possibly have anything to write.

How do we break this self-defeating cycle?  As a writing teacher, I'd like to say it's simply a matter of telling them that there's a better way to go about writing, and that it doesn't matter if you're not quite sure what to say, what's important, and what will help you get thinking in the first place, is just trying.  This is exactly why it's important to have some sort of schedule.  Like any other skill, our writing gets dull and cobwebby if we don't use it from time to time.  This may sound like well-worn advice at this point.  Nearly every website, university, writing center, and even and YahooAnswers will tell you, "set aside time to write and just go."

Apparently that's not enough.  We need to do more to encourage people to think of writing not in terms of what comes out at the end--the product--but rather in terms of the process.  Life's a journey, right?  So is writing, and no piece of writing every needs to be done.  It's a process of thinking, and challenging ourselves and building new knowledge.  The more time we spend simply trying to get words onto the page, the easier the time around will be, and the better we'll learn to shape and cut and shift what does come out.

That sounds something like a teaching philosophy to me.  Maybe I should write a book?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Abel Sprague was killed by indians..."

My family is having  a reunion in New York next weekend.  Although I was out there last year for my cousin's wedding, this visit feels a little different.

I can't exactly put my finger on it.  There's a mixture of feelings, I suppose.  My grandfather had just passed away before our last visit, and it had been years--probably more than a decade--since we'd seen some of my family out there.  That may be another post altogether.  All the same, I'm not sure what to expect out of this coming weekend.  We don't have any of the "easy" excuses for getting together this time, except that we decided there should be a reunion last year.  

A number of people from my grand-uncle's side of the family are coming, which is exciting because I've never met them.  Myself and one other guy on that side are the only male heirs left "to carry on the name" for our branch of the family.  That thought has crossed my mind before, but it's not clear how much important it should hold.  My dad and I went on a pretty big genealogy binge awhile back, and discovered that we have quite a storied history.  For some reason I didn't really expect that.

Something my family is--historically speaking--very good at is giving its children odd names.  Not odd for their time, I'm sure, but entertaining to look back on, certainly.  Ephraim, Dorcas, Icabod, Peleg--we've had some doozies.  It turns out, three branches of my family name came to the colonies in 1623--just after the Mayflower landed.  One of my ancestors was killed by natives around the Revolutionary War, who, according to some notes "ate his heart after dividing it in pieces."  I'll always be curious to know how much of that story is true.

Families are interesting things.  The stories they carry, and even those that are forgotten with time, can build a certain weight of identity.  But what do we do with all that knowledge, all that history?  Does it just make interesting stories for a party?  Is there something worthwhile in not just continuing a family name, but in some way curating it; in preserving the complete record to some degree?  I'm not sure I'd know how to go about that task.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Language and Relationships

In my final day of a course I've been teaching in Written Communication, I took the opportunity to go on a little soap box about the nature of communication in general.

I had a small realization about what it means to really engage with another human being--and how little we actually seem to be doing that.  I like to explain "rhetoric" to my students as effective communication.  Effective is, of course, the key word.  To my mind, communication by definition means that something--some information or idea--is being exchanged with another person.

Now, come with me for a moment as we explore the "communication" that makes up the vast majority of web content (I'd say all life-content, but that might be going too far).  We have names for most of this--spamming, flaming, trolling--that most intelligent people understand you don't listen to.  Adversarial politics gets into this same kind of trouble.  Pop-up ads and the majority of advertising we see today do as well.  We could say that this is all communication that is meant to be ignored unless for some reason it applies to you, and you're lucky enough to have it catch your ear, eye, or both.

I say that's a misapplication of the word "communication."

When people really get going on comment boards, or editorial pages, do you know what I think it is?

I have to believe that comment-trolls realize that they're not going to change anyone's minds.  They're not actually influencing the debate.  When that interaction ceases, you're no longer communicating--not just not effectively communicating, but rather not communicating at all, because you're not really in relationship with another person or group.  And when that becomes your milieu, you can only be doing it for self-gratification.

I hear that writing too many abrasive comments on other people's articles leads to hairy palms and madness.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Class Test

I took an odd quiz--I believe run by PBS--the other day.  It was supposed to be an indicator where you fit into the social strata.  Class identity and all that.

The political season is abuzz, and the newest charges of class warfare are bouncing around between parties and candidates.  The whole issue of class in America is interesting to me for a few reasons--like why it exists as all.

Mind you, I'm not saying that it doesn't.  I'm not saying that there isn't inequality built into the system.  I'm saying that the way we talk about class is sort of screwy, historically speaking.  Theoretically, we're all middle class. America has never had an aristocracy--at least not a proper aristocracy.   Our country was founded by people who had to work for a living.  That fact alone disqualifies them.  Even then, however, the differences quickly became the focus.  The metrics by which we judge others are somehow ingrained in us, despite our better natures.  

Far more interesting a study for our time is how new classes have developed.  According to the quiz, I'm a "first-generation upper-middle class" member of society.  Suck on that, plebes!  Now, if only I had an actual job to support the lifestyle to which the quiz feels I should be accustomed.  If only. 

The markers of class distinction have clearly changed.  Education is really the new hallmark of the "upper" tiers of society.  And here you thought it was land ownership.  I thought we got over wanting to be landed gentry at least a hundred years ago?  If you look at the unemployment numbers for those with high-school diplomas compared to those with bachelor's degrees, the point starts to hit home.  Roughly 80% of Americans have a high-school education--which considering it's mandatory, should be considerably higher.  Only 30% of American's have a bachelor's degree, however--and that number breaks down in very compelling ways along racial lines.  

I suppose I shouldn't complain, since I get to sit at the top of the middle class because I'm educated.  What I think is the real problem in discussing class in America, is that we're too often a country of exceptions.  Young people like me bearing all the markers of upper-middle status are too often stuck without the opportunities that label traditionally affords.  How many Master's-level baristas do you know?  I can name several.  My point is not to bemoan the sorry state of the privileged, generally white, upper-middle class youth.  My point is to note that arguing about class in America is nonsense.  What we need to argue about are specifics and outcomes, because we've effectively destroyed "the norm." 

Friday, July 20, 2012


This is a struggle.  I believe that people are good.  I'll say "mostly" good so as to avoid continuing a different debate with my wife when she reads this.  I believe there are a lot of organizations out there doing a lot of truly good things for a lot of people, but they still have their failings.

A few days ago, an organization I believe is fundamentally good missed an opportunity to do the right thing.  The Boy Scouts of America decided that their long-standing position that gays do not make good role models is "absolutely the best policy."  Bad form, Bob Mazzuca.

Some background.  I've been an active member of the Boy Scouts for most of my life.  I started as a Tiger Cub, and continued all the way through the programs until I was 19 and aged out of my Venturing Crew.  I am a proud Eagle Scout, and a proud Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow.  I spent 8 years working at our local summer camp in any number of programs, and volunteered for many other camps and unit-level activities.  My first real job out of college was District Executive for my home Council, in my hometown.  I spent 2 years serving as a professional Scouter, ensuring that all of the programs in my area were of the highest quality.  I've raised tens of thousands of dollars for this organization from my community.  This is an organization to which I've committed more time and energy than I have to almost any other part of my life.

I know a lot of gay Boy Scouts, and a number of gay leaders.  They all seem like fantastic role models to me.  I absolutely disagree with the official policy--although I do agree with the fundamental principle that was upheld by the Supreme Court.  Namely, that private organizations and groups have the right to set and maintain their own membership standards.

This is a huge moral issue for me.  How can I continue to support the programs and actions of an organization which maintains a discriminatory value I do not share?

As a professional, there was, of course, a standard answer for when someone would want to spark that debate.  As long as I was drawing a paycheck from the organization, I could simply avoid the conversation tactfully, by passing responsibility upwards.  This may seem like shirking responsibility, but that's no different than any other organization--they have official spokespeople whose job it is to provide communications for the organization as a whole.  In less formal times, with individuals I knew well and felt comfortable engaging in difficult debates with, I could elaborate a little more.  While working for the BSA, I was part of a small group of professionals working from the inside to get the upper levels engaged with the question, and to re-consider whether it really reflected the values we profess.

I suppose I think of institutions like this in much the same way as I think of individuals.  None of us are good all the time.  I don't like every aspect of every person I know, nor of every company.  I'm still friends with people who's political values I disagree with, and I still do business with companies who aren't 100% committed to sustainability, or who have had ethical or legal issues in the past.  Not every gay person I know is particularly good on a day-to-day basis.  I mention this by way of stressing that we should be careful not to conflate certain characteristics with "goodness" as such.  My point is, I still "support" those people in some sense of the word.

I don't mean to apologize for discrimination, or for people who hold discriminatory beliefs.  But, they are out there.  We can't just wish them away.  I'm more concerned with the particular dilemma of whether or not I continue my support for the Scouts after this newest conflagration.

Now that I'm out looking for other jobs, there's the real possibility that having "volunteer for the Boy Scouts" on my resume, or even worse "2 years as District Executive," could cost me an interview.  That's an unfortunate reality--that people would act so quickly on an impression without giving an otherwise-qualified candidate a chance.  I shouldn't have to feel like saying, "Wait! Wait! I can explain!"  Right?  I hate feeling like my hand has been forced.

There's a big thing going around Facebook right now.  A man named Martin Cizmar has sent his Eagle Scout badge back to the heads of the organization in protest.  His final point is, "I don't want to be an Eagle Scout if a young man who is gay can't be one, too."  Does my hesitation to follow suit represent moral cowardice? Am I simply hedging by saying that I still hope the voices of an informed and progressive movement, the continued growth of public consensus in this arena, and a possible change in leadership will soon lead to this policy being changed?

I've never been afraid to debate this issue with anyone, calmly and respectfully.  I've never wavered in my conviction for equal rights and an end to discrimination.  I insist on debating this issue in appropriate terms, however.  Too many people  are too willing to say that it should be illegal to think in the ways represented by the BSA policy.  Certainly, we can hope, and work, and dream for a society free even of thoughts of hatred and violence without resorting to an Orwellian sort of thought-policing?  What is the best place for this debate to take place?  Must organizations representing the out-dated and wrong-headed be completely swept aside?  Would it not be wrong to deprive people of the benefits and experiences and opportunities afforded by this, and other organizations?

This is my struggle.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Keeping Focus

I told my wife last night that she's a horrible distraction. I said this after two days of her being out of the apartment 8 hours at a time for a class, while I've been largely at home during this summer.

She insists on talking to me while I'm reading student papers, or writing material for my courses, or reading.  Basically any time she has an interesting though--which in her defense is pretty damn often--she is compelled to share it.  Right then.

But I've been on my own for this whole week, except when I'm in class.  And I hardly got anything done.  I think I graded two papers in 5 hours on Tuesday.  I suppose I'm lucky I put on pants and remembered to eat.  As much of a distraction as she is while she's around, my entire life disintegrates when she's gone for extended periods of time.  It's like those first few weeks of college, when you realized that your parents weren't there to tell you not to do some things--so you essentially do nothing. Because you can get away with it.

My wife holds me to a pretty high standard.  She wants an interesting husband, after all.  The kind of guy who gets shit done, and can talk intelligently about a range of issues.  We're both into communication in a theoretical way, but she's a business-minded person, and I'm an academic.  We have abstract conversations about the nature of perception, of language, and what percentage of a person's image comes down to verbal communication.  I teach people about avoid nominalizations and over-using conjunctive adverbs.  She helps people become better leaders.  

That standard, though, is an interesting one.  It's motivating, but a little disturbing that I seem to be dependent on it to keep on being the fully actualized person I try to be.  I still do the things I normally would when she's not around--I just think I do them better when I think she's watching.  Maybe she'll notice the particularly subtle way I incorporated a lesson on tone of voice into an exercise on paragraph transitions.  Maybe my understanding the way two modifiers acting as a single adjective can be hyphenated revs her engine.  Am I still trying to convince my wife that she should go out with me?  Am I proverbially playing acoustic guitar under a tree in the middle of campus to impress the freshman chicks?


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Quarter-Life Crisis

Note: this post will *hopefully be appearing in The Good Men Project, at  Check it out!

      “Quarter-life crisis” is a convenient term for glossing over a more subtle problem. I'm 27, about to move to Chicago from a city of some 50,000 people. I've got an MA and good deal of teaching and non-profit experience under my belt—and not a clue what I'll be doing when my wife and I get to Chicago. I'm married too, I should mention—and happily, I can honestly say. My point is, I've got all these markers of adulthood about me—education, a “real” job, the legally binding state of matrimony (I think entering into contracts is a pretty grown-up thing, right?). Despite all of these good things, I would definitely say what I'm experiencing is my quarter-life crisis.

     Crisis is normally used to mean the decisive point in a situation. Usually a negative situation. Like feeling aimless and anxious and worried about how in the hell you're going to land on your feet and why you aren't way more successful than you actually are. For a lot of guys, perhaps what's missing, what causes these crises, is not being sure we're doing anything that men do correctly. This is that more urgent problem I see. We've taken the ritual out of growing up.

     Rituals are fascinating things. They can be the most completely superficial things, and still they carry a weight of significance that impresses something deep and subconscious in us. By superficial, I mean that the motions can be simple, and time-worn, and repetitive—like actually walking across a stage to receive your diploma. We wear funny clothes, and worse hats (which have their own special part to play), we listen to some version of the same speech, and whoa Black Betty! You're one step closer to being an adult. The problem is that we've taken out the important parts of our rituals, or we've stopped viewing the ritual as important in itself. Most schools don't actually give you your diploma at commencement—it' s an empty leather folder or a rolled up piece of paper with a ribbon.

     These things are about coming of age. They're supposed to clue you into what is expected of you, what you're supposed to be doing. More importantly, rituals like these assure us that we're done with one stage of life, and on to the next. I mean simple stuff, too. Tying your shoes by yourself. Learning how to shave. Your first date. Your first part-time job and that first pitiful paycheck that's all yours. Without the substance of rites of passage, and without the assurance of elders who've been there, we end up stuck as children playing at being adults, and we end up simply trying to recreate the feeling of grown-up-ness these sort of events had the first time around. You get to participate simply by virtue of the passage of time, and not because you've proven that you're ready.

     A lot of the writing on this site is about capturing or re-capturing a powerful sense of manhood. As young men we do a lot of the things we think we're supposed to—work, get married, shape wood and metal, procreate, or what have you—without being able to really internalize why. This is why we get into a lot of the problems we do with gender roles. This is why it's often so easy to categorize guys by behavior; frat boy, jock, hippie, upwardly-mobile no-bullshit indie business guy. All of these guys think they've figured out what a man is supposed to do and to be like.

     I'm saying, I have no friggin' idea what I'm supposed to be like. I'm in the process of shifting my entire career focus. I'm wrestling with the fact that I've committed myself to a career which promises to make me barely a living wage for most of my life. Thankfully, my wife recently had a panic moment and decided she isn't ready for kids, so that's one off my plate. But what does she think of me, of my choices, of my commitment to making our life together better? Men provide, right? They protect and bring security and take care of their families? By what possible stretch of the imagination is a man working adjunct for less than minimum wage at two colleges any woman's ideal relationship? Boys in the Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil wear gloves stuffed with gigantic neuro-toxic bullet ants and dance around for ten minutes without passing out in order to become a warrior. They do this up to twenty times over a period months before it's official. Where is my torrid glove of agony and manliness to show that I'm ready to take my place as a man in society?

     Somewhere between a semi-traumatic undergraduate graduation and now, about five years later, I can't help but feel like I'm still just playing around. Things haven't been serious. That is, I haven't been serious enough for this really to be adulthood. I also haven't failed. That's a rite of passage, too. As a society we suck at coping with failure and coming out on the other side, and we've done everything we can to make sure our kids never experience failure. My crisis now is, what if I'm doing this all wrong? What if I fail and can't move on? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is truth stranger than fiction?

I'm not so sure. I can think of some pretty weird stuff. Most writers of novels and short stories can.  Sadly, I am neither of those.

What I recently did become is an author of literary criticism.  That's pretty weird stuff, at times.  The truth I was after lay somewhere in Rudyard Kipling's (author of The Jungle Books) experience of India and his beliefs about...people.  By people, I mean not-white people.  What seems funny is that I was looking for this truth inside his fiction.

What type of lens does literature--at least fictional writing--provide for viewing the world around us?

The scholarship tells us a lot about people's views of the matter.  Plato wanted to ban fiction altogether.  He also felt that poets should be banned in his ideal Republic.  On the other hand, much of his writing took the form of fictional accounts of Socrates in conversations around Plato's big ideas.  Plato was by nature a writer, as well, and the fictionality of philosophical treatises has been a vexing problem for far wiser minds than mine.

More lately the discussion has been about what fiction does to us.  Movies, TV, books.  Cartoons, video games, comic books.  Are we desensitizing ourselves to violence?  To right action?  To being able to think and function in reality?  We may even be to a point where scads of people have made themselves into the protagonists of their own reality shows.  YouTube is probably the best example of this.  Does that kind of thinking indicate an uncomfortability with, or an inability to live fully in the "real world?"

What about life as we might otherwise find it is so unsatisfying without fiction, without stories?


I recently attended my eye-opening 5-year reunion at St. Olaf College.  I say that it was eye-opening because so much changed over the course of one weekend.  Before the reunion started, people were posting on Facebook and Twitter all kinds of comments about why we didn’t really need a five-year reunion.  Nothing had changed, right?  We were all still basically the same people we were just after graduation.  Sure, some of us had gone on to other schools, or into jobs, or travelled abroad for awhile. Many of us were married, some had kids.  Everybody had grown up, but just a little bit.  
Re-connecting with a lot of people, however, I realized that our similarities were exactly the point.  St. Olaf is a weird place.  The college talks a lot about community, and it really tries to live up to the ideal image it presents.  The campus is incredibly open, we don’t have locks on our mailboxes, and people leave their bags and belongings lying right out in the common lounge when they go up for a meal at the cafeteria.  There’s trust on campus.  That’s the community they’re talking about.  
After graduation, a lot of people experienced a vastly different kind of life from that on the Hill, as we called it.  Terrible jobs, bad breakups, moving to new cities where it wasn’t so easy to make friends.  A lot of people at the reunion had a little bit harder edge to their personalities.  A lot of people had had reason to turn cynical.  The thing was, we all recognized it, and we all knew it was a problem. I know I'm generalizing here, and I apologize to anyone who disagreed, but being back on the Hill brought it rushing back to us.  We’d lost something of the community that we had loved and lived for four years, and we wanted it back.  Badly.  That, I think, became the vision of success—for me and for many of my classmates.  Bringing back and living into the type of community that we would really want to be a part of, and to do so wherever we go.  You can’t go back to the Hill, after all.  Let’s bring the Hill down to us.  
If we had waited until the 10-year mark, I don’t think that St. Olaf would have been able to accomplish its mission of instilling the value of community in us.  And that failure would then have gone on to destroy any hope we all had of succeeding in this powerful and truly transformative way.  Building communities is no small thing, and until now—or at least more recently—I had no idea how to do it.  After this weekend, though, ah! Clarity!  I am able to build communities, I should almost say Community, singular with a capital ‘C’, through the written word.  
I’ve been fortunate to have accomplished one of my life goals.  I’m a teacher of writing.  Game, set, match.  Complacency is a creeping menace, though, and if there’s one other thing St. Olaf is good at teaching its students, it’s that living is more than a livelihood.  I’m happy to have a job.  But what I need, what I really require to be happy and successful in life, is for that job to do something.  Something worthwhile and powerful.  I can build communities in my classrooms.  I can write and encourage others to write about what they want in life, and how they plan to get it.  I can bring that word out of my class as well.  Talking about, writing about, the community I find around me at any point in my life extends and keeps alive the community of the Hill.  What between us alumni started with moving to the same wonderful place, and was brought back this weekend through a wealth of shared experience, is now continued with effort; individual efforts of like-minded people who want this Community to grow.  
The world isn’t a place where we can leave our doors unlocked and not fear for our property or safety, but can’t we get somewhere closer to that?  It’s not about the world we have.  Rather, Oles like me and others will help shape it, and in so doing come a little closer to our unique visions of success.  I want to write success, and teach it, and live it.  How are you going to succeed? What do you want your community to look like?