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 Ask.com 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 goodmenproject.com.  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?