The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

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Civility

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I do my best to be “woke” as the modern vernacular calls someone who is up to date with regards to modern progressive thinking. I’ve done my share of using the big “F” word, and will admit to being quite imperfect more often than I like. I am fairly permissive in a number of ways and often accused of being too liberal by my conservative friends and family members. That being said, I find myself grappling with the growing incivility of current communication. I wince at the public commentaries that are so raw and mean. They bother me in a visceral way that I am unable to overlook.

I learned long ago that we have multiple ways of communicating that are generally governed by somewhat unspoken but understood rules. The language registers that we used operated one way in public and quite another in private. We generally agreed that in the workplace, schools, churches and such we should talk to one another in a more formal manner. We addressed people with a level of respect that was occasioned by the need to be able to work effectively with one another. The kind of honest speaking that leads to cursing and insults was thought to be inappropriate in the public sector.

We all realize that in the more relaxed domains of home and close friendships we are more often than not inclined to use phrases and expletives to express ourselves. The idea is that in good relationships we sense that it is okay to be more open and honest. Those who truly care about us are generally more forgiving of outbursts. It is less likely that we will be punished for a slip of the tongue.

These kinds of mores have mostly been in effect for most of my lifetime. Some may believe that they are somewhat hypocritical, and I suppose that there are arguments for that thinking. Mostly though we have tended to agree that we have to insist upon a certain level of decorum in public lest we devolve into a kind of linguistic anarchy. So it has been for the most part until recently, and sadly the tendency to express frustrations and anger in the vilest terms is gaining traction.

It would be easy to blame the current tendencies on media or even our president who has a very bad habit of tweeting and uttering whatever is on his mind regardless of how distasteful it is. There are many who applaud the so called honesty of such outbursts. Other become so incensed that they resort to fighting fire with fire. Thus we find ourselves watching an awards ceremony only to hear an actor shouting, “F—-“ the president and then he is given a standing ovation. As a society we have become less and less embarrassed by a form of verbal assault that would have been unacceptable in the past.

There are many arguments from both conservatives and liberals that we have been forced into a battle of words by political events. The cheerleaders for such incidents insist that the fight for justice requires that we speak as openly and honestly as possible. They note that those who have been polite have been unable to actually get things done, and that now is the time to be as forceful as needed. They claim that the uncivil war of words is a battle for the very heart of democracy, and so it must be.

Sadly I find the outbursts to be without merit. They are simply gross and violent expressions of anger that do little more than to incite even more rage, when what we need are solutions. Those will only come from a more rational approach to the many problems that we face. Right now all we are managing to do is create divisions that will remain unhealed until we return to a way of speaking to and about one another that demonstrates respect. An argument built only on emotions generally goes nowhere. Relationships are rent in two when the parties are only yelling at one another. Marriages end. Friendships die. Countries wage war.

Children often cry and scream and throw tantrums when they do not get their way. We have to teach them how to control such emotions, and how to properly express their hopes and desires. It is a huge part of becoming an adult, and our youngsters are constantly watching and learning from us. What are they to think when they hear political leaders and icons of art and industry ranting like spoiled brats? Why would they agree to change their own behaviors when they see so many examples of insults being hurled like school yard taunts by prominent adults?

It is time that we insist on a return to civility, and that will only be accomplished if we remain in our seats and refrain from applause whenever someone chooses to speak from the gutter. We need to make it clear that this is not who we wish to be, nor the kind of behavior that we wish our children to witness.

I once had a student who was attempting to defend the efficacy of violence and cursing. He insisted that the best way to get something done was to be the person with the loudest voice and the biggest gun. I debated him until I had reached a point of frustration and I wrote the word A N A R C H Y across the blackboard. I explained that such battles always lead to a state of lawlessness, chaos, disorder that rarely ends well. It is only when we are willing to honor one another and work together that we have accomplished great things. Sometimes that means defeating those who would resort to ugliness as a way of accomplishing goals. Hopefully we will be able to do that within the confines of civility, because history has shown that when we cannot horrible things happen. 

Opening Our Ears, Eyes and Mouths

flat,800x800,070,fThere is a video of four little babies loving and hugging one another that has gone viral. It is a precious demonstration of the innocence that is in our human natures that sometimes becomes twisted and ugly in some of our fellow humans as they grow into adults. I suspect that the clip is popular because it reminds us of how we dream for the world to be, devoid of bigotry and hatefulness. Sadly we know that no matter how hard we wish for such a reality, it will probably never completely occur, but what if we did indeed have a way of extending the goodness that lies in our hearts just a bit more? Would we do our best to make such a thing happen or would we choose instead to take an easier path in life?

We have seen instances of people throughout history who have decided to be the change they desired to see in the world. They did not turn away from challenges to demonstrate love and justice, and often they were ridiculed and even persecuted for their courage. Jesus showed us the way and the truth about how we should all live, and for his efforts he was nailed to a cross and killed as though he was a common criminal. Abraham Lincoln held fast to a belief in the dignity of all men and was murdered. So too did Gandhi die because of his determination to speak for those without a voice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lead his people to their rights as humans and citizens of this country all the while understanding how dangerous it was to do so. The greatest individuals of all time have overcome their fears to stand up for goodness, but there have also been instances when those unknown to us have been unafraid to be noble. Every single day someone somewhere is facing down evil and moving the dial just a bit closer to the kind of loving perfection that we all wish to see.

I find it heartbreaking when we witness hurtful behaviors and we simply allow them to happen. We turn our backs, close our doors, draw the blinds, pretend that we did not see or hear the transgressions. We do not wish to invoke the ire of the people around us. We don’t want to make waves, and so we remain quiet, making excuses for those who embarrass or hurt others with their actions. These days we even invoke the premise that the end justifies the means, even as those means are truly vile. We advocate strength in numbers and informally join groups even when those groups do things that we know are wrong. We don’t wish to be shunned, so we allow the infractions to occur, pretending that they really aren’t so bad even when we know that they are.

It is when the vast majority of us close our eyes and put our fingers in our ears in the face of a wrong that evil takes root among us. The leap from being a highly educated and cultured society to gassing innocents for simply being of a certain kind is not all that great, and when it happens we realize that we have lost control of a situation that might have been stopped if only we had been forthright in the beginning. History has taught us time and again that the line between civilization and anarchy is often very fine, and bullies will take advantage of our failure to enforce it.

I have tried to give the president of our country the benefit of the doubt. I have wanted to believe that perhaps his comments have been sensationalized by a press that does not like him, but far too often he gives me little reason to support him in his baseless tirades against certain groups of people. I’ve thought that perhaps he does not know how to properly voice his ideas properly because his vocabulary and knowledge seems so limited, but now I simply think that he is in truth a very mean spirited person, a bully, and a bigot. What bothers me even more than the horrible things that he says is that there are actually those who applaud his ugly ideas, and sadly some who dislike what he says but are unwilling to say so.

The most recent example of this came from a discussion of how to deal with immigration, a topic that has brought out some of the most egregious comments from the president. The fact that he used a guttural term like “shithole” to describe certain countries was not as horrible as the inference that it would be preferable to limit immigration to those who come from so called better places. The meaning behind such statements is appalling knowing that there was once a time when my own grandparents and mother were thought to be unworthy of citizenship in this country by prejudiced individuals who called them dirty and ignorant. They came from a part of eastern Europe that has historically been thought to be home to lazy people not worthy of admiration or respect. My mother never fully forgot the sting of the insults and rocks hurled at her for no reason other than her heritage. It is painful to me to consider that the leader of our country would still be categorizing people based on their nation of origin, economic state, or educational opportunities rather than seeing each of us as equal in the eyes of God. I had thought and hoped that such thinking was a thing of the past, but I have learned that I was wrong.

What truly worries me is that so few of the men and women in the Republican party have remembered the model of Abraham Lincoln and risked their careers to say and do what is right. Some who have no trouble standing up to the wrongful thinking of Democrats seem to have become sheep with regard to President Trump. If they actually agree with his sentiments, then they are a very cold hearted group that has forgotten what this country was supposed to represent to the oppressed peoples of the world. The message that they are sending is not one about protecting the American people and our way of life, but one of exclusion and prejudice. No matter how the president’s remarks are parsed or what exact words he used it comes back to the idea that we don’t want to provide opportunities and safety for citizens who do not fit a certain profile, and I have to strongly disagree with that kind of thinking.

I have written my two Senators and urged them to step forward and demand that the president cease and desist his campaign of disgusting pronouncements, but I have little faith that they will even read my comments much less act on them. In the meantime we are hurting and demeaning individuals who like my grandparents only want a chance at a fair shake.

This country was not founded by the squires and noblemen of Europe, but by the second sons, the downtrodden, the persecuted, those who realized that their home countries held little promise for them. Over time they came to our shores one by one eager to make something of themselves, and many did just that Their resumes would not have been likely to enchant someone based on merit, but they proved themselves when given a chance. This has been the exceptional story of our nation. This is what has made us great to this very day, not some imagined vision of isolation and unwillingness to learn from one another.

We cannot build walls around ourselves and expect to thrive and find happiness. It didn’t work when kings built moats and stone structures and it won’t work now. The world is a vibrant place with ideas pulsing in every corner. A truly visionary leader understands that we have a place in the larger community, not if we hold sway over everyone else, but by becoming part of the conversations about what each of us has to offer. We were at our best when we saw ourselves as helpers rather than dominators. We changed the world with our goodness, not our brute strength. Every time we have become confused about our role it has gone badly, and right now our president seems to think that a he alone knows how to keep our country safe. History shows us the folly of such thinking, We can’t keep looking away. It’s time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We have to open our eyes, our ears, and our mouths.

Thinking Inside the Box

clichés-900x675“It’s such a cliche,” she says. “I am weary of platitudes,” he complains. “That comment was so trite,” they observe.

I often see such statements in the quibbling that arises in discussions involving politics or religion. The putdowns are intended to be an assessment of the quality of ideas rather than a sound rebuttal. There is more emotion than rational thought in such outbursts, more insult and arrogance than counterpoint. The use of snide commentary has become fashionable in the modern world of tweets and soundbites. The more outrageous the idea, the more memorable it becomes and so we eschew the old ways of using parables and fables and familiar sayings or themes to explain our human natures. Instead we search for originality and condemn the laziness of quoting ancient ideas.

The dictionary tells us that a cliche is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

“the old cliché “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.””

synonyms:

platitude, hackneyed phrase, commonplacebanality, old saying, maximtruism, stock phrase, trite phrase; old chestnut

“a good speechwriter will steer clear of clichés”

As someone who strives to string words together in unique ways there is probably no greater disappointment than to be considered trite, and yet I know full well that much of what I communicate is as old as the dirt on the ground. There are few totally original ideas. The themes and phrases that we use tend to simply be variations on ways of expressing ourselves that were actually invented eons ago. Furthermore, there is a usefulness of maxims that rings true through the centuries and captures our imaginations even though we have heard them many times before. The best of the old sayings are powerful educational tools perhaps because they are so familiar.

Each day those who watch television find hundreds of possible viewing choices, many of which feature programming that is quite original, modern, even avant guard, and yet in the month of December it was the Hallmark Channel that achieved the highest ratings. This of course was due in the main because of the 24/7 airing of Christmas films most of whose plots were as easy to predict as the fairytales of our childhood. They featured characters who had become lost and eventually found, families that were united in love, communities where the spirit of the season was bright. The stories were predictable and filled with the commonplace, all of which viewers enjoyed with unadulterated delight. They provided an often wished for break from the anger and confusion of our present day situations, and the comfort of the familiar that is all too often missing in the angst driven programming that is the fare of more critically acclaimed features.

The fact that such mundane movies were so embraced should tell us that people are generally weary and prefer light hearted positive messages over the portrayal of the complexities of life that daunt us in the real world. The public is voting for a break from gritty depictions of trouble, and instead choosing hackneyed positivity because sometimes we simply need a time out and a return to the familiar.

Cliches have in fact served as potent truisms whether in the form of fables or films throughout history. They are teaching tools that help us to remember and reflect on important ideas. Just because they are so on target that they are often quoted does not make them useless, but rather timeless and memorable. They provide us with a compact way of expressing important thoughts when our own minds are unable to create new phrases. There is a usefulness in them that we should not eschew simply because they are old and well known, or because they express ideas with which we do not agree.

There are indeed times when we find ourselves at a loss for words. When we hear of a mother who has lost a child or a spouse whose mate is dying, we often find it difficult to know what to say. We turn to the old masters who somehow found the brilliance to create comforting phrases that have a universal appeal throughout the ages. To argue that they make a comment moot simply because they have been used before is a kind of cliche in and of itself. It is a smug put down without really addressing the actual situation. The person who does such a thing may feel superior, but is in reality showing little original thought. An insult is rarely an effective argument as we see all too often in social networking.

There is a disconcerting haughtiness in the insinuations of those who mock the use of time honored phrases that is frankly disturbing to me. It is as disquieting as suggesting that one way of living is superior to another. In reality the abundance of variety speaks to the human need to be free to choose, a reality that we should respect rather than mock.

I would so love to see 2018 become the year of understanding and acceptance. It would be grand if we were somehow able to put an end to so much division and unwillingness to allow everyone to live and let live, and we might start by listening to the intended meaning of what people say rather than parsing their words for significances that are more in our minds than theirs. Our constant critiquing and arguing has become so loathsome that we find ourselves wanting to tune out and tune in to make believe worlds where everything comes out well in the end. We prefer staying inside the security of the box to venturing into unknown thoughts.

The truth is that if we worked just a bit harder to be open to differences of opinions and ideas we might indeed find closer approximations of the happy endings portrayed on those Hallmark movies. The platitudes that our mothers and fathers and teachers taught us were not meant to be nags, but guidelines for living more fully. There was a reason why they became so popular that everyone was repeating them, and they may in fact provide us with ways of better enjoying our human experience. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss them or the individuals who remind us of their power. We needn’t snicker with superiority. We all have much to learn.    

Mad Dogs and English

maxresdefaultI’ve loved to read from the time that I was quite young. I suspect that the warm feelings that I get from escaping into a well written tale began with the times when my father entertained me with his collection of fairytales and poetry. He’s been gone since I was only eight years old, but I have a vivid image of him devouring all forms of print with a joy that literally lit up his countenance. I suppose that in a Pavlovian sense I associate the act of reading with the love that my father gave so generously to me. For that reason delving into books is an immensely pleasurable experience. Sadly there are many for whom reading is an onerous task associated with negative encounters with teachers who were less about actually leading them to an appreciation of great works of literary art, and more about pounding them with cold rubrics and grading systems.

Besides learning from my dad at an early age that reading is one of our most glorious gifts I was lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who made every aspect of exploring the English language a beloved experience. I so looked forward to his class every single day that I was inspired to major in English in college. My professors there often asked me where I had received my educational background because I always seemed to be a bit more advanced in my command of the English language than my peers. Mostly it was because my teacher had inspired all of us to love the poetry, literature, grammar and usage of our language so that we became prolific writers and lifelong readers. It was his enthusiasm that lured us, not sets of rules. Like my father he understood that first one must appreciate the words, then the interpretations and ability to string them together comes almost naturally.

Recently I heard of a young man who has been working quite hard to please his freshman high school advanced placement English teacher. He faithfully read the book that she had assigned for summer reading and carefully followed her instructions for writing a report. He is a rather self motivated soul, and so he had completed the assignment far in advance of the opening of school so that he would be ready to present it to the teacher on the first day of class. The floods came to Houston delaying the beginning of the school year, but when the doors finally opened he was ready. The teacher decided to give everyone some extra time and refused to take his early submission. When she finally collected all of the work he was more than happy to hand his over to her. Nine weeks later she had still not graded the papers. When she finally did she essentially gave everyone the same mark and never returned the work so that they might determine the areas where they might improve.

A similar thing happened with a poster project that she gave them after reading their first novel of the year. The teacher provided the students with a rubric and emphasized that it was not an art project. The students only task was to select one of three themes and then find quotes from the book that represented one of that idea. The rubric instructed them to choose ten references, no more and no less. Neatness was a consideration, but not elaborate artistry. They eager student selected a black poster board and attempted to find a variety of color references from throughout the story. He meticulously typed them in the required font and carefully affixed them onto paper of the colors that they represented. Then placed them on the black background. He noticed that they represented the colors of the spectrum, so he used some colorful crystals to create his title in those hues. He carefully checked each aspect of the rubric and felt that he had a great submission. When he got to class he was proud of his efforts until the teacher began gushing over posters that included detailed drawings and other artistic creativity. In the end the students who had turned their projects into works of art worthy of a gallery earned the high grades and those who had followed the instructions on the rubric only received average marks with no comments as to why this was so.

With only another rubric to follow and no direct guidance for mastery, the young man recently wrote a research paper, his first ever for this same teacher. He worked quite hard but was somewhat unsure as to what his teacher might be hoping to see. Still he was confident that he had done a more than adequate job, so he was utterly dismayed when he saw online that he had made a sixty seven on the paper. He literally broke into tears as he relayed his frustration to his mom who shared his story with me hoping to garner from advice regarding how to proceed from this point forward. 

I could not help thinking of my old English teacher who had a very different and humane style of teaching. When I wrote my first research paper for him it was a mess, but he did not fail me. Instead he used the moment as a great learning experience by patiently demonstrating to me where I had gone wrong and how I might improve my writing in the future. After that I became well known for having superior skills in writing research papers. Again and again all the way through graduate school I used the techniques that he showed me. He might have humiliated me and left me wondering if I was somehow deficient, but he chose to help me master the technique of composing a worthy paper. The end result was that I not only improved, but I also came to love writing. To this very day he remains my all time favorite teacher.

In my final years in education I mentored teachers and helped them to improve their skills. The best among them always understood that their job was not to catch students failing, but rather to help them to become proficient. I remember attending the class of an English teacher who had his students enthusiastically quoting Beowulf as though is was a modern day rap. When some of his kids totally missed the mark on their senior research papers he asked me to work with him in an effort to help them to edit and rewrite their compsisitons so that they would earn satisfactory marks. Like my old teacher he encouraged his students every step of the way and in the end they were all much stronger writers capable of deep literary analysis.

I saw a novelist on PBS last week who reminded me with his brilliant words of just how we learn to be courageous when it comes to mastering the intricacies of language. He likened the fear of reading and writing to a child who is terrified of dogs. He pointed out that we would not force such a youngster to interact with a snarling pitbull in order to learn how to be more comfortable with canines. Instead we would let him/her cuddle sweet puppies and then slowly but surely provide interactions with bigger animals. He suggested that the way to teach the beauty of the English language to children is to begin with little chunks in the form of poems about topics that they might love, not worrying so much about how well they will interpret the words. An ability to think critically about what we read and write will evolve as we tackle more and more difficult tracts because we so love the very idea of reading and then writing about what we have learned from the words.

It saddens me to think that a young man who approached his English class with so much care and enthusiasm before school had even begun is now feeling incompetent and negative about the processes of understanding and using his language. It might have been a grand adventure like mine was, but the teacher in her unfeeling ways has made it an onerous task through which he must endure. I can only hope that this will not color his lifelong feelings about something that should instead be beautiful.