Saturday, November 1, 2014

Don't Forget To Be Human

Not to get all martyred about it, but damn if I don't feel a little in the minority these days when it comes to education and the treatment of students in school. I say this as a former student myself turned teacher at the same high school I graduated from way, way back in '03 (that's pronounced ought-three, for those uncertain). I mean 2003, not 1903. I'm not ludicrously old, but wouldn't it be crazy if I were this--like-- 130 year old guy hopefully laying down some real truth for you to consider? No?

Well, anyway, I'm not 130 and I don't claim to have "real truth"--a real pleonasm if ever I heard one--but I do claim to see our schools as places in which humanity is now discouraged in the face of something far more insidious than simple rote learning. Schools are run now in a way that encourages corporate-styled efficiency (all the right data points that certainly sound good but add up to little in practice, certainly little relation to students' learning. e.g. the right numbers in certain programs to justify their existence, teachers being encouraged to no longer give Fs to students, attitudes of things like there being only one way for students to demonstrate that they have learned, a clear enunciation of "learning standards" before each class so students know precisely what is to be instructed to them (this being encouraged by studies I've read and think are particularly pseudo-scientific in nature, for example this study, which among other things claims to have a way to determine what stories students have written were better than others; as a fiction writer I find it particularly flawed to claim a handle on something so entirely subjective).

But more than that I object to the notion that the one lone job of a teacher is to be a dispenser of information, of all skills necessary to "make it" in the "real world." Certainly, as my own mother has never failed to remind me, those skills are necessary. Without them, students might be lost in their lives outside of organized education. I teach a thing called executive functioning -- which refers largely to those skills that ask you to take control of your own life and the business therein. Teaching it has been enormously helpful to me organizing my own day-to-day (and considering I not only work as a teacher in this program but also teach two sections of composition and usage for night school and am finishing up my own Masters of Art in Teaching (three classes, one in-person and two online), I can say fairly certainly these skills have made all of what I'm doing right now far more manageable, if not entirely possible).

That said, I still don't see myself as only some dispenser of information. I like to imagine that my students and I work well together because I don't treat them like widgets, like little robots in need of tinkering so that they suddenly, miraculously "get it." That's not who they are and that's not how they should be treated. But I get mixed messages from superiors all the time. "We need to showcase student growth" as if by doing the things I do with them pedagogically on a daily basis, they'll suddenly, miraculously be fixed and work correctly.

A teacher friend of mine recently noted there's a big difference between exercising authority and actually helping a person become educated. The former can be very neat and tidy, though arguably effective. The latter is a messy business filled with impossible-to-measure components. Students might not always "look" like they're on task, but that doesn't mean learning isn't being done. It's those same corporate affected appearances I noticed were integral to work at the various businesses I worked at before teaching. Real honestly is to be avoided in favor of the affectation of honesty. I must go through certain hoops and I will have done things the "right way." The cognitive dissonance that's so integral to this kind of thing and so society at large is astounding.

I'm no fool, though. I'm aware for a great many reasons we can afford to be completely honest about everything we do. What I do find frustrating and incongruous to a point of irreconcilability is the idea that I too must buy in to all this affectation. It's possible people don't see through it, but I doubt that. I think most people do see through the affectation that informs so much of our daily lives, certainly students do. And I see how it shuts down their level interest and their level of curiosity. They're used to arbitrary rules dictating their existence, life being reduced to "because I said so." That doesn't mean this is Best Practice, to use a favored term of the education reform era. Couple the notion of authoritarian dispensation of only one way of doing things with the idea we do let people do things they way they want to, and what you have is that always unacknowledged mutual exclusion that drips of cognitive dissonance. It's a problem of having too many people in the room who only agree with you -- arguably a big problem in today's corporate world that's trickled down to school districts, or perhaps always a problem with people seeking to be "leaders" and not considering the fact that their certainty is as much a flaw as it is an asset.

So, what I'm saying is I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether things are being done the right way in schools. But I do know that I get the sense we're sucking the life out of students with the pedagogical points of emphasis of the day. I get the sense that students feel like they're being lied to and so actively reject what we're trying to convey as educators. There's such a deep-seated lack of empathy that needs to be addressed. I understand you administrators of the world are under pressure from forces above you, as they most likely are as well, but continuing to march in lockstep with this belief system merely because it's what we've (in various "new" iterations) always done is not helping anyone. I think if you truly believe in education and students being lifelong learners, you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

C'mon, Facebook! Images of Dog Fighting are Ok? Really?

First, many thanks to Lindsay Hunter for alerting me about this dog fighting page. Facebook, for whatever reason -- a friend of mine has speculated (and this seems likely) that their algorithm for determining what is a violation of community standards must be is off, somehow -- has allowed a graphic group page promoting dog fighting to exist on their social media platform. If you report the photos you'll get back sometime later a response indicating the pictures, many of which depict violent images of dogs attacking each other (and this is for sport, mind you), are not in violation of community standards, which is entirely untrue, based on Facebook's own definition

Here's their policy regarding violent imagery (emphasis is mine):

Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences and raise awareness about issues important to them. Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, it is to condemn it. However, graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site. 

It would seem the textbook definition of dog fighting that in some way it celebrates or glorifies violence and usually for sadistic effect. I mean, Michael Vick didn't go to prison for nearly two years for no reason.

And some have noted this is clearly not a page run by anyone in America. It appears to be Turkish, in fact, where supposedly, and if true then also despicably, dog fighting is legal. That should have no impact on Facebook, however, a multinational corporation whose allegiance should be to general good taste and human decency, all of which no matter its legality, dog fighting is not.

It's probable this is some kind of glitch, oversight, not the earnest response of the flesh-and-blood people behind Facebook, but that still doesn't really excuse it. If you're interested in viewing the page while it's still up (and I hope soon it is not) Click Here -- but be warned, there are many graphic images. Please do tweet @Facebook about what they're condoning. And spread the word. My friend Robyn Pennacchia has written about the issue as well over at Death+Taxes.

And finally, perhaps most disturbingly of all, the group's membership has actually grown since I first noticed it, proving once again that it's never too loathsome for people to double down. I encourage no one to join the group who is actively interested in its removal.

UPDATE 9/8/2014: Happy to say I finally received this notice from Facebook:

We reviewed the photo you reported for containing graphic violence. Since it violated our Community Standards, we removed it. Thanks for your report. We let Game Dog Pitbull know that their photo has been removed, but not who reported it.

And while it's not the wholesale removal of a group that glorifies dog fighting (which might have the benefit, if allowed to remain open, of allowing people who participate on it in places it's illegal to be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law), it's at least a start.

I still think the site should be removed entirely, especially because it's likely most of the people actively participating on it live in countries where this sort of animal abuse is legal for some insane reason. That means, even if it were to become illegal there (say for instance in Turkey, where it's said to be legal), ex post facto designation and all would make something that's already not likely to be prosecuted even less likely. At least Facebook could take a demonstrative stand against this activity, which should never be condoned, even implicitly.

UPDATE 9/10/2014: Facebook has finally made the decision to remove the pro-dog fighting group from the website entirely. Thanks for getting the word out, everyone. Glad to see most people don't condone this sort of thing.

UPDATE 9/10/2014: Wait! Oops, no! Instead, Facebook has allowed the group to continue its existence AND even the worst photos are still on the site.

UPDATE 9/11/2014: So I presume it's possible for someone to re-upload pictures that violate community standards, but I gather that's not the case here. Everything I think about whatever is going on in the byzantine, essentially Kafkaesque corporate structure of Facebook is at this point pure speculation. Still, once again, after having reported the most violent image on the group's page and that report being at first rejected for defying "Community Standards" it is now once again been subject to further review and found to have, in fact, yes, violated "Community Standards." Figure if nothing else it's good to chronicle all the absurdity here, for some kind of record.

UPDATE 9/13/2014: Did I mention Facebook alerted me to the fact that they again removed a particularly violent photo from the offending group? No? Will it stay gone? How can anyone know?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Our Culture Really So Sick?

I was reading an article on Yahoo news the other day--yes, I do that, and fairly often, for some reason--and it asked the question, "What if we paid our teachers like professional athletes?" See it for yourself HERE. Yeah, what if?, indeed. And weirdly, some folks I actually respect offered their thoughts on the subject, like Dana Goldstein, whose book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession is high on my list of reading related to education and reform for the coming fall.

In the article Goldstein is quoted saying, "Kids will want to grow up wanting to be teachers just like kids grow up wanting to be pro athletes and that would be a really positive thing." While I feel like there's some serious context missing, taking it at face value, I dislike and disagree with Goldstein's comment because it feeds into our greater cultural narrative that the only people who truly experience success in this country are those who have a lot of money -- and therefore are the only ones anyone could ever aspire to be like. It feeds into the reformers' narrative that the only reason we have students attending school in the first place is so that we might prepare them for their future careers.

One of the things you'll hear me talking about a lot on this blog with respect to my own personal pedagogical approach to the classroom is, what can we do to showcase to our students ways they might be better adjusted, healthy adults from an emotional standpoint? I know so many people who are so completely dysfunctional in their every relational endeavor, be it familial, romantic or any of the myriad other forms. It's hard enough out in the world thinking you're perhaps all alone, misunderstood, not cared for, that we'd then say school is merely prep for your life as a cog in the machine is so profoundly callous and opposed to the ideals I think any functional society should aspire to, so instead I say: let's care about the whole student. Let's be there to listen to their problems if they're having them. Let's not look at our kids as purely numbers and data and plan accordingly to "fix" their problems with learning while ignoring their problems as people (oftentimes the two are inextricably related).

In my classroom I'm there to listen to my students, show them that I'm a human being and help them to see there's nothing about being human they ought to be ashamed of. We all makes mistakes. We all hope to learn from them. Sometimes we don't for a while. Sometimes we never do. But maybe we find ways to be more conscious and considerate of those around us than we were before. I've never had a situation in which I had to teach a student (or any other person for that matter) how to be less selfless, that they were too giving, that it was becoming a detriment to them, despite how well meaning said hypothetical student intended to be. Such selflessness is extremely rare. And moreover, what I'm saying is, just become someone isn't the world's most selfless person doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that person.

You try to be a better person, maybe you misstep or fall back into old habits, and then you realize it, and you keep trying. Repeat. Be human.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

James Tadd Adcox DOES NOT LOVE (Or Does He?)

I'm going to take full credit for the title of James Tadd Adcox's debut novel, Does Not Love. That's unreasonable, but here I am, doing it. I say that because--interesting story to me, the narcissist--I remember years ago meeting up with Adcox for beers and he told me about the manuscript he was working on, which was the aforementioned debut novel.

He had been thinking of calling it Does Not Love but the feedback he'd been given about this title to that point was not especially enthusiastic. And I, bravely perhaps, confirmed that he was the one who was right and all others were wrong. Does Not Love was the only choice for a title. And so it was and so shall it be.

Ah, but I'm no hero. Just a guy who likes reading books, in particular good ones (whether I know the book's author or not). And in fact, Does Not Love has lived up to its wonderful title in arguably every single way one might hope for, in the world. It is a story that has the characteristic Adcox charm. He also uses a very spare prose style that I find extremely pleasing. I'd put him, as an ideas writer, somewhere in the range of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, with a little of something fabulistic, as well, to round things out. In fact, more like Wallace (and Barthelme and Saunders) and less like DeLillo, this is a novel that really relishes its more humorous moments.

But--gah--to refer again to DeLillo (and sort of contradict what I wrote in the previous paragraph), the novel with which I think Does Not Love shares its greatest affinity is White Noise (arguably DeLillo's funniest novel). There is that undertone of a controlled society, a normalized society, a society of intellectual people proving their frailty and always failing. These are your doctors, your lawyers, your pharmaceutical executives. It is a society of decline, and obviously in decline. It takes place in a fictional Indianapolis, one built around an imagined but no less powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consider yourself forewarned that much of what follows will be heavy with spoilers.

And for all of its hypothetical, alternate universe narrative backdrop, there's something too familiar about this place. Maybe it's familiar because the things that happen in Adcox's fictionalized Indianapolis have an eerie tangibility, like we haven't gotten there yet but we will (this idea comes through in some of the darker aspects of works by forward-thinking writers like Wallace or Saunders). Or maybe we have already gotten there, as James Tadd Adcox recently offered evidence of on his social media accounts, the preceding link's article related to a plot development of his novel that seemed to me while reading it wildly satirical but only because it also seemed so likely a future for the corporate-oligarchy America more or less under construction at present.

Turns out construction is much further along than I had realized, as people in the small town of Kannapolis (I see the parallel there to Adcox's choice of setting), North Carolina have become voluntary subjects of experimentation by the new and growing medical industry there. People aren't purely motivated by money in Kannapolis, though. In quite a few cases, they're interested in learning something about their familial history through biomapping, and perhaps unlocking the secret to cures for congenital diseases, at least for future generations. In Does Not Love characters are simply human test subjects desiring some means of securing an income -- and so exists an exploitative industry to trump all others. The gap between peoples' hope that they are contributing to something very important and the callous avarice that could result from their contributions makes Adcox's prognostication all the more grim, and, alas, all the more likely.

Big-pharma--its representative corporation being Obadiah Birch Adcox's novel--(and the bigger notion of the future of American industry, how it will be perpetuated, who it will benefit, and who it will toss out)-- arguably, plays the greatest role in Does Not Love, touches everything, reminiscent of ubiquitous forces like White Noise's "Airborne Toxic Event" and Infinite Jest's "the Entertainment." It is pernicious without itself having an identifiable target, a purpose, other than to exist ad infinitum. Unlike the other two forces named, which we know exist by human contrivance of some kind and whose effects are beyond anyone's ultimate control, a company like Obadiah Birch has an important role in society, it tells you. And though there is something false and flimsy feeling about this proposition, this corporate entitlement: its necessity, it is the lie spoken enough times that it becomes the truth.

If you ask me, dystopias, fictional or otherwise, will have nothing to do with traditional forms of government run amok (other than maybe to the extent that they can be useful to willful factions and / or individuals). It won't logically reflect where we're currently headed as a society. If a dystopia ever comes to pass, it will almost certainly be defined as rule by powerful monied interests. The dystopia (or something not too far removed from a dystopia) Adcox appears to envisage in Does Not Love is exactly that sort of world. The situation for the average people, proletarian and lower-party members alike (though each in their own way), who inhabit the novel might best be described with the following quote from this Jacobin article: "Neoliberalism ... sees people as little more than variable bundles of human capital, with no permanent interests or even attributes that cannot be remade through the market."

And so I'd like to take a look at the two main characters of the story, Robert and Viola, a couple who live and breathe this essence of failure and their subservience to the powers that be. Deterministic failures, as well as things intrinsic to their relationship and themselves, punish the couple fairly regularly--with particular respect to the inability they share--which "failure" nonetheless falls primarily on Viola through society's subtle and not-so-subtle cues--to bear a child. The couple suffers through many miscarriages and a kind of enervation, a mode of dysfunction, takes the place of whatever good feeling they once felt for one another (love seems always to have been in short supply between the two, just one of many ways the novel hearkens back to its title).

Robert falls into the murky gray category of generally meaning well but also wanting things to go his way, a category in which most of us reside. He's moved by passion as much as he is logic, and it's by the former more than the latter that he attempts to repair his relationship with his wife, and subsequently, repeatedly, succeeds at doing more harm than good. Viola, for her part, is looking for something that Robert can't offer her, something like a sadomasochistic sex life, and perhaps that sort of relationship in total. And because Robert can't offer this to her--and her feelings for him seem to be waning for a great many other reasons, both articulable and not--she seeks other partners who can and will. There's an elderly judge who is familiar with the inner workings of The Secret Law (who functions more as someone with whom Viola has an emotional affair than anything sexual) and an FBI Agent brought to Indianapolis to help solve the mysterious string of murders of people affiliated with Obadiah Birch, who subsequently meets Viola and learns everything he can about her innermost desires, probing and prodding her along -- think Fifty Shades of Grey meets John Grisham meets all those good writers I've already mentioned.

The couple's relationship decays and the city decays but the decay is leading somewhere, to something, to a powerful and destructive climax that yields surprising insights regarding how anyone might love or might not.

What I'm saying is you should read this novel.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Happy Birthday To Me! Earlier This Week!

I received a very unexpected birthday greeting in the mail last Monday. It was from my favorite author, George Saunders! I had no idea he even knew it was my birthday. I mean, yes, important date in the annals of history or something like that but still!

And that's when it was revealed that my beautiful, wonderful and just all-around great fiancee, Ashley, put him up to it. Of course she only asked that he send me a birthday greeting through email, but he was insistent that he just send a card through the mail.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders! I have nothing but praising things to say about you and your work, and I'm glad to add this little bit to the long list of those things:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jane Bowles and "Two Serious Ladies" and Men and Women in Our Messed Up World

Jane Bowles' work epitomizes great humorous writing by American women in the earlier part of the 20th century. She and others, like Dorothy Parker, absolutely skewered convention with their portrayals of things like societal decorum and its especially forceful effect on women. I hate to think about the considerable voices that didn't have the opportunity to reach a much deserved audience of readers, especially when I think about how many great female writers are out there doing inspired work in the contemporary literary landscape. I'm glad, at least, we have Jane Bowles. You should be, too.

Quick digression that relates to Jane Bowles: I tend not to be fan of contemporary realism. There are probably plenty of good reasons for this (and maybe my feeling this way doesn't require any explanation; indeed, maybe it has no true explanation) but let me offer one of my own theories here, regardless. I find that realism, the idea of depicting in fiction whatever is closest to the way the world "actually is," works best in times of considerable stability. Then the question can be reasonably asked, "If all my needs are met, in terms of say 'Maslow's Hierarchy' (and even more so those situations in which they're met with abundance), then why am I still so profoundly unhappy?" As you might imagine, especially in the last one hundred years--and particularly in the time of America's mid-20th century economic boom--the portrayal of women's struggle to find meaning in the tedium of everyday life (see Revolutionary Road) has demonstrated this idea pretty wonderfully. Bowles' work in particular does well in capturing the struggle, portraying it in all its amusing horror. 

For instance, Bowles demonstrates in Two Serious Ladies (a great novel first published in 1943, which if you haven't read it, do so! Now!) how everyone in society helps to reinforce societal decorum. Those forceful conventions that tell us how we ought to be. We're all a bunch of happy cogs in the reinforcement machine. It doesn't matter if you're a "good guy" or a "bad guy" or those middling little places between. Men assume their hegemony over women and accordingly women must be compliant, even while recognizing the ludicrous nature of this relationship, and then women often in their own ways reinforce one another's compliance. 

But there is good news for us! And here it is: these societal tendencies are ripe for tearing apart. Skewering them is good, because it draws attention to their absurdity. I love Two Serious Ladies for the same reason I've loved so many other female authors of the last hundred years' work: it's another story that shrewdly sees past the bullshit. Even better, writers like Bowles are willing to get their hands dirty and present everything in all its ugly -- its too true humor. And it is ugly. It is too true. It's the things we hate to talk about, the things that can't be unseen.

All you have to do is open your eyes, though, be less of a narcissist. I'll admit, as one guilty narcissist myself, it's difficult to do. And like a lot of things, you aren't always able to, but even on your own narcissistic terms, you want to see past the bullshit, because it's a better world for you, narcissist, if it's a better world for everyone. It's true! And that's not just some singing/dancing-around-the-maypole hokum. When everyone's needs are met, everyone wins. If even just one person's needs aren't met, well, that's the starving alligator in the aquarium. If its stomach isn't filled with something then it will be, whether that's you, the fish who occupies the aquarium with it, or the ample portion of red meat it feasted upon an hour ago. Take your pick. My point is, as succinctly as I can say it, injustice doesn't exist in a vacuum, and everyone is obviously affected by it, even, say, those men (or minority of women) in power.

And while Two Serious Ladies is undoubtedly concerned with power relations, especially those between men and women and women and other women, I can't deny it's a little reductive to think of the novel purely in those terms. This is a sweeping work, a work that encompasses so many aspects of human nature, whether we believe them to be constructed or built upon thousands of years of evolutionary hierarchy. Rather than rehash plot, I'm going to go over--in more or less chronological order, to be sure--moments of the novel that especially captured my attention and got me to thinking. It is a novel of relationships, of how women and men relate, and in particular the kinds of relationships two specific women seek.

The two main characters are Mrs. Frieda Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering. They are both at various times the narrative's primary subjects. These two women seem to gravitate toward relationships with either men or women. Copperfield seems interested in forging more and more female friendships, while being largely uninterested in whatever her husband is up to at any given moment, happy to leave him to his own devices for long spans of time. (He, for his part, never seems too put out by this.) Goering, arguably the central protagonist, is constantly moving, purposefully or otherwise, in the company of men, often very unappealing men. In fact, she has her pick of men of every different variety of horrible throughout the story.

The complex idea that appears to be at play here is that women shouldn't be searching for fulfillment through vicarious relationships with others, men or women. It's in themselves that women can only reasonably look, despite what society and their own compulsions might suggest as viable or preferable alternatives. These people they're finding to help enrich their own lives, they'll only disappoint, in the end. It's the story of women not being allowed to live for themselves, completely autonomously -- at times, creating their own shackles, and more often having the shackles put upon them by outside forces. The point is, it's all messed up. We see moreover the uneven footing women and men were on in terms of relationships, which I like to believe has changed for the better, nowadays. What I can say with certainty is, at least in modern times we openly acknowledge there are issues of violence, both sexual and non, being perpetrated against women -- despite the obstinacy of certain contemporary factions, whose members most often are predominantly men. At least violence of all kinds against women is part of the cultural conversation. In one particularly telling scene, the culture of rape is forcefully--and against all odds, humorously--brought to light. It made an impression on me, one of the deepest of the entire novel. I'll get to that scene in greater detail in a moment.    

To begin, we as readers are greeted with a prepubescent Christina Goering and her devotion to the dogma of something like Christian religion, though I believe the narrative avoids getting terribly specific about that. In fact, the component of religion feels entirely ancillary. Miss Goering, as an adult, shows no real predilection for proselytizing. No, it's her devotion, the adherence to dogma, that is most significant about this introduction to her character. It's this early characteristic that will follow her into adult life, allow her to take on faith things about other people that her rational self opposes entirely and rightly so. There's a lot of hilarious stuff that happens here in the beginning, too. We're witness to a hapless playmate named Mary being constantly used in Christina's dogmatic games of worship. One particular moment of hilarity is when, after Mary innocently asks "Is it fun?"--referring to the "game" they're about to play, "I forgive you for all your sins"--Christina matter-of-factly replies, "It's not for fun that we play it, but because it's necessary to play it."

As the story turns to Christina's adulthood we soon learn that she's got a lot of money and not a whole lot to do. Early in this chapter, Miss Goering arrives at a party where she makes the acquaintance of a man named Arnold, the first of many male disappointments. Arnold does grow on her, after a time, in a decidedly unromantic way. She also comes into the first of two narrative meetings with Mrs. Copperfield, with whom we're made aware she's already acquainted. Mrs. Copperfield immediately resents Arnold and his presence, failing to acknowledge him over and over again, though he knows her and wishes to be introduced to Miss Goering.

Miss Goering, meanwhile, proceeds to regale both Mrs. Copperfield and Arnold with a story from earlier in the day, about a building across the street from her sister's home. The building was in the process of being torn down, so that most of the front of it had been removed. All of its rooms were therefore exposed, rooms that still had furnishings (which brought to my mind images of the bombed European apartments of World War II). It began to rain on all the exposed furnishings. Then a man entered. He grabbed a coverlet, and Christina said, "I could see him more clearly now, and I could easily tell that he was an artist. As he stood there, I was increasingly filled with horror, very much as though I were watching a scene in a nightmare." Mrs. Copperfield asked if the man jumped to his demise (or at least to a great deal of pain). He did not, Goering informed her, to which Mrs. Copperfield remarked, "Amazing ... I do think it's such an interesting story, really, but it has quite scared me out of my wits." On the one hand, you could take Mrs. Copperfield's hyperbolic comments as the cloying attempt of someone who desperately wants people, and in particular here, Christina, to like her. And while I do believe that's the case, there is a kind of horror to Christina's story. I can't avoid the fact that Arnold is introduced just moments prior to Christina telling it. It doesn't appear to be a coincidence. I refer to the everyday horror inflicted by this scene. An incongruous and malformed world in which everything that should be stable and fixed, is in reality falling apart or in the process of being destroyed. Arnold, at the vanguard of the many men we see Christina meet, seems to reveal this everyday horror in its much more subtle iteration: as a man who brings very little to the table, has little to offer, is content to eat and nap and in general mooch off the kindness of others, whether they be his parents or Christina or someone else. All that everyday horror, listlessness and boredom. All embodied in one banal man.

Then we meet Arnold's parents, whose father proves especially notable. Christina agrees to accompany Arnold home, always under a non-sexual pretext (this happens several more times over the course of the story, with several other men). And indeed, nothing sexual occurs. How could it? Beside the fact that Christina seems wholly uninterested--as does, for that matter, Arnold--Arnold's parents are right in the middle of everything almost from the very outset of their arrival. His father arrives and laments his son's life choices and obvious deficiencies, Arnold's wishing to be an artist (though Arnold vaguely claims to be in real-estate by profession). His mother is doting on Arnold and immediately views Christina in a threatening light. She arrives in the room with a plate of cakes that she selfishly keeps from Christina. We soon learn that Arnold's father is some kind of capitalist, one who doesn't much value the ideas of artists. He castigates them all by saying they only wish to have enough to eat, which attitude his son appears to hold as well. He explains this makes them, "Like wild animals ... Like wolves! What separates a man from a wolf if it is not that a man wants to make a profit." Christina is immediately smitten with him and his passionate qualities. This descends into several awkward scenes where she finds herself alone in the guest room with the father--again in a strangely non-sexual way--which goes over very poorly with Arnold's mother, regardless. She calls Christina a harlot and, in keeping with the archetype or maybe classic human behavior, she puts perhaps all of the blame for this situation on Miss Goering, and very little on her own husband.

I would say more of Christina's character and her exploits but, as always, I'd prefer you to read the novel without any more say so from me (and my giving away more key points of the story line). Therefore, let's get to a little bit with Mrs. Copperfield and call it a review, fair enough?

Well, that's what's happening.

In the next part of the novel we see Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield arriving in Panama. Earlier in the story--at that party--Frieda had revealed to Christina she was traveling there on holiday, and that she was a bit scared to do so, though that seems a fairly considerable aspect of her character in general. In Panama she meets a whole host of fascinating characters, eschewing the advice of a fellow female American (who is notable at least in part for her immense xenophobia) who tells her not to stay anywhere but the American quarter of Colon, "Cristobal." Instead, Mrs. Copperfield convinces her husband to stay in a rather shoddy and rundown hotel in a disreputable part of town.

Chief among the people she meets and befriends is Pacifica, a young Panamanian woman. She becomes the catalyst for much of Mrs. Copperfield's adventuring from that point forward, literally taking Mrs. Copperfield by the hand and leading her to a bar. Mr. Copperfield's presence always manages to feel superfluous, as though it's only a matter of time before the Copperfields are to become bored with one another and find any of myriad reasons to part company. Thus, Pacifica is a welcome distraction and naturally, in a very short time, Mrs. Copperfield becomes very fond of her. Pacifica introduces Mrs. Copperfield to Mrs. Quill, the woman who operates the hotel, Hotel de las Palmas, in which she lives. Mrs. Copperfield in turn begins staying there. But before anything else occurs, Pacifica gets a visit from a rather vile sailor named Meyer. And so we return to one particularly despicable event of the novel that gets glossed over by a story aware of society's indifference to assault against women (or so is my inference). Make of it what you will. In any event, awoken from sleep by a loud knock at the door, Pacifica and Mrs. Copperfield are terrified by this sudden intrusion. It's a man who will not be turned away, as though he's owed something. Eventually he gets inside, and despite Pacifica rebuffing his advances without any possibility of misunderstanding, he will not be denied. He sets to work physically assaulting her, to which violence she is no match. Mrs. Copperfield likewise realizes there's little she can do to help her friend, though she does make an attempt before fleeing for help. It's then that she runs to Mrs. Quill's room and tells her Pacifica is more than likely being murdered. The following exchange occurs on page 54 of my version of the book:

"Well, you see, Mrs. Copperfield, Pacifica can take care of herself better than we can take care of her. The fewer people that get involved in a thing, the better off everybody is. That's one law I have here in the hotel."  
"All right," said Mrs. Copperfield, "but meanwhile she might be murdered."  
"People don't murder as easy as that. They do a lot of hitting around but not so much murdering. I've had some murders here, but not many. I've discovered that most things turn out all right. Of course some of them turn out bad." 

It is a very insightful passage, this exhibition in human indifference. Better to not get in the way, even when it's possible the outcome could be a fatal one, even when it's a person you regard as a friend being battered. We can speculate about Quill's motives all we like. I can imagine her being jaded, for example. Perhaps she was, at one time, idealistic enough to believe that finding help would do real good. It is possible. But the truth is it doesn't really matter where her indifference sprang from, all that matters is that no one is doing anything and soon it's all forgotten.

Sexuality once again seems to bubble beneath the surface, though there is no denying the possibility that Mrs. Copperfield is a lesbian. She mentions at one point that she "once was in love with an older woman." She seems forced into her marriage. And she is absolutely enamored of Pacifica, who herself said things like "I like women very much. I like women sometimes better than men." Still I think reducing it to their sexuality is a little beside the point, and perhaps part of why--notwithstanding the time period in which the novel was published--Bowles doesn't make it a bigger point of emphasis. It's scandalous enough to suggest a woman might be able to make decisions for herself, and hey, one of those decisions might be preferring the company of women and that that doesn't necessarily say anything about her sexuality. She doesn't have to be gay, in other words. She might just think men are horrible (Meyer, for example, or much later Christina's experience with a man named Ben, who immediately takes her for a prostitute -- and that DOESN'T discourage her as much as you'd think), and to be fair, there would be plenty of reasons a character in Two Serious Ladies could feel that way about the less fair sex.

Oh, how I could go on and on. I might mention the last meeting between Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering. I could, but I won't! Give Two Serious Ladies a read for yourself, then come back and tell me how wrong I was, here. And all will be very well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"A Failure of Imagination" -- My Education Manifesto

Call this my opening salvo in the discussion regarding education and education reform.

If you're familiar at all with the ongoing debate over education in the United States then you've probably heard the word "standards" at least once or twice. By itself, it's not a harmful word. Heck, we should have standards. Our collective standards should be very high, especially when we're considering something like education, which is so vital to our nation's stability. My problem is not with the idea of standards, nor is that the case with many of my colleagues (much as their being the du jour boogeymen in the media might have you believing otherwise); it is instead with how we are defining the term.

Briefly described for the uninitiated, "standards" as I refer to them above generally reflect the notion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or more specifically, at least in my case as an Illinois educator, Illinois Learning Standards (ILS). And for example, in the state of Illinois, an English Language Arts standard for an "early high school" student reads like this, verbatim: "1.A.4b Compare the meaning of words and phrases and use analogies to explain the relationships among them." There are many more, for all grade levels. Take a look at them here, if you're interested. As a teacher my responsibility might be, then, at the beginning of a given class, to transparently elucidate (ideally by writing it down on and then reading it aloud from the whiteboard) that "all students will know how to compare the meaning of words and phrases using analogies by the end of class." I might write those exact words for them to see and hear. The reason for my doing so being, according to various studies that have informed ILS standard setting, "students learn best when they are clear about what they are expected to know and do." An idea that at face value is reasonable. And yet I reject the notion that students invariably learn best when they are clear about what they are expected to know and do. It helps, certainly, and of course as an educator my goal is to be as forthcoming as possible, to assist my students in understanding subject matter to the fullest extent of my abilities.

But what I've also found is--and perhaps these two things aren't mutually exclusive and maybe I'm being nitpicky about one line from what is, in effect, a sprawling educational framework but bear with me--students learn best when there is anything about subject matter that engages them even remotely. An air of mystery about expectations of knowledge and implementation might lead to actual curiosity. But hey, don't take my word of it, here's some cognitive science from Daniel Willingham, Ph.D, from his fascinating book Why Don't Students Like School? -- "Solving problems brings pleasure," which I think we all understand and agree with the truth of this statement on some level. On the following page Willingham further explains,"Even if someone doesn't tell you the answer to a problem, once you've had too many hints you lose the sense that you've [emphasis his] solved the problem, and getting the answer doesn't bring the same mental snap of satisfaction." So then I might argue it's better for the teacher to know the goal of the day's lesson (and I kid, it's not better but absolutely essential). Students' being clear about what they are expected to "know" and "do" is something that could reasonably be assessed by the educator, without need of a spoiler telling them what happens before the task is already begun. They'll know what the expectations were by the end of a lesson because they'll have learned them for themselves, rather than been spoon fed information.

There are a lot of assumptions that come with the murky world of mandated standards, organizing classroom materials to provide a model that all teachers need to follow (and I don't just mean that from the standpoint of teachers' and their teaching methods being as variegated as their students' learning habits and tendencies). I think the cookie cutter approach to education is well-meaning at best and a concerted effort by cynical politicians to say they're "doing" something about education to their constituents at worst. As far as improving education in America, the implementation by my own school district of such standards leaves me hard-pressed to determine any such value.  

Indeed, what I've observed over the last five plus years I've been working in the realm of public education (roughly coinciding with the year Illinois adopted its version of the CCSS (2010)) is that so much of what people are doing to improve learning standards is entirely empty and rote and, most importantly, devoid of any sense of the art inherent to teaching. This isn't sentiment; it's rational. It's acknowledging what should be obvious to anyone who truly desires the success of his or her students and isn't motivated by some, sorry, self-serving desire to advance their own position, be it on up to an administrative role or building an impressive resume as a classroom teacher (in my experience it's usually the former and not so much the latter; people who truly want to teach, teach).

But fine, let's look at the argument on its own terms. I hear things like the following by Fredrick M. Hess, a so-called education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "...[I]n schools, unlike in financial markets, there is a lot of sentiment." In schools, unlike financial markets, there's simply no room for failure. You're allowed to lose a hundred thousand dollars here and there in the financial market provided your overall return is greater, spending money to make money. With something as amorphous as the academic success of a generation of people, you're not likely to have as much wiggle room. Which is to say you can't discard anybody if the system is working properly. And so also unlike money (or more specifically product), you have to work with whatever you've got available, even if that's students from difficult circumstances who are unlikely to be the "ideal" student with that zest for learning that certainly makes an educator's job easier. If I were in the education business, I'd simply get rid of these students and find new ones who are "willing" to learn. And some, usually callous, folks with nary a shred of empathy for anyone and conversely a huge narcissistic bent, might say that's just their loss and so be it, can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs or some other empty, trite phrase. And as we already know, at many non-public and charter schools around the country, the "bad eggs" are discarded, are dumped, expelled, left to find some other situation. I can't imagine that's good for anybody, and if you're like me and you believe there's more good in people than bad, it's also insane. It kills a sustainable society and further aggregates power in the hands of a very select minority, because what is education if not, in our late capitalist society, cultural currency, a means by which an individual's value can be quickly determined.

And so leads me to my philosophy educationally speaking -- imagination = needed. Good teachers have it in spades. They've got imagination coming out of the wazoo. They'll say things like you've never heard before in ways that will surprise and almost always challenge a young mind. But for those of you misguided folks who consider it necessary to clog said young mind of a student with whatever "standard" you consider necessary in a long and pedantic and often rote manner of learning, just remember: like all bad medicine it will not go down. Students will want to die, and who could blame them? Learning doesn't have to be boring. We choose to make it that way with our failure of imagination or various failures of various imaginations.

And I get it. You want to be organized and teach kids skills they'll be able to use for a lifetime, both professionally and maybe beyond (because people are more than their jobs, maybe?). That's great but students are also humans, and like all humans, they feel it in their marrow when someone has sucked the life out of a given piece of subject matter, for the sake of simply meeting a "standard," instilling a skill, booking some learning.

Or maybe I don't get it. Maybe you're someone who has one singular interest: how might I profit off of the potentially lucrative and certainly untapped realm of American education, while also maybe teaching some kids some things because that's the kind of lip service you have to pay to people you're trying to sell your education reform to, whose kids will actually have to be educated by it? Where caring is just window dressing, lies in advertisement, marketing? To you I'll be more unequivocal: you're horrible human beings.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ok, gotta just get something down on the internet

I hate being away from you, Literary Equations! Moreover, I hate not writing anything in review of books and other awesome stuff that is interesting to me. I got caught up in the black hole that is Blackhawks playoff hockey and then other personal things happened and, well, this blog wasn't a priority. But I really want to get back to writing meaningful reactions to books I've enjoyed (and only books I've enjoyed; if you're interested in reading me skewer a book, you aren't likely to find that here, not nowadays).

In news, I was at Printer's Row Lit Fest on behalf of Another Chicago Magazine this weekend. It was great getting to talk to people, many of whom weren't familiar with the publication, and just generally be out and conversing about all sorts of things with interested, engaged reader and/or writer types. Next up is Printer's Ball, which I also hope to be at and serving in a similar capacity for ACM.

HAVE YOU EVER READ ANYTHING BY JANE BOWLES? You should do so if you haven't. She's among the 20th Century's most underrated writers. FACT.

Now I'll go back to watching Orange is the New Black and so forth.

Friday, April 18, 2014

peterbd Strikes Again

peterbd is perhaps the internet's greatest treasure. Obviously, I'm biased. He says nice things about me and also regularly produces awesome things via places like NAP and so forth. He also emails when you least suspect it with something too hilarious to be kept to yourself. That is why (on top of the amusing flattery) I have decided to post his latest email to me here, more than anything congratulating me on my recent engagement to the beautiful Ashley Collier. (I'm getting all married up, fyi.) Also, I swear I'm not peterbd. peterbd is a far, far better person than me.

this is matt rowan

matt rowan is getting married and this is a bigger deal than anything that has ever happened on the face of the earth.

you see, matt rowan is not only one of the most talented men alive, he also just so happens to be the hulk. matt rowan is the hulk which means the hulk is getting married so you better be fucking excited about it. the only person, up until now, who knew matt rowan was the hulk was matter rowan and his soon to be hulk-wife. not even his pets, ludo and mia, knew matt rowan was the hulk. not russ woods. not tim jones yelvington. not even mason fucking johnson. the fact that you know that matt rowan is indeed the hulk should have you going on immediately and ordering him and she-hulk an expensive wedding gift. 

matt rowan is not only the hulk but he is also the third greatest writer alive. the reason he is the third greatest writer alive is because he is too humble to anoint himself as the greatest writer alive. he is a very humble writer who just so happens to be the hulk. matt rowan's daily schedule goes like this: he wakes up, feeds and walks his animals, showers, kisses his fiance on the cheek, eats breakfast, teaches his students what it means to be a badass writer, eats lunch, teaches his students what it means to be an even more badass writer, takes the train home, eats dinner with his beautiful fiance, then writes some of the best fucking prose that's ever been written. he does this while gently rubbing mia's neck. 

so yea, it's time to get excited. no man (besides one matt rowan) deserves to be getting married. love like this only comes once in a lifetime and matt is seizing his opportunity. btw, matt rowan is also the strongest man in the world. this shouldn't be confused with him being the hulk as matt has super strength even before he transforms into the hulk. many men in chicago have tried to arm wrestle the almighty super strong matt rowan. they've failed miserably. they went crying home to their wives and girlfriends about how this humble man shattered their professional arm wrestling dreams. they trained for years and years only to have their dreams dashed by a man who beat them easily at the game that they love. but even they can't hate matt rowan because after he beats them, he says 'keep your head up buddy. you'll have other chances to win.' then he flashes his endearing smile at them and their depressing lives get a little more bearable. of course there's no chance that they'll ever beat him at anything strength related because compared to him they're weaklings but matt doesn't tell them this. he is humble after all. his name is matt rowan. not only super strong physically but teflon strong mentally. some of the smartest people in the world have tried analyzing some of his prose only to quit halfway because they can't understand how something can be so entertaining yet so complex. matt does not know how smart he is at all. smart people never do. that's what you must understand about him. he's smarter than bill gates and einstein combined whilst also being physically stronger than them. wow. what an achievement. 

this future wedding is kinda like a big deal. will you be invited? will you see matt in his tux? maybe you need to know a little more about him before such questions are asked. besides being smarter than the average genius, being a gentle giant, and looking dashing in a pair of spectacles, matt rowan is the mayor of chicago. rahm emmanuel thinks that he is the mayor of chicago only because barack obama convinced him he was the mayor of chicago. he did this because rahm has a bad temper. matt rowan is not only an honest and well tempered mayor, he is a good looking mayor which is something you don't get with mayors in 2014. being a decent person and being physical attractive is damn near impossible but guess what?, mayor matt hulk rowan accomplishes this effortlessly. 

hey matt, you're tying the knot and it's going to be incredible. you have one of the best blogs in the northern hemisphere (bob einstein's literary equations). you wrote one of the wittiest, most entertaining pieces of prose that exist on the internet ( your jaw line is stronger than george clooney's. your swag outshines jonathan franzen's and hemingway's. you gave the middle finger to frigg magazine. you deserve all the success. you deserve all the moneys. you deserve a happy marriage. you deserve anything because you are matt rowan and no one can fuck with you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Suey Park and the Good and Bad of #CancelColbert

I read the Salon interview with Suey Park, comedian and social activist, who started the Twitter campaign to #CancelColbert in response to an ill-advised tweet posted on The Colbert Report's own official Twitter account. The tweet inspired controversy for a variety of reasons but principal among them was it offended many in the Asian community. I found Park's conversation with Salon enlightening. It was a phone interview, too, so I think it needs to be said that she was probably not at her most lucid or eloquent, at least if she's anything like I am when talking on the phone. So let's get to it. Here's what I think:

Firstly, I think certain leftist folks did successfully get taken in by Park's "trolling" or however you wish to refer to the CancelColbert hashtag (I get the sense, from what I've read in the interview, that "trolling" might be exactly the verb Park would use to describe her #CancelColbert Twitter campaign). All of this is to get to her bigger point, ripped from the context of anything related to Stephen Colbert (and the admittedly pretty weak Twitter joke and somewhat better but still weak Colbert sketch from which it was derived), that so often minority groups' histories of discrimination (and particularly East Asian and Indian Americans) are used with the ostensible hope of inspiring greater cultural awareness through irony (something Dave Chappelle found had exactly that effect on mainstream audiences when used on his eponymous television show -- people everywhere learned it was ok to use the n-word in whatever context they desired, or wait, no). So not to be that lefty, but worse than white liberal comedians' co-opting minority discrimination for ironic effect is mainstream American culture's inability to pick up on irony of practically any kind, as a general rule. But I can't ignore that Park's criticism of white liberals for borrowing too freely from minority groups' and the insults they've endured is completely spot on. I think it's also worthy to note that when the humor is employed successfully (i.e. the joke is funny, the satire hits precisely its intended target and without any obvious collateral damage) nobody seems to mind terribly much. This is a lot harder to do thoughtfully with the use of age-old stereotypes (though I won't say it can't be done), no matter how much irony lies in their use. (An aside, the thing that really gets me is, Stephen Colbert's sketch was successfully (and humorously) destroying the Washington Redskins and their outreach to "Original Americans" well BEFORE he referenced "Ching Chong Ding Dong.")

It's also important to think about why maybe Suey Park's campaign ultimately fails, or what it fails to do. I mean, white liberals could have been more self-reflective when the criticism was first leveled, instead of going batshit and immediately scrambling to defend Colbert and condescend to Park with all their ensuing "Do you even know what satire is?" mansplaining. What's worse, white liberals have apparently been guilty of the same doubling down we supposedly despise in our conservative counterparts.  That said, by its very nature (and Park, to her credit, doesn't attempt to argue otherwise in her Salon interview) this is a divisive campaign. It's a negative campaign. It's meant to hold the mirror to white liberals' faces and say, see what you're doing. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You think you're so much better, so totally all embracing of difference, than white conservatives. But you fall into the same egocentric traps, and think of different racial groups in the same stereotypical ways. I sympathize with white liberals (obviously). I see how maybe this "holding the mirror up" could be taken too far.

And so this brings me to my main point. My main bone of contention regarding the CancelColbert controversy. The power structure continues to be strongest in the sense of class structure. I think that we all sound like babbling, sniping idiots at each other's throats when the real problem gets ignored. I suppose how I differ from Colbert and that satire that inspired the controversy to begin with is, I have no desire to "use" certain groups as pawns or placeholders for some class-oriented issue I find objectionable. I just want to point my finger in the direction of the biggest societal ills and those forces that are most responsible. Park says some frustratingly absolutist things. "Whiteness will always be the enemy," "[Whites] have never been here for people of color," and "... all of the big historical figures in racial justice were never reasonable." Whether Park thinks it's pertinent or not (and based on everything she says in the interview I'd say she'd consider it, wrongly, irrelevant), I think it's worthwhile to note she's overlooking the true nature of who the "enemy" is -- that ever-dangerous label. In the interview Park also says,"... white liberals co-signed horrible things, like militarization, like drones, like stop-and-frisk." This to me is among Park's weakest arguments because it fundamentally misunderstands who white liberals are (indicating the danger of doing exactly what she is opposed to, broad categorization of an entire group of people based on things that have stereotypical or anecdotal truth to them). I think most liberals I know would be mortified to be lumped in with the Democrats of, at least, the last decade and a half or so (a party that has become nearly equal to the Republicans in its right-leaning economic policy). As Adolph Reed in Jacobin has noted, "The fact that those of us who consider ourselves on the Left must confront is that what the electoral options come down to are a choice between a neoliberal party that actively supports diversity and multiculturalism and a neoliberal party that actively opposes diversity and multiculturalism."

Do I think if everyone were equal racism and xenophobia would naturally, happily fall away, too? No. I think both (and many more societal ills) would still be huge problems. We have a way of becoming really clannish, as human beings. We're always trying to find that point of otherness, who's in and who's out. It appears to be an evolutionary safety mechanism but one rife with flaws -- for one obvious example, just because you look a certain way does not mean you're going to be anymore trustworthy than some other stranger whose difference is more apparent. I think that's where my culpability (or arguably cognitive dissonance) is completely obvious. Of course I don't see racism as the same problem as that groups marginalized by it do, and certainly not on any kind of regular basis. However, one thing I will add, I grew up with small eyes. This is stupid and a little beside the point, I admit, but it's true. I constantly was made fun of for "looking Chinese" so I know this shit is out there and it's fucking horrible. And to think there is any stigma for looking or acting a certain way outside "the norm" is insane and plainly wrong. But I still can't escape the fact that I see this divisive race-based stuff as a tool of the powerful. Distract those who look different with scapegoats, show them it's superficial differences that make us weaker as a society, ignore that people are living in greater class distinction than they have in a hundred years. And so with that, I would warn against white liberals co-opting stereotypes for some ironical and imprecise satirical end that plenty in audience are likely to misunderstand anyway (don't feel bad, Colbert -- Bertolt Brecht famously made the same mistake with his portrayal of amorality and greed in his play "Threepenny Opera"). But I would warn against minority groups (whoever they be) looking at everyone who is not with them as therefore being against them. "Whiteness" alone is not the enemy. Certain white liberals have revealed themselves to be horribly close-minded and to that end I hope this controversy has been a wake up call, but greater liberalism is on the side of the underclasses, whatever form they take. It's why liberalism is so easily maligned, the term itself turned into a dirty word. Powerful folks just seem to have an easier time getting their message out there. I suppose if I were allowed to offer any of my own advice to Park it would be this: when we stop hearing each other we all lose. The problem with radicalism found anywhere on the extreme ends of the political spectrum is, it often is too busy shouting for The Cause (admirable as it is, don't misunderstand me) than to allow for this self-reflection, this opportunity to consider how in some ways one could be wrong. That said, white liberals and comedians, let's avoid the race-based humor. It's going to alienate people, as we've seen time and again. Or don't and experience the consequences.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Oh Right, The Ultimate Warrior Was a Mega-Bigot Scum Ball

The Ultimate Warrior, born James Hellwig and legally changed his name to Warrior, died yesterday. I'm not among those who will miss him, not even a little bit. Go to the mainstream media obits if you're looking for people willing to remember him only for his pro-wrestling career.

Actually, and I'm not one to say things like this, I'm glad he's dead. Call him mentally unbalanced if you prefer to remember him fondly, but this lunatic ranted and raved about every number of subjects -- not the least of which being his hideously homophobic stance on gay rights. Yeah, he wrote this. Yeah, he was constantly saying bewildering things at various speaking events, things like "Queering don't make the world work" -- whatever that means, and I can hardly imagine a context in which it could be more lucid.

But perhaps more than any callous, disgusting thing Warrior said or wrote in his lifetime, I'm writing this post to repay Warrior for his thoughts on the death of Heath Ledger, whom he mockingly referred to as "Leather Hedger" -- presumably because of his role in Brokeback Mountain. (But honestly who really knows when we're talking about Warrior.) It was good that Ledger died, according to Warrior, because his young daughter wouldn't have to bear the burden of being raised by such a completely inept father, among other truly hateful things the guy said of Ledger. As I say, let me repay the favor, it's good that you died, Warrior, the world is better off.

Anyway, I'm also really happy I won't have to read anything more about one of his despicable, vitriolic rants gone awry.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Legend of Knifemouth’s Legendary Mouth Grows

In the small towns of central and southern Illinois there lives a very indecent sort of man. What makes this fella indecent is this: he will come for you in the night with his mouth all chock full of knife. It’s a peculiar affliction, having a good deal of knife in your mouth. They’ll tell you it came about from that knife accident. They’ll say that’s how come he’s got a long serrated knife wedged in the gap of his two front teeth, jutting for several inches out of it at a sharp decline, fang-like, which is a condition that leaves him with many cuts on his lower lip and chin, but what they won't be as quick to tell you is, Knifemouth's been dead so many years. I tell yer true.

Surely that isn't all there is to ol' Knifemouth, no sir. He also had that fiddle. That's how you knew he'd be coming close real soon. The fiddle was unusual, too. Made of metal and producing such cacophonous noise. Couldn't play it worth a lick, neither. Never learned on account of he picked it up after the knife accident, which I don't need to to tell you is what killed him dead. Hard to learn anything much when that's the case.

They say the knife accident itself happened one warm wintry night in Decatur or some such place. Knifemouth was at home fooling with his knife again, generally up to no good with all things knife. He probably imagined harming someone with it. Before Knifemouth was Knifemouth he was a man with a knife not in his mouth. This is essential to understanding Knifemouth, though it should be no surprise that before there could be a Knifemouth there needed to be a knife and a mouth, which is what he had. He used to laugh, putting the knife in his mouth -- the handle, not the blade. And this would be his undoing. Because when he did, he'd sometimes also do his jig -- imagining himself playing the fiddle that he couldn't play but did have in his possession. And it was the jig that proved fatal. What he never thought about was that he oughtn't leave his hands behind his back while doing the jig, and he certainly shouldn't have tempted fate even further by stringing that wire all about the floor for him to leap out of, for the reason of forcing him to really lift his feet as he jigged. And last, he was in a bad way if he thought banging his head around was ever a good thing to do in accompaniment of the jig. He was an unpracticed "headbanger" and it showed. It wasn't just the jig, then, but the strange way he evidently practiced his jig, that proved fatal. You can imagine, but I'll tell you, he tripped while head banging, arms pressed behind his back as he fell to the floor. The knife got slammed into the upper mouth area and his head banging was so forceful and reflexive that he about slammed the handle of the knife clean halfway through his brain. It's what got him on his way out of the life of the living, indeed. The bleeding that happened next took him all the way out of the life of the living.

You know something else? After they found the body, they lost the body, and you know, they never did find the body after losing it. Well. They found it again, near Foster's Landfill. But after they found it there, it got away from them again. They never did find it a second time. And probably this was directly because it had no desire to be found. Such is Knifemouth's will, and as ever will be.

But then there are those who think maybe just maybe that's the way ol' Knifemouth wanted it. That he wanted the knife where it was and he wasn't so bad at jigging as might have seemed to be the case. They never found the body, but there was so much evidence to point to its truth, that he had died in his jigging accident. Then there were all the strange instances of mysterious fiddling, fiddling so loud and so cacophonous that you couldn't hear your own brain scream at you to run and hide. And by the time the fiddling stopped and you could hear yer own brain again, well, by then it'd be too late, wouldn't er?

And of course there is the matter of the knife, how it fit in ol' Knifemouth. It fit in him scary as you in a small room with an ornery ox dressed in rattlers (the rattlers are guaranteed to be ornery on account of their already ornery constitution, meanwhile).

But it's on those moonlit warm wintry nights when the weather is strange that you're most like to find Knifemouth. You'll know him by his fiddle. And when he's fiddlin' and a knifin' you to death you'll know that actually it weren't you who find him but the other way around. And you'll never be seen or heard from again, until they find your body, which I don't need to tell you will be dead.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Totalitarianism And The Great Masses Fully Roused: Part II

I said I'd return to this post. It wasn't a lie. It's been a while, granted. And just how often I'll return to the subject remains to be seen, I suppose. I'm still fascinated by ideas of power, and the ways in which we willfully submit to power. I find myself submitting, deferring and otherwise overly aggrandizing the powerful all the time. I was meditating on this idea a lot the other day. Why? I get why, but still, why? What I do realize is, though there's merit to everything, once you find yourself in the esteemed position of someone like Malcolm Gladwell your obligation to a certain degree of scruples when disseminating your work is hardly what it was when you first started. You've been vetted. Your opinion carries more weight. You, in turn, are more important in the grand scheme of things. Tremendous. Wonderful. Congratulations, you. You did it.

People will continue to seek the upper echelon. In large part because Nietzsche wasn't wrong. There is a "will to power." I think its manifestations might be more nuanced than the desire for control over everyone and anyone who might try to undermine you, and so who you, in your turn, undermine as a result. In other words, in any scenario someone is going to need to be undermined, and it's up to you to decide whether that's you or that's not you. (It is possible that you'll have no choice at all, depending on your paltry little circumstances or lack thereof.) We're not quite that cynical, are we? On the whole? What I'm saying is we don't necessarily mean to force our own wills on others. It just sort of happens, a lot of the time, at least.

I was listening on the radio when a fragment of information appeared. The host was quizzing people on what wealthier folks are less likely to want to do than the rest of the population. The DJ said as you become wealthier you tend not to be willing to wait in line as much. I only have the anecdotal example of the many cars I see cruising along the shoulder of the highway, and that many of those cars are models that tend to be more expensive. Nevertheless, the notion seemed reasonable to me. My question was, and this the host did not elaborate on at all, are people who are wealthy that way as effect or is this tendency more causal in nature? In other words, do people who don't want to wait in line become more wealthy than the rank and file, and one aspect of this is their willingness to shove their way to the front of the line, probably on the flimsy pretense that someone else would do it if not them? If there is any justifying at all to the process. If it's not anything more than complete and unthinking entitlement. They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and it would seem the annoying patron with little to no social awareness or concern gets the conciliatory deals and compensation. People tend to get what they want, when they're of this mind: that for some reason or another it's what they're owed. That's not to say people don't complain for entirely justifiable reasons, and sometimes complain long and hard, giving the impression while doing so that they were probably driven to this point. I'm thinking of the infamous customer service call that leaked onto the internet last September, during which a man's harangue and the violent expletives included therein lasted for something around eight minutes. Here's a link to it, if you haven't heard it already. But somewhere along the way that carping seems to ring hollow. It seems the recourse of an untrustworthy sort, designed to fool the average you or me, who might hear it and find reasons to sympathize, no?

But it's that sleight of hand, good old misdirection. The masquerade that you're just a guy with a beef.

There's a lot about authority and absurdity out there right now. There's this article, which validates the notion that we tend to value absurd directives over more reasonable directives, because they seem to our thinking to be coming from a place of actual authority. The article is light on a few details I find myself curious about, though this is more or less necessary since there would be no way to objectively measure their presence. It's worth noting, though, that the answer could just be people tend to enjoy tearing stuff apart, when the opportunity is presented to them, when they're effectively told to just go nuts.

I think money and power is a vital theme, to be returned to as often as possible. They certainly go hand in hand in American society. They seem to go hand in hand the world over, too. With the U.S. Supreme Court's unsurprising recent decision to allow money to have even more say in American politics, we're really left with no other option but to conclude that your voice does matter more if you can afford it. That's not a democracy, or maybe more reasonably, we can define our founders' original government as a "constitutional republic." Still better than plutocracy, right? Oligarchy? What we're just about totally embracing these days. I'm not opposed to Scalia retiring. I think that much is obvious. Roberts, Kennedy, Alito and Thomas are all encouraged to do the same. You've earned it!

Robert Reich pretty masterfully skewers the popular talking point that the rest of us are simply envious of the wealthy, and that we should just stop being so envious already. It goes back to the great conservative - liberal divide: preserving the community (or, more cynically, the status quo) vs. the idea of universal equality. What the wealthy ought to remember is, actually, most people are fine not having what they have. Just because you spent your life maintaining or acquiring a fortune doesn't mean the rest of us desire that at all, or even a fraction of that. Certainly everybody desires the same right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." All three of which seem to be getting more and more difficult, not easier. (And when we're talking totalitarianism, it completely freaks me out because it's weary economic times like these, with a population under-educated and over-worked when the forces of totalitarianism are at their most viable.)

Plus the Boston Review's Claude S. Fischer has a great counterpoint to some seriously frustrating / obnoxious perspective from Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw. I think in Mankiw's "Panglossed perspective" of the so-called agreement between employers and labor, we see a perfect illustration of the ideological hold neo-liberal thought has on the greater academic world of economic theory. I will say, just as I think the humanities breed a more left-leaning belief system, economics breed a more conservative one. I'll also be forced to note the apparent monetary incentive for such beliefs, too. I mean, it's a smidgen intellectually dishonest, and I have to believe Mankiw knows this (isn't that deluded), to suggest that employers and laborers are equal players in deciding what a fair rate for the laborer's labors is (tongue-tied after writing that one, myself). Power would dictate without an intermediary like the government, and power would favor those with money (because they're effectively one and the same, as has been said before, I think). Workers could come together and unionize, but with the way unions have been so successfully maligned in the US over the past fifty years, it seems unlikely that's something that would get a lot of traction. Government is the last friend (and evidently a growing enemy, or at least impediment) of the average laborer, in my frank opinion.

I'll leave you with THIS LINK. My favorite "Shouts & Murmurs" piece in a mighty long time.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Speaking of Editing: The Latest SmokeLong Quarterly

I had a great time interviewing Bezalel Stern for SmokeLong Quarterly's latest issue, 43. You should check it out. It's a wonderful publication and I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity to guest edit, so thanks once again to the whole SmokeLong staff for giving me that opportunity.

I should also mention the awesome dude Ryan Werner has a piece in the latest issue, which you ought to check out as well. It's called "If There's Any Truth In A Northbound Train." Great title, I say. I had the wonderful opportunity to finally meet Ryan Werner during his trip to Chicago last Friday. He put together a reading that I participated in with my friend and Artifice head honcho, Peter Jurmu. It was at the Church of Templehead down in Pilsen. We talked DIY and the indie publishing realm, too. A lot of fun!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Taking on Fiction Editor Duties at Another Chicago Magazine

Hey all,

Happy to report, for the first time reporting on anything around these parts in a few months, that I'm the new fiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine. Can't say enough about how excited I am for this opportunity (although I tried over on the ACM blog -- Here) (many, many thanks to Caroline Eick Kasner, ACM's managing editor, for inviting me to join her staff). Another Chicago Magazine has been around and great for going on 40 years and it's just such an honor to be a part of this tradition.

Anyway, enough gushing. I want to read your stories, so send them to me. Please? Another Chicago Magazine is open. I'd be remiss not to mention the 3 dollar submission fee. I hadn't realized this before but Submittable's costs for a yearly membership seem to me increasingly exorbitant (despite the wonderful features they offer and the discount they extend to non-profit creative efforts like ACM). To have a fully functioning staff that can handle the volume of submissions ACM receives we need the money, I'm afraid. Know this, though, I take reading your submissions seriously and they'll get a fair and honest look (in more cases than not by both myself and another reader, at bare minimum), if not necessarily any personalized feedback.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Parabolic Turns

I like absurdist shit. Here's some absurdist shit I wrote awhile back. I posted it on Fictionaut, too, because I can post whatever I like there, here, everywhere that's here and there.

Parbolic Turns

There was a man dressed in stately attire. His name was Abacus, which maybe you find strange, but then keep this in mind: it is, after all, just a name.

He was eating a sloppy sandwich. It was probably brimming with meatballs, because he often ordered extra meatballs when he would order a meatball sandwich.

Occasionally, very occasionally, he would spill a meatball onto the ground where a scavenging city creature, a squirrel, a pigeon, perhaps even a rat, could get to it and be rather well fed. But he was usually very careful to make sure the entirety of the sandwich (all of the meatballs and everything) ended up in precisely the spot it belonged -- his mouth.

A spirited fellow chimed in, once, at the midpoint of Abacus' career, “Sir! I wanted to inform you, because I worry about the environment, sir, that you have in fact spilt a lot of what you are eating onto the ground. That is called littering. I hope you understand that I only mean well in calling you out about your littering. I want what's best for the world at large.”

“Most of what I've spilled is edible. The rest is wrappers that make up so little of the harm we do to our environment,” Abacus replied.

But the spirited fellow was vehement and persisted. “Sir, I must insist you clean up after yourself. I'm doing this for the environment. I don't want anything bad to happen to the environment. Ever. I want it never to happen.”

“Leave me alone. I'll discard my trash wherever I've trash to be discarded, even if that's not in a proper receptacle.” Abacus defied the spirited fellow. He noted the man's spiritedness but downplayed it by noting that he, Abacus, was indeed far more stately dressed.

“Then I should be the one to stop you.” And at that the spirited fellow and Abacus had a terrible row, till finally the spirited fellow's face was smashed with a rock, and he ran off cowering in pain. Abacus was somewhat relieved to have beaten his determined opponent. The spirited fellow's tie was blue, like that of a peasant. Abacus would remember it.

Later, many months later, Abacus was walking near an intersection where he was surprised to see a car crashing -- an odd parabolic turn leading its driver to hit and dislodge a fire hydrant, water from the hydrant become a geyser like you'll see in films. Abacus' dropped his trash on the ground, surprised. He thought about bending over to retrieve his trash but then decided he would not.

“I am back, sir. Good sir,” said that spirited fellow with the blue tie. He was wearing a cast on his arm from what Abacus assumed was an unrelated injury. “I'm for round two. Are you, sir? Are you going to pick up that trash?”

“You're trash!” Abacus shouted, proceeding to beat the man with an incidental log he'd found near his littered trash.

There would not be a “round three,” because this time Abacus beat the spirited fellow to death, strangling him with his blue tie for good if horrible measure. It was never discovered that Abacus was the murderer, though the spirited fellow's corpse was eventually found and reported to the authorities.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A poem

Gritty truth, human, you human, too human.
You are the king, queen, you are the knave.
Stalin dances on a coffee mug: no.
Y the dance.

Two dragons embrace, they cry.
Tigers grinning moanfully
Meatastic, you human

To the dogs go the spoils
bible smuggling, the other white meat
shoot me so I can never stop

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I'm Trying to Jinx Myself

I've had a great run so far as a writer of fiction and other weirdo stuff. I'm really glad for it. It's a great outlet, this writing stuff is. I'm happiest when it feels most natural, and happily -- most of the time -- it feels very natural. I'm also happy for the places I've been accepted for publication. I want to acknowledge that first and foremost, so I don't sound to whiny here in a second (though I know I'll sound whiny, and that's no one's fault but my own). I've had a ton of success publishing my stories. I'm really proud of that fact. HOWEVER, there's one realm I can't seem to break into. I'm sure we all have our "targets," those of us who write and submit work. Mine of late (that is, for the past two and a half years or so) have been literary publications associated with MFA programs. Usually they're amazing! The ones I like definitely are. And so I can see how exclusionary this necessarily leads them to be, how exceptional the work must be. But still, with all that taken into consideration, I'm humbled by my lack of success. While I've had hundreds of stories accepted over the past four years, only one has been published by a literary magazine associated with an MFA program (Booth Journal, which I highly recommend you read, by the way). Yes, poor me. Pity me! No, I know. Obviously, no one should do that. Don't pity me in the slightest. I have nothing to complain about. And yet, here I sit, typing out a pretty obvious complaint.

I guess the difference is, I don't expect anyone to coddle me (certainly in the wake of a rejection, I feel a good deal of outrage -- but I know that's my problem. What's more, eventually the feeling abates and I'm rational again). It's just stunning, the lack of success. I'm really impressed by my failure at this point. I suppose that's where I'm going with this, the positive spin I intend to make. Here is a complete list of the MFA literary journals I was rejected by last year alone: Washington Square Review, Whiskey Island, Moon City Review, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, The Journal, West Branch, Emerson Review, Devil's Lake, Superstition Review, Diagram, Quarterly West, LIT, Puerto del Sol, Ghost Town, Barnstorm, Redivider, The Minnesota Review, The Cincinnati Review, Bat City Review, AGNI, Phoebe, Beecher's Magazine, Noctua Review, Eleven Eleven, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, MAP Literary Journal, Gulf Coast, Cutbank Literary Journal, Passages North and Fence. And that was just last year. It's a bit liberating to write them all out like this. I might be forgetting a few. I know I submitted multiple times to quite a few on this list, so this list will need to be multiplied by number of times submitted and number of submissions each time (I send flash and prose poetry!). By my count, thirty-two separate places. Granted, they're thirty-two of the most revered publications that publish literature in the country. And in case you're wondering, yes, I've read pieces -- if not entire issues -- from each and every one. Something drew me to each one of them (I try not to just send my work out in rapid fire). (I should also mention several have been very kind with personalized rejections that give me that nagging hope that some day something could change.)

So ultimately, my hope is that this jinxes me. That one of the places listed finally caves to my undaunted, stupid will, which I expect in time will happen, and I finally can be published in an academic literary journal (other than Booth Journal, which again is awesome, don't misunderstand me). Thank you.

UPDATE (1/23/14): Green Mountains Review rejected me yesterday. The streak continues!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 2013 and Hello to 2014 -- Things Worthy of Checking Out

Firstly, a note from our sponsor that's written by me and goes as follows: I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because sometimes it's the robotic, objective eye of an internet web-based program that can be the best friend to your writing, and sometimes it takes that kind of robotic and objective eye to tell you what others can't (i.e. your work "has flaws" or plainly "sucks" -- though Grammarly won't literally say your work sucks; that you will need to infer (I myself have gotten quite good at inferring such things)). 

Honestly, I've used Grammarly on a trial basis, pasted in some stories I wanted to have someone look at, and I was really pleased with the results. I consider it a good thing and encourage your considering it as well. 

Now moving on: 

I think 2013 was a good year for writing and reading.

Tenth of December arrived and was what I hoped it would be, even being nominated for a National Book Award. You can see more of what I read and what I thought of it here. That's a link to TNBBC blog, a blog I become acquainted with in 2013 and highly recommend you read. Lori Hettler runs it and runs very well, if I may say so.

I didn't finish as many books as I set out to read (I read 24 of a planned 40, according to Goodreads). I did start quite a few, thoug, for whatever that's worth. In the place of books (i.e. poetry and short story collections and novels), I have discovered the joys of a great many literary magazines, and here, to name some: Whiskey Island, Unstuck, Caketrain, Salt Hill Journal, Mid-American Review, Sleepingfish, The Lifted Brow and Black Warrior Review. All are places I'd love to see my own work published, but even if it never finds a home at any of these journals / reviews / magazines, I'll at least have the pleasure of reading them. That's plenty. I encourage you to check them all out.

I've decided in 2014 I'm going to read 50 books. To do so, I'll have to finally finish all the books I started in 2013, which I believe I can do. What's more I want to,  I want to be a more proactive reader of novels and that sort of thing.

A book I'm excited for this coming year is Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore (it'll be out in February). I hope I don't have to explain why, but ok, I will. Because it's Lorrie Moore. Looooooorie Moore. She's great? Ever read her? Like her? Yes! Don't like her? What's the matter with you? Stop it. Self-Help is awesome. She is one of the great short story writers of our time, dammit.

Anyway, I think you should also be aware one of the great poets of our time, James Tate, has a few poems in the latest issue of NOÖ Weekly. What are you waiting for?