Advice and Dissent

I have a friend who asks for advice then argues over it. I’d like to give him advice about THAT, but…

Still, it made me think about advice and criticism. When it comes to advice — especially unsolicited advice — I guess I argue, too. Unsolicited advice seems to inspire the knee-jerk “Yes but…” Solicited advice? I hope I accept it with more grace. In that case I believe the right response is, “Thanks. You’ve given me something to think about,” or something along those lines.

The worst advice is when you’re doing something the way you want and someone jumps in to straighten you out. I know that makes my blood pressure rise. I have to hold myself back to remember they are not the boss of me; they’re trying to help.

Criticism is a species of advice — thinking about my friend yesterday I realized that. If he asks what I think about something, and I think differently than he does, he thinks (feels like) I’m criticizing him, and not criticism in the good sense — analysis and a studied opinion — but fault-finding. Sigh…

When I destroyed the future of the best novel I will ever write by NOT finding an editor for it early on (I didn’t know what an editor did, frankly, or how to find one) I learned a major lesson. The agent who rejected my book with the note, “Great story, but you need an editor” said the most useful thing to me maybe anyone ever has. I have a great editor now. She said something to me that made me feel really good. She said, “You know how to take criticism.”

Huh? I didn’t know that. We kind of talked about it and it seems that when she offers an opinion or advice to someone who’s paying her for that very thing, some of her clients get defensive and angry. I just said, “I don’t have to do what you tell me. And, when a suggestion you’re giving me looks like you don’t understand what I meant, that burden is on me to be more clear.” I understood she was trying to help me tell MY story. For a few hundred bucks I had a captive, interested, intelligent, supportive critic who was authentically interested in helping me tell MY story.

My attitude toward her criticism resulted from nearly 40 years of teaching other people how to write. That’s not intrinsic to me or my personality. I’m definitely a “I want to do this my way” kind of person by nature. Now, because of having been a writing teacher for such a long time, I get it. An editor is not an authority, but it probably feels like one to many of the people whose work they’re editing. We’ve all had so many teachers in our lives and they have all held red pens. It actually happened in one of my classes that a student handed me a purple pen with which to grade my papers. I don’t think I ever went back to red even though — for me — red, blue, green, purple it was all the same. For some of my students, that red pen was a sword slashing at the skin of effort and ideas, replacing their ideas with mine. Blinded by various things — the fact they hate English, they’d had mean teachers, pressures at home, they didn’t want to write the paper, the project was way difficult, etc. — they couldn’t wrap their minds around what the red ink really was. It seemed that — for many — a different color of ink sent a different signal.

I think the same might be said of advising my friend. My new strategy? “Cool. Try it and see how it works.” What the heck do I know anyway? 😉

Good Luck? Bad Luck?

In Patagonia’s breathtakingly beautiful annual magazine (catalog), I was reading a story abut three guys who attempted an unclimbed mountain in Alaska only to barely get down with their lives. The day was too warm; the ice was melting between the rock, sending boulders flying down a rock field. The author, Jack Cramer, writes about how good luck — not dying, losing a climbing partner, or being seriously injured even though a climber has made some pretty poor choices — might lead a climber to take more risks, not to be as wise and conscientious in the face of reality, as a climber who has had bad stuff happen on a climb. He writes in “A Partial Ascent of Mantok O”

“There is a belief among some gambling addicts that the luckiest someone can get the first time they visit a casino is to lose all their money. For those fortunate enough, the pain of an initial loss can be so severe that it steers them away from the tables and slots for the rest of their lives. By that logic the first decade I spent in the mountains was extremely unlucky. Year after year, I enjoyed consistent success against ever-slimmer odds. And the feeling of that success fostered an insatiable appetite for more. For a while, this was possible as my skills grew in step with my goals, but eventually they could not keep pace. To overcome the deficiency, I substituted risk-taking for skill, and that allowed me to enjoy success a little longer. It’s an easy substitution to make.”

It’s a narrow chasm between luck and not luck, I guess. It isn’t easy to define “luck,” anyway, and our world likes attributing success to hard work, preparation, etc. when a lot of time, it’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right times with the right person/people. It’s true that the heart-felt effort can throw itself against the world time and again and “get” nowhere while the other? If a person’s risks never pay off that’s a kind of lesson (for the person paying attention and of course if the person doesn’t die).

I know I have been lucky. My “luck” happened in 1999 when I got hired by San Diego State University but that “luck” wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t sent my resume and then following up with a visit to the department office to see if they needed teachers. BAD LUCK led me there. I lost a class at San Diego City College, and I didn’t know how I’d hold body and soul together without it. Was that bad luck or good luck? I don’t know. After the luck of discovering that San Diego State had called me that morning (home phone, back in the day) and then me showing up at their office (they concluded I was responding to the phone message they’d left but I wasn’t; it was a coincidence) it was up to me to keep the job. Then, luck again — a teacher in another department lost both her parents (very bad luck) and a new teacher had to be found ASAP and that was me. More classes and a new career direction? Her bad luck = my good luck. I was completely unaware where it would lead. I knew I’d make more money. I didn’t know that ultimately it would give me a pension and health benefits I have today. Was that luck? It depended on my doing good work for them for 14 years. That wasn’t luck.

The climber guy had some bad experiences — like rocks falling on his climbing partner’s head (helmet) without injuring the partner. These are, I think, small warnings from life. “Dude, this could have been a big-ass boulder and your friend could be dead.” The thing is that, in reality, it wasn’t a big-ass boulder. Still, the climbing team was climbing in conditions it knew were a long way from optimal. Risk. The greater the risk the greater the dependence on luck?

How does luck figure in when people insist on challenging reality? In this story, the climbing team turned around, and went back down the mountain. On the bottom they toasted their effort with champagne and mixed feelings. Climbers like this guy “tag” summits and want to “tag” unclimbed summits, so their failure to do that was a disappointment, but that they had returned safely was a success. He concludes, “How would have that mood (their return) have been different if we had escaped the rockfall and tagged the summit? Likely the aura of success would have masked any concerns about our decision-making.”

I think that’s the whole point with this luck thing. We don’t decide everything. The reason I lost my class at San Diego City College was because the Department Chair was having a baby, someone had taken over for her for 3 months and didn’t know about the multitude of part-time teachers who were usually put into Saturday morning class slots. My boss’ good luck (baby) led to my bad luck (lost class) which led to my good luck (San Diego State Job) which led me to The Big Empty. There’s something Panglossian about this luck thing, here in the “best of all possible worlds” luck probably features more than we know and too much “good luck” might — as the author of this article ponders — lead to carelessness and very bad luck.

Fair?

As a teacher, I was not a natural “lecturer.” And then, my first teaching career, teaching English as a Second Language, I learned that people learn skills — like language — through practice not by someone standing in front of the classroom divesting him/herself. It was best to “run” a “student-centered” classroom where the teacher facilitated learning. That meant class projects, group work, teacher checking in with students as they learn, conferencing with students. Great for me. I never learned much from lecture classes and was happy not to lecture. BUT, in 1999, when my career shifted to teaching writing to university students, I had to learn to lecture. And why?

Most people learn from lecture, from being told something. It’s a very efficient way of transmitting information. The thing is, writing is not exactly a “content.” Writing is a skill, but content is part of it. Once the content is transmitted, the students work, but at a certain point, usually the first two weeks of classes and whenever new material is introduced, a teacher has to lecture. I was so bad at it, and I wanted to get better FAST. Teaching at the university had been my DREAM, and I wanted to keep living it.

Some years earlier, I’d sat in on some classes with a friend — Introduction to Comparative Religions — taught by a guy named Dr. Mueller. My friend thought Dr. Mueller was the BEST TEACHER IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD. After I’d seen him lecture a few times, so did I. Searching for a way to improve my ability to lecture, I suddenly remembered Dr. Mueller. I decided to sit in on his classes for the first few days of the semester. In the back. He wouldn’t notice me and I had to figure out how he did what he did.

Freshman composition and Introduction to Comparative Religions might not seem to have much in common, but from a student perspective, they have a LOT in common. They satisfy requirements. Dr. Mueller’s job and mine were the same; get the kids interested enough that they show up for class and do decent work and — inshallah — learn something and develop some enthusiasm for the subject. It didn’t really matter that composition and philosophy are miles apart for the interested student; our “market” was the UN-interested student in his/her first semester at university.

Tough sell.

Dr. Mueller was energetic, enthusiastic, captivating. He didn’t cling to the lectern, but moved around the room and spoke to the students. He asked interesting rhetorical questions and not-so-rhetorical questions. He related to the students’ actual lives. He was older than I was by maybe a decade, so it wasn’t his youth that appealed to his students (they are funny that way). It was his way of lecturing.

I sat in that class — and another of his introductory classes — for the first three lectures for, I dunno, maybe four semesters? I saw that he gave essentially exactly the same lectures every semester. I understood that this was theater, not lecturing, per se. A-HA! His goal was less about transmitting information and more about getting students curious. After that? I knew what would happen after that. They would start TEACHING THEMSELVES. Teacher as facilitator. I could do that.

The content of one of those lectures has stuck with me. Dr. Mueller made up a situation in which (as I remember) a guy (or girl, depending) got dumped for someone else. “It’s not fair!” cried Dr. Mueller in the role of the dumpee! Then, “Is it?” He’d look at a student for a response. “C’mon, maybe you’ve been in that situation. No? How about you?” He’d pick on someone else. “Is it fair?” The whole class would be engaged, wondering what was going to happen. Invariably the kid would shake his/her head.

“Fair is for soccer,” pronounced Dr. Mueller, returning to the front of the class, reassuming his professorial role, through body-language telling his class “OK kids, here’s the thing you need to remember from this play-acting. “Life isn’t fair. It doesn’t have a referees or rules. And if it did? Would YOU be the person who made the rules?” Heads shake all around the classroom. “No,” Dr. Mueller would say, softly. “Probably not.” Then he’d make his serious point, “Our sense of justice is centered on us, on what we want. If we get what we want, it’s fair. If not, it’s not fair. Is THAT fair?”

Years went by, and I was lecturing well on my own. Then, one day, I was teaching a class in the building where Dr. Mueller had his office. I came out of my classroom just as he was going down the stairs. Our eyes met. Of course, I knew who he was. He only knew he’d seen me before and felt he should say something. He said, “Well, hello! How have you been?”

I’m 100% sure he didn’t get the full message in my response, “Great, thank you!”

How did I do? Here’s my report card. My students wanted to make sure all my classes filled so they put up advertising all over campus. Business Majors do what they do. IDS 290 was Basic Business Communication.

Do Be Do Be Do

The first time I heard the word “polymath” was in a college writing class. No, the word did not emit from my repository of SAT words, but one of my Mexican students asked something about Goethe. “Wasn’t he that German polymath who wrote poetry, drew and painted, developed theories of optics and the origin of plants?”

I looked at the student and thought, “That’s an interesting word!” And I thought, “Boy, if you grow up speaking a Romance language you have the SAT sewn up.”

Lately, I’ve been reading academic papers about the Middle Ages from a site called “Academia.” They send me papers periodically, and if they interest me, I read them. One caught my attention, “The Aged polymath as a Non-professional Artist” by Joseph Salzman. It discusses the retired scientists who become artists after retirement and the hurdles they must face — notably learning to paint (ha ha). Some of his points ring true for me, too. I’m not a retired scientist, but I have not been a career artist, either. If I’m honest with myself and look at my actual life as I have lived it, I have been a teacher. So…I have had to learn about the materials, struggle to get my work shown (even more difficult in a place where no one lives), face my lack of skill, deal with jealousy and competition (not mine; other artists in this place where there are more artists than people…what?)…

I remember the way some of my science teachers looked down their noses at art, as if it didn’t require any “mind,” knowledge or discipline. My dad — a theoretical mathematician — had a high regard for art, particularly poetry and drawing, and he tried all his life to improve his abilities at both. I grew up with that as a model. I’ve always known that the dichotomy between art and science is a false dichotomy, but… Salzman writes in his piece about the OPPOSITE judgmentalism on the part of artists toward the retired scientist turned painter which is, basically, that the cool kids won’t let him play.

But there is a more compelling challenge: the perspective of the art-world. The aged poly-math is trying to erase boundaries while the art world institutions are set to preserve them. In spite of the high diversity and variability of artistic expressions, institutions, constructs, there is always a divide, a frontier between the professional artist and the “others”, and the ubiquitous gatekeepers (Art critics, curators, gallery owners, dealers, art teachers) Gate keepers defend boundaries by using social theories of cultural capital, habits, and held value. They may assume the role of arbiters of quality without offering justification for their judgments.

They marginalize by labeling: outsider, art-brut, folk-art, self-taught artist, naïve-art, outlier,craft, junk art, and more recently amateurish! Labels communicate confusing ideas, causing misunderstanding and derogative connotation. But polymathy is beyond all that. It is rooted on the very foundation of humanity: onfostering culture. Regardless the specific field: science, technology, poetry, mathematics or the arts, the polymath is vitally engaged 

Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist”

The word “amateur” means “one who loves” and that should be reason enough for anything we do. I have no problem being an “amateur.” If there were some miracle and I were suddenly a famous painter/writer I’d still be an “amateur” (I hope). And a dilettante — one who delights. Bring it on. And, IMO, any artist should work for the sake of the work FIRST. Any accolades (and money) are kind of after the fact. A retired scientist — presumably with a pension — isn’t in the same boat as a young person striving to make his/her way as an artist. That retired scientist is like me.

I’ve thought a lot about what if I’d had art as a career. My mother was adamantly opposed to either my brother or me being an artist. My brother went for it anyway (kind of) and I didn’t, but it didn’t mean I stopped making art, stopped writing and stopped painting. Not at all, never. But the necessity of earning a living meant I had to work and, lucky for me I had work that I loved and which was meaningful to me most of the 38 years I did it. I realized some years ago that I was lucky that my mom pretty much forced me NOT to become an artist (I began college as an art major) because I was never compelled to become an art whore. I’m no great talent. I’m a good talent that, until I got to know myself, would have been a pretty decent commercial artist. Nothing wrong with that, but teaching was better for me. Being a versatile kind of human made me a better teacher — I think. Being a teacher made me a better person — I’m sure.

The question the article ends with is the important point, the meat of polymathy. That question is “Why?”

For him there is no outside or inside. If he makes art, it is simply because he has to. He may bring new values, new projections, create novel versions of the world. Isn’t this the real platform of progress? In reality, not every retiring polymath becoming a non-professional artist is likely to be-come a modern Leonardo. Still, they hold a potential value of social impact. In words of (Professor) Martin Kemp:

…true polymathy involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness, and humility… the principle of see-ing something as it were something else – seeing it as belonging in other than its normal conceptual place – is more vital now than ever if we are to nurture the culture of mutual understanding necessary for the survival of the human race…

Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist” (Joseph Salzman is an Emeritus Professor at The Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Zisapel Nanoelectronics Center, TECHNION The Israel Institute of Technology.)

So, if I had Joseph Salzman in front of me right now I’d just say, “Shut up and paint,” but I’m not sure he’d listen to me. After all, I was just a writing teacher. 🤪

Featured photo: Goethe’s color wheel

Just another Mafioso

One of the first castles I ever saw was referred to by my friends as Castello Erasmo and it’s in Predjama, Slovenja. The story that brought me there is long and probably incredibly interesting in tabloid news style, but I’m not writing it here (maybe no where). The original structure (long gone) was built in 1274. The castle has since been rebuilt many times. Its protective palisade is the mouth of a cave. The castle butts up against a rock face.

I had not become a Swiss Medievalist Historian yet. It was my first trip to Europe — 1994 — and the trip was fraught, plain and simply fraught, but being born is NEVER easy and being born as an adult into a new life is REALLY not easy.

The guy for whom the castle is named was a robber baron who got into trouble with the Hapsburgs (pretty easy to do, I think, since they were everywhere). Legend has it that he met his demise (always wanted to write that) when he was hit by a cannon ball while sitting on the toilet. The coolest thing about the castle is that there is a way out the back that leads to the top of the cliff, pretty handy in times of siege especially as there was water up there.

“Wow. I didn’t even know Erasmus was in Slovenia.” I remembered reading In Praise of Folly in college. It was an interesting if fairly inaccessible satire for me at 18.

I did not know that Erasmus was a common name back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I got home from Europe and found myself reading Erasmus (the famous one, the one who wasn’t a mafioso). I struggled with the Latin (never been one to take the easy or sensible or even POSSIBLE route) then gave up and read the words on the facing page (English). Sigh.

Live and learn.

I have a lot of respect for ignorance. THAT benighted journey took me to the Reformation, not Slovenia. OK.

You never know where ignorance will take you — ignorance + curiosity have taken me a lot of places I never imagined I would go. There’s something cool about being a self-taught kind of person, I don’t mean the person who ignores science and believes what they “learn” on Youtube about the Corona virus, I mean the person who wants to find out more about something and does real work, real research to find out. It’s different from school which goes in arbitrary stages — grades, exams, finals, finishes, OK, kid, you got this — but that doesn’t stop. As a teacher I really didn’t think I “taught” anyone anything. I just put the stuff in front of them and showed them something about how to do it and how they would know if they succeeded. I couldn’t “teach” them if they didn’t want to do the work needed to learn it. It was really ON them. At best I showed, facilitated and guided. The best thing I could do — I thought — was inspire in them the desire to learn it, to help them become open to a new experience (writing). Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One thing I learned about school in my later years is that it gives you skills you can use your whole life to learn things.

There are other castles built against cliff faces. I wanted to write about a castle like this and found one in Switzerland. I wanted to go see the ruins during one of my trips to Switzerland, but it turned out to be impossible for a lot of reasons — weather, family illness, time… It’s in the Canton of Solothurn, Ruine Balmfluh. It’s built against a cliff in the Jura Mountains.

It’s true what Europeans say about Americans, that we like castles. 🤪 Oh, and the word “palisade?” It is a pretty word, but not such a pretty thing. Some of them were pretty sinister.

Post Script: Contending with Fardles

I really appreciate all the kind comments to my glum post this morning. After I wrote it I got the idea that maybe I should tackle a doable project that’s been weighing on me emotionally and physically (to some extent) so I headed out to the garage.

I imagine we all have sadness and disappointment in our families. I have a niece I love very much but who has disappeared from my life completely. I worry about her, but I can’t find her. I know where her mother is, but her mother is mentally extremely fragile and her mother’s husband is a combination of carer and and and? I don’t know, but I can’t reach her through him. I guess they don’t really want to hear from me which is OK. BUT. My mom put together two beautiful photo albums — one for each side of my family; her family and my dad’s. They were for my niece.

This past week, a blogging pal wrote about finding a lot of random old photos in a Goodwill store. She wanted to know the stories. That made me think of a photo album my neighbor found long ago in a dump in a nearby city, an album from WW I with scenes of an army guy (the owner?) in Italy and various other places. The photos in that old album were wonderful, but I felt a little weird, a little like a voyeur. Anyway, I have had those photo albums on my mind for a while. Those and all the letters between my parents when they were young and in love, just starting their lives. With them I thought of my Aunt Jo who burned all the love letters between her and my uncle to protect their privacy. So, today I went through (and emptied!) 2 bins of family memorabilia and got rid of half of my Christmas decorations. I don’t put up a tree so????

I contacted my cousin’s daughter and asked her if she’d like the album from our mutual family. She was so happy to have it. I seriously feel like a huge burden has been lifted from my spirit. I’ve wrapped it up in brown paper and it’s on its way tomorrow. My cousin’s daughter also wanted a little nativity I bought in Mexico for my mom.

As I worked, my spirit felt progressively lighter. I have no problem tossing the contents of the other album after I take some photos to put on my Ancestry tree.

When I finished these labors I thought, “OK. Everything left is just my life,” and that’s, I think, how it should be and I’m a LOT less glum.

Another thing I found is a small silk mass-produced tapestry of a scene, I think in Hangzhou. In itself it might not be anything special, but its story is. When I was teaching international students in San Diego in the late 1980s I made friends with a Japanese student who had been a cook in a Chinese restaurant in a resort in Hokkaido. He rented a room from the Good X and me for a while which was great because he cooked. 😀 Anyway, his father and his father’s friend came to visit.

I was nervous. These men were both WW II Veterans from the OTHER side. Aki had warned me that his father was very old fashioned, very conservative and hated Aki being in the US with the “enemy.” I knew a lot more about the Chinese Anti-Japanese war than did most Americans and I wasn’t sure about having a Japanese soldier in my house. It was a little weird.

We picked them up at the airport. Aki’s dad was rigid but Japanese friendly/polite. His friend? Wow. Friendly, open, curious, outspoken. The first thing Aki’s dad did was walk through my (large) garden which was designed in a semi-Asian style (homesick). He came in the house and said, “I had no idea Americans garden!!!” The friend saw some of the Chinese hangings I had at the time (lines of calligraphy from friends in China). He said, in pretty good English. “You know China?”

I said I’d been there a year. Then he told me he’d been a guard at a POW camp. He was 18. He didn’t understand why the Chinese were enemies of Japan. Some of the guards were Chinese. The friend said a lot of things, including that Japan’s culture came from China (not totally true, but…) I can’t remember everything, but they made me think about the war — history in general — differently. I began to understand something about the intense worship many Japanese had of the Emperor and that while sides are enemies in general in particular? Maybe not. We all know that, I guess, but hearing it from this man was very special. “I had a Chinese friend at the camp. I like Chinese.” He had even been back to visit.

Their visit ended with the usual journey to “Glando Canyono” and “Ras Vegas.” Months later I got a package and thank you from Aki’s father’s friend. I opened it to find the small tapestry the Chinese man had given him. It’s a real treasure and I thought it was long gone.

Oh and yet another draft of the Pearl Buck Project… THAT’S hopeless.

Here’s a photo of the edge of the tapestry telling where it was made.

Later, I’ll Get to it Later


“Hey, Fred. Why is it you never finish anything you start?”

“I thought about that.”

(He THOUGHT about that???)

“Yeah, and?” I’m looking at ungrouted tile in a corner of our kitchen. It’s been that way for two years.

“Well, I like to know I always have something to do.”

The Good X was NOT like the other kids. Or not like me anyway. I hate unfinished projects hanging over my head which is either why I’m great or crap as a team player, I guess depending on who’s looking. 🙂

I used to ask my students, “How many of you put off your essays until the night before they’re due?”

Masses of hands reach for the sky.

“Why?”

Invariably they would say, “I do my best work under pressure.”

I answered, “If you always do your essays the night before they’re due, that doesn’t mean you do your BEST work under pressure. It means you ONLY work under pressure!”

Sometimes there was a lilt of laughter; usually not. “Tell you what. If you get your work done early, and show me, or take it to the writing tutorial center, you’ll get a better grade.”

Because no one ever understands anything anyone says, especially what the teacher says, most of them thought they’d get extra points for doing that, not that they would have feedback and the chance for revision before they turned in their paper for a grade.

Cracked me up. Students tend to think their teachers are out to get them, but students are out to get themselves. They are masterful self-saboteurs. Someone would always ask, “Can I revise it after you grade it? Isn’t that the same thing?” They just thought I was teaching them writing. Ha.

“No, dude, sorry.”

“Well, why not? It’s the same thing.”

“Uh, no. It’s not the same thing.”

“Well, yeah, it is. I write it, I turn it in, you help me with it and I revise it for a better grade. What difference does it make whether it’s before or on the day it’s due?”

“Here’s the difference. You bring it to me early, it’s the ONLY paper I have to look at and YOU get my undivided, unpressured attention and you inspire me to respect you for doing your work early. How’s that for benefits, dude?”

“Whatever. You’re the professor.” The charming resigned hostility of the 20 year old male who, out in the hall, would very likely mutter, “bitch.”

They were lucky I liked them all so much — I did! They were who they had to be for the moment in their lives…

But…

I often wonder what the purpose of language is, anyway. Bear communicates to me in complete dog sentences with absolute clarity. There are three different ways to say, ‘I want a cookie.’ There is coming to where I am, looking at me and then moving her head toward the kitchen. If I ask, “Do you want a cookie?” by way of confirming that I understand she nods toward the kitchen again. Another is to ask to go out knowing that when she comes in, she’ll get a cookie — but only at night (she used to be reluctant to come back inside since livestock guardian dogs are nocturnal by nature and think they should guard during the night). Then there’s the moment when I KNOW she wants a cookie, but I offer her something else and she shakes her head. Sometimes I wonder when a completely NON-verbal animal can communicate relatively complicated things like this just with her head and eyes, and I do what she tells me, why didn’t my students see that procrastination bit them in the ass?

In the featured photo Teddy is saying, clearly,”Can I have your coffee cup?”

Twenty years…


“Oh wow! It’s been 20 years since 2001! Where were you at 9/11?”

That’s where we are today. 10 years, 20 years, 1 year. These markers mean a lot to humans. Why do these anniversaries matter? Though, I have to admit it was amazing to learn that my cousin was in NYC in a cab when it happened.

Last year was my 50th high school reunion — not celebrated, of course, it’s going on now.I wanted to talk to my high school classmates about their lives over the past 50 years, but not enough to actually drive 150 miles with a less-than-perfect shoulder. I went to high school with some amazing people (probably we all did) and I wanted to find out about them. Couldn’t we do that any time? But we don’t.


Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution, and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of this dark day, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself. (this section originally posted in 2015)


9/11 opened the door to much of what we’ve seen in the past year (four years? five years?) A 20 year war? The acceptance of untruths and dishonesty in the name of patriotism (not new: the normal way of accepting the unacceptable). A lot of stuff started on that day that had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. GWB saying, “You’re either for us or against us,” resounds through the country today.

I dunno. I don’t understand us at all. Humanity is a confusing kaleidoscope and I’m as confusing as any of it.


Featured photo — the first Scarlet Emperor Bean seeds of 2021.

Relevance


The seeds of destiny are sown in mysterious realms.

“What does that MEAN???”

“It means that destiny is, well, OK, it’s like this. The seeds of destiny are sown in strange places.”

“Yeah but what are ‘seeds of destiny’?”

“Sperm.”

“Huh??”

“Yeah.”

“So the whole vagina uterus thing is a ‘mysterious realm’?”

“Well, yeah.”

Tom and Trevor, have you got an interpretation of that line of poetry to share with the class or are you giggling over something else?”

“Sorry Mr. Schmidt.”

“So, have you interpreted that line?”

“Trevor did, but I think he’s wrong.”

“Tom, there are no ‘wrong’ interpretations of poetry. The poet just wants you to think about what he’s said. Trevor can’t be ‘wrong’. There is no ‘wrong’. We don’t use that word in my class. Go ahead and tell us what you think. Stand up so we can hear you.”

Trevor stood, sure in his interpretation.

“Well, like ‘destiny’ is our future, right? And the seed comes from our dad and goes into our mom. And all that stuff inside women is pretty weird and mysterious. Realms are places. That’s what it means, ‘the seeds of destiny are sown in mysterious realms’.”

Mr. Schmidt’s face went pale and he held his lips tightly together.

“Dude,” Tom whispered, shaking his head, “I told you.”

Sharon, Shannon and Sherry turned bright red. Janine, Jerome, Janelle, Jessica, and Jim laughed so hard tears streamed down their cheeks. Ramona, Robbie, and Rex sat stunned, afraid to laugh because maybe Trevor was right and they hated this poetry shit. Others sat wide-eyed, staring at Mr. Schmidt, waiting for a cue.

“OK,” said Mr. Schmidt. “Who has the next line?”

Nothing Lasts Forever

Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.

I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.

So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.

When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”

“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.

“How can I do that?”

“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)

When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”

Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.

“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.

When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.

I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.

Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.

But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.

Robert Richardson Jr., Biographer of Literary Giants, Dies at 86 (NYT)

Opinion: How America can shift to the right direction (WaPO)

The featured photo is from this article in USA Today about his biography of Thoreau


The email I wrote in 2018? looking for him when he was still there.

Dear Bob — I was looking for you online this evening and happened on a page that said you were dead. Someone left a note that was a tribute to your work on Emerson. I was stunned, wondering, “Is this true?” I kept looking and found nothing else that indicated you were no longer “here.” In doing that, I found out a lot about your recent projects and something about your current life. I hope you remember me. I think about you pretty often and how lucky I was that you were my thesis adviser, how right you were about who I am (though back at the University of Denver I didn’t have much of a clue).

I tihnk the last time we corresponded I had just finished writing a novel (with which I was in love) and I wrote asking what I should do next. You said, “Find an agent.” I followed your advice and went out in search of one — and that was the SASE days when one might be blessed with a rejection slip on actual paper. One of these said, “You need an editor,” and he was right. 

My writing life has been fruitful, minutely rewarding financially, entirely without an agent and very enlightening. It’s brought me many of the happiest moments of my life. Most of all, I’ve loved what I’ve written and the work that’s gone into the books. Turns out I’m a Swiss Medievalist Historian — i know this is true because I was labeled by two Swiss Medievalist historians. You can see what I’ve done if you want to here at marthakennedy.co

Of your work I really enjoyed the little book, “First We Read, Then We Write” — I wanted to assign it as a text in one of my writing classes, but at that point I was teaching mostly Basic Business Communication at San Diego State and Freshman Comp at a couple of community colleges who had sold their souls to the beast of Prentice/Hall, so that didn’t happen. I love the William James book. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was my father’s favorite book. He carried a little copy with him when he was in the Army and that book was his last Christmas present to me before he died in spring 1972. Having learned (tonight) of yours I will have to get one. 

Mostly I want to know that you are still here. I retired from teaching (what?) after 30+ years (double what) in 2014 and moved from the San Diego area to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I love it. I’m surrounded by mountains; the Rio Grande traverses it, I’m 1 1/2 hour from Taos, I have real snow, the light is amazing, the people are warm and friendly. I’m in Monte Vista, a town of 4000 and the home of the first pro-rodeo in Colorado. 

I hope you get this and I hope to hear from you. 

Warm regards,

Martha

121 1st Ave

Monte Vista, CO 81144