I gave my AP Lit students an assignment: they had to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and fill the book with annotations. They turned their books in last week, and as I was looking through them, I noticed something.
I want to be honest. Want to clear the air.
We have a new president. And he may have many good qualities — though hope for that is fading fast — but there are a number of things about him that are highly disturbing. Perhaps the worst are that he is narcissistic, and indifferent to truth, facts, and transparency. And I don’t mean that as a cheap insult, a dig at him based on his political difference from me or even his appalling personality; I mean quite literally that he appears to be a true narcissist, in love only and always with himself; he really doesn’t seem to care what the truth is so long as he can spin it to reflect well on himself. So extreme arrogance, and dishonesty, are the fundamental issues here — though again, that may only be the scum on top of the cesspool. There may be worse stuff lower down. But for now, these will do.
I just got chewed out, a couple of days ago, by a former friend on Facebook for some of my bad habits. And it hurt, but only because he was right, and I have been fooling myself about those bad habits, pretending they aren’t as bad as they are, or that other people wouldn’t even notice them. Not true. I was lying to myself, in order to protect my ego.
I was like President Stump.*
(*I refuse to type his actual name on this blog. Here’s why.)
Okay. Not that bad.
The guy who tore me up is, let it be known, arrogant on a scale I can’t match, and also a manipulative, obnoxious fuckbiscuit. But that doesn’t matter: that’s for him to deal with, not me. I have to deal with me.
See, the thing is, I spend a lot of time on this blog, and in my fiction books, saying what I think is right. And that is an essentially arrogant stance to take. It is worse for me because I base my authority merely on my opinion of myself, and my ability with language. Which is nice and all, being able to string words together, but it certainly doesn’t make me right all the time: the words reflect thoughts, and to be really right words, they have to come from right thoughts.
However, as I was telling my class today, the only thing a writer can ever be sure of is his own opinion of his work. While writers should consider their audience, we can’t really know what people think of our words and our ideas (Which is why comments are always welcome and appreciated! Even critical ones, because then I know when to pull back on the stick.), we can only know what we think. I think my stories are interesting, which is why I write them. I think my insights are insightful, which is why I share them. It’s the only reason I can ever have to share what I write: I think it’s the right thing to say.
I don’t have a problem with that truth. I can accept that my interests are my best subjects, and that if I think something sincerely, then I will write about it better than something I pick because I think other people will like it. I don’t mind at all that other people don’t always like what I like. I accept the basic egotism of being an artist. But I don’t want anyone thinking that I see myself the way President Rump sees himself. I don’t want people to believe that, just because I act like I’m all that and a bag of chips with a philosophy degree, that I, too, am a fuckbiscuit. I’m not.
So here’s the truth.
I’m arrogant. I think of myself as more intelligent than most people out there. I recognize that other people have knowledge and abilities that I don’t, and I know there are things I know nothing about, and could not learn; but I also think those things aren’t as important as what I know and what I’m good at. I have no valid reason for this belief; I just think it because it makes me more awesome. I think fast and I talk fast and I write fast, and voluminously, excessively, mind-numbingly, all three. Too much. All three. What I don’t do enough of is — listen. Read. Learn. If true wisdom is knowing what you don’t know, then I’m an idiot: because I think I’m a genius.
I argue this way. I don’t read carefully enough what my opponent has to say, I just — and this hurts to say, because I tell my students they should never do this — I find a flaw in the argument and then I attack it. I don’t pay attention to the rest of the argument, as long as I have my weak spot to stab at. I elevate my diction in order to seem objective, but really, it’s a cheap dodge to cover the basic flaw of most of my arguments, which is this: I’m making it up on the spot. I don’t have a whole lot of basis for a lot of my opinions. I think they make sense, and I strive to make them make sense, but there’s not a lot of foundation underneath the surface. I am logically shallow, just good at poking at weak points, and also talking really fast and saying a whole lot that doesn’t have much substance behind it. Sounds good, though. Well — to me.
I teach this way. I do not prepare very much, because I know I can entertain a class, and give them at least a veneer of insight that I come up with pretty much off the cuff. But I don’t read literary analysis, nor pedagogy textbooks, and I don’t try to improve what I do on a fundamental level. I change around what the classes read, and when I remember an insight from a past class (I do have a good memory, which helps) I add it in; but the aspects of my teaching style that don’t work very well stay in place because I don’t do the work necessary to change them. Largely because I think that my system is just fine. Because it’s my system. And I’m arrogant.
I write this way. I don’t edit much, or do a whole lot of drafts; I haven’t studied writing other than studying literature. I know there are flaws in my writing — I talk too much, mainly — but I don’t try to fix them. Because the way I write is fine, because it’s the way I write, and surely that’s good enough. My lack of tangible success is a reflection of the world not seeing my genius; not any reason why I need to change.
Along with arrogance is this: I am lazy. I am damned lazy. I know about my bad habits, but I don’t change them, because it would require effort. I thought about doing my exercises tonight, but I just had Cheez-its, instead. I planned to read much more this year, but so far, I’ve mostly spent time playing mindless video games. My usual habit is this: I recognize a problem with my arguing or teaching or writing, or with myself and my lifestyle; I castigate myself for a little while, until I feel like I’ve suffered enough angst for the flaw — and then I tell myself that I can’t change who I am. Then I start building rationalizations, false justifications for just staying the way I am. Not because I think my flaws are good — but because I don’t want to put in the work to change them. I don’t want to edit my writing. That’s hard. I’d rather just bang out a single draft and call it good. Well, really, I’d rather play mindless video games and listen to Hamilton.
I think the best word for me is glib. I react quickly and perhaps wittily, but without a whole lot behind it. I don’t think about things for very long, and I don’t spend time trying to learn what I don’t know. I am facile, and perhaps charming, and so I get encouragement from the people around me, which confirms for me how cool I am. Though I don’t really need that: because I know I’m cool. And my opinion is enough. Anybody who thinks less of me is clearly wrong and probably a jerk.
There’s more: I have a pretty serious temper, and I tend to cover it until I blow, usually without warning, and then I yell and curse a lot, pitch a fit, and then withdraw to feel put-upon and pouty. I can genuinely hurt people when I blow — I have scared students by yelling loudly; I have hurt the feelings of those I love: I have said terrible things to my wife, to my friends, and to my brother and my parents. I have yelled at and terrified my pets, throwing things and hitting things to make loud noises. I’m sarcastic, and often insulting, particularly in argument. For a guy who wants to be honest and usually claims to be fundamentally honest, I sure lie a lot. Mostly to students. Sometimes it’s even justified. And, obviously, I’m a hypocrite: I criticize other people for not being open-minded, for not trying to learn and improve, and then I sit back on my steadily widening ass and eat more Cheez-its. I talk about the importance of deep thought, and of honesty, and of valid, genuine argument. And then I do all the shit I do.
I am sorely tempted to finish this up by talking about my good qualities. But I think for once I will stop myself from going on. This is what I wanted to say: in a lot of ways, a lot of really important ways, I suck.
Just thought you should know.
A last postscript: it is — I don’t know, probably? Definitely? Surely? — true that the fuckbiscuit isn’t really that arrogant. It’s just that he had the gall to point out my flaws, and be right. (He basically said I talk faster and more than I think, get snotty to cover up my own confusion which is caused by my tendency not to take my time and think things through, and that I insult my opponents and then act put-upon and pissy when they call me on my own bullshit. And that I do this so I can stroke my ego, not so I can actually learn or improve myself or my opinions, which is why I claim to argue. So, I’m a liar, too. All true.) And I don’t like the way he did it, but then, it was effective, and I’m not sure that another approach would have been. So if he is manipulative, it might have been, really, for my own good.
Though I’m not taking back the “fuckbiscuit” part.
Further postscript: I recognize that this post seems like a confession that puts the lie to what I’m confessing — I can’t be that arrogant if I talk about how much I suck! I can’t be a liar if I can be this honest! — but this is one step back from years of these bad habits. I don’t think it balances the scales. I really am all of these bad things; this post is just an anomaly. I want to say that I’m working on these things, and maybe I am. But maybe I’m just going to eat more Cheez-its.
Much nicer than my own statement on a similar theme.
Imagine that you are standing before a rose garden. In front of you a series of stems rise from the earth and reach towards the heavens above. Some are tall; some short. Some are straighter than others, and a select few carry more thorns than the rest. Their petals are in various stages of bloom too. Whereas some are wrapped up tightly in sepals, others have opened and allowed their oils to warm in the sun, emitting a fragrance that smells divine.
Imagine kicking off your shoes and stepping into garden. If you have a partner, or a child, or just a friend that you wish to take with you, then grab their hand and ask them to follow. Feel the dirt between your toes, and the heavenly scent on your tastebuds as you carefully weave your way through the maze of stems and thorns. Now imagine finding the perfect rose…
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There are a lot of ways to look at education.
You can see education as a means for students to practice and perfect skills: writing skills, reading skills, math skills, science skills. Incremental improvement in ability over time, largely through careful, guided practice. The steady honing of a functional tool, which will then be slotted into its proper space in the Machine.
You can see education as a place for children to explore: to learn what is out there in the world, and what connections they can make to it, and to each other, and to themselves. School is a big pot of fun ‘n’ friends; the Best Time Of Their Lives.
You can see education as the passing on of a torch, the filling of a vessel with the golden ambrosia of knowledge — or maybe the cooking of a roast. New people come to the school, and they are unburnt, or empty, or raw; and we light them, fill them, roast them, and then they are — like us. Members of a culture and an intellectual tradition, with an awareness of what that means and how they can pass the fire/water/ uh . . . heat? What does cooked meat pass? Calories? A delicious aroma? Whatever, they can pass it on to the next generation.
Or you can see education the way my students do: as the longest, most agonizing obstacle course they have ever faced, filled with everything bad — pain, fear, sorrow, impotent anger, self-loathing, failure, futility, and wedgies — going on for years and years and years, draining every drop of life from them, only to spit them out the end: where they become, most likely, new obstacles on the course for the next batch of runners.
Or you can see education the way I do, the way most teachers do: it’s a job. Better than some, worse than others. Probably not worth what we put into it.
That’s not all it is, though. And I don’t doubt that most people see education as a combination of those things, and maybe a few others — I know there are certainly those who see it as indoctrination; at my last school, in a small rural town in Oregon, I know school was seen by many as the best source for husbands and wives, for fathers and mothers of the next generation, which they saw no reason to wait to produce. There was a daycare in the school building for the children of students. Also the children of teachers and a few children from the general populace, but still: that daycare housed a whole lot of, let’s call them extracurriculars.
However we see education, though — and I don’t think we all need to agree about what it is and what it should be; I think an ongoing debate about education is probably a healthy tension — the one thing we should all agree on is this: it is important. Maybe not school, maybe not for everyone or in every way; but education is a part of how our race survives: because humans are born useless and pathetic. Giraffes and horses and moosen can stand mere minutes after being born, and run not long after that; we can’t even put on our own pants for years. Humans without education are dead. Period. So if we matter, then education matters.
And it takes the same thing to make us matter that it takes to make education matter. That thing is substance. There has to be something inside us, something behind the mask, something that makes us move, that makes us act. Something that tells me the words to say next. Some people are driven by their emotions and passions; some people are driven by their reason; and some people are driven by the desires of something larger than themselves, even if it is larger only in their own minds. That thing could be a religion, or a nation, or a father, or just society’s approval in general; whatever it is, those people take their cue from someone outside themselves, and that is what drives them: they live to please and honor that larger thing. And I don’t mean to denigrate that type of substance, especially not when it is so clearly part of my own motivation. I want to live up to the example of those who came before. I want to please my readers. I want to win awards. And I want to experience and honor my passions, and I want to follow the course set down by my reason. All at once. All mixed up.
Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
(That’s why we need education.)
My strongest motivation is this: I want to make my wife proud. I want to make her happy. I want to take away all of her regrets, and all of her fears, and all of her frustrations; I want to give her a perfect launching pad for her own life, for her own dreams, her own motivations; I want to be the support for her substance. I mean, I want my own substance, too; but I want her to have hers, first. Because she’s better than me. And I am not at all ashamed to say that: I am proud that I am the one she chose, and I am proud that I can work to give her her chance.
And I am furious that she has to deal with bullshit instead of flying free and doing what she wants, what she is capable of. It drives me crazy that she has to claw her way out of the muck of this cesspool of a world before she can become herself. It’s like a giant, sticky, neverending cocoon made of petrified bullshit: and people like my wife, people who are and always have been butterflies, have to kill themselves getting out of it. Goddamn it.
But what this all comes down is substance. I know, I know, I haven’t defined it well. I got onto a rant-tangent — a rangent, if you will (Or tangerant?) — because I am angry about my wife’s fight against bullshit. But let me try to get back to my point. I started with education because that’s what I know best, but it could as easily be politics, or commerce, or family, and the issue would be the same: to be worthwhile, to be something that actually does for humanity what it is supposed to do, the thing must have substance.
For a family to have substance, the family members have to actually do and feel and think the way a family is supposed to, fulfilling the role that family is to fill: they have to love and support one another. There has to be genuine connections between the family members, and all involved have to honor and maintain those connections. When a family has that real bond, then it improves the lives of the members of the family; it gives them shelter in the shit-storm (A veritable shit-climate, in fact), and a way to climb up out of the muck, to break free of their cocoons. (Can I call them poop-cocoons without losing the thread here? It’s just — it’s calling to me. Poop-cocoons. I can’t help it. Sorry.) Because there is something real there, it lends real mass, real energy, real velocity, to the constituent parts; their substance has something to back it up, to drive it, and so they can have real substance.
Am I making sense here? I feel like there’s a genuinely important thing underlying this, and I fear that I’m losing it. Let me keep trying.
When politics works well, then it creates an opportunity for the citizens of the political entity — call it a country for simplicity’s sake — to be something they could not be if they lived in a place where their politics did not work well. Because this country has, through much of its history, had politics that worked well, we have been able to do extraordinary things, to be extraordinary things. Not all of us, for a lot of reasons; but we have been extraordinary. We were the first to fly, and the first to touch the moon; we cured polio; we split the atom; we created the blues, and jazz, and rock and roll, and hip-hop. George Carlin was an American. Those things came out of this nation because the nation’s political structure had substance. It was driven by serious people working for serious reasons (whether those reasons for a particular person were emotional, logical, or ethical), and taking their jobs seriously. They didn’t just live up to the appearance of their role, the mere surface; they went deep inside. And I know that because look at what happened: it worked. We created substance, which only comes from substance. Something doesn’t come from nothing.
Nothing can come from something, though. Sadly. We can come from substance, from something real, and we can turn it into a joke. And there are as many reasons for that as there are for people to live with substance, but they all have one trait in common: they are shallow. Greed, for instance, if we can turn to commerce. When someone runs a business with substance, when they recognize their role in providing goods or services to customers, and earning a fair profit in return, then great things happen: Hollywood movies and Apple computers and Ford motors. But when people seek only profit, and they recognize that creating the appearance of substance is cheaper than actually creating substance — but if the facade is good enough to fool the customers, then they can charge the same as companies that have substance — then you get reality TV, and Goldman-Sachs, and Wal-Mart. Driven only by greed, they create only hollow hills, which collapse under their own weight when we try to climb them. They don’t get us out of the shit: they bury us in more of it. A neverending shit-storm.
When education has substance, no matter what is taught, no matter how fast students learn it or how many students learn it or how much exactly they learn — they learn. When education has substance, students come out of it changed, and improved, even if indirectly. Education with substance comes, only and always, from educators with substance. They don’t have to be teachers, of course, and most of the time, probably, they are not; I’d say the most common educators with substance are parents, followed by best friends. They teach us and they make us better. They use their substance to give us substance.
I do think the majority of teachers bring substance to their work. It’s hard not to, because it’s hard to miss the importance of the job — as I said, without education, there are no people; that’s a heavy weight, which I’m glad we don’t bear alone: but we hold some of it. When we have substance, we teachers, we can hold up a fair amount of that weight. Raise it up out of the shit.
And the worst thing in the goddamn world for teachers is when we are trying to maintain our substance — using up our own personal substance to do it — and we are forced to spend our time and energy instead on surface bullshit. On forms and paperwork that cover the asses of administrators, that stroke the egos of spoiled parents, that allow shallow, empty politicians to get elected one more time by people who don’t really know what the fuck they’re doing in the voting booth.
What precipitated this rant? A lot, actually; a lot of shit. But the clearest trigger was this last weekend, this three-day weekend, a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday (A man of substance, to be sure), which my wife and I spent a large portion of shoveling shit. Not building a structure of substance for our students, or even better, ourselves, to stand on and reach out of the shit; no no no — we were throwing shit. We were working on a syllabus for an Advanced Placement class, because we both teach AP courses at the high school where we work, me AP Literature and AP Language, she AP Art. When you teach an AP class, to be allowed to use the official AP designation, you have to turn a syllabus into the College Board, which runs the AP program (Also the SAT.).
Those syllabuses are bullshit.
The requirements for what has to be included on the syllabus are so entirely unrealistic that I doubt that a single one — not one of the thousands upon thousands of AP courses out there who have gone through this — really represents what happens in the actual class. I know mine certainly don’t reflect reality, not for either of my classes. If I taught to an empty room, I couldn’t cover all of that material, not in the kind of depth that is needed. See, the purpose of an AP class is to earn college credit while still in high school; that’s why my students take it, at least. Well, that’s the surface reason. The real reason is because these classes are challenging, and they give students a better understanding of and ability in the subject. They are classes with substance. I know both of mine are. I go into those classes with everything I have: with my experience, and my expertise, and more preparation and organization than I have ever brought to my regular classes — and I’m a good teacher in a regular class. For the AP classes, I’m better. And my students respond: I watch them grow and improve, and for the most part, I see them succeed. Some of them don’t, but that’s because they don’t bring their substance to the class; they take the class because their friends are in it, or they think I am cool (I am — but only on the surface) and they wanted to take a class, any class, with me; or they didn’t really think about how hard it would be. Or they were put in the class without any input of their own. You know: surface reasons. Bullshit reasons. Those students don’t succeed, necessarily. But the ones who come with real motivation, who do real work for real reasons? They get better. They grow. They become educated. I give them a platform to stand on — which I bust my ass building and maintaining — and they climb up out of the shit. Sometimes they even fly away.
None of that is on my syllabus. Largely because substance takes time and focus, and so you can’t cover a whole lot of ground — it’s dense. Concentrated. Has to be. But the AP syllabus has to cover, for literature, all of Western literature from 1500 to the present day: poetry and drama and prose, both short form and novels. All of it. They have to know what a sonnet is, and how William Shakespeare’s differ from ee cummings’s. They have to know both the traditional canon of dead white men, and they have to be familiar with the contributions to Western literature that have come from non-whites, and from the non-dead, and from non-men (Also called women.). They have to be able to read deeply, and analyze correctly, and write eloquently, and do all of it in 40 minutes.
And I have to spend my weekend correcting a syllabus. To make sure that it covers every one of the required learning components, that it has sufficient evidence to show that it covers every learning component, and that the evidence is in the form the AP auditors prefer. And their feedback looks like this:
Component (Which I’m making up, but isn’t far from the truth) #28: The course shows students the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.
Evaluation guideline: The syllabus must include the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.
Rating: Insufficient evidence
Rationale: The syllabus must list specific literary techniques used in specific titles of specific types (prose, poetry, and drama) by specific authors. The literary techniques, titles, and authors must be specifically connected to specific activities that show specific criteria for student mastery of the wide range of Guadalajaran literature.
Please examine our sample syllabi, or contact a Curriculum Specialist for personalized feedback, though be aware that this latter course will take weeks and weeks and run you right past the deadline for when this syllabus has to be approved for this school year.
So we got this for the syllabus we were working on, right? And we added in “The course shows students the wide range of literary techniques from Guadalajara, Mexico, as represented by the many poets and playwrights who have hailed from that locale over the last four centuries.”
It’s a lie, because I don’t consider Guadalajaran literature important enough to cover to the depth demanded by the component; instead, I teach the same wide range of literary techniques with, say, Oaxacan literature, which I spend two months on in my class. We add this lie to the syllabus — no substance there, just a surface checkmark to please someone looking only at the surface — and send it in. And get it back. Rejected again. With the exact same feedback.
So we add more evidence. We list out those literary techniques, and we list those Guadalajaran authors, and the Oaxacan ones just for good measure, and then we throw in three or four haiku-writers from Tenochtitlan, just in case. We describe the multiple essays, treatises, and book-length theses the students are going to have to write on each and every one of these elements. And then we send that pile of sloppy, gooey bullshit in.
And that’s the end of it. The College Board doesn’t follow up on this. They don’t come and watch the class. They don’t come and ask the students what they have learned — don’t even correlate test results with specific syllabi, and ask teachers to look for areas for improvement; none of that. They don’t survey students or parents or teachers. They don’t ask us to send in work samples, or example lesson plans. All they want is the syllabus. Which they want to say very, very specific things, but which they don’t write for us; they just keep telling us we’re writing it wrong until we get it right. Which is when it’s all bullshit. Which fact they have to know: there’s no way they couldn’t. Not when every one of those thousands and thousands of syllabi are nothing but bullshit.
Here’s the kicker: once the syllabus is approved, it never has to be resubmitted. It just gets re-approved, every year, automatically. Even though my class, like pretty much every class of substance, changes substantially from year to year. Doesn’t matter. In fact, if the course had a syllabus at the same school with a previous teacher, the College Board encourages the teacher to simply copy and “update” the old syllabus.
It’s all bullshit. I have no doubt that the intent is twofold: to prevent lawsuits from students who fail the AP exam — “I’m sorry your daughter got a -6 on the test, Mr. Svenswinderssonsen, but the syllabus on file from her school clearly states that she was taught all of the Guadalajaran literary techniques.” — and to present the AP program as being extremely rigorous. Is it actually rigorous? Not through any fault of the College Board. And not as it is purported to be on those syllabi. Which took hours and headaches to get right. So that everybody can now ignore them until the end of time.
This turned into a much larger piece than I intended it to be. But I’m feeling pretty deep in the bullshit right now, and it takes a lot of shoveling to get out. Because this isn’t just an AP issue: this is all of school. Everything I do that isn’t actually teaching is related to the same sort of thing: I give bullshit tests to show bullshit data about bullshit growth so the administrators can tell the school board and the politicians that the school has the surface appearance of actual substance. I fill out forms for students who get IEPs for exactly one reason: to avoid lawsuits. To maintain a reputation. To create an appearance of rigor and value and substance. And every hour I spend on that bullshit is one less hour I have to provide actual substance to my actual students.
We’re burying ourselves in bullshit, and ruining the one thing that we actually need, just because — we’re looking at the surface, only at the surface. Not at the substance — or lack thereof — underneath it.
Maybe in this mixed-metaphor ramble, I have uncovered something of substance for you to stand on. Maybe you can make a little more progress on getting out of your poop-cocoon. I hope so, I really do. Some of us have to become butterflies. Some of us have to take to our wings and fly. All of this shit-shoveling has to lead to something good. Something extraordinary.
I’m just afraid that the most extraordinary people are exactly the ones neck-deep and shoveling, and the ones climbing out aren’t butterflies in poop-cocoons: they’re just giant bags of shit. Standing above us, and looking down.
Happy Inauguration Day.
(This, again, was from my former blog 20/Infinity, which started off being about what I would do with a time machine, but quickly turned to — who would have guessed? — ranting. But I like that this one made me giggle while I was writing it, and I actually wrote the giggle into a parenthetical comment.)
Good, But Not Cheap
No time machine needed this week, because this one is appropriate right now. Stop throwing things away.
That’s the best advice I can give. It needs to be said to everyone in this society, including myself. Stop throwing things away.
Because whenever we throw something away and head on down to Wal*Mart to buy a new one, we encourage the culture of consumption that has been gradually built in this country since the 1950’s, and perhaps even earlier — though the scrap metal drives and paper drives and rubber drives and string drives of the WWII era, and the sheer desperation of the Depression before it, lead me to believe that it was indeed the 1950’s, still seen by Republicans across the country as the pinnacle of America, that started us down this road.
We should be able to make things that last, and we don’t do it. And the only reason we don’t do it is because we, as a people, would rather buy something cheap that will only last a short time, and then when it breaks, throw it away and buy a new one. Paper plates, for instance, and paper napkins and Starbucks cups. The only reason we use paper plates is because we can’t be bothered to wash the real ones; ditto paper napkins. Oh — and they’re cheaper. But look at what’s happened: when was the last time you saw cloth napkins outside of a fine restaurant? Does anyone have cloth napkins any more? Where would you even buy them? Maybe I’m just not paying attention, and cloth napkins abound in the linen aisles which I don’t often frequent (Word geek moment: often frequent. That’s a fun phrase. Sorry — back to what I was saying), but I do know that there are a dozen stores that I do frequent, and often (hee hee!), that carry paper napkins. They are the stores I’m in every day, so they are the stores that shape most of my daily purchasing. If they carry paper napkins, chances are good that I’m just going to get paper napkins, and not think about it. And paper plates. And sugar in little paper packets, instead of a bowl. So it goes.
We as a society shape what’s in the stores, and then what’s in the stores shapes us as a society; it’s a kind of biofeedback on a grand scale. When we are given a choice between, say, a $100 toaster that will last for twenty years, and a $30 toaster that will last for two, most of us buy the cheaper toaster, for two reasons: we don’t think that far ahead — the cheap toaster will make toast when I get it home today, and that’s as a far as I’m planning — and we are not willing to wait and save up the $100, or wait and go without the other things we would buy now with the $70 difference. Anyone who can buy the $30 toaster can save up to buy the $100 toaster, but in the interim, there will be no toast — and we can’t abide that. So we buy the cheap toaster, and then when it breaks in two years, we go back out and face the same choice — and come to the same conclusion: this one will make toast now, and I won’t have to wait to spend money elsewhere.
End result? Over twenty years, we spend $300 on toasters, rather than $100. And the landfills are nine toasters closer to overflowing. And the stores stop stocking the $100 toaster, because it doesn’t sell, and after twenty years when we lose our patience and just decide to drop the money on a toaster that lasts, we can’t find one, and we bewail the fact that nobody builds things that last any longer. Oh, yeah: and the toaster repair shop is out of business, because nobody is going to spend the money to fix a $30 toaster (they would to fix a $100 model) and Wal*Mart has built 3,000 new stores and half of the US’s GNP is in Chinese bank accounts.
All right, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and confess. This is not an arbitrary topic, culled from the massive crop of ideas neatly filed in a drawer in my home. This is really about coffee.
My coffeepot doesn’t work. There’s something wrong with the water intake, so when you turn it on it makes that gurgling noise that signals the last sips of water being sucked up, even though there is a full reservoir of water in the machine, waiting to be run through and turned into liquid gold. It’s probably hard water deposits, somewhere inside the tube, because it can be fixed by running vinegar through the Cleaning cycle — it has a cleaning cycle, which I think just makes it go slowly and maybe a little hotter than normal so as to melt away any dirt or coffee oil residue. This happened for the first time last week, and then again today.
The coffee machine is six weeks old.
Now, I admit to drinking a lot of coffee. No, scratch that; I drink an inhuman amount of coffee. It is no mistake that my online handle, for years, has been “Coffeesaint” or some permutation thereof. I invented, and celebrate, Coffee Day (February 11 — join the fun!). I drink something like 6 pints of coffee a day — that would be around 20 cups if I used a normal sized mug, the kind they serve coffee in at Denny’s or IHOP — and on days when I’m tired or crabby, I can hit the gallon mark. I started drinking coffee regularly when I was 18, and for the last 15 years, not one day has gone by that I have not had coffee. So as you can imagine, my coffee maker gets quite a lot of use, since my wife also drinks what most people would consider a lot of coffee on top of what gets poured down my own bottomless coffee-hole. I can understand that my coffee maker will break down sooner than it would in other people’s households.
But six weeks?
We have gone through three coffeepots in the last year, five in the last five years. The last four pots have all come from Wal* Mart, mainly because that is the only large retail store in town, but also because of the monetary impatience I described above. I really don’t want to wait to get a new coffeepot. I don’t want to do without coffee, and I like my morning routine of waking up, turning on the coffeepot (I grind beans and pour water the night before, so all I have to do is hit the button) and then getting in the shower, coming out to fresh coffee. I don’t want to boil water and pour it into a French press or something like that, some low-tech version of a coffeepot that would last many more years without breaking, but would take twice the time and thrice the effort to make my morning coffee. I hate that idea. I just want a coffeepot that will last for more than six weeks, or six months, or two years. I want one that will last, with some maintenance and maybe a trip to a repair shop, for twenty years. But I can’t find one. At least, I can’t find one at a price that will override the momentary temptation of a $29.99 price tag and coffee right now. So I do the same thing everyone else does: I buy that $30 coffee pot and complain.
But here’s an interesting thing. Like most people, I hate being a hypocrite. I hate telling people to do one thing and then doing something different myself. When I assign an essay to my English class, for instance, I often write the essay myself. Even though I don’t want my dog to eat too many salty snacks, if I get out the box of Cheez-its, I give him one — because I shouldn’t be eating them either, so if I can ignore my health for the sake of a happy belly, why can’t he? So now that I have written this little chunk of handy advice, I’m going to have to take it myself. See, I realize that our society is the way it is because we make it so. As I said, there are no decent coffeepots because we don’t buy them, because we’re not willing to do without, or to make do with some less efficient or easy system. We are willing, even eager, to use shoddy goods and throw them away so long as it spares us some effort, so long as it saves us time. And that’s why the goods we buy — everything from our clothes to our computers to our cars to our food — are poorly made, overly disposable, and cheap.
My father told me a maxim many years ago, and it’s amazed me ever since with how many applications it has in daily life (and he’d love that, because he loves aphorisms — I think he’s always wanted to be Ben Franklin. Or maybe Jesus.). I’m positive that it will come up several times in future columns, and I’m not surprised in the least that it has come up in the first five. The maxim is this: “There are three qualities you can have in any thing you pay for: cheap, fast, and good. You can only have two of them at once. If it’s cheap and fast it ain’t good, if it’s cheap and good it ain’t fast, and if it’s fast and good it ain’t cheap.” He told me this in reference to hiring workers, plumbers and electricians and the like, and I’ve found it to be unfailingly true; in fact, sometimes you can only have one of the three. But you certainly never get more than two. Look at my coffee makers: on the whole, machines are faster than percolators and French presses, so I’m always getting fast as one of my qualities; the only question is whether I want a good machine, or a cheap one. For the last five years, I’ve consistently made the same choice.
This is a truth that we as a society need to remember. We have spent long enough buying fast and cheap. We need to go back to good, because good things do not get thrown away, and so they do not use up our resources and they do not fill up our countryside with garbage. Of all the things we can do to improve our world, I think this is the easiest, because honestly, it would make us happier if we owned nice things, good things that worked well and didn’t need to be replaced while we still have the original receipt stuffed in the checkbook.
So my first piece of advice is this: buy good products. If it means you have to save up for the good products, then save the money; make do for a little while now, and then buy something that will actually make your life easier, and save you money, in the long run instead of just saving you money out of this paycheck and simplifying things right now. And my second piece of advice is this: if you, like me, do some things that you know you shouldn’t do, and you let yourself get away with it because it’s easier to ignore the issue than fix the problem, then start giving people advice. It’s like a nicotine patch for hypocrisy.
Now I have to buy a freaking French press.
by David Mitchell
Okay, there are two possibilities here.
Possibility one is that I missed the intricate interweavings of the finest filaments of this novel’s plot. I saw some of them: there is a theme of reincarnation and rebirth that is fairly easy to spot, and also a connection based on storytelling. And maybe that’s the whole point: that we live new lives over and over again, and those lives are connected by the stories we tell, the words we write down. That’s a fairly interesting idea, but while I believe in reincarnation of a sort, I don’t believe in straightforward rebirth/transmogrification of the soul from one body to the next, so that connection was lost on me — and without it, the story connection becomes just kinda precious and clever.
Possibility two is that this novel is too precious and clever.
I am inclined, honestly, to believe possibility one. I think I’m a fairly perceptive reader, but — not always; most of my life has been spent reading genre fiction rather than seriously dense literature, which I’ve really only picked up since I’ve been a teacher. The book has a lot of blurbs by pretty impressive people, including A.S. Byatt and Michael Chabon; everyone says this is a magical, unbelievable work of magnificence. So it is entirely possible that I read right past the lyrical wonders of this novel, that this is one of the books which, as I tell my students, can’t be read, but can only be re-read.
But since the first possibility is not the only one, I’m not going to be re-reading this.
So the idea is that the book is a series of nested stories. It starts with an American traveling through the South China Sea in 1850; then it goes to a British composer in Belgium in 1931; then an investigative reporter in California in the 1970’s; then England in 2004; then a near-future Korea, and finally a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Then it goes back: Korea, England, California, Belgium, South China Seas. Each story is in some way recorded — the first guy wrote a memoir, the second a series of letters to a friend, the third story was novelized, the fourth turned into a movie, the fifth recorded an interview. And each person in the following story encounters the recorded story of the person before; and each of them, it seems, is the reincarnation of the one before. But my trouble with this book is: that’s it. That seems to be the only logical link. I was looking for more; I was hoping that the South China Seas/Korea/Hawaii connection would be meaningful, but I don’t think it was. I was hoping that there would be a causative link, that the revolution hinted at in the Korea story leads to the apocalypse which the Hawaii story is post-. That the composer in Belgium would have something to do with the modern-day England story, in terms of the plot of one connecting to the plot of the other.
And maybe those links were there. But if they were, I missed them.
So it seems to me that the novel is a set of short stories, without a common theme, with dissimilar main characters — because they may each be the reincarnation of each other, but that’s all they have in common — and no real plotline that runs through the whole thing. They are interconnected only the way a book of short stories set in the same town might be interconnected, which is — not really at all. Though of course, with Joyce’s Dubliners (which I’ve never read) and Faulkner’s Abercrombiewhateverthehellit’scalled County novels (which I’ve never read) and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (Which I did read, and liked) all having that sort of connection, I guess that’s enough to make this a tour-de-force that lives up to its blurbs. But for me, it was not terribly exciting.
I probably should have taken the hint when I mentioned to my wife that I was reading this, and she said, “Yeah, it was a movie. We watched it.” Even though I have absolutely no memory of watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I slept through it. I should have slept through the book, too.
#1: “I feel bad when I have a cold when I go to the doctor. I don’t want to get germs all over them.”
#2: The other night she shuffled slowly from the living room into the kitchen, set herself, drew back one slippered foot, and then gently kicked me – really more of a boof – in the shin. Then she said “You called me a poop. Don’t call me a poop.” (Actually what I had called her was Poopzilla.) I hung my head, laughing, and said, “Consider me properly chastised.” She nodded, said, “Okay,” and shuffled away.
#3: Speaking of her students: “If I don’t keep spewing a steady stream of hatred towards them, they just want to talk to me.”
#4: Speaking to a student:
Student: “My brother moved to Utah.”
Jokingly: “Utah? Why, to become a Mormon?”
Student (baffled): “We’re Mexican. We can’t be Mormons.”
spread your wings and travel through books
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