Honoring America

Listen, listen – listen.

Listen to me, okay? I know: you’re pissed off. You have every right to be.

But listen.

I’m sure that, if you know me at all, I have pissed you off personally in the past. I tend to do that: I’m pissed off, too, and I lash out. I usually regret it, and I often try to take it back. But I can’t. Also can’t stop myself. Neither can you: we’re pissed off.

But listen, anyway. Because I’ve seen people, all kinds of people, with all kinds of views all over the political spectrum, saying that THOSE PEOPLE OVER THERE are trying to divide us. THOSE PEOPLE are trying to turn us against each other, trying to ruin what has taken generations to build: this country. This amazing, beautiful, irreplaceable country. We can’t let them divide us. Can’t let them ruin this country. Not even when they are we.

But listen. Really. Because I have to say this.

The military is not my country.

WAIT WAIT WAIT. The country wouldn’t exist without the military. I know it. The military, both past and present, veterans and casualties and current service members, are and have been a vital part of the creation and maintenance of this country. They protect us, they serve us, they are the reason we became and the reason we have been able to remain a sovereign nation.

But you know who else made it possible for this country to become and remain a sovereign nation?

Parents. And grandparents, and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and cousins and everyone else in the family who helps to raise us. Who teach us and guide us, protect us and encourage us. We would never survive without families. (There are people who do, and they are incredibly strong and impressive; but the majority of us couldn’t live like that. I couldn’t. I needed my family to survive, and I need them now to keep me going.) Our families are just as important to this country as is the military, because while the military has kept us a sovereign nation, our families gave us life, and made it possible for us to become who we are. Without our families we wouldn’t be here, so there wouldn’t be a sovereign nation for the military to defend, and there wouldn’t be citizens who would volunteer for our military. We need our families as much as we need the military: without either one, this country wouldn’t exist.

You can’t get mad at me for that, right? Being grateful to family as much as I am to the military? Saying that families are as vital to the country as is the military?

Okay, good. Because our families aren’t the only ones who give us life, who make us into genuine, complete people, people who can understand what a nation is, what it represents, what it can be and how we must strive to make it what it should be. You know who else is a vital part of that?

Doctors and nurses and medical professionals. Let’s face it: there’s at least one time in each of our lives when we would have died had it not been for the intervention and assistance of a medical professional. Even with the military to protect us, we still get sick, we still get hurt, disasters still strike; and we could not make it on our own. Our families often save us – but they are just as often the one who dared us, the one who held the ladder so we could climb on top of that thing we just jumped off. That’s when we need doctors, nurses, EMTs. Right? Without doctors we likely would have died, and without people there isn’t any country? Right?

Okay, and right along with that, you know what we need to survive? Food. I know this one’s a little more abstract, because we all can and do produce or obtain our own food without any help; I’ve grown tomatoes and basil, both, so if there was such a thing as a pasta plant, I’d have a mean plate of spaghetti right out of my backyard. But the point is, we don’t produce the vast majority of our own food, even if we grow food, because people who live on a working wheat farm tend to eat things other than wheat. For most of us, we couldn’t produce enough food to feed ourselves, let alone the entire nation. So we should recognize that the people who make the food: farmers, ranchers, fishers; and the people who move the food: pickers, processors, truckers (And all the variations of those things); and the people who bring the food and/or cook the food, restaurants, grocery stores, and the almighty pizza delivery people – the country wouldn’t run without them. You could live without a few of them, I suppose, but – even the military has to eat.

There wouldn’t be much of a country if we didn’t have any food.

And of course, we wouldn’t want to have food if we couldn’t have something to wash it down, and also to wash the food off, and our hands, and everything else we want to keep clean – and that means we need all of the people who provide our water. The workers, the managers, the hydrologists – oh, crap. I forgot about all the scientists. Wait: I’ll get to them in a second. Point is, we need the many, many people who gather the water, store the water, clean the water, transport the water, and then take away and handle the waste water; and of course, we definitely need plumbers. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for plumbers. Honestly, now: if we had the world’s strongest military – but not a single working toilet in the entire country – would that be enough? I think not. We need plumbers.

We need electricians, too. There are millions of people going without power tonight, all over the Gulf Coast and Florida, all over the island of Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean – millions of Americans – and they will stay without power for weeks. Months, in some areas. Think about that. Think about the fact that it’s September, and that even where I live in Tucson, it’s still in the 80’s and 90’s every day. I went a week without functioning air conditioning this summer, and it was hell – and eleven people died in a nursing home in Florida after Hurricane Irma killed their power and they didn’t have AC. I don’t mean to say that HVAC technicians are as important as the military, but I do think that the power companies, and the linemen and electricians who make it possible for us to have light and heat and communications, that power our factories and hospitals and, yes, our military bases: I think we could not survive as we do without them. If we had the world’s strongest military but we lived in the dark ages, I do not think we would feel the same way about our country.

And since we need all of these specialized workers, we need somebody to discover all they need to know, and then somebody to make sure that people know what each of us needs to know: and that means we need scientists and researchers, and teachers and librarians and authors. Now, I know a lot of people think that scientists get a lot of things wrong, and that they waste a lot of money; but the truth is that without scientists and researchers, we wouldn’t have the power or the water or the sanitation or the modern agriculture or the medical science or the military capability that we have. And of course, there are a lot of missteps and a tremendous amount of wasted effort and spent resources involved in science; but that is true of every single aspect of modern civilization. We may not like what they use up, but we certainly like their results – he said, typing the words into his laptop before posting them on the Internet for others to see at the touch of a button.

(Pausing to take a sip of clean, clear, refreshing water.)

As for teachers, I know that many people think we are incompetent and corrupt and generally terrible. And many of us are. We’ve all had bad teachers, we’ve all known bad teachers; I am sure that there are quite a few people out there who think that I am a bad teacher. But just like everything else in society, the problems and the complications don’t change the basic necessity: our world is complex, and somebody needs to help people get ready for it. Somebody needs to train our people in the work we need done, or else it wouldn’t get done. If there are people who don’t do it well, then we should try to help them get better or replace them – not throw out the entire system. Now I certainly include everyone outside of traditional school who helps people to learn and grow: homeschoolers, and tutors, and family members and friends who help explain how things work; religious leaders and technical/vocational teachers and master craftsmen, and those who help the new guy on the job figure out what to do and how to do it. You – we – are all teachers, and all of us are necessary. A country that can’t think is no country at all – not to mention all the people who have to know how to do what we need done. Including the military, who have some of the best teachers and trainers, to get people ready for some of the toughest and most important jobs, in the world. And I’ll bet – in fact, I know – that some of those trainers, and some of the people they train, are not very good at their jobs.

That, I think, is the other thing we have to remember about the military. It is just like our own families: some of our family members are, shall we say, less helpful than others. Some have less-admirable motivations. Some actually cause more trouble than they help us out of. The military is far too large and complex an organization – nearly a civilization unto itself – to think that every single member is just as good and valuable as every other one. If that were true, there wouldn’t be dishonorable discharges, and there wouldn’t be military police, military courts, and military prisons.

Right! We can’t forget them. We must have all of the people who protect our safety against things other than disease and enemy nations and ignorance: firefighters, and police, and all of the other parts of the criminal justice and public safety system: lawyers and judges and prison guards and parole officers and social workers and crossing guards. Just like the doctors, there is at least one time, I’d bet, for everyone when we needed someone in law enforcement, and/or public safety, to save our lives or our property.

There. Is that everybody? I could go on, of course: I didn’t even talk about mental health, or the inspectors and regulators who help to protect our safety by preventing crises from occurring, or those who provide shelter by building our homes; I didn’t talk about people who make roads, and build bridges, and run airports. I didn’t talk about the people who make our economic world possible, bankers and accountants and the stock market; nor the people who make it possible for us to have our regular-people jobs, employers and entrepreneurs and everyone who makes the money that makes the world go ’round. I think there’s even an argument for people who entertain us, because at some point, we all need to do more than live and protect our liberty: we need to pursue happiness. And, depending on how fine you focus this lens, that could even bring in – professional football players. Even those who take a knee during the National Anthem.

That’s my country. Yes: the military is a vital part of it. But it isn’t the only part of it. When someone stands up and puts their hand over their heart, faces the flag and salutes, and sings along or maintains a respectful silence, during the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, they aren’t just honoring the military: they are honoring this country. All 330 million people, all 3.8 million square miles, all 240+ years of history. That’s what the flag and the anthem and the Pledge represent: they represent America.

And America is not the military.

So if you want to honor this country, this is what you do: you recognize that we don’t all have to agree. That we can even be opposed, and maybe even bitter enemies. All of that can be forgiven as long as we all have the best interests of the country at heart, and remember that the other side, too, has the best interests of the country at heart. Of course we disagree on what those interests are, and what will best serve them, whether it is a strong military or a strong social safety net; whether it is a government that represents and serves all of the people, or no government at all; whether it is equality or competition – or both. That is the point of open and honest debate, enshrined as one of the most vital of our individual rights in our First Amendment; because in talking about what we think, we figure out both what to do, and where we agree. The biggest reason for the current widening partisan divide is simply because we don’t speak to each other enough. And I’m sure that there are people, Americans on some level, who do not have the best interests of this country and its people at heart; and they should be prevented from doing harm. But they are easy to identify: because there is a world of difference between people who want to do good, but are doing it wrong, and people who want to do evil, and are doing it – right. For the rest of us, the vast, vast majority of us – and remember that that large group includes the people who are doing the wrong thing for the right reason – we have to remember that we all have the same goal. We all love our country. We all want what’s best for it, and we are all grateful to the people who have lived and died in service to this country, both in uniform and out, on the battlefield and in the cornfield, in the hospital and the school and the courthouse and everywhere in between where people live and strive to do what is right. However you choose to honor those people, that history, this country, whether it is by standing up and taking off your hat while you are watching sports on TV; or whether it is by offering your effort, your reputation, or your life in aid of the ideals this country stands for, I, for one, thank you. I will salute you as I salute and honor my country, our country: in the way that makes the most sense to me.

Even if you don’t like the way I do it.

 

(Postscript: Bob Costas agrees with me.)

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A Spoonful of Hatred Makes Education Go Down

Sometimes I hate my students.

And that’s actually a good thing.

First, let me affix the boilerplate so as to avoid any whiff of morally reprehensible heresy that goes against the company line: MY STUDENTS ARE WONDERFUL PEOPLE YOUNG AMERICANS AND IT IS A JOY TO SEE THEIR BRIGHT SHINING FACES AS THEY GREET ME IN THE MORNING AND I LOVE TO SEE THE SPARK IN THEIR EYES AS THEY LEARN SOMETHING NEW AND I AM INSPIRED EVERY DAY BY THE THOUGHT THAT I COULD BE HELPING THEM REACH THEIR POTENTIAL I AM MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE LIVES OF YOUNG PEOPLE AND THUS HELPING TO CREATE OUR FUTURE.

There. Now, as I was saying, sometimes I really can’t stand the little stinkers. I don’t mean because they’re terrible, or because I’m such a cloistered saint that their vileness taints my purity; they’re just kids, and I’m not, and so they can be awful people and I’m not currently awful enough to be able to ignore their awfulness or cover it with my own. I would have done that when I was their age; I was awful, too, no question, far worse than most of them are now.

But my students tell me, outright, frequently, that my class is boring, that my subject is pointless, that I don’t work hard enough or do the right things as a teacher (By which they mean “You don’t do the work for me and then give me an A.”). They lie, they cheat, they steal. They waste my time, and then get snotty with me because they think I’m wasting theirs. They whine, they complain, they try to intimidate and threaten and manipulate me into doing what they want me to do. They are deeply selfish and insensitive to the feelings of others: they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, hypocritical, hypercritical, ultraviolent, lazy on a scale that can’t be measured or even contemplated by those who aren’t themselves on the scale.

And they’re just kinda gross. They smell bad, some of them. And you should see them eat. Ick.

Now here’s the good side of all of that: because of all of those things, I have very little trouble telling them No. It’s real easy with some of the things they ask me. “Can we watch this (probably inappropriate) YouTube clip?” “No.” The best thing with this exchange, which occurs almost daily, is that they have no actual argument. The most common rejoinder is “Aw, come on,” which is probably about as effective as yelling “Hey baby!” at a female passerby: just like that woman never swoons and says, “Be still, my beating heart,” I never say, “Well, okay, let me look up that NWA video.” Same when they say – as they often do – “Can we just, like, do nothing today?” I have no problem at all saying no to that. And not even because I always want to do productive things; I generally do, but of course I have my moments. No, the reason I can always say no to the siren song of sloth is, I don’t want to hang out with my students. If I’m going to flop on my backside and do nothing more strenuous than exhaling, I’d much rather be at home, where my dog and my couch and my coffee are. The last place I want to be is in that ugly, uncomfortable classroom with all of those people whom, as I have been saying at length, I don’t really like.

I’d rather make them work. It is frequently true that I force them to continue learning not because I think it is valuable or even merely necessary; it is, but the reason I keep teaching them even when they are at their lazy-assed whiniest is, because making them work is my revenge. I torture them with learning. I keep reading, and reading, and reading, even when they just can’t take any more. If they really get on my nerves, I will work right up to the bell and even beyond the bell, and then I’ll assign them homework. I don’t have a work ethic: I have a revenge ethic, and the worst thing I can do to my teenaged students is make them think, and make them work.

And, see, that means they learn, which is good for them. And they suffer, which is good for me. It’s win-win.

There’s more to this, of course. (It’s just so much fun to rip on my students, and talk about torturing them with literature. Hey –I just realized that “torture” and “literature” have the same last letters. There’s an opportunity there. Maybe a rhyming couplet? Maybe a portmanteau? Literatorture?) There are serious problems with the company line that most teachers – no, that essentially all teachers – toe – no, that they lie down on, clasp their hands together, and enter into a meditative trance akin to suspended animation, a state from which they will never arise. Okay, that got too weird.

My point is this. Teaching has a required orthodoxy. Teachers teach because they love their students. They call their students their children. They say everything I joked about above, about the future, and making a difference, and seeing the spark – though I more often hear the loathsome phrase “A-Ha moment,” which just makes me want to start caterwauling “Taaaake ooooon meeeeeeeeeee (Take! On! Me!) TAAAAAAAAKKKKKEEEEEE MEEEEEEEEEEEEE OOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNN (Take! On! Me!) IIIIII’LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL BBBEEEEEEEEEE GGOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNEEE!!! AND (mumble mumble I don’t actually know the words to this part but who cares deepbreath) EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

You get the point.

Teachers always, always say that they don’t do it for the money. They do it because they believe in the cause, they believe in the importance of education, in the value of helping young people, of passing on knowledge to the next generation and helping to make our world a better place, one child at a time. I hear teachers talking constantly about what the children need: how teachers are better parents to some of them than their actual parents; how some of them don’t ever get to have fun unless a teacher sacrifices an evening or a weekend to some overnight field trip; how these kids shouldn’t miss this opportunity that somehow requires more effort from a teacher than it does from any of the students whose lives are being enriched. If a teacher says anything different, then we get funny looks. We get frowns and furrowed brows and awkward attempts at segues away from the conversational minefield we just stepped into. I assume we get talked about when we’re not in the room, since teachers – professional busybodies and judgmental critics – are inveterate gossips.

I know because I’ve been getting those looks, and saying those heterodox things, for years. Now that my wife, who is braver, more honest, and less patient than I am, has joined me in teaching, she gets the looks even more often. I think she also gets them worse because she is a woman, and therefore expected to be motherly; I think some of my fellow teachers excuse my anti-student bile by calling it something on the order of “tough love.” My students like me, so surely the smack I talk about them couldn’t be real; I must be exaggerating. Kidding! Oh, that wacky Humphrey! No wonder the kids love his class!

Here’s the truth: not all kids love my class. Some freaking hate it, and hate me. Often (Not always) they are the ones who receive my ill-treatment. (“Not always” because sometimes the very worst little twits like me and like my class. Sometimes kids hate me for entirely different reasons, like how I waste time or teach material they don’t like or find useful. Some of them don’t think I’m funny, even think I’m rude. Can you imagine?) They resent that I don’t treat them like special lil angels, because that’s what they get from almost every one of their other teachers.

And that is, of course, the problem. My students aren’t bad people, not at all; they really are sweet kids at heart, and most of them are bright and capable. They’re just kids: they’re lazy, and entitled, and think much too much of themselves. What they need is a dose of reality.

What they get is teachers who coddle them because they’re special lil angels.

We shouldn’t do it. We should treat students like actual human beings: we should expect them to act correctly, to be responsible, to think and act for themselves in their own best interest. And we should do the same. That’s how we can actually help them to reach their potential: make them work. Make them rely on themselves, rather than doing everything for them. We should realize that at some point those lil angels will leave our school, and they will be around people then who – don’t love them. Don’t coddle them. Don’t think they’re special lil angels and do everything for them. If they have no teachers like me, then they will be hurt and confused when their college professors don’t care about them, or when their bosses insist that they show up on time even if they’re not feeling happy that morning. My boss has never taken me out into the hall to have a heart-to-heart. “You seem down, are you feeling okay? Everything okay at home?” This is not something I have ever heard from my supervisor.

Though I have heard it from other teachers.

I’m not talking about tough love. I’m not talking about love: school is a job, and everyone involved has to do their part, and should be expected to do their part. When teachers are willing to provide whatever a student needs, then they students – and their parents – quickly realize that the more they need, the more they get. I think this has much to do with the rise in special education students – students with, as we say, special needs. That is not in any way to say that students who have genuine needs should be neglected or denied what support they need; in order to do your job, you have to be in a situation where it’s possible for you to do your job, and that is the goal of special education, and in my experience it usually works very well. But there are also lots and lots of students who lay claim to needs they don’t actually need. And teachers provide for them, too, because – well, because we love all of our students like they were our own children.

They’re not our kids. They’re also not our clients – another popular, and pernicious, paradigm for schools (Pernicious because the customer is always right, which again puts too much power into the hands of students who are willing to be demanding, and taking all power away from teachers who are willing to be giving.). Students are actually our coworkers. We teachers have a job to do, and students have a job to do; we need them to do their job, and they need us to do ours.

It’s a lot easier to do that when you kind of don’t like them that much. It’s a natural instinct to want to help your friends, and people you like, especially when they seem desperate – and desperation is a state that teenagers excel at. It’s an even stronger instinct to want to protect and help your children. So when we think of students as children, as our children, and we think of ourselves as their protectors and guardians, then we do things for them that we wouldn’t do for strangers – or for our coworkers. Things that they, therefore, don’t learn to do for themselves.

Sometimes they really do need the help, and when they do, we should provide it. Any decent person should do the same, and as a teacher, we do get to know more of the intimate and therefore terrible details of our students’ lives. That does put us in a unique position to provide help to people who really need it, and we should; and the times when I have, I am proud to have done so.

But most of them don’t need my help. They don’t need my care, they don’t need my love. They need to learn how to write an essay. They need me to teach them. If I hate them a little, I can teach them a lot.

It is also true that the students aren’t the only ones who make constant, unreasonable demands of teachers: the school administration does the same. In my almost two decades of teaching, I have seen more evidence every year that the only thing that keeps the education system working at all is the willing self-sacrifice of teachers. If we didn’t give up our free time, our evenings and our weekends, the work wouldn’t get done. If we didn’t bust our asses, and too frequently shell out our own money, then kids wouldn’t be able to do all the fun things they get to do in schools that keep them entertained, and therefore earn whatever commitment they have to the whole endeavor. (One small example is my current school’s robotics team, which engages a fair percentage of our best and brightest – and which is made possible only by teachers giving up their time and energy and money. Without that team, the school would lose dozens of students, current and potential. Multiply that by every school and almost every fun extracurricular: how often are the popular clubs run by the principal? That’s right. Never.) If we weren’t willing to take on this incredibly difficult and frustrating task for insufficient money, then schools would shut down. All of them. Pretty much at once. Realize that I make probably half of what I deserve, as a good and capable teacher: and realize, too, that my class sizes are already too big. So if we were paid what we should be, there would be twice as many students per teacher – and now the money doesn’t matter, and my capacity for teaching doesn’t matter, because the job simply becomes impossible: and I quit and move to a Caribbean island to sell fish tacos and smarmy haikus. And then there’s no more schools. And then what becomes of the lil angels?

But of course, the orthodox catechism of teachers tells us that we love them, and therefore must sacrifice for them. Administrators know this: and so they ask us for anything they might want of us, with one simple, inevitable, never-fail justification: it’s for the students. And every time they say that, there are teachers who are willing to do it. Always. Spend eight hours after school tutoring students for test prep? Well, they really need the help, we say. Spend a weekend baking for a fundraiser – using materials bought with our own money? Well, some of the kids just can’t afford the trip on their own. Take up campus supervision because the administration cut the security guard to save on the budget? Well, the kids need to feel safe! I know I’m unqualified to be a security guard, and already terribly overworked doing my actual job; but – it’s for the children.

I wish that more teachers felt what I feel. I do think most of them do, and they cover it up; because they don’t want to get the strange looks, and they don’t want to let the children down. Here’s the secret, though: most of my students really do like me, and like my class, even though I am entirely open with them about all of this. I tell my students, as I tell my fellow teachers, that I do this for the money: I tell my students that if I win the lottery tonight, I will not be in class tomorrow. I tell them that they are not my friends, and that I don’t want to be their parent. I tell them that if they fail the class, that is their responsibility; I’ll give them the opportunity to learn, but I will not force them, will not chase them down and hold their hand and twist their ear and drag them, kicking and screaming, into a bright future. I tell them that if they don’t want to be there, they can leave, and I won’t stop them. And they like my class. Because I’m honest. And because I offer them what they actually want, and what they actually need: the chance to be themselves, and to do it alone.

Because I’m not going to do it for them.

This Is Why I Hate Google

Because it is impossible to find things on the internet without Google, since there is just so much crap on the internet. But Google, as brilliant as it is, is still staggeringly stupid.

I wanted a picture in my last book review post  of a man with a thin face, black hair, heavy eyebrows, and who was unshaven. I did a Google image search of those words. And out of all of the pictures I saw, I could not find one that suited what I wanted it for. That’s the description of Guy Montag, the main character in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. Montag is a fireman, not a male model, so all of these guys were out:

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Montag is miserable in the book: trapped in an empty sham of a marriage, surrounded by violence and suffering, living in a dystopia. So no smiley guys.

 

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Nope.

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Not you, either. (Though I love that this comes from an article titled “5 tips for growing a great f-ing beard” )

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No. You look too much like my brother.

 

Montag is not a bro, so DEFINITELY NOT THESE GUYS:

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And I guess I didn’t have Safe Search on, because I also got this shot:

(It is from Buzzfeed, not porn, so I assume he’s not doing what I think he’s doing. Still.

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I don’t — I can’t — let’s just move on.

 

 

Montag also doesn’t have a full beard, so not this:

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And not this:

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Dude, you don’t even have dark hair. What the hell are you doing to me, Google?

And not this:

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And REALLY not this:

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And then, of course, there were several I could not use because they were too recognizable. This isn’t Guy Montag:

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Nor is this:

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Or this:

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And not this guy:

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Here’s another one Google offered me. Remember, I searched for “man thin face black hair unshaven.”

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Sure, yeah. I’ll use Miley Cyrus. Great idea.

 

 

And then, of course, there’s the WTF file. Google should have a checkbox: WTF, No WTF. These are all WTF.

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Good lord, no.

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OH COME ON, NOW.

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HOW DOES THAT EVEN MATCH ANY OF MY SEARCH TERMS?!?!?!

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That’s a statue.

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That’s a cartoon.

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THAT’S A DOG. (Though he is cute.)

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THAT’S — wait, is that Alex Trebek?

 

 

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That’s Saddam Hussein.

 

 

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We don’t talk about what that is.

 

 

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THAT’S GODDAMN SELMA FROM THE GODDAMN SIMPSONS.

 

 

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Now you’re just fucking with me, aren’t you, Google?

 

 

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Oh, I give up.

“Comic” Books: Two Reviews In One

Books With Pictures:

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Stitches by David Small

 

So I’m a word guy, right? I love books, love reading; I enjoy movies and TV, but not the same way. I teach Fahrenheit 451 pretty much every year; in fact, I’m teaching it now. We’re at the point when Captain Beatty is explaining why the firemen are a good thing, because books, he claims, are a bad thing. He says, along with a mess of other interesting statements, that things started changing when photography came into its own, followed by motion pictures, radio, and TV – and, though Ray Bradbury didn’t predict it, the internet, YouTube, memes, GIFs, et cetera. Beatty says that things got simpler because they had mass: because a picture of a face is more solid than the face that one might imagine given a description. Guy Montag, the hero of the novel, is described as 30 years old, having a thin face, black hair, heavy eyebrows, and a “blue steel shaved-but-unshaved look.” So which is more solid, the face you’re imagining after reading those words, or this:

 

(By the way: took me twenty minutes looking through Google image search to come up with that. Searching for the description got me page after page after page of male models with swirly/spiky hair on top that was shaved on the sides. I mean, this dude

is not Guy Montag.

(Also by the way: I had to go back and re-do this search because my GODDAMN MS-WORD CLONE CAN’T SAVE PICTURES AND THEN UPLOAD THEM TO MY BLOG AND WHENEVER I TRY IT CRASHES THE THING AND THEN THE WHOLE POST IS BLANK AAARRRRRGGGGH Okay, I’m fine now. This is also why I like words more than pictures.)

Now, Beatty is the bad guy in the book, and if he is for it, I’m pretty much against it, including replacing books with visual mediums like film and television and the interwebs. But as Professor Faber (he is the Yoda to Montag’s Luke Skywalker) explains later, it is possible for books and movies and TV to all accomplish the same good things – the same things that music, and art, and conversations with good friends can all accomplish.

I think these two books, even though they are as visual and pictorial as they are literary – as many pictures as words, and the pictures essentially communicate as much as the words do – do the right things in the right way. That’s why I’m putting them together in this review. That, and the fact that both, despite the largely light-hearted genres they ostensibly belong to (Stitches is a graphic novel and Hyperbole and a Half a web comic), are actually quite somber and poignant and sad.

Hyperbole and a Half is a web comic that I discovered, as I think a lot of people did, because the author, Allie Brosh, wrote about the Alot. I hate that word; I love that comic. So I got the book that Brosh published, and read it. It’s a collection of her comics, which are about herself and her life: and though they are frequently stunningly funny, they are also profoundly sad and poignant to read. Brosh lives with fairly severe depression, according to what she depicts here, and she pulls absolutely no punches in describing what that life is like, and also allowing that condition, those feelings, to bleed into her other comics, as it no doubt bleeds into all parts of her life. Realizing how much she struggles with this turns even the more conventionally funny and wacky comics a bit more serious; because the strangeness that at first was just amusing now seems another piece of Brosh’s lifelong alienation.

But as hard as that is at times to read, it is also, simply, brilliant. I have rarely read something so honest and perceptive and brave, something that so perfectly shows a unique mind both in turmoil and in triumph.

Oh hey – know when else I read something that showed the same sort of genius and pain at once? Why, it was when I read Stitches, by David Small.

This one is a more traditional graphic novel; as such, it is in a more familiar storyboard format, and the art looks more like comic art; Small is an excellent illustrator, where Brosh’s art is intentionally simple and childish (Though still effective, and amusing as hell where it isn’t heartbreaking.). This is also a single story, told in words and images, rather than a series of shorts and vignettes like Hyperbole and a Half. It is the story of David Small’s family, particularly his violently abusive mother. The title comes from Small’s experience with cancer as a child: he had an undiagnosed tumor in his throat, which eventually led to the removal of one of his vocal chords, leaving him essentially mute, and also with a Frankensteinian line of stitches across his neck. This one is an even more terrible story. It’s maybe a little easier to live with, because it has villains and therefore heroes; Small should be considered heroic simply for surviving and growing up and getting his freedom, and then finding the strength to write this book – but the fact of his heroism makes the villains that much more terrible, and the story that much harder to get through.

But like Hyperbole and a Half, it is worth getting through. And in both of these cases – despite what Captain Beatty might think – the images don’t make the story easier to read, though I do think they give the stories mass. Almost too much of it, in fact.

I hope I haven’t made these books seem too dark or painful to read; they are both hard to read, but both are wonderfully realized, and really more moving than anything else. They are both genuine and honest memoirs written by intelligent and creative people, and I recommend them both.

Just – don’t read them one after the other. Put something more cheerful in the middle, there.

(Here: try this. I think it’s funny.)