This Morning

This morning I am happy. My senior students graduated yesterday; I was the MC for the ceremony, which meant I was nervous and uncomfortable all day leading up to it — because regardless of how much time I spend in front of a classroom full of students, it doesn’t take away my stage fright or my introversion. And also, a classroom full of students is quite different from a gymnasium filled with probably 500 people, including parents and grandparents and all of my fellow teachers and my administrators and my wife. Much more nerve-wracking.

But it went well, my speech was well-received, I made my former students cry. Here, for the sake of those who did hear it and want to remember, is my speech; it won’t mean a whole lot to people who don’t know these kids, but these kids aren’t the only ones who suit these words, so feel free to substitute your own children or students for the ones I was talking to and about.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, students, teachers, administrators – and, of course, graduates.

Welcome to the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2019!

(to the grads) I bet some of you thought you wouldn’t make it here today. But you did it. All of you: you did it.

You had help – parents, siblings, relatives; teachers, and friends – and all your online friends, YouTube, Khan Academy, Quizlet, Yahoo answers, Wikipedia, Sparknotes, Slader, 123HelpMe.com.

But the point is: you did the real work. You spent the late nights, and the all-nights; the early mornings, the lunchtimes and the passing periods, cramming and studying and reviewing and furiously finishing assignments. You’ve gone through thousands of sheets of paper, hundreds of pencils and pens, gallons of energy drinks, an average of fourteen Hydroflasks each, and a literal ton of hot Cheetos. You sweated through the tests, the essays, the labs, the presentations. You fought through the despair, and stress, anxiety and depression, fear and anger and sadness and happiness – because honestly, nothing makes it harder to sit down to a test than when you’re having a really good day.

You did all of that. All of it. Make no mistake: if anyone tries to minimize this accomplishment, to tell you that this was easy, that it is not impressive – don’t listen. This is impressive. You are impressive. You made it. High school – all school – is rough. And you’ve made it.

And I only have one thing to say to you: don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

Seriously – and I say it with love – get out. Go away and don’t come back. We’re all as tired of you as you are of us, and we’re all going to breathe a huge sigh of relief when you all have left. This is one of the most – let’s say “challenging” – classes I think this school has ever seen.

Want to know why?

You’re one of the smartest classes this school has ever seen.

You’re so smart, all of you, that it has been impossible to keep up with you. Impossible to consistently challenge you. Impossible to control you. Speaking from my experience, trying to run a discussion with all of you was insane: too many of you had things to say, and if you didn’t get to say them to the class, you would say them to each other, all at once. It was chaos.

You all burn so brightly that you draw all the air from the room – and because this school, these rooms, are so small, there wasn’t that much air to begin with. I honestly think that’s why you fought so much with each other: too many lions in too small a cage. It was a daily struggle to be on top, to stand out, to show how good you are individually, among all these other amazing people.

So. Now’s your chance.

You’ve been held in this small space, like a flower in a too-small pot, for too. Long. Now – you are free. Free to grow as tall and as grand and as glorious as you can. You will overshadow this place. You will tower over us, spread far beyond us.

I cannot wait to see what you all become.

So get out.

There was a keynote speaker, of course, a NASA scientist and actor who happens to be related to one of our newest alumni. I thought he did a great job with his speech — but I couldn’t help noticing that he leaned pretty heavily on clichés. He was actually quite up front about it: part of his theme was using Google (or technology in general) to find what you need, which was fine since he was talking to a STEM school; but the Commencement Speeches he Googled were apparently pretty generic. It was good and useful advice, but — generic.

So I thought I would write some of my own advice. Here, then, is something like what I would say if I were to be the keynote speaker at a graduation. This is what I would tell a group of students who were about to leave high school and embark on the adult part of their lives — also known as “the good part.”

 

Speeches like this are always full of clichés. Now, I don’t dislike clichés; I think most of them are true, and have genuinely useful things to say. Clever sayings don’t become clichés if they aren’t true, and truth isn’t talked about unless it is cleverly worded; so pay attention to clichés. At the same time, though, be aware of when the overuse of clichés clouds the message: because it’s a rarely known biological fact that people’s ears go deaf while that person is rolling their eyes. Think of them like memes: they are great, they make you laugh and make you think; then you get tired of them; then they’re dead. Clichés are like your favorite food: you can fall back on them when you have nothing new that sounds good; but you can also get tired of even your very favorite food, and that is a sad day.

I think one of the best things we can do is examine clichés, and reimagine them. Deconstruct them. Critique them. Because then we’re actually thinking about things we normally just swallow whole, without any consideration’ and that is no way to live, nor any good way to eat. You’ve got to chew your food: and your clichés, as well.

Ready? Here we go.

“All you need is love.” One of my favorite songs, and one of my favorite cliches. Also true — kinda. It’s not true that love is ALL you need; but it is true that love is one of the most important things you can have.

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The first piece of advice I want to give you is this: find love. True love, if you can; genuine and lasting love, at the least. I did, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not shaken to my core by gratitude and happiness because of it. And though I think I am extraordinarily lucky in love, I am entirely sure that all of you can find love, too. Make it a priority: make time for it, time for the looking and then time for the love once you find it. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, if that’s not what you’re after; it can certainly be love for family, for a parent, for a sibling, for a child; it can definitely be love for your best friend, or for a beloved pet — although, as much as I love my pets, I would recommend finding a human person to love. Because human persons talk back to you, and because pet persons die too soon. But it doesn’t have to be a spouse-type person, and it doesn’t have to be only one person. But in all the years I have spent with my wife, nothing has mattered to me as much as going home to her, as having her support and her companionship, as loving her and being loved by her. Don’t settle for something less than that: keep looking until you find it, because a half-measure of happiness will keep you from the full measure, and it isn’t worth it. If you think you’ve found it, and then you turn out to be wrong, don’t stay: divorce that person, leave that person, kill that person and stuff them in a sack.

Okay, don’t do that last one. But definitely leave the relationship and look for something better. Don’t give up on love. Not ever. And if you lose love, unless the memories of that love are enough for you, go out and find more love, find new love. Always. Life is better with love than without: and I truly believe everyone can find someone to love.

Next: “Never give up on your dreams. Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

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Okay, once again, there’s truth to this. You should have some kind of ambition in life, and it is better if it is grand; but if it is grand, it will also be, for the vast majority of us, unachievable. Which means you will have two options: give up, or keep working for something you may never accomplish. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the affirmational quotations for this one. As someone who has tried for twenty years to be a published author, and who is still a high school teacher, it both amuses and disturbs me to hear celebrities who caught their lucky break telling people to never give up. Sure, if I had been handed my dreams when I was 17, I’d believe that anyone could accomplish anything they wanted to do — if I was arrogant enough to think that luck came to me because of my talent. I’m not bitter.)

Personally, I would recommend not giving up. Not because of this landing among the stars nonsense; that’s neither true nor meaningful — I mean, if my “moon shot” is to be a published author, what does it mean to land among the stars? I can certainly imagine a second-level success — say, I sell some pleasing number of books which I self-publish, or I get to a pleasing number of followers on this blog, both of which are secondary goals I’m working towards and would be happy to achieve — but how does that fit the metaphor? The moon is infinitesimal compared to the stars, which are infinitely farther away; so what does that mean? Nothing, that’s what. But that’s okay: the point is really that working towards your dreams is a good thing to do regardless of whether or not you achieve the original dream. I really prefer this quote to the cliché, because I think this captures my experience and a lot of other people’s, as well. (Makes sense that it came from an actress whose best-known role came when she was 36.)

“As long as you keep going, you’ll keep getting better. And as you get better, you gain more confidence. That alone is success.” –Tamara Taylor

That’s why I say it is worthwhile to have a grand ambition, even if it is one you will never achieve.

But that takes me, in a roundabout way, to what may be the most important advice I have to give you; though it is also probably the most vague. It is this: there are two kinds of people in this world, and two kinds of experiences.

(There are a bunch of these memes…

 

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But this one’s my favorite:)

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Here are my two kinds: One is the kind of person, and the kind of experience, that limits your future choices, your freedom, your ability to control your life; the other is the kind that expands those choices, that freedom, that ability to make up your own mind and to control your own life. Look always for the second kind of person, the second kind of experience. There will be many choices you will make in life, and many of them will limit your future freedom: and those are the choices you have to be most careful of. You have to make them at the right time, and for the right reason. Choices like what to study in college — after you decide whether or not to go to college. Like what job to take. Where to live. When, and if, you will marry; when, and if, you will have children. These are the defining choices in life, and if you are not yet ready to be defined, don’t make them.

More importantly, don’t EVER let someone else make those choices for you. Don’t let someone pick you for marriage unless you pick them, too. Don’t let someone pick your time to have children, or with whom. Don’t let anyone push you into a career path, and don’t push yourself into one unless you want that career to define you. Until you are ready to make that choice, and lose the freedom to choose again later. (Though here’s a secret, and another cliché I won’t deconstruct: it is never too late to change your mind. Though it does get harder as time passes and you get more settled in your place in the world.)

Let me say one more thing about work: this one?

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Complete bullshit. (You can tell by the background. What the hell kind of job does this image represent? Forest ranger? Have fun chasing poachers and meth cooks all over those mountains, in between rescuing dumbass dayhikers who thought they could just take a jaunt through those woods without equipment because they were in the Brownies. Also have fun getting furloughed when the government shuts down the next time.) Jobs are work. There is always work, or else nobody pays you for it; and the aspects that are work are not going to be fun. Jobs are always difficult, even if you love them, because you can’t possibly love every aspect of them (unless you’re on a whooooooole lotta drugs, and that has its own drawbacks.). I love some things about teaching, I really do — but I HATE the paperwork, and the grades, and indifferent students and overbearing parents, and a few other things as well. I love writing — but I HATE promoting myself. Even if I achieve my dreams of being a professional published author, I will need to write to very strict deadlines, and I will have to worry about my next book being a failure and sending me into the oblivion of Used-To-Be’s. I will have to travel, and speak publically, and participate in conventions and panel discussions and incessant insipid interviews, and I’ll have to be positive ALL THE TIME. I will hate that.

Honestly, I think the best way to view a job is to refuse to let it define you, unless you choose to define yourself that way. Back to the idea of limiting or expanding your freedom: if somebody wants to tell you that you are a teacher, and therefore you can’t be, say, a stripper on the weekends, don’t listen to them; you can be a stripper who teaches during the week. If you don’t care what you do for money because your passion is elsewhere, is in your avocation or your craft or your art or your family, then good: somebody asks what you do, you tell them that you make kayaks in your garage. They don’t need to know — they probably don’t really care — that you deliver pizzas for money; the kayak-building is FAR more interesting and important. So the point is, define yourself by your passion, not by your job; don’t expect your job to BE your passion, though it is certainly nice when they coincide. As much as I hate parts of teaching, I love, so much, that I get to spend all day every day with words, with literature, with reading and writing.

 

There are some other, smaller pieces of advice I would like to give, but they don’t come from clichés and they don’t have their own memes (Advice from a writer and a teacher: stick with a theme only as long as it makes sense; when it’s not working any more, drop it.). One is to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Saving things for a later day is too often saving them for never; freedom to choose in life hits an early peak and then steadily decreases — until the very end, when you gain the freedom that comes with loss. That is, once you have a house and pets and a family and a career you want to keep, it becomes much harder to travel the world — until you lose all of those things. So if you have the chance to travel, do it.

Another is to pay attention: look around you. Take your time: you actually have quite a lot of it, and it will feel like more if you pay attention. I recommend walking, often, with your eyes and ears open to your surroundings.

Another is to read, and to keep learning. Doesn’t matter what you read, doesn’t matter what you learn; if you read the conspiracy theory websites that show how the Rothschilds are behind the measles outbreak, at least you’ll learn how crazy people are — and if you believe what you read, then the rest of us can learn to avoid talking to you, which is really for the best.

An important habit related to both of those is to always question. Question yourself, question your world, question your assumptions. You have to be careful not to take this to the point of permanent uncertainty and anxiety, but that has more to do with knowing when to trust the answers you get or the answers you make, and to move on to a different question; you can always come back to this question later. (Example: should I have written this blog? Is this too long? Is it a terrible topic, that everyone will find boring? Do I seem too arrogant, giving everyone advice? Well, I’ve written this much, and I don’t have a better idea, so — here it is. If I lose readers because of it, so be it. I’ll write something short and pleasant tomorrow. Also, I’ll hopefully get some feedback on this, which will help me know if it was the right thing to do. Also, please comment and Like content you enjoy, always. One of the best things to happen to me in the last few months was when someone read my book and sent me a comment telling me how much they liked it. I’m still floating from that one.)

Actually, that’s a real piece of advice: speak up. Do it in writing, do it anonymously if you are uncomfortable with direct conversation and confrontation; I certainly do, and I do almost all of my talking through a computer keyboard. I even write letters to my students when I want to chew them out, and you know what? INCREDIBLY effective. Feels much more formal and serious when I tell them in a letter that I’m sick of their bad behavior. Highly recommend it. But: speak. Up. Always. Positive and negative. When you are grateful that someone did something nice, say it — not just “Thank you,” but “I appreciate the way you gave me that/helped out with that/did that nice thing.” Tell your loved ones not only that you love them, but also what you love about them. As often as you think of it, say it. When someone angers you or upsets you, say something. When someone makes you uncomfortable, say something. Don’t suffer in silence: say it. Always. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be a pathetic whiny sniveler, and this way, the rest of us will know that and avoid you: so then everyone wins.

Well, except you.

But that’s what you get for being a whiny sniveler.

Last thing, and it’s not cheerful, but it’s true, and it’s important: people love telling younger people that life gets harder, that high school is nothing compared to college, and that college is nothing compared to the real world. I heard that all through school — “When you get to high school, it’s going to be MUCH harder . . . When you get to college, that’s when school/professors/assignments/grades get REALLY hard . . . When you get out into “the real world,” you’ll see how much better you had it while you were still a student!” — and I’m sure you’ve heard it too.

Well, here’s your last truth from me: it’s all bullshit.

Every stage of life is hard. And every stage of life has rewards that make it bearable. College is harder than high school academically; but the freedom you gain, the agency and control over your own life, makes it worthwhile. Also, you get to meet much better people. That same combined difficulty and reward comes with moving out of school and into the world of jobs and such — whether you make that transition after high school or after college doesn’t matter, it’s always the same — you gain more responsibilities, but also more power. The power gives you more freedom and more agency — you earn your own money and you can spend it how you want, for instance — but the responsibilities reduce that freedom, as well.

It’s always like that. When you are older you will probably have more financial security, but your health will probably be worse, and you’ll be aware of your dwindling years to enjoy your life. When you are young, you have all the time in the world — and too much of it has to be spent struggling.

I’m not saying this to depress you, just to let you know: it doesn’t get worse. In most ways, it gets better, because even though there are troubles to weigh down your joys, there is something else that happens as you go through life: you get stronger. Whatever does not kill you, right? It’s true: you get stronger every single day you are alive. It doesn’t make the troubles you face less — but it means you have an easier time handling them. And as long as you keep your eyes open, and take the time to recognize what you have, your happinesses will seem greater. I am happier now than I have been at any time in my past. Last year I would have said the same thing. Ten years ago I would have said the same thing. (Not nine years ago, though. That was a shitty year. But you can’t avoid those, so don’t worry about them. Try to get through them, that’s the best you can do.)

I’m going to end this with my attempt to make my own cliché — but because I thought of it, I actually find it much too annoying to just say; so I’m going to say it with memes. (Another piece of writer’s and teacher’s advice: know your audience.)

They tell us to never give up — but sometimes, giving up means you can walk away, and go find something better to try. So the best way to look at this is:

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or

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Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

This Morning

This morning, I think I have an answer to my question from yesterday morning.

Yesterday, I was wondering what I could say to my wife, to my students, to myself, that would help comfort us in the face of inevitable suffering, and I wished that I could rely on God as that answer, because then I could at least stop thinking about it — and I should have said worrying about it and fretting about it, because that’s the point; it’s not the idea of not thinking, it’s the idea of “let go and let God.” Which I can’t do, but I appreciate that people can.

But I have another cliche that I have gleaned from outside of the fields of the Lord (And that enormously obscure reference is brought to you by the podcast I’ve been listening to, Sunday School Dropouts. Probably also why God has shown up in this atheist’s morning ramblings.), that as I understand it, many churches focus on as the heart of their message (and others may sprinkle in, in between railing against homosexuals and abortion and Democrats in Washington), which is this: God is love.

Once again, that doesn’t work for me. But it comes with another way of looking at it, that I think does fit in nicely with what I’ve been looking for:

Love is God.

That is to say, love is everything. Everything that matters. It is the alpha and the omega, it is the answer to all questions, all doubts and fears. Love. And love, I think, can offer an answer precisely as satisfying  — and not any more satisfying — as can the answer “God.”

What should I tell my students when the future looms ominously over them? Love. Look for love in your life, look for love in what you do; if you don’t find any love in your life, then change it, and if you don’t find any love in what you do, then stop doing it. Don’t work for money, work for love: and I don’t mean to be flippant there, because I am a person who works for money precisely because he cannot live on what he loves; but for me, the money I earn is spent on those I love, and used to give me an opportunity to do what I love, which I am doing right now. So I never mind my job very much, because it is done for love, if not always in love. And yes, sometimes I love my job: I do love books and poetry, and I love writing, and I guess I don’t entirely loathe my students. (No, I love some of them. More, I love the people they become, and the potential I see in them when they are young.)

What do I tell myself when I am in my darkest, foulest, most hopeless moods? Love. I have lost some of my liberal idealism in these last few years, and I have begun to lean a wee bit more conservative; it has made me worry, because I know that this is a common pattern, especially among aging white men, as we start to get a taste of power and become greedy and start worrying about people taking away what we have. And I do not want to be that guy. But I think that so long as I focus on love, so long as my actions and intentions are begun with love in mind, then I won’t turn into someone I would hate. At least some of my shifting to the right is based on the consideration that people on the right can’t be bad people, can’t be evil people, not all of them. (Trump is.) Not any more than there are evil people on the left. It’s not reasonable to take a person’s political leanings as the sole evidence of their morality or their value, or anything else apart from their political leanings; evil people are conservatives, conservatives aren’t evil people. Thinking that makes me give some conservative ideas (like the free market and lower regulation, the independence of states and, perhaps most shocking to me and those who know me, the value of the Second Amendment) the benefit of the doubt, and that makes me move away from my liberal roots.

But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I’m a liberal or a libertarian or a moderate or an anarchist: so long as I consider what is best for my fellow men, and treat them always with respect and with love, then my ideas will never be bad, even if they are wrong.

I also need to remember this for myself when I am disappointed in my writing career. When I think about how old I am compared to other writers, and when I realize how good I am compared to some other writers — and then when I think about how entirely devoid of success I am compared to most other writers; I need to remember: love. I do this because I love it, because I love the me who does this. And so long as I write for love, with love, and out of love, then I can’t be a failure. I am a writer.

What do I tell my wife when she worries about our future, about what we’ll do for money, about where we’ll live, about how we’ll see the world and how we’ll live in it? I will tell her, as I do as often as I possibly can, that I love her, without limits and without end, and that I always will, and that love will see us through, no matter what else happens. Always. Love.

It doesn’t solve the problems we all face. But then, neither does God. I hope that it brings you some comfort, as it brings me some. I hope that it gives us all the strength to keep fighting towards our goals, and I hope it keeps us from hating those who fight against us, or at least in the opposite direction. I hope that the love in your life is enough to make you smile, as it is for me, even on a Monday morning.

Thank you for reading what I write. I won’t say I love you, because I don’t know you, but I love the fact of you and the existence of you, and what you give to me. Thank you.

Now go love!

This Morning

This morning, I am thinking about books.

I have too many books. I have too many books and I don’t read enough. I have a hard and demanding and time-consuming job, one that is important to me to do well, and so that takes up a ton of time and energy; maybe the worst thing about it is that my most-free time is late at night before I go to bed — but I can’t read then because it puts me to sleep. Which sucks because I want to read! And it also makes me feel like a lame-o who doesn’t care enough about reading, I mean, if I loved reading enough, I wouldn’t fall asleep doing it. But that’s dumb, because reading relaxes me, and I’m tired, et voila. Nodding off mid-page and dropping the book, which I do all the time. Scares my dogs. Though fortunately I rarely hit myself in the face. Not never; but rarely.

I also have this second job where I’m trying to write books. That also is draining and difficult and time- and energy-consuming, and so the two things together leave very little time for reading. This one gives me a strange feedback loop, too, because while I want to read as much as possible, as it gives me inspiration and fodder for writing, that means that when I read, it makes me want to write, so if the reading is going well that’s generally when I stop reading to write. Conversely, if the writing is not going well, it makes me want to read more, but then I also feel bad for not getting my writing done, because as much as I want to read, that is still my avocation, my hobby, my peaceful relaxing thing; it’s not my job. I don’t have goals and ambitions as a reader, but I do as a writer, so when I’m reading with the intention of getting back to writing, I am more focused on the getting back to writing, which makes me not enjoy the reading as much.

But I love reading. I love getting lost in a book. I love finding a new hidden thing, or a lovely turn of phrase. I love arguing with the author, or questioning why they did a thing — and I adore when I realize later in the book exactly why they did that thing. I love getting to know and understand characters, and I love seeing how things unfold in their lives. I love seeing how authors begin a story, and how they end one. I love reading detailed descriptions, and perfect metaphors, and ideas that I’ve never thought of before but that resonate with me down to the iron strings inside that Emerson talked about in “On Self-Reliance.” I love doing that, too, thinking of things I’ve read while I’m out in the world, and realizing that the book has had an influence on me, that it matters outside of the time I spend between the covers, wandering across the pages.

I love long books and short books, fiction books and fact books, children’s books and adult books, fantasy and science fiction and horror and romance and everything in between. There is no genre I won’t read, and no subject I won’t at least read about, though of course I have my preferences. Bookstores are dangerous for me, because every time I stop and notice something, I want to buy it. Even knowing that I have too many books at home and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get to read that new book, I still want to buy it. I want it to be mine. I want to have the opportunity to pick that one right off my shelf, and then dive in and start reading it. When I travel, I pack extra books, because I don’t know when I’m packing which book I will want to read next, and I want that first moment of opening a book to be exciting and welcome, not feel onerous or like it’s just the best I can do. I don’t mind too much having too many books, because I just read that Umberto Eco had a personal library of 30,000 volumes, which he never could have read, but that it’s good to have more books than you can read because then you have to choose, which makes you more invested in the book and gives you the chance to learn new things throughout your life. I like that. I want to die with books unread: but not as many as  books read. That’s my goal.

I don’t ever want to be without books.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about my wife.

It’s not surprising, I think about my wife all the time: she is always worth thinking about. Everything with her is worth the doing: she is worth seeing all the time, in her beauty and grace and her sweetness; she is worth talking to all the time, in her intelligence and her humor and her generosity; she is worth holding all the time, and supporting all the time, and relying on all the time. She is worth all my time. She is worth all.

Today is our 15th wedding anniversary, though we had been together for almost ten years before we got married. I am excited to give her her present, and eager to get about our day’s activities — I highly recommend to teachers to have celebratory occasions during regular vacations — and so I’m not going to spend any more time writing this.

I wish you all love and joy and perfection. I go to enjoy mine.

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This Morning

This morning I am thinking about my wife.

Today is her birthday.

I have presents for her, and I have a card, and I have my excited “Happy Birthday!” all ready to go. I’m going to take her out to dinner tonight, and I’m going to buy her something delicious for dessert, and I’m not going to tell the waitstaff that it’s her birthday because she hates when the waiters sing the song to her. Even if she gets a free dessert.

But I can’t possibly say all the things I want to say about her. I don’t have the time, and I don’t have the words: even me, even with all the words that I’ve written over the years, I still don’t have enough words to say how perfect she is. I want to use all the cliches, because (as good cliches do) they all fit: she is my everything. She is my queen, my angel, and my goddess. She is my better half, and my partner in crime. She completes me. She carries my heart.

None of that is enough.

But that doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter what I call her, what goes in the blank of “She is my ____________.”

That matters is the three words before the blank.

She is mine. And I am hers, but today I am thinking about the fact that she is mine.

There is nothing and nobody that I am happier to say that about, on this entire Earth, in this whole universe, in all of time forwards and backwards from this moment, this day that is her day. She is mine.

Happy birthday, my love.

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Love

A student of mine wrote an essay defining “love.” Actually, a number of my students wrote essays defining “love,” because my assignment was to give a concrete definition of an abstract term, and “love” is a term I suggested as a possibility, and which a number of them felt like they had a reasonable grasp on and good cause to want to define. I don’t think most of them did a great job on it, though, for one simple reason: they’ve never been in love. I have – I am – and because of that, I believe that I have a better understanding of love than anyone who has never felt something like what I feel. I’ve always been one of those people who argues against the casual use of the word “love,” always been annoyed by my teenaged students yelling “I love you!” to their friends, often grumbled to myself – generally out loud, though not loudly – “No, you don’t,” when I hear one of them do that. I have always wanted “love” to be a word we reserved for the strongest connections, the most meaningful bonds. I still think that, and so after reading so many essays explaining that love could be used in any circumstance to describe anything at all pleasant, which was the prevailing view, I wanted to write my own to try to clarify what they all are getting wrong, and what I am getting right when I hold my wife in my arms and tell her, “I love you.”

I’ll tell you, though: this one student – one of my best, one of the brightest young people I’ve taught in 20 years – made me think harder about this. Because she said, “If words were seasonings, love would be garlic. Fits well in almost any dish, easily peppered in, improves whatever its included in.” And, well – I love that. I love this, too:

I don’t know if I’ve gone one day since I started speaking without saying the word “love.” If it is able to be overused, I overused it. I still do. I hang up the phone “I love you!” regardless of who I’m calling. I sign professional emails with it. I yell it at random strangers when I try to compliment them. When people who I hardly know share any opinion with me, I usually sum up my feelings towards them with: “Dude! I love you!” I use the word so much because it’s a great word. It means exactly what I’m trying to say. And what I’m usually trying to say is: “this thing or person or idea makes me feel happy and good.” That takes too long to say when someone my age on the street is wearing a Bikini Kill shirt and walking by me and I want them to know that i also like Bikini Kill but I can’t muster up a coherent statement. “I love you (or your shirt, or your outfit or that thing you’re holding)” works just fine. Perfectly non-specific. Perfectly over-intimate.

 

It felt very much like she was speaking directly to this prejudice of mine against the casual overuse of “love,” but in this opening paragraph, and in the rest of the essay, I was confronted with a simple fact: I overuse “love,” too. Because love is not just what I say to my wife; love is also what I say when I think about Cheez-Its, or coffee, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I say it when I see something that makes me feel happy and good. And that makes me a hypocrite.

Now, I don’t really mind being a hypocrite, if by “hypocrite” we mean someone who changes their standards from day to day. This is how my students frequently use the word; they apply it to, for instance, parents who partied in their youth and then tell their kids they shouldn’t party in theirs. (This is a new meaning of the word, I think, and a bad one; if what we mean by “hypocrite” is what I understand the word to really mean, that is someone who betrays their own standard while still holding other people to it, a liar who castigates people for lying, a thief who punishes thieves, then I do not want to be that thing.) Another sentiment I love, this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

People can change. We can learn new things, we can have new ideas, and if those ideas contradict everything we said today, then so be it. This applies to the current subject of love in two ways: one, my understanding of love can change – and change frequently, and then change back again – and two, the meaning of the word “love” can change as society’s general understanding of the word changes. And that is also fine: I don’t feel the need to have one and only one understanding of the word “love.” The meaning of the word doesn’t have to be consistent; it can change according to the circumstances. Context changes the meaning of many words, as it changes the connotations and associations; that’s what makes language so beautiful and so complex. It’s kind of why I still have a job.

I can be inconsistent in my understanding of “love.” It can change according to the circumstances. And within that, there can still be a right and wrong meaning of the word, because someone could use the wrong meaning in the wrong context. So I can happily tell my wife I love her and only her, and then shout to a crowd that I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then throw dirty looks at students who say “Goodbye, I love you!” to their friends – but only if I can be clear in my understanding of these three contexts, and say that my students are misusing it in theirs.

Spoiler: they’re probably not. I am writing this to show myself why I am wrong, much more than I mean to show my students why they are wrong. But they’re wrong, too, and I’m right; I’ll get to that.

My instinct is that there are two feelings here. They are two different feelings, though related; we use the same word for them, though perhaps we shouldn’t. This is where language gets tangled (Which is better, tanguage? Or langled? Mmmmmm – neither.), and though that tanguage (See? That’s awful.), that langling (That’s not better! SO WHY DO I KEEP DOING IT! Because I love portmanteaus, that’s why. Love ’em.), means I still have a job, it’s not worth the pain it causes. This is my objection to English as a language: it has so many words, and so many shades of meaning for those words, and because the meanings of words can change according to context, we can’t all agree on what the words mean; because of that, I think, we avoid the words that are ambiguous, or the ones that are complex. We lose the nuances of our language, and force each other to create and learn new meanings of old words, instead. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s a problem with English exclusively, but I know that English could avoid most of these issues if we’d just take advantage of what English can offer, and that is: many, many words.

Look up “love” in a thesaurus. Mine has multiple columns of synonyms for love because love falls into at least four categories, desire, courtesy, affection, and favorite; and that’s not including God’s love, make love, love affair, and love of country, each of which has its own entry, as well. Even the Great Democratizer Google offers these:

love

/ləv

noun

an intense feeling of deep affection.

synonyms: deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, attachment, endearment;

devotion, adoration, doting, idolization, worship;

passion, ardor, desire, lust, yearning, infatuation, besottedness

compassion, care, caring, regard, solicitude, concern, friendliness, friendship, kindness, charity, goodwill, sympathy, kindliness, altruism, unselfishness, philanthropy, benevolence, fellow feeling, humanity

relationship, love affair, romance, liaison, affair of the heart, amour

   

*   a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone.

synonyms: become infatuated with, give/lose one’s heart to;

fall for, be bowled over by, be swept off one’s feet by, develop a crush on

infatuated with, besotted with, enamored of, smitten with, consumed with desire for;

captivated by, bewitched by, enthralled by, entranced by, moonstruck by;

devoted to, doting on;

informal mad/crazy/nuts/wild about

 

If we could just use these words, and agree on specific words in specific situations, and not change them all the damn time, then this would all be solved: I adore my dogs, I am besotted with my wife – my inamorata – I am devoted to my mother, I care for my students, I am wild about Cheez-Its. See how easy that is?

But nooooooo, no, that’s too many words to remember, and too many meanings to negotiate and agree on. We’d rather use one word for every one of those feelings, and then try to figure out what someone means when they say “I love you.”

That’s actually where my concern lies, with regards to how my students use the word, with how my bright essayist defined it:

The proper definition of love is supremely vague and exists on a spectrum. Love can be intense or delicate, long-lived or fleeting, romantic or platonic, emotional or physical. It is possible to love so many things in so many ways and for so many reasons, that it’s stupid and almost impossible to pinpoint the specifics. It thrives when left as a nebulous idea or concept. It doesn’t hurt anyone to love things. Why force someone to determine if something is worthy of the title of love? I think it can and should be thrown around as much as possible. It doesn’t need boundaries.

 

I agree with this; love can be all of these things. I don’t agree that the inconstant, ever-changing nature of love means that it’s “stupid and almost impossible to pinpoint the specifics.” I believe it is quite important: because there is one situation, and only one, where saying “love” and meaning it, and knowing that you mean it, and ensuring that the one who hears you say it knows that you mean it, is absolutely necessary. That is romance.

When I tell my wife that I love her, I mean something different than what I mean when I say it to anyone else, in any other situation whatsoever. This relationship is unlike every other connection I have in my life: this one, and only this one, is unique. I love my mother just like I love my father; I love my students (some of them) just like I love my coworkers (some of them); I love my dog Samwise just like I love my dog Roxie. I love Cheez-Its like I love Boston creme doughnuts.

But I love my wife like nobody else.

I want to explain, because this is the root of this essay, of this discussion for me; this is why I don’t like it when people use the word “love” for something other than what I feel for my wife. But at the same time, I don’t want to explain, because the life we have together is ours and nobody else’s, and I don’t want to share. Let me see if I can thread this needle at least a little bit.

I trust my wife. Completely, and absolutely. There is no one else to whom I would share as much as I share with her. I can’t say I share everything, as there are some parts of me that can’t ever be expressed, as there are with every human being; but everything that I can share, is hers. No question, no doubt. She is the only person whom I would trust to do anything as well if not better than I can. That’s not meant to sound arrogant, there are lots and lots and LOTS of things that I can’t do well; but the things I can do well, I want to do myself so that I can be sure they will be done the way I think they should be done, the way I can do them. Call me a control freak, if you will; it’s not true for everything, but it is true with, say, my teaching. I’d trust my wife to teach my class over anyone else, as much as my fellow English teachers (And more than some of them), even though she’s not an English teacher: I know that she could do it, and do it well. I’d trust her with my paperwork, with filling out, say, arrest forms or hospital forms. I’d trust her with my medical decisions, I’d trust her with my legacy, I’d trust her with my life. It’s not only the big things, either: I’d trust her to take care of our pets, to lock up the house when we leave on vacation, to drive – which she does better than I do, anyway. When I trust her to do something, I don’t worry about it, I don’t have to double check: I know that she did it right, at least as rightly as I could do it.

(Exceptions: I write better than she does. And she doesn’t really do the dishes right. Mmmmmm – that’s it. She could do anything else for me, if she wished.)

Along with that complete trust comes understanding. Because we have shared so much with each other, and experienced so much together, I know exactly how she thinks. I went to get a snack while she was reading this (It’s about her and us, so she gets veto power), and as I was coming back to my office, I thought, “She’s going to get hung up on that dishes comment.” As soon as she heard me coming down the hall, she called out, “What do you mean, I don’t do the dishes right?” This is not a first: we frequently find ourselves having the same thought, and though we don’t finish each other’s sentences, it’s only because we don’t interrupt each other. We don’t think the same way: she’s more liberal, more spiritual, and has a better sense of propriety (One of my most frequent questions to her is, “Too much? Does that joke go too far?” She frequently says, “A little.” And I take it out.), but I understand how she thinks, and she understands how I think. As well as anyone can understand anyone, that is.

My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t mean that her features are flawless or perfect – whatever the hell that means – because they’re not; simply that the feeling that one gets when one looks at something beautiful, the feeling of calm joy, a warm spread of soothing happiness and a desire to lose time in looking at it: that’s what I feel when I look at her. Watching her expression is the best: the slow smile, the way her eyes widen when she sees something interesting, the way they focus like lasers when she is working on something. It’s beautiful. I could watch her all day, forever. I’ve never seen another woman whom I could watch the same way. Partly, yes, because it would be creepy; my wife may think I’m creepy when I stare at her, but she lets me do it, anyway, without calling me out, without making me feel uncomfortable – without tearing down that warm calm that comes with looking at beauty. It’s that allowance, that permission to enjoy her, that is part of this; her walls are – not gone, but lower, or farther back, with me than they are with anyone else. That’s part of the privilege of love. Part of the honor of it is how I try to be worthy of that permission, of that trust.

Along with that – and not to get too graphic – my wife is the sexiest woman in the world. All the feelings of attraction and excitement, different and more intense and more fleeting and more addictive than the feelings that come with looking at beauty: I get all of those from being around my wife. Nobody else has ever, or could ever, have the same overwhelming effect on me so often, so immediately; all it takes is one glance in just the right way, and nothing else exists. Only she has that power over me. And it is a power, make no mistake: whatever I may want to say to hedge this topic, to moralize it, to objectify and reduce the feeling of sexual attraction, and the feelings of ecstasy, of connection, and of bliss that come with sex, the truth is, whether I can explain it or not, whether it needs explanation or not, sex is as powerful a part of love as any other.

It’s not necessary: I will say that. My relationship with my wife, our connection, our affection, our trust; none of that is built on sex, none of it relies on sex. I could not imagine, however, having the same relationship with her while having a sexual relationship with someone else. I don’t see how that would work. We could still be friends, even the best of friends; but she would not be my love. I know there are people who have polyamorous relationships, and I have to assume they care for their partners, and are excited by their partners, in the same way as I and my wife; but I can’t understand it. Suffice it to say that if everyone could share all parts of the relationship together, I can at least see how it could work; if people have separate intimate relationships in common, as in my understanding (based exclusively on televised fiction, which is why I don’t pretend to have an answer here) of religious polygamy, where a husband moves from wife to wife to wife on different nights – I can’t see that as the same kind of love that I have with my wife.

But then, I don’t think anyone else on Earth has the same kind of love that I have with my wife: I am unique, and she is unique, and thus what we have together is unique. So on some level, there is no word for what I feel for her, or at least no word that anyone else could ever know or understand or use. It is essentially uncommunicable.

Dang. Maybe my student was right. Maybe there is no point in defining love.

No: I still think it matters. My love for my wife is this way because it has grown and strengthened and become more for better than twenty years. When we met, when we started dating, and when we fell in love, there were all the same flaws and problems that other people have; maybe not as many, maybe not as serious, as there are for some relationships – after all, we stayed together – but love becomes unique and undefinable; I don’t think it starts that way. I think the feeling is, at first, recognizable, similar to what each of us had felt for other people in the past, similar to what other people feel in those circumstances. Knowing that, recognizing it, is what allowed us to first say to each other, “I love you,” and mean it. And I think it’s important that people recognize that phrase, and mean it when they say it, as something distinct from what people mean when they shout “I love you!” as they drive by the McDonald’s where their friends are at work. Because in a romantic situation, when someone says, “I love you,” and the other person says, “I love you too! You’re my best friend!” then there is at least a potential for serious and terrible heartbreak. There are countless dramatic moments in books, films, TV shows, based on this precise miscommunication, because it is one we can understand, relate to, maybe remember. That is the problem with using the exact same word for both very different feelings. And they are different feelings: I will use the phrase “romantic love” to separate them, but that doesn’t work in the moment, because you can’t say “I love you romantically” and mean it. When you tell someone that you love them in the way that I say it to my wife, then the word cannot be qualified and modified: it has to be everything, all in one, because that’s what the word represents: that’s the love I mean when I say it to her. Everything. All that I am, and all that I have, with her, forever. That’s love.

 

When I was thinking about this essay, I had an idea that I would end up defining two different meanings of the word “love:” one for the happy warm feelings that my student speaks of – call it the garlic love, in her honor – and one for the feelings I share with my wife, which I cannot truly express, not with all my words. I even had the idea that the garlic love, the one I feel for pirates or warm socks or the music of Weird Al Yankovic – and believe me, I do not discount and do not demean that love; I love that love – could be distinguished as the one that allows people to extend the word the way they do on social media, by adding more “e’s” at the end of it – “I LOVEEEEEEEE that movie!” I freely admit that bugs the crap out of me: because IT’S A SILENT LETTER! What the hell does it mean when you say it more, a long pause? But I also admit, just as freely, that this is my humbuggishness talking, that I have no grounds to be annoyed by that; I understand that people are trying to intensify the word within the limitations of the medium: you can’t do bold or italic or oversized font in a Tweet. You can repeat the word – “I love love love that movie” – but that’s neither better nor worse. In both cases, it’s clear communication of intensified feeling, and it does it the same way, by dedicating more characters to the idea.

I can distinguish that from what I feel for my wife, however, because when I tell her I love her, I don’t ever extend it. I don’t ever say, “I LOOOOOOOVVVVVEEEEE you!” I don’t say “I LOVE LOVE LOVE you!” But I would do either of those things – okay, not the second one, which strikes me as insincere, though again, no real reason for that, just prejudice and humbuggishness, the same as how I hate it when people use the word “impactful” – if I was trying to express how I feel about Weird Al. I LOOOOOOVVVVEEE Weird Al.

I love my wife.

Two different feelings, two different terms, even if they are sort of spelled the same. Even if they do both have the same positive, happy-making, basic feeling underlying them. And if I had my druthers, I’d insist that people distinguish: when they talk to their friends about their favorite breakfast cereals, they use the extendable one: maybe spell it “loveee” to be clear. When they talk about the person they want to kiss, they use only “love.” Spelled, and said, the right way.

But there’s no point in trying to do that. Language doesn’t change because people think others are using it wrong; language changes with people’s whims, with fashions, with the ease and quickness of flipping a switch, but never because people say that word there is the wrong word. I suppose I could try to make it unfashionable to use the word “love” in a casual context, but people want to say it. They want to express feelings, want to be open, and they want to be positive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If saying “I love you” makes two friends happy, then who the hell am I to step in and say, “Actually, that’s not love; you should say you are fond of each other.” I mean, I can be a prick sometimes, but I’m not that bad. And while I said above that I wished we would take advantage of the richness of the language – and I still wish that, all the time and in many contexts – I could never say to my wife, with a straight face, “I am besotted with you.” (Note: I tried. Didn’t work.)

I think it’s okay, though. Because context changes meaning. So what we need to be aware of is the context we are creating when we use the word “love.” When we want to use it differently, when you’ve just been saying, “Man, I love Buffalo wings!” and you have the sudden urge to tell your date, “I love you,” don’t do it one after the other. (Though do picture that, just for a minute. “Man, I love Buffalo wings! I love you, sweetie!” Don’t even give the guy a pause; picture him licking sauce off of his fingers the whole time he says this. Nice.) Change the context. Surround the declarations of romantic everything-love with a situation that expresses what you mean: and if you want to clearly show the difference between uses of the word, then make sure the contexts are different.

What I really want to say, I suppose, is that love is a perfect thing for me. I don’t want to rename it. I also don’t want to keep it from having a name, from saying it is indefinable and indescribable, because I don’t want to keep other people from it – I want other people to feel what I feel. I think it has made me a better person, and given me a better life, than I could possibly have had without it. My wife is my everything, and she has given me – everything. If other people could know what I mean, this would be a better, happier world. But while my love is unique, my experience is not, because I know there are other people who have an everything love as much as I do. They have understood everything I have said here. (I hope.) That common experience is what allows us to communicate at all; and here, it allows us to understand what I mean by the word “love.” But even for those who don’t know, who haven’t felt, what I know and feel, and thus don’t quite know what I mean by “love,” at least understand this: when you say it, make sure the other person understands just what you mean.

I would love that.

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

 

Interpreter of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri

I didn’t love this book.

Some of the stories were beautiful. All of the writing was lovely, but some of the stories didn’t sing to me, where some did. I was a little disappointed that the title story was definitely not the best; it’s about a man who interprets for a living, who takes a group of American tourists (of Indian heritage) around on a tour of his hometown, which they visit every year or so from their home in New Jersey. The tourists are pretty delightfully obnoxious, and the ending of the story when one of them gets an Indian comeuppance, is delightful; but the major action involves this interpreter (who also works in a doctor’s office, translating people’s symptoms to the doctor – hence the title) developing a crush on the tourist woman. Which was pretty disappointing, really.

I did like about half of the stories. A Temporary Matter, the first one, was maybe the most touching; it’s about a couple trying to find their way after a stillbirth; they are mostly estranged and alienated, until the power company turns off all of the lights in the neighborhood around dinner time, and then these two people find that they can talk in the darkness in a way they can’t when the lights are on. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, which was also a letdown, though it did make sense. It was good, but not my favorite. The second story, When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, is pretty much the typical story for the collection: it features a mix of Indian culture and Western, which creates discomfort and conflict; the characters are interesting, the descriptions are lovely – and the story goes freaking nowhere. Ditto for A Real Durwan, Sexy, and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar (The first and last only differ in that they are purely Indian, and so have at least some appeal in showing something of the culture; Sexy is the only story in the collection with a Western main character, and she’s a dud, as is the story.), and, sadly, the title story. Which at least does have the best title, which is, I suppose, why Lahiri picked it for the collection. The other three I’ve listed here were all a little too strange, and a lot too dull: nothing really happens, nothing gets resolved, nobody goes anywhere. I’m sure that was the point, an attempt to show the futility and emptiness of modern life, but — whatever.

The good stories were The Third and Final Continent, This Blessed House, and especially Mrs. Sen’s, which was my favorite. They showed relationships that were fraught, but not doomed; the couple in The Third and Final Continent actually work out quite well, as does the most significant relationship in the story, between the Indian main character and his American landlady, who is 103 years old and is splendid. Say it! Say “Splendid!”

This Blessed House has the most interesting character, in the woman named Twinkle, who reminded me of the classic vivacious hostess, the sort of Katherine Hepburn energetic wit with grace and style who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty; she was contrasted nicely with her dud of a husband, though I do have to say that, as an introvert, I was kind of on his side: he just wants a quiet house to come home to after work, and his wife keeps throwing parties and doing things. I have never been so glad to be married to a woman even more introverted than me.

Mrs. Sen’s was the sweetest story. It’s about an American boy who spends his afternoons at the home of his babysitter, the titular Mrs. Sen; seeing her through his eyes made her interesting but never offputting – other than the damned knife in the beginning of the story, which I could not for the life of me imagine; it’s apparently an Indian cooking tool, a blade fixed to the cutting board, and you move the vegetables over the knife to chop them. It’s a nice piece of Indian culture, but I just couldn’t grasp it. Still can’t. But I love how Mrs. Sen is so eager to get news from home, and I was heartbroken with her when the news is bad; I thought it was very sweet how she tries to learn to drive, and I actually liked her husband, which made this one of the few relationships in the book that isn’t depressing or disappointing. Plus, I used to have to go to my babysitter’s after school — Mrs. Bergstrom’s —  and so I bonded with the narrator right away, and I sort of wish that Mrs. B. had only had me to watch, instead of the five or six kids she took care of at once. I would have liked to get to know her the way we get to know Mrs. Sen in this story.

Overall, I don’t think it was really worth it; even the good stories aren’t among my favorites, really. If you are in the mood for a sort of gentle alienation, like looking through a soft veil at a surrealist painting, then go for it; if you feel like reading about romances that don’t have a whole lot of closeness in them, as well, then this one is right up your alley. I think it missed my alley.