This Morning

This morning, I’m wondering why people are in such a hurry.

I saw a twit yesterday (You know, on Twitter? They’re called twits, right? I mean, if it were Tweeter they’d be tweets, but since it’s Twitter…) expressing anger at people who “drive slow” in the left lane on the highway. Okay, if someone’s going 10 mph, that’s dangerous; the people driving fast could smash into you. But otherwise: if someone is driving, say, the speed limit in the fast lane, and you want to go 10 or 20 mph over the speed limit, what this means is — you have to slow down. Or you have to change lanes. In the process of which, you might need to slow down a little. But really: if you’re going 75 and you have to come down to 65, how much more time does that trip take you? If you’re going, say, 15 miles, then the time difference is — about three minutes, by my calculations.

Really? Three minutes slower gets an angry twit? How tight are your timeframes that three minutes makes a substantial and important difference to you? Three minutes? And that’s only if your overall speed for the entire trip is curtailed that 10 mph; if it’s only for, what, 30 seconds or a minute until you go around the person or they get out of your way? What does that cost you, maybe 30 extra seconds of driving? Total?

This isn’t about the actual time it takes to commute: it’s about people refusing to slow down at all, for any reason. Refusing to wait.

I had a bad habit at one point, when I started teaching; there was a back road that I took to get to school, and some of my students took it, too, a pleasant little two-lane country road that curved and pirouetted up into the hills. And sometimes when driving to or from school, I would look in my rearview mirror and see students who I recognized, and I would — slow down. A lot. The limit on the road was 25, but I would go down to 10 or 15 mph. Grinning impishly and humming pleasant tunes. I wouldn’t do it for long, and if there were any other cars on the road I’d come back up to regular speed; but I thought it was funny. Then one of my students one morning, stuck behind my ultra-slow-moving blockade, crossed the double yellow line and whipped around me. When I got to school I confronted him:

“You broke the law.”

“You were going so slow!”

“You could have caused a head-on collision!”

“It was taking too long!”

“We weren’t late, why did you have to get here, what, 30 seconds faster? A minute?”

“I didn’t want to wait.”

That’s all. He didn’t have a good reason;  he just didn’t want to drive that slowly. Again, I was messing with him, and I shouldn’t have been, especially not if it was going to precipitate genuinely dangerous driving like that; and I’m aware that there are people reading this who are also thinking, “10 mph?!? I would have crossed into oncoming traffic too!” But I can’t understand that. What the hell is the big deal with going a little slower? With taking a little longer? It’s not like getting to school sooner meant he got extra time in the ice cream dance party extravaganza; he sat around for an extra minute or two before the bell rang and class started. Whenever people speed, whenever you speed — what do you do with that extra time you save? How does that time improve your life?

When I went to get dinner tonight — we had burritos from Chipotle — I had to wait for the food. I ordered online, because I am always going to take the opportunity not to talk to people; I also hate ordering multiple meals all by myself, because I worry I’ll screw the order up, and also I’m afraid the people behind me are mad because I’m only one guy but suddenly I’m ordering TWO meals? That takes twice as long! WHAT THE HELL! But the Chipotle was slammed tonight: when I got there, there were three other people waiting for online orders, and an in-person ordering line that had to be twenty people long. So it took a while. That was fine; I went on  Twitter and wrote a long twit-thread about how much time it takes to be a teacher. I had fun, actually. (And I have to brag: the person who set me off by claiming that teachers don’t have a demanding job, we’re just bitter and don’t manage our time well, has now blocked me. That’s my first angry blocking on Twitter! What a milestone!)

But the people ahead of me? They bitched the entire time. “I’ve been waiting for 30 minutes! Why is this taking so long!” And I thought, I’ve been here for 10, and that whole time the line hasn’t gotten any shorter. “I don’t understand why it takes this long just to make one burrito bowl. It should only take five minutes tops for one bowl.” Uh . . . because they’re not making one bowl? They’re making like fifty? Finally the woman who had been there the longest gave up and walked out: and not five minutes later, they brought out her food. Which then sat there, unclaimed, on the Online Orders shelf. I’m sure they eventually threw it out. And she went home hungry, after 45 minutes of waiting, because she couldn’t wait 50.

I just don’t understand why people can’t wait.

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Walking Out

[Read Part One: Money Talks]

[Read Part Two: But You Get Summers Off]

 

It is fascinating how America views teachers.

In the last week I’ve been told, repeatedly and stridently, that parents support teachers. I’ve also been told that we should be grateful for that support, and we shouldn’t do anything to risk its continuance. That as long as parents support us, everything will be fine.

But I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s really true that teachers have parents’ support, and I certainly don’t think that the support of parents is the most important thing teachers could ever, ever have.

I don’t think everything’s going to be fine. Not unless we are willing to do what is necessary to make things right, right now.

I don’t mean to complain. I want that to be clear. I’m writing this series because I want people to understand, not because I want you to pity me. There are things about my job that I love, and that’s why I still do it; that’s why I defend it as vigorously as I can, because I want to be able to continue doing the things I love, hopefully without also having to do the things I hate, like enforce sexist dress codes and assign meaningless and misleading grades, or give hours and hours of pointless, mind-breaking tests. Or survive on insufficient money, with insufficient funds available for my classroom and my school to allow me to do an adequate job.

If I cannot get the things I need to be happy here in this job, I will quit and move on; I will find another state that pays teachers better, and I will get a job there. But while that solves my problem, there will still be a million students in Arizona who need teachers: and if not me, then who? Shall I give them the same advice that I keep getting thrown in my face, namely, “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else?” Shall all one million Arizona students move with me to California and find school districts there with adequate resources, who pay their teachers a reasonable wage and so don’t have 40-50% turnover and hundreds of unfilled positions? That sounds like a solution, right?

It’s not. Of course not. Just like the other things that get spat at me and my colleagues on Twitter that are not solutions. But they do show how America views teachers: and it is fascinating.

So what should we do? What should teachers do about this funding crisis in Arizona, this decades-long slide into poverty and a broken, underfunded school system? To be specific, for those who haven’t been a part of this conversation up until now, Arizona cut more funding from schools than any other state during the Great Recession: funding went down 36.6% from 2008 to 2015. Some progress was made in the last three years, but the state is still spending almost 20% less now than ten years ago. About half of the new money since 2015 was mandated by a lawsuit brought against the state government by teachers, [NB: If you go to that link, Prop. 123 is the referendum I mention below. Please note where the lawsuit requires $300 million spent on capital improvements annually, and Governor Ducey promised $17 million.] because the legislature failed to follow through with an earlier state supreme court decision in another lawsuit; the first decision was that the state actually needed to fund schools, which apparently they did not want to. They were required to fund capital improvements to sites and facilities, and to provide funding for textbooks and supplies. They were also instructed to increase the funding yearly for inflation. That last part, they stopped doing; and so the teachers sued the second time, and the courts again decided that, according to the state constitution, Arizona does need to actually fund education. Rather than simply increase revenue to cover that expense, the state passed a referendum settling the lawsuit for 70% of what was owed; that money came from sales of state-owned land (Land which is already supposed to be used to fund education, a fact which made a judge rule the Proposition was illegal.). This is the source of the increased funding that our governor, Doug Ducey, has been crowing about for four years; and it still falls short of where we were a decade ago.

So essentially, the state of Arizona is a deadbeat dad: they do anything they can to get out of paying what they owe for their own children; up to and including just not handing over the money, refusing to pay the bill until the courts force the issue – and then grudgingly paying part of it, and demanding credit for what they did pay.

As I said: what should we teachers do about this problem? We are on the front lines, but though we do suffer because of this, in the form of absurdly low pay (Arizona ranks 48th in pay for high school teachers, 50th for elementary school) and insufficient resources to do the job properly, we are not the main victims: that would be the students themselves, who have to make do with not enough, not as much as other states, not as much as they deserve, in everything from school buildings to programs to textbooks to computer resources to good, stable teachers who stick around for more than a few years. We teachers see this, every day; we live this, every day; we try to make up for it, every day.

What should we do to fix it?

According to one fellow I talked with on Twitter, we should talk about walking out, but not actually do it.

“I support the need for more money in education,”

he said.

“I do not support the manner in which teachers are trying to get it. This hurts, kids and families. There is a much better way to accomplish this goal.”

So I asked, “How?” And because I’m a teacher, I added, “Please be specific.”

He replied,

“Here is how. Use this momentum from #RedforEd to force the Governor and legislators to the negotiating table with the threat of a walkout to start the 2018 – 19 school year. Parents will support you, Ducey will be motivated due to election. Kids and families not affected.”

We went back and forth a little more, but this was the gist. I did not say, though it is true, that the #RedforEd movement has been active since February, and so far the governor has refused to negotiate directly with the main group, Arizona Educators United. (By the way: that is not a union. It’s just a group of teachers who decided to do something more than try to make do with what we’re handed by the state.) I did say that I don’t understand why Ducey would feel more pressure to negotiate after the teachers decided to do nothing for four months; my Twitter friend didn’t have an answer other than he wanted us to wait. He wanted teachers to make sure that kids and families were not affected, because that way we would keep parents’ support. (Because his son is a high school junior, and apparently it would be catastrophic if he didn’t have school now.)

I’ve heard this from more than one person: they support the teachers, but not the walkout that the Arizona teachers have planned. They think we should continue threatening the walkout, but not actually do it, because that will hurt students and parents.

That’s right. It will. And that’s the idea.

I don’t want to do that. I want to believe that Americans like their teachers enough to understand what we’re asking for, and why. I’ve tried to make it clear with these blogs, but in case I haven’t, let me say it outright: we want to be able to do our jobs. That’s it. We don’t want to get rich: as everyone under the sun knows, teachers don’t become teachers to get rich. No one expects that. We don’t want someone else to do our job for us, and we don’t want to find a way out of work: that’s not the reason for the walkout. I think, actually, that parents sometimes forget that teachers are not their teenaged children; after all, we spend all of our time together, and the kids often tell their parents how much they like some of us, and how much they hate some of us; I’m sure in their anecdotes, teachers sound like – other teenagers. “My English teacher is so cool, all laid back and stuff. But my science teacher is a total loser. He thinks he’s funny, but he’s so lame!” And teenagers want a day off. Several days off, if possible. Because they’re teenagers: I had one of my students, very sweet girl, when someone mentioned a school district that was canceling classes because of the teacher walkout, say, “I’m so jealous!”

I’m not. I’d rather not be one of those people who have to take the risk, who have to dig in their heels and fight the entire community, simply because the community has ignored and neglected our needs for years and years, and a few years more. I’d really rather be one of the self-righteous people arguing against me, than me.

We don’t want days off, don’t want to get out of work; we want to be able to be successful in the work we are already doing. Teachers aren’t striking for fewer students (though we should) or lighter requirements in terms of preparation or training or testing or evaluations, or anything else related to working conditions: all we want is more money. And not just for ourselves: because Governor Ducey offered teachers a 19% raise over the next three years, and the teachers’ overwhelming response was to vote for the walkout.

Why did the teachers turn down the pay increase? Three reasons: one, we don’t trust the governor and the legislature, who have failed for years to provide legally mandated funding; two, the pay increases extended past the gubernatorial election this fall, and so who knows if the next governor will feel any need to keep Ducey’s promises (And I include the possibility that Ducey will get re-elected and then feel no need to keep his own promises afterwards); and three – and most important – the pay increase was only for teachers, according to the governor’s definition of “teacher.” It did not include teacher’s aides, or secretaries, or counselors, or janitors, or anyone else who is just as vital to education as the teachers are. It didn’t even include those who teach enrichment classes, like elementary school music and PE, because it was only for teachers who had their own roster. It did not include necessary increases to capital spending, where Arizona has cut 84% of funds compared to 2008, money that is needed for facilities and resources. The governor tried to throw money at the teachers – some of us – but he refused to fund education. And the teachers refused to accept the deal.

And yet we get called greedy. We are accused of taking extreme actions that will hurt children, because teachers are walking out across the state today, and classes are being canceled and schools are being closed, and parents have to find something to do with their kids. Wouldn’t it have been more greedy if we ignored what was best for students and schools and just took the payoff?

So let’s talk about the walkout, because I’ve been hearing a lot about it from people on Twitter. Comments like this:

I never said I don’t support the teachers, I do…but this is the wrong way to go about it. The community and parents have been very supportive of our teachers but this walk out only hurts the students and the community. For many students, they’ll have no where to go.

This particular person is insistent that she supports the teachers, in all things, in all ways, except in this one way: she says the walkout will hurt students and families. Because parents will have to take off work in order to watch their kids. That, apparently, is insupportably, unspeakably evil of the teachers to do. She also wants us to do nothing but wait, and know that we have the support of the parents. So long as we don’t walk out, that is.

I’ve also gotten comments like this:

Great example for your students, teachers. Akin to taking ball and going home.

#redforedaz is an evil movement founded by clowns WHO SIGNED CONTRACTS!! And your children are being left without an education! #MondayMotivaton

(Honestly, I’m curious about the hashtag at the end of that one. I’m supposed to be motivated by this? Also, the sheer number of typos in the anti-teacher tweets is both 100% amusing, and 1000% unsurprising. This is my favorite:

#redforedaz is another entitlement programme. Teachers are WELL PAID considering they work only 9 months. Average teachers salary is 35, 000 a year. Teachers are on a 45, 000 a year course! Wow!!! To think, these teachers are teaching you’re kids! #appalling

At least he spelled “appalling” correctly. He made it a thread, too:

Stop making teachers look like the victims. They are still paid whiner!

I believe this man has made his point.)

All right. First, the contract. Teachers do sign contracts, and those contracts determine our pay. It generally doesn’t change over the year, so we know what we’re signing up for – though there are performance bonuses and incentives, also known as merit pay; if my students’ test scores are high enough, my pay goes up, if they are lower, it goes down. If I’m a coach or I spend extra time helping students enter competitions, then I get paid more the better my students do and the more time I spend helping them. And sure, I suppose a teacher working hard and teaching well would be able to earn more thereby; but when my students intentionally tank the test because the schools have tested them to death and they just can’t care any more, or when the students this year aren’t interested in entering competitions, or this year’s volleyball team sucks, then all the good teaching or coaching in the world won’t earn me that money.

More importantly, the contract doesn’t really set working conditions: there’s nothing in there about a budget, or resources. There’s no guarantee that we will have textbooks, or enough paper to make copies for the whole year, and if we don’t, then I have to work harder: find new resources, create new resources, raise funds myself. There’s nothing in the contract about class sizes. So if I agree to take X dollars to teach for the year, and then my school doubles my student load, I have to work twice as much for the same salary. Which, of course, happens all the time. And if enrollment drops and a class loses too many students – especially if it’s an elective – then the class is canceled, and suddenly, my contract signed in the spring is worth less in the fall.

Tell me again about how contracts are binding agreements that I have a responsibility to follow through on.

No: it takes two parties living up to their agreement to make a contract binding. And if nothing else, the state of Arizona has not held up its end of the bargain, for years. I think there is no argument, legal or moral, that says that Arizona teachers can’t walk out on these contracts. I will also note that, unless the walkout lasts so long that the school year gets canceled, most school districts will extend their year for as many days as the walkout cost them; which means the same teachers who walk out will walk back into their classrooms and put in as many days of work as were agreed to, and without any increase in money, as any deal struck will not take effect until next school year at the earliest. And all of the teachers’ plans will be disrupted and delayed too, and our summer will be shorter, too.

So those who are arguing that we signed a contract and we have to live up to it, please understand: we will. We will do more to abide by the agreement than will the other side. If you want to uphold the rule of legal agreements and insist that people keep their word, then look to the state capitol.

I don’t know how much I need to address the direct ad hominem attacks; I’m sorry if the Monday Motivaton guy doesn’t like the leaders of the RedforEd movement, but it really is a grass-roots movement; thousands of teachers have joined voluntarily without any sort of pressure at all. I did, even though I was told I was being suckered by a 23-year-old Socialist, or that I had

“opted to follow a quasi-union led by DNC delivery boys. You sold freedom”

I don’t remember selling freedom. Didn’t get anything from the DNC, either. I’ve seen a couple of digs from teachers at the Republican party, but honestly, they have controlled the state government that shorted education for the last two decades, so they really do own this. But I have not seen the same calls for registering-and-then-voting-the-bums out that have characterized, say, the gun control movement led by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students; these teachers just want our current government to fix this problem, right now, and if the government does so, I think they can wrap up the election in November, since this is a comfortably red state as it is. If they don’t help fix this problem, then they shouldn’t be re-elected, though I haven’t seen any of the RedforEd movement people agitating for replacement candidates: the election is too far away. We want this fixed now.

I also don’t feel the need to argue that we aren’t childish: childish would be throwing eggs at the governor and then trying to steal office supplies to make up for our insufficient pay. Or just quitting: for the guy who said we were taking our ball and going home, wouldn’t that be if all the teachers quit and walked off with our educations? If we’re fighting to get better working conditions so we can continue doing our job, isn’t that very much not “taking our ball and going home?” How about the bad example, is it that? Again, I don’t know how much students are going to absorb the desire to strike; I know that teachers hate the idea completely, and so I doubt many of us are talking it up to kids; I also know that it would be a worse example to set if we let ourselves get abused and devalued, and yet kept busting our asses for insufficient compensation. I have heard students say for years that they don’t ever want to be teachers, based on what they watch us deal with: so I don’t think it is the teachers who are setting a bad example.

But are we hurting them? Are we hurting our students and their families by walking out?

On some level, yes. We are. Some families will struggle to find child care during the strike (Though I know a whole state full of high school students/babysitters who are going to have a lot of free time…). There are students who are taking AP tests who will miss out on some last minute preparation before the tests, which start next week. I presume there are athletes who will lose their coaches, and performers who will miss opportunities, and some experiences that won’t happen because the teachers are not working.

But this is what has done the most harm at the school where I work: the first year I worked there, 2014-2015, there were two teachers who quit at the end of the year, our Spanish teacher and one of our best science teachers. Both because of pay. We also lost a PE teacher and a science/math teacher to budget cuts. The second year, there were six teachers who quit: science, math, art, two social studies, and English. Seven if you count the long-term sub who replaced one of the social studies teachers for half of the year; he got a job in California. They had different reasons for leaving, but pay was a factor for several of them. The school didn’t replace the science teacher. Third year, it was two math teachers and another science teacher – and one of those math teachers was the heart of our school, the best math teacher I’ve ever known, the reason why our STEM school has had such success. They didn’t replace one of the math teachers that year, either. Oh, we also lost our school psychologist. In three years, we’ve had thirteen teaching positions emptied: and I work at a small charter school with a total teaching faculty of 23. We’ve had more than 50% turnover in three years.

How many teachers are we going to lose this year? What are the chances that their replacements will be better? Who is more likely to leave to seek employment elsewhere, the good worker, the smart teacher, the capable employee — or the one who is already entrenched and doesn’t want to leave for fear they won’t be hired anywhere else? That’s not to say the teachers who have stayed at my school are like that – but our turnover rate is not unusual, so I think it’s a fair argument for the state as a whole. A lot of the best teachers are leaving. Even if good teachers replace them, then experience is lost, continuity is lost, relationships are lost. And as budgets continue to be cut, despite the funding increases touted by our governor, class sizes go up and good outcomes become less and less likely. And I don’t mean good outcomes for the teachers: I mean for the students. The students whom we are hurting by walking out.

Hurts pulling off a bandaid, too. But it’s better to do it, and better to do it quick and sudden.

I do know that the walkout will hurt people. Teachers will get fired, faculty members will get into bitter arguments and conflicts; students will lose out on education and some opportunities; parents are going to miss work and have enormous headaches dealing with child care. But when the only alternative is to go on as we’ve been doing, then it isn’t a choice. Parents who argue that their support for the teachers will be lost because of the strike have not been enough to fix the problem, despite their goodwill and support, because the problem is still here. The goal of the strike is to push other people: those who have done nothing but take advantage of the teachers willing to work and keep working without enough pay, those parents who are willing to keep sending their kids to less-than-ideal schools so long as they themselves don’t have to worry about it, and all those people who ignore the serious consequences of an inadequate education system just so long as they don’t have to pay more in taxes. Those are the ones we want to hurt. Those are the ones we want to push to take action, to inflict their ire, perhaps goaded by us, on those who actually merit it: the government, the deadbeats, the people in the state capitol who have let us sink to this level.

I am sorry it will hurt, and I have tried not to be too aggressive or insulting with this series, or with my Tweets. It helped that I am currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my 9th grade English class, because I got to read this scene, when Atticus Finch tells his daughter why she can’t haul off and punch anyone who insults her father because he is defending a black man accused of rape.

“Come here, Scout,” said Atticus. I crawled into his lap and tucked my head under his chin. He put his arms around me and rocked me gently. “It’s different this time,” he said. “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”

There are a million students in Arizona. There are tens of thousands of teachers. We all live together, and work together. After this fight is over, we will go back to teaching, and they will go back to learning. We will all go back to doing what we can, working together, supporting each other, for the sake of the children, of our students, of our future. Let’s try to remember that, and try not to let this get too vicious. We all need this resolved, in the right way, in the best way: quickly, and well. Please help make that happen. Please help us get what we need to do what we want to do: to teach. To teach as well as we can, for as long as we can.

You say you support the teachers? Are you just going to talk the talk?

Or will you walk the walk?

I said I would still rant a little.

Let’s talk.

I know I just said last night that I was going to reduce the rants and move towards a simple journal about my experience trying to be a published writer. I also said I was terrible at arguing. Both of those things are true.

But also, I think that continuing the conversation is vital to our democracy. People frequently blame our president for his continuous denigration of the media, and you can see the results in how frequently that charge is echoed by his supporters; but the free press alone is not enough to protect our country and our liberties. We all need to think about it, and talk about it. The women’s marches, last year and this, are a wonderful example of citizens participating in the conversation, and the interview I heard this morning on NPR in which a woman criticized the marches for not having a clear message was, I think, missing the point. If you are determined that the answer must be clearly known and entirely solidified before you speak up, before you take action, then you’re assuming that the answer is simple, and therefore so is the problem.

We’re talking about our country. Our democracy. It is not simple. Especially not when you also include women’s rights in our society, women’s issues within our culture, gender politics, and the culture of sexual assault and harassment in the conversation. I recognize that the woman making the comment on the radio was trying to say that we should limit the conversation to a single talking point, but then it becomes easy to discard because that single talking point doesn’t affect everyone. Sometimes a single issue should be the exclusive focus, but sometimes it should be broader. Both types of conversation are necessary: a marriage can’t be considered healthy just because the two people have figured out who does the dishes, but no marriage can go on without figuring out who does the dishes.

So here’s a conversation I came across and that I would like to participate in. Not as an argument, just a conversation. It’s a couple of days old, now, but if Fox News will let me, I will link to this blog in the comments, and see if anyone gives me a response. I welcome responses of any kind.

It’s an op-ed called The Truth About Trump’s First Year, by Allen C. Guelzo, a professor of history at Gettysburg University. The first victory for the president, according to Professor Guelzo, is simply that he is still president:

 

But despite the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, despite the unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages, despite President Trump’s hiring of staff he was forced to fire, and despite his much-criticized tweets, the president is still in charge at the White House. And he appears to be wearing down all but his severest critics.

 

The last sentence is the thesis of the essay (though Guelzo goes a bit further than that by the end of the piece), that the President is convincing all and sundry that, actually, he’s doing a better job than we have given him credit for. The slant of the piece is apparent in the list of “despites:” the Mueller investigation is not over, of course, and Professor Guelzo does not list the various elements of the investigation that have already called the president’s actions and associations into question; the “unrelenting fury of the princes of the op-ed pages” is a wonderfully loaded phrase, calling into question both the rationality and impartiality of the pundits, and also implying they are undemocratic, unlike the Man of the People in the White House (I will not point out that Mr. Guelzo is himself declaiming on the opinion page, as I’m doing the same; but I will include this picture of the Man of the People.);

Image result for trump private residence the tweets are “much-criticized” not because we’re all biased against the President, but because the man should not Tweet as he does – and nearly every interview I hear with a supporter of the President says the same. You think there’s broad bipartisan support for DACA? Run a poll on whether or not Twitter should close the President’s account. So I think that Professor Guelzo is already discounting things that should not be discounted, in any assessment of the President’s first year in office.

But let’s see how the President is wearing down his critics. The first issue raised is ISIS: Guelzo refers to a New York Times op-ed that discussed the collapse of the Islamic State this past year; the author, Ross Douthat, who describes himself in the piece as focusing primarily on finding fault with the President’s actions, grudgingly gives the President some of the credit for ISIS’s collapse:

So very provisionally, credit belongs where it’s due — to our soldiers and diplomats, yes, but to our president as well.

But Douthat’s argument isn’t terribly good, either:

I mean the war against the Islamic State, whose expansion was the defining foreign policy calamity of Barack Obama’s second term, whose executions of Americans made the U.S.A. look impotent and whose utopian experiment drew volunteers drunk on world-historical ambitions and metaphysical dreams. Its defeat was begun under Obama, and the hardest fighting has been done by Iraqis — but this was an American war too, and we succeeded without massive infusions of ground troops, without accidentally getting into a war with Russia, and without inspiring a huge wave of terrorism in the West.

Right, so as Douthat himself states, the war effort began under Mr. Obama, and was fought primarily by troops from the countries involved – Iraqis in the struggle to overthrow ISIS in their country, and Kurds and Arab soldiers in Syria; at least 160,000 fighting troops, and about 2,000 U.S. advisers, plus the American personnel carrying out airstrikes and artillery support – and so I immediately have to question how much of an American war this was. Yes, we were involved; but the President changed very little about that, he didn’t send more troops, didn’t appreciably change the strategy or the resources, didn’t bring new allies into the coalition. He gave the U.S. generals more freedom in deciding strategy, but how much influence did that really have? Were our generals behind the actual strategy as carried out by the fighting men? And then the success markers Douthat lists – we DIDN’T send in thousands of American troops, we DIDN’T get into a war with Russia, we DIDN’T inspire new terrorists (Well. Not yet. Right?) – I mean, that’s a low bar. I didn’t do any of those things, either. Can I have credit for the victory? (Snark aside, this article from the Guardian makes a compelling argument that the collapse of the actual Caliphate was inevitable, and that we have not yet seen what will come of ISIS as a stateless terrorist organization, which is what we have made of al Qaeda and the Taliban – both of which we are still fighting. I think this is not much of a victory at all, let alone a victory for the President. I will also say that the collapse of the Islamic State is a good thing, and that U.S. forces do deserve some credit.)

Next in Professor Guelzo’s argument is this:

Douthat’s observation was followed by never-Trumper and fellow columnist Bret Stephens’ insistence that, despite the collapse of ISIS and other achievements, President Trump must remain beyond the pale because he lacks “character.”

What Stephens didn’t say was that the Constitution does not list “character” as a prerequisite for the presidency, nor do voters necessarily reward it – or punish a perceived lack of character.

The issue of “character” certainly did nothing to affect Bill Clinton, or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Stephens’ attack was a pout, and when pundits turn to pouting, it means they have lost faith in their own argument.

This is, unsurprisingly, a poor rendition of Stephens’s argument. Stephens, who calls himself a conservative, discusses how the conservative viewpoint was once the one that touted character as the most important criterion for political office; he describes how the President’s particular personality has had harmful effects on his own administration. He makes a dozen points to support his contention, and to dismiss them all with “Well, character’s not in the Constitution!” is a pretty ridiculous red herring. Guelzo’s other point about character not affecting Clinton or Kennedy or Johnson is obviously false: Clinton was destroyed by the Lewinsky scandal, and Gore was sunk by the same torpedo; whether or not Kennedy would have been affected by character assassination was made moot by the other assassination. Professor’s Guelzo’s argument regarding this President seems to be that if one gets elected, and does not specifically violate the requirements in the Constitution, then that shows that one is satisfactorily performing the office.

I suppose we’re not going to talk about the emoluments clause. Did you know that Trump never even set up the blind trust (which wasn’t going to be that blind since his children are not exactly disconnected from him) for his company? I didn’t know that either.

Guelzo then refers to a third New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who wrote about how people meeting the President are surprised to find that he’s not actually a lunatic in person. I suppose that’s a victory. This is followed with these critiques of the left’s response to the President’s inauguration:

[A]s we turn the page on President Trump’s first year in office, the dirigible of anti-Trumpism is assuming an amusingly deflated look. It actually began deflating in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, after Antifa thugs gave the “resistance” a self-inflicted black eye and a “Women’s March” made the wearing of funny hats its biggest accomplishment.

All right: so “Antifa thugs” that gave the resistance a black eye is only valid from a specific point of view, one that was looking for a black eye to give the left after the largest single protest movement in the history of humankind – which, apparently, only accomplished the wearing of funny hats. I think the only response to this is to reverse it: the white supremacists in Charlottesville gave the President’s party a black eye, which they tried to cover up with their MAGA hats. No, that’s not all the Republican party and the conservative movement accomplished in the last year, and the very worst elements affiliated with the right should not taint that entire half of the political spectrum. So too with the Women’s March or Antifa, which all by itself should not be tainted by its worst members – none of whom, I will say, drove their car into protestors.

What’s next, Professor Guelzo?

President Trump succeeded in getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. In addition to Gorsuch, the Senate has confirmed 22 Trump nominees for federal appeals and district courts, with another 43 awaiting action.

What’s more, as Jonathan Adler of the Case Western Reserve University Law School has said: “The overall intellectual caliber of Trump’s nominees has been as high, if not higher, than any recent predecessor. That’s almost the opposite of what you might have expected.”

Okay, this is certainly an accomplishment; the appointment of Justice Gorsuch was one of the most pivotal issues that swung traditional conservatives to support the rather unconventional candidate picked by the GOP’s base. Turns out that this is actually an impressive number of judicial appointments:

Trump ranks sixth of 19 presidents filling the highest number of judgeships at the Supreme, appellate and District Court levels in their first year in office, while Obama ranked tenth, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis Friday.

The president has appointed 23 judges, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a dozen appellate court judges and 10 District Court judges. Obama appointed 13 judges—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, three appellate court judges and nine District Court judges.

Source

Of course, context is everything. You know that, Professor: you’re a teacher. You teach history, for Pete’s sake. Why would you drain all the context out of this, if not to achieve a slanted partisan talking point?

Context:

Trump’s success comes in part from the fact that the GOP holds a slim majority in the Senate, which confirms Trump’s picks. In addition, Republican senators in Obama’s first five years blocked three dozen judicial nominations, Politifact found. Democrats used a simple majority to pass most judicial confirmation votes, not a super-majority of 60.

“Nominations pretty much came to a halt until the start of the Trump administration when the Senate started quickly confirming his nominees,” University of Georgia law professor Susan Brodie Haire told the LA Times.

Source

 

And as to Professor Guelzo’s comments about the intellectual prowess of Trump’s nominees, this is why he went with the opinion of a single pundit using a single subjective metric:

However, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated four of Trump’s nominees as “not qualified,” which is close to 14 percent of his picks and a higher percentage than recent presidents.

Of the 23 confirmed judges, only nine have previous judicial experience and most have backgrounds in litigation in either private practice or government. The association bases its ratings not on candidates’ politics, but their “integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament,” its guidelines state.

And while 23 confirmed appointments and 43 awaiting processing is impressive,

There are still more than 140 vacancies in the federal judiciary.

Source

 

Context, Professor.

At this point in the piece, however, Professor Guelzo does take on a more fair and balanced view of the President’s first year in office.

And despite an undeniable string of misfires with Congress (especially on the “repeal and replace” of ObamaCare), there are now more grins than grimaces among Trump loyalists from the increasing number of successes the president has scored over trade deals (withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the repair of the crucial diplomatic relationship with Israel, the decline in illegal border crossings, and the economy.

I mean, the withdrawal from TPP may have been a victory, but I have heard nothing but negatives about the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the attempted scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal. I suppose we have improved our relationship with Israel, though of course there are two sides in Israel and we have pleased the hardline conservative faction while upsetting the more liberal faction, so it’s more that the President shifted our relationship with Israel than that he repaired it; the President’s decision to move the U.S. embassy has also made our relationships with Arab nations much more difficult, especially Jordan, a nation whose population is 30% naturalized Palestinians, with another 2 million Palestinian refugees living in the country.

So what’s the clear victory here? Must be this:

“It’s the economy, stupid,” was once a Democratic battle cry; it may now become President Trump’s.

The Dow Jones industrial average has soared from 18,259 on the day President Trump was elected to over 26,000, in what one analyst called “the most doubted bull market of all time.” New jobs created topped 200,000 in December, driving the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent – the lowest in 17 years.

 

I mean, how can I argue with this?

Luckily for me, I don’t have to. Professor Guelzo argued it for me.

 

Anti-Trump diehards will argue that these are not really Trump accomplishments at all, but the last successes of the Obama years. There is probably some truth in that. The reality is, though, that it’s irrelevant.

Every president takes the credit (or assumes the blame) for what occurs on his watch, and harvests the votes afterward.

 

Simply put, I don’t think the truth is irrelevant. I don’t think the ability to “harvest votes” (A strange phrase, when one thinks that every vote is a person) justifies all. He’s right, of course, that every president takes credit for things that aren’t his doing; but that sucks, and we shouldn’t accept it, let alone encourage it.

So let’s tell the truth. President Obama was not the greatest president in history. Nor was President Clinton. The Democratic Party has done some really bad work in the last two decades, including the catastrophe of the 2016 primaries that led to Hillary Clinton’s nomination. (Some specifics: President Obama never dealt with Guantanamo; the continued and in some ways intensified involvement in Middle East nation building – the longest war in our history, presided over by Obama longer than any other president including Bush – has had terrible consequences; Obamacare is a travesty of a gutted compromise when what we should have had was single-payer healthcare, or nothing. President Clinton ravaged the welfare system, took down the Glass-Steagall Act and thereby was the single most important precursor of the 2007 Wall Street collapse, and yeah, really did lack character in important ways, which have continued to resonate to this day. And the 2016 primaries? Superdelegates and collusion among the DNC leadership, anyone?) I also have argued and will continue to argue that the President should not be impeached until and unless he is proven to have committed high crimes and misdemeanors against this nation, just as I argued that President Clinton should not have been impeached just because he cheated on his wife; the idea that he lied about it and therefore perjured himself was too much of the snake eating its own tail. I think the Russia investigation is important to restore some faith and credibility to a democracy that got invaded by Russian hackers; but I doubt that it will bring down the President, and unless Mueller finds evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the President, evidence that has so far been nonexistent, it should not bring him down.

And on the other hand: it’s the economy, stupid. Our current President deserves little if any credit for the unemployment rate, which has been going down steadily since its height in 2008-2009. The arguments that conservatives have been using to knock that progress, that the official unemployment rate doesn’t include those who gave up looking for work, and that the current rate doesn’t reflect the number of people who are underemployed, are still true. The bull stock market only increases wealth disparity, as it concentrates more wealth in the hands of those who had the money to invest big in the market before it went up, an issue which the tax overhaul only intensified, and no amount of short-term tax cuts for the 99% can counteract. Income inequality is the number one place where our entire government, of millionaires for millionaires, fails to act to protect our country and our citizens; I hope I don’t need to actually argue that the election of a billionaire real estate developer has not brought progress on this issue. The deficit and national debt have been increased, as it always is by the majority party when they are in control, and despite past Republican claims that they would rein in spending, despite the President’s claims that he would drain the swamp and oppose the entrenched Washington interests. Did you see, by the way, that the President has now said that he will campaign for incumbents? Or at least that he’ll avoid primaries?

At the same time, the President has launched an all-out war against immigrants, which has had the effect of scaring millions of people, and therefore both reducing border crossings and increasing tension with other countries; I can’t see it as a good thing in the final summation – though it has not yet run its course, so we’ll have to wait and see before we can judge that. He has agitated our enemies (Iran, North Korea) and insulted our allies (Germany and the EU, the Arab nations, and all of those shitholes). He has, whether Professor Guelzo wants to admit it or not, so soiled the office of the Presidency that even his staunchest allies are forced to turn hypocrite or offer weak criticisms of his Tweeting while ignoring the bullying, the accusations of sexual assault and misconduct, and the clear racism. It’s true that poor character is not the exclusive province of the President; but it’s also true that he does exhibit it to an extent that Americans should decry, regardless of their positions on policy. It’s a tired trope, but I would get fired if I did half the shit that the President does, and I’m only responsible for a hundred or so students. That’s the truth.

Conservatives may be pleased by the reduction of regulations, by the dismantling of the EPA and the Department of Education; they should be pleased by the appointment of conservative judges, particularly Justice Gorsuch. I’m sure corporations are still whooping it up over the tax cuts, and those who are seeing direct benefits, such as the increased wages and the bonuses, should be happy too. The current administration has had victories, both symbolic and practical.

But that’s not the whole story. And the conversation should continue, and continue to be as honest as we can possibly make it.

What It Means to Be a Writer

Scrolling through my Twitter feed when I found a link to this piece.

I walk by accident into one of London’s über-bookstores to be taken over by a very familiar type of sadness—as a child I used to feel this way when thinking about the cosmos and my own insignificant place in it. This is London’s biggest bookshop: 6.5 km of shelves, the website proudly tells us, as if this particular length and not another were a reason to rejoice. Book after book after book thrown into this worded jungle—a hoard that could be a waking counterpart to a Borgesian wet dream. Fiction books and books on writing fiction. Photography and art books and books on photography and art. And so on: most forms of expression and myriad words of meta-dialogue, some of them even justified or at least nicely edited and with colourful covers. Nothing escapes this total library: no corner of the universe or the mind is left unaccounted for. It is a hideous totality for it is an ordered totality, filtered through the minds of who knows how many marketing specialists; it is effective as a selling platform but it is a desert of anonymity for the diminished names on the shelves. Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).

Okay, first of all, that parenthetical comment at the end gets you a punch in your snooty little snoot with a fist labeled Fuck You. I presume you mean that true poetry, great writing, emerges from the soul as a fait accompli, like Athena cracking her way out of Zeus’s head fully-grown; if a would-be writer is too naive to recognize this immortal truth, and to think that one could simply ASK for a way to be a better writer, then that person is doomed to less than mediocrity. Or else it is the bourgeois feeling of the “writing tips,” the oversimplified, sanitized, pre-packaged saccharine packets that show up in ten-item numbered lists on the various clickbait websites advertised on Facebook. I am more understanding of contempt for those, as I am contemptuous of people who make a living on the internet by telling people how to make a living on the internet – by running a website telling people how to make a living on the internet, which is done (Spoiler alert!) by getting people who want to make a living on the internet to buy your secret to making a living on the internet; and the people who do this always seem to call themselves “writers.” But my contempt is for the people at the top of the pyramid: not for the people down on the ground, choking on dust and sand, dreaming of a way to climb. Those people who want writing tips because they want to be better writers deserve respect for their courage in trying to find a way to get what they want; and their desire to improve, whether or not they know a good path to improvement, is admirable and not at all an indication of their potential as writers. Fuck you in the snoot, sir.

Now let’s talk about the central issue here. You’ve got two problems with this bookstore and the despair it engenders in you. One is that your words will never be truly unique, because somebody out there will say pretty much the same thing you say – or in Borges’s universe that you reference later, with his infinite Library of Babel that holds all combinations of letters and thus every possible book, one of the other volumes on the shelves will say exactly what you say. And maybe Borges was right and it does repeat in a chaotic pattern for eternity, if such a thing can be said to exist. Right? All the kilometers of fiction books, the books about art and photography and writing; all been done before, nothing is new, nothing is original. Somebody get me a cigarette and a bottle of cheap red wine, and build a Parisian basement cafe around me for a tomb.

The second problem is that you will never be the one person whose words everyone reads, everyone knows, everyone talks about; because there will always be so many others putting words on the page, that it is impossible that your words would be the ones that capture every reader at once. Particularly not if you want to capture every non-reader as well. This problem seems to be the larger one, as you speak more of being lost in the noise than you do about repeating what has already been said.

The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.

This is a poor proof. Your message in a bottle being surrounded by other messages in a bottle does not make your message pointless. Not even in the metaphor: so long as one person finds your message and reads it, and – I suppose – comes to rescue you from your desert island of despair (Perhaps your bottle message is something entirely different, something like “If you let your eyes go unfocused, a Moen kitchen faucet starts to look like a snobbish sheep with a very long snout. But it’s hard to recapture the magic once your eyes go back to normal and the sheep turns back into a faucet, so don’t waste it.” In that case, you won’t be rescued, but somebody may spend a lot of time squinting at their kitchen sink because of you, which is pretty funny, really. I’d call that success.), then your bottle was a success. You won. You did what you set out to do. You made your point. Wherefore, then, does it become pointless? Is the idea that the thousand bottles around your bottle make it less likely that your bottle will be read? This is not true for the same reason your enormous bookstore should not lead to despair. Ready for the reason? Here it is.

There is more than one person reading. (Shocking, I know. Hold onto your snoot, Buttercup.)

Let’s start with the metaphor. There are a thousand bottles with messages in them, bobbing in the water by the seashore. If there was only one person walking by, and for some reason that person had sworn a sacred vow to read only one bottled message, then your chances of being read are a thousand to one. Agreed, and that would suck. But in the – ahem – “real world” of this fantasy, that one guy wouldn’t stop at one bottle: he’d keep opening bottles. Because if he was doing it out of curiosity, out of a need to see what was written on those messages; or if he was looking for the perfect message, the one that would speak directly to his soul, then reading one message would never be enough. He’d read another, and another, and another. He’d probably try to read them all. I would. Wouldn’t you? If you saw a thousand bottles bobbing in the water with message inside them?

And if it was more than one guy on the shoreline? If it was actually a crowded beach, with tourists, and beachcombers, and dogwalkers, and a tai chi group, and a bunch of hungover teenagers wrapped in sandy blankets and the stench of wet cigarette butts? The bottles would catch all of their interests. They would all want to open their own bottle, be the first to read a message. Then they would share the messages they found with each other. They’d be diving into the water, throwing bottles back onto the shore, shouting and laughing and waving their messages over their heads. The more bottles there were in the water, the bigger the spectacle would be, and the more those people would be drawn to where the bottles were. They might even come back the next day to look for more bottles.

Are you following me, sir? Those bookstores with the kilometers of shelves? They are not only filled with books, they are filled with people. People who read books. And those people never stop at just one book. I know: I used to frequent a very similar establishment, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Five floors of twelve-foot-high bookshelves, covering an entire city block. I never expect to see so many books on display in a single place in my life again. I could spend the rest of my life reading (Ah, bliss!) and not finish a single floor’s worth of books. I went there every month for the ten years I lived in Oregon, to buy books, and you know what? That place was always packed with people. With readers. Never mind the kilometers worth of shelves: how many kilometers of people do you think go through those stores on any given day? 3,000 people, on the average. [source] Average front-to-back measurement of a person is approximately ten inches; I’m an American and we’re thicc, so let’s bump that up to a round foot. (Screw the metric system, though I’ll convert for your convenience, sir.) 3,000 feet of human every day, which is very nearly one kilometer of human flesh – around 915 meters, to be precise. And that’s not even lying down head-to-foot. That means that in a week, if the London store has a similar number of visitors, the people looking at those books outdistance the books they are looking at. And I can tell you that the turnover rate for the people looking is far higher than the turnover for the books on the shelves.

There are an enormous number of books in the world, and it grows every day. It is impossible for one person to read them all, and realistically impossible that one of them will be read by all people.

But that doesn’t mean that my book won’t be read. It doesn’t mean that your words will never be seen.

I think about selling my books, which I have not yet succeeded in doing. But let’s imagine that I do so: imagine if my sales, by every measure of the publishing industry, are absymal. Let’s pretend that I only sell one thousand copies of my novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate. So lame, right? I am – what was your phrase? – “lost in this desert of words.”

A thousand people bought my book. Presumably that means a thousand people read it. (Some surely would cast it aside in disgust or disappointment, sure, but I think some of them would like it enough to share with someone else, or else resell it. Let’s just imagine that one sale equals one reading.) Think about that. I have never been in a room with a thousand people who all know me: not in the way that a reader knows at least an aspect of a writer. I have spoken to thousands of people in my life, but I doubt that a full one thousand of them cared about what I had to say: cared enough to sit down, in a quiet room, and spend hours just listening to my words, thinking about my thoughts. Hearing me. If I could sell just one thousand copies of my book, then I could achieve that. So what if at that same time a million people were listening to Stephen King, and ten million were listening to Kim Kardashian? So what if the world is larger than I can speak to at once? So what if all I can have is one small corner –with one thousand people listening to me?

Isn’t that enough?

Think about it in terms of time. I don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but the pirate book was finished in about a year, so let’s use that. It’s a pretty fast read, I think; someone could finish it in maybe ten hours of reading at a leisurely pace, maybe even less. If a thousand people spend ten hours reading my book, then the year of my life spent writing it (And of course the vast majority of that year was spent sleeping, working, eating, singing in the shower, watching TV, playing The Sims, et cetera) has turned into ten thousand hours of other people’s lives spent – on me. There are 8,760 hours in a year (And 525,600 minutes), so even if I had spent every single one of them working on my book, that time spent is balanced by time spent reading my book if only a thousand people were to read it. More than balanced.

So the question is, what more could you possibly want?

If the only thing that would make writing worthwhile, that would give this endeavor a point, is if every single person on Earth read your work, and only your work, then I agree that writing would be pointless. But I can’t fathom a writer, a real writer, being that childish, that selfish, to think that the world must revolve around your work and your work alone. I mean, the only cultural phenomenon with that impact is Wyld Stallyns. Granted, you’re not them, and neither am I. And that stings a bit, I’ll bet. Yeah, it does me too.

I’ll comfort myself just thinking about how easy it would be to get a thousand people in the world to read a decent book. Shit, if all I want is readers, I could offer it for free and get that many readers without even trying. You wrote this obnoxious angsty piece of snobbery, and I read it, and then spent – mmm – more than an hour responding to it. See? The time you spent on this crud then earned for you this time spent out of my life. Time I could have been reading, ya selfish bastard.

And honestly, I think this is enough time spent on you. I am sorry that your life is so empty and meaningless, and sorry that I threw a couple of hours of my life into your black hole of an ego. Do us both a favor: gain some perspective, will you? Thanks.

(I have to say: the rest of the piece has some valid points about marketing on social media, and about the democratization and banalisation [His word] of writing that has occurred through the internet. There is some good thought here. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end, and then taken the time to write a response. I don’t disagree with everything he says. Just the central premise. I dream of having a thousand readers, and I am absolutely sure that, even in a world inundated with voluminous writers of every imaginable quality and a limited number of readers with a limited number of books they will read, still: I will hit that mark. And it will be worth it.

(Thank you for inspiring me to write this, sir. Now pull up your fucking pants.)

Take Your Time

If I could pick the time I would live in, I would go back a hundred years, and live then. I would be born in 1874, and would now be in 1916. That would be my time.

I decided this a while ago, when I realized that all of my professional aspirations would have served me just as well in the early 20th century, if not better than now. As a schoolteacher then, I wouldn’t have been paid much better than now; but I would have gotten more respect, I think. And I could have paddled my students when they made me mad. More importantly, being a professional writer was, I think, easier then, as there were more people who read, and thus more room for people who wrote. I would be happy continuing on with teaching if I could also have my work published and purchased and read, and I think that would have been simpler back then. There’s also nothing that would have stopped me from owning a shop that sold books and coffee in 1916.

But there are other factors that keep adding to this. I’m healthy, so I don’t care much about the loss of modern medicine; I hate driving fast and I’m not a fan of flying – but I love trains and I would love to take a ship to Europe or the Caribbean. I actually like wearing suits, especially with vests, and hats; though I admit the nonexistence of air conditioning would be tough. I don’t use the telephone very much; I prefer letters. I’ve actually tried to get people to join a written correspondence with me, but nobody keeps it up.

Nobody has time.

I would like to have time.

That’s the main thing, actually. I mean, sure, I like writing on a computer. I like video games. I enjoy having reliable electric power, and recorded music, and broadcast television, and things made out of plastic. Knowing what I know about politics and history, I would not want to live through the World Wars or the Great Depression or the epidemics of influenza and typhoid and smallpox. Though I do wish that the wackiest political candidate now was Teddy Roosevelt, with all his crazy ideas about national parks and the value of exercise. I could not imagine my life without my wife, and if I were alive a century ago, she would not be; if she were, her life would be far more miserable, as a woman without equal rights, or the opportunity to get into art school and do what she loves (though knowing my wife, she would have found a way even back then to be an artist). And of course, she probably would have died in childbirth, as most women did, and I would give anything up to be sure that didn’t happen, including living today in this loud, fast, illiterate world.

But if we can step away from that reality – and since we are talking about traveling in time, we’d better – and just talk about the general shape of life, then yes, an argument could be made for the late 19th/ early 20th century over the 20th/21th. (A note: my word processing program didn’t recognize “21st” as a designation requiring the letters be turned into superscript; but “21th” was no problem. Technology.) And it’s largely because of time and speed. Here – I’ll try to keep it short, so it doesn’t take too much of your time.

I like to take my time. I like moving slowly, and being thorough. Even in the video games I enjoy, I prefer the ability to wander around and explore, the opportunity to re-do a task until I get it right, the power to decide when I go on to the next challenge; I prefer long strategy games and life simulation games because of that. I love puzzles. I like reading books more than short stories, though I enjoy reading an entire newspaper or magazine. I prefer walking or riding my bike over driving. I like the opportunity to think while I am doing other things, and so I like activities that I can pause to consider. It’s the biggest problem my students have with me as a teacher: we take forever to get through a piece of literature, because I’m constantly stopping them to talk about what we just read. They want to get through stuff, and I want to understand every little bit of it.

But that’s also what makes me a good teacher. And it’s what makes me a good writer, and a good reader/reviewer: I take my time. I think about things as I go. I don’t write a lot of drafts for most of my work, but it’s because I think about everything I’m going to say before I say it, and then while I’m writing it. I’ve been thinking about the general shape of this piece for a couple of weeks now, though it has morphed from a screed about Harambe memes, to a rant about Twitter, to this. Which I have started, stopped, and restarted once already.

I can go fast. And I can see the appeal of it. I’ve mowed a lawn using both a push mower and a motorized one, and the push mower is far more annoying; I was only able to do it because I could have music piped directly into my ears through an MP3 player or a radio with headphones. I love being able to write these pieces and then put them instantly in front of a potentially world-wide audience. I do like microwaves and hot water heaters and instant coffee machines.

But generally speaking, the appeal of going fast is to have more time for other things; and if those things are made to go fast as well, then life becomes one frantic screaming headlong tumbling rush. We turn into Alice falling down the rabbit hole: out of control, no idea which way is up or how much time is actually passing, and we never touch the sides, nor reach bottom. We get lost in the chaos, without anything to hold onto. There has to be something that we take slowly, something that we enjoy spending as much time as possible doing; then there is a reason to get through the rest of the day quickly, in order to spend more time doing that one slow thing. The problem with our modern world is that we seem to not have that slow thing, most of us: most of my students, children of their time, simply spend many many hours doing quick things: they scroll through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram; they text and chat and IM constantly; they play videogames all day long, frequently hopping between two or three different games at the same time, playing simultaneously on the computer and on the phone; they spend hours watching videos, everything from full-length movies to six-second Vines. While they are scrolling and chatting and playing games. They spend so much time doing things quickly that everything feels rushed, everything feels late, everything is done at the last minute and under high pressure. They don’t even take the time to sleep.

I would rather sleep. I would rather wait for things – give me a book, or a piece of paper and a pen, and I can wait forever. And in terms of doing things quickly to get to other things, I’d rather not do those things at all. My goal in life is not to accomplish everything when I am young so that I may have a long quiet time at the end of my life; my goal is to avoid or eliminate all of the things I don’t want to do, so I can spend all of my life doing things I want. I haven’t been able to do that yet. But I’m still working on it. I think I’m making progress. Slowly.

I’m not very good at going fast. So I do have a Twitter account, and I do Twit (If it was Tweeter, then the verb would be Tweet; but it’s Twitter. Hence.), and I enjoy it; but not enough. I only Twit once a day or so, most days, and so I don’t get a lot of followers. The same goes for this blog: I can’t find a subject worth talking about at length every day, and I don’t like posting short quick things, and so I don’t get a lot of followers. But that’s okay: because I would rather have readers. I would rather post something at length once a week or so, that a dozen or so people actually read, than post a new sentence every hour and have ten thousand people scroll past it and smile when they do. I’d rather have comments than likes. I’d rather have people come back to read more of my writing than have a post of mine go viral. Don’t get me wrong, I like the likes, and I’m grateful that there are people who think me interesting enough to actually follow on this blog or on Twitter; but if I could trade all of that for some published work, or a weekly column, even if it was in a small newspaper or magazine, I would do it in a heartbeat.

There: that’s something I would do quickly.

I had an interesting week on Twitter, which was part of the impetus for this blog. I live-Twitted several cracks about the debate between Clinton and Trump on Monday night, and that was fun. I do have some followers, mostly my students, and they get a huge kick out of me being on Twitter – which is an ego boost, I will readily admit. Though it sort of freaks me out that the response can sometimes be instantaneous: I have one student that, when she likes or retwits my twits, she does it within a minute of my posting it. It makes me nervous: because sometimes the speed of something like Twitter leads to bad judgment, or truly terrible typos and Freudian slips and malapropisms that may never be lived down. As we learned from the 3am version of Mr. Trump this past week, as well. I’ve been badly burned by my rapid writing, because the posts that nearly got me stripped of my license to teach in Oregon were done without much forethought, in the heat of the moment, and that ended up badly; too, the actual report that led to my blogs being discovered came from a Facebook post. So social media makes me nervous. I like the ability to write what I want to say, and then step back and think about whether it is a good idea to say it or not; there’s a blog post about Hillary Clinton sitting on my computer, where it will stay, because writing it got me too annoyed and I turned much too insulting. But there are no drafts for Twitter. I post things, and I have deleted things after I posted them; but if they already got retwitted, then it’s too late.

Then on Wednesday, one of my favorite authors, Christopher Moore, twitted a Trump joke: “Yo daddy so orange, they push his face in the dough to make jack-o-lantern cookies.” And I quickly twitted back “Yo daddy so orange they use his dandruff to make Tang.” I was ecstatic when I saw Mr. Moore liked and retwitted my post. For a moment I thought it might go viral, or that I’d get a whole swath of new followers; but really, the excitement was that Christopher Moore, whose writing and especially whose humor I have tremendous respect for, liked my joke. That was nice. So on Friday, when I saw one of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt, twitting back and forth with several other people about the Alt-Right version of Star Wars – jokes about the Sand People being illegal immigrants and Han Solo not being a real hero because he was captured, and so on – I thought of a good one, and I twitted it to Mr. Oswalt. Hoping for the same response.

But I didn’t get it, because, it turns out, someone else had twitted the same joke (Darth Vader: “You know, if Leia wasn’t my daughter, I’d probably date her”) ten minutes before I did. That person got hundreds of likes and retwits; I got none.

That’s too fast. In ten minutes, my joke went from funny and appreciated, to derivative and ignored. In other words, to make that joke and be successful at it, I would have had to be ten minutes faster – most easily accomplished by obsessively following Twitter feeds and looking at trends and hashtags. But that is not something I want to do. I don’t want to spend hours jumping from thought to thought to thought, cudgeling my brain into coming up with something funny or interesting, in less than 140 characters (Because you have to leave room for the hashtag!), faster than other people can come up with it. If I was already famous then I would have an instant audience and I could twit things at my leisure that they might appreciate; but then I run the risk of twitting idiocy and having all of my followers instantly know about it and spread it all over the twitterverse. Like Mr. Trump. Or Jaden Smith.

I would rather take my time. I would rather think of something original to say, or create a new perspective on an old problem, than follow trends. Particularly because: had I been the one who came up with the joke ten minutes earlier, and gotten the likes and retwits, I would have been forgotten ten minutes later, when the next person thought of the next funny joke. I don’t want to be that fast, and I don’t want to be forgotten that soon.

I think that’s the impetus behind the Harambe memes. Now, to be clear: while some memes are funny, I generally can’t stand them. They represent the lowest common denominator, which is why they spread so widely and catch on so quickly. Sometimes they’re genuinely funny – like some twits in the twitterverse – and frequently they are cute, because cute is one of the lowest common denominators; but they are always the worst form of the argument, when they are about serious topics, and they are always reductive and simplistic and generally obnoxious to one group or another. My favorite use of memes is in messing with my students: because they don’t expect me, their middle-aged English teacher, to use memes, so when I do, there’s a disconnect that I find more amusing than the meme. But for most meme-people, the humor is unpredictable: it’s impossible to say which meme will catch on and which will not. There are people whose lives online revolve around making memes; some of them are good at following and capitalizing on trends; some are good at making trends; all of them are stuck in an endless cycle of rapidity, catching onto jokes that rise and fall in instants, and the fame that comes with originating the joke following the same arc. A year or two ago it was a frog on a unicycle with the tagline, “Here comes dat boi – Oh shit waddup!”

Then it was another frog – no reason in the meme world – named Pepe, with a depressed look in his half-lidded eyes and his downward curving lips (He has had a recent resurgence when it came to light that Pepe is now popular with those who make vile racist memes, because they dress Pepe up as the minority they wish to denigrate. Yup. Funny stuff.).

 We have also gone through a caveman Spongebob, several images from a video of Shia Lebeouf, far too much of the wrestler John Cena, and recently a strange obsession with Rick Harrison, the star of Pawn Stars.

At one point it was Harambe. The gorilla in the Cleveland zoo who grabbed and held a child who got into his enclosure, and was shot and killed by zookeepers trying to protect the boy. It was a sad story that rapidly caught the attention of the country, particularly online, because it hit so many buttons: children’s safety and violence and the treatment of animals.

Harambe memes caught on partly because the biggest audience for memes is teenagers, and teenagers revel in mocking other people who take things too seriously, which is how the outcry over Harambe was seen – people weren’t concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis, or about the murders of African-Americans committed by police officers, they were concerned with the death of one gorilla – and partly because one meme-creator had an idea: a stupid and crude and absurd idea; and so of course, that’s the one that caught on. The idea? Men flashing their genitals as a tribute to the gorilla. The tagline was “Dicks Out For Harambe.”

Yeah: it’s kind of funny. Put in the right absurd context – a job interview, a political appearance, a Christmas special – the absurd notion is amusing. Because it touches on a taboo that people often find absurd anyway, the issue of public nudity, and also touches on the absurd obsession that most men have with their own genitalia, it got even more traction. And it had its usual run as the most popular meme of the moment. I’m sure whatever meme-maker came up with the line had a sharp uptick in followers or likes or reposts, and I’m sure he or she (Probably he) was gratified and possibly enriched by the increase in ad revenue. The popularity has ended now – thankfully – and I rarely see “dicks out” jokes any more. There was a brief resurgence when another great ape, the gorilla Bantu, died owing to a mistake in a medical procedure, but the slogan “Balls Out for Bantu” was apparently too derivative even for meme-fans, and it never caught on the same way. One of my former students twitted a picture to me, of a poster that some (probably apocryphal) English teacher had on a classroom wall that showed a gorilla’s face and the slogan “Books out for Harambe,” which he said I should put on my wall, but when I told him that there wasn’t enough No in the world (A dick joke AND a meme joke? Oh, sign me up!), another of my students took my side: evidence that the meme is largely dead. When even teenagers don’t think you’re funny any more, there’s no place left for you in the meme world.

But I still see Harambe memes. Now they have changed. Now they are about the gorilla being remembered; now the absurdity is in someone crying over the idea that Harambe’s death will be forgotten. Again, mocking people for taking things too seriously, or at least the wrong things too seriously – but now it is without the lowest common denominator. No dicks in this joke. So this one is less absurd, which makes me question why it is so popular.

So I wonder: how much do people who make memes, who spread memes, worry about the thought of being forgotten? How much of this latest spurt of temporary fame is about this genuine fear? In a world where the attention span covers approximately six seconds or so, where this week’s star is the “Damn, Daniel” guy and next week’s star is Rick Harrison and the “Damn, Daniel” guy is gone from people’s memories forever – what is the point of trying to reach the top? The second you do, you fall right back off, and you probably never make it back up again.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. (And I realize now that I have gone on longer than I intended; I would apologize, but I’m never actually sorry for using a lot of words) When life is about going as fast as possible, then life, too, goes as fast as possible – which is really damn fast. And that may be exciting, but it also gets us to the end before we know it. And whatever that end is, whether it is obscurity or nothingness or even eternal paradise: it won’t be exciting, and it won’t be fast.

I would rather write than trend. I would rather be read than laughed at. I would rather read and consider than get through things. I would like to take my time.