Main | October 2006 »

November 23, 2005

Blast from the Past, Part III

"A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live... When we are not living up to our true vocation, thought deadens our life, or substitutes itself for life, or gives in to life so that our life drowns out our thinking and stifles the voice of conscience. When we find our true vocation - thought and life are one." Thomas Merton

LAGUNA BEACH, CALIFORNIA: SUMMER OF 1998

The second half of my second decade in this world was filled with frustration, ugliness, striving, suffering - and death. That these afflictions were mostly of my own creation led directly to their main (only?) beneficial legacy: I learned. Who am I, really? Where do I fit into the world? What should I do with my life? These are not easy questions to resolve satisfactorily. What a relief then it was to turn 30 years of age, eager for a fresh start to a new decade now that I knew a thing or two about life!

Which brings me to this summer of 1998, having just turned 31 years of age. I am living here in Laguna Beach on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, house-sitting for my father who is sailing around the Aegean Sea. Every sunset I put on some relaxing classical music, read poetry, and watch the sun go over the islands some miles out in the ocean. At night I contemplate the moon and read by candlelight until the fog comes in and covers everything. I go to sleep to the sound of waves crashing on the shore. I have even had a minor but refreshingly tender romance, and of that I cannot complain at all. (Such things come my way less and less frequently as I get older!) At times you just have to sit back and let the good times roll, knowing they will not last indefinitely.

I grew up not far from here. So much of my childhood and adolescence I spent in typical California-style exercising outdoors nearly incessantly. However, the first five years out of the university I worked and hustled so much simply trying to survive and make my way in the world that I found very little time or energy for working out. But not this summer. I stormed here and there, a young man fresh out of college, enmeshed in the polemics and diatribes of the time. The just suffer and the wicked are rewarded! I was whisked this way or that by political passions or aesthetic prejudices: this faction I loved, or that school of thought I hated. I loved women so much it hurt, but could not settle down committed to only one. I made myself miserable. If happiness was not to be found in my own land, I thought to travel to foreign countries where exotic different cultures might render better fruit for harvesting. But the fears, desires, ambitions, and unease followed me from job to job, place to place, as I wrestled with this "intractable social problem" or that "crisis of the age." It was all a fool's errand. But it is not one I have indulged this summer. I have returned to a more simple and natural life.

This summer I have run some six miles every day in the late afternoon. They have often been torture to finish. You stride and sweat in exquisite pain and want to stop running and start to walk. But then you fight through the rough stretch, finish the course, and then feel as good as you felt bad during the run. I hit the gym in the mornings and groan and strain lifting the weights; and then I spend almost an hour sweating like crazy in the sauna, Jacuzzi, and then jump into the bracingly cold water of the pool as my heart jumps into my throat. Afterwards I return to the enervating heat of the sauna, Jacuzzi, etc. I feel exhausted after various repetitions of this cycle, but then I cool down, shower, put on fresh clothes, leave the gym finally, and feel like a million dollars. Do we have to introduce pain, chaos, and exertion into our bodies to keep from becoming soft, lazy, and lethargic? Must we sweat to feel strong and vital? I think so.

Men have a way of getting lost. Our parents and teachers strive to protect us when we are children, sheltering and keeping the harshness of life at arm's length. They give us direction, answer our relatively simple questions as best they can, and love us. But then we find ourselves adults in the world about whom nobody owes any consideration or even cares much about, buffeted by the winds of society and its hatreds and distempers and misfortunes. After a few years, one looks back and wonders with dismay and astonishment, "What happened to the person I used to be? What am I doing here? How did I get so far from where I should be? What happened to me?" But if men get lost sometimes, they can find themselves again with a bit of luck and hard work. We can look long and deeply into ourselves to find the answers; the solution to the problem lies inside us and not out in the world. As Montaigne so aptly describes it:

It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession.

It is we who are responsible for our own happiness; only we can give ourselves peace of mind. As Walt Whitman sings, "Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune." So let it be.

In the dry Southern California heat with the sweat stinging my eyes and surrounded by the acrid smell of sagebrush from the desert foothills above, I feel this summer like I have returned to my "roots." I feel like I am living again as I should - living as I was meant to live. I want nothing, I need nothing; I just am. There is no past, no tomorrow; there are only these golden days of languid happiness. Thank you Lord, for the gift of this summer. I do not know what I have done to deserve this.

The old Anglican prayer reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death. Let the memory of this time of simple, unlooked for happiness, then, be a source of light and life when it is my time to suffer and die.

November 22, 2005

Blast from the Past, Part II

"There's too much music everywhere. It's horrible stuff, the most noise conveying the least information. Kids today are violent because they have no inner life; they have no inner life because they have no thoughts; they have no thoughts because they know no words; they know no words because they never speak; and they never speak because the music's too loud." -- Quentin Crisp

SUMMER OF 1998: MY GOAL

"Illi mors gravis incubat, qui notus nimis omnibus, ignotus moritur sibi."*
Seneca

*Death lies heavily on the man who, too well known to others, dies a stranger to himself.

My life as a writer and thinker never much coincided with my life as a student. It is not that I did not learn many important skills and lessons in the classroom because I did. It is just that rarely did what was most important to me intersect with what we were studying in school. Let me be more specific. My high school English teacher urged me to take the rigorous AP English class when I was in my junior year. A serious athlete with workouts before and after school, I went with an easier class so as to cut down on my homework load. A professor once urged me to enter a paper into an undergraduate writing contest. More interested in seducing the pretty coed sitting across the lecture hall, I let the opportunity pass me by. I never was much for letting school get in the way of my education. Almost all my formal schooling was in history, political science, and international relations - next to none of it in literature. I passed easily my English teacher qualification tests due only to a kind and thoughtful father who read the poetry of W.B. Yeats to the family at the dinner table and would buy me any book I wanted, no questions asked - an arrangement which resulted in many visits to the bookstore over the years.

I did learn grammar and spelling in elementary school, and was pushed greatly in high school by a certain stern old lady who taught English literature and would flunk me if I did not give her my absolute best effort. How I enjoyed the contest of writing her essays! Fifty-five minutes in class under the gun to either produce and pass or choke and fail! But I am a Protestant at heart when it comes to reading, preferring no priestly intermediaries between me and the Word. Such it was in the beginning, so it is today, and thus it will be when I die. As writers, we all need mentors and cheerleaders. But teachers of writing? As someone who has pretended to that title, I have been humbled. The terror of sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper with pen in hand is not something that can essentially be made easier by someone else. Writing is not a group activity, and I strongly suspect it is no more possible to teach someone how to write than it is to teach them how to think. Nobody ever "taught" me how to write, but there is a little of every author I ever enjoyed in my prose.

It should then be less than surprising that my experience in "teaching" writing so far has been less than satisfactory. I have always been a voracious reader, and it still nonpluses me to hear a student tell me they don't like to read: You announce a period of time in class for free reading, and the students moan as if it were a punishment! Despite hours of teaching topic sentences, paragraph organization, and countless hours of editing drafts of student essays, the writing is not close to what it could be; and I am tired of the science or the religion or the math teacher complaining about the poor writing of students! It is eminently demoralizing! I wonder if the momentum we have built up in the last two and half centuries of progress in the written word is at risk of being destroyed by the deafening, omnipresent roar of television "white noise" and vast influence of a mass media more concerned with sensationalism and titillating images than anything more substantial. Aristotle began his Metaphysics by claiming that "all men by nature desire to know"; television is threatening to replace that noble maxim with "all men desire to be entertained." We as a nation are becoming conditioned to sit back lazily and be entertained by stimulating visuals, skeptical story-lines, pumping music, and adrenaline-pumping violent action. Style is victorious over substance; appearance is more important than reality: all is skepticism. We turn on our televisions and turn off our minds; we substitute mindless instant gratification for knowledge dug from deep places.

School? Books? The written word? Wisdom? Truth? When I ask my students at the beginning of the semester if they like to read and write invariably they answer me in the negative, adding that they only do so when forced by teachers and parents. "It's boring, it's not exciting enough, it takes too long!" they explain themselves indignantly. Products of a culture which increasingly prizes entertainment above all, they have come to see comfort and comedy as the sine qua non of the "good life." And having been conditioned to watch passively rather than to read and think actively, can we really blame these young people for their lack of interest in school? (How many of their parents, after all, live their lives reflectively through the written word?) The discomfort and unease (not to mention the blood, sweat, and the tears! -- what an education costs the heart!) which true learning brings with it unfailingly are inconvenient, unnatural, and to be avoided. I wonder if reading long, complex narrative is to be replaced by electronic technologies and new aural-oral mediums. Will writing dense and structured prose vibrant with feeling and layered with thought be supplanted by home movies, video journals, and multimedia software? The latter, after all, is easier and faster than the former! And everyone is too "busy" to sit with their feelings at length! I wonder if we English teachers today in America are not the most forsaken of God's creatures, and the path of least resistance to me would seem to move full-time to teaching history -- supposedly the least favorite of academic subjects to our students. What should I do? Not only are students often nearly illiterate, but even many of my fellow "teachers" find it difficult to pass basic instructor qualification tests. I could do some other job.

Am I an American? Can I be a serious reader, in the private sense, and yet still be fully an American? Without a doubt 99.9% of what I see in the popular American culture of sports, movies, and rock music interests me not at all. I sometimes pause to scratch my head, scour my memory, and examine carefully if I have not missed something vitally basic when I reflect how much money, fame, and adulation revolves around puffed-up actors, models, sports figures, and television "personalities" in the cult of Hollywood celebrity where it is more important to cut a fine figure than to achieve anything of lasting value. The most heroic person I ever met was an old lady who spent 30 years teaching masterfully high school math to thousands of often difficult teenagers for a mere pittance of a salary. When she finally retired, they gave her a watch, shook her hand, and told her "good-bye." She was dead within two years. Why do we ignore her, and then turn all our attention to some singer who - by the vagaries of blind fate - has been blessed with physical beauty and an excellent singing voice? Why does the latter find herself rich and famous beyond her wildest dreams while hardly out of adolescence? Why does the former find herself an old woman eating tomato soup out of a can?

"You're not anybody in America if you're not on TV," claimed a vapid newswoman in a particularly mordant line from a recent movie. As if you don't see it in the media, it didn't happen and/or lacks importance! What rubbish! I find myself going the other direction: I threw my television out the window in a fit of frustration years ago and have lived without an idiot box ever since. The older I get, the fewer are the brawls in day to day politics which actively engage my imagination. I read more and more newspapers and weeklies every year and it takes me less and less time. I read two or three books at once, but rarely anything written less than 50 years ago. Does this leave me "disengaged"? Am I still a full-fledged American? Am I not disqualified to teach contemporary American teenagers, growing up as they are in an "Information Age" of digital visuals and multimedia technology? What should I do?

I write maybe a few hundred words every day and have done so for the last seven or eight years. That for me is a writer: someone who writes every day, an individual who processes experience through the medium of words and records it as such. It matters to me not at all if a person writes well or not, been published or not. They write every day and they are a writer. Period. But I have never gotten on well with the community of writers in my own country: I would rather swallow my teeth than go to a poetry reading, rather kiss a gorilla than join a book reading club. And I look at the various gladiator bloodletting among rival cliques in the book-reading communities and wonder if the savagery of their infighting is made only more vicious because it means nothing to anybody outside of the chattering classes of literary New York and San Francisco! I read the latest university English journal and marvel at the barbarous prose of trendy academic jargon, so divorced from real life and the central concerns of the human heart. It is as if we were back in the Medieval Age of Scholasticism, with a few anointed priests writing to and for a handful of other specialized clerics about minor issues of abstruse theological disputation which only they understand! They "deconstruct text" rather than read books, and then they insult their readers by playing clever literary games rather than telling stories which are worth anybody's precious time to read. It astounds me that persons aspiring to the honorable title of "author" would disrespect their readers so.

I apologize if I begin to sound like something I am not: a curmudgeon. But I mention all this to underline the fact that my life as a reader and writer is and has always been irreducibly solitary. My brothers line the walls of my library, and the evening when I relax with an old friend in the form of a musty leather-bound book is by far the time of day when I am most vibrant and alive. I nearly gasped when I first read the following advice from William Penn to his children about how to read:

"Have but few Books, but let them be well chosen and well read, whether of Religious or Civil Subjects... reading many Books is but a taking off the Mind too much from Meditation. Reading your selves and Nature, in the Dealings and Conduct of Men, is the truest human wisdom. The Spirit of a Man knows the Things of Man, and more true Knowledge comes by Meditation and just Reflection than by Reading; for much Reading is an Oppression of the Mind, and extinguishes the natural Candle; which is the Reason of so many senseless Scholars in the World."

Penn's advice is now posted on the wall above my writing desk, and in the future I hope to pare my reading down to only the most vital core: the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Milton, Emerson. I hope to read and write less, reflect and think more. Or rather, I hope to read and write at a higher level through better reflection and thought. I truly believe the mind and soul, like the muscles of the body, can be improved through constant exertion in a disciplined effort focused on their improvement. We shall see.

We read not only for pleasure but for instruction. By reading, we discover our world, our history, and ourselves; and by writing we hammer out the impressions which skitter across our cerebral cortexes into some fashion of the truth, as we have best come to understand it through our flawed and frail human faculties. I hope thusly to distinguish more clearly the truth through the forest of illusions and doubts that presently surround me. I hope to understand myself and my world better, refining lesson plans while taking time to meditate deeply on what is most important and finding allies where I might, support and sustenance where I can.

Let this then be my goal for this summer of 1998.

******

"There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." --- Henry David Thoreau

November 21, 2005

Blast from the Past, Part I

In reviewing pieces I had written many years ago, I read with much interest the exasperated musings of a beginning teacher and the grade chase. On the other side of that hill now as a veteran teacher, I am satisfied that I have made my peace with "the system" without having lost my soul to it. I read my words with a mixture of amusement and surprise - "How earnest and edgy I was!"

Without further ado, coming to you from all the way from back in 1998--

NON SCHOLA SED VITA DECIMOS*
*We learn not for school but for life.

Grades and grading are for me a pest invested with the potential to do some good and great damage. This is my opinion as an adult. As a child, I have very few memories of being graded in school. I think that is because they never meant very much to me in of as themselves. My grades all the way through college are a motley collection of "A's" and "F's". If a teacher or a subject caught my interest, I was like a person on fire. If uninterested, I would stare indifferently into the teacher's hostile glare without blinking an eye. Perhaps this is why I have such problems with so many of my students who are obsessed with their grades and test scores and want to argue with me over every single point. Such an argument can drive me to distraction like few others can.

By the time I was a senior in college, if I were happy with a paper and thought it fine I could care less past a certain point what grade my professors slapped on it. To look at the unimportant details and minor logical flaws in a term paper and to grade it on a rubric is to have the humor of a scholar, and I mean that in a negative sense. We already, in my opinion, have too much grading of writing and not enough appreciating of it! Yet as a teacher now, I find myself going in the same direction in trying to be "objective" and have "standards." But I still grade writing at least 50% by gut reaction, although standards are nice to be able to fall back on. If I want to violate my "standards" and throw out the rubric, I hold that as my right. I hold this not as my right as a teacher, but my right as a lover of good writing which speaks to the heart.

If I had my way, there would be no grades. What was Petrarch's or Machiavelli's or Cicero's grade point averages (G.P.A.) in their educations? What was Galileo's or Einstein's SAT scores? Did Milton or J.S. Mill, fluent in Latin and Greek before they hit the zenith of adolescence, busy themselves with earning diplomas and advanced degrees? Did William Shakespeare, the greatest writer of English ever to put pen to paper, ever attend university? Did a person leave Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum with anything other than hopefully a modicum of knowledge and wisdom lodged between their ears? The two writers I admire most from this century, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, were not stellar students. Steinbeck dropped out of Stanford University his freshman year to become a writer; Hemingway ran off to World War I at 18 years of age and learned the craft of writing as a newspaperman. Neither graduated from college, but both won the Nobel Prize for Literature. They did not stress over final exams, letters of recommendations, graduating with honors, or impressing their instructors. They had more important goals. So many kids today base their self-esteem on their grade point averages or test scores! Having failed to study for a test or having had a sub-par performance, I have seen students garner a "C" on an exam and then start crying. I did not become a teacher to make twelve-year olds cry! Oh, what a swampy morass of troubles and liabilities is this beast of grades and exams! Parents who put enormous pressure on their children to achieve academic success. Or worse, students who make themselves miserable by being their own worst slave drivers.

I know, I know... how can we hold students accountable for their work without grades or exams? How do they measure up against their peers? Who should we let into the university and not? How can we narrow down the pool of "best and brightest" students who should be admitted to the prestigious professional schools and future positions of power and prestige in society? What promotes "excellence?" What is "fair"?

Although students must be encouraged and given loads of feedback, they also must be told, "Objectively, this paper/test/homework is ranked this way." A colleague was frank in his summation: "I felt and feel that when a school or a teacher abdicates the important responsibility to give grades, they allow mediocrity to rear its ugly head. We are, all of us, competitive in some way. Hopefully, as we become mature, we learn to listen to our inner voice in order to work to our own standards, but we still can benefit from a kick in the ass by looking at those who are doing more than us, or doing something better than we do." W. Somerset Maugham described it thusly: "It is a very funny thing about life: if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it." Children, moreover, sometimes need to be told to do something which is good for them that they might not enjoy at the time. What responsible adult can claim otherwise?

Grades can also be an effective way to motivate teenagers who otherwise do not care about the intrinsic value of learning: legion are the polite and industrious young persons who find pleasure and support all throughout their youth in having their superior work and behavior rewarded in excellent marks. I have also seen many students perform tolerably only because they had been materially bribed by their parents. But I have seen students year after year memorize laboriously and then regurgitate en masse information the teacher wants to hear onto paper without having one original, insightful idea enter into their heads. I have seen students who by assiduously jumping through hoops and barrels earned high grades but learned nothing of consequence which will stay with them over time. I have graded thousands and thousands of bland, bloodless term papers written efficiently and competently towards the goal of achieving a high grade and which held absolutely no passion whatsoever. That is not learning, even if confers upon you "success," as it is conventionally defined. What brings about real success are discipline, drive, determination, and a dream. Schools do not teach these things, except very indirectly. No test can assess them.

Young people all over the world study and sweat and stress to pass exams so they can go on to further levels of schooling and a more affluent and supposedly successful life. But I was never one of them, and this perhaps has much to do with why I find this aspect of being a teacher so difficult and frustrating. Yet if grades and tests are so problematic, that does not mean they are unimportant. This job - the profession of teaching flesh and blood teenagers each with their own unique individual stories in a real life classroom - has taught me that much. But how dispiriting!

Non schola sed vita decimos!

November 18, 2005

The Frog in the Caldron...

PRESSURE

I teach four high school Advanced Placement courses in two different disciplines, in addition to two other college prep English classes. Starting January I will also teach one undergrad college course on Monday nights, and in February I will teach a Masters' Degree class on Wednesday evenings. (This is after my day job.) Around that time I will also be giving my final exams to my daytime classes and have to have them graded by the end of the next week.

I have a whole slew of regular essays to grade, in addition to 57 research papers to read and assess which average about 25 pages each. I have to review my notes, plan my lessons, and deliver lectures as well as I can. I still have 14 more college letters of recommendation to write for former students. There are deadlines that if missed will not hurt some company's profit margin but will hurt real human beings I care deeply about - and I cannot pass any of this work to anyone else. I would rather cut my own arm off than give my AP students less than my very best every day.

I maintain a myriad of sometimes very complex relationships with my students. If deeply rewarding, it is deeply exhausting. If there are many of them, there is only one of me. Give, give, give, give. There is no end to what I could give and still not have it done perfectly.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

It seems I have gotten progressively busier over the past few years. Little by little it has accumulated; and as I have been capable of more work through greater expertise and professional experience, I have acquired more work. It is like the frog that will jump out a boiling caldron if submerged all at once, yet will allow itself to be boiled alive if the temperature rises only gradually. And the years they pass each one more quickly until one can hardly believe it. The past classes begin to mix together. "Was Julia in the high school class that are currently sophomores or freshman in college?" "If I taught Eryn in 1998 and she was in middle school at the time, would she almost be graduating from college now? [picture me counting on my fingers..!]"

I remember turning 16 or 21 was a big deal. I sometimes have to check in with my wife about exactly how old I am nowadays. Perhaps it is just that the in the late thirties birthdays are particularly pointless. Who cares? Nothing much changes. And am I really in my twelfth year of teaching already? Or thirteenth? It is all getting a bit blurry… I sometimes see even my very best friends only once or twice a year, if that. How sad! My wondeful wife sometimes complains that all we do is work. A part of me wants to tell her that is what grown up adults do. A part of me is sympathetic.

But one thing seems crystal clear: as I have gotten older, I live less and less for myself and more and more for others. Perhaps that is normal and even the way it should be, but it is so hard to find balance between one's obligations to others and one's obligations to oneself. It seems clear that to work oneself to death is easier than it appears. (It all gets a bit beyond one’s control, seemingly.) One tries to juggle more and more as one gets better at juggling. But no one gets more hands with which to juggle, and nobody gets more time in the day to get it all done.

The time it leaves and is lost forever. Sometimes I look back at the year 1978 and it seems so long ago. Other times it seems like just yesterday! Sometimes I look at all the painful moments from middle school until middle age and it has been a very long road. Other times 17 years appears to have passed in a snap of the fingers! Have I spent my time well? Have I squandered it? One realizes life is short, not long. Am I essentially the same person I was then? Or am I a completely different person with maturity? How about when I turn 60?

I remember clearly in 1978 (in seventh grade at the time) that the year 2000 seemed forever in the future. I would be 32 years old! But the celebrations revolving around the milennium and the hubub over the Y2K computer-bug crisis are already in a past epoch of my life. I no longer think 38 years of age is very old, relatively speaking. Seventy years olds speak of a man of fifty having died as a terrible tragedy: "So young!" Yet neither is 38 very young.

So it goes with the World Wide Web, too. Unlike when my personal webpage first debuted nine years ago, the Internet is no longer so young. But have I made the most of my online presence?

A NEW ERA BEGINS

My personal webpage now has a new and vastly superior hosting service. My old webhosting company was obscenely expensive and provided horrible service, but (alas!) I was too busy to do much about it – and the years passed by. No longer. In addition, the scourge of Spam e-mail killed any joy I might have gotten out of contact with strangers over the Web: I received hundreds of messages per day with only a very light sprinkling of real e-mail. My “inbox” was overwhelmed. Checking my personal e-mail became unpleasurable and I did it less and less. Checking my e-mail was one long stream of hitting the "delete" key over and over again, and only God knows how much legitimate e-mail got lost in the mix. Yet I checked my work e-mail every hour on the hour. My work webpage took on proportions much larger than my personal one ever did. (How symbolic is that!)

But I have extravagant, complex new anti-Spam strategies that have stopped that plague dead in its tracks! I have this blog installed and up and running. Re-working and updating everything, little by little. Loading files to servers little by little. Navigation bars and CSS sheets where appropriate. Many small steps add up over time. I have some things to say to the world.

Baby steps. Baby steps.

But, by God!, I will get some stuff published onto my re-vamped personal website over these next few weeks! I will make some time for myself - something I have not done in years. "Doctor, heal thyself!"

Just you wait and see.

So let it begin in earnest.

November 16, 2005

Welcome!

This is a new blog offering on my domain.

I am not sure to what use I will put it, but I have some ideas...

If you happen to be around, go ahead and leave a comment! I will read it with much interest.

Until Laters,
Rich Geib