From the What Can Go Wrong Department

WARNING! This is long – really long! Not only that, I think I’ve said everything in this post before. I am destined to repeat myself, because I talk so much, and also because I come form a long line of people who say the same things over and over. You are probably destined to forget the things I say, because of my aforementioned verbosity, and also because really, how well were you listening the first time? Anyway, I’ll understand if you only read a little, or just click on the clicky stuff. I won’t take offense. I’m just glad that I wrote something -anything!- even if I’ve already written it before!

I overheard one of my 8th graders talking to one of my 6th graders. “Two things: If you don’t understand what’s going on in the story, say ‘nonlinear vignettes that are slices of life reflecting the human condition’ a lot, and she’ll think you do. Also, you never have to study or even read for the last test of any novel Ms. R. assigns. The answer is, the protagonist always dies, and we learn that humanity is doomed.” This proves what an excellent teacher I am; they have learned in two years what it took me until graduate studies to figure out. The students have surpassed the master!

It is true I am fond of a good plunge into the cruel, icy waters (or is it the roiling volcanic lava? Robert Frost and I want to know!) of dystopian decimation, though I will point out that it’s not always the protagonist that meets an untimely death in the books I teach: “Stay gold, Ponyboy!”. In The Crucible, a novel that reads like a play, pretty much everyone dies. I like to see it as more bang for your buck.

In the world of dystopic dorkdom, a great debate arises regarding which is the better of two high school tomes, 1984, by George Orwell and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. I am, of course, too mature to enter the passionate fray sophomore literary scholars engage upon being forced to read these classics. The writings of Orwell, voted number two in the 2008 Times list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, and those of the psychotropic drug addled mysticist and academic, Huxley, both have their merits, so obviously,  I remain objective. Of course, one can have a personal preference, as indeed I do, but I am steadfast in my professionalism, and ever unbiased, allowing the reader to thrill to the words and concepts that have become part of our vernacular, and that comprise all things ‘Orwellian’, or to enjoy, on a somewhat shallow and hedonistic level, the sex, drugs and rock and roll touted by the man nicknamed ‘Ogie’ as a child. Unless I came straight out and told you, you could never guess which book is my favorite.

Orwell and Huxley themselves were less judgmental than I. Shortly after publishing 1984, Orwell received a letter of congratulations from Huxley. After some polite words, Huxley got to the meat of the matter: he said that while either view of the nightmare that is human existence was possible, his was more plausible. (Horn-tooting Huxley strikes again! Oh, that Ogie is a pompous git!) In Brave New World, along with extensive in-utero (or, more precisely, in-labratorio) genetic manipulation and psychological-behavioral programming, the powers that be appeal to human vanity, need for delusion and external stimulation, and love of hedonistic escape to make their autocratic control possible. In 1984, a more violent, aggressive tactic is used to make the population pliable and obedient. As Orwell puts it, “If you want to imagine a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Huxley makes a strong point about the sustainability of his vision. But Orwell rules, because I say so.

This is the crux of the  “Fire or Ice” debate: in which way will people inevitably destroy themselves? Will it be through passion, fury and might? Mind numbing denial, apathy or prejudice? Inflamed self-righteousness and an all consuming, voracious lust for power at any cost, or a cold, calculating desire fulfilled by immediate gratification that allows us to wantonly forget the greater good, and pursue courses of action that bring about desired goals, regardless of the tolls on the future, or the horrifying consequences of the loss of our humanity.

Ray Bradbury believes that we willfully fling open the door to doomsday by allowing ourselves to get sucked in to the glittery promise and opportunities that technology holds.While he was a proponent of imagination, invention, innovation and possibility- “We must move into the universe. Mankind must save itself. We must escape the danger of war and politics. We must become astronauts and go out into the universe and discover the God in ourselves” (via CNN) – he worried that we were just not equipped to make the best choices or foresee the negative aspects to our positive innovations and studies – ask pacifist Albert Einstein a thing or two about that particular kettle of fish! “I don’t think the robots are taking over,” Bradbury said. “I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.” (via the Associated Press) Einstein agreed, kinda. “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives,” he wrote in a letter to his friend, psychiatrist Otto Juliusburger, in 1948, “a disastrous byproduct of science and technology. Nostra culpa!”

Check this out – pretty freaking prescient!

But still, why do I insist on teaching all of this to the sweet, innocent lambkins in my classes? Can’t they just be happy for a few years? Don’t I know any nice books, with happy endings?

NYET! NEIN! Image result for No in Chinese! Nope! We have to teach our children to pay attention to the word around them, because, no matter how much we want it to be as we want it, it will become theirs, and they will have to figure out what to do with it. Today we see kids becoming active and engaged in their future, and it makes me proud – somewhere along the way, the Parkland generation, like the kids of the Civil Rights Era, and many others before them, must have had some good teachers.

Today in the NYT, I found these articles:

I could go on. It’s depressing, and so easy to dismiss as hopeless. The great literature seems to imply that indeed, it is hopeless. George is always going to have to shoot Lennie like Odysseus’ stinky old dog, and he is always going to have to live with the regret and doubt that comes from his actions. We are destined to make the same mistakes, doomed to forget hard-learned lessons, and hard-wired to eschew change. Bummer.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to evolve…there is a place for willful delusion! How can we live in a world that is void of hope? We cannot. And that is why we are doomed. Because we are human. We can’t win, but we mustn’t give up! Even if we fail to overcome that which propels us to jettison ourselves towards disaster, moth-to-flame, we must always resist the sucking negativity that is our birthright! Resist, I say! Resist, and try hard, and do good, and teach the children, and learn many, diverse things. See beauty and seek to love freely and wholly, and to be treated in kind. Please yourself, and hurt no one. Be kind and generous, and take everything offered to you.

Yep. That’s what I think.

Einstein said in a 1955 letter to Bertrand Russel: “There lies before us, if we choose, continued progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.” Smart cookie, that one.

Waxahachie Bathroom, Webb Gallery, 2018

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging me! You’re a peach!

Just a Few Words…

The Supreme Court recently clarified that freedom of speech, even if the subject, tone or intent of that speech is vile, incendiary, misguided or hurtful, is a sacrosanct and inalienable right in this country; for the time being, at least. Even though the Court found in favor of the vicious, hate-spewing, possibly inbred Phelps family that picket schools, funerals and public thoroughfares in the hopes of convincing the masses that we deserve the punitive fury of the Divine because we tolerate homosexuality*, I say, “Yay!” While I use that word often, it is one that is well-chosen, not just for its resounding affirmation, but also for its exuberance and joie de vivre. Even if your words are truly shitty, I think you should be able to speak them. I also believe there is a responsibility that comes with having a voice, and that you should think before you speak. Or type. Definitely before you text, especially if you’re drunk. Sometimes I forget that I believe this, and sometimes thinking is just too much effort, but I still want to talk or write, so I do it anyway, but this post isn’t about me, it’s about WORDS. Why don’t you just shut up, Imaginary Cyber-Conscience that’s always interrupting me? Always nagging, always whining! You’re not the boss of me! Shut it!

Like I was saying, words are potent. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his ruling, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and…inflict great pain.” In 1984, arguably the best book written in the history of ever, one of the cornerstones of mass control is the manipulation and restriction of words. This is a partial explanation of Newspeak, the language Orwell created in the book. Here Syme, who is working on the latest edition of the Newpeak dictionary, is speaking to Winston Smith, the protagonist of the story:

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,’ he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?’

Diabolically brilliant, non?

Self-expression is a gift we shouldn’t take for granted. Nate Fisher, the fictional character in Six Feet Under (played by Peter Krause, now Adam Braverman on Parenthood, if that means anything to you), said in one memorable episode that I have completely forgotten, “If there’s one thing about death I know it’s this: death will shut you up right quick, so if you have something to say in this world, just say it.” (I forgot the ep, but I wrote the quote down on a Kleenex that I’ve been carrying in my pocket ever since. I do that. I’m big on scraps and stickies.)
Of course, sometimes just saying it is easier said than done.
Henry B. Adams said: “No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” Robert Frost said “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.”
I was explaining the importance of choosing your words carefully to my 10 year old nephew, who I’ll call Eli in this blog. He was talking about how kids in his school use the “…B-word and the F-word and the C-word (I later found out that one was ‘crap’; who’d a thunk?) all the time,” and how there was profanity in the music that he likes, which includes Weezer, the Clash and Beck. He’s really cool.
I told him that those kids probably didn’t understand all the things the words could mean, and their connotations, and that if you were going to cuss, you should make sure that profanity was the best option for the situation. (I know what you are thinking here; something along the lines of “practice what you preach.” Shut yer piehole, Judgey! Nobody cares what you think and your mama’s ugly! Burn!)
Eli is profound, and has great depths of understanding.
“Yeah,” he concurred. “It’s gotta be at the right place at the right time. Like if you were in the bushes, takin’ a pee, and you really had to go, but then you got abducted, that would be a good time to let the F-word fly.”
Excellent speculation. That would probably be a fine time.
His sister, who is six, says “poop” a lot. Poop is a great word. Easy to say, easy to spell.
Here’s an interesting example of the use and interpretation of words:

Really, are those the words you would associate with this guy? Actually, now that I look a little closer, he kinda has it going on…

Here is a brief poem I wrote a long time ago about words, kind of. It’s called:

Scraps of paper

In your pockets

In your shoes

In your memory

Shreds of love

Curled at the edges

Witty quips

Shards of a life

Stuffed in a pocket

To be read

and reread

Read between the lines

Underlined in red

Unfurled far away

In a piece of a place

A slip of a spark


So little

So much

On a scrap of paper

Well, oddly, I’m out of words right now. I didn’t feel like I had too much to say, but I didn’t want to deprive you of me for more than a week. That would be uncool.

P.S. to Mr. Roll ‘Em If You Got ‘Em Mario: You’re in adenial …so clever!