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!

Tick Tock People

“The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen all at once.”   – Albert Einstein

TicToc Katherine Streeter for NPR I think a lot about time. You probably know that, because I write a lot about it. I’m kind of obsessive. I think about time and memory, time and conscious and unconscious thought, time ahead, time past, time better spent, time for change, how time doesn’t change, how quickly things change, the transient nature of reality from moment to moment.

Maybe I have too much time on my hands.

My cousin just had a baby boy, and his next few years will be measured by all sorts of time standards – not only will his life be segmented in days and then months, but in hours until he has to be fed, how much time has lapsed since he’s urinated, how long he sleeps, milestones he reaches early, punctually, late, or not at all. The minute we pop out of the womb (we count on nine months of gestation, but due dates are kind of arbitrary, since we can time the birth according to need and convenience), we are beholden to clock or calender.

My life is compelled forward by bells that measure time, what is over and what is to begin: alarm clocks, school bells, wedding bells, blue bells of spring, telephones that ring (or don’t), door bells, bells that toll. Even thoughts are measured by time – “the first time I discovered”; “I should have known then”; “I didn’t realize until”; “it has often been said.” Indeed, by the first time I thought these thoughts, those I have just written down, Poe had already said them with music and form.( Pink Floyd used bells in the poetry of the beautiful song “Time.”

By the time you think a thought, it’s a thought already thunk; by the time your bell is rung, it’s a song already sung. By the time you write a poem about time, you know that poems shouldn’t always rhyme.

Winston Smith, tragic hero of 1984, is obsessed with a nursery rhyme about the bells in different churches of London; it ends with the line “here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” Time’s up! Perhaps our greatest collective fear is that time will run out too soon.

We have Circadian rhythms and biological clocks. We have diseases that lay dormant like ticking time bombs, and mysterious powers of regeneration, and time sensitive skills, abilities and opportunities. Recently I read that not only do we have a master clock in our bodies that controls our natural sleep cycle, but that we also have little clock in virtually every organ and even cell, and that those clocks sync up and tick in unison, or we suffer drag or go too fast.

I have come up with this conclusion: time is important.

The thing is, when you look at time in relation to an individual, it does have a heightened significance, because time has a bearing on a person; we are products of our time, or we are anachronisms, or we need time to evolve into another aspect of ourselves. In an individual, time is finite and duplicitous; sometimes it crawls; others, it sprints. But on a larger scale, time is infinite, much bigger than an individual, a family, generations, an era. Time is vast and doesn’t flow linearly. Time has its own life, regardless of you and me, so measuring ourselves in relation to something that is beyond the confines of numbers or units is ridiculous; yet, this is what we do. We think: by this time, I should have accomplished this, or I need to acquire that, or I want to be here. And when we fall short of these goals, we are sad or anxious.Time is so important to us, but really, what does it matter? All things will happen, in time. If we stop worrying about the past and the future, we can pay attention to the time that is right now. We can become part of time, instead of trying to control or beat it. We don’t have to be time fighters.

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday, easily measured in years, decades, scores and even centuries.Half a century, anyway. I thought that at this point in my life, I would be different than I am, and that my life would have taken turns that would have brought me to a place that I am not. I don’t regret very many things I have done, but I am wistful about some of the things I didn’t do. At this birthday, I took stock of the past, and, for the first time that I can really recall, I thought of the future. I should be making plans, setting goals I need to reach sooner rather than later. I should plan ahead, so others won’t have to plan for me. Really, when I think about it, what have I been doing all of this time? I wonder what it all means. I have lived a glorious life…but what does it amount to? Am I just passing through? Am I missing something that, once realized, will be forever mourned?

I had a party at the museum. There was beauty everywhere, from all time periods, representational of different movements, the ebb and flow of tastes and sensibilities.Friends came. Family came. There were people who have known me since I was born, and people I have known since their first breaths. Friends came from my various jobs and schools, from when I was wild and when I was tame, some who knew me as a child, some who recognize me only as an adult. There were people who have seen me cry and who have cried with me, and  who have brought me joy, insight, strength and inspiration. I have laughed and cackled and dances and sang at the top of my lungs with these people. Some of the friends I ran around with as kids brought their kids. I invited friends I know intimately and new friends I have just discovered. I thought of people who I am tied to who were not physically there, but who I felt with me, who I feel with me often.

I don’t know what time means. Sometimes I don’t recognize who I have been, or understand who I am, or am unable to conceive of who I will be. But looking out on a room full of relationships, of people who I love, and knowing that I am loved; when I look out, or I look in, and I feel gratitude and acceptance, and I see beauty and complexity and hope; when I realize that no matter how much time I have left, in the end, I will be happy, fulfilled and thankful; then I know that so far, I’ve used my time well.

Happy birthday, Ryan Robert. You have some splendid years ahead. And happy birthday to me, because I know I do, too.

Thanks to all of you who have given me five decades of goodness, and Happy Birthday to all the Pisces -Aries Peeps: Harper, KW, ED, Brandon, JWB, Em, Joe, June, Perry, BDT, Ed, Jen the C and David, Mollie and Robert, KSJW, and my godson, Raphe. I hope I didn’t leave anyone out!

Three score and four

Today, June 8, 2013, marks the anniversary of the publication of perhaps my favorite book of all time. That book poses many questions to the reader, but if it were to ask me, in the voice of Paul McCartney, “Will you still need me…when I’m sixty-four?” , I’d say “Yes,  1984! You’re as relevant today as you were the day you were born, which, coincidentally, is today!”

A few days ago, President Obama had to explain why an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (whatever that is) that instructs Verizon to secretly turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” the “telephony metadata” (huh?) of all of its customers is not really an invasion of privacy. Obama wants to “be perfectly clear” that Americans know that nobody is listening to our phone conversations.


I read 1984 for the first time when I was 12 years old in the 7th grade. I had never read anything like it before and it totally blew my mind. I had never imagined that the government could just flat out lie; I thought that the government was made up of people, and, bottom line, people care about each other, and so we all act with each others best interests in mind. The idea that questioning was not just a privilege, but also a duty, was born and nurtured in my adolescent mind, and has been instrumental in forming the adult I am today.

The next time I read the book was my senior year in high school. This time I was amazed by the protagonist, who was given the paradoxical name Winston Smith, an extraordinary/everyman. The courage and integrity he showed because he couldn’t – and wouldn’t- deny his own truth became the blueprint of what a hero is to me. Of course this is the case of many literary heroes- John Proctor, Atticus Finch, Harrison Bergeron, and Guy Montag, to name just a few others from high school English- but Winston, and to a lesser degree Julia, his partner in crime, behaved how I hoped I would behave; nobly, with hope and courage, even if the odds were impossible, even if the end result was failure. I have let myself down in my quest to do what I think is right countless times, and I have succeeded a few times as well.

In college I read the novel again and that time was awestruck by the innovation and metacognitive awareness with which Orwell used language. The politics and power of communication, the beauty of craft, and the importance of nuance are what I am studying now in others’ writing and in my own.

So these three things -cynicism, doing the right thing, and care in speech and the written word- have all reappeared with force and clarity in my mind today, on 1984‘s anniversary and in the wake of yet another growing scandal regarding personal and civil rights. I would  hope that everybody would take this opportunity to ask some hard questions as to what is “the right thing”, and to figure out their opinions, and, whether they are pro-increased security in today’s turbulent and volatile times, or for more government accountability and restraint, to find a way to effectively express themselves on this and similar issues.

That’s what I would hope. Not what I would expect, though.

Since America is supposed to be made up of rugged individualists and in recent years we have seen a powerful and vocal uptick in those who are disdainful of government control, you’d think Verizon would have scored points by challenging the order and others like it as a selling point to consumers. “At Verizon, we care about YOU! We’ll NEVER sell out your personal information to anyone or anything – NO MATTER WHAT!” I can hear the reassuring voice-over in the commercial now. But it turns out that in 2007, Verizon and two other groups were awarded enormous contracts with the U.S. government and are more beholden to that big fish client than they are little ole you and me. According to The Daily Beast in this article (

In the post-9/11 world, no company or brand wants to be on the wrong side of national-security policy. And Verizon, like others in big defense and technology, is in bed with the government, including the security apparatus. They are a big customer. Verizon, of course, is a major government contractor. Back in 2007, Verizon, along with AT&T and what was then Quest, “were awarded the government’s largest telecommunications contract ever, a 10-year deal worth up to $48 billion to supply various telecom needs of dozens of federal agencies,” as USA Today reported. “The contract covers voice, video and data services and technologies for as many as 135 agencies operating in 190 countries. Several major departments, including Homeland Security and Treasury, have already signed up.”

Then of course, we probably wouldn’t care that much if Verizon did go to the mat for us. I think we just assume that everybody has our number and is listening to our conversations anyway. After all, we all know about GPS and Google Earth and cell phone towers and cameras and drones, so I think we’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that if someone knows where to look, we’re pretty much out there, are naked and stuff, for everyone to see.

And even if one does care about privacy and  rights, what can be done about really protecting them? If I quit Verizon (Ha! Take that! You just lost my business! Good day, sir!), where can I go? Is AT&T better? Sprint? I doubt it. I didn’t expect this, though: after The Guardian broke the news of the wire-tapping, Verizon’s stock went up.That’s right, the company’s value increased when it was caught in bed with Uncle Sam. It’s like we see questionable business practices and say, “Yum, yum, gimme some! I must have a piece of that sweet, wholesome pie! Delicious and nutritious!”

In fact every day, millions of Americans give up for free the very personal sort of information you wouldn’t want anyone to know to everyone. They post embarrassing pictures on facebook or instagram. They upload videos of themselves doing illegal, immoral or superdumbass things on youtube. They tell you where they’re going to be and when, and when they get there, they check in, so you know they have arrived (“I’m checking in from the toilet at the McDonald’s on  Hwy 260! Don’t you touch the McFlurry and the McFatSack I left on the table next to the keys to my brand new tan and blue Ford 150 and my adorable toddler, Kim Carol Ann!”). They write obscene racist comments on other people’s posts or write whole blogs about their innermost feelings about absolutely everything, regardless of how inappropriate or job threatening those feelings may be. Yeah. Some people do some of those things. So why should we care if the government is watching?

There is almost always complacence and compliance in the brutality and totalitarianism of the great dystopias in literature. There has to be a climate of acceptance and a willingness to go along with a new regime, from Lowry’s The Giver , to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, to Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.* Perhaps the people get behind an idea that seems good, but then goes way bad. Like Nazism – Hitler was democratically elected into power, you know, to restore national pride and reduce a crushing economic depression. Maybe people sign on out of of fear, like fear of terrorism. That’s fear of acts designed to cause fear. That makes sense, because fear is scary.

Which brings me back to Winston. He was always scared. At first, all he could do was muster up the courage to think, after years of conditioning, “I don’t believe them. Something is wrong. And even if they tell me I’m crazy, and even if I believe I may be crazy, I am right.”

It took him years to act on this idea, and when he did, he was caught and tortured and re-educated and forced to deny his faith, which is a belief in something that is so strong that reason is rejected. In the end, he lost.

But at least he cared.

Happy Birthday, 1984. Thanks for making me care, George.

*You still haven’t read it, right? Why won’t you? It’s so good!

Also: Happy, happy birthday McAdams! You’ve come a long way, and I look forward to seeing where you will go next! I love you!snail trail

AND! Happy birthday to Renaissaance Man, Mikey the C! I’ll see you tonight!