Walden and Known Failure

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For many years, I assigned to my high school juniors whatever excerpts from Walden the literature textbook had supplied. This usually included the opening lines from “Economy” (though the editors may have fragmented some portions) and ended shortly after the heavily cited and depressing sentiment “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I believe that was followed by the meticulously detailed account of the building and planting materials from that same initial chapter. The opening of “Where I Lived…” appeared next and stretched until the line about living “deliberately” met my students’ eyes. Later, of all things, “Brute Neighbors” was portioned out in our textbook, but the section chosen by the editorial team centered on the aerial view of the large red and black ants, included because, we eventually discussed, that it was a relatively strong sample of Thoreau’s use of symbolism concerning, some students suggested, themes such as individualism, war, and community. As a career educator, I would eventually like to slip into future conversations concerning the American canon, and I continue to believe passages of Walden are essential to the shaping of literary thought in America. While each of the aforementioned excerpts represents either a general or specific thematic feature of the book, this week’s re-reading of Walden paired with the supplemental articles by Arsic and Walls identified for me other valuable portions that might pull back from Thoreau’s desire and ability to check out of society (more or less) for twenty-six months, and instead center on some revealing stylistic choices that make the book relatable to individuals born since 2000. 

I was especially drawn to the thorough examination Laura Dassow Walls identifies in her analysis of the relationship between the Thoreau of Walden Pond and the “everyman” neighbor Mr. Field (later, Mr. Farmer) from the latter half of one of the shortest chapters in the text, “Baker Farm.” The theme of this scene directly echoes a key remark from  Emerson’s “Nature” essay (which, I would argue, should also remain accessible in standard anthologies) where he shrewdly observes how mankind takes ownership of land, but that “no one owns the landscape.” Walls cites how the first half of Walden establishes themes of industry and fortitude as the cornerstones of soulful satisfaction. By inserting John Field–a man who respects the sage words of the author/narrator, but who also elects not to heed his advice–into the narrative, however, Walls sees that Thoreau has set himself and the project of the book up for failure. Because the Fields (who Walls suggests may represent a hesitant-to-change Us) remain unaltered by his words, Thoreau is reduced to dwell on their irrationality. Walls, though, believes this short scene was structured “deliberately,” in order for it “to confront us unequivocally with the true sources of evil in our own well-meaning desire to improve ourselves by working hard, buying more stuff, and rising in the world, just as we have been told to do” (20). 

This passage from Walls struck me because it runs parallel to so many themes found in the various essays and fiction from David Foster Wallace, one of the subjects I’m considering for my area of specialization. Wallace, like Thoreau–or, what Laura Walls suggests is the character named “Thoreau”–often discussed The American Dream of proudly and ceaselessly logging hours at work (and consequently away from one’s friends and family) in order to climb the corporate ladder, upgrade a car every so often, move into a larger living space and fill it with stuff no one needs in what ultimately will end, whether we want to believe it or not, in a fruitless quest to secure happiness. Walls believes Thoreau sought to appear defeated in this scene because Walden “will succeed only if [Thoreau] can pivot his audience from material failure to spiritual success” and that readers “must feel this failure” (21). 

Branka Arsić’s essay uncovers a focal point from Walden that I had not considered earlier either. This approach toward Things was, for me, a much more abstract analysis, but I applaud her efforts in identifying and tracking the Things themselves and navigating through different classifications of those Things. The portion of the essay that resonated the most with me appeared toward the end of the middle section “Deathway of Things.” By labeling things from Thoreau’s perspective as either living or dead, she cites from the book the “two different responses to the phenomenon of dead things, that of the Mucclasse Indians and Mexicans, and that of the New Englanders” and notes that Thoreau “does not side with either” (165). Walls notes that the way the author seems to understand things aligns with the “non-dualistic understanding of the world” to which the Mucclasse Indians subscribe”[m]eaning must be embedded in the material” of the Thing (165).  

The value of Arsić’s essay and Walden is that these two Things themselves have potential in formal and informal educational venues. The book itself allows students in classrooms or readers in book clubs multiple opportunities to identify what is or should be treasured, to discuss the evolution of our moral values, and to express the bond we have with material (or immaterial) Things. While culturally, we may clash about the value or usefulness of living or dead Things, the discussions themselves about these differing perspectives can lead to a greater appreciation for one another as human beings, which, it seems safe to say, is among Thoreau’s central objectives within Walden.

Question for Class Discussion

  • Walls discusses how past analyses have concluded that Thoreau’s alleged disdain for the Irish is short-sighted. Are there other instances in the book where he reveals his privilege and/or expresses any level of contempt or prejudice toward an individual or group? 

Sources

Arsić, Branka. “Our Things: Thoreau on Objects, Relics, and Archives.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 23 no. 1, 2014, pp. 157-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/556056.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. (original 1845 publication).

Walls, Laura Dassow. “‘As You Are Brothers of Mine’: Thoreau and the Irish.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, 2015, pp. 5–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718201.

Tuesday Thoughts – August 6, 2019

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Where is your phone when you fall asleep?

How soon after you wake up do you look at your phone?

These are questions that, a generation ago, would not have made much sense. Scrolling through news or social media apps is ritualistic to end and begin a day.

Today, here’s what I endured so far:

  1. A friend who is a police officer posted a statement on Instagram in the wake of the two recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. To paraphrase, its message expressed a wish that, in the event of his/her death at a similar mass shooting, he/she did not want his/her life to become political ammunition for liberals who want to take the guns away from citizens.
  2. A former student floated an inquiry on Facebook to learn of the “best places” to get world news. The comments were, to me, rather shocking. “Fox” was one response. A second suggested that all [cable?] news was biased (so it doesn’t matter). CNN, one reply stated, hated everyone equally. Toward the bottom (among the most recent) someone offered the link to Info Wars. Tone is difficult to measure with online posts such as this, so I cannot fully know how serious or sarcastic any of these types of answers were.
  3. My local newspaper’s Facebook page shared an article about some planned protests outside the downtown headquarters of one of the major political parties. Again, I chose to read the comments from others. The protests were also in response to the tragedies in Texas and Ohio over the past weekend. However, the comments were authored by individuals who has a wide range of explanations, redirected blame, and political talking points. One individual took the time to itemize a series of documented events associated with the current leader from one political party.

You’re likely familiar with at least one of the above situations. For an insight to my personal beliefs on gun control/gun legislation, feel free to read my essay from a few years ago here.

Sidebar: My kids want me to play with Legos with them this morning, but they’ve agreed to let me do some writing before I join in.

I’m currently reading a book entitled iGen by Jean Twenge, PhD. The current section concerns the startling increase in teenagers who self-identify as having depressive symptoms and, by a heart-shattering extension, a similar rise in teen suicides. In short, she surmises that, while there are likely a lot of factors for such an upswing in both of these, the single element in play across the board for teens from all demographics is social media access and activity.

I fear that we’ve already conditioned ourselves to become unaffected by tragedy–unless, of course, we are nearly or directly involved. Our collective participation in all corners of the Internet is not only deteriorating our human thirst for personal interaction, but it has rapidly become our most common source of accessing information. The severe problem is that we are also targeted by others with various agendas and the line between truth and propaganda has all but evaporated.

One of the earmarks of standard commentary on social media sites is the vast view on virtually any debate that the issue in question has two distinct sides. Thus, it’s common for someone to reply with something along the lines of “It’s not because of x, it’s clearly because of y.”

My job in teaching argumentative writing at the college level involves several elements that are grossly ignored, overlooked, or simply not implemented by the average individual, in my opinion. I spend a lot of time throughout a semester expressing the process of evaluating source material and validating that the creator is credentialed and/or qualified to share information. We also take time discussing “professional” language that, when incorporated into academic arguments, is much more widely accepted than a similar take on an issue filled with “charged” phrasing designed to incite an immediate (and equally ineffective) reaction. Ask yourself if you’re more likely to respond positively to your boss screaming at you in front of your co-workers or if she were to invite you to a private meeting time and shared her concerns in a calm manner.

I know this has gone on perhaps too long, but I’m getting somewhere.

While I cannot know for sure, I believe we all want basically the same things in this world:

  1. A better future for our children/the next generation(s)
  2. Respect
  3. Joy
  4. Love

In our quest to secure #1, we are sacrificing #2, #3, and #4 in unprecedented ways.

The problem we face, of course, is the Catch-22 of information sharing. I’m writing these ideas on a blog that I hope my followers and/or friends read. Embedded within this short piece, however, is the (until now) thinly veiled implication that maybe she put our fucking phones down and hang out in person.

But that’s at the heart of it, right? How else can we share our ideas to a similarly sized audience if we vow to take social media diets? If you were to strike up a political debate with the unknown person in front of you at the gas station, you’re likely not going to get much of a response. So, I hope it’s clear that I’m well aware of how I am guilty of the same notions of information-spreading that I’ve mentioned above.

But I also believe that we can start and end each day without feeling so pissed off (or perhaps some other distinct negative emotion) as a result of this habitual desire to “wind down” to someone’s meme or comment or propagandized (and fact-free) article shared from the open web. It affects our sleep, our interpersonal communication skills, and our souls.

Let’s be better than that. You know, for the kids.

I’m off to build Legos with mine.

Being Photographed (Flash Nonfiction)

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In the mid-1980s, my grandmother encouraged my brother and mother to accompany her to her church service each Sunday morning, and my older brother and I stretched our imaginations wider than ever in constructing a reason for us not to attend, especially once we both reached double-digit ages. In the fall, the church would invited families to have a portrait taken for the upcoming year’s membership book. For normal families, dressing up on a random Tuesday night and driving to church for a photograph is more than likely a relatively simple feat. My brother and I, however, were unfamiliar with that level of normalcy.

I can remember waiting in line from the middle of the building to where the photographer had set up camp in a partitioned-off segment of a rec room on the west side of the church. This room was usually reserved for adult Bible study meetings (which my mom attended, I’m now convinced, strictly to award herself sixty full minutes of being free from her sons’ constant irritations) and the annual Christmas tree decoration stations led by adult members of the church who had accumulated a seemingly endless amount of pipe cleaners and cotton balls. Any other time, the partition boards were squeezed off to the sides, leaving only long metal coat racks that lined the perimeter of the room. Anyway, while in line, my brother became restless after about seventeen seconds, so, contrary to our mother and grandmother’s wishes to “shush” or “just be still”, he filled the void by creating reasons to make me laugh. No specific joke or comment comes to mind, but I want to say the range varied from an unknown member’s loud outfit or obscene use of perfume to corny puns that a lot of nine-year-olds think are hilarious (e.g. “Steve, I don’t think that jacket suits him.”)  These jokes would build and build as we eased closer to the threshold of the makeshift studio. The photographer was always a bespectacled man who by the time we reached him had begun sweating, draped his blazer over a chair, and kept over-smiling, apparently to negate the stress of his job. Simple instructions such as “Face to the left” or “Chin up” were far more than I could handle by that point as well. Any reference to turning my cheeks forced my brother to remind me that the shaky photographer meant the ones on my face. What should have been about a hundred seconds of standing and smiling toward the camera became nine or ten minutes of me struggling to compose myself and my mother silently developing innovative methods to beat the hell out of us on the walk back to the car. Every year for about half a decade, she rightfully announced it was the last year we were doing pictures.

Last month, in the middle of a stuffy mall, my own family spent two solid hours from the moment we joined the Santa line to when the apathetic teen handed over our incredibly overpriced photograph. I’ll never not think about the church photos when we take professional pictures, and I’m sure if my mom is reading this that she’ll smile and say something about paybacks.

True Reflection and Depressing Vision

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On Friday, October 21, 2016, Netflix released six additional episodes of Black Mirror.  This was the third “season” for the show, now with a grand total of nineteen episodes including one holiday episode from 2015.

My wife enjoys cooking shows, baking contests, and true crime mini-documentaries.  I grew up on sitcoms, got hooked on police- and medical dramas throughout the 90s, and really enjoyed Lost (in its early years, at least).  With children now, I am aware of a cartoon who can cure stuffed animals, a talking train who weasels out of mischief episode after episode, and can recite all of the lyrics to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, thanks to They Might Be Giants.

This past week, however, the missus and I have watched all six of the newest Black Mirror episodes.

My writing idol David Foster Wallace did not own a television in adulthood.  Another favorite named Dave Eggers always wiggles in the trivial nugget that he and his family are virtually tech-free at home (no smartphones, social media activity, etc.).  Ironically, one of the shows my wife watches features a home renovation couple from Texas who also do not have a TV in their own home.

Black Mirror, identified by Netflix as containing “near-future” settings, is equal parts riveting and terrifying.  To me, the episodes involving technology (and specifically social media) contain themes that most viewers already recognize as problematic.  While some of us can vividly remember a time before the internet and our supposed “connectivity” involved with it, can we really imagine our current lives without those luxuries?  Perhaps it’s not an all-or-nothing life we should live with regard to being connected or not.

Image result for secluded cabin meme

This is the point where I remind readers of Thoreau and Walden.  He purposely removed himself from a busy society (in the mid 19th century) in order to return (Romanticize!) to the more attractive natural settings accessible to him.  He desired a connection with the earth and a deeper understanding of his existence.  Most of us do, I would argue.  Yet, we busy ourselves with newer technological distractions and continue to think we’re postponing the inevitable.  By the way, this particular meme is worrisome to me.  What is the need for a million dollars if this is the proposed environment/lifestyle?  I’m also doubting the author’s proposed future of “CHOOSE”-ing to live.

What happens to you when your internet goes out?  What do you look like when an app won’t open?  How much stress have you incurred based on any post by anyone on any social media outlet?

What, we must ask ourselves, is the fucking point of it all?

Is this the legacy we wish to leave?

Memorial Service speaker:  Tony was a good man.  He was a father, a brother, and a son.  He had 49 likes on his 21st birthday status.  (waits for crowd to settle down).  A tweet on September 30, 2014 was shared by none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  (waits longer…)

Would you hire me?

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My name is Steve Lively, and I’ve been in education for over 17 years, most of which was at a small-town public school.  I teach English, if that happens to matter.

So.  I hear you’re selling your house?  Will you hire me to be your realtor?  How about just the home estimate?  I spend much of my time at home.

I understand you need an engine replaced in your 1957 Bel-Air convertible.  Beautiful vehicle.  Just gorgeous.  Will you hire me to put it in?  I’ve ridden in many cars.

It’s come to my attention that your roof is leaking?  Wish to pay me to do that for you?  Water is bad when it comes to stuff like that.

I noticed your neighborhood is lacking in security.  Might you consider me to be your night watchman/security council?  Lots of bad-looking dudes lurking around neighborhoods these days, boy.  I’ve seen them.  They’re a disaster.

That wound looks fresh.  Let me get my, er, uh, stitching tools and I’ll clean you right up.  I’ve seen Grey’s Anatomy AND ER.  Don’t worry about the bill.  For now.  Believe me.

Some credit card companies are hounding you about a bill you paid?  Hire me, and I’ll defend you in court.   I know about money and stuff.  Lawyers.  That Judge Judy, though, is a nasty woman.  Private server.

Your next-door neighbor just informed me that she’s seen you inviting multiple women into your home while your wife is away at work.  You old dog!  Women are beautiful little creatures, aren’t they?  I know!  No one can make a better sandwich, boy.  I know.  I can’t really help myself either.  Anyway, need help with that?  I’m very respectful of women.  At least, the young, skinny, attractive white ones.

I hear the city is considering a multi-million dollar road renovation that will turn your quaint little two-lane street into a four-lane causeway.  Well, that’s just business.  I’ve actually got a lot of land.  No, not here.  Well, wait.  Maybe here.  So much land, ya know. My companies typically come through early and under budget.  I’ve got some new buildings going up in…wait, what were we talking about?

That toothache?  I can fix it.  Let me tell you something.  And I’m being totally serious here.  I got a corn kernel stuck in my teeth once when I was a kid.  These rigged movie theaters are in bed with the dentists.  And if you don’t believe me, you should.

Just hire me.  Trust me.  I know stuff.  I can do it.  Emails.

Forget the fact that I’ve spent my entire life not actually doing any of the above things.

Forget that my resume would hit the the bottom of everyone else’s trash can for these jobs and responsibilities.

You just have to trust me.

Trust that I can do it for you. The best job.  Because I have balls and I say what I mean.

I mean, let’s look at this.  ISIS, right?  Terrorism.  Jobs are going to other countries.  Disaster.  Stamina.  Wrong.  China knows what we don’t.  Those thugs in the Middle East?  They figured it all out before anyone.  Technology?  It’s just a disaster.  So very sad.  Putin.  There’s a leader.  33,000 emails.  He and the north Vietnamese.  They were at a Miss  America pageant at one of my casinos one time…

ahem…

Forget that.  They’re just all trying to destroy my brand and my name.

Remember this:  The other guys who want to work for you are crooks.  They’re crooked.  They’re rigging the system against me.  You could be next.  Choose me.

The vote is next week.

The Story in the Clouds (2013)

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I walked out of night class feeling pretty wonderful, believe it or not.  Only 60% of the enrolled students attended, but that was not what merited my demeanor.  I had also consumed an iced coffee–admittedly to keep myself going strong–but I don’t think that’s what attributed to my high spirits either.  I think I actually helped some students that night.  Perhaps I can get to why that was a surprise in another post.

Indiana late summers are usually sticky.  Some clever local weathermen once used the term “humiture” to attempt to define the combination of the actual temperature plus what the humidity added to that.  Perhaps to non-natives, this was bizarre.  Perhaps what it “feels like” should be the only number reported.  Anyway, this particular evening was void of humidity and the sky was bidding farewell to the sun for the day.  This produced my favorite color–that shade of not-quite orange mixed with not-quite strawberry and not-quite plum–and I slowed my walk to the car to absorb nature’s impromptu gift to me…rather, to us all.  Embedded in the brilliant sky were thin clouds of varying shades of gray.  This canvas now had a pallet of color options beside it to create anoter masterpiece.  The clouds, though, are what struck and inspired me.  Two specific clouds, squarely placed in front of me, were stacked like hamburger buns–the air between baring only a thin chimney curl.  It was a sight that might have made Nathaniel Hawthorne smile. 

Seeing this H on its side reminded me, of all things, of a Simpsons episode where, I believe Lisa and Bart (and perhaps the muted baby) sat cloud-gazing on a day similar to the one displayed during the show’s opening credits.  The children were discussing the shapes the clouds made–as children whose entertainment venue is exclusively out-of-doors.  The format of the joke is that Lis sees a formation that appears to the viewer as vague and indecipherable at first, only coming into focus throughout the explanation or analysis.  Then, Bart I believe, says he sees one that looks like (this isn’t accurate, I haven’t seen the episode for years) a local legend on horseback.  The scene changes to his POV and we see a precise version of what Bart just reported.  It’s funny to see how Lisa, the prodigy, creates with her imagination, and her academically disinclined brother can only see with clear, specific images and no imagination needed.

Remember When? (Oct. 10, 2016)

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Remember junior high school?

Remember when kids in the school identified candidates for student council?

Remember when those nominees were all recognizable, as in you either knew them from class, from the hall, from elementary school, or they happened to be a close friend?

Remember when those candidates would post campaign signs in the hallways and bathrooms?  Remember how sometimes those signs had an innocent rhyme or pun in order to garner the vote of the undecided.

Remember when it was the day to vote?  Perhaps you were all brought to the gym or auditorium and hands were raised.  Perhaps everyone filled out a paper ballot during first period.

Now…

Remember when you voted for the school bully just so he wouldn’t punch you while you quaked and stood at your locker?  Remember when you voted for that big dude in school because he was so proud of how many girls he fondled without their permission in the hallway?  Remember when he was kicked out of class for making sexually suggestive remarks toward the young substitute?  Remember when his dad came to the school and got him out of severe trouble?  Remember when he joked with you in the locker room after gym about some alleged private sexual engagement between him and a female classmate?

Remember how you wish you had been that guy, and that you idolized him and thought, YEAH…this guy needs to be in charge?

Remember thinking that this is who represents all of the students’ moral goodness and intelligence?

Remember thinking that this is the guy at my school who, even though his past is a bit unsavory, will no doubt change any of his inappropriate behaviors and vocabulary once he’s elected?