And Sometimes It’s Not Even Funny

127135aMy blog space is becoming sort of maudlin, isn’t it, with all these elegies: my beloved professor earlier this year, and my perseverations on Dave Wallace that have preceded the class I’ll begin next week on him.

Maybe something brighter can come of remembering Robin Williams, even as news of his death is still settling in. I like to think he’d prefer that.

There was an unexpected treat in the (unremarked but still pretty wonderful) 2009 Kevin Spacey vehicle Shrink. Robin, uncredited, plays “Holden,” a thinly veiled version of himself who’s a client of Spacey’s celebrity therapist. Holden crosses one of Spacey’s pro bono clients in the lobby, the hard-as-nails Jemma, played by Keke Palmer, with eyes as old as the wide wide sea. She fixes him with a hard stare, and they have an exchange I remember like this:

Jemma: Aren’t you…?

Holden: Yes.

Jemma: (after long pause) You should make better movies.

Holden: (after slightest beat) Yes, I should.

It’s one of the sublimest little moments I remember of Late Robin: a willingness to take the air out of himself, as easily as he would do the same to you.

Not that I was much of a student of him, though he was unavoidable for most of my adult life. Some of his grown-up work really affected me. His part in the bewildering Terry Gilliam fever-dream The Fisher King, for sure – and of course Good Will Hunting, where he finally grounded the manic humanities-crossed savior of Dead Poet’s Society that showed me the teacher I wanted to be for the first five years or so. (No point linking any of those movies – they are ubiquitous, part of the culture.)

He did a lot of forgettable grown-up stuff, too, to my eyes, and a lot of humor too broad to be pardoned. We found the barely-middling Man of the Year in our rented beach house this summer and suffered through a lot of it. Especially his continued willingness to do ethnic and sexual stereotypes that really can’t be countenanced in 2014, when so many others have moved past him.

He seemed game throughout that turkey of a film, though, up for anything. I was touched by the extras feature that showed him working the crowd in the debate scene between takes, performing as his own warm-up man, apparently out of nothing other than the compulsive desire to complete himself through others’ laughter that seems to lie at the heart of so many durable comics’ drive. (Plenty of amateur psychiatric ink will be spilled on this point in the coming days, to be sure, so I’ll spare you any more.)

I can’t see him as a grown-up, though. I have to be the fan I was of him first. That is, he was – apart from Donny and Marie, obviously – probably the first famous person I was a true, fall-over fan of. And by “him,” of course I mean Mork.

Mork who I met when I was nine, the alien who talked like another nine year-old. So fast, so silly, apparently so tuned to nothing other than the rattling possibilities in his head and the response he was getting from the people around him of laughter but also shock, surprise, disbelief. I didn’t think you could do that on TV. I didn’t think anyone else talked like that except my friends and me in the back of the car coming home from church, revving through jokes and Muppet Show skits and – now – Mork and Mindy sketches, best as we could remember them pre-VHS, pre-anything. Mork gave us permission to be silly, over-the-top-hurts-to-laugh-anymore silly. And we were, to the dismay of all grown-ups who witnessed us. Way beyond what grown-ups could countenance as silly enough, loud enough, for long enough. Me and Brendan and Tim and Ian, terrorizing the world with our mouths and hands and our faces and our staggering capacity for uncut, industrial-strength silliness.

He blew my nine year-old mind. I had rainbow suspenders, just like him – even had the courage to wear them to school, once. My kids received a box set of the first season of M&M a few years ago, and it’s been in heavy rotation with them ever since. The show itself hasn’t worn well; the reliable 70s sitcom rhythms were pretty hard to slip, and are almost unwatchable post-Seinfeld and everything else. But there he is, doing the same thing he just did, and did, and did. The cast stands agape for many of his ad-libs. They must have become tiresome. Compulsively funny people are sometimes. Tiresome. Like nine year-olds.

I tried to find a clip of Robin and Jonathan Winters to post, but couldn’t find any that were consistently funny. Which seems to be, perhaps, one of Robin’s legacies: that comedy isn’t pretty, and sometimes it isn’t even funny. But there is much to be said for continuing to throw the spaghetti against the wall until something sticks, isn’t there. “You should make better movies.” True…and, sometimes, he did.

In lieu of that absent clip, I’ll link to Hyperbole and a Half’s perfect, agonizing take on depression, drawn by one who knows. May we finally get it through our collective heads that depression isn’t a character flaw, but a vicious, merciless disease that grinds down so many of the finest and fairest among us. May our culture learn at last to treat mental illness, its victims, and its survivors with respect and research and compassionate policy, and insurance to match. (Addiction too. That’s another post.)

So, what’s this all offer readers of an education blog? Maybe something about the power of connection to youth: a celebration of the call to openness and risk-taking that youth trades in and that adulthood, well, tries to stamp out too frequently (at least in school). Maybe gratitude for the invitation Robin left us to take risks, to be not funny sometimes in the name of doing what we have to in order to be there for when the funny shows up.

And when it showed up for him, it was dazzling. Thanks, Robin.

Image from TicketMaster.

writing expectations for the class

This is pretty meta: posting on the blog the description of blogging I’m asking my students do this semester which I figured out by…posting on the blog. Still, beauty’s where you find it- and I stand by the pedagogy.

Teacher friends: anyone else doing this kind of work?

What writing matters most to our learning in a seminar like this?

First off, I don’t think it’s research papers. I agree with this (wonderfully snarky) author: Everybody in college hates papers. But I disagree with her when she says that writing is not a crucial part of learning. (I have tried to use traditional exams in this class, like she calls for: that doesn’t work either.)

I have come to understand that students benefit most in this class from reflective writing. But not the free-write, whatever-comes–to-mind kind of reflective writing. I mean the kind where you try to freeze all the lightning-fast associations and insights that your brain is always firing off when you are engaged with an idea or an insight and get them down on paper, maybe reading them back to yourself now and then to find out what you think. I mean the kind where you realize that something you are reading for a class somehow helps you understand something that happened to your brother back in grade school, and at the same time gets you thinking about a short story you read for another class, and for some reason puts a song in your head that you can’t get out for the rest of the day.

The best I can figure, this is what learning actually looks and feels like: the alignments of new insights with old ones, the constant effort of our minds to shape a coherent understanding of the world’s thorniest dilemmas out of EVERYTHING we have read and seen and experienced. In fact, I don’t think we don’t really have an “experience” in class until we do this part of threading what we are reading and discussing back into everything else we have gone through. (Not my idea BTW, as you’ll see when we read Dewey.)

Writing that invites us to witness that process and engage in it and try to share it – THAT’S helpful to learning. And that’s the kind of writing we’ll do here.

We will write blog posts. I have found that keeping a blog is a powerful adjunct to my own learning, and so I’ll invite you to do the same while you are in class. We’ll use ASULearn to maintain the blog, in ways that will become clear as we learn about that site’s functionality through the semester.

You’ll be required to write THREE blog posts for this class, by the end of each Friday of the semester (take one week off). Length will vary, but I can’t imagine anything shorter than about 800-1000 words really getting the work done.

I think my best blog posts usually include three elements:

  1. Reference to some text I have come across that has got me thinking – an essay, a song, a movie, even an overheard conversation;
  2. Reference to some personal connection or experience that it got me thinking about;
  3. Reference to some other text(s) that come to mind while I am writing that seem relevant, which I try to use to think about the other two things.

For our purposes, I assume that usually (1) will be something we have read or discussed together in class. (2) and (3) – that’s all you.

At the bottom I’ll include links to some of my own blogging that I think shows what I mean. Please notice that this writing is first-person and informal – it is emphatically not “a paper” – and note that I link to whatever sources I can through hyperlinks to other web sites.

Also note that this writing is an invitation for others to read and respond. Not many do, to mine – although more do on Facebook, where I push all my blog posts to the collection of dear friends I’ve been fortunate to collect over the years. That’s the best possible audience to write for, by the way: a little interested in what I am thinking about, maybe, but always supportive because, well, they’re my friends. In this class, assume your classmates will read and may respond to your work as well. Note that this means you are writing to be read by others, not just yourself – but for SUPPORTIVE and INTERESTED others, not critical ones. That’s the magic crease you need to hit in this kind of writing: attentive enough to require you to be clear, but kind enough not to stress you out.

Also note that this writing is interesting. At least it should be: I was feverishly interested in what I was writing about as I was writing, and that energy should come across in the reading. It’s also personal – it frequently tells stories, and stories are inherently interesting to humans. The energy of GENUINE INTEREST is, I am convinced, the most powerful element in all teaching and learning. I was genuinely interested in the things I was writing. No one was making me care about it: I actually DID.

My dearest wish is that this assignment and the experiences it invites you to have will give you a taste of actually finding the relevance of our work together to everything else you have learned, and your own experience: that you’ll have that amazing moment when what the curriculum “wants” you to think about and what you ACTUALLY want to think about become almost the same thing. When school works, it’s because it’s allowing those moments to happen.

Those moments can change you forever. I hope you have some this semester.

something moving in the sidewalk steam

EASTER_genesis_groupWell, folks, I’ve been scooped – but The New Yorker is a worthy scooper. Check out Jon Michaud’s wonderful piece upon the fortieth anniversary of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, won’t you – for the crazy video stills of Peter Gabriel performing in character in 1975, if nothing else. Maybe rethink what “progressive rock” is or was, or has to be, a little bit, because Michaud really does get at the odd bits of this record that defy the Spinal Tap-py story of indulgence and excess that has held for so long.

I personally have been neck-deep in Lamb this spring for the first time since high school, trying to use it to understand why I didn’t listen to some records for the first time so much as recognize them. Something in the musical motifs themselves are deja vu-ish, from the first moment I heard them. A striking # of these are Genesis themes: some from Lamb, but also the big motifs from A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. As mentioned previously, Radiohead’s OK Computer had this uncanny zing for me as well.

I wonder what this suggests about the pre / ante-cognitive qualities of childhood and how they echo down into adulthood. How could I recognize songs the first time I heard them? Three possibilities come to mind:

  • Had I actually heard them before, somehow? Maybe. But my folks weren’t too likely to have Old Grey Whistle Test on the telly, and their record collection tended – splendidly – to Herb Alpert and his hangers-on. So, no. (1)
  • Or do they echo other grand motifs I did grow up saturated in: church hymns, maybe? I responded early and often to the deep hymn culture of the faith I was raised in. Maybe that’s where I learned that music can move you deeper than anything else, can become the most important thing in the world. (Remembering my dad, a chaplain, once describing liturgy as “the stuff between the songs.” Indeed.)
  • Or third and most likely, and most exciting: were my ears uniquely pricked to the power of sweeping prog rock themes by the circumstances in which I first heard them? i.e., under the tutelage (and sometimes the actual headphones) of older, more experienced and infinitely emulate-able kids, who took my upstairs in literal and figurative ways by turning me on to big records as well as the way to listen to them: raptly, reverently, intensely? I think so.

Rock music was so much more than pastime to me as a kid: it was a ticket in to a different world, a ticket out of the world I wanted to escape. A ticket up to becoming someone so much cooler than I was. The music wasn’t just an accessory to this ascension: it was the door.

I remember being mocked on a long campout with older kids from a different Boy Scout troop about this point. It was an odd trip, a last-minute change of who I’d be with, and I was struggling to fit in with the is already-established group of guys who weren’t too keen on having an interloper around for a couple of weeks. One of them overheard me singing the theme from Heavy Metal while rolling my sleeping bag, and mocked me for it. I responded that I was kind of an expert in rock and roll, thank very much, and knew what I was singing about, so they should step off. The gauntlet was down, and I was teased, oh yes.  Was quizzed hard on big 70’s rock arcana and did pretty well. The difference between Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull was one topic, I think – it all gets kind of hazy, and of course I really wasn’t so expert (no Zeppelin in my experience, yet).

But it was so important that I be THOUGHT of as one. Seeing myself as expert in AOR radio stuff was crucial for my emerging sense of being, and it felt very vulnerable to NOT know something. My path to assertion of a self were closely tied to my relationship to music.

Turns out I was turned on by the “gnostic” aspects of big 70’s progressive rock, in Allan Moore’s formulation (which I found in Kevin Holm-Hudson’s terrific ethnography of the record – thanks inter-library loan!). For him, prog rock is all about:

…concentration on obscure or occult (in the sense of ‘hidden’) matters, lack of obvious personal reference and a clear attempt to provide an alternative way of looking at things, even if this was not clear to the uninitiated…gnostic faiths are based on the belief that salvation is gained by knowledge, rather than by faith or works or some other means…obscurity is hence to be striven for in their construction, since it intensifies the achievement of the goal (p. 14).

So mastering the obscurity was the point, the more obscure the better.

And while mastery of arcana isn’t the exclusive domain of the prog rockers, it’s uniquely important to them (us). Because the music I loved was set apart from pop and heavy rock by its sensitivity, its complexity, and above all its musicianship. The “sessionman-virtuoso culture” (p. 18) of prog was the way an emerging musician like myself (I was an excellent clarinet player) could transform the “band geek” skills and sensitivities I was developing into something like cultural cred.

At least, that’s how it worked among the other band geeks I joined in the band room every morning, to listen to TDK copies of Rush and Genesis albums at the highest volume the band director would tolerate and argue over how difficult passages where constructed. This was a promising social gambit: some of the band geeks weren’t so geeky, after all (some were even drummers), and the black concert t-shirts so desirable as token of cool were worn by a lot of them. I remember wowing a group of upperclassmen one morning by jumping on the drum kit and demonstrating mastery of the stuttering pattern of the middle section of Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato“. Their applause felt like sinking a clutch free throw. Music was my way in to the culture. It’s not an exaggeration to name it the primary way I located myself w/r/t to the rest of the world.

So (back to my point), maybe I listened to these grand musical themes more intently than I listened to anything else in my life – since, truly, my life depended upon knowing them. And so (as is the case in actual deja vu) my listening was in fact a remembering, a captured echo of an (immediately) previous intense experience. Maybe, if we are really paying attention, everything is a remembering, because everything matters.

This insight matters a lot for an educator (and an education blog reader – dear reader, forgive the indulgence). Because it gives yet another glimpse into the intensely sociocultural nature of learning: how we are not brains in vats but rather communal entities, judging value and attention due the passing course of life (currere) through an intimate process of how its meaning refracts our relation to the world around us.

Less obtusely: we learn because we care, and we care because we want to be in satisfying communion with the world and ourselves. Pure, logico-aesthetic connection with the world happens, sometimes, I grant – but more frequently, I think it is intensely mediated by what it tells us about ourselves, how it connects us to those we care about, how it “matters” in a material, lived world. I don’t remember and love the texts of my own prog rock curriculum as deeply as I do only because of their beauty: I love them because of how and why they mattered to me socially and culturally.

Could our culture’s present common-sense understanding of education be any further from these principles? The current state and fed policy sure doesn’t get it. Consider:

  • As we script curriculum across classrooms and states, we assert the value of standardized inputs and outcomes and scotomize the value of individual experience.
  • As we lock teachers into impoverished models of accountability and efficacy, we starve their capacity to build personal relationships with students that are tuned to what really turns them on and what they want their lives to be about.
  • As we tell teachers, year after year, that only those outcomes which can be captured and compared quantitatively have value, we devalue the sacred impulses which brought them to the classroom.

And as teachers see their most precious love – for really connecting with another, for changing someone’s life – devalued, they begin to believe what they are told: that they are only worth their output. They die inside, burn out, despair, and therefore apart themselves in their practice from the only love that can really vitalize it. Or they leave – and a LOT of them are – in search of employment that better feeds their vocation.

Yes, these things are connected. Real learning understands that the stakes aren’t merely intellectual, and sometimes aren’t intellectual at all. I celebrate the thousands of teachers who work to help children embrace what they most love and what most feeds their connection to the world, even when they are doing this work in airless rooms. And I wish them the capacity to find their own air – in their own attachment to the texts and experiences that feed them, in their attachment to their students, in their attachment to each other.

Now go find some headphones.

(1) – meanwhile, apparently this exists. Let’s call it homage, and return to our breath.

Longhair Genesis portrait taken from this awesome fan site, with thanks.

 

The Thing of Important

600-wallaceAnd so on this morning, as Oscar Pistorius apologizes and Mickey Rooney dies, I am home sick on a rainy day. Too sick to teach, but not too sick to read and type. Lucky you.

Reminded of some rainy days in the spring of 1996 when I was home sick too. Right in the middle of my spring break at The Field School, and mad at the world to be spending my vacation hacking and puking on the couch.

My only comfort was a book called Infinite Jest, the mammoth and literally-unbelievably dense latest novel by David Foster Wallace, which I’d purchased at the urging of my best friend and, before the year was out, would finish, in part due to a couple more “sick days” I’d call in just to be able to keep reading. (Dale, I trust the statute of limitations that previously prohibited this confession has expired.)

I am remembering those days because I’m in the throes of conceptualizing a fall 2014 Honors class on Mr. Wallace’s work and how it informs an understanding of teaching and learning. So once again (and once again) I am knee deep in his stuff, experiencing the sort of sweeping-up and losing-of-oneself in words and reticulate arguments that his fans know well and, in some of his work, was the exact artistic aim he was working for.

That aim wasn’t merely aesthetic, though: it sought to embody something urgent and terrifying and sad about late twentieth-century life and our relationship to its entertainments and diversions. The insight – that we lose something crucial in remaining content with our cleverness – was the literary objective of his patricidal impulse toward his postmodern fathers, and led him to apply his staggering intellect toward short-circuiting the ironies and misdirections of postmodern fiction toward something more urgent and (yes) wholesome than cleverness. His oeuvre can thus be profitably read as an effort to use all the formidable language and structural powers at his disposal to the end of exploring and invoking an evolving understanding of what Wallace called, memorably, “single-entendre principles:” values that might constitute a more stable basis for engaging life than the emptier calories of infinite jest.

And so the class’s thesis is that the ways Mr Wallace’s take on this core theme evolves and changes over his writing career adumbrates something urgent and life-giving for those of us who spend our lives with younger people similarly seeking meaning in what they are doing. Intentional fallacy notwithstanding, I think the arc of Wallace’s personal life, combined with his intellectual rigor and commitment to living in a principled way, is a crucial factor in understanding the evolution of his art and, to some extent, the engine that drove it.

That, from this perspective, perhaps Wallace is a singular example of what it looks like when we accept Parker Palmer‘s invitation to bring “who we are to what we do” and seek to live “divided no more.” The tragic end of Wallace’s life at 46, by suicide, is an aspect of this argument that might seem incongruent with my scheme. How can we glean lessons on a life well-lived, and how to nurture such in our students, from one whose own life ends this way? Perhaps. But right now I feel even that part may invite a more compassionate understanding of our own natures and our need to reconcile ourselves to who we are, deeply. More directly, I think we can look hard at all of it, perhaps rescuing the argument (and its implications for our practice) from intentional overreach at the precise moment we’ll most need to.

It maybe goes without saying (1) that trying to find something beyond cynicism is the cold, hard bedrock of teaching: thus the affinity between Wallace’s literary project and my vocational one. I seek every place where we can get purchase for teachers against a common-sense view of our work that is increasingly cynical – one that views teachers as liabilities in the classroom to be “proofed” against with lockstep curriculum and ever-tightening accountability measures (the busy work that comes with these latter burning countless hours of a teacher’s professional life, thus keeping her too tired and distracted to do anything real). We need loud, smart voices that argue that what we do is life-giving, not in narrow careerist ways but in all the broadest “why-are-we-here” ways. This is my real work, and it rhymes so closely with Wallace’s that there has to be a way for the two to inform each other.

It’s also incredibly important to do this with Wallace as a teacher in the forefront of our minds. Because he was a teacher, for most of his life, and while he sometimes describes ambivalence about that work in interviews (interviews that are crafted, funhouse-mirror responses in many other ways, let’s note), I have found exactly zero evidence of that ambivalence in the online memories so many of his students began to post after his death. Whatever he was doing – whatever his personal discipline about what came into the classroom and what stayed out; whatever function the rigors of the schedule and the demands of his students served in helping him structure his written output – it worked a lot more than it didn’t. Teacher to teacher, I’ll have what he’s having. (2)

So this is what I am mostly working on right now. Other themes that Wallace lets us profitably consider, that will find place in the course:

  • the difficulty of knowing one’s own mind, let alone another’s;
  • the nature of expertise and how it is cultivated;
  • the ultimate value and purpose of living in community;
  • how, once beyond entertainment, we might access the deepest aspects of human experience (aspects that, for all their nutritive value, may be “boring”).

Maybe the most personal resonance for me is the one I tried to explain years ago, in a sloppy and painful piece that same friend and I wrote days after his death. I think the bit at the end still gets at the real relation, the underlying theme:

…that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain—and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril.

What an interesting project this is shaping up to be. Like my dissertation, it sort of feels inevitable, the thing I would be working on if I didn’t have to be working on anything (say, because I was home sick). Insert “flow” experience reference, Malcolm Gladwell, etc etc, whatever. This work aligns with David Hansen’s wonderful definition of vocation: work that both has social value AND personal significance, that precious sense that one has somehow slotted into the work one is uniquely capable of doing. Sign me up.

(1) – Rarely the case, in this post. I know that when I am reading Wallace I begin to ape his mannerisms, which in my defense is surely more a generational tic than a personal one. Haters will appreciate that I have limited myself to one footnote.

(2) – Sorry, two. Assuming The Howling Fantods‘ very industrious web-bot picks up and re-posts this: Is anyone else out there interested in doing scholarly work on Wallace as teacher? I can find nothing in the emerging literature, and am eager to connect with others interested in exploring the area. Maybe I’ll edit an anthology. Please be in touch if so – osmond (at) appstate (dot) edu – wish I could be in Normal next month to meet some of you, but maybe next year.

Thanks to New York Times for image.

Elliot Eisner: my teacher

I learned tonight the sad news that Elliot Eisner has passed away. Elliot was my masters advisor at Stanford, and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his wisdom, his support, and his care.

I remember talking to him on the phone from my little office in the Carriage House at The Field School in 1998. I wanted to go to grad school to understand why my students were having transformative experiences in my theater classes. US News and World Report said Stanford was a great place to do that, and their web site said he was the guy to talk to about it, so I called him after school one afternoon. He answered, and we talked about it for a few minutes.

In hindsight, I imagine that conversation was what got me in. If I had known his stature in the field – been smart enough to be intimidated – I never would have called. But I didn’t, and he picked up, and I guess my ignorance passed for gumption and self-confidence. Lives have been changed by dumber lucky breaks.

He was a wonderful professor, a fabulous teacher. He had a way of slowing down the room to track the deliberate speed with which he was working something out. He would speak slowly, usually in full paragraphs, his hands silently rising to gesture gracefully in the air as he made his points. I could listen to him all day, and did. He defied my best wisdom up until then about great teaching: that it was about being the loudest and most interesting thing in the room. He was quiet, barely moving sometimes, but his erudition and the architecture of his thought did the work.

He also showed me the power of thinking hard about something for a long time. If it was the right thing, you could ride it all the way to the beach, over and over. For him, the question was, “what do the arts have to teach us about education”- and he rode that wave as far as it would go, in every area, for forty years. Curriculum, assessment, evaluation, design, pedagogy, artistic experience itself: each path leading to its own more-or-less discrete book, transforming and, in some areas, re-inventing each field he explored. I read him so closely that I don’t even recognize how deeply his thought has sunk into me sometimes – I know it so well that I don’t think to footnote it. For me, its explanatory power has become common sense.

He taught me the lovely, goofy word “adumbrate,” and was so fond of it he couldn’t write five pages without using it. I drop it somewhere in most of my papers now, my little private tribute.

He dug my ideas. In my experience, we find our legs as thinkers in part because of the support offered early on by those who care about us, and he cared about me. I remember the surge I felt when he discussed my project on the use of scat language in jazz to connote what couldn’t be denoted, because it represented a relation in sound, not words. What a thrill when he got what I was driving toward, and celebrated its insights. What an affirmation.

I read Dewey’s Art as Experience in his gorgeous NoCal-funky living room, every corner crammed with statues and paintings from around the world. We ate little snacks Ellie prepared for us and tried to parse that crazy, dense book. I’ve never thought harder.

He asked my help once hauling a few huge computer monitors from his campus office to his home, back when they were like slabs of beef to lift. He drove a burgundy (I think) Porsche 911 with a vanity plate that read, “PORSCHT” (ha ha, oy gevalt). Cruising around Palo Alto in Elliot’s zip car, top down, a heavy monitor putting my legs to sleep: that’s a grand Stanford memory.

He invited me to stay and do the doctorate with him, and I turned him down, clumsily. We were expecting our first son, and I was scared about being so far from our families on the other coast. I remember a passionate talk with the head of the teacher ed program about whether or not to leave Stanford. “A degree from Stanford carries a certain…cache,” she warned. Unimaginable, to pass on such an opportunity. (“He’s already got a degree from Stanford,” chimed in a smartass friend, in my defense.) I left badly, deciding too late for another guy to take my place – silly and selfish. Still a regret of mine, but one I worked out, both with the other guy at AERA a few years later, and with Elliot when my job in Chapel Hill took me back out there for a week in 2005. He was already sick, then, but gracious: happy to have me back in his home, talk about what we did and what I was doing. Unfailingly interested, and always supportive.

In hindsight, I am very glad I left when I did. Doing my doctorate with Elliot, I am pretty sure, would have found me coloring in a corner of the world he had mapped. Madeleine Grumet, my advisor in Chapel Hill, wisely encouraged my interest in the arts as well as its roots in subjective experience and autobiography as explicated by reconceptualist curriculum theory. Her extraordinary scholarship, mentorship, and friendship prepared me so much better, I think, for the life and career that has found me since. It also set me up for my work at the med school at UNC, which helped me find and form my passion for the preparation of caring professionals and the role of story and the arts in their thriving.

And leaving Stanford was an early step in my ongoing effort to grow in my own self-confidence and self-worth beyond the meritocratic rat race that the academic life can cultivate in us. We can be driven by who we know, who we publish with – all the shibboleths and status signifiers that make an academic conference like the Oscars, sometimes, showbiz kids making movies of themselves. I was quite susceptible to that grift, and was well-served to get clear of much of it. There are firmer grounds upon which to build a life, for me.

But none of what I have been able to do would have been possible were it not for Elliot’s interest in and care of me. I honor tonight his willingness to attend to a student, really attend; to take a call from a stranger, and to support someone’s best efforts to grow and change, to be someone else, however tentative.

There will be better tributes to the man, but this one is mine. As my semester starts, I recommit to emulating that energy and interest in my work with the students I am honored to work with now, today, tomorrow. Thank you, Elliot, for everything.

Image from Stanford’s web site.

Pacific Rim, Ender’s Game, nightmares, and the language of children

1816935-godzilla1954cKaiju are children’s monsters. “Strange monsters” is the literal translation, which reminds that to a child, strangeness alone is frightening. Even as it begins to evolve into a tentatively self-confident curiosity, first engagements with the unknown are saturated with primal concern about what is threat and what is not – unfamiliar food spat out, new grown-ups eschewed for the arms of Mom or Dad. They are not childish monsters, which we might think them to be, those of us who first met Godzilla and Mothra and Rodan on Saturday matinee television, laughing in confusion at their silly man-in-a-suit theatrics and poor overdubs. No, children’s monsters: origin, intention, even full size unknown, proliferating like true nightmares do, the real ones that we never talk about and half-remember but still carry with us in their wrenching affirmation of our ultimate powerlessness.

My earliest nightmare recurred for years, probably tracking the frequent ear infections that would wake me in the middle of the night screaming in pain. It had something to do with a whirring gyre, the teeth of its gears made of sharpened yellow #2 pencils, coming closer and closer to my face. Sounds silly in the daylight, of course, and I even remember it sounding silly as I described it to my mother perched on the edge of the bed. Pencils, really? But I can see now that its dynamic is rooted in the most primal of fears: being trapped before an implacable and unknowable force. It was probably linked to the ad I saw (against my parents’ TV programming, certainly) for Empire of the Ants that featured a couple of seconds of a monstrous, human-sized ant mobilizing toward a trapped human, unblinking compound eyes staring and feelers waving. Nowhere to run, and no way to negotiate. It’s coming for you.

Guillermo del Toro has always had a live connection to the real roots of childhood fear, from Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone through Pan’s Labyrinth and on to his latest masterwork, Pacific Rim. The key to getting del Toro’s best stuff is giving yourself up to its rules, the ways its environments and set pieces, like an actual nightmare, don’t yield to the time and pace of mature, daylight reckonings. Kaiju don’t respond to our expectations that our enemy can be known. They come mysteriously from deep in the ocean, and then they come faster, each one different and finally bigger than the last, evolving new weapons and toxicities the intrepid human-piloted warrior robots are unprepared to match.

Children know their world tentatively, if at all. With no sense of scale, adult-sized things are giant (remember Dad’s shoes, how scary a teacher was when angry), and the proportions hold for us adults when we see the streets of Hong Kong or Sydney or San Francisco stomped and ravaged and kicked over like sand castles before a kaiju rampage. That’s the stuff of Pacific Rim: fight after fight between monsters and the robots humans have constructed at unimaginable expense to repel them, played indiscriminately in (evacuated) urban arenas.

The emotional lynchpin of these struggles takes this disproportion to its limits, as a Japanese kindergartner is chased down an avenue by a rampant kaiju, cornered behind a dumpster and almost caught. Del Toro stays on her face, and in this grand battle of skyscraper-sized behemoths the terrors are distilled in her bereft weeping, face frozen, clutching one shoe as she limps through the pulverized terrain. The scene is noisy, but not with speech. She says nothing, only weeps, whimpers, screams and, when she finally beholds the possibility of her survival, her face opens into a rictus of bliss I (not alone) link to Kabuki’s ritualistic engagements and resolutions. Complete, abject terror, resolved in equally complete, all-consuming relief.

Children are always outsized and outgunned, but the deepest way children are helpless before their monsters is their incapacity to reason with them, or themselves. As grown-ups, we speak into our fears, neutralize or at least disperse them by talking about them and being heard (like I did a few paragraphs ago). But the child has only nascent power to become a speaking subject, co-creating herself in dialogue with the world, and this vulnerability is frequently exploited in horror as childish imagination and immature judgment makes the child the conduit for cajoling, unspeakable forces from beyond. The Shining, Paranormal Activity 2, The Conjuring: all their early movements include a puzzling demon becoming a child’s imaginary friend, always with a scene of one-way dialogue between child and invisible monster that terrifies because we see the child’s yearn for connection, misplaced in malevolence. In Pacific Rim it’s even worse: no response to a creature incapable of dissimulation, of being anything other than it is, but mute, open-mouth, obliterating horror. Survival for Pacific Rim‘s kindergartner comes in a relationship to a benevolent caregiver, who teaches safety and love through actions first and finally through words, complicit in the co-creation of a new person through a life of speaking into each other. He learns her language, and she his. Words and stories lead to protection and, eventually, healing.

It’s a lot of work to witness true creativity when it shows up in a $150 million summer blockbuster.* Its light is mighty bright, compared to waves of studio-safe retreads of 70s cartoons and their sequelae. I was exhausted at the end. This movie is a mash note to creature features and Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots, rendered in a grittily loving detail that suggests a Day-Glo Blade Runner sometimes (del Toro on the gorgeous color: “I kept asking John to tap into his inner Mexican and be able to saturate the greens and the purples and the pinks and the oranges”), and it almost wore me out to see how carefully rendered the details of this film were, the names and locations as well as the mechanical logics (YouTube trolls notwithstanding). The sheer scale of the battle scenes mean that weight and mass need to be thought through and rendered, and the result is overwhelming, obliterating.

Then again, I respond deeply to true fanboy obsession wherever it shows up, as I’ve described elsewhere. Seeing somebody run to the limits of their obsessions and terrors in their work, in fully vulnerable touch with their love and not particularly caring who else gets it. I emulate that slight madness in my own writing, insisting that the personal is inextricably part of the thoughtful, the heart that courses real blood through our wonderings and wanderings. Hear the fanboy par excellence within the mega-director:

I didn’t want to be postmodern, or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, something madly in love with those things. I tried to bring epic beauty to it, and drama and operatic grandeur.

But that same auteur takes the piss out of himself too, in love with the limits of genre as well as its affordances. Describing how he left an hour of character development on the cutting room floor, he notes:

We cannot pretend this is Ibsen with monsters and giant robots. I cannot pretend I’m doing a profound reflection on mankind.

So it’s just a monster movie, after all. Peter Jackson talks this way sometimes too, as do Tarantino and James Cameron (though he’s a bit harder to listen to – maybe decades of having literally bottomless resources to pursue all your fantasies backs up on you personally and makes you a little insufferable). Pacific Rim isn’t an exercise in showing how much he’s thought about kaiju and mecha, though he has; he doesn’t really care about whether or not he’s coming off uncool for what he loves. He just loves it, and is going to go dig it hard now – would you like to come?

I love it too. Hope I can find some excuse to watch it again, with others, soon.

* I have thought too much about the Ender’s Game film to really say anything about it, I fear, but maybe I can start in a footnote. Ender’s Game seemed to play it safe in all the ways that Pacific Rim swings for the fence. Despite its lovingly-rendered Nerf-y laser tag suits and the authentically childish stakes of its locker-room conflicts, the movie fell flat for me, visually, in its workaday palette and impoverished investment in Ender’s inner life. The nightmare of the book – that the grown-up who tucked you in is, in fact, your enemy, that he’s been here all along – fizzled out in Harrison’s Ford desultory resignation to the imperatives of the politico-industrial war machine that manipulates him. Also, the choice to leave Peter simply a bully (and eliminate all the blogging and pamphleteering that made him and his sister the interesting intellectual counterparts of Ender’s wounded hero) gutted the film emotionally, for me. It’s a horror story too, not merely a military procedural, but the horror got lost. The story seems to have so much to say about education and the trust between children and the adults whose vocation is their care, but much of the scholarship on the thing doesn’t give much light to me. Perhaps I should think about it harder.

Or maybe it just needed more color, del Toro – style. All that gray and blue reminded me of Dress for Success, the eighties bible to business fashion and seventies-sartorial corrective that admonished, mainly, that the gravest sin in professional dress was looking like somebody. And I did not buy Ben Kingsley’s face tattoos and the Maori thing. Whaaa?

Thanks to giantbomb.com for image.

letter not-to the editor

Written and not sent; that’s what a blog is for, right? Still deeply felt. Event is tonight: App folks who read this, I’ll see you there!

- c

I was raised in a conservative religious household, and recall the concern I inherited – absorbed through my skin, like oxygen – about the depravity of some art, literature, movies, and music. I remember how I felt in my deepest heart when reading something that seemed offensive to my values, a wounding that felt like I had betrayed my God and my people by even casting my eyes, let alone my mind, on such stuff. I remember that arguments for the literary, artistic, cultural value of a such a document were unconvincing to me. If anything, they affirmed that I was “in the world, but not of it;” that, as Matthew taught me, “ye cannot serve God and Mammon,” and any rationale that Mammon offered only deepened my resistance and my greater turning toward God.

I remember these powerful experiences of wounding and healing, acceptance and rejection, as I witness our community’s controversy about the teaching of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits to tenth graders at Watauga High. Arguments against the book have turned on the unsuitability of its sexually explicit and violent passages for inclusion in curriculum. Defenses have included appeals to the work’s universally-recognized literary merit (even, in a letter to the county school board, by the author herself), character references of the teacher involved, and insistence that the book is approved for inclusion in the tenth grade curriculum and that an alternate was offered (so, really, why should anyone be upset)?

I am torn up about how this dialogue is unfolding: how closely it follows the narrative of so many controversies about curriculum. It seems initially to be about legality and literary quality, each side trying to educate the other about risks and benefits it apparently cannot conceive. But I am beginning to see that the core issue is actually the authority we give or withhold from the school to speak into deeply-held differences of our society. The Reagan-era school prayer flap was the first time I noticed the conflict. In our times it includes evolution/creationist science curricula, sex ed, political advocacy, The Pledge of Allegiance, Scouts in the cafeteria in the afternoon, and on and on. We are a deeply divided nation on many fronts, and the school is the brightest flashpoint as we work out our own anxieties through the presumably more manageable lives of our children. We don’t know what we want our schools to do for them (us), how uncomfortable we are willing to let school make them (us). So we fume and fret and grumble to those who agree with us about what the world is coming to as the other side drives us into the ditch.

My best response to this tension comes out of what happened to me after I left home. I attended a university with an unfailing commitment to supporting exploration of every controversy, and trusting that that the community, through respectful dialogue, would find its way. I encountered attitudes and values at school that were deeply different than mine, and as a result found my own changing: about culture, politics, gender, sexuality, and ultimately the nature of my faith. Through respectful – though sometimes heated – discussion and argument, and open-hearted listening to those who were not me (i.e., everyone), I came to understand just how different others were than me. And that my own values, however deeply held, simply could not serve as an index of what someone else knew and felt about the world.

This is perhaps the greatest possibility offered by public school, greater than basic skills training, job readiness, even Friday night football: the possibility to allow all who make up this community to see deeply into each other’s otherness – perhaps to realize, at core, that we are exactly the same in our passionate need to have our otherness understood and respected.

That’s why I support the teaching of The House of the Spirits, unequivocally, and the teacher who chooses to teach it. The book is an opportunity to have that kind of discussion, that kind of listening and understanding of each other. But I refuse to support teaching the book by making those who oppose it into cartoons of intransigence and closed-mindedness. (After all, it’s only a matter of time before this controversy makes national news, and the rest of the country remains completely willing to retell that story about who we are in the High Country. Can’t we be better to each other?)  I believe that school is where our students should – must – respectfully encounter, engage with, and come to understand points of view that differ profoundly from their own. And our larger community must be a place where we can do the same with each other. If I presume to have the only clear vision of what is valuable, I am as blind as my worst caricature of those who disagree with me.

I plan to attend the community-wide read-in and teach-in of The House of the Spirits ( 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 3 in Belk Library, Room 114, on ASU’s campus), and I hope you will too. I would be happy to organize another one in the common room of our excellent Public Library. I hope these events will be a chance for all of us to share the book and make our own judgment; share our own experience of reading and encounter of ourselves and each other. May we all go back to school, as we focus the energy this controversy has ignited. Focus it toward hearing, seeing, reading each other fully, perhaps for the first time.

the long game

Paper I started three years ago, then blogged here toward presentation last year, has finally found a publication home. Three years, people! Glad its subject wasn’t too ripped-from-the-headlines.

The long game: what this job is about. When was the last time I paid attention to anything for three years, even peripherally? Maybe this is what being a grown-up is, after all: keeping one’s eye on the ball for a long long time. While still choosing how best to manage the “petty, frustrating crap of life,”  while maintaining time to think about – attend to – what really matters within, despite, in harmony with it all. Please see David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon.

Actually, stop reading this: just go watch that. Have a nice day!

my friends and I have cracked the code

My friends and I have cracked the code
We count our dollars on the train
To the party

Probably the most chilling lines in Lorde’s monster single “Royals.” It’s a repudiation of a version of herself that she sees being sold to her. Cataloged in the chorus, a weaponized hook you’ll have lodged in your cranium after one listen:

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

But despite the startling ease with which she reels off these totems of hiphop excess, it’s this moment of realization, stated declaratively as a mere fact of the nature of her engagement with the world, that changes everything from now on. We will celebrate who we are, not who you tell us to be. Our few dollars, our train, our party: not yours. Echoes of Johnny Rotten, asking his last audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Yes, the song says – but we’re not mad about it anymore. Living well is the best revenge.

This weekend my sons scooped me (and The New Yorker, by a day) with this tune. I heard it once through the earbuds – after-market ones with better bass response, thankfully, a key to appreciation of this joint – and was swept back to first hearing Adele’s big record under similar circumstances a few years back, and before that Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Veruca Salt, Sleater-Kinney, even Patti Smith. All the foregoers who temper my ears for a big female voice, a rumbly velvet one that winds around your legs like a cat.

What did Lorde listen to before laying this down? What are her – ahem – “influences”? A crazy question for a sixteen year-old maybe, but also not: our youth are more “influenced” than any generation before, the world in their pocket to peruse, reject, Like. Apparently, she’ll have none of that. She likes spare electronic beats, and the sonic cathedrals on “Royals” give her more space to wind around the pillars than anything since, I don’t know, Miles Davis’ “Tutu.” With it’s pared-down aesthetic and multi-tracked self-harmonies, it’s a Garageband song, maybe this generation’s answer to Springsteen in his own bedroom laying down the harrowing tracks only accessible from that apercu of remove. It’s a solo act, despite the solemn sidemen that apparently accompany her live.

I can’t stop thinking about the song, asking others to think about it with me. Trying to understand the power of the sweeping rejection of what an industry has given a young woman to love and respect and buy: the star maker machinery of the popular song, the rhetoric of the videos, the insistence that she (we) attend to the doings of the beautiful and rich, wait for their singles, follow their trysts and feuds. “We don’t care” – it’s repeated, in a falling figure into the fourth that gospel and blues reserves for the heightening of lyric tension: the place where things change, before redemption in the fifth. That comes, I think, with “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” not an aspirational statement so much as an insistence that their “Cadillacs” are bigger than an Escalade, perhaps because they are smaller.

Is anything so sweeping, so maddening, so terrifying as the dismissal of a teenager? “We don’t care,” insouciant and complete. “What are you rebelling against?” comes the question: “What have you got?” responds the new generation, impossibly far away already, perhaps irretrievable, or just gone to better shores. (And don’t start with calling this statement “inauthentic” because it had to partake in that same machinery to be released and promoted on this platform: it’s a bogus argument, especially as it’s leveled disproportionally against female artists, brilliantly stated here.)

She’s not the first to goof on the excesses of pop, hiphop especially. The Lonely Island said a lot here, to the young adults I work with, as did some of the more self-aware practitioners of the art since back in the day: Flava Flav, Tribe, Outkast, Salt’n’Pepa, a few clown princes and princesses here and there who get the power of the grotesque and comic as part of delivering the message (Forevah EVAH evah?). Gangsta brought the sternness, the seriousness, collapsed the gap between Signifyng and signifier (or, perhaps, changed the register to one a lot less forgiving of breaking character). That was the forebear of the present expectations of “gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom:” bleak, monolithic, one-note of so much of what comes over MTV and the radio. Repetitive compulsion that finally deadens the palate. Who can taste it when it’s so much of what we’re fed?

Not sure yet what to do with the growing cry against the song that it’s racist at core, dismissing an expressive language that’s impossible to unwind from the poverty and prejudice that informed the first hiphop assertions of wealth, power, money. Mainstream press is swarming the story – who doesn’t love a good race war – predictably giving more heat than light. Though I’ll agree with MSNBC that hiphop has jumped to mainstream culture too completely to continue to file it simply and neatly under “black.” I am not really persuaded there, seeing the original hiphop aesthetic of stealing the symbols of unattainable luxury to subvert them (literally breaking hood ornaments off Benzos) as more punk than appropriation. From Lorde’s remove – New Zealand (!?) – the white agony at regarding a black man in power that Coates explores so powerfully is perhaps tempered. And Jay-Z is not the President, though maybe the same anxieties about access to power – the same anger that underpins my white students when they try to understand affirmative action from the perspective of not getting the financial aid they need either – do obtain. Money is the new power.

Race doesn’t play the same way in the generation behind us. Of course the kids see race – I strive in my class every day to help future teachers understand and work against the treacherous reproduction of status quo that comes from affirming otherwise – but in some real way, their battles aren’t ours. SES plays so much harder as a personal entryway into understanding privilege with my overwhelmingly white students than race. And not because of whatever the rest of the world makes up about going to school in western North Carolina, being Southern, whatever story you might be making up about who “my students” are.*  It’s that their world is so much browner, so differently expressed, than ours was at the same age (check out the National Geographic’s awesome “Changing Face of America” photo essay on this.)

I do not think Lorde is talking back to hiphop’s performance of privilege as raced. To my ears, half a planet away, it’s just too remote from her world. She gets the marketing of it, the come-on of what she is supposed to care about, and says no. In this she’s twinning with my other darlings, Arctic Monkeys, whose fully-realized milieu gives a lot more to work with than Lorde’s stark sketches. But both dismiss inauthenticity as the most cardinal of sins. “Get off the bandwagon, put down the handbook,” the AMs say – “we don’t care,” tosses off Lorde, and if a teenager with a microphone doesn’t care, nothing – nothing – can save you from the dustbin.

This could probably all be said better (hoped to work in some of John Taylor Gatto’s critique of compulsory schooling as designed from the ground up to create a new consumer class), but there’s no time, and I need to get something off about it now before the moment passes. What do you think about the song, about the issues it raises? Really?

*Assumptions in turn informed by the rampant “redneckspoitation” boom on TV, Duck Dynasties and Honey Boo Boos and Handfishin’ and Turtlemen. That topic needs to wait for another day: but there’s more casual dismissal at the national level of who we are around here than Li’l Abner ever got away with, so you better recognize.

Thanks to allthingssd.com for image. NO image of the artist because photos of Lorde are everywhere, sheesh.

the analog kid meets the digital man (or, get off my lawn)

m13_PRO20_blk_6.1369408863(N.B. – This is going to be sloppy, but it’s a blog, not a paper, and I will continue to use it to work out stuff that’s not-ready-for-prime-time, with your indulgence. Also, if you read this through Facebook, you’ve probably noted that I am on a Facebook sabbatical these days! Which is serving me well. But I would still love to hear from you about this – or anything – through the comment section or email, osmond (at) appstate (dot) edu.)

So titled because I fear that’s the tone I am going to strike here: the crotchety old fart fussing about kids, and how back in the day … but that is not my intent.

What I want to do is figure out, really, what is going on with the way kids learn in the generation I am teaching and, further down, parenting, and what the role of pleasure is in that learning. Some of my colleagues are super excited about what kids’ interactions with computer games can help us understand about curriculum, and I think they are on to something – but that something feels like curiously less than what they say it is, or maybe more.

I think that the way we make and enjoy art has something to say here, because art is the thing we do that we don’t have to do: engage with beauty, balance, aesthetic satisfactions. Unless you are a filmmaker or rock star under studio/label contract trying to grind something out on deadline, art’s not work – yet we find time to be with it no matter what, even at the expense of other things. There is always time to do what we really want to.

Shouldn’t we want desperately to figure out how to bottle that genuine desire to engage and sprinkle it over the things we THINK kids should be engaging in as well?

And then at the core of the whole perplex is how kids nowadays don’t ride bikes the way we did when we were kids, and how that bothers me, and how I don’t understand why. Maybe that’s where I should start.

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When I was a kid I loved my bikes, and still remember each of them with pretty amazing clarity.

Eighth birthday: a yard sale find with outdated (now vintage) frame curlicues and additional struts gets macked out for me with a banana seat and a light that runs on the power of the spinning wheel and an odometer. Dad tries to explain the value of an odometer, and I am unconvinced. I do not want to know how far I have gone: I want to know how fast I am. I want to see a needle move, and the glacial pace of the odometer wheels turning does not satisfy, at all. “How far I was allowed to go” was the obsession: in the street, or just the sidewalk? To the end of the street? to the High’s, to Gillette’s Market, to buy Marathon bars and baseball cards at first, then litre-bottles of orange and grape Nehi? You could carry two on a bike, one in a bag slung over each handlebar; four empties (two and two) when returning them for the deposit. But it was tricky going: no turning to speak of, really, just balance and grit to get you there.

I am twelve: a friend agrees to sell me a bike he no longer needs. It is painted matte black, but has the characteristic piece of sheet metal in the front frame angle with a perfectly round hole in it that I associate with the coveted Mongoose brand. Mongoose and Diamondback: these were the only two brands that were worth spit in Rome, New York’s bicycle hierarchy, and I had neither. The banana seat frankenbike was now passé: I needed to trade up, and this is was my ticket in.

It came rideable, with second-rate parts, and I set to figuring out how to make the thing what I wanted it to be. I had a bike repair manual and learned how the gears worked, how to make the action smoother and change the tires. I got some more appropriate handlebars, but the front fork looked all wrong: it had a graceful bend to it, not the sawed-off shotgun stubbiness that the cool kids’ bikes boasted. I couldn’t work out how to fix that – or the single handlebar joint that looked so puny next to my friends’ beefy double ones – but the Mongoose-brand pads I put on the thing made it pass, so I could join my friend at the vacant lot where they had cut jumps and banked turns into the dirt.

It was incredible to be out there tear-assing around that track – getting (what felt like) crazy air, the occasional fall leading to scuffs and ripped pants and a little blood but never head trauma (it hadn’t been invented yet, maybe, and neither had helmets). I bent the cranks from landing on them too hard, learned to fix them. I do not want to exaggerate my handiness, but in that year I was probably the most mechanically savvy I have ever been in my life. Not because I really cared about it but because I needed it to work and only I could do what needed to be done. Coming home when the sun went down, hot and dirty and thoroughly blissed-out.

That bike became my ride to school, too – about a mile each way (just Google-Mapped it – sure felt like longer), and to friends’ houses, and to the woods behind the park (where I did NOT join in BB gun wars, but desperately wished to). With the bike and a little stamina and a modicum of geography, I could pace almost the entire ambit of my world under my own power, and largely on my own schedule, years before a car was even a possibility. My bike was power. I locked it up and took care of it, kept it out of the rain and the tires full.

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So why my bike reverie here? Why does it chap me that under all the porches of our kids’ friends sit beautiful bikes (Mongooses and Diamondbacks, real ones sometimes) and no one ever rides them?

Many of us in the High Country live at the top of pretty steep hills, and dropping down to the main road and pressing further afield would inevitably mean a ten-minute climb with / walking of one’s bike back up the hill, and apparently that’s sufficiently prohibitive. But what’s at most two miles away from anyone’s house seems so worth it to me: the General Store (much cooler than the High’s), the school, the gorgeous park, each others’ houses. All these kids could have any of that whenever they want, on their own schedule, free of their parents’ willingness to drive, in exchange for a mildly rough five-minute walk at the end. But it does not seem a good trade-off to any of them. No one ever rides anywhere.

It’s on us too, on all the parents. We are all concerned about the narrowness of the country two-lane, the dramatic blind turns, snakes and bears, drunks in pickup trucks: who knows what could happen out there. This from a generation of grown-ups who routinely remember being turned loose in the evening by their parents sans cell phone or even flight plan, told only to be back (this is universal) “when the street lights came on.” What gives? What has changed?

Please know that my kids, and their friends, do not want for adventurous spirit. They are bolder than I was, from one POV. As I drove a bunch of them home last night from a birthday celebration (at a contained fun pavilion – laser tag, video games, bowling, no sharp corners anywhere, secure perimeter, natch) I had the precious opportunity to be invisible and hear them revel with each other in the rich history of their shared virtual exploits, while each simultaneously played a “casual game” on their Apple device of choice and offered periodic updates on their progress. Most of the talk was about Minecraft, the low-res MMORPG that even I know about.

Or thought I did (digital Legos, right)? I had no idea. The detailed strategy and passionately-remembered victories were Homeric, as was the pathos of battles remembered, won, lost. If I can remember – apologies if they ever read this for mangling the specificity and detail, I am a stranger in a strange land here:

  • So I was in a boat in the middle of the ocean, no land as far as I could see in any direction – it was impossible to get to land from there, from the island that Jim and I built out there for that very reason, so no-one could find it – and I had built a defensive bulwark on the island shaped like my head, made out of wool – I had nothing else to do so I just did it (So did I! offers another (???)), and my eyes were gun nests and the mouth was a cave – so I am out in the middle of the ocean in my boat, trying to get to land, and suddenly here comes this other boat, floating along completely empty, and it just drifts by me and disappears.
  • Kyle, when I got to our outpost you had finished building the stairs, but they looked completely wrong! The wood was completely the wrong color, it doesn’t match any of the rest of the house. (But that’s the only wood I had, protests Kyle weakly. No matter: aesthetic foul committed, ten points from Hufflepuff.)
  • And then I found this amazing sniper perch in the original world, from back in the day? (I think he actually said “back in the day.”) And this was when you could get rank just by saying “oh, I am not a noob don’t-know-what-I-am-doing guy, really,” and they would just give it to you? Anyway, I would just sit there and pick off all these Diamond warriors, and they wouldn’t know what was going on. It was awesome until one day this whole troop of Diamonds came and one looked up and saw me; he had a platinum bow with darkness AND invincibility AND roundhouse kick, and with one shot I was dead.
  • For a few days we built underwater tunnels out of glass, just because we had the time, out in the middle of the ocean, and no one could find us, it was awesome – and then I went back after a few days and (my sister) had built…a PIRATE SHIP on the surface, right above it! (Everyone DYING laughing, who could be so stupid?) So of course we got found right away: the Ninjaz came in through the bottom of the ship, and everything got looted and destroyed. (Round of murmured commiseration: the Ninjaz, poor man, they are some tough customers.)

Do you hear it? A spirit of adventure and curiosity and industry and ambition that puts my remembered exploits to shame with its detail, its intrigue, its strategy, its confidence and power. The stories were already lore, becoming more so in the telling as the sun set out the Honda’s windows and we labored up the mountain.

These are the moments that will define these kids in affiliation and differentiation with the people around them; these are their Mongooses, their dirt tracks, their BB gun fights. And it is all in their heads, and on screens, mediated by invisible servers and experienced alone in darkened bedrooms.

I do not mean to suggest their whole world is digital or imaginary. These same guys play hours of soccer together and Ripstik around the park on Friday nights and still clobber each other with Nerf swords. But the seamless flow between the real and the virtual is stunning: the passionate commitment to the unreal as much as to the real, to the created 3D hideaway as much as the contested goal on Saturday morning.

None of my students get my Neuromancer references any more: William Gibson perhaps losing his SF credibility as the world actually becomes a place where we are “jacked in” to virtual connection as seriously as we are real ones, or more. I’ll check it anyway: but for a bristling nest of memory sticks under their right ear, my lost boys are become digital men, making their own Pleasure Islands and Skull Rocks out there, somewhere, in the interwebbed ether.

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So what I am saying here? That I think there is something awry with the sublimation of childhood’s ambition and energy and wanderlust into digital exploits. That I think something has been lost when our kids stay in and log on instead of going out. Yeah, I do.

I have a suspicion that what is lost is somehow imbricated with the abundance of what is “accessible,” sort of, online. That the rampant lack of curiosity about the way the actual world works that my colleagues and I perceive among our students is connected with their native knowledge that they’ll be able to access the Youtube video that tells them about it when they need it, and so don’t need to concern themselves with it prior. In one way, this is the promised dream of technology in education: when the propositional knowledge base is immediately accessible online, students will be freed up from having to learn it and, therefore, will be able to spend their curricular time on developing the process and conceptual chops: the “critical thinking” that everyone crows about. But that’s not what seems to be happening. In fact, quite the opposite: lack of need to know seems to be turning into lack of curiosity. And lack of urge to get up and go do something about it. Really, why bike the hill when I can get what I would be looking for right here?

Gaming offers so many opportunities to tap into the energy of doing what we want to do in the service of doing what we need to do. It offers chances to make mistakes in low-risk, high-rep situations – trial and error, an intrinsic part of artmaking and puzzle-solving. Games offer built-in reward that incentivizes perseverance, and the networked ones offer social affirmation and the benefits of propinquity and joint mutual activity that we have known matter for decades but can’t seem to make curricular priorities. Maybe games are a way in for those important aspects of teaching.

But is what has been lost worth what has been gained? And does virtual adventure do for our kids what real-life adventure does?

This is way bigger than what I have started to think through here. It’s not just about computers and bikes. It’s connected with overprotection of our kids by my generation’s parenting – though, in our defense, we also protect more because we are the first generation to live consciously with the legacy of abuse that we were not protected from. The world was never safe, and we wish our kids a more nurturing passage through childhood than many of us had. It’s connected with an exponentially greater role in our childrens’ lives of a broadly-advertised version of childhood to which they conform their expectations – and we ours, of them and of ourselves.

So: how do we take advantage of technology to help our kids cultivate confidence, self-efficacy, intrepidness, self-sufficiency, while saving them the pain of the mistakes visited upon us? That’s all I am trying to figure out. That’s all. What do you think?

Thanks to Mongoose for most excellent image of most excellent bike.