Friday, September 30, 2011

Aristotle Jones: Personal Archaeology for Teens

Every year, around this time, I assign a paper to my high school seniors. It is called "The Learning Experience." In the paper, the kids write about a change in their perspective on something in their lives. It can be anything. One student might write about the day he discovered he liked onions. Another might write about the day he realized his mom was a good mom, even though she was strict. Another might choose to write about a calling to the priesthood, for all I know.

It is an assignment that satisfies the need to expose the students, from a writing standpoint, to some important Aristotelian modes of rhetoric, namely: process analysis, narration and description. But, more importantly, it forces these young people to learn something about themselves -- another branch of old Aristotle's areas of interest.

It always surprises me how lost they look when I ask them to do this. It scares me, a little, year-to year. But, when it is all over, my conclusion is always the same: a) most people regard themselves as a bag of sand that just walks around doing stuff and b) with only the slightest prompt, these same people can learn dig in the sand and find important artifacts -- learn to do enough personal archaeology to step onto the path that leads away from "the unexamined life" that Aristotle, himself, warned against: "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Way-Forward Machine

By combining a lot of clock-springs, some cogs and some torn-up poems with a quirky melange of sprockets, love letters, campfire scents, tunes played on bells and crumpled appointment notes and by mounting these things on a metallic scaffold dotted with some shiny buttons and containing a screen that constantly prints and deletes an impressive series of deucedly latinate words, I have created a machine for entering the future. The problem is that this it is a subjective and preferential machine.

See, it only takes the young on journeys and, then, only to their dream careers. What it does is it drops teenagers smack into the middle of their projected desires. It allows them to experience said desire for one month. Thus, they can spend that month as a rock star; as a research scientist; as a novelist, as a doctor; as a priest; as a dancer; as a professional skate-boarder; as a housewife; as a wealthy writer of sonnets; as a tribal chief; a reporter or a linguist . . . anything they can conjure -- any career they wish.

For one month, they can see what it is going to be like.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fire Bundles

When are we grown-ups ever going to learn? We fret and fret over the things we put before our kids -- what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong -- and we toss and turn, worrying if we're crushing their creativity and initiative; whether the modern world is stealing their hearts away . . .

Of course, when I say "we" I mean "me" -- and maybe you, too?

But this morning, a misty Sunday with the absent sun returning for the first time in days to light up the droplets into diamonds on the grass, the smell of autumn earth as pleasant to me as the scent of a cake in the oven, I heard my smallest boy explaining something to his mother.

He was playing a "Toy Story" game on his fancy-schmancy portable gaming unit, and he was saying, "Mom -- I'm pretending this is "Silly Sheepies" (a show my sons put on with their stuffed animals during their weekend "sleep-overs" together in one of their beds) and they are trying to put Sheepie in the sheep-pound but Sean is trying to rescue them and  . . ."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sure Enough to Kill Troy Davis

So, Troy Davis is dead.
Strapped to a gurney in Georgia's death chamber, Troy Davis lifted his head and declared one last time that he did not kill police officer Mark MacPhail. Just a few feet away behind a glass window, MacPhail's son and brother watched in silence.
And, despite his claim that he is innocent of a crime for which there is no physical evidence (according to a report I heard on the radio this morning), it seems the witnesses were enough to make it stick. The victim's mother says:
[Davis has] been telling himself [he's innocent] for 22 years. You know how it is, he can talk himself into anything (same source as above).
As anyone who reads my stuff with any regularity knows, I'm not a current events guy, except when current events raise larger philosophical questions about life. I can't stay away from this one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Contentment vs. Happiness

There's a difference between happiness and contentment, isn't there? If the difference is what I think it is, then contentment might just be the answer to a satisfying life.

Contentment is less flamboyant than happiness. Happiness is a firework-pop of color and wonder. Happiness is a plunge on a sled. Happiness is a flood of endorphins that gets recognized for its intensity of pleasure. But contentment is a hot cup of coffee, slowly enjoyed; it's floating down a gentle stream on a raft, on one's back, watching overhead branches brush past the clouds. Contentment is a state of being, while happiness is more of an event. Happiness, as a more intense thing, can't really be sustained, but contentment can be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Angry Sunday

I thought of playing this off and conjuring up a happy memory and writing about a sweet evening in a past summer when all of the notes in my head and in the winds outside my room were in perfect resonance. I almost was ready to do it, then I sat down and tried to get online and couldn't and now, it would be too much of a boldfaced lie to play it happy for my reading audience.

I write about things I see in life, and, usually, there is a wry smile and a tinge of humor in my work. Mostly, I keep it pretty calm. But crap happens, too, doesn't it? There's no denying that.

Tonight, it was truly an exercise in control when I tried to get on and got a message that, for some reason, my blog "wasn't available." I'm not, by any means, prone to rage, but I had to win quite a victory over my reptilian brain to keep from smashing my laptop. I'm not exaggerating. I did give it quite a shove, but my arms were faintly tethered to the part of me that knows I can't afford to smash laptops. Barely.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Dear Albrecht VI

Albrecht Soothspitz (b. 1347)

Three cheers and a canon-blast! Albrecht is back with another exciting batch of wisdom-encrusted confections that are destined to delight and fortify the lost minds of this lost world. Albrecht has spent the past few months earning a PhD in Economics from Wharton Business school. I kid you not. He's that smart. Enjoy, O seekers of wisdom.


Dear Albrecht:

When you lived in the Middle Ages, how the heck did you entertain yourself? My cable has been out for two days because of the recent storms and I am about to impale myself on a steak-knife. If I didn't have my iPhone, I would be dead by now. I mean, what did you do -- look at trees and stuff? It must have sucked.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jarvis and the Cage (A Parable)

There once was a little black-and-white rabbit. He was quite a rabbit, but a rabbit nonetheless, and this meant that he was jerky and twitchy and had a fuzzy coat that left floating, white puffs in the air behind him when he darted off in one direction or another.

One day, he was bought by a young couple who decided to treat him like a companion and not as a caged curiosity. They taught him to relieve himself in his cage and not in the living room. The young man made a carpeted ramp so that Jarvis could get in and out of his cage easily. The cage was roomy and multi-leveled, so that Jarvis could have a few places in which to lie down and a vista to sit upon and from which he could observe the outside world (the living room).

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Silver Flow of Forever

I write this blog because I feel compelled to create and communicate. Creativity has always been a drive in me. I can't stop doing it any more that I could stop drinking or eating. Something lives in the wiring of  my brain that makes this so.

Still, tonight I don't fell much like writing Monday's post. Maybe it was the humid, overcast, Romantic-looking day. Maybe it was snuggling cozily under the blankets and reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my youngest son that did it. It could be the hour I spent practicing "Recuerdos del Alahambra" on my guitar. Or maybe it was preparing for tomorrow's lesson on The Epic of Gilgamesh in one class and on Robert Bloch's "That Hell-bound Train" in another. I suppose it also could have been the few hours I spent reading the delightfully atmospheric, top-notch writing of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones . . . Hell, it might have even been cutting the grass that did it.

Maybe sometimes the creative soul spends a day at the spa -- bathing in warm waters of relaxation -- and then feels it doesn't need to do anything grand, at least for awhile. Maybe, sometimes, training hard for the marathon we someday plan to run can give way to an unhurried walk in the woods -- a walk during which we feel no guilt for stopping, sitting on a rock and watching a stream's silver forever caress the smooth stones.

Goodnight, friends, whenever and wherever your nighttime comes . . .

Friday, September 9, 2011

My Profound Ignorance

From time to time here at H&R, I have touched on something that fascinates me: that invisible bubble composed of circumstances, ideologies, experiences, prejudices, ignorance, suppositions and logical/semi-logical conclusions that surrounds us all and isolates our own lives into a fundamentally different experience from everyone else's. None of us ever has the same human experience, though we can see certain things in common. To me, that's astounding. No one operates with the exact internal program that I do -- or that you do. That, quite easily, can result in my being an ass in someone else's eyes and a genius in my own, or even the other way around.

Today, I gained an understanding that turned my guts to stone. Maybe, for a second, my own invisible bubble brushed up against people who suffer in a way I could never imagine.

The set up is this: A few weeks ago, my family and I went off to Florida. During our time away, hurricane Irene swept up the east coast of the U.S. By the time it reached New Jersey, it had become a tropical storm, but it was enough to cause flooding and power-outages. Our house lost power and the refrigerator died. We lost some food. Now it is fixed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pretty Popular for a Dead Guy

I was watching Paul McCartney in concert on TV the other day. He was playing to a festival crowd -- maybe eighty-thousand strong. As he got the end of "Hey Jude," the crowd, many of whom had been years away from being born when "Hey Jude" was written, joined in, singing the "Na-naaa-na-nanana-naaaah," part and it occurred to me that success is a bizarre thing.

Imagine being Paul. Imagine being a guy whose name is recognized by virtually everyone in the civilized world who is over the age of fifteen. Imagine that out of those people, most, if not all, can name a song you wrote and a good number can probably sing one on the spot.

How do you process that as an artist? If a crowd that size ever sang one of my songs, I'd crash to my knees and weep at the profundity. But Paul just kept playing. Why? Because he is used to being probably the best-known songwriter alive. I'm not saying he doesn't appreciate it at all; it's just . . . for the love of baloney . . . how do you get used to that?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Little Shadowboxers

My mother always was very much against guns. As a kid, I never had a toy gun, outside of the occasional water pistol. Mind you, I really wanted to have toy guns and I would greedily claim any available weapon at friends' houses before playing "war" or any other violence-based games. At home, though, I was, as they say on the mean streets, without a "piece."

At my wife's house, in her childhood, things were a little different. Toy guns were allowed, as were BB guns in the later years. Legend has it that there was a rifle incident in the back yard of their suburban home that left a tree somewhat worse for wear. Karen grew up with two brothers, both of whom own hunting guns and bows to this day. For the record, neither of them has ever killed a man. (Nor has my wife, to the best of my knowledge.) Both of them are throrougly nice guys and one of them is one hell of a dancer. (Just thought I'd mention that, in light of the wedding I attended last night.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Map and the Treasure

Sometimes I write a post and I get more of a reaction from an aside than I do from the main idea -- which is cool with me.

When I wrote Wednesday about the dying days of summer, I mentioned not having liked school. I referenced the idea that maybe this was because I liked learning so much. The discussion took on more of a life on Facebook than it did here, in that regard. One of my former students was pretty amused to have heard me say that I thought school was not the best place for learning.

But when I think about it more, I realize that maybe I never liked "learning" after all. What I always liked was discovering. I never liked accumulating knowledge based on fact and record. What I always liked was uncovering things myself, which might be why I was not the best student in grade school or in high school.