Limits

Part of success is learning where there are real limits, and where we perceive limits that don’t really exist. Clearly there are real limits to what we can do; there is also self-delusion. That’s where I get stuck. “I can’t do it” is too great an excuse to give up without evidence to the contrary.

“I don’t have time,” is one of my pet delusions. A teacher’s job is never done. Even in the summer, there’s professional development, planning, reading…

Time is a real limit, but not as much as I would like to think. If I tell myself that I don’t have time to do something – write a book, for instance – what I’m more likely saying is that I’m not willing to commit the time it will take. Most likely I won’t live to be 150 — but I can do a lot in the 24 hours a day I have. All I need to do is look at a list of successful people to see that plenty of people accomplish more in less time than I have. Time is controllable.

“Bad knee,” gets me out of a number of things I don’t want to do. Physically, my knees are my weakest link.

In the fall, my right knee became so painful that walking was nearly impossible. I limped around for weeks before seeing a doctor, not because I’m stoic, but because I assumed that he would tell me what he always tells me: elevate it, ice it, take diclofenac, and be patient. I already know that I have arthritis. Why pay to hear advice I already know?

The tipping point came the weekend before Christmas. More

Ragnarok

It seemed like the 1900’s would never end. I’m not a hundred years old yet, but I was born midway through that century, and remember figuring out how old I would be in 2000. Back then, while we were ducking for cover under our school desks, fearing that the Russians would be sending us a bomb any day, the future was hard to imagine. Thinking about the twenty-first century — well, would we even still be alive? Wouldn’t the world have blown up by then?

Excuse my pessimism; I’m Scandinavian.

In Norse mythology, the world comes to an end. That’s further than the Greeks or Romans got, I think. The myths don’t say exactly when this will happen, but the circumstances are clear. We call it Ragnarok.

The entire world was created from the corpse of a giant, according to my people, and it will end in ice and fire.The Vikings didn’t tell pretty tales. (Example: Beowulf) Monsters, dismemberment, blood and gore — did their children ever sleep?

The fate of our universe, according to Norse mythology, depends on a tree, whose roots are gnawed by a dragon. When the well that feeds the tree dries up and the dragon eventually gnaws through the root, endless winter will follow. Eventually the tree will fall, and the world will catch on fire. The end.

At some point, a happier ending was tacked on, where the world is reborn from the mess that remains after Ragnarok, but we have our doubts about that. We may seem cheerful, but at heart, we are pessimists. That happy ending may have made it easier for some people to sleep at night, thinking that it wasn’t all for nothing, but we know better. We smile because, why not? Either way, the world is going to end.

Some think that 2012 will be the end of the world, as predicted by the Mayans, who must have been almost as pessimistic as the Norse people. It has to do with numbers and calendars. Since these things are pretty arbitrary, I don’t believe it, anymore than I believed that Y2K would cause the world to end at the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999, making it impossible for us to return to school on January 3, so why do any homework over break?

But it’s natural to think about apocalypse. When I was a child, people believed that the atom bomb would destroy us — the Fail-Safe scenario. A few years back, global plague was what we all worried about (Twelve Monkeys; Outbreak). Now it’s global warming, precipitating a new ice age, that people make movies about (The Day After Tomorrow). And zombies (I am Legend).

The people who make these movies have read their mythology. You didn’t think the Mother Tree in Avatar was a new idea, did you? Trees have always been symbolic of life; it makes sense that all life would depend on a really big tree and that in the last days some idiot in a gigantic truck would come and hack it down. In the sixties, environmentalists predicted that pollution would eventually kill all the trees, and that would make the atmosphere vanish, and all life would end. So we all started recycling and drinking herbal tea. The recycling part was a good idea; the herbal tea, not so much.

Making resolutions is a way to control the future, to change the doom and destruction we see ourselves heading towards. Tomorrow we will wake up hopeful, feeling that a new age has begun, and the world won’t end. It probably won’t, even if we don’t all go on diets and give up smoking.

Identity

A little Latin is a dangerous thing. Once you start realizing where words come from, you’ll never be able to utter a sentence again without thinking about what these words ‘really’ mean. I, who have acquired more than a little Latin, am a linguistic terrorist. I blow up entire sentences, leaving verbal debris.

More often, though, I just run around in circles, chasing an elusive insight through the tangled underbrush of meaning.

For example, I started this morning with the word ‘identity.’ We talk about identities being stolen, when what we really mean is numbers have been stolen, particularly that unique identifying string of digits we call a Social Security number. Society is much more secure now that we all have numbers.

Except when they are stolen. If I lose my identity, I am no longer unique. Possessing this, another person can steal other bits of my life — credit card numbers, checking account numbers, passwords.

But ‘uniqueness’ can’t actually be stolen, since what truly makes us all unique is DNA. Unless you’ve been cloned, no one has DNA identical to yours.

Linguistic point of order: No one is more unique than anyone else, or any less unique. That’s because unique is an absolute. You either are, or you’re not.

If we’re all unique, then none of us is really special. More

Writer’s Eyes

The first year I taught Creative Writing, I was frustrated with students who didn’t use dialogue and had no concept of a scene. It didn’t matter how many times I explained the difference between showing and telling, their stories were still mostly telling.

So I created exercises, presented examples, wrote feedback on their stories: more description, use dialogue. They improved a bit. They made their characters talk to each other and described what they were wearing in great detail.

But many of them seemed to lack any idea of what a story ought to be. They were non-readers and reluctant writers who had been placed in my class to fill a hole in their schedules.

Anyone can tell a story. Believing this, I set out to bring out my students’ inner storyteller. Under the pen-name Anonymous, I wrote terrible stories for them to critique. They could tell when a story was bad, even point out what was wrong, but they had no idea how to fix it. In the lab I sat with them and asked them about their stories, praised what was good and made suggestions for improvement.

And I improved my lessons.

Their stories were short, so they wrote Flash Fiction.

Their stories lacked theme, so they wrote fables with morals.

The protagonists of their stories were all the same – beautiful, popular, and incredibly lucky – so they invented unlikeable characters with major problems.

We discussed why a character must have a problem to solve, why it can’t be a foregone conclusion that Kayla wins the scholarship or Trey gets the girl.

The following year I decided the problem was that they didn’t write enough. More

Grades and Economics

Should teachers use grades as incentives?

In school, several things are going on:

Teaching = preparing lessons, conveying information to students, assisting their acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Managing = taking attendance, keeping track of grades, writing kids up for various offenses.

Of the two, I want to say that the teaching is more important, but in reality, my immediate responsibility is to run a safe classroom, keep the kids out of the halls, keep them from fighting or doing other bad things.

There is a hidden side of school that idealistic reform rhetoric doesn’t acknowledge. School has become an economy of points. Students, like the rest of the world, work for rewards — in their case, grades. Teachers shape their behavior by using grades as an incentive. We justify this by telling ourselves that we’re only trying to get them to do what is really good for them. Does it matter how we achieve that?

Part of me says yes, it matters. Education should be about learning, not points. Kids should be curious about the world, themselves, other people, the past, the future.

Another part of me knows that the world doesn’t work that way. It hisses, “Accept reality – kids grub for points, not understanding. Use their greed for grades in ways that provide some benefit.”

In the real (i.e. adult) world, people don’t always do the things that would benefit them most in the long run – eating right, exercising, saving money, reading good books, eating organic food. The rewards for these activities are so distant or require so much effort that many people, though desiring them, don’t change their behavior to make them happen. The immediate reward – the brownie, the couch, the reality show, the video game – is right at hand and provides instant rewards.

Why should kids be any different? More

Why You Need a Diary (Not a Journal)

Last night we were watching “The Man from Earth.” In one scene, the main character asks another character, “What were you doing a year ago today?” His point: just because you can’t remember what you did, doesn’t mean you weren’t there.

I don’t like spoilers, so I won’t share the importance of this remark, but it did make me think, “What was I doing a year ago today?”

The answer to that was easy: my son was married one year ago today. I remember a lot about that day, but I looked up August 14, 2010, in my diary – just to see what I might have forgotten. That day’s entry was sort of sketchy, but what I’d written triggered more memories that I hadn’t written down. I remembered exactly how I felt – stressed, happy, sad, and ready for the reception to begin.

Which is why I keep a diary.

What is the difference between a diary and a journal? Aside from the impression that ‘diary’ sounds more feminine than ‘journal,’ they have different purposes, in my opinion.

A lot of people, including me, keep journals – especially if they write. My journal is a tool: a place to brainstorm, sketch out ideas and vent feelings. I like thinking on paper; not everyone does.

I’ve kept a journal for a long time. When I look at my old entries – ten or more years ago – I always wish I’d spent less time venting and rambling about stuff and instead made more notes about what was actually happening. Angst-y moods will pass. It’s the little things we tend to forget that give shape to our existence – visits, appointments, phone calls, meals, movies, conversations. Details can trigger the memories we didn’t bother to write down.

For the last three years I’ve kept a diary as well as a journal. I write in the journal when I feel like it. I write in my diary several times a day, every day. What I record is quite mundane: I stop at various points during the day, note the time, and summarize what I’ve been doing: 08:06 / working on blog idea re: diaries.

I’m not experiencing any dementia, but at this point there are too many days in my life to remember each and every one of them. Most of the events are not important, but they are my life, and every now and then it’s nice to visit them again. Another bonus: I can settle all those petty arguments about where we ate or what movie we saw months ago; I can recall gifts I’ve given and received, figure out when I last had my hair cut or talked to my mother. No guessing.

A lot of famous people have kept diaries. I don’t believe it’s because they knew they would be famous and everyone would want to read it. It’s just a habit of mind, a way to give meaning and focus to existence.

This is the value of keeping a diary.  More

Minimal Baggage

Minimalism is a worthy idea. I aspire to be minimal. Most of the time I think I am living a minimal, earth-friendly, small-footprint, getting-things-done kind of life.

Until I have to go somewhere. That’s when I realize how much my life revolves around stuff: having stuff, getting more stuff, fitting stuff in a suitcase small enough to fit in the overhead bin.

Getting packed for a lengthy trip makes me realize two things:

1) I can live without most of my stuff for two or three weeks. Ergo: I don’t need all this stuff.

2) There is a lot of small clutter in my life that takes up space in my suitcase. How much time am I spending each day on clutter?

Years ago I flew home at Christmas to see my parents. They lived in New York; I lived in Chicago at the time. In Chicago I was bumped onto a later flight. My two suitcases, already on the first plane, flew ahead of me. I was assured that in New York they would be safe until I arrived.

You already know what happened: when I arrived in New York, one of my suitcases had gone to visit someone else. It was the one we had nicknamed “Gigantor” – except that I think the real Gigantor had wheels, or rocket jets or something. Mine had to be carried. I never found out who carried Gigantor away, but I am sure that they imagined it was full of expensive gifts. The theives must have been disappointed when they cut the lock off: the only thing inside was my entire KMart wardrobe. (I was poor.)

I never got Gigantor back. I got a check from the airline, bought some new stuff, and went on with life.

Now, all these years later, do I remember anything specific that was in that suitcase? No.

Moral: Stuff is replaceable.

Application: Don’t keep stuff around, thinking that you’ll one day need it. You won’t. And even if you do, you’ll go out and buy a new one.

How to Eliminate Clutter and Minimalize Your Stress

I am an organized person. Not a neat-freak, but I dislike clutter. Even so, it accumulates. My living space, however, is fairly spartan. How do I manage this?

My De-cluttering System:  More

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