Out of the Echo Chamber and Into the (Red)woods

“Neurotics complain of their illness, but they make the most of it, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a lioness her young.” –Sigmund Freud–

The father of psychoanalysis has some words for us today: Complainypants* complain of [fill-in-the-blank], but they make the most of it really actually love having something to complain about, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a conservative his guns.

(Listen: I have an uncle in Tennessee with a truck bed full of guns. I wouldn’t mess with that.)

So because I don’t want to go up against a lioness or my gun-loving uncle, I’d love to figure out a way for everyone to live well, complain less, and not feel threatened.

The first question to tackle is WHY in God’s grandeur do people “need” something to complain about?

I know I have a tendency to get caught up in the echo chamber of my own voice spewing verbal vomit of the complaint du jour (Mmmm, that sounds good — I’ll have that). And let’s visualize for a moment verbal vomit spewing in an echo chamber.

Ick.

And if you’re more extroverted than I, perhaps you usher other fellow complainypants into your echo chamber. Now we have several people, in an enclosed area, verbal vomiting.

Uh, this is straight unsanitary.

But back to God’s grandeur.

God has created a pretty great earth for us to tinker around on. Just the fact that the sun comes up every morning is pretty awesome. (Do a quick poetry search of the word “aubade” — a poem celebrating the dawning of the day — and you’ll get pages of results.)

When I was a camp counselor years ago (shout out to Redwood Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains), I’d take my little elementary-school darlings on (very easy) hikes through the redwoods. WOW, would they complain. We are literally in the middle of the most magnificent redwoods on a beautifully sunny (but not too hot because it’s Northern California in the mountains) day, breathing in the fresh, crisp air with birds twittering in the background and the 9-year-olds are finding things to complain about. I had to institute a rule: if you complain about one thing, you have to verbalize five positive observations. And you know what? It worked pretty darn well. A potential complain-fest turned into a waterfall of gratitude.

It was a simple exercise in perspective that worked really well for 9-year-olds.

But I’d venture to say it’d work well for us humdrum adults as well. Because even though the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” we somehow continually hone in on the negative. And then talk about it. Maybe even out loud. And maybe even to other people. And before we know it — yep, vomit-covered echo-chamber walls surrounding us. It’s so gross in there, but we’ve acclimated. We don’t notice the vinegary, acidic throw-up smell. We’re not fazed

by the slow crawl

down the wall

of globs

and chunks

and

corn

kernels

and stomach acid.

Imagine being outside of the chamber and opening the door to that! And to see multiple people inside bobbling around? It’s enough to make a person sick.

Why, we might ask, don’t the people inside HOOF IT OUTTA THERE?

Well here’s where things get interesting. And sad.

When we get comfortable in our environment, it’s difficult to make a change — even if the change will benefit us and everyone around us. Just a quick assessment of American culture will tell us that we looooove being comfortable. (I wrote about that here.) And what’s more, when we get used to complaining-as-default, we forget how to communicate in any other way.

Go ahead and think of that person in your life who’s always complaining (maybe it’s you). If you’re in conversation with this person and you’re only allowed to talk about positive topics, would they (you?) have a difficult time coming up with things to say? The following isn’t shocking or new information, but I’ll say what many others through the centuries have said: It’s easy to complain. It takes more effort and creativity and confidence to speak about topics in a positive light.

Just take a minute and transport yourself back to high school, the land of gossip and cliques and lip smackers. What do you and your friends more often than not talk about — how well so-and-so did on her speech . . . or can you buhlieve Jessica posted a pic with Eric when he and Danielle just broke up last Tuesday? If it was the former, congratulations. You were a better person than I in high school.

(I’d like to take a moment and make a general apology about who I was as a person in high school. I wasn’t horrible, but I sure as hell could have been better.)

So far we’ve

  1. gotten comfortable in our environment (acclimated to the vomit pooling at our feet) and
  2. started to forget how else to communicate (complaining is easier, and we’ve become products of our environments).

And now . . . for a delicious dose of delusion!

When our complainypants voice is the only one we hear echoing back at us or we surround ourselves with other complainypants and their chittering voices or we seek out other complainypants to be complainypants together, we start to believe that these negative opinions are the

only

ones

that

exist.

This is a problem. This is where we lose touch with reality. Perception becomes reality. And the perception? It’s stinky and gross.

This is a problem for the delusional Debby’s (not to be confused with Debbie Downer) out there, but it’s also a problem for the positive Polly’s — unless they speak out.

So maybe you’re sitting here reading this post thinking, “I’m actually a pretty positive Polly most of the time.” Great! You have an important job to do: YOU, my friend, have to take down the delusional Debby’s, one Debby at a time.

When you are talking to a complainypants friend, thinking, “I don’t agree with him-her,” it’s time to get to work. You must speak up. You must voice your opinion. If you don’t, your silence will become validation to your complainypants friend that you share their opinion. Yikes.

This is also a problem.

Problem 1: Being delusional.

Problem 2: Perpetuating said delusion.

To recap, we’ve

  1. gotten comfortable,
  2. forgotten how to communicate in healthy ways, and
  3. become delusional.

Wherever you are right now, stand up. What is the thing in your life you’re complaining about? Now take a big step backwards. Think about what preceded your getting to the point of complaining. Why are you at a point in your life that you’re complaining about the thing?

I’m going to venture to say that one reason you’re complaining about the thing is that — in some way —

you care.

So before we trap ourselves in the verbal vomit echo chamber, chunks flying, let’s

take

a

step

back.

Let’s realize that maybe complaining can possibly come from a good place.

Last week at my school was the whirlwind that was Homecoming Week. On Friday, each grade participated in a lip sync competition. This has become quite the big deal at my school, so naturally, whoever didn’t win was going to be mad.

I may have (horrifically) underestimated how angry the seniors would be if they didn’t win.

(They didn’t win.)

One senior girl charged up to me, complaining that the competition was rigged! She complained that the juniors were cocky and shouldn’t have won! She complained that the judges didn’t fill out the rubrics correctly! She complained. I was annoyed and taken aback and frustrated. (As student council co-sponsors, my colleague and I work hard to make homecoming games as fair as they can be, including creating rubrics to be filled out by unbiased judges.)

But as I was talking to my colleague after school that day, we both came to the realization that we’d rather the anger (and subsequent complaining of unfairness) than indifference. She complained . . .

because she cared.

Students bursting with school spirit, charging through a great week of playing games in the hopes of representing their grade well? I respect that.

So can we all take that step back together and assess why it is we’re complaining? Is it because we actually care about something? Perhaps there’s something we can do (action) to make the situation better before we even get to the point of complaining. Perhaps we can change our mindset and focus on the five other positive things going on.

Is someone else complaining to you? Encourage action. Or a shift in perspective. Remind them of the five other positive things going on. But speak up.

And give yourself (and others) some grace. Complaining is so ubiquitous it’s easy to get sucked in. And it may even stem from a good place of caring. So as we do in life every now and then, let’s take a step back (or a step out of the pool of vomit), lift up our head, reassess, and forge ahead as best we can to a life well lived.

*The term “complainypants” comes from a blog my husband and I enjoy: Mr. Money Mustache. Here’s a fun (but rated M for mature) article to check out: “How to Tell if You’re a Complainypants.”

Dead Dogwood Trees and a Happy Birthday to My Husband

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity . . . and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” –William Blake–

A few weekends ago, while I was in the middle of cooking dinner, my seven-year-old comes running into the kitchen telling me that Daddy needed my help outside. (I didn’t go. I was in the middle of pan-frying gnocchi!) A couple minutes later my son comes in again, this time saying that a tree is going to fall on the roof or the car if I don’t come help. I move the pan off the hot burner, put on my flip flops, and head out to see what in the world is going on.

Was it surprising to me to discover my husband holding onto a rope which was tied around a half-cut dying dogwood tree in our front yard? No. At this point in marriage (15 years — read my anniversary post here), I have learned — from the sages at CBS’s Big Brother — to expect the unexpected.

So he tells me that I have two choices: I can hold the rope (I might want gloves) which is holding the tree (very very heavy) or I can use a CHAINSAW AND CUT THROUGH THE REST OF THE TRUNK. Suffice it to say, I chose the former. (Yes, I’ve been married for 15 years. No, I never thought my husband would actually think I’d pick up a chainsaw AND USE IT.)

Wrapping the rope around my waist proved useful, and once I had a firm hold (OF A TREE), my husband walked over to the trunk, stood up on the picnic table next to it, and CHAINSAWED THAT SUCKER. To prevent the tree from falling onto the roof of our house or onto the top of our vehicle, my job was to pull the tree in a different direction.

In a different direction . . . TOWARDS ME.

My husband assured me it would be fine. I’d just need to run (FOR MY LIFE) after I pulled the tree just enough to get it to fall away from the roof and car. What happened next is a bit of a blur, but I do remember his yelling “RUN,” my screaming (bloody murder), and covering my head with my hands and bolting.

If I didn’t bolt, a tree would have literally fallen on top of me.

I did get scragged (new word; made it up) by some small branches on my way out, but all in all, I escaped mostly unscathed.

Success!

I appreciate William Blake, but I might change the quote to “The tree that moves some bolting mad out from under it as it comes crashing to earth . . . ” And even though my husband might seem batsh*t crazy with his ideas, I’m always the one who actually goes batsh*t crazy when I get roped into one of his schemes.

One night, years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, I remember being woken from sleep to a muffled yell: “Jen!” I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, and in half somnambulism, I got out of bed and staggered down the hall toward the source of the yell. I could still hear it, but I had no visual. Into the living room I went. The yelling seemed to be . . . above me. I looked up at the ceiling. Nothing. Then another yell, clearly from the ceiling. This time, I saw movement on the ceiling in the corner. It was a cord, dangling. My husband was in the attic, in the middle of the night, yelling out to his pregnant wife to help him connect some cord to some plug for the TV or stereo or I don’t even know what. I had to drag a chair over to the corner to reach the cord, and I remember thinking “Who does this? And in the middle of the night with a pregnant wife no less?”

My hubs.

I have a lot of (not-fun-at-the-time-but-funny-to-reminisce-about) stories with him. And I will tell you it sure keeps me on my toes.

We do tend to have fun doing these harebrained activities. And then laughing about them later is pretty great, too. Boredom isn’t something that happens all too often with us (though some boredom is important, my friends).

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”

One thing I love about my husband is his perspective on life. Like Blake says, two people can see the same tree but react in two completely different ways. (Husband: Will cut tree. Will pull down. Will succeed. Wife: DEATH.)

I’m going to end this post a little early this week. I’m going to go spend time with my husband and create more (batsh*t crazy) stories with him.

If you know him, wish him a happy birthday tomorrow. I’m beyond grateful to get to spend all of his birthdays and all of mine together. He is the best. Even if he’s nuts.

The Goldfinch and Why You Shouldn’t Be a Teacher

“Vacant faces.” –Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Ah, the ever-popular, two-word fragment. So what are your thoughts when you read this one? Whom do you think it’s describing? Here are some options. Pick one:

  1. children who have lost a parent
  2. students in the classroom
  3. terrorists
  4. the faces of dead bodies

And now we play the “One of These Things is not Like the Other” game. Which is it, friends? The sad thing is that even though option 2 should stand out as being the positive option among the negative, ask most middle or high school students, and it’s most definitely not. And, yes, “vacant faces” is absolutely referencing students in the classroom:

Vacant faces. The classroom was hot and drowsy in the late afternoon, windows open, traffic noises floating up from West End Avenue.”

Theo Decker is in his English class (stab to my heart) reading Walt Whitman (another stab to my heart) when Tartt describes the faces of all the students as “vacant” (and I’ve keeled over and died). Sigh.

So I’m reading The Goldfinch right now, and it’s awesome. I’m about 200 pages in, and I’m fully invested. (I considered putting off writing this post because I wanted to just keep reading.) When I got to this classroom scene, though, I had to pause and do some reflecting.

Because I’m an English teacher.

I’m an English teacher who teaches students in a classroom.

I’m an English teacher who teaches students in the classroom on hot days (I live and teach in Florida) — and sometimes . . . Walt Whitman is involved.

And I LOVE Walt Whitman. In fact, I’ve already referenced him in three of my blog posts (here and here and here). So imagine my chagrin when I read this scene. Chagrin, and . . . sadness.

Call me an idealist, but I don’t think the classroom has to be like Theo’s classroom. I mean, the classroom was described as drowsy. Who is going to learn in a drowsy classroom, let alone enjoy learning! No chance.

Poor Theo (and poor Theo for so many other reasons, and at this point I’m only on page 221 out of 771).

And poor students of those kinds of classrooms. On behalf of all drowsy teachers in all drowsy classrooms, I’m sorry.

I have a sign on the outside of my classroom door that says “Enter With Alacrity.” On the first day of school, my students know that it’s something I make sure I do before I cross over the threshold and into my room. I hope that the students can do it, but they can always count on me to. I can’t guarantee many things in life or in my classroom, but alacrity from me is one thing. I’ll be ready for my students, yes, but I’ll be cheerful, too.

There is no degree for this.

When I realized I wanted to be a teacher, I was already in the classroom. I had gotten a job (yay for a job because that meant being able to sign the contract to rent an apartment — more about that here) at a small private school because I had enough English credits to be able to teach. I certainly had no education degree. (In college, I certainly never even wanted to become a teacher.)

But when I was in the classroom, I became alive in a way I hadn’t felt before. I loved the energy and potential (and even the sarcasm) of teenagers. I loved their quick minds and short attention spans. I saw teaching as so much more than participial phrases and literary reduction worksheets. I may have been called a “teacher,” but I’d say that what I did was closer to comedian-therapist-actress-friend-singer-mime. It was a lot. And I enjoyed it! Teaching energized me (certainly more than my other job at the time — working part time at Pier One Imports and coming home smelling like ginger peach candles).

And here I am still in the classroom, 15 years later — still jumping around yelling things like Shakespeare just told his lady lover that her breath REEKS! Or wildly gesticulating to the preposition jingle. Or getting down on hands and knees to imitate Jack from Lord of the Flies when he puts his face next to the still-warm pig poop.

It is a wild ride in my classroom.

And I take pride in it. I challenge myself as a teacher to never have a boring lesson (split infinitive, LPETA*, and I LIKE IT BECAUSE I LIKE THE WAY IT SOUNDS AND SOUND COUNTS FOR SOMETHING IN WRITING SO THERE AND NOW I’VE WRITTEN A LITTLE RUN-ON RIGHT HERE INSIDE THE PARENTHESES WITHOUT EVEN USING ANY COMMAS). Even if I’m teaching independent and subordinate clauses (stifle your yawns here, people), I will somehow find a way to jump around the room or sing or wildly gesticulate — or get the students to. And while I do take pride in my energy in the classroom among other things, I will never reach that point when I would say “That’s it — there is absolutely nothing I could do better this school year!” (See my post about always being better here. And more about my journey and epiphanies about teaching here.)

So when I read about poor Theo’s drowsy, Whitman-infused classroom, I say to teachers everywhere: FIGHT! Classrooms don’t have to be like that. We can be excited about Whitman (that should be easy), but we can be excited about transitive verbs, too. Or at the very minimum, we can have energy.

And if you can’t, I have some simple advice for you — something you can do right now:

FIND ANOTHER PROFESSION.

I have enough respect for the students to say that. They deserve our best. And if you are a human reading this, you know that teachers are so much more than teachers. I’m reminded of the Taylor Mali poem “What Teachers Make.” It’s a good one, and I’d highly suggest you interrupt your reading of my post to watch him perform it.

Did you watch it yet? Just do it.

(Do it now.)

Now that you are feeling inspired or maybe convicted, I’d like to revisit The Goldfinch. Sixty pages after the doldrums-classroom scene, Theo is with his buddy Hobie learning the differences between quality, one-of-a-kind furniture and machine-produced reproductions:

[Hobie] was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction: by wear that was too even (antiques were always worn asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of hand-planed (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands.”

And while I could write another 1000 words about this beautiful beast of a sentence, I’ll simply leave it at this: Hobie isn’t a teacher in the classroom. He certainly doesn’t have a degree in education. (Side-note here: Please don’t think that I am discrediting teachers who happen to have education degrees. More power to you! But I believe that we are much more than what a diploma says about us.) For Theo, Hobie is the best teacher. The richness of this one sentence is what teaching can be. It’s the kind of experience that’s difficult to fit into one sentence (and certainly not one without some parenthetical elaborations); it’s an experience that feels full but in a satisfying way; it’s an experience that buzzes with energy — all the way to the end.

So if you’re still with me in this (longish) post (it’s nothing compared to the 771 tome that is The Goldfinch), hear me when I say that in whatever you do — whether it’s teaching or blogging or parenting or sitting in a classroom or fill-in-the-blanking-in-whatever-specific-profession-you’re-in — be fully invested. Find the excitement in it. Keep it cool.

And if you teach Whitman? For the love, be excited about it.

*LPETA: Literary Prude English Teachers of America

Sourdough, Love, and Life (And an Oxford Comma, of Course)

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” –Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

So I’m making bread today. And I say “making,” not “baking,” because the actual baking of the bread will happen tomorrow morning. Let’s just say that making bread is a process — for me, a process that normally takes around 24 hours. But about six years ago when I popped that first loaf out of the oven, I was hooked. I’ve been baking sourdough bread just about every weekend since.

And I confess: I really wanted to write about bread today. So I “cheated” and found this quote on Goodreads. I haven’t read the book (yet!!), but it is definitely on my “to-read” list. (Quick update: I FINALLY finished Dance of Thieves for those of you who remember the promise I made on this post.)

Taking a quick look at the quote itself, the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA, for those of you who don’t remember) would be simply appalled. It’s clearly a run-on. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone” –> independent clause. “it has to be made, like bread” –> independent clause. What connects the two? JUST a comma? THE HORROR. Any self-respecting, English-speaking human knows that a comma by itself cannot connect two independent clauses. AND THAT’S NOT EVEN WHERE THE SENTENCE ENDS! Le Guin then goes ahead with a semicolon (LPETA, deep breaths here), and what follows is a fragment. (OK, I’m — proudly — not a part of the LPETA, but this punctuation makes even my English-teacher blood pressure go up just a bit.)

So here’s the deal: Look up Le Guin, and you’ll see that she’s clearly a very intelligent, very prolific author. Her books have extremely high reviews, and she has the kind of readership who reads her books more than once.

Well.

I will say it’s yet another reminder to me as an English teacher to SETTLE DOWN when it comes to following all grammar and punctuation rules ever in existence (more about being a rule-following robot here). And if you’ve ever experienced my correcting your grammar (i.e., if you’ve ever said “I just want to lay down . . .” *shudder*), here we go . . . I’m sorry. But I will say this: in a weird way, if I correct you, it’s like a compliment. It means that I consider you a true friend — one who can laugh or shrug it off and continue putting up with me.

But back to the delicious bread. As I mentioned, it’s quite the long process. I use what’s called sourdough starter (fermented flour and water) as the leavening agent (i.e., what makes the bread RISE). Because I don’t use commercial yeast, the entire process takes longer. My basic timeline typically consists of the following:

  • In the morning, take my starter out of the fridge and “feed” it equal weights of flour and water.
  • When the starter has fermented and bubbled and doubled in size (around midday for me in the heat of a Florida summer in a house that is always quite warm because I married a man who likes to save money and the thermostat is one way he does that), I start putting bread ingredients together: water, starter, white flour, whole wheat flour (lately I’ve been on a spelt kick; 10/10 recommend), salt, and perhaps some seeds or other whole grains if I’m feeling particularly clever.
  • Mix all that together and then let it sit for around 6 hours, stretching it about every hour.
  • So at around 7 pm, let’s say, I dump out the dough onto the counter and form it into balls. Balls on my kitchen counter. It’s a treat. I let the balls sit for about a half an hour.
  • Then I shape the balls according to the proofing container I’ll be using.
  • I put the shaped dough into the proofing basket and the loaf pans, and I let that sit for about another hour.
  • Then I stick the basket and the pans into the fridge to slowly continue proofing until the morning.
  • The next morning, I bake!

Repeat every weekend. Whew! I’ll tell you, it’s certainly not difficult, but there is also definitely a learning curve. I’ve been baking for years now, and I still don’t get super consistent loaves from week to week. I can understand that for some of us, the lack of consistency (especially when doing something we’ve done hundreds of times before) would drive us mad. (Quick pause here: I did the math, and baking an average of three loaves every week for 6 years adds up to 936 loaves. What a great number, by the way — all numbers divisible by 3.)

UPDATE: As I am working on this blog post, my dough is in the I’m-stretching-every-hour stage, and WOW is the dough wet! I keep looking back at the recipe, making sure I weighed everything out correctly — and I did. SO WHO KNOWS.

But that’s life, isn’t it. If we think about it, what we have the most experience doing is living life. And life is most definitely inconsistent. Sometimes plans turn out with wonderful (maybe even delicious) results. I like to think of those times like my loaves that come out with a nice rise, open crumb, and crisp crust. Sometimes plans turn out with awful results. Those times would be my loaves that come out looking like glorified pancakes instead of artisan sourdough.

But here’s the delicious part of it all: even when my loaves come out flat, the bread always tastes good. I have to remind myself of that when I start getting uppity about how my loaves look. (Speaking of which, I am a wee bit nervous today because I do plan on bringing a loaf to school tomorrow to share with the English department. So as I am in the process of making my 937th loaf of bread, I’m nervous. And actually, I think that’s OK.)

And apart from the bread always tasting good, I’m constantly learning and tweaking (tweaking, not twerking). So it’s a win-win for me.

It’s how I try to live my life.

It’s how I try to love.

Like Le Guin says, love has to be made and remade and made new. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of deal. I don’t dump my ingredients into a bread machine to have perfect loaves pop out. I take my time with the dough. I use my hands. I come back to it again and again. I let it rest. I help shape it. And at the end of it all, it’s still going to do what it wants.

So whether you’re baking bread, loving another human, or living life, there’s a lesson here. Do expect a process. Don’t expect consistent results. Do expect a learning curve. Don’t expect to become an expert. Do try your best anyway.

And my hope for you today and always is that even if your bread doesn’t quite come out the way you’d hoped or planned, it still tastes good.

Good bread, good love, and good life to you. (And now I’m up again to stretch my dough.)

Sourdough Bread Resources:

  • Bread Baking for Beginners, by Bonnie Ohara: This one is best for beginners who are OK with starting the learning process by using commercial yeast. The book is in order of easiest to most difficult breads, and it has great step-by-step instructions that anyone can understand. I don’t own this one, but I borrowed it from the library and read it cover to cover like a novel. I ate it up!
  • Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa: This is good for intermediate level to advanced bread-bakers. Every recipe in the book uses sourdough starter, so you’ll want to make some or get your hands on some. I own this book, and I’ve been using it as of late. I love it.
  • Tartine Book No. 3, by Chad Robertson: This one is for the bread foodie, the broodie. I’d recommend it for the more advanced bread baker. I read this one like a novel and felt a genuine understanding and love for sourdough after reading it. It has lots of background information on the history of sourdough along with interesting tid-bits about different types of whole wheat flours. The recipes are more difficult mostly because they call for a higher ratio of wheat flour. I felt kind of snobby reading this one. Which was kind of fun for a crisp minute. I own this one and find myself coming back to it every now and again.
  • Me! I always have sourdough starter to share, and it makes my heart happy when someone actually wants to give sourdough bread baking a try.

Dwight, Dirt, and Dangerous Assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” –Isaac Asimov–

Oh, this is a good one, my friends. As I’m in the midst of starting a new school year (15th one — whoop whoop!), I know I need to take a little look at my own assumptions and possibly do some scrubbing. (Nobody likes dirty windows, am I right?)

I think if we were to sit down and write down allllllll the things we make assumptions about, we’d . . .

have a long list. (Cue “I’ve Got a Little List” from The Mikado.)

And you know what I’ve noticed about dirty windows? They sneak up on us. Before we know it, we’re looking through a layer of film with some smudges and maybe some water spots and definitely (so, so many) little boy fingerprints/handprints/toeprints (how, though) and just plain dirt. Even just a film hinders the light from coming through (and barely are my windows ever covered in “just” a film).

Yes, the dirt sneaks up on us, but I’d venture to say that a dirty window is a bit easier to notice than a stockpile of assumptions inside of our brains. And that’s why I love the quote. Asimov gives us the metaphor as a reminder to check ourselves. We might just be due for a scrub-down.

As a teacher, I find myself making assumptions about a sundry of stuff: best practices, best books to teach, best books to read, how many books to read, best management style, best writing activities, best communication style, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I base these assumptions on articles and books that I read, learning from other colleagues, and –more than anything — experiences I’ve had in the classroom with the students. So for these assumptions — because I’ve based them on reasonable, rational, logical things — I feel justified.

STOP! Go directly to jail.

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. (And if you don’t know that reference, find a friend, and play Monopoly.)

It’s one thing to feel confident as a teacher based on experience and knowledge, but it’s quite another to assume I know best. Even writing the words “I know best” is a little embarrassing. (How could I possibly have the audacity to think I know best??) And yet that belief creeps up on me. And then the pride weasels its way in. And then before I know it I’m walkin’ around like I own the place.

NOT GOOD.

So I try to stay humble. As best I can. And part of that humility has been starting this blog. I’ve wanted to write for a long time now, and pride has kept me from it. I thought that because I was an English teacher, my writing had to be “perfect,” or I’d lose all respect and then people would find out that I’m really not smart at all and then I’d have to leave my job and my home and go find a cave and live in it. (Can you tell I’m around fatalistic teenagers a lot?) I thought that if I started a blog and it wasn’t successful, I’d be ashamed.

I thought.

And it kept me from doing.

And you know what the sticky goop holding that pride together was? Assumptions. How presumptuous of me to assume I knew how (all the) things would be if I started blogging. Those pesky assumptions distorted my view.

Lucky for me, I’ve kept living and learning and growing in confidence to get to where I am today: not afraid to write. And not afraid of people reading what I write.

But I don’t think Asimov’s quote is about blogging. Or teaching.

Or any one thing.

His quote is about life. And wherever we’re at in life, it’s for us.

So when we “scrub” ourselves of assumptions, it’s not just about our jobs or our hobbies or our parenting or our diets or our religious beliefs or our political beliefs.

It’s about it all.

And I think we can all agree here that never making assumptions is very difficult to do. If we’re really being honest with ourselves, never making assumptions is just plain impossible. So what are we to do with this impossibility? I see some options here:

  1. Resign ourselves to the impossibility, make our assumptions, stay close-minded, and condemn anyone who disagrees with us. Engage in Dwight Think.
  2. Be mindful in our humility and ever increasing in our empathy, gracefully accepting the fact that we’ve been gifted with only our one perspective from which to view the world. (Oh, and while we’re at it, we’ll go ahead and be perfect as well.)
  3. Understand and accept that we’re human — and that means seeing the world through the window of our (potentially and more-than-likely fallible) assumptions. But we’ll be aware of that, and we’ll clean the window on a regular basis.

But there might be a reader out there thinking These aren’t the only options. What about science? What about facts, and evidence, and research, and numbers, and proof? And these are valid questions. Mostly. If I drop a book, I assume it’s going to fall.

Because

that’s

how

gravity

works.

But even science doesn’t deal in facts. It deals in observations and theories. Gravity isn’t a fact. It’s a theory. In Mordechai Ben-Ari’s book Just a Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science, he acknowledges that facts are ultimately observations:

We can define a fact as an observation backed up by such a preponderance of evidence that no useful purpose would be served by doubting it.

So while we might need to pump the brakes on our assumptions, it’s still OK (and good!) to believe things based on a “preponderance of evidence.” As Ben-Ari says, there would be no useful purpose in doubting these things.

What we need to try to avoid is Dwight Think and Dwight Speak, believing everything we think to be fact and then stacatto-speaking-all-our-words-as-truth-ordained-by-the-deity-that-is-us. (And if you dare disagree, he very well might lodge a formal complaint against you to Toby, and we all know that Toby sends all the complaints to a special file in New York.) Lucky for us, we don’t even have to imagine the carnival that is two people speaking Dwight Speak; just watch this clip when Jim impersonates Dwight. It’s gold.

So this post goes out to all humans in all professions with all backgrounds. Whether you’re a biology teacher or a poet, a stay-at-home dad-philosopher or a pastor, let’s go back to option 3. Let’s accept our humanness. Let’s accept the tendency we have to assume. But let’s scrub up every now and then.

And then let the light come through.

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

John 8:12

Fragments: A Lesson in Writing and in Life

“And then, the vague flicker of a lightbulb.” –Kate Morton, The Lake House

I’m really enjoying reading this book right now, and when I came across this sentence, I had to stop. I loved it. I love that it’s a fragment — that it defies conventions. I love that the sentence structure itself mimics the thought process of having an idea — the quickness, the fleetingness. I love that it’s its own paragraph. (Here’s a quick aside about the beauty of the English language and the art of writing: never in my life can I recall having written “it’s its.” It was satisfying to write in an odd sort of way.) And if you’ve gotten to know my writing style, you’ll know that I love that it starts with a coordinating conjunction.

The Literary Prude English Teachers of America do not approve this message.

And that’s why I have to write it.

When I became an English teacher fresh out of undergrad, I would occasionally email one of my high school English teachers to chat about lesson plans and ideas (and hopefully to get into my grimy little hands ANYTHING he would give me to help in those first few years). Because I was, at that point, An English Teacher, I was nearly paralyzed even just writing an email to him. What if I left out a comma? What if I didn’t write in complete sentences? THE HORROR. I wanted to communicate in a casual way, yet I found my sentences stilted. I didn’t really sound like me. I was terrified that if I wrote a fragment or broke whatever other fill-in-the-blank Convention of Standard English rule, he’d see right through me. And that I wouldn’t be worthy of being An English Teacher. I opted to write in complete sentences, and to keep the emails short.

There’s a reason it’s called “the writing process”: it’s long; it’s ongoing. It took YEARS before I felt comfortable enough to write emails to my former English teacher and colleagues in my voice as a writer. The Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) had been strangling me, and I had to bring myself back to freshman year P.E., in the sweaty wrestling room where I learned self-defense, to get those prudes off my neck. And when I did, I tasted the glorious fresh air of being a writer with stylistic freedom. (I also realized that my former English teacher and colleagues weren’t going to scoff at me. They’d respect my voice; they’d respect my confidence. And if they didn’t? Well, then, they must have joined the LPETA at some point. And frankly I feel sorry for them. That, or I made a legitimate mistake in my writing. So I learn, (try to) stay gracious, and move on.)

Writing with stylistic freedom is all well and good. But what about standardized tests? What about AP English tests? Wa wa wa.

Listen:

If you can manage to learn the basics — parts of speech, sentence parts, grammar, and punctuation (OK, when I write it all out, it seems like a lot) — you can break the rules. But hear me when I say this:

Know the rules.

To break the rules.

So yes, there’s work involved at the student level. (PAY ATTENTION IN SCHOOL, KIDDIES!) But if you can hang in there in English class and learn the rules, you’ll be able to break them!

AND BREAKING RULES IS FUN!

Not only that, I’ve read many a post about AP English readers coming back from grading 5 gazillion essays from the exams saying that they appreciate a fresh style from the students. It makes sense: why would they want to read stilted formality all stuffed into a five-paragraph marshmallow from 5 gazillion students? GAG ME. Hear this piece of advice from AP reader Conni Shelnut:

. . . both writers and readers get bored when everything is formulaic, lacking some individual pizzazz! I suggest asking them to experiment with different sorts of syntactical devices to help them develop a sense of style.

An Exam Reader’s Advice on Writing

I was lucky enough to attend a session that Conni led, and she encouraged us to encourage our students to write without feeling like the LPETA is lurking over their shoulders, breathing foul, hot breath onto the back of their left ear. (Odd: for whatever reason I first wrote “fowl” instead of “foul.” I don’t know why. But when I caught it, I have to say it gave quite a nice image of old women in turtlenecks breathing out ducks that then waddled onto students’ left shoulders. Writing is fun. Sometimes mess-ups are fun, too.)

And speaking of mess-ups:

It’s now time to talk about life!

I don’t know about you, darling, but it’s simply exhausting being perfect all the time. I’m sure I don’t know how I do it. (But here’s a picture I’ll put on my Instagram story of my messy laundry room just to show you how “real” I am.) Sigh.

I actually don’t know how to be perfect. DUH. Newsflash: no one is perfect, and neither is their writing. (LPETA, I acknowledge the pronoun-antecedent disagreement and will say this: I don’t want to assume “one’s” gender, and “his or her” is awkward and binary and I JUST DON’T LIKE IT.)

And if you didn’t catch it, Instagram influencers aren’t perfect.

Here’s the deal: We don’t live in complete sentences. Our lives are rough drafts (more about that here: Ernest Hemingway and Shitty First Drafts). One day might be a nice, full-bodied compound-complex sentence, but the next? A one-word sentence. A one-word sentence that is its own paragraph. (That’s a day of only folding laundry, for sure. “Folding clothes, / I think of folding you / into my life.”) But just as the next sentence will come in writing, the next day will come in life.

And I think it’s good to acknowledge that not all the sentences we create are great. Not all the days we live are great. But the potential in each is undeniable.

We are the creators of our lives. How cool is that? Each day we get up and get to decide how we’ll live. Will we hit the snooze button again? Will we go to school? To work? Will we follow rules? Break them? Will we have a good attitude even when we want to punch someone in the face? Will we advocate for ourselves? For others? Will we mess up?

I am reminded of the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus.” Though Henley’s situation was probably worse than ours (he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis when he was 12, which led to amputation of one of his legs; and his dad died when he was a teenager), we can still resonate with the perseverance and strength of the human spirit that he so masterfully conveys in his poem. Please take the time to read this (maybe even twice). It’s really good:

Out of the night that covers me, 

Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

      For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

      My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 

      Looms but the Horror of the shade, 

And yet the menace of the years 

      Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 

      How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate, 

      I am the captain of my soul. 

Damn. That’s some good perspective for us right there. In the face of adversity, he chooses strength. And though he might not have strength of body, he has strength of spirit.

So as we continue to create sentences and life (zeugma, check it), let’s be strong, show humility, laugh at ourselves occasionally, and allow for mess-ups. Let’s learn the rules. Let’s break the rules. Let’s find our voice.

And write fragments sometimes.

Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print.

“Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . ‘” –C.S. Lewis–

Isn’t that so true of fellow readers? When I come across people who have read and loved Khaled Hosseini novels, I have to resist the urge to wrap them in a big hug. When I find someone who reads, and the two of us have ongoing conversations about what we’re reading — my oh my, that is friendship at a whole ‘nother level. (As Aladdin would say, “Do you trust me? Then click on the link.” He said that, right?) But seriously, I do believe that there is something special about a friendship that involves book conversations. Especially fiction: we can talk to our friends about reality (ad nauseam) . . . but also about fictional worlds?

Level up.

Having just recently entered the blogging world, I am beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of the reading community here. And I am really excited about it.

Because when it comes to books, I can talk to complete strangers. As a matter of fact, when I am at a bookstore or the library slinking around the New Releases or YA sections, I have this secret hope that someone will pick up a book that I’ve read so that I can tell them how good it is or make recommendations based on it. This will then lead, of course, to more conversation about books and then, of course, to my recommending more books and then, of course, I will have become “the person at the bookstore who recommended that book that changed my life” and I will have achieved immortality.

Level up.

Can I tell you an embarrassing secret? When I go to bookstores, in a matter of minutes, I have to poop. TMI — sorry. I don’t remember exactly where I read about this — maybe the book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal — but when we’re feeling nervous, our brain sends signals to our gastrointestinal tract, causing it basically to have contractions or spasms. But I am the opposite of stressed at a bookstore. I am excited. So I’m thinking that excitement might work similarly. Don’t believe me? Read this article written by the professionals and scientists from the ever-reliable source, Buzzfeed. The more you know.

Level up? Well, maybe if you have constipation issues. (Seriously, though. You’re welcome.)

So if you’ve gotten this far reading my post, let me say this: if — gasp — you don’t read, consider reading for your digestive health. (Or at least browsing in a bookstore. It might work for you. It does for me.)

Aside from digestive health (which is very, very important by the way — did you know that your poop is a valid tool for assessing your health? WebMD Poop Slideshow), you should be reading books because you’re a human. I even wrote a post about it: “Are you a human? Then I have a book recommendation for you.”

Just with food, it’s important to get a variety of books into our diet. While The Literary Prude English Teachers of America would have you believe that you should only read the classics, I’m an English teacher who is telling you to read all kinds of books. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts turtleneck* — the classics. Don’t limit yourself to — *adjusts tie, adjusts American Flag pin* — only non-fiction. We don’t want to trap ourselves inside a bubble. I have a hard time with this. I’d be in — *adjusts my not-figure-flattering, high-waisted shorts* — the realistic/contemporary fiction bubble.

Moving on to the next level, I think it’s worth a conversation to talk about how and what to read. “Read books” is simple and perhaps vague advice. But that’s where we have to start. Reading in general is great, but if the extent of our reading is magazine articles or Instagram captions or ESPN.com, it’s not enough. So we start with something easy and perhaps a subject in our wheelhouse and go from there. (Looking for a recommendation? I listed a few in my book recommendation post.)

So we all have our bubbles. Let’s pop them and see what else is out there. We know that reading fiction increases empathy (go ahead, Google it because internet=truth), and that’s pretty darn cool. We can read about people who are very different from us (people that we might not even want to know in real life) and come to a new (better) understanding of them. We might even go from reading that book to being a better human to people who are different from us.

Level up.

Let’s recap:

  1. Books are good for our digestive health.
  2. Books help make us better human beings.

So far so good! Now I do want to take this conversation one step (level?) further. (Side-note: use “farther” when talking about anything physically measurable; use “further” for everything else.) I want to talk about . . .

Print books.

Now I know a lot of people read on their devices. Or listen to audio-books. And that’s great! But I think we lose something when we continually deny ourselves the physical pleasure of holding a book in our hands and turning the pages. There’s magic in it: you feel the book, you touch the pages, you smell it.

And in my personal experience, being both a human and an English teacher, I have found that I remember what I’ve read better from a print book, and my students have richer discussions when they’re using a print book. That is anecdotal, of course, but I’ll tell you this: I fought hard to get print books back into the hands of my students for the upcoming school year because I’ve seen a difference. I’ve taught students who solely use ebooks, and I’ve taught students who solely use print books. Students don’t get to the same depth of discussion when they read ebooks. Students are hardly ever completely focused on the discussion when they have a screen in front of them. And I’m even talking about my cream-of-the-crop AP Lit seniors. They are human, and they message each other during class. They do. They really do. (If you’re a teacher at an all-iPad school and you don’t think your students are doing fill-in-the-blank things on their iPads other than whatever you happen to be teaching, YOU ARE DELUSIONAL. Same goes for employees sitting in a meeting. It’s a reality. Maybe it’s sad, but it’s the way it is.) I’ll go ahead and confess that I definitely do off-topic activities on my phone or iPad or laptop during meetings. It’s just so easy and convenient (and fun)!

Listen:

We live in a screen-centric world where everything is at our fingertips, notifications come in like a constant drizzle, and multi-tasking is the norm and even exalted. Probably our job requires quite a bit of screen time. Of course we’re going to binge-watch Stranger Things. Even our cars have screens in them. And then our man-made appendage-screen, the phone. For me, sometimes my phone is the ultimate rabbit hole. What do I even do on that silly thing?

Recap: SO MANY SCREENS.

So why not take a break from the screen? Here’s how:

  1. Turn sound off on phone.
  2. Set phone in a room.
  3. Leave said room.
  4. Pick up a book.
  5. Read book.

A print book won’t interrupt you with notifications. A print book won’t beep or buzz at you (well, unless you have some weird interactive kids book which I don’t recommend your having in the house because sometimes at night when all the kids are in bed and you hear it making sounds it’s really scary and then you want to burn it). A print book doesn’t force you to basically stare into the sun (or the light of a screen, that is). A print book provides you with a tactile experience. I could go on.

So here we are! Read books. Not one kind. Mostly print. (Nod to Michael Pollan, one of my idols. Read his book In Defense of Food. It’s a total game-changer.)

Thanks, friend, for reading this post on a screen. Now that you have, toss your phone or iPad or laptop or desktop computer out the window, grab a book, and read. Enjoy the feel of holding the book in your hands, the sound of the pages turning, the smell of the paper and the ink, and the escape that only a book can provide. (I think I have to poop.)

But wait just one more minute . . . If you are a kindred spirit book lover, please introduce yourself and drop a book recommendation in the comments below. I’d love to geek out with you about books. And maybe experience the sentiment C.S. Lewis expresses in his quote: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . “

Happy reading, everyone. And nice to meet you.