30 January 2011

I am officially tired of hearing about the Tiger Mom phenomenon. If our students’ test scores in America were not so dismal, relatively speaking, no one would be paying attention. Everyone is responding out of fear—that we’re being left behind, that we won’t have the tools to compete, that the tiger children will scoop up all the jobs. Some of this fear may be well founded. No one knows what will become of the children who mark A instead of C on standardized exams that arrive too frequently and without relevance to students’ lives. Students hate the tests. Most teachers see them as obstacles to the true teaching that could be happening and the learning that can’t always be measured by an exam created by some distant company that is being rewarded quite nicely financially, thank you very much. Tests are tests. They’re snapshots. They don’t tell the whole story. And the fear will merely fuel the race to create more tests, purchased by administrators with business degrees or by former educators who have been out of the classroom too long and have forgotten that progress can’t always be squeezed into a standard deviation.

To be clear, I don’t support tiger parenting: the relentless pursuit to land at the top with little regard to reflection or playfulness. I also don’t support the other extreme, the so-called helicopter parents who protect and build self-esteem at all costs, which turns out to be flimsy because the esteem is unearned. Both extremes seem, to me, to emphasize outcomes over process, success over joy, and winning over understanding. 
I can’t stop thinking about the shooting in Tucson, which lasted all of fifteen seconds: the lives cut short, the heroism, the nation’s reaction, which shifted slowly from shock to grief to political screaming and finally to reason. Not that I listen much to the screamers and criers on cable news and radio and wherever else they spew their venom, but it seems, at least to me, that the more reasoned responses finally drowned out the noise, which makes me grateful for good old newspapers and magazines (and fretful about their demise). I read two balanced reports about art and violence in the Arts section of the Chicago Tribune by Chris Jones and Michael Phillips (1.16.11). Jones accuses liberals of using the same logic to condemn incendiary websites as conservatives once used to condemn movies such as A Clockwork Orange.  And Time writer David von Drehle, in one of the most moving articles I read (1.24.11), highlights the dangerous nature of the political screaming, then pits that against what most normal Americans do—they listen, they help, they treat each other civilly.

Today I read a report in the New York Times about the actions of Judge John Roll. After seeing a man shot that morning, he shielded the poor man with his own body. The man will be released from the hospital within days. Judge Roll gave his life to make that happen.
I’m especially troubled by the casual use of the word “evil” during such tragedies. I’m not even sure what evil means. And little concrete good seems to follow the usage. Apparently, the shooter was a relatively normal kid in school before he started unraveling. Rather than labeling his unfortunate deterioration evil, I think it might be more useful to explore the treatment for the mentally ill and to examine why a person who’d been kicked out of school for behavior probably constituting schizophrenia is allowed to purchase a gun at a local Wal-Mart.
I’m still angry and bitter over this senseless killing. But when darkness descends like this, we need to work together to find solutions and turn away from the self-serving screaming.
Check this out:


It’s a clip from WTTW, the PBS TV station in Chicago, about the photographer I mentioned a while back, Vivian Maier.  

8 January 2011

Took me a few months to realize the focus of this blog, what would bring me back time and again, which I haven’t given much conscious thought to, but as I look back at many of my entries, I think I know. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to bore anyone, including myself, by writing about my daily life. And I knew the general theme would be about writing and books and publishing. But there’s only so much one can say about these things in the general sense. But I made a simple realization this week. Since I read so much, I can simply respond to the things I’m reading. Problem now is that I have too much to write about.

Let’s begin, shall we. I’m a third of the way through Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, the fascinating story about the great migration of blacks from the South to the northern cities of the United States during the 1900s. As she documents the brutality and degradation blacks had to endure, you wonder why any blacks stayed behind in Louisiana and Mississippi and Florida and elsewhere. She mentions early on that she will use colored or black or African-American, respectively, as she describes the period in which these identifiers were commonly used. It’s interesting to note that she omits mention of the other identifier that comes to mind, and I think I understand why. She’s referring to public discourse used during each time period, not necessarily the language used by people “privately.”

This week, some publisher announced plans to introduce a new version of Huck Finn, which would substitute “slave” for every instance of the n-word. And there are 219 instances. The fact that I feel compelled to avoid the actual identifier makes me pause and smooth down the hackles raised at the back of my neck when I hear of someone messing with the contents of any book. If I feel this compulsion to avoid the word, maybe there’s a need for the change. Maybe the butchering is not as monumental as it seems. Maybe some good will come of it. I’m not saying I believe any of this. I just want to step back and at least peek at the rationale for the edit.

It is admittedly an ugly word. When I taught the book and read passages aloud to classes, I didn’t skip over the word, but sometimes I avoided the passages in question entirely, depending on the maturity of the class. But we didn’t ignore the word; students still had to read the book on their own, and we did have lively discussions on the power of language.

If the word were softened by “slave,” maybe more people would read the book. That’s one of the claims at least. Twain used to say that a classic is defined as a book that is praised but not read, so I do wonder what he might say. Huck Finn, though, is read. In schools at least. I’m doubtful that this edit would garner more non-school readers. If people are avoiding the book because of a single word, I’m doubly doubtful they would understand the point of the book anyway.

It is true that some teachers are not allowed to teach the book because of the language. If this edit changes that, I suppose that might be beneficial. I can imagine an especially lively discussion that first year after the approval of the book: “We can finally read this book, boys and girls. Let’s examine why we never could...” Whether the n-word is in there or not, teachers will have some of the best discussions on language they’ve every had. Which is ironic because this is the very thing objectors don’t want. And students are mentally going to insert the intended word each time! Don’t you love irony?

My biggest objection to editing any book is violating the artistic integrity of the work. In the pre-Civil War South, the primary setting of the book, this is the way people spoke. Young Huck would have spoken this way. He would not have understood the hurt caused by his use of what to him was everyday language. Ah, but as the story progresses, he does come to understand. His words and actions do hurt his black friend, Jim, and his personal insights against a backdrop of brutality become quite moving. What bothers me is that Twain himself violates the integrity of his own work. It took him many years to write the novel, and I suspect he forgot or didn’t know what he’d accomplished. The final third becomes one long, slapstick adventure in which Huck reverts back to his prejudiced ways, as if he hasn’t learned a thing. I suppose the intended message could be a cynical one, that bigotry and cruelty will never be wiped out, but to use the character Huck to convey this cynicism seems unrealistic and inauthentic and negates the power of the previous chapters.

If I could edit Huck Finn—and I hope I’ve made clear I have no interest in such business—but if I could convince Twain to edit this great book full of poignant, moving passages on love and friendship and the beauty of nature—I’d tell him to excise the interminable passages on the Duke and Dauphin. Then I’d ask him if his cynicism at the end is intentional. And if cynicism is the taste he wants to leave us with, I’d plead with him to leave poor Huck alone. Achieve cynicism through another character. Or better yet, allow Huck the insight, let him be cynical, not the oblivious fool he becomes in the end. As a cynic, Huck can continue to defy civilization, and we can join him on his journey and laugh with him at the people who continue to miss the point of the book. 
6 January 2011

Here’s a favorite question I ask my film classes: Which would you rather do? Make a great movie that is virtually ignored at the box office? Or make a bad movie that becomes a blockbuster? Most students pick great movie, which is encouraging. The ones who opt for the money justify their decision, usually arguing that the money will allow them the freedom to make a good movie later. Sell your soul and then buy it back. Not sure the deal works that way.

Why I’m reminded of this. Last Sunday, the Chicago Sun-Times featured photographs by Vivian Maier, a recluse who died recently and whose estate was sold at auction. The buyer found thousands of photographs, some of them self-portraits, most focusing on Chicago street life. From looking at the photographs, I know how Maier would have answered my question. The pictures are heartbreaking in their intimacy and isolation, capturing subjects in the middle of living their lives, with halted breath, surprised, yet standing there as if they’d been waiting for just this moment to be preserved. The pictures are heartbreaking also because Maier never got recognition for them. And maybe she didn’t want that. But to think the photos were almost destroyed is sinful.

The article mentions that a book and documentary are forthcoming. If you’d like to take a look, the buyer and now archivist of the collection has created a website: vivianmaier.com.
1 January 2011

Does anyone make resolutions anymore? Seems so old-fashioned and quaint. School begins again on Monday, and I was thinking of asking students about their resolutions, but I suspect they would eye me strangely, which is not that different than most days.

My resolutions? Quaint for me as well. I do recall giving this some thought at one time and soon forgetting each resolution a week or two later: to exercise more, to write more, always more, as if there’s not enough of each of us at any given moment. Maybe this year I should do less. Less judging, less complaining (especially behind the wheel), less worrying.  But this is merely an inverse version of more. Maybe I can be more—no, not more—maybe I can be merely satisfied with what is.

I don’t know if writers can survive such a resolution. To be satisfied? There’s always a striving to improve the sentence. Every sentence. Not one comes easy. And to be satisfied with rejection wouldn’t work either. Seems that success in writing is often more about persistence than talent, depending on how you define success. Or, in other words, doing more.

I just finished George Carlin’s last book, which centers on his striving to become famous. He finds this ironic because he sees hypocrisy and greed and callousness, and to be successful, on his terms, means he will need to be embraced by the very people he despises. I suppose he came to terms with this because his success was so overwhelming. To him, they became one amorphous laugh, roaring their approval.

On this New Year’s Day, I vow not to make a single resolution. I don’t have time to think of one. I have too much to do.