Category Archives: popular culture

10 Minute Mini-Lesson: Logic and Lyrics, Rhyme and Rhetoric

Here is an assignment I did with my students today that came to me based on a song I heard while I was at the gym. It was great fun and just what we needed as a brief break. I teach all boys, juniors, and this might not be appropriate for all levels (but the idea of taking something and carving it up for students to put back together would still be valid). I am always interested in logic, inferences, rhetorical skills and reasoning–and this has it all. NEVER let anyone talk you out of having FUN in class (a common temptation because then you aren’t “serious” enough).

I gave the students the following set up: What follows are the lyrics to a song. You need to make 4 lines of either 6 or seven syllables. Each line will begin, “I make a…” and then you will pick one from column A and one from column B. You’ll need to account for rhyme (where should the rhyme go?) and though there are several ways to put this together, there is really only one “best” way.

Column A                                                                          Column B

1. Rich Woman                                                               A. Blush

2. Young Girl                                                                   B. Steal

3. Old Woman                                                                 C. Squeal

4. Good Woman                                                             D. Beg


The clue that I gave them was that three from column A “violate” our expectation of them and one does what is “expected.” You could, of course tell them it is two lines of hexameter (or a 12 syllable and a 13 syllable line that rhyme). But you still have to get things in the correct order. The most common “mistake” my students made was assigning the Rich Woman to Steal. That makes sense of course but does not leave a particularly good answer for the Good Woman. If you gave the Good Woman “blush” then the Old Woman would be left with either “Beg” or “Squeal”–neither of which is as satisfactory as the best way.  Here is the way that George Thorogood (“Bad to the Bone”) frames it and I’ll say a few words about thinking through the “best” organization”

I make a Rich Woman Beg,

I make a Good Woman Steal,

I make an Old Woman Blush

I make a Young Girl Squeal.

Why is this better than, say switching lines 2 and 4 or 1 and 3. You would preserve the rhyme and cadence in either case. But look carefully, this way allows the parallel construction of the old/young to be paired and both the other ways separate them. (This also goes back to flawed way of doing it from above where if the Rich Woman Steals then the Old Woman/Young Woman pairing is not as strong.) In addition, this way builds from the first three lines of the women acting counter to their nature or experience and closing with the one that A) is not a woman but a girl and B) acts as we might expect.

I was so impressed with my students as they wrestled around through some mistakes–all got the rhyme though some began with a couplet–but that wouldn’t really make the best way to sing it, now would it. In any event, we had a great time–and perhaps the unintended benefit was that the rest of the class (Chapter 23 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) was awesome.


Filed under close reading, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, poetry, popular culture, teaching, writing exercise

Not so Great Gatsby? A Dialogue about that Novel and the Canon

Dear Reader,

I invited one of my terrific young colleagues, Paul Clark, to talk about The Great Gatsby. Paul–speaking for many others–regards the novel as an American Masterpiece, I do not. Some of this back and forth reflects an ongoing conversation that Paul and I have about canon formation, what kids need to know, the virtues of teaching off-the-beaten track material and the importance of creating a common culture. I spend much of my time reducing Paul’s arguments to straw men and he humors me. I put Paul’s comments in italics.

We thought we’d structure this dialogue (and we are both committed to dialogue) around Gatsby since the movie just came out, though we could have picked something else.

 Immediately I’m aware of your home court advantage — and I’m a bit nervous that your invitation to dialogue about Gatsby is in line with your comment about Hemingway’s praise of Twain (“All modern American literature comes from … Huckleberry Finn”). Your claim, if I remember correctly, was that Hemingway was setting a bar he knew he could easily surpass, and so perhaps you drag me to wordpress with similar plans. But I arrive undaunted, with a classic on my side and the memory of many of my students who have requested the “alternate ending” — so charmed were they by the title character.
For my opening: I enter the book the way Nick enters the city:
 Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world….
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Gatsby’s magic is the sense of infinite possibility he radiates. Nick falls under his spell, and I think it is only the cold-hearted reader who is able to stay sober and clear. Of course, his dreams aren’t able to come fully to fruition, but there’s something hypnotic about his commitment to them, his belief in his own vision of what life holds for him, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This “romantic readiness,” as Nick calls it, should have been stomped out of him years ago, most certainly by the war if by nothing else. And yet the dreams persist, his foolhardy belief that “the rock of the world [is] founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” Admittedly, this is no way to live, but isn’t there something beautiful about it none-the-less? Isn’t there more than a little Don Quixote in him, a character to which you are more than sympathetic?

Dear Paul,
What a wonderful opening! As you know, you have the much more difficult task in our discussion. You love and admire Gatsby and want to share that with others. I do not like Gatsby and think that it and Catcher in the Rye are the two most overrated novels in American Literature with Huck Finn coming in third.
I have taught Gatsby twice (on the recommendation of a colleague I admire greatly–John McGean) and have not re-read it since then–please forgive me if I get things wrong. I found several things disturbing about the novel. Let’s start with this one: is there a likable character in the novel? An admirable one? Daisy? Myrtle? Tom? Gatsby? George? Jordan? Nick?
It is, of course, in theory possible to write a fine novel with no likable characters or admirable characters (but I am struggling to think of one). Nick’s voice, for a WWI vet and Yale grad, has always seemed to me to be remarkably naive (and at times impenetrable–I have no idea what image I am supposed to get from a city “in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” and I object to seeing a city “always for the first time.” A city could “seem” new each time one enters it but could it be seen for the first time more than once?). While novels have no absolute ethical obligations, I am curious to know what I should learn by watching people who have worshipped themselves and status climbing and money–and finally their own pleasure. You know that when Gatsby was first published reviews were decidedly mixed and the novel was little read until it made it on to so many high school curriculums in the 1950s. During WWII it was handed out free to tens of thousands of soldiers–who having little else to read, read Gatsby. It is my experience that when one has read little, it is easy to have a “favorite” book–when one has read much, few works have no value and few are unassailable masterpieces. Let me answer the question about Don Quixote and pose one to you–Quixote is indeed a character that I admire–a dreamer whose goal is to serve humanity and God (and to become famous doing so). You assert that Gatsby is a “classic,” I wonder on what basis–that lots of people read it (The Da Vinci Code qualifies; that it deals with a particular time period well (perhaps–but wouldn’t that make it a history book more akin to Grapes of Wrath); that it presents a philosophical world view that deserves serious consideration (if so, I’m struggling to figure out what that would be–a Gordon Gecko “greed is good”? a Victorian-era roman a clef looking at the lives of the rich)?


I agree with you about the lack of “likable” characters — by my count there’s only one, Gatsby’s father. It breaks my heart when Mr. Gatz arrives from Minnesota, having learned of his son’s death from the newspaper, and asks, “Where have they got Jimmy?” (And the way he beams with pride when he shows Nick his son’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy with that schedule written inside kills me). Though I always find myself rooting for Gatsby, I do think there’s a bit of trickery involved. This has been replicated by countless romantic comedies — to justify the male or female lead cheating on his/her partner to find his/her true love, the partner is made out to be a horrendous character, a trap that the hero/heroine must escape. It’s a failure to provide a reasonable conflict. So we’re rooting for Gatsby to break up a marriage (that has produced a kid no less!) simply because Tom is so vapid and cruel. And when Nick shouts to Gatsby that he’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” what, really, is he saying?

But I agree with Claire Messud on this topic. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she says, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” For me, Fitzgerald’s characters are alive — even (and especially) Nick, whom I tend to “like” less with each read. Quick to judgement and blind to his own short-comings, cold himself while criticizing others’ lack of care, happy to retreat to his own moral upbringing in the face of a conflict of values, yet unable to fully extricate himself from the situation… Nick is still captivated by Gatsby’s strong romantic vision, the little piece of humanity he believes is worth something. Admirable? Heck no. But I think we can find these qualities in ourselves in our lesser moments.

As for what makes a classic, I’m happy to be generous with the term. Isn’t there a natural selection that happens with stories within a culture? So even if Gatsby began its tremendous run in the 1940s barracks, doesn’t it mean something that it has stuck around decades later, and that so many people carry that character around with them in their heads?

We’ll see if Da Vinci Code (or Twilight or 50 Shades) stands the test of time. We English teachers are reader-for-hire, and as such, we are of service in two ways (I’m stealing a bit from you here): we conserve and pass on the great books from the past that our students wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and we help them make sense of the stories they encounter without our suggestion in their daily lives. (The latter is one of the many reasons I’m teaching Frank Miller’s incredible The Dark Knight Returns right now.) I believe that we do not like stories accidentally — maybe they speak to the best in us, maybe they speak to the worst. And maybe they speak to a quality that is just there, one that we have to figure out what to do with: that yearning for perfection, for the ultimate prize, whatever our personal interpretation of it may be.


I admire your response on several levels–I had forgotten that Mr. Gatz makes an appearance. I’m not sure the obstacles of a Rom-Com are comparable to the destruction of marriages and, ultimately lives, but perhaps they exist on a continuum. Also, I’m particularly intrigued by Claire Messud’s observation–and I am not sure I agree–though it certainly sounds reasonable on its surface. I do not read searching for “friends” but I suppose I read searching for knowledge of self or the world around me, to be entertained (I think it is easy for “professional readers for hire” such as ourselves to dismiss the appetite for joy or entertainment as somehow not worthy or noble enough–an attitude that says if we don’t suffer as we read then we can’t be learning anything. I suspect also that I am looking for a “friend” in the author if not in the characters–or worthwhile companions if not friends–I have to think more about this). Still, I am struck by your sense of what Forster would call “rounded characters.” Perhaps that is part of my “disillusionment” with Gatsby–the characters are round/real–and universally disagreeable, hypocritical, and repellent–so I do not find myself enriched or entertained by them. Your lovely sense that we “conserve” a tradition and pass that along is indeed something I am charmed by–but like anything else (as a Jungian I can’t help but say this), it has a Shadow side. What if the tradition we pass on is profoundly morally or intellectually flawed (like defending slavery or segregation or refusing to acknowledge the truth of Copernicus, etc–and what current things do we debate [global warming or drone strikes] that future generations will settle against us? What if the acclamation of Gatsby is really the accretion of thousands of readers led to believe that the emperor is clothed when, in fact, he isn’t? I’ll conclude with two things: 1) thanks to you I will re-read Gatsby next fall with my habitual generosity of mind; and 2) we’ll have another discussion like this on the blog and attempt to address the importance of creating common culture and teaching students to “make sense of the stories that they encounter” and, I’ll add, to learn to narrate themselves into a fuller, richer, human tapestry.


Filed under books and learning, books that shaped America, education, Great Gatsby, movies, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

Magicians, Strippers, and Sherpas: A Teacher reflects on Roles of a Lifetime at Year’s end

This is a lengthy (2000 words) and uber-nerdy piece on teachers, what else?

Roles of a Lifetime: Magicians, Strippers and Sherpas

 Teachers play numerous roles for students and their families, for colleagues, and for alumni. We don’t play the same role for each student or each colleague. But there are three roles we should embrace, they are: the Magician; the Stripper; and the Sherpa. Sometimes when I do this presentation with a faculty they only want to play one of these roles–or they assume that one of these is a “better” or “more privileged” position or “more desirable.” They are all necessary–and, good Jungian that I am, they all have their shadow side. *There is a description of the “Shadow” at the end of this blog.

Take a look at the questions below, answer them, and then we’ll have some fun with the various roles (when I do this as a workshop I show movie clips of teachers).

1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college.

2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years.

3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.”

4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me.

5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house.

6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic.

7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.”

8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice.

9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students.

What is the value of thinking of teaching as being a Magician, a Stripper, or a Sherpa. Well, we all think by analogy (see my prior post on horror movie monsters and teaching styles at for another example of analogic thinking.

When Aristotle developed the formal rules of logic he gave analogy a place as a method of inference—though he noted that analogies could not be formally demonstrated.

One of the GREAT analogies in all of history is that of the “Body Politic”—used by Aesop in the fable of the belly and the members, Plato in The Republic, and St. Paul in 1st Corinthians. In each case one might emphasize the importance of cooperation, of teamwork, of valuing all of the parts. The “body politic” is deeply ingrained into our language—Head of State, long arm of the law. There is a “shadow” side to the body politic analogy–almost universally the “body politic” argument is used to reinforce a hierarchical order where some members are required to “obey” others. Is the state an organism? Interestingly, the body politic analogy diminished greatly with the rise of democracy—replaced by “social contract”—but came roaring back with Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology, “A primitive society evolves into an industrial nation just as a small, simple form of life becomes a large, more complex organism.” (And it shows up in all sorts of social darwinian thinking and language even now.)

Analogic thinking is important and creative—and revealing! Educational philopopher Parker Palmer tells a story that he often asks workshop groups of faculty to complete the following: “When I am teaching at my best, I am like a ____________” He tells them to do it quickly and go with the first image that arises. He sees himself as a Border collie: all business, keeping the space safe, bringing back strays, keeping out predators, when the grazing ground is depleted he moves the herd to another space where they can be fed. There is a “shadow side” of this: students are sheep—with all the Orwellian and invidious meaning that has—the dumbest of the barnyard animals, mindless, docile, bleating “4 legs good, 2 legs bad.” Palmer knows he must stay on guard against seeing students like this–or they will forever be sheep and never be autonomous.

Try the following as ways to encourage students to think analogically:

Spanking a child to teach obedience is like…

Building low-cost housing for poor people is like…

The effect of American fast food on our health is like…

The personal gain realized by people who have committed questionable or illegal acts and then made money by selling book or movie rights is like…

Cramming for an exam is like…

Keeping wild animals in zoos is like…

Earlier this school year (more self-reference!) I talked about students and teachers as: Vacationers, Business Travelers, Tourists (or Tour guides for faculty), and Pilgrims. In that entry (, I did encourage people to think of Pilgrimage as the highest or best form of journeying. Not so here, all three roles–Magician, Stripper, Sherpa–have their place.

There are many times when a Teacher is a Performer–as both the Magician and the Stripper are. (The Sherpa is a companion.) The Magician practices a “concealing” art designed to inspire awe or wonder, to celebrate mystery, to engage in misdirection, hide the “process” until the “reveal,” and perhaps to shock. The Magician can be particularly appropriate in Introductions, beginnings of classes/units/subjects. An attention-grabbing act–something to inspire curiosity, is always a good opening. When I present at conferences, or do presentations or demonstrations, I often adopt the Persona of the Magician. Another benefit to the Magician–he or she will travel to you. The weaknesses of the Magician: the Magician, not the subject being studied or the student, becomes the object of attention, the “process” is never revealed (like not showing your work or not seeing any drafts of a paper), the performance may be dazzling but not deep, the Magician may adopt a refinement that is distant or alienating (or a combative persona such as Criss Angel or other street Magicians). In its most pathetic incarnation, this is the person who hides behind the teacher’s edition of the book (having access to all the “answers” but concealing them–not letting them out [see Shevek’s physics’ teacher, Sabul, in LeGuin’s brilliant The Dispossessed]).

What of the Stripper? The Stripper practices a “revealing” art designed to inspire desire or passion. The Stripper demands the focussed attention of the audience and often crosses boundaries or taboos. Both Magicians and Strippers feign intimacy with the audience while keeping their distance. (Think of the Magician who invites people on stage, banters with them, makes them prop in the performance, etc–all of it is fake intimacy; the Stripper–well that should be obvious). What are the advantages of the Stripper: to inspire desire, to communicate passion, to convince/seduce, to entertain, to show off, and to subvert. Like the Magician, the Stripper will travel to you. The weakness of the Stripper: the performer IS the object of attention, the Stripper creates hunger or desire but offers no real connection, genuine passion can be debased and become crude or coarse. In its most glaring abuse it often manifests as the attempt to indoctrinate to political or personal views. (Anyone else notice that these two roles–Magician and Stripper–have gender connotations. Most, not all, Magicians are men; most, not all Strippers, are women).

What of the Sherpa? The Sherpa is appropriate for graduate students, for graduated students, for long-term relationships built on genuine intellectual intimacy. The Sherpa is a fellow traveler and, unlike the Magician or Stripper, understands his or her anonymity–everyone remembers Sir Edmund Hillary who climbed Mt. Everest–virtually no one remembers the Sherpa who accompanied him–Tenzing Norgay. But Hillary never forgot Norgay and our great students never forget us and we never forget our great teacher-companions. The role of Sherpa has weaknesses, however. The Sherpa is isolated–he or she lives in the rarefied Nepalese air of biomechanics or the world of string theory or narratology and might never leave his or her own province to “recruit.” You can order a Magician or Stripper–and they will come to you–but you cannot order a Sherpa.

Back to our questions at the beginning. I’d suggest that they reveal the following–but you may have your own ideas:

1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college. The Sherpa is valued as a role or you are conscious you have had a Sherpa in your life.

2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years. The Magician is ascendant here–strong performances that one can go back to (though someone might make the same argument for the Stripper).

3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.” The Magician again–more the focus on the subject than the relationship with the student–again, the Stripper strikes me as a secondary choice.

4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me. The Stripper. Passion (even feigned) is central to the Stripper and is revealed right away.

5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house. The Sherpa cultivates particular relationships (“appropriate relationships” I guess I have to say nowadays–I have utter contempt for those who abuse their POWER and teaching is ALWAYS about POWER relationships). The Sherpa loves to share expertise and is more than willing to help carry the load. My own learning has been shaped and helped by several superb Sherpas–Robert Ducharme and Verlyn Flieger in particular. I hope I have been Sherpa to a few.

6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic. Very often the Stripper–the idea of peeling back the workings of things so that others can see them is prevalent.

7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.” Rarely have I seen the Stripper so powerful as he “undresses” himself to a point where his individuality has become universality–spectacular.

8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice. I recognize that while I am Sherpa for some, others are Sherpas for me.

9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students. The Magician–things are unexpected but eventually make sense. If I do not provide the student with the “wrap up” then I have failed.

All great teaching springs from relationships that need to be cultivated. I hope that in whatever role we are most comfortable: the Magician, the Stripper, or the Sherpa, that we will honor the role we play for our students–and honor those who played those roles for us.

Parker Palmer: “A subject is available for relationship; an object is not.”

*On the “Shadow,” here is a brief aside from a worksheet I give my students to understand Persona, Ego, and Shadow:  “The shadow is the inferior being in ourselves, the one who wants to do all the things we are not allowed to do….” Fordham, 49. The shadow is in the personal unconscious.  The collective aspect of the shadow is expressed as a devil or witch or something similar. “In choosing the word ‘shadow’ to describe these aspects of the unconscious, Jung has more in mind than merely to suggest something dark and vague in outline.  There is, as he points out, no shadow without the sun, and no shadow (in the sense of the personal unconscious) without the light of consciousness.  It is in fact the nature of these things that there should be light and dark, sun and shade.  Superstition holds that the man without a shadow (using the word in the ordinary sense) is the devil himself, [Dracula famously casts no reflection] while we ourselves are cautious with someone who seems ‘too good to be true,’ as if we recognized instinctively that human nature needs the leaven of a little wickedness.” Fordham, 50. from A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, ed. by Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, and Fred Plant.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. “the shadow: ‘the thing a person has no wish to be’ (CW 16.470).  In this simple statement is subsumed the many-sided and repeated references to shadow as the negative side of the personality, the sum of all unpleasant qualities one wants to hide, the inferior, worthless and primitive side of man’s nature, the ‘other person’ in one, one’s own dark side.  Jung was well aware of the reality of evil in human life. Over and over again Jung emphasizes that we all have a shadow, that everything substantial casts a shadow, that the ego stands to shadow as light to shade, that it is the shadow which makes us human.” From Jung himself, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.  If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.  Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications.  But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness.  At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions” (CW 11.131). CW stands for Collected Works of Jung.


Filed under books and learning, close reading, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, magicians, pedagogy, popular culture, sherpas, strippers, teaching, Uncategorized

Sailing in the Archipelago of Knowledge: Wonder, Certainty, and Skepticism

Each year on Academic Awards night I give a brief talk to the assembled students and parents–this year I spoke on the quality of wonder.

Academic Awards Night 2013

I’d like to speak tonight—a night on which we celebrate all kinds of measurable excellence—in praise of the quality of wonder, for which, ironically, there is no measuring rubric. “Wonder,” writes my friend Tom Hibbs, Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, “is a counter to two of the chief vices of our time: inordinate certitude, the confidence that we know everything there is to know, and [radical] skepticism, a surrender of the human spirit that despairs of the very quest for truth.”

So, how does cultivating an attitude of wonder inoculate us against the twin evils of absolute certitude and absolute relativism? It does so because it draws us away from what we are positive about and it gives us hope about what is to come. Wonder means that you are not likely to think of education or intelligence as an accumulation of facts or a set of answers that you can apply anywhere. Wonder pushes you to go outside of your usual limits. And wonder nourishes a passion for meaning; it asks us to connect the things we know to the things we don’t know—and to understand those connections.

Think of the acquiring of knowledge (and eventually wisdom) as sailing in an archipelago—or a series of islands. Each time we get to an island, we own a bit of knowledge, but we get restless, we “wonder” what is out there—and in an act of surpassing bravery we set sail again for the next island—not sure if we will get there or when—but believing that we will. One is never certain where one will end up next and that is where the courage comes in. Can we risk giving up our inherited and adopted opinions? Can we challenge our own ideas? Wonder makes that possible. So we travel and arrive at our new outpost and reflect on how we got here—but soon, for it is in our temperament, we will have to forge on. We check our ship—make sure our ideas are sound, our minds and sails open, and our senses aware. We’ll wonder what’s next and what it will take to get to our next port of call, whether we’ll follow where others have been—though for us it will be brand new and so still a great thing—or whether we’ll go, like members of the Enterprise, where no one has gone before. Can we wonder like Newton, like Clerk Maxwell, like Einstein, like Heisenberg, like Higgs? Each refused the certainty of his own time and each refused to yield to radical skepticism. Can we wonder like Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant; can we wonder with them? Can we wonder with Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Ellison? Can we wonder with Capra, Ford, Eastwood, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Nolan, and Pixar? Can we wonder with King and Chavez, with Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, with the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis? Nothing can stop us wondering except ourselves.

An unreasonable certainty is one of our great enemies. We might be tempted to settle down on our current “island of knowledge” and never go out again—we would shut off our capacity for wonder. We could believe as the early map makers did that when we can no longer see the next land that “here there be dragons”—that is the curse of certainty without wonder. Our other enemy, radical skepticism would have us recognize no lands, no safe harbors, no places to mark or guide ourselves—just endless wandering under a starless, sunless sky—movement without purpose.

Wonder is small-d democratic. It requires no natural ability and anyone can cultivate it. It is free to all in whatever portion, generous or meager, you wish to take—and it is inexhaustible—it cannot be used up.

There is one thing that wonder cannot do—it cannot make you immune to failure, which is why the corollary to wonder is courage. If you wonder, then you will make mistakes–you’ll sail in circles sometimes; your destination will not be obvious, you may land on several islands that DO NOT have water, wood, food or whatever you need before you find the next right one. Certainty and radical skepticism won’t make you immune to failure either but they promise that they will and because of that lie they require no courage, no risk, no vulnerability. Certainty gives you the illusion of immunity to failure because you risk nothing. Bunkered down in your own ideas, talking only to yourself, listening to those with whom you already agree—ah, there is safety in that. Radical skepticism will also give you the illusion of immunity to failure for the same reason—you acknowledge no authority, you question every motive, you doubt every idea or action (except your own)—you stand always on the outside—you never risk anything.

The reason that certainty and radical skepticism lead to the same place is because no motion—a perfect stasis—is the equivalent of all motion with no direction—a perfect kinesis. In the lexicon of physics, life does not exist at zero degrees Kelvin—perfect stasis—any more than it exists in absolute entropy.

One of my heroes, Carl Jung, said “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” All of us here, of whatever age or gender, no matter where we are seated, play both roles—teacher and pupil—over and over in our lives. Let’s vow to use the currency, the coin, of wonder to repay the teachers in our lives. If we do so—they, and we—will be paid in full.


Filed under books and learning, definitions, education, Human Nature, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

Back to my roots: Pulp Teaching and the defense of the middle brow

I am “PulpTeacher”–celebrator of the middle brow, defender of abused genres, scourge of those who venerate and genuflect before “the classics” and who forget Horace’s dictum that art “should delight and instruct.” I can hear the calls from ivory towers everywhere that I should have my poetic license revoked, that I should go back to telling students that they should bow down before the canon, that they should just take my word for it that Shakespeare and Milton, James and Twain, are beyond any questioning of their greatness. (And I do love Shakespeare and Milton–not so much on James and Twain–but I also love James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, and Michael Connelly, Christopher Nolan and Stephen Spielberg, Michael Crichton and Ted Chiang and scores of other allegedly second, third, and fourth-shelf artists).

There is a continuum in art (literature and film included) that should have us take a look at something as otherwise pedestrian as the writing of Jack DuBrul. I have read three of DuBrul’s novels: Havoc, Pandora’s Curse, and Deep Fire Rising. His recurring hero is Philip Mercer, a great geologist. DuBrul is a serious if limited craftsperson and you can learn lots about mining, exploring, geology, and related subjects in reading the novels. DuBrul intends to delight and instruct and for the most part he succeeds. His novels are what we might call “reality-fantasies” like much popular, escapist entertainment. Mercer’s skills are extraordinary and he is actually a throw-back in some ways as he is remarkably noble and gracious with no shadow side that drives him. The plot of each novel can be rendered thusly: Mercer gets called into some geologically-related activity; there is much more to this than meets the eye; there is a beautiful woman who will share the adventure with Mercer; shootouts, violence, hairbreadth escapes will occur; usually there is a particularly physically menacing henchman that Mercer will deal with; and Mercer’s sidekicks will remain stable.

I quote a page-long passage from Havoc below as Mercer’s octogenarian, chain-smoking sidekick and friend, Harry, talks with Mercer about his loss of a woman he actually LOVED. This presents DuBrul with a problem–the woman cannot live because then Mercer would marry and would no longer be “Mercer” (lots of Romantic Hero things to consider here from Robin Hood and Don Quixote to Shane and Josey Wales to Han Solo and James Bond). So DuBrul kills off the lovely Tisa in a previous novel–but this presents another problem–how should Mercer, a man not really given to reflection, respond to this tragedy? The following passage with my intermittent commentary in bold:

“Harry noted the tension creeping into Mercer’s neck and saw the shadow lingering in his storm gray eyes when he turned from the map. ‘You were attracted to her.’ [Yikes! “storm gray eyes,” wow is this clunky]
‘She was attractive,’ Mercer admitted.
‘Quit dodging. That’s not what I asked.’
No matter how much Mercer wanted to avoid the issue, he knew his friend wouldn’t let him. ‘Yes, I was attracted to her.’
‘She’s the first since Tisa and now you feel guilty about it.’
‘Six months is an eternity and it’s the blink of an eye. I can’t tell you how to feel about this but I will tell you that being attracted to another woman is not a bad thing. You do realize that since Tisa died you’ve held yourself to a standard most married men can’t touch. Guys find women attractive every damned day and you can bet that not one of them feels the least bit guilty. But you, you see it as an act of deepest betrayal. This isn’t mourning, Mercer, it’s self-inflicted punishment.
‘What if I can’t help it?’
‘You’ve always found a way in the past.’
‘What do you mean?’
Harry lit another cigarette, gathering his thoughts. ‘You beat yourself up every time something in your life goes wrong. You blame yourself whether it’s your fault or not. Most people don’t take responsibility when they screw up but you do even if you don’t. [This point about Mercer’s feeling of responsibility for everything is made over and over again] This isn’t a character flaw, or maybe it is but not a bad one to have, except each time it costs you a little more to find your center again and come to grips with whatever just happened. It’s been six months since you lost Tisa and you’re no closer to putting her death behind you.’
Mercer’s anger flared. ‘I won’t put her behind me.’
‘Not her, you dope, her death. You haven’t put her death behind you. There’s a distinction and maybe that’s where you’re stuck.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I bet you relive her death every day but don’t relive her life.’ Mercer didn’t deny it so Harry continued. ‘You turned her into the symbol of some perceived failure, a memory where you can unload all the guilt you carry around. You don’t celebrate the short time you were with her and that’s not very fair. To her I mean.’
Mercer was rocked by what Harry had said. In a rush he realized it was all true. Tisa’s memory had become a wound he would reopen just so he could revel in the guilt he was certain he deserved. This wasn’t mourning. It was self-flagellation and was actually a little sick. He’d made her death about him and in doing so reduced her life to something he could blame himself for.” [That last line makes this passage worth reading–it reflects a human truth that many of us, scratch that, ALL of us do sometimes–we make “it” about ourselves and thereby reduce someone else’s life to a prop in our lives]

Big deal, I can almost hear, so the blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while. True–and the blind squirrel gives hope (like the stopped clock) to all of us who stumble along without genius to accompany us.

Next week on the quality of “wonder.”

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Harry Potter and the Call of Philanthropy

Here is a lovely story told to me by the parent of a relatively recent alum. (I’m principal [and teacher] at an all-boys Catholic school.) This alum and his wife had several classmates to dinner and the conversation was about their shared high school experiences. The reminiscing went on so long, and was so effusive, that eventually the alum’s wife questioned why they were all still talking about their high school. One of the guests said with great intensity, “You wouldn’t understand, we went to Hogwarts.”

This is thrilling for me to hear primarily because in this scenario I get to be Dumbledore (well, minus the whole getting killed thing I hope). Of course, the wonderful passion that this grad evoked was that his high school experience was magical (and remember that Hogwarts was not particularly easy, the school had trouble finding and retaining good teachers [Defense of the Dark Arts is one tough position to fill!], and enrolled some people with whom one was close, some people one didn’t know, and even some people one couldn’t stand–it was still magical). I’m guessing that part of the magic comes from the behavior that one adopts from witnessing the dedication, generosity, and excellence of a Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall or Remus Lupin (or even Firenze or Rubeus Hagrid) and the other part comes from the shared experiences at a time when we are still in formation–quidditch matches, labs, library time, meals, or anything that binds us together.

I also wonder if Harry and Ginny, now married and sending their first child to Hogwarts, are philanthropically inclined. There is no mention of a Development Office (or Advancement Office) at Hogwarts but even the magical world seems to need money (hence Gringotts Wizarding Bank) and apparently you cannot just cast a transfiguration spell and create money (would that it were so in Muggle world).

I can just see myself on the phone raising money: “Hi Mr. Potter, I’m calling from Hogwarts to ask you to help with this year’s Annual Fund. Yes, I’m aware that you were almost killed several times at school–un-huh, yes, I agree that some of your teachers were–to be charitable–nuts.” (Here is a funny and TRUE digression from Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, “If a boy can’t have a good teacher, give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don’t just give him a bad, dull teacher. This is where private schools score over state-run schools; they can accommodate a few cultured madmen on the staff without having to offer explanations.”) “Well, anyway we’ve been hoping to improve our facilities–the Divination Room is in need of a substantial upgrade–the dining hall needs work as do several stairwells, we always need more chemicals and we really invest in Magical Creatures; would you like to sponsor one? I see, you got bit by one and chased and scared and nearly incinerated by others. OK, well we’d like to help more students who just can’t afford Hogwarts be able to attend. Right, right, you have your own family; I see your son, James Sirius is already here, and I know that you and your wife both paid tuition during your time here. Still, I was wondering if you could participate in the Annual Fund–it need not be extensive–but the World of Magical Grant Making does ask us for the percentage of alums who participate. Yes, I’m aware that pre-Hogwarts’ education is pricey and that Albertus Severus will be joining us next year and that Lily Luna will be coming along soon. No, I can’t guarantee placement in a particular House–the Sorting Hat does that–no, I can’t just abolish Slytherin either. I can see that you still carry some scars from your experience here–oh, I’m so sorry I do realize that the REAL scar is from infancy and I didn’t mean any offense. In any event, I’m going to be in your part of the world and I’d like to sit down and talk about planned giving with you–no, no, I don’t mean to suggest that you are old or dying. Well, I am happy to drop you a note and brochure by OWL post. Thanks so much for taking my call.”

So, do Harry and Ginny (and Ron and Hermione) donate to Hogwarts? I hope so–I know that they value their experience–and I hope that they would want others to have the opportunity for that kind of experience. Perhaps the truest form of giving back is paying it forward. Generosity and gratitude are the two great virtues we have to be taught (some virtues are more natural than others it seems) and philanthropy is the way we articulate our deepest values. Some people will serve only themselves and give only to themselves. Those of us who realize that we owe others for much of the best in us feel obligated to give–and let’s give thanks for that.


Filed under education, Harry Potter, philanthropy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

Alan Parker’s “Come See the Paradise” complete with ruminations on historical fiction

About a year ago I watched Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise with a brilliant teacher. This past summer I took part in a seminar run by a gifted colleague that introduced us to the history of various immigrant communities to the United States in the 20th century. For my project, I produced the following review of Parker’s too-little-known movie.

Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise: Visualizing History
Visual images have a power over us unmatched by the power of words and even by the power of sounds. In the remembrances of Rodney King after his death two months ago several commentators pointed out that absent the video footage of the beating, King’s complaint against the police for brutality would have been merely words—and King likely another anonymous victim.

Repressive regimes have long regarded visual images as incredibly dangerous and have worked diligently to control them. The Nazis, whose obsessive organization and categorization of all things related to the death camps down to the amounts of Zyklon B to be used in any “extermination” and how many corpses could be burned at one time were equally fanatical about keeping photographs of the camps from becoming public. It is believed that only two sets of photographs from camp workers exist.

Visual images can take the form of documentary work and of fictional representations—and there can be a blurred line between these two. One thinks of Matthew Brady “posing” corpses for photographs during the Civil War to make his point more clearly or the work of Dorothea Lange and her relationship to her subjects, the staging of certain iconic shots. In documentary work there are countless ethical questions raised by even taking pictures—by being an “observer” when, critics often maintain, you should be a participant. The relationship between documentary and fictional representations raises both moral and epistemological questions; and perhaps nowhere are those questions more vexed than in a work of historical fiction.

In 1988, British filmmaker Alan Parker released Mississippi Burning, a retelling of the disappearance and death in 1964 of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner that drew outrage from numerous vantage points. Parker had already had some commercial success—and engendered some mild controversy—with Midnight Express (1978) and Angel Heart (1987)(based on the scariest novel I’ve ever read, William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel)

Parker was criticized pointedly for two choices he made. Instead of focusing on the three young civil rights workers, Parker chose to focus on two FBI agents as they searched for the missing workers. Parker defended that choice and he makes a plausible argument. The episode, though it should be extremely well-known, is not. And, by putting the audience with the FBI we follow the investigation and “learn” as they do not only of the crime but of the effects of Jim Crow and the kind of prejudice that ruled Mississippi at the time. The other choice that drew such criticism was to “create” a black FBI field agent who—in a remarkably tense scene, describes the castration of a black man with a heated razor blade and a paper cup. His threat to perform the same “operation” on one of the people who participated in the crime helps the FBI break the case. Problems abound, to point out only two: there were no black FBI field agents at the time because the FBI was a deeply racist organization. In addition, this fiction makes the FBI out to be criminals whose justification is that they are serving a greater good, a position voiced most thoroughly by the character played by Gene Hackman.

The actual facts of the case are now well-established. The three civil rights workers were almost certainly killed on the night of June 21 or early in the morning of June 22 following their release from the county jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, working with the Klan, ran the workers of f the road. They were beaten and shot and then buried in an earthen dam. On July 10, the FBI opened a Mississippi office of the FBI and by July 31 they had discovered the probable location of the bodies when someone claimed a $30,000 reward. On August 3 a search warrant was obtained and the bodies were discovered on August 4.

Parker was stung by the criticism of Mississippi Burning and when he announced that his next project was to concern the internment of Japanese American during WWII he faced a barrage of criticism before he got to production. He has said that he is drawn to “the unfinished business of racism in the United States” (DVD commentary). To ameliorate concerns, Parker met with hundreds of survivors; he studied photographs from the time; he scrupulously constructed sets, used background music, and significantly used only Japanese and Japanese American actors for their parts.

     Come See the Paradise is the result and while not a wholly satisfactory film, it has many things to commend it—particularly the visual rendering of an event that the United States government sought to diminish or suppress by controlling visual images. Parker has said that he wanted to write a love story after Mississippi Burning and that at the same time he was haunted by a picture taken by Dorothea Lange of a Japanese grandfather and his two grandsons that he had in his office (“Director’s Commentary,” Come See the Paradise). These two sources exist in an uneasy tension in Come See the Paradise.

The movie is told in a frame where a Japanese American mother is telling her daughter about her relationship to her husband and the daughter’s father. They are walking to the train station to meet him. The scene shifts Brooklyn in 1936 when James McGurn, an Irish American labor activist gets involved in the burning of a movie theater that has hired non-union projectionists. They are supposed to only set smoke bombs but one team intentionally sets a fire and it nearly causes several deaths. McGurn is seen going back to rescue people and identified as an agitator. His local boss gives him money and tells him that he needs to get lost and get a new identity. With a brother in Los Angeles, he changes his name to Jack McGinn and heads to LA. Parker is often heavy-handed in his expository scenes and the scene with Jack (Dennis Quaid) and his brother (Colm Meany) is a primer on labor relations coming out of the depression. A series of events leads him to take the job as a projectionist (non-union!) at a theater in Little Tokyo.

Before Jack gets the job as projectionist we are introduced to the Kawamura family—Mr. and Mrs. are Issei but their six children: Lily, Charlie, Harry, Dulci, Joyce, and Frankie, are Nisei. When we meet the Kawamura’s they are at a Japanese social club where the father gambles and Harry, the oldest son, entertains—his signature song is the catchy “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.” The night we are introduced to the Kawamura’s there is a play being put on at the community center—Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—in Japanese. Parker filmed the whole thing and then left all of it save the curtain call on the cutting room floor.

The very “Americanness” of the Japanese comes through in all of their interests. Harry is getting small roles in Hollywood—ironically as a Chinese house-boy—and the children from older to younger understand and speak less Japanese until Frankie, the youngest, neither speaks nor understands the language of his parents. Jack and Charlie become friends—going to lunch together and playing baseball together. Charlie introduces Jack to his sister, Lily (the beautiful Tamlyn Tomida), and Jack is love-struck.

The burgeoning affair between Jack and Lily allows Parker to have Lily assert herself as a woman not merely be a Japanese daughter. Parker is conscious that intermarriage was rare though not unheard of in the 30s and he acknowledges as much in his commentary. There is substantial tension in the family as the father has tried to marry Lily off to a much older cannery owner—Lily fights back mightily even though her brother Charlie tells her it will clear the family debts (the father has a gambling problem) and she should marry to help the family. Jack and Lily are forced to move to Seattle, Washington to get married due to the anti-miscegenation laws in California. Their life there, with a child—Mini—and a Jack’s job in a cannery that treats its workers brutally is wonderfully evoked. Lily reminds Jack that he cannot think only for himself but despite her warnings he is caught up in a “work action,” kicked by a police horse breaking his arm and he is arrested. Lily takes Mini and heads back to California to be with her estranged family. It is 1941.

Jack, on parole, goes to rekindle his life with Lily and Mini. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Mr. Kawamura is taken away for questioning. At Christmas of 1941, Jack takes Mini to see Santa Claus and she is kicked out of the store for being a “Jap.” Jack’s “loyalty” to America is questioned by those who know he is married to a Nisei. After Executive Order 9066 is enacted on February 6, 1942, the Kawamura’s have only a few days to get their belongings together—only what they could carry. In an arresting scene at the yard sale Charlie sits spinning a basketball in his hands watching people pick over the family’s goods. Inside Harry, Lily, and the others break all of the albums they have collected and they destroy their piano—in response to the terribly insulting offer of $10. Mrs. Kawamura sits upstairs in the house burning letters, pictures, report cards and mementos. She explains to Lily that she doesn’t want strangers going through their things but that she is completely conscious that she is cutting them off from their history. Lily promises that she’ll remember.

The evacuation to the horse farms which house the 120,000 displaced people while the 10 “camps” were being built, up is depicted with extraordinary fidelity to the few photographs that exist. As the family is being relocated to Manzanar—perhaps the most famous of the camps—Jack is enlisting in the army. Scenes of his basic training where he is expected to bayonet straw dummies with Japanese faces are intercut with the Kawamura family’s installation in Manzanar. Charlie’s bag is searched and his camera is taken from him. One cannot help but think that this is a commentary on the lack of photographic evidence of the camps. Even though the government would hire Dorothea Lange to photograph Manzanar they required her to avoid shots that would show the barbed wire or guard towers in the back ground. In fact, her film was eventually taken from her and the photographs that have been released have been heavily edited.

In an act of historical fidelity, Parker depicts a group of Japanese American musicians playing to welcome the “prisoners.” For those who have studied the induction to Auschwitz the whole scene with the “prisoners” marked with their tags parading past the musicians playing to make them docile and comfortable is exceptionally disturbing—and accurate.

Life in Manzanar is extraordinary–the barracks at Manzanar contain pictures of Roosevelt, a school where the children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, baseball and basketball games, a structure for the making of camouflage nets (Lily gets paid $14.00 a week to do this), and a factory where the inmates work for the government that has betrayed them. They have “Miss Nisei” night and sing Andrews’ Sisters’ songs at gatherings. Every one of these activities is painstakingly rendered and is the result of hundreds of interviews and substantial research. That we “see” so many of the prisoners participate in these activities has an effect on the viewer that mere reading cannot replicate. Parker drew all of these images from diaries, histories, sketches, and interviews.

In camp, Mr. Kawamura—now a profoundly broken man—is returned to the family. He is suspected by the rebellious inmates (mostly kitchen workers) of having informed to the FBI—though he did not. Charlie and Harry battle for the soul of the family. Charlie participates in the uprising that leads to the Manzanar riot. Harry recommends that they answer the infamous survey questions 27 and 28 regarding loyalty with “yes.” Charlie becomes one of the “no-no” boys (those who answered “no” to questions 27 and 28) and is patriated (“repatriated” seems wrong as he is NOT Japanese) to Japan and Harry joins the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the most highly decorated Army division in history. Jack goes AWOL to see his family and arrives at the end of the riots. Parker’s sense of the dramatic and ironic is on display when Jack sits with the extremely ill Mr. Kawamura treating him as a father while Charlie is sent to Japan and Harry is in the army.
Mr. Kawamura dies. Harry is killed in combat. Jack is imprisoned for his involvement in the long-ago Brooklyn theater fire. The family never hears from Charlie. Dulci returns from a work camp pregnant. In a stunning series of events the Kawamura family is nearly broken—its male members are all gone except for Frankie who is so young he has the least connection to his own culture. When the Endo case is decided in late 1944 and the camp is eventually closed, the Kawamura’s are sent to Idaho. They will listen in horror to the radio reports of the bombing of Hiroshima in August of 1945.

The movie closes with Jack’s return from prison and his welcome on the train station platform by Lily and Mini. Finally, despite the destruction of family, geography, culture, and principles Parker seems determined to end on a hopeful note.

As a work of art Come See the Paradise is almost certainly too long—and not long enough. Its remarkable ambition guarantees that not enough time can be spent on any single story and yet its determination to tell a story that is still too-little known with as much fidelity to history as possible is a mark of distinction. Parker’s sense that a whole sweep of history can be told—shown—through an exhaustive examination of the “real” and “true” experiences of a fictional family is a claim that demands our attention.

                                                           Works Consulted
Akemi Kikumura. Promises Kept: The Life of an Issei Man. Novato, CA: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1991
Akemi Kikumura. Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman. Novato, CA: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1981.
Armstrong, Douglas. “Wartime Japanese American Injustice Plumbed in Come See the Paradise. Milwaukee Journal. Feb 03, 1991 E. 10.
Asian American Encyclopedia, ed. Franklin Ng. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Carnes, Mark C. “Shooting Down the Past: Historians vs Hollywood.” Cineaste 2004: 45-49.
“Come See the Paradise,” Wikipedia. 7/21/2012.
Dictionary of American History Revised Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997
Drummond, William. Report on NPR about Come See the Paradise. Proquest.
Great Events: The Twentieth Century 1939-1947. Englewood Cliffs: SalemPress, xxxx.
Mathews, Jack. “Alan Parker’s Sentimental Paradise a Hit in Cannes Festival: After Mississippi, the English Director Softens His Approach in Dealing with the U.S. Internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.” Los Angeles Times May 15, 1990.
Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. Ed. Lawson Fusao Inada. Berkeley: Heyday, 2000.
Parker, Alan. Come See the Paradise. DVD. 1990.
Sone, Monica. Nisei Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1953.
Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.
Zinn, Howard and Anthony Arnove. Voices of a People’s History of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004.


Filed under Alan Parker, books and learning, books that shaped America, Come See the Paradise, Dorothea Lange, Japanese internment, japanese literature, Mississippi Burning, movies, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized