Snowy egret

While we were biking in Assateague Island’s woods, my friend pointed out an indigo bunting. We also saw lots of willets among the sandpipers and gulls when we got off our bikes and walked a stretch of quiet ocean beach.

My friend and his wife got me more interested in birds. I resurrected my bird apps and bought my first bird book. Hearing and identifying bird songs intrigues me more than identifying birds by sight. I’m glad the apps and the book include snatches of song and other sounds made by many of the more common birds.

We also saw lots of snowy egrets. I didn’t have my camera along, so I’ve included a shot I took earlier this year.

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Biking Assateague

Biking around Assateague Island, some friends and I saw a couple of Delmarva Fox Squirrels. They’re longer and more gray than the gray squirrels that overrun the rest of Virginia. Those gray squirrels are really kind of a brown you’d associate with the plumage of many bird species’ young. The Delmarva squirrels also don’t get all frenetic. It’s like they’re content to live their life on island time.

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Speaking of adjusting for island life, the house in the picture below traded in its chimney for an osprey nest.

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I think I could get used to island life, too.

Not presentable

Thy will be done

Woke up from a dream that caused me to wonder, right off:

Have I done
a single
will

?

Will I have

?
done

° ° °

A white policeman shot an unarmed black man, triggering the 1943 Harlem race riot. Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – sweet, somehow raw essays with seemingly simple rhetorical movements.

The Americans in Baldwin’s Paris, the “little band of bohemians” who share “a total confusion about the nature of experience.” They discount the power of society because they can’t believe “that time [i.e., a society’s powerful history] is real.” Without society they are rootless, unable to find themselves. With society they are trapped, because “society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations.”

Experience, if permitted, leads to untenable associations. Experience will always teach me that I killed the Christ.

Continue reading

Screened porch

We stayed this week in something like a bungalow. Three bedrooms, two set inside the roof without even the headroom dormers would afford. A single bath for the five of us. And the best part Victoria and I didn’t discover until the second day – a screened porch, just outside the kitchen window.

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I’m not sure I lived the past this house suggested. Chincoteague Island’s dignified, modest homes just off the bay reminded me of Hilton Village, a World War I-era planned community that surrounds the Episcopal church we attended when I was a kid. My parents and I leapfrogged Hilton when I was not yet two, moving from a downriver apartment to Brandon Heights, an uptown development with bigger houses, where my siblings were born.

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Everything was not a block from the tidal James – the apartment, the church, the house in Brandon Heights, and the house we moved to in Riverside even farther from downtown Newport News when I was six, the house my parents still live in today. It doesn’t take much to wade in again. The slam of a screen door, or the cry of a gull.

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Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

Soccer and Our Founding Document

3PictureTimHowardGeorgeWashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July. In today’s Washington Post, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, urges Americans to get over “their nagging emphasis on nationality” and to find a team to root for among the remaining eight World Cup countries.

Independence Day, with impeccable timing, is here to help.

But hold that thought. First, let’s take in the biggest news ever for American soccer: this week, the entire country seemed riveted to a soccer match. At its end, Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-to-1 loss to Belgium. This excerpt from a New York Times article is typical of the American media’s euphoria over the way our team played:

Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.

The key to figuring out “where soccer fits into the fabric of America,” of course, has always been figuring out where America fits into the fabric of the world. The key is coming up with an alternative to mere tribalism, to what Jenkins calls our “nagging emphasis on nationality.” To restart that figuring, we might look into why we find ourselves celebrating this loss.

We are celebrating because our goalkeeper, Tim Howard, broke a World Cup record for saves. I’ve seen an Internet meme conflating Tim Howard with George Washington, and for good reason: General Washington was a master of that most defensive of tactics, the retreat. His resilience at our end of the field won us the world’s respect. Howard’s resilience did the same thing.

We are celebrating this loss because, deep down and to the surprise of many – including ourselves – we still care what the rest of the world thinks. We cared when we fought the Revolutionary War. We had a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” back then, to borrow the Declaration of Independence’s famous noun phrase. That respect, in fact, drove us to write the Declaration.

The Declaration’s respect for world opinion isn’t just a throwaway line. Grammatically speaking, the word “respect” is the sole subject of the Declaration’s introduction. If that weren’t enough to raise its profile, “respect” comes at the end of the Declaration’s opening sentence, a periodic sentence that dramatically highlights its point by saving its subject for the end:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Aristotle taught us that every speech or writing has an audience that shapes it. The Declaration’s explicit audience is mankind. We owe the world an explanation, it says. The Declaration, which reached England, France, Italy, and even Poland by the end of 1776, was our first apology tour.

The Declaration doesn’t declare our independence from the world or its opinions. It declares our independence from Britain, but in the process, it declares also our “separate and equal station” with the rest of the nations. And it expressly solicits those nations’ opinions.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence never calls itself that. I think a better name for it would be the Declaration of Interdependence. Independence, after all, is just a necessary stage between dependence and interdependence. This progression from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is true also for highly effective nations. We have a lot to offer other nations, of course, not the least of which are the rights enumerated in the Declaration. But for other nations to benefit from us, we must understand that they still share an “equal station” with us. For other nations to adopt our rights, we need to be willing to respect theirs.

Lincoln knew that other nations would not adopt the Declaration’s abstract principles – equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – through American military might. He countered Stephen Douglas’s version of Manifest Destiny with an understanding, as political scientist Harry V. Jaffa has it in his book Crisis of the House Divided, that America’s “primary action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85). We need to get our house in order because other nations need us.

The reverse is also true. Long after France helped us bottle up Cornwallis at Yorktown, we still need other nations. We don’t need them to form another “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called the nations that supported America’s invasion of Iraq. Instead, we need mankind’s culture, its fellowship, its perspectives. (How obvious this is; how sad to feel the need to write this.) We need its candid opinions, as the Declaration claims. In his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann argues that the foundation for freedom of speech is our need to learn from one another. The same need is the foundation for diplomacy.

The Framers believed in a “candid world” – the final two words in the Declaration’s famous preamble. “Candid” back then didn’t mean “forthcoming” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “free from bias; fair, impartial, just.” Do we still believe in such a world?

Our reaction to this week’s World Cup loss suggests we might. Despite the dismissal of world opinion that has characterized our politics and even our foreign policy this young century, we may have rediscovered a truer understanding of ourselves this week on the pitch. There, for at least ninety minutes, we remembered what it was like to be respected rather than feared.

Today, and hopefully for ages to come, the Declaration of Interdependence can help us more fully adopt that perspective.

And so can the Post, though for a limited time. It put together an assessment of each remaining World Cup team – why you should root for each, and why you shouldn’t. So adopt a team as well as the Declaration’s perspective, and for the remainder of the Cup, celebrate our nation’s interdependence!

The children’s apocalypse

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Last month at Kenyon’s Gund Gallery, Victoria and I moved among Bethany’s hundred-and-forty-odd, glowing and pulsing sculptures. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we found that we were becoming part of the installation. It was ourselves, and not the sculptures, that we began to see and understand.

This secret knowledge hid us from later visitors, at least from those who didn’t stay long enough to discover that the sculptures’ lights weren’t static. The lights pulsed neither in unison nor in disregard for one another. I sat under them to see how they got along, much as I spent long stretches on beds of pine needles as a kid wondering how the trees got along.

I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton this week, particularly his short essay “In Defence of Baby-Worship.” Here’s one excerpt from it; a second I’ve inserted at the end.

The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are, first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

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My video below is only from one static point looking at one part of Bethany’s installation, just as a telescope might stand at one place on earth and train on one sector of sky. To walk among the silent shapes was, for a little while, anyway, to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Bethany’s into craft, and she’s learning how to defend it from some art critics. Separated from the crafts’ beauty and utility, a piece of visual art these days too often seems to expire after delivering up its ironic or recondite message. Craft art, on the other hand, “has a special magic created by a union of the beautiful, the spiritual, the conceptual, and the useful through the conjunction of the visual and the tactile,” according to artist and art critic John Perreault.

Bethany’s work sometimes seems like an abstract celebration of craft and, consequently, of life. In the statement outside her installation, she describes how she worked with the translucent polymer clay to form the shapes:

After kneading and flatting the clay, it is pure improvisation. I follow automatic decisions made at the fingertip level, occasional vague ideas, and the clay itself as it tears, droops, or supports itself in various ways. I have begun to think of it as a dance between my fingers and the clay.

Each of her shapes slowly pulsing in the dark room was a joint creation of the creator and the created, much as we are. Walking among Bethany’s stars or microbes or sea creatures reset my spirit, much as another piece she had made about ten years earlier had. For me, wonder is a fresh improvisation with some common, diaphanous material: we’re all both creators and creatures, both apart and a part, both verse and the keenest lacunae.

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More Chesterton:

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not found — that on which we were born.

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Photos are of Bethany and Warren as children. (I’m still trying to learn how to focus a camera.) The two excerpts from Chesterton’s “In Defence of Baby-Worship,” along with the entire essay and his 1911 book, In Defense of Nonsense, and other Essays, that contains the “Baby-Worship” essay are found here. Bethany’s installation’s web page on the Gund Gallery’s site is here.

The winter in winter

The snow is almost gone, a lot of it eaten by a neighborhood dog but most of it melted by still-below-average temperatures. Winter returned three times in March, each time with a few inches of snow. Sixty-two inches this winter — a lot for Virginia, even for its northernmost corner where we live. Four inches of snow this past Monday, but I rode my bike for an hour and a half Friday. Winter, that symbol of life’s final stages, may be in its own final stage. Some final flurries are expected here tonight, but I might mistake them for moths.

“Death, thou shalt die.” My tenth graders are busy emulating conceits such as John Donne’s by writing their own Metaphysical poetry. Some of their poems examine life’s common paradoxes well. My students’ relative success makes me wonder if there’s room for Metaphysical poetry’s drama, argumentation, idealism, and tough artificiality today. Eliot learned a good deal from these poets. And many modern poets have been (maybe unknowingly) returning to their concision, uneven meter, and irony for decades.

I keep returning to my best posts. WordPress tells me that I’ve revised “Ice, hail, & the reign thereafter” sixty times and “Jesus teaches the compare & contrast essay” sixty-five times. Neither post is even more than two months old. But all that refining is when I do my best writing, maybe because my imaginary reader is the most present with me, threatening to read a flawed version I posted in my haste. I almost wish my feed wouldn’t feed until a post’s fiftieth revision.

But my revising is also a working out of my ideas — well, more of a working in. After fifty drafts, even if it doesn’t seem like it to my reader, my post’s theory gets personal. “Ice” is teaching me that I’m never going to be fulfilled in this life. In fact, my faith teaches me that I wasn’t designed to be. “Compare & contrast” is teaching me that my passivity isn’t often very spiritual. In fact, it’s passive aggression towards the Father I never had.

“Compare & contrast,” then, is teaching me that I’ve buried my talent for too long.

The trick for me is to live in the still-inchoate paradox birthed from these two posts’ relationship.

No two snowflakes are alike, but I’ve seen identical snowflakes. This seeming paradox is easily resolved: if winter can return after three years away, then maybe snowflakes can, too. Maybe I’ll see an old friend tonight.

Or maybe that’s just a conceit. Heraclitus’s famous adage: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m slowly reading twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’ll be winter again before I’m done. Popper thinks Plato hated Heraclitus but nevertheless believed him and wrote The Republic in reaction to him. We must stop change, Plato believed. Poets lead the people astray, Plato said. It all adds up, and I’m with Popper so far: Plato was a brilliant and dangerous reactionary.

One’s politics is based on two things: how one understands the river, and to what extent and by what means others should be made to understand the river the same way.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, understood politics in kaleidoscopic terms: all the fragments — the people, the politicians, the ideas — had to fall into alignment to get things done. To me, poetry readings are a twist of the kaleidoscope. Different people read the same poem different ways, emphasizing and, with their inflections and pacing, seemingly rearranging certain of the poem’s pieces. The resulting patterns are sometimes striking. Voice Alpha recently asked its readers to perform Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.” Nic Sebastian, Voice Alpha’s curator, collected fourteen readings, including my own. Some of them taught me new ways to return to and engage with a very old friend.

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Above: “Broken Stained Glass — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” by Randy Calderone. Used by permission. I took the above Vine video in our neighborhood earlier this March.

Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)