Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.

Administrivia

• When I began blogging, I hoped some readers would be moved to comment on occasion. And that overtime, a community of readers would bubble up. I dare say enough time has passed for me to say, not even close. Increasingly, some readers reply via the social media of their choosing. For example, Eldest Daughter wrote an epic reply to my last post on my Facebook page. It was a passionate, insightful, educational response. In my experience, most readers will not comment and those that do will choose different forums. Meaning, the small sum of comments do not equal more than the individual parts.

• Update 1. Education Story of the Year—Jon Kitna Returns to Lincoln High School. Three years ago, when he was hired, Kitna talked about making Lincoln High a state power in five years and a national power in ten. Then a large high school from the land of Friday night lights called. And he said if they’d pay his assistants real money he’d make the move. They said sure, no problem, while retaining their current assistants. Then Kitna said God was calling him to make the move. I’m confused about how the Texas high school is going to pay 10+ assistants’ salaries, not just stipends; and about how Kitna is rationalizing his decision. Kitna’s son, who threw 55 TD passes this year as a junior, is making the move with him. I pity the quarterback in waiting.

• Update 2. Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone. God called me to buy I bought an iPhone 6+ a few months ago. I dig it, but have to find some other point(s) of distinction to fill the void. Maybe I’ll be the last tat-free guy.

• Shifting gears from the blog to random points of administrivia. Running. In 2014, I kept my 17 year “1,000 miles plus a year” streak alive. Barely. I was injured for three months and so it came down to the wire. Made it by 1%, 1,010 miles.

• Tennis. I love watching the Australian Open. Always so sunny. Male and female tennis players today are so powerful and athletic.The men are serving over 130mph. The greats from the 70’s and 80’s—Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Borg, etc.—would be lucky to make it to the quarters.

• College bball. If someone gives me a coaching job next year and I win 25 games a year, like Duke University’s Coach K, I’ll also win 1,000 games. . . when I turn 93.

• American professional football. The bandwagon has officially left the station. . . the Good Wife will be rockin’ a Seattle Seahawks t-shirt at the local Catholic middle school this week.

• I support Marshawn Lynch’s right to grab his crotch, ignore the press, and run over the New England Pats next Sunday night.

• Song of the night. . . Troubled Man by John Mellencamp.

• Workout of the weekend. The Sunday pre-dusk 10 mile bike ride with the Good Wife. Didn’t do much for my physical fitness, but did wonders for our relational fitness. #probablymoreimportant

• Movies. Selma, yes. Force Majeure, yes. The Interview, hell no. American Sniper, no thank you.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Peace,

Ron

My Teaching Best—What’s It Look Like?

Last Thursday around noon thirty, teaching the first year writing seminar on the second floor of the Admin Building, I was flat out teaching my arse off. Had you been visiting this is what you would have seen.

Sixteen* first year students and I sit around computer tables arranged in a large rectangle. Eight of them are presenting papers they’ve just written comparing and contrasting ancient Greek notions of love with those most often depicted in Western popular culture. More specifically, they have to explain whether they agree or disagree with Roman Krzarnic when he writes:

“The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.”

After the fourth presentation, I pause to ask if anyone has questions or comments for the first four authors. I wait. Eventually Lauren starts things rolling:

L: So Christie you think God has created one person, a special soulmate for you. So does that mean you wouldn’t commit to anyone that wasn’t a Christian?

C: Yes, I want to be with someone like me, someone with a sincere, foundational faith.

L: But what if you meet someone with similar values? That wouldn’t be sufficient? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

C: No. I think I’m going to end up being a missionary in a developing country so it will be important for my partner to be equally as excited about that. We’ll need that shared foundation.

Sean: Yeah, I feel similarly to Lauren. I want a partner who is not just physically beautiful, but spiritually too. Spiritual beauty means she’ll have an intense love of God as reflected in her words and actions. For me, God should be at the center of our relationship because through God, our marriage will flourish in the purest way possible. While I don’t expect to have everything in common with her, I suspect that there is a girl in the world who is destined to be with me.

Others jumped in. The more secular students respectfully and smartly challenged the committed Christians. I didn’t say anything. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if they would’ve let me. I was in the teaching zone because they had forgotten I was there.

Decker Walker nailed it when he wrote, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” Teachers are almost always doing things to students. Especially interrupting their thinking by filling every quiet moment with more words. Always more words.

If you were visiting last Thursday you probably wouldn’t have realized I was in the zone because of conventional wisdom about teaching excellence. In fact, you probably would’ve wondered when was I going to assert myself and start earning my salary.

But leading discussions is like flying kites. Sometimes you have to let out the string. I let out the string last Thursday at noon thirty and then a few students grabbed the spool. It was a great discussion because it was theirs. They didn’t need an intermediary. They can read, think, write, and then talk about their ideas all by themselves. That was the day’s most important lesson.

* “Sixteen students,” my public school teaching friends just said to themselves, “shit, anyone could kill it with sixteen students!”

Reader Beware

From today’s inbox.

Hi Ron,

We are interested in sending over a quality and relevant article to your site (pressingpause.com) as a contribution. Is this something you might consider? If yes, please email me back and I’ll be happy to send over the article for your review asap.

Note that the copy will include a few references to our client. We’ll also pay you $100 per post through PayPal, for your time and effort. I look forward to hearing from you, Ron.

Have a good day!

[name]
Marketing Manager
[email address]
http://www.letsgetwise.com

You’re probably hip to product placement in television and film, but what about in on-line and traditional print? When reading, do you ever ask, “What am I being sold?” If not, it’s time to start.

Please help me refine my reply to Ms. Marketing Manager. Here’s what I have so far.

Dear Ms. Marketing Manager,

Hell no.

Sincerely,

Ronald S. Byrnes

The Parable of the Clueless Professor

Tacoma, Washington, Thursday morn, Administration Room 213. A few minutes before the first year writing seminar begins.

McKall, who started the semester with a ton of extra credit because she has a great name and personality; and she’s from Boise, Idaho, my birthplace; asks whether I like my new phone.

That’s right, last week an iPhone 6+ bounced from China; to Louisville, Kentucky; to my front door. And sure enough, the box had my name on it. That means I have to find some other way to distinguish myself from the masses.

Students smiled when I told them my daughter made fun of me for texting with one finger. “You can use both thumbs,” she said. I tell my students I like it. Too big? Be serious. I can palm a basketball and my frame of reference is my iPad. I love how compact my new pocket computer is. They also got a kick out of my temporary case, a wool sock.

Alex is to the left of me. “And you have a Garmin watch too.”

Alex started the semester with even more extra credit than McKall because she’s from California, she’s on the cross country team, and she’s a first generation college student who came to office hours last week. Her parents are from Mexico and have sacrificed mightily to provide her a better life. She hit her head on something while lifting weights right before classes began. She refuses to use her serious concussion “as an excuse” and may be too tough for her own good since she’s pushing harder than her doctors probably realize.

“Yeah, but it’s the cheapest Garmin they make, they go from $150-$450,” said the clueless professor. Alex’s audible exhale conveyed disgust. Understandably. To her that might be textbooks for a year. Statistics tell us most first generation college students drop out at some point because they can’t afford to continue. Out of touch professors can’t help.

Inadvertently losing touch with low income people is one inevitable consequence of wealth that’s rarely talked about. When I was Alex’s age, one of my college roommates and I became friends. That is until he learned my parents were paying my tuition. He was busting his hump to pay his way and he resented my privilege. Our friendship was never the same.

Should I have declined my parents’ generosity for the sake of my roommate’s friendship? Should I not wear my Garmin watch to class? Of course not, but I should be sensitive to other people’s circumstances. Thursday, a few minutes before class began, I wasn’t.

Lola the Doodle Has More Twitter Followers Than Me

Granted, she’s much more of a looker, but I have a better sense of humor, and I link to more interesting content. For the love of all things internet, she hasn’t even tweeted since late August. If you have a mean streak and want to extend Lola’s lead over me, you can follow her here.

As if that wasn’t enough humble pie for the week, on Friday I was sitting in a Portland, Oregon Honda dealership when a cute as a button 2 year old with light red hair smiled at me from afar and then marched right up to me as if I was a 6’2″ magnet. She stuck her hand out, I stuck mine out, and we shook. Unnecessarily embarrassed, her mom ran up behind her. “She sure is friendly,” I said, to which she replied, “Oh yes!” And then to her Button, “He looks a lot like grandpa doesn’t he?!” Shee-it.

I was 30 when Alibaba was born and she’s 22, so yes technically, I could easily be a grandpa, but I don’t need total strangers reminding me of that. If you listen carefully you can hear my sissy in Florida saying, “Deal with it.” I’ll try.

The blog is getting old too. . . it turns eight in January. By then there will have been 90k page views, which sounds like a lot, but really isn’t. That’s a decent day for some of the bloggers I regularly read. It truly is the “humble blog”. One result of it’s longevity is I have to think longer and harder about whether I’m repeating myself because nothing says “grandpa” like mindlessly repeating yourself.

Another result of having written 887 posts, is it’s harder to come up with original ideas. Take today for example. God said he’d understand if I ditched church to ride my bicycle on what’s likely one of the last beautiful days of 2014. It was good to see teammates I haven’t been able to ride with for awhile now that I’m a working stiff.

I dig riding in cool spring and fall weather. This ride was shaping up to be damn near idyllic until someone flatted. That always prompts the question, “Should we wait?” It’s a sliding scale, mid-day in the summer probably not, early evening in the fall/winter, yes. Someone said, “Jeff said not to wait.” At the time, I was second wheel. I told the guy in front of me, “Let’s go then.” At a stop sign, three miles later, the Doctor said, “Gordon said to wait, and to pass it up.” To which I said, “A little late wouldn’t you say.” So Gordon was HOT when our routes crossed an hour later.

Then I got a little ornery on a climb and four or five of us gapped another four or five. One of those riders pulled up a few miles later at an intersection and bitched about being dropped. Which caused BDub to snap. “You fuckin’ little sissy girl! No one waited for me for three months last spring when I was riding myself back into shape!”

As the ride spiraled downward I started blogging in my head. Thought one. . . group riding has it’s advantages and disadvantages, but I already wrote about the pros and cons of group living here. Thought two. . . cooperation and fitness should trump athletic competition, but I wrote about that here and here and here. Repetition rears it’s ugly head. Good thing even the most loyal readers (Hey Mother Dear!) can’t remember more than a fraction of the 887 posts.

This corner of the blogosphere has plateaued. Year seven is almost a wrap. Maybe a sabbatical is in order.

Writer’s Block

I’ve been leading lots of discussions lately. Sunday was adult Sunday School. Today was the “Wild Hope” faculty seminar. This served as our springboard. I’m available for hire if you have a discussion that needs leading.

And I’ve returned to full-time teaching. My writing students are dissecting Stoicism; my graduate teachers’-to-be, Annette’s Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods.

As a result of these activities, lots of ideas are swirling around in my pea-brain. The problem is I’m struggling to carve out enough time to organize, and clearly and convincingly communicate them.

Thus I’ve mistitled this post. It’s not really writer’s block. More accurately, my “To Do” list is kicking my ass. But fear not, that’s a temporary condition. I shall overcome.