The Secret to a Kind and Gentle Spirit

Four months ago, in a temporary lapse of sanity, I became a college administrator. Since then some teacher friends have stopped talking to me (not really) and about half of my time has been spent in meetings (seemingly). Friday’s was in Renton. I assumed the same Renton address as the late August meeting, but I was wrong. Speed read email at your own risk.

A very nice librarian at Renton Technical College helped me determine I was supposed to be at City University in Renton. What kind of self-respecting writing teacher writes “very nice librarian”?! That’s ridiculously redundant.

Seems to me every librarian has an especially kind and gentle spirit.

In fact, I propose we replace every member of Congress with 535 random school and community librarians. And the State Department and the Pentagon. Imagine the cooperation, legislative wizardry, and policy genius that would follow. As a bonus, when interviewed on television, they’d whisper.

Ever wonder why librarians, like my friend in Renton, are a higher life form? It’s because they’re inveterate readers. Reading has a calming, salutary effect on people. The more one reads, the more kind and considerate they become.

Sadly though, librarians are seriously outnumbered by horses asses. What is it that creates a disproportionate share of non-librarian-like horses asses? There’s as many root causes as their are horses assess, somewhere in the millions, but reading is not one of them. Imagine these convos.

What the hell is wrong with him? He’s a real horses ass.

Comes from a nice family, but he spent too much of his childhood reading. It was really bad. Started out with picture books, then progressed to fiction, then he started to mix in non-fiction. Eventually, devoured whatever he could get his hands on. Sometimes would even read and drive. The end result was a literature induced downward spiral.


What the hell is wrong with her? She’s a real horses ass.

A. Instead of watching The Bachelor and uploading pictures of herself to Facebook and Instagram, she READS. Sits under a lamp all night reading newspapers, Spanish language novels, and poetry that doesn’t even rhyme. Even plays soft classical music in the background. Her tragic life course was set by a debilitating love of imaginary stories.

My Turn to Crime

It’s not my fault. I’ve fallen in with some bad dudes. It started a few years ago when The Sopranos drew me in. Then The Wire. Then Breaking Bad. Now The House of Cards. I should be eligible for a mail order degree in Abnormal Psychology.

What is it about Tony Soprano, Avon Barksdale, Walt, and F.U. that makes it so hard to look away as they leave ruined lives and dead bodies in their wake?

My theory rests on the assumption that I’m a part of the 99% that has a social conscience, but sometimes still wrestles with doing the right thing. At 2a.m., with the streets deserted, we still wait for the red light to turn, but not before imagining going. We get frustrated with people all the time, even irate at times, but we successfully suppress our violent tendencies. We get used to the tension between our better and worse-r selves. And fortunately for society, our better selves almost always win out.

Tony, Avon, Walt, and Frank are the 1% that effortlessly give in to their worse-r selves. Their lives are not complicated by other people’s feelings. Once off the rails, they have zero regrets. On second thought, scratch Tony from that foursome, his earnest therapy sessions with Melfi disqualify him from the truly pathological.

In large part, I think I find these dramas so compelling because I can’t fathom what it would be like to live completely unencumbered by doing the right thing. To not give a single thought to authority, social convention, and the social contract we enter into as drivers while running the light. To not care whether someone lives or not.

There’s another important variable in the equation. For me the gruesome violence is usually just palatable enough because I know they’re fictional dramas. After watching The Wire, I can reason, “That teen drug runner didn’t really die at the hands of the other teen drug runner, because they’re acting.” LIke when watching a play or reading a novel, it helps to know it’s imaginary. In Breaking Bad the innocent kid on the bike in the New Mexico dessert didn’t really die. He’s probably a popular eighth grader somewhere in SoCal.

Could the time I’ve spent with the Mount Rushmore of television criminals have a deleterious effect on my normal, law-abiding self? That’s doubtful because the Good Wife makes me take a powerful antidote to these intense crime dramas every Sunday night. Downton Abbey.

Postscript—Watch this 60 Minutes segment (13:40) on Wolfgang Beltracchi (13:40). Beltracchi, as evidenced by the final exchange which begins at 13:28, has Mount Rushmore criminal potential.


Be Less Lonely

By making time to read. Every day. And not just periodicals, blogs, email messages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates. Fiction and non-fiction books.

Bookish people are less lonely because they have an endless supply of friends. With the exception of some especially good long running series, television and film characters usually don’t rise to the same level of friendship as literary ones.

Cleo, an eighth grader at a middle school I’ve been helping out at this year, figured this out about eight years ago. She reads incessantly. Averaging about a book a day. Substantive books typically read by high schoolers. And then she reviews them on her blog, Cleo’s Literary Reviews. Apart from sometimes reading in classes she’s not supposed to, I have no idea how she does it.

Our negative preconceived notions of bookworms as socially stunted people ill-prepared for the “real world” are anachronistic. Cleo likes her school and gets along great with her classmates. She appears imminently happy and has a promising future in the “real world”. Cleo will impress with her vocabulary, imagination, and knowledge of the world.

But the longest lasting gift of reading doesn’t have anything to do with competing in the global economy. Most importantly, Cleo’s happiness won’t fluctuate as wildly with the vagaries of “real life” relationships because she’ll always be buffeted by a steady stream of interesting people, created by an endless army of imaginative authors.

Gateway Drug

This is the best paragraph I’ve read in awhile. It’s from an essay titled, “The Triumph of the Readers” by Ann Patchett, which appeared in the WSJ on 1/17/09.

Like the chicken pox, getting infected by the desire to read is best when it hits us early. As a child I was so committed to “Charlotte’s Web” that I pleaded for, and received, a pig for my ninth birthday, a gift that segued nicely into my “Little House on the Prairie” obsession. Was I, with my American classics, more noble than today’s middle-schooler who reads and rereads his copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”? Was I less noble than my straight-A sister who read “Le Petit Prince” in French? No on both counts. I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read. Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin. Whether you’re in the life of Wilbur the pig, or Greg Heffley, the wimpy kid, or that little blonde prince in the desert, you’ve stepped outside of yourself for awhile, something that is beneficial to every child. Even if you’re stepping into “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s better than nothing. I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Now I feel bad for nagging my daughters all these years about their affinity for Archie comics.