Do You Mind If I’m Totally Frank?

Last week, that’s what one of my students asked me in the middle of a discussion led by a classmate. The topic was what stoicism teaches about getting along with others. At the beginning of the discussion, I skimmed the student leader’s questions. The last one was about stoicism and sex which was addressed within the related reading.

With about ten minutes left in class, I said to the student leader that he should probably pick one of the remaining two questions. Without hesitating he jumped to the last much to his classmates’ delight. Apart from a little antiseptic sex ed talk, I’m guessing this was the first time they’d ever truly discussed sex in a classroom.

It’s ironic that the more interpersonally consequential the subject—take sex as one example and marriage as another—the less likely we are to talk about them with adolescents and young adults in any detail. I guess we think of such topics as too personal, private, and value-laden. As a result, pastors rarely if ever talk about sex and marriage from the pulpit, parents rarely if ever talk about their relationships with their children, and educators routinely sidestep topics like that. That means adolescents and young adults are left to themselves to resolve all of the challenges posed by human intimacy through trial and error.

The sex question immediately piqued everyone’s interest. One especially animated student turned from the student leader to me and asked, “Do you mind if I’m totally frank?” Me, “Sure, of course.” Her, “There’s a big difference between fucking and making love.” As they repeatedly say on the television series Fargo, “Okay, then.”

Couple that ice breaker with the fact that it’s a small class, the students are friends, and they think I’m way cooler than I am, the conversation was more candid than I had anticipated. It’s kind of a blur. At some point, I pointed out that they hadn’t yet dealt with the stoic’s primary insight on sex, that in middle or old age few people reflect on their younger selves and wish they had been more promiscuous. Stoics point out that the opposite is much more common, that sexually active people often regret the damage done by being so promiscuous. To which one student bravely said, “I’m 19 and I regret being as promiscuous as I was in high school.”

From there the discussion turned to the confusing and controversial stoic suggestion that sex, even inside of marriage, should only be for the purpose of procreating, which strikes me as an overreaction to the dangers of promiscuity.

Rewind the tape to earlier in the week when, with two colleagues, I was involved in a protracted discussion with a student teacher who is struggling in her internship. I was asking questions designed to get her to admit a regret or two in the hope we could turn to what could be done to remedy the situation. “What would you have done differently if anything?” “Okay,” she finally said without asking if she could be perfectly frank, “I fucked up.”

After the meeting that utterance was what one of my colleagues wanted to talk about first. He was right, she does have to be smarter about professional contexts, meaning more tactful and diplomatic, but these two incidents point to a huge generation gap when it comes to attitudes towards profanity.

Swearing, using “fuck” more specifically and not just as a verb, but as any part of speech, is so common among adolescents and young adults that some adults’ resistance to it, like my colleagues, hardly makes any sense to them.

Just as it’s unrealistic to expect married people to abstain from sex except when procreating, it’s unrealistic to expect young people to stop swearing altogether. The best hopelessly square people like myself can hope for, is that they learn to use profanity freely around their peers when in informal settings and then “code-switch” and refrain from it when around mixed aged people in other settings.

If you don’t agree, you can go forget yourself.

On Blogging—Eight Years and 978 Posts In

By conventional measures, meaning numbers of daily eyeballs, I have not succeeded as a blogger. Here’s why:

• An uninspiring template or graphic interface. I lack the technical chops to improve it and don’t know who might help.

• People seek out blogs that help them with something rather specific—improving their finances, buying personal sports technology, understanding economics and finding other people interested in it. In contrast, I shift topics too much and only occasionally offer any real help. My sporadic helpful posts are my most widely read, which brings me to the crucial third point.

• Pre-PressingPause, I remember talking to a writer friend who has written two very well received books. I told him I’d really enjoy writing a newspaper column. Smiling, he said careful what you ask for, that producing solid content twice a week is way more difficult than people realize. Now I get it. When I look at my most widely read 20+ posts, I realize most of the time I was agitated about something. Typically, the more irritated I am by something, the better. And therein lies the challenge, the older I get, and the more comfortable my life becomes as a result of mounting privilege, the less fired up I am about things. Case in point. Yesterday. Sunday. What irritated me? The people at church who over pass the peace. You know who you are. You’re the person who has to leave the pew and greet damn near everyone in the building with an affectionate hug. That’s not how God intended the peace to be passed. A few handshakes with the peeps to the right and left, front and back. There’s no biblical justification for the irrationally exuberant wandering. That has the makings of a great post doesn’t it? Not.

I will continue because it’s a way for me to connect with other people I know and like, but I’m feeling a need to mix it up. Not sure how yet. You can help by irritating me.

The Humble Blog Hits 100k Page Views

All that means is I’ve been at this for a long time. One thing that’s kept me going is family, friends, and former students telling me they’ve enjoyed something I’ve written—through a comment, or in person, or via Facebook. The other cool thing about the humble blog’s readership is the percentage of international readers. While the overall readership is still small, I’m guessing the proportion of international readers is higher than normal. I’m not sure why that is, but I dig the cosmopolitan nature of my readership.

My “friends” will joke that I would’ve hit 100k a lot faster if my mom hadn’t died three months ago and they’re right. She was my number one fan. I hope to carry on in ways she would’ve liked.

After this post that is because I’m not sure she’d approve of what I’m about to do. It’s Sunday night and I just returned from a two hour training ride—Rainier-Tenino-East Olympia for those keeping score at home. Most of the ride was a dedicated trail so I rocked the iPod. One song I listened to mid-ride troubled me greatly because of the vagueness of the lyrics.

When teaching writing I always emphasize the importance of specific details in place of indefinite pronouns and vague generalities. Note the number of references to “it”. Who knows what she’s referring to, I’m guessing a really cool costume of some sort—”can’t wait to get it on,” although I’m not sure what kind of costume would take all night to put on. And the “somethings” and “everythings” really leave me wondering exactly what this song is about. Could be any number of things.

With no further ado, my nomination for throwback freaky deaky music video of the week.

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.

The Musician’s Soul

I’m participating in a faculty seminar with eight other professors, each from different disciplines. We get together every other week and take turns discussing books everyone has selected from their respective disciplines. This Wednesday a music prof is leading the discussion of The Musician’s Soul by James Jordan.

Like a student, I have been procrastinating. That means I just started reading it today, Sunday*. Three days and counting. Even though I’m in the early stages, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I’m digging it. Double J is wonderfully out of touch with the times. Instead of privileging standardization, data, and efficiency, he writes of self understanding, spirituality, and soulfulness. He’s more Buddhist than business school.

For a little flavor flav, here he is on self-expression:

“If one believes that music is self-expression, then it should follow that one must have a self to express. Before one is able to conduct and evoke artistry from singers, one must spend a considerable amount of time on oneself, on one’s inside stuff. One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times. Most musicians, however, involve themselves in a process of self-mutilation. They focus on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of music instead of the ‘who’. Frustration and anger with self occur, almost unknowingly. The conductor, music educator, or performer must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and of his or her own human spirit. That journey must be non-self-mutilating. At the risk of oversimplifying, one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with an ensemble or an audience through the music. Knowledge and trust of self is necessary for music making to take place. An ability to ‘just be’ is paramount.”

These insights are wonderfully applicable. Substitute any art, like writing, for the making of music. Or almost any vocation imaginable.

My subconscious is just starting to work on a new course I’m teaching next spring for teachers training to be school principals. While I’m reading Jordan I’m substituting school leaders for musicians. “The school leader must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and his or her own human spirit. . . . one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with a faculty, or families, or students through schooling.”

This portion of the larger excerpt deserves further reflection, “One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times.” Sounds more simple than it is. Most everyone has long-standing negative tapes looping in their heads thanks to mean-spirited teachers, parents, or coaches.

Do you know, accept, and trust yourself? How might your vocation and life change as a result of greater knowledge, acceptance, and trust?

* Had to finish The Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh first.

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.