Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.

 

 

The Great Millennial Novelist

Sally Rooney. Or so “they” say. I just finished the 28 year olds second novel, Normal People. Eldest was mostly right about Rooney’s core readership.

From inside the cover:

“Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.”

Two-thirds of the way through I texted Eldest who devoured it in one marathon session:

“Normal People. Past half way, but having a wee problem with the intensity of their feelings for one another and their proclivity to spurn one another. Doesn’t ring true to me.”

Eldest, at 26 years young, is in a much better position than me to assess the believability of two characters in their early 20’s and she respectfully pushed back, to which I wrote:

“Yes, but in my experience, that’s the diff between high school and college. In college you quit caring what your friends think of your bfriend/gfriend.”

That prompted the most Millennial of texts:

“Hahahahahahaha. I WISH!”

Sadly, it appears I’m losing touch with today’s young adults.

By the end, the story not only rang true, it left me immobilized in my reading chair, like a great film sometimes does. The last sentence of my favorite review of the book resonated most with me:

“It is a long time since I cared so much about two characters on a page.”

And to think she’s just getting started. Here’s hoping expectations don’t take a toll.

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How To Start An Essay

A master class from Rich Karlgaard’s, “It’s Never Too Late to Start a Brilliant Career”.

“In 1980, I was 25 and hadn’t yet bloomed. This hit home one night while I was working as a security guard in San Jose, Calif. Just after dark, as I started my perimeter patrol of a fenced rent-a-truck yard, I heard barking from the lumber yard next door. I swung my flashlight around and came face-to-face with my counterpart on the other side of the fence: a guard dog. The implication was sobering. I was a Stanford graduate, and my professional peer was a Rottweiler.”

Paragraph two. . . also worth emulating.

“In a few months, Steve Jobs, also 25 at the time, would take Apple public, change the computer industry and become fabulously rich. I, on the other hand, was poor and stuck. My story is embarrassing, but is it that unusual?”

Here’s guessing Karlgaard’s book is excellent.

How Not To Indoctrinate Students

Excellent advice from David Gooblar’s Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “What is ‘Indoctrination’? And How Do We Avoid It in Class?

His answer. . . by modeling open-mindedness and intellectual humility.

Gooblar thinks we can guard against closed-mindedness if we:

“. . . admit when we’re wrong, discuss our failures, and let students know when we’re unsure about something.”

When researching my doctoral dissertation, I spent two months closely studying a master high school teacher with a PhD in Mesopotamian history. Most PhD’s in Mesopotamian history would fall FLAT on their face if required to teach high school, but not this one because he never flaunted his intellect. One time, I recall, he started a story about something he had recently read about Egyptian pyramids. “I recently read in a book, but I don’t know if it’s true, . . . ” With one simple phrase, he demystified textual authority. The take-away, reader beware, authors are flawed.

However, there’s more to the “indoctrination story” than Gooblar reveals. A year ago, I was teaching an interdisciplinary International Honors course to a dozen whip smart juniors and seniors at my liberal arts university. One session, when discussing economics, a winsome but exasperated senior said, “I’ve never had a single professor here say anything positive about capitalism.” And on a scale of “1 to 10” in terms of liberal, liberal arts campus cultures, I’d rate my university a 4.

I thought long and hard about that statement, but also the student’s seeming resistance to critically question obvious, albeit unintended, negative consequences of unfettered free-market capitalism. As a conservative surrounded mostly by liberal faculty and peers, did he feel compelled to overcompensate? “I’m planting my flag on the hill of free-market capitalism come hell or high water!”

No, I don’t think that’s what was happening. I also taught the same student writing four years earlier in a seminar where we got to know one another well. I was reminded in the Honors course of how close he was to his mother whom he talked about affectionately. When I probed a little about how he came to his pro-capitalism views, he talked about his mother’s passion for it and their numerous conversations about it from when he was little. His hesitance to question capitalism as an economic system didn’t have anything to do with peer relationships, it had everything to do with his love for his mother. To even question capitalism, let alone reject it like an increasing number of his peers, would’ve required him to reject his mother. Far too high a cost to pay.

When teaching anything remotely political, that is the educator’s dilemma—how to honor each student’s familial context while also challenging them to expand their worldview. Or more specifically, given our example, how to celebrate the beauty of a loving child-parent relationship, while simultaneously cultivating critical thinking about closely held, unquestioned assumptions learned from birth.

How do educators challenge students to thoughtfully confront their families ideological blindspots knowing their intellectual awakening will disrupt those cherished relationships?

 

I Hear You

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I think, a loyal PressingPauser chided me for being too political in recent posts. Given the state of our disunited union, and the angry nature of our national dialogue, political burnout is totally understandable. He implored me to write more about other things. More personal ones.

I do not get as much feedback on the humble blog as I would like, so I’m prone to heed any I get. Please consider following my friend’s lead in letting me know what you do and don’t like. The reader is always right.

So let’s get personal.

First off, I’ve long suspected I’m on the cutting edge of societal evolution, but now I have hard and fast proof. Context. My “friends” like to tease me about my $14 Kirkland jeans. Prolly because I look so good in them #jealousy. Get a load of what WBuffett had to say about Costco in his just released annual letter:

“Here they are, 100 years plus, tons of advertising, built into people’s habits and everything else,” Buffett said of Kraft Heinz’s brands. “And now, Kirkland, a private-label brand, comes along and with only 750 or so outlets, does 50% more business than all the Kraft Heinz brands.”

And:

“Customers see the brand as a blend of quality and value, and it gives shoppers a unique reason to go to Costco that other retailers can’t match — online or off.”

Taking names and kicking ass, one pair of jeans at a time. Once this post goes viral, I expect Costco to call and ask me to participate in an advertising campaign. Maybe a “famous bloggers in Kirkland jeans” expose. Oh wait, they don’t have to advertise because you can already find their label on my backside most of the time.

Not personal enough? Okay, brace yourself for the next level.

One time my sissy borrowed my iPod, remember those, and had a good laugh at my expense. “You’re iPod is filled with female folk singers!” Yeah, what of it! Just more hard and fast evidence that I’m secure in my non-toxic masculinity. When it comes to groovy new female folk singers, the 23 and 26 year old prove helpful. Here are three worth checking out, that is, if you’re not beholden to some antiquated notion of gender.

• Billie Eilish, When the Party’s Over. Not even old enough to vote yet. Video is weird, but that’s to be expected from a teen. I’m sharing it because 162 million people have watched it and I don’t want you to feel left out. Grooved to this track while running yesterday afternoon. Started out in a light rain and ended in glorious sunshine reflecting off the Salish Sea. 7 miles, 54:30.

• Sigrid,  Strangers. Only 44 million views, so please help her close the gap with Billie by watching. 22 years old, Ålesund, Norway.

• Maggie Rogers, Light On. 24 years old. Career launched after Pharrell Williams listened to a tape of hers in a masterclass.

Alaska is her most listened to track, but I like this below the radar vid even more:

Two predictions. Olivia Colman will win Best Actress and my running posse will give me endless shit for highlighting three young women singers. The R-17 jokes will fly fast and furious. In my defense, one of the things I like most about these young women is their rejection of the pop music dynamic of the past, where young female singers felt compelled to sell their sensuality. These women, in their Kirkland jeans and t-shirts are saying f$%k that. Accept me as I am. Or not.

Still not personal enough? Jeez, maybe I should just write about the President tweeting back at Spike Lee for reminding people that there’s an election in 2020 and to choose love over hate.

2018 fitness report? 276 kilometers swimming. 4,868 miles cycling. 1,050 miles running, thus keeping my 20 year 1k+ miles running streak alive. . . barely due to an end-of-year calf strain. Now that’s some personal snizzle fo shizzle. For the record, “snizzle” is an actual weather term meaning a “mixture of snow and freezing rain” but my hip use of it means “shit for sure”. Feel free to come up with your own meaning.

And, of course, to weigh in on your blog.

 

 

 

 

Paragraph To Ponder

From Tara Westover’s gripping and sad New York Times best seller:

“I had a thousand dollars in my bank account. It felt strange just to think that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. It took weeks for me to come to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.”

What I’m currently reading.

Do Yourself A Favor

And jumpstart 2019 with some Chinese fiction. Specifically, Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, translated by Canaan Morse. My first 2019 book, well technically a novella, but I need to round up because Eldest read 44 books in 2018, the Good Wife 20, and the Youngest is reading up a storm since devouring Becoming late last month. Hmm, I wonder if Eldest and Youngest gave me six months of HBO for Christmas to distract me from the printed page #dastardly.

A rising tide raises all boats, so as I try to hang with the fam on the book front, I’m falling further beyond on The New Yorker. Ever catching up is probably hopeless. I’m onto this now, but I digress.

Ge Fei is a Chinese Ian McEwan, who I really, really like. Wonderfully clear; whacked out characters; compelling, suspenseful storylines. It was like spending another few weeks in China.

The back of book overview:

New wealth blossoms in today’s Beijing because everyone is lying to everyone else. Friends use friends, relatives cheat each other, and businessmen steal from one and all. Superficiality is the standard, and Mr. Cui knows it—in fact, he is drowning in it. The rich clients who buy his exquisite custom sound systems know nothing about music; his sister’s family is trying to trick him out of her unused apartment; his best friend takes advantage of and looks down on him. Desperate to escape this poisonous hypocrisy, the quiet artisan stakes his future on a job for a wealthy yet mysterious client who wants “the best sound system in the world.” This man, who has a mansion and an air of thinly concealed brutality, will drag Mr. Cui to the precipice of a new yet dangerous future.”

A central concept is connoisseurship. Unless it’s paired with arrogance, I always enjoy being in the presence of connoisseurs like Mr. Cui, an expert on high end sound systems. At one point, Cui secures a pair of the world’s nicest speakers, but he doesn’t tell his wife:

“Nor did I ever reveal their real value to Yufen. One day I came home from a delivery to find Yufen cleaning the speaker boxes with a goddam steel wood scrubber and White Cat disinfectant. She scrubbed hard to make them ‘look a little newer,’ and even put a huge fucking flowerpot on top of the each box. I almost fainted.”

More on the speakers:

“To keep the speakers in good working order and prevent the sound from deteriorating into fuzziness, I warmed them up once every two weeks or so, usually during the quite hours of the night. I’d pull out a recording of an Italian string quartet’s rendition of Mozart ( my favorite composer to this day), or Walter Gieseking playing Ravel or Debussy, and listen to it as a low volume for a couple hours. I knew that the technical specs of my own system kept the speakers from producing the best sound. But it was like seeing a young, beautiful woman right after she wakes in the morning, face fresh and unwashed, free of make-up. It felt more than enough. I could sense her understated elegance, her every gesture, her intoxicating allure.”

Damn, not all analogies are created equal yo.

Also, Cui’s takedown of self-important professors is LOL funny:

“. . . They seem incapable of doing anything but complaining. If the number of mosquitoes dropped one summer, they’d say, My God, the world’s gotten so bad even the mosquitoes can’t adapt. And if the mosquito population boomed, they’d say, Shit, it looks like only mosquitoes can thrive in this world.”

I should stop writing, and start reading, otherwise I’ll be mired in fourth place at year’s end.