Everything From This Point Is Extra Credit

I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life.

  • Angel Flight pants paired with a silk shirt. Really a two-fer.
  • At age 16, getting shit-faced and hurling in the Disneyland parking lot after trying to sneak in through the employees’ exit. While wearing Angel Flight pants and a silk shirt. Can all of a person’s bad decisions coalesce in a single night?
  • Last Monday at Tumwater Valley golf course, repeatedly hitting gap wedge instead of pitching wedge and coming up short.
  • Weeding amongst poison oak in shorts and t-shirts. A couple of times.
  • Asking my eight year old daughter to help me jump start the car.
  • Running the first half of the Boston Marathon way too fast.
  • Using a clueless, commission-based financial planner.
  • Attempting to put Christmas lights on top of the steep ass roof.
  • Watching the Seahawks throw from the one yard line for a second Super Bowl victory.

Fortunately though, the biggies have gone especially well. I picked excellent parents who provided a loving foundation. I went to the right college because I had to work harder than I ever had to succeed there. And I am a much better person for partnering with The Good Wife.

Also, half way through college, discerning that I wanted to teach. And related to that, earning a doctorate early on opened doors to what has been an extremely fulfilling career in higher education. And while in graduate school, committing to daily exercise which continues to add to the quality of my life.

Recently, I reflected on these life decisions when a friend, the same age as me, late 50’s, opened up about her desire to change the world. It surprised me because she’s contributed a lot to a better world as an especially caring mother and volunteer. In hindsight, she said parenting was fulfilling, but only to a point. She regretted staying home with her son and daughter as long as she did. As she talked excitedly about plans to work outside the home going forward, I couldn’t help but think how different my mindset is.

If I’m honest with myself, I do not want to change the world too terribly much anymore. Why?

I think my spirit is relatively settled because of my decision to teach. The psychic renumeration has run circles around the financial. My soul is satiated with decades and decades of meaningful relationships with numerous students and co-workers. When deciding between vocations, young people don’t factor that in nearly enough. Being in debt certainly doesn’t help.

One huge advantage of working with adult students is after a class is over they often take time to write or say how much they appreciate my teaching efforts. And for all of the downsides to social media, it’s pretty cool to get “friended” by a former student who is flourishing as a teacher or social worker him or herself in some distant corner of the country or world.

If someone tapped me on the shoulder this September and said, “Sorry dude, but we have to go younger, you know, someone with hair,” I’d be cool with it. Absent that shoulder tap, I plan on continuing half-time for the foreseeable future because I think my teaching is mutually beneficial to both my students and me. At minimum, their idealism inspires me and they help me focus on more than baby rabbits.

I do not want to change the world in the manner my more energetic and ambitious friend does, but that doesn’t preclude me from doing so in small, subtle, nuanced ways.

If I don’t want to change the world, what do I want?

I want to invest in old and new friendships by slowing down and making time for others. I want to spend more time in the kitchen. I want to sit on the deck and watch and see if the four baby rabbits cuddling together in the planter survive the eagles’ daily fly-bys. I want to enjoy art, especially excellent literature and independent film. I want to swim, run, and cycle in nature. Mostly though, I want to be present in my marriage and as a father. I want to listen and understand my wife’s and daughters’ dreams and cheer them on as they achieve them.

And I still want to help others take small steps toward thriving families, schools and communities by putting pen to paper or keyboard to screen*.

*awkward phrase, one more bad life decision

 

 

 

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.

Or

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.

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

Book Review—The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel

Despite the preponderance of superficial on-line communication in these most fast paced of days, my reading over the last fourteen months convinces me that long form non-fiction and fiction writing may be as healthy as at any time in the recent past. That’s my way of saying, damn I’ve read a lot of amazing books recently.

None more so than Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel. I don’t write well enough to adequately credit Johnson for one of the more creative, imaginative, and haunting novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I’m sure you’ve seen a movie or two that left you completely drained as a result of the film’s suspenseful arc, quality of acting, and artistic beauty more generally. Immobilized, you just kind of stared blankly as the credits rolled. That’s how I felt upon finishing The Orphan Master’s Son. Unable to get off the bed, I wondered who is this extraordinary guy with the ordinary name, where does his imagination come from, and how and the hell did he write that? Total and complete awe.

Here are some answers from Johnson himself:

When I arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn’t gone so well. Even though I’d spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master’s Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I’d started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn’t matter that the story was a complete fiction–every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn’t played their parts, who’d spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries–of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings–are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn’t make sense without writing his role as well.

I agree with “Maine Colonial” the author of the top-rated of Amazon’s 69 Orphan Master’s Son reviews who wrote, “The book can be confusing, as it jumps from one narrator to another, one time period to another, one style to another, with no explanation. But it’s so vividly written, I didn’t worry about the shifts and came to enjoy the crazy-quilt style.”

Maine Colonial also references an interview Johnson gave in which he said he sees his book as a “trauma narrative,” in which a survivor of traumatic experiences tells stories that are similarly disjointed and that “bend and mix genres as characters attempt to patch their stories back together using the stories they find around them.”

In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, I remember reading and hearing lots of analysis that suggested our intelligence forces couldn’t thwart the attack in part because no one could visualize one of that nature and scope. If Johnson ever tires of teaching creative writing at Stanford, it would behoove our nation’s security agencies to tap his unparalleled imagination.

Best read after Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Grade—A.