Passion Till The Very End

The word of the day, harangue, a lengthy and aggressive speech. One could add “see Bernie Sanders”. I’m not a fan of Bernie’s oratorical style, but I’m in total awe of his passion especially given the fact that he’s 78 years old.

By 78, a lot of men are dead, hell, Bernie peered over the abyss last week. Elderly men and women in their eighth, ninth, tenth decades often struggle with more than just declining health. There’s the huge psychological challenge of having a purpose to continue living. Something beyond watching television and marking time.

That’s not a problem for Bernie, nor was it for Harold Bloom who died earlier this week. The New York Times described Bloom as the “most notorious literary critic in America” explaining:

“Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as betraying literature’s essential purpose.”

I find his unabiding passion even more fascinating than his contrarian intellect for which he’s best known.

Dig this:

“Professor Bloom called himself ‘a monster’ of reading; he said he could read, and absorb, a 400-page book in an hour. His friend Richard Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at the New School, told a reporter that watching Professor Bloom read was ‘scary.’

Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental ‘The Fairie Queen.'”

In junior high school I memorized some bible verses in Confirmation classes, I just can’t remember which ones.

The Times adds:

“. . . his output was vast: more than 40 books of his own authorship and hundreds of volumes he edited. And he remained prolific to the end, publishing two books in 2017, two in 2018 and two this year: ‘Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind’ and ‘Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism.’ His final book is to be released on an unspecified date by Yale University Press, his wife said.”

Further evidence of his all consuming passion, he taught his last class at Yale last Thursday.*

I texted an academic friend who followed Bloom’s work this humorous excerpt from the Times. Years ago Bloom predicted:

“’What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies, where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.”

“He nailed that!” my friend texted back.

May you live long, similarly passionate lives.

*Bloom looks really spent in the 2011 picture. For shit’s sake, can we please revisit mandatory retirement provisions? How about you have to hang em’ up at 88 years young?

 

 

 

 

“I Just Gave Her Room To Grow”

Would the last blogger please turn out the lights. All the cool kids are podcasting, fortunately though, some wonderful writers are still sharing hidden gems like this heartwarming essay from an acquaintance of mine to her seventeen year-old daughter.

Sister Golden Hair Surprise.

Marycake CAN flat out write. Her eloquent description of parenting being a steady mix of joy and sadness perfectly described my experience of co-parenting two daughters a decade older than hers.

This excerpt of hers surfaces a dilemma a lot of my friends, especially female ones who parented full-time, have struggled with as their children have reached adulthood and moved out.

“Watching my daughter grow into young womanhood so focused, imaginative and bold, has made me wonder how my life would have been different if I had taken, Dare Greatly, as my motto, or Live Out Loud? Or just Be a Great Girl? But you know, it feels late to change. I am so caught up in observing the unfolding wonder of my daughters’ lives, (and in driving them all over creation) that it’s exhausting to imagine doing much with mine except laundry, or making vague threats about dressing down the boys who come around.”

No one teaches parents who parent full-time for long stretches of time how to balance their selfless care for their children with their own personal growth. In particular, with the best of intentions, parents privileged to stay home with their children sometimes loose themselves in their parenting resulting in a parent-child interdependence that complicates the tough enough already transition to young adulthood.

Sometimes so much that when their young adult children move out the parents miss their children more than the children miss them.

The challenge is how do full-time parents maintain some semblance of autonomy when so enmeshed in their childrens’ lives for a decade or two? Parenting is so time and energy consuming, how do full-time parents in particular maintain outside interests, meaningful relationships with other adults, and a some sense of purpose that extends beyond their child or children?

I wonder, for those of us who are either approaching 50 or older, is the answer not to parent so intensely?

I think so.

“I just gave her room to grow,” Marycake says a few times.

Like every parent, Marycake is nostalgic for her family’s past. Despite that, she seems to be avoiding the psychological and spiritual downsides that tend to accompany long-term, extreme child-centeredness.

 

 

 

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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Favoring My Private Self

I learned to write at UCLA. In the early 80s. First in a small Remedial English composition class filled with future professional athletes, and later, in history course after history course. One of the myths we erroneously tell ourselves at places like my employer, a smallish private liberal arts university, is that personalized learning can’t happen at large public universities. I’m living proof that’s not true. Sure, often, those history course discussion sections were lead by doctoral students, but they were outstanding and demanding beginning teachers.

Like marathon training, there are no short cuts in learning to write. Defying conventional wisdom about large, public university professors, my teachers and their assistants bled all over my papers. I paid close attention to their feedback and quickly caught up to my peers. And then continued improving quarter by quarter.

One memorable day in my sophomore year, in a large class on Central America, my professor, E. Bradford Burns, read my name and the title of my essay and said it was one of the three most outstanding in the class.

Stunned is putting it mildly. Wish my dad had been there.

After watching me skate through high school the first eighteen years of my life, he thought I should skip college and go to work for him sweeping floors in the Los Angeles factory he ran. Or join the military. If those harangues were reverse psychology, they worked. To succeed I knew I had to apply myself, and I did.

Another leap forward as a writer came exactly one decade later when, thanks to the encouragement of a young innovative mentor from Stanford, I wrote a 324 page doctoral dissertation in novel-like form. In it, I told the story of an International Studies magnet high school in Southern California. I was the very rare doctoral student who enjoyed the vast majority of the dissertation research and writing process.

As a professor, I’ve published quite a bit, but have not found academic writing gratifying. The whole tree in the forest thing. If only a handful of other egghead professors read it, is it worth it? For better or worse, a decade ago, I cut back and started the humble blog.

Which brings us to the present. My E. Bradford Burns booster shot of confidence has faded a bit. Sometimes I think, if I was a good writer, the humble blog would have a larger readership. In fact, I might have to stop referring to it as the humble blog. More important than assessing how well I write or not is the incontrovertible fact that I enjoy it.

One thing I like about it is that it’s difficult. In particular, I struggle with how to engage people without revealing at least some of my inner landscape. For example, right now, apart from writing a semi-autobiographical novel, I can’t figure out how to meaningfully explore and explain what I’ve been thinking most about—motivation, or what causes us to do the things we do, or more to the point, what causes me to do the things I do, without compromising other people’s and my privacy. I’ve struggled with that since the beginning, and doubt I’ll ever master it. I error on the side of maintaining others’ and my privacy.

That means there’s way more unspoken content between blog posts than within them. When I go four or five days without posting, sometimes I’m out of interesting ideas, but other times, I’m just favoring my private self.

I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Isn’t there more to your thinking than you typically let on? Aren’t you semi-transparent at best? Don’t you struggle with being vulnerable? With trusting others with your innermost thoughts? Aren’t we all icebergs of sorts, with much more going on below the surface than anyone realizes?

Or maybe with you, what you see, is what you get. In which case, I am unique.

 

 

 

 

 

What We Get Wrong About Honesty

That it’s mostly telling the truth to others. But being honest with one’s self is a more essential starting point, and because we lack any semblance of objectivity, far more difficult.

None of us are ever completely honest with ourselves. Meaning we are loathe to accept our differences which makes self acceptance a constant struggle.

Case in point. I loved, loved, loved this short essay titled “An Emotional Reunion Between Cello and Cellist”. Russell had me after her opening paragraph:

“On a recent Thursday, Matt Haimovitz, the forty-seven-year-old virtuoso cellist, packed an empty instrument case into the back of his car and drove from his home, in Montreal, to a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where he’d be crashing. The case was for Haimovitz’s rare, multimillion-dollar cello, which he calls Matteo—after Matteo Goffriller, the seventeenth-century Venetian luthier who built it. He had played it for thirty years, until, fifteen months earlier, while giving a lesson to a promising Canadian student, he dropped it, and the cello’s neck snapped. Since then, the instrument had been undergoing extensive repairs by a team of five luthiers at Reed Yeboah Fine Violins, near Columbus Circle. Now the shop had called to say that Matteo was ready for release.”

If I’m honest with myself, I want something resembling what those six people have—Haimovitz and the five luthiers—a singleminded focus on one thing that animates their lives. One thing that gives them an overwhelming purpose for being. Even a little bit of flow.

Put differently, I want to love something the way Haimovitz loves his cello. I am fascinated by people with distinct passions, often wishing I was one of them. It doesn’t matter how esoteric or far removed the passions are from my life; interior design, locomotive trains, the Spanish language; I still look on with envy.

This year I’ll cycle somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 miles. Friends ride 10,000-12,000. I like cycling, they love it. Some people read a book or more a week. I like reading, they love it. Some commit 60+ hours a week to their jobs because they like their work so much they often loose track of time. I prefer being on sabbatical. Some bloggers have huge readerships in part because they are laser focused on a particular topic. In contrast, the Humble Blog, a reflection of my continuously distracted pea brain, is all over the place.

Hiking Burroughs Mountain Trail last weekend, I listened to my friends excitedly discuss plant nomenclature and geology and wondered, “What’s wrong with me?” By which I meant, “Why aren’t I equally curious? Why am I content not knowing the name of the beautiful flower or understanding how the awe-inspiring landscape was formed? Why aren’t I similarly passionate about labeling and understanding the natural world?”

But then I stop to think that my cycling obsessed friends don’t run and swim. And maybe it’s okay that my interests are more disparate, and therefore, less intensive. Wide-ranging interests enable me to ask more questions, connect with more people, create a relatively diverse and interesting social network.

How fortunate that everyone is wired differently. Maybe the singleminded people of the world, the Haimovitz’s, would tell me sometimes there are downsides to being obsessively focused on one thing.

Maybe I’m okay and you’re okay.

 

I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

Selecting The Wrong Leader. . . Again

Fighting an insidious attack on my immune system, I’ve opted to lean in to the sickness by reading the Atlantic’s God’s Plan for Mike Pence and the New York Times’s Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation.

Journalism is hemorrhaging jobs, but fortunately, in some places, long form journalism is flourishing. These are detailed; thoughtful; and if you’re left-leaning, harrowing pieces.

From God’s Plan for Mike Pence:

“Scott Pelath, the Democratic minority leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, said that watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share. As one former adviser marveled, ‘The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.'”

Tucked in the NYT piece were passing references to Trump’s twelve daily Diet Cokes and his regular dinner of. . .

“plates of well-done steak, salad slathered with Roquefort dressing and bacon crumbles, tureens of gravy and massive slices of dessert with extra ice cream.”

I’m calling bullshit on his doc’s glowing reports on his health. #fakenews

Why do we as citizens, employees, members of civic organizations, make leadership decisions we often regret? Why is our batting average too often Seattle Mariner-like?

Because we pick leaders based upon tangible qualifications that most closely match those we detail in our job postings, with far too little attention paid to the finalists’ psychological well-being. Granted, psychological well-being is hella-hard to assess in even a series of interviews, but somehow, we have to get better at it.

Let’s start with this premise, on a “Psychological Health” scale of 1-100, the most self-actualized person in the world is a 90. Put differently, everyone has “issues” and is fallible. The goal is to select leaders with the fewest inner demons so as to avoid getting hopelessly side-tracked from the group’s overarching mission. How about this for an interview question: Which of your inner demons are we likely to learn about six months from now? Maybe I should use italics when joking. But seriously, how do interviewers enter the side or back door to assess a candidate’s relative mental health and basic people skills?

My best work friend of all time took another job two and a half years ago. When the damnable university called me to talk about him, this is some of what I said, “He utterly has no ego. As a result, he doesn’t care who gets the credit for the good work that get’s done. All he cares about is that good work gets done.” His lack of ego was an indicator of genuine psychological health, the foundation of which, was equal parts a wonderful marriage and extended family, a deep spirituality, and a commitment to physical activity. Importantly, he also laughed a lot, often at himself.

Maybe the answer to the question, how do we assess job finalists’ psychological health, lies in the previous paragraph. Talk to more former co-workers in greater depth. I’m interested in other ideas you may have.