What My Critics Get Wrong

I refer to this as the “humble blog” because of the small readership. I routinely get proposals from search engine optimizers (presumably from India) who promise an increase in readership as a result of their coding prowess. But their pitches are impersonal and expensive, so you remain a part of a highly selective group of readers. 

Given that reality, I can’t afford to alienate any loyal readers, but that’s exactly what I did when I flippantly wrote that I wouldn’t be voting for Biden at age 82 in 2024. Check that, in hindsight, it wasn’t flippant, it was a semi-thought out point of view which of course anyone can disagree.

But one friend didn’t just disagree, he declared he was done with the humble blog. Who knew I was committing an unforgivable sin. Another very good friend somehow colluded with the first from across the country to ask if I’d vote for an assortment of especially revolting right-wing nut jobs if they ran against The Octogenarian.   

Since the infamous post first appeared, The Former Reader sent me a few text messages about “probably being too old” for this or that. For the record, he is 63 years young. Finally, a light bulb went off, he took it personally. Somehow, me not wanting an 86 year old President was saying his own expiration date was fast approaching. I wonder if the same is true for his Fellow Critic, who is two years the President’s junior.

That most certainly was not my intent. I would vote for both of my friends for President without hesitation. Here’s hoping someone shares that sentiment with The Former Reader.

The Former Reader’s and Fellow Critic’s doomsday electoral hypotheticals distract from the key question. Why the hell should any national political party have to settle for someone so elderly for one of the most difficult and important jobs in the world? Is there no man or woman as well qualified in their 40’s? What about their 50’s? 60’s? 70’s? An 82-86 year old Biden might do okay, and Fred Couples might win the Masters, but the odds are a lot better that Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, or Dustin Johnson is sporting the green jacket Sunday night. I probably won’t be voting for Biden in 2024, because I’ll be playing the odds.  

I do not expect this elaboration to have any salutary effect on my critics, known and unknown. In fact, I’ve probably just stepped into it a little deeper. Fellow Critic despises golf, so he’ll probably cancel me too. 

If a blog post falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?  

  

Fake It, Til’ You Make It

I have a great appreciation for all types of music, but as my inability to comprehend entire swaths of this thorough and thoughtful obituary of former Met Opera maestro, James Levine illustrates, I have no feel for it. To be clear, I am about as non-musical as they come; well, except for my dad, for whom I have no memory of him ever listening to music.

Of Levine, Tommasini writes:

“His performances were clearheaded, rhythmically incisive without being hard-driven, and cogently structured, while still allowing melodic lines ample room to breathe.”

My thoughts exactly. No seriously, someone enlighten me, what on earth does that even mean? I may be clueless, but I know how to “borrow” from Tommasini to pretend to know way more than I actually do. Very shortly, when I return to the party circuit post-pan, I intend on asking this cogently structured question of other party goers, “Why, oh why do so many contemporary composers routinely suffocate melodic lines?” Of course, I’ll need you to throw me a life preserver as soon as any of my conversational partners reply.

With respect to this descriptive sentence, if I only was more familiar with Wagner (I deserve partial credit for at least knowing how to pronounce ‘Vaagnr’ correctly) and Mahler, meaning a little, I could follow Tommasini:

“Above all, Mr. Levine valued naturalness, with nothing sounding forced, whether a stormy outburst in a Wagner opera or a ruminative passage of a Mahler symphony.”

Here is faux-sophisticated music party line #2 I’m filing away. “I like how Levine valued naturalness, with nothing sounding forced, whether a stormy outburst in a Wagner opera or a ruminative passage of a Mahler symphony.”

I just hope my convo partners haven’t read, or don’t remember, Tommasini’s obit.

If You Love Your Family

I just returned from Pakistan. Well, sorta.

Wikipedia describes Moshin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke as. . .

“. . . the story of a marijuana-smoking ex-banker in post-nuclear-test Lahore who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and becomes a heroin addict. It was published in 2000, and quickly became a cult hit in Pakistan and India. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award given to the best first novel in the US. . .” 

Adding:

Moth Smoke had an innovative structure, using multiple voices, second person trial scenes, and essays on such topics as the role of air-conditioning in the lives of its main characters. Pioneering a hip, contemporary approach to English language South Asian fiction, it was considered by some critics to be ‘the most interesting novel that came out of [its] generation of subcontinent (English) writing.”

One subtext of Moth Smoke is Pakistan’s endemic corruption. Corruption in the (dis)United States is relatively subtle and nuanced. I learned this three decades ago when friends, and The Good Wife and I, hired a van and driver to take us from Nairobi, Kenya to one of its national parks. Once outside the city, as we innocently cruised down a two lane highway, our uber-friendly driver got pulled over by Kenyan police. After talking to them awhile, I asked why he was stopped. Smiling, he said, “Speeding.” Cash payments from random drivers for faux “speeding” was how police supplemented their civil servant salaries. Immediately paying the fine was the path of least resistance. Just a part of doing business, like paying a toll to cross a bridge.

In Moth Smoke, Hamid explains how entire nations can become corrupt:

“Some say my dad’s corrupt and I’m his money launderer. Well, it’s true enough. People are robbing the country blind, and if the choice is between being held up at gunpoint or holding the gun, only a madman would choose to hand over his wallet rather than fill it with someone else’s cash. . . .

What’s the alternative? You have to have money these days. The roads are falling apart, so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser. The phone lines are erratic, so you need a mobile. The colleges are overrun with fundos* who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad. And that’s ten lakhs a year, mind you. Thanks to electricity theft there will always be shortages, so you have to have a generator. The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. It goes on and on. People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left. That’s what I’m doing. And if anyone isn’t doing it, it’s because they’re locked out of the kitchen.

Guilt isn’t a problem by the way. Once you’ve started, there’s no way to stop, so there’s nothing to be guilty about. As yourself this: If you’re me, what do you do now? Turn yourself in to the police, so some sadistic, bare-chested Neanderthal can beat you to a pulp while you await trial? Publish a full-page apology in the newspapers? Take the Karakoram Highway up to Tibet and become a monk, never to be heard from again? Right: you accept that you can’t change the system, shrug, create lots of little shell companies, and open dollar accounts on sunny islands, far, far away.” 

*fundamentalists

What’s Next?

The humble blog, at nine years old, is a true outlier. Most bloggers sprint from the gun only to hit the wall quite quickly and bag their plans of blogosphere glory altogether.

So, props to me for the longevity. Correction, props to you for inspiring me to keep on keepin’ on. Whether you “like” a post, leave a comment, tell me about a post that made you think, or just keep silently returning, it’s all motivating.

I get inquiries from tech firms all the time that say they could help me grow the humble blog through their search engine optimization (SEO) expertise. I haven’t hired any of them because I’m an outlier in another way, I’ve never cared about monetizing the blog. Even to the point where I actually pay for it to remain ad free.

Being content with a small, internationally inclined readership doesn’t mean I don’t think about mixing things up on occasion. I suppose, that could mean enlisting the services of an SEO team, although I have no idea how to evaluate their relative merits. It could mean changing formats too. I could vlog (video blog); however, many people say I have the perfect face for radio, which brings us to the coolest kid on the “personal journalism/communication” block—podcasting.

When I think about podcasting, which I really learned to appreciate in 2020, I assume we’re just approaching or just past “Peak Podcasting”. There’s no danger in it fading away, but there’s definitely going to be a shakeout with 15% of the best ones getting 85% of the audience. And I have no illusions about what it would take to be in that 15%, largely a dedicated team outworking the 85%.

I suppose though, I could have a humble podcast, since I wouldn’t be depending upon it to feed my family. 

I’ve been contemplating what’s next when it comes to personal journalism/communication. Many would say the future is Substack. Substack is definitely a part of what’s next, but I anticipate some unknown format evolving to compliment subscription-based blogging, vlogging, and podcasting.

In the last twenty years, a significant swath of phone-less Sub-Saharan Africans skipped landline telephones in favor of inexpensive, cellular ones. Similarly, I could leapfrog podcasting and make a real go of the next format if I had a better, more concrete feel, for the future.

Is your crystal ball any clearer than mine? What do you think is around the corner? Five years from now, how might you “consume” news, hear stories about other people and places, and educate yourself about things you care about?

What is lurking on the personal journalism/communication horizon? Put differently, what should PressingPause become?

A One Act Play

The setting: Jeff Bezos’s and MacKenzie Scott’s Medina, WA kitchen. After working together to make Kraft macaroni and cheese with hot dogs, they serve themselves, grab two cans of Mountain Dew, and sit down at their formica dinner table. It’s one of their last dinners together as a married couple. A few days following this meal, they decide to pull the plug on their marriage. 

Jeff: Mac and cheese with dogs never gets old. [laughs uncontrollably] 

MacKenzie: No, it doesn’t. [inner voice. . . but your laugh has sure started to] 

Jeff: What did you do today?

MacKenzie: I spent most of it journaling. Which helped me realize I don’t want to help you turn Amazon into the world’s retail store anymore. I think $182 billion is enough money. I want to make the world a better place through writing and giving my share of our money away.

[All the while, Jeff texts Lauren Sanchez under the table.]

MacKenzie: [Softly, sadly, and with a deep sense of resignation.] Did you hear me?

Jeff: Yes, you said you want to help me make Amazon into the world’s retail store. 

[MacKenzie stares at Jeff in silence]

Jeff: [Head in his lap.] Can you pass the applesauce? 

 

“I Often Look Down On Myself”

Despite all the distancing, I’ve had many more meaningful interactions with my students this semester than I anticipated. Interactions that have left me feeling sublimely aligned with my life purpose.

I regularly challenge students to focus more on learning processes than outcomes. More specifically, I advise them not to focus on grades too intensely.  I’m not naive as to why so many of them do exactly that—scholarship requirements, good driving discounts, graduate school applications, and parents’ expectations for starters.

And yet, deep down they know their intense focus on grades often compromises their learning. Many still can’t help themselves.

“Why, do you place so much importance on your grades?” I gently probed with one of my first year writers last week during a one-on-one conference. I don’t remember what she said, but I’ll never forget her follow up e-mail.

“You asked me when we last met why I focus so much on my grades. I gave you the first answer to come to mind. I have put a lot of thought into it. I often look down on myself. I have a hard time telling myself, that I’m smart or interesting or pretty. I have a hard time accepting it when others say it’s true. Grades are the way, I can look at myself and say, ‘here in front of you is proof that you are smart, or at least smart enough, and that you can succeed.’ That’s all. Thank you for everything professor.”

I’m the one who should be thanking her for the single most honest, heartfelt explanation for grade anxiety I’ve ever heard.

Wednesday Required Reading and Viewing

1. Colleges Have Shed a Tenth of Their Employees Since the Pandemic Began. The Great Contraction gathers steam. Yesterday, my uni announced the formation of a Joint Faculty Committee which will decide which programs and faculty to cut. When we did this four years ago, I knew we didn’t cut deeply enough. I regret being right.

2. Italian Police Use Lamborghini To Transport Donor Kidney 300 Miles In Two Hours. Should help with recruiting.

3. Have rogue orcas really been attacking boats in the Atlantic? This story has it all including a “rogue pod” and marauding “teenagers”. 

4. Jason Reynolds: Honesty, Joy, and Anti-Racism. Great book, highly recommended.

5. The Secret to Deep Cleaning. Come on over if you’d like to practice.

Death By Lecture

I’m getting the hang of teaching on-line, but writing that is going to cost me. Bigly. Whenever I get the least bit cocky about my faux-electronic teaching skills, I almost immediately do something exceedingly stupid. My undergraduate Multicultural Education class is filled with bright eyed, smart, engaging young adults. Most of the time. On Tuesday, the proletariat staged a work stoppage. Meaning whenever I posed a question to the 22-person class, no one responded. “I’ll just wait them out,” I thought to myself. Had I not capitulated, I’d still be waiting.

It’s happened once or twice this semester. So I thought about what those class sessions had in common and formed the following hypothesis. If I start class by talking more than a few minutes, they all have the same inner dialogue, “Fine, if you like the sound of your own voice so much, just keep talking for the whole damn 90 minutes.” In medical circles, this is known as “Death By Lecture”.

It didn’t matter that my 30-minute presentation was clear, conceptual, and relevant, cross the 10-minute Rubicon on screen and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount would’ve left his crowd mute.

So I came up with an experiment. I started Thursday’s class without talking at all. At 10:01 a.m. I wrote in our Zoom chat room, “Good morning. I have a hypothesis. When I begin class by speaking for more than a 5-10 minutes, a passive pall descends upon the land.” Sheepish smiles from those with video cameras on spread like wildfire. “So today, instead of talking, I’m going to use this chat room to begin class. I will type fast. I’d like to begin by having you think about the following questions. You successfully graduated high school and earned admission to a well-respected university. To what do you credit your academic success? Why? What constitutes ‘success in school’? It has to be more than just getting good grades doesn’t it? What else should ‘school success’ encompass? Why? All right, ready? I’m going to put you into groups now.”

Then I weaved and bobbed through uber-animated small groups. After awhile, I brought everyone back together and again turned to the chat room. They were clearly digging the fact that I still hadn’t spoken. This time I typed, “Okay, that was excellent, you’ve already confirmed my hypothesis, but let’s extend the experiment. Have your Berliner article in front of you to refer to when discussing these questions. Which outside-of-school factors most impact how well students do or don’t do in school? If outside-of-school factors impact student achievement three times more than in-school factors, how much should the public expect teachers to accomplish in any given school year?” Again, they dove into animated, energized discussions.

An hour into class I ruined everything by breaking my silence. After a mini-lecture, we were nearly out of time. I hurriedly asked a few questions, but was met with another stone-faced work stoppage. Their silence wrapped up the experiment and spoke volumes. I had resuscitated their surliness. What I heard was, “Answer your own damn questions.”

I’m Not A Political Consultant

But I could be. Imagine if Trump’s campaign was a bit more inclusive and I was hired to advise on messaging and strategy.

The incessant attacks on Biden’s character are a dead-end. A lot of Republicans fret about his probable policies, but they also know deep down, he’s a decent person. And human decency counts now more than ever. Instead, focus on real threats to American life by tweeting this out:

It’s grossly unfair that college professors have lifetime job security and an all-time great President has to reapply for his job after only four years.

Then just sit back and watch the “likes” and retweets.

And here’s how you blunt the criticism that the President hasn’t clearly communicated what he hopes to accomplish in a second term. Again, tweet this:

Authoritarianism. Just try it. What have you got to lose?

The first two-thirds of that would also make an excellent bumper sticker and pin.

Weeks ago, I also would’ve insisted on placing a voting box at every truck stop and boat ramp in Florida.

And lastly, that 400-person White House party planned for tonight, I’d trim that guest list by about 396 people.