Friday, March 4, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities and of two places in time

I had three excellent English teachers in high school in the early 1960s, but Mr. Robinson, during my senior year, was my favorite.  He was a middle-aged man with whitish hair, bespectacled, soft-spoken, and the kind of guy who exuded mild manners with every word.  He had a gentle smile that he sported often, never a belly laugh, and an acceptable sense of humor.  He always wore a sport jacket; I remember it as gray or brown tweed.  He was the personification of what we all envision when we think of a college English professor at an Ivy League school.

That year in English, we mostly read great books and practiced our writing skills.  Unlike his usual outward demeanor, Mr. Robinson was a ruthless editor, which we thought was somewhat unfair at the time.  But he knew that freshman English in college was not a cake walk in those days, and that most of us would be facing that trial in only a few months.  For example, I was bound for Ohio State that fall, and a high percentage of entering students got Ds or Fs in freshmen English on a regular basis; about a third of OSU frosh flunked out of school during their first year.  So we wrote, and Mr. Robinson edited, and we rewrote, and he re-edited, and slowly but surely most of us got better and better at composing a readable, logical piece. 

That fall semester in college, I found out exactly what Mr. Robinson had been trying to get us to understand.  No matter how hard I tried, it was nearly impossible to get higher than a C on an English composition.  Those who had not had Mr. Robinson seemed to do even worse. But eventually, my scores, and presumably my writing skills, improved and I survived that academic year more or less unscathed, in no small way due to my mentor’s efforts the year before.

Perhaps the most vivid academic memory of that class was reading and discussing Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities.  How can anyone who has ever read that book not recall at least parts of the first and last sentences of that wonderful story.  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times……..” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…..”  Oh, to be able to write a book, or an essay, or even a paragraph of prose with elements that have resounded through the ages like that.  Those words are certainly famous and timeless in their own right, and millions of people around the world are familiar with them.  But would they have left their indelible imprint on my soul if it had not been for Mr. Robinson’s ability to bring out the richness of their import?  That is what a great teacher can do, and it is a wonderful thing.

I have not reread that classic since I studied it in high school all those years ago.  But from time to time I think about that story, its characters and the beautiful expression of their powerful emotions through Dicken’s talented hand.  And then today, while I was a substitute teacher in a high school class, I realized that a copy of that gem was sitting on the desk at which I was sitting.  I stared at it for a long moment, not quite sure what I should do.  But I picked it up, and I read that incredible first sentence (which was much longer than I remembered).  And then I turned to the final page with all its sadness and I read Dickens’ last sentence. The memories of sitting in my high school English class only a few seats from Mr. Robinson’s desk, and waiting with anticipation for his clever way of getting us to dig for the depth of meaning that cemented that book forever in my mind, poured over me.

And I sat there, looking out over this class of 20 or so students, and I felt just like I remember Mr. Robinson looking.  We have all experienced something like that.  I have white hair, I’m sitting at a desk staring pensively at all those young minds with a curious smile on my face, and I’m feeling how important it is to open the minds of those teenagers, to make them feel something, to make them remember something beautiful about the great literature of the past.  For that fleeting moment, I WAS Mr. Robinson.

I have often wondered whatever happened to Mr. Robinson, but I’m sure he passed a long time ago.  After all, he was my teacher more than 50 years ago.  A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 (the same year that Darwin published Origin of Species), and it was about 100 hundred years old when I first read it.  Another half century has passed, and students are still asked to read it.  How incredible!  Another half century, and I’m hoping there are still Mr. Robinsons out there.  Thousands of them, tens of thousands of them, because the world needs them—every last one.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Probabilities and the perception of danger

There is now a petition in Parliament to prevent Donald Trump from entering the UK because of his hate-speeches about Muslims (UK debates a ban on Trump), and Canada and Australia are now routinely warning their citizens about traveling in the U.S. because of the danger due to the gun culture here . This is like the warning to U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen or Libya, or other such places, because of the danger of violent crimes against Americans. So should we be worried about dangerous Muslims in the U.S. or dangerous Americans in general?  While Trump rails against Muslims and their potential danger to Americans, we have experienced slightly more than one mass shooting (defined as a killing of 4 or more people in a single incident) per day in 2015 (Mass shootings). Of more than 300 such shootings this year, only 1-2 were perpetrated by people who were foreign-born; the rest were done by wacky Americans with guns. In addition, another 30,000 people were killed by shootings in events that do not qualify as a mass-shooting. Of course, the Republican politicians’ uncreative solution to this problem is for all of us to carry more guns. How absurd!

Perception is nearly everything, when one has to triage what is safe and what is dangerous. In my case, I fear Americans with guns the most, with foreign-born terrorists following at a very distant third. I can’t even list number two, for fear of alienating some friends and relatives. I’m guessing that many people would put my number 3 as their number 1. But the data do not support that ranking. I almost never worry about foreign terrorism, because it is very rare in the U.S. But every time I walk into a 7-11 or a public school, I think consciously about some deranged guy who bears a grudge or has some kind of mental derangement, and I scan the area for suspicious people, escape routes, doors, and windows. Even though I know that the probability that I will be harmed violently is still exceedingly small, it is now on my mind much of the time. And this is no way to live.

The irony is that of the dozen or so countries where I have spent significant time in the past decade, the U.S. is the only place where I am somewhat preoccupied with the perception of possible violence. The only other place that matched this feeling was Nairobi, Kenya, although my travels through the rest of Kenya did not elicit this feeling. And in Uganda, I spent a week traveling from the Kenyan border on the east to the Rwandan border on the west, followed by a couple of days in Kampala the capitol. On that trip, I had total peace of mind about my safety, even though I was the only white guy for tens of miles in any direction during most of that week. For me, the main reason for this feeling of safety in foreign countries and my feeling of non-safety in my own country is the incredible difference in the availability of weapons. The number of small firearms in the U.S. now numbers more than 300,000,000, which represents more privately-owned small handguns per capita by far than any country in the world (Number of guns per capita). These numbers do not include rifles and shotguns, only handguns.

So what to do? I’m really not sure how to solve this problem. But let’s at least start by trying to match our perception of danger with the actual probabilities. The chances of being shot by a native- born American with a gun is on the order of 10,000 times greater than being hurt by a foreign-born terrorist, using the numbers cited above in the referenced article. The chances of being killed by someone who is driving while texting is probably even greater than that, but this form of mayhem never even makes it to the front page. My conclusion is that all this hype about dangerous immigrants and Muslim terrorists is overplayed, given the actual facts, but it resonates with the xenophobia that is so curiously common in the U.S.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

If I can’t write like Steinbeck, why bother?

For the past couple of years, I have been reading some of the classic novels of the 20th century. Did you know that you can go online and find what the literary experts in this country think were the best works of fiction published in the 1900s by any author in the world, actually the top 223. My goal is to read them all, but I still have about 200 to go. It’s like a never-ending bucket list of words and sentences, and ideas, and philosophy, and turns of phrases and a sprinkling of sex and violence that every educated man should experience. When I initially skimmed the list that I so dutifully printed out, I noticed that Ernest Hemingway (5) and John Steinbeck (4) had several volumes that made the list, along with many authors of whom I had never heard. Of course, everyone has some familiarity with these two American giants of the literary world and, perhaps, most of us have read at least one of their novels, probably in high school. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men come to mind.

So with a few detours along the way, I dug into the works of Ernest Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa. Not all of these novels made the list, but once I began following the spoor of the great Ernest, I continued on a bit farther. And I enjoyed every minute of each of those reads.

Hemingway is famous for his style of writing—short, terse, no-nonsense sentences. His are stories of war and bull fighting and big game hunting, and the ever-present personal turmoil, but there is often plentiful drinking by the main protagonist, apparently based on prodigious time engaged in similar pursuits by the author himself. The drinking in Death in the Afternoon was so prolific and colorful that I found myself wanting bourbon right after breakfast. He made drinking seem as essential as brushing my teeth, and it sounded like fun, with all that camaraderie with interesting characters in exotic bars and hotels around the world. It all blended liquidly with my fond memories of carousing with pals in the army in Korea, of drinking tequila in some cantina with locals in Costa Rica, of knocking down beer with my grad school colleagues at Squirrels in Corvallis. So, I had hit pay dirt early in my reading crusade of the top 223, and the stories themselves were pretty good as well.

Enter Steinbeck. Not Hemingway at all. Longer, more involved sentences with commas. Sometimes even a semi-colon. And thoughtful, about poor people, sad or happy landscapes, how loneliness actually feels, what it must be like to be truly hungry, or truly angry, or pleasantly surprised. Wonderfully insightful descriptions. The kind of writing where I read a line or two, and then have the need to simply stare out of my den window into the forest so that I can think and digest what I just read, and how it relates to my life and decades-old memories of family, and friends, and deep feelings. That is what won me over. I want a writer who makes me spend almost as much time thinking about what I read as the actual time spent reading. I’ve never encountered an author who does that better than Steinbeck. He makes me laugh (Tortilla Flat), and cry (The Grapes of Wrath), and ponder the meaning of life (Cannery Row), and wonder why people are the way they are (The Pearl). I absolutely love every sentence of his as I read it. There never seems to be a throw-away line-never. Every word and combination of words means something, and carries weight. What a gift. I am green with envy. Much better than Hemingway!

But I’m also somewhat dismayed, because Steinbeck was so wonderful, so much better than any other writer, that I now have little desire to read anyone else. It would be a disappointment, almost a waste of time. As for writing anything else myself, I am tempted to forget about it entirely. If one cannot be as good as the best, then why try?

Let me explain something about my personality. I suppose it is a fault, but an interesting, quirky idiosyncrasy. I used to be a competitive tennis player. I played tennis in high school and varsity tennis at a major university. My senior year in college, I was the Number 1 player on the team for both singles and doubles. I was pretty good, but it is all relative. I was nowhere near the best or even 100th best, and I always knew this. I would never get to play in a major tournament, let alone win one. But I kept trying to improve, to get better, and to move up the pack. I loved the sport. I was hopeful. However, if someone had had perfect vision of the future at that time, and they told me that it was a certainty that I would never be the best, I would have quit the game on the spot. I actually knew that I would not, could not, ever be the best, but the 1 in a million chance that I might become the best someday is what kept me going.

And that is the way I now feel about writing. I am now wise enough to know that I will never be as good a writer as Steinbeck. It is impossible. It ain’t gonna happen. A few years ago, I outlined a book I had thought about writing for a long time, but I would be disappointed if I ever completed the damn thing, because I would constantly be comparing the result with that of the master. That would be frustrating and pitiful. It would leave me with a hollow gut. So why waste my time? After all, there is gardening to do, and bourbon to drink, and cigars to smoke. Those activities almost never disappoint me, because I am good at those things. Why spend time in an activity where you are mediocre compared to the best, when you can spend that time doing a thing to which you are well suited?

And think how efficient the entire process of publication and book hawking would become if every author adopted my “fault”. Certainly, less than 1% of the books that are published these days are worth reading. So I would say to these thousands of aspiring authors, “Read Steinbeck. Then, forget about writing. Don’t embarrass yourselves. Save trees and time. Take up bowling. Streamline your life with wise choices and increase your energy efficiency.” I doubt that anyone will take my advice, because they think there is that 1 in a million chance that they might be as good as Steinbeck. But I have seen the other side, and I now have perfect vision of the future in this respect, and I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you will never be that good.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Just another little irritating thing

Near the top of my list of irritating things these days are those tiny plastic stickers found on fruit that you buy at the grocery store.  There is nothing new about this; these stickers have been around for years.  I try my best to use fewer plastic bags that are clogging up the oceans and landfills but, then, right before my eyes on almost every single banana, tomato, and apple I buy at the grocery is that stupid, shiny plastic sticker, which always appears as if it is laughing at me when I attempt to remove it without damaging the soft skin of a ripe piece of fruit.

Who can remember what those codes mean anyway?  Does the 4-digit code signify organic or is that the 5-digit code?  Does a code beginning with an “8” mean that the product was genetically modified?  Apparently an “8” is supposed to mean GMO but the fruit is often not labeled as such.  If we must have these stickers, can’t the codes just be something like “S”, which means Safe, and “NS”, which means Not Safe, and “NSu”, which means Not Sure?  You know, it is like the weather report with temperature and wind chill factor.  Don’t give me all that Ms. Weatherperson.  Just say, “Wear a jacket”, or “A T-shirt will be fine today”.

In addition, management and I throw all of our kitchen waste into our compost pile in the garden, but those plastic stickers do not decompose.  A year later, I can still read the word “Costa Rica” on an old sticker that inadvertently got past me, and is lying carefree in the garden.  They’re ugly and unsightly; simply put, they diminish the Zen that resides in my vegetable garden space.  And because I can’t stand to leave them in the compost pile, I am compelled to pick them out of that mess whenever I discover one.

So, what to do?  There is nothing to be done if you buy your produce at a grocery store instead of a farmer’s market (sticker-free) except to meticulously peel off each and every one of those damn things.  Buy the fruit, bring it home, PEEL, and then wash and store.  Then, the next time you bring fruit home, rinse and repeat.

(For a nice article that explains exactly what the codes on these stickers mean, click here.  Also, they are now considered an environmental problem.)