Friday, November 6, 2009

What's "old"?

A few years ago, I was offered "senior checking" by my bank. It was quite a shock, because it meant that in someone's eyes I was now old. Not too long after that, my dentist observed that everything in my mouth looked just fine, "not counting the bone loss that is normal for a man your age."

I should have been prepared. My son, after all, has been calling me "old man" for years. He even programmed my cell phone so the opening screen has that name. So I've been wondering. Just what is "old"?

The dictionary, as usual, isn't much help. Or maybe it is. One of the definitions is "no longer young." I can't imagine my father as a young man. He was always old, but then he always had arthritis, so I can't imagine him skipping or leaping. Or playing tennis or even walking really fast. He sort of lumbered.

I tried to put a number on "old." In The Full Monty, the committee auditioning dancers looks at one guy and someone says, "Look at him! He must be at least 50." That's how old I was when I got my senior checking. I haven't even bothered to check on McDonald's standard for "senior coffee" or the state's age for a Golden Buckeye Card. In an early episode of Will & Grace, Jack is horrified to discover that he's passed the magic number: 30. On the other hand, when I complain that I'm too old to find love, someone always mentions some nice old guy who got hitched in his 70s. I always assume that's an urban legend.

George Burns is sort of a hero. He was scheduled to play Carnegie Hall on his 100th birthday. He never made it. I think the cigars killed him. He was 99.

I used to be older. I used to have trouble with my back until I began weightlifting again. I used to worry a lot about my health. I used to have a gut hanging over my belt. I used to take pills. Now I eat fruits and vegetables. I used to worry about what people think of me. Now I vote for Obama (the young person's candidate), wear jeans, and listen to loud music.

Maybe "old" should fit into the phrase "too old to." I guess I'm too old to be mistaken for an undergraduate, but not too old to buy my jeans in the young men's section of Macy's. I'm too old now to wrestle teenagers, at least the ones over 16 or the ones on wrestling teams. I'm too old to drink Natural Light until I fall over, but then I always was too old for that.

Maybe that phrase "too old to" should be finished with "too old to have hope." An Argentinean friend of mine, Juan Acuña, told me that he couldn't wait to hit 65. That's when solid respectability comes. That's when one is what one was made to be. George Burns had hope (and a lot of jokes) waiting for Carnegie Hall. Another friend, Charlie Todd, got married at 86. (He did make one concession to his years though. He said he didn't believe in short engagements, but when one is 86, one can't wait TOO long.)

Maybe "old" isn't the right word. I should try to work on "elderly." In the sense of being an elder, it's a good thing, but in the sense of giving up on oneself, falling apart, restricting one's horizon to the next sitcom, and staying away from anything interesting, threatening, or fun, I don't want to go there. "Old" isn't something I can control: I approach it at exactly 60 seconds per minute. I can control "elderly" though. That's what I intend to do. I hope I follow in the footsteps of George Burns and Charlie Todd. Find true love at 86 and play Carnegie Hall at 100.

Freshman 15

This isn't a finished piece of writing; it's just the skeleton of what I'd do with the "Commonly held assumptions" assignment.

First, the assignment:
Select a commonly-held assumption and present an argument against it.

Notice what's contained (and implied) here:
  • Everyone else (or at least a lot of people) thinks this one is true.
  • Their argument isn't necessarily so.
  • An argument implies that maybe there's some other material that I'm not even bringing out.
Now for my "commonly-held assumption" (against which I'm arguing):
The "Freshman 15" is a bad thing.

Definition work necessary: The "Freshman 15" is the fifteen pounds that a college freshman (not a high school freshman) is alleged to gain during the freshman year.

Where did we get this?
  • Observations of friends, etc., showing that people actually are gaining weight (and some of it is fat).
  • Magazine articles (particularly in magazines aimed at girls?) about avoiding the flab.
  • The "bad thing" part comes from our culture's fascination with the body—whether it's the Abercrombie male with the incredible abs or the fashion magazine girl who weighs 98 pounds, we set up unrealistic goals for ourselves.
Parts of my opponent's argument that might be correct:
  • Many freshmen do eat too much pizza, beer, and other junk food because they are away from parental supervision.
  • Stress causes overeating.
  • Without required gym classes and with a lot of homework, physical exercise is often forgotten.
  • Gaining fat is often a poor idea—and fat gained by young people often stays put for the rest of their lives.
Soft spots in their argument:
  • Freshmen are 18 years old or so, and are still growing. Compare a fit high school basketball player with a fit college player and you'll see more muscle, broader shoulders, and usually more height.
  • The taller boys may put on another inch in height before their sophomore year.
  • Some college students become more active in sports, etc., and gain pounds of muscle.
  • "Normal" is a very tricky word when applied to height/weight.
  • A normally-built woman of 25 or so has a different shape from a normally built woman of 17. Usually the difference is in general shape and (yes) a few moderate fat deposits that give the mature woman a more rounded, less bony appearance. This is not a bad thing (from a health point of view).
  • Considering the amount of stress a college freshman has, perhaps a little comfort food (which is always high-calorie) is a better alternative to depression and/or other ways of dealing with stress.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Portrait of a Boss

Character Sketch

He scared me out of my wits, but I think he liked that. Dave Carroll wore a perpetual scowl; his head was shaved; his voice was loud. Though his belly hung over his belt, his thick arms made me feel like he could easily bend steel—or me—with his bare hands. It didn't help my attitude any that he was my boss, or that we worked together at a school bus company (not really the warm fuzzy place some people imagine). Underneath it all, though, Dave was surprisingly naïve and generous.

I found out about Dave's innocence on the first day of school one year. A kindergarten child had been missed because the route sheet was wrong, so the child's mother called the school bus company. Big, beefy, scowling Dave was just about to go for donuts anyhow, so he got Jerry the dispatcher (just as big, beefy, and scowling), and they got in Dave's dirty brown Oldsmobile to go take care of the situation. It never dawned on Dave that he was acting out every mother's nightmare: two large, mean-looking men telling a small child, "Come on, kid. We'll take you to school. It's all right!" while the mother watched helplessly from the porch, screaming and waving her arms.

It was another first day of school when I learned about Dave's generosity. I had driven my unusual old foreign car to Washington, D.C., to visit my parents. School started on Monday, but on Friday something under the old car went "clunk"! The dealer did have the parts and had plenty of time to fix the car on Tuesday. So there I was, 800 miles away, about to leave the school bus company in the lurch on the first day of school. Terrified, I called Dave at his home. The first day is always chaos anyhow, and I was about to make it much worse. I remembered Dave's fury at drivers who failed to show up, and I pictured his "I'm going to eat you" toothy grin. I pictured those forearms that were as thick as my legs. I knew I didn't have a chance of keeping that job, and in a way I was glad I'd never have to see him face-to-face again. I wasn't prepared for Dave's first comment: "Should I wire you some money?" As I look back over the years, I realize that Dave had kept me on the payroll doing a lot of little odd jobs around the garage, jobs that really didn't need to be done, mainly from generosity.

I will remember many things about Dave. He used to give good advice: "There comes a time in every man's life when he has to make a decision—under, over, or across" (meaning the route the belt takes when navigating the belly). I remember wondering how a man that big could have fit into a submarine when he was in the Navy. I will remember him best, though, for his childlike approach to the world and his bigheartedness.

I'd like you to notice several things about this short essay:

  • It's very specific. You can find the color and brand of Dave's car, where I was when my car broke down, and the name of the dispatcher. Don't be afraid of specifics when they can feed into the point you're making.
  • Don't be afraid of dialog either. Several times in this essay Dave says things.
  • On the other hand, specifics that don't contribute were left out. You never find out, for example, that my car was a white 1968 Fiat 124 four-door sedan. My audience would probably know what an Oldsmobile was, but not a Fiat. The word "unusual" was enough for my purpose there. I didn't want to focus on my car, but on Dave's personality (and the dirty brown Oldsmobile contributes to that image).
  • Though there is a lot of comment on Dave's appearance, it's all there to give a contrast with his character. I didn't expect a bullet-headed guy like him to act like that.
  • Though I do tell two stories about Dave, they are stories that illustrate particular character traits I wanted to talk about. They are not connected in any time sequence—in fact, I really don't remember which happened first. The general idea here is to use short stories to prove a point, not simply to tell a tale. The essay as a whole isn't a story; it's a description. It has no plot.
  • The structure is very tight. I write about his innocence, then about his generosity.
  • This was originally written as a demonstration piece for a course that focused on very short essays. It's only 504 words. What would I do if I wanted to double the size?
    • Say more about stuff that's already there. How did my wife react when Dave offered to send money? What do I mean that a school bus company isn't warm and fuzzy? How did Dave dress most of the time? (His white dress shirt was ordinarily tight as a drumhead across his belly.)
    • Add incidents that contribute to points that are already there. He was generous enough to employ me to do odd jobs when he really didn't need them done.
    • At least consider another aspect of his personality. He asked me to lie to a nun.
    • Ask myself whether to add in the "next thing." Has he somehow influenced me since then?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Human tectonic plates

As I read over Natalie Angier's "Intolerance of Boyish Behavior" (Reading Critically, Writing Well page 388) I thought of three different boys I've known.

Daniel was born into a very conservative, church-attending family, the youngest child and the only boy. His older sisters thought that a fine afternoon's recreation meant sitting quietly with their hands folded, having a conversation about religious topics. Daniel liked to wrestle. I remember going to meetings at their house. Daniel and Zach (the son of another member, and just about Daniel's age) would spend the whole time chasing each other around, yelling, wrestling, and getting sweaty. The daughters would sit quietly with the adults. His parents were desperate. Fortunately for Daniel, they didn't believe in medical doctors, so he was taken to a quack chiropractor who did some sort of hair test and kept finding new things Daniel was allergic to. His diet kept getting more and more restricted until he was living on sort of a Zen macrobiotic brown rice regimen. He got skinny, lacked energy, but still was loud and competitive. At least he was spared Ritalin. Finally the parents gave up, let him eat everything in sight, and allowed him to become a teenager. When he was 14, he was in my Sunday school class, interested in boxing, lifting weights, and very proud of his new biceps.

My nephew, on the other hand, got a pharmacy full of medication for his ADHD. I remember him when he was 11 years old, nodding off at the breakfast table or giving me a glassy-eyed stare much more appropriate to a drug addict. He got lucky too. The doctors became concerned when he hit 13 and was showing no signs of puberty. His stature was about right for a boy of 10. So they took him off the meds. I saw him at Christmas. He's now bright, interesting, fun, and a little scattered. No more so, though, than most boys. He lives on a ranch in Texas, feeds his goats, rides his horse, and has an incredible fantasy life in which he's the principle actor in a very detailed saga that somehow involves Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, and a lot of minor characters. You can find him carrying his wooden sword, making his way through the back pasture, talking to himself, and carrying on his battles. At the end of things, he comes back to the house, sweaty and dirty, hard-muscled, and thoroughly boyish. Then he sits and reads for a while to get more material for his drama. Somehow I don't think the medication helped him.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hidden Meaning

Yes, I know I'm getting tiring. But I wanted to write down something that I thought of today in class—very much on the "hidden meaning" wavelength.

The other day I watched a movie adaptation of Dorothy Sayers' Nine Tailors. In this drama, Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur detective, sets out to find some missing jewels. (Warning: plot spoiler ahead) He finally does solve the mystery. To do so he must:

1. Figure out that a gibberish letter is really some form of code.
2. Figure out that the code is really a notation for bell patterns in British change ringing.
3. Figure out which of several possible methods might have been used for the change ringing notation
4. Figure out which bell to follow through the changes.
5. Figure out that the code really is writing out two quotations from the Bible.
6. Find the place in the church where those quotations are inscribed.
7. Learn that the church used to have a balcony.
8. Climb up to the place where the inscription indicated, and finally
9. Figure out what to open up once he got up there.

THAT'S a hidden meaning! To unlock it, one had to be a trained bell-ringer AND have lived in the parish when there was a balcony twenty years previously AND known that the bell to follow was named "Tailor Paul." (Not to mention having a certain familiarity with the Bible.)

Many of my students write as if poems and plays worked much the same way. No—it's not like Indiana Jones or National Treasure. It's more like a letter from your mother, mentioning things that make you both happy. Or maybe like someone visiting a zoo and seeing a lot of animals that remind him of frightening predators, then moving on to wonder whether a good God could create things that eat small animals.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could form thy fearful symmetry?

Well maybe that's more obscure than "I looked at the tiger and wondered if God could make something that scary." But Blake's poem isn't hidden. Just deep.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Richard Cory

  1. Images of Royalty in Cory — not what you might expect in New York

    1. Royal words — many words here do double duty, meaning one thing, connoting something completely different; Robinson often works against the common meaning of the word.
      1. Gentleman (l. 3)
      2. Crown
      3. Favored (dual meaning: facial appearance {archaic} and blessed with advantages)
      4. Imperially slim (are emperors normally slim?)
      5. Arrayed (means decorative clothing, but this is quiet)
      6. Richer than a king
      7. Grace ("your grace")
      8. In fine — another odd word: precision and superiority

    2. Royal attributes
      1. Quietly arrayed; human (why make a point of saying so?)
      2. Flutters pulses (movie star? what is it like to meet royalty—as in Mrs. Dalloway?)
      3. Glitters when he walks
      4. Richer than a king
      5. Schooled in every grace. Who is schooled that way?

    3. His name
      1. Richard may recall the kings of England
      2. Richard Coeur d'Lion — perhaps, but not necessary
      3. Not much made of names, but it is one of the simplest in Tilbury Town

  2. Oppositions between Cory and population

    1. He comes downtown; we're already there
    2. We on the pavement; he's presumably not
    3. We are still waiting for the light
    4. We work; he's just rich
    5. We have no meat
    6. We wish we were in his place—we do not wish to be him, just to have his position and stuff

  3. About his death

    1. Irony of setting: calm summer night at home contrasted to violence of his manner of death. No preparation in the poem prior to the last half of the last line.
    2. Irony of motivation: all our observations are of externals (clothing, possessions, behavior that he has been schooled in)
    3. Why does Robinson work the nobility thing so hard before the death?

      1. Death of aristocracy in the new world? Not likely.
      2. Like so many others in Tilbury Town, the facade hides a darker story. Eben Flood, the merry drunk hides a lonely, rejected man. John Evereldown goes sneaking through the night woods to women he cannot resist. The tragedy of Miniver Cheevy and George Crabbe lie on the surface for all to see. Richard Cory's was hidden deep—only he knew.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hidden meaning

This is one of those phrases that makes most literature teachers cringe: the "hidden meaning" of the piece. It's as if we were in an episode of Indiana Jones. The straightforward meaning of the story or poem might be about romantic love, but there's a "hidden meaning" (only available to the high priests who have gone through certain rituals) that has to do with something totally different.

The whole idea makes me a bit ill, but when I think of it, I've got to admit that the "hidden meaning" idea makes a bit of sense.

We look at Emily Dickinson's poem, "I like to see it lap the miles," and ask, "What is IT?" Students say "racing car" or "river." I point out that racing cars hadn't been invented when Dickinson was alive. I guess that's hidden meaning because I looked up her dates on Wikipedia. I ask whether rivers are "punctual" or "peer in shanties" and the students think I'm making something up.

There is a kind of student paper that says, "What the author was trying to say is ..."

Take it as a fact: most of these authors were actually pretty good at saying stuff. That's how they made it into the textbooks. And the stuff they were saying isn't something that's only for the high priests. It's for everyone. Everyone who will read carefully and look at a dictionary, that is.