Being Human

Many times over the last year or so, I’ve wondered: What one thing do I wish everyone knew? What one thing, if known, could make a better world possible?

I’ve come up with a hundred answers. Each time, I can find more counterarguments than arguments to support a given answer, so I discard it.

Finally, last week, I landed on a one-thing with few worthy counterarguments.

Over the last couple of weeks, my third-grade son has repeatedly reflected right-answer thinking. This is a kind of thinking that perceives the world in dualities instead of dimensions–yes/no, black/white, Democrat/Republican, right/wrong–and which struggles to account for systems, complexity, and the interdependencies that grow in complex systems.

So I’ve faced a question: In a social world constructed to cultivate such thinking, how does one teach other ways? How does one reveal its shortcomings in ways that can work for a third grader, especially when that third grader is stuck in a system that rewards right answers over piercing questions? Continue reading “Being Human”

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Talking Books

Yesterday, my family and I went to a book-themed birthday party. On the ride there, my husband, Anthony, asked our eight-year-old, Li’l D, about his favorite book character.

Li’l D first named Clay, a dragon from the Wings of Fire series. We spent a few minutes talking about Clay before moving on to favorite human characters.

At first, Li’l D couldn’t think of any human characters. Anthony and I offered up four names for D’s consideration: Greg, Rafe, Miles, and Niles. Rafe (Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life) got the gold medal for being so funny; Miles (The Terrible Two) got silver, because he’s so good at improvising pranks.

After a good ten or fifteen minutes talking about Li’l D’s favorites, I asked if he had any questions for us. He said, naw, I don’t want to hear about scary books! I pointed out that I read a lot of not-horror books; my favorite author, Neil Postman, wrote cultural critiques.

I could practically hear Li’l D roll his eyes as he said, “Postman, Postman, Postman.”

(See, even he knew it’s not all horror for me—though, to be fair, some of Postman’s critiques exposed horrifying possibilities!)

After a pause, Li’l D asked us about the scariest books we’ve ever read. Anthony and I agreed on The House of Leaves. We spent another ten minutes or so trying to explain its creepiness, with Li’l D completely unpersuaded. He couldn’t believe I’d slept with lights on and all inside doors open for weeks after I’d read it alone in rural Japan. Anthony, for his part, couldn’t believe I’d dared read it in such circumstances.

The conversation tapered off after about thirty minutes, but the minutes it lasted were delightful! For all we all love reading, yesterday highlighted how little we talk together about what we’re reading.

Now, we’re going to consciously set aside time for such talks. I’m already looking forward to our next one.

Compelled to recycle

I just recycled a book. That’s to say, I got out of my car, walked to my recycling bin, and deposited Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire there on my way into my house. While I’ll never advocate burning books, I felt quite comfortable opting to take out of circulation my single $30 copy.

The book isn’t worth a long, detailed critique. In fact, it’s barely worth the couple of paragraphs I’m typing here. The only reason I write anything about it at all is to say that the book’s author exemplifies the kind of hubris railed against, in different ways, by my favorite authors (as opposed to those, such as this author, who are largely content to regurgitate and hope readers haven’t read enough to know the difference):

Answers are easy, I have found them,
and I am indisputably, unequivocally right
.

If he can conceive that human understanding is yet limited and that his so-called truths are based on fractional information, he doesn’t evidence this awareness.

Before I recycled this book, I checked its index to see if its author referenced Neil Postman. He did, once, which made me laugh. If he’d have really read Postman and understood any of the questions Postman posed, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to recycle this book.

Perfectly Postman

Last year, between working, commuting, and raising two young boys, I read 132 books. These books were mostly political, with a little fiction and some miscellaneous non-fiction thrown in.

Nine of the books I read last year were written by Neil Postman; the first, his Amusing Ourselves to Death. My husband had read that for multiple classes in college and correctly guessed I’d love it. Indeed, Postman inspired my interest in history as well as my appreciation for epistemology. Without Postman, my newfound passion for learning wouldn’t likely … exist, honestly.

The bad news about reading all those Postman books last year is how little “new” Postman I have left to read this year. I’d decided to reread some Postman when my eyes landed on Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity, the partial refutation (or so it seems?) of his earlier Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I don’t normally read books on education, but anything by Postman is good for my head and my heart.

And, of course, within the first few pages, I found myself uplifted by the kind of sentiment all too rare these days:

I have tried to make my argument clear, and I should be very interested to know what are its refutations, for that is how conversation begins. Perhaps we do not require a new “movement” after all. Only a good conversation.*

How perfectly Postman! How perfectly what this world needs now!

* Before I began reading this book, I’d made my eponymous blog private. I’d (1) seen that electronically mediated exchanges perpetrate their own kind of virtual reality, inserting grimy windows between people instead of offering clearer views, and (2) discovered that I most crave direct conversation face to face with real people, not with their (and my!) electronic representations. It’s so sweet to be reminded that a kind of conversation can take place after someone’s died, when that someone has uncommon clarity of heart, mind, and word. Unless/until I have that to offer, I find myself happiest to read, reflect, and remain so very glad my husband pointed me toward Postman.

Beyond line of sight

I picked up Surviving Justice at Verso’s $1 ebook sale in late July. The book documents the experiences of many wrongly convicted Americans, capturing their experiences in prison and how they often remain traumatized long after years/decades in prison; eventual exoneration doesn’t make up for anything.

(I could only read a few accounts at a time. One of my friends spent more than a year in prison for crimes she did not commit, having exhausted all her savings fighting charges, and yet seemed to have managed pretty okay upon release. With each account I read in Surviving Justice, my heart sank deeper and deeper as I realized/remembered that showing strong doesn’t mean you’re not dying inside.)

One of the appendices gives a brief description of some of the most common ways innocent Americans end up in prison, from prosecutorial and police misconduct to snitches to bad science. I wish that appendix were mandatory reading for every American, because doing so would help destroy any doubt that a system elevating some above others–beyond responsibility, accountability, reproach–is a system that kills some and harms many others.

Dave Eggers was one of the book’s editors. I looked him up and found a novel, The Circle, that seemed like it might pretty well capture my myriad concerns about technology, and how relatively affluent Americans perceive it. The wait list was so long that I ended up buying my own copy. Continue reading “Beyond line of sight”

Swapping dogmas

In March, my readings of Neil Postman prompted me to write that the world is not atomized:

Not even a year ago, I set out to begin understanding politics. I’d never cared before, nor seen any use in understanding it at more than the most superficial level. The more I’ve read in the last ten or eleven months, reading about politics, history, science, business, and whatever else has struck me, the more I’ve come to understand that these things are interwoven. Each is an artificially (human-)segmented expression of one universe built from the same pieces, which are connected in ways humans might not ever fully grasp.

No matter what photographs suggest to the human minds that have been shaped by them, the world is not as atomized as we misperceive. Human failure to apprehend or articulate this doesn’t change the basic structure of things, an idea I once captured in a proverb I included in a ninth grade social studies project: “He who does not believe in the ocean may nevertheless drown in it.”

In June, I was still struggling to more deeply understand the interconnectedness of things. My entire view of the universe and my role in it had changed, but my vocabulary had not. After 38 years thinking in individually oriented, me-centric terms, I struggled to even begin accurately expressing that I am not just an individual, separate from the universe, but rather one expression of that universe:

This blog isn’t about me, me, me, the same way my old one was. This is about my journey to understand something bigger than me, and situate myself within it instead of smack-dab in the center of my own personal universe; to keep pushing myself to seek that something bigger, and grasp how it cradles all things, even if I never do learn how to articulate its connections with any nuance.

The bad news is that I haven’t come much closer to expressing any of this well. The good news is that each millimeter of progress I make feels like a huge victory, so hey! I’ll keep going.

A week or two ago, I picked up a book with the kind of New Age cover teenaged me would’ve mocked incessantly. More than simply picking it up, I’d actually called the bookstore to order it after hearing one of its authors talk on a podcast.

Continue reading “Swapping dogmas”

The journey as joy

I began blogging in June 1995. I wrote about anything and everything, wanting my website to be more than a collection of links. Several times, I got in trouble for things I’d written, but didn’t bother changing what or how I wrote until I got a threatening letter in 2001.

My voice has changed some since I began blogging, but one common thread has run through: me, me, me. This seemed both natural and inevitable until I began learning to speak Politics. I began feeling unsettled by this emphasis on me, me, me. I wondered if I wasn’t losing sight of a bigger picture by always focusing on my infinitesimal piece of the universe.

How else would I write, though? With more than three decades spent focusing on my personal experience without much regard for its context(s), how was I supposed to change not only my vocabulary but the whole orientation of my words? How could I write about collectives of which my experiences are the merest fragment, when I’d spent so long just focused on me?

I rejoiced when I read Angela Davis, who wrote as I’d only abstractly envisioned as possible. She’s been working at doing so for decades, so that her experience shines through. Maybe someday, I’ll be half as skillful as she is now.

Already concerned with technology and (my own) narcissism, I then began reading Neil Postman. In his writings were all kinds of contexts, and histories about things I’d never imagined could have their own history. I found answers to other questions, and more than that, pure delight to have discovered someone who taught not what to think, but how to ask questions to reach my own conclusions.

Postman’s TECHNOPOLY was–laugh if you must!–a revelation. Years before I began worrying about technology’s impact on humanity, he’d already written on these matters with humor, wisdom, and compassion. His entreaty to readers to consider how we’re being used by technology, instead of simply using it, opened up new venues of inquiry and possibility for me.

Last week, I ended up reading another Postman piece that helped me change the question I was asking myself. I stopped asking, “How do I begin reflecting this seismic shift in internal meaning on my blog?” Instead I asked, “Do I even need to keep blogging as I always have, just because I always have?!”

The answer was an exultant no!, straight from the heart.

This blog isn’t about me, me, me, the same way my old one was. This is about my journey to understand something bigger than me, and situate myself within it instead of smack-dab in the center of my own personal universe; to keep pushing myself to seek that something bigger, and grasp how it cradles all things, even if I never do learn how to articulate its connections with any nuance.

What will the end result be? Will there be an end result? I don’t know, and that’s okay.

The journey itself is a joy.

This 4/7/17 post transferred from L2SP 8/21/17